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.

 

Druidry for the 21st Century January 13, 2019

This is a challenging age, doubly so for anyone who is connected spiritually with the living earth and who cares deeply about non-human life. The Fourth National Climate Assessment, released towards the end of 2018, presents a dire picture for the future. This isn’t the only recent report from governing bodies globally–report after report continues to paint a clear picture of what humanity is doing, and what we need to do to change.  And yet, it seems to be business as usual.

 

The cycles of nature

The cycles of nature

When I talk to druids about their thoughts about this present age, there seems to be a few ways to think about it.

 

First, the glass half empty approach is feeling extremely demoralized, looking at climate change reports and long-term forecasts and seeing the continued inaction on behalf of world leaders. The glass half empty approach may also have feelings that nothing we do now matters, and may wonder what the point of even trying is. Druidry for them is a means of coping, a means of connecting, even if they think it may all go down the drain.

 

Second, the glass half full approach is feeling concerned about the state of the world but also recognizing the great potential in this age–we must adapt or not survive. One of the core permaculture design principles is “the problem is the solution” meaning we can see into the nature of the problem and in seeing it, we can find solutions within it. These eternal optimists feel that we can be the solution, and it’s just a matter of finding out what to do and how to do  it, and doing it well.

 

Finally, the third approach is ignoring the glass altogether: those who choose not to think about whats happening large-scale, and instead, respond by individual and local action and what they can control.  These druids are fed up with what is happening broadly and pay it no mind–but care deeply about what they can control and work to live in a way that honors and cares for all life.

 

There are probably more responses than I named here (and if I missed yours, please share it!).  Regardless, living in the 21st century is an incredible challenge for druids and any other practitioners of spiritual paths where nature is sacred and revered.  The questions that I keep getting asked, and that I keep asking myself are:  What does druidry do for us in the 21st century?  What does druidry offer the future?  How can we become good ancestors, and create a world that is safe, vibrant, and stable for our descendants?

 

I don’t profess to have all of the answers, by any means.  But I do have thoughts I can share.  I’ll tackle this first question above in this week’s post and the second question in next week’s post.

 

What does druidry do for us in this age?

This is a complex question that requires a number of different answers.  On one hand, we have to look at what it does in an individual’s life–how it supports an individual’s spiritual practices.  We also have to look at what it does to the world around us, ecologies and communities. Finally, we can look at larger paradigms that it challenges and helps us replace, more broadly.  Thus, in this age, it works on at least three levels: the level of the self, the level of the land, and the level of the community.

 

The Self: Tools and Practices. In my work as Archdruid of Water in the Ancient Order of Druids in America, I see a lot of applications from new members. As part of our application, people need to write a letter that explores what encouraged them to join AODA, what made them come to druidry, what they hope to gain. Most of them have key similarities: the need to reconnect with themselves through a spiritual path, the need to connect with nature, and the need to find balance in their lives.  These needs bring me to one of the core gifts of druidry: helping us live in this age fully, powerfully, and sanely.

 

Being connected with nature

Being connected with nature

Modern western culture, particularly here in the USA, has discouraged many things: creative practices, being outside, having any kind of thoughts or an inner life, being curious about the world.  Druidry offers people a way back into these very human and fundamental practices. Druidry is ultimately a connecting practice.  This includes our connection with nature through the ovate arts, our connection with core spiritual practices that sustain us and allow us to cultivate a rich inner life through the druid arts, and our connection with our creative spirit through the bardic arts and the flow of Awen. Druidry offers us tools, strategies, and powerful metaphors to help us adapt, reflect, and ground.

 

Again, in my role in AODA, I get to read a lot of people’s reflections at the end of their coursework.  It’s amazing to hear just how much a single year of druid practice changes them: their healing from past trauma, their deepening appreciation and care for the natural world, their cultivation of a rich inner life, their cultivation of a creative practice.  These kinds of things get to the heart of what a spiritual practice can, and should be, for each individual–a way to connect with themselves, their creative gifts, and the world.

 

Tools and Practices for the Land. Druidic practices don’t just benefit us as individuals; they benefit the world around us. One of the great challenges of our age is that humans are radically disconnected from nature; our food comes from somewhere else, our products come from somewhere else; we don’t know the names of plants or animals in our local ecosystem, we don’t know what a healthy ecosystem looks like. We could not survive in our ecosystem without modern conveniences in place, as our ancestors once could.

Through learning about nature, through nature study, wisdom, and experience–we learn how to be in nature.  Once you begin seeing nature as sacred, you treat it as sacred.  This manifests in so many diverse outward actions–we learn how to live more caring lives that support rich ecology and diversity; we learn how to nurture and tend the lands around us. Druids plant trees, tend gardens, do river cleanup, convert lawns to wildlife sanctuaries, and so much more. Druids make lifestyle changes to reduce their impact on the living earth and help sustain life. Ultimately, druidry takes us from potentially indifferent to knowledgable and connected with nature–and that helps us do good in our land, rather than cause harm. This change on our inner selves has outward results that support our broader ecosystems.

 

What can druidry offer the future?

Druidry helps individuals and those individuals can make some impact on ecosystems–but what about what is happening broadly? While the glass half full and the local action readers are probably nodding and smiling with what I’ve written above, my glass half empty reader is probably reading this and saying sure, that’s great, but we still have an unsolvable predicament on our hands.  And to this, we begin orienting ourselves not only to the present, but to the future.

 

As druidry develops in the 21st century, I think it will inherently look differently than it did in the 18th, 19th or 20th centuries. It’s a personal spiritual practice, yes, but it’s also an alternative philosophy–druidry is in the process of developing new mental models for living and being and interacting in the world.  Let’s look at why this matters, and the power it holds.

 

The Systems Thinking Iceberg Model  offers us a way of understanding how change happens, and at what level change happens. This model suggests that if we want to change behaviors and actions, we must change the underlying mental models–the paradigms we live by. In this model, the top of the iceberg is events–things we react to, events that happen.  That’s what is sticking out of the water, what we can see.  So something occurs, and we react to it. A lot of people get stuck here–reacting to events that occur, not realizing that most of the iceberg (the cause of the event) lies under the water.  The second layer down, just below the water line, are patterns or trends.  These are the series of events that are connected over a period of time and form larger patterns of actions and events.  We don’t always see the patterns, but they are often there.  The third layer is the underlying structures: physical world, organizations, policies, rituals (in the societal sense).  These are the things that govern and support a lot of patterns, and thus, a lot of events.  These are also the structures that make it detrimental to engage in certain kinds of activities (such as going fully off grid).

