I google “fallow” and the first entry (from dictionary.com) reads:
(of farmland) plowed and harrowed but left unsown for a period in order to restore its fertility as part of a crop rotation or to avoid surplus production
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“Befores” we’re good at celebrating and often taking to extremes. Expectation ramps up busy-ness of all kinds. (Valentine’s chocolates and flowers fill cash registers even if they don’t always pair up hearts that hoped they would.) Imbolc gave us its foretaste, the simple melody that will add a harmony at the Equinox, then turn in its own time to a full-throated chorus at Beltane.
We know how hopes and dreams have inspired countless songs, battles, marriages, investments, acquiescence to impossibly long odds, and reams of bad verse. A longed-for future, person or event feeds endless fantasy and often remarkably sharp focus. Who hasn’t hungered for what seemed a sure thing? Advertising, debased popular magic that it is, targets us squarely in our weakest nooks and crannies with images and sensations built almost entirely of non-physical energies. We’ve almost all strapped ourselves into a jet-fueled “before” and launched ourselves heavenward.
In fact, anticipation draws many of us right into the astral plane where even the least imaginative among us find our inner senses heightened. “It’s so close I can almost taste it!” we exclaim. While it’s sight and hearing that line up to deliver the astral experiences we’re most accustomed to, every physical sense has its correlate — “As above, so below, dude!” whispers the demon in aviator sunglasses at my elbow. Ghostly encounters are filled with accounts of phantom limbs brushing our very physical bodies. Touched by god or devil, we know the planes open and blur at times. The “Great Eight” yearly festivals celebrate and take advantage of this palpable fact.
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after the snow stopped yesterday
“Afters” on the other hand arrive far less domesticated. The let-down, the hangover, the next morning, the wake-up, the harsh light of day, the after-glow, after-image, aftermath — we know these well, even as we watch the outgoing tide surge past our ankles, that current that promised so richly, so gloriously, but dropped us forlorn among all the other flotsam and jetsam on the shore.
Riding the wave is a core skill that can demand a lifetime to master. We know those life-acrobats and artists who can step away from the wreckage and carry on as if little to nothing has happened. With everyone around shaking their heads in envy-tinged astonishment. We also know others who never recover. We ourselves may be one or the other of these.
Next month at the Equinox, as a portion of a Gulf Coast Gathering workshop on the awen and tapping our creative potential for transformation, I’ll take on our fallow times and dark nights and blocked intervals. Where do we find again the slow-burning love that never truly leaves us? How do we rekindle, re-ignite, plant ourselves in the hearth of the cosmos, plug into the Original Generator? Where are the embers we can blow again to living flame?
Dream chalice, spirit guide, cauldron sound, inner sap bucket, fire mirror — slowly I gather items from my toolkit, from experiment and fumble and learning, for the booklet I’ll distribute at the workshop. With time and further focus, it may become a book. I’ve mentioned several of these techniques on this blog, and will continue with them in future posts. Guard the mysteries, constantly reveal them, as the old Craft saying goes. Fallow is its own energy. Fallow is the way back. Fallow is a sure guide.
Honoring the dark times, the brooding, the fecund blackness, the inky abyss, the low and listless is a potent part of turning with the cycle. I re-learn (and re-learn) how important it is to “hallow the fallow”. Sometimes a cycle that’s finished here announces a new one on another plane. Fat lot of help that is to me here, now, I grumble. But the astral and other planes herald changes that may only show up later on the physical plane, so it’s an excellent place to look for insight, to peer down the road a little. But meanwhile the work here can be precisely to enter the fallow as completely as possible. Rather than resisting and thereby delaying the fulfillment of the cycle, acquainted with griefs and grief as I am in my 50s, I finally let myself sink into it.
