Thursday, January 5, 2012

Winter Magic

Another month has come and gone and the Wheel of the Year is turning ever on. Alban Arthan was a magical time. I was fortunate to be able to lead a program about the Winter Solstice at the nature center, which more than 100 people attended. We made evergreen wreaths, beeswax candles and tiny Yule logs, people tried fire-by-friction and I told stories as the Green Man. The following days were filled with special memories, shared by family and friends.

Now, I am ready for snow. Except for a storm on Mackinac Island and some other parts of Northern Michigan (which we had to drive through), much of our State has been without snow all winter. I love snowshoeing and the soft, white blanket that covers Mother Earth this time of year. It muffles city sounds and reflects the light of the moon to guide my way. I need its cleansing power, to cover the dust and grime of a tired landscape and to illumine my soul. Every flake a miracle of nature, every snowdrift, sculpted by sharp winter winds, a beautiful piece of artwork. 

I also need to take the time to curl up in front of the woodstove with a cup of tea and a snowstorm raging outside. To delve into the Gwersi of my Bardic studies, to focus and reflect on the miracles and mysteries of the Earth Mother and all her creatures. 

Even without snow, I was fortunate to have several amazing encounters with some animals over the past couple of weeks. My brother and I spent three days searching for Snowy Owls. There have been a plethora of reports from across North America of this far northern species making their way south this winter. Finally, on our third day in misty rain and fog we spotted an owl, along a lonely country road, perched on the roof of a house! Further down the same road, we came across another sitting on a short power pole. 

At the Nature Center, a family of River Otters have also been spotted numerous times this past fall and early winter. We headed out to the pond one day and hiked around it. After finding many scat piles of fish scales, we finally spotted two otters who quickly swam away. Quietly making our way along the shore, we were lucky to see them both swimming and exploring holes of an old beaver lodge. One was especially curious about us and it chirruped and snuffed at us several times before disappearing into its hole. 

Finally, my family was lucky to see a Pileated Woodpecker along a road on Mackinac Island. Though I wasn't able to get close enough for a picture, I later discovered another along a trail, patiently working on a tree. These crow-sized woodpeckers are the largest in North America (if the Ivory-billed is extinct), and seeing one is always a special experience.

May your days ahead, wherever you are, be filled with the cleansing power of Nature. Whether it's a blanket of snow, the warm sun overhead, wind in the treetops or the burble of a stream, let the magic and mystery of the land soak into your soul and bring you peace. Now, I leave you with part of a delightful poem, by Claude McKay.

The Snow Fairy
Throughout the afternoon I watched them there, 
Snow-fairies falling, falling from the sky, 
Whirling fantastic in the misty air, 
Contending fierce for space supremacy. 
And they flew down a mightier force at night, 
As though in heaven there was revolt and riot, 
And they, frail things had taken panic flight 
Down to the calm earth seeking peace and quiet. 
I went to bed and rose at early dawn 
To see them huddled together in a heap, 
Each merged into the other upon the lawn, 
Worn out by the sharp struggle, fast asleep. 
The sun shone brightly on them half the day, 
By night they stealthily had stol'n away. 

Yours under the Snowy Oaks,

Skybranch /|\

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Quiet

It's been pretty quiet here at DruidUU lately and I can hardly believe it's been since mid-October that I posted last. Of course, not blogging means I was very busy in other areas of my life, as usually happens in the wonderful autumn season. Community theater, a busy work schedule and taking time to enjoy the wonders of the natural world have filled my days, weeks and nights over the past month and a half.

Just a couple of days ago we got our first official snowstorm of the upcoming winter season. The woods were simply covered in white and the sun shone the next day, leaving a thick, glistening and glorious blanket over every branch and twig. I've taken time to walk about three miles each of the past few days, camera and binoculars in hand. Doing so makes me realize how much I've been missing. While I've done some trips and led some outdoor programs at work, the daily routine of spending time outside just to soak everything in was left aside for a little while. That's a slippery slope, my friends. Too soon, you realize that weeks start slipping by, nature eases into a new season and you've missed something important.