 

The layer we are most concerned with today, however, is the final layer–that which underlies all else.  This is the layer of mental models: where ideologies, attitudes, beliefs, expectations, values, and myths reside.  These are the stories we believe and the stories we tell ourselves, both as individuals and as cultures.  These mental models drive larger structures in society as well as individual actions.  These are the myths we live and die by.  If you want to change action, the mental models themselves must change. And here’s the thing: right now, western culture has some incredibly destructive myths: to individuals, to communities, and to ecosystems.

 

So what does this have to do with druidry and the future?  And my response is — just about everything.  Druidry isn’t just a spiritual path for individuals in the here and now.  Druidry is a way to change the world.  When individuals take up nature spirituality as a path, the practices lead them to shifts in thinking–to rethink and reframe mental models.

 

Loving the Land (All Heal from the Plant Spirit Oracle, my in-progress oracle deck)

Loving the Land (All Heal from the Plant Spirit Oracle, my in-progress oracle deck)

The Myth of Progress vs. the Cycle. One of the core arguments that John Michael Greer has made about industrialization is that the myth of progress is a national, cultural religion (see Not the Future we Ordered, among his other writings). The myth of progress insists that growth must happen always (economic growth, technological growth) and that progress will forever continue. That is, the idea of progress is so central to the way that humans think and act, and the decisions that we make, that this paradigm drives nearly everything else. The myth, like all good myths, is rarely questioned: to grow is good, and not to grow is bad.  A housing development is progress over a forest.  The myth suggests that humanity has progressed from the stone age to today, with today being the pinnacle of progress, and tomorrow being even better.  This myth also asks us to value efficiency, expediency, mechanization, and standardization.

 

Druidry asks us to confront this myth.  Lessons of nature, of the wheel of the year, of the seasons, teach us that the world doesn’t work in a straight, ever-upward moving line.  The land works in a cycle, with seasons of famine and of plenty, with light and dark times.  Nature’s lessons offer us key ways of re-orienting our own philosophy away from the destructive myth of progress and into something that is more sustaining.

 

Infinite Growth vs. Balance.  Tied directly to the myth of progress is the myth of infinite growth. The idea that all growth is good, and the only way to have a stable society and stable economy is by growing.  This is embedded in to any discussion of modern economics, and certainly, is a driving force.  Edward Abbey wrote, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell” and this very much rings true.

 

Druidry teaches us differently.  Nature is certainly about growth, but like everything else, it is growth for a season.  Nature teaches us that limits are real, and necessary, and that growth and limitation are always in balance.  If trees grew too tall, they would blow over.  If the summer never ended, pests on the land would grow and multiply to great numbers, harming plants.  Nature spirituality teaches us the lesson of balance.

 

Harmful consumption vs. Humans as a force of good. In the permaculture film “Inhabit” permaculturist Ben Falk talks about the challenge we face as humans who care about the land. So many of the things we buy, the narratives we hear, suggest that we should do “less harm.” As though the only thing we can do is harm less, or be a little better than we were before.  But, as he argues, if you follow this thinking to its logical conclusion, it almost seems better if we weren’t here at all, if we had never been born, or that the best thing we could do is end our lives rather than keep polluting and consuming.  This, of course, makes us feel guilty just for inhabiting our earth, for going about our daily lives.  I agree with him in that this thinking is extremely problematic because it defines our role only in a damaging sense.

 

Druidry, and ecological approaches like permaculture, offer us an alternative perspective: we can interact with nature in many other ways–we can be a force of good.  Through tools of both spiritual action and physical action, through the head, heart, and hands, we can regenerate and heal our lands.

 

There are more paradigms than just these that druidry confronts, but I think these three are a good starting point.  To go back to the iceberg metaphor, we can see how what happens (events) and patterns surrounding what happens are supported by underlying structures.  But those structures exist ultimately because of mental models–that which we think, believe, and hold sacred.  If we can change the mental model–we change everything else.

 

What will druidry do for our descendants?

The mental models that have driven this world, particularly, the western world, into the 21st century are failing.  They are failing humans, non-human life, and every ecosystem on this planet.  And frankly, given how destructive they are, they need to fail.  We are quickly approaching the time when a lot of people are going to be seeking new mental models. We are already seeing movement in this direction–the decline of traditional religions and the growth of ecologically oriented religions, the growth in other kinds of ecologically-based thinking– it’s already there.  We’re seeing this movement in the youth of many countries. The paradigms we learn from nature are being shared in many nature-oriented practices and communities: balance, wholeness, integration, connectedness to the land, cycles–lessons from nature.

 

If we can rewrite the culture’s mental models and paradigms using lessons of nature, and if that new myth can become a driving force, all of society will change as a result of it.  And here’s the thing–people are looking for these kinds of new ways of thinking, doing, and being.  The mental models, rooted in nature, can offer us the next paradigm–the next society we build, one that is in line and honors nature and all life.

 

As we grow in our understanding of what this tradition is now, and where it is heading, I believe that we druids are the forerunners of so much change.  Humanity will either have to adapt and develop more ecologically sensitive models, or go extinct.  Think of us druids like the forerunners of that change.  This is the gift we offer our descendants–the mental models that precipitate new structures, patterns, and actions in the world.

 

Abundant milkweed along a field

Abundant milkweed along a field

The Road Forward

 

As I’ve shared before on this blog, druidry as a spiritual tradition is a response to our age, and through the ages, it has always been such a response. Revival druidry began at the dawn of industrialization, responding to that day.  Modern druidry has gained speed as our ecological problems have increased.  Revival druidry saw the beginning of industrialization, and I honestly believe it will see us through to the end of it.  For those of us in the 21st century–druidry is our response to today.  And what we offer our descendants, then, is hope.

 

What we do today will help shape what our tradition–and our world–looks like tomorrow. Today’s practitioners have much to contribute to this conversation–What are we currently doing? What will we do? Who will we become?  I would love to hear your own thoughts on what druidry–or other earth-centered spiritual practices– do for you, how they help, and what potential it may have for us as we pave the way for the future.

 

The Ancestors, the Descendants, and the Stones September 4, 2018

The Stone Circle at Four Quarters

The Stone Circle at Four Quarters

What would our descendants say about this time period? How would we, as a people, be written into their histories? What stories would they tell of us? Perhaps our ancestors would say that this was a time of recklessness, willful ignorance, of extravagance, and of excess. They might mourn the loss of ecological diversity and habitat that we did not protect, they would lament the loss of cultures and languages, the loss of so many things. Perhaps our descendants would say that we pillaged the land and many of its inhabitants by not knowing how to curb our own greed; that we were victims to our own quest for abundance; and that we filled the air with carbon simply because we wanted to move faster.

