30 Weeks of Druidry: Week 3 – Foundations: Nature and Earth

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“Druidry…is not only about scholarship, ritual and magic; it is also about connecting with the land and the Earth Mother who birthed and sustains us. Druidry cannot be divorced from nature, nor should it be” – Michael J. Dangler.

The first book on Paganism I ever read, by Joyce and River Higginbotham, describes Pagan religions as “Earth-Centred”. This was one of the main things that appealed to me about Paganism, and Druidry in particular. Druidry is explicitly a nature-focused path. The word “Druid” may derive from Celtic words for Oak, Duir, and Knowledge, wid, meaning that “Druid” can loosely translate as “oak-knower”, one who carries the wisdom of the oak and, by extension, the wild.

Druidry takes inspiration from the natural world; an old Druidic triad speaks of three candles that illuminate all darkness: nature, truth and knowledge.

As an Earth-based path, Druidry does not seek to transcend the world, but to engage with it as it really is. “Nature” as a concept can easily become a symbol of some pristine wilderness out there somewhere, and not the litter-strewn pavements, overgrown vacant lots, city parks and back gardens we pass by every day. It is easy to forget that all this is nature too, that we are also nature, and that all of it is sacred. As Joanna van der Hoeven writes in Paganism 101: ” I am a part of the collective world. I am a part of the landscape, along with the plants and animals, the spirits of place, the furniture. I am not opposed to nature. I am nature. I cannot be separate from it”.

Many Druids hold to an animistic philosophy: that consciousness, or personhood, exists in all things. John Halstead writes: “Animism posits a world full of persons: human persons, yes, but also hedgehog persons, salmon persons, rock persons, mushroom persons…and yes, tree persons.”

For the animist, a person is “a being that exists in relationship”. For the Druid, we are in relationship with the Earth, with nature, every moment of our lives. If Druidry is to be really about “loving nature and allowing that love to inspire us to live our lives accordingly” (van der Hoeven), then that worldview comes with responsibility.

As humans are part of the ecosystem, and as human consumption is causing ecological damage, those of us who walk Earth-based paths have a responsibility to work towards healing the Earth, and so doing, healing ourselves. We can do this by changing how we live, by taking less and giving more back. Following Canadian ecologist David Suzuki‘s “Nature Challenge”, ten steps we can do to make our lives greener such as recycling, choosing energy-efficient appliances, using public transport rather than driving where possible and reducing meat consumption, is a good place to begin. The Druidry Handbook extends this to twenty steps to a more natural life, and while I’m not at all 20 yet, it is a good thing to aim for.

Druids can also work politically to protect the Earth. While some feel that Druidry should not be political, I would argue that as the ancient Druids were known to be advisors to chiefs and kings, and could stop wars, it is incumbent on those of us who claim the name today to do what we can to stand in that heritage. We may not advise kings, but we can write to our elected representatives to encourage them to support environmental legislation. We can vote for parties and candidates with sound ecological policies. We can join or support protest movements and campaigns, like Druids Against Fracking and the Warriors’ Call, who are on the front lines defending Albion from fracking right now. We can donate to environmental charities such as Greenpeace or the Woodland Trust, with our time or our money (or both).

One movement I want to highlight is Mission Lifeforce, a “growing international movement of Earth Protectors” based on a legal document, the Earth Protectors Trust Fund Document, who are collectively working to create and pass an international law making Ecocide (defined as loss or damage to, or destruction of ecosystem(s) of a given territory(ies), such that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants has been or will be severely diminished.”) an international crime. I saw Jojo Mehta from Mission Lifeforce speak at Druid Camp last year and was inspired by her dedication, belief and optimism that one day this law will be passed and the Earth can be legally protected.

As Druids, as Pagans, as people of the land, we do not just connect with the Earth in ritual and meditation, we live within the web of nature, the global ecosystem known as Gaia, and we can all try, in our own small way, to help make our little corner of nature that bit greener, that bit more safe for all persons, human and non-human alike.

References:

Dangler, M. The ADF Dedicant Path Through the Wheel of the Year. Garanus, 2010.

Greenfield, T. (ed.) Paganism 101: an introduction to Paganism by 101 Pagans. Moon Books, 2014.

Greer, J.M. The Druidry Handbook: spiritual practice rooted in the living earth. Weiser, 2006.

Halstead, J. “Do trees have rights? Toward an ecological politics”, Gods and Radicals, 2018 [https://godsandradicals.org/2018/01/30/do-trees-have-rights-toward-an-ecological-politics/]

Higginbotham, J. and Higginbotham, R. Paganism: an introduction to Earth-centered religions”. Llewellyn, 2008.

