Bardic Arts: Creation as Deepening Relationship with the World

Spirit of St. John's Wort (painting inspired by nature)

One of the things that the rise of AI has done is asked all people who create to really investigate the benefits of that creation, and weigh them with the potential efficiency of AI.  For example, right now I’m about two years into a new tarot deck (no, I haven’t posted a single image or anything about it yet) and the process of creating the deck will likely take a total of 4-5 years.  Each card takes about 8-15 hours to complete. With the advent of AI image generators, I could simply ask the AI Image generator to create something for me and probably have a deck done in a matter of weeks.  I wrote extensively about why making magical tools with AI would be a bad idea a few months ago so you know where I stand on the matter, but the time it takes to create a tarot deck helps illustrate my point.  With the rise of these AI technologies, one is constantly balancing the potential use of new technology and the efficiency it brings with the act of creation and the benefit of the slow, skilled approach.  As I’ve been pretty clear in my opposition to AI image generators and other AI uses in spiritual work, I’ll always choose to create in a slow, connected way.  But in making this decision, it strikes me that many people, particularly those who are thinking about picking up a bardic art, may find that they need some more reasons to choose skill over technology.  So why do we create? What are the benefits?

Amanita Muscaria Mushroom (botanical Illustration)
Amanita Muscaria Mushroom (botanical Illustration)

As I’ve been arguing, practicing bardic arts has incredible benefits, and these benefits deepen as you deepen your practice. In today’s post, I want to talk about bardic arts and their ability to deepen your relationship with the world around you.  I’ll use examples from my own bardic practices, but I hope you can use this post to think through your own creative practices and why taking up a serious creative practice helps us explore something fundamental in what it means to be a druid today.  I will also note that this is part of my longstanding series on the bardic arts: taking up the path of the bard part 1, part 2, and part 3; cultivating awen in your life, bardic storytelling, bardic arts and the ancestors, creativity and mental health, and visioning the future.  I’ll also point readers to my 2019 OBOD Mount Hameus lecture on the bardic arts in the druid tradition!

Connecting to the World through Creativity

The bardic arts, the practice of weaving creativity and creation into your life on a regular basis, is something fundamental to what it means to be a druid today.  And as I argue here in this post, and as I’ve found from my other work, it also is fundamental to what it means to be a human to create a deeper and more meaningful relationship with the world around us and the worlds within us.  So in this post, we’ll explore a bit about that.

Creation for Learning and Deepening

One of the ways that the bardic arts support our growth is that when we create, we learn and grow from that creation.  In the field I belong to, writing studies, we call this “writing to learn.”  This concept doesn’t just apply to writing, but rather, to many different creative arts.  When we have thoughts or ideas in our heads, those thoughts aren’t necessarily complete–they are the start of something, like a seed that we plant to see grow. These thoughts and ideas require some expression, bringing forth..in essence, they require an audience to deepen and understand. Even if it’s just you writing your thoughts down for your future self, there’s something very magical and powerful about retelling.  That might be sharing your songs or stories around a fire with friends, it might be blogging (which is a big reason that I blog!), it may be writing your novel.  Whatever it is, you learn more by deeply engaging with your creative practice.  Over time, these insights blossom and grow and you become a more whole and integrated person.

This is a huge benefit of why creative practices “work” and how they nurture us.  We can create any number of things–wood carvings, songs, pottery, weavings, and more to help us learn and grow in our own ideas, visions, and place in the world.  As a nice published example of this, one of my favorite books, Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta, he creates a traditional form of aboriginal craft for each of the chapters.  He describes in the chapter what he created, the symbols, carvings, woods, and approaches he used, and how it helped him understand more deeply the concepts he wanted to convey.  But also how those creations helped ground and root him within his culture so that he could share powerfully and meaningfully.

This idea is really worth exploring.  Creation is never just for creation’s sake–its always unfolding and deepening within us.

Creation for Deepning Relationships With Nature

Poison Ivy botanical illustration–requiring over 30 hours of painting and observation

About four years ago, I began to learn the discipline of Botanical Art and Illustration.  I’ve shared some of those images I’ve been working on in this post.  Botanical art and illustration is particularly challenging because your goal is to accurately and scientifically render a plant, mushroom, tree, or even animals and birds.  This discipline requires skill, patience, and a great deal of discipline.  Advanced students in the program are able to participate in a yearly art show, so right now, I’m working on a chicken of the woods mushroom (mixed media: pen and ink + watercolor) at the 13×17″ size and it will be displayed next year at Phipps Conservatory. This painting will probably take me 50 or more hours to complete. And while that sounds like a lot of time, that is time well worth it.  By the end of painting the Chicken of the Woods mushroom, I will be able to accurately render them forever, always identify them, and always connect with their spirits.  To even begin this painting, I journeyed to the spirit of the Chicken of the Woods, connected with her, and asked her how she would like me to paint her.  And once I did that, I had a clear image of what to paint. Since then, I’ve been journeying around looking for wild Chicken of the Woods to connect with.  It has been a wonderful experience.

