Archive for the ‘holiday’ Category

Personal Holy Days   Leave a comment

In addition to whatever religious, ritual or secular calendars you may follow, you’ve probably begun to recognize and honor your own holy days. You know, the ones that fall between the official dates on the calendar that hangs on your wall or scrolls from your desktop. Some difficult, some joyful. It may be that you count your birthday or some other similar day among them. Hobbit-like, you may have come to enjoy gifting others rather than yourself on those days, with a feast, or outing, a picnic, perhaps in a back yard, garden, or favorite annual reunion campsite that has begun to take on numinous qualities, because your love has helped to make it so.

A valuable piece of wisdom there, in the transformation our love and our repeated attention can make of almost anything.

For me, my parents’ anniversary on the 26th of June plays that role. Long ago my father and mother set the tone, because they almost always made it a larger family event. A month later in July, my father’s sister celebrated her anniversary, and with a number of May family birthdays preceding it, the late June date falls squarely in the middle. The typically good weather here in New England, together with the first early garden produce (strawberries! asparagus!), make it a perfect candidate for a holiday gathering, a cookout or garden party. This year would have marked my parents’ 60th anniversary (they made it to 46), and for me the date’s taken on a “second solstice” quality. Cherish such days in your year. If you’re like me, such personal calendars subtly shift and re-form over time.

So yesterday a libation and some quiet reflection, a walk through my new Druid grove awaiting its formal consecration, and the working out of some light physical karma that has come to flag for me a potential shift in consciousness. “Pain is often the creator of awareness,” one of my teachers like to say, rather ruefully, and it’s proven true for me. When I wake up enough to know once again I’m in the hands of Spirit, minor pain and discomfort can open a chance for sharpening awareness quite effectively.

Outwardly, builders recently finished repairing the foundation and rear wall of our garage, a necessary dedication of resources if it wasn’t to fall down our sloping back yard.

IMG_1357

And just as true as the seemingly mystico-magical but quite practical saying “if you build it they will come,” if you’ve already come to a place, sometimes you have to (re)build it in some way to flourish there. And when you do, everything else re-equilibrates to the new harmonic you’ve established. Energy will flow first along the easiest channels it finds, and I’ve learned that often means right through the middle of any weakness, hole, or gap in my being and circumstances. I perform that service, I’m that easiest channel, a part of any dynamic I seek to transform, and the sooner I get that, the less wear and tear on the earth, water, air, and fire bodies that Spirit wears locally, in what I am pleased to call me, my life. No distinction, really, as I keep relearning. Jiji muge, the Zen Buddhists say. Between one thing and another is no separation.

Tamias_minimus

Tamias Minimus, aka chipmunk

So we must act mindfully and vigilantly at all times, they tell us. Nope. Not at all. Fat chance of that happening! snarks my inner brat. I don’t know about you, but I mess up all the time. That’s where the learning and growth is, the crack in the sidewalk where weeds finally push through, the shell the chick pecks open to move to the next stage, the new home the hermit crab must seek when it outgrows the old one.

Life’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans, John Lennon reminds us.  Well, yes, and that’s a very good thing indeed, whispers the chipmunk, my inner guide for the month. (A mated pair lives beneath the roots of the evergreens that line our driveway.) Keep learning to listen, and you’ll plan wider.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Image: chipmunk  (tamias minimus)

A Hallowed Evening and a Conquest   Leave a comment

It’s almost here: Halloween, All Hallows Eve, Samhain/Samhuinn, Dia del los Muertos, Day of the Dead.  Whatever you call it, it’s one of the most unusual festivals in the calendar. In this post I want to take a different tack, exploring history at least somewhat removed from the usual Christian-Pagan fireworks that continue to pop off annually around this time. Because the Druid-pleasing answer* to “Is it Christian?” and “Is it Pagan?” is “Yes.” What matters more, I hope, is what that can mean for us today.

pumpkinfieldsm

A recent (Tues., Oct 28) issue of the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper features an article on Halloween by British historian Ronald Hutton, who’s well known in Druid circles both for the quality and thorough documentation of his historical work and also his interest in Druidry. Among many other points, Hutton addresses the impression, widespread in Great Britain, that Halloween’s an import from the U.S. It’s not, of course, being instead as English as Monty Python and Earl Grey (and later, as Irish as the Famine, and Bailey’s Irish Cream). Hutton’s observations suggest a connection I’d like to make in this post, in keeping with this time of year. Hence my title, which will become clear in a moment. Just bear with me as I set the stage.

