It’s an alder. In the photo.
This is a long story. I foolishly composed it on my phone in a fit of sudden need to get it all down. Well, here it is.
My name is Fen. I have known this for much longer than I have lived it.
The name came to me in a dream, then again and again in visions. Sometimes sought, sometimes unbidden.
It came at a time when I was opening up to my connection to another plane of existence, one where the trees speak as clearly as another human, where cats and stones and drums and rivers communicate no less than any other being. A time when I was becoming aware that beloved ones who have departed this plane were talking to me. When I began to hear and understand them.
The trees in particular were my guides and teachers during this time, as they continue to be today, as they always have been, even before I became consciously aware of their friendship.
During this time, I went on numerous internal journeys, some guided directly, others undertaken “alone,” seeking something I didn’t understand.
In a drum making ceremony, I met a spiritual being I don’t have words for, yet. She is me and not me. Perhaps one could conceive of her as my highest truest self, but also she is more than that. She is guardian and companion, guide and lover. And she is me. She is my holiest high self. I call her Syne (soo-nay) to others, and her true name is mine alone to know.
In these journeys I met many others who accompany me as well. Ancestors and allies. Aspects of my self. Gods and demons.
Then one day, I met my dragon. I had been exploring the idea of animal spirit companions and guides. I knew that I’d had many as a child, and I wanted to know if, as many First Nations people teach, I had one in particular that was mine.
Many had presented themselves as potentials: horse, chameleon, snake, chicken. Each one came to me in a different vision, presented itself, and said: But not quite. Some spent days or weeks with me before leaving with that message.
One night, I was lying on my back thinking of nothing in particular. Not journeying, not sleeping, not meditating, not anything, when I was suddenly aware of a massive presence in the room. It looked me directly in my eyes, nose to nose.
It was green and aqua blue and gold. It shimmered. My eyes opened wide with awareness. It took my breath away. And then it became my breath.
It entered through my mouth and filled my face and then my body. I felt my arms as wings.
It came into me as an awareness that I had always been this. I have always been dragon.
I wish I could say I received the news joyfully. At one level I did. But also I doubted myself. First: Who was I to claim such an identity? Second: Dragon? What? They’re not even REAL.
But dragon stayed with me. I dreamed myself a dragon. I visioned myself a dragon. I flew above the world on dragon wings and saw things I shouldn’t have known but did. True things.
I am dragon.
I already knew my name was Fen, though I had not yet claimed it. In a much earlier vision, I had been at a campfire, with people I loved. One of them, a beloved in this particular vision, called me Fen. I knew then that it was my correct name.
Doubting, always doubting, I started playing with the name. Experimenting. Testing. Was it really mine? Was it right? Was it complete?
I googled it for associations. I knew it was associated with the marshlands of East Anglia in England. I had lived there as a child. Some of my happiest childhood years. Free years. I had had a tree friend there.
In googling I started to see associations in the world of DnD and fantasy role playing. I dug deeper.
I discovered a word in Tolkien’s elven language (did you know he wrote an entire elven language for use in Lord of the Rings?). The word was fenume. It means dragon.
Later, I went to the ancient Greek language, the language of my favorite “author” of all time, Homer. A language I studied in grad school for the explicit purpose of getting to know Homer better. I found the word for “tree” and, changing it slightly, turned it into my middle name: Druadin.
I took these names to the fire dance and danced them. The message from my ancestors and the universe came clear: YES.
One of the wise women at the dance gave me a gift of a staff her father had made. Another wise woman, seeing me with it, said I looked like a Druid.
It only much, much later occurred to me that the Greek-derived name I’d been given was awfully darn similar to the word “Druid.”
I went digging. I am not one to leave an interesting linguistic puzzle ungnawed.
It is controversial, apparently, among scholars, but some claim that the ancient Greeks, whose greatest bard is Homer, were in relationship with the ancient Irish and Welsh. That, in fact, the people among whom Druidry arose might have been the same people, shared the same ancestors.
Intriguing. Controversial. But there is no doubt about one thing: the ancient word from which “Druid” derives means “oak tree.”
It also means “truth.”
But because I am a slow learner, and because there was one lesson in particular I needed to absorb fully and experientially before I was ready, it was nearly two years before I seriously considered studying more deeply the ancient Druid way.
I have been fascinated by indigenous spiritual traditions, especially living examples, studying them from afar, participating where invited, feeling I have no right to them as my own yet longing and reading and wanting.