The first snowstorm of the season
Sunrise was beautiful this morning and I saw two Bald Eagles before I even stepped foot inside my workplace. From my office window I saw another fly by, then on my walk I witnessed two sub-adults soaring overhead. To miss the eagles would have been a tragedy. Yes, they would have gone about their business and likely wouldn't have missed my appearance. But I certainly would have missed something grand, spiritual and meaningful. They gave me gifts, you see, but I had to be present in order to receive them.

My wish for you, Dear Reader, is that you take time (even if you have to steal just a few special moments) to receive the gifts that Mother Nature has to offer us. Snowflakes and eagles, otter tracks and feisty chickadees are gifts of peace for your soul. They are there for all of us, given freely without payment, if only we decide to pay attention.

Yours under the Snowy Oaks,

Skybranch /|\

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Among the Michigan Pines (1885)

Working as an environmental historian for the past 16 years, I have come to develop a great love and respect for the magnificent, ancient forests of Michigan's past. If Druids of ancient times could have walked among the forest groves of North America, I'm certain they would have discovered great power, beauty, meaning and majesty here, nestled among the Great Lakes. After decades of lumbering in the late 19th century, only scattered remnants of uncut forests now remain, such as those at Hartwick Pines State Park and in the Porcupine Mountains wilderness area. But our woodlands have undergone tremendous regrowth over the past century. Today, you still experience amazing sights and sounds among the trees over millions of wooded acres. 

Recently, I discovered a series of nine articles which were originally published in 1885, in the Chicago weekly magazine The Current. Written by columnist Charles Ellis, of Boston, the publication has been scanned and may now be found on Google Books. In short, much of what Charles wrote simply blew me away. 

In the winter of 1883 or 1884, Charles Ellis decided to head to Michigan in order to view our vast forests before they were gone and to spend time in a lumber camp. Of his decision, he wrote, "...packing my trunk in the early winter, I turned my back upon dear old Boston and was whirled away to the famous land of the wolverines."  After spending a few days in Saginaw, he traveled by train “about 70 miles distant”, ending somewhere in the Saginaw Valley watershed, which flows right through the Nature Center where I work. Below is the fifth installment of his articles. I've cut a few pieces out and added some additional paragraph breaks so you can read it more easily. I know its long, but I hope you enjoy it as much as I have! The full series of articles can be found here


There is a peculiar solitude in a pine forest. Alone upon the shore, the restless break of the waves makes ceaseless voices that wake companion voices in the mind. Alone upon the sea, the incessant change of its surface, the splashing waves as your boat dashes across the wind, or the idle flap of her sails as she rises and falls to their lazy roll under the summer sun, load the flying hours with delightful dreams. But the pine forest is alone. Time was when here the scarce hunters found abundance of game where now I see and hear nothing, save when the wind blows by, and high overhead I hear its breath as it is torn by the needles through which it is driven. This, indeed, is a varied sound, for at times it seems like a gentle prolonged sigh, and again, like Niagara's roar; or breaking waves pounding upon rocky shores are not louder nor more wild. But when the air is still and you stand alone beneath the pines no other solitude can compare with it.

Above, below, all peace!
Silence and solitude, the soul's best friends.
Are with me here, and the tumultuous world
Makes no more noise than the remotest planet.

The tall, dark columns all around you, the darker ceiling of the darker branches intermingling and blinding the sky above you, the utter absence of living things within range of your strained vision, all conspire to excite a sensation so new that you do not understand it for a time. I can almost understand, as it seems to me, how the ancients came to people forests with imaginary life; for as I look around me among the silent trunks, I feel the ancient impulse burning in my veins, and half expect to see elf or dryad beckoning me away. The silence excites imagination in her recesses and the Old becomes New; Ancient is Modern; I am a Pagan, like my ancestors, and at home. I become familiar with the trees. They know me and seem to shake hands. I am welcome among them. They tell me of the past. The inroad that civilization is making upon these grand old trees seems almost like sacrilege and murder; yet saved they cannot be... 

