The Druid's Garden

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

A Druid’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, Part II: Nature Wisdom July 14, 2018

One of my favorite mushrooms- the Chicken of the Woods

One of my favorite mushrooms- the Chicken of the Woods

As any mushroom hunter knows, mushrooms are tricksy little buggers.  What one looks like in one setting may not necessarily be what one looks like in another, depending on soil conditions, moisture, sun, size of the mushroom, insect damage, and/or regional variation. Mushroom species can vary a lot, even from one small region to another, and that variation can spell trouble for someone who hasn’t yet gained the wisdom to understand such variation.  Mushroom books offer perhaps 1-2 photos of mushrooms, and a good book will also offer a mushroom hunter the “keys” (features that distinguish one mushroom from another, like attached gills, color, etc).  However, only lived and true experience can help you not make a dangerous mistake when it comes to the mycelium kingdom.  The difference here, I think, epitomizes two key things: the different aspects of nature wisdom, specifically, the difference between book knowledge and lived experience.  But also, it epitomizes the importance of being rooted firmly in one’s local ecosystem and learning that ecosystem and from sources as connected to that specific ecosystem as possible. In last week’s post, we explored the four ways in which we can connect deeply through nature: through nature wisdom, nature activity, nature reciprocity, and nature reverence.  This week, we’ll delve deeply into the idea of nature wisdom and its three aspects: knowing nature, understanding nature, and probing nature.  We might frame this as a triad:

Three aspects of nature wisdom:

Lessons that come from others

Lessons that come from experience

Lessons that come from deep questions

 

Knowing Nature

 

Knowing nature includes the basic skills of identification and naming–all of which can be started to gained through reading and study or from learning from others. For humans, being able to recognize something, and know its name, is a powerful act. For building my own nature knowledge, what I’ve done over a long period of time is commit to learning 15-20 new plants, trees, animal tracks, rocks, or other aspects about nature each year.  After a few years, you will be able to learn more and more trees, plants, animal tracks, and so on–and this knowledge really empowers you. In 5 years with this method, you could know 100 or more plants and trees!  Slow and steady over a period of time is the best way to learn.  However, reading about plants and trees and so on in books is only half the battle of learning them–the other half is actually finding and experiencing them.

 

I’ll give a nice example of this process.  For years, Sam Thayer’s Foragers Harvest and Nature’s Garden have been my two favorite wild food foraging books.  I’ve read them cover to cover; in the wintertime, I’ve studied them extensively.  Some of the plants he lists in the book, like wild rice, I’ve never seen, but I’ve at least got a basic idea from his books about what they might look like in the event that I can come across some. In May, I visited a friend who just moved to some new property and she wanted me to help identify some things.  We walked through and there was a lot of great things growing–including what I believed to be some highbush cranberry.  I hadn’t ever met this plant, but I wanted to very badly, so I had studied it extensively and when we found it, I knew what it was. It was growing on a giant rock pile in the middle of a field and had some little leftover dried cranberries.  We took photos and a few sample leaves, and sure enough, it was highbush cranberry. This kind of nature study is so useful so that when you are out and about, you can do some identification.  Had I had my books with me (I did not), it would have been even more useful!

 

Learning and study together on plant walks!

Learning and study together on plant walks!

Before the modern era and the general loss of this knowledge in westernized society due to industrialization and commodification, a lot of this knowledge was shared, it was cultural, it was part of the body of knowledge that was taught to people in order to survive and thrive in connection with the natural world.  Largely, that’s not the case anymore, although you will find people here and there who really know a lot about nature and are willing to share ( a lot of these folks I’ve found in the herbalism, woodcraft, and bushcraft movements). I absolutely delight when I find anyone who can teach me something new about the natural world and take every opportunity to learn from them!

 

To learn any aspect of nature, books and resources are critical, and classes/teachers are even better if you can find them.  Here are some of my favorite books and resources to get you started:

  • Botany in a Day is my favorite book (recommended to me some years ago by one of my blog readers).  This teaches you basic plant identification through pattern recognition.
  • I aslo love Newcomb’s Flower Guide for an easy method of plant identification for any flowering plants. For animal tracks, Animal Tracking Basics by Tiffany Moore and Jon Young is a great book to start with.
  • Other books by Jon Young, like What the Robin Knows  are also excellent for understanding how nature works and the signs in nature.
  • Otherwise, the many field guides out there offer much with full photos and information.
  • Other books I love that teach about relationships are three books by John Eastman –The Book of Swamp and BogThe Book of Forest and Thicket; and The Book of Field and Stream.
  • Finding Your Way Without a Map and a Compass is an absolutely fabulous book about nature awareness.
  • There are also a number of great plant and nature identification apps like Leafsnap that can be quite helpful. Finally, purchasing a Loupe (Jeweler’s Loupe) as a small magnifying glass can aid in learning and observing nature.
  • And for wild food foraging, Samuel Thayer’s books, which offer detailed information on how to find plants, when to find plants, and how to prepare plants (more on this in next week’s post!)

 

Bringing nature knowledge into your nature interactions allows you a much deeper sense of the natural world–it empowers you. Getting to know nature can literally last a lifetime.

 

Understanding Nature

As my opening discussion of the challenges of mushroom hunting illustrate, there are two kinds of nature knowledge–the knowledge that comes through reading and study, and the understanding that comes through experience in both the inner and outer worlds of nature. Both are critical to developing ovate knowledge about the natural world and “nature wisdom.”

 

Observing American Ginseng (so rare!) in early spring

Observing American Ginseng (so rare!) in early spring

The understanding that comes through direct experience cannot be replicated by reading books. All the books in the world cannot help you gain the deep understanding of nature as you observe the unfurling of a frond of a fern or watch ants busy at work removing soil from their nest. This is the kind of “knowing” that comes from regular engagement in the natural world.  Any engagement is good; in AODA, we recommend at least 15 minutes per week in nature, some of it spent in stillness and focus.  I’ve used this practice for over a decade and not only has it helped me know nature, it has certainly helped me be at peace and connect to it.  Earlier in this blog, I detailed the “druids anchor spot” technique; this is a great way to learn a single place and deeply connect to it.  This, combined with journaling and regular meditation in nature can be of great aid.

 

What I have found to be the most effective in aiding my building of understanding nature is to shift frequently between book knowledge and real-world experience.  Read some books the night before I go out on a journey, then take a book or two with me (like Newcomb’s) and then cross reference what I am seeing with what I’m learning.  Or finding a new plant, photographing it carefully, and working to identify it and learn what I can about it.  Remembering where it grows, checking it through the season and its life cycle.  Knowing and understanding, then, become like two sides of the coin of nature wisdom–it is necessary for us to have both to fully embrace this kind of connection with nature.

 

Probing nature

A final way in which you can build nature wisdom is in the tradition of the many naturalists who have contributed scientific knowledge of the natural world: Leopold, Darwin, Audobon, Humbolt, etc.  This kind of nature wisdom, which I am calling “probing nature” is engaging in the study of nature in some way.  Most of the time, we think about study in the form of systematic observation with notetaking (think the field journals of the naturalists) or through experimentation (think gardening experiments to see which plants produce a higher yield.) Most of the time, people think that this kind of thing is left only to scientists working in the field, but everyday people can also engage in a number of different kinds of things.

 

On the most basic level, this is simply a matter of satisfying your curiosity, and seeking answers to questions like, “I wonder what….”  or “Why does this…”  I recently did this on my property after seeing trees that had a hazel-like leaf and I was excited to discover that I potentially had “beaked hazelnuts” (a tree I hadn’t encountered before).  Now I can systematically observe this tree each day as it goes through its life cycle and see if the hazelnuts actually appear in the fall!  In order to do this, I’m observing the trees carefully 1-2 times a week and looking at them throughout their life cycle.  A second example is through my “potato bucket” experiment.  I had a bunch of sprouting potatoes back in March and it had been still so cold and the ground was frozen.  But these potatoes wanted to grow!  So I put some of them in buckets and large planters with holes and put them in the greenhouse to see what happened.  Would I get any yield? Now, it is mid June and I’m able to harvest the potatoes from these buckets.  As I have grown this variety before, I am certain that the harvest is not as great, but it is still something and is a very fantastic early potato crop.  This was a simple gardening experiment, and I learned a bit more about how to grow potatoes.

Potatoes!

Potatoes!

A second avenue for “probing nature” and one I highly recommend is citizen science, where you help contribute to a larger dataset of observations that are then used to build an understanding about the natural world.  I wrote about this here. These are projects, like Project Budburst, that help track different things happening in the ecosystem: the flight of the monarchs; the sighting of birds; the arrival of buds in the spring; the movement of wildlife, the various potential effects of climate change.  These, to me, are very important ways for druids and others who are committed to nature spirituality to get involved and help build our knowledge about the living earth.  I think this work is even more critical today than ever before: funding for climate change research and basic science surrounding the natural world is continuing to be cut; people like you and I can help fill in these gaps as volunteers and contribute to larger studies that make a difference.