I’m not talking drama or pity-me. This time, as it happens, I mourn no great tragic loss, merely the accumulation of small things that deserve memorializing and release. When my night dreams go dark as they have in the last week, and whole days find me depressed, there’s deflected grief and fallowing that begs for tending. No, it’s not just seasonal affective disorder! In the West we’re often busy enough we think we can leap from crest to crest and never endure a trough, a downturn, a rest. But then the flu, an accident, a lay-off, a family spat — something arrives to shove me into fallowing. Sometimes I even remember to make room for it instead of waiting till it insists. Slow learners, all of us.
Waning (and especially dark) of the moon says fallow. February is Hunger Moon — Full Snow Moon, one of my sources calls it. Here in the ebb tide of Valentine’s Day, after the Full Moon, riding away from Imbolc, wintering out the second half of the month, I gingerly caress a small chunk of obsidian, I blow a short deer-bone whistle*, shrill and high. I find myself longing for touch, for texture, the skin of the world.
I make entries in my gratitude journal. I run — no, I walk — through the ways I ground myself. I seek out the solace of umami, that fifth taste, the savor of earth and wintering over and time. Fish, soy, cabbage, cured meat, tomato, cheese, spinach. The Wikipedia entry helpfully informs me that many of us first encounter it in our mother’s breast milk. Umami — taste of the Mother.
“The tree by the well in the wood” in Damh the Bard’s song from a few posts back sinks its roots into the earth, drinking from underground sources. I sit in that formless darkness we all have behind the eyes. From there I gaze out on slowly growing light.
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*whistle: mine comes from the museum at Serpent Mound, Ohio.
Image: deer-bone whistle.
To properly and fully honor the deities of the day (including our love-tossed selves), we need look no further than a Chocolate Ritual. Here’s a link to one of its many versions.
Because when you cast your circle using a giant Tootsie Roll as your athame, you know you’re in the right place, with the right folks.
That includes solitaries!
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Image: chocolate rose.
Truth’s subject to leakage at any time. Mostly, though, when that happens — when truth does manage, against the odds, to seep in — we strive vigorously to plug the hole any time more than a little discomfort spills out into our lives.
Praise then such discomforts, for what they can, even occasionally, reveal to us.
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A burst of activity from Canadian viewers has been showing up on the page stats — one of a few places more wintry than here. A shout-out to Canadians trying to feel spring in February. It’s there — just under the snow, and behind the patience that, with this most recent bout of storms, is wearing thin for all but the most ardent lovers of winter.
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“The world is a spiritual vessel. It cannot be improved,” says the Tao Te Ching, ch. 29. Of all the books based on wise and penetrating observation of the world and its dynamics, for me the “TTC” holds a singular position. So I’ve pondered this verse ever since I encountered it as a teen-ager.
To speak to this assertion (which, if you follow the above link, can be read many ways), and unpack and qualify it for myself and my readers, here are two of John Michael Greer’s responses to comments on his recent Feb. 1, 2017 blogpost “Perched on the Wheel of Time“:
The notion that one person can transform the world is very deeply rooted in our culture, and it’s not entirely untrue; like most damaging beliefs, it’s a half-truth. Each of us can change the world, but how we can change it is determined by our cultural and historical context — and of course it’s also true that in a world in which everyone can change the world, no one person gets to change everything! It can be a real struggle, though, to break through the binary between “you can change everything” and “no one can change anything,” and grasp the many ways in which we all, to use a New Age term, help co-create the future.
It can be a valuable Druid practice to break through binaries, finding at least a third position between two poles. And discovering and walking the line revealed by repeated blundering into a damaging belief/half-truth — there’s another name for life, for the modest wisdom a person can accrue over several decades. How much can I co-create? Where are my energies best spent in trying? Can I co-operate with even one other person around me — like a friend or partner, for starters — to maximize our co-creative acts?
