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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Traditional Western Herbalism as a Sustainable Druidic Practice July 24, 2014

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!