I’ll return to A Druid Way (and the fourth post in the “American Shinto” series) when I get back from the annual East Coast Gathering (ECG) this coming weekend. This year’s 5th ECG shares in some of the energy of the OBOD 50th anniversary earlier this summer in Glastonbury, UK. For many U.S. Druids, the Gathering is the principal festival event of the year, a chance to renew old friendships, enter sacred time and space, and reaffirm ties to the special landscape of Camp Netimus in NE Pennsylvania. This year’s Gathering theme is “Connecting with the Goddess.”
In the interim, here are three images from last year’s Gathering — a visual invocation of the Alban Elfed/Autumnal Equinox energies of the Camp.
Camp Netimus sign — photo courtesy Krista Carter
Steps up to fire circle from Main Lodge — photo courtesy of Wanda GhostPeeker
The evening bonfire
[Part 1 | Part 2]
Below are images from our recent visit to Spirit in Nature in Ripton, VT, some eight miles southeast of Middlebury as the crow flies. An overcast sky that day helped keep temperature in the very comfortable low 70s F (low 20s C). At the entrance, Spirit in Nature takes donations on the honor system. The website also welcomes regular supporters.
As an interfaith venture, Spirit in Nature offers an example of what I’ve been calling Shrine Druidry, one that allows — encourages — everyone into their own experience. Everyone who chooses to enter the site starts out along a single shared path.
The labyrinth helps engage the visitor in something common to many traditions worldwide: the meditative walk. The labyrinth imposes no verbal doctrine, only the gentle restraint of its own non-linear shape on our pace, direction and attention.
Beyond the labyrinth, a fire circle offers ritual and meeting space. Here again, no doctrine gets imposed. Instead, opportunity for encounter and experience. Even a solitary and meditative visitor can perceive the spirit of past fires and gatherings, or light and tend one to fulfill a present purpose.
Beyond the circle, the paths begin to diverge — color-coded on tree-trunks at eye-level — helpful in New England winters, when snow would soon blanket any ground-level trail markers. When we visited, in addition to the existing paths of 10 traditions, Native American and Druid paths branched off the main way, too new to be included on printed visitor trail maps, but welcome indicators that Spirit in Nature fills a growing need, and is growing with it.
The Druid Prayer captures a frequent experience of the earth-centered way: with attention on stillness and peace, our human interior and exterior worlds meet in nature.
The trails we walked were well-maintained — the apparently light hand that brings these trails out of the landscape belies the many hours of volunteer effort at clearing and maintenance, and constructing bridges and benches.
A bench, like a fire pit and a labyrinth, encourages a pause, a shift in consciousness, a change, a dip into meditation — spiritual opportunities, all of them. But none of them laid on the visitor as any sort of obligation. And as we walk the trail, even if I don’t embrace the offered pause, the chance itself suggests thoughts and images as I pass that the silence enlarges. I sit on that bench even as I walk past; I cross the bridge inwardly, even if it spans a trail I don’t take.
Sometimes a sign presents choices worthy of Yogi Berra’s “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Perhaps it’s fitting to close with the North, direction of earth, stone, embodiment, manifestation — all qualities matching the interfaith vision of this place.
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This is the 200th post at A Druid Way. Thanks, everyone, for reading!
A bald-faced hornet up close
Dolichovespula maculata is the resplendent Latin name of a North American insect variously called the bald-faced hornet (BFH after this), the blackjacket, or the bull wasp. “Long wasp spotted” is one literal translation of the Latin (the Im-maculate Conception was “spotless”), and captures well enough their appearance. They’re bigger than most wasps and hornets in the U.S., with a temperament to match. I didn’t take the pic of this brisk specimen to the right (though the larger pics below are mine). The BFH defends its nest vigorously if approached too closely or disturbed.
A short side note: childhood stings, and a love of honey and a relatively bug-free outdoors, taught me a healthy respect and appreciation for bees and wasps, and I’ve learned more about them over the years, some of it firsthand. Most wasps and bees are beneficial, of course, wasps in particular often feeding on insect pests. We’ve had a wetter summer than most this year here in Vermont. Normally that would bring hordes of insects, but we’ve had markedly fewer mosquitos and other pests this summer than any year since we’ve moved here. And the hornets get the credit — we’ve watched them bring back insect after insect to the nest.
