Tag Archives: ovate knowledge

Walking the Path of the Ovate: Building Localized Ecological Knowledge

Rocky Maine Shore at Sunrise

Rocky Maine Shore at Sunrise

Everything changes in this wild place. The ebb and flow of the tides drives the ecology on this rocky shore. The landscape abruptly changes its appearance based on proximity to the sea and elevation. Firs and spruces dominate along with a groundcover of laurel and blueberry. Even old friends, like birch, maple, and beech, take on new skin. The mountain peaks offer a desert-like climate where air and fire dominate. I am in this wild place, letting it seep into my bones, into my breath, into my spirit. Desipte the books on ecology I’ve purchased, I really have no idea what I’m seeing, no real knowledge of the deeper mystery of this land and shore. Books cannot teach that kind of wisdom, only time and experience can. My eyes physically see, but I am seeing without any real understanding of what it is that is before me.


Industrialization has taught us that local context is only a marketing tool, a demographic base through which to sell products. We have eliminated much of what made local contexts unique and have replaced them with the same worn-out stores selling the same worn-out products. But nature has her own wisdom. Nature teaches us that the local context is sacred: it is what gives us distinction, it is what gives uslife, it is what roots us in a place. My localized knowledge base, rooted in the Laurel Highlands of Western PA and in the wilds of South-East Michigan, offers me a familiarity and comfort with the plants and animals I know. These are plants and animals that I have developed relationships with over a long period of time. When I enter a forest in my home region, I see my old friends and that relationship deepens. With that deep knowledge of my own ecosystem, an opportunity to visit a new place allows me begin to understand differences, subtle or major, in new ecosystems.


So, too, as we go deeper into nature-based spirituality and connecting with nature through walking the path of the ovate, our landscapes weave into our bodies and souls. These landscapes literally become like a skin that we wear, a skin that comes with us wherever we go.


Building Local Knowledge

Indigeneous peoples were woven so closely into their landscapes: their land forms, their bodies of water, the local plants. They ate the fish and animals they hunted, they ate the plants they gathered, they made medicine from what was around them. These elements of their surrounding shaped every aspect of their daily interaction and their culture. They preserved the land and tended the wilds because the land sustained them fully. They understood their landscape in ways no modern human, living indoors, can do. And so, much of that knowledge is lost at present. Certainly, some places in the world, that knowledge still exists–but in places, like where I live, long colonized by those who would seek to destroy native peoples, only fragments remain. In truth, it is likely that modern humans in current western society can never have the deep knowledge, developed from infancy and shared across generations, that humans living in other times or cultures had. But, we can build a start, and we can work to connect once again.  In generations to come, we may once again have that kind of deep knowledge of our world. Part of this connection, to me, is the most sacred work there is to do in this world. And part of this is building our own ecoregional druidries and localized understandings.


Stone stack along the sea shore

Stone stack along the sea shore

When we want to learn something today, especially about our local ecosystem, I have found that in person teachers are often hard to find (and if they can be found, expensive).  Books, then, become our teachers, and we can gain much knowledge of the landscape and our local ecology. The knowledge contained in books today was the kind of knowledge we used to have human and non-human teachers teach us: how to identify plants, how to use them for food or medicine, and so on. But there is no substitute for lived experience, the viceral and sensual experience of life–neither of which books can give us. There is no substitute that tells us that the ramps grow in this vally on the eastern side of the mountain where the emphermeal springs open up. Bridging the gap between book knowledge and direct experience is part of what walking the path of the ovate is all about–it is not just about the study of plants, animals, ecology, it is about connecting with that spirit of the landscape, weaving yourself into it, and reconnecting.


A basic knowledge identification skills and plant families can lead to many more deeper understandings, magical understandings, understanding the spirit of things. Now that I can identify many plants with ease and know some of their basic features, growth patterns, and uses, I want to understand them deeper. Who do they like to grow next to? What insects live on them? For the trees, what is their wood like? What do they look like at the different seasons of the year? What medicine and magic do they hold? And so, I wonder, wander, and walk through this landscape. A loupe (jeweler’s loupe) in hand offers me a more detailed perspective of the flowers. The more time I spend in the land place, the more I want to simply experience it.


Visiting Somewhere New

Konza Prarie Recently Burned (March 2018)

Konza Prarie Recently Burned (March 2018)

When I spent time at Acadia National Park in Maine last year, and recently in the Konza Prarie in Kanas, one thing was clear to me: despite studying field guides that helped me identify plants, to really know either landscape, like I knew my own ecosystem, it would take a lifetime. Prior prior to this, I’ve had no exposure to Maine’s craggy and rocky coasts. I had no experience with the burned out prarie stretching into the distance. Intellectual knowledge in my field guide offers a stepping stone, but true understanding, this weaving into the landscape, would take years of regular interaction and time spent in nature.