 

Conclusion

Knowing nature is one of four ways I’ve outlined that we can cultivate a connection to the living earth. In the years that I’ve been practicing druidry, I have come to believe that it is my knowledge of nature that has helped me develop a much deeper connection to the living earth in so many different ways. It’s one thing to go out in a natural setting and appreciate and respect what you are seeing; it is a completely different experience to go out and be able to identify plants, animal tracks, stones, be able to read the water movements of a river, or predict weather changes by observing the clouds and wind.  You have a deeper appreciation of it, you are closer to it, and it is this deeper knowing that connects you in all kinds of new ways. Suddenly, you know plants names, their uses, how rare or abundant they are, if they are endangered, and even from this information, you can begin to ascertain their magic and spiritual connection.  And so, to me, the foundation of all of this rests in respecting the earth and in knowing her.

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A Druid’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, Part I: A Framework July 8, 2018

A lot of people find druidry because they want to “connect” with nature.  They want to attune to nature, feel part of it, gain knowledge and wisdom about it. But what does “connecting” to nature look like in practice?  Going out in the woods and feeling good?  Knowing the name of trees?  Walking with sacred intent in a natural place?  Spending time in nature?  All above the above? And so, over the next few posts, I want to spend more time with the concept of “connecting to nature” and share some strategies for what people can do to connect with nature in a multitude of ways.

As I’ve written about earlier, part of what I see as the core of druidry as a spiritual tradition is the work of “connection.” In that post, I talked about connecting to nature, connecting to the spirit, and connecting to the creative practices as three ways in which connection is manifest in this tradition. And, I believe, it is this search for connection that underlies so much of the interest in nature-based spiritual paths like druidry and the growing amount of druids worldwide.

Connecting to nature at the rocky shore

Connecting to nature at the rocky shore

 

A Framework for “Nature Connection”

I find that older books on nature can really offer perspectives that we’ve sometimes forgotten about. For example, The Field Book of Nature Activities and Conservation (1961) by Wiliam Hillcourt, five nature-oriented actions are outlined in the opening chapter. He suggests that we can know nature, probe nature, use nature, do nature, and conserve nature. I think this offers a beginning of a useful framework for thinking about this topic.

 

Drawing upon his five categories, and adding in my own definitions and additional areas that are pertinent to druids gives us a nature connection framework with four major areas with three specific activities for each area.

Nature Wisdom

The basis of much of nature connection is rooted in building an understanding and knowledge of the living earth. This first category, which I call “nature wisdom” helps us do just that.

  • Knowing nature – Knowing nature includes two aspects: knowledge, that is, learning about nature and being able to identify aspects of nature, ecosystems, ecology, botany, and much more.  This knowledge is typically gained from books, classes, and teachers.  It is knowledge that is passed on to us as part of human wisdom.  While knowing about nature used to be something that every human had, and was part of the formal or informal knowledge that was passed to each generation, for many of us living in western contexts, this often needs to be learned anew.  From my perspective, if I am going to honor nature, I better know something about her as well, and that “knowing nature” helps me begin to do that.
  • Understanding nature – As the druid’s prayer suggests, there is a distinction between knowledge and understanding. Knowing is having a piece of information in your head (e.g. wild yam is a forest-dwelling vine that has heart-shaped leaves). Understanding is the kind of knowing that can only be gained through direct experience in nature.  (Wild yam grows up this tree in this particular pattern and has these variations in the leaves. And it has a good energy about it.) Direct experience leads to understanding. I truly believe that both knowledge and understanding are necessary for building “nature wisdom.”
  • Probing nature – Probing nature is not something that everyone does, but it is something that everyone could do.  This can mean anything from scientific observations and interactions where we build knowledge about nature to well as building your own understanding of nature through systematic nature journaling, observation, and so forth. This is what the great naturalists did as they built systematic knowledge of nature; this what every citizen scientist does as she logs the first blooms through Project Budburst. This is also what any organic gardener does as he carefully tracks yields of vegetables based on different soil amendments. Asking questions and seeking answers about nature is what “probing nature” is all about.

Abundance of harvest

Abundance of harvest

Nature Engagement

Nature Activity is the second broad category that helps us establish a connection with nature by engaging with and through nature. This category includes how we use nature, interact with nature, and do things in nature.

 

  • Using Nature – That humans can–and need to–use nature is a key part of not only our connection with nature, but also for our survival. Using nature is twofold: on one hand, it is about learning how to use the natural world for meeting our needs; on the other, it is about the reciprocation activities that must be present in that use so that it is sustainable over a period of time. So using nature includes learning the uses of many plants, animals, and other aspects of nature and would include foraging, natural building, hunting, and bushcraft skills.  This is about how to work with nature to bring productive abundance to our gardens and lands, how to make dyes or spin cloth from plants we grow, and so many more ways that we can turn a part of nature into something that we can eat, wear, or make.  And, it is also understanding local plant or animal populations, understanding the carrying capacity of the land, and learning how to give back.  That is,  engaging in sustainable (minimally) or regenerative use where we give as much as we get (through tending the wilds, scattering seeds, and doing other regenerative activities, see next section).
  • Nature Activity – These are the various activities that you can engage in  while in nature, such as kayaking, camping, backpacking, skiing, and so on. These activities help us get into new parts of nature and let us have fun and relaxation while doing so. Nature, then, becomes a canvas for some of the ways we engage in healthful activities and learn more about the living world.
  • Creating with/through nature – A third way that nature activity happens is through the flow of awen, through creative inspiration.  This might include finding aspects of nature as a muse for creative acts (poetry, song, dance, music, artwork, etc) or else directly working with nature in terms of creating artistic media (wooden drums, berry inks, vine-based charcoals, hand papermaking, etc.). This category is essentially the synthesis of the bardic arts and the living earth–and there is much to explore here!

 

Nature Reciprocity

Inherent in the use of nature and our dependency on nature is reciprocation. Inherent in the term “sustainability” is the idea that what we take from the land still allows that land to be abundant and healthful, that the resources used will be able to replenish themselves (with or without human help).  But, like many permaculture designers, I find that the term “sustainability” lacks the power of good–the recognition that humans have took too much (at least here in the US) for over three centuries.  It isn’t enough to sustain, but we must learn to nurture and regenerate. This helps us achieve long-term health and balance of the land while also attending to our own needs.  This reciprocity has at least three areas.

  • Conserving nature – Working to protect nature and conserve existing ecosystems; such as those that are pristine or those that are actively healthy or healing. This includes a range of “conservation” activities that may include protecting new areas, protecting endangered species, encouraging native plant and pollinator populations, river cleanups, building new trail systems, political action, and so on. Conserving nature can also include exploring our own ways of reducing our impact on the planet as a whole, engaging in actions that help us preserve and protect existing resources from further degradation and exploitation.
  • Regenerating and Healing Nature – Working with the land to help heal damaged ecosystems and bring ecosystems back into health, we might use both ritual means (land healing ceremonies) and physical means (such as permaculture design techniques). In this case, we recognize that a great deal of land has been degraded and we can work actively to help be a force of good and bring these lands to a healthier state ecologically.  For example: turning a lawn into a butterfly sanctuary or a food forest is a good example of this practice.
  • Offerings to Nature: Throughout time, humans have recognized that rituals and ceremonies designed to offer something back, physically or metaphysically, was also part of reciprocity.  Offerings in this case are symbolic representations of our understanding of the give and take relationship we have with the earth that provides abundance. A wassail ceremony, for example, is an excellent example of the kind of ceremony I am talking about, as are simple blessings and offerings of food, drink, etc.

 

Nature Reverence

A nature based shrine

A nature based shrine

Everything that I’ve been writing about is a form of honoring nature.  When you develop nature wisdom, you honor nature.  When you learn how nature can offer you so much–and what you can offer in return–you are honoring nature.  But there are also specific activities that are more distinct, more intentional, that put honoring nature as central.

  • Respecting Nature – I believe that honoring nature begins, first and foremost, with a mindset. Most people in Western society are socialized to think of themselves first–what can I do that best benefits me, etc.  Through respect of nature, we can add “what can I do that best benefits the land” as an additional (or primary) category in our minds.  Recognizing and engaging in thought, word, and deed that recognizes the sanctity of life and the living earth  is the first step in honoring nature.  This internal mindset, then, will manifest as outward action in a variety of ways.
  • Honoring nature – Honoring nature also involves offering respect and reverence for the natural world and recognizing the sanctity of all life through ritual and intentional action.  This can be through engaging in various kinds of ritual for benefit of life on the planet and the living earth–such as through seasonal celebration or land healing rituals. Another way we might honor nature is through creating physical spaces in our homes and out on the broader landscape. This may include creating physical shrines upon the landscape, home altars, and more.
  • Communing with nature – Nature can often facilitate deeply spiritual experiences for us, experiences that help us understand the land and our place in it in greater depth.  Many traditions facilitate these experiences surrounding rites of passage or coming of age rituals, but these experiences are open to anyone. Having deeply intense and spiritual experiences with nature; experiences that may fundamentally alter your understanding of yourself, your spiritual practice, and the living earth.  May include things like a druid retreat, vision questing, journeys, long-term work on a single site (like a druid’s anchor spot), and more.