And if this world can’t be “improved”? Well, certainly local conditions improve and deteriorate all the time, shaped in considerable part by the actions of individuals. Any overall equilibrium, though? I must ruefully admit that does seem to remain the same. But that’s not a reason to disengage. Greer expands on his perspective in a later comment on the same post, which I find persuasive as well:
…the Druid teachings I follow hold that this world, the world of human beings experiencing greed and hunger and a distinct lack of the brotherhood of man, is a necessary stage or mode of consciousness through which every soul must pass in due time. When we outgrow it, we move to a different stage or mode of consciousness, and the world stays the way it is so that it can provide the same experience to those who need it. Thus there’s only so much change you can make in the world — though there’s some, and making such changes are an important part of grappling with this mode of being. The changes that matter are those you make to yourself.
If a succinct statement of my bias is possible, Greer captures it in his last sentence here. “The changes that matter (most) to me are those I make to myself.”
First, because in the grand scheme of things I find change difficult. I’m assuming you do, too.
Second, because the changes I actually pull off, ones I make to myself, usually affect my immediate environment, where they’re more visible than they would be elsewhere. That means I get more feedback from them on what I’ve done, and whether it’s what I actually wanted. You know: life as laboratory.
Third, because I continue to learn the hard way that my understanding is often so imperfect in so many domains that I’d rather improve it and share what I’ve learned than botch my immediate environment out of ignorance or stupidity — and more likely, both. Humility is a really useful tool in my kit. Almost always I’ve ignored it at my peril.
And as for matters of scale, I’ve also met wise individuals in my life. Not many, but a few, human and non-human. But very, very few wise local governments, and even fewer wise nations. And that gives me guidance for where my energies are best spent — at least for me, in this cycle.
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So when anyone — whether Jesus or Donald Trump — offers up a version of “I alone can save you”, I need a lot of proof and demonstration before I’m willing to divert my energies to them from working in my own life.
Whitman sings in Song of Myself 32:
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
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It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. — Henry David Thoreau/OBOD’s weekly “Inspiration for Life”.
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Images: snow on moss in Westminster, VT.
The first stanza of Damh the Bard’s lovely song “Brighid” (below) places the goddess in the landscape of vision:
There’s a tree by the well in the wood,
That’s covered in garlands,
Clooties and ribbons that drift,
In the cool morning air.
That’s where I met an old woman,
Who came from a far land.
Holding a flame o’er the well,
And chanting a prayer.
Though here it’s the goddess who’s “chanting a prayer”, the bard has invoked her with song — his own prayer. And he’s gone to the “well in the wood” full of intention. Maybe not specifically to see the goddess, but knowing the tree and the well and the moment offer possibility waiting for human consciousness to activate. A gift of the gods, already given freely to us.
Here in Vermont a light snow falls as I write this, and I step away from the keyboard to take a picture.
By February here, snow itself can signal spring to come. You can feel the longer light, and moments of snowy beauty remind you that wonder is never far away. The sap will be running soon in the maples, the sugar shacks smoking all day and night as the sugarmen boil down the sweet juice to syrup. Green will burst forth, improbable as that seems right now in a world of cold whiteness. So Brighid comes from a “far land” that is also always near to attention, intention and devotion.
Here across the Pond from the Celtic homeland, some North American Pagans can feel removed from the “gods of Europe”, bewailing their distance. This place, we can feel, isn’t “Their” land. Yet anyone who’s encountered a spiritual presence knows that place is a convenience of the gods, not a requirement — a set of clothes, not the being who wears them.
Yes, it would be splendid, we imagine, to visit that “tree by the well in the wood”, simply by stepping out the back door to a landscape steeped in stories and legends of the goddess. Yet we also know what familiarity breeds. Or as an African proverb has it, “Those who live nearest the church arrive late”. The old saying that the gods like the offering of the salt of human sweat means effort is not wasted, devotion is repaid. Always, we have something we can offer them. And the gods give, but “not as the world gives”.
For you soon find that the gods are not merely passive reservoirs, to be drawn down whenever we happen to think of them and plug in for a re-charge, our rituals cannily crafted to work like the swipe of a credit card at a gas (petrol) pump. “Fill me up, Brighid!”