I recall a memorable ride among the pines. One day a foreman invited me to ride with him to a camp some fifteen miles away, and I gladly accepted the opportunity. Nine miles of the ride led through what might strictly be termed "unbroken wilderness," if such a thing can be found. Here and there was a small opening, where the pine had been cut and the brush burned, and there were two or three of these spots where courageous men had set to work to make farms. It seemed to me as if they might as well have gone to work to make a new earth! But what made hard farming made a most sublime picture to one unto whom the pine forest was a new revelation.

For miles we drove in and out along a narrow road with the trees so close that it required the strictest attention of our sylvan Jehu to carry us through without collision. As far as I could see across the snow, that lay smooth and unwrinkled like a spotless counterpane, rose the fair round columns of pine. Throwing back the head, one saw the branches reaching out to one another far overhead, interlacing and crowding to form a dark green canopy through which there fell occasional glimpses of a sky that seemed to rest upon the trees. The prevailing color is like a soft twilight that seems to express itself psychologically as Silence, but the monotony is agreeably lit up here and there by the reddish bark of the beautiful Norway pine.

The hard-wood growth is chiefly beech which, with its smooth, steel-colored bark, mottled with patches of green moss, gives a quiet variety and tone to the picture. The undergrowth (there is no "under-brush," as in a New England forest,) is also chiefly of young beeches that, as seen from the road, appear to be from six to twenty or thirty feet high. The beech is the most beautiful of our forest trees when stripped of foliage, as they are now, and when only their skeleton graces woo our admiration. As this tree grows here, among these tall, closely-standing pines, with but little sunlight ever falling upon it, and without hope of any, or of a glimpse of the world, unless it can push its head up through the dark roof that imprisons it, the beech seems to have set itself earnestly to the work of growing tall.

Sheltered from all winds it does not need strength, and so appears to be giving its whole attention to the development of delicacy, grace, and beauty of trunk and limb. Its lithe arms taper out from the shoulder long and beautiful, gradually dwindling to a pretty brown bud so finely pointed as to suggest the thought that the beeches might be running opposition to the pines in the production of needles. Every lesser branch, too, of every larger branch has its subordinate branches and twigs, and they all taper down in the same exquisitely graceful way to a beautiful brown bud. This undergrowth, standing everywhere through the forest, reaches out its long, slender branches in every direction until they mingle, touch, cross and interweave in all possible angles, curves and inclinations.

On every branch, twig and spray hang thousands of the dead, rust-colored needles that have fallen from the pine, and there form a seemingly intangible fringe of color. Looked at from a distance of a few rods, or as the picture deepens away from you into the background, it seems like nothing so much as an immense but strangely beautiful veil, the effect of which is to soften and tone down the heavy, dark figures of the pine that seem to stand behind it, while in fact they are in the midst of it everywhere. This vision begins and ends with the dense forest. Shut your eyes and open them upon the same spot again and again, you cannot be certain that you have ever seen the picture before, that while you even winked the scene was not changed. No whirling kaleidoscope ever presented a more varied picture of material always the same than does this silent panorama of the wilderness. As I saw it first it seemed to me that nothing could be added to it, that nothing could be more beautiful, and yet it was wholly void of speck or point of gaudy coloring, and no sign of living thing could be seen save in our own company.

Not even a ray of sunlight glinted through it, for the sky was overcast with clouds that portended a storm. Indeed, while we were in camp it came on. As we returned in the afternoon over the same road I saw that there had been a transformation. The snow had sifted down through the pine boughs, and in the still air had settled upon and covered every branch and twig of my fancied veil and converted it into the loveliest white gossamer that ever hung in midair. I knew that the scene had not been really changed, I knew that I had driven through and looked over all that same ground only a few hours before, but another factor had been added, that was all, and the effect was marvelous indeed!

