There’s a great online magazine available to lovers of Druidry, produced by Druidic Dawn.
In their last issue they published an interview with Jason Kirkey, whose book ‘The Salmon in the Spring’ was described to me by a friend as ‘shockingly wonderful’. If that wasn’t recommendation enough, Tom Cowan, author of ‘Fire in the Head’, recently wrote this glowing review, which got me ordering a copy of the book myself. I’m not surprised the book has evoked these reactions. It’s excellent and I’m taking it slowly, because it is one of those books that requires thought, that challenges beliefs, and that offers new insights. We hope to interview Jason soon for the Order’s podcast, Druidcast, but in the meanwhile, you can download a pdf of the issue of the Druidic Dawn magazine that carries the interview with him by clicking on this link (Downloads instantly), or read it here:
Druidic Dawn Q&A with Jason Kirkey
A BIT ABOUT JASON
Jason Kirkey grew up in the North Atlantic watershed of Massachusetts. At the age of twelve he began his long apprenticeship to the earth and soul. He obtained his Bachelor’s degree in Contemplative Psychology and Environmental Studies from Naropa University and is currently working toward his Master’s in Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies. In 2006 Jason founded Hiraeth Press, a small-scale publishing company focusing on poetry and ecological wisdom. He has published three books of poetry: Portraits of Beauty (2006), Songs from a Wild Place (2007), The Ballad of the Sea-Sweet Moon and Other Poems (2008), and has a fourth collection, Twenty-One Ways to Birth a Heart, due out in 2010. He runs Dinnseanchas, an organization committed to teaching people how to find their place in the earth community through poetry, meditation, traditional Irish stories, and ecological mysticism. Visit him on the web at http://www.jasonkirkey.com.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Hi Jason. Thank you kindly for allowing us to put you in the hot seat this Aontacht issue. A number of us here at Druidic Dawn have some questions to ask you.
>My pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity.
First on the list is how on earth did you get involved in Druidry in the first place? What originally drew you to this path and who or what was instrumental in helping you?
>I suppose it began with something my cousin said to me when I was about twelve. He was a few years older and was exploring pagan religion at the time. We were talking one afternoon when his family came for a visit and somehow the topic of religion came up. He said something like “Nature doesn’t require us to believe in it; it’s right here for us to experience.” Or at least that is what I took from what he said. This intrigued me because I had recently begun asking myself those sorts of questions about belief and religion. There was something very appealing about a religion that was participatory with the senses. That was really the initial moment but from there on out I was mostly on my own. In the end I think what was really instrumental in my development was to spend as much time in nature as I was able to. There was a small wood behind my high school that became my haunt and was really my first teacher.
As a practicing Druid in modern times, how would you describe your approach to Druidry?
>Well, to be clear I’m not sure that I would call myself a Druid. Maybe it’s a useful label in some respects but I shy away from it for a lot of reasons. I need a lot of space and labels have a way of fencing us into a particular mode of identity. So I could describe my leaning toward Celtic myth and place as Druidic but in practice I’m also heavily influenced by a lot of Eastern traditions: Daoism, Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, and the Shambhala teachings of Chögyam Trungpa are all near and dear to my heart. I see my spirituality as an organic development. My heritage is something of a Celtic mutt and I am absolutely in love with Ireland and her mountains and valleys. I also did my undergraduate studies at Naropa University which was founded by Chögyam Trungpa so it was a very natural for me to branch out into Eastern philosophies and practices. My approach is very contemplative, focused on practice, transformation, and a direct engagement with reality that I call silver branch perception (a term coined by the late Irish philosopher, John Moriarty). To me, to be human is to be participatory with the cosmos, with the earth community, and more locally, with one’s own bioregion. If I have a particular brand of “Daoist Druidry” then it is as a method of doing just that.
Could you tell us more about this “silver branch perception”? What do you mean by it as “a direct engagement with reality”?
>In Irish mythology the silver branch is something which shows up a lot, often under mysterious circumstances. It tends to begin the Otherworld adventure of the story’s protagonist. As a metaphor I see it as that form of perception which grants our senses access to the Otherworld. I don’t see the Otherworld as a discrete place separate from our place but rather a deeper mode of dwelling in and perceiving reality. In the silver branch way of seeing the Otherworld becomes this world, comes alive more fully, and we in turn become more continuous and consonant with the cosmos. It is very much like the Buddhist concept of shunyata or emptiness. It’s not a nihilistic of meaningless emptiness, but rather empty of objective identity. The idea is that, as John Moriarty would have it, sometimes our cosmological thinking about things hurts those things. Cosmologically thinking and perceiving we tend to perceive our cosmologies more than what our cosmologies are attempting to describe and make sense of. As a result when we look out over the mountains we don’t see the mountains–we see our own minds and the projection of mountains. Silver branch perception is a way of returning to reality as-it-is rather than as we imagine it to be.
