Sunday, October 31, 2010

Samhuinn Eve

So far this Samhuinn, I've taken part in the first of two rituals to celebrate this special time of year. My whole life, long before I'd even heard the term Samhuinn, I've had a special affection for Autumn and Halloween. Clean, brisk air tinted with the smell of woodsmoke, brilliant colored leaves on nearly every tree and shrub and Jack o'lanterns on every doorstep. My love for this season runs deep.

As I've learned more about the roots of this traditional Celtic holiday, I've come to hold a deeper appreciation beyond trick-or-treat and playful costume parties. As a Boy Scout in the mid-1980s, I had my first brush with genealogy. Since that time, the understanding of my family tree has grown into a glorious web of life, stretching far back in time. My connection with the past, my ancestors, and the source of all life is a real and present part of my every day.

Recently, my connection to those gone before has grown even richer with the addition of myth and tales of eternal truths from various cultures around the world. Ceridwen and Pan, Cernunnos and Herne come to life just generations of my own grandparents before me. Lessons from all these sources link me to the whole of humanity, the earth beneath my feet, and the heavens above.

This Samhuinn, when the veil between the worlds is thin, I hope each of you relish this time of closeness with your ancestors, wherever and whenever they walked the Earth. The truth is, each of them live within us still.

-Skybranch /|\

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Swinger of Trees

When I see birches bend to left and right 
Across the lines of straighter darker trees, 
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
From Birches by Robert Frost (1916)

In fifth grade, I learned where the sidewalk ends. All of us in Ms. Hartman’s class made the journey to that magical place together. We also sat on the carpet with bated breath as storks built their nest of sticks on a wagon wheel, perched on top of a schoolhouse, far away. I even read aloud to the class one rain-soaked afternoon.

Me as a Kid
Poems and stories filled the air as we turned pages, memorized lines, and shared them aloud with each other. I distinctly remember the warm fog of horse’s breath as we stopped by a wood on snowy evening. Teachers share gifts with their students in small ways every day. Some last a lifetime.

Richmond Middle School still sits at the edge of a small Michigan town, just as it did when I started attending in the autumn of 1981. Behind the playground was a woodlot of oaks and maples, crisscrossed with winding paths to entice the intrepid adventurer.

The wood was divided by a deep drainage ditch, bordered by a tall chain link fence. I have no idea who owned the property, but their fence was no match for boys. Wally and I roamed the place at will, crossing the ditch on a fallen tree. Our search for the mighty Excalibur lasted many moons, and scores of sticks were smashed to smithereens in the conquest.

One summer Saturday, I dragged Dwayne along for birdwatching behind the school. Blue jays and cardinals, chickadees and mourning doves were among the morning’s usual suspects. After birding we stopped on the playground and hopped on the swings, if only to get that much closer to our feathered friends. Soon after, an unusual sight pulled into the parking lot. Our swings came to a rest as we watched a man get out of his car and walk across the grass, headed in our direction.

The police officer told us that someone had been lighting off fireworks behind the school the night before and asked if we knew anything about it. Our resulting pleas of ignorance and claims of watching birds were initially met with some degree of skepticism. Clearly he thought the culprits had returned to the scene of the crime. The glint of victory sparkled through his glasses.

Until we uttered the words, “Yellow-shafted flicker.”

Even at my tender age I could instantly discern that while a badge and a gun provide some measure of authority, they do not impart one whit of knowledge about birds. “If you boys see anything suspicious, let us know,” he said as he smiled and drove away.

Now back to Mr. Frost. Reading his poem Birches had introduced me to quite a new idea. The concept of “swinging trees” was, I must admit, most intriguing. Climbing trees had already been a favorite pastime of mine for years, starting with the gnarled old apple trees in our backyard. But climbing a slender sapling to the very top, then flinging outward with a swish to the ground! What a grand and terrifying idea!

Poem in hand, it was time to search for a candidate. While I had no need to “fetch the cows” as the boy in Mr. Frost’s musings, it still seemed to me this line of work was a solitary calling. This would especially be true if things didn’t go quite as planned and I ended up breaking an arm or something. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to witness such a spectacle. That kind of story would be whispered behind my back for years or maybe end up in the local paper.

So off to school I go, when no one is around. Except for the scolding jays, the woods sure are quiet and peaceful. It feels like the trees know I’m up to something...

