Archive for August 2018

Rowan and the Ovate   Leave a comment

As the second tree of the Celtic ogham “tree alphabet”, the Rowan, ogham ᚂ and Old Irish luis, is associated with Ovates, the second of the three Druidic grades in much of modern Druidry.

Rowan, or Mountain Ash, is certainly up to that role, both physically and symbolically.

In Europe one common native variety is sorbus aucuparia; in the U.S. it’s usually sorbus americana. The rowan’s leaves resemble those of the ash, but the two trees belong to different families, the rowan being a relative of the rose. Standing out front of our southern Vermont house, “our” rowan was the first tree to alert me to the attention the previous owner, a native of Austria, devoted to certain plantings on the land. Not hard to notice, when our rowan stands near the road, offering its protection. In fact, roadsides are a common location for the rowan, often planted by bird droppings containing the seeds. Its European species name aucuparia means “bird-catcher” — the rowan attracts birds like cedar waxwings — we often see a flock of them come through in late winter, and strip any remaining berries for their sugars and vitamin C.

(A little digging uncovers research demonstrating the rowan’s central importance for humans as well, particularly in Austrian folk medicine, as an anti-inflammatory and treatment for respiratory disorders, as well as “fever, infections, colds, flu, rheumatism and gout” according to the article at the link.)

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The sky was overcast a few minutes ago when I took this picture. The red-orange berries are still ripening, and will be ready for harvest in October or early November, after a frost. Though our tree bears the brunt of winter’s north winds and a spray of snow and sand at each pass of the snowplow in winter, it’s a tough, scrappy species and still flourishes. Wikipedia notes:

Fruit and foliage of S. aucuparia have been used by humans in the creation of dishes and beverages, as a folk medicine, and as fodder for livestock. Its tough and flexible wood has traditionally been used for woodworking. It is planted to fortify soil in mountain regions or as an ornamental tree.

The rowan’s Old English name is cwic-beam, “quick” or “living” tree, which has survived into modern English as the variant name quickbeam. The name of one of Tolkien’s Ents in Lord of the Rings, Quickbeam is “hasty”; his Elvish name Bregalad translates to roughly the same thing — “quick” or “living” tree.

As a tree sacred to Brighid, the rowan also produces five-petalled flowers and fruit with tiny pentagrams opposite the stem — barely visible in some of the berries below, especially at the bottom left:

rowan berry pentagram

What put the tree before my attention now in particular is an invitation to serve in the Ovate initiations at East Coast Gathering in a few weeks. A rowan stave with a ᚂ on it will make a good gift to each of the new initiates.

The rowan shrugs off cold weather — it can be found at remarkably high altitudes; it flowers in white blossoms in spring and produces red berries in autumn. Thus it earns its nickname “delight to the eye” in the 7th century Irish Auraicept na n-Éces. As a tree to represent the toughness, persistence, and changing work in each season required to pursue the spiritual journey we’re all on, the rowan is a worthy candidate. It is often named the “most magical” of all the trees. As protection against another’s enchantment, it can aid us in creating our own.

Its mythological and folkloric associations are many. (You can find another rich link on the rowan here.) As a “portal tree” facilitating entry and return from other-worlds, the rowan invites contemplation under its branches.

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Image: berries — Wikipedia rowan.

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August Moon, and Serving   3 comments

In New England the Sturgeon Moon, as some Native Americans call it,  arrives this coming Sunday, the 26th of August, but early enough in the morning that many will observe it the previous evening.

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Rowan in the front yard, its berries ripening

OBOD Druids are encouraged to do monthly Peace Meditations on the full moon. I never have, which is odd, considering how largely the moon figured in my teens and twenties. For years I observed its phases and influence, absorbed what I could find about its significance in diverse cultures, wrote poems and songs to it, connected to Goddess through it. But a peace meditation?

You could say I absorbed the wrong things from Christianity: “Think not that I am come to bring peace on earth: I came not to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34). This has proved one of the most accurate of Christian prophecies. Though it’s not so much a prophecy as a statement that this is a world of the flow of many energies. By its very nature, changes keep coming, and the shifts and rebalances can’t all be smooth, given the pockets and reservoirs of other energies that may resist or simply move on a different time-scale and energy flow.

