The Druid's Garden

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

Ecoregional Druidry: Adapting and Localizing Symbolism October 2, 2017

To follow up from two posts a month or so ago on ecoregional druidry and the wheel of the year  and celebrating rituals, observances, and activities, I want to continue thinking about how druids can adapt basic practices of druidry to their local ecosystems.  This is particularly important for those of us in diverse ecosystems around the world: part of nature spirituality is being with nature as she is in your region. Thus far in this series, we’ve explored a druid’s wheel of the year that is seasonally-focused on a local ecosystem as well as the different ways we might celebrate this wheel of the year with rituals, observances, and activities.  Also tied to these spiritual practices are symbolism associated with the elements and directions; framing symbolism that weaves its way into our practices in a variety of different contexts. And so, in this post, we’ll delve into thinking about basic symbolism we use in the druid tradition and how we might adapt that based on an ecoregional approach.

 

What is symbolism? What does it do for us?

Before I get into why we might adapt symbolism and reasons to do so, I want to talk about what symbolism is in its basic form.  Catherine Bell, who did some of the most important scholarly work surrounding ritual in the 20th century, suggested that ritual practices connect people to archtypical or universal acts, attitudes, structures, or functions.  Symbols, within ritual, work like “a language for the primary purpose of communication” (61); in other words, symbols convey meaning to people who use them, and that meaning should be tied to the broader context.

 

The challenge, of course, comes in balancing individual needs and practices with those of the broader community.  This is a choice that each of us have to make–by moving further away from the traditional symbolism, it may be harder to align with larger community values.  If you are a solo practitioner, this may not be an issue for you.  But if you plan on running a grove or attending gatherings, it certainly may be.  Finding ways of developing a shared vision of what your ecoregional druidry looks like is in part, a negotiation with any others you might be practicing with.

 

Traditional Symbolism

Elemental Wheel with Traditional Animal Symbols

Elemental Wheel with Traditional Animal Symbols

The druid revival tradition draws upon symbolism adapted from the sacred animals and trees of the British Isles.  These symbols are typically as follows:

  • North / Great Bear / Earth
  • East / Hawk of May / Air
  • South / White Stag / Fire
  • West / Salmon of Wisdom / Water

In AODA, we add a few more into the mix (for detailed descriptions on these, you can visit this post):

  • Spirit above / Solar Current
  • Spirit below / Telluric Current
  • Spirit within / Lunar Current

You might also choose to expand the four directions to eight, but they don’t typically include animals.  Recently, at the OBOD East Coast Gathering, the Mystic River Grove added other animals: moose, skunk, turkey vulture, and turtle.

  • North East
  • North West
  • South East
  • South West

The traditional associations of the directions are used in all sorts of ritualized ways (both in OBOD and AODA) including in opening rituals and protective workings.  Because they are so pervasive and such an important part of the tradition, I personally believe that resonating deeply with these symbols is critical. So let’s take a look at how we might adapt any one of these symbols and what is gained–and lost–from doing so.  We’ll also explore adding in new symbolism or alternative symbolism.

 

Localizing Ritual Symbolism and Ecology

In the druid tradition, adaptation of the basic symbolism to your local ecoregion is not only common, it is encouraged.  Part of living with the land is drawing upon the animals, plants, and energies present immediately in that land that speak to you.

 

Beautiful Rooster can hold the east!

Beautiful Rooster can hold the east!

Elements and directions. The elements and their directions are specific to the druid path and other Western Esoteric circles. These associations are widely used by many, and in groups, give people some cohesion and consistency. Generally, I think these associations aren’t worth changing in most circumstances, especially if you are planning on working with others, but there is one instance that comes to mind where you might change them. This comes when you have a powerful elemental force in a different location such as a huge body of water in the east, a mountain in the south, and so on.  I have found it is helpful to “feel out” where the strongest force of the element is and use that if you feel that strong pull or are particularly sensitive to it. When I moved to the Great Lakes Region, for example, water was all around me, but I would often accidentally call water in the East because Lake Huron was closest to me and I was connected with the Lady of the Lake. Eventually, I solved the problem by connecting to a lake that was much closer to me (and much smaller) in the west so that I could keep my traditional associations (which I really wanted to do).