Out of interest, what other Buddhist concepts do you find compatible with Druidry?
>All of them, potentially. Buddhism of course is coming from a different culture, so there are certain things I think that would be inappropriate to try to import. Buddhism is usually called a world religion but I don’t really see it that way, or at least not necessarily. At its core Buddhism is a lot like science. There are some basic theories and hypotheses about reality, a method of examining the truth of those theories (meditation), and a community of practitioners to verify their findings much like peer-review. I think meditation is perhaps one of the most viable methods we have for examining the subjective nature of the universe in the same way that the scientific method is the most viable way of examining the empirical nature of the universe. So long as both Buddhism and Druidry are concerned with the truth and direct experience of reality I think they are perfectly compatible. The concepts, however, are never the experiential reality so I think at the end of the day whether Buddhist or Druid its about actually engaging with the world, with the senses, and with our own minds.
Now, I understand you have a new book soon to come out entitled “The Salmon in the Spring: The Ecology of Celtic Spirituality”. We will get back to the book itself a bit later, first of all, in it you seem to talk about three distinct types of Celtic Spirituality– the Reconstructionalists, the Revivalists and the Native Traditions. So could you please tell us a bit about how you view Reconstructionalist versus Revivalists but in particular versus Traditionalists (or as some would say reclaiming native/”shamanic” or native/Faery) forms of Druidry/Druidism. Do you see them all as valid forms of Druidry, or do you consider them different paths? (I know, a loaded question but be bold!)
>The way I like to think about it, because there is such diversity even among the different groups, is in two broad trends of Celtic spirituality. I like to put it in more ecological terms. On the one hand you’ve got what I call the homeostatic way of being. Homeostasis values things like tradition and the stability of what has come before. It tends to be a bit more conservative. In an ecological system homeostasis is important because it is what allows the system to deal with discontinuity and disturbances by returning to its original baseline or ground, or at least something very similar to it. Likewise, homeostasis is important in a culture or spiritual tradition for the same reason. It maintains the continuity and ensure the integrity of the culture. I think the Reconstructionists really hold that, at least when it comes to the non-native, diasporic traditions. On the other hand there is the more emergence or evolutionary based way of being. This is a way of being that is always looking to transform, grow, and develop in ways which will allow the natural system–whether it is ecological or cultural–to meet its specific environmental needs and deepen the creativity of the universe. This is what drives evolution and the unfolding of our human story in the universe ahead. This space is really held by the more “neo-Druidic” and revivalist groups.
There is of course also the “third hand,” and that is the native traditions. These I see as being organic and wild and so they naturally blend homeostasis and emergence together. It was this balance which allowed, for example, the Celtic people to adopt Christianity as their religion without necessarily sacrificing what is was that made them Celtic in the first place. They simply adapted to their changing environment in a way which maintained the homeostasis of the culture itself. Although I’m not a native Celt, having grown up in the United States with English as a primary language, it is this balance that I am always seeking to uphold in my work.
I think it should also be noted that although we can talk about how each of the groups has a kind of “primary energy,” whether homeostasis or emergence, in reality most of them occupy shades of grey and blend them together. Usually one is emphasized over the other. I think that’s a good thing, so long as equal ground is given to the other’s as well. Each way of being has its own shadow and its own wisdom. I’ve tried to focus on the wisdom here, but I should note that I think each can go too far into shadow and repress the other impulse. Emergence can reject all tradition and homeostasis can reject all growth. When that happens is when we enter into dangerous territory and risk the collapse of the system. We can each hold the energy we resonate with the most and become ambassadors of it, but the moment we deny and seek to suppress the wisdom of the other is the precise moment we need to begin examining the contents of our collective shadow.
What is your take on the pre-Celtic debate (whether it is possible to make a claim of being Druid when working with a pre/proto-Celtic form of spirituality)?
