The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Cultivating the Flow of Awen in our Lives June 11, 2017

I shall sing of the awen, which

I shall obtain from the abyss

Through the awen, though it were mute

I know of its great impulses

I know when it minishes;

I know when it wells up;

I know when it flows;

I know when it overflows.

–Taliesin, “The Festival” from the Book of Taliesin, 13th century

 

What the poet Taliesin writes of is the “Awen”, a central principle in the druid tradition meaning “flowing inspiration” or “divine inspiration.”   In ancient times, bards embraced the flow of Awen to be masters of memory, sound, and expression. The bardic path was a lifelong pursuit and vocation; bards would spending many years (by one Scottish account, 7 years[1]) learning the bardic arts which included the arts of memory, diction, rhyming, and composition.

 

The flowing of Awen isn’t just an experience, it is a magical and meditative process. Perhaps you’ve experienced it yourself–when you have a moment of inspiration and then begin to create, losing all track of time, all sense of where you are or what is going on around you–the thing you are creating is the only thing that matters, and you flow with your media.  Hours or days later, you emerge with something incredible.

 

A simple awen painting

A simple awen painting

Today, bringing the flow of awen into one’s life and connecting with one’s creative expression is one of the core aspects of the path of druidry. The druid path is one that embraces creativity, especially, the creativity inspired by nature.  How does the awen flow? How can we invoke it, channel it, and bring it into our lives? And what is the benefit for doing so? This post represents my first in a longer series on the Bardic Arts, that is, a series of posts that explore the relationship between nature, creativity, and druidry. We begin this series with a discussion of awen, for it is from the Awen that all things flow.

 

What is Awen?

Poets like Taliesin, known as the “Chief of Bards” in the 6th century and reported author of The Book of Taliesin,  spoke of the Awen not only as an abstract thing (as the poem above suggests) but also as a muse who works through the poet to bring forth great works. In the translation of the Book of Taliesin, “Awen” is frequently translated into “muse” but also as “flow” or “inspiration” depending on the poem. In some poems in the Book of Taliesin, the awen is personified (“the muse’s prophecy is…”) while in other poems, the awen is a more abstract thing “The muse flows…”). In the British Library Harleian manuscripts of the Historia Brittonium, Talhearn, a poet, is described as “tat aguen” (aguen = awen) translated as the “father of inspiration.”  Other cultures, of course, have also personified the flow of creativity in the form of a muse who are deities or spirits that help the creativity flow (such as the Greek muses).

 

William Owen-Pughe, who was a contemporary of Iolo Morganwg (from whose manuscripts helped start the modern Druid revival), offered a definition of Awen tied to “aw” (flow) and “en” (spirit).  So we have “flowing of spirit” or “flowing of inspiration” as a common definition used today within the druid communities. Other terms I’ve heard used for awen in the druid community include “divine inspiration” or “creative inspiration” or simply “inspiration.” All this is to say that Awen is a force of energy that flows within us, helping us bring forth and express our creative spirits.

 

Awen History and Origins

A  dig into the history of the word and concept of “Awen” can help us understand the awen deeper level. The Awen, like many other things in the modern druid revival tradition, was brought through the work of Iolo Morganwg in Barddas. Iolo drew upon existing Welsh traditions from much older manuscripts that he incorporated into Barddas.  Modern druid scholars have worked to trace the Awen to much older roots. Two full (and fascinating) reports of their work can be found here and here.

 

Of note, Angela Grant explains the research she did at the British Library to attempt to dig into the history and origins of the Awen. She reports on a manuscript she found in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England which, she writes, “describes how the historian Nennius, on being challenged by an English scholar that the Welsh had no alphabet of their own, produced for his challenger an alphabet that bears a considerable resemblance to Coelbren, though more complex. It also contains an awen symbol (joined at the top) as one of its letters. This does not represent an individual letter but the Latin word ‘ego’ is ascribed to it : ‘I am that I am …”   Grant also traced Awen back to a “proto-Brittonic root for “breath” and “breathing” that ties to the English word “inspiration.”  From her research, we see that inspiration is connected to life itself–to breathing and to the ego/self.  To create is to exist, to breathe, to be.  So, by extension, one way we might think about the awen is that it can represent the fulfilled creative self.

 

The awen's light shining down on my sacred grove

The awen’s light shining down on my sacred grove

One of the stories that feature the Awen in the druid tradition (and is used extensively in OBOD’s teachings) is in the Mabinogion.  It is the story of how Taliesin became the greatest bard of the land. In a nutshell, Taliesin was once Gwion, a boy who is given the task of stirring Ceridwen’s cauldron while she brewed up a magical spell that bestows the Awen.  The blessing of the Awen was intended for Ceridwen’s son who was hideously ugly; she thought if she brewed up the Awen as a blessing, her son could at least be wise. Gwion accidentally gains the power of the Awen after having three drops from the cauldron splash on his thumb; the drops burn him so he instinctively sticks his thumb in his mouth to cool and inadvertently gains the Awen. Ceridwen is furious and begins to chase him. As part of the chase, the two transform into many animals, with Gwion barely escaping with each transformation. Gwion finally turns into a grain of wheat and jumps into pile of wheat in a barn. Ceridwen transforms into a “high crested” black hen who devours all of the wheat, including the grain that is Gwion. Inadvertently, she becomes impregnated with Gwion.  She plans on killing him when he is born, but instead, abandons him on the sea, tying him in a leather bag.  There, he is rescued by either a prince or fisherman, depending on the version of the story. The newborn child grows up to be Taliesin, the greatest bard of all time.  (For a really delightful musical version of this tale, I’d recommend Damh the Bard’s Ceridwen and Taliesin).

 

This tale offers a tremendous amount of insight into the Awen (and is well worth meditating upon).  Some of its lessons include that awen it is something that can be bestowed–and not always when we expect it.  Some of us may be struck with the Awen out of nowhere, just like Gwion when he was scalded by the three drops of Awen. The power of Awen is also a kind of initiation–the flow of awen into our lives open up great possibility. Awen is transformative.

 

Awen and Nature

Taliesin himself says: “pren onhyt yw vy awen” one translation being as “my muse[awen] is wooden!” Or perhaps, for druids, a more fitting translation would be, “my muse is nature!” And certainly, the relationship between nature and creativity are well worth considering. This statement can be interpreted in many ways: the trees themselves are Taliesin’s muses, or perhaps, he is inspired often by the living earth. Still another interpretation might be that he is nature’s instrument for expression. All of these can be simultaneously true, and I believe, represent some of the key connections between creativity, the bard, and nature.

 

How can we let nature be our muse?  Spending time there, observing nature, paying attention to her sounds, her movements, her colors, her patterns, her flows–all of these things offer us great inspiration for stories, songs, dances, artwork, and writing.  Model nature in our own creative works, and allow nature’s patterns, teachings, and inspiration to flow through us.  Many artists, for example, get great joy out of “plein air” painting, where you paint outside and in the presence of that which is inspiring.

 

Looking to the teachings of the river also provides druids with a deeper understanding of the role of Awen–and how we might use it. From both contemporary practice and ancient texts, we have a keen sense that Awen “flows.” Like a stream in the spring, it might gush forth from a person or be a small but steady trickle. Regardless, Awen, like the water, flows where it wants and goes where it wants. As it flows, it pours into a person, allowing them to be inspired and allow the creativity to flow back out.  The more that water is allowed to flow, the more easy that flow becomes, just like well worn, smooth stones and channels along the river.

 

The flowing of awen and the river

The flowing of awen and the river

Connecting to water, and recognizing that creativity has its own path that we must learn to flow with, is a critical part of the bardic arts and cultivating them in our own lives. Spending a year observing a river will show times where much of it dries up, times where much of it floods and leaves its banks into nearby fields and forest, times where it lazily moves along. In my experience, the flow of Awen is just like this. We aren’t always heavily inspired and overflowing our banks, and we aren’t always dried up and without inspiration. Recognizing the natural “ebb and flow” of awen, I believe, is part of it. But also, recognizing that we have some power over that flow as we invoke the awen and work to bring it into our lives.

 

Connecting to water, and recognizing that creativity must be allowed to flow where it wills, just like water. Sometimes, trying to impose your own human will too much on a bardic project or performance can impede it (it is like you divert the water or put in a large obstruction that the water has to flow around). And if you are working with a personification of Awen, through a muse, he or she might not take too kindly to you imposing your own will too strongly. As we see from the tale of Ceridwen and Taliesin, Awen is not only inspiration, but a magical or divine inspiration, and thus, the more that we work with it, the more we cultivate it, the more we are able to work with the flows.  My experience kayaking helps here–on a powerful river, you can expertly navigate the currents if you are experienced!  Then, you can do quite a bit, but still only react and flow with the river, rarely paddling against it.

 

 

Cultivating the Flow of Awen in Our Lives

I believe that the flow of Awen is a union, a synthesis, of human, nature and the creative flows and energy of the of the universe/divine. This means that there are things that we can do as a human being to cultivate Awen and there are things outside of our control.  Let’s take a look at what we can do to start cultivating Awen in our lives:

 

Invoking Awen. One of the most simple things to do is to invoke Awen regularly as part of your practice. Druids are good at this, and if you are a druid, chances are, you know how to chant “Awen.” For everyone else, the chant is simple.  You open up your chest and let all the air in, and then you ring out, strongly and surely, three syllables: “Ah – Oh – En.”  And you repeat that as long as you’ d like.  You can sing it, you can dance with it. And as you chant that sacred word, imagine yourself opening up to that flow of inspiration.  You can chant it anywhere you like.  You can get a group and chant together, or “cascade” it by having each person chant Awen at a slightly different time.  And then once you’ve invoked it–do something with it!

 

Visual representations. Visual representations of Awen (the three rays of light) are powerful ways of bringing awen into your life.  You might have a drawing, or another kind of image, to help bring the awen into your life which you regularly see.  Druids are often spotted with Awen necklaces–I like to keep an awen symbol on my person as much as possible, preferably, close to my heart.  I also have an awen in a window that was a gift of a friend–the sun shines through it, literally, letting the three rays of light of the awen come into my space.  Talk about powerful magic!

Awen bringing in the light

Awen bringing in the light

 

Letting the awen flow. The key to cultivating awen, at least for me, seems to be about allowing it to flow regularly, not damming it up.  Perhaps you’ve met people, or youv’ve been one yourself, who stop the flow of awen or who only allow a small tricke to flow forth. They say things like, “I’m not creative” or “I don’t have time for my [bardic art of choice]” or “I could never do that” (we will explore these issues in more depth next week).  Words have power, words are magic.  And saying this is like putting the flow of awen behind a dam. Maybe, if you are lucky, it will collect there, welling up, and one day, explode outwards like the dam bursting forth (this happened to me in my mid-20’s, and it was a really liberating experience!)  But maybe, it will dry up and go stagnant there, and your Awen will become like a dry and parched river bed.

 

The other piece to letting the awen flow is cultivating the right environment.  For some, that means a quiet place free of distractions where they can allow their awen to flow forth and setting aside enough uninterrupted time to “get into the work” and let something beautiful emerge.  For others it might mean bringing together a community to practice their bardic art, or surrounding oneself with other people who are creative.  It also means enough rest and self care to be one’s best to allow this work to happen (I, for one, can’t create when I’m exhausted).