 

Looking at this list above, there are clearly a lot of ways that “connection’ with nature can happen. There are likely ways I’m missing,  but I do think that this list is a good start for someone who wants to connect but isn’t sure how to do so beyond the “go into the woods and feel good” kind of thing!  Since each of these four topics can be a post in itself, that’s exactly what I’ll do next–delve into activities for each of these and how we might engage deeply with them.  Blessings as you connect with the living earth!

 

A Summer Solstice Sunrise Observance Ritual June 17, 2018

Summer Solstice Sunrise from the Water

Summer Solstice Sunrise Progression from the Water at Yellow Creek State Park on the Summer Solstice 2017

My alarm goes off at 4:00am.  I’m conveniently camping right along the lake shore, after having spent the evening watching the sunset on the eve of the summer solstice with members of our grove. My kayak is ready to launch, and I roll out of my sleeping bag and slip it quietly into the still, dark water. The starry heavens are brilliant in their glory, the moon a crescent low in the sky. But just as I begin to paddle, the first light on the horizon is present. The mists rise up from the lake water–the lake is warm like bath water even though the air itself is much cooler on this summer solstice morning. I paddle through the mist, finding a good spot from which to watch the sun rise. The lake expands around me, the trees dark shadows in the distance. Everything seems to move very slowly, and then, the light rises, faster and the light seems to rush in with each breath I take. The bullfrogs and birds help call up the solstice sun, their voices begin rising in song all around the edges of the lake. The fish start rising up to the surface; one leaps in front of me. The crows begin to caw, the hawks fly in the distance.  The world is coming awake, and I have a front row seat to all of it. The moon disappears behind some clouds that are rolling in, and for a brief moment, tiny drops of rain fall on the still water.  Then, the sun emerges from behind the mountain.  All the while, I sit, soaking in the moment. Breathing deeply, I am simply happy to be here and to witness.

 

The solstices and equinoxes are special times that celebrate the passage of the sun and the turning wheel of the year. Over the years, I’ve celebrated them in elaborate ways with large groups and also simple ways, by myself. One of the most simple rituals that I know, and use often, to celebrate is simply a sunrise observation ritual, as I began to describe in the last paragraph.  I actually wrote this post a year ago, during 2017, right after my solstice celebration with the hopes of sharing it with you before the solstice in 2018.   I’m going to share the details of this ritual today and how you can do it for this summer solstice–or any other seasonal celebration.

 

Ritual Preliminaries

There are a few preliminaries that you need to take care of to do a sunrise observation ritual.

 

Weather: Weather can be tricky. If there are clouds, storms, or it is overcast, you might not be able to see the solstice sunrise that day. However, in the druid tradition, we hold that the energy of the time is actually present three days before and three days after, so anytime in that 7 day window would work of the day itself does not (of course, the day itself is a better choice).  If you really want to do it on the day of the solstice, you might have to wait a year or two till the weather is right.  This happens, and sometimes, the wait is worth it.

 

Finding Your Observation Spot: Finding “the spot” where you will observe, from land or sea, is an important part of the ritual. You may already have a spot in mind–it should allow you to see open skies to the east, but also as far around as possible. You’ll also need to make sure you can get to that spot early enough to see the sunrise.  Since I live in the Appalachian Mountains, I prefer overlooks and/or lakes–both of these offer a wonderful view.  Last year, my grove rented a cabin for the evening on the lake, and so, I had very easy access to do the sunrise ritual.

 

When to get to the spot. If you look up sunrise times online, you’ll see two numbers, typically “first light” and “sunrise.” First light times can be deceiving; I have found that “first light” actually occurs up to an hour earlier than it indicates. For my sunrise rituals, I plan on being at my spot 1.5 hours before the scheduled sunrise (and staying about 2 hours total).  Depending on mountains and other geographic features, the sunrise time may also be off (last year, I actually saw the sun come over the mountains at about 6:10, even though 5:45 was the specified time).  If you get there 1.5 hours early, it will be completely dark, but within the first 15 minutes, you will see the sky slowly changing–and seeing that part is worth it.

 

Comfort. The Sunrise Ritual is a long one–you spend your time in stillness and reverence, observing the world around you.  Because the sun takes time to rise, you will want to make sure you are comfortable wherever you are.  Bring yourself a chair, a blanket, or get yourself seated in a cozy kayak (like I did) to watch the sun rise.  Even if the days are warm, it is likely much cooler at 4am, so bring appropriate clothes, blankets, etc.  If bugs are a problem, bring bug spray, etc.  The idea is to be as present as possible to witness this wonder of nature, not be worrying about your cold toes, mosquitoes buzzing in your ear, or uncomfortable seat.

 

Second Sunrise Ritual, a few days after the solstice in Summer 2017

Second Sunrise Ritual, a few days after the solstice in Summer 2017

The Ritual

The ritual is as simple as it can be–simply watch and observe the sunrise. Pay attention not only to where the sun will rise, but to the whole 360 degree area where you are. Fully engage with all of your senses (which is why the sacred brew is helpful): your sight, your taste (tea), the sounds, your sense of touch (feeling the temperature, the ground you are sitting on, etc), and your ears. There is so much to take in and it changes so quickly. Even if you are scanning another part of the sky or surroundings, when you look again, the light has shifted. Pay attention to the far edges of the sunrise area–sometimes, beautiful colors will appear and then disappear within 5 or so minutes (last year, there was this amazing patch of hot pink for a little while reflecting on some clouds on the edge of the sunrise).

 

Deepening the Ritual

Here are a few things that can enhance or deepen your ritual experience.  None of them are necessary; just being present is enough. But over the years of doing this ritual, I have found a few additions enhances the experience.

 

A Sacred Brew. I have found that drinking tea or another sacred brew (like elderflower cordial at the summer solstice) is a wonderful way to heighten the power of this ritual.  Prepare something sacred, something wonderful.  I drank elderflower while watching the sun rise.  In the winter, a tea of warming herbs like sassafrass root or ginger would also be welcome.  I suggest brewing the tea in the sun the day before the solstice sunrise, and take that solar energy within as you watch the sun come in.

 

A Sacred Space. If you have the time, you can add to this ritual by creating a simple sacred space around you while you observe.  While this is not necessary, I feel that it really heightens the experience. I did this in my kayak last year, going through the AODA’s sphere of protection as the light began to come in.

 

Bringing In the Sun. If you wait till you can physically see the sun, you can also bring in the light and energy of the sun for your own healing. Draw its first golden rays towards you and bring them deep within. Combining this with breathwork is powerful. Offer gratitude for the sun and its light-giving rays.

 

Music/Singing. The Awen flows strongly at the summer solstice –you might feel compelled to sing or play an instrument.  I was once given a “sunrise song” that I play on my panflute sometimes during this ceremony.  You might see it this way–roosters, bullfrogs, birds, and many others work each day to raise the sun with their voices.  By joining in, you participate in that shared magical practice.

 

Solstice Activities.  Typically, after this ritual, I go off to find some elderflower and brew it up into sacred medicine.  This, or any other solstice-appropriate activity is a great way to keep the energy of the ritual with you.

A beautiful scene from the shore in Maine at the sunrise!

A beautiful scene from the shore in Maine at the sunrise!

May the blessing of the summer solstice sun be ever with you!

 

A Beltane Blessing: Recipe for Sacred Herbal Offering Blend April 29, 2018

Sacred blend being stuffed in leather pouch for around the neck

Sacred blend being stuffed in leather pouch for around the neck

Offerings to the land, spirits, and/or diety are a common stable in many traditions, druidry being no exception. Many opportunities present themselves and having something you carry with you can be built into your regular druid practice (and kept within, say, a crane bag).  Some years ago, I wrote about sustainable offerings and the kinds of offerings you can leave as part of a regular spiritual practice. These offerings might be home-grown herbs (as in the case of today’s post), home-brewed alcohol, small blessed stones, home baked bread or cakes, small shells, even your own nitrogen-rich urine.  I think the important thing with any offering is that it truly puts no strain on the ecosystem–but rather, is a true blessing.

 

In the spirit of this idea of sustainable and sacred offerings, in today’s post, I’ll share the recipe for one of my own sacred herbal blends that I often carry with me and use for leaving small offerings—in nooks of trees, on stones, in an offering bowl, as an offering as part of ritual, and so on. This kind of offering blend is a perfect thing to make at Beltane, as the energy of Beltane is full of vitality and life, of healing and blessing. Using the energy of Beltane to mix and bless these herbs brings that energy to the land and spirits throughout the year.