November, rather unimaginatively named “Ninth Month” (Latin novem), was called in Anglo-Saxon Blodmonath, the “blood month” — not for any “evil, nasty and occult” reasons beloved of today’s rabble-rousers, but for the simple fact this was the month for the slaughter of animals and preservation of meat for the coming season of darkness and cold.

Hutton observes that the ancestor to modern Halloween:

… was one of the greatest religious festivals of the ancient northern pagan year, and the obvious question is what rites were celebrated then.

The answer to that is that we have virtually no idea, because northern European pagans were illiterate, and no record remains of their ceremonies. The Anglo-Saxon name for the feast comes down to an agricultural reality, the need to slaughter the surplus livestock at this time and salt down their meat, because they could not be fed through the winter. A Christian monk, Bede, commented that the animals were dedicated to the gods when they were killed, but he did not appear to know how (and they would still have been eaten by people).

Hutton proceeds to examine how we can nevertheless reconstruct something of that time and its practices through careful research. As a Janus-faced holiday, Halloween marked the fullness and completion of the harvest and return home of warriors and travelers — a time to celebrate.  It also marked the coming of the hardest season — winter: cold, dark, often miserable and hungry, and sometimes fatal. People then measured their ages not in years but in winters — how many you’d survived. Hutton eloquently conveys all this — do read his article if you have time.

And because so much of North America bears the imprint of English culture, I want to peer at one particular autumn, and the Hallowed Evening that year, in England 948 years ago.  It’s 1066, a good year at the outset, as historian David Howarth paints it** in his wonderfully readable 1066: The Year of the Conquest. A year, strangely enough, both like and unlike our own experience so many generations later in 2014:

It was not a bad life to be English when the year began: it was the kind of life that many modern people vainly envy. For the most part, it was lived in little villages, and it was almost completely self-sufficient and self-supporting; the only things most villages had to buy or barter were salt and iron. Of course it was a life of endless labour, as any simple life must be, but the labour was rewarded: there was plenty to eat and drink, and plenty of space, and plenty of virgin land for ambitious people to clear and cultivate. And of course the life had sudden alarms and dangers, as human life has had in every age, but they were less frequent than they had ever been: old men remembered the ravages of marauding armies, but for two generations the land had been at peace. Peace had made it prosperous; taxes had been reduced; people had a chance to be a little richer than their forefathers. Even the weather was improving. For a long time, England had been wetter and colder than it normally is, but it was entering a phase which lasted two centuries when the summers were unusually warm and sunny and the winters mild. Crops flourished, and men and cattle throve. Most of the English were still very poor, but most of the comforts they lacked were things they had never heard of.

Howarth’s account continues, vivid in detail; he chooses the small town of Little Horstede near Hastings that dates from Saxon times for his focus, to examine the immediate and later impact of the Norman Conquest.

Harold in the Bayeux tapesty, with a hawk

Harold in the Bayeux tapesty, with a hawk

By early autumn of the year, things still looked promising for the English. True, their king Harold Godwinson, new to the throne just that past January, faced a dispute with the Norman duke William over the succession after the late king Edward passed. But Harold was Edward’s brother-in-law, he apparently had the late king’s deathbed promise of the throne, he was unanimously elected by the Witan (the English council of royal advisers), and he was a crowned and fully invested king as far as the English were concerned.

He was also proving to be a competent leader and warrior. When an invading army of some 7000*** Norwegians under Harald Hardrada and Harold’s exiled brother Tostig landed in the Northeast of England, Harold rode north in force, covering the 180 miles between London and Yorkshire in just four days, meeting and defeating the Norwegians on September 25 in the Battle of Stamfordbridge. The peace that the English had enjoyed was tested, but as word spread of this English victory, you can imagine the relief and the sense that all might well continue as it had for decades now. The rich harvest of 1066 went forward, and plans could proceed for the annual All Hallows celebration.

Swithun (d. 862), bishop, later saint, of Winchester

England was by this time thoroughly Christian (see St. Swithun, left), though folk memories of older practices doubtless persisted, mixed with a fair helping of legend and fantasy and uneven religious instruction from the local priests. The Christian retrofitting of Pagan holidays, holy sites and practices is well documented, and hardly unique to Christianity — the same thing occurs worldwide as religions encounter each other and strive for dominance or co-exist to varying degrees. To name just a few examples, take for instance Roman polytheism and many faiths in the lands of the ancient Empire, with Roman priests adding one more deity statue to the crowd for each new god they encountered, including the current emperor of course (with most peoples acquiescing happily except for those odd Jewish monotheists and their bizarre prohibition against such images!); Buddhism and the emergence of the Bon faith in Tibet; Shinto and Buddhism in Japan; and mutual influence between Islam, Sufism, and older practices like the Yazidi faith in the Middle East.