 

Relinquishing control. And then there are people who want the awen to flow, but try to maintain all control and send it off in directions. You can’t always force it, you have to work with it and respond to it, just like that expert kayaker navigating a flow of water. As an artist, writer, and occasional musician, for me this means setting aside regular time to create, but allowing most of that to be unstructured time.  So I know I will create and have time set aside to do it, but until that day, I’m not sure what I will create: will I paint? What will I paint?  Will I play my flute?  Will I write?  And when I begin, I let the flow go as long as I can.  I don’t try to impose my will on it too strongly, but rather, let the awen guide me.  Its almost like there’s a second hand on my paintbrush, and if we both work together, it will work well, but if we don’t, it will be trouble.

 

The Many Forms of Creativity.  I’ve been talking in my examples about traditional bardic arts: writing, painting, music, storytelling, dance, and so on. But Awen can flow through us and be directed towards all kinds of things, not all of which would be considered “bardic arts” in the traditional sense. For example, I allow Awen to flow when I’m planning my lessons for my university teaching through creative activities and creative planning.  I know friends who do lots of building and allow the awen to flow with their design work,  their creative use of old materials and curbside treasures, and their finishing techniques. Others are culinary wizards in the kitchen and make amazing and beautiful meals.  Still others are master gardeners who create a palate with plants.  Once we realize that awen can be applied to more than just the traditional bardic arts, but we can, essentially, lead inspired lives–then the real magic begins!

 

May the flow of awen, of creative inspiration, come into your life!  Next week’s post will delve more deeply into the Bardic arts and how to take up the path of the bard.

 

[1] lrick de Burgh, Earl of Clanricarde (1604–1657), Memoirs of the Right Honourable the Marquis of Clanricarde … containing several original papers and letters of King Charles II, queen mother, the Duke of York … &c. relating to the treaty between the Duke of Lorrain and the Irish commissioners, from February 1650 to August 1653. Publish’d from his lordship’s original mss. To which is prefix’d, a dissertation … containing several curious observations concerning the antiquities of Ireland. London, Printed for J. Woodman, 1722.

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Lessons of the River: Nature Connection, Health, and Healing April 23, 2017

Sometimes, natural places call out to us, and we heed their call and journey within these wild places–often gaining profound insights along the way. For some time, I have been called to a particular creek. I would drive over a bridge as I was leaving town to visit my parents, and I watched the creek flow–its gentle water lapping at the shores, ducks swimming, stones and water babbling. I didn’t know the name of the creek, but I knew I wanted to connect with it. Then, one day after a storm last year, I saw some people kayaking on it when it was higher and a bit muddy.  Having just purchased my own kayak, I grew very excited and began asking people about the creek. Eventually, I learned where I might put my kayak in and where I might take it out, resulting in about a six mile paddling trip.

 

A beautiful and warm spring day on a clean river!

A beautiful and warm spring day on a clean river!

Truthfully, the whole journey was a bit of a leap of faith–I had talked to others who had been out on the creek sometime before, but it had been in prior years, and I knew conditions often change. I have a very good kayak that can handle just about anything and have taken some lessons and training to address emergencies, and this was known as a calm and quiet river. I packed some supplies and did a small ritual to protect the boat and off I went. This particular trip offered me several deep insights–but one I’d like to explore today is humans connecting to nature and land/river health (and I think this is a very appropriate post following up from last week exploring Connection as the Core Spiritual Philosophy in the Druid Tradition).

 

The start of my journey was absolutely incredible–the water was pure, the scenery was beautiful. I could see evidence of many people’s interaction with the creek: in a quiet forest you could see benches lining the river, I saw several fishermen was fishing for trout, I saw bikers by the river taking a short break to enjoy the water, and even at one point, I passed a lovingly built small cabin the creek. I could tell from these signs that the river was well loved and appreciated by many in the area, even in some of its more hard-to-reach and secret places.

 

Miles passed in this serene way. I enjoyed my journey immensely and it allowed me to see so much life.  As I came closer to Homer City, which was the town where I had parked my car and was traveling to my “pull out” place, I turned a bend and saw this waterfall rushing into the creek. From a distance, it looked beautiful–I was excited to get up close. But as I started to get closer, something about that waterfall appeared very, very wrong. As I arrived near it, I realized that the waterfall was full of acid mine drainage (AMD), and it had bright yellows, oranges, and metallic spots all over the rocks and was pouring extremely acidic water (probably about a PH 2.5) into that creek.  Later investigation revealed that this particular stream–quite small–is coming out of a series of abandoned mines some 3 or so miles north with no AMD remediation.

 

AMD Waterfall - note the color of water change

AMD Waterfall – note the color of water change

Where the waterfall fell into the creek, the hue of the river changed–it grew cloudy and sickly pale yellow.  The waterfall left this cloudy trail in the water, a very distinct change from before. At first, only the edge of the river where the waterfall was running in was polluted, but as I went down the last mile of the creek, soon, it all took on that color.  Truthfully, as soon as I saw the waterfall and what was happening, I didn’t want to be on that river any longer–I racked my brain to see if I had a place I could pull out of the river early and call a friend to pick me up instead of paddling back to my car. But I decided to go ahead and finish my journey because there was clearly a lesson to see in all of this.

 

In fact, not so many years ago, this entire creek had once been filled with AMD. Acid mine drainage is a very serious issue anywhere where we’ve had coal mines. The earth’s blood and bones are torn up, and in the process, she bleeds, and that pain spills into our rivers. In this area, we have thousands and thousands of abandoned coal mines.  Most of these mines were put in prior to the laws of 1970 that required that mines clean themselves up, prevent runoff into streams, and replant the land. So we have a lot of problem mines that are from pre-1970 that are continually polluting the streams (in fact, this problem can go on for 1000’s of years–some mine runoff in Europe spans back to the time of the Romans!) Around here, due to the high acid content , AMD kills all of the life in and around streams.  The stream has a characteristic orange color, with all of the stones also turned orange and the water itself orange, cloudy, and toxic. In Pennsylvania alone, we have over 3000 miles of AMD-polluted creeks.  They are so prevalent in my area that when I was child, we had so many creeks and streams like that I thought that’s just how all waterways looked.

 

A typical AMD stream with no life

A typical AMD stream with no life

What I didn’t know was that all of Two Lick Creek that I was paddling had similar problems at one time. However, local conservation efforts by several groups have made good headway in the northern part of the river. One a group called the Evergreen Conservancy has been working to clean up one site nearby–and their efforts show!  The other (where I put my kayak in) is the Waterworks Park, that offers an AMD remediation site and wetland. Without the signage indicating that AMD remediation was happening at the Waterworks Park, I would never have known that the northern part Two Lick Creek had ever had an AMD problem.  The creek banks were beautiful, the creek itself full of life and vibrant.  This speaks, among other things, to the power of humans to heal.

 

And so, I simply observed what the AMD waterfall was doing to Two Lick Creek.  The environmental effects were clear.  As I continued to float downstream, the rocks grew tainted and orange, the river grew cloudy and I could no longer see the bottom.  As the river flowed, the tainted water slowly worked its way into the creek–and entire water grew cloudy and the rocks took on an orangish hue.  It wasn’t a serious case of AMD (like my photo above, another creek that nobody interacts with).  Still, nobody was fishing here, that’s for sure.

 

However, the environmental effect wasn’t the most surprising thing on the river that day, instead it was the shift in human-nature interactions. As I floated past the AMD waterfall, I witnessed an invisible “line.”  North of the AMD waterfall, people interacted with the river. They had chairs out behind their houses by it, they had benches, they had little docks, they were out fishing and enjoying the river, and so on. However, after the AMD waterfall, people no longer wanted to be near the river, and they worked to distance themselves from it.  The difference was very striking. People put up fences and walls, dumped their garbage and burn piles near the river, and simply didn’t not go near it.  It became a neglected thing. Despite the same kinds of houses and people and access to the river upstream and downstream, after the river had AMD, it was no longer wanted or desirable. I realized that it wasn’t just that the waterfall tainted the physical water in the river–it also tainted people’s interactions with it.  Pollution literally disconnected humans from nature.

 

In other words, even a small amount of pollution turned the river from something people cared about to something people didn’t.  It turned the river into a site of enjoyment and connection with nature to something to avoid looking at or interacting with.

Upstream: clear, pure, and human connected

Upstream: clear, pure, and human connected (and you can see clear to the bottom–and avoid the rocks!)

 

AMD water...

Downstream: Cloudy, Irony, and human disconnected…(and it’s hard to see to the bottom, and thus, you hit the rocks)

I wonder how often this happens. As lands are polluted or damaged, people no longer want to interact with them.  When people stop caring, stop interacting, even more pollution is allowed to occur.  The pollution itself disconnects us from the land and the more polluted things get, the less we want to interact. Even I, as a druid and land healer, a person who has long faced these things with open eyes and an open heart, had a first reaction of wanting out of that river as soon as I saw what had happened to it.

 

You can see how we have come to the point, in this time of so much pollution and damage, to where people aren’t in nature at all. Why would you want to spend time next to (or on) a polluted river? In a logged forest? Hiking among fracking wells?  (Only crazy druid healers do such things, that that’s spiritual work, not leisure!)  If that’s the only options you have, it is no wonder so many humans are so disconnected.

 

I am left with two profound insights from this experience. First, the work of land healing has an additional dimension that I had previously not realized.  Just like in the permaculture ethical triad of earth care, people care, and fair share: we see these things all entirely linked with the others.  If we can restore nature to a state of health and allow her to thrive, we can help heal not only the land, but the human-land connections (and in doing so, the humans themselves). This allows more interaction with the land, more connection with the land, and helps us grow more “places that people care about.” To me, care and nurturing is an essential quality of helping us, as a species, return to being in a positive and mutually beneficial relationship with nature.  And so, if we heal nature, we can start to heal those connections.

 

But secondly, if we see ourselves and our work as a metaphor for a river, we can gain insights. In journeying down the river, you get to see the growth of the river over time. As each spring or stream flowed into the river, the river’s power and size grew. The creek began, at the start of my journey, about 15 feet across, and by the time I pulled my kayak out of the water 6 miles later, it was spanning 30 or 40 feet. The small “creek” had grown into a river with power, carving out rock faces as it went.  And so, I see the tributaries as people, and all of us, combined as one, could accomplish much more than a single spring or trickle. There is power in these combined currents, just as there is power in numbers of people working together. This is something that I’ve been learning firsthand since taking the first steps to establishing our intentional community here–but also something that I’ve long seen the value of in various kinds of sustainable living (like permablitzes, barn raising or community groups).

 

As much as we, collectively, are the river, we also need to look for the sources of pollution–those things or people that will cloud us and prevent us from being our true and whole selves.  Otherwise, our entire river can become tainted, just like the AMD tainted this river–and that changes everything.  Tainted waterways can be remediated, of course, and perhaps, there are more lessons in this as well.

