The Druid's Garden

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

A Druid’s Guide to Connecting With Nature, Part III: Nature Engagement July 22, 2018

Leading you in deeper!

Leading you in deeper!

I’ve heard a lot of conversation in the nature spirituality community, including the druid community, about not touching nature, leaving it alone, to simply “be”.  I remember one influential druid speaking at an event and saying, “The best thing you can do in nature is pick up the garbage and get out.”  From a certain standpoint, this perspective makes a lot of sense. It is the same perspective held by many conservationists trying to preserve pristine lands or lands that have been replanted and are healing; the best thing that can be done is figure out how to keep people from mucking them up, pick up garbage, and leave them undisturbed. Because people have a tendency to come in, move things about, pick things, disrupt ecosystems, and generally cause havoc.  Or worse, much, much worse. Further, in a world where most humans can’t identify even five trees or have any idea if the ecosystem they are looking at is healthy or not, it is a good perspective for nature to be on her own.  This is a perspective ultimately rooted in the desire to care for nature, to preserve nature, and to do good. I do think there are cases, for ecologically sensitive areas, during breeding season, and so on where this is still the best philosophy.  But I think in many more cases, it is not.

 

However, as I began my own journey to understand and connect with nature more deeply, I came to a different understanding.  Through deep study of permaculture, bushcraft, wildcrafting, and so on, and reading the works of many authors, including M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild, Jon Young, and Wendell Berry, I came to a different understanding. The perspective of “pick up the garbage and get out” implies that we put nature on a pedestal; that we enshrine her and look at her from afar, that we leave her alone. She becomes like the object in the museum behind the glass wall with the lights shining on it; interesting to visit once in a while, but please don’t touch.

I see at least three problems with this perspective, as a general principle:

 

  • It fosters separation and disconnection from nature. The minimal interaction with nature maximizes separation.  But we are part of nature, we are not separate from her.
  • It fosters fear about nature or about our own interactions with nature. Particularly, the fear to do harm, the fear to do the wrong thing, makes us fear doing anything. And so then, we do nothing.
  • It fosters ignorance about nature. Last week, I talked about how nature wisdom had two parts: the book learning through nature knowledge and the  experiential interaction through nature understanding. Because we are separate from it, we have no opportunity to learn from experience.

 

An alternative perspective–which I’m advocating today through nature engagement and next week through nature reciprocity–is a very different one. It is a perspective rooted in connection, wisdom, and in a deep-rooted responsibility. Nature engagement is the opposite of “pick up the garbage and get out”–its the idea that we are part of nature, we can learn to use her, to work with her, help her grow, and tend her, and use her responsibly. (And for earlier posts in this series, please see the framework, nature wisdom, and nature engagement).

 

A place to explore...

A place to explore…

One of the concepts that really shaped my thinking on this was how M. Kat Anderson describes the indigenous peoples of California’s view on “wilderness”.  While in English, the concept of wilderness is a largely positive, in that it has been untouched by humans, it is pristine, it is wild, the concept of “wilderness” for the indigenous peoples of California is very negative: it meant that land was unloved, untended, and not under anyone’s care. For western people, humans touching nature is assumed to be bad/destructive, so wild places that are untouched are therefore good (as long as that wild place isn’t someone’s front lawn). But for the indigenous Californians, touching nature and interaction is good and nature that was left to go “wild” was a sad thing. Indigenous peoples all over the world and, going back far enough, everyone’s ancestors, understood and still understand this: if we are going to survive, and thrive, we do so in partnership with nature.

 

What I’m actually talking about is dependency. With the rise of industrialization, factories and mass production replaced home cottage industries; consumer goods and purchasing replaced hand-created, foraged, and grown goods; and humans in western civilization, in a few short generations, lost the ability to learn to live from nature. Today, for many people living in industrialized nations, we have lost nearly everything our ancestors knew about how to live abundantly from the land. This included everything from growing food to foraging, from fishing and hunting to natural crafts, to building things naturally or with wood (a topic I explored in my “way of wood” post some time ago). We need nature, we depend on her, her survival is our survival–even if systems present in consumerism and industrialization have separated many of us from this truth.

