The Druid's Garden

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

A Druid’s Guide to Connecting With Nature, Part IV: Nature Reverence August 5, 2018

Respect.  Honor.  Reverence.  Admiration–these words are often used to describe people, in our lives, afar, or in history that we hold in high regard.  But these same words can also be used to describe many druids’ feelings towards the living earth–plants, animals, oceans, rivers, forests, trees, natural wonders, insects, mycelium–the soil web of all life.  The world is a wonderous, incredible place, and those of us who follow a path of nature-based and nature-rooted spirituality recognize this. Reverence is having deep resepect for something, treating it with value and worth. Those of us who are drawn to druidry and nature-based spirituality inherently have reverence to the living earth–it is part of what sets us on this path and encourages us in this direction. But as we deepen our spiritual connection with nature, I believe that our reverence also deepens over time.

 

A beaver dam in the early fall at Parker Dam State Park, Pennsylvania

A beaver dam in the early fall at Parker Dam State Park, Pennsylvania

In the last month, we’ve explored different ways you can deeply connect with nature–beginning with the overall framework, discussing nature wisdom, nature enagement, and nature reciprocity–we wrap up this series this week by considering the final piece of the framework: nature reverence.    Nature reverence is certainly one of the underlying values that people who practice this path share–and a value that is shared more broadly with those engaged in other kinds of nature-oriented practice.  This could include anything from herbalism, permaculture, organic farming, wilderness enthusiasts, backpackers, wild food foragers, bushcraft specialists, hikers, etc.

 

In many ways, everything that I’ve been writing about in this series is a form of honoring nature. When you develop nature wisdom and learn more about your own connection to the living earth, you honor nature. When you learn how nature can offer you so much–and what you can offer in return–you are honoring nature. When you are healing or conserving the land or making offerings, again, you are honoring nature. Today, we’ll explore several additional ways to enage in nature reverence:

Reverence of the natural world can happen through:
Respecting the sanctity of life and the living earth;
Honoring nature through ritual and intentional action;
Communing with the living earth.

Respecting Nature

If there is one thing that is true of the history of Western Civilization, it has been the disregard through which it has shown just about everything: peoples, cultures, and the living earth. It is this disregard and the cultural values of profit and progress that have led to such disregard for the earth and her diverse peoples. Another problematic western cultural value is individualism–in westernized society, particularly in American society, we are primed to think of ourselves first, and ourselves as individuals with autnomy, disconnected from a larger system.  Geert Hosfede demonstrated this through his “cultural values” where he explored the different ways that cultural values impacted organizations, particularly those doing business internationally.  This individualism manifests as a kind of socialization that encourages us to think of ourselves first: what can I do that best benefits me?

 

Any kind of connection to nature is rooted, first and foremost, in respect.  Without respect, we cannot have reverence. I believe that part of nature respect is working to re-socialize ourselves and re-orient ourselves to also ask the basic question, “what can I do that best benefits nature/the land?” as a primary category in our minds as opposed to “what benefts me?”  I believe that shifting the mind and heart can shift action in the world; and so, if we can bring ourselves into a place of reverence internally, that will help us make decisions on a daily basis that brings that reverence into practice.

 

Nature Wisdom, Engagement, and Reciprocity: How can we accomplish achieving this deep respect of nature? Time, effort and engagement, are three ways that come to mind. Part of respect comes with interaction and time; the more time we invest in connecting with nature, the more our respect will grow for it. Further, by engaging in connection with nature, we learn to value it; the more we value it and the more we engage, the more we are able to shift our internal socialization and build more rich connections with the earth.  In other words, all of these pieces of the framework that I’ve shared work together, ultimately, to build reverence for the living earth.  Practicing any part of the framework can help lead to reverence.

 

Reframing Nature: Another activity that can be helpful here is reconsidering aspects of nature that you don’t like. For example, I have always had bad outbreaks of poison ivy, and never wanted much to do with the plant. In the process of studying herbalism with Jim McDonald, however, he helped open up my eyes to what poison ivy does on a landscape–how it protects wild places, how it teaches us awareness.  I did even more research on poison ivy after that and discovered its role in responding to climate change and higher levels of carbon in the atmosphere. By learning about poison ivy, and sitting near her (and yes, contining to be covered with her all summer long) I learned to respect her.  And in this respect, cultivate an entirely new relationship with her, one that is rooted in respect and reverence rather than disregard. This is to say, take something you may not be as comfortable with and learn about it, let it teach you and guide you, and over time, develop a respectful relationship.  I think in a second example, when my beehives were destroyed by a bear and my chickens were eaten by hawks, it taught me about honoring the predators.

Hawthorn berries, full of medicine and life

Hawthorn berries, full of medicine and life

 

Learning Anew: Finally, a third activity is to learn about something you have no idea about: the life cycle of an insect, observing the slow opening of a flower, and so on.  New experiences and new exposure can lead you to a place of respect and awe.  For example, a few years ago I took up the study of sacred geometry, and began learning about the way in which geometry unfolded in the world (and in my own body) such as through the golden spiral, the pentagram, and more.  One day I was walking and saw some brambles that had been cut (blackberry), and there, both in each flower and in each stalk, was the pentacle reflected.  Since then, I see the pentacle everywhere, and it reminds me of the sacredness of life.

 

Honoring Nature

While respecting nature is primarly mindset you adopt through experience, honoring nature is an activity.  I wrote a bit last week about offerings, and rituals as a kind of offering, and I’d like to continue that discussion here today. If we think about the way we honor humans–say, soldiers, guests, or digintaries, we may offer gifts (offerings), set aside special spaces for them (statuary, memorials, etc), hold special dinners or other kinds of celebrations in their honor.  I believe that honoring nature in this way is no different–its not even *how* you do that is important, its simply the practice of doing it. The “how” part of the equation can be tied to a particular tradition (and I’ll share ideas rooted in the druid revival tradition), but as long as it is giving back, and not taking (see recprocity post), it will likely be appriciated by the land and her spirits.  (And yes, I take a very animistic approach to druidry, so these suggestions are also rooted in that perspective).

 

Honoring Through Ritual: One way to honor the land is through regular rituals.  From a certain perspective, every seasonal celebration that uses the wheel of the year, the wheel of the sun (solstices, equinoxes, cross quarter days) and lunar events (like full moon meditations) is honoring the passing of the time, which is inherently honoring nature.  We can do more specific things to honor nature as well, including developing local seasonal celebrations and observances (the first snowfall, etc) or land healing rituals (such as this one we did at MAGUS last year).

 

Poison Ivy shrine

Poison Ivy shrine

Shrines and Sacred Spaces. A second way that we can honor nature is through building and tending of shrines and sacred spaces, both indoors and outdoors, to honor specific aspects of nature.  Recently, for example, I was doing in-depth work with the spirit of the black elder tree, and as part of that, I created a shrine inside my art studio and also honored the elder by making offerings. Your shrines or sacred spaces might be bee and butterfly gardens, meditation gardens, stone circles, stone cairns, or other shrines.  Again, the intent here is what matters–intent and making sure that the shrine is healing and not damaging to the earth or the ecosystem.  This is part of why I like using gardens for this kind of work as much as possible.

Honoring through Sacred Action: Another way in which we can honor the land directly is by mitigating our impact on the earth. I’ve written a lot about the different ways this can happen here on the Druid’s garden blog: through shifting our lifestyle choices, our eating, planting trees, recycling, composting, walking rather than driving, reducing our energy consumption, and much more.

Communing with Nature

A final way of engaging in nature reverence is through communing with nature.  Nature can often facilitate deeply spiritual and sacred experiences for us that help us understand not only the land but our place in it.  I consider communing to be on a much different and deeper level than simply observing–communing is an intentional act that sets us apart from our regular lives and tied, instead, to the living earth.

Druid Retreat: Doing a druid retreat is a great way to commune with nature and to heal and grow as a human being and spiritual person.  Druid retreats can last a day to several weeks or more, depending on your own needs and opportunity.  They are quiet times for you to deeply commune with the living earth, focus on your own spirituality, and attend to your relationship with the living earth.  More on druid retreats in my two-part series: part 1 and part 2.

 

Vision Questing / Ritual in Nature. Different traditions do longer rituals in nature differently, and so you might look to your tradition or intuition for ideas. I did a 48 hour vision quest with a group practicing the Sweet Medicine Sundance tradition and it was an incredible experience that was well facilitated and offered me much insight–even six years later, the experience continues to resonate within me.  Other opportunites I’ve seen have been initiation or coming of age ceremonies where individuals are sent off into the woods for an evening; or women’s circles that drum into the night deep in the woods.  If you don’t have an opportunity to do this with an existing group, consider your own “ritual in nature” over a period of hours or days (and see some of my suggestions for the druid’s retreat, above).

 

Quiet Moments in Nature: Taking quiet moments in nature is another simple way to commune.  Spend a moment watching the passing of a herd of deer, watch the flow of a quiet stream, observe a busy flowering bush full of insects, or to watch the rustle of the leaves in the trees.  These quiet moments need to be only a few minutes, but they will allow you to slow down, breathe, and deeply connect with the living earth.

Signs and symbols in wildlife during the druid retreat

Signs and symbols in wildlife during the druid retreat

 

The Druid’s Anchor Spot: Another technique I detailed earlier on this blog is what I call the “druid’s anchor spot”; this is a place where you go, daily if possible, but certainly regularly, to commune with nature.  You can simply observe the passing of the seasons, the ways in which the space changes over time and in different weather.  You might create a shrine there or do other kinds of ritual activities.  It is simply a space for you to be.

 

Nature reverence is as much a mindset as it is an activity; the deeper we are able to go into our spiritual practice, I believe, the deeper our connection with the living earth is.  This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of the ways that you might practice nature reverence–if any of my readers have additional suggestions or ideas, I would absolutely love to hear them.  Thank you for joining me on this month-long journey into connecting deeply with the living earth!

 

A Druid’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, Part II: Nature Wisdom July 14, 2018

One of my favorite mushrooms- the Chicken of the Woods

One of my favorite mushrooms- the Chicken of the Woods

As any mushroom hunter knows, mushrooms are tricksy little buggers.  What one looks like in one setting may not necessarily be what one looks like in another, depending on soil conditions, moisture, sun, size of the mushroom, insect damage, and/or regional variation. Mushroom species can vary a lot, even from one small region to another, and that variation can spell trouble for someone who hasn’t yet gained the wisdom to understand such variation.  Mushroom books offer perhaps 1-2 photos of mushrooms, and a good book will also offer a mushroom hunter the “keys” (features that distinguish one mushroom from another, like attached gills, color, etc).  However, only lived and true experience can help you not make a dangerous mistake when it comes to the mycelium kingdom.  The difference here, I think, epitomizes two key things: the different aspects of nature wisdom, specifically, the difference between book knowledge and lived experience.  But also, it epitomizes the importance of being rooted firmly in one’s local ecosystem and learning that ecosystem and from sources as connected to that specific ecosystem as possible. In last week’s post, we explored the four ways in which we can connect deeply through nature: through nature wisdom, nature activity, nature reciprocity, and nature reverence.  This week, we’ll delve deeply into the idea of nature wisdom and its three aspects: knowing nature, understanding nature, and probing nature.  We might frame this as a triad:

Three aspects of nature wisdom:

Lessons that come from others

Lessons that come from experience

Lessons that come from deep questions

 

Knowing Nature

 

Knowing nature includes the basic skills of identification and naming–all of which can be started to gained through reading and study or from learning from others. For humans, being able to recognize something, and know its name, is a powerful act. For building my own nature knowledge, what I’ve done over a long period of time is commit to learning 15-20 new plants, trees, animal tracks, rocks, or other aspects about nature each year.  After a few years, you will be able to learn more and more trees, plants, animal tracks, and so on–and this knowledge really empowers you. In 5 years with this method, you could know 100 or more plants and trees!  Slow and steady over a period of time is the best way to learn.  However, reading about plants and trees and so on in books is only half the battle of learning them–the other half is actually finding and experiencing them.

