The Druid's Garden

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

Taking up the Path of the Bard III: Practice makes Perfect February 4, 2018

“You have so much talent” or “I’m not talented enough” are powerful statements, statements I hear on a regular basis from those who long for a creative practice. The idea of talent can cause an incredible amount of inaction, of people not feeling they are “good enough” to even try.  I see this, in particular, with the visual arts. But the first time you put pen to paper, if you aren’t Picasso or Monet, you might as well forget about it. This larger cultural ideal, of course, seems at odds with the druid tradition where Eisteddfod and the channeling of Awen are central to our spiritual life. In the druid tradition, creativity isn’t about producing something of commercial value or high quality, its about the channeling of creativity for spiritual purposes. But for those coming out of mainstream Western culture with all of the cultural baggage, this can be difficult to institute such a mindset shift.

 

As I mentioned in my post last week, the reason I took the last few weeks off of blogging was so that I could turn my attention to another project–doing the analysis and writing the paper for the OBOD’s 19th Mt. Haemus lecture. My work in the mundane world is as a professor and a learning researcher; I study how people learn, develop over time, and transfer/adapt that learning to a wide variety of circumstances.  And so, understanding bardic development as a learning process is tied to some of that broader research I’ve been doing for a long time. Over the last five months, I conducted an empirical study of the bardic arts in the druid tradition, surveying 266 druids from 9 countries as well doing in-depth interviews 14 participants at different points in their bardic development. I talked to people about their bardic arts, their successes, their struggles, and gained a deep understanding of what the bardic arts do–and can do–for us as a spiritual practice.  The results were heartening, uplifting, and amazing.  The study itself will be published by OBOD on Beltane 2018 (and I’ll share a link on the blog when it is posted) so I’m not going to talk too much about it here.  However, I did want to share a specific piece of the study, almost a prequel if you will, and talk more about the bardic arts from a developmental perspective.

 

You’ve Got Talent!

In the process of doing this research and just over time in in sharing my own visual art, it seems clear that words alone are not enough to encourage people to break through the “talent” barrier and create, even for those who long for such a creative/bardic practice. In the last few weeks, I have had conversations with people about the study, and multiple conversations go something like this:

 

Friend: Dana, you are so talented! You should sell your work!

Me: Actually, I practice a lot.  I spend at least 10-15 hours in my art studio most weeks, and have done that for over 12 years.

Friend: I wish I had your talent!

Me: If you set your mind to it and devoted effort, you could make great strides and produce things you are happy with.

Friend: No, I’m not good at it.  I just couldn’t. I don’t know where to begin. 

Me: No, really, you could.  You just have to start somewhere and keep practicing. Take a class.  Come here, we can do art together.

Friend: It’s easy for you to say that because you are talented.

Me.: I haven’t always been this way. I have to work hard. 

Friend: I’ll never be talented like you.

Me: …

 

The problem with this conversation is at least twofold: first, the person assumes that because they aren’t “good” at something the first time they try it, they shouldn’t try at all. Yet, if we know one thing in educational research and human history, it is that humans have an incredible capacity to learn and adapt over time.  Denying oneself the opportunity to learn something new, grow, and learn a new skill is almost like denying that innovative and creative part of yourself that longs for expression. In fact, studies of human development in a variety of contexts (including some of my own exploring writers’ development over long periods of time) show that even people who aren’t “good” at all when they start can gain incredible amounts of proficiency and skill in the long run.  The key is taking the first steps on that path. The second challenge with this conversation, from my perspective, is that anything I say doesn’t make a difference because I am “talented.”  After several frustrating conversations just like this, and in seeing where some of my study participants struggled,  I realize that maybe the best way to address this issue isn’t in conversation, but rather, with actual physical evidence of an artist’s development over a period of time. And so, in the remainder of this post, I wanted to share a bit of my own bardic development.  I use myself as a model for a few reasons.  First, I am finding myself more and more often in a place where people talk about how I’m “very talented” and it “comes naturally” (incredibly ironic, given the rest of this post!)  Second, I think the only way for people to understand how real learning happens is to have good models, models not just of success, but also of how people worked through failure, so I’m hoping to provide one. The truth is, regardless of how much I love doing  art and the spiritual benefits it offers, I still have to work hard at it, and have worked hard at it for 12 years, and that counts for a lot more than any innate “talent” I may have had when I first picked up a paintbrush.  And I still have plenty of times where it doesn’t work out well, lots of “failures” and attempts that don’t pan out.