Druids are called to be peacemakers, and the popular Peace Prayer stands ready as a worthwhile practice, daily for some. Here’s one version of the words:

The Peace Prayer

Deep within the still centre of my being
May I find peace.
Silently within the quiet of the Grove
May I share peace.
Gently (or powerfully) within the greater circle of humankind
May I radiate peace.

Find, share, radiate: all are valid practices I see as part of my own practice. Spiderwebs and hurricanes co-exist in this world. Both will manifest long after I’m gone and forgotten, but I can choose how I will align myself each day. I prefer, actually, to focus on love, which can exist even in tumult and turbulence, when peace has long fled. A home with children and pets and one or more working adults may not know much peace, but it can still overflow with love. A damaged landscape after the rebalancing that storms bring needs love more than peace.

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OBOD ritual proclaims, “Let us begin by giving peace to the quarters, for without peace can no work be”. I don’t know what kind of work you do, but if I required peace before I  started, I’d get nothing done. Don’t get me wrong: I value OBOD ritual, much of the language engages me, helping in the work of magic, but there I must turn aside and let the moment flow past. So I give love to the quarters instead, something they seem to use more readily.

A fragment of a prayer that has stayed with me — maybe someone can identify its source — I encountered decades ago, though I’ve never been able to track it to its lair. But I’ve remembered it fairly accurately, and I’ve recited it often: “I drink at your well. I honor your gods. I bring an undefended heart to our meeting-place”. This triad of actions faces outward in a way I know I can practice myself. For me it establishes a distinct vibration I value.

It also points toward a way I can hear and answer the call to serve.

“Serving is different from helping”, writes Rachel Naomi Remen. I cite her words in full below, because the following text has become so important to me, as a meditation seed and guide and source of wisdom.

In recent years the question how can I help? has become meaningful to many people. But perhaps there is a deeper question we might consider. Perhaps the real question is not how can I help? but how can I serve?

Serving is different from helping. Helping is based on inequality; it is not a relationship between equals. When you help you use your own strength to help those of lesser strength. If I’m attentive to what’s going on inside of me when I’m helping, I find that I’m always helping someone who’s not as strong as I am, who is needier than I am. People feel this inequality. When we help we may inadvertently take away from people more than we could ever give them; we may diminish their self-esteem, their sense of worth, integrity and wholeness. When I help I am very aware of my own strength. But we don’t serve with our strength, we serve with ourselves. We draw from all of our experiences. Our limitations serve, our wounds serve, even our darkness can serve. The wholeness in us serves the wholeness in others and the wholeness in life. The wholeness in you is the same as the wholeness in me. Service is a relationship between equals.

Helping incurs debt. When you help someone they owe you one. But serving, like healing, is mutual. There is no debt. I am as served as the person I am serving. When I help I have a feeling of satisfaction. When I serve I have a feeling of gratitude. These are very different things.

Serving is also different from fixing. When I fix a person I perceive them as broken, and their brokenness requires me to act. When I fix I do not see the wholeness in the other person or trust the integrity of the life in them. When I serve I see and trust that wholeness. It is what I am responding to and collaborating with.

There is distance between ourselves and whatever or whomever we are fixing. Fixing is a form of judgment. All judgment creates distance, a disconnection, an experience of difference. In fixing there is an inequality of expertise that can easily become a moral distance. We cannot serve at a distance. We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected, that which we are willing to touch … We serve life not because it is broken but because it is holy.

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Omens, Signs, Friends Visiting   Leave a comment

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I practice two distinct spiritual paths. One of the teachings on the other path concerns waking dreams. “A waking dream is something that happens in the outer, everyday life that has spiritual significance”, writes one of my guides on that path. And the crucial point, for me, is that I can perceive that significance. Or miss it. Or call it coincidence, or something else.