Mission Lifeforce [https://www.missionlifeforce.org/]

Suzuki, D. The David Suzuki Reader: a lifetime of ideas from a leading activist and thinker. Greystone, 2014.

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Thoughts from the North

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I recently went for a weekend to Tromso, in Northern Norway, some 200 miles North of the Arctic Circle.

It was, as can be expected, dark and cold. But in that darkness and cold, there was beauty. The city itself glittered with lights, each cozy cafe and home lit with lamps, lanterns and candles throughout the long nights, when the sun rose late morning and then set again before lunchtime.

Beyond the city, the fjords and mountains gleamed white with snow, shining in the weak winter sun for the short days, reflecting the moon’s silver glow at night.

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Whenever I find myself a little too hemmed in by the world, a little too uncomfortable in my own skin, a little too regimented by routine-becoming-rut, I go North. There is something in the true wilderness of snow, water, forest and mountain, that re-enchants the spirit, that makes you feel at once so very small yet also connected to it all. The landscape becomes more than scenery. With the chill air and biting wind, the outside enters in, the mountains, forests, snow and water become part of you. The air in which the white-tailed sea eagles soar is the same air you breathe. The boundaries of land, water, sky and self become ethereal, thin, permeable.

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On a boat trip across the fjords, aboard a 19th century schooner, I felt that permeability. The landscape, white snow, grey rock, grey-blue water, grey sky, changing yet constant. Visible markers of the distance we travelled were few and far between, and with the sound of the engine and the water splashing against the hull as a constant travelling companion, time itself seemed to slow, or to become strange and artificial. Were we sailing for an hour or a day?

Then warm soup in the crowded galley below decks, hot coffee and the strange late-evening sleepiness as the sun set over lunch. A return to harbour, a bus ride through the mountains, a journey back to the human world.

Now, back home, the comparatively long days and mild winter (unreasonably, unseasonably mild – the consequence of a changing climate making itself known in the language of vague unease), still take some getting used to. But it is good to know that, beyond the world of work, beyond the poisoned stream of news, some 2,000 miles away, the white-tailed sea eagles still soar, and the cold waves still lap on stony shores.

 

Autumn is here

autumn-1757887_960_720According to the Met Office, Autumn officially started ten days ago, on 1 September. Astronomically, Autumn begins in 11 days time, at the Autumnal Equinox on 21 September. Some Druids place Autumn’s beginning at the Equinox (Alban Elfed), while others consider Autumn to begin with Lughnasadh, the harvest festival generally held around early August.

Rather than merely following a calendar, for me, one of the skills and tasks of a Druid was (and is) to know the signs of nature, those subtle hints of trees and birds, animals and stars, that tell of changes in weather or season. The ancient Druids were said to use augury (studying the flight of birds) to divine the future.

One of the benefits of living in the same place for a few years, and making an effort to go out and observe nature as often as possible, is coming to know and recognise these signs. I have a long way to go before I can identify every tree in my local woods, but sometimes nature speaks so loudly it’s hard to miss. And sometimes, it honks.

I was out in my garden yesterday and I heard a great honking above me. I looked up, and right over my head, flying low as to come in to land, was a whole skein of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis), flying in their famous V-formation, instantly recognisable by their brown bodies with white underbellies, and black necks and heads, with a white band around the chin.

These visitors from the North arrive around September each year, albeit at different times depending on how mild or cold the weather has been, and settle by the local river. They are among my favourite birds, and I welcome them as old friends returning after a long absence.

For me, the arrival of the geese is the start of Autumn. There are other signs too, the sloes on the blackthorn, the first leaves falling, the squirrels digging up my lawn! But it’s the geese that always tell me that yes, Autumn is here.

Running as connection

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I went for a run today.

Not exactly earth-shatteringly important news to share on here, but it was significant for me. I’ve been getting out of shape lately, working a pretty sedentary job and having various mental health crises that led to me not looking after myself very well, so lacing up my shoes and getting out the door was a big deal.

There are some wooded trails around my neighbourhood, which I am very lucky to have, so I went down one of those, and I noticed that running can be more than just pavement-pounding for the sake of losing a few pounds.

I noticed the fruit on the elder tree, ready to be picked to make elderberry wine, and the ripening blackberries on the hedgerows (I even nibbled a couple, the sweetness giving me that extra bit of energy to keep going). I noticed the birds calling, and flying overhead, the squirrels bouncing from branch to branch. I heard the wind whispering through the willow leaves, and felt it on my face, cooling me down as I started to overheat with the exertion of running for the first time in ages.

I felt the earth beneath my feet, felt the change in texture and pressure as I moved from hard pavement to gravel trail to grassy field.