There aren’t many birches around here, but I’m sure another kind will do. Maples are strong, don’t they make baseball bats out of those? Or maybe that’s hickory. There’s a hickory tree over by the high school where we race squirrels to collect nuts every autumn, but that sucker is huge. Maybe Paul Bunyan could swing it, but I weigh about 80 pounds.

Now concentrate…maple it is. Those helicopters sure make a mess of our yard, but that ice storm a few years ago was even worse. Giant branches were down everywhere and the neighbors were out on the street, surveying the damage. I wonder if any of these bent saplings got arched to the ground then and stayed that way. “Like girls on their hands and knees that throw their hair before them over their heads to dry in the sun.” Robert Frost is so cool.

That one looks pretty good, but the branches sure are skinny. Oh well, might as well give it a whirl. My hands are kind of sweaty and it’s not even hot out. Holy crap, this thing is already swinging all over the place. I’ll never make it to the top. Back down. Try again.

This one looks better. Probably grew a bit slower under the shade of this big guy. Chickadees sure have small feet. They could cling to one of those tiny twigs way up there and barely make a leaf move. Mom sure loves those little guys. I bet they’re really soft.

This isn’t as easy as Mr. Frost makes it sound. “He always kept his poise to the top branches, climbing carefully with the same pains you use to fill a cup up to the brim, and even above the brim.” Well that doesn’t sound so easy after all.

I know, how about those low branches on that big tree over there. Now this is no problem, and I can just reach the top of this sapling. Holy cow, I must be twenty feet up here. It would really suck if this thing just snapped in two.

“Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish, kicking his way down through the air to the ground.” Okay Robert, here we go.

It worked! And I became a swinger of trees. I clenched my sweaty hands into tight fists around the thin taper of the crown. Feet extended, I jumped from the larger tree, descending in a furious rustle of green leaves and invisible wind, smiling all the way to the ground.

Lightly stepping off, the tree sprung skyward, (mostly) returning to its upright position. For the next little while, I enjoyed the natural ride again and again. Saplings were at my mercy. “By riding them down over and over again until he took the stiffness out of them, and not one but hung limp, not one was left for him to conquer.”

Then it was time to go. This wood and I would meet again before my youth was done. As I turned to say goodbye, fresh memories swirled in my brain. But then I saw the trees. The jays were right to scold me as I arrived that day. After my thrills, a row of saplings bowed their heads to the ground. They looked sad, if leaves and branches somehow share our feelings. Their neighbors stood nearby, leafy arms reaching to the sky, soaking up the sun. At that moment, I sure hoped Mr. Frost was right and they wouldn’t stay that way.

Today, I cherish the day I became a swinger of trees. I had come to know the quiet sentinels of the little woodlot behind my school in a new way. Our arms were intertwined as swirling wind rushed through our hair. The trees brought me back to earth with the softest touch, stripping me of fear and worry, leaving nothing but joy.

Since that day, I have never again been a swinger of saplings. Now when I climb (and you better believe I still do) I only choose trunks strong enough to support me. Young trees have a more noble task than riding my somewhat-more-than 80 pounds to the ground. Slender leafy heads belong above us for chickadees to perch on.

But I must admit, when I see a sapling bent to the ground, it makes me wonder and have to smile. Let the children play. Let them know the trees.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Great Lakes Druidry

While Druidry existed in ancient Britain and its revival took place there in the 17th century, modern Druidry has grown to be a worldwide phenomenon. If people are able to use this spiritual path to help repair our connection to nature and heal our damaged world, then it must be extremely adaptable to each place where people feel the call of nature all over the planet.

An excellent introduction to this idea is articulated by John Michael Greer in his article "A Pacific Northwest Ogham", which can be found on the website of the Ancient Order of Druids in America. In his article, Greer writes:
The tree-Ogham as it has come down to us in modern Druid tradition is a creation of the British Isles, and draws on the trees of that region. The Puget Sound area of the Pacific Northwest, where I live and practice Druidry, is nearly a different planet in botanical terms...The process of creating a tree-Ogham appropriate to the Puget Sound country - or any other environment sufficiently different from northwestern Europe -- is not unlike that of translating poetry from one language to another. Inevitably, some meanings are lost, and others are gained which were not present in the original.... If Druidry is relevant to the whole world, though - and I believe that it is - it must be able to put down roots in forests very different from the ones where it originally grew. There must someday be a cactus-Ogham for the Arizona deserts and a jungle-Ogham for the rain forests of northern Australia. 
The concept of Druidry being adaptable to anyone is extremely important to me. While I respect and admire the ancient Celtic cultures of the British Isles (and even have ancestors who immigrated from Ireland, Scotland and England), I have little desire to simply reenact the spiritual traditions of a long-ago culture from a different place and time. It's also one of the (many) reasons I drifted away from the Christianity of my youth. 