 

Or, perhaps, our descendants will tell a different story. Yes, they would say, the larger culture and government leaders didn’t want to make change and thereby created a more difficult, less ecologically stable, world. But there were others, their ancestors, who thought differently.  Their ancestors saw with open eyes the destruction surrounding materialist patterns of life, and they worked to change them physically and spiritually. Their ancestors paved the way for a new paradigm of thought and action: one of balance, respect, and nurturing for the living earth and all her inhabitants. And the reason that the descendants are here to record this history was because of their ancestors’ bravery, determination, and commitment to the sacredness of the land and the interconnected web of all life.

 

The stones await their newest additions

The stones await their newest additions

It was with these thoughts of future generations, and what legacy that we might leave them, that I journeyed to Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary for my second year at Stones Rising. As I wrote last year, as we engaged in the physical activity of raising a very large standing stone to add to the growing stone circle, we created something powerful. Stones rising is not just about us in the present moment, but rather, about building something that will last generations and cultivating a community that allows that work to continue to happen. And so, as I arrived at Four Quarters for Stones Rising, I was on the land once again, I was with my tribe once again, and we had sacred work to do.

 

As we gathered at the top of the mountain in the quickening darkness in preparation for pulling our first stone, we sensed the heaviness of that moment. Our ancestors were watching. Our descendants were watching. In the deepening darkness, by torchlight, we strained at the ropes to guide this new stone carefully, perilously, towards its new home. The magic is in the pull–the quiet on the lines, the breath of anticipation, the stone crew guiding the process. Fire and earth are in perfect synthesis as we complete our journey to the stone circle with the first of our two stones. Our ritual that evening invited us directly to engage with the past and the future.  We call forth and talked with our ancestors in front of the western “father stone” in the circle.  They are proud of the legacy that we are now living.  We then called forth and talked with our future descendants, in the east, near the “mother stone.” We listen to their voices, spanning through the ages, thanking us and urging us to continue our work now, so that they may come into being.

 

The next day, we prepare for the long pull. It is aptly named–we are pulling the second stone, the one we will also be raising this year–and it is a 5 ton stone, two tons heavier than what we pulled the night before and we have to pull it a much longer way. We once again assemble at the top of the mountain; our stone is strapped to a simple wooden sled, ready to join its brothers and sisters in the circle. We take three breaths and pull.

 

We pull for the ancestors, whose DNA floats in our veins and whose song we can hear on the breath of the wind.

 

We pull for the descendants, those young people among us, those in the womb, those yet to be conceived.

 

We pull for the land, our battered and beaten land, who, despite humanity’s treatment of her, still has skies that fill us with air, whose soils still produce our food, and whose rivers and storms still quench our thirst.

 

We pull for our community, strained as though it may be, knowing that this work is good work, and necessary work.

 

The stone does not move.  We strain at our ropes. Living in this time sometimes feels like the first long and desperate tug on that rope–when you keep pulling and pulling and nothing happens. When your feet slide in the grass and sweat drips from your brow and nothing happens.  When you feel your muscles straining to the point of collapse, and nothing happens. When everyone around you is likewise straining, giving it their all, and nothing happens. And then, when you know you can’t pull for another second, the stone finally moves a few inches, and then it moves faster, and you know no matter how hard it is to pull or how much time it takes, you will get there.

 

Pulling the stone during the long pull

Pulling the stone during the long pull

Hours later, we arrive with our stone in the stone circle. We break, and have more ceremony, feasting, and song.  The next day, the entire tribe gathers, first to be fed the delicious rolls of bread baked all night by the corn mothers. With nourishment in our bellies, we go as a community into the stone circle, making our commitments to the work, the land, and each other. We hold space as a community, and participate as we are able, to raise the stone into its place in the circle.  People sing, the drummers offer a steady beat, the crones offer a cup of tea, and the most delicious pickles can be found at the snack table. We sit among our tribe, celebrating this moment. Ropes are brought out and we move the stone into position.

 

Everything happens very slowly, ever so slowly, as only a stone can move. The stone raises up, inch by inch, with careful guidance and steady hands. The stone is a lot like the cultural and ecological challenges before us–the stone can only move an inch at a time.  It is a very heavy stone. We can’t expect change all at once. We need to endure, we need to understand that we are beginning the work of generations, and it will take us and our descendants to fully realize the dream of centering us, as humans, back in line with the living earth.

 

The stone is seated into place; a cheer goes up among the community. Now, we celebrate. Now, we feast. Now, through ceremony and song, we welcome the new stone into its home in the east. The East. The direction of the descendants; the direction of spring; the direction of new beginnings and new hopes. There in the east, our descendants stand watching, holding their breath, and dreaming of a tomorrow not yet here.

 

Our newest eastern stone, raised!

Our newest eastern stone, arisen!

The challenges we face as a world are so severe. Sometimes, I can’t fall asleep at night, my spirit heavy with the burden of the now, and even heavier with the burden of the future. When I look at little children, I think to myself, how will this world be for them when they grow up? What can I do now to ensure that they thrive? What about their children’s children?  When we welcome that new stone in the east, I felt my heart lighten. We are in incredibly difficult times, where change seems impossible, but like the slow raising of the standing stone, we–as a an earth-centered spiritual tribe, as a people dedicated to the land–are building a better paradigm for ourselves, our community, and our descendants. Each stone we move is a legacy for those yet unborn and for the stories they will tell, for the histories they will write.

 

We are in the process of becoming ancestors. Whatever our larger culture may offer future generations, we can leave a legacy that offers the seeds of hope, of re-connection to the living earth, and of living in balance. And, we can leave them the stones.

 

An Ancestor Oracle Deck October 31, 2017

A part of my completed Ancestor Oracle (currently with 20+ cards)

A part of my completed Ancestor Oracle (currently with 20+ cards)

Samhain is here, and with it comes a time of reflection, casting away, and working with our ancestors. In my post several weeks ago, I discussed in great depth the ways of working with various kinds of ancestors–in this post, we’ll explore a bardic art  project project that you can make to work with your ancestors: an Ancestor Oracle. This was an idea birthed by a friend of mine and I on the drive back from the OBOD East Coast Gathering this year.  We spent hours in the car talking through all kinds of things, and one of the things that came up was a conversation about working with the ancestors–by the end of the conversation, we had both decided to construct an Ancestor Oracle in time for Samhain this year.  I thought others might also like to construct one of their own, and so, this post will tell you what this is about and how you might create one.

 

The basic concept of the Ancestor Oracle is simple: you generate a list of your ancestors (however you conceive of them): ancestors of blood, land, and tradition, those others whom you have loved and lost, human or otherwise.  Then, you either create a deck of cards (which this post describes), get printable blank cards or purchase a blank deck of cards.  Each ancestor or group of ancestors that you want to represent is giving their own card.  Each person’s ancestor oracle would, of course, be unique to that person.  The Oracle itself can be used in a number of different ways including divination, honoring ancestors, celebrating Samhain, and grieving lost loved ones.