I saw the sun break through the clouds, three rays of light softly cascading down like an Awen symbol, inspiring me to keep going.

And as I ran, I noticed that I had no room in my head for other thoughts, for work or the news or TV or Twitter. Just my body, the earth beneath me and the air around me.

It was a sensation of simply “being”, one part of nature surrounded by other parts of nature, in this moment, sharing a physical connection.

I had never thought of exercise as being in any way spiritual, just seeing it as another tiring chore. But being out in nature, appreciating the air and the sun and the land, felt like meditation (only better as I actually had something to do rather than just sit there). No words, no ritual, no symbols, just the physicality of movement, the inhalation and exhalation of air, and the rhythm of feet on earth.

On a Sunday, while other people may be going to church to connect with their vision of the sacred, I’ll be out in the woods, running along the trails, connecting with mine.

*Note: I don’t intend this to come off as in any way ableist: I am aware that many people who practice Druidry/Paganism have health and/or mobility issues that make running impossible. This in no way limits their ability to connect with the sacred, and in no way suggests that physical activity is “better”. I am simply sharing my experience today.

Potatoes

all-natural-1866415_960_720There is real magic in the real world, and today I experienced some of it.

When we eat, how much do we think about where our food comes from? How much are we aware of the cycle of growth and harvest?

Some months ago, I got some old potatoes that were starting to sprout. I kept them in the kitchen in a box and waited. I waited until they had put out greenish-white tendrils, like tentacles reaching out to probe the strange world of the dark box they were in.

Then I buried them in a large pot, covering them with earth and hope. As shoots began to grow, I covered them up again with more earth, a process known as “earthing up”, until the pot was full. This took weeks. And I waited.

Eventually, sprouts emerged once again, no doubt expecting to be buried, and perhaps surprised to be allowed the freedom to reach for the sun. And I waited.

They grew leggy and started to flower, delicate purple and white blooms that were not showy, but were a sign that the “earlies” were ready. So I dug out the plants, taking care not to damage their roots too much, and to keep the original potato intact, and I harvested the first crop of tiny white new potatoes, each one no bigger than a marble (and lovely with butter and chives).

And then I put the plants back in the pot, earthed them up with compost, and now I am waiting again, for the flowers to finish and the final harvest at the end of summer.

From a mouldy old spud, delicious new life and growth and wonder. There’s nothing quite like growing your own food to connect you to the earth and the cycle of the seasons.

And so much of this process was waiting. I think in our modern society, we have become accustomed to having what we want instantly, at the click of a button or as we drive through a “fast food” joint (it may be fast, but it ain’t food). Growing crops means slowing down, it means care and tending, and it means waiting. You can’t have your potatoes now if they’re not in season.

I think there’s an analogy to be made here to the Druid journey. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of wanting to “be a Druid” now, without appreciating the hard work, time and waiting that goes into the process to become a Druid. And it’s a trap I’ve fallen into myself.  It’s worth taking stock, as I come to the end of the Bardic course with OBOD and look to the next stage in the journey, and realising that nothing in nature happens instantly. The wheel turns and we turn with it.

And, like the potatoes, so much of our growth goes unseen and un-noticed until afterwards. We grow underground, in the deep and silence of the subconscious. Like a potato, Druidry is not (in my opinion) a showy thing. It’s a thing of earth and soil, mud and rain and sunlight, of green growing things.

I’m not a Druid. Not yet, anyway. But I can be a potato.

 

Among the reeds

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So, taking my own advice, I spent the day yesterday out in nature, away from news and phones and the political world. Together with my wonderful wife, I went to a nature reserve nearby and spent the day wildlife-watching.

Getting out in the open air, out in a natural setting with the birds and creatures for company, reminded me what my Druidry is all about, and how important it is to put down the computers and books, to stop reading about Druidry and to experience real, wild nature in all its wonders, even on a freezing cold January day!

The sound of the wind rushing through the reeds was unlike anything I have heard before, and it really brought home to me the sense of air as the breath and song of the world.

I managed to spot a muntjac and several fallow deer, plenty of mallards, moorhens and coots, flocks of finches and tits, an unidentified raptor (possibly a hobby, but too far away to identify properly even with binoculars) and I heard the unmistakable sound of a barn owl.

When human concerns get too much, it is good to get out into nature and remember that we are but one part of an interconnected community of beings.

 

Get out there

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“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast…a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that sweet yet lucid air, sit quietly a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; you will outlive the bastards.”

-Edward Abbey (1927-1980), American author and essayist.

Quote shared by BadHombreLandsNPS on Twitter, “Protecting rugged scenery, fossil beds, 244,000 acres of mixed-grass prairie & wildlife from two-bit cheetoh-hued despots.”