A few years ago, I did a poison ivy painting (above), also in the style of botanical art and illustration.  Poison ivy was particularly challenging because I couldn’t touch or interact with the plant in any way–I just had to observe her at a respectful distance. As part of this work, I was able to sketch her, study her in multiple ecosystems, and really learn her.  And now, I feel like my identification skills with poison ivy are exponentially better–I was just teaching her to some of our grove members last weekend, and I had a lot more depth and nuance to talk about with poison ivy’s qualities than I used to before I created this painting.  Further, I feel like now that I showed up for poison ivy and took the time to render her, she now shows up for me–our relationship has deepened.

Becuase here’s the thing: as you are painting, or carving, or writing–as you are working to render your subject, your subject is also working to render you.  As I painted the poison ivy, the poison ivy in turn, worked me, bringing me closer in alignment with her rhythms, mysteries, and spirit.  This is true of any bardic art when you throw yourself into it–the art shapes and changes you as much as you change and shape the art.  The best art experiences have that two-way connection, and it becomes a very powerful, living, and magical thing (I will probably need to write about this more in depth in the future!)

These two examples illustrate a critical concept–through the bardic arts, we can more closely learn the world of nature, both within and without. We can connect to the spirits of plants, animals, mountains, and many other places.  And by allowing them to work within us, we learn the world of nature.  These bardic practices significantly deepened my ability to observe and interact with nature, to identify key aspects of nature, and also how to slow down and really pay attention.

Creation for Deepening a Commitment to Self-Care, Self-Nurturing, and Personal Growth

A third area that the bardic arts really allows you to hone in on is making a commitment to yourself. Once you get through some of the difficult aspects of shedding cultural challenges and getting through the hardest parts of being a novice, the real benefits begin.  As I’ve explored in my research on the bardic arts, Most people who take up a serious practice of the bardic arts find that the bardic arts are deeply healing, rejuvenating, and relaxing.  For me, my most nourishing and healing times are in my art studio, writing this blog or books, or creating various forms of art I practice.  I put on some music and just get deeply into the flow of the awen.

Flow is a state of mind that you can experience when you are engaged in creative work.  Flow is a trance or meditative state where you become deeply attuned to your creative practice.  You may lose track of time or not pay attention to anything outside of what you are working on as you become highly focused, present, and engaged in the work at hand.  The flow state can last minutes or hours, depending on the work and environment.  It is otherwise called an “optimal” experience, or one where you are your best creative self. This state has been rather extensively scientifically studied and researchers have found while it certainly applies to creative practices, it can also apply to practices that are not traditionally creative but that allow for deep focus (such as running or cooking).  Some may also call this “getting in the zone.” What researchers have found is that flow states are highly beneficial from a health perspective: it reduces heart rate, calms the nervous system, promotes positive mental health, and overall improves the body’s functioning. So when you create, you are literally nourishing yourself in so many powerful ways.

Three onions we grew and then they sprouted in the spring (watercolor, botanical illustration)
Three onions we grew and then they sprouted in the spring (watercolor, botanical illustration)

Creativity for Growth

Overall, I’ve outlined three serious benefits for practicing the bardic arts–you can see why we druids see creativity as a spiritual practice.  It allows us to progress on all three paths of druidry: as druids, it allows us to build our knowledge and awareness of the worlds of matter and spirit, as ovates, it allows us to build deeper relationships with nature both physically and metaphysically, and as bards, we can learn to express ourselves, heal ourselves, and get into the flow of the Awen.  And perhaps, if enough of us understand this, and share this, then we will continue to have these wonderful creative practices in our culture, accessible to many people young an old, and they will sustain us into the future.

 

Announcements:

My comments about AI and Tarot/Oracles were recently featured in a VOX article.  Check it out.

Tomorrow (Monday, July 10th, 2023) at 5:0opm – 5:30 PDT/ 8:00pm EST I am doing a short presentation on “Permaculture and its Potential in Earth-Based Spirituality” for the ESBAT (the Earth-based Spirituality Action Team of Citizens’ Climate Lobby).  Here is the Zoom link if you’d like to check it out!

Dana O'Driscoll

Dana O’Driscoll has been an animist druid for almost 20 years, and currently serves as Grand Archdruid in the Ancient Order of Druids in America. She is a druid-grade member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids and is the OBOD’s 2018 Mount Haemus Scholar. She is the author of Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Spiritual Practice (REDFeather, 2021), the Sacred Actions Journal (REDFeather, 2022), and Land Healing: Physical, Metaphysical, and Ritual Approaches for Healing the Earth (REDFeather, 2024). She is also the author/illustrator of the Tarot of Trees, Plant Spirit Oracle, and Treelore Oracle. Dana is an herbalist, certified permaculture designer, and permaculture teacher who teaches about reconnection, regeneration, and land healing through herbalism, wild food foraging, and sustainable living. Dana lives at a 5-acre homestead in rural western Pennsylvania with her partner and a host of feathered and furred friends. She writes at the Druids Garden blog and is on Instagram as @druidsgardenart. She also regularly writes for Plant Healer Quarterly and Spirituality and Health magazine.

