Archive for the ‘greenness’ Category

Sex, Death, Green Knights and Enchantresses — Part Three   2 comments

[Related Post: Arthur]

[Sex, Death, Etc.: Part One | Part Two| Part Three]

An excursus on tradition, culture and purpose follows. If you’re not interested and you just want to pick up the story of Gawain and his deadly appointment where the last post left off, scroll down to the first break below marked by the triple awen /|\.

You’re still here? Part of my intent in this series of posts about Arthur and Gawain is to begin examining a native source of wisdom that’s not wholly Celtic in origin. The story of Taliesin from the Welsh tradition has been fruitfully mined by many modern Druid orders. But we can also seek more widely and find fertile sources of insight, wisdom and technique within other English language traditions, demonstrating how much of our lore, Arthurian and other, truly is a marvelous mix of multi-cultural magic. And this holds true with many cultural and linguistic traditions — what we need are explorers to locate and bring these half-forgotten treasures back to wider awareness. The sense of restlessness, rootlessness and apathy that beleaguers many people today has both real causes and real solutions.

In other words, as vital and growing traditions like Wicca and Druidry already have demonstrated, we don’t need to focus our spiritual journey only on Shamballa, or join an ashram in India, or sit under a Bo tree in meditation in a quest for wisdom and enlightenment beyond the physical and financial means of most people outside those traditions. These are all fine and worthy resources — but closer ones have also always stood lurking shadow-like on the edge of our vision.

Of course, it’s not a case of either-or, but both-and. The cultural garb that wisdom occupies, and the training any one culture gives in moving within that specific garb, properly belong to that culture. Wearing that cultural garb, to continue the metaphor, when I’m not entitled to it by participation in that culture, is indeed a kind of impostership. That’s cultural (mis)appropriation.

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Tlingit totem and community house

But the wisdom which the cultural garb clothes is the common inheritance of all of humanity. I can’t rightly erect a Tlingit totem in my living room or front yard, to cite a single example, and claim to be a Tlingit shaman empowered to pass on Tlingit cultural forms to cash-flush weekenders looking for a quick psychological pick-me-up in a workshop — or even a serious course of study. But shamanism itself is a worldwide phenomenon with common features across cultures, and it can be learned without raiding anyone’s cultural heritage.

And so stories like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight offer immediate hints of ways that Druidic and Christian themes, images, precepts and practices may be fruitfully explored and adapted to modern life without injury to or theft from either tradition. Even questions like “But can you be both Christian and Druid?” are found to dissolve in actual practice, when each way illuminates the other. It’s typically those on the outside of a practice who ask that question, after all. We’d rather justify our opinions to others than genuinely test their validity for ourselves.

It betrays an unseemly and groundless fear of a universe permeated with the divine, if we shy from investigating any of its corners and crannies. Certainly such fears have no place in modern Paganism, nor should they find any home in Christianity either. For the latter tradition, to put the matter in explicit Christian and Biblical language, such fears betray a painful lack of faith in an all-powerful God who declared his original creation “good,” whose Son incarnates out of love of that creation in order to redeem all things, and whose divine will is sovereign.

toxfaithThe fact that whole traditions like Christianity have become toxic for many people is actually a most helpful guide when we come to look at Celtic Christianity, and particularly at movements like the Gnostic Celtic Church, which gently points out that the practice of sacramental nature spirituality “can be pursued apart from the various pathologies of political religion” (article at GCC link above) and serve all life, not just an in-group.

Beyond such immediate hints, then, deeper study, practice and contemplation of stories like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight reveal a wealth of images, lessons, techniques and perspectives useful not just to “those on a spiritual path” but to anyone alive today.

All right — back to our regularly scheduled program.

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Over the next three days at Bertilak’s Castle, Dec. 29th, 30th and 31st, Gawain faces a perfect triad of temptation, reward and opportunity. It’s just hard for him (and us) to tell which is which. On each of the three days Bertilak returns from the hunt, he has different game to offer his guest, and though his wife plays the same game of flirtation with Gawain while her lord is away, she skilfully ratchets up the sexual tension each time. She speaks:

And right here you lie. And we are left all alone,
with my husband and his huntsman away in the hills
and the servants snoring and my maids asleep
and the door to this bedroom barred with a bolt.

She should know — she’s the one who barred it behind her!

I have in my house an honored guest
so I’ll take my time; I’ll be talking to him for a while.
You’re free to have my all,
do with me what you will.
I’ll come just as you call
and swear to serve your will.

(Armitage translation, pg. 103)

The Middle English of those last four lines is even more explicit: ” Ye ar(e) welcum to my cors (body)”!