 

 

A Story of Bardic Development

When I was a child, I grew up in a family of artists; my parents were graphic designers, and that’s how they made their living. I made a lot of art as a child, but as a teenager starting to consider options for my future, I distanced myself from it.  To me, art was associated with not having enough, and I watched my parents struggle to make ends meet in a rust belt economy that was quickly seeing all of their clients leave the area.  Art, to me, was a thing I couldn’t do, something forbidden, some that would somehow pull me into that world of economic struggle.  Becuase I loved art so much, I felt I would get sucked into it, and end up loving it so much that I wouldn’t want to do anything else.  Circular logic, to be sure, but it prevented me from doing any art from about the age 15 to the age 25. When I decided to attend college and was trying to select a major, my parents asked me to do anything but be an artist. After one year as a miserable computer science student, I settled on Writing instead (which was another love of mine). But all through this time, I wouldn’t let myself near art supplies, I wouldn’t create, and I certainly wouldn’t think about art.

 

When I was 25, so many things in my world shifted.  I lost a dear friend to cancer, I found my spiritual path of druidry, and congruently, as part of my own bardic/spiritual practice, I began to seriously take up visual arts again: painting, primarily, but also a range of other art forms (jewelry, mixed media, bookbinding, etc).  Of course, I hadn’t practiced artwork in over a decade.  I didn’t have a style, I didn’t have a theme, I just knew that in my pain and sorrow, I wanted to do something creative.  I wanted to visualize it, to paint out the pain, so to speak, and so I bought some supplies and started painting.  I hadn’t practiced much, I wasn’t very good, and I had no idea what I was doing.

 

Example #1: Artist Trading Cards

Fairly quickly, I stumbled upon something called Artist Trading Cards (ATCs) which were great for my graduate student budget and time–they were little 2.5 x 3.5″ pieces of artwork that artists made and traded all over the world through various websites. I wasn’t very good at these and my first attempts were lackluster, but the community was super supportive (with no judgement) and I quickly realized how much I enjoyed creating these small works of art. After may failed attempts (which I didn’t photograph, unfortunately), I started trading them with people.  So in 2006-2008 or so, my mini works of art I was willing to trade and photograph looked a lot like this:

Attempt at Abstract art

Attempt at Abstract art, Circa 2006

Watercolor Tree 1 (Circa 2006)

Watercolor Tree 1, 2006

Watercolor Bonsai tree (Circa 2006)

Watercolor Bonsai tree, 2006

As I continued to paint hundreds of these cards, and challenge myself outside of my normal media, I started getting better. A lot better.  I took classes, I explored different media, I focused on the technical aspects of the craft. I watched a lot of YouTube to see how other artists went about their process. I took on challenges that I knew were too hard so that I’d get better even if I failed in the attempt.  I kept trying to hone my craft as an artist.  I started a “reject” box for all the art that I wasn’t happy with and didn’t want to trade; I saw that box as my “improvement” and “practice” box. As I improved, I developed a style, found tools and media that I really liked (a particular kind of paper, a particular brush, a particular paint) that I could rely on for effect.  And I improved:

Whimsical Tree, Circa 2010

Whimsical Tree, Circa 2010

Wintry Trees, Circa 2011

Wintry Trees, Circa 2011

Three trees, watercolor and ink, 2010

Three trees, watercolor and ink, 2010

I did these little pieces of art seriously for about 7 years.  In that time, I painted literally thousands of them.  I know this because each one I painted, I traded to another artist and I have a shelf of binders full of the pieces I received in return still in my art studio to this day.  Thousands and thousands of mini paintings on variety of subjects (but about half of them trees) will certainly help you improve.  Just recently, at the start of 2018, I completed some more ATCs as gifts for my interview participants in the Bardic Study.  My style and complexity have continued to improve, so here’s where I’m at with this same size  (and same paints/media/paper that I like):

 

Watercolor Awen Tree #1, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #1, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #2, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #2, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #2, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #2, 2018

Practice and dedication to one’s art, over a period of time, produces results.  Is there something to be said for vision, for inspiration, and for “talent”?  Perhaps, but I don’t think any of that is what has gotten me to where I am today.  What got me here was a willingness to make mistakes, a willingness to try and attempt, a dedication to improving my skill, and a lot of hard work and determination.  What keeps me going are the intrinsic and spiritual benefits I gain from such a practice.