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Connection as the Core Spiritual Philosophy in the Druid Tradition April 16, 2017

It seems that religions or spiritual paths have a set of core orientations or philosophies that form the underlying foundation upon which the religion and practice rests. This core philosophy is like the seed from which the entire “tree” of the religion grows–the tree might branch in different directions, but all of those branches eventually lead back to that single seed. For example, in many forms of Christianity, we might see that core seed as salvation; this seed forms the bulk of Christian thought, belief, and action. In some forms of Buddhist thought, the seed is freedom from suffering. This underlying seed makes that particular path unique, form the foundation of what is considered right thought and right action on that path, give the path purpose, and that offers particular gifts to its practitioners or to the broader world.  And most importantly, this seed drives a number of underlying morals, values, and assumptions that practitioners of that path hold.

 

Seeds for new traditions!

Seeds for new traditions!

Druidry is many things to many people, and the joke is that if you ask five different druids about what druidry is, you’ll likely get seven different answers. As scattered and diverse as the modern druid movement seems to be–I believe, we too, have a core philosophy (with at least three expressions of that philosophy), and I’m going to explore this underlying seed of our tradition in today’s post.

 

Sources of Inspiration

The flow of Awen for this post comes from a few places, and I want to acknowledge those first. Part of my insight comes from being in a leadership role in a major druid order in the US. I serve as the Archdruid of Water in the Ancient Order of Druids in America, and in that role, I interact with a lot of different kinds of druids at multiple points along their paths. I interact with people when they find druidry for the first time–what they are seeking, what they hope to find, and later, I see them as they move through our curriculum deepen their own understanding and interaction and the insights they have. I get to read their exams at the end of their time working through parts of our curriculum–so I’m hearing of the experiences of many on the druid path who have taken up this spiritual practice in a serious way. Additionally, part of my inspiration is personal; it comes from my experience in working through the complete curriculum in two druid orders, the AODA (1st, 2nd, and 3rd degrees) and the OBOD (bardic, ovate, and druid curricula) and coming to deep understandings over decade of time about that work. Finally, I have attended and been part of a lot of gatherings, online groups, and various initiatives. This post represents a synthesis of what I’ve read and conversed with others, and what I’ve generally understood over a period of time. But there is also another piece here– I’m also considering the overall trajectory of the druid tradition itself–not what we are, or were, but where we are heading and what potential exists for druidry in the future.

 

Therefore, this post is my take on the seed of our tradition, the underlying or core philosophy that drives much of druid practice. You might disagree with me, or want to add or subtract from this list–please do so and share in the comments what your own thoughts about what your version might look like.

 

On the Druid Revival

To understand the underlying core philosophy of druidry, we first need to delve back into the history of the druid revival and then move into the present day.

 

It is no coincidence that the very roots of the druid revival came about at the same time that industrialization rose in the British Isles. Farmers and peasants who had lived, sustained, and tended the land for countless generations were driven from their homes to work in factories (see, for example, the “Highland Clearances” and “Enclosure Acts” in Scotland). During this time, the rise in machine-based worldviews, that is, that humans are machines (and cam work like machines, act like machines), and that nature is just another machine, became dominant (we see the outcome of this thinking everywhere today, particularly, in industrialized agriculture).

 

Our spiritual ancestors watched this scene unfolding: the land stripped of her resources for industrialization and progress, the growing emphasis on produced goods over communities, the rampant pollution and exploitation industrlization was creating, the relegating of humans, animals, and the land to that of a machine. It was during this time that our spiritual ancestors reached deep–and creatively–into their own history to return to an earlier time where humans and nature were connected. The druid revival movement sought to reconnect with nature through ancient roots in a time where society was heading in the opposite direction. I believe it is the same reason that people today are so drawn to the druid tradition–there is “something” missing for them and it is that connection.

 

Now, a lot of the early druid revival works and authors have been discredited for creating “ancient” texts, drawing upon “found” materials that they had created, I find these attempts to discredit them problematic because they do not understand their context. These early attempts at bringing back the ancient druid traditions had a lot to do with people’s response to living in an age that was quickly stripping the lands of their resources and filling the skies and rivers with pollution.  I think they were a bit desparate, and certainly, were working within the traditions of their age (and not ours). To me, the most important thing here is that druidry we practice today was descended from druid revival tradition and that tradition was a spiritual response that emerged during the very beginnings of this current age of industrialization. That means, these historical roots offers us much wisdom as we are living with the outcomes and consequences of this same industrial force.

 

Industrialization, with so much promise at the time, much harm not only to our living earth, but to the pre-industrial communities and customs of the common people (a topic I picked up in some depth in my last series of posts on “Slowing down the Druid Way”). It is unsurprising, then, at the persistence and growth of the modern druid tradition in these times. For over 300 years, the ancient druids have offered our tradition sources of inspiration and reconnection. It is in this perpetual seeking of reconnection that we can see how druidry is, in some ways, a very human response to the larger wheels of industrialization that have been thrust upon most of us in the Western world.  In other words, druidry is us finding our way “home.”

 

Overall Druid Philosophy: The Power of Connection

What our spiritual ancestors in the druid revival were seeking, I believe, was (re)connection, a way to have a closer relationship with the living earth and with their own heritage. And it is in this historical view I see as the core seed of the philosophy of the druid movement: connection. It is this same connection that draws so many to the druid path today and keeps so many of us practicing this spiritual tradition.

 

Interacting with nature, learning the plants

Interacting with nature, learning the plants

In the modern druid movement, it is through the power of connection that we rekindle and learn how to cultivate a sacred relationship with nature, how to find our own creative gifts, and how to practice or path in a way that brings us wholeness and joy. When people come to the druid path, this is what they often are seeking. (As an aside: interestingly enough, there are at least two “denominations” of druidry, while all are descended from the druid revival traditions, in the 1970’s, and some went on to seek to reconstruct ancient druid practices and teachings. I think that these two currents of druidry do still share an underlying core philosophy of connection, even if it manifests incredibly differently and may not have the same three expressions I share below).

 

In this way, druidry is a direct response to the disconnection that those living in westernized culture have experienced: seeking to reconnect with nature, with our own gifts, and with ourselves. So now, I’m going to walk through three expressions of this underlying philosophy of connection through nature, connection to one’s creative gifts, creative arts, and connection to one’s spirit.

 

Connecting to Nature

To say that the druid path of nature spirituality is about nature perhaps seems like an obvious thing–but it is more than just being “about” nature. I can read books “about” nature and never step in the forest, I can understand in my mind many things about nature and her systems without ever connecting with nature through the heart. This does not give me a connection to nature, but simply some disconnected facts about it. When people ask what druidry is about, the first thing most share is that it is a path of nature spirituality, that it embraces nature and relationship to nature at the core of its path, or that it honors nature through various activity (like seasonal celebrations). And yet, an individual druid’s relationship (and aspired relationship) towards nature is multifaceted.  I see this nature orientation having at least three different aspects:

 

Nature is sacred.  One of the key aspects of the druid tradition is the inherent worth and sacredness of nature. When interacting with nature, many humans focus on what is in relationship to us, that is, how does nature help us? What do we get out of it? As one begins to delve deeper and deeper into the druid path, I have found that a lot of that orientation shifts from “what can nature do for me” to “nature has inherent worth.” I see this in the mentoring work I do in the AODA–people begin taking up this path without any clear sense of the role of nature in their lives, but after a few years of druid study, observation, seasonal holidays, and the like, they have a profound shift in their oreintation towards the living earth. The shift here is not just in seeing nature as something that has value to us because it offers us something (which, of course, it does) but rather, valuing nature simply because it exists and because we are a part of it.

 

Sacredness implies care and connection: we have deep respect, reverence, and awe concerning nature. We see it as something to be protected, preserved, and cherished. In the same way that other spiritual paths may see a shrine as holy, or a city, or a church, we druids see the living earth, her systems, and all life upon her, as sacred. As part of this sacredness, druids recognize the importance of living in harmony with nature and that nature provides all of our needs.

 

Relationship to Nature. When we think of how humans treat a sacred thing, a couple of possible iterations occur. One is that we might put it on a pedestal (literally or figuratively) and admire it from a distance, keeping it safe and secure. Although some conservationists take this approach (for very good reasons), this is typically not the orientation that druids take towards the living earth. Instead, most prefer to cultivate a sacred and powerful relationship with nature by interacting with her, connecting with her, smelling the roses and touching them and learning how to tend them effectively instead of just observing them from afar. Part of this relationship is that nature offers us teachings and deep understandings when we connect. This may involve regular visits to natural places and simply being “in nature” and various ceremonies in natural settings. Many druids take further, working to tread more lightly upon the earth and live sustainably, participate in active healing of the land, planting trees, and more.  Relationship implies that we not only take but also give back.

 

Connecting to Nature’s cycles.  Another major part of the orientation towards nature is becoming an active observer and participant in the cycles of nature. And nature has many cycles through which we can observe and participate cycles of the celestial heavens (the cycles of the sun or moon) that are tied to the land (seasons).  These might involve the cycle of nutrients through plants, fungi, and soil, or even the cycles of water upon the land.  The cycle is a critical part of the way that druids think about nature and build our sacred holidays and sacred activities around it, as is gardening and foraging and other such activities.

 

And so, connection with nature is certainly at the core of the druid tradition, but there at least two other pieces of connection that also seem central to this path.

 

A simple awen painting I did a while ago

A simple awen painting I did a while ago

Connecting with One’s Creativity and the Flow of Awen

A rekindling of our creative gifts, the bardic arts, and our human gifts is a second core part of the druid path.  In fact, one of the core symbols of revival druidry, and a term we chant in our rituals, is “Awen” (another Welsh term pronounced “Ah-Oh-En”). Awen means “creative and divine inspiration.”  It was “Awen” that flowed through the ancient bards as they crafted their stories and songs and delivered them to audiences all over the British Isles.  It is Awen that flows from an inspired pen, hands, and body as we learn to once again express ourselves and be whole.  It is the “Awen” that has been systematically stripped from us as we allow commercialized creations to take the place of our own.  And it is the inspriation of Awen we seek as we reconnect with our own creativity gifts and expressions.

 

Let’s again tie this to how druidry itself came to be and what it responds to. Industrialization and modern commercialization and commodification teach people how to be good consumers rather than provide for one’s own needs.  Today’s entertainment industry is a trillion dollar affair. Our core birthright, that of telling our own stories, songs, poetry, dance, music, visual arts, sacred crafts–have been stripped away by these industries.  We pay for mass produced entertainment as commodities rather than create it ourselves. It is a sad thing, I think, to sit around a fire with a group of people in the 21st century and sit in silence because nobody knows what to do or how to entertain themeslves (insetad, the pull out the cell phones!). The fire is silent, the stories and songs are stilled–the Awen has yet to flow into the hearts and spirits of those there.  But each person has an inherent ability to let the awen flow–through music, drumming, dance, song, stories, artwork, woodwork, and so many more things.  In fact, if you come to a druid event and you’ll see a different kind of thing: a vibrant Eisteddfod (a Welsh term pronounced EYE-STED-FOD). An Eisteddfod is a bardic circle, a chance to share one’s creative gifts with a larger community, and it is one of the many ways that the druid path encourages people to reconnect with their own creative gifts.

