Today marks the Spring Equinox, Alban Eiler, a time of new beginnings, of the balance between light and darkness, between summer and winter, and between hope and despair. Given the energy of today and the challenges before us, I’d like to take some time to frame what I see as some of druidry’s gifts to the world–the things that a druid path can do for the land and its peoples. I’m particularly motivated to write this post today because today marks the end of my 10th year as a druid and I am moving into my second decade along this path–and so I’d like to share some of the insights I’ve had along the way. I want to start with a disclaimer–as the adage goes, if you ask 5 different druids what druidry means to them, you’ll get 10 different answers. I am not speaking on behalf of all druids or for all of druidry, but here today, I am speaking my own truth and path, as I am apt to do on this blog :).
Look around at the land and waters that–in whatever shape that landscape is in. At one time, that land was deeply loved and respected. Humans who lived there cultivated a sacred connection and awareness with it. All indigenous cultures have cultivated such relationships, and all of our bloodlines trace back to some indigenous culture or another if we go far enough back. Before industrialization, or even agriculture, our relationship with the land was much, much different. Our ancestors, rooted in the places they were, knew every inch of the edge of the river and how to build rafts to navigate the rocks and fish. They knew the medicine of root and stem and seed. They knew where the harvests came at what time of the year, and how not to take too much. They knew the names of the trees, the spirits of the animals, and were intimately connected with their surroundings. They knew that their own survival depended on the delicate balance that they had the privileged and responsibility of maintaining. The plants evolved with humans, so much so, that many of the most food and medicine-rich plants depend on us for survival, for nurturing, for scattering their seeds. How did that happen? Over countless millennia, we evolved together, creating mutual dependencies. This is why Pennsylvania forests used to be 30% chestnut–that wasn’t by accident, that was by human design (for more on this, see M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild). Imagine being the land, the spirits of the land, and holding those memories of the time before.
And then, many things changed and time moved on. Knowledge and sacred connections lost, so much so that today, most people can’t identify more than a handful of plants or trees and do not even have basic knowledge of the world around them. Instead, humans today in industrialized countries are sold a myth, the myth of progress ,strong as any other of religious belief, and embraced with the same kind of furor (see John Michael Greer’s works, particularly Not the Future We Ordered for more on this perspective). Wrapped up the myth of progress are myths of the importance of consumer goods, of smartphones and electronics that must be replaced every two years, of chemical-ridden pesticides that lace our foods and invade our bodies.
Supporting that myth allows the whole-sale pillaging of the land and its inhabitants. Supporting that myth allows national forests to be fracked, the same patches of forest to be repeatedly logged for two centuries, our waterways to be filled with poisons, our mountaintops removed. These are things that I witness every day here, in my beloved Appalachian mountains in Western PA. If relationships to the land were a pendulum, we humans of today have swung so far in the other direction from our indigenous ancestors, or even those living closer to the land a few centuries before.
Our lands, waters, and plant spirits still hold the memories of those who came before, of the relationships that once were cultivated. There is, among them, a great mourning and loss collectively. They hold memories of humans who used to care for them so carefully. Here in the Americas, at least here in Pennsylvania, that sacred relationship between land and human was abruptly severed several centuries ago with the driving out of the native peoples and the re-settlement of Pennsylvania by those of European descent. With the new humans, the last centuries saw tremendous amounts of pillaging and destruction, fueled by the myth of progress.
Since that time, and to today, the myth of progress changes our behaviors and relationship radically with nature. Humans, here in the US, now spend 87% of their time indoors and another 6% of their time in automobiles or other forms of enclosed transit. That means just seven percent of the average American’s life today is spent outside. And of that seven percent, how much is spent mowing the grass? Spraying dandelions? Walking on the pavement among tall buildings? How much of that seven percent is spent with our heads in our phones rather than looking around us? And beyond these statistics, I think there’s a general disregard for life, for nature that is dominant in our collective cultural understanding.
Druidry, I believe, is one good sign that the pendulum is starting to swing back in the right direction. Humans are once again are seeking that ancestral connection to the land that is still in our blood, and in the memories of the forests, the stones, the rivers. Learning how to see, and interact, with nature is critical to helping that pendulum swing back in the other example. As a very simple example, last week, I was walking back from campus after teaching, and I came across a cluster of cut-back bramble bushes. I looked at those canes, getting just ready to bud, with tiny tufts of green coming from out of the buds, and I could see the promise of spring there. I was looking forward to the Equinox, and also feeling the sadness at seeing things budding a month earlier than usual due to climate change. The tips of the canes, too, held a tremendous surprise–when sliced longways (which someone had done recently to trim them), the cane of the blackberry bush forms a 5 pointed star, a pentagram, not so dissimilar from the pentagram I found in the chickweed plant some years ago. This cultivation of the sacred is, in part, observing sacred patterns of nature, unfolding around me, on my daily walk home from campus. And noticing nature–the birds, the trees, appreciating them, and knowing their names. And it’s more than patterns–the bramble holds medicine, food, protection–and as a druid, I’ve worked to learn about all of its gifts. As I look in awe at the bramble, I wonder how many people have cultivated such a sacred relationship with the land in this area? That even would look at the bramble and be willing to look closer?