Nothing could have been finer. I have seen a quite similar effect produced by a heavy frost under which, in the early morning, the forest everywhere looked as if a great gauze veil had fallen upon it; but in that picture the frost crystals, standing so much more loosely, show a darker color and less clearly defined lines than are given by the snow, which falls more compactly. So, of the picture, I repeat that nothing could be finer or more beautiful; and nothing like it will ever be seen save in just such a forest under similar conditions. No canvas can ever be made to show it, for no artist can ever carry its magnitude away with him. The trees are too tall, the vistas too deep, the perspective too far, to be manipulated on canvas. Nature defied Art when she built this magnificent forest of pine. Looked at from the outside and seen from a distance, such a forest seems like a belt of night bound around the waist of day. Looked at from within, it seems almost to be a community of individual, though mute, lives. The Pines are "daughters of the gods,"

Divinely fair,
And most divinely tall!

So sings my soul, and I, nothing loth, have found at their pagan shrine, if not the peace, at least a piece of Heaven.

-Charles Ellis

Friday, September 23, 2011

Summer's End

Another month has past and summer has now come to an end. The autumnal equinox is nearly here and a new chapter of the year is about to begin. Autumn is my favorite time of the year and I already have greatly enjoyed the crisp air, the turning leaves and the rich smells of the Earth as it begins to prepare for its Winter rest. 

Since my canoeing retreat in August, I have returned to the "real world" and have been very busy, indeed. As time has passed in a flurry of activity, I've still made time for the materials sent by the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) each month in my training course for the Bardic Grade and still find them full of meaning, insight and inspiration. 

Today, I set up a small altar on a shelf in my room and have made preparations to lead the Alban Elfed ritual for the Ancient Shores Chapter of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. The rite will be performed on Sunday and and I hope the weather holds and we are able to gather in the lawn under the sky, among the trees. 

The major piece of the puzzle that eludes me so far is the formation of a daily routine which includes time for Druid meditation, ritual, and reflection. I am just so busy, especially with work and volunteer commitments, in addition to many ongoing family responsibilities that fill up daily life for so many of us. It seems that early morning might be a good time, but I am such a night owl and I've always found it difficult to arise with the sun (or before). Oh well...I fit things in the best I can for now and will continue to figure out a balance. Isn't that what we all must do always, each in our own way? Autumn has always been a natural time of reflection for me. It's time to pause, soak in the amazing beauty of the season with all my senses and make plans for the cold, quiet months to come. 

Tomorrow, I will perform a solo ritual to celebrate the changing season and finish preparations for the group ritual on Sunday. I am also getting ready to head back up North next weekend, this time leading a group for a wilderness adventure on slow-moving rivers, winding through changing forests as flocks of migrating birds fly overhead. 

In the meantime, I will see you, dear readers, along the trail, on the river and in the Sacred Grove. 

Yours under the Changing Oaks, 

Skybranch /|\

Saturday, August 20, 2011

August Reflections

In my last post, I said my intention was to investigate the "Druids performing human sacrifice" question I received after I read my credo statement to our Unitarian Universalist congregation in July. After thinking  about it and even writing some, I decided it was simply not worth giving any more energy to, so I'm not going to expound about it after all. Even if Druids did perform human sacrifice as their culture and way of life was being systematically wiped out by the Romans, they certainly don't do it any more. And it has never, in my wildest dreams, been my intention to follow a reconstructionist form of Druidry that simply imitates the religion of an ancient past. Enough said. It's time to move on. And move on, I have.

This summer, I enrolled in the training course for the Bardic Grade of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. Since mid-June, I have completed ten Gwersi, or lessons, and have found them to be informative, inspiring and enlightening. Suggestions for meditation, creating sacred space, and lessons on Celtic history and mythology have helped create a framework around which I can focus on a spiritual practice that is alive and very connected to the Earth and the web of all life.

This month I also had the opportunity to put my solo canoe on my car and head to Michigan's Upper Peninsula to do some paddling in preparation for a group trip I am leading at the end of September. The weather was fabulous and I was very much alone on wide open lakes and a meandering river, deep in the forest near Whitefish Point. I watched as two ospreys fished in the lake, splashing down with  tremendous splashes of water. As I was annoyed by flies at one point on the trip, I sang a little dragonfly song and (coincidence or not) had this large, amazing dragonfly hover right next to me, then alight on the front of my canoe, where some pesky flies had been hanging out!

