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Ellis, Peter Berresford.  A Brief History of the Druids. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers,

2003.

Each Summer Solstice the news media releases a handful of articles on a modern group of Druids worshipping near Stonehenge.  The photos are of regular looking people wearing long white robes and sometimes white head coverings that look more akin to Egyptian head dresses.  They stand in a circle and perform their ritual to the Gods.  One has to ask whether what they are doing is historically accurate or not.  To answer such questions, Peter Berresford Ellis’ book, A Brief History of the Druids, is an excellent starting point.

Ellis’ book is earnest in admitting that he does not know everything about the Druids.  In fact, there is very little in which he could possibly know in our modern times.  Relying on archaeology, linguistics, history, and lore, Ellis explains what is and isn’t known about this mysterious group of people while debunking several myths at the same time.  The book is organized in such a way that he starts with a generalized introduction and then narrows the topic down chapter by chapter.

He begins by describing what is generally thought about the Druids.  Most of our perceptions are shaped by the reports of foreigners such as Caesar and Pliny and are therefore often full of anti-Celtic propaganda (11).  Much of the remaining evidence comes from Christianized Celts.  Everything else must be surmised through linguistics and archaeology for the Druids left no literature of their own due to a taboo against writing (13).  It is therefore difficult to fully understand the Druids.  Everything examined must be taken with a proverbial grain of salt.

Having provided a few disclaimers, Ellis explores the world of the Celts beginning with what little is known of their origins.  These people lived “north of the Alps … from Ireland and Britain in the west, as far east as the central plains of what is now Turkey” (23).    They are defined as Celts based on the similarities of the languages they used which survive today as modern Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton (25).  The Celts, Ellis explains, lived in a society divided by classes: workers, artisans, warriors, and the Druids who represented the highest level of academia in Celtic society (29).

So what of the Druids themselves and where do they come from?  Ellis first delves into the etymology of the word Druid to come to various possibilities.  The first is that the word Druid means “oak knowledge” as drus is Greek for “an oak” and wid means “to know” (37).  Another meaning could be “immersed in knowledge” due to the similarities found between old Celtic and Sanskrit words for water and dew.  Either way, the Druids are already connected with knowledge, trees, and water – three very important things in both ancient and modern Druidry.  However the Druids evolved, they came to be the priestly class who oversaw religious, judicial, medical, political, scientific, and educational matters of the Celtic people.  According to the Greeks and Romans, the Druids were divided into three subclasses: Druids, Vates, and Bards.  The Druids were basically the teachers, philosophers, and scientists.  Meanwhile, the Vates focused more on nature and divination and the Bards were historians, musicians, and poets (51).  This special class of intellectuals, which was made up of both men and women (91) held a lot of power – so much so that not even a king was allowed to speak before a Druid (75).

No discussion of the Druids would be complete without a chapter or two dedicated to their religion and rituals.  So many of the ancient texts refer to them as performing mysterious rites and worshipping various deities that we know religion played a large role in the life of a Druid.  Ellis explains that the Celts were polytheists although several modern men have tried to mold the Druids into proto-Christians who worshiped a single God (114).  There are actually over three hundred known Celtic deities, and several are localized meaning that they are associated with only one place (114).  There are a few Gods who were known in many places.  Ellis provides brief descriptions of some of the better known deities such as Danu, Dagda, Bel, Cernunos, Nuada, Lugh, Taranis, Ogma, and the Mórrígán.  Although the explanations are short, they are fitting for a work dedicated to the Druids rather than the Gods.  There is the possibility that the sudden deluge of Celtic Gods and mythology could confuse and overwhelm a novice, but I’ve found that further reading will help to better familiarize the curious mind.

In dissecting the wisdom of the Druids, Ellis breaks the chapter down topic by topic so that we are given an in-depth look at what we know of their skill in various areas such as magic, astrology, and medicine.  I found this section of the book to be the driest, possibly because I am most interested in the Druids’ function as priests rather than judges and astronomers.  However the section should not be overlooked as it truly shows the rich knowledge of the Druids. They were not simply a barbarian people as the Romans were so fond of thinking.  The Celts and their Druids were very well versed in science and enjoyed many accomplishments.  Anyone of Celtic background should feel a sense of pride when reading about such feats.