 

Sustainability and Suitability of Offerings

The key to leaving any offering is that it won’t damage the ecosystem or cause it harm–either in the leaving of said offering or in its creation. This means you have to take some serious care and consideration to develop an offering blend that gives back rather than takes. In the case of the herbal offerings I’m talking about today, it is critical that you leave only materials that will naturally break down and that will not spread any seeds that do not belong in the ecosystem.

 

Towards that end, I take two precautions with the herbal blend presented here. First, I use only leaf matter and flower matter (harvested long before the formation of seeds). Second, I bake the plant matter at 350 degrees for 10 minutes, killing off anything that might be present in the plant matter so that it is harmless and safe to leave (and bonus: it makes the house smell great!)

 

An alternative, another kind of herbal offering entirely, which I’ve talked about in some of my wildtending posts, is to intentionally leave seeds that are rare and in need of replanting–but that’s a different kind of thing–you can read more about that in this post. That is certainly another kind of herbal offering that you can leave.

 

An Introduction to the Herbs

A blend of herbs....

A blend of herbs….

For my blend, I wanted to use a combination of tobacco leaves and flowers (home grown), lavender flowers, rose petals, and  .  You can use any number of herbs you can grow yourself or buy organically: I like flowers a lot, as well as aromatic herbs for a nice smell (mints, rosemary, thyme, oregano, sages, etc).  Here are the herbs from this specific blend:

 

Nicotiana Rustica, or Wild Tobacco. Each year, I grow Nicotiana Rustica, which is an old form of tobacco known as “Aztec Tobacco” or “Wild Tobacco.”  I’ve grown it successfully in a garden as well as in smaller pots in a windowsill. It is super easy to grow and grows prolifically.  It will self seed if you allow it to.  Wild Tobacco is not a kind of tobacco used for smoking as it has up to nine times the concentration of nicotine compared to a traditional tobacco grown for smoking (although in some parts of South America, Shamans use it as part of entheogenic mixtures). I have found that this particular strain of tobacco is well received by the spirits of the land and they are joyful in receiving it. This variety is native to North America, but is usually not cultivated because it is too potent for the common misuses of tobacco today. By growing this plant myself, and, by being a non-smoker, I am cultivating a sacred relationship with a plant that has long been used as an offering here on the land in North America–and a plant that is often well received when given in reverence and respect to the spirits and the land. I feel, in some way, that I am reclaiming a relationship with this tobacco plant, returning it to its sacred, rather than its mundane and abused, purpose. It is still early in the year, and you can readily get seeds for this variety–so consider cultivating some!

 

I like to gather the flowers as they bud–each little stalk will produce a new flower and drop it regularly, much like common mullein. I will typically gather up most of the flowers and later, seed pods (to share the seeds).  And I will cut the stalks and allow the leaves to naturally dry (they slowly turn brown). I save the stalks for use in smudge sticks that are specifically created as “offering” and “blessing” sticks.  Both the dried leaves and stalks smoulder nicely.

 

In this blend, the wild tobacco represents an offering to the land that is sincere and represents a desire for continuing a sacred relationship with the land.

 

Nicotiana Rustica

Nicotiana Rustica

Rose / Rosa spp (flowers/petals): My second ingredient in this blend is rose petals–they produce a beautiful smell and color, and make the blend really delightful. However, they have a more important purpose, and that purpose is protective and healing in nature. Rose, medicinally speaking, helps heal the heart and also has thorns which offer protection. I gather rose petals around Lughnassadh each year (or earlier, depending on the specific species).  Rose is under the dominion of Venus.

 

Lavender (Lavandula spp) Lavender flowers are a third ingredient that comes in my sacred offering blend (and occasionally, lavender stalks and leaves, although I usually save these for smudge stick making as well).  Lavender, which is a Mercury herb, has been used for millenia for purification and warding purposes–and that’s exactly what it is used for in this blend.

 

Elder (flower, Sambuccus Canadensis; Sambuccus Spp.). I have written pretty extensively about elder in an earlier post, so you can find complete information on Elder in that post.  In this blend, I gather Elderflower (right around or on the Summer Solstice).  I turn much of this elder into Elderflower cordial and tea but save some of it for my sacred offering blend. Elder offers a connection to the realm of spirit and for bringing good energy into the land through the connection with the summer solstice and solar current.

 

These are the four plants I commonly use in my blend, but as I said above, you can use any plant that speaks to you and that you’ve developed a relationship with. Here are some ideas:

 

  • Conifers: Eastern White Cedar, White Pine, Eastern Hemlock (needles), Spruces, etc. Other tree leaves would also be fine!
  • Herbs (leaf, flower, stem): Mints, Lemon Balm, Oregano, Marjoram, Basil, Thyme (if you are unable to grow them, you can buy organic blends at the grocery store or fresh at a farmer’s market, and dry them and blend them)
  • Flowers: Any flower petal that you can dry (avoiding any seeds)

 

The key to any blend is that you think about the magical purpose and energy behind each herb/plant/tree as well as your own relationship with it. This is a great way to begin to cultivate relationships with certain plants for certain purposes as well. If you “grow your offerings” this season, by the end of the year when you are ready to make such a blend, you’ll have spent a full season with that plant. If the plant is a perennial or you save some of the seeds, then your relationship with that plant deepens over the years. For example, I’ve been growing Nicotiana Rustica for about 8 years now, and each year, as I save the seeds and replant them, and share them with friends, my relationship with this plant deepens–and the power of the offering I give also deepens.

 

To me, every part of the cultivating and harvesting of this sacred blend is, in fact, part of the sacred relationship I am cultivating with nature. By tending the plants, or finding them carefully in the wilds, I can continue to build a specific blend that honors the land our deepens our relationship.

 

Magical Crafting and Making the Blend

The good news about a sacred offering blend is there is no right or wrong way to blend it. I would suggest, in fact, that your intuition (rather than measuring select ingredients) goes further than a specific recipe. However, I do have some suggestions to follow:

 

Select a sacred time. In my case, I decided to make this blend on the full moon closest to Beltane. This draws both on the power of the moon and the energy of the sun.

Bowl and simple altar setup for creating sacred offering herb blend

Bowl and simple altar setup for creating sacred offering herb blend

Open a sacred grove. In the druid revival tradition, this would include calling in the sacred animals, calling in the elements, blessing/purifying with the elements, saying the druid’s prayer, establishing a protective sphere or circle.

 

Cut your Herbs (if necessary). Many home grown herbs are not in very small pieces, so I find it is useful to cut them. I do this with a pair of scissors.

Cutting tobacco leaf

Cutting tobacco leaf

Blend Your Herbs. Gather your herbs together and blend them. I find that using a clockwise motion while I chant or sing helps bless them and brings some of my own energy into the mixture.

Blending the herbs

Blending the herbs

Bless Your Herbs. You might use a simple blessing to empower the herbs further with sacred intent. I used an elemental blessing, drawing upon the energies already called and simply moving each elemental bowl clockwise above the herbal blend.

 

Store Your Blend. Depending on what you are going to do next, you might put your herbal blend in a mason jar to keep it airtight. The last batch I blended was primarily for gifts, so I instead put them in little bags with labels and also filled up my own offering bag again.

Bagging my herbs for gifts

Bagging my herbs for gifts

Attaching labels for the herb blend

Attaching labels for the herb blend

Close Your Sacred Space. Close your sacred space once your magical crafting is complete!

 

How to Use Herbal Offerings

There’s not really a wrong way to use an herbal offering, but I can give you some ideas of how I’ve used these.

 

Offering on a stone cairn

Offering on a stone cairn

Land Healing Purposes. When I see land in need of healing–an abandoned lot, a tree that has been cut down, a recently poisoned lawn, I will leave a pinch of the offering. This is just to let the land know that I am here, I honor it, and I am present. I have left these pinches near cut Christmas trees during the  holiday season–again, as a space holding gesture.

 

Land Blessing Purposes. When I’m interacting with the land, I will leave a pinch. For example, if I’m camping out somewhere, when I first arrive and again when I leave, I will leave a pinch of the offering. If I’m hiking, I will leave some as a I walk at a few points.

 

Ritual Offering Purposes. Because I always honor the land and the spirits of the land as a primary part of my own ritual work, I use this blend as an offering to the land.

 

You can do a lot of things with this sacred blend–or another like it! I wish you a blessed Beltane–and happy magical crafting!

 

Authenticity, Ancestors and the Druid Revival Tradition: Reclaiming our Ancestors and Living Druidry Today April 22, 2018

A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, anthropomorphisms, in short, a sum of human relations which were poetically and rhetorically heightened, transferred, and adorned, and after long use seem solid, canonical, and binding to a nation. Truths….are coins which have lost their image and now can be used only as metal, and no longer coins.”

