Featured Altarist – Dana Lynn Driscoll, Ph.D.

A piece Dana painted that I delightfully ‘own’ placed here on a healing altar when it first arrived to welcome its energy into our home. The Awen Bee.

When did you build your first altar?  Did you think of it as an ‘altar’ at that time?

I made a lot of them when I was a child.  But I think my first altar that was intentionally an altar was when I was about 14.

I made it behind a cherry tree in the woods behind my house.  I used stones, sticks, mushrooms and other natural things.  I would go there to meditate and engage with the spirits of the land, particularly plant and tree spirits. 

Do you share your practice with others or do this as a solitary practice?

A bit of both.  I have a number of altars that I’ve created just for me (including five in my art studio/sacred space alone) as well as several on our land that are altars for my various spiritual practices. 

But I’ve also participated in collaborative altar building – one of the first altars a group of Druids built together here was a land healing shrine.  It was a collaborative effort of about 12 of us.   

The land healing shrine we built several years ago.

 What has been an unexpected delight in altar building?

For outdoor altars, I really love to see how they transform and evolve.  What I mean by this is that you can create an altar, and then leave it for a while.  Sometimes, it stays fairly as it was. 

But other times, nature adds her own beauty and magic to it – a black raspberry vine, for example, has taken up residence in the land healing altar I described above.

That, as well as a number of turkey tail mushrooms on some of the wood we left – so nature is leaving her own touch.  It’s exciting to see how those evolve. 

At my first homestead in Michigan, I made a land altar to honor the spirits of the land.  Within a few years, the altar was covered in Poison Ivy and I was told to leave it be and let nature do her work. 

I still came to the altar often (poison ivy is a plant I have a good relationship with; she offers awareness medicine).  But I was no longer able to actively tend it.  

The Land Altar claimed by poison ivy.

 How frequently do you build altars?  

I build them as the need arises.  I also shift my altars indoors as things happen in my life or as I feel inspired. 

I like to think that many of them are in evolution constantly as my spiritual practice is also in evolution.  So at least a few times a season,  I am either modifying an altar or building a new one.  Altar building is definitely a focus of my practice. 

What beliefs or ideas influence your altar building?

I’m an animist Druid, so most of my work with altars has to do with connecting to the land, doing healing of the land, and connecting to the work of spirit.

The altars are also based on my needs and spiritual work at the time.  For example, if I’m doing deep work with the energies of earth or the oak, I’ll have an altar setup for that and after that work is done, it will transition to something new.

I do a lot of energetic and physical land healing work, and I also build small mandalas and other shrines outside to help with that work.  These may be intentionally placed in places where they will not last (e.g. I place an altar on a river bank with the intention that the next time it floods, the altar and that energy will move downriver).  So I think the main idea with all of this is working with nature.

The other thing that’s really important to me as a Druid is that my altars be made in ways that are sustainable and regenerative.  What I mean by this is that I’m not going to be buying trinkets or stuff that will harm the land (or has harmed the land in its creation).  I’m also not going to be disrupting existing ecosystems to build. 

I try to use materials that are already available in the land and that can be of benefit to the land.  For example, I might make a wood-burned piece for an altar that can decompose, or use local stones, leaves, and flowers. 

As someone who is an artist, I like to work with nature to create a bit of artistry. Even for my indoor altars, I am using things that are directly from the local land, gifts, handmade or hand grown (such as my own smoke clearing sticks and beeswax candles), or otherwise sustainable.

 Can you share an outcome or two from using Altars in your life?

Generally, I think the altars offer me a way to focus my spiritual practices or energies in a specific direction.  But I do have a very specific example I can share. 

When I was producing my first tarot deck, the Tarot of Trees, it was a very long process. I am the kind of person who just flows with inspiration (we Druids call this “awen”, literally, flowing inspiration) and lets my creativity take me where I want to go. 

The problem with this approach is that I often have a bunch of unfinished projects.  While that usually doesn’t matter (I eventually pick them back up), in the case of the Tarot of Trees, I got through about 60 or so of the 78 cards and just burned out. I had no inspiration, but I really wanted to finish the project (and friends that were following the progress also were pushing me to finish). 

I set up an altar dedicated to earth energy: grounding, stability, stamina, and some of the energy of a few tree allies that are particularly good for this: oak, hickory, and butternut. 

That altar went on a shelf in my art studio and each time I went in to create, I would take a moment at that altar and bring in that energy that was often lacking in my practice.  Within 6 months, I had finished all of the cards and was able to publish it and bring it into the world.  After I was done, I took that altar down and replaced it with something new to reflect the change I was working on.