But wait, you say. Isn’t that just what we’re doing with ritual and song?
It’s really not a matter for argument, unless you need the exercise. Damh the Bard knows Brighid — you can hear it in the song. And out of love he’s traveled many times to the tree by the well in the wood. Brighid knows his name.
This, then, is one intention to cherish: may we serve them so that the gods know our names. Not to hold it up before others like a badge of pride, but as a spiritual resource to treasure and spend at worthy need. Or as Gandhi said, “If no one will walk with you, walk alone” knowing in truth you aren’t alone.
Ten years ago I didn’t honor Brighid. I didn’t “believe” in her, though I’d heard her name, thanks to all those who kept it alive in our world. Now I honor her, but I still don’t trouble myself about “belief”.
Instead, I take the hint and look. “I saw her reflection in the mirrored well”, Damh sings.
And I looked deep in her face,
The old woman gone, a maiden now knelt in her place,
And from my pocket I pulled a ribbon,
And in honour of her maidenhood,
I tied it there to the tree by the well in the wood.
Spiritual fire kindles in us at such moments.
A blessed Imbolc to you.
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The Hopi of the American Southwest call one of their ceremonial pipes natwanpi — literally, “instrument of preparation”. As words do, this one stuck with me ever since I read it, decades ago now. No wonder: we need markers for passage into sacred time, because otherwise it can burn and blow right past us. Or, to shift metaphors, if we don’t catch the sacred wave, we can’t surf in sacred time. We miss that tidal flow, then wonder why life can seem flat or dis-spirited.
With a beloved festival like Imbolc calling us, what better time to consider how we can attune to sacred times and sacred tides?
Shinto, that perennially popular topic here at A Druid Way, offers a mid-January festival called Bonden-sai which feels harmonious with Druid practice. Of course it has cultural flavors and overlays unique to Japan and Shinto, but its focus asks for and offers a kind of natwanpi. (Besides, a cold, gray, snowy northern January can use some color and liveliness.)
Bonden-sai, Akita Prefecture
The bonden for which the festival is named is called a “sacred wand”, though as you can see from the bonden in the picture above, “pillar” or “column” better suggests its appearance. (Let the chickens on some of the bonden above enlarge your sense of “sacred”!) A typical bonden, the Japanese National Tourist Organization (JNTO) helpfully informs us, measures
almost four meters in length … [and] serves as a marker for the gods descending to this world. In ancient times, bonden used to be made of paper or rice straw, but in recent years, they are often made by decorating a bamboo basket with colorful fabric. The bonden wands are carried by groups of children, townspeople, or even company employees. Each group entrusts the bonden with their prayers for an abundant harvest, good health for their families and success in business.
Bonden-sai is intimately associated with Akita Prefecture in Northwest Japan. Akita is also famed for its onsen (hot springs) and mountains, and Mount Taiheizan, the symbol of Akita City, is a major site for the festival. Bonden-sai there means a vigorous race up the mountain with your bonden to procure the blessings of the gods.
Shinto and Japanese culture, so long linked, have celebrated the sacred in so many things that the secular West allows to pass unremarked. Whether it’s drinking tea or sake, or bathing, or marking the calendar with a plethora of festivals, Japan models practices the West and particularly western Paganism learn from, build on and delight in.
Because when the gods are dead, the human heart also dies a little every day. You certainly don’t have to “believe” in them as any kind of prerequisite, any more than you have to believe in anything in particular to celebrate Halloween or Christmas or MLK Day. The gods themselves can serve as a kind of natwanpi, a means of preparation. Belief, like so much else, is a tool, a strategy, a technique for connecting to things other than ourselves. Use it skilfully, delicately, consciously, I’m learning, and it repays the respectful treatment.