 

I’ll give a nice example of this process.  For years, Sam Thayer’s Foragers Harvest and Nature’s Garden have been my two favorite wild food foraging books.  I’ve read them cover to cover; in the wintertime, I’ve studied them extensively.  Some of the plants he lists in the book, like wild rice, I’ve never seen, but I’ve at least got a basic idea from his books about what they might look like in the event that I can come across some. In May, I visited a friend who just moved to some new property and she wanted me to help identify some things.  We walked through and there was a lot of great things growing–including what I believed to be some highbush cranberry.  I hadn’t ever met this plant, but I wanted to very badly, so I had studied it extensively and when we found it, I knew what it was. It was growing on a giant rock pile in the middle of a field and had some little leftover dried cranberries.  We took photos and a few sample leaves, and sure enough, it was highbush cranberry. This kind of nature study is so useful so that when you are out and about, you can do some identification.  Had I had my books with me (I did not), it would have been even more useful!

 

Learning and study together on plant walks!

Learning and study together on plant walks!

Before the modern era and the general loss of this knowledge in westernized society due to industrialization and commodification, a lot of this knowledge was shared, it was cultural, it was part of the body of knowledge that was taught to people in order to survive and thrive in connection with the natural world.  Largely, that’s not the case anymore, although you will find people here and there who really know a lot about nature and are willing to share ( a lot of these folks I’ve found in the herbalism, woodcraft, and bushcraft movements). I absolutely delight when I find anyone who can teach me something new about the natural world and take every opportunity to learn from them!

 

To learn any aspect of nature, books and resources are critical, and classes/teachers are even better if you can find them.  Here are some of my favorite books and resources to get you started:

  • Botany in a Day is my favorite book (recommended to me some years ago by one of my blog readers).  This teaches you basic plant identification through pattern recognition.
  • I aslo love Newcomb’s Flower Guide for an easy method of plant identification for any flowering plants. For animal tracks, Animal Tracking Basics by Tiffany Moore and Jon Young is a great book to start with.
  • Other books by Jon Young, like What the Robin Knows  are also excellent for understanding how nature works and the signs in nature.
  • Otherwise, the many field guides out there offer much with full photos and information.
  • Other books I love that teach about relationships are three books by John Eastman –The Book of Swamp and BogThe Book of Forest and Thicket; and The Book of Field and Stream.
  • Finding Your Way Without a Map and a Compass is an absolutely fabulous book about nature awareness.
  • There are also a number of great plant and nature identification apps like Leafsnap that can be quite helpful. Finally, purchasing a Loupe (Jeweler’s Loupe) as a small magnifying glass can aid in learning and observing nature.
  • And for wild food foraging, Samuel Thayer’s books, which offer detailed information on how to find plants, when to find plants, and how to prepare plants (more on this in next week’s post!)

 

Bringing nature knowledge into your nature interactions allows you a much deeper sense of the natural world–it empowers you. Getting to know nature can literally last a lifetime.

 

Understanding Nature

As my opening discussion of the challenges of mushroom hunting illustrate, there are two kinds of nature knowledge–the knowledge that comes through reading and study, and the understanding that comes through experience in both the inner and outer worlds of nature. Both are critical to developing ovate knowledge about the natural world and “nature wisdom.”

 

Observing American Ginseng (so rare!) in early spring

Observing American Ginseng (so rare!) in early spring

The understanding that comes through direct experience cannot be replicated by reading books. All the books in the world cannot help you gain the deep understanding of nature as you observe the unfurling of a frond of a fern or watch ants busy at work removing soil from their nest. This is the kind of “knowing” that comes from regular engagement in the natural world.  Any engagement is good; in AODA, we recommend at least 15 minutes per week in nature, some of it spent in stillness and focus.  I’ve used this practice for over a decade and not only has it helped me know nature, it has certainly helped me be at peace and connect to it.  Earlier in this blog, I detailed the “druids anchor spot” technique; this is a great way to learn a single place and deeply connect to it.  This, combined with journaling and regular meditation in nature can be of great aid.

 

What I have found to be the most effective in aiding my building of understanding nature is to shift frequently between book knowledge and real-world experience.  Read some books the night before I go out on a journey, then take a book or two with me (like Newcomb’s) and then cross reference what I am seeing with what I’m learning.  Or finding a new plant, photographing it carefully, and working to identify it and learn what I can about it.  Remembering where it grows, checking it through the season and its life cycle.  Knowing and understanding, then, become like two sides of the coin of nature wisdom–it is necessary for us to have both to fully embrace this kind of connection with nature.

 

Probing nature

A final way in which you can build nature wisdom is in the tradition of the many naturalists who have contributed scientific knowledge of the natural world: Leopold, Darwin, Audobon, Humbolt, etc.  This kind of nature wisdom, which I am calling “probing nature” is engaging in the study of nature in some way.  Most of the time, we think about study in the form of systematic observation with notetaking (think the field journals of the naturalists) or through experimentation (think gardening experiments to see which plants produce a higher yield.) Most of the time, people think that this kind of thing is left only to scientists working in the field, but everyday people can also engage in a number of different kinds of things.

 

On the most basic level, this is simply a matter of satisfying your curiosity, and seeking answers to questions like, “I wonder what….”  or “Why does this…”  I recently did this on my property after seeing trees that had a hazel-like leaf and I was excited to discover that I potentially had “beaked hazelnuts” (a tree I hadn’t encountered before).  Now I can systematically observe this tree each day as it goes through its life cycle and see if the hazelnuts actually appear in the fall!  In order to do this, I’m observing the trees carefully 1-2 times a week and looking at them throughout their life cycle.  A second example is through my “potato bucket” experiment.  I had a bunch of sprouting potatoes back in March and it had been still so cold and the ground was frozen.  But these potatoes wanted to grow!  So I put some of them in buckets and large planters with holes and put them in the greenhouse to see what happened.  Would I get any yield? Now, it is mid June and I’m able to harvest the potatoes from these buckets.  As I have grown this variety before, I am certain that the harvest is not as great, but it is still something and is a very fantastic early potato crop.  This was a simple gardening experiment, and I learned a bit more about how to grow potatoes.

Potatoes!

Potatoes!

A second avenue for “probing nature” and one I highly recommend is citizen science, where you help contribute to a larger dataset of observations that are then used to build an understanding about the natural world.  I wrote about this here. These are projects, like Project Budburst, that help track different things happening in the ecosystem: the flight of the monarchs; the sighting of birds; the arrival of buds in the spring; the movement of wildlife, the various potential effects of climate change.  These, to me, are very important ways for druids and others who are committed to nature spirituality to get involved and help build our knowledge about the living earth.  I think this work is even more critical today than ever before: funding for climate change research and basic science surrounding the natural world is continuing to be cut; people like you and I can help fill in these gaps as volunteers and contribute to larger studies that make a difference.

 

Conclusion

Knowing nature is one of four ways I’ve outlined that we can cultivate a connection to the living earth. In the years that I’ve been practicing druidry, I have come to believe that it is my knowledge of nature that has helped me develop a much deeper connection to the living earth in so many different ways. It’s one thing to go out in a natural setting and appreciate and respect what you are seeing; it is a completely different experience to go out and be able to identify plants, animal tracks, stones, be able to read the water movements of a river, or predict weather changes by observing the clouds and wind.  You have a deeper appreciation of it, you are closer to it, and it is this deeper knowing that connects you in all kinds of new ways. Suddenly, you know plants names, their uses, how rare or abundant they are, if they are endangered, and even from this information, you can begin to ascertain their magic and spiritual connection.  And so, to me, the foundation of all of this rests in respecting the earth and in knowing her.

 

2018 Mount Haemus Award Article – Channeling the Awen Within: An Exploration of Learning the Bardic Arts in the Modern Druid Tradition June 8, 2018

I am excited to annouce that my 2018 Mount Haemus Award article, titled “Channeling the Awen Within: An Exploration of Learning the Bardic Arts in the Druid Tradition” has been released on OBOD’s website (a better formatted PDF is at the bottom of the page; I suggest downloading and reading that). In 2020, I will travel to the UK to deliver a talk tied to the paper itself, as every four years, OBOD offers a Mount Haemus lecture for the four most recent scholars. Every eight years, OBOD publishes a volume, and the next volume will also include this paper. Given this incredible honor–and the fact that the project is now finally finished (whew!)–I wanted to take a bit of time today to talk about the project, what I learned, and how I hope it can help others.

 

What I Learned

Regeneration, card 79 from the 3rd edition of the Tarot of Trees

Regeneration, card 79 from the 3rd edition of the Tarot of Trees

This project was probably the most fun I have had as a learning researcher–I surveyed over 250 druids and conducted in-depth interviews with 15 druids from all around the world. I was able to connect with so many interesting people who adored the bardic arts, or who wanted to start a bardic practice, or who dabbled.  I got to know them, as people, as druids, as practitioners of the bardic arts. The project really took on a life of its own; I was able to delve deeply into the lived experiences of these druids and understand a lot more about how creativity and the bardic arts worked for them, but also how they discovered druidry, went deeper into their druid paths, and more.

 

I would say the most important thing I learned is that it takes a tremendous amount of courage to pick up a bardic art, especially if you haven’t done it before or grown up with it, and this is due to the presence of so much negative cultural baggage surrounding “talent” (which I discuss both in the Mount Haemus paper as well as in my bardic arts series on this blog). But that for those who were able to take that step forward, knowing they wouldn’t be good at it when they started–the rewards were incredible. I didn’t have the space to share the countless stories about just how important the bardic arts were for druids around the world. For some, they described it as their very breath, the thing that gets them up in the morning, the thing that helps them make sense of the world around them. People found deeply rich and meaningful spiritual rewards in their bardic practices–irrespective of how “good” or “talented” they felt they were. In fact, for many dedicated practitioners, it wasn’t about the product at all–it was about the act of creating. In the same way that doing a meditation isn’t about the act of meditation, it is about the spiritual benefits and calm one feels afterwards–the daily living benefits. The bardic arts were the same–it was less about producing something good, and more about simply creating/dancing/singing/knitting/playing music, or whatever else it was.  It didn’t matter what it was, but it was deeply spiritual and beneifical.

 

The second major finding  was the power of community. The Eisteddfodau, in particular, was deeply meaningful for those people who had access to them, even once a year at a major druid gathering.  I had attended these for years and had certainly enjoyed them, but for many they were positively transformational for many and helped the community, and individuals, overcome some of the challenges we face when taking up bardic arts.