A Brief History of the Druids should be essential reading material for anyone aspiring to the knowledge of the Druids.  It first provides a good historical background of the people we in ADF are hoping to emulate and also grounds us in our practice by providing the context for our rituals.  Ellis’ discussions of holy wells, trees, divination, and fire in connection to the landscape, festivals, and mythology help to make sense of our liturgical practices.  A good understanding of why a person practices what he or she does is essential for a truly spiritual, intelligent, and introspective human being. Aspiring Druids should hope to be all three of those things.

The book ends with a discussion on the Druidic revival that has been going on for a few hundred years.  It is an interesting although lacking explanation of modern Druidry.  I say that because Ellis focuses on the romantic Druidic groups and only briefly mentions the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, one of the largest Druidic groups today.  There is no reference to Ár nDraíocht Féin or even Celtic Reconstructionists.  This is too bad because he leaves the unknowing reader under the impression that many modern Druidic groups rely on poor research to create their traditions.  He ends the book by reminding the reader that many Celtic countries are forgetting their language and losing their social customs which is truly sad.  He bemoans the fact that many modern Druids are more concerned with the esoteric aspects of Druidry and not the cultural.  I believe that this is a legitimate concern, however, once more, by failing to explore Ár nDraíocht Féin or Celtic Reconstructionism he is overlooking groups who do require learning about the cultures and at least a minimal amount of language study.  Although students of Druidry must be aware of the historical realities of their Druidic homelands, I feel that the pessimistic ending spoiled what was otherwise a very well-written, informative book.

 

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Autumnal Equinox

I’m trying to be more mindful of the moon’s cycles.  The past few months have found me more observant than ever before, and I thank my friend Imagickat for inspiring that. While checking the calendar a few weeks ago, I noticed that there was to be a full moon on the Autumnal Equinox.  It seemed like a very auspicious occurrence!  While there is little evidence that the equinox specifically was very important to the ancient Irish, there are numerous harvest traditions that anyone following a Celtic-inspired/Celtic Reconstructionist/or Druidic path can incorporate into their rituals, such as the sacrifice of corn to harvest deities.  While Samhain was viewed as the beginning of the winter season and the dark half of the year, the equinox could be viewed as a last hurrah for the light half.  I find it interesting that the full moon should occur on this day.  It seems symbolic of the coming waning of the earth’s green, productive period.

There’s a lot of change in the air.  The trees are changing, the mosquito population has decreased a bit, and the nights are chilly.  I’ve heard the travel songs of the geese on their way to warmer places.  Some of the plants on my patio have begun to die (I took several others inside ).  It is easy to observe the Nature Spirits change.  But what about us?

My vacation was over a few weeks ago, but it is only now that I’m getting back into the routine.  I’m busier and will only get more so as we approach Samhain and Winter Solstice.  I also notice myself being more social, especially with new people, in my new home of Northern NY.  The summer days of wide-spread, outdoor fun in the sun and day trips is over; here come the days of hearth fires, warm dinners, movie nights, and storytelling.  Here come the days of cold and, eventually, ice.  In other words, here come the times when we stay closer to home more often.

I always welcome Autumn.  It’s my favorite season.  I can sense the energy – the magic – in the air.  The world is dying and yet there is so much potential for rebirth.  The veil is thinning and the Otherworld calls.

( For My LJ Friends: http://adfcatprints.blogspot.com/ )

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Inspiring Words…

I need to remember these as I continue to meditate.

Within the circle, ways of journeying into the three realms of land, sea and sky are taught. These are powerful tools for seeking wisdom and developing and deepening our connection with the earth. The techniques take time, as do aLL worthwhile things. No promises of instant success or enlightenment are made. The most significant accomplishment within the circle Lies in contemplative repetition, using its gentle rhythm to reach a peaceful state of consciousness for sorting through the cares of the day and affirming that tomorrow our work can be done in greater harmony with the world around us.

