For many people who come to Paganism as adults, connecting with nature is very much part of the point, and also a key part of the work to be done. If you’ve woken up from insulated, urban living and realised you do not have any familiarity with the seasons, the agricultural year or what the trees are doing, that re-connecting can be the essence of Paganism. The Wheel of the Year festivals become important markers as you learn your way around the seasons, and may be the one reliable time you get out ‘into nature’ to experience it firsthand.
Having spent a while running assorted gatherings, I’ve seen a lot of this. People for whom time under trees was not normal. People whose lives had not allowed them to spend time wandering in urban parks getting to know the songbirds. Folk for whom the agricultural year was an arcane mystery, needing considerable grappling to get to grips with. We are, as a culture, sorely disconnected from the soil, from food production and from the natural world. Only on the occasion of severe weather do we reliably notice what’s going on out there.
As you get to grips with the basics, you start realising how much more there is to know. Specialism starts to develop, moving into tree lore or herb lore, perhaps, getting to know the exact habits of a certain river, exploring the creatures that live in a valley, learning the paths of a wood. We start to see the trees as individuals, small birds become species, genders, and distinct from each other. Generic leafy things become medicines, poisons and snacks.
This kind of work can keep you occupied for years. There is so much cerebral work to do, so much to learn that you can study for the rest of your life and never run short of new things to find out about. Learning about nature, so as to engage with it deeply and work with it harmoniously, are undoubtedly key parts of what Druidry means for a great many people. It is possible to overthink, though. To become unable to see the harmonious beauty of the wood because you are too busy making a note of individual species and their properties.
Not all learning happens in the head. Our current education system focuses on abstract thought as the pinnacle of human achievement, and it encourages us to understand learning as a mind process. Learning is being able to take things apart and name the bits in this system. It is all about function and utility and being able to say why, how, and what. Sometimes also who and when, depending on subject. There are other kinds of learning that we do not have a language for. It is not head learning, it does not lead to some intellectual revelation. It is the knowledge in the body that comes from sitting on a hill all night, or swimming in the sea. It is knowing what it feels like to hear a blackbird singing at twilight, and all that other emotional and sensory knowledge that comes to us simply by being and doing. The knowledge of being alive and present. It may, or may not teach you how to do stuff. There may or may not be philosophical aspects to it. I suspect it doesn’t matter.
I think we need both. We need the intellectual learning that brings us into rational relationship with the natural world. We need the experiential learning that brings us into emotional relationship with the natural world, and often the two go together very well. Do the book study to the exclusion of personal engagement, and you’ll know a lot, but it might not mean much to you. Focus on the purely experiential and you’ll have limited scope to express it, and you may miss connections and insights because you don’t know what you’re seeing.
As an example, I saw swans in flight on Christmas morning. They were lovely. Had I not known that the timing and the wind direction meant they must have been winter migrants, I would have missed the wonder of their flying thousands of miles to be there, and the emotive impact of realising that I was seeing them at the end of their long journey. Up until then, the migration had been more of a book-knowledge for me, I’d never seen a swan doing it, and therefore did not know how beautiful it is to see one ending its journey as the day begins.