The delicate challenge of the situation, as the original audience to this poem knew well, is one founded in the Medieval traditions of Courtly Love: if Gawain is to uphold his reputation and preserve both his own honor and the Lady’s, he must do what she asks, while at the same time not giving in to the temptation she clearly offers him.

Toward the end, before they negotiate things to just a kiss, she even scolds him: you can’t be the famous Gawain, she exclaims, or you would have acted long before now and taken what I offered.

Well, then, he replies, “I schal kysse at your comaundement … so pleade it no more.” Thus he succeeds this first time in walking a very fine line. His good name and the Lady’s still secure, he bounds up from bed, dresses and dashes off to Mass.

Immediately the scene shifts to the hunt, with explicit details over some 40 lines of the gutting, butchering and feeding of the innards to the dogs, with the dressed carcass at length hauled back to the Castle. The first day the hunters bring back deer — a haul of venison the biggest Gawain’s “seen in seven years.” And in exchange he gives Bertilak a kiss — all he’s had from the Lady. They renew their pact.

Day Two moves things along, with the hunt in pursuit of a boar this time, and the same graphic description of flaying the carcass and butchering it. “Back at the Castle” in Gawain’s chamber, the lovely Lady makes it clear to Gawain that he should take from her what he wants and what she’s already offered, and if he’s rebuffed, why then he’s certainly got the youthful strength to take by force.

But that’s not the custom in my land, replies Gawain, nor the practice for “each gift that is geven not with good wylle.” The Lady chides him again: For somebody so famous, lord, can it be you’re truly ignorant of love, or don’t know how to take full advantage of a lady who’s shown she’s interested?

But at last they bargain things down to two kisses this time, and so once again Gawain barely escapes with reputation and honor intact.

That evening, on Bertilak’s return, Gawain delivers the two kisses according to their pact, which they again renew. He resists all teasing inquiries about the how’s and who’s of the kisses.

The Lady, meanwhile, is still so intent on Gawain, “so loving … with stolen glances and secret smiles,/ that it muddled his mind and sent him half mad …” (Armitage, pg. 131). Somehow he keeps his composure — it’s a near thing — and does not turn from her rudely for his own self-preservation, but courteously engages her all evening.

Edmund Leighton's God Speed!

Edmund Leighton’s God Speed!

Bertilak for his part delights in his guest’s honor — so far. Gawain begs to leave early the next morning to be sure of arriving on time, but Bertilak will hear none of it. He declares to his guest: You’ll reach the Chapel well before dawn in the light of the first day of the New Year, so don’t concern yourself with that. “For I have fraysted [tested] you twice, and faythful I fynd thee. Now ‘third time throw best,’ think in the morn./ Make we merry while we may!” and they drink and at length agree to fulfill their original pact through the third day. If you’re thinking at this point that Bertilak has a pretty good idea what goes on at home while he’s out on his winter hunts — well, you’re not wrong!

It’s Day Three, the third hunt takes Bertilak and company off on the trail of a fox, and we know from prior experience with threes and with past stories that this third time will be the true test.

And so it is. The Lady certainly pulls out all the stops. The next morning she arrives at Gawain’s chamber scantily clothed, her shoulders and back both bare, the cut of her shimmering robe scarcely covering her breasts, clusters of tiny gems sparkling in the tresses of her hair. As before, she bars the door from inside, and in Gawain “a passionate heat takes hold in his heart” (Armitage, pg. 137). The Lady lowers herself onto him and kisses him, and when he doesn’t take things further, berates him for not loving her now that things have gone so far between them. “Telle me that now trwely,” she insists: there must be somebody else. Another lady, perhaps?

No! says Gawain. No one!

“That is a worde,” answers the Lady, “that worst is of alle.” You reject me for no other reason than myself. But surely then you have some gift, some token to give me, to ease the ache of memory when I recall you and our meeting?

Alas, Gawain replies, on this journey I brought nothing to such an unknown land that would serve. The best I could do would be one of my gloves.

Well, says the lovely Lady, “though I have naught of yours, yet shall you have of mine.”

First she offers a ring, which he refuses. And then a green silk girdle, which he treats likewise — until she reveals something of its worth:

“And now he sends back my silk,” the lady responded,
“so simple in itself, or so it appears,
so little and unlikely, worth nothing, or less.”

But if he only knew its value: “the body which keeps it

buckled robustly around him,
will be safe against those who seek to strike him
against any trickery in the world.

Gawain finally relents at that, hoping, we understand,  to up his chances at surviving the axe-blow tomorrow. Then tell my lord nothing, the Lady entreats him. Gawain consents to this as well, and

His thanks are heartfelt then.
No sooner can he say
how much it matters, when
three kisses come his way.
(Armitage, pgs. 144-5)

Bertilak returns, receives from Gawain the three kisses (and nothing else), and laments he has only a stinking fox-hide to offer in return. They feast and drink again, the lord celebrates Gawain’s perfect gift of three kisses, agrees to offer him a guide to the Chapel in the morning, and they part to their bed-chambers.

