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!
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Very timely, as usual. 🙂 So glad you’re finding/making/nurturing so much spiritual community in your new home area. This post is timely for me, as I’m wrestling with exploring in novel form the Western Mysteries, Faery Lore, in and around Wild West mining culture. There’s not a direct translation. To varying degrees, we are mostly spiritual orphans on this continent. Synthesizing the split between DNA heritage and the Land remains a fitting karmic dilemma as well as an opportunity for healing. Blessed Be, and thanks for articulating your own journey. 🙂
Laura, that sounds like quite a combo to explore! I think the term “spiritual orphans” and “karmic dilemma” has a lot of power and resonates with me in terms of the land and where we are here. In permaculture terms, I like to think about “the problem is the solution” and see what we need to turn some of these problems into solutions. Healing and land healing seem like the obvious ways to go, as we are both exploring, but I also think there are lots of other possibilities!
Thanks, Dana. Yes, there are so many ways to explore. It’s one of the fun things but also the challenges of writing fiction. We can explore so many more in a book through multiple characters than a single lifetime has time for! “The problem is the solution” has become such a guidepost in my life. It really does inspire so much creativity. 🙂
Dana, as always I enjoyed this post. While I usually refer to myself as a hedge witch or forest witch, The path of a Druid is closely aligned. We live surrounded by forest and mountains here in the White Mountains. We are transitioning our land to permaculture and hope to someday be a permaculture learning center. I have always felt drawn to nature especially the forest. Even as a child, I would find a large stone to sit on and connect with the forest before my family headed out on a hike. I was so surprised after my father passed away, that there in the attic in MA. was the walking stick I would use on our hikes when we visited friends in Randolph NH. Here I was living on the Southern side of that same mountain range. The walking stick is now here in NH with me again (I’m 60 years old now) The stick and I have come full circle.
Wow, what a great story! I love, too, that you are seeing the full circle of a cherished object from a now-ancestor. That sounds like a tradition worth passing on!
I’ll start out by saying that I’m not a Druid or training in the tradition. I do however practice in a tradition that honors nature and all that it gives us. I think beyond just acknowledging that this land is not ours and that a lot of violence brought us to it, it is important not to dismiss Native Americans as already gone or too few and work in solidarity with them and their striving towards sovereignty. There’s something scary about acknowledging that our connection to the land might never be quite where we want it because it’s not ours but it is important to accept and move that energy to ensuring indigenous people’s sovereignty. How can we truly honor the land, even with eco transformation, if it is still being taken from its people? It’s a hard one, and I think one of the primary spiritual and poltical challenges of all who honor nature in their practices.
Asail, thanks so much for the comments. I think that what you are directly addressing is the catch-22 that we all face as nature-based spiritual folks who are beneficiaries of colonization
In terms of my own comments, I think for where I live, the Native American people are largely gone. I live in Pennsylvania, which was one of the first places that was colonized. Most of the Native peoples here had been forcibly relocated to Oklahoma in the early 18th century. With that said, I absolutely think in other parts of the Americas, that battle wages on (as we’ve seen from the Water Protector’s recent battles). One of the organizations I like to support is an organization called “Cultural Survival.” They work on indigenous people’s rights all over the world, and I think that’s work very much worth supporting and doing.
In terms of our own relationship with the land, I’ve been working on this issue and thinking through this a lot in the last few years. I think the place I’m at (at least for now) is that I’m the only one who is here, on this land, honoring it. It will take decades, centuries, generations, to build that kind of relationship to the land, but I’m starting that process now.
Such questions of ancestry and colonization have occupied my thoughts for a long time. I’m grateful that you are addressing them so directly. I agree that a spiritual practice for American Druids that focuses on healing the land, honoring and supporting Native peoples (as well as their privacy), finding connections and building sacred sites here, now is the best and perhaps truly the only respectful, positive, and regenerative model we have. Which doesn’t make it easy. Here in Maryland, if you know what you’re looking for, the physical manifestations and detritus of the oppression of peoples and the land are all around. We need to never lose sight of this history. But we also need to build anew!
Talis, thanks for the comment. I don’t think there is any easy answer to the issues of colonization and our respect for the Native Peoples. Maryland is very similar to PA–it doesn’t take much to look around and see that oppression of the land firsthand. Its everywhere. But I guess the question I ask is this–what can I do to make it better? If I have a choice of bringing joy and healing or suffering into the world, which path am I going to choose and why?
So on Buy Nothing Day this year (Black Friday), a friend and I didn’t shop and instead planted 45 trees to help regrow a forest. That’s the kind of thing I feel good about, and that the spirits appreciate.
Thank you Dana for putting into words all the difficulties I have encountered with my OBOD Ovate training, but was too ashamed to ever bring it up to my mentor. I have tried to modify so many things to “fit in” with the U.K. model. I have felt uneasy about nearly re-writing the program to fit my southeastern United States geography and culture. (No white robes, for sure, green works nicely!) Your post has helped me to realize that it is the right thing to do should I wish to be spiritually honest as a druid. I suppose druids who live anywhere but the UK have had to intuit their path and loosely work with the Celtic based Druidry programs. OBOD encourages us to do just that, to leave out what doesn’t work for us, but it always felt like I would be missing the full druid experience. You are right, being an American Druid has it’s unique challenges and those challenges are exactly what will make our druid practice unique and powerful. Thank you for your wisdom and dedication.
You are welcome, MizRuth! I think a big part of what the druid communities–and individuals–can do here is start to have these conversations. We can certainly have a “full druid experience”–but that experience is shaped by our local ecosystem and communities here. And that’s important to note.
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Dana, I am pleased to read this timely post. My husband and I just moved to a new place and we are blessed with an acre and a half of woods–healthy woods! Just this weekend, I had a very psycho-spiritual connection with a white pine in my yard. Can you recommend a book for a long-practicing “eclectic pagan” who now wishes to more deeply connect with Druidry? A “grimoire” of sorts, a wheel of the Druid year?
Ailennyn, that depends. If you’re interested in Revival Druidry, or AODA in particular, then John Michael Greer’s “Druidry Handbook” is the book for you. If you’re interested in Reconstructionism, or ADF in particular, you might like “The Solitary Druid” by Ellison or founder Isaac Bonewits’ “Essential Guide to Druidism”. I’ve heard good things about “The Path of Druidry” by Billington, as well; I believe she’s a member of OBOD. There’s a growing amount of writing on Druidry, but it’s not yet as available as stuff on general paganism or Wicca, so you’ll probably need to order what you want to read (remember, interlibrary loan is your friend!). I amassed a decent collection of texts from my local Half Price Books, but I’m a special case ;-).
I think Sister Crow has offered a great range of sources. The “Druidry Handbook” is my staple and go-to book. Each offers something different. The kind of druidry I practice is rooted in the stuff in the Druidry Handbook as well as the AODA and OBOD courses, if that’s helpful to you 🙂