Nyuto Onsen (hot springs), Akita Prefecture
Ultimately it’s the impulse to celebrate that’s the flame to cherish. And if it chances on occasion to be gods that help it happen, as one of the forms the sacred can take, why exclude them out of hand, just because they’re gods?
As for me, I try to take advantage of any natwanpi that comes my way. And if I succeed and connect only 30% of the time, well, isn’t that a very respectable baseball batting average?!
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Images: Bonden in Akita; Nyuto Onsen.
[Updated with link 1 February 2017]
Sometimes ya gotta love acronyms. (No, not you specifically. People in general. Not that I’ve ever met a person-in-general. Only individuals, who annoyingly refuse to conform to abstractions. Thank the gods.)
Especially if you can find ways to play with acronyms as well as learn something useful from the ideas they compact into memorable form.
So first, let’s look at the A.S. part of the acronym in the title.
This post is inspired by an article in Scientific American from a little over a year ago Nov. 2015) titled “Perception Deception“. (Link to the author Michael Schermer’s blog — scroll down to November 2015 and the article.) In it, the author examines recent studies that point to our — and that includes all species — perceptions of reality as useful rather than necessarily accurate.
(Does it have to be either-or, the author plaintively asks at one point?)
In other words, it doesn’t matter how close to reality our perceptions are, as long as they give us advantages in survival and reproduction. Or, as the article puts it, they have Adaptive Significance. The sun doesn’t “rise” or “set”, to use a trivial example; instead, the earth rotates. But unless we’re attempting a spacecraft launch, we don’t need a more “accurate” understanding. Living as if the sun rises and sets grants us perfectly reasonable adaptive capacities.
We don’t need to go far at all to find larger and more weighty human examples. If your parents told you growing up not to talk with strangers and you put that precept into practice, it’s just possible you avoided some serious unpleasantness. There’s adaptive significance: you survived by escaping kidnapping, abuse, death, or recruitment into cult or gang or band groupie-dom.
But we know that most crimes statistically involve people who know us, so the ultimate adaptive significance of that parental instruction may turn out to be low. If that makes us into distrustful adults who find it difficult to open up to others, we may never connect with another person to reproduce and pass along our genes to a new generation. Low adaptive significance for the individual. But paradoxically high for the species: excessively fearful individuals self-select and remove their genes from the genetic melange of the human future. In other words, and among other things, heroes remain possible.
The premier example the studies cite is the Australian jewel beetle:
Females are large, shiny, brown and dimpled. So, too, are discarded beer bottles dubbed “stubbies,” and males with mount them until they die by heat, starvation or ants. The species was on the brink of extinction because its senses and brain were designed by natural selection not to perceive reality but to mate with anything big, brown, shiny and dimpled (Scientific American, Nov. 2015, pg. 75).
Now apart from providing wonderfully vivid and useful ammunition to cartoonists, misanthropists and meme-lovers about the relative intelligence of males and their sex drives, the example seems to me to undermine the point the researchers actually wished to make. Here is a perfect example of how perception needs to match reality quite faithfully, or it won’t confer that sought-after adaptive significance.
In other words, species also need to possess what the article terms Veridical Perception — the VP of the acronym — if they’re going to survive. Or as my mother repeatedly counselled the teenaged me, you have to live in (and perceive) the real world.
(She neglected to add: “Just not all the time”.)
It’s true that human culture can shelter from reality some highly inaccurate perceptions, and for long periods. To quote a whimsical example, Humpty Dumpty exclaims,”Why, I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!” The mutual support we give each other, and human law, medicine, societal expectation and life experience, all help moderate and temper and refine our perceptions of reality to help minimize the damage inaccurate perceptions can cause. But wackadoos and wackadooism still persist. We can just generously think of them as genetic outliers. Experiments in adaptive significance, not veridical perception.
It is also an argument of the article that species with high adaptive significance consistently out-survive species endowed only with veridical perception.