 

After doing this research, I now understand how critically important the bardic arts are to the druid tradition.  So important, I would argue, that it should be of prime concern for us as a tradition to work to promote them, to reduce the negative language surrounding talent that disempowers people from taking them up or purusing them, and that we find ways of encouraging people to embrace the bardic arts. To make them as central to our tradition as they are to the individuals who practice them.

 

A final thing I discovered, which was outside of the scope of the paper, so I’ll just share it here, was the incredible and varied ways in which people stumbled upon or came into the druid tradition. Finding druidry was an act, for many, of coming home. Of finding a term to describe oneself, a term that had been lacking. In many cases, it was like they stumbled upon this great treasure, a spiritual path that fit them, and began walking it. The cycle of the year, the cycle of the seasons, the channeling of awen–these were deeply moving aspects for druids. It was amazing to hear so many “coming home” stories of people who were proud to call themselves druids, to learn that druidry was a thing, and to seek their spiritual solice and joy in the living earth.  What a wonderful and delightful tradition we belong to!

 

 

Indian Ghost Pipe - A painting from my ongoing Healing Plant Spirit Oracle project

Indian Ghost Pipe – A painting from my ongoing Healing Plant Spirit Oracle project

Why this topic?

Now that I’ve shared some of the major findings and things that excite me, I also wanted to take a few minutes to share some of what drew me to this topic. This project was born out of a few places. First, and foremost, druidry is quite unique in its celebration of the bardic arts as part of our spiritual practice.  This is foreign to folks, especially those coming out of Abrahamic religions.  I remember one person saying to me, “what, so you can paint and that’s spiritual work?” and I was like yes, I honor nature, and painting her is part of my spiritual work.  So for non-druids, wrapping one’s head around that is difficult.  But once you have wrapped your head around it, it becomes an extremely powerful experience–creativity as spirituality.  In my Mount Haemus piece, I shared stories from my participants about their deep spiritual relationship with their bardic arts.  I, too, had experienced a powerful spiritual practice in my artwork and in my flute playing, and I wanted to discover how more people may be able to have similar experiences.  Part of the impetus for doing this particular project was rooted in that joy that I discovered as I walked the druid path and brought together my love of nature and my love of creating things.  I wanted to know how the bardic arts functioned for others and the journeys that people took.

 

A second motivating factor for why I wanted to do the project was from my mentoring work with the AODA, people who are working on the AODA’s first, second, or third degrees have some choice. They can choose to pursue bardic arts (which are any of the creative or performative arts: music, dance, visual arts, fine crafts, etc); they can choose to pursue the ovate arts, through the study and exploration of nature; or they can choose to pursue the druid arts, which would involve magic, divniation, astrology, mysticism, and more.  When people make their choice, or talk to me about their choice, they often qualify reasons why they didn’t make another choice: “Oh, I’ll never be a good artist.”  Or “Oh, I can’t sing at all.”  It was sad to me, as someone who has dedicated so much of my life to the study of all three branches of druidry, to see people who had already believed they were going to fail before they even began. I knew that this came from a lot of sources, some of which I wrote about in terms of my participants for the Mount Haemus piece and some of which I wrote about on my blog in my “Taking up the path of the bard” series in terms of my own bardic practice.  But I wanted to explore this moe.

 

A third reason was in people’s reactions to my own artwork–after 13 years of dedicated painting and lots of mistakes, I have continued to be extremely frustrated when people attributed all that I had achieved as an artist to “talent.”  It happens literally anytime I posted a photo on social media–people coming in saying, with the best of intentions, meaning to be complimentary, “you are so talented, I could never do that.” And what frustrated me was that it wasn’t talent, its not like I picked up a paintbrush yesterday and created a masterpiece.  Rather, it was a ton of hard work and decication to my craft, expert feedback, study, and challenging myself in new directions. I wrote about this more specifically in my post on the bardic arts surrounding “practice makes perfect.”  That post was motivated entirely from that situation.  I was so pleased to learn in the study that for druids, it was about the process of creating something and the tie to spirituality, rather than the product that was to be something commodified.

 

Finally,  I did the project because I had professional expertise in the area of learning. In my mundane life, I’m a professor and learning researcher, and for over a decade, I have been studying in various forms how people learn to write (particularly in academic contexts) and how they develop as writers over time.  I already understood learning and developmental theories that might support the project,  I had used qualitative and quantiative research methods for years (and taught others how to use them at the doctoral level) and so it was already within my expertise as a scholar to work on a project in that regard.  And I thought there might be something interesting that my particular expertise could contribute to the broader druid tradition.  And certainly, I think there was!

Spirit of Blackberry/Bramble, 2016Spirit of Blackberry/Bramble, 2016

Spirit of Blackberry/Bramble, 2016

 

So this was a very exciting and fulfilling project for me, both as a druid, and as a scholar.  In truth, I am so proud of our community: proud of the tradition we continue to develop, proud of how we’ve overcome challenges to become bards, and so delighted to have gotten to know so many more druids in the course of this project.

 

Well, what are you still doing here?  Go over to the OBOD site and read the piece if you are interested!

 

PS: Next week I will return to my regularly scheduled blogging–thanks for your patience as I put in some gardens and did some travel!

 

Embracing the Bardic Arts: A History of Making Fine Things July 23, 2017

One of the changes that humans have experienced with the rise of industrialization, and more recently, consumerism, is a shift away from creating our own lovingly crafted objects, objects created with precision, skill, high-quality materials, and care and into using things that instead are made by far away people and machines. I wrote a little bit about this before in a post on wood. In speaking of the 17th century, Eric Sloane writes in the Reverence of Wood:

“In 1765, everything a man owned was made more valuable by the fact that he had made it himself or knew exactly where it had come. This is not so remarkable as it sounds; it is less strange that the eighteenth-century man should have a richer and keener enjoyment of life through knowledge than that the twentieth-century man should lead an arid and empty existence in the midst of wealth and extraordinary material benefits” (pg 72).

I know that a number of us on the fringes (and growing increasingly towards the center) are picking up these old skills through the process of reskilling and supporting craftspeople in their trades. The craft brewing movement, wood carving movement, and fiber arts movements are several such examples.

 

Making some loafers out of scraps of leather and old leather couches!

Making some loafers out of scraps of leather and old leather couches!

Recently, I’ve been learning a few new skills including making candles from the beeswax from my beehives, learning how to make my own leather shoes, and learning basic woodcarving techniques (some of which I’ll write about at some point). But what has struck me in the process of trying to learn these things is the lack of specialized, accessible knowledge on the subject, especially in my local area. What I’d ideally love to do is to sit with a master and learn the process from him or her here in my local community–but there are no masters to be found locally. Youtube, old books, and an occasional class where I drive a long way to learn is the most common way of gaining this knowledge these days.

 

And so, I wanted to step back a bit from the specific crafts, and today, spend some time reflecting upon the idea of making things as both a functional handicraft and as a bardic art that cultivates the flow of awen. I think this is important for a few reasons. For one, as someone on the druid path, supporting the bardic arts, which includes various functional crafts, is an important part of that path: finding one’s own creativity and being able to do something with that creativity is central. But second, that learning how to make my own things that will last, from local materials, helps us minimize our footprint on the living earth. Third, making our own things helps me slow down and reconnect with the earth and her gifts. Plus, there is simply a lot of fun to be had in making your own shoes, paper, jams, spoons, or whatever else! (Of course, all of this requires time, which is a challenge I also wrote about earlier this year).

 

The Skilled Trades and Home Economy

At one time, humans in communities provided nearly all of their own needs: there were coopers, cobblers, tanners, barm brewers, blacksmiths, wainwrights, apothecaries, tailors, as well as bustling home economies that produced many other things that a family needed. A list from Colonial America offers a description of some of these jobs here.  What strikes me about this list is the amazing number of specialized professions there were for making everyday objects and tools for human use, everything from brewers’ yeast to barrels, from medicines to wagon wheels. In other words, humans in a community used to make things for that community–the expertise was centered in and around that community. My example of making shoes, or the art of cobbling, falls into this category: every community had a local cobbler to make and repair shoes–this required specialized knowledge, tools, and practice.

 

The second kind of economy in these times was, of course, the home economy. Homesteads were places of constantly bustling activity: bread baking, cheese making, tool making, farming, candle making or rush light making–providing so many of a family’s own needs.  My candlemaking experiences, here, certainly fall into this category.  I’m not going to talk too much about the home economy today (although I likely will at an upcoming point).

 

The system I outline above was no perfect system, but it was a system that employed highly skilled people working with more local materials in their local communities, making things for the use of that community; combined with highly adaptable home economies that produced the bulk of a household’s needs. This system allowed people to monitor how supplies in the local ecosystem would last and to understand their direct ecological impact when they made new things. Further, this general system has worked for most non-industrial agrarian cultures around the globe for millennia. Its especially interesting to note, too, that this system actually seemed to be less work intensive than current systems; one such presentation of this is through Juliet Schor’s The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure and in Tom Hodgkinson’s The Freedom Manifesto.  Both of these books explore the issue of work, showing how many of our ancestors had plenty of time for 12-day feasts and much revelry and worked fewer hours than we did (a topic I explored earlier this year).

 

Candlemaking for the first time!

Candlemaking for the first time!

Tucked into quiet places, you still may find the remnants of these locally-based, highly skilled trades: odd tailor who makes his or her own suits, the local wood turner, and so on. Today, we see the remnants of these older ways of life in antique shops and other nooks and crannies: hand-hewn and worked wooden objects, iron tools clearly forged by an expert blacksmith, homemade buckets, spinning wheels with various small repairs, handmade clothing and quilts, and so on. In fact, my town still has a cobbler who fixes shoes (but doesn’t’ make them; he tells me his grandfather from who he learned the trade from did). At a thrift store visit last year, a dear friend of mine found an incredible green suit made by a tailor right here in town (and obviously, no longer in business).

 

But with the rise of consumerism and industralization, we left behind many of these skilled trades and we left behind our home economies to buy things. We also, unfortunately, left behind even the idea that craft was something to take seriously and that a high-quality product was worth paying more for or to spend a tremendous amount of time to make.

 

The Decline of the Skilled Trades

As someone who grew up in the 1980’s and 1990’s in the rust belt/flyover zone, I have always lived in a time of declining small businesses and large corporations. Each year of my life, I’ve watched more family businesses and local shops close up for good and be replaced by large corporations on the edge of town reachable only by car (rather than in town, reachable by foot). In fact, I lived this firsthand, watched my parents’ own graphic design home business steadily lose their local customer base as one business after another closed their doors, or relocated, or were bought out by a bigger corporation who were headquartered in a far off state and not interested in offering work to local graphic designers. The first Walmart came to my area while I was still in middle school, driving many local establishments out of business within only a few years’ time.

 

At this point, exploring the landscape of most places in the US shows the most boring monotony of the same businesses selling the exact same things (an issue I took up last year). I had, of course, read in various places about the engineering of American society to be consumerist in the times following WWI. This general pattern was well underway long before I was born, and in fact, was several centuries in the making. To understand this phenomenon better, I spoke to some older family members to try to understand their firsthand experiences. My older family members attribute a large number of factors to the loss of our small trade businesses and creation of handicrafts locally, but I’m going to hone in on three that seemed to arise with the different conversations: 1) the rise of large corporations (which is the fairly obvious one), 2) the lack of new apprentices to carry on the family businesses; 3) the loss of the blue laws and 4) the cultural disregard for handmade things.