The vital honeybees, major pollinators and crucial to many human plant foods, continue to face sharp declines around the world from causes that still aren’t competely understood, and they need our protection. As a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture bluntly puts it, under the heading “Why Should The Public Care about What Happens to Honeybees,” “About one mouthful in three in our diet directly or indirectly benefits from honey bee pollination.” Their troubling decline is thus not a small problem. (You can read about one Druid’s adventures in beekeeping here at the fine blog The Druid’s Garden.)
Mud-dauber wasp nest
We’ve been in our Vermont house since winter 2008, and we’ve co-existed well enough with bumblebees, honeybees, yellowjackets and the more familiar (to us) mud-dauber wasps, which, with a ready supply of mud from our pond, often build their tubular homes above the same back door. They’re also more placid species; we eye each other when either my wife or I go out the back door, or hang or retrieve laundry. Hello, busy people. We come in peace. Carry on, carry on.
It’s important to note here that neither of us is allergic to bees or wasps — an allergy would make this a very different post. Occasionally one or two wasps buzz around our heads, investigating. Once or twice one landed on our hair or an arm or face for few seconds, then flew off again. No stings. We’ve heard stories from neighbors of BFHs landing on a person, plucking off an insect about to bite, and flying off. They’re definitely not timid.
This summer, after we returned from our 7-week cross-country road trip, not one or even two but three BFH nests loomed under our eaves. It was our first encounter “up close and personal” with this species. The BFH nest below is approximately football- or coconut-sized, and much larger ones, housing 400 or 500 or more wasps, have been reported. (The papery exterior shields a series of combs that resemble a beehive’s, helping balance out temperature fluctuations. We’ve had several 24-hour periods recently ranging from 45 at night to 90 during the day.) On the windowless and doorless north side of our house, a nest would hang away from foot traffic,and possibly escape our notice for days or weeks. One of the two other BFH nests hangs from the eaves over our bedroom window, but that has a good screen and tight-fitting crank-out windows.
One of the bald-faced hornet nests under our eaves
This nest, however, hangs just left of one of our back doors, right next to our clothesline. So far, we’re following a policy of “wait and see.”
Bald-faced hornets don’t (yet) winter over in the Northeast. New queens born in the autumn typically survive underground, while workers die off. Everything we’ve heard about BFHs indicates they also don’t return to an old nest the next year. A lot of work for a single year! Just to be safe, however, we’ll remove the nests late this fall — after several good hard frosts.
too close to a door …
Treating the eaves early next spring with Ivory soap as a natural repellent will be our first follow-up. We’ve heard that painting the eaves sky-blue has also worked for some home-owners in southern states, where this hornet is more common. With global climate changes, we’ll probably continue to see more of them here in the north.
Peaceful co-existence is our goal. Meditation and inner conversations with the wasps, thanking them for keeping down the pests, but asking them not to nest on our house, is another equally important remedy I’m now learning and practicing.
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Images: bald-faced hornet close-up; mud-dauber wasp nest.
[Part 1 | Part 3]
The continuing interest among visitors here at A Druid Way in the posts on Shinto says hunger for the Wild, for spiritual connection to wilderness and its rejuvenating spirit, and potentially for Shrine Druidry, remains unabated. No surprise — in our hunger we’ll turn almost anywhere. What forms our response to such hunger may take is up to us and our spiritual descendants. Spirit, the goddesses and gods, the kami, the Collective Unconscious, Those Who Watch, your preferred designation here _____, just might have something to say about it as well.
What we know right now is that we long for spirit, however we forget or deny it, papering it over with things, with addictions and with despair in this time of many large challenges — a hunger more alive and insistent than ever. And this is a good thing, a vital and necessary one. In an artificial world that seems increasingly to consist of hyped hollowness, we stalk and thirst for the real, for the healing energies the natural world provides all humans as a birthright, as participants in its “spiritual economy” of birth, growth, death and rebirth.
