Song of a Daily Druid: How I Found a Home in Druidry
In the beginning, I was a wild child, a woodsy child, a child who could concentrate all of my attention on holding perfectly still so as not to startle the robin in the grass. I could disappear into the tense air of rapt attention, forget my own little body completely as my eyes widened and my breath stilled. Once, the robin’s twitching eyes turned towards me, and I thought I heard it whisper… Cheer-up. Cheer-up, calmly, almost with amusement, you know, I can see you.
That was when I was a very little girl. As sometimes happens, eventually I grew up and stopped listening so closely to the world, to the landscape and the wilderness. It would be years before I rediscovered the rapture of stilled breath or the ecstasy, the going-out-ness, of listening closely and attending with reverence to sacred nature. Druidry would restore my sense of connection and intimacy with the natural world; it would open me to new ways of living with creativity and wisdom, playfulness and respect; it would bring me home to myself, to this person dwelling in my own particular body in my own particular place in a vast landscape infused with Spirit. Druidry was a home-coming for me, as so many Pagans and Witches before me have described their own rediscoveries. One day, I would look into the eyes of the world and discover–like some startled scullery maid or the only daughter of a widower–my real destiny wearing a strange new face, a face of beauty and dignity, but smiling at me with the same old familiar affection.
But first, I had to learn about poetry.
Way of the Bard
As an angst-ridden teenage girl, I began to write. A lot. Falling in love for the first time, the tension of the unnoticed witness–the tension I had first learned from the robin–returned in full force as I gazed longingly after my latest crush. Details became sacred; the color of an iris beneath eyelashes, the upward twitch of a sardonic smile, warm sunlight accentuating the heat of a blush, the smell of newly-washed clothes and teenage-boy-smell lurking underneath. Relationships, not just romantic love but connections of all kinds, became things of mystery and awe. How things were in themselves, and how they fit together. The world took on a new vitality and importance. Teenage love made it hard to figure out, difficult to navigate. I read poetry the way someone drowning grasps at complex molecular equations about the buoyancy of water. I was learning about the nature of the unexpected, the curious and the strange. Juxtaposition and concrete details revealed the power of words fitting next to each other on the page, evoking memory and sensation separated by space and pause and breath.
I read Mark Strand’s poem, “Keeping Things Whole,” the first lines: In a field, I am the absence of field. There was the field, and there was myself; I thought I knew, as a child, what that was like. I thought that was all there was to it. Then suddenly, there was something else that was neither the field, nor me as I had known myself up until then. There was absence. Absence was a thing, too, a kind of presence. poetry taught me about the invisible, the barely-there spirit that filtered through all things, the life-force that bound up all our edges and clung like spittle, sweat and mud to our beings. Druidry has words for this: animism, and pantheism. The belief that divinity is imminent within the material world, that spirit is like water and breath that pervades all of reality from the highest reaches lost in cloud to the mundane vulgarity of homework and screaming matches with parents. One day Druidry would teach me these words, but first I learned from experience: Wherever I am, I am what is missing.
And from the writing I’ve learned about metaphor: how one thing can embrace both is and is not, how two things held in tension create a third that is not either, not both, but something new. I was becoming something new then, too, holding a past and a future in suspension within the present, within my own adolescent presence of mind and body. Druidry would teach me about triads, the sacredness and mystery of the third. I would learn to recognize the dualism so prevalent in our culture, where spirit and matter were always divided and distinct, kept in isolation as though belonging to two different realms. From out of an either/or situation, a war between opposites, I would learn to find a third that could unite and transcend them.