 

Obviously, when large corporations like Walmarts and Targets come to town, economics has a lot to do with the issue. For one, because they buy and ship in such bulk, they can undersell local businesses on the same products. But they also sell cheap products in snazzy packaging with fancy words masquerading as good products. This has been talked about a lot in other places and is fairly well known, so I won’t belabor the point here.  This decreases the demand for these locally-produced crafts and trades.

 

The second reason was the lack of young people wanting to go into these traditional crafts and trades–which has a lot to do with economics, but also with interest. When my parents attended the closing of our local shoe store in Johnstown (called Yankee Shoe Repair), they spoke with the owners, who said that there was nobody who wanted to carry on their business and that was one of the reasons they were closing. They purchased a good deal of leatherworking supplies for me, and that’s how I got my start in leatherworking.

 

Third is my mother’s “blue law” theory. Blue Laws, which used to protect family time, also contributed to the downfall of the trades here in our region. The Blue Laws governed, among other things, when businesses had to stay closed to ensure adequate time for families and religious services. After the blue laws were removed, family businesses often kept with those traditions (and still do, in limited places) while big corporations remained open for longer and longer hours, making it more convenient for customers. Today, we are seeing the real effects of these pushes with the loss of Thanksgiving day and the push for being open on Christmas day. The limited hours made shopping at these stores (and their associated value systems) less convenient and, in an age of convenience, folks less likely to visit the family owned business.

 

Finally, the idea of something being handmade (rather than store-bought) after World War II took on a negative connotation for many Americans. Handmade objects were looked down upon and seen as less desirable. My mother shared with me stories of wearing “hand me downs” or “handmade” clothes rather than purchased ones and how she was teased as a child. Even in my own childhood, I experienced this. My paternal grandmother was a maker, going to church sales, picking up huge bags of old clothing and drapes, and repurposing them into toys, skirts, doll clothes, and more. When I went to school with my handmade clothing lovingly crafted by my grandmother, I was mocked (which, to the other children, suggested poverty). Today, “handmade” still has some negative connotations (especially if it’s done in a less-than-sleek manner).

 

Problems with the Shift to Consumer Economies

So now that we have some understanding of what happened to the skilled crafts and trades, I want to briefly explore a few problems that this has created. These are key problems for both individuals, communities, and our broader lands.

 

A handcrafted leather book with ecoprinted pages

A handcrafted leather book with ecoprinted pages

The Loss of Highly Skilled Workers and Educational Opportunities. First is that the highly skilled labor required to produce these objects has shifted to mechanized low-skilled labor. This means that these highly skilled trades employing people in every community that offered a good living have now vanished. These skilled trades had offered young people educational opportunities and career opportunities through apprenticeships. Now, these positions are largely relegated to lower-skilled or unskilled factory workers in a single community (likely these days, overseas). We’ve taken 100,000+ cobblers located all over and have replaced them with 10 factories each employing 300 low-paid, unskilled employees in far off locations. Pressing a button on the shoe cutting machine is a lot different than the custom measuring, cutting, and fitting of a pair of  shoes for a specific person in terms of the skill, care, and precision necessary for the work.  Not to mention that you end up with a much better product if the shoe is made for your feet. Finally, a pair of shoes made in a factory vs. one made by skilled hands fundamentally changes the nature of the work we do, and I believe, makes it a lot less meaningful. 

 

I have firsthand experience of this factory work: when I was in high school, I worked for a summer in a bra and underwear factory; we didn’t produce bras or underwear (they were made in sweatshops overseas), but we hung them, packaged them, and shipped them off to various big box stores all over the country. It was the most wretched four months of my life. At the factory, anyone could do the work; it could be learned with minimal training, usually less than a few hours. There was no craft, no care in the work–and how could there be? People worked in rough conditions, for minimal pay, and there was no need to be skilled or invest time in the quality of our work done well. This isn’t to say that people at the factory were lazy–they worked hard, but the nature of that work was much different than our skilled shoemaker fitting a person for a custom pair of shoes.

 

Environmental Health and Health of Ecosystems. One of the things about goods being made right in your local community is that you know what goes into those goods and where those goods come from. The local tanner and hunters have some idea of the level of the deer population; the local woodworker knows about the health of the forest; the local farmer can speak about the quality and health of the soil. When the creation of goods is removed from our vision or done on the largest industralized scale, we no longer can assess the health of those places where raw goods are coming from nor the impact of those goods on the land.  Sure, we may hear stories, but it is a “far away” problem that we pay no mind. Further, those producing goods as a family profession are going to care about the health of the land from which those goods come (and continue to come) as their livelihood depends on it. Not so with the large-scale production factory, who can often just find a new source of raw materials to exploit (this, also hidden from view from the end consumer).

 

The truth is, I have no idea where my goods really come from when I’m purchasing something at the store; they are hidden behind various “distributed by” labels on packaging and even writing a company often does not lead to any deep understanding. This means I can’t really assess their real costs to myself or to any community that may be involved in the extraction of resources nor production. And I certainly have no idea what the environmental costs of those goods are (and I suspect they are generally quite high).

 

Product Quality and Comfort. On the consumer end, the quality of the products has declined with the loss of our skilled trades and crafts; in many cases, options in many cases is to choose between low-priced junk and high-priced slightly better junk. While factories can certainly produce these objects more “efficiently”, they certainly can’t do it better or of a higher quality. Shoes are a great example here. A pair of shoes fitted to an “ideal” foot is not a pair of shoes fitted to my foot, and my feet nearly always hurt because they are different than the factory-produced ideal. I have never liked shoe shopping and it usually takes me many tries to find a decent pair of shoes that are comfortable. The factory standardizes human feet in a way they shouldn’t be standardized, and my limited experiences with cobbling have already taught me that human feet don’t come in simple digit sizes. Tracing my own and others’ feet on paper as part of learning to make shoes has taught me that feet are as unique as we are, and shoes, therefore, also need to be. Goods designed in a specific local context or body in mind are simply better than those that are not!

 

Variety and Weirdness. The standardization of goods also comes with the loss of diversity (and anyone who has studied evolution knows how important diversity is to any system!) A local shoemaker in one town might produce a very different kind of shoe than one three towns over depending on his/her skills, training, and creative approaches. With a factory pumping out 10,000 shoes a day that are identical, we now have much less choice, less quirkiness, and less all around creativity.

 

Suffering, Joy, and the Energy of Goods. As I’ve stated on this blog before, the things that are near to us, including physical goods, bring their own energy and that energy impacts us. A shoe produced in a sweatshop invariably brings some of that suffering into your own life–it carries the energy with it from how it was extracted and made. I highly suspect that the cobbler enjoyed his or her work much more than, say, the under-paid and chemically-exposed factory worker. Whose shoe would I want to wear?

 

The “Real” Costs. I think the real lure here is the idea of a cheap good and its overall value. Cheap products are not better ones, ones that are of quality and that last.  It’s true that Walmart and Payless Shoes other bargain stores can sell a cheap pair of shoes for $25, while the local shoemaker sells a much better and high-quality pair of leather shoes for $150. This doesn’t seem very competitive on the surface to the average consumer. However, given that the whole purpose of consumerism is to consume as quickly as possible, and so, the $25 pair of shoes you wear every day have barely a year shelf life.  You’ll have to replace those cheap, uncomfortable shoes 10 times in a decade.  This ends up costing far more than the $150 pair of shoes that last a decade with minimal maintenance and repairs.

Where do we go from here?

Industrialization isn’t going to go away tomorrow (and it would be very bad if it did for those of us who still depend on it).  And yet, I think there are a lot of things we can do to cultivate the bardic arts, both within ourselves (as my earlier posts in this series suggested) and to cultivate a culture in which the bardic arts are valued and profitable.  Let’s look at a few of those things now!

Master class on shoemaking!

Video master class on shoemaking!

 

Supporting Skilled Trades

I think the very first thing all of us can work to do is to support those folks who are still around, still engaged in their skilled trades.  My town has a cobbler–he doesn’t make shoes (unfortunately, I’d love to learn from him!) but he does repair them, and I’ve been glad to visit him every few months with small shoe repairs. I honestly know enough about shoemaking at this point that I could manage some of the repairs–but I want to give him business (and his repairs will be nicer than mine!)  There’s a local wood turner who I’ve been buying wooden bowls and plates from, and so on. The more we can seek these folks out and help them thrive, the better. On the more fine arts side, the same thing applies: finding local artists, local theaters, local musicians, and supporting their work as much as possible. Each town and community has its own quirky, unique scene of great people creating great things, and supporting that work is so critical to returning to a bardic-arts enriched culture.

 

Reskilling, Time, and Community

We just don’t have time like we used to have to engage in these functional crafts; our ancestors who were making these things in pre-industralized cultures had a lot more time to do so.  (Pre-industralized cultures worked a lot less and played a lot more than people do now). The time and “productivity” suck we are all facing means that we simply don’t have the life energy to really invest in these skills and get good at doing them. I feel this really harshly because I have lots of things I want to do–a wide variety of skills to learn and master–and more often than not, I’m exhausted with my work (and paying off those darn student loans) and don’t have the energy or time to do many of them. This is a cultural problem that faces anyone who is trying to earn a living within our current system.

 

I think that this time crunch we are all facing means that we don’t necessarily have the energy to figure things out or to fail in order to learn.  The way we learn as humans, even when there is someone teaching us, is by trying, testing things out, failing and re-trying, and fiddling with things till we get it right.  Its like a slow spiral, working ever inward and deeper.  We need a lot of time to hone our crafts, to take them from beginner attempts into things that are functional that we can be proud of.  This means we have to invest a lot of time in them–the one thing that we don’t currently have.  Without investing the time, we can’t get good at them and turn them into an art.

 

Still, these skills are worth doing and worth preserving, and finding ways of doing so (living arrangements, working arrangements, defending vacation time, etc) are important things we all need to figure out how to accomplish.

 

My solution at present to this is twofold.  For me personally, it is a matter of making the time and keeping with it. I’m working to make the most of the small amounts of time that I might have available (e.g. stitching up a hand-bound book while talking with friends or waiting for my car to be repaired, similar to what knitters do).  But also, setting aside sacred days and times to do that work.

 

The second is community–I’m working hard to find friends to learn these skills with and working on building a network of folks who have different skills.  Like the mini-villages of old, finding people who can teach and who are willing to trade is a great way to keep these old skills alive and vibrant.  And so I have a friend who carves spoons, and we trade for artwork, another friend makes really great jams, and so on.

 

The third is to pick a craft and really hone it.  I’ve been such a dabbler for a lot of my life, and I really want to start making a few things and doing those well.  I’ve suck with my painting and writing longer than anything else, and the results of those efforts show.  I’m really getting into leatherworking and some primitive woodworking, and I know those skills will both take me years of time to develop and master.  These seem like enough: both in term of the time investment, but also in terms of the materials/tools investment (which is considerable).  But picking one, or two, and really working at it is important.

