The Druid's Garden

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

Embracing Ancestral Fires and Fire-starting at Beltane April 28, 2019

An awen-shaped sacred fire, created from my flint and steel

An awen-shaped sacred fire, created from my flint and steel

The tiny sparks from my flint and steel shower down on my char cloth.  This flint and steel set was a gift from a fellow druid from almost a decade ago, a gift that has long offered me a connection with my ancestors.  It takes me a few moments to remember the technique he taught me, striking the steel against the flint in a particular way with a particulary angle to my body.  Starting a fire in an ancestral way isn’t just a mental act; its an emboded one.  I breathe deeply and remember, and the tiny sparks fly from my tools to the char cloth. After a few more attempts, a single spark lands on the cloth and starts to glow orange. I carefully pick up the char cloth and blow on it to increase the ember size, then place it in a specially prepared “nest” of bark, pine pitch, and soft cattail and milkweed fibers.  I blow some more on the nest.  At first, nothing happens, and I fear the spark is lost.  But then it starts smoking, more and more, and suddenly, the whole nest is aflame.  I lay this nest carefully down and begin layering thin plant stalks and dried materials that I had prepared in advance, slowly building the fire from that tiny ember.  In 30 minutes, the fire is blazing and warm, and I feel intimately connected with it because I was able to start it on my own with basic tools.

 

We call Beltane a “fire festival” in the neopagan traditions because fire plays a central role. Modern Beltane festivities are derived from the ancient tradition in Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man where people lit fires and drove cattle through them as a blessing as they went out to pasture for the summer months. People seeking blessings also lept over the fires.  For a nice description of the history of this practice, see this site.  Fire was such an important part of Beltane because fire represents the sun, and by May 1st, people are eager to welcome back the sun, to enjoy the sun of the long summer months, and to have sunlight to kiss our crops that they may be fertile and abundant for the long winter ahead.  Today, in honor of the fires of Beltane, I want to talk about fire as an ancestral practice and encourage exploration and experimentation with fire and fire starting in more traditional–and ancestral–ways.

 

Fire and the Ancestors

Fire is one of humanity’s oldest friends, tools, and teachers.  New research from the Wonderwerk cave in South Africa suggests that homo erectus–our pre-human ancestors–had been cultivating and working with fire at least one million years ago, possibly 1.5 million or more years ago.  It is likely that when we evolved from homo erectus into homo sapien, fire was with us.  That is, when we birthed from the ancestral womb into the species we are today, fire was with us.  When our ancestors transitioned from hunter-gatherer societies and developed agriculure at the start of the Holocene 8000 years ago, fire was with us.  When our ancestors needed to stay warm in harsh winter weather, fire was with us. When our ancestors needed to keep back the predators in the dark, fire was with us. Fire is with us even now, as we heat our homes, move our vehicles, cook our food, and journey far and wide.

 

Perhaps the most interesting facts about fire is that it is one of the two things that distinguish us from other species (the other being language, although that fact is currently under debate).  Fire scares and drives away animals and insects, while it invites humans in closer.  If you are camping in the woods, its instinctive to want to have a fire, get close to it, and burn it brightly.  Some of my most frightening times in nature have been when I was alone in the dark woods without the warmth and comfort a fire offers. This, too, was ancestral.  Because my ancestors have been enjoying the warmth, light, and protection of fire for literally millions of years–it is no wonder that the primal part of my brain felt it lacking, especially when I heard critters afoot in the cold and dark night.

 

Today, people gather around fires, indoor or out, just as our ancient ancestors did. At any outdoor event or camping trip, there is a fire to be found. And where there is fire, there are people gathered, laughing, cooking food, telling stories, drumming, sharing songs, or more. Indoors, the fire has much of the same function. The hearth in traditional times was the center of the home. The fire burning, food cooking, the sharing of skills and traditions across generations. The hearth offers us a place to join with each other, teach each other, and nourish our own spirits.

 

 

Fires burn

Fires burn

Fire also has also contributed significantly to human evolution; Charles Darwin said that humans were distinguished evolutionarly by two things: langauge and fire. We can see this is true from both the evolution of the human brain and the evolution of human societies. First, fire has the unique ability to render food more digestable: we see that the application of fire to meats, vegetables, and fungus creates it more nutrient rich and dense. Some scientsts suggest that this has had a strong evolutionary function, in that more nutrient rich foods, honed by fire, allowed for a larger brain to develop (as typically, about 1/5 of our total calore intake goes towards our brains). Fire also was a driving force in moving humans further up the technological ladder: fire is what allowed us to create and refine copper, bronze, iron, steel and today, many, many advanced technologies still rely on basic principles of fire. Thus, each successive civilization has learned new and powerful ways to harness fire–and sometimes, to destroy with it.

 

 

Fire has had spiritual connotations throughout human history, and across human cultures. The worship or deification of fire, known as pyrodulia, pyrolatry, or pryolatria, was common, particularly in pre-industrial societies. The ancient alchemists and hermeticists, too, understood the importance and power of fire.  Alchemists divided fire into four types including the “secret fire” upon which all inner alchemy (spiritual alchemy) was based.  Likewise, in the Golden Dawn tradition, fire is considered the first element, and everything descends from fire.  Ancient societies, including Greek, Roman, Indian, and Chinese, venerated fire and worked with it elementally and ceremonially.

 

In every way, fire reconnects us to our roots, to those ancient ancestors who gave us such an important gift.  When I look at the fire from this perspective, I realize that fire is my most important ancestral gift, and thus, one of the best ways to honor my ancestors is to learn and understand fire, to work with fire as they might have, to learn to start and build fires, and to honor them through this practice.

 

Beltane Fire Traditions, the Ancestral Way

So perhaps this Beltane, considerworking deeply with fire in a new way.   I offer three suchs suggestions for how to honor the ancestors and work deeply with fire at beltane: traditional fire starting, tending, and honoring the fire.  These are three of many, many you can consider!

 

Fire Starting and Honoring the Ancestors

For most of us, fire starting requires a match or lighter, something that makes a quick flame.  We often build a big stack, put wads of paper in it, light it with some fossil-fuel derived source, and hope for the best.  However,  learning to make fire in other ways, slower ways, ancestral ways, creates what I can only describe as a different quality fire.  For one, you have a different investment in the fire, both from a physical and mental perspective. On the mental side, we use ancestral knowledge, knowing what materials to use, knowing the techniques, learning and failing and growing from the experience.  On the physical side, as I mentioned in my opening, fire starting is an emboded practice.  These practices take a lot more physical effort, particularly when you are learning.  But that physical and mental effort leads us to amazing outcomes:  fire we have truely kindled and lit with our ancestors beside us. But also, by starting a fire in a more traditional way, you invite your ancient ancestors to your side, and thus, the fire seems to have a different quality.  Finally, the fire has more meaning becuase you have done it the slow, old way, and that has power.

 

Another naturally created sacred fire

Another naturally created sacred fire in a special firepit

The “Fire Triangle” I learned at the North American Bushcraft School offers some practical suggestions for ancestral fire starting. This triangle suggests that we need Fuel (something that will easily burn); Oxygen; and Ignition (a heat source, a spark).  Traditional firestarting methods are focused on all three, with a specific emphasis on generating the spark, ember, or heat and transfering that into a fuel source that will allow you to produce a flame and using your breath to help bring oxygen into the fold.

 

The traditional method that I know best, using flint, steel, and char cloth, was detailed above in the opening and requires a minimal investment (a good kit is usually less than $20, you can also make your own charcloth from scrap cotton fiber).  There are other primitive fire starting methods that you might try.  Here are a few with detailed videos. I prefer videos for this, so I’m going to link you to some good ones)

  • Flint and Steel demonstration and method.
  • Hand Drill: method overview and instructions (probably the hardest to learn at first, but also potentially the most satsifying).  Local materials for me to use include mullein, yucca, or goldenrod stalks and soft pine or cedar boards).
  • Bow and Drill methods.

Starting a fire with one of these methods takes practice!  I’ve had some basic instruction in the hand drill, and one of my goals for this Beltane is to learning it in more detail this Beltane. After Beltane, I will continue to develop my knowledge of local woods and materials for this beautiful firemaking technique.

 

I believe that fire building and fire starting can be treated as a sacred practice, a ritual in and of itself.  With each step, we can set our intentions from preparing to start the fire in a sacred manner, lighting the fire, and honoring the fire.

 

Honoring the Fires

Honoring the fire begins with creating it in a sacred manner, and continues with how we tend it and what we do with it.  I think that each of us can create our own unique fire traditions, but here area  few that I particularly like:

 

A fire offering.  As we make offerings to the land, spirits, or other divine entities, we might also honor our fires.

–Creative offerings. I like to paint things or create things that are specifically for the fire.  This may be a woodburned piece, a small painting, other natural creations.  In particular, for these, I like to gather things from the land itself and use only natural materials (such as my natural inks or dyes, watercolors, etc) so that anything I offer to the fire is not going to have chemicals or other byproducts.  So my fire offering this Beltane is a woodburned piece honoring the fire, created for the fire with intent.

–Fire blend of Herbs.  You could also create a fire blend of herbs that you can offer; I especially like to include resins or other pine substances in these so that they burn brightly.  Cedar or pine boughs are also great choices for this, as they crackle and pop when they burn. A ball of beeswax mixed with herbs is truely a sight to behold in the fire!  I might do a whole post on fire offerings in the future.

–Music or Drumming.  Play a drum, flute, sing, or make some other kind of music for the fire.  Anyone can pick up a drum and offer a heartbeat rhythm and connect with the fire.

–Dance.  Dance around your fire, letting your body flow and move (if this isn’t usual to you, just do this when nobody else is around!  Even for someone who is not a dancer, you can connect with the fire in this way).

 

Treating the fire respectfully. Another thing I recently learned at the North American School of Bushcraft that some native traditions say that you should never throw anything on a fire, but rather, place it gently.  This is becuase Fire is seen as an elder, worthy of respect.  As druids, we might develop our own respectful fire traditions, so for you personally, you might think about what treating a fire with respect means.  If you have a regular fire pit or a ceremonial pit, you can develop a layered set of expectations and actions that guide your fire interaction.  Remember that the fire is a place for us to gather with our ancestors, and thus, it is always a sacred place.

 

 

I hope that this post has been inspirational to you and that you have a blessed Beltane!  May the fires burn brightly and may spring once again return.

 

Acknowledgement: I am indebted to the fire teachings of Jason Drevenak at the North American School of Bushcraft as inspiration for this post.

 

Working Deeply with Water: Waters of the World Shrine and Sacred Waters April 7, 2019

Primal Water from the Plant Spirit Oracle; tan paint is from Tanoma Iron Oxide!

Primal Water from the Plant Spirit Oracle

In the druid tradition, water represents the west, the place of emotions and intuition, the place of our ancestors and of the honored dead. Water is often connected with the salmon of wisdom, the salmon who dwells in a sacred pool, offering his wisdom to those who seek him. Water may serve as a gateway to other worlds and as a tool for scrying. Water can be used as a tool understand flows of all kinds. You can study flowing water through observation, fishing, boating or swimming and connected with in order to help us understand deep insights.  Snow and ice can likewise, be used as spiritual tools.  Water-based animals like turtles, fish, salamanders, dragonflies or water-based plants like cattail, calamus, or lotus are powerful allies for spiritual work. Working deeply with water is part of several druid teachings and courses, and thus, finding ways of doing that kind of work is important.   Today, I wanted to share some suggestions and ideas for working with the element of water.

