Last Friday, my husband and I returned to the sacred land of our childhood – the glorious Adirondack Mountains of Upstate, NY. Neither of us had been born there, but we spent time there as children. As for myself, my family seemed to travel there just about every weekend in the summers. Most often, we swam in Old Forge or Inlet. Sometimes we would hike near Raquette Lake, Long Lake, Blue Mountain Lake. Sometimes we climbed little mountains. And sometimes, those rare, special times, we would take trips into the land of the high peaks – Saranac Lake and Lake Placid. We only swam and took short walks, but always in the gaze of the taller mountains.
The day was cool and sunny, just as we had hoped. A light pack ready to go, we made our way to the wild heart of NY State. Along the way, we listened to the most recent Druidcast which featured some of the speeches given at OBOD’s 50th celebration. Even though I’m not involved with that tradition, the message was perfect for the trip. As the high peaks began to appear, like whale fins cresting in a rolling green ocean, I felt my Druid spirit rejoice. Caitlín Matthews’ words from her speech, “Authenticity and Authority in Druidry” thundered in my heart – “I don’t call myself a Druid, I AM a Druid.” One of the many reasons I feel that way is because of the time I spent in the Adirondacks as a child. It was where I first started to rejoice in Mother Earth’s majesty, and where I truly fell in love with, and understood the power of conservation. In my humble opinion, Druidism is only partially about culture. The other part is adoring and revering the natural world. The Adirondack helped me see that at an early age. Now I was initiating my daughter.
We planned to climb Mt. Jo, one of the smaller mountains in Lake Placid. With an elevation of 2876′, it would be the tallest mountain I’ve climbed to date. Others described it as suitable for a family hike with small children. I’m not sure they had one-year-olds in mind, but we managed through teamwork, frequent stops, a decent carrier, and sheer stubbornness. There are two trails – short and long – the former being more difficult. We opted for the longer trail, which was rocky and difficult enough. I can’t imagine the shorter trail with a baby.
The trek was worth it, however. When we reached the top (which meant passing the baby back and forth as we scrambled up some steep, rocky ledges), we felt amazing. Even the most beautiful photographs don’t quite capture the size and majesty of the surrounding landscape. It was like a Thomas Cole painting spilling over its canvas. In some directions, the Earth Mother seemed to crouch, all elbows and knees. Turn your head just so, and she appeared to relax, her breasts ample mounds at rest. Above, the Sky Father’s bright eye looked out at her beauty from behind his lacy curtains. A troop of iridescent dragonflies danced in her breath.
It seemed out of a folk tale; there were gurus at the top. A young woman sat with a book, her employment to sit on the mountain for hours to guide visitors. She helped us identify the nearby High Peaks. A bearded gentleman sat, seemingly meditating. His wife crouched with her loyal canine friend near the trees. She spoke to us about how beautiful it was that we persevered with our child up the mountain, about how we were giving her a gift. She reminisced about the times she brought her now grown children up mountains, seeming to get a little choked up. It was moving, and made our effort seem all the more significant, all the more part of a spiritual tradition. As we approached the top, we had thought, “Surely, we are crazy to bring a baby…,” yet she validated our calling to the mountain. Yes, we were but three small creatures clambering over the Earth Mother’s elevated beauty, but doing so grounded us in her sacred mystery and reminded us of what it truly is to live.
Before beginning our descent, I put my hands on Mt. Jo’s rock. It was toasty hot. I let that warmth rise into my arms. As I did so, I was aware of the sun above me, the Earth and trees about me, the nearby lake shimmering just beyond our view… Visitors to the Adirondacks are asked not to take anything nor leave anything as part of their conservation efforts. I felt that an offering had to be made, but I’m a modern Druid and respect modern conservation (an offering in and of itself). I left my gratitude. I poured it into that mountain and sealed it with a kiss. I look forward to returning with Bee when she’s older, and I can’t wait to climb more mountains…
Many of my favorite anime titles involve spiritual elements. The Hayao Miyazaki films, such as My Neighbor Tototor and Princess Mononoke, were greatly inspired by animistic beliefs native to Japan. The interaction between the human and spirit world are important elements to the stories, and I find a lot to compare to Druidism – old and new. Someone online suggested to my husband that we check out A Letter to Momo. While watching the preview, we couldn’t help but compare it to Miyazaki’s style. It wasn’t just the whimsical art or the coming of age story – it was the thin line between this world and the next. We had to watch it.
In the film, a young girl named Momo is dealing with the unresolved argument she had with her father right before his untimely death. The dramatic change in her life, and her need to adjust, are made concrete when she and her mother move to the small island of Shio, where her grandparents live. Along for the ride are three spirits on a mysterious mission. Unlike just about everyone else around her, Momo can see them. While this chance encounter with the Otherworld creates (often comical) challenges, it ultimately helps both Momo and her mother heal.
