Archive for the ‘land spirits’ Tag

The Putney Mountain Stone Chambers

A precipitous drop in temperatures from the 90s (34C) to the 40s (6C) last night, warming to the low 60s (17C) this afternoon, made for ideal conditions to visit the stone chambers around Putney, Vermont.

My Druid friend B. was my guide. The roads around Putney Mountain are not always well-labelled, many run through private lands, and some of the many dirt roads devolve to Class 4 — not regularly maintained, generally not passable without all-wheel drive vehicles, and not plowed in winter. We drove where we could, then set out on foot.

Here B. stands next to the entrance of the first chamber, giving an approximate sense of the height of the mouth.

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A side view of the same chamber. Note the stone wall climbing the hillside in the background.

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What we called the terraced or “pyramid” structure around chamber 1:

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The chamber features a drainage (?) channel cut into the rock. All of the chambers face roughly east, and this particular channel runs due east, judging by readings from B’s smart-phone compass app.

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V-shaped entrance to chamber 2 — note what appears to be a stone “lintel” in the foreground.

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B crouched within chamber 2 — larger than chamber 1, and quite dry inside. The massive roof plates of stone easily weigh several tons each.

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Looking out from within chamber 2. Unlike the first chamber, this one was dry enough to sit on the earth floor.

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Chamber 3 differs in the location of the entrance. Here is what looked and felt to both of us like a “processional walk” to the chamber. Merely a path left from frequent hikers exploring the area? Or something else? How to tell?

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Continuing the approach to chamber 3.

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B standing at the roof entrance to chamber 3 for a sense of scale. The beech (?) to the left appeared at least two hundred years old.

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Close-up of the kiva-like entrance to chamber 3.  The interior is deep enough for a person to stand upright in the oval space, about 8 feet (2.4 m) across.

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Chamber 4 — the roof has fallen in on the far side. Stone taken for building elsewhere? Similar design to the others — but perhaps run-off from hillside weakened the roof.

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Despite both learned and amateur speculation, no convincing conclusions about the purpose of these chambers exists. Colonial smokehouses? Storage sheds? Native ritual or burial chambers? Nothing quite seems to explain the massive construction, cramped and damp spaces, the exceptions of the details of chambers 2 and 3, etc. Similar stoneworks around New England raise similar questions. While dating suggests pre-European construction in some locations, other sites present what appears to be intermingled periods of building/repair.

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Listening to Place

How to sing in a new land? Sing of it, o mortal.

The New Jersey Geological Survey characterizes this region of Somerset County as “Devonian, conglomerate, sandstone, shale, limestone”.

Not surprisingly from that description, the boarding school where my wife and I are living and teaching for the next year lies in “horse country”. Equestrian clubs dot the area, and wealthy landowners with a desire for large tracts and quiet have helped preserve the area from further development. The gently rolling hills rise a mere 45 miles (72 km) west as the crow flies from Manhattan, yet the air is clean and green abounds. In return for claiming our lives pretty much 24/7 while term is in session (teaching, dorm parenting, coaching, advising, overnight duty, etc.), the school grants us all good air to breathe and a green legacy of preservation, whatever its original motive.

For many east-coast Americans like me, a superficial acquaintance means that “New Jersey” conjures Rt. 95 and the ecological dead-zone of the northern part of the state. Yet “the Garden State”, the NJ nickname, is no misnomer. The Jersey Pine Barrens (below) offer one counterweight to heavy industry. Or as the Wikipedia entry puts it,

photo Famartin; Wikipedia Creative Commons

Despite its proximity to the sprawling metropolitan cities of Philadelphia and New York City right in the heart of the very densely populated Boston-Washington Corridor on the Eastern Seaboard, and the fact that the heavily travelled Garden State Parkway and Atlantic City Expressway run through it, the New Jersey Pine Barrens are largely rural and undisturbed.

Our campus offers the usual vistas of playing fields and manicured greens, but vestiges of the original farm that became the school abound.

A sunrise walk brings you on small herds of white-tailed deer — frequent mowing means the vegetation is tender, and of course there’s no hunting on school grounds. In fact, we discovered on late evening walks that deer often bed down on the lawn of a faculty house on the campus periphery.

Two old silos remain standing next to the school library.

The fine old willow guarding a pond on the eastern campus.

Sunrise walk on the northern part of campus.

Who keeps the campus bees? Haven’t found out yet.

Nothing against “education brick”, but this plain style feels less institutional.

 

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Image: Pine Barrens.

Posted 3 September 2017 by adruidway in Druidry, land spirits, New Jersey

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A Druid’s Compass

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

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Inwangsan (photo by Gael Chardon)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Rupert Brooke, 1887-1915

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

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

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

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Frost at Kennedy’s inauguration

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

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

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

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

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

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Works Cited:

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

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

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

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

Rowan Williams Gets It — a Spiritual Diagnosis

druidwilliamsSome of you may recall a minor kerfluffle from the Christian Right a decade or so ago, when then Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams joined the Welsh Gorsedd of Bards and appeared in — gasp! — “pagan” Druid robes and hood. One of the many ironies of that moment and others’ reactions to it is that of all Druid groups, the Welsh Gorsedd is among the most secular and the least woo-woo (a highly technical sociological term).

So here’s a worthy sequel: an excerpt from a 2009 lecture Williams gave  titled “The Climate Crisis — a Christian Response.” During his talk he offers Druidic perspectives:

I once suggested that one necessary contribution to a better awareness of these issues was to make sure we went out of doors in the wet from time to time (a suitable lesson from Noah…), and – if we haven’t got gardens of our own – make sure we took opportunities of watching the changing of the seasons on the earth’s surface. This may seem trivial compared with the high drama of ‘saving the world’; but if this analysis is correct, our underlying problem is being ‘dissociated’, and we ought to be asking constantly how we restore a sense of association with the material place and time and climate we inhabit and are part of.