 

Selecting Ancestors

Before you construct your deck, you will want to spend some time making a list of the ancestors you want to acknowledge.  Samhain is a particularly good time for this kind of work. For me, I included ancestors of blood, tradition, and land all within my deck. Some of them ended up as a group, like “The Ancient Druids” (because I don’t know their names) while others (like Iolo Morganwg, Ross Nichols, and Juliet Ashley–three important figures in my own druid heritage) were named specifically. I also included, of course, a range of loved ones and family members who have passed on. I found that this work took time–I had to compile my list, come back to it over a period of days and spend some time meditating upon it.

 

Doing this in advance is important to know: do you have 100 different ancestors you want to represent or just 20?  That will help you get a sense of what kind of supplies you need and how many cards you want to create. The Ancestor Oracle is, by definition, an evolving project (as I’ll discuss in the next section), so you’ll want more cards than you need at present.

 

Using your Ancestor Oracle

Once you’ve made your Ancestor Oracle, you can use it in a variety of ways. For one, an oracle is like any other divination system: you can seek wisdom and guidance from it as you would with the Tarot, Geomancy, and so forth. You might ask a question and draw a card, connecting with that ancestor and the advice or wisdom that they/he/she shared. If facing a difficult situation, you could draw a card and think about the kind of wisdom that particular ancestor might embody.

 

You can also use it for longer-term ancestor work. What I have been doing since creating mine two months ago is drawing a card each week to place on my altar–this shows me which ancestors I can attend to this week and what wisdom they share.  Given that this is the period of time where ancestor work is done, I think I will make this a yearly part of my own celebrations of this time: for the months of August, September and October, I draw a weekly card and work with that ancestor, leaving the card on my altar for the week.

 

A third way you can use the Ancestor Oracle is for an ancestor alter.  Now that we are at Samhain, I have laid out all of my cards on my main altar to honor my ancestors.  I will probably leave them there till Alban Arthan (Yule).  This altar the place where I do my daily meditations, Sphere of Protection, prayers, etc, so they are there and present with me.  Seeing the cards there, each day, has been a very profound experience and has really helped me to better connect with my various ancestors.  Especially the ones of my tradition, whose words and work I embody as a druid each day.

 

Front and back of my ancestor oracle

Front and back of my ancestor oracle

A final way I plan to use the ancestor oracle is with grief and remembrance. When I constructed my deck, I made many more cards than I currently have ancestors. The truth is that I have been looking for some additional ritualized way of grieving a lost relative or friend, and the ancestor oracle offers me this way.  When someone I know and love crosses over the veil and joins my other ancestors, as I go through the grieving process and come to a place of acceptance, I will add them to the ancestor oracle and honor them in a ritual way.  I feel very good about this use of the deck, and know it will be a powerful healing tool. I suspect that there are a lot of other possibilities for using an Ancestor Oracle–if you have any, please share!

Some Options for Creating Your Oracle

Now that we have some sense of what an Ancestor Oracle is and how you might use it, let’s get down to how you can create it. I recognize, of course, that not everyone has cultivated visual art skills, and so, some of you might be looking for a route that you can manage.  That said, there are a few routes you could go to make this deck.  Here are four such options:

 

Option 1:   The route I took and will describe in this post, is to break out the art supplies and make some kind of artistic deck.  Since I am a visual artist, I made a watercolor deck.  I’m going to show you how to do this method (instructions in the 2nd half of this post), and even if you have very little practice or skill at present, you can still make a deck that speaks to you using basic watercolor wash techniques that anyone can do.

 

Option 2: My friend ordered a set of ready made blank tarot cards and wrote the names of each of her ancestors on them–this is a wonderful idea.  You can write in a normal script or try something fancy.  You could also paint them with acrylics.  Even a chisel point pen, like that used for calligraphy, would give a nice touch.

 

Option 3: Another way you could make this deck is by printing out pictures or using a photo editor to actually visually represent the different ancestors.  Taking it to a local print shop and having it printed and cut wouldn’t be too expensive (or you can order blank printable cards to do at home). I would talk to the print shop about what they are capable of before you went this route. Or you could get the photos themselves and even cut them to size and adhere them to a playing card deck. The possibilities for using photos to make your oracle deck are numerous.

 

Option 4: You don’t have to make an oracle with cards; you could make it with objects.  Find one small object that represents each ancestor, put them in a nice cloth bag, and your oracle is born!

 

Option 5: You also could make your oracle out of something  other than cards: you could woodburn wooden rounds, you could carve wooden rounds, you could paint on rocks, create polymer disks, and so forth.  The sky is the limit!

Instructions to Create a Watercolor-Based Oracle

Now that I’ve covered the ways you might use this deck and what its overall purpose is, I’m going to walk you through a simple way that you can make your own beautiful ancestor oracle deck using watercolors.  No painting skill is required to create this deck (I promise!), but you will need some supplies.

Supplies

You should be able to get all of these supplies for under $30 or so of  at a local craft/art store or borrow from an artist friend:

  • 140 lb watercolor paper. The weight is important here–you want a weight to your finished cards.  Weight of less than 120 isn’t going to be thick enough.  Often, art supply stores sell single sheets of watercolor paper that are 22″ x 30″ in size for $3-$7–this is a great idea and is what I used for my deck. Otherwise, a watercolor pad will be fine.  Watercolor papers have different “tooth” or roughage; a more rough paper will give you more interesting textures than a smoother one.
  • Watercolors. Any watercolors, even a pan of children’s watercolors, will work for this. Having a variety of colors is helpful but even a few colors will work.  The colors will, of course, determine the final product.
  • Brushes. You will need a 1″ or larger brush as well as a smaller brush for lettering and splattering paint. Here’s a tip: professional artist paintbrushes can be kind of pricey–but if you go to where they sell house paint (like a home improvement store) they sell really nice brushes there for half the price.
  • Scissors, a box cutter, paper cutter, or X-acto blade to cut your cards out.
  • Pencil
  • Ruler
  • Paper towels or newspaper for your surface.  This is a messy project!
  • Jar of clean water for wetting your paints and cleaning your brush
  • Plate for mixing watercolor colors (optional but useful)
  • Chisel point/Calligrapher’s pen for writing names

 

Creating your Card Background

Now that you have your supplies, we are going to do this project in two steps. The first step is to create the background of the cards.  The background should be somewhat uniform.

 

First: Lay down some newspaper or paper towels on your surface.  For one, this is messy and for two, you don’t want too much paint getting on the other side of your paper.  I didn’t do this, but I was working on dedicated art studio space. Get your supplies ready to use.