I was able to study and meditate in my tent as ferocious thunderstorms raged outside, bringing the power of Nature very up-close and personal in a way many people miss out on while they are shut up in their houses, office buildings and automobiles.

Such days away are nothing less than a spiritual retreat for me, when I can recharge my batteries, connect in deep ways to the mysteries of all life, and let my flow and pace match the rhythms of nature. When I enter back into my busy schedule of "normal life", I keep these feelings and memories alive in my heart and draw upon their strength and energies for months to come.

May you, dear reader, also find such peace and connection in your life, whether it's in the backyard garden, under a sacred oak, or deep in a forest far from home.

Yours under the Sacred Oaks,


Sunday, July 31, 2011

What I Believe

There is a tradition at our Unitarian Universalist Fellowship which invites people to share their credo statements with the congregation. As Unitarian Universalism and Druidry are both non-creedal paths, the responsibility for forming our beliefs lies with ourselves. Below is the statement I read before our congregation today. Without further ado, here it is:

The last time I stood before this congregation to read my credo statement was nearly three years ago, in October 2008. Only in a Unitarian Universalist congregation would I have the opportunity to share my beliefs again after some time has passed with any thought in the world that they might be different from before. I think it’s just wonderful that we have such opportunities to support each other in our search for truth and meaning as we grow and change together through the years.

So, after reviewing my credo from 2008, have things changed? I realize that some of you might not have been here last time and even if you were, you might not remember what I had to say (I doubt it’s tacked up on your refrigerator). As that’s the case, here is a review of my statement from three years ago:

I believe all living things are strands on the web of life. Trees, birds, insects, snakes, fish, amoebae and people share a spark of life that is sacred, wondrous and holy. We’re made of stardust and water – we live, we love, we die. And that’s it.

What we choose to do with the time we have will, in part, determine our future as a species on planet Earth. Only time will tell if Mother Nature’s experiment with “big brains” will work out. If people finally manufacture our own demise (and take a whole host of other species down with us), life will eventually find a way to persist, in some fashion, beyond humanity. Earth was not made “for us” by some omniscient, other-worldly God, any more than it was made “for” dinosaurs, pitcher plants or mastodons.

Big Two-Hearted River in Michigan's Upper Peninsula
I feel most intimately connected to the web of all life in natural places that are relatively unscarred by human hands. And I make it a point to seek out these places as often as possible, to reflect, connect, and renew my spirit. Sometimes in the wilderness, the persistent mental chattering of my mind slowly fades, like ripples on the surface of a lake receding to leave a perfect, mirrored pool. When I slow down, remember to breathe and pay attention to the world around me, I find my still mind acts not only like a mirror, but like a lens through which I can glimpse the depths of the universe.

I believe that most people pay precious little attention to the world around them. Bills, money, politics, hairstyles, cell phones, and other random minutiae consume our lives so completely we feel empty – cut off from the rest of nature and from our very own humanity. When I truly pay attention to others; when I listen, laugh, share and love, I begin to understand how inextricably connected we really are.

Life is constantly changing, flowing and growing. What never changes is our inherent dependence on one another. I believe the best way to live my life is in a way that honors the deep, fundamental connections between all things. Sometimes I forget, stumble or fail. But always trying again may be the most important thing I ever do.

Well, that’s pretty good. Not too much has really changed for me in the past three years as far as my beliefs are concerned. I must admit, I do have some doubts about the cheery, “we all die and that’s it” part. More and more, it seems to me that our fundamental spark continues on in some way. Transforming into something else maybe or merging with the energy of the universe. I guess we’ll all find out what really happens someday (or maybe not).

Symbol of Awen and of the
Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids
What has changed the most for me in the past few years is my discovery of the path of Druidry. Yes, I just said the word Druid. I’m not talking about the same priestly class of ancient Britain recounted by Julius Caesar, but a Druid tradition that honors the past, but is very alive and well in the present.