“On Truth and Lying in a Moral Sense” Nietzsche, P. 250

 

Standing stones in Bangor, PA (recently set)

Standing stones in Bangor, PA (recently set)

There seems to be a preoccupation with “authenticity” and “truth” within the druid community (and outside of it). Time and time again, people have asked me a lot about the history of the tradition, the “truth” of the druid revival material, the lack of knowledge about the Ancient druids, and how we can be a “legitimate” religious or spiritual tradition. This has come not only from the outside, but also from members of the two druid orders to which I belong, including new folks that start digging into some of the history of the druid revival. Because, as soon as one starts reading on either the ancient druids or revival druids, truth and authenticity seem to be a never-ending focus. For example, from the back cover of The Druids (Ellis, 2005), “Finally, a book that separates fact from mythology, telling us what we can and cannot know about the ancient Druids.” In the same book’s opening pages, Ells says, “The simple truth is that one person’s Druid is another person’s fantasy. The Druids have been conjured in a wide variety of perceptions, as to who they were, what they believed and what they taught, since the sixteenth century” (11).  In 1927, Kendrick writes of the “prodigious amount of rubbish” written on Druids in The Druids: A Study in Celtic Prehistory.  These scholarly sources, of course, have their own bias situated within the realm of what is acceptable scholarly work. However, even within our own druid orders, similar conversations are also being had.

 

The underlying questions seem to be: is this an authentic tradition? Is it true? From where does our truth derive? Is it real, even if some of what we based our practices on is historically suspect or created by our spiritual ancestors? These are very good questions for those who have been practicing druidry to ask, especially concerning the rather “colorful” past that the Druid Revival tradition has had. This questioning typically comes from two sources: first, we have A) so little left of what the Ancient Druids actually did/believed/practiced (less than 12 pages in total, written mostly by the enemies of the druids, the Romans) and B) the Druid Revival itself is, in part, assumed to be based on elaborate “forgeries” and “creative repurposing” from leaders of the early Druid revival (like Iolo Morganwg’s Barddas). Further, the question of authenticity is the basis of one of the larger rifts within the modern druid community in terms of where we base our practices (Celtic Reconstructivism vs. Revival Druidry).  So let’s dig into this a bit today and see how deep this rabbit hole of authenticity really goes.

 

“Authenticity” Challenge 1: On the Changing Nature of Text and Text Ownership

There is little doubt that the history of the Druid Revival is clouded with many inaccuracies, misunderstandings, and downright fraudulent texts. Iolo Morganwg as his contemporaries claimed to be working from ancient lost texts, and in some cases, they certainly were. But as much “ancient knowledge” might be true within their texts, there is also a lot of their own original material (creatively repurposed and or heavily adapted) to fill in the gaps. For a while, it was accepted that much of what Revival Druids believed was a carefully constructed fable perpetrated by Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg); now, some recent scholarship (such as John Michael Greer’s work on the Coelbren), shows that it might be based on more original material than originally believed.

 

One of the most important issues to understand within Revival Druid tradition is the radically changing definitions of history, accuracy, and plagiarism. In the 20th and 21st centuries, we are very concerned—one might say obsessed—with copyrights and originality.  I’m a writing professor by trade, and I can speak from direct experience at the near obsession our current academic culture has with plagiarism: a plagiarizing student is subject to severe academic sanctions that can, in certain cases, lead to them being permanently expelled or losing tuition money. If I were caught plagiarizing a professional academic publication, I would lose my job and be permanently ostracized from my field. When examining figures like Iolo Morganwg who developed original works based on earlier manuscripts, we often apply the same academic standards, viewing them as frauds or fakes; someone who committed serious crimes against history and accuracy.

 

Druid Wisdom

Druid Wisdom

But a deeper examination of the changing historical ethics at the time they were writing paints a different picture. Copying and creative expansion were used as teaching tools and often considered the highest form of flattery for most of human written history. Consider a work like Virgil’s Aneaead, which is a near-copy of Homer’s Odyssey (and Homer himself was likely several storytellers who based their work on still older works that were passed down from one poet to the next). Despite the “plagiarism”, Virgil’s work is still lauded as a masterpiece in its own right. Even William Shakespeare, considered one of the greatest playwrights, borrowed extensively from previous predecessors and contemporaries for his manuscripts, including his famous Romeo and Juliet. Ronald Hutton in The Druids, writes, “Ancient historians simply did not work according to the same priorities and conventions as their successors in the twentieth century. They were less concerned to establish the exact truth of the past than to propose lessons from it, of utility to present to future readers” (p. 5). In “What is an Author” Foucault (1977) describes the rise of the concept of ownership of a text—this ownership itself as a product of the commodification of goods and the rise of the consumerist society.  In other words, “ownership” of texts in this way has everything to do with the rise of our particularly form of capitalism.  Foucalt demonstrates that before the 18th and 19th centuries when writing was commodified, writing was an act, not a product or thing. Through this Foucault demonstrates that the very idea of “Authorship” and “ownership”—ideas which we so highly prize in our materialistic and post-industrialized world—were nearly non-existent through most of human history.

 

And so, we have a long-held historical and literary tradition of adapting material to suit a common purpose—often with cultural significance.  Hutton demonstrates that much of the renewed interest in the Ancient Druids during the early Druid Revival attached the term druid to all kinds of things.   For example, John Seldon, a politician living in the 14th and 15th centuries said that druids were the foundation for free assembly and the British Parliament while Thomas Caius in the same time period claimed the Druids were the intellectual heirs to Cambridge University (Haycock, 2001).  Obviously none of these things were necessarily true, but they were done as part of a cultural reclaiming act and in a way that was within acceptable bounds at the time.

 

To be clear: I think part of the reason that the Druid Revival materials are “suspect” and treated with disrespect compared to say, Shakespere or Virgil, has everything to do with time. Apparently 156 years is simply not long enough.  Shakespere or Virgil are older, established in the canon, and therefore, not suspect to the same criticism that Iolo Morganwg and his contemporaries are. If Morganwg’s writings were from 1000 years earlier, there would be no suspicion. And because of the long historical and literary tradition present in many ancient texts, it is likely that many sacred texts, from all around the world, were probably created in the same way.  Its just that those mysteries are lost to time in ways that Barddas is not.

 

This is one important lesson for us to take away from the “authenticity” debate–we cannot apply the same standards of scholarship present in the 21st century to the 19th. There is a lot more to Barddas than what has been espoused by academics, that’s for certain.

 

“Authenticity” Challenge 2: On the Industrial Revolution and Changing Ecological Realities

Ducks on the Water at Yellow Creek State Park (PA)

Ducks on the Water at Yellow Creek State Park (PA)

The other piece of this, of course, is the relationship between our spiritual ancestors and the crashing force of the industrial revolution.  Two hundred and fifty years ago, our spiritual ancestors faced a radically changing world: a stable agrarian society, where the common people shared common lands and people made their own homecrafted goods was quickly disappearing. Their society was being quickly replaced by an exploitative society that forced farmers into factories, that filled the skies with pollution and the rivers with poison, that undermined traditional ways of life, and that pillaged the natural world for raw materials. Of course, our spiritual ancestors looked to their own past histories, drawing deeply from what materials remained, to offer some alternative perspectives to what was unfolding before them.

 

I come at this particular issue from a place of deep compassion and understanding, as I, too, live in a region, a culture, and a civilization that continued to perpetuate the myth of progress, and whose ultimate aims are profit and exploitation. I wonder what any one of us would have done during that era—and I am grateful for the work that these spiritual pioneers did so that today, I have the tools and knowledge to thrive in these difficult times, to connect with the living earth, and to heal and regenerate the land becuase they paved the way for it..

 

Reclaiming our History and Honoring Our Ancestors of the Druid Revival Tradition

 

At this point, I’ve offered two key arguments that help us shift our understanding of the origins of the druid revival. First, that Morganwg and his contemporaries that helped found the Druid Revival tradition were working under very different cultural and scholarly values and that it isn’t appropriate to hold them to our standards of today. Second, Morganwig and his contemporaries were responding to the beginning of an ecological and social crisis (of which we are now experiencing the final act). If we accept these two arguments, the question now is, what do we do with this information? I see at least three pathways forward: reclaiming our history and honoring the ancestors, recognizing druidry as a “living tradition”, and reframing authenticity as direct experience.  We’ll now explore each of these in the second half of this post.

 

From a matter of historical accuracy, we have challenges to the legitimacy and authority of our tradition from outside of our community. For example, Ellis (2005) writes of the present Druid revival with disdain, “With the onset of the 1960’s ‘Hippies’ and ‘Alternative Religions’ the Druids were fair game again” (277). Ellis is quick to dismiss current Druidic spirituality as a “quick fix on spirituality; because people, in the quest for truth and meaning in life, which seems the perennial human drive, prefer simple answers. It is easier to accept the cozy pictures of non-existent romantic Celts and Druids rather than ponder the uncomfortable realities.” (280).  Clearly, Ellis has not dug very deeply in our own rich traditions as a teaching order to understand the kinds of work that a modern Druid does. Druidry is not a passive spiritual path but rather one in which druids must engage both the difficult questions surrounding our colorful past and the ecological and spiritual realities of the present. I think that these kinds of perspectives and challenges will likely always be with us—but these are no different than the same kinds of challenges faced by other religious traditions.