 

If you come to a druid event and you’ll see a different kind of thing: a vibrant Eisteddfod (a Welsh term pronounced EYE-STED-FOD). An Eisteddfod is a bardic circle, a chance to share one’s creative gifts with a larger community, and it is one of the many ways that the druid path encourages people to reconnect with their own creative gifts.

 

Connecting to Individual Truths and a Personal Path

Most traditions have a set of core teachings, a sacred book, and a big part of the transmission of that tradition is to teach these materials to others and ensure that the set of beliefs and rules are followed by practitioners. In druidry, nature is our sacred text, and each human’s relationship and interaction with is different–we live in different ecosystems and climates, we are engaged in different kinds of work with the land, different cycles and seasons, and different needs. Because of this, we recognize and cultivate the development of and pursual of a personal path, and in the druid tradition, these differences are celebrated rather than minimized. If you join a druid order descended from the druid revival, we do have some common frameworks and practices, of course.  In AODA, we have a common set of practices that gives us a framework; these include celebrating the solstices and equinoxes, working the sphere of protection, engaging in lifestyle changes, planting trees, observing nature, discursive meditation, and practice of the druid, ovate, and bardic arts.  However, the specific expressions of a particular member’s own inner truth are central to the way in which those practices manifest, and are central to what additional practices are taken up.

 

This is to say, druidry is a spiritual path that takes creativity, inspiration, and work: it is up to the individual to establish his or her own personal practice, his/her own personal cosmology, and no two druids are the same.

 

And so, while most religions tell you what to believe and how to believe it–this is not the case with Druidry. I have found that this particular aspect of the druid tradition is really difficult for new druids and non-druids to wrap their heads around because to them, “religion” or “spiritual practice” requires adherence to a rigid, prescribed set of beliefs and behaviors.  It takes a lot of conversation to explain the difference, that a religious practice could actually be something different. The question, “What do druids believe” doesn’t seem to be right question to ask (but it is the question that most people start with). Two druids likely have the same larger philosophical orientations (as shared here) but not necessarily the same specific belief systems with regards to the nature of divinity, the possibility of life after death and reincarnation, the belief in spirits, and so on. For many druids, there are some common themes, but these common themes don’t extend to all druids.  But what certainly seems to extend to all druids is the seeking of a personal path and connecting with that personal path at the core of one’s being. And this is an honored and sacred thing within our own tradition.  (And so, better questions might be “what do you as a druid belive? or What do you do?)

 

I see this finding and following one’s own path as inherently connecting kind of work: you develop a personal druid path by exploring your own meanings and what resonates with you, what connects to your own beliefs, your lifestyle, the work you feel you are to do in the world. It is through exploring these connections that you are able to settle upon a set of beliefs and practices that ring true. The more that you practice, the deeper those connections become. You might think of this like a path through the forest–there is underbrush when we begin, but the more we walk the path and establish what that path is, the easier the path becomes and the more it is open to us.

 

A Triad of Druidry

You might notice that my own presentation of the “connection” philosophy in druidry comes in a three-part form. The following is a triad of this presentation (a triad common teaching tool in the druid tradition descended from Welsh tradition, it is used heavily in the OBOD’s teachings).

Three philosophies of druidry:

Connecting to nature

Connecting to our creative gifts

Connecting to our souls

 

It is through the connection to nature that we can be inspired, foster our creative gifts, and ultimately, find our own paths deeper into ourselves and our core beliefs, practices, and work in the world.

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Finding and Working with Ancestral Traditions March 26, 2017

Grandpa's field

Grandpa’s field

When I was a child, my grandfather took my cousins and I to a wild area we later called “Grandpa’s field.” It was a field on the edge of the forest below our houses, the edges rich with crab apples, hawthorns, beeches, and maples. Grandpa had a rusty red tractor, and we’d go into the forest riding on his lap. When we got to his field, we would park the tractor and look for wild mushrooms, wild ginseng, and other wild edibles.  He would point out plants and animal tracks and teach us about the forest.  After that, we would lay in the field and watch butterflies. When I was only 8 years old, Grandpa died after a hard life in the steel mills. In time, these memories faded and I didn’t remember where Grandpa’s field was. Later in my 20’s, some of my cousins came to visit and we began searching for the field–and we found it, overjoyed to be reuinted with a place so sacred to our Grandfather. Here were the old wooden fence posts that grandpa had brought down with his tractor. Here was the old crab apple tree. Here was everything that we remembered.

 

And yet, memories like this are few and far between. In truth, I have maybe 20 or 30 total “fragments” of my own heritage from beyond my parents’ generation–in small stories and tidbits just like this. As part of my own honoring of the ancestors, I’ve worked to bring back any of these traditions, however fragmentary, and I often weave these into the posts on this blog, such as my recent one last week on ethical sourcing of medicinal plants and American Ginseng. Many of us, I’m sure, have stories like the one I’ve shared above–small bits and fragments of those who came before. And yet, for many of us, these memories are fragmentary, so many traditions lost to history, to the passing away of ancestors, or even to our own memories. As I work to begin to live more like them, I am always struck by the little that I know of them.

 

I think it is easy to see the lack of ancestral knowledge as a deficit: how much we have lost, how much we don’t know, how we wish we could just sit and talk with someone who has passed on. I find myself sometimes falling into this trap sometimes, lamenting what has lost and not knowing the extent of what I’ll never know. But recently, a positive shift has occurred for me in rethinking my relationship with the fragmentary knowledge of ancestral tradition (I think this shift had a lot to do with returning to the land where I was born). So I’d like to spend some time today exploring ancestral traditions and the fragments we have left of them, and talk about how these can be used as “seeds” of rebuilding and reconnection within a nature-spiritual path.

 

Fragments of Traditions

The term “tradition” is defined as “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way.” And so when we think of ancestral traditions, they are those bits of language, behaviors, rituals, and culture that our ancestors have passed to us. The challenge I think that many of us face is that we are working with minor fragments of traditions, tiny bits and pieces that somehow survived and made it into the 21st century, into our hands. I choose the term survive very intentionally: in the last several centuries, with the rise of westernization, industrialization, and globalization, we’ve seen many cultural traditions, languages, and species disappear at an alarming rate. In fact, at present, over half of the 7000 languages in the world are “moribund”, that is, the remaining speakers are a few elders and the language hasn’t been passed on. These moribund languages hold incredible insights into how a particular culture thinks, sees the world, understands the human condition, interacts with nature, and more. And what these languages and cultural traditions have been replaced with is part of the predicament we are contending with in the present age.

 

Here in the US, immigrant families often worked to eliminate their own cultural differences to assimilate; this, combined with the loss of traditional ways and rise of consumerism has left many of these traditions no longer seen as “useful” to pass on. Native blooded peoples, of course, had their culture and language systematically stripped from them for the better part of three centuries. In other places, people may have been forced to relocate, famililes were split, or other kinds of severing occurred–leaving us with few traditions. My own more recent ancestors were part of the cogs of the enormous working class whose blood, sweat, and tears funded industrialization, expansion, and “progress.” My grandfathers were steel mill workers, other family members cut lumber or worked in coal mines in other working class industries here in Western PA–and that’s about the extent of what I know. And by the time someone (like me) is ready to learn them, those that could pass them on have long since returned to the Summerlands.

 

Ancestral Fragments as “Seeds” of Future Traditions

Seeds for new traditions!

Seeds for new traditions!

For my entire life, I’ve really found only “fragments” of my family’s traditions: these traditions are fragments of what was once a completely different way of life. I have come to see the fragments in two different metaphorical senses: the jar metaphor and the seed metaphor.

 

First, I have the metaphor of the jar, which is the metaphor that reaches back into the past. These fragments are like tiny br0ken pieces of what was once a set of large and beautiful jars, bottles, and vases of various colors and styles (because my heritage doesn’t link back to just one culture, but to many).  Perhaps I find part of a flower or some blue pattern and I wonder what the whole jar used to look like, who held it, the kinds of things that were stored inside.  And so, I pick up the fragments, look at them, and work to piece together what might have been.

 

The second metaphor I use for these fragments is that they are the “seeds” of future traditions.  So if I’m working with a small fragment of ancestral knowledge, that fragment is like a seed of unknown potential. I maybe need to hold onto it for a while but eventually, cultivate some soil and plant it, to see what grows. I need to tend the soil, to work with it, to water it carefully.  Maybe that means doing some research, maybe that means trying something out–but the point here is to “tend” to it and see where it may lead. This seed metaphor is important because I have to acknowledge that I don’t live in the same cultural context that they did, I likely don’t believe what they did, I don’t live like they did, and so, some of their traditions would make no sense in the present age. I need traditions for this age–ways of working through this age, and things to do to respond to the present circumstances and build a future tradition.

 

Family Traditions

Family traditions are often the most salient and meaningful as they weave into our own upbringing and experience and tie directly to ancestors of the blood. And yet, I think there are a few challenges with these traditions. First, our ancestors didn’t always leave much for us to work with. Gather up what you can, as often as you can, and keep it close to you. Write it down–that and stories you remember. Talk to anyone who is still alive about those traditions. I’ve actually found it important to talk with each person more than once, in different settings, as conversations can lead in multiple directions. Ask if anyone has “stuff” that you can look like (old journals, books, etc). This can also help you piece together things.  And sometimes, it can be a puzzle worth solving!

 

Here’s a good example of this kind of work: my same grandfather that I shared about above often visited a spring and drank spring water after a long day at the steel mill. My mother mentioned it a few times in passing as I was growing up, and one day when I was driving to visit my parents, I came across a roadside spring not so far from those very steel mills. I shared the story of that spring last year on this blog. I began drinking the water from that spring and visiting it as did other members of my family. Then, a few months after we had reconnected with the spring, we came across some old reel videos my grandfather had taken of the family when my mother was quite young. As we were watching the black and white videos (with no sound) projected onto the wall, there was the spring, with the whole family drinking from it.  My cousin and I jumped up excitedly because we had confirmation that we had found the “ancestral” spring. This is a seed of something that has become much greater for me–I now visit that spring at least once a month and take water from that spring to other sacred locations.  All of my drinking water comes from the spring and I honor that spring each time that I am there. The ancestral spring has become one of the focal points of my spiritual practice, and I’m cultivating my own relationship with it–all the more meaningful because of the generations who came before me.

 

Sacred Spring

Here’s a second example. A friend recently learned that his grandfather had been known across the county as a person who knew a lot about apple orchards and was an orcharder.  After learning this, he looked with new eyes at the few remnants of his grandfather’s trees that still remained in his grandmother’s yard. He now has plans to gather scion wood from those trees and graft them onto other apples.  If he begins to tend those trees with the grafts, he has–literally–brought part of his grandfather’s work with him and the varieties that his grandfather cultivated. And of course, from there, there is no end to the kinds of activities one can engage in surround this apple tree (like pressing cider or Wassail!)

 

Of course, we have many such family traditions to draw upon: music, food, songs, places that hold significance, clothing, items passed on, land, trees ancestors planted, things they did–all of these hold potential for planting seeds for new traditions that will carry us into the future.