In her post “The Reality of Omens“, Druid Life blogger and author Nimue Brown writes,

When looking for omens in the world around us, it is necessary to consider how reality works in the first place. One of the things I have rejected outright is that other autonomous beings could show up in my life as messages from spirit – because the idea that a hare, a sparrowhawk, or some other attention grabbing thing could have its day messed about purely to try and give me a sign, is profoundly uncomfortable to me. I have something of an animist outlook, and I do not think the universe is *that* into me.

Brown’s caveat rings true — we can safely pare the human ego down, without fear it will crumble and disappear. Unlike the average toddler, most adults handle reasonably well the discovery that they’re not actually the center of universe.

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But as a fellow semi-animist, I’d not separate “spirit” from what you and I and other things are doing every day. “Spirit” isn’t a thing that stands apart from what it inhabits — it’s not a bearded Jehovah lounging in the heavens, lording it over the rest of the cosmos, twitching the puppet-strings to get his way with us. Spirit permeates things — it’s what peeks out when you look in the eyes of a dog or bird or bug, or into the heart of a flower. It’s what gives waves their curl, or cumulus clouds their cotton-like billow, or your jogging neighbor the will to keep at her four-mile routine, in spite of December sleet. Spirit makes things thing-ly — how else can I detect its presence? Ever seen it hanging out all by itself? Pay attention and I can notice now more, now less. But never apart from the things it’s been doing all along, like you and me and the grass growing tall in the back lawn where I haven’t mowed it at all this year.

The skies cloud over, the temperature drops and a wind kicks up. Is it an “omen”? No — but these things do carry meaning to anyone paying attention. It’s probably going to rain soon. That particular kind of omen we call a “no-brainer” (though humans still manage daily to ignore even obvious omens). As part of the universe where a local storm is brewing, I can pick up on other things spirit is doing, or I can ignore them. The universe “isn’t that into me”, but it is in fact *in* me, and in you too, and we’re both in it.

So I prefer to see “omens” and “signs” as friends visiting. Spirit is simply flowing. One of its flows is you, another is me, a third is the car pulling into the driveway with S. at the wheel, “just stopping by” on her way home after shopping. If I gain insight or wisdom or a nudge to do something, or a burst of gratitude from that visit, then I’m paying attention in some way, and I’m being me, with my own unique responses to what spirit’s always doing all around and in me.

Rather than worrying overmuch about whether it was a sign or an omen or simply another wave in the ocean of spirit manifesting everywhere and everything, why not measure its effects? Is my life deeper, richer? Are the lives of others made richer and deeper? Is that enough, without checking the box labeled “omen” or “not omen”?

But what of the autonomy Brown names as part of her animist understanding of the uni-verse, the “one-turning”?

The idea that “other autonomous beings could show up in my life as messages from spirit – because the idea that a hare, a sparrowhawk, or some other attention grabbing thing could have its day messed about purely to try and give me a sign, is profoundly uncomfortable to me”, she notes.

But she and the many other beings in her life can be and are many things at once. And so are you and I. Like spirit in us and all around, I am many things at once. I am not “purely” anything, but delightfully mongrel. I’m an incarnate human, and also a Vermonter, a husband, a blogger, an aging white male, a person alive in the 21st century, an American, the son of two parents who both lost fathers while still in their single-digit years. I am a manifestation of spirit, a homeowner, a Druid, a teacher, a conlanger, a portal of Mystery, and so on. (Maybe the problem isn’t labels by themselves, but that we never use nearly enough of them. Scatter them like seed. Each is — not a limit — a possibility.) Each of these features opens access points for spirit to reach other beings, while leaving me with the same freedom as other “autonomous beings”. Spirit does “overlap” and “interconnection” really well.

My individuality and freedom are what spirit uses to connect with all other free and individual things. Spirit as the whole, the universe, seems to “love” individuals — that’s why there are many of us, rather than just two or three. Spirit as “one thing” interconnects and links all things, all these other “one things”.