Ready to paint

Ready to paint

Second: Now, you will need to decide a color combination for your deck.  I went with colors of the harvest–browns, oranges, yellows–the colors of fall leaves.  Because Samhain is a time of the ancestors, I wanted to embody the colors of this season here in my part of the world.

 

Third: Now, get your paints wet (assuming  you have dry pans of paint). If you are working with tubes, understand that wet watercolor in tubes is *super potent* and you will need only a little bit.

 

Fourth: Now, wet your full paper with water; getting it fairly saturated is a good idea.  Its OK if its a bit drippy.

 

Fifth: Layer a few colors onto the page, giving it a good amount of color (depending on how you want it to look).  The colors will likely run, and this is a good thing.  The paper may also bunch or curl a bit–this is ok (we didn’t stretch it).

First layers of color with Acorn Cat supervising

First layers of color with Acorn Cat supervising

Sixth: Now, here’s where time and chance come in.  Watercolors have a mind of their own, and they change and spread as they dry.  To make this background, you can take advantage of this. While the original base layer is still wet, get your smaller brush full of color, and hold it about 3-6″ over your paper.  Hit the brush to your other hand and the color will splatter nicely.  Splatter the second color all over.

Layers and splatters

Layers and splatters

Seventh: Repeat this with several other colors. Then, give it 5 min to dry, come back and do it again, and repeat that process. I layered about 8 or so slightly different color layers onto my page as the base layer slowly dried.

Ready for salt!

Ready for salt!

Eighth: You can also use plain table salt or sea salt to add a wonderful effect to your card back.  The salt should be the last thing you add to the page–it makes something that looks like snowflakes on your page by sending away the pigment from where the salt grain fell.  I really like the effect.  Before you add your salt.  check to see if there are any particularly large pools of water–you might want to sop them up with your brush (we are going for a consistent background look, and pools of water can make things less consistent).

Sea salt ready to be sprinkled

Sea salt ready to be sprinkled

Just sprinkle a little bit, on the pages, like you are salting your meal.  Then, give it time to completely dry.

Beautiful salt effect once dry!

Beautiful salt effect once dry!

 

Finally: Let the sheets fully dry (you can use a hair dryer to speed things up if you really want) and proceed to the next step.

Creating the Card Fronts

For the card fronts, I am going to suggest that you do a simple watercolor wash (1-2 mixed colors, using steps 1-5 above).  You can choose to do the same color on the entire front for consistency of cards, or, if you’d like, you can cut them and then do a different color wash on each card. In other words, if you want them all to be uniform, you can do the watercolor wash, let it dry, and then cut it up.  If you want the cards to have different colors, cut them up first.

Watercolor wash on the front is much simpler - just using one to two colors on a wet sheet of paper.  Supervising cat is no longer paying much attention.

Watercolor wash on the front is much simpler – just using one to two colors on a wet sheet of paper. Supervising cat is no longer paying much attention.

The easiest way to cut them up is to measure and draw lines in pencil to whatever size you want.  There are certainly common sizes for tarot cards (like 3.5″ x. 5.5″) but since this is your deck, you can make it whatever size you want–even round! The other option is to make one card as a template and then use it to trace out all of the other cards. If you want them round, just get a cup of the right size and trace the cup onto the sheet and cut them out. Or you can use a paper cutter, like I did.

Paper cutter

Paper cutter

Finished cut cards

Finished cut cards

Once you have your cards cut and have done a watercolor wash on the card fronts, you might want to snip the edges to keep the card nice (or if you are a scrapbooker, you might have one of those fancy card rounders!)

Snipping corners

Snipping corners

You can finish the cards by adding the names of your ancestors, one per card.  If you get a nice chisel point pen (like the kind calligraphers use) it will make your writing look really nice, which is an added touch.

 

If you’d like, a nice technique to finish the edges of the cards is to darken them.  To do this, take a black ink pad and a makeup sponge.  Dab the sponge onto the ink pad, and then rub it gently over the edge of the card on both sides (If you haven’t done this before, consider practicing it before you go ahead and do it!).  You’ll have a darker edge and a border, which gives the cards a nice complete look.

Edging cards

Edging cards

 

I also chose to paint a symbol for each of my ancestors like freshly baked bread, a rocking chair, etc.  That was my way of connecting to the ancestor not only verbally but also symbolically. If you are uncertain of your drawing ability, you can also print and cut out a picture or other graphic that can be glued to the card.  If you are going to glue anything, I strongly suggest using a bookbinder’s glue, like Yes! Paste or even one of those little kids paste pots or glue sticks.  A lot of glue (like Elmers) has too much water in it and will make a lot of wrinkles as it saturates the paper of whatever you are gluing.

Edged cards ready for names!

Edged cards (Front and Back) ready for names!

 

I hope you found these instructions helpful.  May the ancestors be with you this Samhain and blessings upon you during this sacred time.

 

Honoring the Ancestors of Land, Tradition, and Blood October 15, 2017

As the world  (where I am at, at least!) gets bathed in frost, as the plants wither and die, as the trees bathe themselves in color and then drop their leaves, as the cold wind blows and as the darkness sets in, we in the druid tradition–and in any other traditions–turn to think about the ancestors. In this post, we’ll explore the global traditions surrounding honoring the dead that tie to August-October and honoring the dead to see similarities, we’ll discuss three types of ancestors the druid tradition recognizes, and then we’ll explore ways to honor the ancestors.

 

Food for the Ancestors!

Food for the Ancestors!

Global Ancestral Traditions

When you start digging into ancestor traditions around the world, some striking similarities seem to emerge.

  • The Mexican Day of the Dead, which is a blending of European traditions and Aztec honoring of the dead, goes from Oct 31 – Nov 2. As part of this celebration, Mexicans that believe that the souls of the dead return to the living and elaborate and colorful altars of food and gifts are prepared.
  • The Japanese Buddhists celebrate Obon in August; Obon also honors lost ancestors and the Japanese believe it is a time when ancestors temporarily return to the land of the living.
  • In Korea, Chuseok, which is a three day celebration of thank-giving and honoring of the ancestors, takes place on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, which is either in September or October. This holiday includes thankfulness for the harvest and visiting the graves of the ancestors.
  • In China, Buddhists and Taoists have an entire month dedicated to the ancestors called “Hungry month” where the dead are said to walk among the living (held on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, or August). The spirits are fed and given offerings on an altar to appease their hungry spirits.
  • Gai Jatra is a festival of cows and the dead in Nepal, held in August. The Cow, the Hindu sacred animal, is led through the streets to help deceased family members cross over.
  • Finally, in Cambodia, Pchum Ben, a festival of honoring the dead, is celebrated in mid-September to mid-October for 15 days. Cambodians believe the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest at this point and dead ancestors may return to seek out the living. They dress in white (Cambodian colors of mourning) and visit temples and also offer food at temples for the hungry ghosts.