 

If we enshrine nature, if we put her on a pedestal and look at her from afar, we will never develop the sacred relationship and co-dependency that leads to deep love and knowledge.  If all we are willing to do is “pick up the garbage and get out” then that’s all we will ever be willing or allow ourselves to do. The connection stops there–with a distance of respect, and reverence, but without interaction or interactivity.  Part of why nature is so powerful to us is that she can–and does–provide all of our needs. You step on a lawn; there is an incredible abundance of healing food and medicine there. Each time you walk into a forest, there is so much there to offer you.  Looking at a beautiful plant is one thing; looking at a beautiful plant that can help heal your pain is quite another. Through interacting with nature, and instead, prefer to interact with nature, to learn how to use her, to learn how to heal her (which all go hand in hand).

 

And, with all of the above in mind, we come to the three ways of nature engagement:

To engage with nature we can:
use nature for healing, living, and sustenance
enjoy nature’s beauty and adventure
be creatively inspired by nature

Using Nature

Humans use nature every day–it is how we survive as a species. From the oxygen in the air to the clothes on our back, nature is with us.  Everything that clothes us, feeds us, heals us, and shelters us ultimately comes from the earth in some form.  We in the western world might be very disconnected from the original source of materials used to create the things we wear, sleep on, or eat every day, and see it as wholly human made–but in the end, it has a natural source, and it is important that we learn to reconnect with nature as provider.

 

Elderflower harvest

Elderflower harvest

Because of exploitation, because we have such damage in many ecosystems, we are hesitant to directly take anything from nature; hesitant to do harm, when the very materials we thrive upon and food we eat comes from the land.  But “using nature” in a druidic sense needs to account for more than what we take–for a nature-based spiritual experience, it is less about “what can I take” and more about relationship, both give and take. Previously, I’ve mentioned Wendell Berry’s concepts from the Unsettling of America: approaching the natural world from a perspective that exploits (which is only taking, taking without reservation, and taking in a way that degrades and destroys life) vs. a perspective that nurtures (taking only enough, paying attention to the health of the land and considering long-term issues). If we approach using nature in a place of nurturing, we are already in the place to develop a relationship with nature. To me, I see this issue as one of reciprocation. I know that with each meal, with each moment I spend in a warm and heated home, I am taking from nature.  So my goal, then, is to give back in every way that I can.  If I pick our native black raspberries to eat (like I did this morning–yum), I save some and scatter them into new areas where they will grow and I leave some ripe ones for the wildlife.

 

Here are a few, of many, ways that you can learn to more fully “use nature”:

  • Foraging and Wild Foods: This hobby is a wonderful way to learn how to use nature and enjoy some tasty treats. I always balance foraging activities with ways that I directly give back to the land: scattering rare woodland species seeds, helping the plants I am harvesting (when native) by spreading their seeds, and so on (more on this next week). Sometimes, foraging helps manage species that are too abundant (or what others might call “invasive”); thus helping keep that species in check. You can never harvest too much japanese knotweed, garlic mustard, kudzu or dandelion!  Two posts (here and here) introduce you to foraging activities and give ideas and suggestions.  Lots of websites and books are available–and I often post material on foragable treats (like Hostas and Milkweed, both of which I covered this year).
  • Bushcraft. Another take on the “using nature” is by learning bushcraft skills. These are various wilderness survival skills like shelter building, fire starting, making cordage from natural materials, and more. There are various bushcraft skills scattered throughout the country and they offer a rich variety of classes. One I have attended is the North American Bushcraft School in West Virginia, who offer a wide range of classes on a variety of topics.
  • Herbalism. Learning how to heal the body with plants is another amazing way to “use” nature and learn how to engage with her more fully. I have found the herbalism community in the US to be rich, and delightfully earth-affirming and earth-honoring.  It is a wonderful practice to learn with a lot of good people to learn from. I have a post here detailing some of the ways to get started in this practice. You can learn both how to grow your own herbs and also how to harvest from nature and tend to wild patches of herbs to help them better grow.
  • Natural building. One of my long-time favorite ways of learning to use nature is through building using materials right from the land–through timber framing, cob construction, and more. I’ve written on this topic a bit here and will have some upcoming posts on the topic later in the year!