So when a crow flies overhead while I’m checking the squashes in the garden, the crow is a crow and a friend visiting and a reminder, if I’m listening, of animal intelligence and and and.  Its appearance and my awareness meet, for whatever comes from that meeting. Omen, sign, friend visiting, reminder of crow wisdom to fly over things before I decide to land on them, spirit guide — because spirit is always sparking the beings it pervades — to eat, fight, flee, love, mate, birth young, flower, fruit, grow old, die, return, become, become.

And the crow also discovers and learns something. Here’s a human that does not aim a gun at me as I fly over. Here is a water supply, a pond I can drink from. Here are trees to roost in, good cawing branches to talk to the rest of the flock, food sources to peck at in the scraps and compostables that get put out almost daily. And a hundred other crow things I don’t know about, without shapeshifting to Crow, or crow to me.

Brown goes on to make a key observation about our attention:

I can however read something into my behaviour at this point. I was in the right place at the right time, and I think that tells me something about my relationship with the flow. I take exciting nature encounters as good omens not because I think nature is bringing me a special message, but because it means I was in just the right place, at exactly the right time, looking the right way and paying attention. That in turn means I am in tune, and would seem to bode well for anything else I’m doing.

I simply take “encounter” as “message”. Humans are meaning-makers — it’s what we do. Any omen is an amen, an awen, a chance, a doorway. Will I walk through it? Or will I see how spirit walks through it — to me and to everyone and everything else? And as these things happen, can I catch the Song that is always singing, just at the borders of hearing?

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Article in today’s New York Times: “What does it mean to be human?” touches on some of these matters.

A Druid Way Celebrates Its 500th Post   Leave a comment

A SPIRITUAL TOOL

When I first started blogging here in October 2011, I simply knew I wanted to think out loud about the turns in my journey. Begin the journal or blogging habit and, depending on its focus, it can turn at length into a marvelous spiritual tool. Journey, journal — there’s good reason the two words are linked in several European languages.

What you’re reading now marks my 500th post. To paraphrase Lao Tzu with a simple but slippery truism, a blog of 500 posts begins with a single word.

Philip Carr-Gomm, Chosen Chief of OBOD, writes about blogging:

Just as the spiritual path can be characterised as the ongoing attempt to both remember yourself and forget yourself, so blogging can be seen as a challenge to both be more personal, more open, more sharing of the riches of a life and at the same time to take yourself less seriously, to let go of the concern about what other people might think about you, and to reveal rather than conceal your curiosity and amazement at the often crazy world you find yourself in.

YOUR SUPPORT

I’ve also appreciated your support over the years, readers. Who knew that a blog that explores sometimes obscure philosophical issues, includes book reviews and article critiques — also sometimes on obscure topics — and recounts spiritual experiences issuing from the cauldron blend of two quite different minority spiritual paths could eventually draw, if WordPress stats can be trusted, an average of 35 readers per day from over 142 countries?

A DRUID WAY “Top 20”

Here are the posts you’ve voted with your pageviews as the all-time Top 20 — since inception.

Shinto – Way of the Gods — actually a group of posts on Shinto, beginning in 2012. A Japanese life-way that sustains much Druidic energy. Imagine North America or Europe with a comparable practice and ancient tradition …

Fake Druidry and Ogreld — this one struck a nerve in 2013, and occasioned a few sequels since then about an imagined “One Genuine Real Live Druidry”. Several readers missed the intermittently satirical tone and the point that “what works” is what matters, not lineage, however old.

A Portable Altar, a Handful of Stones — a 2012 post which discusses how an altar “gives a structure to space, and orients the practitioner, the worshipper, the participant (and any observers) to objects, symbols and energies.  It’s a spiritual signpost, a landmark for identifying and entering sacred space. It accomplishes this without words, simply by existing”.

About Initiation, Part 1 — the first of two posts from 2011 on this perennially popular topic.

Grail and Cross—Druid and Christian Theme 5 — one of the most popular posts from a 2017 series.

Beltane 2015 and Touching the Sacred — a post about a major spring/summer festival and its imagery — why wouldn’t it be popular?

A Review of J M Greer’s The Gnostic Celtic Church — published in 2015, while Greer was still active Archdruid of AODA. The text reflects some of the fascinating blends of Druidry and Christianity that have been manifesting.

