Druidry is rooted in relationship and connection with the living earth: the physical landscape and all her plants and creatures, the spirits of nature, the allies of hoof and claw, fin and feather. The land and her spirits are our primary allies and energies with which we work as druids. The question I keep coming back to is this: how do I practice a nature-centered path in a time when nature–those of the hooves, fins, feathers, and claws–are going extinct and dying all around me? How do I practice druidry when everything that I hold sacred and love is under severe threat, and when it is likely that in my lifetime, I will witness severe ecological collapse in multiple ecosystems. How do I practice druidry with my “eyes open” to all of this, and honor nature in this great extinction event, and still say sane? How do I do this “druid” thing, given these challenges?
Druidry in the 21st century is a complex topic, and I’ve been trying to work my way into it in different ways on this blog. I started this by thinking about how druidry offers coping mechanisms for those of us faced with the many challenges of our age: that is druidry offers refuge in dark times. I think it’s critically important to acknowledge that first and foremost, we need self care to do it well. While all humans need self care in these dark times, our spiritual relationship with nature requires it. I followed this up with a post about the future of human civilization (Druidry for the 21st century) and made the argument that one way druidry may serve the future is through developing and providing paradigms and mindset shifts. The idea that druidry is the seed of something different; that druidry offers us new paradigms and hope; paradigms to replace the thought processes and civic ideals currently driving post-industrial civilization to the brink of global collapse. These are two useful responses, but they certainly aren’t the end of this conversation–not by a long shot. So today’s question is a serious one: What can druids do about what is happening to all of nature now and what will continue to happen in the foreseeable future?
Today, then, I’m going to talk about death. I’m going to talk about nature and relationship, and I’m going to talk about extinction. Maybe you want to stop reading at the words “death” and “extinction”; these are things we don’t talk about. These are things our media refuses to cover. These are things overwhelming to even well meaning people, people who love the land, people like you and me. These are things that bring tears to my eyes when I read them or think about them. But it is necessary that we honor and acknowledge those parts of nature that are no longer with us; that are dying and may never return because of human indulgence. To avert the eyes is essentially allowing a loved one to suffer alone. If your grandmother were dying in a hospital, would you ignore her, or would you go visit her? (For more on my idea of “palliative care” and why witnessing is so important, see here and here). If your sacred companion on the druid path–nature–is suffering and dying, can you really pretend everything is ok? I don’t think I can just go into my woods and do some woo-woo and get healed by nature and call that druidry. Druidry is not a one-sided relationship. If we want to gain our strength, wisdom, peace, and healing from nature, we must also offer something in return. I believe that now–in the 21st century, in the Anthropocene, nature needs us just as much as we need her.
The Hard Stuff
So let’s start with the hard stuff. Scientists are clear that the world’s sixth extinction-level event is underway. “Biological annihilation” is the phrase used to describe what is happening–since 1970, at least half of the world’s animals are gone. That means that we had twice as many animals living on this planet in 1970 than we do today. This isn’t some far-off future prediction. It has already happened. It is continuing to happen as you read this. It has happened in the time that you have been present on this earth. Here’s a list of the “recently extinct” species–those who have gone extinct primarily since industrialization. There are many more who are not on this list because they weren’t discovered or documented before going extinct. A 2017 study, examined 27,600 land species and found that all species were showing huge amounts of population loss, even among species of the “lowest concern” with regards to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s guidelines (which sets guidelines for endangered species). This study suggests that 80% the traditional territories of land mammals have been eradicated, making way for cities, people and shopping malls–this is the “biological annihilation” that they speak of. The study also indicates that this trend will likely increase in the next two decades with the rise in population and continued rising demands on the earth. Another piece of this comes from the work of Bernie Krause, who wrote The Great Animal Orchestra (which I discussed a few years ago on this blog). Krause’s work focused on recording nature sounds, and he demonstrates that the sounds of nature are simply vanishing, along with the life and species. These issues are also not limited to vertebrate species–another study, released in October, showed a 75% decline in insects in protected ecological areas in Germany. The problem isn’t that change is happening; the problem is that it is happening so quickly that natural evolutionary processes (processes that allow species migrations and adaptations) cannot occur. And so, how do we honor those animals, plants, insects, trees, amphibians, reptiles and so forth that have passed, many unnoticed?
One more piece here, that I think is critical to consider. All ecosystems have what is called a “carrying capacity.” That is, given the resources available (sunlight, soil, plant matter, water, weather, etc) the land can reasonably sustain so many lives of different kinds: so much insect life, so much plant life, so much animal life, so much human life. Ecological collapse refers to when an ecosystem suffers a drastically reduced carrying capacity–that is, the ecosystem can no longer support the life it used to because of one or more serious factors. These factors are usually compounded and may include the loss of a keystone species, general pollution or degradation, deforestation, ocean acidification, over-hunting, you name it. Its like a domino effect–sometimes, all it takes is one core species to go. Climate scientists call this the tipping point–think of it like a chair. The chair is being held at 45 degrees, and just a fraction more, and it will crash. It is almost certain that we are heading into a nose dive of ecological collapse. Ecological collapse doesn’t just affect all of nature–it affects humans too. So while we should care about even one life, a single species, we also need to be concerned deeply for all life. This will happen in our lives–how do we spiritually prepare to support nature when it does?
Now, put this in context. While we practice druidry, while we enjoy nature’s benefits and her healing, this is happening. When we are honoring nature, celebrating the wheel of the seasons, this is happening. Its happening in every moment of every day. This is part of our reality, as nature-honoring people. Given that this is the reality, responding to this should also be part of our druid practice.