The Medieval poet closes this third of four “fitts” or sections of his poem like this:

If Gawain sleeps soundly or not, I can’t say.
For he had muche in the morn to mind, if he would, in thought.
Let him lie there stille,
he has near what he sought;
If you will a while be stylle,
I schall telle you how they wrought.

The fourth and final part is coming soon.

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Images: Tlingit totem; toxic religionLeighton’s God Speed!

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Shinto and Shrine Druidry 2   1 comment

[Shinto & Shrine Druidry 1 | 2 | 3] [Shinto — Way of the Gods ]
[Renewing the Shrine 1 | 2][My Shinto 1 | 2]

Spider web

The continuing interest among visitors here at A Druid Way in the posts on Shinto says hunger for the Wild, for spiritual connection to wilderness and its rejuvenating spirit, and potentially for Shrine Druidry, remains unabated.  No surprise — in our hunger we’ll turn almost anywhere.  What forms our response to such hunger may take is up to us and our spiritual descendants.  Spirit, the goddesses and gods, the kami, the Collective Unconscious, Those Who Watch, your preferred designation here _____, just might have something to say about it as well.

What we know right now is that we long for spirit, however we forget or deny it, papering it over with things, with addictions and with despair in this time of many large challenges — a hunger more alive and insistent than ever.  And this is a good thing, a vital and necessary one.  In an artificial world that seems increasingly to consist of hyped hollowness, we stalk and thirst for the real, for the healing energies the natural world provides all humans as a birthright, as participants in its “spiritual economy” of birth, growth, death and rebirth.

As physical beings we live in a world where breathing itself can be a spiritual practice, where our heartbeats sound out rhythms we are born into, yet often and strangely have tried to flee.  Even this, my sadness and loss, can be prayer, if I listen and let them reach and teach me, if I walk with them toward something larger, yet native to blood and bone, leaf and seed, sun and moon and stars. Druidry, of course, is simply one way among many to begin.

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If you know Kipling‘s Just So stories, you’re familiar with “The Cat That Walked By Himself.”  The cat in question consistently asserts, “All places are alike to me.”  But for people that’s usually NOT true. Places differ in ease of access, interest, health, natural beauty, atmosphere — or, in convenient shorthand, spirit.  Shrines acknowledge this, even or especially if the shrine is simply a place identified as Place, without any sacred buildings like Shinto has — a place celebrated, honored, visited as a destination of pilgrimage, as a refuge from the profane, as a portal of inspiration.

Here’s a local (to me) example of a place in Vermont I’ll be visiting soon and reporting on, one that sounds like an excellent direction for a Shrine Druidry of the kind people are already starting to imagine and create. It’s called Spirit in Nature, and it’s a multi-faith series of meditation trails with meditation prompts.  Its mission statement gets to the heart of the matter:

Spirit in Nature is a place of interconnecting paths where people of diverse spiritual traditions may walk, worship, meet, meditate, and promote education and action toward better stewardship of this sacred Earth.

Spirit in Nature is a non-profit, 501 (c)3 tax-exempt organization, always seeking new members, local volunteers to build and maintain paths, financial contributions, and interest from groups who would like to start a path center in their own area.

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So much lies within the possible scope of Shrine Druidry it’s hard to know where to start.  Many such sites (and more potential sites) already exist in various forms. Across Europe, and to a lesser degree in North America (public sites, that is: private Native American and Pagan sites exist in surprising numbers), are numerous sacred-historical sites (some of which I’ll examine in a coming post), often focusing around a well, cave, tree, waterfall, stone circle, garden, grove, etc. Already these are places of pilgrimage for many reasons: they serve as the loci of national and cultural heritage and historical research, as commemorative sites, spiritual landmarks, orientations in space and time, as treasures of ethnic identity — the list goes on.  Quite simply, we need such places.

Lower Falls, Letchworth St. Pk, NY. Image by Wikipedia/Suandsoe.

Lower Falls, Letchworth St. Pk, NY. Image by Wikipedia/Suandsoe.

The national park system of the U.S., touted as “America’s Best Idea” (also the title of filmmaker Ken Burns’ series), was established to preserve many such places, though without any explicit markers pointing to spiritual practice.  But then of course we already instinctively go to parks for healing and restoration, only under the guise of “vacations” and “recreation.” And many state parks in the U.S. extend the national park goal of preserving public access to comparatively unspoiled natural refuges. Growing up, I lived a twenty-minute bike ride from Letchworth State Park in western NY: 14,000 acres of forest surrounding deep (in places, over 500 feet) gorges descending to the Genesee River.  Its blessing follows me each time I remember it, or see an image of it, and in attitudes shaped there decades ago now. May we all know green cathedrals.