Reskilling and Preserving Living Knowledge

As I’m involving myself deeper in my own reskilling, I’m also seeing the serious cracks and edges of this movement from a knowledge perspective. While knowledge of how to do many things used to be widespread, local knowledge about many of these more complex skills  seems to be absent almost entirely. Skilled knowledge about these things may be out there in the world, but it is often contained in small pockets, or inaccessible in faraway places, or offered only at considerable cost (I could travel to a master shoemaker and learn, but it would cost me over $1000 to do so). Or, knowledge is contained in good books, many of which are out of print.

 

Another issue with this is that many of us no longer have this knowledge or access of where to find it, and we are learning a little bit and bumbling about in that learning and sharing what we learn.  But the truth is, you can’t just replace a master craftsperson with a short online tutorial and expect the product to come out the same way.  I am learning this the hard way with shoemaking–I tried what looked like it was a decent online tutorial, but my shoes didn’t really come out and the key aspects of the tutorial I needed were lacking. I invested in a kickstarter campaign to learn from a master craftsperson and his course is incredible and deatiled–and I’m putting the finishing touches on my first pair of custom shoes!

 

And so, in terms of reskilling movement for more specialized skills, we need to continue to build first-hand knowledge. I think it would behoove us to seek out the teachers of these kinds of skills, learn from them, and work hard to pass it on and to keep those traditions alive.  I can’t stress this enough–seek these folks out, learn from them, document that knowledge, share it, and preserve it.  The internet is great for this!  Share, share, and share!

 

Localizing Resources

Another strategy that you might try to start bringing more handcrafted functional things into your life is looking at what resources already exist in your community or local ecosystem.  Here, there are always places being logged, and those loggers leave behind so much good wood.  Straight branches, curved interesting pieces, green or drying out.  This is part of what prompted my interest in woodworking: the materials are so abundant and easy to find here that it seems that all I need is to put some time and hone the skill of doing it.

 

I have a friend who makes these incredible pieces of art from buckthorn vines in Michigan.  Buckthorn is everywhere in Michigan, and townships often have clean up days where they pull them out and burn them.  She takes them home and turns them into baskets, picture frames, and more. My other friend, Deanne at Strawbale Studio, uses the clay, sand, and silt in her soil combined with phragmites reeds to make houses and natural structures.  Again, she is capitalizing on resources that are already present there in the landscape. Yet another friend has cultivated abundance by growing bamboo for flutes and whistles!

 

So rather than picking a hobby that requires you to bring resources in, perhaps look at what resources are there and use them, if you can. This is the best synthesis of nature-oriented spiritual practice and the bardic arts and crafts.

 

I think that the edges are starting to wear thin for a lot of us concerning the lure of consumerism with its flashy gizmos and cheap gadgets. It’s exciting to see the rise of the reskilling and maker movements, where people are realizing the potential of their own creative gifts and working again to create functional and lovingly made crafts. I think that many of these movements are not yet mainstream (perhaps craft brewing and the tech/maker movement being the most mainstream at this point), but I do see them as gaining momentum, at least among the fringe groups focusing on sustainable living, permaculture, transition towns, and the like.  While this post explored some history and problems, our next post will continue to get us deeper into the relationship of the self with the idea of craft and the bardic arts–and how we can embrace this work as part of our own spiritual and sustainable path.

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Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part II June 25, 2017

Creativity is the singing of the soul.  When we create, we draw from the deepest parts of who we are and express ourselves to the world.  The act of creation, the drawing forth and connecting to our inner selves, is the joy involved in creativity.  Having something nice in the end, to me, seems like a bonus! I believe this act of channeling the awen is not only inherently spiritual, it is also part of what it means to be human.  But to allow our souls to really sing, we have to grow comfortable with what we create, we have to set aside our judgement, and and to grow our skills as bards.

 

Last week, I explored what the bardic arts are, the cultural challenges associated with the bardic arts, and some ways community groups circumvent said challenges.   We looked at the creative spirit of children, and how that spirit gets repressed by cultural challenges and the langauge of disempowerment.  We looked at the ways that we think about “talent” and “creativity” serve to severely disempower us from pursuing the joy that is the bardic arts. Now that we have some sense of what has prevented more people from engaging in their creative and human gifts, we can now turn towards answering the two questions I posed last week:

 

  • 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?

 

Last week, I also established four broad categories of bardic arts, which we’ll be returning to in this post:

  • 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.

And with that background, let’s begin to answer the two questions above and move into a place of empowerment, creativity, and the flowing of awen!

 

The Triad of Bardic Development: Exposure, Technique, and Practice

In the same way that the ancient bards were dedicated to their craft and in the same way that children devote countless hours to their own creative expressions, so, too, do we need to carefully cultivate our modern bardic arts if we are to grow our gifts. I’ll use myself as an example here of how we might cultivate the bardic arts.

 

Spirit of St. John's Wort (painting inspired by nature)

Spirit of St. John’s Wort (painting inspired by nature, part of my plant spirit series)

I have been a visual artist focusing on the theme of trees and whimsical nature art and have been seriously pursuing this work for over a decade. As part of my own development as an artist, I often go to the natural world for inspiration and observation: studying the patterns of leaves, sketching in the woods, taking photographs, and bringing that inspiration back into my art studio. I also regularly expose myself to the work of others who are using different artistic techniques (talking with them, viewing artwork, reading books on techniques).  I go to museums and study, in detail, various watercolor paintings.  I talk to watercolor artsits about their own style and process and inspiration.  We share work with each other and ask about techniques.  Regardless of how “good” I have become, I regularly take classes, read books, watch youtube tutorials, which helps me gain the theories and techniques of a visual artist.  Often, as part of these classes, I get expert feedback on how to improve my work. Finally, I practice my art as often as possible, several times a week (often for several hours), in a space dedicated for this purpose. Practice doesn’t just mean do the same artwork over and over, but rather, I regularly take on new challenging subjects and new media so that I can continue to grow as an artist.  This might mean that I don’t always succeed, but there is much value in the practice.

 

In fact, the way that I develop my skill as a visual artist is no different than the Jazz musician who practices his scales each day, or the aspiring poet who memorizes large chunks of others’ poetry, or woodworker who hones her skills. And this is important: there are things that you can do, regardless of what skill level you begin at, that will help you make good progress on whatever bardic art you choose to undertake.  Further, from my example above, we can see that there are at least three essential paths towards developing bardic skills:

 

The first path of the aspiring bard is immersing yourself  in the thing you wish to master. You have to expose yourself in the world of that particular bardic art and begin to understand how others are already working on that bardic art. How this path manifests depends on the broad genre of bardic arts:

  1. Visual: Visual artists cultivate keen observation skills (of the subject matter) and also expose themselves to others’ artwork.
  2. Literary: Literary artists read copious amounts of others’ work; for poets this may include memorization of others’ poetry and forms.
  3. Performance: A performer would attend many performances and observe other performers practicing their art.
  4. Craft: A craftsperson would study as much of the craft of others as possible.  For example, a leatherworker would study other people’s leather working techniques and finished products, and so on.

 

The second path of the aspiring bard is to learn and practice the techniques of your art/craft. Each bardic art has a set of theories and techniques that you need to understand in order to develop proficiency and eventual mastery. Studying these theories and techniques (on your own and/or through others’ instruction) can greatly assist you as an aspiring bard. Specific bardic arts have their own techniques and their own tools, some of which are listed here:

  1. Visual: Techniques using particular artistic tools, understanding perspective and distance, understanding light/shading, understanding color theory, understanding how paint blends on a page, etc.
  2. Literary: Understanding the structure of a story; studying rhyme, studying different forms of poetry, building vocabulary, studying syntax
  3. Performance: The technical aspects of dance (how to safely perform different moves), how to engage an audience, the technical aspects of acting, singing, vibrato, positioning, lighting a space, etc.
  4. Craft: Technical aspects of the craft, for example, in leatherworking it would be cutting leather, using leather tools, dying and staining leather, finishing, putting pieces together, designing patterns, knowing which kinds of leathers to use for which projects.  Each craft has its own techniques.

Some techniques may transfer from bardic art to bardic art, while others need to be learned anew. For example, drawing skill helps me not only as a painter, but also as a leatherworker when I’m designing and creating leather tooled pieces. But that drawing skill is not so helpful when I’m trying to tell stories around the fire!

Pracitcing the technqiues for some bardic arts also require the tools: for example, as a watercolor artist, I need, at minimum, high quality brushes of various sizes, watercolor paper of a good quality, and a nice set of watercolor paints. Working with sub-par tools leads to a sub-par experience. Having better tools offers me a better “starting point” and eliminates certain kinds of struggles.

 

The AODA's Sphere of Protection in a Tree

The AODA’s Sphere of Protection in a Tree (from the AODA New Candidate Guide)

The third path of the aspiring bard is dedication and regular practice. Each bardic art requires dedication and practice, at minimum, on weekly level. Remember that practice often includes many things that are never seen by an audience (sketches, practicing the tale in front of the mirror, practice scraps of leather discarded, scales upon scales on an instrument, etc.). And because these things are hidden, we forget that they are ever done. However, dedication and practice are the only way we can achieve any form of proficiency, much less mastery. We don’t get good at something by thinking about it–we get good at it through practice (people seem to understand this with musical instruments but with little else!)

 

A second critical aspect of practice is that different kinds of practices are necessary to achieve proficiency. Sometimes, practicing the same thing over and over gives you a lot of skill doing that particular thing, so that you achieve mastery. So, if you make 100 leather bags, your 100th one will be much better than your first. But at some point, there is a diminishing return to continuing to practice the same thing–you’ll get to a certain point and not be able to go any further. It is for this reason that we also need challenges and exposure to more difficult kinds of practice.

 

A challenging piece/performance requires you to gain new skills, to push your skills a bit beyond what you can handle, and encourages new growth. With challenge is the possibility of failure, but failure is not something to fear.  Failure is a regular and consistent part of the learning process, and all proficient people practicing any bardic art have had their share of failure.  How we handle failure here is key–letting failure be an opportunit to learn, rather than an opportunity to shut down, is critical to our own development (for more info, see Carol Dweck’s TED talk and research on mindsets.  Dweck’s work explores two mindsets for approaching failure–when we can learn and grow, we gain much.  But when we shut down and fear/avoid failure, developmentally, little growth happens). A common saying is that the master has failed more times than the novice has even tried, and this is a very true of the bardic arts.  In this view, as we cultivate our bardic art, we must also cultivate the understanding and openness that is required for long-term growth and success. Embrace failures as part of learning and for the value that they offer. Of course it is frustrating to make a mistake, but mistakes are a sign of growth because you are pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone.

 

My father and mother offered powerful lessons to me concerning mistakes and failure when I was a small child learning painting.  I remember working on a piece very hard, only to have a huge paint drip go into the middle of the sky.  I was ready to cry.  My father stopped what he was doing, and came over to me, and showed me how to turn that paint drip into a colorful cloud.  He told me that mistakes were an opportunity to try something unplanned, something different, and that some of his best work had been a result of such a mistake.  When this happened again, my mother reinforced the lesson several weeks later. As I continue to learn new things, I am always appriciative of that lesson and what it taught me.

 

And so, is through the triad of exposure, technique, and practice that we can develop proficiency, an eventual mastery, in the bardic arts. Notice that “talent” is not on this list. Anyone, given enough of the triad above, can develop at least a basic proficiency in a bardic art of their choice.  Talent might help speed things along, but it is is not necessary.  If the purpose of the bardic art is the process, the journey, the ability to connect with our hearts and spirits, then the end result seems but a secondary consideraiton.