 

Example #2: Tarot of Trees and new Healing Plant Spirit Oracle

As a second example, which in some ways is much more drastic because it is at a larger size, we might look at the comparison between my self-published tarot deck, the Tarot of Trees and a new project I’m currently working on. The Tarot of Trees reflects my skill level between 2008-2009 after I had been painting a few years; my new project, the Healing Plant Spirit Oracle reflects my style in 2016-2018.  The Tarot of Trees really pushed my skills at the time and also helped me really establish not only my own artistic style, but also, the synthesis of the creative arts with my spirituality–a true bardic art.  I did these as sacred artwork, completing them in a sacred grove, painting, channeling the Awen.  And like any of my other paintings and projects, I had a few that didn’t end up in the deck and didn’t pan out, but that’s part of the process.  Here are two of my favorite cards from the Tarot of Trees:

The Empress, Tarot of Trees (2008)

The Empress, Tarot of Trees (2008)

The fool from the Tarot of Trees (2008)

The fool from the Tarot of Trees (2008)

My newest oracle project got underway in 2016–a series of plant spirit paintings, reflecting the spirit of healing plants.  I’ve been really, again, working on the synthesis between my technical skill and spiritual practices. To deepen my technical skill, particularly my drawing skill, I’ve been doing individualized drawing study and studying the work of other artists. I’ve also gotten regular expert feedback from artists on these pieces.  These plant spirit paintings are, once again, pushing me out of my comfort zone.  Here are a few of my favorite pieces from the series (which I hope to have complete by 2020):

Spirit of Goldenrod, 2016

Spirit of Goldenrod, 2016

Spirit of Poison Ivy, 2017

Spirit of Poison Ivy, 2017

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

Spirit of Blackberry/Bramble, 2016

Certainly there is magic here, but it lies not raw talent, but rather, the careful application of the skills I’ve honed to bring forth a particular vision combined with channeling the Awen that is flowing. Paintings like these don’t happen without considerable effort and work–I do a lot of meditation, journeying, sketching, and more to manifest them in the world. As evidence of this, here is a page from my sketchbook that shows just this for poison ivy (I worked on the sketches for this for several sittings before doing a larger sketch that led to the painting):

Poison Ivy sketch

Poison Ivy sketch

 

Concluding Thoughts

I think its easy to look at, see, or hear something beautiful and feel that the piece must have emerged out of the ether and is the result of some mystical talent. And yet, I’m a druid who channels Awen and even I don’t believe that. For every person I know who has considerable skill and expertise (notice how I’m avoiding the word “talent” here), I know that their work is a product of years of dedication to their craft. In fact,  think the most ironic thing about the whole “talent” challenge in modern society is that by ascribing to this idea of talent, it undermines the hard work that people who are dedicated to an art or craft take to hone their skill. By telling someone that they are talented, we reinforce the idea that it magically happens and you either have it or you don’t–and in my experience, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  It disempowers the speaker, it disregards the effort of the person who has practiced, and it makes the bardic arts unattainable for many.  In truth, we all can improve, we all can become highly skilled, if we put the time into it.

 

So how do we do this?  My earlier pieces in this series, Taking up the Path of the Bard part I and Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part II, offered details and discussion of how we can begin to develop creative and spiritual practice in our own lives. I’ve talked about the bardic arts as a spiritual practice, the historical idea of honing skill, channeling the flow of Awen, and other kinds of rituals to help empower us as bards.  Hopefully, among all of these blog posts, you’ll find something of value!

 

Blessings upon your bardic journey and may the Awen flow within!

 

 

Introduction to Incense Making for Druids September 27, 2011

Tree Divinition Incense

Tree Divination Incense

The basis of this post is handout I used for the OBOD East Coast Gathering (2011) for my incense making workshop.  I added in additional details based on what we discussed in the workshop, and I wanted to expand upon this handout and provide some info on finding local materials and intentions.

This is an introduction to incense making. If you have never made incense, start here and then see my blog posts on Bardic Incense, Ovate Incense, and Druid Incense for more specific recipes.