I’ll talk more about shrines on other scales, small and large, soon, and tackle more directly some of the similarities and differences between Shinto and Druidry.  I’ll also look at some of the roles practitioners of earth-centered spiritualities can — and already do — play in connection to the creation and support of shrines.

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Images: spider web; Lower Falls at Letchworth State Park, New York.

On to New Mexico and Arizona   2 comments

Visitors know New Mexico enjoys an eye-catching landscape — the state nickname “Land of Enchantment” burnished on its license tags (or plates, depending on your regional dialect) is no oversell. But what struck us more was the frequency of change in the landscape. The more familiar canyons and cliffs of Arizona aren’t quite here yet, but the New Mexican dells, dales, arroyos, vales, valleys, peaks, buttes and rises, along with fluctuations, almost by valley at times, in rainfall, vegetation and wildlife, underground water sources, altitude and geology, make for lovely and dramatic varying terrain.

Part of the surprise is that west from Texas into New Mexico, the landscape at first changes not at all.  Here through our bug-stained windshield is the arrow-straightness of interstate 40 and dry, flat prairie.

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But soon enough distant mountains shadow the skyline. If you’re intent on traffic (speed limit 75 mph) or keeping cool under a southern sun and escaping hynosis from the lull of hours passing, you may not notice them at first.

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The geologic “ripples” slowly and steadily edge closer till they insist on being seen. The land insinuates itself into your awareness, serpentine.

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And by Tucumcari NM, the buttes start in earnest.  Many like the one below are so etched by wind and heat and rain and time that they seem unreal, the work of a whimsical or apprentice set designer. Here, too, wet and dry stand side by side. As heedless easterners accustomed to the default of lush greenery and nearly endless water, we took to heart the endlessly repeated evidence of the vital importance of water here.

tucumcaributte

Part of the pleasure of New Mexico — for me at least — is the omnipresence of Spanish — in place names, on road signs, menus, shops and gas stations. Not that I actually know much Spanish — only a bare reading knowledge, along with some cognates from French (high school level) and Latin (badly self-taught).

Here Anglo-Americans like us can’t pretend the planet speaks only English — it obviously doesn’t, and places like New Mexico, just like Northern Vermont and New Hampshire with the proximity of Francophone Canada to the north, can serve as gentle and pleasant reminders — introductions to an accessible foreignness. Almost every American can point to a smattering of a dozen or so Spanish words they half-know, courtesy often of Hollywood and Tex-Mex cuisine and its less noble fast-food relatives. And Spanish — real Spanish — runs deep here.

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This greener region was part of the “weaving tour” we took, northeast from Santa Fe, through Española, from there to Chimayó, into the highlands and through hill towns like Truchas (elevation 8000 ft., rivalling the Grand Canyon), and on to Mora with its Tapetes de Lana, the trees so far holding onto their green in the growing heat of summer. And by “weaving” I mean quite literally the craft of weaving — my wife had mapped out in advance weavers and studios she wanted to visit.

In Chimayó we made a brief pilgrimage to El Santuario de Chimayó, a stop urged on us besides by one of the local Spanish weavers my wife and I visited. Wikipedia names the humble and beloved sanctuary and community church “the most important Catholic pilgrimage center in the United States.”

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ARIZONA: OAK CREEK CANYON and NORTHERN SEDONA

After several days of exploring outward from our base of Santa Fe, which enjoys a very walkable and historic downtown, the Plaza, we drove on to Arizona. (With an eye for tourist dollars, Santa Fe developers overdid the adobe, with plenty of “faux-dobe,” as native cynics call it, nevertheless lending Santa Fe an admittedly distinctive look all its own.  The endless shades of pink and beige and unnameable variants between them simply mirror the land they derive from.)

sfadobe

Friends in Sedona beckoned us south from the big state draw of the Grand Canyon, which would keep for the following day. This is a landscape that keeps whispering I have been here a long time, I am still here, and I will be here long after you are gone..

Sedona hogs most of the tourism for central Arizona, apart from Flagstaff as a portal to Grand Canyon, but a stunning preamble lies between Flagstaff and Sedona itself, along Oak Creek Canyon. Besides, whenever we could we like to get off interstates if mere distance traveled isn’t our main objective. So off interstate 17 and onto 89A takes you through these striking canyons.

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GRAND CANYON

Mather Point is the main overlook, the most photographed spot, a sort of “Grand Canyon Standard,” if one is needed. Yes, it deserves its primacy of place — and the crowds follow. But plenty of equally fabulous lookout points to the east deserve a stop, and draw far fewer visitors in comparison, making for a quieter, more meditative experience. (Our Sedona friends, and hotel staff as well, said to arrive at the south rim early in the morning. Good advice — we departed from the Canyon around 10:00 am, just when it seemed everyone else was arriving.)