It never occurred to me there might be something for me in a “dead” tradition.
Did I ever tell you how it was a tree that offered to be my teacher, who opened me up to other planes of being?
In the Druid tradition, that is the way of things. Trees are always the teachers.
So. Transition. Did I mention I did not think I could be a dragon because dragons aren’t “real”?
Having recently become interested in uncovering what there is still remaining and known of the ancient Druid way, I ordered a set of cards to use to learn the Druid symbolism of animals.
I had learned the First Nations symbolism via a similar deck by Jamie Sams. Because the First Nations that Jamie Sams teaches about work only with “real” animals, there were no dragons in that deck. I had drawn one with a pen, on a blank card, because the deck had felt incomplete without it.
I opened the Druid animal deck and shuffled it. I drew a card. It was a dragon. I stared at it, dumbfounded.
I flipped through the rest of the deck. Salmon. Wren. Blackbird. Stag. Hare. A deck full of “real” animals… and four dragons, one for each element.
The Druid tradition explicitly recognizes and works with dragons.
I have held this information in me, in my heart, for the several weeks since, as I have dived deeper and deeper into study of the Druid tradition.
It feels like coming home.
But still I have resisted. After all, I said to myself, though there have been revivals, it is a broken tradition. No teachers survived the many purges of the Christian church backed by the armies of consuming power. The tradition was oral and died with the last Druids sometime in the fifth century.
I told myself this:
Where will I learn what I want to learn? How can I claim a tradition that no longer exists? Even though it is the tradition of my physical ancestry as well as of my soul, how can it be mine when the teachers are all dead?
Still. I kept studying. Some things survived. Mostly corrupted by the Christian scholars who coopted Druid traditions for their own ends, or who wrote about them in order to denounce them.
But there had also been hedge schools, named such because they took place in open places hidden by hedges so the authorities couldn’t stop them teaching those who wanted to learn. These had carried some of the traditions.
Scholars, modern Druids, and the Druids of various revivals have studied and pieced together much that is instructional and valuable, and offer these teachings to those who seek them.
And there are stories. You can’t erase stories. They do not die. They hold codified the remains of ancient wisdom.
So we do know some things. We know the Druids revered the trees. We know they had a sacred alphabet and we know its letters. They called the letters “trees.” They wrote them on sticks and beech bark.
Each letter is associated with a type of tree, and each tree is associated with specific lessons, energies, and animals.
The letter “f,” for instance, called “fearn,” is written as three small lines to the right of a central stave. It’s the first letter of my name, of course, and it is associated with the alder tree (also called fearn).
Until I began this study, I did not know much about the alder. Not even enough to recognize it in the wild. But I began to know.
I found out that it is associated with androgyny. It holds the male and female parts, the cones and the catkins, together on the branches through the winter. It grows near water. It is associated with strength and leadership.
Its animal association is dragon.
Hold all this for a moment.
Feeling a little silly, I obtained for myself a crane bag, which is a Druid item akin to a medicine bag as used by First Nations medicine people. In it, you keep items suitable for use in ceremony, and items specifically sacred to you.
I carried it with me to my land the last time I went, last weekend. While I was there, the land told me to watch carefully. It was preparing for me the first item for my crane bag. It would carry water energy. My spiritual path never feels silly when I’m among the trees.
I watched carefully.
Toward evening, as I was thinking of turning toward home and wondering whether I had imagined the land’s message, I wandered to the very front of the property. I don’t remember what made me do it. I turned and looked up the slope toward the mouth of the creek, where it exits my land.
And there, in the thicket, rising just above the brambles, guarding the entrance to the land, guarding the mouth of the creek, rooted in the water, something I had never noticed because I didn’t know to recognize it: an alder, holding its male and female parts aloft, proud, calling to me.
Standing there, gazing in awe, considering which specific catkins and cones to collect for my bag, I saw also, through the branches, my old friend: the moon.
Sitting here tonight, as I began telling you this story awkwardly from my phone, I wasn’t sure where this was going to go, exactly. And then I was sure.
Here is where it goes:
The Druid tradition is not dead. It is not broken. Its teachers did not fail. They have passed the messages on, down and down and down through the ages without fail.
Heart to heart. Root to root.
The Druid teachers are not gone, because the Druid teachers are the trees.
They always have been.
Hello. My name is Fen. I am Dragon. I follow the Druid way.
May you be well. May you know truth. May you always find your way home.