In his Guardian article on Halloween, Hutton notes:

allsaints-oswiecim

All Saints Day, Oswiecim, Poland

It is commonly asserted that the feast was the pagan festival of the dead. In reality feasts to commemorate the dead, where they can be found in ancient Europe, were celebrated by both pagans and early Christians, between March and May, as part of a spring cleaning to close off grieving and go forth into the new summer. On the other hand, the medieval Catholic church did gradually institute a mighty festival of the dead at this time of year, designating 1 November as the feast of All Saints or All Hallows, initially in honour of the early Christian martyrs, and 2 November as All Souls, on which people could pray for their dead friends and relatives. This was associated with the new doctrine of purgatory, by which most people went not straight to hell or heaven but a place of suffering between, where their sins were purged to fit them for heaven. It was also believed that the prayers of the living could lighten and shorten their trials, as could the intercession of saints (which is why it was good to have all of those at hand). The two new Christian feasts were, however, only developed between the ninth and the twelfth centuries, and started in Germanic not Celtic lands.

Yet all was not peace in England. The triumph that was the Battle of Stamfordbridge proved short-lived. Disturbing rumors kept arriving of William assembling an army of invasion across the English Channel on the shores of Normandy, in fact ever since January when Harold received the crown. The English king began preparations for defense. Yet as the days and months passed, and the good weather for such crossings steadily diminished as all of September and then early October came and went without incident, most people began to relax. England would enjoy a breathing space for this winter at least. Whatever might happen next spring, this late in the year no one chanced the storms, fog and rough water, least of all a large army that would have to arrive by boat.

battlemapYet William and his invasion force did just that. After weeks of bad weather, the wind finally shifted to favor the Norman leader, and he and his men set sail on September 27. When word came to the English king of the Norman landing, with ships and troops on the southern shore of England, king Harold and company rode back south, already weary from one major battle, right into another.

Careful excavation, study of contemporary accounts, and site visits mean that resources like the Eyewitness to History website can give us a portrait like this:

Harold rushed his army south and planted his battle standards atop a knoll some five miles from Hastings. During the early morning of the next day, October 14, Harold’s army watched as a long column of Norman warriors marched to the base of the hill and formed a battle line. Separated by a few hundred yards, the lines of the two armies traded taunts and insults. At a signal, the Norman archers took their position at the front of the line. The English at the top of the hill responded by raising their shields above their heads forming a shield-wall to protect them from the rain of arrows. The battle was joined.

Contemporary accounts record how the two armies fought all day, until Harold was dispatched with an arrow through one eye. Shortly after that, the disabled king was cut down by Norman warriors, and England’s fate turned.

Years later the Bayeux Tapestry commemorated a version of the event. But of course at the time there was no Twitter feed, no broadcast of news minutes after it happened by correspondents on the scene. No Fox News and CNN to digest and sort through the implications according to the politics of the day. Word of the battle and what it might mean would take weeks to spread, rippling northward from the coast where the first battles took place. For much of England, the Hallowed Evening, the All Saints Day of 1066 came and went without change.

At this distance, and without knowing the details, most of us may naturally have the impression Hastings was decisive. King Harold dead, battle won, QED. From there, we assume, William advanced toward London, accepted the grudging fealty of a defeated people, and after maybe quelling a few sparks of resistance or rebellion, took firm control of the throne and nation and ruled for the next 21 years, until his death in 1087.

Except not. True, William was crowned king in Westminster on Christmas Day 1066.  But the following years brought their own troubles for the Norman king. Here’s the Wikipedia version (accessed 10/30/14; endnotes deleted):