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NORTHERN ARIZONA, or (as we came to think of it) MARS …

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Here’s the environment around Rt. 89 again, the northern piece of it, west of Page, AZ and SE of Kanab, UT, well north of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, though still called the Grand Canyon Highway, on its way through some wonderfully stark country. The image looks somewhat fuzzy until you realize you’re looking across a plain to a ridge some 30 miles away — the camera foreshortens the distance without clearly resolving the scale of what it captures.

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And a mere six or seven miles up and out of the valley, forests take over again, once sufficient elevation — and rainfall — lifts them above the heat of the plain. A few miles further west into hills and we pass Jacob Lake Inn. The coolness as we drive by, windows down, is delightful.

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Images: Santa Fe AdobeEl Santuario de Chimayo; all other images by the author.

Renewing the Shrine: Part 2   Leave a comment

[Shinto & Shrine Druidry 1 | 2 | 3] [Shinto — Way of the Gods ]
[Renewing the Shrine 1 | 2] [My Shinto 1 | 2]

What is it about renewal?  We need and long for it, desperately, a hunger nothing else can satisfy, though we try to fill it with things rather than with actual transformation.  Too often we get cynical when hopes and dreams don’t pan out.  I saw a fair amount of this, sadly, in the adolescents I worked with as a high school teacher.  Of course, some of it was learned from adults. Renewal and revitalization can seem remote, hard to access.  Too often we mock the sentimentalist and the optimist for living in “another world.”  Maybe that’s partly because we know deep down that the renewal we need is in this one.

In Part One I wrote about the Japanese Shinto practice of Shikinen Sengu, a ceremony that occurs every twenty years, in which the most important shrine in Japan, at Ise Jingu, is ritually rebuilt and renewed.  The biggest shrine most of us have is our homes, where we erect a mirror for our lives by our choice of partners, children, pets, clothing, furnishings, beloved objects and spaces.  So a ceremony in a foreign country, and one focusing on a foreign spiritual practice on top of that, may seem like a backwards way, to say no more, of getting at anything important or useful to say about living life in 21st century America.  But bear with me.

Here wood for the new shrine is floated down the Isuzu River toward the site:

rivertransport

When we hear words like ‘globalization’ we may not realize how dramatic the changes have actually been, since we simply live through many of them in some form, often unawares.  To give just one local example, the recent decision to close our nuclear plant, Vermont Yankee, was driven by economic forces more than anything else, but among those were the mounting costs of meeting a tightening of regulations by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in response to the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan following the tsunami two years ago.   Our lives are already linked to those of many others we will never meet.  Globalization isn’t a choice, it’s a phenomenon like the seasons — it’s part of living on earth in this era.  We’re neighbors already — distances between us collapse to nothing.

The Roman writer Terence (Terentius) captures something of this in one of his plays with the wonderfully opaque title Heauton Timoroumenos, which can be translated as the “The Self-Tormentor.”  In this short excerpt*, two country neighbors, Menedemus and Chremes, speak candidly to each other:

MENEDEMUS: Chremes, can you spare a moment from your own affairs to listen to someone else’s–even if they don’t really concern you?

CHREMES: I’m human, so any human interest is my concern. Call it solicitude or curiosity on my part, whichever you like. If you’re right I’ll copy you, and if you’re wrong I’ll try to make you mend your ways.

Where am I going with all this?  Chremes’ attitude is a valuable one, if we’re to thrive.  If I can learn something useful from Shinto, even from a crazy ceremony that rebuilds a perfectly good building right next door, I’ll try to pay attention and learn.  Notice Chremes isn’t forfeiting his own judgment.  In love with its own exceptionalism, America sometimes seems preoccupied with the second half of Chremes’ response: “if you’re wrong I’ll try to make you mend your ways” — while ignoring the possibility that the former might also be occasionally worthwhile: “If you’re right I’ll copy you.”

Shikinen Sengu is a family affair.  Occurring as it does every two decades, the ceremony happens three to four times in the average person’s lifespan.

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Another aspect of the Shikinen Sengu ceremony deserving mention is its “greenness.”  In a footnote, the JNTO brochure I cited in Part One observes:

Many trees are felled in preparation for each Shikinen Sengu. These logs are carefully selected and then transported to the reconstruction site at Ise, where new life is endowed to the logs. Young trees are carefully planted to replace those fallen in order to perpetuate the forest. The timbers removed when the Shrine is rebuilt are distributed to shrines throughout Japan, where they are reused, particularly to disaster or earthquake-stricken regions. Some of the sacrificial offerings and other contents of the shrine are also distributed among other shrines. Following the 61st Shikinen Sengu, lumber and contents of the Shrine were distributed among 169 shrines throughout Japan.

