A Druid’s Compass   Leave a comment

[A version of this post was originally published in Druid Magazine. How do we orient ourselves, and what guides and markers can we use? The things I write about are part of my own “Druid compass” — you probably have a similar set yourself. The article gets a little purple in its prose, but if you’re a regular here, you’re used to reading past that.]

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Inwangsan (photo by Gael Chardon)

 

Sometimes it takes another country to teach you lessons about your own. Five summers ago while I was teaching English for a busy month in Seoul, Korea, I encountered a local land spirit who showed me that this lovely country I was just beginning to discover was decidedly not my home.

It was about a week after I’d finally joined OBOD and requested the Bardic course. It was also my last weekend to explore Seoul and its environs before I flew back to the States to await that first of a series of welcome brown envelopes with the British postmarks of the OBOD course.

So on a foggy Sunday morning I made my way by train toward Inwangsan, a sacred mountain a handful of kilometers from my one-room apartment in Seoul, and then on foot into the mist. Outside Dingninmun Station and under the overcast sky, I managed to miss the tourist signs and markers , but the mountain loomed nearby, unmistakable, so I began my ascent off trail, figuring I’d intersect it higher up, near where a Buddhist and shamanic shrine coexist peacefully. Inwangsan is famous for its commanding views and granite cliffs. As for the view, I had little hope for on this gray day, but exposed granite slabs and outcroppings shone slick in the rain.

Forty-five minutes of climbing later, wet, muddy, and annoyed with myself, I paused to catch my breath. The fog had thickened, but the rising slope was still a reliable guide for the direction I wanted to go. I took a step, and –- how to describe it? –- up rose a wall of resistance in front of me. Something challenged me and barred my way from further ascent. At first I thought, stubborn and oblivious as I can be, that it was merely the tug of my own fatigue, but when I took another step it was clear this issued from something other than me. The hair on my arms stood up. Heart pounding, I apologized out loud, mumbled the few phrases of polite Korean I knew, turned around and slogged back down.

What was it? I rarely see anything inwardly in such situations, but impressions came this time as I made my way off the slopes. Something with multiple arms, big as a pickup truck, banded in stripes of dark and light, and determined to block me from advancing any further. I’ve not written about this till now, and just putting it into words makes the feel of it march again up and down my spine, vivid as if it happened this morning, a heavy ascent of wet earth, a tang of juniper and Asian pine and dead leaves. Yet I’d forgotten the mountain’s name, and the train station’s, too, and had to consult my journal from that summer. That as much as anything reminded me yet again (as if I need any further sign) of my “outlander” status there: I did not know the proper names for things.

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Rupert Brooke, 1887-1915

After British poet Rupert Brooke visited the Rocky Mountains some hundred years ago on a North American tour, he wrote: “There walk, as yet, no ghosts of lovers in Canadian lanes … it is possible, at a pinch, to do without gods. But one misses the dead” (Brooke, Letter XIII, “The Rockies”).

Brooke was young – it was just a few years before his untimely death at 27 – and he wrote with a young bard’s flip ignorance to cloak his discomfort with an unfamiliar country. For of course ghosts walk this continent, millennia of them. Brooke simply hadn’t yet listened closely enough. But new landscapes often strike us that way. A Chinese proverb I heard while working in The People’s Republic of China sums it up handily: shui tu bu fu – “earth and water aren’t comfortable.” We don’t yet know them, and neither do they know us. But stay in a place long enough, sweat and sleep there, plant and harvest, raise families and bury your dead, and the land begins to learn you, too, and to recognize you. And as you work out names for the shapes of water and earth you find in the neighborhood, and come to greet the stones and trees as friends, the words get shaped by mouths that eat and drink here, by lungs that take in the local air.

In the way of Bards, another who grappled with the same challenge comes to answer Brooke’s verses with words of his own. At 86, Robert Frost was asked to deliver a poem for President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in January, 1961. The day dawned cold and bright, and with his failing vision and the sun in his eyes, Frost couldn’t read the words in front of him, so the old bard made do with memory instead, and recited another of his poems.

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Frost at Kennedy’s inauguration

“The land was ours before we were the land’s,” he begins in “The Gift Outright” (Frost, 1975, p. 348). How often a bard finds a way through error and trial and awen. Frost continues, naming an experience common enough among many American Druids who may strive to honor a rich heritage originating east of the Atlantic, while also heeding new-old voices here on what some First Peoples still call Turtle Island:

But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves …

Here in what homesick settlers called New England, older names still linger for things no one truly possesses. Within an hour from where I live you can find Mt. Monadnock, Mt. Ascutney, Wantastiquet Trail, Skatutakee and Nubanusit lakes. Anywhere you go on this continent, similar names and undercurrents whisper, and careful listening will repay any effort to attend to lore and myth and what the land wights may have to say. (The earth’s an old house: many lands have the same overlay of newer names on older ones.) Sometimes it takes long patience to regain their trust, if careless previous inhabitants squandered it. Sometimes it takes longer practice to stop withholding ourselves from our places, and to inhabit them fully.

Here in Vermont the Yankee accent and sensibility rise like springwater from long winters and sap from local trees boiled to syrup, pork from free-range pigs that graze the oak mast on Windmill Hill, which we can see from our living room window, and Okemo State Forest not so very distant. “Eating local” needn’t be mere marketing of another yuppie indulgence. It’s what we all did until just a couple of generations ago, growing it ourselves, letting the land feed our bellies and spirits. And it makes sense if you’re committed to “Druiding” (let’s make it a verb!) –- the taste and smell of home, and of a new place, too, can be powerful guides. The body leads the way by a kind of homing instinct.

Names, listening, tastes and smells. What of ritual and ceremony? Once my wife and I settled in Vermont, walking to learn my neighborhood became a go-to practice for me, with a three-mile loop of dirt roads my almost-daily ceremonial. When I honor the four quarters, I see the fish pond east of our house the former owners stocked with carp, and I remember water-of-air. The cold fronts each winter sweep down from Canada: air-of-earth. And with a hill named for a grove of hemlocks to our east beyond the pond that obscure the horizon, we never get much in the way of sunrises, but dramatic sunsets make up for it: fire-of-water. Online you can still track down Mike Nichols’ Wiccan classic “Re-thinking the Watchtowers: Thirteen Reasons Air Should Be in the North” (Nichols, 1989): it’s now a “sacred text” itself, though it started out as an observed deviation from traditional practice. Rules change with places, but ancient patterns abide.

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Works Cited:

Brooke, Rupert. (2004). Letters from America. Project Gutenberg EBook #6445. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6445/6445-h/6445-h.htm

Frost, Robert. (1975). The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

Nichols, Mike. (1989). “Re-thinking the Watchtowers or 13 Reasons Air Should Be in the North.” Internet Sacred Text Archive. Retrieved from http://www.sacred-texts.com/bos/bos089.htm.

IMAGES: Inwangsan by Gael Chardon; Rupert BrookeFrost at JFK Inauguration.

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