The Druid's Garden

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

What are the bardic arts?

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

           

Challenging Social Structures and Creative Expression

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

 

Growing Up and the Langauge of Disempowerment

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Cultural Sources of Creative Disempowerment

Playing music from the 1750's

Playing music from the 1750’s

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

Breaking Away from Cultural Challenges: Local Bardic Communities

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Cultivating the Flow of Awen in our Lives June 11, 2017

I shall sing of the awen, which

I shall obtain from the abyss

Through the awen, though it were mute

I know of its great impulses

I know when it minishes;

I know when it wells up;

I know when it flows;

I know when it overflows.

–Taliesin, “The Festival” from the Book of Taliesin, 13th century

 

What the poet Taliesin writes of is the “Awen”, a central principle in the druid tradition meaning “flowing inspiration” or “divine inspiration.”   In ancient times, bards embraced the flow of Awen to be masters of memory, sound, and expression. The bardic path was a lifelong pursuit and vocation; bards would spending many years (by one Scottish account, 7 years[1]) learning the bardic arts which included the arts of memory, diction, rhyming, and composition.

 

The flowing of Awen isn’t just an experience, it is a magical and meditative process. Perhaps you’ve experienced it yourself–when you have a moment of inspiration and then begin to create, losing all track of time, all sense of where you are or what is going on around you–the thing you are creating is the only thing that matters, and you flow with your media.  Hours or days later, you emerge with something incredible.

 

A simple awen painting

A simple awen painting

Today, bringing the flow of awen into one’s life and connecting with one’s creative expression is one of the core aspects of the path of druidry. The druid path is one that embraces creativity, especially, the creativity inspired by nature.  How does the awen flow? How can we invoke it, channel it, and bring it into our lives? And what is the benefit for doing so? This post represents my first in a longer series on the Bardic Arts, that is, a series of posts that explore the relationship between nature, creativity, and druidry. We begin this series with a discussion of awen, for it is from the Awen that all things flow.

 

What is Awen?

Poets like Taliesin, known as the “Chief of Bards” in the 6th century and reported author of The Book of Taliesin,  spoke of the Awen not only as an abstract thing (as the poem above suggests) but also as a muse who works through the poet to bring forth great works. In the translation of the Book of Taliesin, “Awen” is frequently translated into “muse” but also as “flow” or “inspiration” depending on the poem. In some poems in the Book of Taliesin, the awen is personified (“the muse’s prophecy is…”) while in other poems, the awen is a more abstract thing “The muse flows…”). In the British Library Harleian manuscripts of the Historia Brittonium, Talhearn, a poet, is described as “tat aguen” (aguen = awen) translated as the “father of inspiration.”  Other cultures, of course, have also personified the flow of creativity in the form of a muse who are deities or spirits that help the creativity flow (such as the Greek muses).

 

William Owen-Pughe, who was a contemporary of Iolo Morganwg (from whose manuscripts helped start the modern Druid revival), offered a definition of Awen tied to “aw” (flow) and “en” (spirit).  So we have “flowing of spirit” or “flowing of inspiration” as a common definition used today within the druid communities. Other terms I’ve heard used for awen in the druid community include “divine inspiration” or “creative inspiration” or simply “inspiration.” All this is to say that Awen is a force of energy that flows within us, helping us bring forth and express our creative spirits.

 

Awen History and Origins

A  dig into the history of the word and concept of “Awen” can help us understand the awen deeper level. The Awen, like many other things in the modern druid revival tradition, was brought through the work of Iolo Morganwg in Barddas. Iolo drew upon existing Welsh traditions from much older manuscripts that he incorporated into Barddas.  Modern druid scholars have worked to trace the Awen to much older roots. Two full (and fascinating) reports of their work can be found here and here.