 

Honoring our Ancestors

Calling in our Ancestors

Calling in our Ancestors

However, to address external challenges to our own legitimacy, I believe we first must begin in hearts and minds of those of us who are the spiritual descendants of the Druid Revival. I think, at the outset, we need to seek peace with our history and our ancestors. We might begin to honor those founders of the Druid Revival tradition as ancestors—for that very much is what they are. It is highly likely that, without Morganwg’s work, we might not have a modern Druid spiritual tradition in any sense of the world. Morganwg, Stuckley, and their contemporaries were pioneering spirits whose work and inspiration continues within our tradition. Each time we invoke “Awen” or say the druid’s prayer, or draw upon the three currents or declare peace in the quarters—these basic practices are rooted in their works. We can’t use these, in good faith, while attacking and holding in disregard those who helped bring us these practices.  So within our communities and druid orders, I believe it is important to begin to honor them with the due respect given to any other ancestor.

 

Recognizing Druidry as a Living Tradition

A number of years ago, I was able to attend a workshop with Penny Billington, who published Paths of Druidry and runs OBOD’s magazine, Touchstone. When asked about the colorful history of the druid revival, she gave one of the best answers I had ever heard. She said that we were lucky, as druids, to not have any ancient sacred texts holding us back. She said that druidry is a living tradition that we are co-constructing, and as such, it could adapt to the rapidly changing world. Nature is our text and our greatest teacher. And so, we co-create this tradition as we grow, both as individuals, but also as druid orders and as participants in the broader movement of reconnecting with the earth.

 

I have found a lot of peace in Penny Billington’s statement. When people ask me things like “Well, how old is druidry anyways?” I know it’s often an underlying challenge to the authenticity of this path. But, as I’ve meditated on her statement over a period of years, I think it holds tremendous value and also tremendous wisdom.

 

While other traditions struggle to address and interpret ancient texts in a very different day and age, our tradition is on the forefront of adapting. In AODA, for example, we recognize that nature-based spiritual practice is not only rooted in the rituals and energetic work, but also, in our own connection and path to walk more lightly and kindly upon the living earth.  This is not something a text of 1000 years ago gave us.  It’s something that we know to be inherently true when we look outside of our window or read the news—we know if we are to align with the living earth spiritually, especially in these times, we must also change our physical actions. This is something that even 75 or 100 years ago was not as painfully obvious as it is today, with the rise of climate science and the harsh ecological realities that we experience.

 

Druidry is helping us lay the groundwork for what is to come if the human race is to survive, both personally but also culturally.  We are rediscovering ancient ways of knowing, living, and doing in the world.  Nature teaches us this through her own rhythms, cycles, and truths.  Our ancient ancestors around the globe learned all they needed to know from observing and interacting with the living earth on a constant basis: and as we return to these same practices, we uncover wisdom lost with the eradication of indigenous wisdom around the globe.  It might turn up in a different form, but it will turn up again—because we are getting it the same way our ancestors got it—from the sacred book of nature.

 

Our tradition has room to grow, to adapt, to change—just like nature herself.  By learning from nature, by heeding her voice, we are putting ourselves, and by example, others, on a more earth-centered path.

 

The Path of Druidry

The Path of Druidry

Of course, there may be a lingering discomfort may be present with the idea that we can create a personally valid and meaningful practice that works for us and that isn’t based on millennia of religious understanding or a holy book. That one can, essentially, call upon nature’s divine inspiration and craft something that works. The question, to me, isn’t whether or not 2000+ years of previous human history validates my practice—the question for me is, “Does it work? Is it meaningful?” To me, it doesn’t matter that some of it is rooted in Iolo’s writings, in the insights and practices of others, and in our own adaptations and understandings.  If you are one of those folks who feel this way, consider this: we are working from ancient understandings, even if those understandings are fragmented. We are also working from a 300 year old tradition that has grown, evolved, and is stronger today perhaps than ever before.

 

Reframing Authenticity through Experience

Directly stemming from the acknowledgement of druidry as a living tradition that adapts much like nature herself, one more critical piece seems to be at play in the discussion of authenticity, and that is the role of direct experience, personal knowing, intuition, and heart-centered experiences.

 

The idea of “certainty” (and to some degree, “authenticity”), stems in part from the rise of what is known as “modernism”: a philosophy rooted in rationalism and the development of the scientific method. It was through the rise of modernism and the industrial revolution that we moved from a “heart centered” to a “head centered” culture.  Modernism displaced the idea that core of the human was in feeling, experience, emotion–centered in the heart (this has been discussed through various; one of my favorite treatments of the topic is in the opening Stephen Harrod Buhner’s Plant spirit medicine). In a head centered/rational culture, we live with the not-always conscious assumptions that what is certain or authentic is what can be empirically validated, measured, or assessed.

 

Some of druidry’s core practices and practitioner experiences don’t fit within these head-centered boundaries. They are in the realm of personal experience, emotional knowing, intuition, and inner experience; they are in the realm of the heart. I can’t empirically validate many of my experiences as a druid, but that doesn’t make them any less meaningful. It seems, perhaps, that a different worldview and basic set of assumptions would better serve us—and simply acknowledging that one can exist and helping us get into the framework for it, would be beneficial. A worldview where scientific knowledge of the natural world (which is useful and wonderful) lives side-by-side with experiential ways of knowing, and that each of these have relevancy and power in our tradition.

 

I also want to note here: I teach masters and doctoral courses in social science and educational research methods as part of my profession. I am also well published learning researcher. It is because of this expertise that I know how very inappropriate the scientific method is for the work of inner spiritual life. There are questions that empirical researchers can answer, through observation and interaction with the physical reality.  And, there are questions that are unanswerable with these methods because they occur on a meta-physical (beyond physical) reality where the scientific method cannot reach. Most deep spiritual truths fall into the realm of unanswerable questions—and that is why it is in the realm of spiritual understanding, rather than historical or scientific, that I seek my own inner truth. We seem to forget, as a society, that there is more than one way of creating knowledge. Recognizing these multiple ways of making meaning, and balancing these ways, are critical for the development of a fulfilled spiritual life. And so, while as a professional, I embrace the scientific method as the meaning-making and knowledge-building tools that they are, I firmly reject them as the basis for my inner spiritual life and my tradition.

 

Conclusion

In the end, the questions I ask about the druid tradition aren’t about if it is authentic or real.  I don’t really care. In all honesty, that’s not the metric through which I’m measuring the effectiveness of this tradition. What I want to know is if the tradition “works” for me and others along this path.  And the answer has been resoundingly clear to me: druidry is a living spiritual tradition that “works.” If it didn’t work and it wasn’t meaningful, we wouldn’t have so many people seeking it out, going against the grain of the broader religious and cultural traditions, and continuing to persevere with it.  To me, that is the measure of authenticity.

 

Revival Druidry, as a phenomenon and as the forebears to the AODA, OBOD, and other Druid organizations, has much to teach us and how issues surrounding “truth” can, in themselves, be a source of inspiration and education. As druids might consider treating our knowledge of the Druid Revival (and Ancient Druids) in the same manner that we treat the many fables, tales, and stories.  It is not the “truth” that we cannot possibly know for certain that is important. Rather, the Druid Revival provides us with something more valuable than a simple historical fact or empirical reality—they provide us with a rich history and framework, and that history can today be used for teaching and reflection.  And like all great works, the story changes as the tale is told.  It morphs into what is necessary for that era and time. Our druid revival predecessors offered us much in the way of their own wisdom, their own truths—and we can honor them as the rightful ancestors that they are. They also left much up to us, to find our own way in our living tradition, seeking direct wisdom and experience form the living earth.

 

References

Ells, P. B. (2005). A Brief History of the Druids. New York: Caroll & Graf Publishers.

Foucault (1977).  “What is an Author?”  Found: http://www.scribd.com/doc/10268982/Foucault-What-is-an-Author

Haycock, D. B. William Stukeley: Science, Religion and Archaeology in Eighteenth-Century England

Hutton, R. (2007). The Druids. London: Hambledon Coniunuum.

Kendrick (1927). The Druids: A Study in Celtic Prehistory

Nichols, R. (1992).   The Book of Druidry.  2nd edition.  New York: Thorsons.

Nietzsche (1873). “On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense” (1873)

 

Sacred Landscapes, Part IV: Sacred Time, Sacred Space April 8, 2018

A woodburned sign bidding druids to enter a sacred space

A woodburned sign bidding druids to enter a sacred space

“This is sacred time, this is sacred space.” At the end of the opening of every OBOD ritual, this powerful statement is made.  But what does “sacred time, sacred space” really mean? What is “the sacred” and how do we know it?  What is sacred in the context of American Druidry, where we do not have an abundance of ancient stone circles or accessible sacred sites? In this post, I want to spend some time today thinking about the ways we might enact the sacred in our own lives and lands as part of building sacred landscapes and re-enchanting our land.