Pines and Fir Trees along Clark Lake in
Michigan's Upper Peninsula
As I've begun to study the Celtic tree Ogham, I've had some trouble with the specificity of its connection with the trees and shrubs of the British Isles. I've spent my entire life immersing myself in the woodlands of Michigan and the surrounding Great Lakes region and simply have no personal connection with species like the Rowan, Gorse and Hawthorn. Others, like the Honeysuckle and Scots Pine are actually invasive exotic species in Michigan and the nature center where I work makes a considerable effort to eradicate them from our property.

Don't get me wrong. I'm happy to study Arthurian legends, learn the story of Einigen the Giant and contemplate the personality of Esus as he sits in the Sacred Oak. What I think we ALL need, however, is  personal experience with the plants, animals, soil and water around us. We need to hear the sound of the wind in the leaves of the Sacred Oaks in our own backyard and smell their leaves on the forest floor.

In that respect, I plan on working on adapting the tree Ogham for the woodlands of Michigan. I look forward to investigating the hidden hidden traits and characteristics of our trees and shrubs, celebrating their wonders and deepening my connection to their life-force spirits.

Skybranch /|\

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Forest Voices

The trees are speaking to me again,
their willow branches windswept in the night.
Their mystic beauty, everlasting,
turning crimson,
golden, green-leafed faces,
shallow laughter.

Singing, sighing, screaming;
broken in storm-swept meadows,
lightning flashes.

I soak the rain into my bones
and hear the song of the endless life-force.
Flowing rootwise, breathing, growing.

I feel their shadow on ever-pine laden pathways
into the shelter of twisted faery places.
They welcome me to their shrouded haven
in the sun-dappled morning soaked with dew.

Look to the sun-rayed goddess
who turns green-clad mountains from lifeless greyness
to groves of laughter filled with beauty.

Fabled places, long forgotten, still feel the pull of the forest;
still hold the secrets of tomorrow,
in yesterday’s songs of colored autumn.

Don’t forget the quiet places,
hidden by the trees who are always singing.
Talking to me, once again,
I hear them breathing,
ground-beat throbbing in my bones.

This is a poem I wrote many years ago, long before I discovered the path of Druidry. I've always felt the call of the forest. Living in Michigan all my life has been an inspiration. We are the State of Trees and I've always felt most at home among my leafy woodland friends. 

-Skybranch  /|\

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Reenchantment of the World

Perhaps my favorite quote from The Druid Magic Handbook by John Michael Greer is actually a quote he used from another source. In 1981, Morris Berman wrote the following on page 10 of his book,  The Reenchantment of the World. 

"For more than 99 percent of human history, the world was enchanted and man was himself as an integral part of it. The complete reversal of this perception in a mere four hundred years or so has destroyed the continuity of the human experience and the integrity of the human psyche. It has very nearly wrecked the planet as well. The only hope, or so it seems to me, lies in a reenchantment of the world." 

Now I don't know about you, but this certainly gives me a great deal of food for thought. Ninety-nine percent of human history is a really long time! Have we really changed our world-view so very much from countless generations of our ancestors? If so, what does that mean for us, the planet and all other living things that share it with us? 

To me, the answer is easy. If we continue blindly down the road we're travelling now, we're doomed. Humanity as we know it can kiss itself goodbye and a great deal of the plant and animal species on Earth along with it. History is replete with individual civilizations that altered their environment so much they wiped themselves out. From the Anasazi of the Southwestern United States to native peoples of Easter Island, the story has replayed itself again and again. And those were in the days when the world was seen as "enchanted";  the plants, rocks and animals, ocean sky and stars were filled with spirits everywhere.

The modern, scientific-industrial age is an aberration in the long history of human experience. Certainly we can't simply turn the clock backwards and all instantly live in an pre-industrial age of hunter-gatherers and limited agriculture. But we CAN make choices about how we perceive the world we live in and what value we place on the web of all life, of which we are a part. 

If you think about it, this isn't that big of a stretch. Kids are born with an innate sense of wonder and the entire world is enchanted in every sense of the word. A preschooler was telling me all about her pet green bug the other day and just beamed with delight that she got to connect with this little, "ordinary" creature. Groves are filled with fairies, magic is real, and everything is possible when we are a child. But today, part of being "a grownup" is learning to reject this "simplistic" world view and to fine-tune our rational mind to the exclusion of all else. We live in an age of computers, information, and machines and these are the gods we worship now. 

