Spirits of the Trees is a joint project of the UK’s three largest druid organisations, OBOD, BDO, and TDN, joining forces to support the call for a new Charter for Trees, Woods and People. In this blog, Jonathan Woolley of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) reflects on the central role that trees play in Druidry past, present and future.
All philosophical or religious traditions have a central figure, deity, or concept that defines them. Buddhism is the teachings of the Buddha, Christianity that of Christ, Marxism that of Karl Marx. Islam rests around Allah, Liberalism around Liberty, Fordism around Henry Ford. What, then, lies at the core of Druidry? The answer is simple:
In Britain, trees are the heart of the entire ecosystem, and in ancient times, a vast, trackless wildwood covered these islands from the white cliffs of Dover to the bare beaches of Orkney. Most people are familiar with the basic features of our dependence upon trees – for the air we breathe; for the wood we use; for the fruit and nuts we eat. But who hasn’t looked at a tree and felt something more – a sense of peace, awe, or just a gentle pleasure at the sighing of wind in the leaves?
The word “Druid” comes from two, ancient words – “dru” and “wid-s” – the first meaning “oak” and the second meaning “knower”. As “Oak-knowing”, Druidry helps us to learn what lessons the oaks have to teach.
Druidry seeks to develop this sense of connection to its fullest potential. Druids today regard trees as more than mere background; for us, they are keepers of profound wisdom, sources of emotional support, and channels through which inspiration can be invited into our lives. The beating heart of Druidic thought, belief and practice is the sacred grove – a community of humans, plants, animals, and other spiritual beings, all sheltered beneath the boughs of these woodland giants. Maintaining this community, and learning from it, is the living essence of what Druids do.
Druids cultivate their relationships with trees using a wide variety of different techniques. Meditation plays an important role in personal practice. But rather than seeking mindfulness, Druidic meditation focusses upon contemplation; strengthening and harnessing imagination and sensory awareness. Developing our senses helps us to notice more in the world around us, while honing our imagination allows us to see the magic there, too. The best example of this is the Druidic use of the Ogham alphabet. The Ogham system of letters was developed in Ancient Ireland, and it is now used as a mnemonic for the powers and traits of specific tree species, and as a means of divination. Through this imaginative use of the Ogham, druids can see their own lives and surroundings as forested with meaning.
This nurturing of the imagination and the senses, in turn, supports another key Druidic activity; creativity. The Celtic societies of North Western Europe have a distinctive and startlingly beautiful artistic tradition, within which naturalistic imagery, and trees in particular, play a fundamental role. Druids explore this tradition through poetry, music, crafting, and literature, something that reaches its greatest expression during eisteddfodau; where Druids take it in turns to perform works of bardistry – often under the stars or beside the fire. In listening to the old tales and songs together, we become conscious of our common roots, and how they intertwine with those of yew, rowan, and blackthorn.
Artistic and visionary experiences come together in ceremony. Druids use a variety of rituals to commune with the spirits of the woods, or mark the passing of the seasons and our own lives. They can be as complex as a Summer Solstice gathering at a sacred site involving hundreds of people – or as simple as scattering an offering of birdseed on a woodland floor. To do such things with a sacred intent is important. It challenges the misconception – so prevalent in our society – that our forests are mere resources, and transforms our attitude towards them into one of respect and reverence.
From respect and reverence, comes action. Because Druidic lore is grounded in the physical world, the acquisition of spiritual wisdom also requires a measure of scientific and practical understanding – learning the Ogham involves learning botany, too. Furthermore, modern Druidry has a long history of environmental activism, halting the bulldozing of ancient woodlands during the 90s road protests, and occupying land that would be used for fracking rigs. Away from the front lines, Druids are involved in a host of green activities – from tree planting to growing their own food; working towards the creation of genuinely just, sustainable communities, and spreading the harmony of the grove to all beings. This makes Druidry inherently political.
The word “Druid” comes from two, ancient words – “dru” and “wid-s” – the first meaning “oak” and the second meaning “knower”. As “Oak-knowing”, Druidry helps us to learn what lessons the oaks have to teach. Like us, oaks have their roots in the past, drawing nourishment from layers of material set down in ages past. With this, they reach up to the stars, and connect the heavens to the earth. And they grow, together.
All this is best captured in the Druid’s Prayer, shared and recited by all Druids:
Grant, O Spirit, thy protection.
And in protection, strength.
And in strength, understanding.
And in understanding, knowledge.
And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice.
And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it.
And in the love of it, the love of all existences.
And in the love of all existences, the love of Spirit, and all goodness.
For me, this Spirit, is the Spirit of the Oak.
Visit spiritsofthetrees.uk for more information about trees and druidism, or to get involved in druidry acitvities around the call for a Tree Charter.
Words and photos by Jonathan Woolley
For more photos by Jonathan follow him on Instagram