 

I actually think that part of the great tragedy of the modern consumerist movement is that nature has lost much of her “value” to humans.  I watch people cutting down apple or walnut trees, cutting back big swaths of dandelions or burdock, cutting down whole forests–and there is so much “of value” in those spaces, but the value isn’t known any longer.  When I teach wild food foraging classes in the summer, what strikes me the most is how learning something even small about a plant completely changes a person’s perspective on it–it changes their relationship, changes the “value” the plant has, and ultimately, connects them more deeply not only with that plant but with the ecosystem in which it grows. I’ve had people come back to me several years later after attending a plant walk and saying how they stopped spraying their lawns because they didn’t know that you could make wine from dandelions and salve from plantains, etc.

 

And use of nature absolutely builds nature connection. What I’ve found as I’ve delved more deeply into the above practices (some moreso than others) is that the more that I learn to use nature, the more connected I am, and frankly, the more value something has.  As a druid, I approach every aspect of nature with reverence and respect. But, its amazing to come across a patch of wild dogbane in the summer and be so excited because in the early winter, I know I can come back and harvest the dried stalks for cordage.  That really adds something to my interaction with this incredible plant and the ecosystem in which she grows.

 

Nature Activity

Being on the water!

Being on the water!

Our second category under “nature engagement” is nature activity. This refers to the many nature-based activities that we can engage in and be out with and part of nature.  Hiking, kayaking, cross-country skiing, backpacking, camping, and much more are an assortment of things that can be done in nature. My general rule, as someone who is focusing on cultivating a nurturing relationship with nature, is to focus on activities that have minimal impact or no impact and use minimal to no fossil fuel.  So I am happy to kayak down a river paddling using my own human power and navigating the river’s current, but don’t want to take a big speedboat. There are so many ways we can engage in activity, exercise, and healing through “doing” nature. I also think that activity can be paired with wild food foraging and herbalism, which really enhances your experience with being part of nature and connected to nature!

 

Another thing I like to do is combine sacred activities in nature (nature reverence, which we will explore in more depth in two weeks) with getting out in nature.  So planning a kayaking trip that also has a ritual component; bringing along a healing blend of herbs to make offerings to the land and a bag of American Ginseng and Ramp seeds to scatter, and so on.

 

Creating With/Through Nature

In addition to providing all of our needs and offering us incredible experiences through exploration, nature offers us inspiration.  Many poets, artists, musicians, dancers, fine crafts people and other creative artists throughout the ages have found their inspiration in the living earth, in the flow of the waters, in the spark of first light in the heavens, in the bloom of a flower or the soaring of a hawk.  In the druid tradition, we cultivate and work with the Awen, the force of divine inspiration, that flows from nature and through a person seeking to create.  Here are some ways that we might create with/through nature:

Learning basket weaving from downed willow

Learning basket weaving from downed willow

  • Nature as a muse: nature can be an incredible muse for all different kinds of creative practice.  I am a visual artist, and I am often sketching and photographing what I see to bring into my paintings; a dancer might choose to interpret the pattern of the clouds through motion, where a musician might play the song he hears in the waterfall.  Being present with nature, being in nature, being observant in nature, learning to meditate in nature–all of these can bring you inspiration.  I also find that when I travel somewhere new, outside of my usual places and outside of my own bioregion, inspiration of new natural places often floods within me.
  • Nature and Artistic Media: Using nature as part of your creative process is another way to bring nature centrally into creative practice.  This might be doing woodcarving and using wood, creating berry inks, vine-based charcoals, hand papermaking, and more.
  • Wildcrafting: There are many kinds of artistic materials and craft projects that you can do. I love finding ways of working with nature directly in my artistic and bardic practices. Berry inks, handmade papers, homemade decorations, smudge sticks, herbal offering blends, and so much more can come right from the living earth. For these, I only take what is in abundance, what I grow myself, or what needs to be managed.

I’ve also seen artists who work with whatever is abundant–a wonderful basket artist who works with bittersweet vines; harvesting the vines helps keep them under control and produces lovely works.  Or a woodworker who collects deadfall from the side of the road and turns it into masterpieces.  Or a mosaic artist who works with stones and shells from the ocean. Part of this, I think, is finding the parts of nature that speak and resonate with you and that bring you inspiration.

 

Conclusion

This post has covered a lot of ground–so we’ll end for here, and next week, we’ll pick up and explore the other side of the coin to  “nature engagement” which is “nature reciprocation.”  Blessings as always!