 

Of note, Angela Grant explains the research she did at the British Library to attempt to dig into the history and origins of the Awen. She reports on a manuscript she found in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England which, she writes, “describes how the historian Nennius, on being challenged by an English scholar that the Welsh had no alphabet of their own, produced for his challenger an alphabet that bears a considerable resemblance to Coelbren, though more complex. It also contains an awen symbol (joined at the top) as one of its letters. This does not represent an individual letter but the Latin word ‘ego’ is ascribed to it : ‘I am that I am …”   Grant also traced Awen back to a “proto-Brittonic root for “breath” and “breathing” that ties to the English word “inspiration.”  From her research, we see that inspiration is connected to life itself–to breathing and to the ego/self.  To create is to exist, to breathe, to be.  So, by extension, one way we might think about the awen is that it can represent the fulfilled creative self.

 

The awen's light shining down on my sacred grove

The awen’s light shining down on my sacred grove

One of the stories that feature the Awen in the druid tradition (and is used extensively in OBOD’s teachings) is in the Mabinogion.  It is the story of how Taliesin became the greatest bard of the land. In a nutshell, Taliesin was once Gwion, a boy who is given the task of stirring Ceridwen’s cauldron while she brewed up a magical spell that bestows the Awen.  The blessing of the Awen was intended for Ceridwen’s son who was hideously ugly; she thought if she brewed up the Awen as a blessing, her son could at least be wise. Gwion accidentally gains the power of the Awen after having three drops from the cauldron splash on his thumb; the drops burn him so he instinctively sticks his thumb in his mouth to cool and inadvertently gains the Awen. Ceridwen is furious and begins to chase him. As part of the chase, the two transform into many animals, with Gwion barely escaping with each transformation. Gwion finally turns into a grain of wheat and jumps into pile of wheat in a barn. Ceridwen transforms into a “high crested” black hen who devours all of the wheat, including the grain that is Gwion. Inadvertently, she becomes impregnated with Gwion.  She plans on killing him when he is born, but instead, abandons him on the sea, tying him in a leather bag.  There, he is rescued by either a prince or fisherman, depending on the version of the story. The newborn child grows up to be Taliesin, the greatest bard of all time.  (For a really delightful musical version of this tale, I’d recommend Damh the Bard’s Ceridwen and Taliesin).

 

This tale offers a tremendous amount of insight into the Awen (and is well worth meditating upon).  Some of its lessons include that awen it is something that can be bestowed–and not always when we expect it.  Some of us may be struck with the Awen out of nowhere, just like Gwion when he was scalded by the three drops of Awen. The power of Awen is also a kind of initiation–the flow of awen into our lives open up great possibility. Awen is transformative.

 

Awen and Nature

Taliesin himself says: “pren onhyt yw vy awen” one translation being as “my muse[awen] is wooden!” Or perhaps, for druids, a more fitting translation would be, “my muse is nature!” And certainly, the relationship between nature and creativity are well worth considering. This statement can be interpreted in many ways: the trees themselves are Taliesin’s muses, or perhaps, he is inspired often by the living earth. Still another interpretation might be that he is nature’s instrument for expression. All of these can be simultaneously true, and I believe, represent some of the key connections between creativity, the bard, and nature.

 

How can we let nature be our muse?  Spending time there, observing nature, paying attention to her sounds, her movements, her colors, her patterns, her flows–all of these things offer us great inspiration for stories, songs, dances, artwork, and writing.  Model nature in our own creative works, and allow nature’s patterns, teachings, and inspiration to flow through us.  Many artists, for example, get great joy out of “plein air” painting, where you paint outside and in the presence of that which is inspiring.

 

Looking to the teachings of the river also provides druids with a deeper understanding of the role of Awen–and how we might use it. From both contemporary practice and ancient texts, we have a keen sense that Awen “flows.” Like a stream in the spring, it might gush forth from a person or be a small but steady trickle. Regardless, Awen, like the water, flows where it wants and goes where it wants. As it flows, it pours into a person, allowing them to be inspired and allow the creativity to flow back out.  The more that water is allowed to flow, the more easy that flow becomes, just like well worn, smooth stones and channels along the river.

