Each of us has a story–a story of how we ended up doing what we do, believing what we believe, walking the path that we travel. These stories are often like richly woven tapestries, and I believe that there is value in telling them, both for our own spiritual development, but also for the development of others. For in others’ tales, we learn that many of us have walked similar places to get to where we are–and we can recognize those who are fellow travelers on the path. Today, I’d like to share my own story of how I became a druid. There are a few different stands to this tale, and not all are easy to unravel.
When I was a young child, my family moved to a home on the top of a mountain in the Laurel Highlands of Western Pennsylvania, a home that overlooked a massive forest. Almost immediately, my cousins (who lived next door) and I began tromping about in the woods. Our grandfather took us there, teaching us the knowledge of stem, root, and seed. My cousins and I built cabins with fallen branches, sticks, and stones; we built dams in the little “crick” (that’s a small “creek” or stream to the rest of yinz not from this area); and we made friends with many of the trees. Most of my childhood was spent in these beloved woods. Spending so much time in the forest attuned me to the land, the seasons, the ways they changed. When the forgotten springs opened up and flowed, the spring ephemeral flowers, the progression of life through the seasons. As we all grew up, we formed this wonderful friendship with the forest. I now refer to this land as “the forest to which I belong.”
There was one mystery in the woods my cousins and I had not figured out—something we often discussed as children. All through the woods, these giant rotting stumps could be found. Many of the moss-coated stumps were massive—at least double the size of the current trees growing. The stumps were black with age, covered in moss, and mostly rotted down—when you touched them, they would fall apart. Later, I discovered that the mushrooms growing on these stumps were ganoderma tsugae (hemlock reishi, one of the most healing mushrooms on the planet). As kids, we came up with all sorts of reasons that the stumps were there—aliens came and placed them there as a signal that we could decipher, a fire had burned much of the forest, or perhaps a tornado had come and ripped out many of the trees. The one conclusion that we didn’t even fathom was that they were trees that had been cut by human hands. Was it childish innocence? Was it naivety? The thought that someone would do such a thing never crossed our minds. When we built cabins, we never cut or damaged the trees—not even to put nails in them–because our grandfather had taught us to honor and respect nature. So it is no wonder that the correct solution to this “mystery” had never occurred to us.
When I was 14, everything changed. We heard the loggers before we ever saw them. Noises came from below—the sound of trucks, saws, and the occasional crash of a friend falling to his or her death. At first it was barely noticeable, but after a few weeks, they were at our doorstep and our parents no longer let us into the forest. We watched with horror from atop the mountain where our beloved woods were literally being torn apart by the chainsaws and crushed with their heavy machinery. I remember laying in the tall grass behind the house just above the tree line where the forest began and crying and crying—I couldn’t understand what could possess someone to destroy something that I so fondly cherished and respected. It was an extraordinarily traumatic experience–the forest and I shared the pain of it. The logging invaded my dreams and my waking hours, and it seemed to never stop.
Finally, one day, all was silent. The noises of the forest that I knew so well were hushed, different, sorrowful. Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring and Bernie Krause’s The Great Animal Orchestra come to mind here–the silence was all-encompassing in ways it never had been. The forest felt different, it sounded different, and it was no longer the same place. After the loggers finished I went into the forest only once. As I entered and saw the horrific devastation, repressed memories of serious trauma in my childhood surfaced. The forest and I shared in our pain, trauma, and abuse. After that day, I did not step again into the forest for many years; I could not bear the pain of seeing so many friends fallen, and of the reminder of what had been done to my own body, not so dissimilar from my beloved forest.
But leaving the forest created a substantial distance from nature for me. That distance had a very serious toll. I grew distant from many things that mattered: from my creative gifts, from the natural world, from my own family, from my broader life’s purpose. I grew heavily invested in video games and spent years of my life immersed in fantasy worlds, all the while shutting down my own inner life and bardic arts. Many things happened during that time in my late teens and early 20s, but you could say that I was not a full person then.
While in college, I met a dear friend of mine named Alfred. It was with Alfred that I first began reconnecting to nature–we would go out on adventures, into deep woods and caves. About six months after I met him, Alfred was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor.
Alfred came with me to my parent’s house one warm spring day, and we stood on the edge of the forest, the forest I hadn’t entered for almost a decade. I shared with him the story of it and of my own pain. And he took my hand and asked me if I wanted to enter it again, and we did.
The forest was not like I remembered–and yet it was still the same–the same kinds of trees, the little and big cricks, the landforms, and now, the distinct logging roads. There was a mass of dead branches from the logging and stumps everywhere, and also tons of underbrush and young trees coming up. It was different and wild, and yet vibrant–fiercely reclaiming that which had been lost to the logging. Returning to the forest was a tremendously important healing moment for me because it was at that moment that I, too, had the same capacity. Nature teaches us all of the most powerful lessons. Further, seeing that forest healing gave us both hope about Alfred’s condition. Unfortunately, my friend lost his battle with cancer a year and a half later. Before anyone else knew he died, his spirit visited me, and I knew he was gone. This, combined with the lesson of healing the forest provided me, lead me on a spiritual quest to better understand….well….everything.
After much reading, reflection, and soul-searching after Alfred’s death, I knew I wanted to return to my deep relationship with nature and cultivate it seriously. I also had reclaimed my own creative arts, and I wanted a path that celebrated that. I found druidry–through the AODA–and joined. I had come home. Druidry was a term that described who I was–and wanted to be- as a human being in the many different spheres of my life: my connection to the land, to the spirit realm, to my professional career, to my home life, and to my creative pursuits.
Once I started down the path of Druidry, I began returning often to the forest to which I belong. Over time, the forest had transformed, healed, magically and physically, back into the space I had once knew. Her scars were still there, the stumps from what had been logged, but she was strong, her gentle persistence in reclaiming what was lost. After those experiences, I found myself particularly sensitive to the spirits of the land, especially the spirits of the trees–their joys and suffering–and was called to physically and spiritually heal the land at every opportunity. Wherever I go, the land reaches out to me, and I reach out to the land; we grow and learn from each other. And this work doesn’t apply just to natural places; the land is everywhere, even in urban areas and under concrete, she still calls out to her own.
At the same time as I was discovering druidry, I also recognized the need to radically shift my lifestyle–how could I call myself a druid if I, like most Americans, was living in an unsustainable, environmentally damaging manner? And so, with dedicated effort, I began making permanent changes in my life, changes to transform from an exploiting lifestyle to a nurturing one. I learned about permaculture, sustainability, and deep ecology, and embraced those principles as a central life philosophy. I take every opportunity to learn, to teach, to grow, and to help preserve. I joined two druid orders to help me along my path–their spiritual lessons taught me much about the long-standing spiritual traditions of nature reverence. This blog is a story of that path–thank you for joining me on my journey.