 

The festival of Samhain itself came from the Gaelic tradition (which also celebrated Imboc, Beltane, and Lughnassadh). On the Hill of Tara, a mound called the Mound of Hostages built between 3350 and 2800 BCE has a cave that is aligned to the Samhain sunrise. In the Samhain tradition, it was believed that veil between the otherworld was thinner and the souls of the dead could pass through. The souls were thought to return to their homes and seek hospitality, so offerings were left for them. Great fires burned for various rituals to protect livestock through the winter. People often dressed up in costumes and went about door to door for food to confuse the spirits (which is where modern Halloween traditions come from).

 

These traditions are all notably similar in their understanding of what happens with regards to the dead, what should be done, and when it should be done. Sometime in the fall, somewhere between August and early November, something changes in the fabric of the world and the “veil” grows thinner and those who have died are able to briefly return and walk among us. They are often hungry and in search of their family, and so, various preparations need to be made in order to honor them which may involve preparing home altars, visiting temples, feasting, and making offerings of food.

 

Three Kinds of Ancestors

For many of the cultures above, those living on ancestral homelands–the ancestors would include spirits who lived on the land, who created and passed on the traditions, and who were blood ancestors. In the druid tradition, particularly in non UK contexts, we have roots from many places.  And so we often honor at three kinds of ancestors. We honor the ancestors of the blood: the contributors to the physical DNA within us, our genetic heritage, people of our family lines that came before. We honor the ancestors of the land: those who lived and tended the land before us.  And we honor the ancestors of our tradition: those who helped create the druid tradition and bring it into being (both ancient and modern). Let’s take a deeper look at each of these:

 

Ancestors of the Blood.  This is the most common definition of “Ancestors” in the US and usually around the world.  We carry the genetic heritage and legacy of our ancestors.  We know now, for example, that genes can be expressed or repressed by how people live; our ancestors’ and their lives, are literally written into our bodies and into the DNA present.  The work of our ancestors are also present in the landscape: how they lived, where they lived, what they did while they lived, and so on. Even in the US, with its lack of attention to the metaphysical realm, you’ll hear people talk about a deceased grandmother that they feel is “watching over me” and so on, so even if there isn’t a fully expressed ancestor tradition, there are small pieces.  We also have Memorial Day, which is a close to an ancestral tradition as we have, where, at least in my family, in late May we visit the graves of ancestors and tend to them. It is to these ancestors that have literally brought us into being that we give thanks.

 

The Ancestral Lands of Western PA

The Ancestral Lands of Western PA

Ancestors of our lands. For those of us living in North America, especially on the East Coast where I live, the peoples who once tended these lands for tens of thousands of years are no longer generally present.  These are people who tended this land for generations, who understood and interacted with the spirits of the land, and who were mercilessly driven from it or forcefully relocated to other parts of the US. Now, by no means am I advocating appropriating any of their traditions. But I believe that it is perfectly acceptable and relevant to honor those who came before–I have always gotten a good response when making such offerings. I think this is especially important for druids who are honoring the land–in M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild, she makes the strong case that not only were native people critical to creating an incredible abundance found in the Americas, they also did plant breeding work, allowing certain plants to thrive through their careful propagation. The land that we love as druids is a land that was so carefully tended by their hands.

 

Also as part of the ancestors of the land, for me, are the 1930’s conservationists who did so much to establish the state and federal park system here in the US.  After I visited Shenandoah National Park a few years ago and saw the careful work of the Civilian Conservation Corps, enormous amounts of people who were put to work creating the park systems, I wanted to honor these ancestors as well.  The conservationists of that era did us a tremendous service by having the vision to preserve land, to set it aside, and to make it freely accessible.  That is well deserving of an offering!

 

Ancestors of the Tradition. The final kind of ancestor we could honor are ancestors of our tradition–those who have influenced the practices that we hold.  I generally honor three groups here: the Ancient druids (a lump group, since we dont’ know any of them by name).  The druid revival druids, many of whom we know, like Iolo Morganwg. Morganwg has gotten a terrible rap. Let’s be clear: Iolo Morganwg is one of the key ancestors in our tradition and if were not for him, I believe we would not have a tradition. In the more modern movement, we might look to ancestors of the tradition like Ross Nichols, who, with Gerald Gardener who sat in a bar in Glastonbury and developed the modern wheel of the year and founded OBOD, or Dr. Juliet Ashley, who was instrumental in developing many of the frameworks currently used by AODA and Mother Betty Reeves, one of the Archdruids in AODA who helped pass the tradition to John Michael Greer so he could bring the order back into a healthy place. My point is, without these ancestors’ contributions, we would not have a druid tradition–and the specific traditions I practice–today. Its important that we honor them, as they are ancestors of this path.  Your own ancestor of tradition path may look a little different than mine, of course, depending on what specific path you follow.

 

How do we honor the ancestors?

Honoring All Ancestors: As described in the worldwide traditions above, some of the ways we can honor the ancestors are as follows:

  • A Spirit/Ancestor Altar. Creating an altar to honor the ancestors and make offerings either outdoors or indoors (or at another sacred place).  You can leave offerings of food here.
  • Making offerings of other kinds. A pinch of tobacco for native peoples of the land, a bit of bourbon, picking up trash in the forest in honor of the conservationists, and so on, may be useful offerings that can be made to honor certain groups of ancestors. Remember that an “offering” doesn’t just have to be a physical symbolic thing that you give–it can also be your time and energy.
  • Feeding the Ancestors. This may include something called a “spirit plate” that is left outside (traditionally in the west), preparing a feast for them, food offerings at an altar, and so on.
  • A Dumb Supper.  A tradition circulating within various forms of pagan celebrations is a “dumb supper” where you invite the ancestors to dinner.  In this case, two plates are set for each participant–one for the participant, and one for their ancestors.  The way I’ve done it most commonly was that we create two plates of food and eat in silence, listening for the voices of the ancestors.  A cup of mugwort tea may also be enjoyed to open the senses for the voices of the ancestors.  Afterwards, the spirit plates are left on an outdoor altar till morning.

 

Honoring the ancestors of our blood: To honor the ancestors of our blood, you might also choose some additional activities.  For example, I believe it is a wonderful honor to find out as much as you can about your ancestors, where they came from, and who they are.  In the USA, in particular, we have often completely lost these cultural traditions. finding out who they were, learning about our histories of our own memories of our families.