 

The flowing of awen and the river

The flowing of awen and the river

Connecting to water, and recognizing that creativity has its own path that we must learn to flow with, is a critical part of the bardic arts and cultivating them in our own lives. Spending a year observing a river will show times where much of it dries up, times where much of it floods and leaves its banks into nearby fields and forest, times where it lazily moves along. In my experience, the flow of Awen is just like this. We aren’t always heavily inspired and overflowing our banks, and we aren’t always dried up and without inspiration. Recognizing the natural “ebb and flow” of awen, I believe, is part of it. But also, recognizing that we have some power over that flow as we invoke the awen and work to bring it into our lives.

 

Connecting to water, and recognizing that creativity must be allowed to flow where it wills, just like water. Sometimes, trying to impose your own human will too much on a bardic project or performance can impede it (it is like you divert the water or put in a large obstruction that the water has to flow around). And if you are working with a personification of Awen, through a muse, he or she might not take too kindly to you imposing your own will too strongly. As we see from the tale of Ceridwen and Taliesin, Awen is not only inspiration, but a magical or divine inspiration, and thus, the more that we work with it, the more we cultivate it, the more we are able to work with the flows.  My experience kayaking helps here–on a powerful river, you can expertly navigate the currents if you are experienced!  Then, you can do quite a bit, but still only react and flow with the river, rarely paddling against it.

 

 

Cultivating the Flow of Awen in Our Lives

I believe that the flow of Awen is a union, a synthesis, of human, nature and the creative flows and energy of the of the universe/divine. This means that there are things that we can do as a human being to cultivate Awen and there are things outside of our control.  Let’s take a look at what we can do to start cultivating Awen in our lives:

 

Invoking Awen. One of the most simple things to do is to invoke Awen regularly as part of your practice. Druids are good at this, and if you are a druid, chances are, you know how to chant “Awen.” For everyone else, the chant is simple.  You open up your chest and let all the air in, and then you ring out, strongly and surely, three syllables: “Ah – Oh – En.”  And you repeat that as long as you’ d like.  You can sing it, you can dance with it. And as you chant that sacred word, imagine yourself opening up to that flow of inspiration.  You can chant it anywhere you like.  You can get a group and chant together, or “cascade” it by having each person chant Awen at a slightly different time.  And then once you’ve invoked it–do something with it!

 

Visual representations. Visual representations of Awen (the three rays of light) are powerful ways of bringing awen into your life.  You might have a drawing, or another kind of image, to help bring the awen into your life which you regularly see.  Druids are often spotted with Awen necklaces–I like to keep an awen symbol on my person as much as possible, preferably, close to my heart.  I also have an awen in a window that was a gift of a friend–the sun shines through it, literally, letting the three rays of light of the awen come into my space.  Talk about powerful magic!

Awen bringing in the light

Awen bringing in the light

 

Letting the awen flow. The key to cultivating awen, at least for me, seems to be about allowing it to flow regularly, not damming it up.  Perhaps you’ve met people, or youv’ve been one yourself, who stop the flow of awen or who only allow a small tricke to flow forth. They say things like, “I’m not creative” or “I don’t have time for my [bardic art of choice]” or “I could never do that” (we will explore these issues in more depth next week).  Words have power, words are magic.  And saying this is like putting the flow of awen behind a dam. Maybe, if you are lucky, it will collect there, welling up, and one day, explode outwards like the dam bursting forth (this happened to me in my mid-20’s, and it was a really liberating experience!)  But maybe, it will dry up and go stagnant there, and your Awen will become like a dry and parched river bed.

 

The other piece to letting the awen flow is cultivating the right environment.  For some, that means a quiet place free of distractions where they can allow their awen to flow forth and setting aside enough uninterrupted time to “get into the work” and let something beautiful emerge.  For others it might mean bringing together a community to practice their bardic art, or surrounding oneself with other people who are creative.  It also means enough rest and self care to be one’s best to allow this work to happen (I, for one, can’t create when I’m exhausted).