Despite the submission of the English nobles, resistance continued for several years. William left control of England in the hands of his half-brother Odo and one of his closest supporters, William FitzOsbern. In 1067 rebels in Kent launched an unsuccessful attack on Dover Castle in combination with Eustace II of Boulogne. The Shropshire landowner Eadric the Wild, in alliance with the Welsh rulers of Gwynedd and Powys, raised a revolt in western Mercia, fighting Norman forces based in Hereford. These events forced William to return to England at the end of 1067. In 1068 William besieged rebels in Exeter, including Harold’s mother Gytha, and after suffering heavy losses managed to negotiate the town’s surrender. In May, William’s wife Matilda was crowned queen at Westminster, an important symbol of William’s growing international stature. Later in the year Edwin and Morcar raised a revolt in Mercia with Welsh assistance, while Gospatric, the newly appointed Earl of Northumbria, led a rising in Northumbria, which had not yet been occupied by the Normans. These rebellions rapidly collapsed as William moved against them, building castles and installing garrisons as he had already done in the south. Edwin and Morcar again submitted, while Gospatric fled to Scotland, as did Edgar the Ætheling and his family, who may have been involved in these revolts. Meanwhile Harold’s sons, who had taken refuge in Ireland, raided Somerset, Devon and Cornwall from the sea.

Pacification, oddly enough, usually involves violence.

Ideologies and politics trouble us this Halloween just as they did 948 years ago, on a misty green island off the continent of western Europe.

Centuries later, as blended Norman and English cultures formed a new unity, the Protestant Reformation which swept much of Great Britain blotted out the doctrine of purgatory and the practice of prayer for saintly intercession. But as Hutton notes, Halloween “survived in its old form in Ireland, both as the Catholic feast of saints and souls and a great seasonal festival, and massive Irish emigration to America in the 19th century took it over there.”

In fact, having made this a citation-heavy post anyway, I’ll give Hutton nearly the last word, which is also his last word in his article:

In the 20th century [Halloween] developed into a national festivity for Americans, retaining the old custom of dressing up to mock powers of dark, cold and death, and a transforming one by which poor people went door to door to beg for food for a feast of their own, morphing again into the children’s one of trick or treat. By the 1980s this was causing some American evangelical Christians to condemn the festival as a glorification of the powers of evil (thus missing all its historical associations), and both the celebrations and condemnations have spilled over to Britain.

On the whole, though, the ancient feast of Winter’s Eve has regained its ancient character, as a dual time of fun and festivity, and of confrontation of the fears and discomforts inherent in life, and embodied especially in northern latitudes by the season of cold and dark.

There’s a worthwhile Conquest. “Is it Pagan?”  “Is it Christian?”  Let’s ask “Is it holy?”

 /|\ /|\ /|\

Images: jack-o-lanterns; Harold on the tapestry; St. Swithunbattle map; All Saints Day, Oswiecim, Poland, 1984.

*Rather than dualities and polar opposites, ternaries and triples permeate Druidry. As J. M. Greer observes,

Can anything as useful be done with the three elements of Iolo’s Druid philosophy, or for that matter with the four medieval or five Chinese elements?

Nwyfre, gwyar, and calas make poor guides to physics or chemistry, to be sure. Their usefulness lies elsewhere. Like other traditional elemental systems, the three Druid elements make sense of patterns throughout the universe of our experience. Tools for thinking, their power lies in their ability to point the mind toward insights and sidestep common mistakes.

Take the habit, almost universal nowadays, of thinking about the universe purely in terms of physical matter and energy. This works fairly well when applied in certain limited fields, but it works very badly when applied to human beings and other living things. Time and again, well-intentioned experts using the best tools science has to offer have tried to tackle problems outside the laboratory and failed abjectly. Rational architecture and urban planning, scientific agriculture and forestry, and innovative schemes for education and social reform often cause many more problems than they solve, and fail to yield the results predicted by theory.

Why? The theoreticians thought only of gwyar and calas, the elements of change and stability, expressed here as energy and matter. They left something out of the equation: nwyfre, the subtle element of life, feeling, and awareness. They forgot that any change they made would cause living things to respond creatively with unpredictable changes of their own.

In every situation, all three elements need to be taken into account. They can be used almost as a checklist. What is the thing you’re considering, what does it do, and what does it mean? What will stay the same, what will change, and what will respond to the change with changes of its own? This sort of thinking is one of the secrets of the Druid elements.

**Howarth, David. 1066: The Year of the Conquest. Penguin Books, 1981, pgs. 11-12.

***A conservative figure — estimates range as high as 9000.

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.

newmexflat

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.

eastnm

eastnm2

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

enmex

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.

nssign

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.”

santchimayo

nmgrhills

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.

sedona1

sedona2

sedona3

sedona4

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.)

grcn1

grcn2

grcn3

grcn4

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

nariz1

nariz2

nariz3

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.

nariz4

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.

nariz6

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

Imbolc 2013   Leave a comment

windowAll I know is cold, and Imbolc kindles the heart.

All I know is sun too far, and Imbolc reminds me of inner fire still burning.