 

Animals. Druids in diverse ecosystems may find that the traditional animals may need to be reconsidered.  This is for any number of reasons: perhaps the animals are not found in the ecosystem, perhaps the druid has no connection with the traditional animals, or perhaps the druid doesn’t have a good connection with that animal.  Some choose to use the traditional animal symbols from the druid revival as well as their own additions in the cross quarters (or may have several sets of symbols depending on the location). Again, careful observation of nature, combined with looking for animal signs and seeing what speaks to you, is a useful practice.

 

In my case, even though three of the four animals are present in my ecosystem (hawk, bear, stag), I have substituted the salmon for a rainbow trout, painted turtle, or river otter.  The river otter is a particularly powerful symbol for me here in Western PA because otter was lost to our rivers and only in the last two decades has been reintroduced and is making a comeback–and as a kayaker, I see them regularly on my trips.  This is a powerful symbol of regeneration that I have experienced firsthand and is something I want to draw upon. When I was in Michigan, I had painted turtles and snapping turtles on my property near the sacred space, so they were what I called in the west.

 

On my land in Michigan, I did have hawks, but I didn’t want them too close (as the hawk would come eat my chickens regularly). So rather than calling in that energy, I called the energy of the “Rooster crowing up the sun” in the east, the energy directly on my property.  I would also sometimes call the Raccoon in the north, since the Bears were so rare in that area as it was more heavily populated.  This felt right and powerful; I was honoring the animals that were immediately present in my ecosystem (and trying to keep away predators that would do my flock harm).

 

Bees

Bees

Since I work a lot with AODA’s symbolism that includes the additional three directions, I also gave animals/birds/insects a place in those three directions as well:

  • Spirit below / the great soil web of life (because it sustains all life and is full of billions of living beings)
  • Spirit above / the white heron (because it was a dominant bird in my region and often flew overhead)
  • Spirit within / the bee of inspiration (because I am a beekeeper and love bees!)

 Spend time in the land around you and see what animals resonate with your own path.

 

Localizing Ritual Symbolism and Folk Culture

Another place you might go for symbolism, rituals, activities, and observances is your own family history or regional history. Look to the folk traditions, find the magic inherent in the landscape, and use that as your symbols, words, phrases, things that resonate. Often, small bits of older traditions (folklore, folk songs, even magical traditions) leave echoes upon the landscape and cultural history, tucked away in old bookstores or even within your own family lore. These powerful symbols may find their way to you unexpectedly and be useful as you are thinking about building your own unique path.

 

For me, a barn-sign tradition was a delightful surprise that offered symbolism that resonates both outward upon my landscape but also in my practice. This is now part of my own druid path, as are some of my grandparents’ Pennsylvania Dutch folk magic traditions, like using the Wooly Bear caterpillar to determine the severity and length of winter. In terms of the Barn Signs, after returning to Western PA, a friend and I were taking a drive through the country when I paid closer attention to the decorations on the barns in Somerset, Bedford, and Cambria counties in PA. Many of these barns were over a century old (one had a date of 1889 on it) and featured certain designs. Out in Eastern PA, they have a different kind of magical barn sign, a more widely known “hex signs” and they are colorful with symmetrical images and pictures painted on a round circle. But in Western PA, the tradition seems to be very different: a (usually) red barn with a white symbol that is cut out and applied to the barn. One of the most amazing had two decorative pentacles surrounded by a pentagram: very clearly a magical sign. I’ve worked some of these, as well as the “country” tradition of using the pentacle everywhere on houses, as one of my primary protective symbols.

Magical Barn sign in Somerset County

Magical Barn sign in Somerset County

Magical Barn sign in Somerset County

Magical Barn sign in Somerset County

Moving Beyond Tradition

You don’t need to stick just with animals or directions for symbolism that you can use to tie to your druid practice.  For example, other symbolism tied to the four (or seven) directions might also be useful for you to consider. These might be songs, movements, hand signals, sacred mountains, images, four sacred places, pretty much anything you want that resonates with you.