As you can tell from my statements above, my spirituality has always been strongly rooted in a connection with the natural world. Since discovering Unitarian Universalism fifteen years ago, I have appreciated that many UUs share this point of view and that our seventh principle recognizes a “respect for the interdependent web of life, of which we are a part”. But for me, much of Unitarian Universalism has still seemed too rooted in the humanistic, rational world which discounts magic, mystery, the unknown and the unexplainable. Something in me has yearned for something more. As Philip Carr-Gomm writes, “Only one aspect of our Being grows and is satisfied by the purely rational...Another great part of ourselves needs the nourishment of the trans-rational - the aesthetic, poetic, mythic sides of life that cannot fully be explained or described by the mind." 

At this point, I’ll refrain from my credo turning into a lesson on neo-paganism and the path of Druidry, but I will say this. Connecting with others in this Fellowship in our Ancient Shores chapter of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (or CUUPS) and in a broader sense, to Druids all over the world in the Ancient Order of Druids in America and in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids has been an immensely rewarding experience. Currently, I am enrolled in the training program of the Bardic Grade of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, which is based in Sussex, England. Each lesson, each reading, exercise and mediation has been like flinging open doors and windows of possibility – new, amazing ways to appreciate the magic and wonder of all life all around us.

As part of this experience, I’ve been keeping a blog, entitled DruidUU. A video I created is even featured online on the home page of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, which is the largest Druid organization in the world. In my latest blog post, I wrote the following:

We are starstuff. Billions of molecules of vibrating energy, spinning electrons, protons, neutrons... All things are the same, really, "on Earth, as it is in heaven." We are not only connected to each other, as humans living on Mother Earth, but intimately connected to every other animal, plant, lichen, rock, droplet of water and gust of wind that blows. And when our short time is done here in this physical form, our energies don't simply disappear or fade away, they transform, connecting even more deeply to the whole that is everything, eternal, always.

No matter if you call it God, Goddess, Great Spirit, Yahweh, Allah, Awen, Buddha, Tao or any other name. Names do not matter. Everything matters. We are all connected. And we destroy any being, any mountain, any rock or river at the peril of All. We are caretakers, we are Wise Ones, watchers and protectors, spreading peace and harmony throughout the land, the sea, the sky and into the heavens.

Let the Inspiration of the Awen fill us up with imagination, creativity and love for all things, for all life and for each other. All of us, always.

Luminous beings are we...and we are ever so good at hiding the light. But still it refuses to go out. Wake up from the dream. Let your light shine!

After today's service, I received many wonderful compliments and warm remarks about my credo. The most touching was from someone who said, "You are our poet." What a lovely sentiment for someone who is in a bardic training course! 

In my next post, I'll share some thoughts and feelings about someone else's comment. He said, "Didn't Druids perform human sacrifice? Are we going to have one here?" While I'm sure he was trying to be funny, there are some underlying issues there I'd like to explore. Until next time, my friends, be well and let your lights shine! 

Yours under the Sacred Oaks,

Skybranch /|\

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Light Body

"Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter!" - Master Yoda

We are starstuff. Billions of molecules of vibrating energy, spinning electrons, protons, neutrons... All things are the same, really, "on Earth, as it is in heaven." We are not only connected to each other, as humans living on Mother Earth, but intimately connected to every other animal, plant, lichen, rock, droplet of water and gust of wind that blows. And when our short time is done here in this physical form, our energies don't simply disappear or fade away, they transform, connecting even more deeply to the whole that is everything, eternal, always.

No matter if you you call it God, Goddess, Great Spirit, Yahweh, Allah, Awen, Buddha, Tao or any other name. Names do not matter. Everything matters. We are all connected. And we destroy any being, any mountain, any rock or river at the peril of All. We are caretakers, we are Wise Ones, watchers and protectors, spreading peace and harmony throughout the land, the sea, the sky and into the heavens.

Let the Inspiration of the Awen fill us up with imagination, creativity and love for all things, for all life and for each other. All of us, always.

Luminous beings are we...and we are ever so good at hiding the light. But still it refuses to go out. Wake up from the dream. Let your light shine!

Yours under the sacred oaks,

Skybranch /|\