Archive for July 2018

Entitled and Title-less   Leave a comment

With a hill to our east, we greet the sun itself about an hour after astronomical sunrise, and as I begin this post, it’s growing in strength as it clears the trees, doubly welcome after overcast days and fogs and thunderstorms. Hail, Lugh, in all your guises!

At Mystic River Grove‘s Lunasa celebration on Friday, I had to laugh: we were blessing with fire and water as part of the ritual, and a light rain had just begun to fall through late afternoon sun. No need — fire and water are already with us, my inner Bard satirist exclaimed. Sometimes you just want to celebrate what is — sometimes ritual gets in the way, if Things already are chorusing all around you. But we doggedly went ahead anyway. Couldn’t we just recognize what was already with us and dance in the rain around the fire in welcome?! No need to invoke the Directions, either, snorted my inner Bard, irony-meter on high. Where do you think you are? North, south, west, east — they always embrace you. You stand at the Center, always. No distance.

Nothing like a gathering of Druids to kick my awareness of change and focus. Discomfort can be a useful guide for where to look, a shift from the stasis we too easily fall into day to day.

This morning I woke early and read a little.

Consider a cup of coffee. The energy needed to run the coffee maker is only a tiny portion of the total petroleum-based energy and materials that go into the process. Unless the coffee is organically grown, chemical fertilizers and pesticides derived from oil are used to produce the beans; diesel-driven farm machinery harvests them; trucks, ships, and trains powered by one petroleum product or another move them around the world from producer to middleman to consumer, stopping at various fossil-fuel-heated or -cooled storage facilities and fossil-fuel-powered factories en route; consumers in the industrial world drive to brightly lit and comfortably climate-controlled supermarkets on asphalt roads to bring back plastic-lined containers of round coffee to their homes. To drink coffee by the cup, we use oil by the barrel.*

I got up and brewed a pot, sipped from my cup and returned to this post, holding all the many ironies at bay while I considered what I wanted to think about out loud on the page.

Rather than seeing Greer’s words above as an accusation, I read it as a map of points for focus.

And I recently read in our local papers of the increasing likelihood in the immediate future of planned rolling black-outs by our local Green Mountain Power company, in an effort to manage demand. (For the extra-paranoid, there’s added levels of worry about the vulnerabilities of our national power grid, and rumours of the Russians hacking it –any day now!) How many prods to action do I need?!

Time for setting up car-battery power for lighting and small appliances. The blackouts will teach us to use less anyway. It’s too easy to forget that reduce-reuse-recycle aren’t just the 3 R’s for our age, but a hierarchy of priorities, with reduce being by far the most important, and recycle a stopgap of last resort, only for when the things slip by the first two strategies. Cleaning up after our anniversary celebration last weekend, with some 100 aluminum soda cans going into our recycling bin, also gave me pause.

It was some 20 years ago now that my wife and I investigated cordwood masonry building techniques at Rob Roy’s cordwood building school, in West Chazy, NY, along with a suite of sustainable tech by amateur and professional builders who walked their talk. It’s a measure of how far the two of us still are from doing the same that I’m writing this post. Again, not to blame ourselves or wallow in pointless guilt — and guilt is always pointless unless it motivates change — but to find in my discomfort a map for focus. A Druid can and should always ask what now? — and as well as ask, listen for the many answers to that question that are always arriving in ways both obvious and subtle. The answers come, in abundance, if I’m listening. If I don’t yet hear them, there’s my practice, mapped out for me.

Our raised vegetable beds and compost piles are slowly expanding, and for now, the three CSAs nearby that we’re members of raise 80% of our vegetables better than we can.  Likewise with good chickens, eggs, dairy and beef less than four miles away. So far, not a prime focus. Should they change, so will we.

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Beets, kale, squash and potatoes in a modified hugel-mound bed. We’re trying out several different sizes and shapes to see what works best.

But our energy needs remain a focus. Solar, however admirable it can seem on the consumption end because it feels so clean, relies on components extremely energy-intensive to extract from the earth, process, fabricate and distribute.

