Tag Archives: druidry in the anthropocene

The Magic of the Understory

A path of evergreen mountain laurel at Laurel Hill State Park. Amazing to hike through in the winter, when the understory sings!

As you may have noticed, in the last month or so I’ve been working diligently on my “Sacred Trees in the Americas” series.  The truth is, I’ve worked through most of the trees that are well known and form the overstory of most of the forests in the US East Coast.  Trees like White Pine, Oak, Hickory, Sugar Maple, Ash, Beech, and Birch are dominant trees.  And when you do research on these trees, you find a rich tradition and lore from both the Americas and the Old World.  Recently, I’ve moved my attention to lesser-known trees like Ironwood and Devil’s Walking Stick, and have covered others like Witch Hazel (distinct and different from American Hazel) and Spicebush. There is a striking difference between the first group and the second:  the absence of magical lore or even herbal lore on these trees.  One of the things that strike me is that many of these trees form the understory, the less majestic but not less magical counterparts.

In mid-November of 2020, I was blessed with good enough weather to do a final overnight camping trip and two-day hike before the snows came. I really like hiking during the late fall and winter months; I feel you can really learn a lot about nature that is obscured in the summer.  The landscape is just as vibrant and dynamic but so different. During this hike, the major theme that came to the surface for me during this time was examining the vibrancy and life of the understory.  In my travels, I was walking primarily through Oak-Hickory mature forests (primarily 2nd growth trees at least 100 or more years old).  These trees were bare and yet the understory flourished.  The moss was an electric green color, dazzling in its intensity.  The moss waits all year beneath the full shade of the overstory and then when the leaves come down, it thrives.  Likewise, the three trees that really stood out to me were all understory trees. Witch Hazel in her winter bloom phase, with bright yellow flowers that look like little fireworks–that were literally lighting up the forest.  Rhododendron with her showy, deep green, waxy leaves and beautifully twisted trunks, looking more tropical than ever. And Mountain Laurel, much more subdued than Rhodadendron with smaller leaves and growing much less tall–but no less majestic. The Ironwoods bent over the streams and reached up into the skies, ready to burst forth when spring arrives again.

Electric green moss soaking in the winter sun

It struck me how the understory was thriving in the winter months with the absence of the overstory and how these plants had evolved to take advantage of the winter light.  The evergreen trees, the blooming witch hazel, the early-blooming spicebush, and the mosses and lichens were thriving in times of darkness and cold when everything else was cold and bare.

The metaphor of the overstory and understory weighed upon me as I hiked.  Everyone pays attention to the overstory, the majestic trees is where all the awe is, and certainly, where all the logging dollars come from.  We as druids are drawn to the oaks, the hickories, the ashes, the beeches.  These are impressive trees, standing tall, forming groves, offering us shelter and strength.  But yet, winter comes and these trees go dormant, they grow quiet, and they grow still.

And while the entire overstory was dormant, it is the understory trees that are bringing life and vitality in the winter months.  The understory trees are seen as less valuable and important both in terms of magical traditions and in terms of human uses.  But standing there in that forest, I realized how wrong that perception was.

Rhodadendron overlooking the stream

These understory trees are often overlooked in our lore and in our practices.  But they should not be.  They teach us the lessons that we desperately need in a world that is growing ever more dark and cold.  I–and many others–are under no illusion that our culture is far from a place of high summer or growth.  The cost of three centuries of industrialization and stripping the land of resources is coming due.  Samhain is upon us as a culture, and we are entering into a time that will be quite dark and cold for humanity.  I don’t expect that this will change for the rest of my life, but rather, things will likely continue on this downward trajectory (don’t take my word for it, pick up John Michael Greer’s Not the Future We Ordered or any other peak-oil/industrial decline book and read for yourself).

My own path of druidry has, in a large part, been figuring out how to inhabit the world as it is, accepting what I can and can’t change, and helping bring forth a vision of a better world for the future descendants. The questions I often ask myself are: How do I live in a world that is in decline, that is continuing to put all life at risk, and still stay sane?  How can I thrive in this time and bring hope and peace?  As I walked through this powerful, vibrant understory–I realized that nature had already provided such a powerful lesson in this regard: learn to take advantage of times of darkness.  Be opportunistic.  Bloom when everything else is dying and the heavy frosts set in.  Be flexible. Learn to become evergreen.

