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Channeling the Earth spirit on the Burlington waterfront

Sage words carry on the breeze at the Burlington waterfront, near several massive oil tanks about a hundred yards up the bike path from Oakledge Park: "You can see that life on Earth, especially in civilized society, is basically getting worse," the speaker says. "And this is basically because we're getting more and more alienated from working in harmony with how the world likes things to be done."

It's not the voice of Al Gore repeating his chilling narration from the global-warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth. It's not Keanu Reeves or Alanis Morissette, who narrate The Great Warming, another alarming doc now screening locally. Nor is it a lawmaker advocating for responsible Earth stewardship. The speaker is Ivan McBeth, your friendly neighborhood Druid. "In some ways, it's getting so bad," he continues, "that it [takes] a huge amount of energy to learn and to grow and to change and to effect healing on the planet."

A sturdy-looking bloke with curly silver hair and a ready smile, McBeth is visiting the site where, come October, he and his collaborators in a group called Circles for Peace hope to erect the Burlington Earth Clock. The sacred stone circle will resemble those that dot the landscape in McBeth's native England. Burlington's Parks & Recreation department approved the unconventional use of the parcel with nary a hitch. Bob Whalen, Parks & Rec superintendent of planning and development, doesn't recall meeting any Druids during the proposal process. But he notes that the project sailed through its commission review and mandatory neighborhood meeting. Such a warm reception, Whalen says, "seems very rare for Burlington."

Even if the municipal green light signifies cosmic approval of the Earth Clock, McBeth says that he and his crew will need to raise roughly $40,000 more to meet the $65,000 total cost before the city will permit them to hoist a dozen or more 3- to 10-ton granite slabs into place. The inside diameter of the Burlington Earth Clock would measure 16 megalithic yards -- or roughly 44 feet -- and the stones forming the circle would stand about 5-feet-6-inches, framing sunset views behind the Adirondack Mountains across the lake. Think Stonehenge with nearby tennis courts and playground.

Or don't think -- at least not in the mundane, rational sense. As McBeth explains, stepping into a stone circle is "the simplest way of separating everyday stuff from the sacred." And in Druid terms, "sacred" means the spirit of the Earth. Maintaining this rapport with nature was the task carried out by Druids of old -- the priestly class of ancient Celtic societies in Britain and Europe a couple of millennia ago." For the laptop-packing, 21st-century cyber-Druid McBeth, that's still the Druid's job. "A Druid learns how to silence his own thoughts and communicate with nature in a way that is not recognized by science," he says, adding that today's Druid can be of any gender, race or religion.

In the realm of spirituality, scientific validity holds less sway than does the strength of one's beliefs. Yet, according to Adrian Ivakhiv, professor in the University of Vermont environmental program and UVM's Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, Druidry is real and thriving. Ivakhiv, also coordinator of the graduate program in environmental thought and culture, has done scholarly research on eco-based religious groups. He notes tremendous growth in Druidry in Britain over the past few decades.

In North America, Ivakhiv sees Druidry as part of a larger movement of Earth-centered spirituality, which by his estimate includes hundreds of thousands of believers. Pagans would be part of that population, along with Druids and others trying to reconstruct connections with ancient Celtic traditions.

"I think we're living in a time when people are looking for some kind of connection to the Earth or the landscape around them," Ivakhiv notes. "We don't really have societally recognized ways of making that connection. Land is a commodity, property -- not necessarily a place where spirits dwell."

How accurately today's Druids emulate their ancient forebears is uncertain, Ivakhiv says. The archaeological record of ancient Druidry is sketchy, and written records were largely the work of non-Druids. But this doesn't invalidate contemporary Druidry in his eyes. "Certainly it's a bona fide movement -- real people doing things that they believe are valuable," he says. "We need to judge them in terms of whether their beliefs or practices have harmful effects on others. And, in this case, I don't think there's anything like that."

********

Ask McBeth about potential harmful effects of stone circles and he may show you his calloused hands. The native of Devon, in southwest England, has helped raise 10 sacred circles in locales as far afield as Britain, Australia and Canada. He's had this passion throughout most of his 53 years. As a lad, McBeth was intrigued by Chalice Well, an ancient holy well in Glastonbury, where he attended boarding school in the early 1970s. His interest in things mystical and mysterious soon eclipsed his interest in formal education. He dropped out of university after less than a year and went to live among wanderers and seekers in the Sinai Desert. There he experienced an awakening that would profoundly alter the course of his life.

Alone on a sand dune, with the starry night sky above and a noisy kibbutz behind, McBeth sensed an imaginary "gateway" just ahead, on the other side of which was the dark unknown. This was his "bird of freedom" coming to light, he says, offering him a chance at transformation. In that moment he embraced his deep drive to encounter a place that exists beyond the rational, known world -- "the place where the spirit lies," as he describes it. The shamanic path was revealed to him, and he still walks it: "The unknown is a huge place that I want to map," he says. "I want to bring my knowledge back to share with other people who also want to make their own journeys into the unknown."

Enter the Druid. In 1987, after traveling in India and elsewhere, gleaning wisdom from Hindu, Buddhist, Native American and other spiritual traditions, McBeth co-founded the Oak Dragon organization, a group based in Wales that's dedicated to educating people in alternative subjects, such as sacred spaces, healing, spiritual paths, music and dance.

Working with Oak Dragon, he developed teaching skills and began his Druid training. He leveraged those skills to run Druid camps for the England-based Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, a group boasting roughly 8000 members worldwide. In 2001, McBeth was invited to participate in a stone-building workshop in Plattsburgh, New York, where he fell in love with the U.S. -- and with a woman named Fearn. They're now married and share a cabin "off the grid" in the forests of Worcester, Vermont.

In April this year, McBeth launched a Druid training program based in a Druid village -- three geodesic domes around a fire pit -- that he set up in Orange. The program takes three years to complete, with each grade -- Bardic, Ovate and Druid -- requiring one year of study each. McBeth's first class of Bards has 15 pupils.

The curriculum involves a camp-like residency one weekend per month. In between, students work independently on varied tasks. One ongoing homework assignment involves getting to know their own communities through Druid eyes. "What I'm training my bunch to do is to tune in to their local area -- big stones, important trees, the rivers and the streams," McBeth says, "to find out in an intimate way how their local area works, and then to spend time with it to make it work better."

That might entail fishing an auto battery from a stream, or helping to save trees from developers. "When anyone knows that there's an area that's in danger, there'll be Druids sent there to check," McBeth says.

The rest of the Druid U. syllabus looks like this:

Bards learn the foundations of magic; in the Druid worldview, that means perceiving the magic all around us. "I teach them ways in which to merge with nature," McBeth says. This involves moving through the environment in a way that allows hearing and seeing things a forward-focused view might not reveal. "Energetically, tunnel vision is incredibly disruptive to nature," he adds. "It's like walking through a playground with a sword."

McBeth also teaches students "how to communicate with trees and rocks and things." Bards read books about shamanism and other modes of interacting with nature, and "liberate" their creativity through stories, music and dance.

Ovates look inward, focusing on transformative healing processes to clear away obstacles that impede their flow of life force, and connect them more directly with the Earth spirit. Ovate rites include firewalking and symbolic burials. "They dig their own graves," McBeth says. "They have to experience the shamanic death. They say goodbye to their old self and step into a new self that's in alignment with the Earth."

In their final year, Druids begin to interact with the outside world, using their wisdom and acquired skills to recognize, preserve and create sacred space in their own communities.

Assuming McBeth and his cohorts can raise the money to set the Burlington Earth Clock, he'll practice what he preaches this autumn. It's one of many projects on the Druid's calendar that also includes giving shamanic healing workshops, undergoing training inspired by the work of psychologist Carl Jung, launching the Green Mountain Order of Druids, and writing. McBeth's book, The Crystal Journey: Apprentice to the Earth, can be ordered through his website.

Like some prophecies, maybe the stone circle will be self-fulfilling. As Parks & Rec's Whalen notes, the site could offer a great opportunity for people to "get away from the city environment for a few minutes, and hopefully get in touch with nature and the changing seasons and have some reflection time."

That would be fine with McBeth, who relishes tuning in to the deep secrets of nature the ancients grasped. "I've lived an everyday life, and I was only half-alive," he says. "As I journey in the unknown, I come alive. That's why I think that I'm here on Earth, to come alive as much as I can for as long as I've got, because to come alive gives you joy. And I used to be a miserable bastard."

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About The Author

Erik Esckilsen

Erik Esckilsen

Bio:
Erik Esckilsen is a contributing writer for Seven Days and Kids Vermont. He is also a professor of rhetoric and digital storytelling at Champlain College.

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