The Druid's Garden

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

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

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

 

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

 

The journey into spirit

The journey into spirit

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Trees

Trees

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Former life....

Former life….

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

 

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

 

The Ovate Psychopomp

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

Prerequisites

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Cultivating connection

Cultivating connection

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Work Itself

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A Druid’s Guide to Herbalism, Part I:Harvesting by the Sun, Moon, and Stars, and Sacred Intent October 14, 2018

Field of Goldenrod in Fall

Field of Goldenrod in Fall

A field of goldenrod, nettle, and aster greet me on this warm post- Fall Equinox day.  As the moon comes up with a sliver in the afternoon sky, I joyfully take my basket and harvest knife into the field for my fall plant preparations. The breeze has change on the air–winter is coming soon, and the sacred medicines I prepare will bring my family nourishment and strength for the coming dark half of the year. As we are well into the harvest season at this lovely Fall Equinox, I thought I’d take the time to talk about harvesting and preparation by the sun and moon and honoring the harvest. Next week, I’ll talk about the most basic plant preparations and we’ll end this series with talking about energetic preparations through the creation of flower and leaf essences.  That is, we’ll talk about the medicine of both the body and of the soul.

 

Wheel of the Sun, the Phase of the Moon, and the Turning of the Stars

With working with plant spirits, as we’ve been exploring in this series, we can do everything with sacred intent and awareness that plants aren’t just physical beings. This includes our planting, harvesting, and plant preparations. I have found that when I time my herbal practices by the wheel of the sun (harvesting and planting on sacred days, particularly Beltane, the Summer Solstice, Lughnasadh, the Fall Equinox, and Samhain), these sacred times add a bit of magic to my plant preparations. Further, by working with the plants on these sacred days, I begin building a more rich and full wheel of the year practice focusing on medicine and healing. This means, that, over the years, I have special plants that I harvest at certain times of year, and part of my celebration of that sacred say includes harvesting plants. Some of these plants, like tobacco, are plants that I grow while others are wild plants that I have cultivated a relationship with over time. For example, Elder is one such plant: the Summer Solstice is “here” for me when elder is in bloom, and I will often make elderflower cordial on that day to enjoy throughout the year. When the Elder is ripe with fruit, Lughnasadh is here, and I make elderberry elixir for health and healing. These two plant preparations are not only critical to the health of my family throughout the year, but also help me mark and celebrate these holidays with something meaningful.  You might select a few plants to cultivate this kind of yearly relationship with.

 

Moon phases

Moon phases – the Land card from the Plant Spirit Oracle

The phases of the moon offer additional opportunities for sacred timing and herbal preparations. To me, there is little as enjoyable as going out under the full moon or dark moon to create a flower essence. There are two ways to use the phases of the moon: the simple way based only on moon phase, and the more complex way based on what planet astrologically the moon is in at that given time.  In terms of moon phases, preparing and harvesting at a new moon or during the waxing moon is good for when you want to bring healing into the body, strengthen the body, or offer nutrients to the body. The full moon  brings power to herbal creations and energizes them. A waning moon helps draw out or remove toxins, sickness, or other impurities.  If I want to work with removing sickness from the body, perhaps I start with a lunar flower essence of wormwood or walnut, created during the waning moon, and draw upon that energy to help remove sickness.

 

The turning wheel of the stars combined with the moon phase through astrology, offers yet a third possibility for harvesting and herbal preparation. This way is the most in-depth, but also perhaps, most powerful. This way to plant, harvest, and prepare herbal preparations by the phase of the moon is to use astrology, specifically, the moon sign. Each month, the moon spends about two days in each of the 12 astrological signs. The easiest way to know what phase the moon is in is to purchase a biodynamic calendar or a farmer’s almanac; both of these will offer this information. Generally speaking, here is what is important to know:

 

  • Water Signs (Cancer, Pisces, and Scorpio): When the moon is in one of these signs, it is a good time for harvesting leafy, above ground material for herbal preparations.
  • Earth Signs (Taurus, Capricorn, Virgo): When the moon is in one of these signs, it is a good time for harvesting and working with roots (below ground material) for herbal preparations.
  • Air signs (Aquarius, Gemini, Libra): When the moon is in one of these signs, it is considered fairly barren and dry.  Libra, however, is also associated with flowers, so flower harvests and preparations are appropriate under Libra. Otherwise, these signs should be avoided for plant preparations and harvest.
  • Fire Signs (Aries, Leo, Sagittarius): These signs are good “removal” signs, so good for weeding, but not very good for harvest (with the exception of the fourth quarter fire sign, this will be good for preservation).  Generally, you want to avoid harvesting under these signs.