 

In my first post in this series, I talked about the “disenchantment” of the world through industrialization and the rise of a religious tradition that did not acknowledge the land as sacred. And truly, a disenchanted worldview–where only the physical matters, and where the physical landscape is viewed only as a resource from which to extract wealth–literally strips the sacredness from everything: very little is “sacred” in our current culture. In this culture, money, and the pursuit of it, is the most sacred thing. Some of our national landmarks are tourist attractions, and may hold sacredness for someone (like the Veterans memorial for someone who lost a solider at war) but even these spaces are fairly rare. Churches, mosques, synagogues and other such places may also hold some sacredness still, but even that seems fairly minimal. Most major natural wonders are now tourist attractions, and tourists are anything but respectful or reverent. Even sacred places around the world, like Stonehenge, are routinely desecrated through garbage, graffiti, and more.

 

I think that what I’m describing is the reality of living in a disenchanted world, where nothing is truly sacred any longer. If we don’t know how to treat anything as sacred, how can we re-enchant our lands? In this post, I start to explore some of the building blocks and considerations for doing this.

 

The Building Blocks: Intentionality, Time, Meaning, Symbolism, and Energy

In order to create sacred spaces, we need to consider a number of different building blocks that help us pick up the pieces and begin again.

 

Intentionality. The first building block of bringing the sacred into everyday life is about intentionality and acknowledgement.  Sacredness happens in many cases because we choose to make it happen. We choose to offer an event, a place, an object, a mantra or prayer, or even a person some special meaning, some important significance, something that takes it from an everyday “mundane” thing and into something that has meaning beyond the every day. That that object , place, event, mantra, and so forth is something different, something out of the ordinary, something that requires reverence and special treatment in some way.  Individuals can create the sacred, but so can groups, on a different level.

 

Cherish Earth Sign - made from old barn wood

Cherish Earth Sign – made from old barn wood

For example, declaring intentions at the start of a ceremony where you are establishing sacred space and time (such as the OBOD opening) is a sacred act.  Speaking the words is a powerful act that sets your intentions. When I was homesteading in Michigan on my land, I created a lot of signage that also set intentions. My garden had a sign that said “Cherish Earth” (which will go on my new garden this year).  That sign set the intentions for me working in the garden each day–as a place of sacredness, as soil to cherish and nurture.

 

Time. Time helps us build a relationship with space. The more that we acknowledge and engage with a sacred place, thing, object, prayer, and so on over a period of time, the more sacredness it begins to take on. This is both because of human psychology (repeated patterns become individual rituals) but also because of magical reality (the more energy you put into something, the stronger that thing becomes). A simple analogy here might help illustrate this point. Let’s say you start with an empty field, and each time you visit a sacred place, you bring a stone. After 10 visits, you have 10 stones, and have built a stone cairn. After 100 visits, you have four stone cairns at each of the quarters as well as a whole stone circle and spiral labyrinth. Thus, repetition and time can certainly build sacredness in a space. This is an important concept in an American Druid setting and offers us one of the keys to sacred space and time here in the US.  Time, by the way, is one of the pieces often “missing” for American druids. We don’t have that sense of history and presence of old stone circles in the way that our UK counterparts do. Given that, we have different kinds of work and possibilities here on our soil.

 

Meaning. Ultimately, something is sacred because we choose to give it meaning. The nature of that meaning, and the spiritual experiences we may gain through that meaning, is paramount to establishing anything sacred. Part of the reason we have less sacred spaces, times, and places is that the only thing that has real meaning and singificance is money in our culture. Recognizing the meaning and importance of other things is part of establishing the sacred.

 

Symbolism. Symbolism here, also plays a role. We can draw upon existing symbolism (Awen, ogham, the pentacle/pentagram, runes, colors, animals, directions, etc) to bring more meaning to new places/objects/prayers, etc. that we want to bring more sacredness to. Symbolism is connected to meaning–some symbols have long-standing relationships with particular themes (like the pentacle and pentagram, which have been protective symbols for over 5,000 years and are woven into the fabric of our landscape). Symbols, then, help us shape meaning and establish the sacred.

 

Magic and Energy. Sacred space and sacred time is also, ultimately, about magic and about energy. The kind of energy that you can raise in a group setting through ritual (see next section, the kind of inherent energy that collects at the bottom of the waterfall, the telluric energy gushing forth out of a spring. In the hermetic tradition, the simple adage rings true: as above, so below; as within, so without. When we create sacred spaces in the physical world or interact with them, that raises energy on the inner planes. When we raise energy by calling the quarters, chanting, dancing, singing, and more, we bring forth energy, direct it, and shape it in some way. And for many sacred places and sacred landscapes, that energy stays in some way. In the case of the ley lines, as I described last week, the lines themselves faciliate the raising and transmission of energy all across the land.

 

 

Creating Sacred Time and Sacred Moments

Now that some of the building blocks have been covered, we can turn to ways to bring in the sacred on different scales and in different ways.  Sacred moments and time are not permanent sacred places, but ways of powerfully bringing in the sacred to everyday life.

 

Sacred Moments in Everyday Life. Let’s start by thinking about the different ways in which humans experience the sacred in everyday life.  Again, thinking about the building blocks above, we can bring in sacred meaning to everyday life in any number of ways—the key is to take a moment in time, give it meaning, and set intentionality.  When people say a prayer at a meal, for example, they are taking a sacred moment in everyday life.  You can also do this with natural events, as my example will now illustrate.

 

Snowy Oak Tree

Snowy Oak Tree

Here’s a simple example: in late November or early December of 2017, the first snowfall happened. I happened to be at work that day, on the 5th floor of our building (the top floor). I went into this lobby area in my department and began watching it in awe and reverence—the snowflakes were big and lazy and beautiful.  As I stood, another colleague of mine also came to the window. We acknowledged each other and our mutual love of snow, and then we stood, watching it, for probably about 10 minutes. We recognized, in each other, that the first snowfall was a significant and sacred event, and we took a quiet moment in an otherwise very busy and hectic day to revere it. This is a simple example of observing a natural event, in every day life, and taking a moment to respect and honor that event in life.

 

Sacred Times through Ritual. Another way in which we intentionally create sacred space and sacred time is through ritual. A lot of effort in the druid tradition goes into opening and closing a sacred space—usually about half of our ritual time is devoted to this activity. Why is it so critical?  For one, it takes time to do it right and well, to acknowledge the powers and call them forth, to protect the space, to cleanse and bless it.  But really, I think a lot of the time spent is in the mind—helping us come out of the mundane and cross the threshold into sacred awareness. We also declare it in some way, by declaring the space open, declaring sacred space/sacred time, and so forth—the declaration of it, the acknowledgement, that all of us are in agreement (in a group) or that you are doing this sacred thing is critical to the task at hand. We use intentionality, symbolism, and time to do this work.

 

Sacred Actions.  Another kind of sacredness we can bring to everyday life is the idea of living life in a sacred and intentional manner.  This is the kind of ‘everyday’ living that brings sacred awareness to your life.  For me, this involves ecological living and permaculture: I use permaculture principles as a guiding light to help me make decisions and recognize that with each moment, I am interacting on sacred land—my actions can help or harm that land.

 

Sacred Places: Natural and Created

Moving beyond moments, we can think about the kinds of natural and created larger sacred spaces that we might engage with, particularly here in the US, in places were we don’t have bountiful stone circles or ancient sites.

 

Sacred Places: Natural.  There are those places that have such inherent beauty and magic that they are already sacred.  These are places that we may come upon that simply have an existing “energy” about them that is so powerful and potent that you move forward with reverence and awe.

 

I’ve spoken about one of these places at length, here, on this blog: Laurel Hill State Park’s old growth Hemlock grove.  I remember the first time I walked into that grove, it had such a sacred presence about it. It took my breath away.  I had never seen anything like it—the ancient hemlocks, powerful and wise—just stood, waiting for me to do something. It is extremely dark, the understory is minimal, and the trees just go up and up.  Their trunks are so wide and old. It looks nothing like the other forests of Pennsylvania, who have all been logged multiple times and are in the place of regrowth.  Since that moment, I’ve spent a lot of time seeing other people, random people, not just druids I bring there, interact with the space.  They enter the grove, their eyes light up, their mouths open, and they grow quiet. It is spectacular, it is sacred, and it is meaningful to the everyday person.

 

Sacred Places: Intentional. Then there are those spaces that we create, that we build, over a period of time.  This might be individual or small sacred spaces like I’ve written about before: stone circles, sacred gardens, bee and butterfly sanctuaries, etc.  These are wonderful ways of bringing the sacred into our landscapes and everyday lives.

 

Stones at Four Quarters

Stones at Four Quarters

Or, this might be spaces that we create together, with our hearts and hands, like the stone circle at Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary. Four Quarters has been engaged in an ongoing ritual to create a stone circle for almost a quarter of a century—and it shows. When you walk into the space there, the stones sing to you. They greet you. They each have personality, presence, magic. It is unlike any other place I have been on this land in North America.  There can be a social aspect to creating sacred spaces. The idea of people coming together, for a common goal and vision, and lending their energy to meet that goal is a powerful experience.