 

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Sacred Landscapes, Part III: Ley Lines and the Energy of the Earth April 1, 2018

Over the last two weeks, we’ve been exploring the idea of re-enchanting the world. Two weeks ago, I introduced the idea of re-enchantment through a discussion Max Weber’s claims that the world has been “disenchanted” by industrialization. Re-enchanting, then, is potential work that we as druids and earth-centered spiritual people might do. If we want to do this re-enchantment, however, we need to draw upon and better understand the ways in which ancient humans created sacred landscapes. In last week’s post, we explored the historical understanding of “ley lines” and alignments on the earth to understand some of the physical tools that ancient humans worldwide used to enchant the world. Today’s post continues this discussion in a more metaphysical sense–understanding the more modern “ley line theory” as it applies to earth energy and considering the energetic work we might do.

 

Ley Lines as Energy

Line of stumps in January - strong telluric energy.

Line of stumps in January – strong telluric energy.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, many people today in the metaphysical and druid communities think that ley lines are only energetic in nature, as in they are lines of energy flowing across the earth’s surface.  But ley lines have much more ancient roots that were also physically embodied upon the landscape through old straight tracks, mounds, marker stones, trees, stone circles, sacred sites, and much more.  The picture is a bit complex: it is clear that ancient humans had energetic/metaphysical/spiritual purposes for their ancient physical alignments (which I will explore more in this post) but, as “leys” were rediscovered, the physical and metaphysical features were also considered in isolation.

 

The modern conception of the ley line as an energetic line is traced by Pennick and Deverux in Lines on the Landscape. They argue that this conception began with a footnote that Dion Fortune read in W. Y. Evans Wentz’s The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries published in 1911. Wentz discusses in his footnote how fairy paths that “circulate the earth’s magnetism.” Fortune expands upon such an idea in her Goat Foot God (1936), where her characters are having a discussion of how to purchase a house for a ritual to invoke the Old Gods. This discussion includes a discussion of the lines of power that go between sacred sites, and how the house should be located along one of these lines of power (but not that close to the sacred sites themselves, due to tourist energy). By the 1960’s, with the publishing of John Mitchell’s The View Over Atlantis, Mitchell also picks up on Wentz’ footnote and expands this ley theory with the influence of Feng Shui and the dragon paths (lung mei), which he notes must be part of the earth’s natural flow of force or magnetism. Another term he uses for these energetic leys is the concept of “dragon currents” which I have heard also used in the modern occult scene. The View Over Atlantis led to many other discussions of energetic ley lines; this idea spread far and wide.  For example, dowsers picking up on the idea of earth energy and dowsing for ley lines. Another place that this energy of the earth as metaphysical reaches back into the old druid revival texts, although I haven’t seen it referred to as “leys” (the druid revival pre-dates this) but as “currents” of energy–the three currents: telluric (earth), solar, and lunar.

 

Of course, scholars working in a disenchanted worldview would dismiss the above discussions as hogwash and focus primarily on, physical features, but we have already established that western civilization is the only civilization in the world who has abandoned the metaphysical entirely–and look what a mess we are in!  Dion Fortune, W. Y. Evans Wentz, John Mitchell and other occultists were certainly onto something important–and something that ancient humans clearly knew and understood. The idea that ancient peoples knew and understood–and worked with–energy is certainly there in the historical records. Let’s now look at three ancient peoples and how they conceived of these “energy lines” to better understand the energetic side to ley line theory.

 

Ancient Chinese: Qi and Spirit Roads

In China, the concept of “Qi” or energy is still known and worked with.  Qi to the Chinese is understood as “universal energy” and they believe it flows in patterns similar to water.  We druids would call Qi by another name–Nywfre–the spark of life. In Ancient China, the long-standing practice of Feng Shui included working the landscape for harmonious living and being. Feng Shui literally means “wind-water” and focuses on the harmonization of features (physical and metaphysical) for the working of Qi. The Chinese believe that Qi is concentrated in the landscape in varying amounts, depending on the shape and features of the landscape and how humans have built into that landscape. The Chinese, then, can subtly shape landscapes over time with human-created features to bring the flow of Qi into harmony.