As physical beings we live in a world where breathing itself can be a spiritual practice, where our heartbeats sound out rhythms we are born into, yet often and strangely have tried to flee. Even this, my sadness and loss, can be prayer, if I listen and let them reach and teach me, if I walk with them toward something larger, yet native to blood and bone, leaf and seed, sun and moon and stars. Druidry, of course, is simply one way among many to begin.
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If you know Kipling‘s Just So stories, you’re familiar with “The Cat That Walked By Himself.” The cat in question consistently asserts, “All places are alike to me.” But for people that’s usually NOT true. Places differ in ease of access, interest, health, natural beauty, atmosphere — or, in convenient shorthand, spirit. Shrines acknowledge this, even or especially if the shrine is simply a place identified as Place, without any sacred buildings like Shinto has — a place celebrated, honored, visited as a destination of pilgrimage, as a refuge from the profane, as a portal of inspiration.
Here’s a local (to me) example of a place in Vermont I’ll be visiting soon and reporting on, one that sounds like an excellent direction for a Shrine Druidry of the kind people are already starting to imagine and create. It’s called Spirit in Nature, and it’s a multi-faith series of meditation trails with meditation prompts. Its mission statement gets to the heart of the matter:
Spirit in Nature is a place of interconnecting paths where people of diverse spiritual traditions may walk, worship, meet, meditate, and promote education and action toward better stewardship of this sacred Earth.
Spirit in Nature is a non-profit, 501 (c)3 tax-exempt organization, always seeking new members, local volunteers to build and maintain paths, financial contributions, and interest from groups who would like to start a path center in their own area.
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So much lies within the possible scope of Shrine Druidry it’s hard to know where to start. Many such sites (and more potential sites) already exist in various forms. Across Europe, and to a lesser degree in North America (public sites, that is: private Native American and Pagan sites exist in surprising numbers), are numerous sacred-historical sites (some of which I’ll examine in a coming post), often focusing around a well, cave, tree, waterfall, stone circle, garden, grove, etc. Already these are places of pilgrimage for many reasons: they serve as the loci of national and cultural heritage and historical research, as commemorative sites, spiritual landmarks, orientations in space and time, as treasures of ethnic identity — the list goes on. Quite simply, we need such places.
Lower Falls, Letchworth St. Pk, NY. Image by Wikipedia/Suandsoe.
The national park system of the U.S., touted as “America’s Best Idea” (also the title of filmmaker Ken Burns’ series), was established to preserve many such places, though without any explicit markers pointing to spiritual practice. But then of course we already instinctively go to parks for healing and restoration, only under the guise of “vacations” and “recreation.” And many state parks in the U.S. extend the national park goal of preserving public access to comparatively unspoiled natural refuges. Growing up, I lived a twenty-minute bike ride from Letchworth State Park in western NY: 14,000 acres of forest surrounding deep (in places, over 500 feet) gorges descending to the Genesee River. Its blessing follows me each time I remember it, or see an image of it, and in attitudes shaped there decades ago now. May we all know green cathedrals.
I’ll talk more about shrines on other scales, small and large, soon, and tackle more directly some of the similarities and differences between Shinto and Druidry. I’ll also look at some of the roles practitioners of earth-centered spiritualities can — and already do — play in connection to the creation and support of shrines.
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Images: spider web; Lower Falls at Letchworth State Park, New York.
[Part 2 | Part 3]
[For some of my other posts on Shinto, visit here, here, and here. For a two-part and more personal reflection, try here. The second part of this post will look at some possibilities for the "Shrine Druidry" of the title.]
I’ve mentioned Shinto and Tsubaki Grand Shrine before in these pages — a lovely shrine in Granite Falls, WA, about an hour north-northeast of Seattle. Recently during our car tour that included the Pacific Northwest, my wife and I “made omairi” or paid a visit on a sunny July day. The idiom “pay” is illuminating: some kinds of visits can be the fulfillment of a religious vow, a pilgrimage we dedicate to a spirit or an ideal — acts, in other words, performed at least potentially in fuller consciousness than usual. True, “the bow can’t always be bent,” as the old occult proverb goes; we “have to live in the real world,” as my mother used to admonish me. But you quickly find that cultivating regular times of intention and focus brings spiritual advantages just as it does other kinds of advantage in other aspects of life.