East Coast Gathering 2012 — the first of my reviews of ECG, now in its 9th year.

MAGUS 2017: The Mid-Atlantic Gathering U.S. — a burst of Beltane energy from the third of the major U.S. Gatherings after ECG and GCG (Gulf Coast Gathering).

The Four Powers: Know, Dare, Will, Keep Silent–Part 1 — one of a 2013 series.

The Four Powers: Know, Dare, Will, Keep Silent–Part 2 — the second of a 2013 series on the Four Powers behind magic.

Opening the Gates: A Review of McCarthy’s Magic of the North Gate — a 2013 review of British magician Josephine McCarthy’s book, written in part based on her experiences in the U.S.

Magpie Religion — the only post from all of 2014 to make it into the Top 20. Read it and ponder why, as I still do.

Romuva – Baltic Paganism — a 2016 post on a remarkable European Pagan movement.

Inward to Ovate — This 2015 post detailing my move from the Bardic to Ovate Grade in OBOD, in addition to a respectable number of views, has also earned the curious distinction of attracting by far the most spam of any post on the blog. The secret must lie in certain keywords in the text that spambots love to pursue …

The Fires of May, Green Dragons, and Talking Peas — a 2012 post about Beltane that pulls in allusions and references from spirituality and literature.

Fighting Daily Black Magic — a 2015 post on the greatest practitioners and targets of black magic — we ourselves, against ourselves.

Keys to Druidry in Story — the second of two posts from 2011, about the origins of some of the most widely-used training materials in contemporary Druidry.

Earth Mysteries – 1 of 7 – The Law of Wholeness — a 2012 series reviewing Greer’s book, in which he reworked the seven cosmic principles of the 1912 Kybalion into a text on ecological spirituality.

About Initiation, Part 3 — another in the 2012 series on a potent subject.

And a BOOK

Here’s to another 500 posts! And to a book, now in reasonable draft form, that draws on themes and topics from the blog and that will be seeking a publisher in 2019.

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Living Enchantment   Leave a comment

“Who’s been here before you?”

Josephine McCarthy, whose Magic of the North Gate I reviewed here, writes about magic with the instinctive feel as well as insight of someone who practices it.

Among the many ways to conceive magic, she suggests one useful way is as an

interface of the land and divinity; it is the power of the elements around you, the power of the Sun and Moon, the air that you breathe and the language of the unseen beings … living alongside you. With all that in mind, how valid is it to then try and interface with this power by using a foreign language, foreign deities, and directional powers that have no relevance to the actual land upon which you live? The systems [of magic] will work, and sometimes very powerfully, but how does it affect the land and ourselves? I’m not saying that to use these systems is wrong; I use them in various ways myself. But I think it is important to be very mindful of where and what you are, and to build on that foundation (Josephine McCarthy, Magical Knowledge Book 1: Foundations, pgs. 19-20) .

Lest all this seem confusing (and it can be), recall again the prayer that reflexively acknowledges “… these human limitations … these forms and prayers”. The great challenge of spiritual-but-not-religious is precisely this — to find a worthy form. Find the forms that work for you, respect them and your interactions with them, and listen also for nudges and hints (the shoves you won’t need to listen for — that’s the point of a shove) to change, modify, adapt, expand, and try something new. A spiritual practice, like the human that applies it, will change or die. Sometimes, like the shell the hermit crab uses for shelter and carries around with it for a time, we need to leave a home because we’ve outgrown it — no shame to the shell, or to the person abandoning that form of shelter.

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Besides, this sort of debate — about which deities and wights to work with, which elemental and directional associations remain valid and which have shifted, and so forth — while perhaps more acute for those inhabiting former colonies of European powers because of cultural inheritances and influences — resolves itself fairly quickly in practice. It’s best treated, in my experience, individually, and case by case, rather than in any dogmatic way applicable for everyone. Stay alert, practice respect and common sense, and work with what comes.

What does this have to do with Brighid?