Developing a Community and Culture of Bardic Arts

What may not be immediately obvious to the aspiring bard is that the triad above is embedded in a broader culture of bardic arts and also embedded in a specific community of practice. Bards need a community to share their work, talk to others about their work, to receive feedback, and to share their bardic gifts. Each community of bards has their specific techniques and tools, practices that are unique to that community. Further, a bard is often incomplete without an audience of some kind, whether that is the reader of a text, the audience of a performance, the viewer of an artistic creation, or the user/receiver of a craft.

 

In the same way that bards need communities in order to develop effectively, so, too do communities need bards. We cannot rebuild the bardic arts on an individual level without also rebuilding the communities in which these bardic arts are shared. Those engaged in the bardic arts need to feel needed; as though their work is important and it matters. Because it does. And so, we have to recognize that our communities are richer and better with our bards present and being bards. Imagine sitting around a fire at night with a dozen or so people—the more of those people engaging and sharing their bardic arts, the more interesting of an evening is shared by all. If nobody has a bardic art to share, the community suffers (and the evening is dull). This, too, is supported by learning research: we know that when people join communities of practice (see, for example, the work of Wegner and colleagues), those communities strongly support overall devleopment in a particular skill.

 

And so, the questions that remain to us now are: How do we build communities without inhibitions against the bardic arts? How do we nature and support people in those communities?

 

Children. As mentioned in last week’s post, children are natural bards, and the first thing we can do in terms of cultivating communities of bardic arts in the long term is to let children be children and to help them retain and cultivate their creative gifts. Children should be free to create, explore, make messes, make music, and collaborate with friends. As parents and loved ones, finding ways of supporting, reinforcing, and cultivating their creative gifts should be encouraged, especially to help provide a balance to mass education systems which discourage creative expression and creative thinking. As children grow up, they should be encouraged to continue to pursue whatever bardic arts inspire them.  They should also be encouraged to view mistakes as an opportunity for growth (which, according to some of the resaerch I included above, is a very teachable thing). These children, then, can grow up to help lead bardic communities of the future.

 

Adolescents and Adults. In terms of the adolescents and adults, some remediation likely needs to be in order, based on the cultural and educational disempowerment so prevalent today. The overall goal is to help adolescents and adults take down their barriers and inhibitions and reconnect to their creativity in the spirit of the freedom children have but tempered by the focus and ability of an older generation.

 

Many trees make a forest; many people make a community!

Many trees make a forest; many people make a community!

First, adults/adolsecents must have opportunities in their material and social contexts for practicing their bardic arts, in the same way that children have. For example, storytelling is a common thing that can be practiced daily. Children are constantly telling stories to each other and to their families. Adults could cultivate the same opportunity. For example, perhaps each member of the family around the dinner table tells the story of their day as part of that meal. This simple family ritual allows for the building of a storytelling culture within a family and gives each opportunity to learn to be a storyteller. The same can be true of many other bardic arts: creating social opportunities for bardic arts to be shared and practiced is an important part of cultivating them. Another option here is the Druid’s Eisteddfod, a circle of bardic arts around the fire.

 

The second thing, also tied to children and creativity, is the fostering of “play time”, that is, unstructured leisure time in which to explore and engage in the bardic arts. As with children’s play, at least some time should not be dedicated to accomplishing a particular task, but simply exploring materials, techniques, and enjoying the process of figuring things out. (This, of course, means we have to reconsider our own relationship with time and make time for these things, which ties directly to my earlier series on “Slowing down the Druid Way.”)

 

The third thing adults/adolsecents need are the tools to engage in the bardic art and access to expertise. Tools can be procured usually fairly directly (a materialist culture lends itself well to such a thing), but expertise might be much harder to come by. Given that, I encourage those interested in a particular art to seek out a local community, or, online community if no local one is present. These things can be learned on one’s own, but it is often more effective to learn from another.  Chances are, anyone who has developed mastery in a bardic art has had plenty of mishaps and mistakes along the way, and its useful to talk about those mistakes as much as it is to talk about the successes!

 

The fourth thing is to reframe our language within that community of practice.  Aspiring bards need both support as well as constructive feedback, and the challenge in a community is finding methods of doing both in ways that nutrure the overall development.  Some communities offer competitions or critique days that allow people to seek feedback to improve their work. These structured forms of critique and feedback are generally a safe space for those who want that kind of feedback.

For Aspiring Bards

And so, now we’ve come to it–how do I begin to take up the path of the bard?  Here are two questions to get you started:

 

Which of the many bardic arts (visual, performance, literary, or craft) seem interesting to you? 

Select something that appeals to you, that is interesting to you and that inspires you.  Find one that sings to your soul. Don’t worry about whether or not you can or can’t do this thing or if you know anyone else who does it—all bardic arts take dedication and work. Try it out for a bit making sure that you have given the practice enough time to get past the very beginning difficult beginner parts. I’d suggest spending a minimum of 20 hours on it over a period of time to see if it fits you well (this is the practice we use in the AODA curriculum and it works tremendously well).  Twenty hours is enough to know if you will enjoy it, it is enough time to have some small successes, and it is enough time to get past the 10 or so frustrating hours (or more) of learning where not much is accomplished. If this bardic art turns out not to be a good fit for you, try something else until you find your right fit. In this process of exploration, you might borrow the necessary tools/equipment for practicing the art rather than buy them to minimize financial investment until you are sure you will pursue this particular bardic art.

 

Where is there a community with whom you can connect?

Seek out a community that is engaging in the same bardic art that you have interest in.  Once you find that community, show up. I strongly advocate for finding a physical community of people who are engaged in your bardic art (or a range of bardic arts) that you can share with. This community should meet regularly (1/month, at minimum). If you can’t find a community, consider starting one (ask friends to come over once a week and play music or share stories by the fire, etc.). Online communities are a way to supplement local communities, but we encourage you to not stop at online communities. Online communities that have some physical component (e.g. art that is traded through the mail, performances that are given, in-person conferences that are present) are much more effective.

 

The Flow of Awen

The Ancient Druids understood that the flow of awen, the divine spark of creativity or inspiration, was a magical thing (and a topic I talked about in depth several weeks ago). And the Ancient Druids weren’t the only ones to recognize this sensation: many cultures recognize a muse or deity that is associated with creativity (the Greek Muses; Sarasvati, Hindu Goddess of the Arts; Hi’aika, Hawaiian Goddess of Dance/Chant; and so on).  Whether you see the awen as a kind of abstract power or something that comes from a diety, the idea is that this creativity flows through a person when he or she is engaged in her bardic art.  Perhaps you’ve experienced this yourself: it is a powerful sensation.

 

Personally, I see awen a lot like the flow of a river.  If you are opening up those channels for the first time, it is like water pouring into an area: the river will need to make work to flow effectively; there might be obstructions to work through, and so on.  But the longer the water flows in that spot, the more effectively it can flow and the more channels the water makes. Expressing creativity and channeling the flow of awen is a lot like using a muscle—it can atrophy if it is not used. And yet, any muscle can be brought back into health with enough practice; you might see this like a kind of “bardic therapy.”

 

This is where everything in this post comes in: we need tools, practice, and skill to allow the awen to flow through our lives and inspire us.  And when we are in a place with our own skills and abilities as a bard, the awen can flow strong and we can create incredible works.  We need the basic skills and approaches so that we can forget about the technical details and instead just let the awen flow.  It is once we’ve achieved a certain level that we can really let loose, let our subconsious and muscle memory take over, and just flow with the awen.  The things outlined in this post can help the awen flow into your life permancently and powerfully.

 

May the awen flow within you in your pursuit of the bardic path!

 

(PS: Thanks to David N. for long discussions on this topic and working out many of the details that appear in these two last posts!)
(PPS: I have this set to auto-post while I’m on some camping and hiking adventures in rural Maine.  Please comment, but know that I won’t be responding to comments for another week or so! )

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Earth Ambassadors and Speakers for the Trees December 12, 2015

One of the basic problems today is that our land and many of inhabitants can’t speak for themselves and have no legal rights. The word “agency” in a philosophical or rhetorical sense refers to one’s ability to act in a given environment, to have power in that environment, and to have voice. In the case of our land, the non-human inhabitants speak a language that is simply not recognized as a language and those inhabitants and landscapes have been systematically reduced into mere objects of worth. The discourse of our civilization leaves no room for their rights or participation and yet that discourse determines, to a great extent, their fate. They cannot participate in the decision making about our world; they are not considered stakeholders. As such, they are the unfortunate passive experiencers of the many unfortunate exploitative decisions of that civilization.

 

An Ancient One cut down...

Two ancient trees in a row cut down (with two more on the corner behind where the photo was taken)

This post was motivated by some recent occurrences in my town–these are things I would never have experienced or understood living on my secluded homestead in Michigan, but here, renting in a small town in PA, I see every day. A really simple example of this is what is happening on my street in the town where I live.  We had a beautiful tree-lined street when I arrived, and with the cutting of nine old trees in a 4 block area, the street is now barren.  These trees had no rights, they were “in the way” of the power company or the borough to repair sidewalks, and saving them is not a conversation that anyone is having, so they had to go.  There was no consideration of their right to live there, the fact that they had been there probably as long as those sidewalks….people just don’t think about them at all these days in that way. I spoke to one of our borough representatives about it, and he shared various perspectives on why it was happening.

 

In a second simple example, the other day, I was arriving home from campus to see a truck with the rental company I am renting with stop, then park, and then two men get out with chainsaws. I had not been told anyone was coming, and I was quite surprised to see them there. I walked up to them, said hello, and inquired what they were doing.  They said “we’re taking out the bushes on the side of the house.”  There are five nice bushes there, some holly and rhododendron, mature and beautiful. “Why?” I inquired. “They are overgrown.” They replied. “Couldn’t you just trim them? I like the bushes, I’m renting here, and the house will look bare without them.” One looked at the other, “well, I guess we can try.”  I added, “The other thing these bushes do in the summer is keep the house from overheating and help save on cooling costs in the summer. I think they are well worth trying to save.” They nodded and went back to their truck for a tree trimmer. In the end, they trimmed three of the bushes and cut one down (I have no idea).

 

So, with these experiences helping frame my discussion today, we return to the topic at hand: the need for inherent rights of nature. Its not that every culture has had such a problematic relationship with nature; some have recognized the inherent rights of the land and non-human inhabitants and included those rights in decision making processes. Other cultures could hear the singing of the trees, the sounds of the wind, the messages in a bubbling brook and respected those voices. Clearly, industrialized culture is not such a culture, and the very industry that made us industrialization has silenced our minds and hearts to the current plight of the land–growing more tragic by the day. The land and her non-human inhabitants, in nearly all countries in the world save Ecuador, also lack basic rights, such as the right to life, under our modern legal system. This makes them both non-entities in a legal sense and unable to respond in a way that will be heard.  Of course, this goes beyond just trees–animals trapped in the industrialized farming nightmare also suffer this fate, along with just about every other non-human thing. Indigenous peoples without access to the same kinds of technology and processes, also suffer this, and have suffered this lack of agency for a long time.