 

Family Religious Traditions

Of course, one of the challenges for those on the druid path is that we’ve likely deviated away from our own recent ancestors’ religious traditions–and those traditions may be the bulk of what family traditions are left to us.  If that’s the case, we need to also think about what traditions would work best for us, and if any traditions can be adapted and honored, but perhaps in the context of our own druidry. This isn’t always easy for you to figure out, but is worth spending some time sorting through, and I’ll give you two such examples:

 

I have a good druid friend who comes from a Catholic tradition but has left that tradition behind her. Most of her ancestral traditions handed down in the family are Catholic in origin, and she’s working through what to do with those.  Of course, some of those rituals have meaning and significance to her, even though she is no longer a Catholic. One of the ways she has worked this into her druidry is to call upon the four archangels as part of her daily Sphere of Protection (the daily protective ritual in the AODA).

 

I have a personal example here to share as well. My family has done pysanky eggs since I was a small child–something I shared on this blog last year. Each year, we would bring out the small packets of dye in their white envelopes, the small tools, the eggs, and the candles and work to design beautiful and magical eggs.  The traditional eggs, of course, use a lot of Christian symbolism.  I’ve kept what I felt was appropriate and also added new druid symbolism into the eggs.  And so, in this case, I’ve kept up with the tradition but have changed a bit of the symbolism and designs that I draw upon.

 

A druid's egg of the modern variety

A druid’s egg of the modern variety

I think it is up to each of us to figure out how we want to weave those previous religious traditions with our present work–and you might find that you are able to do so with more comfort and certainty as your own path continues.

 

Cultural Traditions

Another angle you can take is the broader cultural tradition that your family’s ancestors were part of.  These traditions aren’t necessarily directly descended and passed on by blood relatives, but they are often easier to find and learn about than the fragments left to us through family lines.  Cultural traditions are often well documented in books: look for songs, stories/myths, customs, food, dress, holidays, and more. Of course, with these, you’ll want to develop your own take on these cultural traditions–what works for you? What doesn’t?

 

I have two potential resources here for you on broader cultural traditions. The OBOD‘s course does a nice job in introducing people to some of the cultural customs tied to the ancient druids, particularly of Wales, and how those can weave into modern druid practice. The Grand Archdruid of the AODA, Gordon Cooper wrote a brilliant piece on “Wildcrafting Your Own Druidry.”  In this, he offers an example of a wildcrafted druid cosmology where the druid drew upon her own heritage as well as a focus on the land around her.

 

You also might look to more “local” cultural traditions or those that are around your region.  For example, here, in about a three-county area, there is some tradition surrounding magical barn signs (and they are distinctly different than the Eastern PA “hex” signs).  I’m still researching this tradition, but seeing these beautiful cut out barn signs everywhere has really encouraged me to do more research, to take photos, and to weave these symbols into my own artwork and druid practice.

 

Traditions tied to the Land

The final piece that we might draw upon with regards to ancestral traditions are those tied to the land itself–those that allow us to reconnect with the heritage and uses of the land prior to our current culture.   This, often, is tied to wildcrafting, foraging, and the kinds of plants and animals you have.  Bushcraft classes in your local area is one such way you might learn about these traditions, as are, again, old books, old maps, and old timers.

 

One such tradition that I’ve been attending to in recent times is the art of acorn harvesting and acorn eating. Many native tribes in the US ate acorns and used acorns as their staple crops.  Reconnecting with the acorn in this way, making it a part of my fall rituals, and enjoying it as a meal or flour has really opened up possibilities. And so, I’m learning how to crack acorns effectively, how to dry them, how to grind them into meal and preserve them. Acorns as a dietary staple are easy to find and abundant here, and rebuilding this knowledge can help me connect with the land in powerful ways as well as teach others! I’m finding that acorn preparation is a lot of work, but it is fun work, and it is helping me reconnect with an extremely important local food source that has been used by people inhabiting this land for thousands of years.

 

Other ways you might find some of these traditions is looking at place names: the name “spring” or “mill” gives some sense of what your town or road may have once been used for. Historical societies and historical markers also can help you see some of the broader histories in the region–often directly tied to the land and how people sustained themselves upon it.

 

Concluding Thoughts

I hope that this post has given you some food for thought on your own ancestral traditions as they tie to your family, your broader cultural heritage(s), and the traditions of the land around you.  Thinking through and planting seeds of new traditions is extremely meaningful work to do, and can be wonderfully rewarding.  In the comments, I’d love to hear from anyone who has made family traditions part of their own druid path.

 

PS: I’m seeing an increasing number of people directly copying and pasting my blog posts into their other blogs (different than reblogging). These blog posts represent my own thinking, meditations, life energy, and sacred work. I ask if you want to share them, please use the “reblog” feature so that you share a small portion of the post and then the post links back to this site (and thank you to those of you using this feature!) I freely share my insights and experiences here, and I ask that you respect that sharing. Thank you and blessings!

 

Ethical Sourcing of Medicinal Plants: The Case for American Ginseng March 19, 2017

American Ginseng plant in spring

American Ginseng plant in spring

Stalking the Wild Ginseng

When I was a child, my grandfather picked wild American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). I remember him talking about it, and seeing it, and him sharing with me what it looked like. To him, ginseng wasn’t a profitable plant to be harvested and sold, but rather a local medicine that simply helped raise one’s energy.  For him, health was a serious issue as he had spent his whole life in a steel mill. This American Ginseng was family medicine, ancestral medicine, the medicine growing where we lived. As in many things in childhood, this memory faded away until I took up the practice of herbalism in my adult life.

 

When I first became an herbalist, I hoped I could reconnect with wild ginseng and seek it out. I knew the general area that grandfather had found it in. I had no plans of picking it (knowing that it is severely endangered and on the United Plant Saver’s list). I simply wanted to meet this plant, this beautiful and hugely medicinal plant native to the mountains of my blood and birth. What I thought would be a quick search turned into a year, and that year turned into multiple years of searching. I expanded my search to many other locales in the Appalachians, always, seemingly on the hunt for the wild ginseng. I had mentioned my interest in finding Ginseng offhand one day to my father, and he said he hadn’t found any either. As the years went by, I kept looking, but not with the enthusiasm I had before.

 

An Ethical Dilemma

Beautiful wild american ginseng plant

Beautiful wild American Ginseng plant

The lack of wild ginseng in any local forest really  began shifting something for me–I began to be struck not only by what is here but what is missing, especially with regards to medicinal plants within their native range and native ecosystem (this is part of what prompted my wildtending series of posts last year). The experience saddened my heart and resonated deep within me. If I couldn’t find ginseng after so many years of searching, I had no business using it. Any other choice created additional demand. This meant that I was going to entirely avoid using the American Ginseng plant (and by proxy, most of the other rare woodland species also identified by the United Plant Savers: Blue Cohosh, Black Cohosh, Bloodroot, and Goldenseal).  I wouldn’t’ recommend them, I wouldn’t use them, I wouldn’t teach them, and I would just “let them be” if they were to be found at all. I also grew skeptical of the “wildharvested” label for what it implied.

 

Truthfully, I think a lot of us interested in medicinal plants take this “avoidance” approach, which seems completely reasonable. Because these medicinal plants are so endangered, the best thing we can do is avoid using them, let them be in the wild, and not put any increasing demand upon critical species. To use these plants, to source them, or to harvest them ourselves presents us with serious ethical dilemmas.  But what I didn’t understand at the time was that this was not an either-or situation–there were some third options, and they are pretty good ones.

 

The Wild Ginseng Patch

A few years ago, my father, with a gleam in his eye, invited me back into those same woods where I had originally sought out the American Ginseng. He showed me his carefully planted patches of Ginseng roots and Ginseng seeds, little plots with sticks around them so he knew where they were.  He pointed out their little red berries which he also carefully harvested and replanted deeper in the woods.

 

In their third year of growth, some of the Ginseng Dad was growing developed a kind of root rot, so we harvested them, and drank some of the most uplifting and amazing tea you could imagine. My mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, shared how much better the tea made her feel. And these were the effects that pushed so many people, around the globe, to seek out ginseng for its health benefits. This was, honestly, the first time I had ever had consumed any ginseng and it was incredible. And it was ethically sourced, growing right there on the family homestead!

 

Then, recently, I attended a wonderful workshop at the 2016 American Herbalist Guild Symposium put on botanist  Dr. Eric Burkhart from Penn State University. Eric specializes in these under duress Appalachian woodland species, particularly, American Ginseng. At the beginning of his talk, he asked us how many of us used American Ginseng in our practices (and of a room full of 60 people, only 2 folks in the room did). When he asked, everyone shared reasons similar to mine above: they knew it was endangered, they didn’t want to create more demand, and so on.  And he offered us some rationale and alternatives.

 

One of Dad's Many Ginseng Patches

One of Dad’s Ginseng patches

What these two experiences did for me was offer to turn this binary into a ternary, allow me to have a more complex and nuanced understanding of the role of these herbs.  Two experiences changed and deepened my “avoidance” perspective and encouraged me to see this from a permaculturist’s lens through “the problem is the solution” and the permaculture ethics.

 

Behind the “Wild Harvested” Label

When people buy herbs, a “wild harvested” label is often desirable, yet, it has a very dark side. When it comes to American Ginseng, the wild harvesting is literally stripping the plant from our landscape. Currently, there is no policing being done on wild harvesting. Eric Burkhart showed us screenshots from Facebook groups that show people harvesting–not only harvesting the wrong plants or look-alikes (in the case of Black Cohosh) but also reporting harvesting 100% of what they find. And with prices running hundreds of dollars a pound for American ginseng, a 100% harvest might be the difference between paying the mortgage or not for folks that have little other opportunities for income. Companies, regionally, pay top dollar to ship our American Ginseng overseas primarily to Asian markets. Here in Appalachia, we have an unfortunately long history of land abuse; it is to the point that stripping the land for profit is so common that other perspectives are simply not in the cultural consciousness. While there are likely some ethical harvesters out there, I don’t think there are many. And we have no way of knowing the origins of those “wild harvested” plants–there is a level of invisibility in these practices that makes me extremely and deeply uncomfortable.

 

Since nearly all of these woodland medicinals are root-based and very slow to propagate, harvesting all of the roots means that the population of those plants is eradicated from that part of the landscape.  Keep doing this, and we end up not having any left–which is about where we are at present, at least in the area where I live. I’ll briefly mention that previous cultures who depended on wild populations of plants, nuts, roots, berries, etc, worked hard to manage the health of those lands in the long term; to nurture them.

 

This isn’t to say all wild harvesting is problematic–but I believe much of it is. There are many abundant plants that can be sustainably wild harvested (like goldenrod), carefully and with care.  This is especially true if, as I’ve argued in this blog at multiple points, we give as more than we get–we combine wild harvesting with wild tending (that is, scattering seeds, sustainably harvesting only a little, and giving more back to the land than is taken).  In fact, given the dire state many of our lands are in, I would suggest spending 75% or more of our efforts on replanting and wild tending and 25% of our efforts on harvesting as an ethical choice (but that’s an argument for a different post). Right now, I don’t think that’s what’s happening with a lot of plants, and so, the wild harvest label offers a lot of hidden problems–especially for root crops like American Ginseng.

