The Druid's Garden

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

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

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

 

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

 

Building connections with nature

Building connections with nature

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

My druid's garden full of sacred plants!

My druid’s garden full of sacred plants!

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

A love of the land and nurturing of spirit

A love of the land and nurturing of spirit

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

What can Druidry offer in dark times? October 7, 2018

Things seem broken right now. These last two weeks have been a very hard week for many people. The national conversation here in the USA grows more difficult by the day, and it seems nearly every nation is facing many kinds of serious issues. These challenges are happening concurrently at many levels—internationally, but also in communities we care about, in our families, in our homes. Things are tough. They seem tougher for many of us today than they were yesterday. Many of us fear that they will likely be even tougher tomorrow. This is the reality of industrial decline, the reality of the climate crisis before us.

 

The questions that I’ve had for myself, and my fellow druids is a simple one: what can druidry offer us in these dark times?

 

I’ve been thinking about the role of druidry in all of this, this question a lot, not only over the last several weeks, but over the last few years as it becomes more and more obvious that humanity has chosen for itself a course that we cannot escape from.  I wanted to share with you some of my own thoughts and practices that you, too, may find healing and strength in them.  I’ll group my answers to this question in three areas, reflecting the three major branches of druidry: that of the bard, the ovate, and the druid, and then offer some overall thoughts on the tradition and druidic philosophy itself.

 

Bardic Responses: Within and Without

The bardic arts within the druid tradition are varied and multiplicitious. In my OBOD 2018 Mount Haemus Lecture, when I researched the bardic practices of almost 250 druids worldwide, I found that nearly all of them saw their bardic practices first and foremost as a spiritual practice that gave them peace, strength, and the ability to function better in the world. For a much smaller portion of people, art was a medium for them to express their feelings, hopes and dreams–about nature, about the crisis of our age–through their bardic expression. We’ll now consider each of these in turn.

 

Bardic Arts as Inner Healing

Art journals for processing and healing

Art journals for processing and healing

For many of us, during these difficult times, it is important to have something to retreat to.  Soemthing that calms us, provides us distance, space, and perspective.  For those of us who practice a bardic art, the practice of that art can certainly be a source of refuge. Druids from around the world use the bardic arts as a way of making meaning of the world, processing difficult things, and grounding.

 

Some bardic practitioners work best when they are in a “healthful” headspace, however, and feel that they can’t create something if they aren’t happy.  But my response to that is–create.  Express.  Get it out.  The audience for some of our bardic expression can be only us, never anyone else, and that is healthful and helpful for these dark times.  For me, I use art journaling as a bardic expression that is meant solely as a healing medium–one that nobody else has to see, and not even one I necessarily hold onto after it is completed (I’ve thrown many a journal in the Samhain fires to release the energy I put into them!). The point here is to find something you can do from a bardic perspective: song, dance, drumming, photography, artwork, writing, singing, movement, woodworking, and so on–and let it help you find peace.  If you aren’t sure how to get started in this, you might check out my Taking up the Path of the Bard series of artices here, here, and here.

 

Bardic Arts as Outward Response and Change

It has long been the case that artists, musicians, dancers, singers, storytellers, and the like, helped carry parts of culture with them, respond to culture, and work to change culture through their art.  Consider the power of a photograph, a story, or a song. Sometimes, a single image can impact people–and enact changes in perceptions and behaviors–in ways other forms of communication cannot.

 

And so, for those of us drawn to it,  the other way our bardic practices may help us respond and deal with the crisis of our age is through external expressions–bardic practices that help us get our message out there, help us help others, help others see a new perspective, and so on.  Unsurprisingly, for me, that’s a lot of the writing I do on this blog–I can’t control what is happening more broadly, but I do feel, at least in this small corner of the web, that I am doing something good.  It doesn’t have to be big, the important thing is feeling empowered to do something.

 

Ovate Responses: Seeking Solace in the Living Earth

Part of the challenge in present culture is the constant flow of information, the constant bombardment. These larger cultural currents seem to crash over and over again like powerful waves, knocking us over, beating us up, and then knocking us over again. Finding ways of shielding against this flow of information and getting regular—and long—breaks from it can be very helpful. For this, I like to find quiet time in nature.