Tsubaki finds a working balance in explaining just enough about itself and about Shinto to the visitor who may know little about either. Shrines express unique and individual presences, and Tsubaki is no different. We can argue till the cows come home and make their own butter whether such distinctiveness comes from human intention solely, or from a happy cooperation of human and divine. What remains is the shrine itself, beyond mere debate: a place to visit, breathe, absorb, reflect on, and if you feel called to do so, revere and commune.
Tsubaki aids visitors in doing this. Here is the shrine’s temizuya, literally, “hand-water-place,” a feature at most shrines, offering an opportunity for ritual purification. The shrine offers a bilingual placard explaining the temizu ritual. Participating (or not) is left beautifully up to us, especially on a day like this was, with no one around but one silent shrine tender, sweeping and cleaning. But the temizuya does stand ready as one invitation among many to make our own discoveries through performing a small ritual action.
Of course, a shrine need not always explain. Tsubaki, like so much of Shinto, also demonstrates the value of silence in fostering encounters with the natural world. They are not separate things; the human is part of the world of the kami, of spirit.
From another viewpoint, a shrine simply acknowledges what is already present, whether it chooses to point our attention to it, or bring us together by putting us in the same place. Here is the path from the central shrine down to the gravelly bed of the Pilchuck River. There you can see another small shrine (in the center of the picture, looking something like a tall sawhorse draped with white flags) standing near the water’s edge.
The plaque above adjoining the emaden explains another Shinto practice. Below is the emaden itself.
Less formal are the written prayers tied to natural features like trees and to man-made objects. And many Westerners have become familiar with Tibetan prayer flags. Odd that in the West a prayer is considered primarily a verbal action. The silent written prayer can stay in place; we can walk away, knowing our peitition or vow or praise or thanks remain, where we made them. We wish for a change, a response, to manifest at least in part in this natural world. Then let our petition, our expression, our acknowledgement of spirit linger in the world, till the world’s elemental and spiritual forces reclaim them.
In addition to other kami, Tsubaki also enshrines America Kokudo Kunitama-no-Kami, the kami protector of the North American continent.
In the next post, I’ll look at some possibilities for what Shrine Druidry could look like as an expression of Druidic experience.
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(Scam, scam, scammity scam. Oh, is this mic live?!)
“One Weird Trick Most Gods Don’t Want You to Know.” A bestselling strategy if there ever was one. Almost fail-proof. Get in on what THEY’VE been keeping from us, Honest Suffering Upright Citizens that we are. Who doesn’t want IN? (Another 100 cable channels! Salvation by proxy! Acne-free in seven days!) Click here. Operators are standing by. No credit? No problem! No money down! Just open a vein! (Can’t get no) satisfaction guaranteed!
(Can any truly worthwhile thing be bought?)
But YES! one god really does want you to know: introducing capital-L Loki, AKA the Trickster, the Wheeler Dealer, the Original Houdini of the Truth Trap, the Cosmic Con, Bad Penny, Black Sheep, the One in Every Family, Every Religion’s Got One Somewhere. Him! Well, who should know better than the Master, right? (Deep down, that part of us all that’s a little loki-in-training. Who whispers Alternatives, in spite of all the noises-against-the-voices we can dump into our ears. Crank up the volume. Maybe they’ll go away.) Figures that the only source for reliable info turns out to be a Trickster.
And he’ll tell you: Religion’s all a scam, an empty fantasy, a fool’s errand, a wild goose chase. This god-or-not and belief- and worship- and daily-practice thing is, like you always suspected, just an endless maze of mind-tricks brought on like a nightmare, courtesy of an overactive cerebrum, that gift of Evolution that just keeps on giving, that two-hemisphere marvel and misfit that — in spite of all its tricks and traps and delusions and the stories it tells about itself and how wonderful it is — will still leave us all just as dead in a hasty handful of decades as if we’d devoted our lives entirely to pleasure. Just like the good old boys and girls over at Epicurean Central always told us we should. Yes, go out and download the app for it.
Thanks, Loki. Now a word from our sponsors.
Godding isn’t what it used to be.