 

Fresh elderflower

Fresh elderflower

For example, I have a series of healing plants (for healing work) and sacred trees (for my daily practice) that I call regularly when doing daily rituals or other kinds of rituals. These came through developing relationships with the living earth as well as studying herbalism and using my intuition. I have many versions of healing plant correspondences that I’ve developed over the years. A general one of plants that I like and work with a lot for my own healing looks like this (and I absolutely use the 7 directions cause I want to add in more plants!):

  • Earth / Plantain (a wonderful all around healing plant)
  • Air / Stinging Nettle (nervine, tonic)
  • Fire / Goldenrod (anti-inflammatory, among other things)
  • Water / Calamus (water-based root, good for throat and other issues)
  • Above / Elder (immune support, fever)
  • Below / Sassafras (liver tonic)
  • Within / Hawthorn (heart tonic)

One of my versions, specific to cold/flu healing, looks like this:

  • Earth / Reishi mushroom (for immune system support)
  • Air / New England Aster (specific for lungs and air issues)
  • Fire / Bee Balm (for infection fighting)
  • West / Boneset (fever support)
  • Above / Elderflower (for fever support)
  • Below / Burdock (for nutrition for the body)
  • Within / Catnip (for calming)

Sacred Trees or, you could develop a set of symbols based on sacred trees in the Ogham or locally.  One might look like this:

  • Earth / Apple
  • Air / Beech
  • Fire / Cedar
  • Water / Willow
  • Above / White Pine
  • Below / Oak
  • Within / Elder

 

The possibilities for adapting to your local symbolism are endless–it is a joyful process that will put you more in touch with the living earth. I hope that this post has given you some ideas of how you might further adapt your own druid practices to your ecosystem.  I’d love to hear more from you about how you may have done or are thinking about doing of this adaptation work!

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Honoring the Predators: A Story of Reconnection May 14, 2016

My last beekeeping post told a the tale of my two bee colonies destroyed by colony collapse disorder. I had hoped to have better news to share about my beekeeping endeavors this year. And things started well enough: a friend removed some bees from a house that was to be torn down and gave them to me; I moved my hive to a new location and setup the hive in a friend’s yard, and then I was able to setup an empty hive with the hopes of catching a second swarm. But, unfortunately, this tale has a different end, and a different lesson. The bees were doing great, I had just added honey supers a few weeks ago, and I was expecting a ton of honey from such a strong colony and then–the bear came. I have read about bears taking out beehives, but I have never talked with anyone that had this happen. My friend had never seen a bear, and there were no reports of them in the area, but clearly, one was nearby! The bear ripped open the hive, and, in the middle of a rainstorm, flung the colony all over the place as he had his meal. Bears go for honey, but especially, for the brood: the bees’ young larvae and pupae are very protein rich. And so, this was the scene that greeted my friend when she woke up, and the scene that greeted me when I arrived to see what could be salvaged.

Destroyed Beehives

Destroyed Beehives

Two of us worked for most of the day to salvage what we could. The bees that remained were soaking and, since it was only about 50 that day, very cold. The equipment was soaked, and I had no idea if the queen had survived. I thought it likely the bear would return, so I spoke to various friends in a desperate effort to move the hives before dark. I wasn’t able to secure a location, and since it is illegal to have bees inside of town limits, we instead drove many pieces of rebar around the hive, wired it up, strapped it shut, and hoped for the best. I wish now I had just stuck them on my porch for a day or two until I could figure out where to move them and risked the citation. Unfortunately, the bear came back, and while we made it harder for him to get inside, he still did, demolishing what was left of the hive.

 

The end of this tale is a bit better–although there weren’t many bees left after the second bear visit, we salvaged what was left: the queen and about 5000 of her workers. We borrowed a travel box from a friend, and we saved every bee we could, gently helping them into the hive box. A fellow beekeeping friend has a number of hives, so he had brood and resources to help them get back to health. They are now back on their way to a strong colony again, and they are protected from bears. All the beekeepers in the  area are on alert now about bears, thanks to my hive. This whole event has given me much to think about and meditate upon, and a variety of lessons  to consider–and today, the lesson is honoring the predators.