 

Grounding and Flow, or the Druid Elements of Calas and Gwyar

A while ago on a similar topic, I wrote about the interplay between calas (grounding/stability) and gwyar (flow/adaptablity) and how both are necessary in these times. Seeking solace in nature can offer us either–or both–of these things as we need them.

 

Seeking the stabilizing forces of nature can help give us strength in these difficult times.  Work with stones, the earth, trees, mountains, or caves can be particularly powerful to help connect with Calas and offer us grounding. The Oak tree down by the river is not going to throw re-traumatizing bullshit my direction, she is not going to bombard me with things I don’t want to see, or frustrate me with her lack of integrity. She is simply going to be as she always is: stable, welcoming, and powerful. When I sit with her, and simply breathe. I can sit with her for 5 minutes or 5 hours, and she will always offer me the grounding and stability of her presence.

My favorite spot for connection on my land

My favorite spot for connection on my land

 

Similarily, these times require us to be flexible, to be adaptable, and to be willing and ready to change, even if change is difficult.  Nature also offers us the energy of gywar for this purpose, primarily through clouds, wind, and water. When I go out on my kayak on the Clarion river, I am offerd both zero cell phone signal (so no unwanted intrusions) and the activity of learning to go with the flow, to float, and to let the river guide me. Likewise, laying on the solid earth and watching the leaves blow and the clouds flow is another excellent way to connect with this energy.

 

Retreat and Rejuvenation: Nature Heals

In this broken time, I like to places that are damaged and in the process of healing.  Nature is a master healer, and learning to read her landscape and the healing that happens in each breath can remind us of our own capacity to heal. Old fields that are now bursting with life, logged forests that are coming back into health. The dandelion, in her bravery, pushing up through the sidewalk and giving no care.  The mushrooms on the stumps that offer the promise of new beginnings from old wounds, breaking down the old so that the new can come in.

 

Here in Pennsylvania, almost all of our forests are in a state of healing. 100 years ago, according to the 1898 PA Department of Agriculture Forestry publication, 98% of Pennsylvania’s forests were logged. Stripped bare,, used to support mines, lay rails, and make charcoal for steel production. Some of these forests are so regenerated that its hard to tell that they had ever been damaged. Others show the tell-tale signs of ecosystems still regenerating.  I like to go to these places, these healing-in-progress places, and be reminded that nature can heal all wounds, given time. We are part of nature, and therefore, we, too, can heal. You can also take this idea much further by doing a druid retreat–retreat into nature for a time (a few hours, a day, a week or more).

 

Druid Responses: Stability in our Practices

Spiritual practices offer much in the way of healing and strengthening us in these difficult times, and in the druid arts, these primarily center around the practices of ritual and mediation.

 

Daily Meditation as Emotionally Beneficial and Balancing

Watching the healing happening--pain transformed into soil!

Watching the healing happening–pain transformed into soil!

Daily deep breathing, mediation (of any form, but especially nature based) and simply being quiet for a time can greatly aid us.  Even taking three deep breaths when we get upset, maybe closing our eyes for a few moments to let the intense emotions slip away–these simple mediative practices can be incredibly sheltering during these times.  More and more research is coming out on the benefits of mediation as a way of promoting more happiness, less anxiety, and better approaches to handling stress and strain.  A daily meditation practice offers you such benefits–and certainly, it is a core part of our tradition.

 

Meditation in the druid tradition is often combined with being in nature–walking meditation, meditation in stillness or focus, or simply, sitting quietly and not allowing your thoughts to overtake you.  Discursive meditation also ofters a powerful tool to step back from emotions and think through them.

 

Here are a few powerful tools:

  • Observation meditation: Find something you want to observe for a period of time (an intricate flower, a lizard, a bird, a tree).  Do three deep breaths, then return to a normal breath pattern.  Observe and be in stillness.
  • Oneness meditation: Similar to the above, find a part of nature with which you want to connect.  A waterfall, a stone, a tree, etc.  Mind your breath and then imagine that part of nature encompasing you, and bringing you in line with its energy.  Take that energy within you with each breath, and on each outbreath, release any pain or suffering.
  • Discursive meditation.  Discursive meditation helps with focused thinking; the idea in a nutshell is that you choose a theme for meditation.  This can be something that is causing you pain or something you want to understand more.  Now, think deeply about it, following one thought to the next.  If you find yourself deviating from the original thought, trace it back through.  I have found this strategy particularly helpful for working to get at the root of emotions–why am I having this emotion? And once I have the root, I can work on it directly.