 

These moon phases are fairly complex and can change on a daily basis; what I like about the biodynamic calendar and/or farmer’s almanac is that they spell it out for you on each day (and down to each minute). If you are practicing astrology, you wouldn’t need this kind of tool, but if you aren’t, it is very useful.

 

These are all tried and true methods for working with plants and also recognizing the many different ways in which sacred timing can be used to increase the potency of the plants. There are many opportunities to choose timing that best fits your purpose with herbal creations, and doing so adds a layer of sacredness to your actions.  Some of these systems may be contradictory (what if the moon is in a fire sign, but it is the Fall Equinox and you want to harvest?) so you need to pick your time and focus on the energy of that particular aspect.  I have found that the wheel of the sun has the most power, and if not, I will use a combination of the second two; or work hard to find the perfect moment where all three are in alignment (like 2 days before the fall equinox when the full moon is taurus for root harvest and preparation!) You don’t always get such amazing timing, but when you can, it makes the event more meaningful.

 

Honoring Spirit and Harvesting Plants

From an animistic perspective, when you harvest a plant or do any other kind of plant preparation, engaging in respect and honor is part of the necessary work. Part of this is because plants are lending you healing power through its actual body; in the case of root harvests, your harvest may end the life of that plant entirely. I believe that part of the sacred medicine of the plant is built into the relationship that you, as preparer, have with the plant itself.  In taking any part of a plant for healing purposes, and asking a plant to work for us, it is only right that we honor the plant spirit as part of our harvest.  We can harvest ethically and with sacred intent. So let’s talk about a few ways we might do this:

 

Honoring the plant. Prior to harvest, make an offering of some kind to the plant. This can be anything simple: a blend of herbs specially prepared (see my tobacco Beltane blend, for example), a song, music, drumming, a dance, a bit of your own liquid gold, a bit of your own energy, a small stone or other token.  Doing this ensures reciprocation between you and the plant, and lets the plant spirit know that you respect it. I belive this also makes the medicine stronger, as you are building a relationship of respect and mutuality with the plant. You might find, through inner listening, that the plant has a particular kind of offering it wants you to make–and different plants, just like other kinds of people, have a variety of different preferences.

Offering on a stone cairn

Offering on a stone cairn

 

Harvesting for life. Harvest only what you need and think you’ll use.  For anything above the ground, harvest parts of plants or plants at the end of their life cycle, taking a small amounts.  For plants that are abundant, you can harvest more; for plants that are rare, harvest very little (or cultivate them further before harvesting anything at all). If you are doing a root harvest, make sure that your harvest will not damage the larger plant population.  I grow or wild cultivate nearly all of the plants I want to do a root harvest from, that way I am in control of exactly how many plants I have planted and how many I am going to harvest. I will not harvest from wild populations unless A) they are extraordinarily abundant and B) I have already worked to spread these populations further.  You can also consider doing plant or flower essences for plants that are extremely rare (Indian Ghost Pipe being a good example).

 

Cultivation and Relationship. Harvest and preparation are not one-shot events but rather, can be lifetime experiences rooted in a practice of nature spirituality. This means that these plants aren’t just a passerby you interact with once in a while, but can be strong plant allies and friends. Recently, I shared a post at Lughnasadh about how to cultivate long-standing relationships with plant spirits.  I used sacred tobacco (nicotiana rustica) as my example for this work and offered one strategy to do so.  The plant spirit posts I also recently shared offer more tools for this work.

 

That’s it for this week–during my next post, we’ll get into four different kinds of preparations you can make: drying herbs and teas, tinctures, infused oils and salves, and finally, plant essences.