 

What the land and its non-human inhabitants needs are some ambassadors. Dedicated humans who focus on learning as much as they can, sharing that information freely, and speaking on behalf of the land in a myriad of ways. I’d like to propose that druids and others walking earth-centered paths consider taking up that role. If we view the world as sacred, if we can hear and understand the messages from the land, and if we strive to live our principles, who better to advocate for it?  Like the ancient druids of old, those who walk earth-centered paths such as druidry are poised to be leaders in our communities, offering a wealth of plant and nature knowledge and an example of ways of living more fully and consciously in our landscapes and lands and of the work of healing and of regeneration. This kind of advocacy work is so necessary in a culture that have so fully lost their connection with the natural world. Having “oak knowledge” puts you in a position to speak compassionately about the land and teach others of her magic. This may not be your calling, and it may not be something you are interested in right now—but it can be one outcome of this work if you feel you are called to into the service of our living earth.  I’ll also note that, in the example I gave above, it doesn’t have to be a glamorous thing–it can be small, everyday moments in everyday living where you can positively advocate for change.

 

Earth Ambassadorship

Ok, if you’re still reading, you are interested in the idea, so let’s take this a bit further and explore the concept of ambassadorship. “Ambassador” has two primary meanings, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. The first has to do with being an official diplomat, which doesn’t really make sense in the context I’m describing here. The second meaning, however, is quite relevant to this discussion. Its two parts are, “an authorized representative or messenger” or an unofficial representative, traveling abroad as ambassadors of goodwill.” Now putting this whole “official” vs. “unofficial” business aside, as its not really relevant, we can glean some important tidbits from this idea of ambassadorship. An ambassador is someone who is a representative, who speaks on that being’s behalf, and who has that being’s best interests in mind. 

 

But what does this really look like? And how do we take on this role? I’m going to suggest it requires a few things: nature immersion; a deep knowledge of nature combined with practical skills that can reach people in a variety of ways; a nature oriented mindset and lifestyle; being an effective communicator; and seizing the opportunity.

 

#1 -Nature Immersion

The first key area to being an earth ambassador is being in nature, often, and frequently. We can’t be ambassadors for something that we admire from afar or setup on a pedestal in our minds.  We also can’t be ambassadors if we stay on the perfectly paved paths of our state forests and local county parks.  We have to be of nature and understand her intimately if we are to speak on her behalf. One of the best learning experiences I ever had being in nature in one sitting was when I went on a vision quest in Western Michigan two years ago. The vision quest involved fasting for two days, setting up a tarp to keep the rain out, bringing a sleeping bag to keep warm, bringing a journal to write in, doing some protective energy work to establish a sacred space and then sitting still. Staying put.  Slowing down.  Observing. Sitting with your back against a tree. For 48 full hours, those on the vision quest, in our chosen spots, simply were present with the land, present with ourselves, and quietly communing with the natural world (plus, doing something like this has its other benefits: it was this vision quest that gave me most of the druid tree workings series of posts).

 

Vision Quest Shelter

Vision Quest Shelter

The problem that most of us have when we go into the land is that we are moving quickly, we make noise, and we don’t really see what there is to see. But when we sit still for hours, then we see the animal life, then we notice the interactions….its this immersive experience that gives us the depth of awareness necessary to be ambassadors, to be insiders, to become part of nature rather than separate from it. Because when we slow down to nature’s time, we align our energies to her rhythms and pathways, and that gives us more conscious awareness of her needs.

#2 – Deep Knowledge, Oak Knowledge

 As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, by day I am a writing professor and learning researcher, so I have a pretty good sense of how people learn, or don’t learn, as the case may be. At least in the US, our education system has been so systematically gutted that most don’t have the basic literacy. critical reasoning, and study skills coming out of high school that makes learning a fun and effective process. And certainly, one isn’t going to learn much about the topics I am discussing in most primary or secondary schools, although university settings do have good things to offer (like, say, ecology, botany, or organic farming courses, some of which I was able to take at my former institution).

 

One of the things that an ambassador does is know those who they are representing intimately. This is not just a surface knowledge, or an abstract idea that they are “good” or have “needs” but rather this is a deep and intimate knowledge. If you want to be an earth ambassador, you have to really, really, and I mean really understand the land. In my recent post on seeing, I talk about the different levels of seeing the land–we need to move well beyond appreciation eyes and dedicate time and energy–a lot of it–to understanding the landscape. We need to understand a lot about ecology, biology, the things that have potential to harm the land, the things that can help heal it.  We need to keep our eyes open, our hearts open, and our minds open and observe. If we are going to speak on behalf of someone or something else, deep knowledge is a base requirement.

 

To be an earth ambassador, then, we have to dedicate time to improving our own knowledge base, setting aside our assumptions, and recognizing how much we have to learn.  There is no substitute for investing time in learning.  This certainly includes getting some good books, studying them carefully, and applying them in some way (e.g. don’t just read gardening books, plant something. Don’t just read about tree identification; go out and identify some trees, and so on).

 

While picking up a book or two and reading carefully is a good start, its not sufficient for what I’m talking about here. I’m often saddened when I attend a druid gathering to see how much my fellow druids don’t yet know about  nature or propagate assumptions about it that simply aren’t accurate–for all the time we spend in it, that critical awareness and deep understanding of what nature is and how it works is not always yet present.  In their defense, most of them have been druids for a few years or less, and are still figuring out their own identity–this is not something I necessarily knew either when I started out either.  But, to do this work well, its something you have to cultivate. Regardless, taking up the role of ambassador means the need for deep and broad knowledge about nature–which leads to a lifetime of dedication and study.  When it comes to this stuff, you can never know any one topic deeply enough, nor can you ever know enough about the land :).

A beautiful, moss covered knoll visible from my vision quest spot

A beautiful, moss covered knoll visible from my vision quest spot

 

Druid study programs can help fill the gap by providing some means of dedicated adult education–AODA’s in particular teaches some of the skills and knowledge I’m suggesting by way of books on ecology, making earth path changes, potential for additional Ovate studies, and intimate time in local landscapes.  It was through this study program that I grew a great deal of my initial knowledge–you might say the AODA’s study program sparked the deep changes within me that, 10 years later, allow me to write these words.  There are a lot of other kinds of training out there is also really good–for me, studying herbalism with a few different teachers was really effective to increase my knowledge of healing plants, plant identification, and botany. Organic farming courses from the biology department at my previous institution not only taught me about farming, but also about soil biology and ecology. After years of study, my permaculture design course brought everything together in a really positive way. The point is, knowledge you need to be an ambassador is not all in one place, but once you get a sense of curiosity and wonder about the world, its easy enough to learn with dedication and an open mind.

 

The principle behind these first two points is simple: by spending a lot of time directly in nature, by interacting with nature, and by growing ecological knowledge, you develop a robust knowledge base that can be drawn upon when the need arises–and that need can sometimes happen quickly and without warning.

 

#3 – A Nature-Oriented Mindset and Lifestyle

Its one thing to know about nature, and its a completely different thing to have a mindset and lifestyle oriented to nature. We can’t be ambassadors for nature if we say one thing and do another; if our words don’t match our actions.  For one, it will be hypocritical and for two, ineffective.  And for examples of this, I point to Thomas Friedman and Al Gore, both of whom tried to make strong points about the earth and climate change, encouraging less consumption, and new ways of living, and both of whom were called out publicly in many venues because of their personal living conditions and for not walking the walk. Thomas Friedman lives in a 12,000 square foot house and advocates for smaller dwellings and less consumption. Gore, who advocates that climate change is human caused and that we need to radically change our lives, lives in a 20,000 square foot house and uses up $30,000 of electricity–that’s 221,000 KWH–in a single year. And you are lecturing everyone else on reducing consumption? Uh, yeah. Don’t be these guys.

 

Living consciously and earth-centered is hard work–it takes continual monitoring, dedicated effort, and critical awareness. A lot of what I’ve been doing on this blog for years is helping all of us (myself included) take more and more steps in this direction by thinking about the stuff we buy, our waste, the food we eat, the way we manage our lands/lawns, our workplaces, or relationship with weather, the list goes on and on.

 

Speaking for the trees!

Speaking for the trees!

I think its important to be forthcoming with where you are in your own shifts, and to be open about that with others. I always try to do that here–I talk about my struggles at various points with wrestling with the issues I’m presenting on this blog, and I encourage others to do the same. Its honest and realistic.  People like Gore and Friedan haven’t actually tried anything they are advocating, and in fact, very much live in the extreme opposite direction–so nobody believes them.  And worse, the topics that they are talking about–which are really serious and important–are discredited.  Gore and Friedan attempted to be earth ambassadors; they have the knowledge and good communication skills backing them, but they fell flat when they told everyone else what to to do rather than living by examples. A much better strategy is to life the lifestyle first and others will come, they will seek your knowledge, and they will want to learn more–that’s what ambassadorship is about!

 

People will look to you for guidance when they see how you are living each day.  This allows you to begin to fill an ambassador role–you show how we can live differently and that lifestyle alone opens up countless possibilities for earth ambassador work. At this point, on a weekly basis, I have people ask me questions that can lead to good conversations: they ask about my beehives and what happened and then we can talk about the dangers of pesticides (I even had this conversation with my students in my first-year writing class a few weeks ago when they asked about my weekend, and I told them about my hive), they hear about the work I’m doing in town to start a food co-op to bring more local and sustainable food choices to our town, or they ask about my front lawn or permaculture, the list goes on and on. People send me photos of wild food and mushrooms to identify, like a photo of a “weed” and I tell them about its medicinal use so they keep it in their yards, and so on. I didn’t get into this with the idea of being an earth ambassador–but that’s what’s evolved from it :).

 

#4 – A willingness to serve and seizing opportunity

Most of the work of an earth ambassador is quiet work.  Building knowledge, immersing yourself in nature, making shifts, just working to do good work everyday, celebrating the turning wheel of the year with good friends. But then, an opportunity arises–and when it does–take advantage of it!  My own opportunity came two years ago, where I ended up on NPR talking about Eastern Hemlock trees, their mythology, and their plight with the Emerald Ash Borer. A producer saw my blog post on them and contacted me to speak about the hemlocks. This was a rare opportunity, and one I decided not to pass up. It was a really interesting experience and allowed me to get the word out. Other opportunities happen all the time–not as public, perhaps, as being on NPR, but no less important.

 

Opportunities to be earth ambassadors often come in unexpected ways or places. A dear friend and fellow druid in New Hampshire has found himself in a leadership position fighting an oil pipeline and compressor station–and building an incredible community in the process. Having a deep awareness of the sacred earth has helped him tremendously on this path.

 

Another druid friend was invited to a local conference to give talks on wild food foraging, composting, and permaculture.  A third druid friend finds herself often in the position of advocacy.  Another converted her front lawn to vegetables and now teaches others to do the same.  I can list dozens of examples; my point is, when you have the knowledge, you can use it to strongly advocate for our land and its rights.

 

So to conclude, druids and others walking earth-centered spiritual paths have a unique opportunity to fill in a very important role in our communities–that of earth ambassadors. What, exactly, is the potential of those in modern earth-based spiritual paths to serve as earth ambassadors?  We only know if we try!

 

Review of the 2015 Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA September 26, 2015

A view of some of the fair from the ski lift ride I took!  This is maybe 40% of the fair.