In Shinto as in Druidry, spirituality is life — there’s no separation.  What we do to maintain our connection with Spirit is what we do already as humans in living fully and well.  Here’s how the Japanese themselves talk about the ceremony:

As food, clothing and shelter form the requisites of our life, we have to prepare similar requisites for the kami, if we wish to receive blessings from them. Therefore, the ceremony of the Shikinen Sengu includes the renewal of buildings (shelter) as well as the renewal of the treasures (clothing) and the offering of first fruits (food). By performing the Shikinen Sengu, we renew our minds by remembering that our ancestors had enshrined Amaterasu Omikami in Ise, and praying that the Emperor will live long, and that peace will prevail in Japan and the world. It also involves the wish that Japanese traditional culture should be transmitted to the next generation. The renewal of the buildings and of the treasures has been conducted in the same traditional way ever since the first Shikinen Sengu had been performed 1300 years ago. The scientific development makes manual technology obsolete in some fields. However, by performing the Shikinen Sengu, traditional technologies are preserved.

Ritual and ceremony still have important roles to play in keeping us balanced, connected and mindful of our heritage.  Even more, ritual and ceremony remind us of our place in this world, as beings who share a planet with so many others.  This is one way to understand the Japanese kami or spirit:  not so much separate things or “gods” as they are personifications of the profound links we share with the world and the other beings in it.  The links exist, and deserve our acknowledgement.  Our culture has dispensed with much former ritual, not always to the bettering of our Western lives.  We need the connections that ritual can help us form and maintain, and which help nourish and sustain us.

Of course, families usually make their own traditions and rituals instinctively, regardless of what the larger culture is doing.  It’s the start of football season, and how many families do you know who have special recipes, traditions, gatherings, rites to celebrate their favorite teams and the hours of television ahead?  We do ritual because we’re human.  The old ceremonies that no longer hold meaning or value need to be updated, renewed, or replaced with others — but not abandoned, any more than we abandon our humanness merely because one way of being human needs refreshing, renewing or transforming.  To do otherwise means living stunted, incomplete lives.

Here’s one of my favorite poems by the late William Stafford which addresses this human need for connection, renewal and watchfulness vividly:

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

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*Betty Radice, trans. 1961.
Images:  logs in river; family in river.

Grow Where You’re (Not) Planted   Leave a comment

In early June my wife noticed a particularly vigorous shoot rising from an old compost pile beside our woodshed.  The squash plant it eventually revealed itself to be has flourished joyfully, spreading in two directions, while the pitiful growths in one of our new raised beds refuse to be coaxed into thriving.

If life gives you lemons, you could make cleaning supplies, ant repellent, pickles, sore throat medicine, laundry whitener, stain remover, fruit preservative, copper cookware restorative, disinfectant — and if you insist, lemonade, too.  The dead (cliche) comes to life when our attention lies elsewhere.  Practice resurrection, and get used to it.

We hear a lot about growing where you’re planted, but what about everywhere else?  The surprise that is our universe so often arrives with the unexpected, the new pattern, the shift, the change.  Life does a one-off.  It does what it is.  (Isn’t that what you are, too — individual, unique, nothing else quite like you?  The trouble comes when I or somebody else insists you should be like the rest of us.  The universe never “conforms.”  It’s simply itself.  That’s our pattern too.  We are where we come from.)  We stand amazed at the burgeoning of vitality in places we doubted it could exist.  If we have different plans, life may upset them.  A young Christian couple I know, just married, decided they would leave conceiving a child “up to God.”  A friend from their congregation remarked, with considerable glee, “They gave it to the Lord, and he gave it right back to them.”  She got pregnant six weeks after the wedding.

In the mass of asphalt and concrete that is Route 91, like any superhighway, a few weeds have taken root on the meter-high divider between northbound and southbound lanes, a little way north of Hartford, Connecticut.  They’re particularly visible because they happen to be growing just about at eye level as you drive by, and the highway department hasn’t yet set upon them with weedkiller.  I give a silent cheer each time I pass, though I know my tax dollars support their eventual extinction.  Still …  Give them a few years and their roots will begin to split and break down the rigidity of man-made material into the beginnings of something more closely resembling soil.  If there’s an “agenda” at work here, it isn’t always a “human” one, though humans are born into such a world, have grown and evolved within and through its shaping patterns, and have lived in it for millenia before they thought to try permanence on a scale the universe doesn’t really support.