 

Community and Connectedness: Extending our understanding of “tribe” September 30, 2013

Sociologist Geert Hosfede* has a set of cultural dimensions (which you can look at here) that helps us understand broad differences in culture. These aren’t absolute by any means, but they do give us some baseline indications of how cultures differ for the purpose of understanding intercultural communication. One of these cultural dimensions is his concept of “individualism” which indicates the extent to which a culture is based on individualism (focus on the self) vs. the community (which could be a family unit, a tribe, a town, or even a country). But in today’s blog post I really want to focus on this idea of individualism and collectivism, and the shades of gray between these two binary terms. (*As an aside, Hosfede’s other dimensions are equally fascinating, for those of you interested in these kinds of things.  Hosfede’s dimensions do work under binary assumptions, that is, the opposite of individualism is collectivism.  False binaries aside, its still a useful rubric through which to consider these issues, even if it does simplify them.)

 

Druids around the fire at the latest OBOD East Coast Gathering (photo from John Beckett)

Druids around the fire at the latest OBOD East Coast Gathering (photo from John Beckett)

The United States and many other western industrialized nations seem to be very highly individualistic societies, which manifests itself in our culture in the idea of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, individual rewards for individual actions, a focus on individual achievement, and, especially in the latter part of the 20th and early 21st century, a whole lot of isolationism and solitude. In my experience in living in four different states in the USA, we don’t seem to have strong bonds, even within our families, and most of us these days barely know our neighbors. We seem to have more loyalty to company brands than we do to people–and everything in our culture is structured this way purposefully, to get us to buy and consume. The idea of “me” and the “self” seems to be the most important to us; narcissism is a key American quality among our younger generations. This seems to be exacerbated by current technology which emphasizes the individual and his/her actions (Facebook’s wall, Twitter, etc.).  I make these observations partially just as someone living in this culture, but also as a professional who teaches college-age students for a living. I see the difficulties these students face with defining themselves, with their relations, and their uses of technology that seem to isolate more than they bring together.

 

Collective cultures, on the other hand, work on the level of the family or the tribe, where bonds of community are central. This leads to things like strong family bonds, extended families living and taking care of each other, and family/tribal honor. I had the opportunity to spend time with a group of close friends who were students from Korea while in graduate school–I was amazed by the bonds that they formed, their gift-giving and kindness.  One said to me once, “Dana, why is it that everyone in America asks ‘How are you?’ but nobody actually wants to know?”  The OBOD East Coast Gathering, which I blogged about last week, is another example of a tribe forming–its something that transcends the individual, and allows a supportive community to grow.

 

The USA used to have a more collective culture in its past. This is particularly true when communities had to work together for mutual survival.  Families and communities banded together, raised structures together, found/grown/hunted and preserved food together, ate meals together, and so forth, because being isolated from the community in times previous to this one likely meant death. (You can see the remnants of this in old colonial dances, where you danced with everyone in the community to build communal bonds rather than with a single partner, or older fraternal orders, like the Grange, who banded together to aid rural communities and farmers.  Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels also have great examples of community-oriented experiences.)

 

I’d like to propose that individualism causes particular kinds of troubling trends, and would like to suggest that if we draw upon the idea of the “tribe” and extend that “tribe” quite far, it gives us positive ways of interacting with the world.  One of the problems I see with a heavy focus on the self is that it makes us lose the bonds of community and connectedness; and these two qualities are really what make us human and make life worth living.  If we disconnect ourselves from other human beings, we have less altruism, less care and compassion.  We end up with political movements like the present-day Tea Party, which is essentially an exercise in selfishness.  Since when did helping out fellow human beings become a problem? Since when is altruism a dirty word?  Another problem with the heavy focus on self is that it disconnects us from the healing power of nature–we see ourselves as disconnected from the whole, we don’t see the consequences of our actions, and we begin to treat nature like something that is ours to own and exploit rather than our mother and nurturer.

 

Traditional cultures throughout the world were also much more collectivist–the idea of “tribe” or “clan” (such as those in ancient Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) all followed this collectivist model.  We can see these tales of tribe, of clan, of family, woven into so much of the mythology and folklore of many peoples (read the Mabinogion with this in mind). We can also see the idea of collectivism reflected in everyday interactions–in its height of power, the Iroquois nation used an elaborate system of consensus-based diplomacy to encourage fairness and equity among its members.  Even though it was made up of five (and later six) different peoples and tribes, its bonds of brotherhood were solidified by rituals and discussions in order to maintain stability and peace amongst its members (although how outsiders were treated was a different subject of discussion). In this, the bonds of family and tribe are central to living and interaction in the world.