 

Relinquishing control. And then there are people who want the awen to flow, but try to maintain all control and send it off in directions. You can’t always force it, you have to work with it and respond to it, just like that expert kayaker navigating a flow of water. As an artist, writer, and occasional musician, for me this means setting aside regular time to create, but allowing most of that to be unstructured time.  So I know I will create and have time set aside to do it, but until that day, I’m not sure what I will create: will I paint? What will I paint?  Will I play my flute?  Will I write?  And when I begin, I let the flow go as long as I can.  I don’t try to impose my will on it too strongly, but rather, let the awen guide me.  Its almost like there’s a second hand on my paintbrush, and if we both work together, it will work well, but if we don’t, it will be trouble.

 

The Many Forms of Creativity.  I’ve been talking in my examples about traditional bardic arts: writing, painting, music, storytelling, dance, and so on. But Awen can flow through us and be directed towards all kinds of things, not all of which would be considered “bardic arts” in the traditional sense. For example, I allow Awen to flow when I’m planning my lessons for my university teaching through creative activities and creative planning.  I know friends who do lots of building and allow the awen to flow with their design work,  their creative use of old materials and curbside treasures, and their finishing techniques. Others are culinary wizards in the kitchen and make amazing and beautiful meals.  Still others are master gardeners who create a palate with plants.  Once we realize that awen can be applied to more than just the traditional bardic arts, but we can, essentially, lead inspired lives–then the real magic begins!

 

May the flow of awen, of creative inspiration, come into your life!  Next week’s post will delve more deeply into the Bardic arts and how to take up the path of the bard.

 

[1] lrick de Burgh, Earl of Clanricarde (1604–1657), Memoirs of the Right Honourable the Marquis of Clanricarde … containing several original papers and letters of King Charles II, queen mother, the Duke of York … &c. relating to the treaty between the Duke of Lorrain and the Irish commissioners, from February 1650 to August 1653. Publish’d from his lordship’s original mss. To which is prefix’d, a dissertation … containing several curious observations concerning the antiquities of Ireland. London, Printed for J. Woodman, 1722.

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A Druid’s Primer on Land Healing, Part VIII: Rainbow Workings and other Palliative Care Strategies for Damaged Lands April 16, 2016

I had the most amazing thing happen to me about a month ago, and it involved the direct (palliative) healing of an active strip mine site.  I was heading to teach an herbalism course at a friend’s business about 15 minutes away from where I live.  My drive this requires me to cross a divided highway and do a u-turn at a site that is a very new active strip mine.  They aren’t fully removing the mountain, but they are certainly cutting into it quite a bit, and ripping up the entire surface of the land in the process. For a while, I’ve been driving past this spot, and energetically, it just feels bad, like in the pit of your belly bad. I knew something was to be done, but I wasn’t sure what. So I kept visiting, listening, and being told “wait” (using the same strategies I’ve shared with you earlier in this series). And so, wait I did.

 

Rainbow Working!

Rainbow Working!

That particular day when I was going to teach my class, we had both sunshine and storms. Rain would pour for five minutes and then it would be sunny again.  These are such fun days to enjoy, and usually rainbows abound.  I hadn’t yet seen one, but I had anticipated it, and sure enough, I wasn’t disappointed.  Just I was turning around, I saw a rainbow–it was right in front of me, on the road ahead. I decided to follow it slowly with my car, and suddenly, it jumped. When it jumped, I looked to my left, and there it was, coming down right in the center of the whole strip mine operation. Now, for anyone who has studied the old Celtic, underworld, and fairy lore, a jumping rainbow is described as an old trick to lead you somewhere–and that’s definitely what happened in this case.

 

Now, every day, as part of my AODA practice, I connect with the three currents (a strategy I’d suggest in preparation for this kind of work; I’ll talk more about this later in this post). I’m pretty adept, at this point, in channeling down the solar current. I connected with that rainbow, with the sun’s rays reflecting off of those droplets of water and pulled it down, deep down, into the darkness and suffering of that strip mine. I sat for quite a while and channeled down that energy, and as I did, the rainbow grew brighter, and more brilliant.  At some point, the work felt done.  The land felt cleaner.  More at peace with what was happening.  The worst of the bad energy was gone. Each time since I’ve visited that spot, the effects of the rainbow remain.