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12 Comments

  1. This is such a wonderful article, Dana, it really resonated with me. I am a spinner and a weaver, but it took me a while to learn to spin. I spent a day once with a friend who was an expert spinner and she gave me a few pointers. I went home and a week or so later had some time to sit down with my wheel, which I had lovingly oiled. I picked up some wool and turned to my wheel, and something magical just happened! All of a sudden I was spinning beautiful smooth yarn! Now, I have 4 children, and at that time the oldest was maybe 11. For some reason I felt as if I couldn’t leave my wheel, as I filled bobbin after bobbin with yarn. I kept giving them directions every once in a while as I spun. Mom, we’re hungry! Ok, get out bread, make sandwiches, that’s a good enough dinner. (My husband worked afternoons and evenings, otherwise he would have fed the kids.). Take a bath, read some books, ok come kiss me, bedtime! No, I’m not tucking you all in tonight, but come kiss me! They all went to bed, and I sat at that wheel all day and into the night, probably 15 hours. I don’t know if the fiber arts are considered a bardic art, but I definitely feel that I experienced the flow of awen that day. It was spectacular.
    Now they’re all grown and I have six grandchildren and I still spin, dye, knit, weave, and sew. I can sit at my sewing machine all day and into the night, or my loom. It is a wonderful feeling.

    1. Hi Heather! I love you sharing your story about fiber arts. Fiber arts are absolutely a bardic art and a wonderful practice that is so closely tied to the land and the rhythms and cycles of the seasons. I don’t personally spin, knit, crochet or weave, but those I know who do it also do a lot of magic with it too! :).

  2. Please, Dana, I wanted to add something as it applies to AI. Industrially produced yarn feels dead to me. I know a couple who raise sheep on their ranch, a half day’s drive from my house, and they process it at a small mill in the same state in which they live. Touching their yarn, really squeezing it in your hand, or some of my hand spun, is an entirely different experience than touching yarn that has been scoured and spun in a big industrial mill. Their yarn, and my homespun yarn feels alive, you can still feel and smell the sheep in it. The other yarn feels dead, at least to me. And their sheep have been raised and loved not really too far from where I live. The difference is palpable!
    I would image images created by AI would be similar to that dead feeling yarn, whereas yours dance off the page.

    1. Hi Heather! Thank you so much for sharing about the yarn. This is such a great example of the difference between human-produced goods that are created reverently from the land vs. industrialization…and I feel like AI takes that even just so much further, cutting the humans out of the process entirely.

  3. Replying to what our environment is asking of us about the value of AI, is ‘what’s wrong with RI?’ That’s Real Intelligence, or Intelligent-Life, not to be confused with Religious Instruction of any denomination!

    Creative-expression — our light-and-easy divinely-ordained responsibility — as opposed to the ponderous earthly-oriented substitute we inherit at birth from our parents and ancestors — is impaired or enhanced to the extent we attain awareness of the purpose of these wondrous capacities of mind we inhabit, designed to interface RI – thought-and-feeling of intelligent-life – and our environment.

    I appreciate your diligence towards ‘deepening our relationship with/towards the world’, and it also reminds me of the potential of our creative impact were we as aware of the heaven-at-hand — that our minds, in heavenly-orientation — would naturally be radiantly replenishing the world with God’s truth-of-love, as well as what we do with our hands.

    Food for thought, Peter

    1. Hi Peter, nice to hear from you. I agree about or creative impact and awareness and bringing that into the world! 🙂

  4. Dana, I think this is one of your best posts! Being a philosophical Druid, I can’t help but think of how AI relates to a Big Question: Why are we here? Are we here to have things done for us, to be passive recipients? I believe we’re here on this earth to experience and learn. We don’t experience or learn much when something else is doing the work of developing ideas and bringing them into physical manifestation. Also, I love these botanical drawings, so precise and clear! And you totally should be reluctant to post images of your new tarot online. The only way to protect your ownership of artwork these days is not to post it anywhere–which will make it difficult to sell. You may have to find some kind of compromise there.

    1. Hi Karen,
      Thank you for sharing. Those big questions really do put AI in perspective! I am just going to share the tarots and such much later…look into various tools to protect my work, and so on. It is pretty exhausting.

  5. I agree with you Dana. Also, the act of creation is a listening process. Whether I write or photograph, I try to listen to the beings I am focusing on. The immediacy of AI simply removes that vital process. Blessings to you.

    1. Denzil, I love that statement. Creation is about listening, and listening is part of an ongoing conversation.

      1. Congratulations on your interesting blog!

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