 

Because I like to root our druidry in the here and now, I think its important to understand why, on the physical and spiritual level, water is a good element to be focusing on now.  Partially, I want to do this because in the last two months, I’ve been tackling a lot of difficult topics surrounding “Druidry for the 21st century“, and I hope that this post will help offer some soothing and healing. But tied to the issues that I’ve been recently discussing, we have a host of environmental challenges with water: global warming causing ocean acidification and coral bleaching; huge dead zones and polluted rivers; acid mine drainage issues; and issues with draining aquifers are all problems that the earth is facing.  We also have a host of social problems surrounding water, like major floods or droughts, issues of water ownership and issues of the drinkability of water (such as the ongoing water saga in Flint MI or the protests by the Water Protectors to protect the land and drinking water sources).

 

Further, It seems that right now, the emotional water energy of the world is out of balance: people only feel and focus on their emotional reaction rather than critically analyze (air), tensions are heated, and social unrest is present.  I do not believe that there is any coincidence that as the waters of the world are under pressure and threat that we see this unbalanced water energy in our social sphere. As a druid, I understand the relationship of these things.  Water is life. When we abuse that water, that abuse unbalances the waters of the world and we, thus, are unbalanced as well.  Given these larger problems, I think its good to cultivate a positive and meaningful connection with balanced water energy.  This helps us have a buffer between all that unbalanced watery and emotional energy that is plaguing us, for one.  But also, deep water work can open up worlds and new insights to us.

 

Collecting the Sacred Waters

My very special vial of Iona water

My very special vial of Iona water

Some years ago, at the OBOD’s East Coast Gathering, I was gifted with a very special vial of water. Thea Worthington, the OBOD modron at the time, offered me the water  that she had brought from Iona, the Isle of Druids. I had never been to Iona or the UK (and I still haven’t been) and this sacred water, coming from my the land of my ancestors–and spiritual ancestors–was a very cherished gift. When I brought the water home and placed it in a glass vial, it was literally humming with energy. I began using it in my spiritual work in various ways; taking a single drop of it and adding it to local water to ‘charge’ that water, bringing it into my rituals and the rituals of our grove, and so forth. Soon after, I began collecting waters from sacred places that I was visiting–waters of the many sacred springs, lakes, rivers, and oceans. After this experience, and through closely working with these waters. Each time I would gather the water, I put it in a small glass dram vial, and gave it a label. If others were going to visit places I may never go, I asked them to bring me water back with them.  Thus, over a period of 6 years, my “water collection” has grown quite considerably! Further, I found that physically working with the waters led to many spiritual experiences and insights — and you can build a whole spiritual practice surrounding collecting, honoring, and working with sacred waters.

 

You might consider starting your own water collection and working with waters deeply.  I’ve learned a few things that can help you if you want to do this kind of work, which is the basis of the rest of the ritual and spiritual work outlined in this post.

 

A local sacred spring for water honoring and collection

A local sacred spring for water honoring and collection

Bring a vessel. First, when you are out and about, always take some kind of collection vessel with you.  If you are out locally, you can also use your water bottle to bring back some water at the end of a hike or from some other outing. I try to keep a vial with me in my crane bag and foraging bag; that way, I will always have the opportunity to collect some water. I also keep a spare vial or bottle in my car for other adventures.  That way, when the opportunity to gather some water comes up, I am able to take advantage of it!

 

Now, when you travel on a plane, you need some planning and forethought.  I like to put my sacred water in a simple spray bottle labeled “hairspray.”  I have never had customs or TSA give me trouble with this, as long as it is packed away in my quart ziplock bag or in a checked bag.  Tincture bottles can also be used for this purpose.

 

Collect water with sacred intent. Second, I think its important to collect water with sacred intent. You want to make an offering to the water in exchange for the water you are taking. I like to do something sonic or energetic for this.  I may offer a stone from my land, chant, or play my flute. I like to do something that can resonate with the water in some meaningful way. I also, by the way, will clean up any garbage at the site where I am collecting if there is any to be found.

 

Frankfort Mineral Springs - A great place to collect some water

Frankfort Mineral Springs – A great place to collect some water

Knowing where to collect. I think that most places are good places to collect water.  I like to think about it this way: even if the source where I am collecting water from is polluted, it is good to represent that water source.  That river or lake or whatever still has a spirit, still has live that is trying to live there.  I treat polluted water sources differently in my ritual work though, and I’ll explain that below.  So if you are going to do this practice, collect widely.

 

Enlist help. If you have friends or family who are traveling somewhere that you may never go, ask them to bring you back a bit of water.  You can also involve other druids by doing a water exchange or using water in your rituals–ask everyone to bring some water (see combined waters – group ritual)  below.

 

Label and store carefully.  I purchase clear 1 dram vials with a lid, and use those for my waters, which works really well.  I used corked glass bottles for a while, but they tend to dry up after a year or two; the plastic lids never dry out.  Pour your water you collected into the vial, then, seal it up tightly.  Taking some colored paper and a pen, make yourself some kind of little label.  I tie these onto my bottles, but I could just as easily tape the label on there with packing tape.  The rest of the water, if safe, I offer my plants or the land.  If not safe (due to pollution), I will usually send it down the sink with a thanks.

 

At this point, once you have some waters you’ve collected, you can start to work with them in really amazing ways!

 

Creating Your Sacred Water Shrine and Ritual of Coming-Together Waters

Once you have started a water collection, you can build a shrine and welcome each of the waters into your collection with a ritual. I will offer you the basics of the ritual, with the understanding that you can frame it how you like, in any tradition you like.

 

Find a place where you can have your water shrine.  It should NOT be a place that cats or kids can easily get to.  In fact, in both of my homes, I kept my water shrine on a counter or near my tub.  That’s where it is located currently; my art studio and sacred space has an attached bathroom, and the whole bathroom is dedicated to the theme of water, flow, and Awen. I have an Awen shrine in the bathroom focusing on flow and honoring water, and opposite side, I have my sacred waters shrine.   IF this isn’t an option for you, consider getting a nice decorative  box for your waters to serve as your shrine.  That or a high shelf might be an option to you.

 

One you have a place, you’ll want to think about how you are going to arrange your water vials.  I got a nice cut wood round, sanded it a bit, and used that–and it works great.

 

Now you are ready for the ceremony. There are two options: You can do this in a regular ritual space you use, or you can do it in the bathtub. The bathtub has one advantage–you can, immediately during the ceremony, connect with your sacred waters much more deeply when you are in water yourself.  If you don’t want to or are not able to do it in the tub, you can do that part of the ceremony later (it is offered below).  Before you begin, you will need your water shrine area prepared, all of your vials present, and you will need dropper and one empty vial or bowl for the ceremony.  Before the ceremony begins, fill the bowl with rain water, spring water, or melted snow from your local area (some form of pure water).

 

The Ceremony

 

My sacred water shrine, which currently may be in need of expansion!

My sacred water shrine, which currently may be in need of expansion!

Open up a sacred space in your usual manner.

 

Begin with thanks for the water.  Say some words in gratitude, play music, drum, dance, whatever you feel led to do.  Allow the emotion to flow through you.

 

Arrange the vials of water in front of you, however many you have. Pick the first vial up, and through the glass, sense the energy of the water. Focus on the water for a time, simply feeling its energy and remembering how you gathered it–what the day was like, where you were, where the water comes from. Then, focus and see if there are any messages, insights, feelings. Once you are done with the vial, offer thanks and place your vial on the shrine. Continue this process till all of the vials are placed.

 

Now, take your bowl and dropper. Bless the bowl however you see fit and then pick up each water again. Using your intuition, sense the water and if it should be used for spiritual purposes. If you get an affirmative, take 3 drops of the water from the vial and place it in the bowl.  I do not recommend that you include any waters that are polluted to your sacred combined waters.  For example, my sister traveled to India and brought back water from the Ganga river.  When I did this ceremony and welcomed the Ganga waters to my shrine, I had the very clear message that I was not to open the bottle or work with that water in any way beyond sending that river healing energy (the Ganga is the 6th most polluted river in the world, with over 600 miles of dead zones).

 

At the end of this ceremony, if you are already bathing, do the full bathing ceremony below. If not, you can close out your space and when you have an opportunity, do a full bathing ceremony if that ceremony speaks to you.

 

Each time you have a new water, you can use the above ceremony to add that water to the shrine.  Or, if you are doing a lot of collection, you can wait till you have a few vials to add and do them all at once.

 

After your ritual concludes, you have created a very powerful bowl of sacred water with many different water energies, what I call the “coming together” water.  Add this water to a vial and label it.  If there is any remaining water in your bowl, water your plants with it, or pour it on the earth to offer your blessing.  If your vial gets low, you can always add more waters (and treat this like a “mother” essence, infinately able to be added to and used).

 

Setting the stage with a water-based altar

Setting the stage with a water-based altar

Healing and Blessing Bathing Ritual

You can do this ritual, as I said above, as part of your shrine building and coming together water ritual, otherwise, you can do this anytime you feel led.  I find this ritual is particularly powerful for when I am having a hard time emotionally and my emotions (and thus water) is out of balance.  I also find this ritual useful for healing of all kinds.  This ritual is useful to cultivate the flow of Awen in your life. This ritual is best done in a bathtub, but not all people have access to bathtubs.  Thus, I give a shower variant at the end.

 

Now, I want to talk a little bit about what to do at the end of the ritual (before I offer instructions).  In the tradition of hoodoo and more broadly, from many folk magic traditions, a bathing ritual is complete only after a person has drip dried–that is, towelling off after the ritual literally “wipes away” the magic.  I think that drip dry option adds an additional layer to the ceremony.

 

Prepare your bathroom for sacred work. I prefer to do this ritual at night, and I use at least four large tapers to light my bathroom. This provides ample light and sets the right ambience. Burn some incense and do whatever else you’d like to set the stage. You can play some soft instrumental music for this ritual. Additionally, make sure you have your vial of coming together waters and a dropper bottle.

 

Open up your sacred space, then fill and enter your tub.  Have your vial with you. Holding the vial in  your hand, speak your sacred intent to the water (healing, creative flow, balancing, flexibility, etc).  Then, open up your vial and use your dropper to drop 3 water droplets into your tub.  Close the vial and then swish the water around.  Now, simply relax.  Meditate, journey, breathe deeply, listen to music–just allow that sacred water to work on you in various ways.

 

When you have allowed the sacred waters to do the work, thank the waters for their gifts and healing. Then, pull your drain and leave the tub. If at all possible, do not use a towel and allow yourself to drip dry.  Close out your sacred space.

 

 

The same altar, but in the day. What a difference!

The same altar, but in the day. What a difference!

Shower variant: Place the sacred waters in a bucket of warm water.  Take the water into the shower and using a sponge, sponge yourself all over.  Do everything else the same as described above.

 

 

I hope this has been a useful way for you to think about how to work in a sacred way with water as part of your druid or nature-based spiritual path.  I still have a lot more to share about these water practices, but, since this post is getting quite long, I’ll finish up next week. Next week, stay tuned for by offering you some other ceremonies and ways to use your combined waters and also how to do a “coming together” waters ritual in a grove/group setting.