 

It’s ironic that this the lesson I am exploring, because the the hives were torn apart on the early morning hours of May 2nd. The day before was May 1st – Beltane. I met with a new friend, a woman who had dedicated her life to the work of the goddesses, and we got together to do a Beltane ceremony. As part of our first ceremony, each of us brought some things from our respective traditions to share with each other. One of the things she brought were offerings, including an offering honoring the predators. She made her offering and spoke beautifully about the predators, their role, the goddesses connected to them. In my mind, I was certainly not honoring the predators. All of my experiences with predators as a homesteader were negative: the hawk that swooped down to kill many of my dear chickens, including taking a peep right from in front of me. The dead chicken bodies I found as the hawk flew off after eating a meal. I remember the evidence of the badger that ripped my coop open one night and drug off my beloved rooster (an event I still haven’t written about), the snakes by the pond swallowing frogs whole, their peeping and screeching noises going on for over an hour till the snake finally finished its meal.

 

As my friend spoke so beautifully about the predators, I was instead filled with these images of predators and how I spent so much of my own time over the last few years keeping them away from things I loved. And then, that next morning–the largest predator of all in this area–the bear–came and feasted upon my beehive.

 

I have reminisced in the weeks that have passed since the hive was eaten that I really do have a problem honoring the predators–and that’s a problem with me, not a problem with the predators. And the predators, in their own way, will make themselves known and continue to show up in my life until I am able to honor them. And so, to help myself come to terms with the loss, I thought I’d write about the predators and, finally, begin to do the work of honoring them.

 

Cultural Problems with Predators

We learn about predators in school in really scientific ways: predators sit at the top of the food chain; they are carnivorous, eating only the flesh of other creatures; they may be solitary or run in packs. We learn about predators from the local news: a hiker was mauled by a bear, a swimmer was eaten by a shark, a pack of coyotes killed a number of neighborhood dogs. We learn about human predators, who we view as the worst kind of people: those who stalk, kill, harm and maim others. This, term perhaps shows us the cultural view of the predator, that we take this term and we attach it to heinous actions that are in no way comparable to a bear or a fox taking a meal. I think I was viewing the predators that had eaten the bees, the chickens, and so forth in the same way: you, predator, have taken something I value, you have taken a life. You have done me wrong and have done wrong to others.  But this is not the lesson of the predator, not the lesson at all.

 

Nature’s Wisdom

Sometimes, those of us, especially those in nature-based spiritual paths, want to see nature as all roses, all pretty trees, all little birds signing. But roses have thorns, the trees compete for light, and the birds sometimes knock each other’s eggs out of nests. Like everything else, they are working to survive by any means possible. A forest is full of both competition for resources and cooperation. I’m reminded here of the lesson of the many medicinal mushrooms of the woods (and you can read some of this in Tradd Cotter’s book; he gave a fascinating talk on this subject last year at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA.) The medicinal qualities–particularly the anti-cancer, anti-microbial qualities–of mushrooms like birch polypore, turkey tail, or reishi are based on their growth in natural environments, where mushrooms have to compete to survive. Tradd gave an example in his talk of a petri dish that he was working on that had birch polypore in it–he had dropped something nasty into it (e-coli, I think) and was amazed to see how the birch polypore exuded an anti-fungal agent to combat it, and surround it, and eventually subdue it using what was essentially chemical warfare. That same chemical constituent, when taken within, helps us fight a number of diseases. If the mushrooms are grown in a lab or in a controlled setting, their medicinal value drops significantly–because they don’t have the natural competition of all of the other bacteria and others in the fungal kingdom. These mushrooms aren’t predators in the traditional (animalistic) sense, but they certainly  have similar qualities and offer similar lessons.