>For that you need a working definition of what a Druid is. I can really only speak to the situation in Ireland as the prehistory of other Celtic lands is not something I’m well versed in. My understanding though is that, at least in Ireland, many of the pre-Celtic practices were absorbed into the incoming Celtic culture. There was, as far as most scholars know, no mass migration, invasion, or other form of population change to mark the arrival of Celtic culture. In fact, archaeologically there is a minority of physical evidence that could be strictly classified as Celtic. It would seem then there is a certain amount of continuity, or at least natural development, between Neolithic and Bronze Age people of Ireland and the Iron Age people who are usually thought of as Celtic. If this is the case then maybe it is accurate to say that what eventually because the Druid caste in Ireland was a continuation of practices and beliefs from the pre-Celtic people. I wouldn’t say that using the “Druid” label is entirely inappropriate.
Speaking to the heart of the question though I think I might answer it with another question and ask whether it is really so important to call oneself by a certain label or title that we have to stretch the meaning of the word in order to make it fit? I’m not necessarily saying this is the case here, but I have noticed a trend among some people where calling oneself a Druid seems to be of primary importance and figuring out what a Druid actually is to be of secondary importance. Something about the word itself draws people in, for better or for worse.
I find it interesting that you use the word “Ecology” in connection to Celtic Spirituality. Could you explain then how your book is relevant for those of us who practice within the Druidic tradition? What does your book offer to us?–in particular in regards to this idea of “The Ecology of Celtic Spirituality”.
>I say in the book that it is decidedly not about Celtic spirituality but that I’m using the tradition as a lens through which I’m looking at the ecological crisis and at the human-nature relationship. The myths become a storied way of getting to the heart of the issues. The book is very much my answer to a quote from Thomas Berry. He writes, “The historical mission of our times is to reinvent the human–at the species level, with critical reflection, within the community of life-systems, in a time-developmental context, by means of story and shared dream experience.” I thought that summed up the challenge of our times so well and I wondered about how I might formulate a reinvention of the human species from within the shared dreamtime of the Celtic imagination. I have tried to stay as true to that dreamtime and cultural spirit, and have tried to tread gently on its history and I think the result is a book about ecology and the reinvention of the human species seen through the lens of the Irish dreamtime. It’s relevant to those in the Druidic tradition in the same way I believe it is relevant to anyone alive and breathing. We are living in a planetary system in crisis. We need to chart innovative ways to renew our relationship to the earth. As Thomas Berry would say much of the crisis is the result of not having a story to guide us. I’ve tried to offer forth one way that the stories we already have might guide us and might live comfortably amidst the new cosmological stories that our sciences continue to discover.
I have read your posts on other Druidic forums and discussion groups. One of the things that has struck me in the past is how practically and experientially you approach the Druidic tradition. Indeed, your emphasis seems decidedly different from others who perhaps focus on celebrating the Celtic festivals or honouring their ancestors or approaching Druidry as a polytheistic religion. Correct me if I am wrong, but your emphasis seems to be placed directly onto things like contemplative meditation (as you mentioned before) and other practices that encourage confrontations of the personal ego and our limitations. Could you explain this emphasis and your reasoning behind it?
>It is quite different and I think that’s probably because I don’t necessarily approach it as my religion. There’s nothing wrong about celebrating the Celtic festivals, honouring the ancestors, or having a polytheistic understanding or experience of deity. I’d probably be more of a pantheist, panpsychist, or panentheist (all of which overlap quite a bit) than the more traditionally Celtic polytheist, although I do have a more polytheistic understanding of the psyche and the multivalent nature of the archetypes. The deities aren’t necessarily objects of religious reverence for me. I see them more as aspects of mind, whether we’re talking about the mind of a person or the mind of an ecosystem. But honouring the ancestors is certainly an important part of my life. Keeping a space in the heart and at the hearth for the ancestors is a way of acknowledging the long pedigree from which we came, the ones who made this moment possible and made us who we are. I trace my ancestry all the way beyond the human to Australopithecus, even further to trilobyte, prokaryote, and down past the emergence of life itself to that originating moment of the Big Bang. Being of Celtic heritage, and even being of human heritage, is only a thin slice of our ancestry. I try to honor all of that. And not just the ancestors but our future descendants as well. I wonder what sort of world we’re leaving for them. Are we being good ancestors ourselves? This all, I think, is what the ecosocial activist Joanna Macy means when she talks about “re-inhabiting time.”