What I just described to you is a “bardic arts” altar (we druids recognize at least three paths—the bardic or creative arts, the ovate or natural arts, and the druid or magical arts).  I create altars for all three paths as I feel led.  But I’ve had similar experiences with other kinds of altars on the other paths I’m working within Druidry. 

Dana’s current bardic/awen indoor altar.

What items tend to show up repeatedly when selecting what you will place on your altar?  Do you have a reason or guided approach for your selection process?

I think the theme that repeats most often is honoring nature and connecting with trees.  So you will always find stones, sticks, wood, leaves, acorns, hickory nuts, and other such things.  All of my altars are working with nature in some way, so all include these kinds of natural features.

Do you listen to music to help prepare you when you plan out an altar or while you are building?  If so, can you share some favorites?

I don’t listen to music  but I do often do some chanting.  Within Druidry, many of us work with something called the Ogham – this is a tree divination system consisting of 25 letters, each tied to a word and a sacred tree.  So to continue with my oak theme, oak is duir, which is pronounced Do-er.  So as I am working on an altar to bring in the energy of oak and the earth, I might chant DO-er  or do some drumming to help with the grounding. 

Do you follow the seasons or another system/set of holidays/moon cycles that impacts when and the type of altars you build?

I do have a wall altar that is in the Pennsylvania Dutch (PA Dutch) magical tradition (the phases of the moon tied to my local heritage) that I change as the phases of the moon shift and as each of the different moons (tied to animals and birds) come into being. 

I usually do something seasonal for my main working altar; this is the altar I use when I open up a sacred space in the Druid tradition (usually this includes having elemental representations, a sickle and mistletoe, and other objects). 

I will usually add something for the season or shift this altar with each of the eight holidays in the Druid wheel of the year.  But I would say the rest of the altars really just shift as my spiritual work shifts, which may or may not be seasonal. 

What is your favorite part of building or using altars in your life?

I like their presence in my life and I like the work they can do over time. I like to be able to recognize a spiritual need or foci, and in doing that, create something that has resonance and place. 

For example, an altar I’m currently working on is on our land. Before we bought this property, a 5 acre piece of land that is heavily wooded, the previous owners logged it. 

For the last 2.5 years, since we moved in,  we’ve been tending this land and bringing the logged forests into a healthy place again by replanting trees, planting seeds and roots, and trying to restore the land as much as possible. 

I’ve been building living altars as part of this work.  Earlier this year, before Spring started, I went into an area with considerable brush and did a lot of manual chainsaw work to clear it out, carefully releasing trapped small sassafras and ash trees that had been struggling to survive under the dead debris.

I piled the debris and wood up several feet high and then covered it with a large layer of soil; this is a German permaculture technique called Hugelkultur. 

These “hugel” beds will eventually have the wood get very soft and spongy, and be an excellent growing medium.  They are living altars, in the sense that they are transforming that which harmed the land (the logging) into something which brings healing and diversity. 

In the fall, I will plant them with native medicinal and edible plants and shrubs (gooseberry, alpine strawberry, agrimony, etc) and also probably do some stone cairns on them or set a standing stone between them.

In another part of our yard, we did a similar approach for our perennial herb garden.  We did a figure eight that allows for a walking meditation, and then took some of the wood that had been cut and dug deep down and placed that wood in the beds. 

This living altar is really maturing in the 3rd season and its amazing to see how lush and abundant the plants now are.  We harvest from this not only for culinary purposes, but for spiritual ones – a large patch of mugwort, sage, thyme, and yarrow, for example, turns into smoke cleansing sticks to be used.  A patch of sacred tobacco and an apothecary rose bush becomes a land offering that I dry and prepare.  

I love seeing how these altars – and my more traditional, static ones, bring beauty, joy, and focus into my life.

Dana’s living altar in her meditation garden using regenerative agriculture and permaculture techniques

How or does your culture show up in your altar building?

I’m Appalachian American, born and raised in Western Pennsylvania in the Laurel Highland region and come from the PA Dutch tradition and heritage.  This certainly has influence on how I build altars and what I use. One of my altars, for example, is an earth mother shrine that has a lot of PA Dutch symbolism (like hex signs) in it.  And all of them are rooted here in the living earth, what grows here, and what is sacred. 

Another part of this though, is also looking at that same heritage and history for what it is – white colonialization. By honoring the land and its history, I recognize the history of genocide and oppression of native peoples, and I also recognize that I benefit from that legacy as a white person living here. 

It is very important to me that in my own spiritual practice, including my altar building, that I do a few things: 1) honor the ancestors of the land and spirits of place; 2) treat this land with as much respect as I can to honor those who came before colonialization, and 3) also honor my own ancestors of blood whose choices brought me here, because that’s part of who I am. It’s a complex interaction, but I try to balance all of those things. 