One element that intrigues me with A Letter to Momo, and indeed the same element that helps to endear Miyazaki films to me, is the proximity between this world and the spirit world. Set on a rural island, there are scenes at shrines, examples of ancestor veneration, and discussions of Japanese mythology. The spirits, comparable to Irish lore, are neither totally benevolent nor malicious – they simply are. They have their own histories, motivations, biases, and faults. What separates them from the humans they interact with are their powers and Otherworldly jobs. The three take a shining to Momo in part because of how she comes to interact with them – which includes some offerings of food. Less obvious but still there, mixed in with all the modern farming equipment, phones, and Japanese snack foods, are little spirit homes people built once upon a time. One of the major scenes of Momo features an old community tradition in which the families send straw boats with lanterns that they made as offerings into the sea. I’m assuming it is part of the Japanese Obon celebration, a festival for the dead. It’s never really explained – it’s just there, part of the culture. The movie’s purpose is not to explain Japanese customs and beliefs to curious Americans, after all. They just exist, as they have existed in some way for generations, embedded in the story.
In watching these films, so full of Japanese customs and folklore, I can’t help but find things to compare to the living fairy faith in Ireland, or think about how things could have been if the Pagan tradition there had not been so altered by Christianity. What can we, as modern Druids, learn from cultures who have living animistic traditions? It’s something to contemplate after watching the film.
I highly recommend A Letter to Momo. It’s heartfelt, humorous, and appropriate for the whole family. It would be especially appropriate to watch near Samhain because of the ancestral veneration.
If you live in the Watertown area of Jefferson County, NY, and you’re looking for an easy hike to commune with nature away from the crowds that usually populate Thompson Park, I highly suggest the Calcium Trail. Right off Rt. 11, it’s very accessible and relatively private. There’s a parking lot and the trail is very well-maintained. We went in the early afternoon. While there were a few other people jogging, it was a very quiet place. Several markers line the gravel path indicating the length you’ve traveled or highlighting the biodiversity. There’s a lot of that: wildflowers, songbirds, squirrels, waterfowl, and rodents (we saw a few dead voles… were they hit by bikers in the dark? Kind of weird…)
The Calcium Trail is 2.1 miles all the way. Since we’re getting back into shape and had Bee with us (snug in her carrier), we decided to walk half the trail and turn around. In total, we walked roughly 2 miles. It is not a loop, so you’ll have to plan on turning around regardless of whether you walk the whole length or not. Along with the trail makers, there are some places for you to stop and enjoy the natural surroundings – wooden bridges, benches, and a gazebo area with picnic tables. If you are in the Watertown area and seeking a quiet place to meditate or commune with nature that isn’t very busy, this seems like an excellent trail to visit. While we just went to walk and enjoy nature, I definitely want to revisit and do some meditation.
A few caveats:
1) There wasn’t a restroom at the end we explored, so make sure you take that into consideration.
2) There is also a very small playground at the gazebo area, meaning you may go expecting quiet and discover some noisy children playing. That said, there are plenty of other quiet areas to enjoy.
3) There isn’t a lot of shade on the Rt. 11 end, so dress appropriately, especially if you’re bringing a little one along for the ride!
4) Fire is not allowed. If you are hoping to do a private or small group ritual, you’ll need to find an alternative to bonfires or candles. Given the picnic table, a small birthday cake style candle probably wouldn’t attract much negative attention. Otherwise, don’t forget that the sun is the Earth’s original sacred fire!
5) Similar to the fire rule, visitors are asked not to leave anything. This is a conservation area, so keep that in mind if you intend to make an offering. Consider charging some water with your gratitude so as to not disrupt the environment.
Last year, I felt called to begin building a shrine to honor Airmed. For those who are unfamiliar with her, she is an Irish Goddess – one of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Along with her brother, Miach, and her father, Dian Cecht, she helped to heal the other Tuatha Dé Danann. The King of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Nuada, lost his arm in battle and, as a result, was seen as unfit to rule. Dian Cecht made him a metal arm to compensate, but his son, Miach, was a more talented healer. He made Nuada a new arm of flesh and blood so that he could once more resume his place as leader. Dian Cecht was driven mad with jealousy; he murdered his son. From Miach’s body grew all the healing herbs, each growing from the body part it is capable of healing. Wise Airmed gathered them on her mantle according to their function. Still jealous at the knowledge of his children, Dian Cecht flung the mantle and scattered the herbs so that others could not easily know the knowledge of the herbs. Only Airmed, who so tenderly gathered and organize the plants in tribute to her brother, knew their secrets.
Because of her herbal wisdom and healing knowledge, Airmed is an excellent ally for herbalists of all levels. I’m still very much a novice, and cultivating a relationship with her feels important. Using a broken bit of concrete I found nearby, I painted a simple figure to represent her. I placed this in a pot and surrounded it with some cilantro and dill that were growing wild in the mulch in my front shade/fairy garden. Since I rent and strangers periodically come through to weed-whack anything I’m not growing in a container, I wanted to give the plants a better chance. They look a little limp right now, but I’m hoping love from myself and Airmed will give them the strength they need to adapt and persevere. I placed a small, leaf-shaped dish in front of her for offerings, then built a spiral of stones in front of that.
There is more I would like to do, but that will entail surrounding her with even more herbs! I love how the shrine is taking shape. It adds so much magic to my home, and I pray that Airmed is pleased.
I’ve been working on a nighttime prayer to say with my daughter and I think I’ve finally settled on wording that I like. What do you think?
“Goodnight Prayer” by Grey Catsidhe
Goodnight moon and goodnight sun
Goodnight every Shining One
Goodnight lake and goodnight pond
Goodnight loved ones from beyond
Goodnight Earth and goodnight tree
Goodnight nature all ’round me