Except when they're not. For some reason, much of Western culture, in particular, has decided that a belief in a monotheistic religion which teaches people to subdue the earth while looking forward to "real life" in the afterlife is perfectly okay. Don't worry about the Earth too much now, as it's not the important part. Our reward will be in heaven and if we destroy the planet in the process, then "God will handle it." 

The combination of these two belief systems, the scientific/industrial and monotheistic "heaven-based" religious has proved to be utterly disastrous for nearly all life on our planet. What we need, I believe, is to give ourselves and each other permission to bring magic back and enchantment back into the world. 

A reviewer of Berman's book on notes the following: 

In this sense, 'enchantment' relates to the inner perception of self, community and cosmos as 'animated', 'alive', replete with 'soul' and 'meaning'. In a less positive sense, 'disenchantment', according to Berman, is the condition of percieving those same things from a narrow 'materialistic' perspective alone. The disenchanted mind reduces/explains away people, animals, plants, community, nature etc. as mere chance events, chemical reactions, in short, as 'matter without soul or mind'.

My friends, we need to remember the lessons of our ancestors. They knew that a connection to the Web of Life was important for our very survival. We delude ourselves in thinking that our systems of food production, heating and cooling, medicine, travel, etc. have made us better survivors. In the short term, perhaps, but at what expense? What price will our children and grandchildren have to pay as the planet continues to warm, species worldwide go extinct on a massive scale and sources of fresh water dry up for an ever-increasing human population. 

It's time to bring magic back into the world. The magic of Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Spirit all flow through us all each day already. We just have to wake up, pay attention, and do something about it. 

-Skybranch /|\

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Winds of Awen

In Druid philosophy, Awen is the creative spark, the vibrating field of energy which inspires poets and sages to reach beyond themselves to something that connects us all. It's actually a Welsh term for "poetic inspiration," especially used to describe the divine inspiration of bards. 

A Symbol of Awen, the three rays
of light from the heavens.
The Sphere of Protection ritual which I perform daily includes invoking the protection of Awen above, below and within me. I do this outdoors whenever possible, to feel closer to all living things. It's a powerful moment each day as I focus my mind on banishing negativity and opening myself to the possibilities of the universe. As I conduct this part of the ritual, I've noticed recently it almost always seems coincide with a breeze blowing through the leaves. I've felt its energy flow through me too.

In an effort to learn more about Awen, I looked up the root parts of the word on the "magical" world of Wikipedia. What I found makes a whole lot of sense: "Awen derives from the Indo-European root *-uel, meaning 'to blow', and has the same root as the Welsh word awel meaning 'breeze.'"

Our connection to the Spirit of Life and the forces of creation in the Universe is not just some fantastical notion of Science Fiction or the mad Fisher King. We are all connected, always, and it's time to start paying attention!

A parallel of this idea comes to my mind in regards to watching birds. I've been an avid birder since age 10 when I started my "life list." My family all piled in the car and traveled to Point Pelee National Park in Canada each Mother's Day to experience the wonders of spring migration. Over the past three decades,  I've come to learn about and appreciate hundreds of different species, from hummingbirds to eagles and all shapes and sizes in between. Over the past few years in particular, I've also come to learn more and more birds by their song and can walk a woodland path and pick out half a dozen species in the surrounding trees which remain hidden to view.

Most people, I've found, pay very little attention to our feathered friends. Surely, birding is a popular pastime and many people have feeders outside their window. But ask 10 people and I bet only three or four would call themselves a "birder" and even fewer would be able to identify birds by their songs. And in case you haven't noticed, we thankfully live in a world just FULL of birds in every conceivable habitat across the globe.

A Sanderling on the Lake Superior Shore
To me, it's as if most people are walking around with blinders on when it comes to our avian friends. How can you not be amazed at the brilliant rainbow colors of the warblers who live in our marshes and woodlands?! It's not that folks try to ignore them, but mostly birds just don't register at all, almost like they're not even there. 

I'm learning that our connection to Awen is just the same. We all have the ability to be inspired by our  connection to the web of creation. But most of us ignore it, just as if this magical bond doesn't exist at all. I've found it takes practice, as Yoda said, to "unlearn what you have learned." I think it's high time, however, that we all open up to our deep connection with the Web of Life, before we destroy it all in spite of ourselves. 

