Dear readers, I’m taking a pause from my regular article-style blog posts this week to share some big news and do a bit of reflection. Last week, as of the Fall Equinox, I became the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA). I’ve been in leadership and service with the AODA since 2013, serving first as Trilithon journal editor for four years, then as Grand Pendragon, then as the Archdruid of Water for the last four years. And now, I’ve stepped up to lead the AODA, following Gordon Cooper, and before him, my friend and mentor, John Michael Greer. Because of this, I wanted to take a week to share my story of AODA and reflect on this path. I do this for a few reasons–first, I wanted to share the news. But also, I realize that a lot of people may find this reflection useful in deepening their own practices–learning about others’ paths helps us see possibilities for our own. Additionally, a lot of what I talk about on this blog is rooted in some way to frameworks from the AODA. A lot of my thinking about nature spirituality, druidry, and permaculture have an underlying foundation of AODA work. Thus, in this post, I am going to do two things. First, I’m going to share my story about AODA and how I got to where I am today. Second, I’m going to share what I consider to be the strengths of AODA practice, the highlights, the things that make AODA an amazing druid order.
The Road to a Spiritual Home: My Path into AODA
I’ll start by sharing some reflections about my own journey into AODA. After leaving home at 18 to go to college, I released the last hold of my parents’ religion. I called myself a secular humanist and an agnostic and went blissfully along my way. And while that path was useful to me for a time, after watching my closest friend battle with, and die of brain cancer in my early 20’s, I realized I needed something more. I had experienced his spirit after death, I had a deep knowledge of his passing long before the formal news came my way, and with that experience, I knew I could be agnostic no longer. So in April of 2006, I began working through my grief and also finding a spiritual path that I could call home. The only spiritual experiences I had were with nature, so I started with that–I needed a path rooted in nature. I found druidry sometime in the fall of 2006, and after researching numerous druid orders, I found two I really liked (consequently, the two I belong to and work with today- AODA and OBOD). I decided to join AODA and did so in early 2007.
My first few years were spent learning and growing and asking so many questions. As a teaching order, AODA is dedicated to giving people a set of tools and practices to help them develop and deepen their own nature spirituality, rather than offer dogmatic beliefs or sets of rules. This self-directed path was useful, both because fundamentalism of any kind was not welcome in my life, but also because self-direction allows for ownership and mastery in the deepest way possible. You learn by doing, by practicing, and sometimes, by making mistakes. I also think that part of why I took to AODA’s practices so quickly is that it didn’t require me to believe anything, particularly surrounding deity, a concept with which I was wrestling after coming out of my birth religion. Instead, I was given a set of working tools, rituals, and experiences that helped me shape my own druidry, deepen my connection to myself and my creative gifts, connect deeply with the living earth on multiple levels, and learn to be fully present and alive in this world. I learned about the power of meditation, spending time in nature, making lifestyle changes to reduce my ecological footprint, and more. I opened up myself to the bardic arts, the living earth, and the world of spirit (you can see AODA’s full curriculum here for more info). My developing nature spirituality, on both inner and outer levels, unfolded over a period of years. Several years into my path, as I was finishing up my AODA 2nd degree, I also joined OBOD and found those practices to be wonderfully complementary, particularly as OBOD’s course offers a lot of deep psychological work.
As time went on, I continued to grow with my AODA practices, eventually moving into the AODA’s self-designed 3rd degree. This is a three-year project that you undertake to enhance your spiritual practices in some way–it is entirely self-designed and self-directed. For my project, I took up the practice of permaculture and applied it to druidry (and as some of you may know, I have my first book coming out sometime next year–and that book is on the synthesis of permaculture and sustainable living practices and earth-centered spirituality!). This blog was also born from that project–I started this blog in 2013 as a way to document my experiences in the third degree in learning about the synthesis of permaculture, sustainable living, and druid practice. Obviously, I decided to keep it going long after as writing this blog became one of my primary expressions of my bardic arts!
What are AODA’s strengths? What does AODA do well?
Now that you know a bit about my own experiences with AODA, I wanted to share some of what I think makes AODA unique and special. I draw this list from several places. First, obviously, my own experience having gone through the curriculum. But also, for the last four years, I have read most of the degree reflections from AODA; these are what people write at the end of competing for one or more of their degrees. You can get a deep sense from these as to what people are really taking away from these practices.
One of the most central and abiding aspects of AODA practice is the way in which nature is central to everything we do. This isn’t just respect for or use of nature as part of spiritual practice, but rather, seeing the natural world immediately surrounding you at the core of your spiritual practice. AODA druidry has several key features that help members root themselves deeply within their own bioregions and practices.
Nature Connection: Wildcrafting your druidry.
The first is the concept of wildcrafting your own druidry, first described by Gordon Cooper years before he became Grand Archdruid. This manifests as a deep commitment to developing locally-based druids that focus on a deep understanding of your local ecology, local seasonal wheel of the year, and so on. I wrote a number of articles on this blog about ecoregional druids in this same theme: you can see them here, here, and here. What you see with AODA druids is rather than “boilerplate” seasonal wheels of the year based on far off locations, you see all kinds of different druids based on location
Nature connection: Reciprocation and regeneration.