Tradd Cotter teaching us about mushrooms

Tradd Cotter teaching us about mushrooms

Predator Patterns and Restoration Agriculture

The truth is, predators are a key part of nature, and without them, we lose a greater part of the whole and the entire ecosystem suffers. Recently, farmers and activists in permaculture design and in sustainable agriculture have been reintroducing predator-driven graze patterns to help regenerate agricultural lands. These patterns, set by millions of years of evolution, are now mimicked by humans on farms to move herd animals through various terrain. This work is perhaps best illustrated by the work of Joel Salatin at Polyface farm (see Polyfaces) and Mark Sheppard at New Forest Farm (see his book Restoration Agriculture or the film Inhabit). The principle of understanding why traditional graze patterns is simple: if you’ve ever visited a chicken run or petting zoo, you see what happens when animals are fenced in the same area for a long period of time. They first eat their favorite food, then nibble down to the less desirable greenery, and finally, eat whatever is left, leaving bare soil.  This is what happens in a stationary system, rather than one driven by predators.

 

Rather than fencing animals in the same spot, folks like Salatin and Sheppard carefully rotate their herd animals  among large tracts of land in traditional grazing patterns. Mark Sheppard has his system so effectively designed that every different animal (cows, pigs, geese, chickens) move through a patch and quickly out of it in only a few days time. As the herds are rotated, each animal gets it’s own best “first bite.” This technique encourages the grass to stay alive, and to shed carbon (as the grass is bitten down, it sheds roots to accommodate it’s smaller size, and that sinks carbon into the topsoil, enriching it). This, friends, is why prior to the settling of the USA by Europeans, the prairies had soil horizons that were 12 feet deep of rich topsoil: it was millennia of herds moving quickly through areas, driven by predators. Predators, then, are responsible for herd movements that can literally sequester carbon and stop climate change. Farmers interested in regenerative agriculture are using these same methods to sequester tens of thousands of pounds of carbon each year.  Salatin has compelling evidence tha  if every US farmer who raises any grazing animal used these techniques, we could sink all of the carbon the USA has ever emitted in less than 10 years.

 

This is the power of the predator, and this one of many reasons that they are deserving of our respect.

 

There are other examples of this as well. I’m sure that many of you saw the video about Yellowstone Park, where it was shown that the re-introduction of wolves changed the whole ecosystem because of the movement of herds.  The wolves were able, as the video suggests, change the movement of herds, which changed rivers, and helped regenerate the entire ecosystem. (There are some new articles that suggest that this video exaggerates the claims a bit, but I am still inclined to believe that a whole ecosystem, with it’s predators intact, is a more robust and healthy ecosystem). Without predators as a part of the ecosystem, all suffer.

 

Predators and Inner Lessons

The outer lessons, above, are clearer the more I write and think about them, but I would also like to spend a few moments on the inner lessons that the predators offer. I, like many, saw predators as a nuisance, as something to keep away, as something you don’t want to see flying above the skies or slinking through the grass.  But predators have another message–they are awareness medicine.

 

The hawks flying overhead made me better protect my chickens, and sent me a powerful message about defenses, about being vigilant, and about not letting my guard down. If my chickens were the tastiest plump morsels around (and they are, they are made of chicken), then I had to change my own relationship with the predators and protect my chickens better. If I lose a chicken to a hawk, this is not the fault of the predator, this is my own lack of vigilance.

 

The badger who broke into my coop, and dragged my beloved rooster off never to be seen again, sent me the message that I was to return to PA to my beloved mountains, a message I have since enacted in my life. The magic of my homestead worked because of my rooster, Anasazi, and without him, I knew it wasn’t going to work in the same way. That powerful message was the last thing I needed to truly move forward in my life.

 

And the bear, who easily took out the beehive during the first evening, and even more skillfully worked his way through wire, rebar, straps, and more, teaches me the lesson that the predators need to be honored. To be respected. They are there, they are present, and there is no getting around their message.  They are there whether or not we want them to be. And it is me, not them, who needs to change my own thoughts and actions .

 

The lessons of the predator are many: power, strength, vigilance, loss, opportunity, precision, healing, defenses, paying attention, cultivating awareness and openness to your surroundings. Friends, readers, what are your experiences with the predators? Do you have any additional lessons to share?