 

What is part of our tribe? Wood sorrel?

Wood sorrel is part of my tribe! 🙂

Some cultures, such as most of those indigenous to the Americas, took the notion of tribe a step further and went so far as to include non-human persons (animals, plants, stones, etc.) within their idea of tribe.  This is the concept of animism, and remains central to understanding much indigenous cultural interaction (such as those examples provided by Dale Everett in his interactions with the Pirahas his book Don’t Sleep There are Snakes).  A basic animistic philosophy suggests a “belief in spirits”, the idea that every living being (and sometimes rocks and other so-called “inanimate” objects, have a spirit and a soul).  In his book Animism: Respecting the Living World, Graham Harvey examines four groups: Native Americans, Maori, Aboriginal Australians, and Eco-pagans to show how their animistic philosophy is enacted by expanding the concept of tribe, where being with, speaking, interaction, and engaging in magic surrounding the living, spirit filled world is a critical part of the human condition.

 

Can we once again build tribes among our fellow humans? Can we expand our own notion of the “tribe” to include all life on this planet? If we do this, what do we gain?  I would like to think that by doing this, we gain a great deal, and we begin to shift some of the destructive trends in human thinking and action; trends in thinking that have caused substantial environmental destruction, the destruction of whole peoples and cultures, and the inevitable loss in diversity that goes with such destruction.  Instead, we can focus on our connection to each other and to the land, and the community that such connection brings.

 

The anthropocene and the rights of non-human persons February 8, 2013

We have entered a new age, what scientists are calling the “Anthropocene,” otherwise termed the “Human Epoch” by geologists. This means, for the first time in history, rather than having meteorological activity, substantial volcanic activity, or other natural phenomena which affect the entire planet’s ecology and geology, we have human-driven activity affecting it on a larger scale. To get a sense of the enormity of this fact, the Planet Under Pressure conference put out an informative website and video.  Here’s their video (their State of the Planet declaration is also worth a read):

 

More evidence about reaching our limits, or “overshooting” beyond them, can be found in the Limits to Growth, which does a very thorough, if not depressing, job of showing the human-driven stresses on our planet (and I’ve blogged about this book before).  These limits aren’t just felt by humans–but rather, all life on this planet is being radically impacted.

 

While scientists, policy makers, and the general public can continue to debate efforts to move towards sustainable solutions (or, worse, debate the fact that we are even causing problems), which are likely not to come in time to do any real good at least in the USA, perhaps what is being lost in here are the rights of other species–plant, animal, insect, and microbial–to life and the space to grow.  These are often called “non-human persons” in animistic thinking, the idea that you can be a person and not be human, to have a soul, a spirit, a set of unalienable rights.

 

Its something we don’t usually discuss: the rights of non-human persons.  But perhaps we should.  Bolivia recently made international headlines by enacting a law that contains eleven principles giving “Mother Earth” legal rights.  Now I want to clarify–my understanding of these is that they aren’t considered “protections” as much as actual “rights” and that’s a world of difference.  In the USA, we have the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) whose job is supposed to consist of protecting our natural environment.  These protections are usually shoddy, underfunded, and corrupt.  In other words, we have a shoddy agency trying to save face while corporations and individuals continue to do whatever they damn well please.

 

Whether or not Bolivia will be able to overcome their oil and profit-driven industry’s motives and create something new that goes beyond paper and into practice is another story.  At this point, the law is a start, an intention, and we’ll need to see how it plays out and if this is first in a larger series of movements that make us recognize that our tribe must extend beyond fellow humans and to encompass all life.

 

The rights of all...

The rights of all…

An animistic perspective has something to offer to this discussion as well.  In animism, all living things (birds, trees) and natural material objects (rivers, stones) possess a spirit, a soul, something that transcends their physical well being.  (We can set this in stark contrast to the view held in various Christian religions, where only humans have souls).  This means that when you destroy a tree, or a river, or some other natural thing, you aren’t just destroying the physical thing, but you are also impacting a spiritual entity connected to the same web of life that you, yourself are connected to.  I think that thinking about the world in these terms makes us understand why mother nature, as a whole, and individual spirits within her great web (birds, plants, rivers) should have rights–the same rights that humans enjoy.