So to me, embracing these understory trees that manage to thrive–even blossom–in such a dark and cold time gives me hope.  Let’s consider a few of their specific lessons:

Witch Hazel in Flower, late October

Witch Hazel that blooms in the winter. I’ve written before of my thoughts on Witch Hazel and how this tree offers the critically important lesson of becoming a good ancestor, and the work of preparing the way for our descendants (physical, spiritual, or otherwise).  Witch Hazel offers hope.

Ironwood, a symbol of strength and endurance. The lesson of the Ironwood I just shared–this is literally the strongest tree in the forest with the absolute densest wood.  A wood that literally turns an axe aside when it is struck.  If that isn’t a testament to the endurance and strength needed as we move forward in this age, I don’t know what is!  And finally,

Mountain Laurel and Rhododendron, with evergreen leaves and brighten the dark. I haven’t yet gotten to share my research on Mountain Laurel or Rhododendron yet–but it is coming soon.  These two understory trees add not only greenery and beauty to the forest, but they also brighten up dark places and bring light and hope back in.

Spicebush, blooming early and strong. Our spring entrant into the understory trees and plants category is Spicebush.  Spicebush has one of the earliest bloom times of any plant in this part of North America, often blooming while the snow is still on the ground and with other early entrants like Skunk Cabbage.  Spicebush flowers begin to set fruit just as the first leaves come onto the plant, allowing it to make the most of the late winter and early spring sun.  Rise and shine!

Electric Green Moss, teaching us to make the most of opportunity. One of the most wonderful books I’ve ever read is Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer. In this book, she shares the many stories of the moss, and some human interactions–good, bad, and otherwise–within.  As I look at the beautiful electric green moss, which takes advantage of the opening up of the canopy to grow and thrive, I can’t help but think about the permaculture design principle: the problem is the solution.  Facing a problem allows us to consider inherent solutions that might yet be present.  The moss takes advantage of the winter to grow and thrive when everything else is dormant and dead.  That’s a lesson worth experiencing.

The understory might be overlooked in mythology and in the druid tradition, but if offers rich rewards for those who seek its wisdom.  I want to spend more intensive time considering, studying, the rich lessons that the understory has to offer.  I hope this has offered some insight to you!  What are your own experiences with the understory?  How does the understory change where you live?

Rituals for Extinction and Honoring Extinct Species

Death card from the Tarot of Trees

In the Anthropocene, many things are dying at a rate unprecedented to human history.  Currently, 75 % of the world’s life is endangered, and 50% of life in the world has disappeared since 1970 due to human activity.  I’m not sure why these statistics aren’t getting more attention.  But the unfortunate truth is, whether or not we are willing to see it, this is happening. Unfortunately, humanity’s actions continue to cause the death of so many species and so many individual lives, and given models and projections, the die-off of non-human life is expected to get much worse in the next decades.  While earth has experienced other extinction events, this one is caused by humans. This makes humans, collectively and individually, responsible.  As land healers and nature spirit workers, we might consider what happens to those spirits when they die and how we can help.

The two rituals here thus offer a way to “do something” about the tragic losses of life that are happening on a broader scale. I wrote about the fires in Australia two weeks ago and said that I’d be following up with a discussion of extinction.  That took some time to work through and led me to some unexpected places, so I’m offering it here this week rather than last week!

I see these rituals as having two purposes.  The first is to obviously help the spirits who are dying because of human activity pass on in love and acknowledgment. But the second is to acknowledge our collective responsibility as part of these tragedies, which I believe may lessen our own karmic debt for what is happening.

 

A Ritual for Honoring Species that Have Gone Extinct

This isn’t a “magical” ritual in the traditional sense.  This ritual was written for anyone, regardless of their background (e.g. it is not required for this ritual that you are practicing nature spirituality, magic, or neopaganism or have familiarity with these traditions.)  It’s something you could do with friends or family or a spiritual group to recognize and honor extinct species.  If you are performing this ritual solo, you can simply do both parts.

 

Participants gather in a circle, preferably in a natural place or indoors in candlelight.

 

Leader:  This is a moment we can share to honor those species who have gone extinct and our unfortunate role in that extinction <pause>.  Participants, do you wish to acknowledge any species?

 

Participants take turns sharing about one or more extinct species. (Alternatively, the leader can hand out slips of paper that have information about human-caused extinct species for each participant. A list of species is included after this ritual.)