 

The Wheel of the Year and Ritual Work for Clearing and Healing

In the Druid’s wheel of the year, we recognize that the dark times are part of the natural cycle of things, that they are part of life and the passage of time.  Still, it is difficult to live in a time of decline, when we know that winter is quickly approaching, and there is nothing we can do to shelter from that storm. Take advantage of the season that is upon us for introspection and healing work that the dark half of the year provides.  It allows–and encourages us–to go deeply within, to cast off that which no longer serves us, to re-orient our relationship to the darkness of this time, and to bolster ourselves and strengthen ourselves for what is to come.

 

Ritual work can be highly effective for this goal.  Writing simple rituals for yourself, tied to the wheel of the sun and the phases of the moon (or simply, when you need them) can greatly aid you in these dark times.  Rituals don’t have to be elaborate affairs, they can be simple.  Some ritual actions you might take include:

  • Releasing: Letting go of emotions, feelings, pain, other things that are not serving you any longer.  Rituals where you throw things into water or where you release things with water are particularly helpful here.
  • Cleansing: simple rituals to cleanse you (particulalry after releasing) can also be helpful here.  Smudging with herbs, asperging with water, doing a naked or barefoot forest bath, clearing yourself with the energy of the sun–all of these can be powerful cleansing rituals.
  • Energizing/strengthening: Bringing in energy to help bolster you during these difficult times. Drawing in the power of nature, the energy of the sun, the strength of the oak–whatever you need to help strengthen and ground you.
  • Shielding:  Shielding rituals are particularly effective in this day and age, and I suggest every person develop one and use it if they don’t already have one.  I use the AODA’s Sphere of Protection (which offers banishing, energizing, and shielding in one 5 minute or less ritual)–using this daily helps clear me and offer me balance and strength.

These are just some simple ideas–the important point here is to work with nature, work with whatever other powers you have, to find ways of strengthening you, cleansing you, energizing you, shielding you, and releasing the pent up emotions of these hard times.

 

Druidry as an Alternative Life Philiosophy

Observing and interacting with nature in a sacred manner offers us much in the way of re-aligning ourselves, and our worldview, towards that of the living earth.  Modern industrial and consumerist culture has a set of beliefs that have spiraled us into many of the challenges we face–and druidry offers us alternative perspectives and philosophies that can be counter-balancing in these times.  These include:

  • Tertiary thinking. Tertiary thinking encourages us to avoid false binaires and to consider alternative perspectives beyond those which are given
  • Recognizing the cycle and season. Modern American culture (and I suspect many others) demand that we are always in what I’ll call “high summer.”  High summer is high energy, with lots of activity, long days, lots of abundance. But life isn’t like that–and the more that you follow and align yourself with a wheel of the year and the cycles of nature, the more that this view will shift into a view that embraces, or at least accepts, that we also go through cycles in our lives, and cycles in our culture.
  • Nature as sacred and healing. Unlike much of culture, which sees nature as something that can be exploited, we druids recoginize the sanctity of all life, the sacredness of the living earth, and her power to heal.  This can, by extension, put us in different relationship with everything–for all things, ultimately, come from her and return to her.
  • Understanding time differently. Living by the seasons and wheel of the year also puts us in a different relationship with time; rather than time being a line, time can be a circle or spiral, which offers us powerful tools for reflection and strengthening. I wrote more about this in my series on time a few years ago here, here, here, and here.

 

Druidry as A Response to this Age

If you think about what druidry does, what the different paths do, it very much is a way of reconnecting us with those things that are the most important: our connection with nature, our connection with core practices that sustain us, and our connection with our creative spirit. It offers us tools, strategies, and powerful metaphors to help us adapt, relfect, and ground.