(Even with a nose-and-chin like Tom Hiddleston‘s.)
Even the gods you used to be able to count on turn out to be … puny.
One weird trick most gods don’t want you to know is that their truth or falseness has little to do with what they can teach you, how interaction with them can change your life, and so on.
Just because they don’t exist has very little to do with anything at all. Existence isn’t an absolute. It de-pends.
And like those pesky anatomical pend-ant or hanging things, the so-called “fact” of existence or non-existence can get us pretty confused about reality*, which is, after all, only another name for thing-ness. Anything that’s not a “thing” tends to get left off the List. Which is another weird trick most gods hope we’ll kinda ignore. For our own good, of course. Lists. Everyone’s got one, gods included. (Gods especially.)
What to wear, say, think, do, attend to and let slide. Everyone’s been be-godded, infected with at least one god, right down to our nail-beds and stomach linings: sex, wealth, image, status, art, pleasure, the “right views,” seniority, rationalism, salvation, comfort — even “just being left alone.” Gods everywhere. No place free of ‘em. Hanging from the rafters, crawling around and inflaming our skin like some sort of divine psoriasis. No god-be-gone, available now while supplies last. Annoying little (BIG!) suckers.
Even death won’t free us when-not-if — un-gods help us all! — we’re reborn into some vastly cooler, endlessly hip world where everyone is fashionably thin (or plump), calmly atheist and perfectly dressed, coiffed, housed, spoused, aroused and soused. Tastefully conformist down to the designer toe-rings. No gods here, nasty things — had mine removed eons ago, old chap. Do yourself a huge favor, darling.
And so, illusion-free at last, eternity or oblivion (choose your mirror image) is ours!
Paradoxes to amuse children.
(Loki’s laughing all the way to Valhalla.)
And the Goddess? The Goddess is laughing at him.
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Images: Loki and The Hulk from The Avengers.
*Reality, from Latin res, thing; realis; re-al or pertaining to things or their qualities, like the ability to slap you in the face, fall on your big toe, eat you for breakfast, if you don’t pay attention to them. Which gods like War still do, come to think of it. Details at 6:00 (or 18:00) tonight!
From a distance, Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming looms over the landscape, prominent against the horizon, but once you enter the park surrounding it, it seems to vanish, only to reappear in fits and starts at first, peeping over colorful hills and cliff faces.
Geologically, we’re told, the tower is properly an igneous intrusion or eroded laccolith, two fun pieces of scientific jargon, technically descriptive, but lacking something nonetheless. And “Devil’s Tower”? Why should the baddie of Judeo-Christianity get any credit at all for this splendid rock formation? Let him stick to devilled eggs and devil’s food cake.
Those of us over a certain age may recall the Tower’s appearance as dramatic staging in the final portion of the ’77 Spielberg sci-fi film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a pop-culture association that now seriously dates us.
My wife and I arrived late in the day, which helped throw the tower’s dramatic vertical striations into high relief. A park information kiosk quietly points out that the English name “Devil’s Tower” is comparatively recent. Native names from several different tribes associate the formation with the bear — the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow and Lakota all call it some variation of “Bear’s Lodge” or “Bear’s House” and their traditional stories describe bears marking the great stone with their claws.* (You can read several versions under the section “Native American Folklore” here.)
Both name and thing started shifting for me as I read this: a good name illuminates the thing, and the thing itself lives more brightly and fully under a good name. I can still feel the association “stick” — now a piece at least of that older (and to me more apt) story has become part of this landscape. Devil’s Tower, yes. But the “real” name, well, that’s a different matter. Invoke the place in memory by the older name — in this case a good one — and its naming story comes with it. Misname something, or someone, and you may not be able to see that thing or person clearly or truthfully.
Bear’s Lodge, now I pass along a little of your story to others, so they too may enjoy the rightness of a good name.
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*The tower remains a sacred site for several tribes. “In 2005,” the Wikipedia article notes, “a proposal to recognize several Native American ties through the additional designation of the monolith as Bear Lodge National Historic Landmark” faced political opposition and the argument that a “name change will harm the tourist trade and bring economic hardship to area communities.”
Image: Bear over Devil’s Tower — park info kiosk.