I’ve written of intimations I’ve received from one who’s apparently a central European deity, Thecu Stormbringer. The second time I visited Serpent Mound in Ohio, I heard in meditation a name I’ve been working with: cheh-gwahn-hah. Deity, ancestor, land wight? Don’t know yet. Does this name or being somehow remove or downgrade Brighid from my practice, because it has the stronger and more local claim, emerging from the continent where I live? Could it in the future? Certainly it’s possible. But in my experience, while other beings assert their wishes and claims, it’s up to us to choose how we respond.  We, too, are beings with choice and freedom. That’s much of our value to each other and to gods and goddesses. We have the stories from the major religions of great leaders answering a call. Sometimes they also went into retreat, wilderness, seclusion, etc. to catalyze just such an experience. All these means are still available for us.

For me, then, part of the Enchantment of Brighid is openness to possibility. The goddess “specializes” in healing, poetry and smithcraft — arts and skills of change, transformation and receptivity to powerful energies to fuel those changes and transformations. We seek inspiration and know sometimes it runs at high tide and sometimes low. As this month moves forward, we have a moon waxing to full, an aid from the planets and the elements to kindle enchantments, transformations, shifts in awareness.

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“Deeds that move the world’s wheels”   Leave a comment

“Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere”. Elrond, Lord of the Rings.

One still-unidentified man stood up to a column of tanks in Tian-an-men Square after the Chinese army suppressed the protests there in 1989, nearly 30 years ago. The iconic photos spread world-wide.

Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat — in the colored seating section on a bus — to a white man, after the white section was full.

These and many other individuals may have caught the public eye and achieved a fame they never sought. It can easy to misunderstand in our media-obsessed age: we don’t have to win a golden hoard of likes on Facebook, or post the tweet that shakes the twitter-verse, for our lives and choices and actions to matter.

We may expect and wait and complain and despair, while the supposed “great” do nothing, even as all around us — and including us and ours — small hands and feet and voices and wills do what they must. And each of us does these things in our own ways every day, until “just one more” reaches and passes the tipping point.

Those who tell us there’s “no point” in individual recycling efforts, for example, because one person can’t shift a planet’s indifference, forget that in fact that’s how we reach the crucial tipping points of change. Like birds practicing migration, one and then a few and then a flock and then multiple flocks do short practice runs, till the whole group is ready, when they weren’t before. The small wings — hands — voices — deeds are in fact the most common way we launch changes, for both worse and better.

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What’s on your loom? What pattern are your deeds weaving?

If we’re prudent with our energies, we practice “starfish moves” (link to well-known short story). If we value each individual — as most of us say we do — then “starfish moves” are the only way most of us will effect change. We focus on one and one and one. Leaders take their cues from others as much as anyone does. And if they don’t, they’re not forever.  “When I despair”, said Gandhi, “I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it — always.”

I see the Rowan’s berries slowly ripen to red in the August sun. The previous European-born owner of our land planted the tree squarely in the front lawn, a proper tree of protection, but also of beauty, as it puts forth leaves and white blossoms in spring, then red fruit in autumn.

Second of the Ogham trees, luis, bright tree sacred to Brighid, the Rowan’s fiery nature is a good prod to Ovates like me, who need to bring light and fire on the journey through the dark of the inward paths they often walk.

Rowan, Rekindler, you face me each day I look out the front window, reminding me the depths of the Ovate way are not to be mastered like some sort of ego project to crow about, as if I can walk and gather and know them all, but respected as teachers. Always more remains to learn, to discover. You recall me to the need for humility before the unknown, coupled with boldness to do the necessary seeking.

I am an individual, yes — that’s how spirit manifests, the only way spirit manifests, in my experience. Rowan, human, leaf, seed, bee, birch. But a corollary: the universe also expends individuals ruthlessly, with appalling profligacy, every moment. A billion tadpoles each spring, and only a few reach full froggy adulthood. A thousand seeds from each blackberry, and only a few root and leaf and carry on the next year. The individual is a means, not an end.

