The quintessential image of a druid is a group of people, all in white robes, performing rituals inside an ancient circle of stones. This image is probably the most known and pervasive of all visualizations of druidry, and for many, it shapes our perceptions of what druidry should be. But taken in a North American context, this image presents two problems. First, we have no such ancient stone circles, and two, another group has already claimed the quintessential white robe, and it’s not a group with which we want to associate our tradition. This kind of tension, along with many other unique features of our landscape, make being an American druid inherently different than a druid located somewhere else in the world. In the case of any spiritual practice, context matters, and context shapes so much of the daily practice and work. And so today, I’m going to answer the question: What does it mean to be an American druid? What strengths do we have? What challenges do we face?
For this discussion, I am drawing upon many sources: my work as the Archdruid of Water in the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), an American-Based Druid order, where I mentor druids and develop our curriculum; my experiences as a long-term member of the East Coast community of OBOD Druids (which now has two gatherings near where I live, ECG and MAGUS); and finally, many of the conversations and comments on this blog.
I want to set up, first, some key differences between the North American and UK contexts to help frame my overall discussion. In the UK, druids practice a religion that is inspired by their their ancestors who lived on that same soil. In the US and Canada, nearly everyone who lives here is the result of colonialization, where the Native Peoples were killed, forcefully removed, and their lands stripped from them. Given this tragic history, druids in North America have a very different cultural relationship to the land. Further, the United States was founded mostly by radical Christians who were generally quite intolerant of other faiths; this has long-lasting implications for the acceptance of non-Abrahamic religious practices. North America also has considerable ecological diversity as it spans a much wider space (not to mention, druids are much more spread out!) Given radical differences in the contexts in which we practice druidry, it makes sense that American Druidry looks inherently different than British Druidry. Our changing context changes everything: our symbolism, our interaction with the land and her spirits, the way we think about sacred sites; our relationship to our own history; our place in our own culture; and more. Let’s look at some of those differences and think now about how druids can, and do, respond.
Ecology and Symbolism
North America is a massive continent with an incredibly wide range of diverse ecosystems and a single “one size fits all” approach simply isn’t going to work here. The diversity is, of coures, a blessing: we can experience many different ecosystems and climates by simply taking a quick trip somewhere new. But the diversity is also a challenge for us, particularly in connecting to traditional symbolism. The druid tradition draws upon things like the Ogham (a set of sacred trees located on the British Isles) and traditional sacred animals (such as the Salmon, Stag, Bear, and Hawk). Talking about four sacred animals (that don’t live in all parts of the US) or even thinking about holidays based on a certain timing wheel of the year based on certain seasonal changes, is simply not relevant to druids living in diverse ecosystems. Rather, druids here developing adaptations: their own unique druidries. This prompted me to write about ecoregional adaptations of druidry through a re-envisioning of the wheel of the year through a local ecological approach, considering the role of localized symbolism, and considering the role of rituals, observances, and activities in this localizing practices. Other “traditional” druid herbs, trees, and so on simply don’t fit for a lot of the ecology in the US. Where I live in Western Pennsylvania, mistletoe doesn’t grow on oak, blackthorn doesn’t exist, and I’ve never seen wild heather. But I do have maple, sassafrass, spicebush, witch hazel, and so many amazing plant allies that I’m getting to know–and I’m thankful for the opportunity!
Spirits of the Land and Ancestors
Another key difference with the land has to do with the ancestors. On one hand, the native peoples who had such a deep spiritual connection to the land are largely no longer present and those that are present are struggling to keep what remains of their own ecological knowledge, rituals, and practices. This information is largely not available to others outside of their communities, and out of respect, it shouldn’t be. This presents problems not only with ovate and ecological studies of plants and herbs, but also, challenges in connecting to the land spiritually. I’ve had many druids tell me that they had difficulty connecting to certain pieces of land, that the land and her spirits were “closed off” to them, and so on. We can only rectify this situation over a long period of time and through working on this land, healing it, connecting with it, and learning about it. In other words, we have a lot of work to do, and taking up this work is a great honor and a great challenge. But we are in a unique position to do so–to work to heal those wounds, as best we can, with time, courage, compassion and will.