 

Now, obviously, a rainbow working is not really something you can plan!  But, I did want to share this as a potent land healing strategy to open up today’s post. And I think what I can share is that even if you don’t have the blessing of a rainbow over the spot you want to help heal, you do have the energy of the sun frequently, and it can be used in various ways–as we’ll explore today, along with other strategies for palliative care.

 

Why Palliative Care?

When I started this land healing series, I started with descriptions of the different kinds of healing work you can do: physical and energetic land healing for sites that need active regeneration and healing (which is where things like permaculture fit) and palliative care (for sites that cannot yet be healed and are underging active harm).  Today’s post is going to explore specific land healing strategies for palliative care that you can engage in–these are specific strategies for sites that are just like the rainbow working above: these sites have ongoing active destruction or are far from what nature intended. As before, if you haven’t read the earlier parts in this series, I would strongly suggest that you do so, as the series builds from the previous posts: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI and Part VII.

 

I think that Palliative Care for sites that are currently experiencing destruction and suffering is just as hard to deal with as the impending destruction of a natural site (which I talked about two weeks ago); both of these give you a sense of powerlessness that is difficult to deal with. You want to look away.  You want to disengage.  But instead, I suggest you try to engage, to help, to heal.  Because I can tell you this–nobody else is doing this work on our landscapes. If we, as druids and those who love the land and hold her sacred can’t do it, then who can?  Even when looking at that strip mine, that logged landscape, that fracking well, that acidic river (the ones I deal with here most often), know that that what I am looking at is still the living earth and it is still sacred land.  This kind of stuff is not one a druid meandering through the woods wants to find, but it is unfortunately a common reality that we face in the age of 21st century industrialism.

 

I believe that every age has its own spiritual challenges, and that our spiritual practices are often born from what we experience; I certainly see responding to this kind of experience as necessary for a druid living in such times. And to me, we are in a unique position to do something, and I believe, even for sites that are actively being destroyed and harmed, that something can have very long-term implications.  Consider palliative care like the first stage in the healing process–you are setting the stage for what is to come.

 

Palliative Care and Energetic Changes

I want to start by saying that nearly all of the strategies I outlined two weeks ago for sites that are going to be destroyed also work for palliative care. These include: working with the stones, working with Indian Ghost Pipe as a plant ally, putting the land in hibernation, and saving seeds. These are strategies that can do tremendous good for sites that are undergoing active harm.

 

At the same time, there is a large energetic difference between these two kinds of sites: namely,  a site that is not yet destroyed doesn’t have this energetic darkness and active suffering that a site that is destroyed carries.  Its that energetic darkness that is the focus of some of my work in palliative care, and so, I generally find myself doing a lot more energetic cleansing work on actively destroyed sites, and hence, that’s what today’s post will mainly focus on.

 

I’d also like to share that the energetic nature of active destruction changes over time, and I think, is due in part to where in the process things are occurring.  If a site has been actively destroyed for a long period of time, you often encounter this energetic deadness or a complete lack of vitality. A lot of the rivers around here are like that–they have been acidic and poisonous to life for half a century or more–this means that they are largely “dead” feeling, where the active strip mine site (a new operation less than a year old) is energetically very dark and intense.

 

What I do depends on a number of factors. I generally don’t do much with the dead sites unless I know active healing can happen–I think that the deadness is better than most other things, in that there is no active suffering, and the land has figured out how to numb itself and the spirits have retreated.  So for these, I might say a small prayer or blessing, but otherwise, leave them be. I am certainly not going to do anything to “wake” that site back up or call those spirits back until it is time and active healing work can begin. When it is time for real healing to take place though, the “deadened” land then needs you to come in and give it a burst of light and life (see upcoming post!)