Here’s one example of this. American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolis) is native to the Allegheny mountains where I live, but I have literally never seen it in the wild, despite covering probably 1000 miles of trails in my adult life.  Due to its high price, it has been stripped bare from this landscape.

One of the outdoor altars that I have is a simple land healing altar.  It was originally a burn pile in the middle of the forest – I cleaned up the burn pile and worked to restore the forest in this area, setting a standing stone and creating a small meditation nook. 

It is here that I honor the spirits of place, the ancestors of the land, and ask for their guidance in being a good steward of this land and live here in a way that honors and acknowledges their legacy. 

After putting this altar in and spending some time there, I had a very clear sense from those same spirits that I needed to bring American Ginseng back into this ecosystem, so I bought and planted many roots here.  And now, they are growing. 

A sacred medicine, stripped bare by white people’s hands is now growing again in this sacred place, replanted by white hands.  That’s the kind of intentional respiration work that I think its really important to consider with regards to location and culture. 

What has been the biggest shift for you since building or using altars in your life?

The intentionality that can go into each sacred moment is a big one.  Building altars (and I build a lot of them) can really help you shift your own consciousness.  It can help you be aware, bring energy in, help you do good work in the world. 

I would say they are a fantastic physical representation of the metaphysical aspects that I want to bring (either into my own life or into the land surrounding me).  They are very important to me! 

Dana’s altar honoring Mother Earth.

Dana your love of nature comes through in your work as an artist and creator of Tarot and Oracle decks. I’d like our readers to learn more about your creative offerings via Druid’s Garden Art

How did your artist journey begin?  Has your spiritual path always played a large role in your work?

My parents are both artists, and I was raised in an artistic home. Despite their early training, I went a period of time in my life without making any art getting pretty deep into gaming, materialism, and consumption.  But when I was 25, I suffered a very serious loss, and I turned to art for spiritual healing. 

That, along with a number of other factors, led me to the Druid path about the same time. I was so delighted to find Druidry as it is a spiritual path that honors the creative arts (or what we Druids call the bardic arts) as a spiritual practice.

For almost 15 years now, I have dedicated myself to the bardic arts and have worked to combine spirituality, meditation, inspiration from nature, and magic into my visual art. This supports and is supported by my altar building. 

As the author of a tarot deck and an oracle deck can you let our readers know how working with card decks has helped you and how you feel they can support others new to working with them?  Do you pull a card or spread every day?

I think divination decks of all kinds (including tarot or oracles) help us focus our energies, provide messages, and provide spirit connection.

When I was creating the Plant Spirit Oracle, I worked with the cards in a multitude of ways – many of which show up in the Plant Spirit Oracle book, such as using it to open a sacred space, doing a daily divination or draw, and so on.

I think the most important thing is exposure – so drawing a card every day, even if it’s just to take a moment to focus, is really useful. I like to do more in-depth readings during the major eight Druid festivals.  I also like to just look at the cards, meditate on them, and keep track of my insights as I use them.

For example, if I draw the Eastern Hemlock card from the Plant Spirit Oracle for the day, I will pay attention to my relationship to nature and the connections I make – because that’s what the oracle suggested that I do.

This, then, allows me to focus in a particular way and direct my energy.  While I don’t think that this the only thing an oracle or tarot deck can do, it certainly is useful in this regard.

For people who are looking to get into tarot or oracle cards, doing a daily divination is an excellent way to start. Just focus your mind, draw a card, read about it, and then, at the end of the day or the next day, reflect on how that card may have given you insights, sent you in a direction, or even offered a warning.

From that practice, you can learn the meanings of the cards and practice interpreting them in a very simple way with lots of practice.  When you are comfortable with the daily divination, you can move into more advanced readings. 

You create in so many mediums, paint, leather, wood carving, mosaic – does the need to create energize you?  Exhaust you?  Feel more urgent recently?  

Creativity to me is a spiritual practice. It is one of my absolute most grounding practices I can do. I made life choices to take my career in a different direction that does not involve my art in any way, so art to me isn’t something I do to sell, but rather, I create for the joy of it.

I like the meditation and peace that comes when you are deeply immersed in a piece of art and get into a flow state. I enjoy experiencing the spark of inspiration, and seeing how a piece develops from that initial spark.

I have enjoyed honing my skill in a variety of mediums (watercolor, leatherwork, pyrography) to a point where I can bring into reality what is in my mind.  Art is part of my spirituality, a deep part, and I love being able to practice it and share it with the world.  

An altar cabinet Dana decorated using pyrography.