Another ancestral challenge is the legacy of many non-native ancestors. For some of us, like myself, my ancestors were directly involved in the pillaging of the abundant resources of Pennsylvania in the name of “progress” to build up American industry. The forests were cut down, the streams were poisoned from mine runoff, the cities grew clouds of smoke and smog, you name it. I talked about in my “Coming Home” post from a while ago. This is, of course, still very much occurring, and again, offers us challenges with connecting to the land–not only do we not have an ancestral tradition of nature-based spirituality on this soil, but we have an ancestral tradition of taking from the land and stripping it bare. Again, I see this as a tremendous opportunity for healing work to be done. We can choose to continue in this ancestral legacy, or we can step aside from it and take a new path. The practice of permauclture design offers us tremendous tools for regenerating land, healing ecosystems, and honoring soil–we can show the spirits here that we are inherently different than that previous legacy that was left. And this is very exciting work.
Earlier this year, I had written quite a bit on establishing sacred spaces as an “American” challenge because of the history of colonization and genocide (and I think that other non-UK druids living in former British Colonies face similar challenges). You can’t just walk or drive to your nearest ancient stone circle, raise some energy, and feel all druid-like here in the states. In reading OBOD’s coursework, particularly the Ovate grade, so much of OBOD druidry focuses on connecting to stones, connecting to those ancient sites, and it leaves a lot of North American druids scratching their heads and saying…hmm. What do I do?
Again, the problem is the solution. One of the things that a lot of us are doing is working to establish our own sacred spaces. I’ve written about this numerous times over many years on this blog in different ways. On a personal level, we might consider how we create stone cairns, creating stone circles and other permanent outdoor sacred spaces, creating various shrines to butterfly/bee sanctuaries to full-blown establishing sacred land. And of course, there are also the larger group projects, like raising stones with 200 people at Stones Rising! This is all to say–yes, we need our own sacred spaces here in North America, and yes, we rising to the challenge and building them. I think this puts us in an inherently different kind of space with our druidry here: we are literally building it with our hands, hearts, and spirits. We are working to connect to this land, as her current people/inhabitants, and honor both the land and those that came before by seeing our land as inherently sacred. And someday, we will be those ancestors who built the stone circles that others will come and celebrate in.
History and Culture
Another key difference between American druidry and the druidry of other places is cultural. I see this in at least two ways. First, there is the issue of broader cultural acceptance. I remember conversation between John Michael Greer and Philip Carr Gomm at OBOD East Coast Gathering in 2012 about the how druidry in the UK vs. the US we perceived (this was archived on Druidcast in Episodes 68 and 69). Those of us listening were absolutely floored to hear Philip describe a story of a town was going to put a highway in, and they brought in a “local druid” to consult about its energetic impact on the land. This would never happen in a million years anywhere in the United States. And in fact, a lot of druids have to remain completely secretive about their spiritual practices, their holidays, not only at work but also with their own families. This issue, and seeing so many struggles with this here in the US, prompted my two-part series on being your authentic self, particularly, for those who aren’t able to be in the open (path of the moon) and those that are working towards more openness (path of the sun).
The second cultural issue goes back to that quintessential image of the white-robed druids inside the standing stones. In the US, images of white-robed people in the forest at night lead to only one conclusion: the Ku Klux Klan. Many American druids express discomfort, heavily modify their white robes, or, simply refuse to wear white robes at all. At least one American-based druid order, the AODA, is moving away from white robes entirely given the cultural climate present in the US. And I see this is a good thing–I see it as a direct confrontation to the pervasive racism and intolerance in our culture.
A Way Forward
What I hope this post has described is that Druidry in the Americas is inherently different than in other places in the world. These differences aren’t detrimental or problems, they are simply differences. I think that American druids have an incredible opportunity: we are building a tradition for ourselves, here, rooted in this place and in this time. We are building our tribe, our relationships with the living earth, our sense of identity, our own sacred spaces. We are reconnecting with the knowledge of all of our ancestors–of our land, of our tradition, and of our blood. We embrace challenges for what they are–opportunities–and make the most of those opportunities through our own creativity and enthusiasm!
Towards that end, we might think about some of the key work before us as American druids:
- Developing eco-regional druidries that fit our ecology, seasons, and local cultural traditions
- Developing a deep understanding of the local plants, animals, and trees that inhabit our landscapes: their roles in the ecosystem, their medicine, their uses, their magic
- Honoring the previous ancestors of the land and working to keep the legacy of tending the land alive
- Thinking about druidry as inter-generational and helping to build the “next generation” of druidry
- Offering energetic healing to the land and acknowledgment of what has come before
- Learning how to directly heal and tend the land and bring it back into healthy production
- Building our own sacred sites and energetic networks
- Enjoying and embracing the ecological diversity that makes this land outstanding
I think there is more than this, but this is certainly a start!