While in Maine, I spent numberous hours in the same spot, on a place called Otter Cliff, first observing the spot at low tide, and a different day, watching high tide come in. I watched the way that the various seaweed adapted to the incoming waves, how different species lived at different heights and were exposed to different wave action. A field guide tells me that I’m seeing bladderwrack, rockweed, wormweed, barnacles, and mussels. But yet, nothing but observation can teach me how the waves crash into the bladderwrack, or how it feels in my hand, or how it is adapted to move with the waves that would rend my own flesh from my bones against the rocks.


And this is what visiting a radically different ecosystem can do. You are out of your comfort zone, the plants and animals may be similar, but not exact. It is an extremely good time to study plant families (like through the book called Botany in a Day). Even if you can’t identify the specific plants, you can certainly identify their families, which teaches you new and important skills. This newness and challenge leads to rich rewards, new learning, and growth.

Bladderwrack along cliffs

Bladderwrack along cliffs


Different regions also have different elemental balances. For example, I live in a land that is dominated by earth and water. The mountains, especially higher up, often have clouds and mist. The forests remain quite damp and the damp-loving trees like Eastern Hemlock are abundant, especially in dark forest valleys where the streams and creeks flow. On the Maine coast, this land is dominated as much by earth and water as it is by air–the winds, of which we have very little, are ever present here as the waves continue to crash on the rocks. High up on the granite-top mountains, fire and air dominate and life barely holds on. In Kansas, fire and air dominated the landscape–particularly fire–due to the recently burned prarie.


Visiting a new number of ecosystems has me realizeing just how much power nature has–I understood her power in the Alleghney mountains in PA, but I have no idea of her power in other places. And the homecoming, of returning back to the place where I belong, is powerful and meaningful–all the more so becuase you are back in familiar territory, where the plants and animals and ecology is familiar, safe, comforting.


Weaving with Your Landscape

So, too, as we go deeper into nature-based spirituality, should our landscapes weave into our bodies and souls.  They become like a skin that we wear, literally, that comes with us wherever we go. We know the call of the birds, we know just how hard the wind is blowing and from what direction.  We understand the ebb and flow of the creek and know how the water runs over the stones. The longer we are in the land we are of the land, till we are one in the same.  This is what druidry, I beleive, is really about–becoming woven so deeply with your own place.

Traditional Western Herbalism as a Sustainable Druidic Practice

Because of my ongoing study of Traditional Western Herbalism as a student of the amazingly awesome Michigan herbalist Jim McDonald.    I wanted to take some time today to discuss the potential of herbalism as an essential quality of druid practice.  I hope this post encourages others to also consider learning herbalism for their spiritual work, sustainable work, or both.  It is highly rewarding, with direct, tangible benefits.

Making herbal tinctures from wildcrafted ingredients

Making herbal tinctures from wildcrafted ingredients

Druidry, Sustainability, and Herbalism: A Natural Relationship

I’ve been exploring the relationship of my druidic path to that of my herbal studies, and I’ve come up with a number of ways that they are highly compatible:


1. Speaking with the plants, seeking connection with the natural world on the physical and metaphysical levels. Since druidry is a deep path of nature spirituality, following the cycles of the seasons, listening the voices of the spirits of the land, it only makes sense that one kind of oak knowledge we would seek would be that of the plant kingdom.  Herbalists speak in terms druids can understand and that aligns intimately with our tradition; when I open up herbals and I read about how we must listen to our “plant allies” and also work on an intuitive scale with the plants, I know that I’m reading something that can substantially deepen my practice and also improve my health.


2.  One branch of druidry, that of Ovate studies, directly connects with plant knowledge, divination, and the healing arts. The realm of the Ovate within the druid tradition is often associated with plants, the natural sciences and healing with said plants (also, often, divination). I see all of these intersecting with the work of an herbalist–an herbalist must know the plants very well, must understand their lessons and their medicine.  This means studying botany and ecology, being able to rightly identify herbs.  But this also has an intuitive side to discern signs and accurately assess someone’s condition in order to select the correct herbs and doses to use. These kinds of intuitive practices can be enhanced by druidic practice, such as discursive meditation, observation of the natural world, and naturalistic studies in the bio-region where the druid resides. Likewise, the practice of herbalism directly enhances a druid’s understanding of the world…when I go out in a field or forest, I know the qualities of the herbs that can help heal. That’s a powerful tool, and one that the ancient druids certainly held.  I honor my spiritual ancestors, and that ancient tradition, by learning the healing teachings of the plants as “oak knowledge” and “ovate knowledge.”