I can respect my individuality most by treasuring the same manifestation of spirit in others wherever I encounter it, humans, trees, gods, bugs, snakes. And I do that by being an individual, respecting my own potentials and limits, just as I value the capacities and boundaries of others. Neither less nor more, false meekness nor arrogance, answers what we are each called to be and do. I need not apologize for swatting this mosquito landing on my neck — my blood is mine, and I defend it quite properly — but neither do I need scorched-earth tactics to rid the earth of every last biting and sucking insect, which would fail in any case — or doom me with them.

“I celebrate myself,” says Whitman, “and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”.

And as I’d also put it, tweaking and enlarging Whitman, one of our original Enlargers already, so he shouldn’t mind, “what you assume I shall also assume, for we both participate in this universe, this ‘one-turning’, together”. We rub far more than just elbows, living as we do cheek-by-jowl on this spinning earth.

“There was never”, says Whitman, “any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now”.

What then? A reason to despair? No, to my mind, anyway. We do not add to or subtract from hell or heaven, but move through them, manifesting them moment to moment by our choices and our small or large deeds. How will I move the world’s wheels next, in my own small and large ways? How will you? What have I learned so far?

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Review of “Falling in the Flowers”   Leave a comment

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Photo courtesy Srinivas Ananda.

Granderson, Benjamin and James Granderson. Falling in the Flowers: A Year in the Lives of American Druids. Amazon, 2017. Kindle Edition.

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Stone Circle at Four Quarters Sanctuary — photo courtesy Anna Oakflower

The Granderson brothers, a photojournalist and ethnographer team, key their book to the general reader, taking care to provide a short introduction to Paganism and some of the main strands of contemporary Druidry. But given their focus on a particular OBOD Grove, Oak and Eagle (hereafter abbreviated OAE), and largely on the two leaders of the grove, David North and Nicole Franklin, the text has a valuable immediacy often lacking from such studies. The 97 color photos also go far to bringing the reader into an experience of living Druidry, and grounding it in vivid sensory detail. (Respecting copyright, I include other images here to enliven the text of this review.)

The Grandersons are also careful not to generalize too far from their experience embedded with a specific Grove. Benjamin writes:

Unlike my previous project on Paganism, this work is a tighter focus; one which examines a very select group of Pagans who follow a specific Druid school of thought: The Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, or OBOD for short. Starting with Dave and Nicole, my brother and I investigated the lives and practices of these individuals who called themselves OBOD Druids (pg. 10).

In addition to taking care not to paint all Druids or even all OBOD members with the same brush, the authors nevertheless back up assertions like the following with specific examples, detailed description and photos.

Since the OAE is more intensive than a typical Seed Group, the core members are very tight-knit and comfortable with one another, and often consider the others to be close friends and confidants. From woodland camps to the living rooms of suburban houses, there is a clear culture of openness, where one moment raucous drinking and jokes are interspersed with moments of deep discussion and potent ritual (pg. 23).

One comes away with the impression of the significant trust the OAE members placed in the Grandersons, and the authors don’t betray this trust in intimate portraits of OAE members and their practice of one form of 21st century Druidry.

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David North, second from left. Photo courtesy Gail Nyoka.

Catching David at a point near the completion of his Ovate studies, and the transition of OAE from Seed Group to Grove, Granderson perceptively observes,

While what constitutes “completion” of the course material varies from person to person based on the correspondence between them and their mentors, before all else, a person’s evolution through the grade work determines if they feel like they have achieved balance (pg. 35).

Much of the non-hierarchical and non-dogmatic character of OBOD comes across in comments like these, in large part one of the signal accomplishments of OBOD’s current leader, Philip Carr-Gomm.

The authors also show themselves sensitive to picking up on Druid cultural practices:

(a) widespread hugging in greeting and farewell, often even among those meeting for the first time;

(b) the relaxed quality of “Pagan” or “Druid Standard Time”, in which events happen in a fluid and intuitive way, not on a strict schedule, but more when the group as a whole feels ready, and almost everyone alert to group energies feels a subtle shift toward action;

(c) unspoken taboos against bad-mouthing other Druid groups (in part because people are often members of more than one, each affording a unique set of teachings and perspectives), and

(d) a kind of ritual respect, so that during unscripted moments in ritual, when attendees are invited to toast, offer thanks, blessings, prayer requests, etc., one forgoes invoking a deity or energy out of keeping with the group, or exclusive to one’s personal practice.