 

Leader: Does anyone here wish to share their feelings at this moment?

 

Participants: Share as they choose.

 

Leader:  Let us now honor these species and all endangered species with a moment of silence.

(Optional: Leader sounds a singing bowl, chime, or bell at the start of the moment of silence.

 

<Moment of Silence>

 

Leader: Please say with me, “Species who have crossed the veil, I am sorry.”

 

Participants:  Repeats…

 

Leader: Species who have suffered, I am sorry.

 

Participants: Repeats…

 

Leader: Species who are forever gone, we honor and acknowledge you.

 

Participants: Repeats…

 

Leader: We acknowledge the role of our own species in your deaths.  And we are sorry. <Pauses>

 

Leader: What is one thing you can do, starting today, to help prevent the loss of more species?

 

Participants:  Offer their ideas and lifestyle changes.

 

Leader. Thank you to all of you who have participated.  It is through our own actions and raising the awareness of others that we can help save the species that still live in this world.

 

Ring the bell/bowl to mark the end of the ritual.

 

Extinct Species – List for Participants

  • The Unknown Species. Many extinctions are in places that are undocumented or unknown.  This accounts for insects, invertebrates, and many amphibians and reptiles.
  • The West African Black Rhino. This beautiful rhino went extinct in 2006, after being poached by hunters for its horn, which was in demand in Yemen and China for is aphrodisiac powers.
  • The Passenger Pigeon. The Passenger Pigeons were in the millions when Europeans began pillaging and colonizing the Americas. The Pigeon was hunted to the point of extinction in 1914.
  • The Pyrenean Ibex. The Pyrenean Ibex, a deer-like creature with beautifully curved horns, was hunted to extinction by the year 2000.
  • The Golden Toad. The Golden Toad, a bright orange toad living in the Costa Rican rainforest, was destroyed by global warming, pollution, and disease.  The last toad was seen in 1989 and it was declared extinct in 1994.
  • The Zanzibar Leopard. This leopard lived in Tanzania.  This animal was hunted and exterminated, both by individuals and the Tanzanian government due to the widespread belief that the Zanzibar Leopard was kept by witches as pets.
  • Po’ouli. This bird is a native of Maui, Hawaii, living on the southwestern slope of the Haleakala Volcano.  The species went extinct due to habitat loss and a decline in its food source—native tree snails. The species went extinct in 2004.
  • Maderian Large White Butterfly. This butterfly, with yellow and black markings, went extinct in the 2000’s due to loss of habitat due to human construction and pollution from agricultural fertilizers (for olives, figs, pineapples, bananas, and sunflowers).
  • Carolina Parakeet. Native to the Eastern US with unusual orange, yellow, and blue markings, the Carolina Parakeet went extinct in 1918. Deforestation and poaching were the main causes; millions of these birds were killed so that their feathers could adorn ladies’ hats.
  • Tecopa Pupfish. Once native to the hot springs of the Mojave Desert, this fish was destroyed by the destruction of their natural habitat by human construction.
  • Pinta Island Tortoise. This Tortoise was native to the Galapagos Islands and went extinct in 2015.  Humans introduced goats who destroyed their native habitats; humans introduced rats who prayed on their young; and humans killed tortoises for their meat.

 

A Fire Ritual to Honor Extinct Species

This ritual can be done individually or in a group setting. Before the ritual, gather up materials to build an effigy. Your effigy will represent one or more extinct species in the world. You can also tuck prayers (written on paper) and rolled up into your effigy. Construct your effigy only out of natural materials, things that can burn without harming the earth. Before the ritual, build yourself a fire that you can light. The ritual has no words, just actions, although you could certainly add words of your choosing.

 

Open up a sacred space.

 

After opening the space, take the time to carefully build your effigy and tuck your prayers inside.  As you build, feel the energy of the extinct species enter the effigy. Hold the effigy into the air and speak the name of the species.

 

Place your effigy on the top of your fire.

 

Light the fire.

 

Watch it burn. Drum while it burns. Do anything else that you feel led to do.

 

Feel the energy of the species growing calm as it burns.

 

Feel the energy of the sorrow and death being released.

 

As the fire dies down, sit with that fire as long as necessary, utill it is nothing but coals and ash.

 

Bid the species farewell and blessings.

 

Close the sacred space.