Incense in the Druid tradition

Incense-making has a long history in spiritual, religious, and esoteric traditions.  In Druidry, we might use incense to help us enter a deep meditative state for working within our inner groves or to aid in our ritual activities.  Incense crafting itself can be a very personal and spiritual experience.  I use incense in my druidic practice very frequently, usually several times a week.  I have crafted a number of incenses for different purposes, including those for different kinds of work (Bardic Balance, Bardic Creativity, Ovate Divination, Ovate Healing, Druid Focus, Happy Plants, etc.).

Ingredients

Some of the best incense materials (energy and smell-wise) may be local to your area or grown in your garden.  For those that aren’t available locally or able to be grown, there are several good companies online who can sell ingredients.

Wildharvested Ingredients:  In South-East Michigan, I am able to find a variety of materials that can be used for incense recipes.  When you are wildharvesting, make sure you do not take the whole plant, but only a small part enough to allow it to continue to grow.  Only take plants that are numerous–check plants that are on endangered lists in your area and make sure you are taking only well-established species.  I also make it a point to ask and be thankful before I take; the plants and spirits of the land appreciate this. Here are some of my favorite wildcrafted ingredients:

  • Conifer resins.  We have a number of fantastic confiers that produce great resin incense.  White Pine is one of my favorites and produces a wonderful vanilla-pine scent.  Scots pine produces a much more musty scent, still very nice.  To harvest a conifer resin, you can just look for drips from a tree–a freshly trimmed branch will leave a lot of gooey resin; you’ll want this to dry hard before you use it like any other resin.
  • Sassafras Roots: These aromatic roots, when chopped fine, work wonderfully in non-combustible incenses!  Sassafras produces offspring by sending off “runner” trees–so you will likely find a ton of little sassafrass trees very close to a big one.  Usually harvest them by removing the runner shoots that would otherwise not make it.  You can also occasionally find a Sassafrass uprooted by a storm and have as much as you want.
  • Wild Rose Hips: We have many of these wild rose bushes in the yard, and the rose hips are smaller than traditional rose hips, but still wonderful for incense.
  • Yarrow and other wild herbs: A field or edge of a forest can be a wonderful place to find yarrow, nettles, violets, black raspberries, alfalfa, etc.  Many of these make wonderful incense ingredients–usually for their energetic properties rather than their smell :).
  • Juniper Berries: Even in areas it isn’t a native species, you can find juniper as an ornamental shrub or bush.  The berries have a wonderful piney smell that is just irresistible!

Ingredients You Grow: Many ingredients, especially herbs, can be grown in your garden.  You harvest, dry, and preserve these just like you would cooking herbs.  Some commonly used herbs in incense include: bay, sage, rosemary (smells wonderful when burned!), lavender, sweetgrass, lemon balm/mint, and basil.

Ingredients You Purchase:  Depending on where you live, there are a lot of ingredients you simply can’t grow or find–but these ingredients are often crucial to successful incense. You can purchase many incense making ingredients.  I try to purchase most of my ingredients through Mountain Rose Herbs, as they are an ethical and sustainable company.  If you are starting from scratch, a few good ingredients to have on hand are a few wood powders (Red Sandalwood, Cedar, Palo Santo wood), resins (Frankincense, Myrrh, Dragon’s Blood, Copal, Benzoin) and then other assorted herbs depending on your purpose.   Some can also be found at your local grocery store, such as star anise, cinnamon, or nutmeg.

 

Incense-Making Materials

In addition to materials, you’ll want a few other ingredients on hand.

  • A mortar and pestle is absolutely crucial.   If you are making incense and bulk, a dedicated coffee grinder can also be helpful.  I find it particularly helpful for juniper berries!  But I don’t use it much at all–I prefer the natural grinding of ingredients, which allows you to add your own energies as you work.
  • You also will need a censer and some charcoal blocks.  You can purchase the cheap self-lighting ones, which work fine if you are outdoors (these go most often under the “swift lite” brand).  These ones also really stink, which can reduce your enjoyment of the incense–and make it more difficult to smell the true smell of various ingredients.  If you are inside though, I strongly recommend purchasing pure bamboo charcoal–it has no nasty, carcinogenic smells (like the self-lighting ones have) and is fine for indoor use.  Here’s one such example.  You also need some small measuring spoons. I really like these ones for measuring out incense powders!