How does it feel to know your sacred tool creations, whether a card deck or wooden wand, or leather journals helps others find their path or personal growth and healing?  Do you find more of your time being dedicated to art as sacred tools for others or do you still have plenty of time for Dana just to express what you want to do?

I have always allowed spirit to lead me as an artist first and foremost—the mediums I use, the subject matter, the practices themselves, the choices of projects to pursue. But, at the same time, I am always delighted to hear how something I have created has helped shape someone’s journey, or offered meaning to them.

I think that’s ultimately what any bardic art is about: whether it’s writing, performance, music, fine craft – it’s meant to move us in some way. Perhaps it inspires us, gets us to act, helps us on our path, helps us understand something about ourselves.

I can never know as an artist how those who receive my art may be moved by it (or not), but I’m always so happy to hear when someone has connected with it.

I will also say that I’m really blessed to be able to create things to give away, offer as initiation gifts, or sell. My sister manages all of the “business” side of selling the Plant Spirit Oracle and the Tarot of Trees, which also helps me keep creating and not dealing with selling anything.  

I love to do artistic trades, either with fellow artists, or with time in service to the land.  So I am happy to give someone a piece of art if they agree to say, plant some hickory trees or do some river cleanup.

Ultimately, my art is in service to the land and her spirits, and that’s what is most important to me.

Dana’s main altar in her home.

Please bring our readers into your world of trees – to know where your love for trees came from and how you were inspired to create the Tarot of Trees:

Ever since I was a small child, I have been drawn to the trees.  Apples, Willows, Eastern Hemlocks, Maples – so many tree friends.

Even when I was little, I could hear their voices, feel their experiences. When I was 14 years old, the forest behind where we lived was logged.

That was an absolutely tragic experience for me – for a number of years, I shut down. I refused to go back; I couldn’t bear to see the trees I had been such good friends with gone.

This was also when I stopped doing art. I didn’t create, I didn’t even spend time in nature at all.  Then when I was in my early 20’s, I had this great awakening due to the loss of my friend, and those things suddenly became really important and meaningful in my life again.

Following his death, a decade after the forest was logged, I returned. I walked the same areas that I had played in as a child. Yes, the forest had changed….but oh, how nature had healed. The forest was still there, just as I remembered it. I found that many of my tree friends were still there, as was the stream, and the land forms, and even remnants of our old cabins from when I was a child.

It was the most powerful lesson of my life: regardless of the damage, nature can heal, nature can grow, and as nature heals, we do as well. This message of regeneration and healing is strongly present in both of my decks and in a lot of my other artwork: you can see it clearly in the 9 of Wands card in the Tarot of Trees. 

The nine of wands depicts the tree that has been knocked down, only to regrow stronger.  You can see it in card 79, Regeneration, a card I added during the 3rd edition print run of the Tarot of Trees. You also find Regeneration in the Plant Spirit Oracle.

It is a critical message for us today, and has profound implications for everything: how we interact with the world, how we can still save our beautiful earth, how we can reconnect with nature; and how we grow and heal as people. This is the message that the trees offer us – and so, so much more. If we only slow down and listen. 

Dana can you talk about the role Druidry and nature play in your life outside of your art?

I try to live my life always as a Druid. The ancient Druids who are the spiritual inspiration for my current tradition, were scholars, peacemakers, learned ones, herbalists, astronomers, and had a deep knowledge of the natural world.  I try to embody that ideal of the ancient Druids in my daily interactions, choices, and lifestyle.

For example, my partner and I have our 5 acre homestead here in Western PA, where we work to honor the land, regenerate it, and also grow a lot of our own food. A lifestyle that focuses on regeneration, on healing, and on life is a choice I made as a Druid and helps me affirm that path every day.

Likewise, in my career as a professor, I work to bring peace to my actions, my words, and my deeds and teach my students some of these lessons.  One of the things I do in my local community is offer free plant walks and try to help people realize that everything comes from the natural world. 

So I think that in the different things I do, the underlying practice and perspective is as a Druid always.  

Finally, how can women find you locally and online? 

You can find me in a few places.  My writings on Druidry, sustainability, and nature are at the Druid’s Garden Blog and I also have a Druid’s Garden Facebook page. My Instagram is more dedicated to my artwork and you can learn more about my projects, such as the Tarot of Trees or Plant Spirit Oracle, by visiting my Druid’s Garden site. All links listed below:

Druid’s Garden Blog
Druid’s Garden on Facebook
Druid’s Garden Art on Instagram
Upcoming Projects at the Druid’s Garden

An impromptu outdoor altar Dana created.

All images within this interview are copyright of Dana Lynn Driscoll, Ph.D.
Enjoy them, let them inspire you, please don’t share them without honoring who created them. Thank you.

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