 

After this ritual, ground and center yourself and practice good self-care.  This is a powerful ritual and can connect you with the energies of death—thus, you should engage in life-focused activities for a few days after this ritual (e.g. gardening, sitting with plants, bringing in light and healing and blessing).

Druidry for the 21st Century: Pandora’s Box and Tools for the Future

The story of Pandora’s box has always been a favorite of mine, ever since I was little.  Pandora was so curious. She just had to open the box. She just had to. And when she did, she let out all the bad things in the world: suffering, pain, war, famine, pestilence, betrayal….but she also let out one good thing: she let out hope.

 

I think when we start talking about the present and the future of the world-its kind of like being inside Pandora’s Box. It seems that more and more reports come out, more and more news comes out, and the longer that things go on, we keep being surrounded by all the bad things. Ten or fifteen years ago, perhaps these things could be ignored.  But today, I don’t think there is any more time for that. The reports, like the recent National Climate Assessment, don’t often offer a lot of solutions, just a lot of facts about where we are and the harsh present and even harsher future we face. The reports, combined with global inaction on issues of critical importance, the backpedaling by world leaders to set hard limits on carbon emissions, to stave off ecological collapse–we are in that Pandora’s box, the box full of bad things. I’m teaching a sustainability studies class for the first time in five years, and even among the young, 18-22 aged population, there is a considerable shift.  When I taught a very similar course 5-7 years ago, students were upbeat and ready to engage.  When I’m teaching it this term, students are less empowered, more quiet and somber.

A variety of permaculture books

A variety of permaculture books

I think one of the most important things we can do as druids is maintain hope–hope about our own lives, hope about the future.  Today’s post offers some tools: thinking tools, processing tools, and tools that offer us new perspectives and ways of engaging with today–in a way that empowers us, that gives us ways to act, and helps us get into a better space about it all, rathe than being demoralized about the future. If you haven’t read earlier posts in this series, you might want to do so to see where we’ve come from and where we are heading: druidry for the 21st century, druidry in the Anthropocene, and psychopoming the anthropocene.

 

A Thinking Tool: Sphere of Influence vs. Sphere of Concern

A framework that I think is really important for druidry and other action in the age of the Anthropocene is the Sphere of Influence vs. the Sphere of Concern tool. This framework is adapted from the work Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, but I think its a *really* useful tool for personal empowerment and hope in the Anthropocene. The graphic below shows the difference between a person’s circle of concern (which could be global and long-term) vs. a person’s circle of influence (which is local and immediate).

Sphere of Influence vs. Concern

Sphere of Influence vs. Concern

 

Your Sphere of Concern is what you are concerned about–and often, due to media and the Internet, this is often global. For all of the potential benefits that a globalized world may offer,  it creates an enormous sphere of concern, which given the world’s predicament, is psychologically really challenging.  News is almost always outside of our Sphere of Influence, but exposure to the news encourages us to have a huge Sphere of Concern.  We have very little power to leverage change in systems that are large and distant–cutting down of rainforests, the plight of polar bears or whales. This creates a sense of general disempowerment, which can lead to apathy or frustration.  However, before modern globalization, people mostly were concerned with what was around them.  News was local and quick, news from afar took a lot of time to arrive, if it arrived at all.  Local concerns were often able to be acted on by local people.  One’s sphere of concern was probably a lot smaller–likely, for many, within one’s sphere of influence.

 

Today, despite many of us having an enormous Sphere of Concern, we have a fairly limited Sphere of Influence.  A Sphere of influence is what you have power to control: and this usually revolves around the spaces we find ourselves in frequently: our homes, our daily lives, our workplaces, our communities, our local governments, our families, our spaces where we spend time.  When we are bombarded by news from Pandora’s box, we feel powerless because the things we want to change, the big things, are not really changable by individuals (they can be changed by collective action).

 

I think it’s really important to frame these things when we are talking about hope and change over time. This framework offers us a powerful thinking tool: recognizing the difference between our Sphere of Influence and our Sphere of Concern (and maybe, making modifications so that our Sphere of concern is closer to our sphere of influence–that which we can control).  I have found that using this framework helps give me a better sense of where I should invest my energy and time: in those things that I have influence over, in those things where my efforts will produce results.