 

Avoiding the Problem is also a Problem

The avoidance problem, however, creates distance. It certainly did for me–I didn’t want to use these plants, but that also meant that I wasn’t cultivating a relationship with them. And I strongly believe that the key to responding ethically to the crisis of our present age, is in connection. As a druid who has helped others along their own spiritual paths, and as a human just living in this world, one thing is obvious to me: humans protect and value things that are of most use and sacredness to them. I’ve seen this in my plant walks–when I teach people about eating Autumn Olives or make wine from Dandelions for example, it completely changes their perspective. They go from being rather neutral about this abundant shrub or “weed” to being excited to see it, seeking it out, and enjoying its bounty.  The problem, of course, comes in with our rare woodland medicinals–we don’t want people necessarily seeking it out and using it in the wild, especially on public lands where hundreds of people might be coming through. But we do want to build connection and value.

 

The American Ginseng is ancestral medicine, it is powerful medicine that folks here aren’t even using. As Burkhart explained in his talk, nearly 90% of what is harvested leaves domestic markets bound for Asia. We aren’t even using the medicine of our own lands. So not only do we have a resource that we ourselves do not use, and know nothing about, it is being used by people far away who have no idea of the environmental toll that this is creating.

 

I don’t think we can honor these plants through avoidance.  And we certainly can’t honor them if they aren’t part of our lives because they no longer exist in our ecosystems. How do we turn this problem into a solution, ethically, and with a nurturing mindset?

 

Cultivating Relationships and Connections

I think we are seeing the same kind of problem with rare woodland medicinal species that we are with a lot of other things: a good example is the meat/vegetarian debate.  Factory farming is very bad and causes considerable harm and suffering.  People solve this dilemma by going vegetarian, and that seems to be a binary choice: vegetarian or not. However, there are other options: raising meat yourself, working with farmers whose practices are nurturing, sustainable, and ethical, and maybe eating only a little meat rather than meat every day. These alternatives offer not one response (to consume or not to consume) but a range of responses (to raise oneself, to purchase from ethical farmers, to limit consumption).  We can apply this exact same thinking to our rare woodland medicinal herbs.

 

Reciprocation and Wildtending. This brings me back to the example of my father–there was no Ginseng to be found, and we both knew it, so he ethically sourced roots and seeds from a PA sustainable farm (see below) and then started growing it. And now, my family has a small supply that is sacred to us, and that we can use understanding full well exactly what it takes to grow, how long it develops, and so on.  We can manage the population in our own woods and make sure it is growing. For more on this, a great resource is a wonderful book (that I recently gifted my father) called Farming the Woods: An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests by Mudge, Gabriel, and Munsell. It offers a holistic view of how to cultivate and grow these sacred plants. I love this approach because it encourages both wild tending and helps us to balance those scales.  But it also encourages us to cultivate a very deep and responsible use of these plants and re-establish connection.

 

“Forest Grown” Herbs Initiative. A second option is to support those who are growing it ethically, to pay a fair price to those folks, and to learn how to use this sacred medicine responsibly.  (By that, I mean extracting as a tincture and maximizing the benefit of these roots.) A recent initiative by United Plant Savers and Mountain Rose Herbs has led to the offering of “forest grown” Ginseng (available here).  The Forest Grown Ginseng is grown without chemicals in forested settings where an emphasis is on the long-term health of the forest–using permaculture design and agroforestry at it’s best. These farmers do not stripping the land bare with wild harvesting–rather, this is a crop, along with others, that is cultivated in a forest setting, focusing on the health and overall welfare of the forest as an ecosystem. If we can create a market for these kinds of plants grown in healthful and nurturing ways, we can make sure more forest lands are used, and we can help put a stop to the wild harvesting/stripping bare practices we are seeing with regards to American Ginseng. Another issue here is that scarcity drives up the price; if more people are cultivating ginseng through the forest grown initiative, it makes it more affordable.  Agroforestry has incredible potential to leave our forest ecosystems intact and gain valuable harvests (shitake mushrooms, American Ginseeng, among others).

 

Education.  The problem with going to an herb catalog, or purchasing a powdered herb or tincture in a health food store, is that the origins and practices that produced that thing are completely invisible.  And so, education and researching each plant and each company is key. Research the company who is producing it, research their sourcing–if the information isn’t clear, ask good questions. If possible, eliminate as many “middle men” along the chain and purchase what you need to purchase directly from small family farms or herbalists. I think that education can go a long way to helping us rebuild our own health and the health of our lands.

 

Fair Share, People Care, Earth Care

With these alternative approaches, responsibility and connection are at the core of these practices.  For one, the scarcity of the roots, and the amount of effort or funds it takes to purchase or grow them, means that we will treat them as the sacred medicine that they are, using them fully and effectively as possible with no waste. What I like so much about this expanded understanding is that it aligns so beautifully with the practice of permaculture design.  In permaculture, the ethics ask us to consider how to care for the earth, care for its people, and engage in fair share all at the same time.  These two alternatives do this: we can have powerful medicine that cares for people, use it ethically, and heal the land while doing so.  We can cultivate deeper relationships with the living earth in all that we do.  We can rebuild connections with the sacred medicines native to our region while protecting them for future generations and honoring them through all things.

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Slowing Down the Druid Way: Part III: Time-Honoring Strategies February 26, 2017

This past week, a friend and I were discussing options for starting seeds for a new joint major gardening project (more on that in an upcoming post).  We talked about several options, and deciding we wanted to stay away from plastic ready-made planting pots, opted for a paper pot maker (a little wooden device that makes it stunningly easy to create paper pots from recycled newspaper). This choice, of course, is an excellent one from a permaculture perspective: it takes an extremely abundant waste product and turns it into a resource. Of course, in order to make these pots, you need the time to collect the paper and the time to create them. This simple choice–paper or plastic–along with the investment of time illustrates an underlying principle that seems to me to be near-universally true in my experience: the further away from fossil fuels we get, the more time things take. And here, of course, is the crux of this entire blog post series: if we want to do anything beyond our work (practicing permaculture, developing deep relationships with the land, developing bardic arts, or whatever it is we want to accomplish), we have to find the time to do so.

 

Starting seeds in recycled materials

Starting seeds in recycled materials

In my previous two blog posts, I explored the nature of work both historically and in the present age, which helped illuminate some of the current unbalances we have with our work–and opened up the door for us to consider revisiting our relationship to it. And it is this spirit that today, I talk about re-negotiating and re-envisioning our relationship to work and hence, to our time. As I explored over the last two weeks, historical data suggests that we worked a lot less in ages past, which allowed for more leisure time, feasting, merriment, and the learning of crafts and skills. It also gave our ancestors the necessary time to live without fossil fuels–to do work slower, with more intention, and live at a different pace. In the present age, our time is owned by our employers and continued increases in productivity have occurred with increases in work hours, meaning that we are working more than ever before.  It seems that, in some cases, fossil fuels and the myth of progress is speeding us up so much–and most of sustainable living practices focus in the opposite direction. The tension between them is many things, but one of them is certainly time and different ways of working.

 

Now to be clear, it is not that I’m saying that work itself is the problem–it isn’t.  Work is a necessary part of our lives.  It is a part of being alive: working to provide for our own needs and make sure our loved ones who depend on us are well fed, happy, clothed, and with roofs over our heads. This isn’t just the human condition, but rather, part of life in general–all animals must seek out their food, find shelter, build their nests, and so on.  The challenge comes with the balance between our work and the rest of our lives.  So in this post, I’ll explore both some opportunities and options for us to re-negotiate our relationship with our work, bring more leisure time into our lives, allow us to more fully pursue our passions, and dedicate more time to treading lightly and joyfully on the earth.

 

The Time Audit

When we want to understand a phenomenon that is very close to us, one of the best things we can do is find a new way of seeing that phenomenon (think about the Hanged Man card from the tarot–this is all about re-seeing a new situation). Each day, you spend your time as you’d spend anything else–you might think of it like a bank account, but its a set account of time (and the associated energy that comes with that time). One strategy for re-seeing this expenditure of time is through what I’m calling a time audit. I’m adapting this strategy from Your Money or Your Life, who gives great suggestions for money spending audits.  So let’s look at one possibility for a time audit:

 

  1. Begin by, on a separate sheet of paper, listing all the things you value the most that you wish you had more time to do.
  2. Next, for a period of time (at least a typical week, or longer; I’d recommend a month), keep track of your time and how you spend it. A good way to do this is on an Excel spreadsheet or in a notebook. Try to keep track of things as they happen, not at the end of the day, so that you have a more accurate representation of how you spend your time.  Note: if you spend a lot of time on the computer, some programs exist that also help you monitor your time on the computer–I use one called “RescueTime” which monitors what programs you are running and how much time you spend on it.
  3. After your set period of time, review your records and categorize them. You might come up with different kinds of categories: Time spent with family/loved ones, time in nature, work time (normal working hours), work time (overtime), social media, television, gardening, etc).  If you use Open Office or Excel or something, you can then add up the time you spent on each thing that week/month.
  4. Put a star next to any “things you value the most” (from your earlier list).  Also, note any categories that you consider “wasted” time.
  5. Now, add up your time and consider the following questions:
    1. If your time is your life energy–are you spending it well?
    2. How much of it do you see as wasted time?
    3. How much of the “things you value most” list are getting your time? How much of it?
    4. What are common “time sucks” that you see that you can eliminate?
    5. What do you want to spend more time on in the future?
    6. What percent of your waking hours was spent on that thing?
  6. Make a set of three goals for yourself moving forward and evaluate those goals after each week.

 

You will likely find that the act of monitoring your time itself helps you be more aware of how you spend your time.  Seeing your patterns with regards to time is even more helpful. Setting goals helps you to take the next steps towards reclaiming some of your time.

Re-negotiating our Relationship with Time

Beyond the time audit, it can be very helpful to examine cultural assumptions surrounding time and confront them directly. As I’ve begun paying more and more attention to this issue, I am struck by how powerful and pervasive these cultural assumptions are.  I’m going to walk through a number of these (and I’d love to hear more if you have any!

 

You are not a machine. Modern western industrialized culture makes a very dangerous assumption: that people are just like machines. That is, we are expected to be ultra efficient, ultra productive, and never break down.  We are always expected to work well and always be at the top of our game. Terms like productivity and efficiency are the measures that became the most central and dominant in our culture.  Even today, rather than calling people people, we call them “human resources” like they are simply another cog in that wheel.

 

We are not machines. We cannot work all day long and expect to function at peak efficiency. We are not made to work that long; our ancestors certainly did not, and the current expectations are unreasonable. If we want to build a better relationship with our time, we need to be kind to ourselves and to recognize that this intense culture of overwork is not a normal state of things.  And we can’t expect ourselves to be always working at peak efficiency.

 

I don’t know how many people think they should always be working and perfectly so.  I remember having a doctoral student who was teaching a course for us come into my office in tears–she shared how there had been a very unexpected death of a young cousin in her family and the family was in shock and having to care for the children of this person.  She had gone to several faculty who expressed their condolences and then shrugged her shoulders.  And she said to me, “I don’t think I’m teaching as well as I was before.”  I showed her compassion, and told her she wasn’t expected to, and it was OK to take this time to mourn (and we could find her a sub if necessary).  I was so struck by this situation–especially after she relayed that she had been advised to who had been advised to keep going regardless of what happened.  She expected herself, and expected all of us, to insist she always perform at peak efficiency–like a machine.