 Erynn Rowan Laurie
A Circle of Stones

( For My LJ Friends: http://adfcatprints.blogspot.com/ )

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“Pagan” and “environmentalist” don’t always go hand in hand, but I believe that a majority of Pagans at least claim to care about the environment.  I am no exception as you should know by now.  I do my best to keep abreast of the latest environmental issues.  As you can imagine, this can become depressing.  There are times (probably some visible through my postings) when I succumb to the alarmist nature of others.  Normally, I try to maintain a balance.  I don’t totally see myself as a luddite and I’m not sure what to think about the Dark Mountain Project, intriguing though it is.  On the other hand, I’d like to think I’m not as materialistic as most people, environmentally conscious, attempting sustainability, and open-minded to drastic but positive change for the betterment of Mama Earth and society.  It’s hard to find a balance between it all, but I make it work most of the time.  I don’t claim to know all the answers or to be perfect.

I think a large part of my attitude has been shaped by reconstructionist methodologies.  And by that, I mean the methodologies put forth by people like Erynn Rowan Laurie of the CR movement – not the racist, sexist, behind-the times version presented by some more “hardcore traditionalists.”  For example, within the CR FAQ (which Laurie helped author), the definition of Celtic Reconstructionism is given as thus: “Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism (CR) is a polytheistic, animistic, religious and cultural movement. It is an effort to reconstruct, within a modern Celtic cultural context, the aspects of ancient Celtic religions that were lost or subsumed by Christianity.”  The key of this definition is the phrase “within a modern…context…”  Whether you are interested in Celtic, Norse, Slavic, or Egyptian culture, reconstructionism is about adapting it for our times while remaining as true to the myths and parent culture as possible.  This means that, even if an ancient practice (such as head hunting) may have been acceptable, important, or even sacred to our ancestors, it is neither legal, appropriate, nor necessary at this time.  The practice becomes left to our ancestors and stories.  Except in extreme cases, I think we all agree that human sacrifice, head hunting, and cattle raiding (excusing, of course, for sport 😉 ) are outdated*.

 There are, of course, some contentious issues among Celtic-inspired Pagans – such as the place of men in keeping Brighid’s flame.  There are also people like me who, despite my love of Celtic cultures, use Reconstructionist reasoning to explain why I don’t have to eat the animals that were such a staple to my ancestors’ diet**.

It’s easy for those of us looking back at a culture that was lost/altered to pick and choose what is and isn’t acceptable to ourselves and society as a whole, but what about living cultures having to do that right now?***

That brings me to an issue I’ve been reading about a lot lately.  There is one environmental issue that has me more worried and more angry than many others – the destruction of our oceans.  To me, it’s one of the scariest things going on right now and several scientists and activists feel the same way****.  Between the BP oil spill, the plastic gyres, and overfishing, it is enough to make me cry and gnash my teeth.  Overfishing, especially, just boggles my mind…

Perhaps you’ve heard of the bluefin tuna and how endangered it is.  Yet countries like Japan reject protecting it for cultural reasons.  Seriously, Japan?  How can you be so short-sighted and, well, stupid?  This is an endangered animal we are talking about – a creature that is linked to many others in the ocean.  We are losing our big fish, people.  The statistics are staggering…  Something like 90% of the world’s big fish are dead.  And yet people continue to destroy all in the name of human greed painted as human culture!  If Japan truly values bluefin tuna and its place in its culture, it would allow the fish to repopulate and support the proposed ban.  Just stop eating it!  Is that really so hard?

Too often we hold culture up on a golden dais as something that is sacred and should not be tampered with or questioned.  Yet history shows us that cultures change – they have to!  It is part of what it means to exist, whether we change by choice or force.  We need to start changing by choice not for any particular culture, but for humanity as a whole and for the myriad of other organisms who cannot speak or vote or protest.  Japan, this a great opportunity to transform what the bluefin means to Japan.  Where are your Shinto beliefs when money is involved?

It’s time for Japan and countless other cultures around the world to do as Reconstructionists have done with so many other outdated practices – leave industrial fishing to the history books.  ***** 

On a more positive note, Kevin Costner may have a way to clean up the oil spill!  It’s people like him that give me hope for our species and the oceans.  Thank the Gods for good news!