 

For who can decide what has the right to live, the right to consume resources, the right to take up space, and who does not?  Is that really our right as human beings? I would argue that in this age, we need to stop thinking about our rights and start thinking about those whose rights have been trampled.  We need to take more positive actions as Bolivia is attempting, we need to recognize and own up to the consequences of our own behaviors, and we need to build a better world.

 

Living With Rather than Against Nature July 31, 2012

A central concept in Druidry is peace.  At the beginning of each druidic ritual, we declare peace in the quarters.  We a say a prayer for peace (which you can see in my painting I posted earlier this year).  But all of this is lip service unless you work, consciously and tirelessly, to enact peace in your daily life. And this includes living at peace with all living things.

 

And what does this peaceful living look like? Well, one way that peace can be enacted is by re-evaluating our relationship with the natural world.  Humans often engage in an unnecessarily adversarial relationship with nature.  Why is this?  On a larger scale its simple—we have unbalanced nature in various ways and we take up too much space.  We don’t allow wild spaces to flourish—we must control them, plant them full of things that don’t belong and may cause imbalances in the ecosystem, dump them full of chemicals that harm all who come in contact with them, maintain them with fossil fuels that heat up our world, or worse, cover them over with concrete.

 

Take something as innocuous as the dandelion. Most yard owners work to eradicate it and are at “war” with it, as some recent chemical commercials for eradicating dandelions seem to suggest. And all this war against dandelions is for reasons I simply can’t understand (since it is medicinal, edible, and breaks up compacted soil, looks very whimsical and beautiful, among other things). The yard is far from a natural, balanced natural state.  In fact, the yard is quite “unnatural”; as described in Gaia’s Garden, its a throwback to the Victorian Era when wealthy landowners could afford to keep big swaths of land for no purposes other than their amusement and keep cropped close to the ground by sheep. Its a status symbol, a symbol of the bourgeois. So why do dandelions keep growing in your yard? Likely because your yard has compacted soil, which means the soil is very hard packed from repeatedly mowing it with heavy equipment, making it difficult for anything other than grass to grow. Dandelions come in and break up that soil so that other things can later take root. In other words, dandelions are the first stage of nature healing your yard. Yet yard owners dump millions of pounds of chemicals trying to eradicate something that is like nature’s cry for help. And so, we call the wild things that aid nature’s regrowth process “weeds” and declare war on them, and we call things that we import halfway across the world and plant without thought to their relationship to the native ecosystem as “plants” and pamper them. And, like all things, an industry has built up around maintaining the myth that dandelions are bad and that you need to buy products to eradicate them.

 

Mixed Media piece I finished a few years ago.  I "liberated" a rusty chainsaw from a forest that was logged to create a story of peace and healing.

Mixed Media piece I finished a few years ago. I “liberated” a rusty chainsaw from a forest that was logged to create a story of peace and healing.

So called “nuisance” animals are another example of humanity’s war with nature. Yes, there is no doubt that a groundhog is a nuisance in your garden. I learned this firsthand this year, and will tell that story at some point in this blog. But even so, the high prevalence of groundhogs, raccoons, squirrels, moles, mice and other animals have more to do with the impact of human activity than their own. Humans have taken unprecedented amounts of land, turned it into–spirits forbid–lawns, slaughtered these creatures’ natural predators and disrupted the food chain. After all of this,  we then wonder why we have problems with groundhogs? And again, the “solution” often ends in the taking of a life: the dropping of poisoned food into holes, trapping them, shooting them, etc. And of course, let’s not forget the countless products and services that can be purchased to aid the frustrated homeowner in their approach to killing or otherwise eradicating nuisance animals (because all of these relationships, today, are tied to consumerism).

 

Where does this adversarial “man vs. wild” relationship come from?  Many places.  Cultural narratives we gain through advertising that teach us that “weeds are bad” and the best way of getting rid of them is by going to your local big box store and buying some expensive chemicals to dump to solve your problem.  And this consumerist culture is so short-sighted that it doesn’t consider the long-term ramifications of dumping chemical after chemical to solve perceived problem after problem.  Housing associations and local township ordinances (such as my own in Independence Township, MI) that literally ban beneficial “roadside weeds” like chicory from appearing in your front yard. Books on lawn care, gardening, etc, that ascribe to philosophies that do not privilege whole-ecosystems designs.