The second is understanding and set of practices that forefront reciprocation as a critical part of a spiritual path. For the last few centuries, humans have felt that they can simply take from nature with reckless abandon. In fact, we cannot, and the true cost of our actions are coming due. In AODA practice, we recognize that saying you revere nature is not enough–but rather, it must be accompanied by practices that engage, in permaculture terms, care for the living earth and fair share, taking only what we need. These practices also focus on regenerating nature. When they take up AODA druidry, all of our members engage in lifestyle changes and tree planting to help “give back.” Many AODA members go well beyond the required work and truely embrace nature reciprocation as a core part of life, practicing permaculture or other regenerative practices. AODA druidry, then, is the deep green kind of druidry–the druidry that helps protect and heal our landscapes.
Nature connection: Nature knowledge.
The third aspect of nature connection central to AODA is a commitment to growing ecological knowledge about the world around you. Most people in the modern world know virtually nothing about nature, and we make it a point in AODA to change that–to have people know about nature in their local area. Thus, all AODA members focus on learning more about their local ecosystems, through several different practices. Regular time spent in nature, including in focus and observation, helps us gain direct experiences that allow us deeper connections. We also read books, take classes, and learn about different parts of the ecology, geology, hydrology, and so forth with our ecosystems. This is a powerful practice–by learning about nature, we grow more connected with nature.
Adaptable and Effective Rituals and Frameworks.
AODA works with a seven elemental system, including the four classical elements (earth, air, fire, and water) and three aspects of spirit (above, below, and within). The three aspects of spirit are tied to the telluric current (earth energy, spirit below), the solar current (solar energy, spirit above) and the lunar current (nywfre, the spark of life, the spirit within). We offer members a core daily practice, the Sphere of Protection (SOP), as a protective/balancing ritual that offers lasting benefit. I have been working with the SOP and this elemental system for a long time, and it has been extraordinarily adaptable and useful in a wide variety of circumstances. One ritual, the SOP, literally can do anything from setting me up for my day to help me send healing energy to a friend to doing massive land healing and blessing. John Michael Greer once explained it to me as a “swiss army knife” and this is an apt metaphor.
One of the other great things about the SOP, which is partially covered by my next two bullet points, is that the SOP is also infinitely adaptable to one’s local ecology, local beliefs, and individual practices. There are versions of the SOP floating out there using swords, oracle cards (my last week’s post), various different ecologies, and much more. Each person has the opportunity to create their own take on this ritual, thus, making it even more meaningful and personal.
Creating Room for Individual Paths and Honoring Diversity.
As my story above explored, one of the other strengths of the AODA path is the way in which it appeals to people of many different walks of life and belief systems. AODA is a path of nature spirituality, compatible with many other belief systems. It is non-dogmatic, and instead, offers you a set of tools to help you discover and develop your own spiritual practice. Within AODA, we have people who practice an incredibly diverse range of druids: polytheistic pagans, animists, Christians, atheists, Buddhists, and more. I love the fact that you can have a practice rooted in nature spirituality and keep your existing beliefs–or explore them in a new context. This allows AODA to appeal to a wide range of people from different walks of life. I think this is really important today, given some of the social and political challenges we face at present and the rise of extremists and hate groups. Let’s let peace prevail in the quarters, and certainly, within our order.
Flexibility and Self Direction
AODA’s core curriculum focuses on individual choice, individual path, and following the flow of Awen. In addition to offering individuals a set of core tools (meditation, nature observation, celebrating the seasons, the SOP), it also offers a lot of flexibility in choosing one’s path. Members can choose to pursue any number of bardic, ovate, or druid practices while working through the curriculum. Members also develop plans of study that are focused on their lifestyles and local ecosystems. No two druids end up doing the exact same thing as part of their path into AODA.
Traditions and History
AODA is the oldest druid order in the US. Established in the US in 1912, the AODA is currently 106 years old. During that long history, it had several twists and turns, the most recent being that John Michael Greer resurrected the AODA in 2003 when it was down to less than a dozen elderly members. Now, the AODA is thriving with 1200 members, mostly located in the USA. The SOP, the oldest of our practices, dates to sometime in the 1960s, also likely adapted from older practices. This is a tradition with staying power, and that matters.
When looking back on my own life, I have no idea what it might have been without the AODA. Most of the core parts of my spiritual practice, and my life today, is directly resulting from the core practices that I’ve been doing for over a decade. AODA practices allowed me to return to my bardic arts (now an indispensable part of my life), those practices led me to study and practice permaculture, herbalism, homesteading, radically change my life, and taught me so much about nature (so much, that now I can teach others and do so through regular plant walks and herbal education). I’m grateful to be taking this next step with AODA, and I hope some of you will join me on that journey.