3.  The roots of druidry and herbalism are quite similar and work from similar frameworks.  Herbalism is a folk tradition, passed on, adapted and fluid.  Herbalists’ making of knowledge involves a combination of research from aging tomes, material directly passed down through teachers (orally, in the case of my own course), engagement in the natural world.  Each herbalist has her or his own unique approach, and yet herbalism is a framework in which all herbalists interact.  As #2 describes, herbalists also rely heavily on intuition and inner teachers and plant allies.  I find the epistemology of herbalism (that is, their ways of making knowledge and of knowing) extremely compatible with my druid path, where knowledge is constructed and practices are based in similar epistemologies.  That is, as a druid I read old texts and learn about the ancient druids and the revival druids, enjoy the myths and writings of those who came before.  I adapt these teachings and the basic frameworks to my own practice.  I learn from others, from correspondence courses and direct teachers, inner and outer.  I learn as much from nature as I do from anywhere else…..sound similar?  I think so!


Bunches of herbs getting ready to hang for drying

Bunches of herbs getting ready to hang for drying

4. There is magic in plants, and herbalists and druids both know it.  Herbalists have developed ways of reaching the magic of plants, ways that benefit druids to learn.  Tincture practices, practices of drying, dosing plants, and the like, can lead not only to greater health benefit for the druid and his/her family, friends, and community, but it can also lead to deeper magical practice.  I think studying the herbal healing arts gives us new and powerful ways of interacting with the plants, ways that maybe aren’t as accessible within the druidic traditions and training.  Likewise, practices rooted in druidic work (such as Greer’s Celtic Golden Dawn system) use spagyrics (or plant alchemy) to create extremely potent medicinal/magical tinctures.  Combining these two systems gives one a huge advantage in understanding the magic of plants on many levels.  I have found that the more one knows the plants….the better for so many reasons.


5. Knowing about the plants and their benefit to humanity can help save our lands.  This is perhaps the most pragmatic of the reasons, but in my mind, a critical one.  Druids value the land and seek to protect it, to preserve it, to revere it–especially our wild and unsettled spaces.  We can do that SO much more effectively if we can show others the value and benefit of plants within that landscape.  There’s a huge difference to the argument “don’t cut those tall weeds down, they deserve to live” (which they do, of course) to something like this “Those tall ‘weeds’ you are thinking of cutting down are St. John’s Wort plants. They have substantial medicinal value to you, including as a topical antiseptic and wound healing herb, a mood uplifter, a gentle astringent good for the urinary system, not to mention a great herb for native pollinators. Those other ‘weeds’ over there you are thinking of pulling are milkweed. In addition to being critical for the endangered monarch butterfly, you can eat them at most of their growing stages–shoot, bud, and pod, and they are absolutely delicious.” You get the idea.  The more you know, the more you can teach others, and the more they can then value the landscape around them. You’ve been seeing me use this approach with my blog–my post on dandelion, for example, encourages people to resee this plant as an incredibly useful herb, hopefully encouraging them not to dump weed killer on them or mow them all down before the bees have a chance to gather up pollen.  And honestly, I have found this approach to be invaluable. On a recent research trip with some colleagues, I pointed out numerous useful plants, helped one person with itchy bug bites and encouraged some aromatic relaxants for an upset stomach….all from the surrounding landscape.  Ideally, we want to shift to the point where life is valued for the sake of life, but arguments about nature’s benefits to humans is a good way to begin to cultivate such understandings.


6. Herbalism, especially locally-based herbalism, makes you pay attention to the seasons and observe/interact with the wild spaces in new and exciting ways. Since I’m determined to gather, dry, tincture, and make into oils and salves as many herbs as I will need to handle my own minor medicinal needs (outside of catastrophic illness/injury and regular check ups), I’ve been out each week, sometimes multiple times, gathering herbs.  This makes me pay such close attention not only to the passing of the seasons but also where I gather. For example, I’ve been eagerly awaiting goldenrod blooms all summer because I really need their medicine.  But I have to be careful where I gather, because I want my herbs to be clean, energetically excellent, free of chemicals or toxins, etc.  I have found myself, since becoming an herbalist, seeing the landscape in ways I never did before.


Herbs drying on a rack!

Herbs drying on a rack!