Part of the authors’ experience drew them in deeply enough that the boundaries between observer and participant start to blur. Undesirable as this continues to be in good ethnography, it confers the authority of personal witness to what the Grandersons can recount:

I situated myself on the floor, text in hand, and I began reading. The text started off like the beginning of the Imbolc ritual, with the calling to the corners and the centering of the self. While I read the text aloud, Dave moved from corner to corner of the room, gazing into the expanse—at what I did not know. The text then changed, and from that point onwards I began to lose any understanding, only picking up something about ancestors. I was intent upon trying to guess when to stop to give Dave time to perform the ritual, while also fighting my excitement about getting a good photo (pg. 81).

Something of the eclecticism present in OBOD practice emerges. While much of the study material is Celtic in origin or spirit, OBOD members come from such varied and often mixed backgrounds that the OBOD ethos encourages members

to throw away selectivity and investigate and study the wisdom and traditions of all their ancestors, spanning time and geography, to form a complete profile that honors all of those that came before … to be open toward other traditions and practices that do not belong to one’s ancestral background, and to be willing to recognize wisdom and truth no matter what source it comes from (pg. 89).

Recording the mood, participants, ritual actions and aftermath of several of the Great Eight seasonal festivals of Druidry and Paganism generally, the Grandersons caught the generally relaxed ritual mindset, as well as the personalities of individuals:

There were some slip-ups, with a ritual participant or two walking the wrong way at first, starting a line too late, or failing to light a candle due to a stubborn lighter. An occasional glance would be cast at Dave or Nicole, seeming to seek their validation. Dave looked on stoically, though always welcoming and patient; he knew from experience these rituals were never flawless (pg. 109).

Though much of modern Druidry is indeed visible, or at least detectable with some modest effort at inquiry, if one is interested, there is a quality of what might be termed “spiritual privacy” to even its public rituals. This is a cherished skill among the Druids I know, one for intermittent discussion, certainly, and always a matter of judgment and discretion. Each person assesses the line he or she prefers to observe in how public the individual practice of Druidry should be. The Grandersons capture it well:

OAE wasn’t afraid to be out in public, but they made that public space private. They didn’t hang a sign up saying, “Druid Meeting Here,” or make announcements on a loudspeaker. They also chose a pavilion that, by design and location, created seclusion; it was a reserved piece of land that they sanctified, and they created an island for themselves for a day. Again, this speaks to the contemporary Druid’s ability to take what is modern—a state park pavilion—and make it ancient, carry out their practices in the open air, and somehow remain largely hidden (pg. 124).

The authors divide their book in to poetically captioned sections: Introduction; What is A Druid?; Opening the Door; Naked Before the Full Moon; Into Spring; Beltane; Branching Out; Trip to Four Quarters; The Latter-Half of the Year; Living with Dave and Nicole (a ritually full time, with a wedding of Druid Hex Nottingham and his wife Daisy, East Coast Gathering, a baby-naming ceremony during the same Gathering weekend, a local Pagan Pride Day, etc.); A Detour to New York (with an interview with another Druid, Nadia Chauvet); and The End of the Journey.

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cabin banners at East Coast Gathering

This review has focused more on the first half of the book; the second half builds on it, with more interviews of members we have already encountered, and observations specific to their experiences.

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MAGUS Beltane fire-circle. Photo Courtesy Wendy Rose Scheers.

In sum, I recommend this book to the “Druid-curious” for its detailed reporting and photography, and for conveying, as close as text and photos can, something of the experience of what doing Druidry actually feels like. And to those familiar with Druidry who may also know many of the Druids it portrays and interviews, it’s a pleasure to read and ponder. Finally, as an insight into the energy, organization and personalities behind the very successful MAGUS gatherings of 2017 and 2018, it also deserves exploration by anyone interested in contemporary Druidry and in organizing focused and effective Pagan events.

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