When we met, my wife and I discussed for a long time the kind of life we wanted, and at the time our lack of funds — deep irony! — prevented us from getting the land and building the house and living the kind of sustainable life I’d imagined. So we took the employer-employed route instead.

The obstacles for so many of us are systemic, and harder, though all the more needed, in times of challenge like now. Difficult to navigate, but deserving our creativity to find pathways that work for our situations. The best changes, often, are incremental. I’m more likely to stick with them, I find. I can adjust as I go. No need for the dramatic transformations — those will come regardless, as long as I’m alive.

We’ve returned to questions of sustainability through the decades, out of a mix of opportunity and necessity and common sense. Wood heat, small-scale gardening, one car, locally-produced foods — these we’ve achieved. But still fairly high electricity use: that’s where we stand now. Our solar production covers all but about $100 a year, yet a single power outage renders oven-fridge-computer-water pump and hot-water-heater large and useless household ornaments, until the current is restored and flowing again. No reserves. And that stands as a metaphor to explore on many levels, not just the physical. What spiritual reserves do I need to develop?

Barometer rising, forecast clear — time to wash clothes and get them out onto the line in the backyard. I’ve got work cut out for me. I’ll update here as I discover what I can do.

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*John Michael Greer. (2008). The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age. New Society Publishers, pg. 115.

 

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Fog-weaving with Lugh   Leave a comment

ascutney

Mt. Ascutney, seen from West Windsor on a clear day.

Our local OBOD Seed Group is planning to gather on Vermont’s Mt. Ascutney for Lunasa in about a week, and so I scouted locations on the mountain this morning. We’ve had rain in Vermont since Sunday, so not surprisingly fog shrouded the crown of Ascutney, which stands at 3144 feet (958 meters).

Every leaf was dripping, and the blacktop glistened dully as I drove the 4-mile road to summit parking. When I arrived around 10:30 this morning, mine was the only car in the lot, which has spaces for 50.

If you’d told me that with climate shifts parts of New England are destined to become temperate rain forest, this morning at least I would have believed you. More likely we may well face sustained droughts here as elsewhere, but for now, Vermont lives fully up to its name of the Green Mountain state.

I scolded myself for not bringing my camera — next week will have to try to make up for the lapse. But it’s right I did not even try to capture in a frame what I saw and felt. Fern and myrtle, moss and emerald, shades of wet green I have no names for. Bird-calls sounded through the mist, and rivulets sparkled crossing the slabs of stone of the 2/3 mile trail and final 300 feet of ascent.

Fog-weaving at such times needs so little effort. The climb quickens the breath, and the cool air is lush with oxygen. Without the chatter of any human companion as a distraction, and with the fog collapsing the field of vision to just a few dozen yards in any direction, your attention narrows in on step after deliberate step. Light trance comes on like cloud itself. Without thought you can slip through to the “realm next door” between one step and the next, and you may sense the god dreaming on the peak. And rather than needing human action or imagination to weave or conjure vision, the fog itself curtains or reveals what is already there.

For some forty minutes I was alone on the mountaintop. Only on the last leg of the descent back to the parking lot did I meet another solitary hiker, rainjacket tied around his waist as we passed each other.

So did I “meet Lugh”? As a god of storm, sun and high places, he wrapped the mountain with his long arm, as one of his epithets, Lugh Lamhfada, names him. In such places and spaces, the ideas and doubts of rational consciousness don’t intrude. That’s for before, and after.

Even an hour later, with a second or third cloudburst filling the air with its sound, as I stepped out of the car in the parking lot of the medical office for an afternoon eye appointment, perhaps I didn’t “meet the god of storm”. But rain spattered my glasses, ran down my cheeks, wet my bare legs and left my feet squelching in sandals. I quickly pulled my raincoat around me and headed for the entrance.

And there in the waiting room I sat damply, thumbing through a National Geographic magazine, gazing at pictures of endangered birds. I didn’t “meet” those birds, you could argue, and in a sense you’d be right, of course, yet light from images of them reached my eyes and brain, and I know what they look like. I can describe them to you.