7. Herbalism can be an earth-centered and sustainable practice.  The more I learn about the modern pharmaceutical industry, the more convinced I am that many modern pharmaceuticals are not only unnecessary and overprescribed, but also unsustainable to our lands, with destructive outcomes for our waterways and the health of all beings on this planet. The environmental impact is staggering–a quick google search will reveal studies on the ecological effects of antibiotic overuse, the detection of pharmaceuticals in the soil, the amount of drugs going into the waterways, the list goes on.  The more that we can take care of our own needs, become resilient within our local communities and our own lives, the less strain we put on the planet as a whole and the less “consumer demand” we generate for destructive manufacturing practices and unnecessary products.  And the less funds go to companies who might do various kinds of evil with those funds.  If I have a bad cold and choose to stay home and treat that cold with herbs that I’ve gathered and grown throughout the year, that’s a heck of a lot more sustainable than driving out to the store and buying plastic bottles full of manufactured medicine that likely come with side effects.  This is especially true if the herbs are safer and better for me.  Using herbs in the place of over-the-counter drugs, like most sustainable practice, requires more work and knowledge, but I fail to see how that’s a bad thing.


8.  Herbalism as an empowering practice. When I began practicing druidry eight years ago, I found the practices and study courses to be incredibly empowering.  I had taken my spiritual practice into my own hands, it required my own interpretation and a dedication of my time in ways that spiritual practices of earlier times in my life had not.  I had to seek it out for myself, empower myself to learn and grow, and dedicate myself to the practice of it daily.  Herbalism is much the same thing.  It is an extremely empowering practice, and one that has positively altered my life much in the same vein that druidry did eight years ago. Going out and gathering my herbs, knowing how to treat myself when I get a minor illness, and being able to do it all with what is growing around me–that’s amazingly empowering!


Studying herbs and Druid Orders: I also want to mention that while some druid orders include healing material as an integral part of their training programs (usually as part of ovate studies) others cannot due to laws on discussing and teaching any kind of healing material in the US.  This means that taking up herbalism as a personal healing practice may or may not be part of the work you can do in an official capacity in an order’s study program, but that isn’t to say that you can’t learn this and integrate it into your druidic path on your own.


In my next post, I’m going to describe ways to begin to be an herbalist, so stay tuned!

Oak Knowledge: Value of Bardic, Ovate, and Druid Knowledge

In the ancient celtic world, the word “druid” meant “oak knowledge” or more broadly “deep knowledge” (Cunliffe, 1997). This likely referred to the wide variety of activity that druids participated in and the knowledge they held–the knowledge of the law, of nature, of astronomy, of mathematics, of the bardic arts, of the spirit realm.  I’ve understood this in an abstract way, and have worked to integrate these different aspects of druidry into my life.  This weekend, my recent experiences in officiating my sister’s wedding really reinforced for me the incredible power of “oak knowledge” in action.  I share this story with you to demonstrate how powerful the different kinds of knowledge that we druids embrace can be.  These different aspects of druidry, the bardic arts, the knowledge of the ovates, and the leadership of the druids, can empower us, and can help us grow with the world around us.  This oak knowledge is sacred knowledge, its knowledge of the lands and of the soul.


My sister invited me to help plan her wedding and to serve as a co-officiant.  This was my first opportunity to officiate a wedding although I have been ordained through the Ancient Order of Druids in America for about 2.5 years (since finishing my second degree studies with the order).   I didn’t really advertise my ordination widely, but sought the ordination so that if anyone in our grove or area needed such services, they were available (and this is the subject of an upcoming blog post!)


The White Pine Grove

The bride and groom, Briel and Jonathan, who are “spiritual but not religious” people, wanted to make the ceremony respectful to multiple faiths.  They also wanted to have both a male and female as officiants for a duality/balance of energy.  Therefore, I co-officiated the wedding with Jonathan’s father, Robin.   Robin and I came from different paths but from a position of mutual respect, and worked in the months leading up to the wedding with Brie and Jonathan to create their ceremony.  I think that even in my interaction with someone of a different faith, druidry, and its emphasis on diversity and embracing difference played a role. The ceremony itself was beautiful, and had various elements brought in from druidry including three deep breaths, the celebration taking place in a sacred grove and in a circle, and rooting their union in water and earth.


Most officiants are good at rituals and public ceremonies; they think about how people enter the space, how the ceremony flows,  how to craft the ceremony specifically for the couple, and how to make the day as special as possible. And certainly, my training with the AODA and OBOD and my experiences in writing and running rituals for our grove and the East Coast Gathering has prepared me to do that kind of work.  This is one small part of the “Oak knowledge” that druids provide.  But since I had a co-officiant with more experience in wedding ceremonies than I did, I found my role a bit different and it was due to my training in other areas of druidry.