 

Slowing down....

Slowing down….

Learning about your own relationship with time. Stemming from the above idea that we are not machines,  it is useful to explore your underlying value systems associated with time and the narratives surrounding your use of time. Most of these are given to us by our culture–and so we likely have some healing work to do. You might consider your own reactions to the following words and phrases: relax, free time, leisure, good sleep, unstructured time, play, productivity, efficiency, accomplish, stamina,  busy, keeping busy (and there are a lot more!)  Exploring your gut reactions as a place to start–and then, question where these reactions come from.

 

For example, I used to get excited at the word “productive” because it meant I was accomplishing so much.  But where did that excitement come from? Was it even mine? Probably it came from my education and current work environment, where being productive meant piling on the accomplishments (which are rewarded) and embracing the insanely packed schedule to keep up the accomplishments. But did I ever consciously choose that value system?  Do I really want that value system in my life? Is it serving me well?  After some long, hard looks, my answer was “no.”  I didn’t want this value system because I felt I gained very little, and lost a great deal.  These kinds of questions can help us unpack these underlying cultural assumptions surrounding time.

 

Letting Go of Guilt. Because we have such an unbalanced relationship with our time and often hold onto the human-as-machine ideology, we feel guilty if we aren’t working or being productive. This guilt can manifest in many ways depending on the kind of work you do, and it takes on different names: academic guilt, productive guilt, work guilt, and so on.  But the underlying feeling is the same: when you want to relax, or do something fun, or just chill out, you have to first convince yourself that it is “ok” to do so, and maybe apologize to a few other people, for doing so. Or you don’t want people to know what you are up to, so you do whatever it is you want, but then hide the fact that you did so when you return to work. One of the manifestations of this is that people try to work even when they know they either won’t get what they need to get done (exhaustion, not the right headspace, etc) or they find work to do that they don’t need to do at that moment.  This is something you can certainly watch out for.

 

For example, how many times have you felt guilty for resting for a full day and not doing work? Or perhaps, enjoying a book for several hours in the afternoon? Taking time off on weekends? I see this often in my own workplace: we are meant to be always working. To do otherwise is not acceptable. I once thought this was unique to academia, but in fact, it is not–friends who work at home, friends who are self-employed, homemakers, and so many others tell me of their guilt at not working. The one exception to this is people who are retired: they are expected to simply enjoy life because “they’ve earned it” (having already put in the work).

 

So take a few deep breaths and let go of the guilt.  Go ahead.  You can do it. It feels really good :).

 

Seeds take their own time, never in a hurry

Seeds take their own time, never in a hurry

Beware of “efficiency” substances as ways of letting you go on longer.  There’s a difference between liking coffee for its flavor and enjoying a cup every now and then vs. depending up on it to get a tired and overworked body out of bed and moving again. Coffee, energy drinks, and other stimulating substances (even things like Ginseng) often act like a boost of coritsol to our systems–giving us a temporary “high” so we can keep moving just a bit longer or get to the weekend and crash.  However, this comes at a substantial physical cost. If we stop drinking it, even for a while, we will see what the “true state” of our bodies are.  These substances are like credit cards: sure, you can raise your limit and spend more now. But you do so at an extraordinarily high interest rate, and paying back that extra debt over time is so much harder.

 

Beware of cultural peer pressure. One of the things I’ve noticed is that certain really detrimental things are glorified–and it is easy to get wrapped up in other people’s time narratives. Overworking, being extremely busy, not getting enough sleep, being overwhelmed and overworked–these states of being are seen as at best, normal, and at worst, very positive places to be in.  I hear my colleagues speak with pride about how well they can function on 4 hours of sleep, or how they worked all weekend to prepare for their conference, or how they worked all through break. Uh, no. I have learned to resist these narratives firmly by sharing an alternative time narrative of self-care and balance.

 

We are more than our work. As I mentioned in my last post, at least here in the US, work is firmly tied to our own identity. But, your work is not your identity.  It is what you do for pay. It might be good work, you might really enjoy doing it–but it does not represent you or the whole of who you are. It is simply work. This was a particularly hard lesson for me to understand due to the amount of time and energy I had invested in getting to the point of being able to do my current work (dissertations and advanced degrees and all). But realizing that my whole being is not, and should not, be tied up with my work helped me broaden my perspectives and re-negotiate my relationship to my work. As an added benefit–now, when something goes wrong at work, it doesn’t crush my soul because there are more parts to me than just work.

Some Healthy Alternatives

So now that we’ve gotten past some of the negative assumptions with regards to time, I want to focus on a few positive alternative narratives that can help us move forward.

 

Understand that physical and mental health is wrapped up in time.  As I shared last week, the adrenal system and the other bodily functions are directly tied to the amount of stress and overwork in your life–which is tied to how you spend the time.  The sympathetic/fight or flight nervous system is what we use to keep us going, going, going. This has a measurable, strong link to our physical health.  Stressed bodies are not healthy bodies–many of their systems are functioning minimally under chronic stress. Long-term results of this can be quite serious indeed.  By learning to let go of some of the insanity and learning to rest, we can much better take care of ourselves. Likewise, our mental state is also determined, to a large extent, by how we spend our time.  Not having time to simply sit and process things that happen, being engaged in meaningless work, not slowing down enough to give our minds a chance to rest–these, too, strongly effect us. In other words, our time is our health.

 

Amaranth sprouts growing on their own time...

Amaranth sprouts growing on their own time…

See time and life energy as precious resources.  Our time is one of the most precious resources that we have.  This is simple: anything that we want to do requires–at the most basic level–the energy and time. There is no getting around this fact. Other issues, like physical resources, finances, lack of skill/ability, etc, have multiple solutions. But if we lack the time and energy to do something, nothing else is going to get that thing done.  Linguistically, this is now how time is framed in our culture. Typically, we “spend” our time (like spending down a bank account) or we “save” our time (like a savings account, note the efficiency metaphor again).  But we don’t necessarily “protect” or “cherish” our time with the same positive qualities.  This is part of why I’m talking about “time honoring” here–honoring this precious resource and all that it offers to us.

 

Evaluate your options. It might be that you can find ways of balancing your work and your life and coming into a more healthy relationship with it using the time audit and exploring other cultural assumptions. And for some people working some kinds of jobs, this is totally possible. But it also may be that you want to make some choices about your life (new work, part time work, new living circumstances) that lead you to less work and more living. This is certainly an option  not to be discounted.  Or, if choices present themselves for you to take on more work with higher pay–consider them carefully.

 

Promote Positive Narratives Surrounding Time.  This, for me, is a really important part of my own relationship with time–and that is serving as a good role model to others. I’m honest when people ask me how I spend my weekend: I was out in the woods, I was in my art studio, I was reading or writing or playing my flute. I don’t buy in to the glorification of busyness, and I don’t make excuses for not working constantly.  Because my current work  has me mentoring lots of advanced doctoral students, I am working hard to model my own more healthy relationship with time with them and encouraging them to take time off when they need it. I think that the more of us who are willing to gently but powerfully share alternatives and show that we can still be functional in our work, the more we are able to help others around us also think through these issues.

 

Conclusion

I share all of the above with a caveat: I am not pretending to be a master of my time and energy.  I am just another human on this path, working to balance a demanding career (which at this point due to my earlier life choices, is necessary) with the ability to have enough time and energy to live my spiritual path and live my truth. The above things are strategies that have worked for me.

 

The next post in this series will look more carefully at leisure time and explore the “slow movements” of various kinds, and offer some additional insights.  I very much look forward to hearing from you with your own suggestions and time-honoring strategies!

 

Slowing Down the Druid Way, Part II: Relationships of Work and Time February 19, 2017

In the US, it seems that the first question people ask is, “what do you do?”  When they say that, of course, they are not talking about how you spend your leisure time, but rather, the work that you do for pay. This is the most defining characteristic of modern lives–because this is tied to the thing our culture holds as most sacred: money.  Money is the only metric that has any real value and the pursuit of money drives all else. If you aren’t working in the workforce earning pay, either the work are doing is devalued (as any stay-at-home parent can attest) or there is something very wrong with you (as in, why aren’t you out there earning money?). This current economic system, driven by industrial mindsets surrounding profit and efficiency, gives us a rather poor metric through which to measure ourselves and our value.

 

Last week, I explored a bit of the history of our current cultural value system with regards to work by examining humans’ earlier relationships with work and time. In today’s post, I’m going to bring us into the present age, and explore some of the issues surrounding modern relationships with our work and how these relationships are tied to underlying cultural value systems of exponential growth, the love of money, and the myth of progress. I do so because our modern relationships with work and money are directly linked to our ability to slow down and engage in anything else meaningful: a spiritual path, sustainable living, communing with the trees, etc. I also want to take a moment to thank so many of you for your incredibly thoughtful and useful comments in last week’s post–I hope we can continue to discuss these issues!

 

Modern Overworking and Productivity

As above, so below

As above, so below

David Graeber wrote a controversial essay in 2013 called “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” (this essay is free online, but the site that typically hosts it seems to be down, so I found it on the Internet Archive here if you want to read).  He outlines how, for almost a century, with the rise of fossil fuels and the various technologies, we’ve had reports that increased technology combined with more fossil fuel use would lead us to an increase of leisure time.  In fact, in the 1930’s, John Maynard Keynes suggested that by the year 2000, we could have work weeks as little as 15 hours a week.  For those of you keeping track, this assumption is also wrapped up in the myth of progress that I described in detail in last week’s post.

 

In fact, we are technically capable of working a lot less, at least by modern economic metrics (which, for the purposes of this post, I’ll take at face value). An analysis from Eric Rauch of MIT suggests that today, the average “productivity level” of a worker (that is, how much a worker gets done in a day) has gone up tremendously over the last century, particularly since the rise of modern communication systems.  Today’s workers get done in 11 hours what the average worker in 1950 got done in 40; productivity levels have been on a steady rise for the better part of 70 years.  Graeber reports that as late as the 1960’s, people were still expecting those future 15-hour weeks. Yet, the average work week is now over 50 hours for at least half of Americans (and for some, considerably over 50 hours). So where is all of the extra time going?  Why do we seem to be the most unhappy, and most productive, of workers?

 

Most of this seems to stem from our relationship to consumerism and money, not necessarily from work itself.  Julie Schor, economist and author of The Overworked American: The Decline of American Leisure demonstrated that  workers unions often will nearly always choose higher pay and benefits over shorter working hours. The same is true of non-unionized workers: if faced with the choice between less work and more pay, workers almost invariably choose more pay and give up their leisure time as a result. The idea of not taking more work for more pay seems unfathomable to many. This is, I believe, due to the underlying value system that privileges money and little else combined with an assumption that growth (in wages, in standing at one’s job) is a desirable and necessary pursuit.