 

Druidry as a spiritual tradition is a response to our age.  As druidry develops, as we figure out what the druidry of the 21st century should be (as opposed to the druidry of the 19th century or even druidry of the 20th century), I think all of us have much to contribute to this conversation.  I would love to hear your own thoughts on what druidry–or other earth-centered spiritual practices– do for you, how they help, and what potential it may have for us during these dark times.

 

Awen!

Awen!

 

Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part I June 18, 2017

Bardic Artistic Expression through Clay, Sand, and Straw (cob)!

Bardic Artistic Expression through Clay, Sand, and Straw (cob)!  (This is part of a tree piece I collaborated on at Strawbale Studio in Michigan)

A group of people sharing stories and songs by the fire. A fine pair of leather shoes. A beautiful woven garment. A tale full of twists and mystery. Finely wrought iron doors. An amazing wood carving on a stump. A marble sculpture. A wildly painted mural on a wall. A cob structure with whimsical trees and forms. A song that reaches deep within you when you hear it.  A rousing speech. Each of these, and so many others, represent the natural creative expressions of humanity. Taking up the path of the bard is one of three paths in the druid tradition (along with the work of the Ovate and the Druid). Yet, many people aren’t sure how to take up the path of the bard because they don’t think they are “creative” or “talented” enough.  However, the bardic arts are part of our human heritage and birthright, and each of us has that possibility. I believe it is essential that we have an opportunity to cultivate them and to embrace the flow of awen in our lives. This post, part my longer series on the bardic arts, explores the nature of the bardic arts, how to take them up, and how to become proficient at them. The goal of this two-part post is to answer the two basic questions:

 

  • How can we make the bardic arts accessible to every person?
  • How can you begin to take up a bardic art yourself, regardless of skill level?

 

To explore our two questions, in this week’s post we’ll begin by examining some definitions of the bardic arts.  Then, we’ll explore common challenges people face with taking up the bardic path and the roots of some of these challenges.  Next week, we’ll discuss how, regardless of “talent” or starting point, you can become proficient at a bardic art and offer you tools to get started or continue that process.

 

What are the bardic arts?

For the druid path, the bardic arts, or a wide variety of creative expressions, are central to the practice of druidry.  The ancient bards invoked the “Awen”; the awen is  the inspiration, the muse of inspiration, or the spark of creativity that flows. Likewise, modern druids intone and invoke the Awen in our practices often and draw upon the flow of awen for creative works. I talked more about the awen in last week’s post and more about this centrality of connecting to the creative arts in my recent post on connection as the core philosophy of the druid tradition. 

 

By “bardic arts,” I refer to a wide variety of creative and skilled expressions that can fall into four broad categories:

 

  • Performing arts: including music, theater, dance, movement, storytelling, singing, acting, and so on.
  • Fine arts: including painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, printmaking, and so on.
  • Literary arts: including writing poetry, songwriting, writing prose, and any kind of writing that requires craft and skill
  • Fine crafts: including fiber arts, metalwork/smithing, pottery, glasswork, woodwork, bookbinding, papermaking, and so on.

 

I recognize that many of these categories overlap, and all are inherently performative in nature and allow a bard to engage in some form of self-expression.  One possibility to add to this list might also include “digital arts” of various kinds (film, 3d design and printing, etc) although I’m sticking here to comments on more traditional bardic arts. A second possibility might be culinary arts or other kinds of creations.

           

Challenging Social Structures and Creative Expression

So now that we have some idea of what the bardic arts are, we can begin to dig into the challenging social structures and cultural inhibitions against creating that prevent more people from taking up the path of the bard. Because it isn’t until we understand the problems we face in cultivating the bardic arts that we can find ways of addressing those issues.

 

Growing Up and the Langauge of Disempowerment

Children are the most natural bards of all. Young children do not have the cultural inhibitions against creating that many adolescents and adults later develop.  In fact, young children instead create constantly: a group of children with crayons and paper will quickly create numerous colorful drawings, sharing them with each other. Another day, children might create complex sandcastles or fingerpaint on the wall or draw pictures in the soil outside.  They are happy to sing, dance, and create anything. No one has to teach these children to be creative; they might need to be taught how to use the markers, but a healthy child will create, often to excess, without hesitation or judgment.  Further, children aren’t judgemental of their creative work: they create becuase it brings them joy, not necessarily, because they are creating masterpieces.