 

 

Sacred as Relationship and Co-Creation

Creating sacred space and sacred time is ultimately about relationship.  It is about you being in relationship to something else: a waterfall, a moment in time, a stone circle, your relationship with what it is that you feel is sacred.  It is about you taking time out of regular, busy life to engage with the sacred and to co-create the sacred.  We co-create the sacred with each other, and we co-create the sacred with the power of the living earth. For me, this is why regular visits and regular rituals/moments are a critical part of thinking about sacred spaces and places. Like an old friend, I am building a relationship with a sacred space or place and that simply takes time.

 

 

Diary of a Land Healer: February February 18, 2018

A tranquil February morning

A tranquil February morning

February is here, and it is is all about flow. With the accellerating pace of climate change, February becoming is the new March–the most dynamic, engaging, extreme of the months of the year. February is a month of transition. Its a month where the ebb and flow of water, snow, rain and ice are ever present and ever changing. It is a month where the weather apologizes to no one: it is simply raw, powerful, unchecked. Just this past week here in Western Pennsylvania, we had a 60 degree day where the maple sap was flowing, then we had two days of solid rain that caused major floods in the region, and then yesterday it was a very cold day with 3” of snow overnight with a low of 15 degrees. In fact, late winter often has this kind of dynamism rarely found in other times of year. Each day in late winter is a radically different: a different mood, a different temperature, different visuals, different water levels, a complete different experience. The message is simple: adaptability, change, growth, and flow are required of us now. And with this message comes the challenge of managing our own adaptability, emotions, and the change that swirls around us.

 

This post is part of my “Diary of a land healer” series; once-a-month documentation of the healing process of the land here, where I live, for 2018. I offer photos, thoughts, and lessons from this landscape as it heals and regenerates as well as insights I have  as I watch this process unfold. You can read my first entry in this series from January here, and a large number of earlier posts on land healing here.

 

Flowing of the Land

These freezing and thawing cycles have encouraged many different kinds of flows upon the land. One such pattern of flow is from the trees themselves.  Everyone knows of the famous sugar maple with her flowing sap that can be transformed into delicious syrup. However, Maple trees aren’t the only trees to have sap running in their inner cambium this time of year–most trees have flowing of sap, but only certain trees have a high enough sugar content to make tapping them for producing syrup worthwhile. We think this time of year, everything is still under the snow, but a single warm day enocurages the rise of sap up from the roots and into the branches.  These trees well up with pure telluric energy–the sap comes up from the roots, deep within the earth, and into the branches and trunk. The water that flows from many trees–Sycamore, Maple, Birch, Hickory, Walnut, Butternut–is delicious to drink and offers a vitalizing quality that I have only found in fresh spring water right from the mountainside.

 

Flowing of the sap...

Flowing of the sap…

At Imbolc, I made offerings, spoke with the trees, and tapped six of them who gave me permission.  Since that time, each day the weather is warm enough and the sap is running, I have visited the maples and have drank right from the tree, bringing in the vitalizing nywfre (a druid’s term for life force/vitalizing energy) into my body as a  rejuvenating practice. It is incredible–fresh, cold, pure, and putting a spring in my step that is hard to otherwise describe.

 

This same powerful life force, this Nwyfre, will eventually will spark the new beginnings of all of the life upon this landscape.  Nywfre is the spark of life, the magic present in the land that allows healing to take place–the trees just start that process when the rest of the plants and roots are still waiting for the sun to return.

 

Of course, the excess sap will be put to good use as my friends and I boil it down to make syrup, a fine activity on a warm February day!

 

Flowing of the Stream

Penn Run in stillness

Penn Run in stillness

Flow is happening in so many other ways on this beautiful landscape. Given the dynamic nature of the flows of Feburary, I have been paying attention to the stream, Penn Run, which flows behind my house at the bottom of my property. The ebb and flow of the waters come anew with each new day. Its amazing how a single day of rain, ice, or snow transforms the whole landscape and the whole edge of the creek. Just two days before, as is my regular custom, I put on my muck boots and waded across the tranquil stream, enjoying the peace that it offered. But as the flood waters raged and the stream was several feet above its normal height, I stood respectfully from the shore and honored the power of flowing water on this brisk February day.

 

The floods this week were potent and powerful. If we had this precipitation even 10 or 20 years ago, we would have had 2 or more feet of snow, but because it has been so much warmer in February in the last few years, the snow has become rain, sleet, and ice. This is a change I am sad to have to adapt to, for it warns me of further changes to come.

 

Earlier this week,  the nearby town of Indiana, PA, where a number of my local friends live, so many have been sharing photos and stories of flooded basements and posting messages alterting people to the height and flood status of Mill Run, the stream frequently floods and that runs through heart of the town. I am thankful right now that my house is at the top of a hill and the Penn Run creek is at the bottom. This is an important lesson: planting ourselves carefully in relationship to nature. If we haven’t done that—these floods bring terror and sleeplessness.

 

In our quest as humans to do whatever we want, to dominate nature, to tame her, we forget that in the end, when nature wants something, she takes it. As I stood earlier this week looking at the swollen and flooded stream,  and heard stories of flooded and frozen basements, I’m glad to know that I’ve chosen to live somewhere where the path of an angry stream does not impact whether or not I have a home the next day.

 

Flooded Penn Run, two days later!

Flooded Penn Run, two days later!

Its amazing how much of our lives and lands depend on cycles of things that are somewhat unpredictable. Like this weather.  We know that floods will come, but we don’t know when.  In less than 12 hours, the stream went from a children’s wading pool to the point where a whitewater kayaker would have a very good time. We think about the time between Imbolc and the Spring Equinox as a time of renewal and healing. Yet healing is characterized by this stream, the turbulence and raw force of it.

 

The Flowing of Emotion

The powerful transition of the stream from tranquil to flooded resonates deeply with me on an emotional level, and asks me to recognize the power of currents of deep emotion. We often go through our lives like that tranquil stream, peaceful, quite, serene, going to work and coming home, being in the regular rhythm of our lives. And suddenly, out of nowhere, something intense happens: a terrible loss, a tragedy, or an unexpected event that rattles us to the core. And that one thing sets us off on on this raging journey of turbulent emotion.

 

 

Part of that time of healing and renewal is not denying what is inside, but embracing it and saying “I’m going to deal with this right now. I am going to let these emotions flow. I am going to let all of this wash away.”  Water breaks away all that is false, all that is damaged, all that says to us “I can’t…”  A good friend of mine, on the same day this creek was flooding, talked to me about a relationship that she cared deeply about and that was sadly ending. She spoke to me of all of these emotions that were inside of her and shew as afraid to experience. I told her she needed to be like this river, to let it flood, and let it flow.  She did so, and the healing, the release, was powerful.

 

Flowing spring upon the land...

Flowing spring upon the land…

Yet, in the same way that physical floods can bring terror to those who have planted themselves on flood plains, so too, can these deep emotions bring terror. It is scary to watch the rage of incredible emotions flowing through you–or another–like this frothing creek. It’ss particularly terrifying to experience these kinds of emotions if you don’t know how to navigate such a strong current. The current threatens to take you down, pull you under.  And sometimes it can. But, if you have learned how to kayak and you have a worthy vessel or some other way of navigating it, it can be a tremendously beneficial experience for your life.

 

Because when the stream returns to normal, the banks are different. Everything is clear. Debris and detrius is gone, washed away, or buried under sand and silt to become fertile ground.  These floods are exactly nature’s process for renewing the landscape and bringing in fertility. Just as the physical stream has to flood, we too have to be in that flooded, turbulent space for a time if we are going to be renewed. And if we can do this, can gain the benefits of the rich soil, the healing, and the joy that comes in those later summer months as the flood waters recede and land is born anew.

 

But what I worry about, both for the land and humans, is when we dam them up. We know what dams do to ecosystem. And similarly, we know what daming up emotions do to our souls.

 

 

Renewal, in nature’s way, is not a clean process. It is not an easy process. It’s a process of thawing and releasing, of ice and slosh, its rain and ice and snow.  It is a process of unexpected floods rebuilding nutrients along the shore. It’ss hard work. And the land here, in this beautiful February time, reminds us of this powerful lesson.

 

Flowing Anticipation

A common scene this February near the spring! It is almost time!

A common scene this February near the spring! It is almost time!

All across this land, I can see the buds on the trees singing, saying “we are almost ready.”

I can see the maples flowing and drink the sap water every day to rejuvenate myself.  The maples wave their branches, getting redy to bud, and say “it is nearly time.”

I can see the land starting to green again, even the ferns left on the forest floor start to wake up and say “it is almost here.”

 

Before we can look to the promise of spring, we have to deal with late winter’s flows of intensity upon the land. These floods are the floods of renewal. We can’t stop them. We just simply have to learn to adapt and do the hard work of renewal.