Instead of worrying about “what the financial situation will support,” or what our many and often distinctly weird human institutions “demand,” why not ask what moves in harmony with the patterns of the universe?  The main reason is we wouldn’t always like the answer.  Sometimes we would.  But we might find more balanced and sustainable ways of living that would approach “permanence,” which is just a weak version of natural equilibrium.  Could we devise a “financial permaculture” that might not jolt us from crisis to crisis?  Sure.  Will we?

The Dao De Jing winks at us when it makes its observations:

Not exalting the gifted prevents quarreling.
Not collecting treasures prevents stealing.
Not seeing desirable things prevents
confusion of the heart.

The wise therefore rule by emptying hearts
and stuffing bellies, by weakening ambitions
And strengthening bones.
If men lack knowledge and desire, then clever
people will not try to interfere.
If nothing is done, then all will be well.

(Gia-Fu Fen translation)

“Doing nothing” isn’t exactly what Daoism teaches; it’s more along the lines of “unforced action,” or “going with the flow”: wu-wei in Chinese.  And can we expect people to succeed by weakening their ambitions?  I don’t know; have we ever tried it?  In all this there’s a wink and a smile, too.  As if that wise voice is saying, “I don’t always mean this literally, of course, but you get the idea …”  And who knows?! “Emptying hearts (in a good way) and stuffing bellies” might just pay off.  Fill our stomachs, not our heads …

Or take this advice, surely perfect for our U.S. political season:

To talk little is natural.
High winds do not last all morning.

I’ll let Ursula Le Guin’s version of Chap. 27 have the final say here, a kind of diagnosis of how we’ve “gone astray,” that peculiar human thing we can do that the rest of the natural world doesn’t:

Good walkers leave no tracks.
Good talkers don’t stammer.
Good counters don’t use their fingers.
The best door is unlocked and unopened.
The best knot is not in a rope and can’t be untied.

So wise souls are good at caring for people,
never turning their back on anyone.
They’re good at looking after things,
never turning their back on anything.
There’s a light hidden here.

Good people teach people who aren’t good yet;
the less good are the makings of the good.
Anyone who doesn’t respect a teacher or cherish a student
may be clever, but has gone astray.
There’s deep mystery here.

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There are many free versions of the Dao De Jing online; the site from which I drew these few excerpts provides several reasonably reputable versions to sample.  Sustained meditation on the text (get a couple of versions and let them talk across to each other) can ease stress and open up many doorways and paths.  It’s one of my most beloved Druid written resources.  Wikipedia’s entry for Tao Te Ching captures some of its qualities:  “The written style is laconic … and encourages varied, even contradictory interpretations. The ideas are singular; the style poetic. The rhetorical style combines two major strategies: short, declarative statements and intentional contradictions. The first of these strategies creates memorable phrases, while the second forces us to create our own reconciliations of the supposed contradictions.”  If you recall, resolution of supposed contradictions, or finding the tertiary that resolves the binary of “either-or,” is a technique and strategy of wisdom taught in several Druid paths.

Celebrating “Manhattanhenge”: Sparks of Urban Druidry   Leave a comment

Our green world and ready contact with its natural rhythms can sometimes feel remote in urban settings.  Because so many people live in one of the “mega-metro” areas on the planet, their appreciation of the natural world may often burn more brightly than it does for the small-towner who has lived all her life surrounded by cows and trees.  With Tokyo, Seoul, Mexico City, New York and Mumbai heading the list at over 20 million souls each (counting their greater metro areas), it’s good to celebrate the green world particularly when it makes itself known among the girders and concrete.  The first entry in my “Druid of the Day” series, just started, was a nod in that direction.  Manhattanhenge is another one, and much larger:

If you follow Yahoo, you probably caught it.  The caption for yesterday’s image reads “The sun sets during ‘Manhattanhenge’ on July 12, 2011 in New York City. The Manhattan Solstice is a semiannual occurrence in which the setting sun aligns west-east with the street grid of the city.”  There’s a short sequence of similar images worth visiting.

We need such rhythms — to calibrate our biological clocks, to remind us how the world nourishes and sustains us, and how we need to remember it in our daily decisions — not out of piety for the Earth Mother (though nothing’s wrong with that, of course) but for the very real reason that this world is home.  Whenever we can truly celebrate, our hearts open.  And in a time when so much “news” doesn’t help us live better, stopping to enjoy the sun looking down the city streets is a good thing.

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For those interested in astronomical details and explanations, Wikipedia’s entry for Manhattanhenge helps.  The event occurs twice a year, in May and July, on either side of the planetary solstice, as the sun makes its (apparent) journey north and then south again after the solstice.

Finite, and Living It   Leave a comment

Normally I steer clear of posts that border on the political, because they accomplish little except to harden opinions and positions, and sharpen arguments, without leading to a solution.  But I make an exception in this post, for reasons I hope will become clear.