I may or may not have “met Lugh”, but water from his storm, and a sense of his long-armed presence continued to accompany me after the appointment as I recalled the climb, and thought about him on the drive home. My clothes are wet, I stood on that mountain, and I can tell you what makes Lugh different from Brighid.

And I am content, “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” * during such experiences — more than content — whatever I may think or do or say after them. And that proportion — a “during” that is different from a “before” and an “after” — seems to me a good one. Relinquish nothing, gain all.

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IMAGE: Ascutney.

*John Keats in his discussion of “negative capability”.

“(Not) Your Grandmother’s Druids”   Leave a comment

1–Your grandmother’s Druids were most likely members of a fraternal order, similar to the Masons.

Many contemporary Druid orders seek to assist members in developing a spiritual foundation and fostering a training equal to the challenges humans face over the coming decades and centuries, where new understandings will help us adapt successfully to more limited resources, a hotter planet, rising oceans, pollution, species die-off, massive social unrest and population migration, and still other shifts and changes we do not yet foresee.

Even if the challenges remain exactly as they already stand today — even if all predictions, forecasts, and extrapolations from available evidence are hopelessly inaccurate — it’s clear we already need wiser approaches and clearer thinking to grapple with them. In this predicament, however, we do not confront anything new. The human experience over the history of our species is one of frequent and sometimes dire challenge and change. In any case, one of the benefits of Druidry is the gift [link to “Seven Gifts of Druidry”] of wisdom and foresight — always useful skills.

To explore a play on words, the difference between change and challenge is lle — the Welsh word for “place, room, accommodation”. As soon as we “make room” for actual reality, then, we can deal more effectively and creatively with change. It is only when we deny, balk, block, resist, fear or ignore a challenge that the initial change has no place to manifest, and so it pools, darkens, and accumulates into something much more difficult later, when it finally breaks through, whether it’s an individual illness, societal breakdown or planetary shift. Further, a major “secret” to dealing with challenge is respect for place, for the “room” or space we inhabit. Our ability to care for it, listen to it, learn from it and live in it more fully will help many thrive.

2–Your grandmother’s Druids generally sought and found inspiration and example in both the limited information surviving in classical sources, and in the Druid Revival beginning in the 17th century, which drew on practically every source that didn’t run away first, and on some that did.

As the growth and development of modern Druidry continued, and with contributions from Celtic Reconstructionists like ADF, who stressed historical authenticity and searched for the half-hidden remnants we still possess of older Druid traditions*, new teachings, practices, insights and shifts in emphasis emerged in many established Revival orders like AODA, OBOD and BDO. These “new” teachings are in fact often very old, reintroducing images, stories, understandings and quite specific herbal knowledge tribal peoples worldwide have long possessed. (As a single example, see the work of Druid and master herbalist Ellen Evert Hopman.)

3–Your grandmother’s Druids were generally, officially and at least nominally Christian. While other varieties no doubt existed, it was often both dangerous and illegal until surprisingly recently to be too open about believing and practicing anything other than some version of Christianity.

Today’s Druids span a much wider range of backgrounds, with atheist, pantheist, animist, Christian, Jewish, Hindu and other traditions influencing and being influenced by Druidic perspectives and practices. As with Alexandria and Rome in the centuries before and after Christ, a stir of Gnostic, Egyptian, Chaldean, Christian, Neo-Platonist and Pythagorean mystery teachings, practices, ideas and perspectives produced a potent ferment that still pervades much contemporary culture worldwide.

4–If your grandmother’s Druids were challenged with the oft-heard critique “You can’t be a real Druid because we know hardly anything about ancient Druidry,” they might readily concur and acknowledge that their Druidry is a fraternal order, inspired by the romantic image of the Druid as a learned leader and cultural arbiter and repository of tribal memory.

Today’s Druids still hear this increasingly ridiculous challenge, about as accurate as early challenges that “Christians practice cannibalism” because they ritually drank the blood of Christ in the Mass.

In fact, a surprising amount of information survives about older Druid practice and training, outside of the fragmentary Classical references, largely in Irish but also in Welsh sources.