 

 

A Feeling Tool: Giving Voice and Allowing Processing Time

As I shared in the first post on this series, the reality of the Anthropocene can be overwhelming, intimidating, or even cause distance and withdrawal, apathy. Joanna Macy’s beautiful work Coming Back to Life offers a lot of discussion of the importance of not letting ourselves get into an apathetic or disempowered state.  Apathy is the root of disengagement, and we need people in this day and age ready to engage and face some of these challenges.

Honoring all beings

Honoring all beings

Everything that is happening in the world, like climate change, is really hard.  I’d argue it’s doubly hard for druids who really love land because we hold the land sacred, and so much of it is under threat.  People have different emotional responses to what is happening, but one of the most common and destructive is apathy–trying not to feel, because feeling is too hard. Ignoring it, not letting ourselves feel.  Given this, if we are going to return to feeling things about the world and the future, we need good spaces to process our feelings, safe spaces.  We can do this in the context of our spiritual practices, like druidry.

 

Once we’ve dealt with some of these feelings, we can move forward with actions and empowerment–we can turn our own lives and influence the lives of others into creating the present and future we want to see.  We can offer hope.

 

Macy’s book offers a number of rituals for individuals and groups that allow us to give voice to feelings, to process our feelings, and allow us space to move forward.   One of her rituals which works particularly well in a druid setting is called the Council of All Beings.   Beings help us process and give voice to what is happening now.  This is a particularly powerful ritual where people prepare to speak on behalf of animals, plants, and natural features and give them voice, while others take turns listening as humans.

 

Another one of Macy’s rituals that we’ve adapted for druid ritual work is a 7 generations ritual.  People form two circles. The ones on the outside are today’s humans. The humans on the inside are future humans, 7 generations from now.  Today’s humans speak about everything they are concerned about; the future humans listen, and then, offer hope.  It is a very powerful way to process and think about what is happening now.

 

This kind of processing can also take place in the context of spiritual practice: talking through things with others, engaging in regular spiritual journaling, and discursive meditation are all ways that we can process emotions.

 

I think the key thing here is recognizing if we are going to be effective and productive, we need emotional processing tools–we need to recognize that these feelings are important and necessary, and we need to work with our emotions regularly.

 

 

An Action Tool: Permaculture

Now that we’ve considered thinking tools and emotional processing tools, we can come to tools for action. There are lots of tools out there that encourage us towards various kinds of action; my tool of choice is permaculture.  Permaculture offers a complete system of planning and action; it is a design system that teaches us to use nature, and work with nature, to regenerate and build ecosystems, gardens, and communities. Through three powerful ethics (people care, earth care, and fair share), design principles, and an emphasis on ecologically-rooted techniques, I think tools like permaculture can help us go from thinking about a problem to action.  One of the most important philosophies in permaculture is that humans can be a force for good (not just harm) and that we can always leave a piece of land in better shape than we’ve found it.

Permaculture Triad for Druidry

Permaculture Triad for Druidry

I’ve written pretty extensively about permaculture on this blog.  For an introduction to permaculture ethics, see here.  For the principles of permaculture, see here, here, and here.  For background on permaculture and ways of thinking about it, see here and here. .  For an example of how permaculture can be used in urban and suburban areas, see here, here and here.  For an example of a five-year permaculture design on my old homestead, see here.  Books I recommend are Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemingway and Rosemary Marrow’s Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture.  You can do a free online permaculture design certificate, which will immerse you in many good things, through https://openpermaculture.com/.  There are lots of other ways to learn–check it out!

Design of Nature's Harvest Permaculture Farm

Design of Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm

When I did my permaculture design certificate in 2015, which I did through Sowing Solutions at Sirius Ecovillage in Massachusetts, I had already been practicing permaculture for many years. The PDC helped me really leverage a lot of skills I picked up here and there into a cohesive whole and gave me the design skills to really plan and execute a variety of projects.  More importantly though, it empowered me.  It was probably one of the most empowering things I ever did.  It gave me hope, it gave me real tools, and it showed me that the solutions to many problems were right in my hands (the problem is the solution is a permaculture principle). If everyone practiced permaculture, we’d have a very, very different world.

 

Conclusion

The last few weeks have explored a lot of topics with regards to Druidry for the 21st century.  Not all of it has been particularly easy to digest or think about, but I think if we are going to practice nature spirituality in the age of the Anthropocene, it is necessary for us to have these kinds of conversations. I will keep returning to this topic throughout the year!  I hope this series has given you some food for thought, if nothing else–and some tools for empowerment and change.