The second kind of “oak knowledge” comes from an understanding of the natural world in terms of ecology, plants, and foraging skills. The wedding was performed in a lovely white pine grove near a lake and a wooded hillside. I had spent some time exploring the grove prior to its selection as the wedding site. After we choose the the grove for the ceremony, I was quick to point out the poison ivy vines growing near the back of the grove.  I taught the wedding party about how to identify a poison ivy vine (by its massive amount of roots attaching to the tree and its leaf pattern).  This way, as we were setting up for the ceremony, nobody would accidentally sit too close to one of the vines.  I also showed the wedding party the bountiful amounts of wintergreen that was growing in vibrant green and red just below the white pine needles on the grove floor.  I harvested big bowlfulls of autumn berry, which were growing bountiful in the region (my cousin, who abides by a raw foods diet and lives in NYC, was particularly appreciative of such knowledge!).  We had autumn berries in salads and in our oatmeal for breakfast. I picked wood sorrel and purslane, which was a bit beyond their season but still tasty, and added them to our salads.  I taught others how to identify these plants, when they


Autumn Berries in Abundance!

were in season, and other look-alikes to avoid.   I found a yellow-jacket nest in a field where people were walking and pointed it out so that people could avoid the area and a confrontation with the hornets.  I learned from another forager who came from the groom’s family about making rope from dog’s bane. All of this knowledge, this natural world knowledge, added something unique to the ceremony. All of this knowledge was the “oak knowledge” that we druids have–and I was also able to add to my knowledge through learning about dog’s bane and rope making!


In addition to the ecological knowledge, I was able to share with Briel and Jonny information on the magical and spiritual aspects of their chosen location.  We spoke of the white pine as a magical tree, and its benefits.  I told them of the positive energy they brought by choosing to hold their ceremony in an evergreen grove and with a second evergreen plant (wintergreen) below their feet.  From the earth and up into the sky, they had the symbols of eternity and everlasting unions around them.


The training in the bardic art of music and the arts represents yet another area of druidic “oak knowledge.”When it was revealed a week before the ceremony that they needed more live music, I brought my panflute, which I have been playing since working on my AODA 2nd degree music spiral and my OBOD bardic grade.  During the ceremony I played two songs.  I also played my flute and the drum during the talent show (eisteddfod!) that we had the evening before the ceremony.  Prior to the ceremony, I crafted their wedding gifts (handmade teas), their guestbook (from recycled and handmade papers), and their wedding invitation painting.  All of these bardic arts also added positive energy to the ceremony!


Partridge Berry

My gardening and work in sustainability, which I speak of much on this blog, also found a home in the weekend’s activities.  I canned and brought a number of jars of homemade pasta sauce, which we shared with friends and family.


Part of their ceremony involved working with earth and water.  To supplement the energies of their ceremony, I brought sacred waters that came from many different places: the headwaters of a local stream where me and my sister grew up, the headwaters of the Huron river in MI, waters from two great lakes, water from our grove’s Imbloc ritual last year, water from the Delaware Water Gap, and water from Iona, the Island of the Druids.  I’ve been collecting such water for some time, and I hope it brought blessings to them.


Finally, when things became stressful and tensions ran high, which is all too common at any intensive weekend like a wedding, I was able to draw upon the druidic value of peace and my own work with daily meditation to smooth over not only my own emotions, but help others in my family.  Silently reciting the druid’s peace prayer and seeking the forest for grounding, I was able to remain calm.


When I think back upon this weekend, I realize how much the druidic path, and its multiple foci on the bardic arts, knowledge of the natural world, practice with meditations, ceremonial knowledge, and knowledge of the spiritual and magical world has enriched my own life, and now, enriched the lives of our two newly joined families.  I think this experience was unique in that it showed me just how much seven or so years of dedicated druidic study can offer–not just to the individual who studies, but to the world at large.  And I want to stress–before druidry, I would have been able to offer none of what I was able to offer above.  My story is not a testament to my own creative abilities, its a confirmation of the power of druidry and its dedication to different kinds of knowledge paths.


And there’s one more thing I want to say.  When people ask about druidry, as several did, I usually like to talk about what I *do* rather than what I *believe.*  I think this action-based druidry, and introducing my family (including many of  those who were previously unaware of my path) to druidry through action is much more powerful than saying “here’s what I believe.”  I didn’t talk much about druidry last weekend.  But I embodied it.


And so, fellow druids and earth-path walkers, embrace the idea of “oak knowledge” and the activity that it can bring.  After seeing its power in such a direct and meaningful way, I really feel that its not just about being good at one aspect of druidry.  Its about having a solid understanding, a generalist knowledge, in all of the aspects of druidry.  This is is useful knowledge, practical knowledge, knowledge of this world and of the ones beyond.  This is oak knowledge.