* For more thoughts on this, read more of the CR FAQ.
** Not to mention, there are vegetarians who live in modern Celtic countries…  So what if I would rather eat the sacred hazel nuts rather than the salmon who eat them?
*** I’m not trying to imply that Celtic cultures are not living…  They are having to adapt and make new choices as well, but since they are largely Christian and/or secular in nature, their dominant culture is, I would argue, a tad different than the reconstructionist Pagan cultures showing up there and across the sea…  I hope that makes sense…
**** At the very least, watch that last video.  Sylvia Earle is an amazing woman and there is some beautiful footage. http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf


*****I feel that I should mention, lest anyone try to put words in my mouth, that I am very supportive of small-time fishermen who work/sell locally and try to employ sustainable methods.  I just don’t eat their catch. 🙂

[ For my LJ friends, please visit me at: http://adfcatprints.blogspot.com/ ]

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More on "Angry Brighid."

A friend made me realize that I didn’t share my own opinions about the house fire incident referenced in my recent book review of The Rites of Brigid Goddess and Saint.  Here’s what I wrote:


    I was both intrigued and encouraged to read about Brighid’s darker side.  So many modern Pagan books focus on her midwifery and healing, as well as her creative powers.  They forget that there is a darker side to such things – creativity requires the transformation and destruction of something else.  A healer must eventually decide when someone is beyond healing.  Women can die in childbirth. Blacksmithing is extremely dangerous.  The fire that warms the home can just as easily destroy it.  It could be argued that some of these “darker” sides were embraced by The Morrigan or even the Cailleach (hag), but there is a lot of cultural evidence to show that people were aware of Brighid’s jealous side.  There was a belief that Brighid could ignore you on Imbolc, which was seen as a very bad sign for the family and the harvest.  (Brighid has some very strong connections to fertility.)  There was a lot of animal sacrifice in her honor, even in modern Christian times.  Much of it involved chickens.  There were also a lot of vegetable sacrifices made in her honor.  There was even a belief that Brighid had/could set peoples’ homes on fire.  This backs up some UPG experienced by a grove member whose friend said Brighid was weak compared to the Morrigan.  He returned to his home to find it ablaze!  I myself have experienced Brighid’s jealousy, though not in a violent way.  For a Wiccan Drawing-Down ceremony I attended, it was decided that the group would call to Freyja.  During meditation, Brighid appeared to me, felt as if she was holding me, and I heard her voice say “mine.”  Obviously I was not meant to be Freyja’s vessel! 
            Do I think Brighid is quite as vengeful these days?  While the person whose house burned down will probably never take Brighid lightly again, I get the impression, through my studies and personal experiences, that most Gods are not as fierce as they used to be.  This has nothing to do with an inability to be hostile as I firmly believe they are more powerful than us and could do quite a bit of damage if they wanted.  But I believe that the Gods have evolved socially, like us.  I also think they realize that burning everyone’s house down is not a good way to keep up good relations.  That said, I also think it’s possible for a God to have a moment of passion or extreme anger.  It can happen to people, and the Gods are known for being hot headed! 

So, do I believe Brighid set the man’s house on fire?  Well, let me say that I believe she is fully capable of it!  But did she?  I don’t know, honestly.  All I can say is that were I him, I would be pissed if it were!  My friend mentioned that such thinking is scapegoating, and I’m inclined to agree with him for the most part. I can’t really rule out that it wasn’t Brighid, but if it were me and all the omens pointed to yes, I would feel so betrayed.  Granted, I wouldn’t say one Goddess was better or more powerful that another.  At the same time, I would like to believe that the Gods, especially the Irish Gods (who have never been known for the jealousy exhibited by the Greek pantheon), have grown beyond petty things like that.  Well, petty is not really the best word…  I mean, that was a man’s home.  A house fire is devastating.  I responded to my friend by admitting that I actually thought of the word “scapegoat” while typing this entry but that I didn’t want to veer too far from my book review.  In retrospect, I should have done a footnote.  The way I see it (and I don’t know his side of the story), the man was rude enough to insult the Goddess of the hearth fire that he probably has little respect for fire in general.  He probably made some stupid mistake.  It’s a shame, that’s for sure, and the insult was probably just a coincidence.  All the same, I was intrigued to see a belief that it could happen in Irish folklore.  (I still stand by my statement that Brighid has a dark side – but by dark I never meant evil.  If it came off that way, it’s entirely not what I meant.  By dark I meant destructive.  It’s only natural!)