 

But I suspect that the root cause an underlying cultural narrative, developed over centuries, that is the product of a Christian-focused worldview.  The American worldview, one that was (and is) very heavily influenced by the Bible, we see that the book of Genesis immediately puts humans and plant/animal kingdoms in an adversarial relationship. Adam was given the power to name animals and to lord over them. This view gives humans the perceived right to do just that—dominate, create war, and generally shape nature to their demands. Manifest destiny, the philosophy of US government and society that stripped millions of acres away from their rightful indigenous owners, is just another version of this “power over others” philosophy (and in the case of Native Americans, it is power over “heathens.”) If you look at some of the reasons that Europeans wanted to find new land at all, it came down to natural resources (which were dwindling in Europe) and exploitation (read the history of North Carolina and the Long-Needle Pine and shipbuilding, for an example of this). And if you read many journals of the early colonials and others who were working to own/colonize/exploit the Americas, you’ll see them referencing their “God-given right” to do so. That’s not to say that all Christians today ascribe to this philosophy–in more liberal Christian views, discussions of “eco-spirituality” abound.  But I do think that, for too long, Americans have used their faith as a way of exploiting other humans and non-human persons around them.

 

We must be one with the world!

We must be one with the world!

Alternative views—both spiritual and practical—suggest more reciprocal, peaceful relationships with nature.  These relationships embrace all of nature–including so-called “weeds” and so-called “nuisance animals” as part of a natural system. The Native American tribes hold a diversity of belief systems, but at the heart of all of them was their deep respect of nature in all of her forms.  We see this respect–living with the world, rather than apart from it–repeated in indigenous belief systems throughout the world. Some more modern philosophies also help us re-envision our relationship with nature. A permaculture philosophy, to which I ascribe, place dandelions as a top-rated plant: its a great foraging food for animals and humans alike, it has a deep tap root to bring up the nutrients and break up the soil, it provides ground cover, its quick to grow.  An animist philosophy, to which I also ascribe, would recognize the living, sentient spirit of all living things.

 

Cycles of Life, Death, and Rebirth April 21, 2012

Filed under: Change,Cycles,Death,Growth,Life — Dana @ 11:36 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

Seven years ago, one of my closest friends, Alfred Struble, lost his 3-year battle with cancer, dying before he was even 30 years old. While I have long since accepted his passage from this world into the otherworld, I find that the anniversary of Alfred’s passing is a good day to reflect upon the cycles of life and death.

Alfred entering a crevice

My friend Alfred, entering a crevice between two massive rocks. Where does this path lead?

Since coming to druidry and embracing an animistic worldview, death has taken on new meaning to me. The Christian worldview, the religion of my birth, teaches that we are imperfect, sinful beings always striving to reach the state of ultimate happiness (heaven) through salvation from ourselves and our own human natures. This view assumes a “one-shot” attempt at life; a linear progression from nothingness, to something faulty, to something eternal. But this path, from birth to salvation, doesn’t really reflect any other cycle or path in real life (except if you were to believe that every life only has one opportunity on this earth to live). The more that I considered this path, when I was still within a Christian worldview, the more it made little sense to me.

I like to look to the patterns of nature to explain life and death. There are several worth bearing mention here:

 

1) The pattern of no waste. If you look at a forest, it’s a perfect system. Life gives way to death, which is then used to foster more life. Nothing in a forest is wasted, and everything is recycled—air (from oxygen breathers to oxygen makers); dirt (living plants consume the energy from dead ones); water (streams, rivers, water trapped by rich hummus in the soil, the trees forming as a canopy to keep the moisture contained within). If we look at our planet, it too is a perfect system. The process of photosynthesis forming the basis of plant life, which is then fed upon by animal life, which, when it dies, nourishes the plant life.

Nowhere, in any natural system, is the idea of “waste” generated. Everything in a natural system has a purpose—everything fits. What then is the place of spirit or soul in this system? Does it, too, go through a recycling/rebirth?