But long before I’d heard of these things in Druidry, I worked my way through poetry, studying carefully, creating new poems from familiar words, new worlds from common images and everyday details. I didn’t know it then, but I had already begun along the Druid Way. I was learning what the bards and poets of my ancestors had learned. I was learning to value the individual, the particular, and to find in it a path to the community, and a glimpse of the universal. In Druidry, the first phase of training is that of the Bard–the keeper of history, the story-teller, the verse-maker of praise and satire. The Bard holds past and future in tension, bringing both powerfully and fully into the present, the sacred here-now of story and song. Out of memory and anticipation, loss and hope, something new is created. The Bard embodies the magic of imagination–working with words and images, working with matter as a blessed medium. And the Bard embodies the power of creativity–engaging with the here-now with playfulness and freedom to make something new in the world.
Way of the Ovate
The deeper I sank into the practice of poetry, the more often I found myself stumbling again and again across a sense of vastness and openness. If poetry taught me first about triads, triads soon taught me about space and the sacred sense of place. As any mathematician can tell you, two points make a line, but three define a plane. Discovering that third point, the point of divergence and difference, is the discovery of landscape.
In his poem Mark Strand wrote, we all have reasons for moving. Within space, movement becomes possible. Dance becomes possible. Without space, we are stuck, trudging back and forth along the same dull old line. Without a sense of space, we know only what logic can tell us, the conclusions all bound up and inevitable within the premises. We know only what cause gives rise to what effect along the line of controllable variables and repeatable experimentation. Without room to move–around, over, under, through–every limit of the material world feels like a restriction or imposition, an impediment to freedom. Without a sacred sense of space, I marched along my life-line from past to present into the receding future, never glancing around, excelling in grade school to place well in high school honors classes, excelling in high school to boost my college applications. When I finally made it to college, I made a mistake, I faltered along the line: I chose to major in a subject that, people joked nervously, had no practical future. I studied religion and philosophy.
I could have lost my footing, then, if it hadn’t been for my grounding in poetry. I could have slipped away into abstraction, the expansive mental landscape of exacting rational thought, where I might run myself ragged from one fascinating theory to another until I was left only with the exhausted Cartesian formula: cogito ergo sum. I could have agreed with the dualists who insisted that the only real freedom was freedom of the mind, cut loose from the restrictions of the material world. Instead, I grew very quiet while the storm of thought and knowledge raged thrillingly around me. And as I grew quiet, things around me began to happen. One day, I sat on a blanket in a field, mourning my well-adjusted-middle-class-white-girl state of being, a status that defined me as “normal,” as having no unique insight to contribute to the world unless I came down with cancer or backpacked across Europe. Why doesn’t crap ever happen to me? I was thinking–when it did. Out of the vast space of open sky, a robin let a perfect globule of white-speckled excrement fall; let it fall through a hundred yards of still air to land, thick and gooey, in the middle of my forehead on my third eye, dripping down my temples like a blessing. My spirit leapt up along the line of that fall and there high above, my still little body far below on the blanket in the grass, I discovered space, and began to laugh.
Space gives us room to move, room to dance, room to navigate life’s difficulties. Without space, limit is wretched. But without limit, space would be overcome, would be bloated and useless. Without limit, we would all be pressed flat against the ideals of heaven, or reason, all the time. But landscape is full of limit–for limit is just the natural expression of form, of matter, which is sacred. Druidry would teach me this sacredness explicitly, celebrating the uniqueness and individuality of all life, the inspiration of physical being. From Druidry, I would learn of the three realms–the realms of land, sea and sky–and the three elements–nwyfer, gwyar, calas; wind, water, stone; breath, blood, and bone. I would learn how these elements moved and worked creatively, dancing through one another, creating the realms of earth, ocean and atmosphere, and giving birth to the liminal spaces, the in-between places of mist and stream, cliff and cave. I would learn my own reasons for moving, oddly enough, through practices of stillness such as meditation and prayer. From Druidry, I would learn the art of journeying through dream and other inner landscapes–the art of the shaman and the oracle.