Although I don’t believe the Gods are all-knowing, I do believe that they are smarter than us, so they have likely figured out that bad press makes them look bad and lose “friends.”  I also think some Gods really enjoy interacting with humans and so don’t want to lose our love.  They probably understand why we’ve turned back to them after Christianity and realize that it is better to be loved and respected rather than feared and hated.

Perhaps that’s only my Neo-Pagan showing and I’m really a delusion fluffy twit, but part of adopting reconstructionists methodologies is being sensitive to how the religion and the spirits have evolved with time.  Aside from the little show of possession by Brighid (which I don’t mind because a) it’s not been excessive and b) I have jealousy and possessive issues myself so I commiserate), the Tuatha de Dannan have been wonderful to me.  I have a great and growing relationship with them and part of what I love is the reality of personal responsibility.  I can ask for their blessing, advice, or inspiration, maybe even to borrow a bit of their magic, but in the end it’s up to me to take the initiative and direct it.  If I screw up, the Gods (my patrons, at least) are sympathetic and, often, jocular about it.

I have forgotten to keep the fame twice.  Each time, I apologize and let Brighid know that it wasn’t on purpose.  She seems fine with it.  She’s forgiving.  At least she has been to me.

EDIT:  I also want to add that, if I were a God, I would have so many other more important things to worry/get angry about other than a snide comment.   For example, greedy corporations that pollute the planet.  Do I believe that the Gods should go postal on them?  Oh, you betcha.  Maybe not burn-their-house-down postal, but if anyone deserves the so-called “clue-by-four,” it’s people like that!

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            I recently purchased and read The Rites of Brigid Goddess and Saint by Seán Ó Duinn.  I wanted to better understand the Goddess and, though I have read such works as “The First Battle of Moytura” and “The Second Battle of Moytura,” as well as several scholarly works which studied the overall Celtic/Druidic religious perspective (that we can tell), I have read very little that is specifically about Brighid.  What drew me to this work, besides the positive review by the much-respected Erynn Rowan Laurie, was that it was written by a Christian monk who was not only accepting and even respectful of the Saint’s pre-Christian origins, but also extremely well-studied in regards to the folk practices surrounding her.  That is what I wanted a better understanding of for they give hints at what once was – things that may not have been explicitly stated in the surviving manuscripts from Ireland and other Celtic nations.
            Ó Duinn covers different categories of practice and belief in each chapter.  Some topics discussed include Brighid’s yearly return from the Otherworld and what customs surrounded that; flame keeping; holy wells; and the crafts and costumes associated with her.  Although many people know of the existence of such practices, it was fascinating to see a closer examination of them and the differences and/or similarities between various Irish counties. 
            I was both intrigued and encouraged to read about Brighid’s darker side.  So many modern Pagan books focus on her midwifery and healing, as well as her creative powers.  They forget that there is a darker side to such things – creativity requires the transformation and destruction of something else.  A healer must eventually decide when someone is beyond healing.  Women can die in childbirth.  Blacksmithing is extremely dangerous.  The fire that warms the home can just as easily destroy it.  It could be argued that some of these “darker” sides were embraced by The Morrigan or even the Cailleach (hag), but there is a lot of cultural evidence to show that people were aware of Brighid’s jealous side.  There was a belief that Brighid could ignore you on Imbolc, which was seen as a very bad sign for the family and the harvest.  (Brighid has some very strong connections to fertility.)  There was a lot of animal sacrifice in her honor, even in modern Christian times.  Much of it involved chickens.  There were also a lot of vegetable sacrifices made in her honor.  There was even a belief that Brighid had/could set peoples’ homes on fire.  This backs up some UPG experienced by a grove member whose friend said Brighid was weak compared to the Morrigan.  He returned to his home to find it ablaze!  I myself have experienced Brighid’s jealousy, though not in a violent way.  For a Wiccan Drawing-Down ceremony I attended, it was decided that the group would call to Freyja.  During meditation, Brighid appeared to me, felt as if she was holding me, and I heard her voice say “mine.”  Obviously I was not meant to be Freyja’s vessel! 
            Do I think Brighid is quite as vengeful these days?  While the person whose house burned down will probably never take Brighid lightly again, I get the impression, through my studies and personal experiences, that most Gods are not as fierce as they used to be.  This has nothing to do with an inability to be hostile as I firmly believe they are more powerful than us and could do quite a bit of damage if they wanted.  But I believe that the Gods have evolved socially, like us.  I also think they realize that burning everyone’s house down is not a good way to keep up good relations.  That said, I also think it’s possible for a God to have a moment of passion or extreme anger.  It can happen to people, and the Gods are known for being hot headed! 
            Returning to the book, Ó Duinn also discusses the crafts associated with Brighid.  I was very interested in this because 1) I’m an artsy person and 2) I got the book as a source for my Artisan study program’s muse essay.  The Romans, as many of us know, equated Brighid with Minerva, citing her as the patron of art.  I was always gladdened yet mystified by this association.  Minerva is known for weaving while Brighid is associated with black smithing. Ó Duinn explains that there are some folk beliefs about Brighid and fiber arts.  Many say she invented them and taught women how to turn wool into clothing.  This is wonderful news for someone like me who sews and has always felt Brighid’s presence strongly during my work.  It’s a UPG verified by folk belief.  There is also a link between Brighid and the spinning wheel, including a taboo that people are not supposed to do any such work involving wheels on Imbolc.  Needless to say, I have a lot of good information to help me begin working on my muse essay. 
            I definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in Celtic culture and/or Brighid as a Goddess or a saint.  Some may find it a bit dry, but my passion for the Goddess made every new bit of information worth the read.