All of that is a major part of my practice. It’s really about finding a way to once again become participatory in the cosmos. The Celtic festivals are, or can be, a great way to do this. The point, I think, is that any practice can be used as a method of more deeply engaging with reality or can be co-opted by the ego to perpetuate a more narrow range of experience and identity. One can fetishize the ancestors or use their heritage to present themselves as “more Celtic than thou.” Or one can be deeply humbled by the depth of time, by the people who have worked to create this moment and this person, and to kindle a sense of responsibility toward the future. It can go either way. Even in the practice of meditation you’ll find people who aren’t actually refining and examining the nature of the ego but who are just crafting a more spiritual personality for the ego to dress up in. It happens in every religion and spiritual tradition and is probably a necessary stage to go through. I have, at times, lamented over this but I think the better response is to do what you can to help guide people, ourselves included (because we are all guilty of it at times, and we all need to be reminded), into a deeper engagement with their spiritual practice and to engage with the difficult material that has the power to transform us.
What do you think is the most important contribution(s) modern Druidry could make to our world today? How can we achieve this?
>I think Druidry has the potential to teach the world quite a bit about having a culturally grounded ecologically-aware spirituality which doesn’t shy away from science and holds as its primary revelation the unfolding story of the cosmos. I think we can do this by finding ways to integrate the cosmology, traditions, and myth of the Celtic world into this New Story of the cosmos, one which transcends culture and in which we find our common humanity and the roots of all things in that originating moment of the universe. We can, in a sense, ground our cultural mythology in the supernovas, galaxies, mountains, wind, and trees. I think though that the rub is that we can’t quite do this with our ordinary egoic minds. We have to do it through the silver branch.
From your website, we can see you’ve started the beginnings of a new organization called Dinnseanchas which you say is about “reconnecting us to the ‘universe story’ and teaching us — through traditional Irish stories, meditation, poetry and ecological mysticism — to find our place within the earth community”. To me, that really just sounds like a description of your personal approach to Druidry, even if perhaps you don’t look at it like that. Could you tell us more about this new organization and your visions for it–as well as a bit more about the individual parts of your above statement (traditional Irish stories, meditation, poetry, ecological mysticism, etc)?
>It is very much a description of my personal practice, which was a natural evolution. The idea behind Dinnseanchas was that I needed a vehicle through which to express my dán. Dán is an Irish word with several meanings. Amongst them are poetry, art, a skill, a physical gift, and destiny. I interpret that similarly to Bill Plotkin’s idea of a soul-gift, but even more closely to the Daoist concept of De (or Te), which Alan Watts defines as “an extraordinary skill at living.” The definition I give in my book is that it is a thing’s self-intending purpose in relation to a community. For example, a forest fire’s dán might be expressed as the activity of its burning and the affect of its burning on the community. Through burning it “self-intends,” meaning that the very act of burning is an act of further self-creation. In certain ecosystems a forest fire is a healthy member of that community because it enables certain trees, such as the redwoods, to open their seeds. It also clears a lot of the undergrowth which allows new seeds to get enough light to grow, and can help replenish the fertility of the soil by converting the nutrients in the plants it burns. So the forest fire is simultaneously creating itself while gifting, maintaining, and enhancing the community of which it is a part. Of course a forest fire can also get out of control which, happening in a human, we might call neurosis.
In any case, Dinnseanchas, or how I envision Dinnseanchas in addition to my book, is an aspect of the activity of my dán and so of course it appears to describe my personal practice. The idea here isn’t that I would be converting people to my way of being but simply to expose people to those things which helped me discover my dán–which allows me to participate more creatively in the unfolding of the cosmos–and have the potential to lead others to theirs as well. Simultaneously it fulfills a wider role of teaching us how to be an ecologically integrated species which is not simply part of my practice but something I maintain must happen to the human species as a whole if we are to remain (or perhaps become) a viable member of the earth community. I have found that the best way to accomplish these things is through myths and stories, meditation, poetry, and ecological mysticism because they satisfy some of the very basic requirements of cosmological, ecological, and spiritual modes of consciousness. We need 1) a coherent organizing story about the universe and our place in it, 2) a method or practice of examining and discovering the subjective nature of reality first hand (“The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” –Thomas Berry), 3) a practice of expressing, embodying, and becoming dán (poetry), 4) and a form of spirituality–devotional and contemplative–which recognizes the nonduality of spirit and nature: right management of the watershed and right management of the soul are intimately related.
So we know that both Buddhism and Eco-psychology have largely contributed to your life approach and this obviously comes out in your new book too. But what other people, places and ideas have influenced you, in a major way?