Members of OBOD can trace the increasing influence of these sources in the revisions of the OBOD coursework, first in the transition from Chosen Chief Nuinn/Ross Nichols to Philip Carr-Gomm, and in the new Chosen Chief Eimear Burke, who has said that OBOD “isn’t broken so it doesn’t need fixing”, but that an increased focus on Irish material will be a natural outcome of her Irish identity and experience.

For a quick overview of the hundreds of sources available, of varying age, usefulness, completeness and provenance, check out this link at the Celtic Literature Collective. Here’s just a small fraction:

Colloquy of the Two Sages / Immacallam in da Thuarad. 12th century Book of Leinster.

Trioedd Ynys PrydeinTriads of the Island of Britain. Versions in 13th century White Book of RhydderchLlyfr Gwyn Rhydderch, the Red Book of Hergest / Llyfr Coch Hergest, and the Peniarth Manuscripts.

The Mabinogi(on) / Another link. One of the most famous of sources listed here. Welsh tales, legends, philosophy, magic, training, etc., from the medieval period.

Book of Ballymote / (Wikipedia link.) Leabhar Baile an Mhota. 1400s. Includes the “Instructions of King Cormac”, stories of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, and other tales.

Auraicept na n-Éces / Another linkAn ogham treatise dating from the 7th century, with later interpolations.

Dindsenchas / The Lore of Places. A “recounting the origins of place-names and traditions concerning events and characters associated with the places” (Wikipedia) and vital as a gateway to understanding much of Irish myth and legend. Many are found in the Book of Leinster.

Brehon law / Senchus Mor or “Gael Law” — numerous collections (see link at beginning of sentence), the earliest dating from the 700s — “possibly the oldest surviving codified legal system in Europe” (Wikipedia). Focusing on restorative rather than punitive justice, and on care of the land. See also Laurence Ginnell’s 1894 The Brehon Laws: A Legal Handbook, full text online here.

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Colouring Outside the Lines   Leave a comment

“But what can we do?” people often ask. Whatever the need, the question is a perennially valid one. What action is best for me to pursue, yes. But also, what can I do before I act, before the main event, so to speak, so that I can choose more wisely how to act on that larger scale? The Hopi of the American Southwest use a ceremonial pipe they call natwanpi — literally, “instrument of preparation”. What can I do to make of my actions a natwanpi in my own life as often as possible? How can I act now to prepare for the next action needed? How can my deeds begin to form a shining set of links, not merely a random assemblage?

Philip Carr-Gomm writes,

Try opening to Awen not when it’s easy, but when it’s difficult: not when you can be still and nothing is disturbing you, but when there’s chaos around you, and life is far from easy. See if you can find Awen in those moments. It’s harder, much harder, but when you do, it’s like walking through a doorway in a grimy city street to discover a secret garden that has always been there – quiet and tranquil, an oasis of calm and beauty. One way to do this, is just to tell yourself gently “Stop!” Life can be so demanding, so entrancing, that it carries us away, and we get pulled off-centre. If we tell ourselves to stop for a moment, this gives us the opportunity to stop identifying with the drama around us, and to come back to a sense of ourselves, of the innate stillness within our being.

Of course, one key is to practice the Awen when it IS easy, so that it becomes a skill and a habit to draw on when “life is far from easy”. Right now I take this advice, pause from writing this, and chant three awens quietly.

After all, what good is any spiritual practice if it doesn’t help when I need it most? I find this holds true especially with beliefs, which is why so many contemporary people have abandoned religious belief, and thereby think they’ve also “abandoned religion”. All they’ve done, often, is abandon one set of perhaps semi-examined beliefs for another set they may not have examined at all. “Carried away, pulled off-centre” — we’ve all been there. But each moment, in the wry paradox of being human, is also calling us home, “back to a sense of ourselves”.