Skybranch  /|\

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Ancient Shores

I led a very wet hike this evening at Averill, once the largest banking ground in the world, where white pine logs were piled thousand upon thousand as they awaited their trip to the sawmill. A lot has changed since the 1880s, and the property along the Tittabawassee River is now owned by the Little Forks Conservancy, who has worked to restore the natural ecosystems there.

As I walked the property yesterday, I listened to the wind blow through the trees and watched autumn leaves spiral to the earth. Each spring, 130 years ago, this land was nothing but logs piled 30 feet high and more, stretching for a mile along the high riverbank. Now, white pines and a host of other trees grow there once again and birdsong fills their branches.
The little stream flows into the river

As I contemplated this history of men and trees, I was drawn off the trail by a fragment of an old stone foundation in the woods. A small piece of wall is all that's left of some old structure, long rotted and gone. Looking further in, I noticed a piece of an old railroad tie that was once part of the grade that ran near here. Now, it's a paved bike path that stretches for 30 miles through the restored countryside of forests and farmland.

Looking even further into the trees, I noticed the winding bed of a small stream, cutting its way through the woods as it heads for the nearby river. I found evidence of mink, raccoon and deer in the sand and clay along the shore. Beds of stones and pebbles lie exposed in the low water. Walking along the bed, I paused to examine these rocks, deposited here who-knows how many eons ago. Crouching low, I was amazed at the variety of sizes, shapes and colors and found several small pieces of pure white quartz amidst their gray-clad cousins.

Then, in the water, I noticed a pattern of lines and pulled up a rock that was nothing less than a completely fossilized shell. Just over an inch long, its top and bottom halves are clearly visible, almost like something new which had instantly turned to stone. This whole region, however, was once covered by glaciers a mile thick and ages earlier than that, a warm saltwater sea. The name of our local Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans group is "Ancient Shores CUUPS" in recognition of those times long past and forgotten by most.

Though it seems like the main tale of this place, it turns out those frenetic years of lumbering destruction were just a mere moment of time in a long, long, story of this land. Here I am, crouching in a streambed with wetted fingers, clutching a fossilized shell from an ancient sea. Maybe the very water molecules that gave it life thousands and thousands of years ago are literally flowing through my veins.

Skybranch /|\

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Greetings and Welcome!

Thank you for visiting my blog which will explore the spiritual path of Druidry and our connection to the web of all life. I have always felt a deep and abiding connection to the natural world. Throughout my life, I have felt the inner spirit of the land, trees, rocks and animals in the landscapes through which I have roamed. This sense of connection has expressed itself in many ways over the years, especially when I remember to slow down, get outside and in tune with Mother Nature.

I was first exposed to nature-based religions in college and was delighted to discover that many people feel a spiritual connection to the land and the spirit-that-moves-in-all-things. At first, I couldn't really figure out how to use this new information. While I could sense there was something meaningful there for me, things didn't click right away.

In 1996, something did "click" when I discovered Unitarian Universalism and my wife and I started attending our local Fellowship. Over the past 14 years, we have become very involved in our congregation and the wider UU world and have found a non-creedal tradition that respects the inherent worth and dignity of all people and Mother Earth, supporting each individual in their own quest for truth and meaning.

Still, there was a missing piece. Humanism puts too much faith in our flawed humanity (in my humble opinion) and still leaves out that mystical, spiritual connection to a greater life force that connects all things, including people, to each other and the wonderful cosmos of which we are a part. After all, we're all just made of stardust.

Then, a bit more than a year ago, we started a chapter of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans at our Fellowship, with fantastic support from our minister and board. This, in turn, led me to stumble upon (or be drawn to) Druidry through the works of John-Michael Greer in The Druidry Handbook. Shortly thereafter, I joined the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA) and entered my time of study as a Druid Candidate.

Over the past year, I've spent time reading about Druidry, celebrating the eight holy days of the year, and dipping my toe into daily ritual and meditation. This blog is a part of that journey. I feel that it's time to take things to the "next level," learn more, focus more on daily practice and celebrate each seasonal holy day with a complete ritual based in the Druid Revival tradition.

This blog will serve as one of my journals for the year as I study and prepare for my AODA Candidate examination. Throughout the year, I'll share what insights I can about Druidry, myself, and this wonderful Living World we all share together.

Now let's begin. It's time to start a journey...

Skybranch /|\