 

Cultural Appropriation, Plant Relationships, and Nature Connection March 31, 2019

As a druid, someone who connects to the local landscape spiritually, I’ve gotten my fair share questions about cultural appropriation and druidry’s relationship to indigenous practices, particularly traditions indigenous to the USA. The conversation may go something like this, “So druidry, is that like Native American?” My response is, “Druids and Native Americans both honor and respect the land, and see spiritual significance in nature.  However, Druidry comes from a different cultural tradition (the British Isles, particularly Wales) and our relationship with the land, spiritual practices, and celebrations are completely different than indigenous peoples in North America”  Another thing that happens with some frequency is that I describe something on this blog, like land healing, building sacred spaces, or other such spiritual work. And someone who has never commented before leaves a comment that says something like “You don’t have a right to do that, this land belongs to Native Americans” or “You need to ask permission from those who used to live here to work spiritually with the land.” I usually delete these comments because they seem more concerned with virtue signaling than about honoring and healing the land and building bridges or building understanding.  But in my time in druid leadership in various places, I see a lot of white druids seriously grappling with these same kinds of questions and issues–and so I want to share my thoughts.

 

Another observation: here in the US, white people who are trying to reconnect to their land spiritually carry around a lot of baggage. Guilt about the atrocities that were committed so that we could live on this land, guilt about what was done before we were born, guilt about always being an “imposter” here on the land, guilt about living here now. Even if you don’t know your family history, if you are white, the cultural history and legacy of the broader US are more than sufficient. There’s also a lot of fear–fear of connecting deeply with nature, fear of appropriation (even inadvertent appropriation), fear of doing something wrong, of somehow doing more damage than has been already done. I never realized the extent of this fear and guilt–even within me–till I met druid who had recently came from Europe and moved to the US. I connected with her at a druid event where I was leading a workshop and ritual. After the workshop, she said to me that she felt that Americans were so afraid of their land. After her comment, we had more discussions and I started to pay attention, and I realized how acute her observation was. Culturally, there’s also this idea that if you are a white person, you really don’t have the right or privilege to connect with the land here. So the guilt sets in, the fear sets in, and people do nothing.  How, then, can white American druids build a relationship with nature, given these cultural complexities?  How can we build a relationship rooted in honoring the ancestors of the land and recognizing culturally, what work we have to do? And, do we have a right to do so? And why should we? Those questions are the subject of today’s blog post.

 

Building connections with nature

Building connections with nature

As I’ve discussed before on this blog, druidry as a spiritual path is ultimately about connection and relationship building. People who find druidry and take up the druid path are concerned with building deeper connections to nature, physically and in spirit, and in living a life that is nurturing of the earth rather than destructive of her. People from all walks of life, ethnicities, religious backgrounds, etc, can join the druid tradition; it is open to anyone who seeks this path. I want to frame this entire discussion about cultural appropriation in terms of relationship, as I think it is a useful and productive lens. So let’s start by thinking about the definition of relationship. Here are a few dictionary definitions, useful to get us started. Definition A: “the way in which two or more concepts, objects, or people are connected, or the state of being connected” and B: “the way in which two or more people or groups regard and behave toward each other.” In the case of druid practice, we are exploring ways that we, as 21st century human beings living in specific ecosystems, and coming out of specific cultural and historical traditions, connect spiritually with our living ecosystems around us. My definition here, then, accounts not only for a specific person, but that person living in a specific context, and bringing specific history with them.  And it is this “cultural and historical context” that has everything to do with appropriation–but also, nature relationship.

 

Here in Pennsylvania, prior to white colonization, old growth forests covered the land, producing massive amounts of mast crops (acorns and chestnuts) with about 1/3 of the total forest cover in hardwood nut trees; streams were clear and full of fish; animals and hunting lands were abundant. Native Americans, as M. Kat Anderson describes in Tending the Wilds, tended these lands and had them in a very healthy state of abundance. As non-industrial societies, they depended on the land, build spiritual practices surrounding their relationship to the land, and many tribes had rich animistic traditions surrounding the land and her spirits. Traditions that, in some cases, spanned hundreds or thousands of years.  Framing this in terms of relationship–generations upon generations of Native Americans were tending the wilds and cultivating a sacred relationship with their landscape. Every person in that tribe gained strength from those ancestral connections to land, established over generations upon generations. Even for a native person today, those connections are still present, and I think they are beautifully described in the works of Robin Wall Kimmerer, among other native authors.

 

But a white person’s cultural relationship to our local landscape here in the USA is completely different. Let’s take a look at my own cultural relationship as an example.  As a white person living in Western PA in the 21st century, I can trace my ancestors back to the late 1600’s and 1700’s arriving on American soil.  My ancestors were some of the first people to arrive to Pennsylvania; and some of the first to push westward into Western PA and settle the Laurel Highlands region. My family heritage is Irish, Welsh, Scottish, English (about 75%) and German (25%). The strongest cultural heritage I grew up with was Pennsylvania German (Dutch) traditions, passed on to me in some small ways by my grandmother. This makes me very, very white, and the descendant of coal miners, farmers, steel mill workers, loggers, and other people who worked hard to colonize and extract the rich resources of Pennsylvania to fuel growing industrialization. In our family records, and in my own ancestry research, I know that when my ancestors first arrived, these lands were a cornucopia of abundance and were pristine. Within less than 150 years due to their efforts, these lands were desolate wastelands, extracted of their wood, coal, iron, tannins, animals, fish–anything that could feed the industry.  I know from a copy of the Department of Forestry’s Annual Report from 1898 from PA, that less than 4% of forest cover remained by the turn of the 20th century in counties where my ancestors settled. Further, in less than two centuries, Native peoples who made these lands their home were slaughtered or forcefully relocated to “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma. When I look upon the lands where I was born, lands that are still the subject of many extraction activities, I have to recognize the colonialist legacy that produced me. That’s the cultural and historical reality of the blood that moves through my veins.  Regardless of how much I have personally worked to reconnect with the land, I cannot deny or change this history.  My ancestry offers me little positive spiritual “connection”, historical or otherwise, to this land.  So I return to my original question, “How, then, can I, as a white druid, build a relationship with nature?”

Acid Mine Drainage--a local stream demonstrating the cultural legacy of white people in this region

Acid Mine Drainage–a local stream demonstrating the cultural legacy of white people in this region

 

Probably the worst way to answer these questions is to engage in cultural appropriation. When we look at the above–it makes sense that no white person wanting to connect spiritually with nature wants the cultural and historical baggage that being white on this soil brings. (For the record, it doesn’t matter if we want it, it is ours and we need to acknowledge it and work to right these wrongs). And so, a white person might be drawn away from their own cultural traditions, which offer no spiritual connection to the land, and instead, attempt to shift themselves into a different relationship with nature. Some people choose to do this, most unfortunately, by trying to appropriate various Native American traditions. Some have tried to spiritually practice like a Native American, of appropriate Native American traditions or beliefs as their own, or, in the most extreme cases, even claiming to be offering ceremony in a Native American way or in the way of a specific tribe. Native Americans call such people who appropriate their traditions “plastic shamans”; and I think the term is apt. In other words, these white people are attempting to claim the relationship to the land that only Native Americans have a right to. Understanding this issue as tied to relationship, the appropriation is not just about appropriating specific ceremonies or traditions, but really, it is an attempt to claim that indigenous relationship to the land and her spirits. (There are exceptions: in some limited cases, a white person has been welcomed into a tribe or by an elder and taught with intention.)

 

The relationship metaphor is a really useful one here for breaking down why cultural appropriation is so problematic and why cultural appropriation should have no place in the druidry–or any nature-based spiritual practice–of white people. You might think about your current relationships you have with other people: each one is unique, each one is different. Your immediate and extended family and friend network are all relationships cultivated over a long period of time. Each person in you know has a different relationship with you than any other person. Maybe one friend is fun to hang out with and chill out, but another one is a good travel partner, and still another you can share your deepest secrets with. If you have a partner or spouse, certainly, that relationship is very sacred and very unique.  You wouldn’t want another person to try to barge in and claim your spouse as their own–you would rightfully be defensive, angry, and demand that person stop. That’s essentially what I think appropriation is–taking someone else’s relationship with the land and claiming it as yours. It is no wonder that people whose traditions are subject to such appropriation are rightfully upset about it.

 

Further, relationships are complex and nested. I’m individual, yes, with my own ethics, spiritual path, and decisions to make. I’ve worked hard to build my relationship with my local land over time.  But I bring with me–in the very blood that flows through me–the DNA of my ancestors. I bring with me, for good or for ill, that cultural legacy and that history, the choices that they made, and I am living the benefits and consequences of those choices. As a white person, I simply cannot hope to have the same kind of relationship that a Native person has on this land today–because relationships aren’t just about individuals, they are about cultures and generations of people. Under no circumstances could I *ever* replicate someone else’s cultural relationship to the land, even if I tried.  Not only is trying to do so problematic from a cultural, ethical, and historical standpoint, it is deeply problematic from a spiritual one (and I don’t think the land spirits are having any of it).

 

My druid's garden full of sacred plants!

My druid’s garden full of sacred plants!

Now, let’s take a look at a very specific plant example here, to further illustrate my point. A few posts ago I wrote about the issues surrounding white sage and other at-risk plants. Let’s dig into white sage specifically, as it is an American plant used by a number of native traditions. There are a lot of different perspectives surrounding white sage and whether or not white people should use it.  These perspectives range from “don’t even look at this plant if you aren’t native” to “buy white sage from natives and support them” to “anyone can use this plant for any purpose.” I think the first line of reasoning suggests that only one culture can have a relationship with a plant that grows broadly, thus, cutting off that plant medicine and spirit to anyone else. As a druid, I see all of nature as sacred, particularly, the nature growing in my own ecosystem, and I think each person and culture can build new relationships with plants. At the same time, I also think the last perspective is problematic, as that is the source of white privilege and cultural appropriation.  What I see as the thing here is acknowledging that other cultures and people may have a specific relationship with a plant, and it is not ok to try to mimic that relationship with a plant. Instead, druids and others can build their own relationships with plants–relationships that are their own. White sage certainly has chemical properties that may help clear and heal. However, native tribes, such as the Luiseno and Cahuilla people in California, built up a very sacred relationship with white sage over millenia. Someone who is not part of that cultural legacy has no right to try to claim that specific relationship with white sage. This goes back to why indigenous peoples get upset when white people try to appropriate their plants and ceremonies–its trying to lay claim to a spiritual relationship that belongs to a culture.  If the plant’s use comes from a cultural tradition that you can rightfully access, then great, access it.  But if it doesn’t, those doors are closed to you, and you will never have a key. But it will be yours.  But what you DO have the ability to do is to create your own relationship.  It will be a different door.  It will be a different relationship. It will be a different key.

 

 

The land, her spirits, here in the US, even after all that is happened culturally, welcome relationships with white people.  But for white people living here, these must be *new relationships* and they need to be built upon acknowledging and honoring the past, building trust, and about repairations, accountability, and building trust. It is up to each of us to forge those connections, and for larger druid groups to start to do that on a broader, generational level. In other words, white people have build those relationships ourselves, and they are going to be inherently different looking because of our own identities, cultures, and histories. This is why talking about cultural appropriation matters–because we have our work cut out for us, and there are no easy short cuts. If we want to build deep, meaningful, and lasting relationships with the land here, we’ve got to do the work from the ground up. If we are appropriating someone else’s culture and spiritual practice, we aren’t doing the hard and necessary work of relationship building for our own tradition–hence, we are perpetuating more colonizing behavior.

 

So, as white druids living in 21st century American soil, we have a lot of work ahead of us.  I see at a number of things that we can do to build our own traditions and relationships with this land, and offer this list as a starting point.