  • Writing our own histories so that when we become ancestors, or children and children’s children will have that material. My ancestors didn’t do a good job of this; or if they did, this has been lost and it is of great sadness to me.
  • Learning about the history of your last name. One of the ways I did this was to study the cultural heritage of my last name, O’Driscoll. I managed to find this book on the Internet from the O’Driscoll Clan, in Ireland, called O”Driscolls: Past and Present. I now have a much better understanding of who the O’Driscolls were and the name that I carry.
  • Learning and practicing one or more cultural traditions from your ancestors.  If you are like me, you don’t have any cultural traditions of your ancestors left.  I have decided to learn some of them and carry on traditions from my ancestors.  One of these is creating pysanky eggs, information which I shared on this blog before.
  • Learning the stories of the ancestors.  Learn a story or two from the lands where you can trace your genetic heritage.  Perhaps, perform it for family members!

 

Pysanky eggs created in the family tradition

Pysanky eggs created in the family tradition

Honoring the Ancestors of the Land: The ancestors of the land are many and diverse where I live. We have the Native Americans of various tribes who used to live here  (such as the Shawnee, who were the most local to my area). We have those who came here after, and who unfortunately, pillaged the land to build industry–and for me, these are also ancestors of blood. Finally, we have conservationists who have worked to preserve a beautiful park system throughout the state and country.

  • Honoring Native Ancestors: Learning to tend the land.  There are lots of ways to honor the native ancestors of the land, but to me, engaging in their work and tending the land is one of the best. I believe that we need to re-learn how to inhabit a particular place, tend it, and bring it back into healthy production for the benefit of all life. We need to reclaim our last heritage of humans interacting with the land–again, I point to the incredible gift that M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild is–her book showed that it was by the judicious use and propagation of the wilds that the native peoples brought abundance and a deep ecological knowledge. The best thing we can do to honor the ancestors of this land is to treat this land with reverence and respect and to learn their knowledge. Because of this, I study native plant uses, I study the traditions of the ancestors of the land, and I learn how to cultivate and harvest plants. In other words, I re-establish my relationship with the land, and through that, the ancestors of the land.
  • Conservation Activities: Because I recognize not only native ancestors of the land but also those in the CCC and other groups who essentially “saved” large parts of land for state and federal parks, I believe that the best way you can honor these ancestors of the land is by continuing their work. This may be political advocacy to save lands that they had a hand in protecting, trash clean up work, re-introducing native species to lands, and more.
  • Reparation work. Given that my own ancestors also helped to damage the lands and contribute to some of the ecological challenges faced here in my local ecosystem, I also do reparation work on behalf of my ancestors. Most often, I do this through land tending through the practice of permaculture (see the first bullet point) but also do land healing work.

 

Ancestors of our tradition: we do have many ancestors in the tradition of Druidry. They are important ancestors, and I mentioned some of them before: Iolo Morganwg, William Stuckley, Ross Nichols, and those who brought forth and continued the druid revival and continued it. We don’t now all of their names. But I still think they are deserving of our honor.

  • Readings.  One of the things I like to do to honor the ancestors of the tradition is to read a short paragraph of their writings in a sacred space (if a text is available).  It is a simple act, but acknowledging their work, their efforts, and their life energy is also important.
  • Altar: I like to honor my ancestors of the tradition on my main druid altar.  I made an ancestor oracle recently (see next week’s post!) and have all of my ancestors there on the altar, including those from the druid tradition.

As druids, I believe it is very important we think about where we came from. Iolo Morganwg and others of the early druid revival have gotten their names sloshed through the mud in an unfair way. Iolo didn’t plan on having his papers published; it was also quite common in the day to “discover” ancient texts. Why are we making him have the same standards as academic scholarship in the 20th century? There’s this body of sacred wisdom and knowledge that we have been given access to, that has been tremendously helping us through these difficult times. We need to honor those who shaped this tradition.   I think this is very appropriate for ritual, but I also think studying those ancient works and using them, integrating them, is also really important.

 

Conclusion

I hope that this post has given you some food for thought–my goal was to tease apart the idea of “honoring the ancestors” and show how rich and incredible this work can be.  Next week, I’ll share details of how to create an ancestor oracle to further some of this work.  Blessings as we continue into the dark half of the year!

 

 

Finding and Working with Ancestral Traditions March 26, 2017

Grandpa's field

Grandpa’s field

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

 

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

 

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

 

Fragments of Traditions

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

 

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

 

Ancestral Fragments as “Seeds” of Future Traditions

Seeds for new traditions!

Seeds for new traditions!

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

 

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

 

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

 

Family Traditions

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

 

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

 

Sacred Spring

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

 

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

 

Family Religious Traditions

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

 

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

 

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

 

A druid's egg of the modern variety

A druid’s egg of the modern variety

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

 

Cultural Traditions

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

 

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

 

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

 

Traditions tied to the Land

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

 

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

 

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

 

Concluding Thoughts

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

 

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

 

Reclaiming Our Heritage and Connection With The Land: Herbs, Plants, and Harvests October 1, 2014

Path through the woods

Path through the woods: how many ancestors walked here?

As you might have noticed, my posts on this blog slow down considerably in the months of August – October.  This is because as a single homesteader, I’m quite busy bringing in the harvest canning, drying, and freezing;  preparing my garden for next year’s season; planting garlic and other fall crops; jumping in leaves; drying herbs; and generally enjoying fall, my very favorite of the seasons.  My posts will become more frequent as winter approaches!

 

I’ve been taking a lot of time to reflect this year, because this is the end of my 5th year as a homesteader and I’m coming up on 9 years as a druid–through these experiences, I’m really starting to feel that I am living the wheel of the year much more intimately and that I’m regaining something that my generation (and several generations before me) lost. Today I’d like to posit that many of the activities that I discuss on this blog, from finding wild foods to medicine making and growing and preserving the harvest is as much about reclaiming our human heritage and reconnecting to the land as it is about foraging a sustainable path in an increasingly unsustainable world.  In other words, these activities give us a window both into the work of our ancestors and also to the future.  To do this, I’m going to talk a bit about heritage, and the process of feeling like I am regaining some of mine with these practices.

Grandmothers and Grandfathers: What They Knew and What Went With Them

When I think about the kinds of things that were passed down to me as a child, I think about the time I spent with my grandfather Custer in the forest; where he showed me several edible and medicinal plants, where he taught me to see the tracks in the snow; where we would laugh and play in the forest. I only remember fragments, but I hold onto those dearly. I think about the lessons of my grandmother Driscoll, who would find a shiny penny face up on the road and bring it home and bury it beneath the front paving stones.  Grandmother Driscoll, who made dandelion wine she never drank, who trash picked and made many things from nothing at all–these lessons are all part of my heritage.  But there wasn’t a lot that they passed down; they were all too busy working multiple jobs, raising families, making steel in the mills.