 

If there are “unfortunate” features in the landscape that would make Qi sluggish (which would cause a loss of vitality and fertility to the land) or flow too fast (which would cause burnout to the land), the practice of Feng Shui has means of altering the landscape through various techniques to remediate these unfortunate features. Straight mountain ridges or artificial straight lines (such as streets, railways, and so on) speed up the flow of Qi, and the termination points of these places (such as the end of a straight street) are considered to be problematic as the Qi flows too quickly and breaks up harmonious accumulations there.  These lines are also known as the “secret arrow.” The secret arrow is mitigated by dispersing the straight line with a wall, water fountain, building, windmill, and so on–these features will channel the Qi to the surrounding landscape in a more harmonious way.  Only the Chinese Emperor himself was able to harness the full power of Qi in the form of straight lines and straight tracks due to his rulership–which is critical also to understand the “energetic” aspects of leys.

 

Rulers, Royals, and *Regs

Sun rising over a straight ridge

Sun rising over a straight ridge

Many of the ancient ley lines were also connected to kings and rulership–as we see in a number of myths, a king or leader figure can literally represent the embodiment of the land and help hold the land’s fertility (this, for example, is the root of the ‘Great Rite’ ritual).  In fact, Pennick and Devereux argue that Kingship itself derives from a “straight movement” through the etymology of the indo-european root word *reg (to set straight).  Reg becomes regal, regency, regime, regin, realm, royal, rule, regulation, or regiment (p. 247).  A “ruler” can be both a straight edge and a king; these etymological connections take place in many languages other than English including German, Dutch, Old Saxon, Latin, French, and Hindi. The etymology is fascinating, and some researchers have surmised that the Indo European *reg traces the whole way back to the European Neolithic period where nomadic peoples began to transition to agricultural ones and the regs were those who led their people straight (the most ancient form of *reg may be some kind of ley surveyor) (p. 249).

 

Sacred alignments, likewise, were used in China, Egypt, and by the Aztecs all to “radiate” the king’s energy outward for rulership and to bring fertility of the land (p. 255).  For example, as Pennick and Devereux describe, the Emperor of China, sitting in the middle of his throne in the Imperial Palace in the Forbidden city, has a series of four cardinal gates, opening outward in the four directions–the energy of the Emperor himself radiating outward to his kingdom (p. 250).  Pennick and Devereux also note that the Imperial tombs have “spirit ways” that have long straight roads; it is said that spirits travel along straight roads.  These roads are not meant to be used by the living.

 

The Inca, likewise, used a Ceque system (a system of lines, radiating outward, appearing like a sunburst) from the Inca Temple of the Sun, where the Coricancha (the ruler of the Inca) sat, just like the Chinese Emperor. The Ceques were physical roads that radiated outward like rays on a sun; it is likely that the Cueques were laid out based on the Milky Way galaxy (p. 253).  The Ceques were leys–that is, they were marked straight paths- that led to huacas (shrines).  These Ceques led to 333 shrines, with 170 of those being springs or stones (p. 253). As Pennick and Devereux write, “The fact that ceques, like all ley-style alignments around the world, had multiple functions, with various degrees of utilitarian application.  The only common factor is that they all seem to have had some holy or magical quality…the straight line in the landscape was seen as a sacred line, whatever other function it had or came to have.” (p. 254).

 

Leys as a Vehicle for Spirits

As the Chinese example above describes, the Chinese knew that Ch’i (or spirit), flowed through straight lines. Pennick and Devereux also describe other cultures where the leys are seen as a vehicle for spirit: on Bali, for example, small “spirit walls” were built behind temple entrances to prevent certain kinds of local spirits (travelling in straight lines) from entering (p. 255). Fairy paths, likewise, were straight line roads between sites that were used exclusively by the “good people” in Celtic world, predominately, in Ireland.  To build a house or to sleep on one of these paths would surely draw misfortune. For example, in The Secret Country, Janet and Colin Bord describe a number of problems that people have had in Ireland with fairy paths: owners of a house built over a fairy path  would need to have doors on opposite sides, which could be opened to let the fairy through. In other cases, a corner of a house that was on a fairy path was knocked off to appease the good folk. W. Y. Wentz, in the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, notes that the Welsh Fairy, the Twylwth Teg, put to death humans who walk on certain paths.  These pathways are only for the spirits to use.

 

In a similar way, Pennick and Devereux describe the spirit path that is established between a Native American sweat lodge in the Sioux tradition. According to Lame Deer, a Sioux Medicine Man, the sweat lodge itself is believed to house the spirits of all living things.  The hole in the center of the lodge, the hole that will hold hot stones and have water poured to create steam, is considered to be the center of the world.  The soil from this hole is made into a mound outside, an unci mound (grandmother earth) about 10 paces from the lodge in a straight line.  Another 10 or so paces, also in a straight line, the fire burns.  This is known as a spirit path. When the ceremony begins, the power of the Great Spirit, as well as a powerful, beloved, ancestor (relative) will also be present in the pit. None can cross the line between the fire, the unci mound and the lodge itself.