 

A love of the land and nurturing of spirit

A love of the land and nurturing of spirit

Become a nurturer and healer of the land. Reject the cultural values of exploitation and colonization that have shaped white people’s legacy here on American soil. Instead, work to reduce your own ecological footprint, learn to heal the land (through permaculture, sustainable living, conservation, other means), and develop a very different relationship with the physical landscape than other white people, past or present. Relationships with spirits are mirrored on the physical world. To get the land and spirits to trust you, to recognize you are different than other white faces that have come before, you have to behave differently–outside of the typical behaviors of exploitation. This is part of breaking down the past cultural legacy and establishing new patterns.

 

Honor the ancestors of the land and recognize those who came before you on this soil.  I think there are lots of ways to honor the ancestors of the land, and here are a few of those that I use.  First, learn about who the ancestors of the land where you live. Learn about who they were, what they did, how they lived, their stories, and what happened to them. For example, the peoples who lived where my home is located now were Osage, Shawnee, and Susquehannock. Today, the Osage and Shawnee are in Oklahoma, which is where they were forcefully moved by the US government. The Susquehannok are said to be extinct. (To find out who used to live in your region,  you might start with this site.) Once you know about them, find some way of honoring them regularly: perhaps say their names at the start of your rituals, create a shrine, or do an honoring ceremony as part of your practice.

 

Support and recognize the rights of indigenous peoples today. If there are still native peoples in your area or region, find ways of supporting them–if they need someone to come to a fight or take a stand, be that ally.  If there are not native tribes in your area, consider finding a cause that you can assist in that supports the rights of indigenous people regionally or globally. For example, I donate regularly to an organization called Cultural Survival, which fights globally for indigenous peoples’ rights. I also subscribe to their mailing list, which often has items you can take action on and keep you informed about global developments. I also think, as a white person, it is really important to do the “ground work”  to speak up for indigenous rights. Have compassionate conversations with other people about cultural appropriation, indigenous rights, and history.  Talk about these issues.  Recognize your own flaws and misjudgments.  Apologize. Learn and grow.

 

Recognize that we are building relationships, over time, in a new way. Because we are white people on US soil, we have very little to build upon. We are here, inventing and growing this tradition organically, a tradition imported from white ancestors, yes, but from a far off place. While this is a major challenge before us, it is also a really exciting opportunity.  In permaculture terms, we talk about the problem being the solution–in this case, our problem allows us to build something anew.  Something that responds to this time, this place, and honors our own path as white druids in the 21st century while not dishonoring those who were here before us. This requires us to deeply invest our time in learning about the land through building nature wisdom, nature connection, and our own rituals.

 

I hope this piece is helpful for those white druids who are struggling with these issues.  For this post, I am indebted to members of Sun Spiral grove, who spoke with me at multiple settings about these issues, and including members of the grove who read and offered me feedback on this post.  I also realize and recognzie that there may be things I haven’t thought about.  This is a tough topic, and I appriciate your respectful feedback. Blessings!

 

Druidry for the 21st Century: Plant-Based Spiritual Supplies and Global Demand March 24, 2019

Can you even imagine druidry without plants or trees?  Plants and trees are some of our strongest allies for the work that we do, and are often connected to almost everything that we do spiritually. Plant spirits are teachers, guides, and allies.  From before we had recorded history in any culture, the plant spirits were there, growing with us, guiding us, healing us, and supporting us on our journey. Today’s modern druid practice continues that tradition: we burn plants for smoke cleansing, clearing, and helping to energize spaces. We use trees as part of divination and sacred rites. We use plants as healers, for magical healing and physical healing, and to connect with on deep levels.  Plants have long been friends of humans–and have long walked beside us, hand in hand, as we do our sacred work.  And today, we’ll explore ways we can offer that same kind of honor, respect, and nurturing in return–on both a local and global scale, given that we are in the age of the Anthropocene.  For other posts in this series, please see Druidry for the 21st Century, Druidry in the Anthropocene, and Psychopoming the Anthropocene.

 

In the age of the Anthropocene, given the strain on many ecosystems and species, it is necessary to be an “ethical” consumer–both reducing overall consumption, and when it is necessary to buy, knowing where our goods come from, who makes them and in what conditions, and what we are really supporting. This behavior, in turn, helps certain ethical products and companies succeed and creates less demand for unethical and damaging products. In the progressive circles, the idea of “voting with your dollars” comes to mind.  We see this movement in food (local eating), clothing, electronics, and many more kinds of goods. There are good, bad, and ugly choices out there, and making ethical choices helps promote better livelihoods and protects ecosystems.

 

Ginseng my family grew

Ginseng my family grew

With over half of the world’s species in serious decline, threatened, or endangered, I don’t think we can simply enjoy using whatever we find in the local pagan shop (even if we want to support that shop!). When you walk into one of these shops, or start browsing online, you can find literally thousands of places that are selling palo santo, white sage, sandalwood, and many other critically endangered plants.  These plants are critically endangered because of their overuse, particularly by people who are far disconnected from their growth, harvest, and ecosystems. I’d like to suggest that we take the wisdom of the “ethical consumer” movement and apply it to the purchasing spiritual materials.  This is particularly important for druidry and neopaganism, where it isn’t just about the physical, but also, the spirit. Ethical plant use, where we know where the plant comes from, how much of it remains, and how our own choice of using this plant is a necessary part. While I’m focusing on plants today, I want to add that this really applies to any goods we may use as part of our spiritual practice from two angles: the physical and spirit.

 

The Physical: Land, livelihood, Indigenous Practice, and Ecosystems

I already grow and use a lot of my own herbs for spiritual and medicinal purposes, but occasionally, still enjoy the choice rare ingredient that I purchase or that is given to me as a gift. For example, the other night, I was burning a piece of Palo Santo that a friend had given me as a birthday gift and got the distinct question, “do you even know me?”  The answer was, shamefully, no, I did not.  So I started to research it, I found a host of material that suggests that the ethics of Palo Santo are all about the sourcing:  it can be harvested ethically and be used to support native peoples and ecosystems, or it can be stripped bare.  In holding my own piece of Palo Santo wood, I realized I couldn’t answer the important questions: where did this come from? How was it harvested? Who harvested it?  Who profited from it? A few days later, after doing some research, I saw a post shared by a friend on social media.  This post came from a woman native to Colombia who said that Palo Santo was being stripped from her forests, and begging people to stop using it.

 

Palo Santo is hardly unique in this respect–there are so many plants that are now in global demand due to their uses for medicine or spiritual purposes. The work of Kelly Ablard is useful here.  Her website details information on essential oil plants and their conservation status. As she describes, as global demand for certain plants rise, the plants become so lucrative that are over-harvested and can be poached, reducing biodiversity and threatening local people’s traditions and livelihoods.  As the link I shared in the last paragraph about Palo Santo harvesting suggests, in purchasing plants for spiritual supplies, you can make choices that encourage biodiversity, enhance people’s livelihoods, and support life.  Or you can make unknown choices, which are almost *always* the bad ones.  Knowledge of sourcing is critically important.

 

I have witnessed the vicious cycle of over harvesting driven by global demand firsthand here in the Appalachians, such as the case of wild ginseng. When I was a child, my grandfather used to come back with beautiful wild ginseng roots, and we would brew up ginseng tea and enjoy it as a special treat.  I remember those roots–the look of them, the feel of them, the energy of them.  He would only every bring back a small amount, as he was tending his wild patch long-term so that, as he told me once, “my grandkids will be able to harvest this as I did.”  However, the patch was stripped bare by ginseng wildharvesters (I call them poachers) ages ago–every last root was taken.  A good quality dried American Ginseng root, wildharvested, currently goes for between $500-$800 a dried pound, and there are many ginseng dealers that will pay top dollar for anyone who can deliver.  They don’t care where it comes from, only what they can make from it (and the demand for ginseng is growing). So what happens is that people–usually poor people, out of work due to our poor economy–literally scour our mountains for Ginseng, Black Cohosh, Reishi, and other in-demand medicinal plants–and when they find them, they harvest all they can. Over the years, I have covered thousands of miles of forests, nearly all of them here in the Appalachians.  And I’ve never seen a single wild ginseng plant.   The demand for ginseng is primarily from China–a far off place wanting to pay top dollar for high quality ginseng.  Chinese people buying American ginseng have no idea what it is doing to the  wild ginseng populations here.  And so locals here don’t even get to see the plant, much less, build a relationship with it–it is no longer part of our forest ecology. That same story can be told about many, many of these in demand sacred plants–and I think its useful to see that this overharvest problem can happen anywhere, even in “developed” nations like the US. (In the case of ginseng, I will also note that a new forest-grown initiative is helping change the way ginseng is harvested, which is great–but not enough to restore wild populations).

 

Sacred cedar

Sacred cedar

The “Wildharvest” label is fraught with problems. I have spoken to a lot of people in teaching herbalism classes who think it’s better if its wildharvested. I say, “better for who?”  Certainly not better for the plant population!  Wild harvesters who are harvesting for profit have a wide range of practices and ethics. You have no idea what the total population of the plant is, you have no idea how many different wildharvesters came through an area, or how many they take.  A farm, on the other hand, is growing and harvesting there for the long-term, harvesting each year and conserving populations.  Here, most of our wild harvesters looking for ginseng are folks that are out of work and pretty desperate for cash, particularly because of the long decline of the rust belt economy.

 

Knowing which plants are of particularly concern and how they are harvested is also an important part of this process. One good source of information on some plants in North America is the United Plant Savers; just this year, White Sage was added to their list due to wildharvesting and overharvesting.  Ablard’s notes critically endangered plants by region. These include Palo Santo (Peru), Juniper Berry (from Morocco), Sandalwood (Timor Leste), Spikenard, and Agarwood. Her lists also include sweet almond, olive, cedar, elm, and sassafras (in certain locations), and Eastern Hemlock here in the USA.  A lot of plants that are endangered are “whole plant” harvests; ginseng being a good example–if harvesting wood or roots, or all of the aerial parts of a plant, what is left of that plant afterwards?

 

The other piece of this is cultural appropriation. While smoke cleansing (what are commonly called smudging or smudging ceremonies) of all kind are used widely in global traditions (such as this delightful German practice that Christian Brunner describes on his blog) the use of particular plants for smoke cleansing is tied to certain indigenous practices.  White sage has been in the spotlight recently as one such plant. Increased demand for white sage use are driving up the prices of white sage, and reducing native access to wild white sage (due to commercial wildharvesting), and putting white sage plants themselves at risk. Even the term “smudging” is coming under question as a term that appropriates a native practice; see this perspective shared here. I think the key takeaway here is that some of these plants are tied to indigenous traditions, and should be respected as such, particularly when it comes to specific ceremonies and/or wild populations under use by indigenous peoples.

 

In the end, the questions I keep coming back to are: Is it right or ethical that we use these plants to the point of their extinction? Is it right to create such demand for plants that native peoples who depend on them for spiritual practices and cannot find them to use?  Can we find a better way?  These are important questions, but just as important are the spiritual implication of sourcing of plant material.