A few weeks ago I had cataract surgery on my right eye. I was surprised how the looming procedure, with its success rate of above 95%, kicked up old fears in me from the major cancer surgery I’d experienced a decade ago. Coupled with that was a series of dreams I’d had a few years ago about going blind. Altogether not an enjoyable mindset to approach a delicate procedure on the eyes.

But instead of the victim version of the question “Why is this happening to me?” I can choose to ask the curious version of the same question. Insofar as anything in my life responds to events and causes I have set in motion, it’s a most legitimate question.

The answers, I find, can be surprising.

I feared loss of spiritual vision, because I was drifting away from the other spiritual path I practice. This is clearly a cause I’ve launched. I didn’t approach the surgery as some kind of superstitious opportunity for the universe to “pay me back” for spiritual neglect, as if the cosmos operates like a sinister debt collection agency. But if I approach my whole life as an instance of an intelligent universe constantly communicating with me, my fears have a cause, and an effect, and my experiences will mirror all that I am and bring to each moment. Not out of some sort of spiteful cosmic vindictiveness, but because all things, it seems, prod us along the next arm of the spiral. We’re all part of the Web. The same force, I believe, that pushes up the first flowers in spring, in spite of the lingering danger of frosts, the force that urges birds to nest and hatch a fleet of fledglings, even though a percentage will die before reaching adulthood, is the same force alive in me and in my life and the lives of every other being on this planet. Even our seemingly static mountains weather slowly in wind and rain, frost and sun.

Christians focus closely about “being in right relationship” with God. Druids and other practitioners of earth-spirituality are likewise seeking harmonious relations with the world around us. Though a god or gods may not have exclusive claims on me, still, if one makes herself know to me, it’s not a bad idea to pay attention. Same with anything else that knocks for my attention — and deserves it. Day-to-day practice of an earth path like Druidry is an ongoing opportunity to seek out new kinds of harmony as well keep to ones I’ve tried and tested, an opportunity to balance claims of allegiance and attention and energy, to make good choices, and to stand by them as much as I can. (Of course I’ll mess up from time to time. Part of the fun is seeing if I can mess up in a new way this time, to keep myself entertained, if nothing else. Why hoe a row I’ve already weeded, unless it really needs tilling again?!)

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With Lunasa in the northern hemisphere comes Imbolc in the southern one. The ley lines linking the earth festivals around the world deserve my attention, I find, as much as the lines of connection between hills and wells, trees and stones on my continent.

So it is that Brighid of many skills, healing and poetry and smithcraft among them, pairs well with Lugh Samildanach, Lugh “equally gifted” in all the arts and crafts. Both at Imbolc with the kindling of a new cycle of birth and growth, and at Lunasa as first of the harvest festivals, we’re reminded of origins of the crafts of civilization. With human and divine inspiration and gifts supporting our lives, we draw our existence today. I eat because my ancestors tilled the earth and lived to birth and teach the next generation. I wear this body because spirit clothed itself in this form among all the other forms it takes. I peer out at the world and at all the other forms who are likewise looking at and listening to the ongoing waves of existence. From this perspective, how can I not celebrate in simple amazement?!

We’ve all felt those moments when life seems paradoxically dreamlike and marvelously real. Robert Frost, bard of New England and a Wise One I keep turning to for counsel, says,

Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes.
Is the deed ever truly done.
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

Where love and need are one: how often do I separate them? Do I respect my need enough to love it, or truly need what it is I think I love? Can I align these two and make them one? Mortal stakes: is what I spend the greatest energy on actually contributing to life, my own life among others? After all, Druidry urges me to consider that each life is worthy and valuable, mine no more but also no less than others.

A Frostian triad emerges: There are three things fitting for the aspirant to wisdom — a seeking after unity of love and need, a work which is play for mortal stakes, and deeds done for heaven and the future.

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After the builders finished the weaving studio addition (visible on the left), they seeded the lawn with clover, and now we have a lovely nitrogen-fixing, weed-inhibiting perennial I refuse to mow. The bees have been loud and happy, cheering at my choice, and the crop will also hold down the still-loose soil against runoff, and help it firm up.

You can see, too, in the foreground the edge of the recent delivery of firewood I need to go stack.

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