In Druidry, the second phase of training is that of the Ovate. The Ovate stills the chattering linear mind, and centers deeply in the immediacy of place: this very place and this very body in this very moment of time. Centered this way, space opens up into a vastness through which possibility and potential dance and weave. The Ovate studies landscape and how the beings of landscape live together, and live off one another. She learns the ecology of spirit as well as of physical life. She searches the shadows for the Shining Folk, and reaches her hands out to touch the hem of the Gods’ veils as they pass. She sees the future not as something solid but as the coalescing of patterns and potentials. The Ovate knows the currents and eddies of energy, and learns to navigate them gracefully, following a path that spirals in and out of simple causality, leaping from plane to plane through the joyful splendor of space and void. And because the Ovate has a sacred sense of place–because she knows the bounds of her own self and her own landscape intimately–her insight into the liminal places can sometimes seem uncanny.
Way of the Druid
But before the mysteries of the shamanic Ovate or the poetic Bard, I had to discover Druidry itself, the path that would connect it all. In my scholarly studies, I had learned about modern Witchcraft and, to some small extent, the greater community of Paganism with its many diverse and sometimes befuddling groups and labels. Nature spirituality appealed to me, but Wicca didn’t seem to fit quite right. It didn’t feel like home.
First of all, I was no agriculturalist. I was a poet, a philosopher, perhaps a bit of a mystic. Born in the suburbs on the edge of a wooded park, I was drawn to wild spaces more than gardens and farms, to the bluffs overlooking a rhythm of ocean waves, to old trees growing gnarled among ferns and mossy stones. I had learned, as I’d learned about landscape, the cycles of the seasons. But the summer storms and winter snows, the bursting colors of autumn and muddy fingerprints of spring–these did not leave me with a sense of fertility and harvest, so much as changing harmonies echoing through the great halls of hills and valleys unfurling beneath a weathered sky. Echoes of wild things growling in my marrow and tendons. When after college I moved to the city, I tried to grow window boxes of herbs, but the heat reflecting off tall apartment buildings soon baked them to brown dust. Meanwhile, through cracks in the pavement, weeds reasserted themselves and the sycamores loomed over every broad boulevard, rabbits left footprints in the snow on sidewalks overnight and crows picked through the garbage.
Here again was juxtaposition, the kind of tension between urbanity and wilderness that might make a poem, or a dreamscape. Within this landscape, I finally found this odd way called Druidry. The ancient Druids, as some imagined them, were not only priests, but scholars, judges, advisors, poets, historians, and mystics in their communities. They lived integrated lives devoted to wild wisdom, truth and peace. And they were political creatures, not living in social isolation; they were respected and accepted, rather than rejected or feared for their thriving spiritual lives. These were not domestic elders spinning yarns and brewing herbal remedies for foot fungus, or cast to the edges of town for being too outrageous or seductive. These were inspired lovers trembling in adoration of the world, who felt deeply not only the music of the mountains and trees, but the piercing harmonies of the celestial spheres. These were warrior-bards and philosopher-poets, who understood landscape as space and movement as vibration, who saw in the refraction of light and the migration patterns of geese myriad reverberating melodies. These were the peace-makers standing calmly declaring truce between two armies, those who saw the weaving interconnection at the core of each being which makes trust and mercy possible, for whom justice was a kind of balance and harmony, never to be mistaken for condemnation or rejection.
In Druidry, I learned that everything has a Song, and that the world, too, has a soul-song. The Song of the World might be called a Divine or True Will; we join with it our own voices, the music of our bodies humming, pumping blood, inhaling and exhaling, neurons and nerves buzzing and vibrating: the songs we cannot help but murmur to ourselves as we go along our way, same as the heron and the oak and the rain and the stars. The air we move through shifts around us with every stride, and our laughing and crying shape it, too. When we sing and move and live in harmony with the World Song, our own songs are amplified, modulated and carried along. Mark Strand wrote, we all have reasons for moving. I move to keep things whole. The Druid listens for the song her soul is singing, and she attends with reverence to the part her soul-song has to play in the greater whole.