 

Spiritual: Energy, Honoring, and Connections

Even if we put every physical consideration aside, there is still the matter of spirit–honoring the spirit of the plant, working with the spirit of the plant, and connecting to the spirit of the plant.  Attending to our connection and relationship with the spirit of a specific plant we are using spiritually matters if we want our spiritual practices to have effect.  Sure, I could wave some rosemary and sage around to “clear” my room before doing a ritual, but if my relationship with sage is one rooted in blind consumption, and not connection, is that sage really going to want to support my efforts? What energy tied to the plant’s harvest and sale, is being brought in at the same time?  The way in which the plant was obtained has a direct relationship with the connection–and depth of connection–I am able to have with the plant.  If I purchase a plant from an unknown source, I am bringing all of the energy of that source into my spiritual practice.  Who harvested it, how it was harvested, how it was handled, how it was sold, how it was transported–and in the case of poaching and overharvesting, that may be energy I very much do not want to have in my life.  What was that plant’s life–and harvest–like?  Was it done respectfully? Was it done in a sacred manner?  If not, do I even have any hope of connecting with it spiritually? These questions are critical in developing spiritual practices surrounding plant use.

 

Anytime we use a plant as part of our sacred practices, we are building relationships with that plant.  Plants work physically and spiritually, but for many of the deeper spiritual uses, they really do require a deep connection.  For example, many herbalists, understand and quietly share about entheogenic properties of Calamus (Sweet flag). You can’t get there with a single huge dose of Calamus. You have to connect with the spirit of the Calamus, build a relationship with it over a long period of time.  As part of this, you have to work with the plant, tend it, plant it, spend time with it, meditate with it, and ethically and respectfully harvest it. At some point, sometimes years or decades later, Calamus open you up for visions and experiences. This isn’t something you can buy or purchase or force to happen–it is something you cultivate over time.  Calamus offers you a process of initiation–and it must be done with the utmost respect and patience.

 

The need to cultivate deep relationships to really “know” a plant and use it for good spiritual effect is necessary for  every plant we might work with spiritually.  Each plant offers us an initiation into its own mysteries, teachings, and magic; and having those initiations will allow you to use the plant to its full magical or spiritual effect.  However, we have to build that relationship.  It’s hard to build a relationship with a plant that has had suffering, death, and pain as part of its sourcing. In the case of some plants, sure, you can use them spiritually, but you aren’t ever going to breach that barrier into deeper work if these other concerns are present.  I can burn my piece of Palo Santo, and it smells nice and produces a calming energy.  But that experience is very surface.  But under no circumstances, could I ever build a deep relationship with that particular wood, given the conditions under which it was harvested and the energy that it now carries with it.

 

Ethical Plant Use in the Anthropocene: Purchasing, Growing,  and Wildharvesting

 

Given the above, I’d like to advocate for the key practice of ethical plant use in druidry and other neo-pagan paths.  By the term “ethics,” I draw upon permaculture‘s three ethics of people care, earth care, and fair share.  People Care encourages us to think about the sourcing of the plant (if you are not growing it yourself) and how the harvest of this plant is tied to local communities and local labor.  Earth Care asks us to consider how the harvest of this plant may have affected the plant and plant species itself as well as the broader ecosystem where the plant grows. Fair Share  asks us to take only what we need of the plant, and certainly, to make sure this plant is available to indigenous peoples who might depend upon it–fair share can take place both on and individual level or a cultural level. Now let’s consider a range of alternative practices to simply “consuming” plants.

White spruce resin, locally harvested from my land

White spruce resin, locally harvested from my land

 

Substitutions: Yes, palo santo, frankincense, sandalwood, and so on smell amazing–but do I really  need these specific plants? Can I instead use local plants that are growing in your own ecosystem, or even backyard? For example, I brought back a small amount of Frankincense when I visited Oman a few years ago and have been slowly using it, but learning what I have about Frankincense and the disappearing frankincense trees, I will not purchase any more.  Frankincense cannot be cultivated commercially, and overharvesing is killing trees–and will severely impact cultures that depend on it as part of their cultural and religious traditions.  I have already replaced Frankincense  with locally harvested white pine resin, which has a similar smell and similar energetic qualities–and which I can harvest myself, thus, cultivating a deeper relationship with white pine and my local bioregion.

 

Ethical Purchasing: Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share. Purchasing is still on the table, but it should be done with ethics in mind.  Some purchases are very good, and can support initiatives that help honor the plant and build livelihoods and ecosystems for local peoples. If you are buying locally or online, before you buy, ask some good questions to ensure an ethical and sustainable harvest.

The questions I like to ask before purchasing are:

  • Where does this plant come from?  (Look for places engaged in sustainable harvesting, like this example from Fair Trade Frankincense)
  • How is this plant harvested? (Learn about your plant. Root or wood harvests are most damaging, and can often kill the plant, but other harvests, like leaf or resin, may also be extremely damaging, particularly if they harm the plant or prevent it from going to seed.)
  • Who harvested this plant? Under what conditions? (How are individuals, cultures, and communities impacted by this harvest?  Be skeptical of a “wildharvest” label, recognizing the lack of oversight for many wildharvesting operations.)
  • Who is profiting from this plant?

If purchasing locally, if the shop owner can’t tell you the answers (especially to the first three questions below), perhaps encourage that person to consider a different source.  If buying online, you can ask the same information if it is not available.  For Palo Santo, for example, Mountain Rose Herbs describes exactly where they get their Palo Santo and their conservation efforts. If I wanted more Palo Santo and it was very important to my practice, I’d want to get it from this kind of source–where I am not only supporting a local farm in Equador, but also supporting the replanting of Palo Santo trees.  To me, this is critical–a good purchase can do a lot of good and support people care, earth care, and fair share.

 

Ethical Growing: The easiest way to manage a population and cultivate deep relationships is to grow it yourself, if you can. For example, I never buy white sage, but I love the smell and I do like to use it as part of certain incense blends that I make and use regularly.  Thus, I grow it myself, and try to let some of my plants to go seed so that I can sustainably grow it in the future.  Even if you don’t have land to grow large amounts of plants on, you can still grow a number of your own magical herbs.  In fact, many garden herbs are potentate magical allies and readily available for purchase in the spring.  A pot of rosemary, sage, white sage, bay laurel, thyme, or lavender would all be a very useful culinary, magical, and medicinal ally–and you build your relationship considerably with each time you tend the plant.  You can also grow many things outdoors, if you have the space.

 

Ethical Wildharvesting: Some plants, and trees, are harder to grow in pots in your windowsill or garden but certainly can be wildharvested ethically, taking only what you need, helping populations grow by spreading seeds, and tending the land that supports the plants.  I like to wildharvest plants on private lands (asking landowners, developing relationships with them) so that I know exactly how many people are harvesting there and how much is being taken.  Harvesting on public lands presents a much larger problem because even if you take only a little, you are never sure how much is being taken by others (hence, my ginseng example above).  For more on tree incenses and resins you can harvest from North America based on my own research, see this post.  For more on how to create wildharveted and home-grown smudge sticks for smoke cleansing, see here and here.  For more on how to learn foraging and wildharvesting, see my series here and here.

 

I hope this has been a helpful way of thinking about how to respond to the Anthropocene–it might seem like a small piece of the larger puzzle, but it is a piece we have a lot of direct control over. For these populations of plants, communities, and ecosystems, making ethical choices, reducing our demand, and practicing people care, earth care, and fair share may make all the difference.

 

The Druid’s Garden: Principles of Sacred Gardening March 10, 2019

Part of my own Druid's Garden!

Part of my own Druid’s Garden!

One of the greatest blessings of gardening and growing things is the deep energetic connections that you can develop with plants. When I grow a pepper in my garden, I have developed a relationship with that plant from the time I planted the seed in February, where I tend it and keep it sheltered from the winter weather, to the planting and mulching of that small pepper in late May. This relationship continues as I nurture it into maturity throughout the summer, where flowers and the actual peppers start to emerge. I monitor that pepper plant for insects and disease and do what I can to ensure its success. Finally, I watch the peppers grow large and fat in the heat of the summer. At that point, I have an eight-month relationship with that pepper plant. When I eat the pepper in late August, I know where it came from, and just as importantly, I’ve developed an energetic connection with it. When I save the seed from that pepper for next season, the relationship becomes even stronger. The pepper will not be casually wasted, given how much energy has been put into it. We are connected; that connection is sacred. The connection is rooted in the time, the hard work, and the co-dependence that I create with the plants. This isn’t a lesson that I would have ever understood had I not started growing and preserving some of my own food and in dedicating myself to gardening as a sacred practice. You wouldn’t know the difference between a factory farmed pepper or your home-grown pepper if the factory farmed pepper is all you’ve ever eaten. Someone growing up in a non-industrialized culture from birth would learn to recognize and nurture that sacred connection between the human and the soil, and the codependency that connection provides. However, for people growing up in western industrialized cultures, not only do we not have the connection—we don’t’ even realize one is missing.

 

Whether we are growing in pots on our porch or in a big garden, all gardens offer us opportunity for these connections. It is in these gardens that we can begin to cultivate and to understand the sacred: a sacred awareness of the plants and their cycles; a sacred awareness of the magic of the seed and the soil; and a sacred awareness of our relationship to the growing things, the mystery of life.

And yet, conventional ‘gardening wisdom’ is often full of things that aren’t that healthy for cultivating natural relationships.  I had hoped, a few years ago, to get a Master Gardener certification–once I saw the amount of pesticides and non-organic methods they taught, I went the permaculture design route instead.  I think a lot of the conventional wisdom about gardening, whether its importing non-natural additives, spraying, etc, taks us further from a sacred relationship with the living earth.  Given that, in this post, as I’m excited to start gardening again soon and have been starting many seeds, I wanted to share some ideas and ideas for a true “Druid’s Garden!”

Sacred Gardening: Wheel of Principles

In order to think about sacred gardening, druid gardening, I’ve developed a “wheel of principles” that help me make decisions about my garden. Some of these are rooted in permaculture design, others are more druidical in nature, still others are insights I’ve gained over the years of living and working with this approach.  Think of the wheel of principles like general ideas to think about or guidelines; ways of ensuring a sacred experience while you are starting to tend your plants for the coming year.

 

Working on the Inner and the Outer

Working with Spirit and Matter

Working with Spirit and Matter (an original painting I did a few years back!)

This basic magical principle, derived from hermetic magical practice, is perhaps best epitomized by the magical adage, “As above, so below, as within, so without.” The underling idea here is that what we do on the inner planes (that is, realms of experience beyond the physical), has a direct impact on the physical plane. Similarly, what occurs on the outer planes has an impact on the physical. This also applies to us as people—the inner work we do (reflection, meditation, journeying, ritual) impacts our outer living; and vice versa. In the disenchanted world we live in, the non-physical, spiritual aspects to various activities are simply not considered—gardening is no exception. We’ll be working with this principle in every chapter of this book—it is cornerstone to sacred gardening. 

 

Harmony with nature

Nature provides us an incredible amount of lessons and patterns to work with—by studying nature, we learn all we need to know about how to live regeneratively.  This was the basic practice that allowed permaculture design to develop, and its similarly the basic understanding that drives our actions.  A big part of the challenge with harmony with nature is that a lot of people don’t know how to live harmoniously any longer, and many of the other principles in this chapter and this book give clear guidance in how to do so.

 

The most basic principle to sacred gardening is to create a landscape that is in harmony with nature, rather opposed to it, and to create a landscape that produces yields beyond food for the human being. Yes, you read that might—sacred gardening is about much more than vegetables, and embraces the permaculture ethical principles of earth care, people care, and fair share. This requires us to question everything we know, or think we know about growing plants, to reject the urge to consume, and to throw out a good deal of the “conventional” wisdom that has been ported into our heads in the name of consumerism. This is because most conventional wisdom has a price tag attached, and rarely is anything you purchase to put in your garden from a big box store is healthy to you or to the land.