 

2) For the second principle, we come to Isaac Newton, who claimed that matter can be neither created or destroyed. If we accept the basic principles of law of the conservation of energy, this also provides us some insight into life and death. Does this same law apply to non-material things? Like souls and spirits?

If the universe is a perfect system, a system that doesn’t produce waste; and if energy can be neither created nor destroyed, does this suggest the recycling or renewal of our souls?

 

3) In nature, we see a cyclical pattern everywhere. From the wheel of the year where we mark the passage of the seasons to the cycles of water, of air, and of plant and animal life, we see that everything passes in a cycle that is connected to the whole. It seems that even if the matter does not stay in the same form (ice to water to gas), something about its essence is preserved (in the case of water the atomic building blocks of water remain).

Can this same cycle be applied to the soul?

 

4) Finally, we can look to evolution to see why a one shot path seems inconsistent with the patterns in nature. Recently, I was able to attend a talk by Richard Dawkins, who was talking about his new children’s book The Magic of Reality (which is an amazing read!). At the beginning of his talk, Dawkins presented a view of evolution that was so insightful, it bears repeating here. He argued that if you look at the short scale, say of only a few generations, there appears very little or no change between you, your parents, your grandparents, your great grandparents and so on. But each generation changes a little tiny bit, and if you went back far enough and widened your scope, you would eventually get back to something that looked nothing like you or your current generation. He then displayed a graphic that went back 40,000 generations, leading to a rather hideous fish-looking thing. His point was that evolution is slow, and many successive generations refine and adapt and grow to something greater.

Does evolution only happen, again, with living organisms? What about the spirit, the soul of such organisms? Can our souls evolve, grow, learn, and adapt just as our own species has done?

 

Concluding Thoughts – The Web of Life and Cycles of Rebirth

Some modern animist thinkers describe this as a great web of life—each node, an individual life, and the strands going out in millions of directions, connecting us to each other. When one passes on, he/she is reabsorbed into that great web, and within time, forms a new node. Is that node like the last? Likely not. Its evolved, its grown, and the cycle continues.

In the end, everything that I’ve written is philosophy. But I’d like to think that nature teaches us lessons—and these lessons can be applied to our understanding of and interaction with the otherworld.

Our lives are but a small fraction of the whole!

Our lives are but a small fraction of the whole!

 

 

 

Our lives are but a small fraction of the whole!

 

 

[ This blow post will be in the Oct 1st 2013 Animist Blog Carnival]

 

Druidry and the Environment June 22, 2011

Someone on the AODA listserv put out a call for people to talk about their connection between druidry and environmentalism. It was a good experience to think, and articulate, my own thoughts on the issue.  I thought I’d share the questions–and my answers–here. 

1. Describe your spiritual path?
I am an animist druid. I see my spiritual path as being one of closeness and understanding the interconnectivity of all things. My work involves healing of the land, listening to the spirits, and protecting and celebrating all things.
Everything that I do, I do as a druid. I don’t see my life, my career, my artistic pursuits, or anything else as separate. When I go and teach in a classroom or when I sit quietly by the stream, everything is druidic. Because I hold myself up to this standard, it means that I am constantly working to better myself and live up to the principles that define my spiritual beliefs.