 

Energy and Intention

Before you make incense, you’ll want to think about what your goals are for the incense, and work to build in appropriate energies and intentions into it. If you are making a cleansing incense, you might want to create it during a waning moon; likewise, an incense that aids in balance or grounding might be made at the Fall Equinox.  Same with the actual movements you make in crafting the incense–clockwise motions add a different energy than counter-clockwise. With all things druidic, however, using your intention and experience is best.

Incense measurements

All of the recipes I’m posting here use a “part” as the primary measurement. A part can be anything–a 1/2 teaspoon or 1 teaspoon as a basic “part” works well for most.  If you go larger than that, you are apt to have a lot of incense–probably more than you can use!

 

Two Types of Incense

Scott Cunningham, in The Complete Book of Incense, Oils, and Brews, identifies two types of incense that you can make.  I think his descriptions are pretty useful.

Non-Combustible:  Non-combustible incenses are those that do not burn on their own and usually come in powder form. They may be resins, dried plants, herbs, flowers, essential oils or mixtures of various ingredients. They must be burned on charcoal blocks. These are easy incenses to make and great for the beginning incense-maker becuase you can have a wide range of experimentation and really create some beautiful blends.

Combustible: Combustible incense, in the form of sticks, cones, and coils, burn on their own without the aid of charcoal blocks.  When you buy incense sticks in the store, they are typical “combustible” incense.  Combustible incense is more challenging to make because it requires that you have a high ratio of burnable substances (8 out of 10 parts including woods or plant materials).   Combustible incenses typically have a base (the burnable wood substance); a binder (that which holds the incense together, typically Guar Gum or Makko); and aromatics.   When making combustible incense, it is very important to get everything powdered as small as possibly.  Large chunks of anything, especially resins, will prevent it from burning properly.

For combustible incense, you want to have 3-4 times more woody base than anything else.  You want to limit your use of resins, because they don’t burn well.  I usually have combustible incense recipes that look like this:

  • 4 parts base (sandalwood, cedar, etc.)
  • 1 part binder (usually guar gum)
  • 2-3 parts aromatics (rosemary, orange peel, etc.)
  • several drops essential oil
  • Enough water to make into a paste

If your combustible incense does not burn after you make it, you can grind it back up and add more woody base.

You can also use an extruder designed for polymer clay to help you roll it out.  I purchased my extruder from a local art supply store.

Two Druidic Incense Recipes

The following two recipes are original creations that I’ve made as part of my druidic work.  They are free to use for your own personal purposes :).

Tree Divination (Ovate) Recipe (Non-Combustible)
This is a recipe I created for use with the Tarot of Trees.  Its also an all around wonderful smelling and working for any kind of divination.

  • 1 part frankincense (powdered)
  • 1 part red sandalwood (powdered)
  • 1 part cinnamon
  • 1 part crushed juniper berries
  • 1/20th part sweet orange essential oil
  • ½ part lemongrass
  • ½ part yarrow

Directions: Powder the frankincense and juniper berries separately first. Resins are tricky to powder–a circular motion works best.  Juniper berry likewise can be tricky–sticking it in the freezer for about 20 min makes it way easier to make smaller – it doesn’t really ever “powder” completely.  Once those two ingredients are ground down, add the remaining ingredients into the mortar and pestle and grind them together.  A Once it is all nice and mixed, add the oil and ground together.  Let sit for a few weeks for the incense scents to meld.

Elemental Balance (Bardic) Recipe (Combustible)

  • 10 parts Cedar (Fire); Base
  • 6 parts Sandalwood (Water); Base
  • 1 part Honeysuckle (Earth); aromatic
  • ½ part lemongrass essential oil (Air); aromatic

To bind:

  • 1 part Guar Gum (Binder) (Guar Gum can be
  • Water to make the incense into a firm dough

Powder all ingredients very, very finely, again, adding the oil at the end of the grinding process.  Once all ingredients are ready, you can add Guar Gum, mixing well. Add enough water to create a firm dough–if you use too much water, you can add more cedar or sandalwood powder.  Once your dough resembles play-dough or sculpey, you can roll out and cut, or shape into small incense cones/blocks/sticks.  Allow it to dry for 2 weeks and then store in a nice container with a piece of quartz.  Quartz represents creativity and spirit!

Storage

Once you’ve created your incense, you’ll want to store it in a cool, dark place.  I like to use metal tins (as pictured in the photo above) and add little handmade paper labels to them or else find interesting bottles or tins at a thrift store.  You can also use wooden or glass containers–anything that keeps it sealed and dry.