 

We think of a “yield” from a garden, the amount of vegetables, fruits, and herbs you can harvest is likely the first (and possibly only) thing that comes to mind. But if we are thinking about gardening as a regenerative practice for our lands, earth care also is critical. This means that our yield can also be habitat, nectar, improved soil fertility, improved biodiversity, better water retention, beauty, community, a place for meditation and prayer, and so many other things. In other words, if we extend our idea of what a yield from the garden looks like, then we can yield as much for the land as four ourselves.

 

Parts to the Whole

This principle is derived from permaculture design, and it can be easily illustrated in any forest. Our culture currently encourages metaphors that suggest that things are not related to the other, when in reality, what affects one thing affects many. So this principle asks us to consider how the parts are related to each other and to the whole. This principle suggests that parts work best when they are working together as a system, rather than in isolation.  In specific garden terms, this might be practicing integrated pest management, working to plant guilds and do companion planting, and understand how your garden ties to–and supports–other kinds of life.  Perhaps you grow sunflowers and amaranth and leave them out all winter to provide forage for hungry sparrows!  Gardens shouldn’t be in competition with nature, but rather, support

 

Layered Purposes

Layering garden beds in the fall to build soil

Layering garden beds in the fall to build soil

This principle is also derived from permaculture design.  It suggests that each element can serve multiple purposes. For example, meditation works for calming the mind, focused thought, relaxation, and spiritual development (that’s at least four functions).  My chickens produce eggs, create compost from household and garden waste, provide enjoyment and companionship, and reduce problematic insect populations.  When we engage in sacred action, we can use this principle to help us find activities that allow us to address more than one purpose.

 

Think about what you are planting and its relationship to everything else. Permaculture design asks us to de-compartmentalize our thinking and realize that everything is connected.  Many plants do well with certain companion plants (as epitomized in the book title Carrots Love Tomatoes) but not necessarily with others. Certain herbs and plants, like chives, lavender, nasturtium, and garlic, can ward away pests and critters, eliminating the need for chemical deterrents. A garden hedge of wildflowers that bloom different times can provide beneficial insects homes and food—these insects help keep the pests down in your garden. Even within a home, thinking about these principles can be used to create systems that require little inputs—home aquaponics is a fantastic way to grow tons of fresh vegetables—just feed the fish! Composting not only reduces food waste and what goes into a landfill, it provides incredible finished compost for use in the soil. We see here the idea of both embracing diversity and building an ecosystem and making sure each plant in that ecosystem is chosen carefully to have multiple functions when possible.

 

Embrace Renewables

Stemming from the idea of earth care, one of the major issues we have in industrialized culture is an over-dependence on fossil fuels and other non-renewable sources of energy and goods. The truth is, we have finite resources on this planet; things that are renewable or free (like the sun or wind for energy) are better than those that are not (like coal for energy). This principle is derived from permaculture design, but it also can be found in many other places.

 

Support diversity

This principle asks us to consider diversity in our designs. We might think about this in terms of polycultures rather than monocultures.  A perennial garden is more diverse and resilient—it can handle pests, disease, and drought much better than a monoculture cornfield.

 

Monocultures refer to a single plant (like a field of soybeans) while polycultures refer to many plants sharing the same space. Polycultures are found all throughout nature; monocultures generally are not. Polycultures can work together, where different plants accumulate nutrients (dynamic accumulators), fix nitrogen, provide forage and nectar for insects, provide food for the gardener, and so on. Monocultures do not regenerate the soil, they do not provide a healthy or balanced ecosystem, and they encourage explosions of certain kinds of pest populations due to the concentration of many of the same plant in an area. The largest monocrop grown in the USA is the lawn; but many other monocrops are also present (wheat, corn, soy, etc). Mimicking nature and using nature as our guide, we can shift from cultivating monocrops to polycultures.

 

Perennials always come back!

Perennials always come back!

Along with this, we might carefully consider what that we plant and those plants’ relationship with the land. Annual agriculture (that is, your typical plants like tomatoes, corn, zucchini, beans, and so on) require the yearly work of bed prep, weeding, sowing, seed starting, and harvesting—this disrupts soil ecology and causes extra work. Shifting to use at least some perennials in your growing means that the plant is planted once—and only once—and then the soil is not disrupted again and the plant can grow and be abundant. Most of our most balanced ecosystems occurring in nature have more perennials or self-sowing annuals than the tender annuals we typically use as food crops. Entire books are written on this subject (see resources, Appendix A), so I won’t go into too much depth here. But if we are thinking about building an ecosystem, we should consider the role of our perennial crops—herbs, nuts, fruits, berries—in that garden.

 

Reflect and Revise

Reflective activity, when we simply stop what we are doing and carefully think and meditate on our actions, is a cornerstone of sacred action and its used in nature-based spiritual practices as well as permaculture. Quite contemplation (through discursive meditation, discussed in Exercise 1 below, or simply sitting quietly and pondering), is critical for this kind of work. Revise, here, suggests that if we spend time periodically really thinking through and reflecting upon what we are doing, new insights may arise that we will be able to employ in our sacred action.  Revise here also implies that not being too committed to any particular approach is good—revision is a process where we shape and hone earlier ideas into something better. Sometimes, it takes us working through a project or meaningful change partway before we see a better way we can do something.

 

A sacred, sustainable garden is not a fast process. The soil takes years to establish, the seeds take time to grow, perennials, trees and shrubs take time to bear fruit, compost takes time to make, all these stress time and patience. Just as importantly, we have to grow our knowledge to really achieve the kind of relationship with the land that we want to have. The idea that we’ll have a perfect garden in one season is simply not realistic. Like the tree that takes years to bear fruit, we must also realize that gardening, like other forms of growth, takes patience and time. Even growing sprouts on your counter, which is about the easiest way of growing anything, requires patience and time (in days, rather than weeks, months, or years). Understand that sacred gardening is a learning process and the best way to learn is to constantly educate yourself.  Take classes, help friends, visit farms, read books, watch videos—anything that will give you new perspectives on growing food. You can see a complete list of books to get you started in the appendix.

 

Reclaim Waste

Excellent compost bins! Bins in various stages

Excellent compost bins!

This is another principle derived from permaculture design. Waste is a resource that has not been given a proper place—we can think about “waste” in new ways. Human waste and urine, for example, can safely be used as a fertilizer under certain conditions.  Producing no waste goes far beyond recycling!

 

When it comes to growing things, we want to make sure that everything that we grow does not go to waste and whatever nutrients are in the soil go back if at all possible. I am always saddened when I go out for bags of leaves in the fall and find whole bags of plants ripped up from someone’s garden in the brown “compost” bags they place on the curb. After spending a whole season with the plants, my neighbors would rather send them “away” than make a compost pile and add those nutrients back into the soil. These same people then go to the store and buy bags of compost and fertilizer (again, demonstrating the consumer mindset of consumeà throw awayàconsumeà throw away). I think this practice demonstrates how little modern people really understand about growing our food from a permaculture-informed and ethical perspective.

 

Consider any waste streams that can be integrated into a gardening system, like composting. Even for those growing food inside their homes, a worm composting system combined with container gardens can make use and re-use of many nutrients. For those on the more radical side, humanure (that is, composting your own waste) is always an option! Even when I’m growing sprouts on my counter, I save the water from rinsing to water my other house plants—again, turning “waste” water into something needed.

 

 

Spiraling Changes

Strawberry Spiral - Freshly Planted

Strawberry Spiral – Freshly Planted

Rather than starting big and going all out, we create small, slow solutions that allow us to build upon success slowly from within. You might think about your own path as that of spiraling slowly up a mountain. You don’t climb a mountain all at once and you certainly don’t do it without preparation, ongoing evaluation, and occasional breaks. Unexpected issues—and opportunities—can arise as part of the climb.  With each step you get further along and deeper into the practice. The other way of climbing is kind of moving along, bit by bit, and then suddenly looking out and realizing you are way higher than you thought! Shifting to regenerative practices are really no different: when we begin the ascent, we have a lot of energy and enthusiasm, but we also have to take our time and make sure what we are enacting is permanent and self-sustaining or our efforts are in vain. Or, we might find that in our many daily meanderings, we are doing more than we realize. Both are valuable insights!

 

One of the biggest mistakes that new and enthusiastic gardeners and sacred activists do is to go crazy, convert a huge portion of their land to various gardens in one or two seasons, and then be overwhelmed with the maintenance of those gardens. This is exactly what happened to me on my homestead—within three years, I had all but eliminated an acre of lawn and replaced it with perennials, an annual vegetable garden, herb gardens, fruit trees, and more. And while it was incredible and diverse and all of the things I’m writing about in this section—it was also way too much for me to manage. This example nicely illustrates the concept of spiraling changes: start small, work slow, and allow things to naturally unfold. See how it is managing a small garden (maybe 2 4×10’ beds) and build accordingly. Consider perennials for less intensive management over time as well.

 

Living in Gratitude

Gratitude is something missing from our everyday lives in industrialized culture, and bringing gratitude back into our actions is useful in all cases, and certainly, in a garden.  Gratitude practices for me include developing shrines to honor nature and her spirits, making regular offerings, respecting the plants and life itself with respectful planting, harvesting, and so on.

 

These are some–of many principles–that I try to live and grow by with my own relationship to the living earth.  I hope you find something in here worth taking with you–and gardening with this year!  I’d love to hear from you on other principles for sacred gardening that you use!

 

Druidry for the 21st Century: Pandora’s Box and Tools for the Future March 3, 2019

The story of Pandora’s box has always been a favorite of mine, ever since I was little.  Pandora was so curious. She just had to open the box. She just had to. And when she did, she let out all the bad things in the world: suffering, pain, war, famine, pestilence, betrayal….but she also let out one good thing: she let out hope.

 

I think when we start talking about the present and the future of the world-its kind of like being inside Pandora’s Box. It seems that more and more reports come out, more and more news comes out, and the longer that things go on, we keep being surrounded by all the bad things. Ten or fifteen years ago, perhaps these things could be ignored.  But today, I don’t think there is any more time for that. The reports, like the recent National Climate Assessment, don’t often offer a lot of solutions, just a lot of facts about where we are and the harsh present and even harsher future we face. The reports, combined with global inaction on issues of critical importance, the backpedaling by world leaders to set hard limits on carbon emissions, to stave off ecological collapse–we are in that Pandora’s box, the box full of bad things. I’m teaching a sustainability studies class for the first time in five years, and even among the young, 18-22 aged population, there is a considerable shift.  When I taught a very similar course 5-7 years ago, students were upbeat and ready to engage.  When I’m teaching it this term, students are less empowered, more quiet and somber.

A variety of permaculture books

A variety of permaculture books

I think one of the most important things we can do as druids is maintain hope–hope about our own lives, hope about the future.  Today’s post offers some tools: thinking tools, processing tools, and tools that offer us new perspectives and ways of engaging with today–in a way that empowers us, that gives us ways to act, and helps us get into a better space about it all, rathe than being demoralized about the future. If you haven’t read earlier posts in this series, you might want to do so to see where we’ve come from and where we are heading: druidry for the 21st century, druidry in the Anthropocene, and psychopoming the anthropocene.