As a Druid, you might be the first adult person in several generations to see that land with something other than indifference, profit, or going into the land for the sole purpose of taking. As a druid, you might be the first to enter those lands again, in a long time, to see those lands not only in appreciation but as sacred spaces. You might be the first who is willing to tend those lands again, to help heal, to help regenerate, to give rather than pillage and take. When I, as a druid, walk into the forest, I am often aware that I am reconnecting with lands that have not been thought of, or engaged with, as sacred for a very long time. What a gift it is to the land, to really see it. To interact with it. To hold it sacred. To be willing to learn and grow with it–in it–through it. To walk and see the buds on the trees, to see the medicine growing up out of the cracks of the sidewalks. I’m not just talking about the wild places here, but all places. You can sense the sacredness of the soil, even below the buildings that sit on it. You realize that there is no unsacred space, that all spaces and places, regardless of their damage, are still part of this great living earth–as you, too, are a natural part of it.
For many druids, interacting with the land in a sacred way is one of your gifts to the world–and it is an incredibly powerful gift that takes a lifetime of exploration to truly understand and realize.
The act of opening yourself up to these experiences is, for many, the first step down the druid path. As one of the Archdruids in AODA, I spend a lot of time talking with new druids on the path and mentoring druids who are just starting their journey and studies. I read letters that they write that tell us about why they want to become druids, what they hope to gain from druidry. So many times, it seems that rebuilding that connection to nature is one of the key reasons that they join. To many people, when they first find druidry, are excited. They often say, “This is the path that describes me, as I already am!” This gives them a word that finally fits their self-image, the person that they are becoming with each passing breath and each cycle of the sun and moon. And every one of those letters, without fail, talks about reconnecting to the natural world!
Another tragic part of the myth of progress, asks us to give our power, especially our creative gifts, up and to let others provide us entertainment. It saps our creative energy, and we are disempowered as creative thinkers and doers in the world. Therefore, a second major gift of druidry, I believe, is regaining that creative force, the flow of awen, and using it for good in our own lives and in the lives of others in the world. Even the act of meditation alone allows us to “clear” our minds; the AODA’s sphere of protection or OBOD’s light body exercises allow for the Awen to flow within us again. And we desperately need these creative responses here and now–through music, poetry, artwork, dance, painting, crafts, the written word–to help us make sense of, process, and respond to what is going on. The creative arts help us make sense of the world and what is happening and can reach people meaningfully and deeply in ways that we otherwise could not. At least in my own experience, my path in the bardic arts helps give a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves and to cultivate reconnection through my writings on this blog, my artwork, my teaching, and more.
The world is changing quickly around us, and for many, darkness appears to be settling in. Things are growing more frenzied, more desperate, more terrifying. The true tolls of incessant pillaging of the planet are now so visible and known and will continue to unfold in the years and generations to come. Just a few weeks ago, we passed the 2 degree threshold that so many have said, over the years, that we shouldn’t pass. Those in denial are, well, still in denial, and the temperature keeps rising. But the rest of us must understand and work with our own grief, our own responses. Many come to druidry because they are looking for some path forward through this mess, and Druidry helps them take such a path, a path deeper into the landscape, into their own creative gifts, and through the difficulty that we are all facing. Druidry, perhaps, gives us hope and reconnection–exactly the kind of thing, I believe, we need as we move forward into this unknown and terrifying territory. Many druids find themselves integrating spiritual responses with other kinds of responses–permaculture, for example, is a fantastic “get your hands dirty” compliment to this path (and certainly, its a big part of my own druid practice).
To wrap up, some of the greatest gifts I see of druidry are (in true triad form):
- A gift to the land through the cultivation of a sacred relationship, awareness, and active healing work, but also through recognizing, confronting, and doing something about the predicament we face as a planet.
- A gift to its people through the cultivation of the creative human arts, to give the land voice in the world through music, story, song, artwork, dance and more.
- A gift to ourselves and to the nurturing of our souls, to give us tools, and outlets of response and the freedom to engage in bardic arts that reconnect humans and their landscape.
Finding the druid path is a gift, a blessing, and the ramifications of it go well beyond just ourselves. Often, for the first few years down this path, you are absorbing, like a sponge, all that you can–and things are very inward-focused. You have a lot of healing work to do on your own inner landscape, and that’s critical work to do, work that will take a lifetime. But at some point, that sponge becomes full, and you are now ready to reverse the process, and give those gifts back to the world. Druidry is a gift to the world, if we make it so. And on this sacred day, when so many things hang in the balance, it helps us re-balance our own lives, hearts, and souls.