Especially in difficult times like these, we rely for perspective and direction on the supposed Wise Ones of our world, so it behooves them to be more cautious and informed in their public statements than this article by Tim Worstall in the U.K.’s Telegraph of May 16, 2012.  The article byline for the author identifies him as “Senior Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London, and one of the global experts on the metal scandium, one of the rare earths,” so you’d think he’d exercise more care in an international forum like this newspaper.  Here are his opening words, remarkable for their flippancy, misrepresentation and ignorance:

Apparently something terrible happens when we get to peak oil. I’ve never really quite understood the argument myself, but when we’ve used half of all the oil then civilisation collapses or something. I’m not sure why this should happen: we don’t start starving when there’s only half a loaf of bread left. But I am assured that something awful does happen.

That oil fields do get pumped out is obviously true – and also that you can have a good guess at when the ones we’re currently pumping will run out. The part I don’t get is the catastrophe. Some people seem to think that “peak oil” is when we can’t actually pump out a higher amount: that if we’ve got 70 million barrels a day, then that’s the most we can ever have, 70 million a day. Which is also called a disaster. Apparently this means that demand will move ahead of supply, which is simple sheer ignorance of the price system. There is no such thing as “supply” or “demand”. There is only either of them at a price. So, if there really is a limit on how fast we can pump the stuff up, the price will rise.

Worstall’s observations illustrate a confusion of realms, a common-enough misperception, and one we all make from time to time.  In the case of a recognized expert, though, we expect greater wisdom and sense — he simply isn’t thinking things through.  If you’re talking about the human economy of making brooms, say, or copies of DVDs of The Avengers, or oranges, or purebred Siamese cats, well and good.  Then Worstall is right, and supply and demand will play out pretty much as he claims.  Price is indeed the hinge between them.  Even in extreme cases of demand, say for parts to an antique car that went out of production decades ago, you can probably find a craftsperson who will forge and finish them for you.  Because they’re one-offs, they’ll cost you plenty.  But if you want the parts badly enough, and you have the necessary cash or other acceptable medium of exchange, someone will oblige and supply your demand. That’s Econ. 101.  It’s how modern economies are supposed to work.  We get it.

But turn to the natural economy of the physical environment and a different picture emerges.  The human and natural economies are NOT the same, and it’s dangerous to assume they are.  In the natural economy, many materials aren’t renewable, and they’re simply not subject to supply and demand.  A finite quantity exists, and when we use it up, there’s no more to be had, at any price.

Yes, we can grow more trees for wood, plant more fruits and vegetables for food.  Many metals and other materials can be recycled, and so on.  At least we’ve made a start on re-using and re-purposing.  But oil and natural gas, to name just two resources, exist in finite qualities.  Use more and we’ll run out sooner.  Use less and they’ll last longer.  Until we have replacements or other viable sources of energy, it’s only common sense to conserve and sip, rather than guzzle.  It’s not like running out of milk and going down to the nearest convenience store, or ultimately putting another 10,000 cows into milk production.  It’s rather as if I’m running out of air, trapped in a house-fire, or dragged underwater by a sinking ship.  My demand for air may become extreme, but if the supply runs out, I eventually die.  Life itself is finite, and no one has escaped its ending.  No extensions for love or money.  Demand for more hours or days has never obligated the universe to provide them, and no promise of payment or bribe suffices to keep our hearts beating a second longer.  They stop.

In the case of oil and gas, unknown supplies no doubt still exist.  Hydrofracking may prove helpful to buy us a little more time — or not.  It may well go the way of ethanol, which for a while looked like the next sure thing.  Yes, there’s petro-energy to be had, but if it costs more to produce than it’s worth, a different side of supply and demand switches on.  For the geeks among us, that’s EROEI — energy returned on energy invested.  We may have enough oil for 50 more years, or 75, or 100 or 200, but we will run out. At that point, demand won’t budge the simple physical fact of an exhausted resource.  At too high a price, it’s not worth it to anyone to extract a few more gallons or cubic meters.  As in the Monty Python parrot sketch, it’s kaput, used up, done, extinct, no more.

Unlike many peak-oil doomsayers, I’m willing to concede that down the road we may well devise a marvelous technological solution to our mammoth energy needs.  But until we do, it’s deeply stupid to continue using more each year, rather than less, now that production has recently peaked, even as peak oil historians predicted it would, six decades ago.  How high must the price of a barrel of oil rise, and how much must the economies and households and peoples of the world suffer, until that’s clear?

But good things will emerge from this crisis, too.  They may not be what we want, but as the Stones (almost) said, “we just might find we get what we need” in the moment. And there’s material for future posts.

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Image:  buffalo shortage

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