2. Describe your connection to the earth on both a physical and a spiritual level.
I am very connected to the land, both on a spiritual and physical level. I am gifted with the ability to sense the land in multiple ways and to interact with spirit guides and spirits of the land that help me better understand this connection. When I see the land suffering, I suffer. Sometimes I reach out and give healing energy. Sometimes, the land heals me. In both cases, we learn and grow from the experience.
3. Did you feel this level of connection to the earth and the environment before you began following your current path?
Yes and no. I have always been connected to the land, especially growing up in the forested mountains. This is where I spent my time, and where I learned my most valuable lessons. Even as a child, I would speak to the trees—and they would speak back. Since becoming a druid about six years ago, I have learned more about this gift and how to use it. My senses have deepened since undergoing druidic training, particularly discursive mediation and energy work.
4. Since starting your current path, how has your view of nature changed.
I think I understand the complexities and interconnectedness much better than I used to. I used to want to protect the land, and have always been an environmentalist. But it wasn’t until I worked closely with healing the land, hearing the stories of the lost and forgotten forests, and sharing these stories with others that I truly understood environmentalism and protection on a spiritual level. With this knowledge, however, comes great responsibility. The desire to protect and preserve has never been stronger.
5. Do you consider an environmentalist?
Yes. Absolutely. I don’t see my environmentalism as separate from my druidic path. I actually find this question kind of silly, because I don’t really think that someone can call themselves a druid, or walk any pagan/earth-based spirituality and not be an environmentalist. Or if they are, they are likely fooling themselves.
6. What pro-environment things do you do (i.e. recycling, etc)
I do everything in my power to reduce my impact on the planet and to give back, locally and internationally. I have made radical lifestyle changes to support this goal.
1) I try to eat a locally-based, vegetarian diet, that reduces my consumption, carbon footprint, and supports local sustainable agriculture.
2) I grow my own food (and have just started doing this, but am learning)
3) I compost and reduce my waste output. We now throw away less than one garbage bag every two weeks (for a family of 2).
4) I make all of my own soaps and detergents from naturally-based materials. I teach others how to make them.
5) I reduce the amount of travel and trips; we own two fuel efficient vehicles (one hybrid, one 40 mpg), I carpool.
6) We have made various home improvements to reduce our overall energy consumption and making our home more efficient.
7) I write letters daily to representatives, local papers, etc. on issues of environmental concern.
8) I use sustainable feminine hygiene products.
9) I shop exclusively at second-hand stores and yard sales and work hard to ensure that if I can purchase it used, I will do so. There are a few things I must buy new, but not that much!
10) For my teaching, I do not use textbooks, but rather make all materials digitally available. I ask students to submit their work digitally to avoid producing excess paper waste (and quite a bit can add up as the semester progresses!)
11) I can my own food and practice other food preservation techniques (root cellaring)
12) I participate in local cleanups and pick up trash in forests.
13) I financially support a number of environmental organizations.
14) I post environmentally-supportive material to my Facebook account and share it with family and friends to help raise awareness on these issues.
15) I will gladly learn, and gladly teach, and work hard to educate others about their own environmental impact.

7. What sort of things would you like to do but don’t?

I would like to live a completely sustainable life. Right now in America, to do this seems to require an inordinate amount of funds (solar power panels, expensive vehicles, etc.). It is also nearly impossible due to cultural conventions and norms (such as the lack of good public transportation, etc.). I wanted to get a car I could convert to a greasecar—the car manufacturers don’t produce cars that allow you to do so. I wanted to install a composing toilet in my house—the township won’t allow it. If you’ve ever read the book, “Everything I do is Illegal: War Stories from the Food Front (found on amazon) you’ll understand what better what I’m talking about. Most of what I feel I can’t do has little to do with me and my desire, and more to do with larger social systems that are in place to encourage and facilitate our unsustainable way of life.

Everything in our culture is geared to be used and thrown away, and while some things are easy, others are way harder. The worst thing is that “green” has become a new consumerist mindset—but it still doesn’t actually solve the problem. As long as we are still buying way more than we need, it doesn’t matter if its green or not.

So I think my limitations have less to do with my own desire and more to do with a larger cultural tradition that is incredibly difficult to escape. At the same time, I’m also aware of my own shortcomings.

8. How does that ideology fit with your spiritually?
I work as hard as I can at what I can, as a druid and human being, and live as ethically as I can (and in my mind, ethics have to do with how we treat the earth and each other). And what I can’t do now, I work to change on a larger level, and support systems of change (like supporting local, sustainable food producers).
9. What role should Druid play in the environmental activism?
The better question is what role shouldn’t druids play? I think we need to lbe the change we want to see in others. I think we need to be at the forefront of this change, and continually push to improve our own lives, and the lives of everyone else on this planet, human or not. In animism, we talk about non-human persons and their rights. This is very applicable here. I don’t want to live at the expense of other lives.
As I said earlier, I am baffled and shocked by those who claim to be following an earth-centered tradition and do nothing to protect it. I couldn’t live with myself without doing something to help—our planet is in pain, and every day with every action, humans cause more of it.

At the very local level, I am currently cleaning up a garbage dump in the forest behind my house. I’m removing and recycling all materials that can, re-purposing what can, and otherwise doing what I can to help. I like this work because it is tangible and I can physically see the difference. But then, I still have another 30 – 40 feet of trash to get through… ☺.