By the time that that bardic-arts loving child goes through mass education, however, his or her willingness to pick up a crayon again is often greatly diminished. By the time that child is a teenager, their creative spirit is often replaced with narratives of disempowerment.  They might now say, “I’m not creative” or, when experiencing another’s bardic expressions say, “I could never do that” or “I’m not talented* like you.” They say, “I could never be a [musician/artist/etc.].”

 

How many of you have heard statements like these or said them yourself?  I have heard hundreds of people over the years say these things. Our words have power,  and the kind of statements above is the language of disempowerment. This kind of language prevents us from taking up the path of the bard, and it stifles any chance of creativity. The more we say these things, the more we reinfoce the idea that we are not creative, not talented, and not capable of creative work.

 

(*The etymology of the term “talent” is also worth exploring here. The original term “talent” is a unit of Roman currency. The “Parable of the Talents” within the Christian tradition tells a story of a master who gives three servants different numbers of coins. Two of the servants invest their coins and gain additional talents. The third servant buries it in the earth to prevent losing it; this servant is punished by his master. The moral here is that if we invest in our talents, we gain.)

 

Cultural Sources of Creative Disempowerment

Playing music from the 1750's

Playing music from the 1750’s

What exactly happens in western culture to turn happy and creative children into disempowered teens and adults? I hold that it has at least six sources of disempowerment, each of which is worth considering to help us begin to remove the cultural blocks on the creative spirit and the flow of Awen.

 

Celebration of the Exceptional. Because western culture celebrates and elevates that which is exceptional, it makes average people believe that the bardic arts are only worth pursuing if they are highly “talented.”  Mass media constantly parades exceptional skill/talent in our screens and in our faces, making any of our own efforts appear less than satisfactory. For example, the culture of celebrity prevalent in Westernized media elevates professional entertainers, craftspeople, and artists. It is their work that we consume and their work fills our homes and our lives, stifling our own. The phenomenon of television shows celebrating exceptional “talent” (The Voice, America’s Got Talent, American Idol, etc.) is a telling example here. Tens of thousands of people come out to compete for a chance to win what is, essentially, a highly publicized talent show. Those who aren’t exceptional are literally mocked on national television, and as the show goes on, in the end one or two are elevated to celebrity status. Their music or other creative talents are consumed by millions across the land.

 

Active and Passive Entertainment. The above example directly leads us to the second cultural challenge: the everyday people are discouraged from actively providing their own entertainment. The proliferation of mass media being broadcast into every home ensures that one is so immersed in the creations of others that one has little time, or desire, to create for themselves. One of the things the modern druid movement does is bring back the Eisteddfod, the bardic circle, and celebrates the telling of stories, singing of songs, playing of music, and encourages each person (regardless of ability) to share, actively taking entertainment back into our own hands.

 

Deferring to the Experts. The culture of celebrity also encourages us to “defer” to the experts—those professional entertainers, artists, musicians, and so on who hold exceptional talent are the only ones who hold power. In the Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry cautions against trusting a “specialist” for everything: we have specialists who are in charge of our health, specialists who are in charge of growing our food, and specialists who are in charge of our entertainment (among many other things). An adult living in western society has, literally, decades of practice being conditioned to defer to experts for his/her basic needs, and unfortunately, the creative arts are no exception.  This is disempowering and doesn’t encourage one to take up the bardic arts.

 

Remote Creative Expressions. A fourth challenge present that the celebrity/expert culture puts creative expression in the hands of distant strangers rather than local people in the community. You don’t personally know the celebrities that are providing your entertainment or arts; they are remote, distanced strangers who aren’t accessible to you in any other way. This reduces the chance for you to learn, to ask questions, and to see that any person can cultivate a bardic art.