Exoteric / Outer Works: Refugia
Druidry is about nature and relationship. Its about your relationship with nature both exoterically (that is, in the material world) and esoterically (that is, in the world of spirit). In the case of this information, I think it’s really important that we develop a range of responses, both esoteric and exoteric. In terms of the outer world, I’ve long advocated on this blog a very wide variety of things that can aid the land in healing, regeneration, and growth. I think that each of us can do something, and that something varies based on our life circumstances. All of us can attend to our ecological footprint, consumption behaviors, transit, energy use, and all of the usual things. I think that’s part of just being a druid–living your practice.
To be more specific to the material above, however, I’ll share what I consider to be my key method for responding this kind of extinction level event: building refugia. Refugia is a concept discussed by E. C Pielou in After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America. In a nutshell, refugia (also called “fuges”) are small pockets of life that were sheltered from broader changes that destroyed most habitats. Pielou describes specific isolated pockets of life that survived as a sheltered spot, a microclimate, a high point, and so forth, while the rest of the land was covered in ice. When the glaciers receded and left a bare landscape devoid of topsoil or life, it was these refugia that allowed life to spread outward again, repopulating areas in North America stripped bare by glaciers. Of course, Refugia aren’t limited to North America–they are a worldwide phenomenon, and even our human ancestors, at various points in our history, have used them to survive challenging environmental conditions. In the 21st century, in the time of human-dominated land use, things are not as different as you might think from our glaciated pre-history. For one, the loss of biodiversity and essentially inhospitable landscape can be found in the 40,000,000 acres of lawns currently in cultivation in the US or the 914,527,657 acres of conventional farmland in the US. Many areas that aren’t lawns or farmlands are subject to other kinds of stresses that create inhospitable lands: pollution, resource extraction, deforestation, and so on. Refugia allow us to create small pockets of biodiversity–which is going to really, really matter in the next 20-30 years.
Refugia are all about individual action. While no average person has control over what much of what is happening in the world around us, even in the landscape around us locally, we can create refuges for life. Refugia are small spaces of intense biodiversity, critically important during this time of mass extinction and habitat loss. Cultivating refugia allows us to put more of the building blocks back into nature’s hands for the long-term healing of our lands. That is, refugia is that they are little arks of life, that is, little places where biodiversity and life can spring forth once again. A network of refugia created by 21st century druids may be the difference between extinction and thriving for many diverse species. What you do can make an incredible difference–it could save a species. I have written more about how to create a refugia garden here and here!
Esoteric / Inner Works: Honoring the Fallen through Ritual, Shrine, and Sound
Given the state of nature and that we practice a nature-oriented spiritual practice, I think it is necessary to directly honor the massive loss of such life through rituals, shrines, moments of silence, psychopomp work, and other practices. I would argue that this work should be a regular part of our practices as druids. I’m going to share two ideas here, and next week, I offer a larger set of suggestions on psycopomp work for the animals and the land.
Ringing the Bell/Sounding the Bowl
After reading the Great Animal Orchestra, I thought it would be very appropriate to honor the loss of life through sound. Since we are missing the sounds of that life, and the world is growing silent (or replaced by human sounds), I wanted to create space in my rituals to honor the loss of life. There are lots of ways you might do this, here is mine:
Anytime I open a sacred grove to do ritual, I have begun with a simple sound ritual to honor the life that has passed. I have a small singing bowl, and I go to each of the quarters and ring the bell in each direction. Sometimes I do this silently, and sometimes I say some simple words, like “honoring those who have passed on in the east.” I allow the bowl to resonate until it is completely quiet again, and then move on to the next direction. I’ve found for typical OBOD or AODA grove openings, this is best done just after declaring peace in the quarters.
You don’t have to do this in ritual; you can do it anytime. I like doing it in ritual because it is in ritual that I’m drawing upon the land and her energies, and I want to honor and acknowledge the suffering of the land before I ask for anything else (that’s why I do it early in the ritual rather than after I’ve called the quarters and established the space).
Honoring the Fallen Shrine
I also maintain two shrines–an indoor shrine and an outdoor shrine–to honor the many lives that have passed. I often will do my sound ritual above and leave small offerings (like my offering blend). These shrines are simple–a pile of stones outside on a stump, I add bones and other things as I find them on my walks. Indoors, I have smudges I make special for this shrine, usually of rosemary (for remembrance), bay laurel (for passage), white cedar (for eternal life), and white pine (for peace) and I burn these regularly. I sometimes print out pictures of animals or other species, and add other things of significance. Like most things, it is the intention of this shrine that is critical.
Council of All Beings and Other Rituals
At least once a year, if not more frequently, I also like to engage in ritual (group or solo) to directly honor and support the land. One of my favorite things to do with this comes from the work of Joanna Macy (who has many great ideas for group rituals and group healing and processing of what is happening now). She has a ritual called the Council of All Beings (the link will take you directly to the ritual). I like this ritual because it allows us to give voice to those who do not normally have it, and it helps all participants get into a frame of mine that acknowledges and honors other life’s suffering. I think its important to engage with this not only for ourselves, but with others–talking about it, sharing what we do, and working on doing some things together.
I also think that general land healing and blessing ceremonies are useful and important to do regularly and help energetically support the land and her spirits during this time. I wrote a series on land healing; this final post links to all others.
There’s so much more to write and say here, but alas, I think this post is long enough. Dear readers, I hope you will share some of your own thoughts–how do you answer the many questions I’ve posed in this post? I would love to hear your ideas and stories.