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As I said in my last entry, my husband and I saw “How to Train Your Dragon” this afternoon.  After that we went to the Watertown Great Outdoor Expo.*  The entrance fee was only $3 per person so I figured it would be a fun thing to check out.  It’s true that my husband and I are both vegetarians and not hunters, but we have an interest in other outdoor activities.  My husband has also become quite interested in (and good at) target practice after going a few times with other family members and friends.

There were a lot of interesting things to see: animal calls (an old interest of mine), baby ducks, a giant, hand-carved chess set, rock climbing demonstrations, some small animals from the local zoo, and even a scuba pool!  My husband took scuba classes several years ago in Syracuse but was never certified.  It’s something we’d both like to do one day.  I tried to convince him to try the scuba gear with me but he didn’t feel like it and I didn’t want to do it alone.  I got some information, though.  I would love to take a class.  The North Country is a good place for scuba diving so we should take advantage of that sometime!  I also got information about white water rafting, another activity to try on the local Black River.  Any of my friends want to try it out?

There was also a chiropractic table set up and I was asked if I wanted a free screening.  I basically said, “oh what the heck, why not?” and the lady said I had some problems, including swelling in my lower back.  I do get a lot of aches there.  They were offering a low price for further consultations, but I decided that I want to go in to the local doctor for a full check-up first and see what he or she says.  It is discouraging to think I have some back problems that could become more serious as I age…  When I went to the reiki workshop last week, a lot of people who practiced on me said they felt a weird energy around my lower abdomen but I don’t recall anything specific about my back.  Hmmm…  I’ll have to see what another doctor says and then I’ll consider a regime of chiropractic consultations, massage, and reiki.

In other news, a new blog I’ve been following, Flame in Bloom, has a great post about ancestor veneration among heathens and what that means when you have little respect for recent ancestors.  It’s a perspective I’ve not thought much about.  Ancestors are just as important in Druidism and Celtic Reconstructionism, and I’ve been blessed with a family I feel close to despite their idiosyncrasies.  Those who have passed are still cherished for the lessons learned and the positive impact they had on me.  Michelle Daw, an ADF member and practicing stoic, kind of touched on this is his recent video chat on stoicism.  I remember him discussing family members who were not very kind or responsible.  They taught him how not to behave.  The lessons may have been painful, but they were important and he thanks them for that.  Anyone having difficulty forming a relationship with their ancestors should definitely check out Flame in Bloom’s most recent post** and/or start a conversation with Daw.  He’s very approachable and willing to help.

That’s all I have for today!  Again, I’m working on some book reviews which I should post soon.  Remember Earth Hour tonight!  Turn your lights off from 8:30 to 9:30!

*For my lj friends: http://www.greatoutdoorexpo.com/

** For my lj friends: http://flameinbloom.wordpress.com/2010/03/27/on-ancestors-and-our-bodies/

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