 

Belief in Innate Talent. Fifth, we have a powerful and prevailing cultural belief in innate talent. This has two sides. First, there is the belief that only those with innate or extraordinary talents should take up creative expressions (because those are the only people who could make money at doing it, see next challenge below). Schools–and individuals–work to elevate those rare individuals with “gifted” or extraordinary people while serving to disempower those who don’t immediately display such gifts. Secondly, there is the idea that a person must already be good at something in order to pursue it. Often, others seek to disempower you if you aren’t as good or are just learning–and this can be stifling.  There is no room for practice or someone who is just “good enough.” Over a lifetime, these beliefs severely disempower those who may have an interest in learning a new bardic art but aren’t immediately masters when they begin (and really, who is?). This leads to disempowerment and people not even trying a new bardic art becuase they aren’t immediatel good at it.

 

Creative Gifts tied to Material Wealth. A final source of disempowerment comes in the form of the expectation and assumption of financial gain. In a materialistic culture, every serious pursuit is expected to be of some financial benefit. This discourages both those who want to enjoy creative gifts for their own sake in a position of constantly explaining “I don’t sell my work” and those who are interested in taking up a bardic art in a disempowered position.  This also leads to the idea that if your work isn’t good enough to sell, you shouldn’t be doing it.  If it can’t be monitized, it has no real value and isn’t worth your time.  Obviously, this is false, but it is still pervasive.

 

Spirit of Poison Ivy, a recent painting I did with the help of the flow of Awen

Spirit of Poison Ivy, a recent painting I finished with the help of the flow of Awen

To demonstrate some of these cultural challenges, I’ll use myself as an example. I have a panflute, which I play occasionally. Although I have a good ear for music, I’m not that good at my panflute because I don’t practice enough. This is because I choose to devote most of my time to my writing and visual arts.  So when I play my panflute,  I usually mess up a bit – it is a challenging instrument to play. I don’t care if I make a few mistakes, and neither do the trees I am playing for. But people do–they expect flawless, expert performances. I have had people tell me, “don’t quit your day job” after hearing me play. My singing is even worse–I have not taken voice lessons nor do I have a very strong voice, but I like to sing anyways.  If I sing or play the flute and others hear me, it is not seen as a positive thing, but rather, I experience a lot of discouragement.

 

On the other hand, I am a highly skilled artist.  This is becuase I grew up in a house with two parents who were professional artists and because I have dedicated myself to my art and practice it at least several times a week for over decade.  If I share my work, I often will hear the “you are so talented, I could never do that” statements.  These statements both disempower the speaker and disregard the thousands of hours that I have put into my artwork to be able to get to the level where I am. I also hear, “you should sell your work” as if commercializing it is the ultimate compliment.  My art is part of my spiritual path and making money from it isn’t the point of it. But the only models we have, culturally, suggest to be successful as a bard is to be *really* good at it and to make a profit.

 

Breaking Away from Cultural Challenges: Local Bardic Communities

Despite the above cultural challenges, a good number of everyday people break out of these narratives and engage in the bardic arts, often developing local communities of bards. You see these endeavors through initiatives such as community theaters, community orchestras, local wood carving guilds, artist associations, local art shows, local singing groups, local craft guilds, and more. These groups not only support those engaged in the bardic arts in further developing their talents but offer places for everyday community members to be exposed to artists who are ordinary people and who are engaged in the creative works. In other words, these local community groups serve as counter-narratives to the above problems in at least four ways:

 

  1. They demonstrate that everyday people (neighbors, friends, family members) can engage in creative expressions
  2. They demonstrate active role in one’s own entertainment/creative expression rather than handing this over to specialists
  3. They accept the idea that being “good” at something is good enough*
  4. And, they demonstrate that bardic arts don’t have to be done only for profit, but simply, for pleasure

 

Here, I point to a scene in John Michael Greer’s Retrotopia, where the main character goes to see a theater performance and comments that the singing and acting were “good” and an enjoyable time was had by all. The point being made here is that entertainment doesn’t need to be done by only the exceptional—being “good enough” still leads to enjoyment.

 

Despite serious cultural challenges, the creative flow of awen hasn’t completely been lost from the common folk! So hopefully at this point, we can see the roots of some of these common cultural challenges and through this illustration, we can begin to break out of the challenges and embrace our creativity. Next week, we turn to a discussion of how to cultivate your creative gifts as a bard and cultivate and join communities of bards. In the meantime, perhaps this week, take some time for whatever bardic pursuit you enjoy (or are thinking about taking up!)

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