All I know is winter darkness, and Imbolc pours gold light over it.

Praise for eternal return.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Image source: unknown.  If you know, please drop me a note and I’ll gladly give credit.

Posted 2 February 2013 by adruidway in Druidry, holiday, Imbolc, theology, Thoreau

The Fires of May, Green Dragons, and Talking Peas   2 comments

Ah, Fifth Month, you’ve arrived.  In addition to providing striking images like this one, the May holiday of Beltane on or around May 1st is one of the four great fire festivals of the Celtic world and of revival Paganism. Along with Imbolc, Lunasa and Samhain, Beltane endures in many guises. The Beltane Fire Society of Edinburgh, Scotland has made its annual celebration a significant cultural event, with hundreds of participants and upwards of 10,000 spectators. Many communities celebrate May Day and its traditions like the Maypole and dancing (Morris Dancing in the U.K.). More generally, cultures worldwide have put the burgeoning of life in May  — November if you live Down Under — into ritual form.

I’m partial to the month for several reasons, not least because my mother, brother and I were all born in May.  It stands far enough away from other months with major holidays observed in North America to keep its own identity.  No Thanksgiving-Christmas slalom to blunt the onset of winter with cheer and feasting and family gatherings.  May greens and blossoms and flourishes happily on its own.  It embraces college graduations and weddings (though it can’t compete with June for the latter).  It’s finally safe here in VT to plant a garden in another week or two, with the last frosts retreating until September.  At the school where I teach, students manage to keep Beltaine events alive even if they pass on other Revival or Pagan holidays.

The day’s associations with fertility appear in Arthurian lore with stories of Queen Guinevere’s riding out on May Day, or going a-Maying.  In Collier’s painting above, the landscape hasn’t yet burst into full green, but the figures nearest Guinevere wear green, particularly the monk-like one at her bridle, who leads her horse.  Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot eroticized everything around her — greened it in every sense of the word.  Tennyson in his Idylls of the King says:

For thus it chanced one morn when all the court,
Green-suited, but with plumes that mocked the may,
Had been, their wont, a-maying and returned,
That Modred still in green, all ear and eye,
Climbed to the high top of the garden-wall
To spy some secret scandal if he might …

Of course, there are other far more subtle and insightful readings of the story, ones which have mythic power in illuminating perennial human challenges of relationship and energy. But what is it about green that runs so deep in European culture as an ambivalent color in its representation of force? 

Anya Seton’s novel Green Darkness captures in its  blend of Gothic secrecy, sexual obsession, reincarnation and the struggle toward psychic rebalancing the full spectrum of mixed-ness of green in both title and story. As well as the positive color of growth and life, it shows its alternate face in the greenness of envy, the eco-threat of “greenhouse effect,” the supernatural (and original) “green giant” in the famous medieval tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the novel and subsequent 1973 film Soylent Green, and the ghostly, sometimes greenish, light of decay hovering over swamps and graveyards that has occasioned numerous world-wide ghost stories, legends and folk-explanations. 

(Wikipedia blandly scientificizes the phenomenon thus:  “The oxidation of phosphine and methane, produced by organic decay, can cause photon emissions. Since phosphine spontaneously ignites on contact with the oxygen in air, only small quantities of it would be needed to ignite the much more abundant methane to create ephemeral fires.”)  And most recently, “bad” greenness showed up during this year’s Earth Day last month, which apparently provoked fears in some quarters of the day as evil and Pagan, and a determination to fight the “Green Dragon” of the environmental movement as un-Christian and insidious and horrible and generally wicked. Never mind that stewardship of the earth, the impetus behind Earth Day, is a specifically Biblical imperative (the Sierra Club publishes a good resource illustrating this).  Ah, May.  Ah, silliness and wisdom and human-ness.

We could let a Celt and a poet have (almost) the last word. Dylan Thomas catches the ambivalence in his poem whose title is also the first line:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind

Hauls my shroud sail …

Yes, May is death and life both, as all seasons are.  But something in the irrepressible-ness of May makes it particularly a “hinge month” in our year.  The “green fuse” in us burns because it must in order for us to live at all, but our burning is our dying.  OK, Dylan, we get it.  Circle of life and all that.  What the fearful seem to react to in May and Earth Day and things Pagan-seeming is the recognition that not everything is sweetness and light.  The natural world, in spite of efforts of Disney and Company to the contrary, devours as well as births.  Nature isn’t so much “red in tooth and claw” as it is green. 