 

My grandmother Custer taught me many songs, songs that her grandmother had taught her. One song she taught me was called “a froggy would a wooin go”;  I didn’t know it when I was a child, but I recently discovered that this song has roots as back as 1558….all those grandmothers passing down the song to their grandchildren. I think about that kind of history–500+ years of grandmothers passing on the song so that I was able to learn it as a child. And I’m glad for that tiny bit of heritage. But I also wonder what my great-great-great-great-great grandmothers knew and how they lived, I wonder what they knew about the kinds of things I’m trying to relearn–knowledge of root and stem and seed.  We have almost no family records, I have no idea of knowing what they knew, how they lived, who they were. Most of all, since I lost all of my grandparents before the age of 15, I wonder what I would have learned if they were still alive, or if I had had a chance to know my great grandparents, or their great grandparents. I wonder what they knew but did not think it relevant to teach in a quickly changing world. I wish, knowing where I am heading now, that I could have conversations with them, learn from them these skills, these ways of living.

 

I will also say, however, that my parents lived quite simply and, while I wouldn’t say they actively passed it down by teaching me the principles, we lived those principles growing up.  Canning and gardening were regular activities in our house. My uncle hunted and brought us venison and turkey.  We ate lots of zucchini from the garden.   I kinda just saw them as hobbies, not realizing their significance till later in my own path.  But I was grateful to have grown up with this framework as I began my own druidic and sustainable practice.

The Ancestral Lands of Western PA

The Ancestral Lands of Western PA

Living Without A Heritage

I remember one day, sometime in the late 1980’s, my Grandmother Driscoll sat with tears in her eyes on the stoop where she buried so many shiny new pennies and she said to me, “Things were different when I was a child, Dana. Even during the depression, things were different.  People needed each other then.  We got on with very little.  We were a lot happier. There is so much I know that we don’t need anymore.”  Then we went inside and ate her homemade mushroom soup and made tiny doll clothes from repurposed fabric.

 

I remember looking back on this memory long after Grandmother had died, after they had all died (many due to the illnesses associated with steel mills and coal mines), thinking that I had literally no heritage. That the traditions and knowledge of my ancestors (primarily Irish, Native American, and German) were completely lost to me.  And truthfully, they pretty much were. Much of my family had come to America at least four or five generations prior to my birth; those who were Native had long since been forced to lose much of their own history or died trying to retain it.  Those that were Irish changed their names and eradicated their cultural practices due to discrimination.  The Germans had fared the best, and in my home region, we still had remnants of “Pennsylvania Dutch” folklore, cooking, and even, as I discovered only recently, a magical tradition called “Braucherei.” For all of my 20’s, however, I felt that I had literally no traditions to keep, no heritage to pass on.  This was, of course, compounded by the fact that I had rejected the religion of my parents (Christianity) and most of their holidays, and while I had tidbits of knowledge and songs from my grandparents, I felt like I was a person living with nothing.

Building New Traditions: Honoring the Land and Living Close to it

Dana and Dad cutting up Chicken of the Woods!

Dana and Dad cutting up Chicken of the Woods Mushrooms!

In the Tarot, the “tower” card represents a crashing down, a clearing of the way, with the opportunity to build anew once the dust settles.  In some ways, I kinda see this whole situation in a generational way: me as the 21st century product of the crumbling dust of the tower. I live in the remnants and shadows of the lost ancestral knowledge about how to live from the land, about how to build communities, about how to interact with each other; I live with the fragments of  traditions that hadn’t been passed on because of a rapidly changing world.

 

Through the work of the last five years, I realized rather recently that I was building something anew where I had perceived this empty wasteland of family heritage and tradition.  I became, thanks to two of my close friends and mentors, obsessed with reading old books full of old knowledge (the 1970’s has much to offer, but previous decades and centuries even more so).  I attended workshops, classes, learned by doing, talked to old wisened elders, learned everything I could (a process that shows no sign of ending anytime soon).  I also looked to my parents and their practices and saw their lifestyle with new appreciation.

 

I realized that I was building a new heritage that I could pass on by rediscovering the past, how others had lived, by studying the plants, by learning to grow and forage for my own food, but also melding those practices with druidry.  Druidry gave me the spiritual framework to understand the work I was doing and to understand and refect upon my practice it in useful and productive ways.  Druidry, with its own spiritual heritage paralleling the rise of the industrial revolution (and in many ways, responding to it) provided me with grounding and daily practices that helped me further understand myself and gave me tools to walk the tightrope between the worlds.

 

The other thing druidry and my sustainable practice was doing for me was helping me pull away from the heavy consumerist haze which had dominated the lives of so many of us growing up in the 80’s, falling into video game addictions in the 90’s and 2000’s (and yes…I was deep in fantasy land for way too long).  It helped me regain my footing, my connection to the land, my sense of self.

 

And now, I am starting to understand the power in returning to the land in whatever way one can–by enjoying the fruits of one’s labor and cultivating close relationships with plants.  By making one’s own medicine to heal oneself.  By being happy that one has built up the calluses needed to do a few hours’ work in the garden.  By not only celebrating the wheel of the year, but understanding from a growth standpoint what happens to the plants after the Fall Equinox comes and joyously waiting the return of the Spring Equinox.  By learning the secrets of the soil.  By just practicing being happy and quiet and not running around like crazy all the time.  There is something so powerful about being even a little independent and self-sufficient.  Its a ton of hard work, yes, but it gives you something meaningful.

 

Dana and Dad after visiting the beehives

Dana and Dad after visiting the beehives

Perhaps the most magical of all is that its not just me that has found this path–my immediate family, too, is transforming and regaining the oak knowledge of our ancestors.  Some of the photos I’ve shared in this post are of us doing various activities that we are discovering together–beekeeping, mushroom hunting, and so on.  My mom was the photographer in all of these images. We have, collectively, worked to rediscover and build a new heritage and tradition for ourselves that allows us to once again live close to the land and all of her inhabitants.  Last year, for example, I taught my parents about mushroom hunting–and they have become serious hunters, and now are teaching me new things.   This year, my sister and I are on parallel paths learning the ancient ways of herbalism and medicine making.  I have seen this same thing occurring in the lives of many other friends’ families–its if we are all waking up to rediscover our relationship to the land and working, as families, to build that knowledge once again.

 

I am so grateful to have found this path–not only does it give me ways of living that help me personally address the larger predicament that we face, but it also reconnects my entire family with the knowledge of our ancestors.  It enriches our lives. Even though the chain of knowledge was broken and many traditions were lost–druidic, sustainable practice can help us build new traditions and “oak knowledge” that we will be able to pass on.