 

Most sites actively under siege, instead, have this really dark intensity to them and feel really “wrong” and “awful” just being near them.  For example, when I was visiting a friend in West Virginia not too long ago, I was driving and was struck with this horribly awful feeling as I rounded the bend.  Turned out, just around the next bend was a huge gravel/sand pit, cutting into the mountainside–and that was the source of the suffering.  This is exactly the kind of site that could benefit from palliative care. And so, my real focus today, is on active suffering and sites that have that energetic darkness, sickness, feeling of absolute wrongness, that pervades them.

 

Solar Blessings and Getting Rid of the Worst of the Energetic Darkness

A sacred pool uniting heaven and earth, the solar and the telluric

A sacred pool uniting heaven and earth, the solar and the telluric (see below)

So about 5 posts ago in this series, I shared information on the three currents and how ancient peoples, and modern ones, can use the currents to help heal and bless the land.  In the case of palliative care, nearly all of the problems we have are with the currents of energy in the earth, the telluric currents. The telluric currents govern what is on the land and of the land, what is on and of the earth, and that’s where the bulk of the problems for industrialized cultures, great and small, arise.  It is the uncontrolled fossil fuel use, an earthly treasure, that has our world’s climate in chaos; it is the pillaging of earthly resources that are really causing so many palliative situations to occur. These telluric currents become easily corrupted by the many earthly activities that pervade industrialized society: gravel pits, strip mines, regular mining operations, pesticides and industrialized farming, fracking, tar sands, logging, typical lawn care, and more. And so, I have found that attending to the telluric currents, by way of ancient knowledge, can tremendously help in palliative care.

 

I have found that you can effectively use the solar currents to clear away, or purify, the worst of the energetic darkness of sites under active destruction.  There are lots of ways to do this, and one of them was how I opened this post: a rainbow working! There are many, many ways to channel the solar currents down into the telluric, and this is an excellent way to get rid of the energetic crud, the worst of the suffering, and provide some respite.  I kind of see this work like providing a healing balm to soothe the energetic effects of active destruction.  You aren’t solving the problem by any means, but you are certainly doing something that really helps.

 

Most of my strategies for channeling the solar (sun) down into the telluric currents (the energy of the earth) for purification and blessing involve using specific rituals within the AODA framework.  These include the AODA’s sphere of protection (which I use most often), our seasonal grove rituals (found in the Druid Grove Handbook) or the communion ceremony from the Gnostic Celtic Church (found in the Gnostic Celtic Church Handbook).  Each of these rituals establish the space and then, as the core work of the ritual, connect to the energy of the sun, the earth, and awaken the telluric current.  I’ll share one simple derivations here, but I wanted you to understand where a lot of what I do comes from and where you can get more extended versions.  I’ve been working in this tradition for over a decade, and I think, in its own way, maybe it led me to this work by putting the perfect tools in my hands!

 

So a simple way to channel the solar down into the telluric is through AODA’s Sphere of Protection working as a basic framework.  I’m giving a simplified version of it here, and you can add and adapt as necessary.   I would begin by going to an area that needed some palliative care, and, as I mentioned before in earlier posts, ascertain the nature of the work at hand.  If I felt led, I would do the following:

  • Grounding and centering myself for the work at hand.  Part of this is opening myself up for the flow of energies, breathing deeply, and feeling rooted in the living earth. As part of the grounding and centering, I would open up some kind of protective space (even if its as simple as drawing a circle on the ground, or in the air as white light).
  • I would next go to the east, and call in the positive qualities of the east to aid the land and me in the working.  Then I would banish in the east, driving away any harmful or disturbing energies. I’d then go to the south, west, and north, doing the same thing: calling upon the positive qualities of the element and banishing the negative ones.  As you get used to doing this, you’ll find you can banish the negative qualities in larger and larger regions and areas–and this is super helpful for clearing work.
  • At each of the quarters, I would use my senses to experience that element in the world around me, identifying the influence of those four elements on the landscape: in the east I might look at the movement of the air, pay attention to the smell of the air, the birds in the sky, seeds blowing in the wind, and so on.
  • Then, I would invoke the three currents:  I would first draw a circle on the ground and invoke the telluric current, envisioning it rising through the circle as a greenish-gold light.  I would assess its purity and flow.  Then I would trace a circle in the air and pull down the solar current, envisioning it as a yellow flame coming down from the sun and the celestial heavens.
  • I would intone the “Awen” and then draw upon everything I had called: the four elements and the currents to unify the currents, awakening the lunar current and sending the solar deep within the telluric.   I would envision energy coming from each of the four directions, from the sky, and down, into the telluric.
  • I would envision this work as long as necessary, sometimes for several minutes, sometimes for a half hour or more.  Usually it doesn’t take too long, but it depends on the area.  When I felt the work was done, I would close the space (but would not send away what I had called).

That’s it in a nutshell–there’s more to it than that, but I think that’s enough for you to work with, and adapt, as you see fit.  I would say that there are more elaborate rituals and workings using these energies, but doing something basic, to start, is a good way to begin.  Some of you, who are new to ritual work, might say, “yes, but does it work?” The truth is, I cannot believe the potency and usefulness of the Sphere of Protection alone in much of this work.  I find its an extremely versatile for a lot of different kinds of land healing (and other healing) work.

 

Standing Stones

As I wrote about in my third post of the series (which helps set up today’s post) as well as my recent post on sacred gardening, humans have long been using standing stones, temples, trees, ceremonies, and more to channel the solar energies into the land for healing and abundance–but I have found these work fantastically for palliative care.  The reason is simple–setting a standing stone or using some other key marker to help channel down the solar current is a working that takes time and space to achieve.  Unlike a ritual, which radically alter a space and its energetic profile quite quickly, a standing stone is slow work, over time, over potentially a lot of time.  This lends itself well to palliative care, because its like a slow-releasing healing agent.  I’m having difficulty putting into words exactly what I mean here, but I hope you get my meaning.

 

Setting the standing stone in the pool!

Hermes is setting the standing stone in the pool!

So just this past week, two druids snuck into the woods into the park north of town and worked to set a standing stone in the forest; the same forest where many gas wells are present. We did this because here is a place, in the heart of fracking country, where the waters and forests and lands are under active duress. We had come across a natural spring earlier in the week on a hike, a tiny spring that pops up only in the springtime of the year or after heavy rains.  It was barely noticeable, but eventually flowed into a small stream with moss-covered stones. We carefully cleared away the leaves and sticks to see what we could find, and were excited with the discovery of three trickles of water welling up from the earth, almost in the shape of an awen.  The next day, we came back better prepared and set some rocks below the spring to created a small gazing pool.  Then we went off in search of a standing stone–and sure enough, within about 10 minutes, we were delighted to find a perfect standing stone for the pool.  We set that stone as a long-term healing presence, to bless these waters, those that flow past so many of those gas wells, and later, one fracking well.  To help bless all these waters that are under duress from the many fracking activities here, to cleanse and nurture the telluric currents, the spirits of these lands, and the physical forest during this difficult time.  The interesting thing about this particular spot is that its right along a fairly well-used path, so if passerby are looking in the right direction at the right time, the pool and standing stone will be quite evident!  Now, we didn’t do any ritual work at the spot–we just wanted to set the stone and let it do its good work for  a while.  However, we could come back at a later point, when we felt it was time, and do that work.

 

Land Shrines

Even if you can’t set a standing stone, I have found that a small shrine, carefully placed and tended, can work wonders over a period of time. Perhaps you create a simple stone cairn and pour blessed waters (see below) over it every season.  Perhaps you plant a rare native plant and surround it with stones.  The actual shrine, and what goes into it, can be intuitive.  But these small places are healing, they are like a light in the dark. For land that is suffering, what your shrine does is give it a focal point, something to hang onto, something to direct its attention and let the spirits of that land know that someone is thinking about them, wishing them well, and saying that we are here in support.  I have made many such shrines over the years–small places, hidden places, that I quietly go and visit.  You will get a sense, from the land itself, about how often you need to come and what you can do while you are there.