 

A Thinking Tool: Sphere of Influence vs. Sphere of Concern

A framework that I think is really important for druidry and other action in the age of the Anthropocene is the Sphere of Influence vs. the Sphere of Concern tool. This framework is adapted from the work Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, but I think its a *really* useful tool for personal empowerment and hope in the Anthropocene. The graphic below shows the difference between a person’s circle of concern (which could be global and long-term) vs. a person’s circle of influence (which is local and immediate).

Sphere of Influence vs. Concern

Sphere of Influence vs. Concern

 

Your Sphere of Concern is what you are concerned about–and often, due to media and the Internet, this is often global. For all of the potential benefits that a globalized world may offer,  it creates an enormous sphere of concern, which given the world’s predicament, is psychologically really challenging.  News is almost always outside of our Sphere of Influence, but exposure to the news encourages us to have a huge Sphere of Concern.  We have very little power to leverage change in systems that are large and distant–cutting down of rainforests, the plight of polar bears or whales. This creates a sense of general disempowerment, which can lead to apathy or frustration.  However, before modern globalization, people mostly were concerned with what was around them.  News was local and quick, news from afar took a lot of time to arrive, if it arrived at all.  Local concerns were often able to be acted on by local people.  One’s sphere of concern was probably a lot smaller–likely, for many, within one’s sphere of influence.

 

Today, despite many of us having an enormous Sphere of Concern, we have a fairly limited Sphere of Influence.  A Sphere of influence is what you have power to control: and this usually revolves around the spaces we find ourselves in frequently: our homes, our daily lives, our workplaces, our communities, our local governments, our families, our spaces where we spend time.  When we are bombarded by news from Pandora’s box, we feel powerless because the things we want to change, the big things, are not really changable by individuals (they can be changed by collective action).

 

I think it’s really important to frame these things when we are talking about hope and change over time. This framework offers us a powerful thinking tool: recognizing the difference between our Sphere of Influence and our Sphere of Concern (and maybe, making modifications so that our Sphere of concern is closer to our sphere of influence–that which we can control).  I have found that using this framework helps give me a better sense of where I should invest my energy and time: in those things that I have influence over, in those things where my efforts will produce results.

 

 

A Feeling Tool: Giving Voice and Allowing Processing Time

As I shared in the first post on this series, the reality of the Anthropocene can be overwhelming, intimidating, or even cause distance and withdrawal, apathy. Joanna Macy’s beautiful work Coming Back to Life offers a lot of discussion of the importance of not letting ourselves get into an apathetic or disempowered state.  Apathy is the root of disengagement, and we need people in this day and age ready to engage and face some of these challenges.

Honoring all beings

Honoring all beings

Everything that is happening in the world, like climate change, is really hard.  I’d argue it’s doubly hard for druids who really love land because we hold the land sacred, and so much of it is under threat.  People have different emotional responses to what is happening, but one of the most common and destructive is apathy–trying not to feel, because feeling is too hard. Ignoring it, not letting ourselves feel.  Given this, if we are going to return to feeling things about the world and the future, we need good spaces to process our feelings, safe spaces.  We can do this in the context of our spiritual practices, like druidry.

 

Once we’ve dealt with some of these feelings, we can move forward with actions and empowerment–we can turn our own lives and influence the lives of others into creating the present and future we want to see.  We can offer hope.

 

Macy’s book offers a number of rituals for individuals and groups that allow us to give voice to feelings, to process our feelings, and allow us space to move forward.   One of her rituals which works particularly well in a druid setting is called the Council of All Beings.   Beings help us process and give voice to what is happening now.  This is a particularly powerful ritual where people prepare to speak on behalf of animals, plants, and natural features and give them voice, while others take turns listening as humans.

 

Another one of Macy’s rituals that we’ve adapted for druid ritual work is a 7 generations ritual.  People form two circles. The ones on the outside are today’s humans. The humans on the inside are future humans, 7 generations from now.  Today’s humans speak about everything they are concerned about; the future humans listen, and then, offer hope.  It is a very powerful way to process and think about what is happening now.

 

This kind of processing can also take place in the context of spiritual practice: talking through things with others, engaging in regular spiritual journaling, and discursive meditation are all ways that we can process emotions.

 

I think the key thing here is recognizing if we are going to be effective and productive, we need emotional processing tools–we need to recognize that these feelings are important and necessary, and we need to work with our emotions regularly.

 

 

An Action Tool: Permaculture

Now that we’ve considered thinking tools and emotional processing tools, we can come to tools for action. There are lots of tools out there that encourage us towards various kinds of action; my tool of choice is permaculture.  Permaculture offers a complete system of planning and action; it is a design system that teaches us to use nature, and work with nature, to regenerate and build ecosystems, gardens, and communities. Through three powerful ethics (people care, earth care, and fair share), design principles, and an emphasis on ecologically-rooted techniques, I think tools like permaculture can help us go from thinking about a problem to action.  One of the most important philosophies in permaculture is that humans can be a force for good (not just harm) and that we can always leave a piece of land in better shape than we’ve found it.

Permaculture Triad for Druidry

Permaculture Triad for Druidry

I’ve written pretty extensively about permaculture on this blog.  For an introduction to permaculture ethics, see here.  For the principles of permaculture, see here, here, and here.  For background on permaculture and ways of thinking about it, see here and here. .  For an example of how permaculture can be used in urban and suburban areas, see here, here and here.  For an example of a five-year permaculture design on my old homestead, see here.  Books I recommend are Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemingway and Rosemary Marrow’s Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture.  You can do a free online permaculture design certificate, which will immerse you in many good things, through https://openpermaculture.com/.  There are lots of other ways to learn–check it out!

Design of Nature's Harvest Permaculture Farm

Design of Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm

When I did my permaculture design certificate in 2015, which I did through Sowing Solutions at Sirius Ecovillage in Massachusetts, I had already been practicing permaculture for many years. The PDC helped me really leverage a lot of skills I picked up here and there into a cohesive whole and gave me the design skills to really plan and execute a variety of projects.  More importantly though, it empowered me.  It was probably one of the most empowering things I ever did.  It gave me hope, it gave me real tools, and it showed me that the solutions to many problems were right in my hands (the problem is the solution is a permaculture principle). If everyone practiced permaculture, we’d have a very, very different world.

 

Conclusion

The last few weeks have explored a lot of topics with regards to Druidry for the 21st century.  Not all of it has been particularly easy to digest or think about, but I think if we are going to practice nature spirituality in the age of the Anthropocene, it is necessary for us to have these kinds of conversations. I will keep returning to this topic throughout the year!  I hope this series has given you some food for thought, if nothing else–and some tools for empowerment and change.

 

Druidry for the 21st Century: Psychopomping the Anthropocene February 24, 2019

As an animist druid, I recognize the spirit of all beings.  I honor and interact with the spirits in the land, in the trees, in the animals and birds, in the insects, in the rivers, in the mountains. Animals die, plants die, insects die. Their spirits live on.  In the Anthropocene, even mountains die, they are removed for mining activities all along the Appalachians and in many other places.  Rivers die, and have been dying for centuries as we fill them with refuse. In the Anthropocene, many things die. What happens to that mountain’s spirit when the mountain is gone? What is happening now to the millions of non-human lives that are dying because of human activity? That’s the question we focus on today–as part of my druidry for the 21st century series.  Earlier posts in this series include Druidry for the 21st Century and Druidry in the age of the Anthropocene.

 

As I shared in last week’s post, non-human life is dying at an incredibly alarming rate at this very moment–with almost 50% of all animal life dying in the last 50 years. One article discusses that while extinction is a natural process, extinction rates and die off rates are currently between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher. I think a good resource for this is to look at IUCN’s red list and see the 26,500 species threatened with extinction–these are species regularly losing regular numbers. Unfortunately, humanity’s actions continue to cause the death of so many species and so many individual lives, and given models and projections, it is expected to get much worse in the next decades. The mass amounts of death and extinction of non-human lives are not “natural”; they are directly the result of human activity.  This makes humans, collectively and individually, responsible.  Not just for the actions that cause such death, but also, I would argue, for what happens to those spirits when they die.

 

The journey into spirit

The journey into spirit

Death is an inevitable part of life. Death is another journey, and some of us are called or choose to help spirits along that journey.  This work has many names, one of the most common being called “psychopomp” work. Psychopomp derives from the from Greek words “pompos” which means “guide  or “connector” and psyche which can be translated as “mind soul, life, or breath.” A psychopomp, then, is a guide of souls. Other names I have heard for this work include death midwifery, soul midwifery, deathwalking, death shamanism, to name a few.  Regardless of the term, this work has been a regular part of the healing, magical, and spiritual arts in nearly all cultures across the ages.  Many cultures recognize that humans with certain sets of skills do this work (such as a shaman or other religious leader), as do non-humans (deities, animal spirits, angels, and other such beings). In fact, it is very likely that this was work done by the Ovates in the time of the ancient druids, for they were described by various classical writers as working with spirits and the dead, along with herbalism, divination, and other kinds of healing arts.  They were also described by classical writes as “mastering the language of nature” which I believe comes into play into this kind of present 21st century ovate work.

 

This sacred practice of helping spirits pass is largely forgotten in mainstream consumerist life, however, it is still quietly practiced in many earth-centered, pagan, and new age spiritual traditions. Every person I have ever met who does this work does it for human souls. Human souls, of course, may often (but not always) need help crossing over. Humans are complicated, and when we die, our deaths may be complicated too. Many human get lost on their way across the veil. They may get stuck, they may die unexpectedly and need to process their death, they may have unfinished business that prevents them from leaving, and/or they often need assistance to find their path. Psychopomps are the shining beacons in that confusion, helping a wayward soul find his or her path to the next part of their journey.

 

But today, I’m not here to talk about human souls. You can learn about that kind of psychopomp work from many other sources. Today, I’m here to talk about non-human souls and the work we can do given this time, this age, and the present conditions.  I will also note that the rest of this post is entirely from my own experience, from the many years I’ve been quietly doing this work.  You can agree, disagree, or share your own experience–and I hope this blog can be a space for us to talk about it.

 

The cycle of life and death of animals, plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish, etc, has been going on as long as life in some form has existed on this planet.  Spirits of the land know how to handle their own deaths, and human psycopomps would not typically interact in that way in regular circumstances.  Think about a death in a forest: if an animal or plant dies, within a few days (or in the case of a tree, a few years) those nutrients are completely cycled back into the ecosystem.  I have always gotten the sense that this same process takes place on the level of spirit as well—the land cycls her own.

 

However, because we are in another extinction-level event, where the whole world is threatened, whatever happens typically to non-human souls is simply not enough. In the last few decades in particular, and with increasing frequency, a much larger number of souls began departing, with some of them being the very last of their kind.  Some non-human souls who pass are exhibiting many of the same characteristics that human souls who pass often exhibit: anger, confusion, being lost, being stuck, not wanting to go.  I don’t get the sense that this is “normal”, but rather, this is a product of the anthropocene. If a typical cycle of life and death is a gentle forest stream, right now, the stream is massively flooded well beyond its banks, causing erosion and destruction, and this spillage needs some attention. I think another way of framing what is happening is that spirits of these various species are experiencing new phenomena, a phenomena that their own natural paths and natural cycles are not adapted to. Anything can adapt over a long period of time; that is the nature of evolution.  But it is hard to adapt–for any species or spirit–to such frequent and intense change, the kinds of changes driven by relentless human activity in the Anthropocene.  And that is where the trouble seems to lie.