>Well, the big one, who I’ve mentioned a few times already now is the Irish philosopher John Moriarty. I think his work, more than anyone else, has been a sort of intellectual and spiritual grandfather to my work. I discovered him very shortly before he died, although I had heard of him and have had his work recommended to me. It wasn’t until I was at Loughcrew in Ireland, having tea in the little cafe and browsing their books, that I came upon two of his and bought them on impulse. I drew fairly heavily on his work during my thesis, on which the book is a greatly expanded and refined version. Other than him a lot of my influences could be categorized as either Buddhism or ecopsychology. Thomas Berry, David Abram, Theodore Roszak, Gary Snyder, Chögyam Trungpa, Shenryu Suzuki, Bill Plotkin, Brian Swimme, and Joanna Macy have all been great inspirations. Although I don’t entirely agree with every word he says, I think I probably owe an intellectual debt to Ken Wilber.
But place has really been the great influence. I’ve lived a few places and they’ve all marked my psyche in various ways. I grew up in the suburbs of Boston and remember making family expeditions from a young age to an Audubon Society managed forest, and even earlier playing at the edge of the forest in my first home. That left a deep impression. Later, the mountains of Colorado, the Dingle peninsula and various other parts of Ireland where I lived for a few month stint, and now just recently the Bay Area of California–all have become not only places where I live but in a sense have come to live inside of me. That sort of relationship with a place changes you.
What would you like people to get out of your book? What are your aims or “message” behind it?
>Mostly I would like for people to be inspired to start looking at the myths from new and interesting angles which might reveal dimensions of our psyche and our world which we didn’t know we knew. I don’t expect that my answers (if there are any answers) will satisfy everyone, but maybe I can inspire people to look with different eyes and find the answers that do. I suspect most people who read the book will already have some inkling about their love of nature and of the universe. I hope they find both a deepening of the intellectual ground from which they might act on that love, and a practice with which to express it. I hope at least one person is led to discover their dán because of what the book inspires them to become on their own.
If you could recommend any authors or books to us, which would be, say your top five or top ten on that list, in no particular order?
>Nostos and What the Curlew Said by John Moriarty (the former is unfortunately now out of print. Invoking Ireland is also excellent, cheaper, more focused, and readily available in the U.S.), The Way: An Ecological World-View by Edward Goldsmith, The Dream of the Earth by Thomas Berry, The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram, and anything by Gary Snyder (an excellent sampling is available in the form of The Gary Snyder Reader).
So what are your plans after this — after your book comes out, and then, after you complete your MA? Where do you see yourself heading?
>Writing a book is a very private affair. I hope, once the book is released, to start doing some more public work and begin to actually teach the material in it. I’ll be setting up some lectures and workshops through Dinnseanchas to do this. I also have my publishing company, Hiraeth Press, to look to and am hoping that The Salmon in the Spring will be successful enough to make that business viable. Whether or not all of this work is financially sustainable is yet to be seen. Luckily I have some academic aspirations as well and am interested in various aspects of more “practical” ecological work. If none of that works out: retire to Japan and become a tea farmer, perhaps?
Wow haha, good luck with that! But on behalf of the Druidic Dawn community, I am sure that we all wish you the very best of journeys onwards and that you continue to delve deep into the Celtic dreamtime, for there is something so pertinent in your words now and in your book. I think that is what has always struck me about your approach is that you make the Celtic traditions relevant to the here and now, to our everyday problems and crises, and in that sense, speak directly to the spirit within the Celtic heart, and also beyond. What is relevant to us, although seen through a Celtic lens, also touches to the core of human experiences and needs. In your book, I felt you placed the Celtic Traditions and Dreamtime (thus also, Druidry) in context of the wider world, the wider community of human, ecosystem and cosmos. For that too, we thank you and hope you “keep up the good work”!
>Thank you. That’s certainly my goal and I will no doubt continue to do my best to maintain that. It’s been my pleasure to answer your questions.
On that note, do you have any closing words or advice to leave with us?
>In closing, perhaps a small bit of poetry that’s been going through my head from the great American naturalist poet Robinson Jeffers:
The hawk’s egg will make a hawk, and the serpent’s
A gliding serpent: but each with a little difference
From its ancestors—and slowly, if it works, the race
Forms a new race: that also is a part of the plan
Within the egg. I believe the first living cell
Had echoes of the future in it, and felt
Direction and the great animals, the deep green forest
And whale’s-track sea; I believe this globed earth
Not all by chance and fortune brings forth her broods,
But feels and chooses. And the Galaxy, the firewheel
On which we are pinned, the whirlwind of stars in which our sun is one dust-grain, one electron, this giant atom of the universe
Is not blind force, but fulfils its life and intends its courses.
(De Rerum Virtute)