 

I have a good example of this from my own life: a few years ago at my previous university position, I was asked to consider stepping into a major administrative role much higher up the food chain so to speak, overseeing a large and growing major. This job offered almost a 40% pay increase from what I was currently making. However, this new job was not appealing to me in the slightest. For one, would take me away from all the things I enjoyed about my job, namely my teaching my students and the discovery I was able to do as a researcher, and replace it with more work I didn’t enjoy. For two, it also meant losing my flexible schedule, working many more hours, and it would require that all my working hours be on campus. Consequently, due to the longer daily working hours, I would have had to deal with rush hour traffic twice a day that I had learned to otherwise avoid.  This meant even less time on my homestead, and in winter months, leaving before the sun rose and getting home after the sun set (think of the chickens!).  And so, I gently declined the position. When word got around that I had declined what was clearly a “step up” in my career, my colleagues couldn’t understand why.  No answer I could give was sufficient. Finally, I came up with the one answer always acceptable to academic audiences: I wanted to focus on my research (that is, I preferred the noble goal of making new knowledge and sacrificed higher pay to do so). Giving people the true answer: that I liked the work I currently did,and that I didn’t, gods forbid, want even more work on my plate or a more restricted schedule, was simply not an acceptable answer and giving it would have considerably harmed my reputation. This is because more money and higher status is always the choice you should make given the cultural value system that privileges earnings above most else.

 

One book that really helped me make sense of this decision to keep a lower paying, lower hour, more flexible position was a book called Your Money or Your Life.  This book puts out, in direct terms, a system for monitoring the relationship between your time and your work and draws clear the distinction between the two.  In a series of exercises, you calculate your “real” hourly wage (not what you are paid, but what you actually make after you subtract work-associated costs, transpiration, transportation time, and the downtime/recovery time that is lost after work that you need to recover from it). It also has you monitor your spending and identify ways in which that spending is or is not in line with your value system. When you do these activities, it really helps you change your relationship with your work and your finances.  I’ll talk more about this approach in my third post on this series–but suffice to say, this book helped change my own relationship with money and made me realize that I made the right decision.

 

Another major issue contributing to overwork is that the current work system intentionally privileges overwork. For one, many people fear losing their jobs such that they have to do whatever their employers tell them to, and will, and that means among other things, much longer hours at lower pay (hence one of many reasons that the middle class is shrinking and pay is stagnant). For two, most workers no longer possess much autonomy over their work, and so the amount of work they do is no longer determined by them. With the rising income disparity, more funding is going to boated administrative positions at the cost of the average and lower-paid workers who then suffer  more administrative oversight (see next paragraph).  Finally, the more “productive” one is compared to one’s peers, the more one is rewarded. For those working hourly rates, the situation is even more dire: extremely low pay per hour requires them to work tremendously long hours at unpleasant jobs to take home a pittance. I think the underlying thing that is happening here is that we are supposed to want to work, we are supposed to want to earn good pay, we are supposed to be growing our salaries and our careers and we should be sacrificing all to do so.

 

David Graeber offers his own interpretation to some of the above: the creation of “bullshit jobs,” primarily of the administrative kind. He describes the new jobs like telemarketing and financial services and the “ballooning” of administration” in many areas. In terms of why this is so, Graeber writes, “The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s).”  He argues that many people find large portions of the work they do as meaningless, even if they do this work for pay (and often for a lot of it). Graeber notes that the resentment and “psychological violence” that builds up for those doing “bullshit jobs” and is inflicted upon those actually doing meaningful work.  Those who are doing meaningful work are often doing it for less pay, furthering resentment between all involved. A good example of this is the teaching, nursing, or social work professions: all folks engaging in really important work who do it for less pay and over overseen, increasingly, by administrators in bullshit jobs. Whether or not you buy Graeber’s argument, there is no doubt that today, people feel overworked, underpaid, and generally strained–all the while carrying around an unconscious value system that tells them they should keep earning profits.

 

Another piece of this I’ll note is the rise of the super-specialist system. Wendell Berry discusses this system briefly in the early chapters of the Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. In the specialist model, we have replaced generalist workers that are good at a lot of things and are well rounded (like a small family farmer, handy person, etc) with super specialists who are really good at one thing. Increasingly, we feel the need to go to specialists for every little  thing (finances, health, food, haircuts, you name it). The rise of the specialist system reduces individual autonomy, flexibility, and freedom, requires infinitely more specialized (and in many cases, less meaningful) work.  But I also think that the rise of the specialist system makes us think that we can only be good at one thing (our specialized work) and so we must do that well above all else.

 

I could write more here, but I think my points have been sufficiently made: that workers in today’s system are both products of the system beyond their control (one engineered to make sure they don’t have leisure time), but also often make choices to maximize wealth and thus undermine their own leisure time due to tightening economic circumstances coupled with underlying cultural myths about growth and progress.  This system works such that we are exhausted at the end of the day, and we can’t do much else rather than spend all our time in front of screens pumping advertising that makes us buy things to keep the system chugging right along. Further, we depend on that system and many of us are in serious binds due to economics and decisions we made earlier in life. So now, I want to turn my attention to the costs that this system has on our emotional, spiritual, and physical well being.

 

The Physical Cost of Overwork: Our Nervous System

Physically, the amount of work we are doing, without much downtime and festivity (as explored last week), means that our bodies are less able to handle stress or any serious endeavors beyond just keeping going to our jobs. We begin “living to work” rather than “working to live.” I think the increased productivity levels means that most workplaces are more demanding, fast paced, and intense than even 10 years ago–so when we go, we are working harder, faster, and with less rest. I know in the time I’ve been in the academic workplace, the university is demanding a lot more for a lot less compensation. And this causes us physical harm and daily stress. Additionally, as we age, our bodies are different and cannot always work as much as we want them to. A recent study suggested, for example, that people over 40 are better workers with a three-day work week as opposed to a five day work week.

Stinging nettles support the adrenals

Stinging nettles support the adrenals

 

I’m going to put on my herbalist hat for just a moment and talk about the automatic nervous system, because it helps illustrate a few key things important to this issue of stress and overwork (and for more on this, I point to Hoffman’s Herbs for Stress and Pip Waller’s Holistic Anatomy). The automatic nervous system (which is outside of our conscious control) maintains and governs the vital functions of the body like digestion, circulation, heart rate, and breathing. It has two modes: the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (rest and digest). Earlier in human history, the sympathetic nervous system was used to get us out of immediate danger (oh noes! A big bear is chasing me!) In this state, anything that’s not immediately needed for survival, including our digestive system, our immune system and inflammatory responses, and our sexual system, are essentially shut down.The problem for those of us living as modern humans in these work-intensive and difficult times is that stress doesn’t work like it did in earlier points in human history. Most stress is not stress we can just run away from and relax—rather, its continual and grating. Feelings of being overwhelmed, overworked, and isolated are three key signs of a continual sympathetic nervous system state. Due to modern demands, we make things worse by pushing our bodies to go even further using various common stimulants (sugar, coffee, caffeine, energy drinks—in fact, caffeine mimics adrenaline in the body). Prolonged stress responses encourage the adrenal glands to produce a hormone called Cortisol into the blood, which again mobilizes stored glucose and fat, suppresses the inflammatory response (how the body can heal from damage), and taxes the liver.

 

If the body continues to face stress, the body responds with what is known as  “general adaptation syndrome” – which is essentially a chronically stressed system—with the adrenal glands releasing all of the cortisone they can for as long as they can. Long-term exposure to Cortisol taxes the liver and can lead to digestive problems, muscular tension, poor joint health, high blood pressure, various reproductive system issues. Eventually, if this goes on long enough, the body is exhausted and suffers what is known as “adrenal burnout” or “adrenal exhaustion.” Our bodies cannot go forever on and on, and at this stage, we have severely decreased ability to deal with stress, severe mental and physical exhaustion, and higher susceptibility to illness and disease.

 

If you are feeling exhausted when you are relaxing, you know that your body has been running in sympathetic mode long term. A few other common signs are waking up tired and not feeling rested even after a full night’s sleep or getting sick as soon as you go on vacation. Because so many people are running on General Adaptation Syndrome, when they finally do get back to a parasympthetic state (say on vacation), they immediately fall ill and feel exhausted—this is feeling the true state of affairs in the body. In 2015, for example, 24% of Americans were experiencing “extreme stress” and general stress levels have continued to rise. Given healing, self care, and downtime, the body can fully heal.

 

I believe that the above information is likely why television and other media are such huge attractions.  Adrenally depleted people cannot muster the energy to do much–getting something to eat and crashing with Netflix is what a lot of folks do at the end of the day because they are physically incapable of anything else.  This, too, is a cost of our work.

 

The Non-Physical Costs of Overwork

Schor notes that the decline of American leisure time has resulted in what she calls “loss of independence.” Likewise, literary figure Herman Mellville wrote in a letter to a family member, “Whoever is not in possession of leisure can hardly be said to possess independence.” The more that our working hours are wrapped up in our jobs or other responsibilities (meaningful or not), and the more time we spend outside of that work as exhausted and adrenal depleted zombies, the less we are able to engage in any meaningful activity that doesn’t have to do with earning a living.  Independence is critical to our success in any endeavor or path beyond our work.

 

The second cost of overwork is wasted potential. This independence, this unstructured time, offers us potential and possibility. We have to determine how we enact that potential, of course, but the potential itself will never be there without the time and energy to do so.  In other words, overworking closes off potential and possibility for us all. Free time is like a bed of soil, freshly prepare for seeds and planting. We can choose to leave it barren or we can choose to cultivate something. But if we don’t even have access to that bed and the energy to plant anything, there is no way anything can grow. I think that humans have the potential for so much–creative gifts and tapping the flow of awen, doing good work in their communities and healing each other, healing the land, spiritual self discovery, deeper understanding–all of the things, really, that make us human.  But we need to the unstructured time to make that a reality.

 

A third thing I think we lose is the ability to learn and grow fully. Having leisure time means you have time to make mistakes, ponder about those mistakes, try some new, experiment, tinker, and so on. This is a really critical part of  learning anything, but certainly, its critical to develop any skill in the bardic art or in homesteading or planning a garden. We have to have time not only to learn, but practice, and on occasion, fail at things so we can get better. When are strained for time, we don’t have the space to do that. Because every bit of time is so precious, failure leads not to introspection but to seeing the time as “wasted” and to frustration.

 

A fourth thing that we lose is the ability to reflect an think carefully  about what is happening in our own lives and in the world around us.  For example,  how many people have you talked to (and maybe this has happened to you) where something major occurs and rather than process it and deal with it, they keep working and never really think about the issue. Maybe this thing is a tragedy and they bury the pain of it, or maybe it is something really wonderful–and neither can be thought about or processed. Losing our ability to be reflective means we don’t integrate lessons and experiences and grow as people. I think this work so critical to us–both in terms of our spiritual paths, but also in terms of our humanity.

 

A fifth thing we lose is the ability to connect with each other or the land. Harried work schedules coupled with adrenal fatigue means we don’t have time for others in our lives: to reach out, to send a card, to have a nice cup of tea by the fire, or to commune with the non-human aspects of the world. It takes time to build and maintain connections, and without them, we are isolated and alone.

 

And I think at this point, I’ve come full circle to the issues that I opened with in my last post: wanting to live in line with my principles and never seeming to have the energy and time to do so.  I’ve explored some of the problems and causes that I think are contributing to these phenomenon (in my own life, in the lives of my friends, and broader for many people).  Next week, we’ll move to the next stage of this process: what to do about it.  In the meantime, friends, I hope you can find some leisure time and enjoy it!