 

Trees

Trees

Before I get into some of the specific practices I’m going to suggest today for actual psychopomp work, I want to start by saying that each person has different spiritual gifts (a topic I explored before in this blog) and not everyone has the gift of spirit communication (although you can learn to do this over time).  The work I describe below is fairly advanced.  It requires you to have extremely good protection, practiced ways of spiritually cleansing yourself, a solid mental state (do not try this if you are mentally unbalanced, depressed, etc), and excellent self-cares trategies. It also requires you to have basic plant spirit communication and journeying skills.  Finally, it requires inner contacts (guides, deities, spirits, plant spirits, animal spirits, etc) who will partner with you for this work; it is very necessary to have individuals on both sides.  This is a list of some of the many deities and guides that do this work; it might be that you are already connected to someone. Some people find themselves drawn to this work intuitively, and for others, they may seek out training, books, teachers and other such resources.  I think like anything else, it is a skill you can learn to do, and do well, if you dedicate yourself to it. There are plenty of options out there to learn, and I can share some of the best.  I can also direct you to some of the basic skills that you need to do this work: spirit communication and journeying skills being most central. This page provides a good list of books for more information, for those who want to read more and understand.  I also want to stress that this work is not for everyone: there are many other kinds of work we can do in the Anthropocene. I think each of us should do something, but that something should be tied to our gifts and own journey.

 

So to get into the psychopomp work, I’m going to share a few examples to help illustrate some of what I understand to be the basic principles. Again, these are my own experiences; yours may be very different (and if you feel led to share, please do so in the comments–sharing is important at this stage, as we can build our knowledge and help the land in this way).

 

I remember the year the Christmas trees came.  Thousands of them, just after the holiday rush was over. They waited for me, patiently, planting themselves all over my property. I went out and walked among them. They wanted to understand why they had been cut and left to die. These trees, I realized, had never found themselves in the center of the family home and hearth adorned with gifts. Or if they had, once their use was over, they were unceremoniously thrown on the curb without so much as a thanks. They wanted to understand, needed to understand, what had happened and why.  Their whole lives–and deaths–were wrapped up in a cycle they did not understand, and they had to understand it in order to pass. I thought it was a fair question.  And so I showed them; I talked to them about humans and human life today. I invited representatives to join me for a few days in the world, to see how humans think and what they do, and I shared a human perspective. The representatives asked questions, and eventually, they were satisfied. They understood, after seeing me interact with humans and with my translation and explanations, that humans didn’t realize they had spirits. That humans didn’t realize that they were anything other than objects.  I apologized on behalf of all humans who did not understand. This seemed to appease them. When I felt the time was right, about two weeks after they arrived, I opened up a sacred grove in my outdoor grove.  I built a fire and, with the aid of my own spirit guides, helped open a gateway for them to pass. They went through it, one at a time.  It took a very, very long time.  Finally, they were all through.  Afterwards, I got the sense that that work was done, and now, others could pass.  Not through that specific gateway, which we closed at the end of the ceremony, but through their own means. Afterwards, I also did extensive cleansing and self-care; as the energies of the dead are not to be worked with lightly.

 

I’ve always been connected deeply with trees, and have long done this kind of work for forests who were logged. One forest, however, in particular stands out. It was a section of forest that I had spent time in; it was a wild place that, when I was a child, I would often go into with my parents. Maybe eight years ago now, the township decided that their industrial park was going right in the middle of that beautiful forest. They cleared giant swaths of it, put in infrastructure, and there, it sat.  Empty. I drove through it soon after it happened, and I felt such incredible sorrow, such loss, such anger and frustration. The spirits of the trees, of that land, of the animals who died, of insects whose lives were over, crowded up around me and demanded to understand why this had been done. Again, I asked them to choose a representative, which ended up being a spirit of a red maple. First, I sat in the forest for a long time, observing, singing to them, simply honoring them and letting them know that I was there, I was not alone (I describe many such practices in my earlier land healing series in the work of witnessing and apology). I walked along that recently cut land, and I found a piece of wood that had been cut, part of a stump.  I took it with me, along with some other materials, and made them into a piece of art honoring that forest. The artwork and use of the wood in a spiritual way seemed to appease the spirits. But, they still had questions.  Their representative went with me, learned what he needed to learn, and then we returned together to that place.  I did a ceremony for them (similar to the one I described above) and helped them move on.  After that, when I passed other logged sites near there, I got the sense that the spirits were once again taking care of their own work in those kinds of cases.  I was welcome to help, but I wasn’t necessary for me to do the deep work I did with this forest.

 

Former life....

Former life….

On one otherwise ordinary work day when I was working from home, I suddenly sensed a very angry presence. Opening up my spiritual eyes, I saw an entire tribe of lions.  They were angry, they were thrashing about. They could see me, and I could see them.  As their eyes bored into me, I felt almost like prey.  They demanded answers, and they were going to get them. I set my work aside, and told them I would speak with them, but only if they backed off and calmed down.  They left, and I thought that was that, that since I wasn’t feeding into their anger, they were going to go somewhere else.  But, a few hours later, they were back. I asked them about who they were, where they had come from.  They had been poached, they were the last of their tribe in any land as far as they were aware.  I simply listened,  acknowledged their hurt, and apologized for their suffering and deaths. As is the way of things, I invited a representative to come with me for a few days, to better understand the way that humans lived. To see. To understand.  In time, they were satisfied.  I did a similar ceremony to those I had done before: opening up a sacred grove, making an offering, inviting any final conversation, working with my guides to open up a gateway, inviting the spirits to pass through the gateway, and then carefully closing the gateway and space.  Again, afterwards, I did lots of spiritual self care, cleansing.

 

After a number of these experiences, I realized I needed a permanent space on my land where I could properly honor these spirits.  So I did that–creating a shrine that I used to “honor the fallen” and as any spirit interacted with me in this way, I would put a representation of them on the shrine.  When I moved to new land, I took a stone with me from that shrine and took the rest deep into the woods, to lay at peace.  The stone is now the start of my new shrine on our new land here.  I do not photograph these shrines out of respect for the dead, but they are like many others I’ve talked about on this blog: full of natural things and regularly honored. This shrine helps me honor them, to hold them in my memory.  I wrote about them, researched them, and told them that while I lived, they would not be forgotten.  With these words I write, this holds even more true, because they now live in more than just me, they live in you.

 

The Ovate Psychopomp

These examples are fairly consistent with my larger practices surrounding what I now understand to be some of the Ovate work of the Anthropocene, at least from my own perspective and experience.  So what is the nature of this work? We’ll now explore it from two perspectives: first, what I call “prerequisites”, i.e. the things you need to bring to the table to do the work.  And second, the things you do surrounding the work itself.

Prerequisites

The first prerequisite is being open to working in this way.  You have to be willing to see, be willing to acknowledge, and spend the necessary time and energy to do this work. If you aren’t open to it, they are never going to come to you, or you aren’t going to do them justice.  Some people probably read this and know this work isn’t for them, and to that I say, good!  I’m sure some other work is out there that is better well suited for you–like physically regenerating the land, teaching humans to honor nature, fighting to protect forests, fighting for environmental rights, etc.

 

Second, as I mentioned above, it requires some advanced gifts and skills: spirit communication, spirit sight, and solid practices surrounding protection and self-care.  It might be that you aren’t ready to do this till you’ve been walking the path for a number of years–and that’s ok.  I don’t recommend that any new person take this on.

 

Third, you must have guides, spirits, and/or deities working with you.  You need to have those you can trust in the spirit world for this kind of work; both for your own safety but also because this work seems to require it as a balance.  You are helping a spirit move from corporeal life to non-corporeal life, and that requires both someone who is corporeal and someone who is not to do it properly.

 

 

Cultivating connection

Cultivating connection

Fourth, you have to find balance and practice good self care and spiritual cleansing. This is true for everything we do, but especially true for this kind of deep work.  The energies of the dead are not good for the living long term (and if you’ve ever tended a dying person, you’ll know exactly what I mean).  I don’t do this work every day; I do it as necessary, and as individuals or groups of spirits come to me.  I can always refuse to do it if I don’t think I’m in the right state of mind–which I have done more than once.  Don’t let the dead stay near you for long periods of time.  They must pass, and you must find your way into self care and balance and embrace the energies of life.

 

Fifth, you will always have the gratitude of the spirits who pass, however, understand that this is quiet work.  Its work you do on your own, that you don’t typically talk about, and other humans have no idea.  That’s ok, the work isn’t for them.  But if you are someone who needs regular validation from human others, this is probably not for you.  This work is never about you.

 

Finally, a lot of people who I’ve spoken with who have gotten into this work one way or another had almost had some close experience with death, some way that helps them better understand it.  These experiences may have been having a very special person (human or otherwise) die, tending a dying relative, having a brush with death themselves.  Its not always the case, but does seem to be something that a lot of folks have.  I think that experience opens up something within you that then can be used to help others.

 

The Work Itself

Given the above, we now turn to some of the core aspects of psychopomping in the Anthropocene, as I understand it.  They are:

 

One, being open.  If you are doing this work regularly, somehow, the spirits sense it, and somehow they know. Its like you have an “open for business” sign up on the astral plane. Even if it’s just a self acknowledgement that you are willing to do this work, they will come once you are open.

 

Second, being ready to do the work of apology. Humans all over this planet are doing awful things and are causing the genocide of many, many lives and species. Why would these spirits of the recently departed trust a human?  Because you are acknowledging what is happening, you are compassionate, you can offer them perspective, and most of all–you can offer them a true and heartfelt apology.  Acknowledgement and an apology is all that many need to move on.

 

Third, being ready to explain things from a human perspective. This seems to be very, very helpful for many spirits who are dying in the age of the Anthropocene. They want to know why things are happening, and their minds cannot understand human behavior without your help.  And so my basic strategy is to let them tag along for a few days as I’m out and about in the world, explaining to them what they see, answering their questions. This has always led to success, at least in those I’ve interacted with.

 

Fourth, ritually helping them move on, if they need you to (often, I offer, and not all of them accept or need me to help).  I have my specific techniques, which I have shared above through stories, and which I do in the context of druidry.  Some of my techniques are unique to me, some of them would likely work for others. I would suggest learning what will work for you directly from a spirit, guide, or deity that you work with who is on the other side.  For me, I use music, fire, natural gateways, and other such things to help them pass.  These techniques were all taught to me by spirit, so I don’t know how translatable they are to others.

 

Finally, practicing extreme self care. This is not easy work; it can be rewarding but also very draining.  You have to take care of yourself, you can’t do too much of it, and you need to make sure to spiritually cleanse carefully after doing anything like this.  I like to do a herbal vinegar bath: I take a few tablespoons of infused herbal vinegar and add it to my bath and scrub myself all over.  I infuse it with plants that are significant to me personally and that are personal plant allies.  For a general blend, I would suggest sage, mugwort, rosemary, bay, lemon balm, and/or hawthorn.  You can simply throw handfuls of dried herbs into a quart jar, fill it with vinegar, and then have it available when you need a cleansing bath.  In addition to the bath, make sure you take time to do what fulfills you most–and let nature heal you!  For me, spending a lot of time gardening (working with the energies of life), being in healed and whole natural places, and working in my art studio are the ways I heal from this work.

 

There’s a lot here to process, and I hope it is of use to some of you who feel led to do this work.  I never thought I would write this post or talk about this in such a public way, but spirit said otherwise! If you are doing this work, please share if you are willing; I’d very much want to hear others’ experiences.  If you aren’t doing this yet but would like to, feel free to reach out!