Yes, things bleed when we feed (or if you’re vegetarian, they’ll spill chlorophyll.  Did you know peas apparently talk to each other?).  And this lovely, appalling planet we live on is part of the deal.  It’s what we do in the interim between the “green fuse” and the “dead end” that makes all the difference, the only difference there is to make.  So here’s Seamus Heaney, another Celt and poet,  who gives us one thing we can do about it:  struggle to make sense, regardless of whether or not any exists to start with.  In his poem “Digging,” he talks about writing, but it’s “about” our human striving in general that, for him, takes this particular form.  It’s a poem of memory and meaning-making.  We’re all digging as we go.

Digging

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Beltane Fire Society image; Maibaum; John Maler Collier’s Queen Guinevere’s Maying; Soylent Green; Green Darkness; peat.

Groundhog Day and Punxsutawney Phil   Leave a comment

To get you into the spirit of Imbolc and Groundhog’s Day tomorrow, February 2nd, here’s a Youtube video documenting record attendance at Gobbler’s Knob outside Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on Groundhog’s Day, 2008.

If you’re impatient and don’t wish to watch the entire seven-minute video, begin with the first 20 seconds or so, as the town’s “Inner Circle” in black coats and top hats process to Gobbler’s Knob, and then cut to when the action picks up again with Phil’s appearance shortly after the four-minute mark.

For the “official” Groundhog Day site and up to the date info, as well as other videos, visit groundhog.org.

Imbolc and “First Sight”   Leave a comment

On first sight (or much later, depending on the particular script we’re following), the world can be a forbidding place.  We all go through emotional and psychological winters at times.  Nothing seems to provide warmth or comfort, so we hunker down and endure. And we can get so good at this kind of half-life that we mistake merely surviving for full-hearted thriving. Well-meaning friends or family who try to console us with various messages of hope or endurance (“This too shall pass”) can’t budge us from our heaviness.

The hidden changes implicit in the imminent shift of energy and consciousness which Druids symbolize and celebrate in Imbolc also find expression in the starkly beautiful lines of “First Sight” by British poet Philip Larkin.

First Sight

Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare.
Newly stumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold.

As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too,
Earth’s immeasurable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow.

For that is how at least some changes arrive — immeasurable, ungraspable, unlike anything that went before, so that we can’t even anticipate or recognize them ahead of time.  Nothing of the past prepares us.  The new comes on us “utterly unlike” the present.  Only long memory serves to recognize them sometimes, and hail and welcome them — memory often consciously denied to us in one human lifetime, but accessible through dream and intuition and the “far memory” that we may call “past lives” or the “collective unconscious” or  the “knower behind the thoughts” or “gut instinct.”  This is memory as trees know it, the rings of years that grow into the wood, the cell memory we humans also carry with us, the salts of ancient oceans that pulse in the same proportions in our blood.

This is the promise of light renewed, that miracle we often cynically dismiss but deeply long for, the story we are always telling ourselves:  maybe this time, maybe next week, one more year.  This marriage, that job, this new chance, here, now, finally, at last.

It’s important to note that this event is not “supernatural” or “religious” in the commonly understood sense of “coming from outside our world” or depending on a deity.  We don’t need to look that far, though we’re welcome to if we wish.  It is earth’s immeasurable surprise, after all, issuing from this world, this land, dirt under our feet, air that surrounds us, sun on our skin. Put another way, the whole world is telling us “Pay attention!”

Another Irish name for Imbolc is Oimelc — “ewe’s milk.”  In the agrarian societies all our ancestors came from, the pregnant ewes have been preparing for the lambs to come, their udders swelling with milk.  There are signs of change and renewal all around us, but in our rush towards “anywhere but here,” we’ve often lost sight of and contact with the markers that would center and align us with the natural order of balance and harmony we crave.

In North America, the equivalent “secular” holiday is Groundhog’s Day, which one way or another says winter will in fact eventually end.  Punxsutawney Phil emerges from the earth and his plump hibernation sleepiness to prophesy renewal, either seeing his shadow on a sunny day, or huddling under February clouds as secular augurs read the omens and declare them to the assembled faithful.  (We don’t so much abandon ritual and religion as slip it past the censor of the modern and supposedly irreligious mind, clothing it in other guises less objectionable.  If you doubt it, take a look at the grand mythologizing that surrounds Phil on sites like this one.)

Happy Groundcandleimbolcmasshogday!

/|\ /|\ /|\

Images:  lamb; tree ring; Punxsutawney Phil.

%d bloggers like this: