Tag Archives: Druid

Writing Druidry, living Druidry

To what degree is it fair to say that writing about Druidry is Druidry? Clearly it can’t be the entirety of what you do – or you wouldn’t have anything to write about! With creativity and the bard path very much part of modern Druidry, it makes sense that writing can be part of how we explore spirituality.

My experience has been that when I’m writing, I get flashes of inspiration that impact on the rest of my druiding. Things rise up that I’ve not seen before. Threads pull together to create a meaningful picture. Possibilities emerge as I reflect on my experiences. Patterns suggest themselves. When I challenge myself to answer questions, I learn things about how I think. Writing is a process of reflection that brings cohesion to what I know.

I use the written word to share my experiences with other people – first and foremost I do that on this blog, but I’ve also written books (available from places that sell books). I find there’s an ongoing tension between sharing what I experience and avoiding dogma or giving myself too much authority. I like that tension, I try to stay alert to it.

I think I benefit personally from the challenges of trying to express experience in words. I don’t feel I lose anything or dis-enchant myself by exploring the mechanics, but that might not be true for everyone. I recognise that there is also sometimes a tension between lived Druidry and written Druidry and that too much of the one can mean there’s very little space for the other.

I’ve also found that over time, as I’ve deliberately brought more ideas from Druidry into my daily life, that it gets harder to separate out what is ‘Druidry’ and what is ‘life’ and I’m never sure if that’s even a relevant question to ask. I keep asking it because I don’t want to get complacent about what I’m doing, or make lazy assumptions that my life is Druidry and therefore I can just do anything and call it Druidry and this will somehow be fine.

Of course it all gets very meta. A blog post in which I write about writing. I suspect that the issue of how I write about Druidry and what role that holds in my path should be explored through interpretive dance, or action painting, or something a bit less wordy. I keep coming back to words though. I’m a story telling creature, and part of what I do is try to tell a story to myself about what on earth is going on in my life right now.

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Druid listening to bats

I’m learning a lot as I get out there to try and survey bats. I’ve had no formal training. I’ve got a bat detector, and a sheet of notes about how different bats sound. It talks about wet slaps, metallic clicks, castanets and whether the bat was arrhythmic.

It’s a curious business, translating a stranger’s words into an understanding of a sound. We spent quite a lot of time huddled round the notes, reading them by torchlight, discussing what we’d heard.

A bat can be somewhat identified by the frequency at which it makes sound. However, many share ranges of frequency, so to tell them apart, you need to consider the kinds of sounds they make. That sound changes if they are flying at you, right over you, or flying away. Some bats can only be picked up if your detector is facing the right way in relation to them. Sometimes the detectors pick up just a few sounds – a more distant bat going the wrong way for you, perhaps. Tantalising possibilities that defy translation.

It was really exciting making sense of how sounds change as the bats move so I can hear when they are flying towards me. Sometimes that means seeing them as they fly over, sometimes it means scanning about, mystified as to where the bat I can hear actually is. Once it’s darker, it means knowing the bat is close even though I have no scope for seeing it. Sometimes they get really close. One of the ones I didn’t see apparently went right under my chin!

The most exciting moment of the latest batting night came when we picked up something at 110 kHz. Only one native British bat makes sound at that frequency. It was a distinctive sound, too, totally unlike anything else we’d picked up. A lesser horseshoe – generally a rare bat. There are known horseshoe bat roosts locally (maybe more, but definitely two) so it wasn’t entirely surprising to find one, but still, really exciting.


Trees, Druids and life after Ogham

Tree-related spirituality in Druidry may first present itself to us as ogham – an old listing system, for which tree lists are just one of the many options. Ogham is problematic in terms of who used it when and for what. I think it’s much more problematic in terms of how we use it now.

For me, the single biggest problem is the absence of the small leafed lime. Most of us in the UK are more familiar with the large leafed lime, brought in by the Victorians to decorate parks and cities. Once upon a time, the small leafed lime share with oak the role of main woodland trees. It was a massive part of our ancient woodland, but it served no purpose for humans, while oaks do. Woodland management favoured oaks, and the small leafed lime is a rarity these days. Why is it missing from the supposedly ancient ogham list of ancient trees?

There’s a lot missing. Beech, juniper, evergreen oak, chestnut, guelder rose, larch, horse chestnut, sycamore, field maple, wild fruit trees other than apples. Willow is not a single tree, but a whole family with many different characteristics, but we only get one generic willow.

Of course if you live somewhere other than northern Europe, your most important trees may well be missing. The less like Europe your environment is, the less relevant the ogham list will be. As a Druid, you need to connect with what’s around you. It’s interesting to learn about ancestral things, but first and foremost, a Druid must relate to the landscape they inhabit and all that lives in it.

The ogham lists give us meanings associated with trees. What we don’t get is the history of the tree, which other trees it is related to. We don’t get the properties inherent in the wood, and the uses the trees have been put to and how this has affected them, and the humans using them. We don’t get much folklore, either. We don’t get the folklore of specific ancient trees. It’s all a bit generic. It leaves me wondering why our ancestors would make a list of trees that didn’t include much about their inherent properties.

What would be far more productive, would be a personal list of local trees. From there, a person could compile whatever they needed to know in terms of use, history, place in local eco-systems and folklore, including local folklore.

If you aren’t the list making type, a relationship with actual trees that live around you is a much more valuable thing to pursue than the learning of ancient lists that have no immediate relevance for you.


The Enchanted Life – a review

Sharon Blackie’s The Enchanted Life is a non-fiction book about enchantment and re-enchantment. It’s written for people who are suspicious that there are fundamental things wrong with life that they need to fix. The book offers stories, the author’s experiences and useful exercises to help you recognise your disenchantment and do something about it. It includes a solid analysis of how we collectively got into this mess in the first place – the beliefs, values and philosophy that brought us here – and how to rethink that.

It’s a very readable book, it ambles round subjects with the leisurely grace of a wild river and it has a lot to offer by way of insight and inspiration. I think it would be a good book for anyone just starting out on the Druid path as well as for anyone feeling the first yearnings for re-enchantment in their life. For the person a bit further along this road, it offers affirmation, and ideas and may well prove useful.

Most of the time, the assumed reader seems to be middle aged, middle class and winning at life by conventional standards – they’ve got the house, the job, the busy life, the generally accepted signs of success. Many of the people whose work the author draws on seem to fall into this category. They have it all, and then they take a massive risk and jump into another, more authentic, simpler and happier way of being. There’s not much here about how you go the other way – from the pressures and miseries of abject poverty and insecurity towards this more liberated way of life. How do you do it if you don’t have personal resources, or skills? Going self employed calls for a massive skill set, you have to do all the things a company does – the legal and financial obligations, the marketing and building a client base as well as doing the work. It’s not, I think, something everyone could do.

There’s also an underlying assumption here that you are an able bodied person who can walk every day, and sit outside every day. Now, as disability goes, I’m at the not so afflicted end, and I cannot go for a walk every day, and sitting outside in cold weather would cause me considerable harm. I’d like to see re-enchantment work that doesn’t assume an able body.

Sharon Blackie has a lot to say about the rise of stress, depression and anxiety in our culture and the relationship between that and our working lives. I’m very glad to see this getting properly explored and discussed. However, much of the book focuses on solitary, personal re-enchantment, and while that’s a good place to start, I wanted her to go further. I wanted more about how we enable re-enchantment in each other, how we build communities of mutual support. I think one of the big problems in our culture is that we make problems personal that should be seen as collective. How disability and mental health impact on us are fine cases in point.

What can I do, as a person who has broken out to a fair degree, to help someone who is stuck in the consumerist machine still? What can I do to support the people who can’t easily get out and connect with nature? How can I be part of the solution for other people, not just myself?

My guess is that the cover and title will appeal to readers who are already exploring this path. Folk who are reading Robert Macfarlane, and slow movement books, people interested in the Transition movement, permaculture, people who are already looking at sustainable and low stress lifestyles. Probably the people who most need to read this book are actually the ones who don’t yet consciously know they are in trouble. So, here’s my suggestion. If you are the sort of person to be automatically attracted to this book, buy it, read it, figure out who you know who would most benefit from it, and press a copy into their hands.

More about the book here – http://sharonblackie.net/the-enchanted-life/


Becoming a Druid by doing other things

I think it’s good to have a framework, and the time I’ve spent studying Druidry itself has given me some useful points of reference. However, I have a growing feeling that what makes a person a Druid is not the study of Druidry, but doing a whole host of other things. Increasingly, I see Druidry as an emergent property from approaching a whole array of subjects and practices with an open heart and mind, willing to be changed by them.

Living as close to nature as you can, will change you. Working with the seasons as you experience them will change you. Forming a relationship with your landscape, learning about what lives on it and making connections, will change you.

We can practice disciplines of the mind – philosophy, meditation, contemplation, gratitude, activism, prayer, and these experiences will impact on us. I think any study, any learning has a place here. By doing them, letting them permeate us, we become more than we were.

You can work with embodiment, in whatever way that makes sense for the body you have. Walking, wild swimming, sitting out, running, dancing, drumming. Any thoughtful interaction between body and world can be an incredible teacher. We can learn what to safely eat, how to grow plants, how to work with trees.

We can practice creativity in all its forms, and expose ourselves to the creativity of others, and to the creativity and history of our ancestors.

There’s more here to explore than any one person could do justice to in a single lifetime. And so each of us is free to follow the paths that appeal to us, to dig deep when we feel so moved. So long as we all have elements of wildness and civilization, embodiment and mind in our practices I think we’ll always find Druidry as an emergent property. It happens to us because we do the things. It lives in the doing, and in the way that acting in these various ways shapes our minds and bodies. It is not something to try and control, but something to open into and to allow to happen.


Calling yourself a Druid

It’s been problematic for as long as I’ve been doing it. We are not the ancient Druids, so how can we claim the name? There are lots of theories about what the word means and where it comes from, and it may well relate to oak or trees, but at the same time, it’s a word we don’t fully understand. We don’t have the same training the ancient Druids did, or access to everything they knew, so how can we claim the title? And it is a title, historically denoting training, and status within a community that no longer exists.

Then there are the modern Druids you don’t want to be associated with. You know the ones. The Druids who are doing it wrong, the ones you find embarrassing and unacceptable and you don’t want to be considered as like them, or supporting them.

Of course all of this is true of any label that lasts more than a day or two. Labels develop histories. Meanings and associations change over time. Just look at how Christianity has changed over its history and how many versions of it there are out there. There are plenty of Christians who are deeply embarrassed by those other Christians who are doing it wrong. There are plenty of feminists who are furious with the other feminists who clearly have entirely the wrong ideas. There isn’t a human project out there free from disagreement, and safe from asshats.

What would it mean to have Druidry be something that no one disagreed over? There could be no new things, no experimentation, no innovation, no personal gnosis, no diversity. The vast majority of people I’ve encountered who want to identify as Druids want to do so on their own terms. We would not function without the room to change our minds.

How do you get a space free from asshats? Perhaps you have some people with the power to police who is allowed to call themselves a Druid and to throw out those who don’t make the grade. I can’t think of a single Druid I know who would be happy to be on the inside of that. Most of them would make an effort to get thrown out at the first possible opportunity. For every training order that confers titles there are plenty of Druids stood on the outside, shaking their heads and saying they wouldn’t have done it like that. For every person willing to stand up and say ‘Druidry is this’ you can count on their being at least one other person willing to stand up and say ‘oh no it isn’t.’

There are people doing Druidry who I don’t like at all, whose actions I despise, whose words I find ridiculous. I expect there are Druids who would say the same of me. Does that mean some of us can’t be Druids? Arguing about Druidry is entirely Druidic. Arguing with other Druids for the sake of arguing with other Druids is not the basis of a spiritual path. Trying to assert who is and is not a Druid is a waste of time and energy because there will only be arguments on that score. We can reject teachers and leaders personally – we should always be free to do that. We can talk about why we object to ideas and behaviour – that’s important. But, these are things not to get bogged down in.

The failure of other people to do Druidry in a way we like is not the failure of Druidry. You will not find a human project of any substance that doesn’t have dissent, its own heresies, heretics and dodgy characters. There isn’t a human project out there someone hasn’t tried to abuse to get power, or tried to dumb down, or used as a tool for hatred and discrimination. Shitty people get everywhere. Including Druidry. We are not magically better than any other human project.


Solitary Druids

When I first came to Druidry some fifteen years ago, it seemed very much a collective activity. Groves, orders, networks, study groups, circles… it was more likely that any given Druid would be a member of multiple groups than that they would be solitary. Seven years ago when I found myself obliged not to be an active member of a group, a friend joked that the name for a solitary Druid, is a hedge witch.

There are good reasons for wanting to be part of something. Being part of something is a pretty basic human need for most of us. We went to groves and orders to learn what it is that modern Druids do. There were fewer books back then. We gathered together because the history of modern Druidry has been one of gathering together for key festivals to do Druid things. There’s affirmation to be had in doing something you call Druidry with a bunch of other people who are also inclined to call it Druidry.

There’s also power to be had. A big group is a power base. To be an Archdruid, you need to be in charge of an Order. To be a Very Important Druid you need people who follow you round and do the Druidry in the way that you say it should be done. Good leadership can be a very good thing indeed, but the desire for power always has the potential to corrupt.

I know of a large number of Druids who have the knowledge and the skill set to lead, but mostly aren’t. I know a lot of Druids who are out there quietly walking their own paths and not wanting the limitations and responsibilities that group membership involves. When I asked, some time ago, what’s happening in Druidry, why it seems to have gone so quiet, people talked to me about their solitary work.

Clearly we have not all become hedge witches.

The Druidry we had grew out of modern reconstruction. It grew from a desire for alternative religion, but also from ego and a yearning to ponce around in white robes wearing fake beards. It came from Ross Nichols and Gerald Gardner agreeing on a wheel of the year. It brought us a style of ritual that owes to the western occult tradition. You could be a bard without having done a single bardic performance. You could be a Druid without being able to identify trees.

To go further, deeper, into Druidry it may be necessary to take off the costumes and set aside the props and the desire to be important. I think it is necessary to give up our ideas about nature in favour of direct personal experience. Seasonal ritual becomes less important than a lived experience of the seasons.

I feel increasingly that Druidry is going underground, into quietness and contemplation, into personal experience and exploration. Perhaps at some point in the future it will turn out that seeds were germinating and something new and alive will spring up, but maybe it won’t, and that’s fine too.


Seeking magic in the land

We all know of places that are officially important, magical and powerful. Stonehenge and Glastonbury being two obvious examples. Ancient sites, ancestral sites, places of extraordinary beauty. Places that attract people. Wonderful though these sites can be, they are also problematic. For a start, having lots of people in cars visiting a site will change it. Car parks, visitor centres, toilets, ice cream vans and the loss of peace and atmosphere that comes with a steady stream of tourists. The carbon footprint of your pilgrimage always needs considering.

Important sites can create political problems. They can cause tension between Pagan groups and people with authority – again there’s a long history of this at Stonehenge. Even a small, obscure site can become a source of tension if two different groups want to use it. If you undertake ritual in a place, it is easy to feel a sense of both ownership and entitlement. A desire to identify yourself as The Druid for the site, and try to see off other Druids who might want to make the same claim.

All of this can also have the consequence of encouraging most of us to feel that the important magical places are away. Somewhere else. A sense of magic as other and unavailable of course gives more power to anyone who has some influence at an important site.

All land has history. There are ancestors in the soil everywhere. There are stories connected to landscape in even the least promising of places. And if there aren’t, you can take the place names and land features and start making your own stories. Everything has to start somewhere.

Get an ordinance survey map and you’ll easily see where all the ancient sites are. Some areas are richer than others in this regard, but you may be surprised by how much there is. Ancient trees can be found sometimes in the corners of otherwise unremarkable fields. Stone formations, caves, springs, magical pools in streams, tiny waterfalls, owl haunts… there are many kinds of magical places to be found.

You don’t have to get out into the wilds for this, either. One of my favourite magical places as a child was a pool supplied by a drainpipe on the side of an old industrial building. It was covered in ferns, and it had a discernible atmosphere. More atmosphere in fact that the pool caused by a spring alongside a much prettier and more ancient building nearby.

Magical places can be secret, they can be hiding in plain sight, they can be right on your doorstep. I think it’s much more exciting and rewarding to have a personal relationship with a place not so many other people even know about. Or a place other people can’t see. I like to go to a spring with a fairy hawthorn. It’s somewhere that gets a lot of footfall, but it is even so a secret place, largely invisible to the passer-by.

Finding the magic that is with you and around you has so much more to offer than assuming that it must be somewhere else.


Urban trees for magical transformation

Like many Pagans, I do not in fact live in the wilderness. Most of us are urban, which makes the idea of nature as something away from humans rather awkward. How can you celebrate nature, commune with it and base your spirituality around it if nature is somewhere else? There can be a temptation to work with ideas about nature rather than direct experience. For me, one of the things that makes Paganism so good is that we don’t have to rely on what we can imagine, but can instead have that direct, first hand experience of the living world.

Urban trees can be a great way of experiencing non-human entities on a daily basis. It helps that they tend to stay put so can be visited reliably. Trees are good for people in all kinds of ways. I’ve just been sent some really interesting stuff from The Woodland Trust about how urban trees impact on us, so I thought I’d share some of that. I think there’s a lot to take on here about what it means to be in contact with trees, even in apparently unpromising environments.

I think it’s widely known that trees reduce air and noise pollution, and that a single mature tree can release enough oxygen back into the atmosphere to support two people. Access to any kind of green space encourages good mental health and physical activity. Urban trees help slow rainfall, and also reduce temperatures in hot weather – overheating can be a killer. Some of the impacts The Woodland Trust are reporting were more surprising, though.

Public housing residents with nearby trees and natural landscapes reported 25% fewer acts of domestic aggression and violence. I think this is a staggering figure. Humans without trees are not as functional. Further, children exposed to nature score higher on concentration and self-discipline; improving their awareness, reasoning and observational skills, doing better in reading, writing, maths, science and social studies, are better at working in teams, and show improved behaviour overall. We are better people when we have trees.

One piece of tree data I found surprising is that street trees may improve driving safety. One study found a 46% decrease in crash rates across urban arterial and highway sites after landscape improvements were made and street trees were planted. Clearly, trees do not improve visibility for drivers, but they do break up the monotony, perhaps encouraging drivers to be more aware of what’s changing around them. Perhaps trees alongside roads are just calming in the way trees are other places.

I started supporting The Woodland Trust years ago because it seemed like a good expression of being a Druid, and a good way to contribute to the wellbeing of landscape and that which dwells in it. The challenges facing humans are so vast right now, so overwhelming that it can feel impossible to know where to start responding. It can feel like one person’s small difference is hardly worth making, and that can render us powerless.

We are better and healthier people when we have trees. We are less likely to kill each other. If children have better reasoning and observational skills when exposed to nature, it seems reasonable to assume that adults will too. Which means that if we want to change the people around us, helping them to be kinder, more reflective and able to make better choices, one of the ways we can do that is with tree planting. It’s a lot less emotionally exhausting than trying to reason with the unreasonable as well. Working to develop urban green spaces might move us towards answers to far more complicated problems. Trees have a magic of their own, and when people experience trees, they can change simply because of that.

Some sources –

Kuo, F.E., and W.C. Sullivan. 2001. Aggression and Violence in the Inner City: Effects of Environment Via Mental Fatigue. Environment and Behavior 33, 4:543-571. Facts reported by the University of Washington http://depts.washington.edu/hhwb/Thm_Crime.html

Sigman, A. (2007) Agricultural Literacy: Giving concrete children food for thought www.face-online.org.uk/resources/news/Agricultural%20Literacy.pdf

Donovan et al, 2013, The Relationship Between Trees and Human Health: Evidence from the Spread of the Emerald Ash Borer https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0749379712008045

3 Naderi, J.R. 2003. Landscape Design in the Clear Zone: Effect of Landscape Variables on Pedestrian Health and Driver Safety. Transportation Research Record 1851:119-130.

 


Unspeakable Druidry

Unspeakable in the sense that I seldom have much idea how to explain it to anyone else. However, putting words to experiences is one of the things I think I’m for. My hope is that at some point I’ll understand enough of what I’m doing to be able to come back and talk about it coherently, but for now, it’s a case of trying to speak the unspeakable in the hopes that someone finds it at least a relevant signpost for their own journey.

Back when I read Celtic Buddhism (reviewed here) I had my first run in with Tibetan Bon, a tradition that has no formal practices. It is simply what happens to you as a consequence of how you live with the natural world. This chimed with me, and led me to realise that for some years now, my rather ephemeral and hard to pin down take on Druidry has been about me trying to do something similar.

When I first came to Druidry, I was all about study, meditation, visualisation and ritual. It was a very cerebral response to what I already knew about the seasons and the natural world. It’s been a process for me of recognising that when I work that way, I’m working with an abstract concept of nature inside my own head, not directly with anything else. To clarify, I know for some people, interior work means working directly with spirit, but for me it’s mostly not felt like that.

For some years now, what I think of as my Druidry has been solitary, although I can do it when other people are around. It’s about taking myself outside and encountering and being encountered. It has had the discernible effect of me seeing far more wildlife than I used to. It has meant developing a quality of presence that is alert to what’s around me, and open to it, but also involved in the narrative of the place and my history with it. I’m certainly not in the moment to the exclusion of all else, nor seeking to be. All the time I do this, I’m bodily learning – sounds, smells, movement, colours – information from the world around me that helps me know how to interpret other experiences. The sound of the bird connects to the shape of it and the shape of its flight and so forth.

I am changed by this, and not just in terms of what I know. I am changed, and no doubt have more changing to do in terms of who I am when I put my feet on the ground and move. I exist in relationship to a landscape and to others dwelling in this landscape. I feel a profound sense of connection, but beyond that, very little, and that may be significant too.

I do not come back from this with wisdom to rapidly transform your life. I do not have messages from the natural world that I must tell to people. I do not have secret knowledge, magical power, mystical authority or anything like that. I can’t even tell you with confidence what I think is happening when I do this, only that I know something is happening to me. I will never be able to teach this to people over an expensive weekend course. There are no exciting shortcuts to offer, and no easily explained benefits, just a quiet certainty on my part that this is the right thing for me to be doing. I may well need to spend a lot more years doing it before something properly speakable emerges.

There are consequences of being in the world in this way. Every time I go outside, there are moments of joy and wonder. I see, hear, smell and touch things, and am moved by them. I have a body knowledge of my landscape that comes from having moved through it so many times. I find being away harder. I find big groups of noisy people harder some days as well, because I don’t know how to tune them out. I do not feel adrift, lost, or out of synch any more. I know where I stand, in a very literal sense.