A view of some of the fair from the ski lift ride I took! This is maybe 25% of the fair.

Last weekend, I attended the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA for the first time. I’ve been wanting to go for years, but I was always too far away until my recent relocation.  I wanted to share with readers interested in homesteading, reskilling, herbs, organic farming, renewable energy,food forests, mushrooms or more, some key features of the fair and provide a general review of my experience.

 

As I’ve certainly discussed on this blog at various points, we have a group of human beings who have lost their way, primarily due to various circumstances surrounding industrialization and consumerism.  We have so many who have lost their connection with nature and lost their knowledge of how to take care of themselves by forging a sacred partnership with their land.  A lot of people now are beginning to wake up, to want to do something different, but have very little knowledge or skills of how to do so. Mother Earth News, a magazine that has been around for almost 40 years at this point, has long been working to educate people on traditional skills, and in my opinion, doing a fine job of it.  Their focus is mostly geared towards the small-scale homesteader. Some time ago (probably 8 or so years now) they started offering the Mother Earth News Fairs.  There are now six of them throughout the USA–the one here in PA was one of the original fairs they started. The fairs are really reasonably priced (I paid just $20 in advance for my wristband for the whole weekend; I think it was $35 at the door) and offer opportunities to learn and have a sense of community and interaction not possible in any publication.  Mother Earth News is offering really accessible and affordable reskilling for people who are waking up, wanting to live differently, wanting to do something in the face of such challenging times.  I have no idea what they make on these fairs, and I really don’t care–from my perspective, they are doing good work to re-educate people in an accessible, friendly, and affordable way, and for that, they should be commended.  And so, let’s hear a bit about the fair and my experiences there!

 

Location

Seven Springs is a ski resort located in the heart of the Laurel Highlands region of South-Western PA.  The Laurel Highlands the ridges of the Appalachians in PA; lovely rounded mountains with beauty, biological diversity, and some incredible views.  Its really an ideal place for the Mother Earth News Fair, and if you had extra time to stay beyond the fair, you could check out some of the best that PA has to offer: nearby Ohiopyle State Park offers multiple waterfalls, whitewater rafting, kayaking, hiking, rappelling, and almost 80,000 acres of forests; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater is just down the road, and Laurel Caverns offers amazing spelunking (caving) opportunities. Seven Springs itself has a canopy zip line tour and some other really fun stuff even for the summer months. While I was lucky enough to have only about a 2 hour drive to the fair, I met people who had come all over the East Coast and Midwest to attend the fair.

 

Lodging and Transportation

Because the lodging at the fair itself is super expensive ($250/night to stay at the lodge itself), I reserved at campsite at the nearby campground, Laurel Hill State Park, which cost me $60 for the entire weekend for up to 3 tents on one site.  Laurel Hill State Park is a smaller park but still amazing, and its also home to my favorite patch of forest possibly anywhere in the world–an old growth hemlock grove. The Laurel Hill Campground is a really economical option that is less than a 10 minute drive from the fair–and most of the people camping there are there for the fair, so you can meet fun people at the campground that weekend.  I learned from others attending the fair that the other cheaper option if you don’t want to camp is to try to get a cabin nearby, like one of the lodges for Seven Springs (which is a ski resort during the winter); one friend was able to rent a lodge in walkable distance for only about $125/night.  If you don’t mind a 30 minute drive to the fair, there are ample hotels in nearby Somerset.  Do note that if you arrive anytime to the fair after about 8:30am, parking is an issue, and you’ll have to park pretty far away and take a shuttle bus back and forth—which is fine unless you wanted to keep food in the car or take purchases back to the car.

 

Presentations

Sandor Katz shows us some fermentation techniques.

Sandor Katz shows us some fermentation techniques.

One of the big draws to the Mother Earth news fair are the presenters.  Mother Earth News does a good job in finding presenters that are knowledgeable (and that already have books, in most cases).  The presentations each have an hour slot, which allows only for a certain amount of depth and specificity (although they sometimes do put two-part series back to back in the schedule, this year, there was one on renewable energy). The biggest problem is that about 15 presentations are going at the same time, and you may want to be in more than one place at once (really, how can you choose between building an electric bicycle, winter beekeeping, medicinal mushrooms, and food forests?) Since I came with my mother and father to the fair, the three of us split up, each going to different workshops, then meeting up and sharing the information that we learned. This worked well for us. The quality of the presenters and talks was generally quite high, and I really enjoyed the presentations that I attended.  Here are a few highlights:

 

Tradd Cotter (Mushroom Mountain) gave my favorite talk of the fair on the medicinal value of many mushrooms. He has been doing a lot of fantastic research on medicinal mushrooms and showed us photographs and described his lab research with chaga, reishi, maitake, even jack-o-lantern mushrooms. While I have been interested in mushrooms for some time, the level of depth and specificity he went into about mushrooms fighting illnesses, mushrooms being the next penicillin, and so on, was really exciting and has encouraged me to take up the study of medicinal mushrooms more seriously. As an added bonus, each day he did a mushroom walk at 7am (not to interfere with other fair activities) and that was a ton of fun.

 

Seeing Dan Chiras (Evergreen Institute) was another highlight of the fair for me. I’ve been reading about his work on passive solar, greenhouse design, and biological natural water filters through some of my permaculture courses and organic farming courses for some time. I attended his talk on Chinese Greenhouse design, and, in less than an hour, was  convinced that conventional hoop houses/green houses (or heated greenhouses) have it all wrong, they are super energy inefficient, and by taking inspiration from the Chinese and building passive solar greenhouses, we could do a lot better.  The design that Chiras is currently testing includes double glazing (standard on any hoop house), orientation of east to west to maximize the south side of the greenhouse, glazing only on the south side of the greenhouse, a heatsink wall in the back of the greenhouse (with stone, most likely), having the greenhouse sunk into the ground on the north side or, at minimum, a big pile of earth piled up behind the north side for heat control, solar powered fans to move air and sink more heat, and even big automated insulating blankets for the greenhouse at night. This is such a smart design in so many ways and I’m excited to hear more about how Dan is able to implement various iterations of it as his site.

 

Petra Paige Mann (Fruition Seeds) gave an absolutely outstanding talk on how to select and create new varieties of open-pollinated seeds. While I have always been working with seeds and seed saving, this gave me a new perspective on what you can do to better cultivate your own varieties that are adapted to your specific site. Her perspective includes spotting natural variation of plants to create new varieties, cross pollinating, deciding the best way to select fruit or veggies to save for seed, using a flagging system, and working with farmers and their specific needs. I really enjoyed her discussion of de-hybridization, something her seed company specializes in, where they take an F1 hybrid and over successive generations, create an open-pollinated variety with that as a start.  She’s really enjoying that work, and has created some unique things not found anywhere else!

 

Sandor Katz (Wild Fermentation, the Art of Fermentation) was also really exciting to see, given that I’ve been reading his books for years and so many of us learned to fermet from Wild Fermentation.  He did a live fermentation demo and a few other workshops–I attended his fermentation demo.  It was certainly crowded at the demo and he was covering just basic principles, but I came away with a number of new tips for fermentation (like using an air lock to avoid mold at the top–why didn’t I think of that? LOL).

 

Tradd Cotter's 7am unscheduled mushroom walk was one of the highlights!

Tradd Cotter’s 7am unscheduled mushroom walk was one of the highlights!

A few issues with the presentations was that the presenters are often booked for multiple talks (sometimes in a single day) and they may repeat themselves a bit in their talks if you attend multiple talks. The other big issue with the Fair presentations was simply that there were a lot of people at the fair, and the seats filled up fast.  They had a lot of seats, a lot of tents, but it didn’t seem to be enough for everyone who wanted to hear and listen.  They had TV screens setup that projected images and information from the presenters, but unless you were close, you often couldn’t see them.  While this is a bit of a problem, its also nice to see how many people want to learn this stuff!

 

Vendors/Shopping

You know, generally, I really dislike shopping, and I avoid stuff and spending unnecessary money. I spent more at the fair than I probably did anywhere else the entire year. Why? Everything that I use to help me homestead, forage, and otherwise live cleanly was there at the fair. The Livestock tent featured farmers with their alpacas and amazing weaves, hand-dyed and spun wool and yarn, and so much more.  The vendors outside and inside of the building offered a huge variety of things: from electric powered bicycles to heirloom seeds, from beekeeping equipment to healthy snacks, from locally brewed mead to ferments, and from t-shirts and wool socks to hard-to-find medicinal plants. Mushrooms were also a big thing at the fair. There were people demoing solar hot water systems, storage containers converted into houses, log splitters, and more.  Mother Earth News also had a huge bookstore.  Uh, yeah.  I purchased all of the gifts for my family and close friends I needed for the next year and gifted myself with some amazing things (like a great 6′ tall, 24” across air dehydrator for dehydrating bulk medicinal herbs and tea plants–super useful, several new books that I’ve been hoping to get, wool socks, and a bunch of medicinal plants !)  I also had a chance to meet and see some of the people whose products I often do purchase and ask questions (like the Bushy Mountain Beekeeping people, who I use for beekeeping supplies–I talked to those guys for a solid 45 minutes). I can hardly even believe I’m saying this, but shopping at the fair was a ton of fun–and one of the reasons was that the vendors were cool people passionate about what they were doing and working to create the best products to make the world a better place.

In the Livestock Tent

In the Livestock Tent

Aplaca gets ready to demo packing supplies up a mountain

Alpaca gets ready to demo packing supplies up a mountain

Some baubles from Plant-it-Earth Greenhouse (located very close to me here in Indiana, PA!)

Some baubles from Plant-it-Earth Greenhouse (located very close to me here in Indiana, PA!)

Did I mention mushrooms?

Did I mention mushrooms?

They brought their cob oven with them!

They even brought their cob oven with them!

Community

The overall community and vibe of the fair is great. Everyone was happy to be there, people were super friendly (as is the case generally in Western PA), everyone was interesting to talk to. When you’d be getting lunch, or waiting to hear a presenter, or even at your campsite at nearby Laurel Hill, there are people to talk to and learn from. I really enjoyed this aspect of the fair–just meeting people, hearing their stories, hearing their plans about life. It was so delightful to be around a concentration of people who really cared about the health of the land and in regenerating the land, building connections to nature, and sharing.

 

Fun Stuff

Riding the ski lift.  I am such a nerd.

Riding the ski lift. I am such a nerd.

In addition to the regularly scheduled events, Tradd Cotter offered mushroom hunts in the wee morning hours of the fair. Nearly 75 of us took him up on the offer on Saturday morning, and we went all over the woods, bringing whatever mushrooms we found back for identification and insight.  It was a great time to be out as the sun was rising, talking mushrooms, the big group of us ignoring the “closed” signs at the gates to the fair and heading off into the woods.

 

The other fun thing my family and I did was ride the ski lifts up and back.  This seems kind of silly, but it was a wonderful view, a fun experience, and after a long day of intensive learning, it was nice just to have the wind on your face for a bit!

 

Conclusion

All and all, I had a wonderful weekend at the Mother Earth News Fair, and came away with some really exciting information not yet available in books or published online.  I spent way too much money, I made new friends, and I got to hear their stories.  Perhaps, the most important thing that happened, is that I came away energized and invigorated and ready to keep on healing and regenerating our great earth mother, and working to teach others to do the same!