Yet despite what current politics and media suggest, most humans live in approximately the same perceptive universe. Our differences loom large only in certain select domains. In spite of the noise these few domains are generating right now, the immediate adaptive significance of most of our behaviors remains high. (It’s flaws in their long-term adaptive significance that remain our great challenge.) Drive down the highway and — while a few accidents do indeed happen — the marvel is that most people see the universe in ways similar enough that we don’t take out all other drivers on the road in a single day of apocalyptic Hollywood bloodshed, simply because what you see as a red light I see as green. The relative absence of “carnage” — a loaded word in the U.S. right now — is an encouraging thought.
But side by side with adaptive significance, we might remember that evolution doesn’t “progress”. Where and how the arc of history may bend will apparently always be an experimental question, not an ideological statement.
A sparrow flying around today isn’t an “improved” or “more” evolved version of an ancestral theropod or archaeopteryx. The same is true of modern humans: we’re not any better suited to life in cities or at a desk in corporate America (or on the tundra or in the jungle) than our Cro-Magnon or Neanderthal forebears. We’re distinctly not “new and improved”. What we are is adapted, and adaptable.
It doesn’t have to be a choice: our behaviors more often possess adaptive significance when they also arise from veridical perception. We thrive when we “do the true”.
Veridical Perceptions with Adaptive Significance
And what about Druidry, just one of our many attempts at a veridical perception, at an accurate grip on reality? Does it also confer any adaptive significance? Is it just a Western 21st century middle-class indulgence? Does it offer an edge that can help us navigate tough times and steer us through these beginnings of a centuries-long post-industrial transition?
The next post will look at some possible responses to these questions.
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Images:graph cartoon; evolution cartoon.
This post is a tribute to the previous owner of the handful of acres and modest ranch house where my wife and I now live.
Elfriede* passed on at the age of 93. Just eight of us stood round her grave on a cold January day, each with a funny-sad story to tell about her. Elfriede’s short stature — a few inches under five feet — belied her remarkable toughness: “elf-strength”* indeed!
A survivor of a German concentration camp from which she escaped as a teenager, she made her way to England, where she met her husband Ed. The two of them eventually settled in New York City, and there they saved up to buy a Vermont property first as an escape from the city’s heat in summer, and then as a retirement house. They built and lived in the garage first, then constructed much of the rest of the house. Though it’s generally solid, it does offer its share of the quirks and kinks any owner-built house shows in abundance: odd wiring in places, uneven insulation, pipes stopping in the middle of one wall as if simply abandoned, and so on.
From the lavish plantings of flowers to the small fish pond downhill from the house to a variety of ornamentals bushes and shrubs, we have much to thank her for. But as I gather materials for a Beltane workshop this coming May, I send particular thanks to her for planting as many of the nine sacred woods as she did.
Which trees belong to the exclusive grouping varies by culture. (To the right is one Scottish version.) Already I’ve located five on the tally I’m using (Rowan, Birch, Willow, Oak and Holly), and I suspect I’ll eventually find all nine, and more.
My confidence stems from details I’ve already mentioned, and from moments like the following: Some eight years ago, on an overcast day that threatened rain, my wife and I arrived at what was then still Elfriede’s house for a second visit. We found she’d set a kitchen knife in the western yard, sharp edge toward the approaching weather front to split and shunt aside the oncoming storm.
Such European kitchen magic, along with Elfriede’s delight in all growing things, meant the modest property surely promised some rich botanical finds once we had the leisure to explore it properly. This “green vibe” definitely contributed to our ultimate decision to purchase the house. The land simply felt good.
So I raise a glass to her now, and I will again when I light the sacred fire on Beltane 2017.
*”Elfreda, Elfrida, Alfrida, Elfrieda, Elfriede, Elftrude, Elftraut is a female given name, derived from Ælfþryð (Aelfthryth) meaning “elf-strength”. The name fell out of fashion in the Middle Ages and was revived in the 19th century in both England and Germany.” — Wikipedia
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Images: Nine Sacred Woods.