 

Some paths can be walked, and others cannot

Some paths can be walked, and others cannot

Aboriginal Songlines & Singing Paths Act of Creation

Bruce Chatwin wrote The Songlines, which explores the Aboriginal Australian’s mythology surrounding the sacredness of the world, the creation of the world, and energetic “songlines” that cross the landscape.  These songlines, according to Chatwin, were “the labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia and are known to Europeans as “dreaming-tracks” or “songlines”; and to Aboriginals as “Footprints of the Ancestors” or “The way of the law” (p. 2). The Aboriginals’ world creation myth included the ancestors as singing the land into being. Because of this, the Aboriginal Australians believed that the entire landscape of Australia was a sacred site. One of Chatwin’s informants, for example, also told him that the Aboriginal words for “country” and “line” were the same word–the Aboriginals saw the lines on the landscape as a sacred typography that was sung. His informant explained how “each totemic ancestor, while traveling through the country, was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints, and how these Dreaming-tracks lay over the land as ‘ways’ of communication between the most far-flung tribes…a song was both map and direction finder. Providing you knew the song, you could always find your way across country” (p. 13).  The Aboriginal Ancestors’ songs were the acts of creation; those modern Aboriginals who went on ‘walkabout’ were making a sacred journey, a singing of re-creation, singing the original song and walking the original path of their ancestors who created the world.

 

Arkady, Chatwin’s primary informant, also describes the Aboriginal philosophy about the land as follows, “To wound the earth is to wound yourself, and if others wound the earth, they are wounding you. The land should be left untouched: as it was in the Dreamtime when the Ancestors sang the world into existence” (p. 11).

 

Remembering and Re-Creating the Sacred on the Landscape

What these examples above have explored is the idea that physical leys, in a number of places, are connected to energetic understandings of the world and the sacredness of the world.  In the case of the songlines, the leys do not even need to have physical markers–the songs themselves help determine the pathways.

Pennick and Devereux conclude by making the argument that, as the songlines themselves suggest, that the straight line ley is a universal concept, an archetypal one, that all major peoples understood and enacted in some way. They conclude their book with the following, “The straight line in the landscape, the result of another kind of human awareness interacting with a differently-percieved environment, reminds us that we have forgotten certain things.  We have forgotten about our inner life; we have forgotten that the land is sacred, and we have forgotten the interaction between them both” (p. 262). Ley lines, and their associated metaphysical connections, is ancestral knowledge.  Not knowledge of a particular people or tribe, but knowledge that all humans once had.  This is the deepest kind of ancestral knowledge, the kind that cannot be fully eradicated by a disenchanted world.

 

We all know of the sacredness of the land, in some way, even if our conscious mind in its disenchanted cultural conditioning disallows such knowledge. We know, subconsciously, of the magic woven into the fabric of the land by countless generations of human ancestors that came before us. Even today, people would rather look out their window at a forest than a busy street. People “vacate” to natural places, to hear the rhythmic crash of the waves or the splendor of the mighty waterfall, to feel themselves being restored and renewed. It’s why natural wonders of the world have millions of tourists each year coming to witness their splendor.  It is why, when I spend time in the old growth hemlock grove that is such a rare and wonderful place, hikers go silent upon entering.  This knowledge may have been largely forgotten of in the conscious mind, but it is still present with us in our blood, in our bones, in our spirits.  The ancestors whisper–it is time for re-enchanting our land.  It is time for us to understand, sense, and create the subtle flows of energy upon the landscape.

 

Our ancestors have left us a roadmap–a roadmap that I’ve been working to share over the last few posts. This roadmap is clear: there is magic and sacredness in the landscape, and we can connect sacred points within it, over short or long distances, with both physical and energetic means.

 

And so,  ancient people wove physical and metaphysical aspects of the sacred into their landscapes through stones, through songs, and through sacred sites.  The question is, what will we create? What will we do? What does our re-enchanted world look like? How do we, as individuals, as groups, as humans, take up this work again?

 

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!