 

Music and Song

Playing the panflute for the land

Me playing the panflute for the land

I’ve mentioned before on this blog about the wonderful (and often subversive) nature of music and singing for any land healing work. This is healing work, of any variety, that can be done publicly and openly. I have found that certain songs, especially old folk songs, work particularly well for soothing the land, and allowing it to prepare for what is to come, and putting it to sleep.

If you use this technique, you will develop your own songs that that have meaning and may even be given songs to use with the land–but I would start with the melodies of old folk songs, songs that have been sung in your lands for several generations at least–and use those. I found a book once, at a local cave that was open to the public, called “Back Porch Melodies” and it had almost 50 folk songs–many of these I found useful and adapted them to my practices. I may change the lyrics or play them on my panflute, but the songs resonate deeply and the music can soothe and help pave the way.

 

Blessed Waters for Damaged Rivers

Another thing that I have done over a period of time is to collect and bless sacred waters (see this post for a ritual to create them).  I usually do this work at Imbolc or the Spring equinox each year–when the waters are flowing and the spring is returning. I began working with blessed waters many years ago,as part of my work with water over a period of years.  Now, I have this sacred water, used for countless ceremonies over the years, and from countless places all over the world, that I use as part of my land healing work.  Because the rivers, the lakes, and the oceans are one of the things tremendously under distress, a little bit of healing water goes a long way.  I have placed a few drops of my water into the headwaters of various rivers, so that as they go and become more polluted, the healing waters are still there, flowing. I also place them into the polluted rivers themselves, dropping a single drop or two in with prayers (think homeopathic doses, here!).  I use the sacred waters to drip on the roots of trees and plants, to lathe stones, to pour over healing altars and standing stones, and much more.  I have found that carrying a little bit of this water with me anywhere I am means that I am always ready and able to do some healing work. And I can give it away to others, and then they can do good work as well!

 

I replenish the sacred waters, adding to them, by visiting springs and other local healing wells.  These have an abundance of good telluric energy and you can multiply the sacred waters you create as much as you need to.

 

Moving Earth

This last strategy I’m going to share today for palliative care is one that I’ve used only once, but I think its an important one,  and some of you may find yourself also as needing to do this work.  When I first moved to MI, there was this big shopping mall area–it had a stadium, all these highways, buildings, even a big giant garbage mountain that they were doing as a dump.  But the area just felt sacred to me, in ways it normally wouldn’t have.  Every time I was there (I had to drive past it on my way to campus each day), I would see the most amazing things: spirals of birds, the light of the sun peeking through the clouds, interesting cloud formations, etc.  It was just slightly more magical, more sacred, than everywhere else around it.  So one day, I went to the site, climbed up on a big hill near a big box home improvement store, and lay among the weeds, listening with my inner and outer senses, and observing.  I saw a vision of the site, what it had been (indeed, a sacred place for peoples before), and how much it was suffering now–it was very much awake and alive, and being used in a very unsacred manner.  I was asked, very clearly, to gather up a small handful of soil from the site for a year period–at each of the solstices and equinoxes.  I did this and then, had the bowl of soil at my house for some time on one of my altars.  Finally, I was led to move the soil to a very sacred place, an old growth forest.  When I next drove by the shopping mall area, it wasn’t sacred any longer.  I had somehow…transferred…what was sacred there to a place it could reside.  This was certainly a kind of palliative care, but in this case, it was literally transferring something sacred to somewhere else.

 

Closing

I hope that this set of strategies proves useful to you in your ongoing land healing work–and please comment and share your own strategies, thoughts, and experiences.  I’m especially interested in hearing from you about my last two weeks of posts–and the many specific strategies that I’m sharing.  I believe I have 1-2 more posts to write to complete this series, at least at this time. Blessings to all!