A transcript appears on the link page — it’s worth skimming for additional insights like this, a thoughtful and mature Christian grappling with the same realities we all face, and feeling his way into a diagnosis that accords with earth-centered insights and experiences — one that also doesn’t deny Christian wisdom either.

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Image: Rowan Williams/BBC News.

“Not responsible for spontaneous descent of Awen”

treesun-smNot responsible for spontaneous descent of Awen or manifestation of the Goddess. Unavailable for use by forces not acting in the best interests of life. Emboldened for battle against the succubi of self-doubt, the demons of despair, the phantoms of failure. Ripe for awakening to possibilities unforeseen, situations energizing and people empowering.

Catapulted into a kick-ass cosmos, marked for missions of soul-satisfying solutions, grown in gratitude, aimed towards awe, mellowed in the mead of marvels. Optimized for joy, upgraded to delight, enhanced for happiness.  Witness to the Sidhe shining, the gods gathering, the Old Ways widening to welcome.

logmoss-smPrimed for passionate engagement, armed for awe-spreading, synchronized for ceremonies of sky-kissed celebration. Weaned on wonder, nourished by the numinous, fashioned for fabulousness. Polished for Spirit’s purposes, dedicated to divine deliciousness, washed in the waters of the West, energized in Eastern airs, earthed in North’s left hand, fired in South’s right. Head in the heavens, heart with the holy, feet in flowers, gift of the Goddess, hands at work with humanity. Camped among the captives of love, stirred to wisdom in starlight, favored with a seat among the Fae, born for beauty, robed in the world’s rejoicing, a voice in the vastness of days.

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Knowing, seeing, sensing, being all this, you can never hear the same way again these two words together: “only human”!

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Images: three from a sequence taken yesterday, 3 Oct 14, on a blessed autumn day in southern Vermont two miles from my house.

 

“The Land is a Chief …”: Maui

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Over a year ago, my wife’s aunt and uncle decided to celebrate their 50th anniversary by gathering family on Maui in Hawai’i, and very generously footing the bill for lodging as extra inducement, so we planned our car trip this summer to bring us to the west coast of the U.S., where airfares were — barely — doable on our rapidly-shrinking budget.  Imagine seventeen of us — five families, with ages from 5 to 81 — piled into three rental condos.

I suspect the more green-minded among you are already saying, “But air travel’s so polluting.” And I’ll respond outright: it is.  No argument there.  So I’ll try to make up for such extravagance and excessive consumption through my witness, and through an attempt at some range in my reporting.

Yes, of course the islands are lovely.  Even the sun-blessed sprawl of Honolulu can’t conceal the emerald hills that overlook the high-rises.  Here’s a slightly blurry view to the north from Waikiki from our hotel room …

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And, yes, you really can find the heart-stopping beauty you’ve heard about, often without stepping away from right where you are. Overhead, in a tree in full blossom, or in a striking run of notes of an unfamiliar bird-call, around a corner, or in one of the splendid national parks.

[BELOW: My wife’s photo of a Hau flower, Wai’anapanapa State Park, Hana Highway, Maui]

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But what delights me the most — neither my wife nor I are “sun and beach” people, though the steady crash of surf and the breeze off the water lull even the two of us into “aloha” mode most effectively — is the growing presence and importance of traditional Hawai’ian culture and language.  Without a sense of where I am, mere newness or charm quickly turns flat and lifeless.  It becomes plastic.  It’s easy to fall into one-dimensional tourist mode, paying for flat and plastic experiences with plastic.  We’ve all heard this, probably done it ourselves, so we know what we’re talking about.

But the handful of long-time residents we’ve encountered, along with tour-guides and wait staff, all seem to agree on a healthy cultural trend.  Much was lost during the last two hundred years of Western influence and interference — that sadly all-too-common story in so many places — but much has been preserved.  There’s a pride in the native Hawai’ian heritage that may be one of the best predictors for the future survival of old crafts and stories, language and custom. One more place to cheer, however tentatively.  If tourist dollars provide one motivation in holding onto surface charm and, gods willing, deeper cultural uniqueness, well, let’s utilize whatever works.

[Along with cultural ferment, it’s important to add, the island is striving in fits and starts to go green ecologically.  Aging and polluting diesel-powered electricity generation is being supplemented (and eventually will be taken off-line) — by three hilltop banks of wind-power stations.  And Larry Ellison (of Oracle software fame) has purchased 98% of the neighboring island of Lana’i (the former Dole pineapple island), with plans to make it eventually self-sufficient in food and power, and generate revenues by selling excess solar/wind power to other islands.]

New-ish road-signs featuring the traditional ali’i or chief, like this one marking a church, say a lot. Native traditions and images, disparaged in colonial times, or made downright illegal like speaking Hawai’ian was, start to regain something of their original stature and significance, however incomplete, through their use as symbols and icons.

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Since we’ve arrived we’ve frequently heard the Hawai’ian saying “Maui nō ka ʻoi” — “Maui’s the best”* — and without shamelessly trying to fake a non-existent familiarity with the archipelago (we’re here on Maui just 6 days, after all), we’re still inclined to think this particular island deserves its status: small enough to escape much of the busy-ness and hype of Oahu where we spent two days, and dramatically varied enough to provide rain-forest, tropical, upland, mountain and desert landscapes, all within a day’s drive on the “ring road” around east Maui.

In the end, though, for me as a brief visitor and interloper, it’s not the beaches but the mountains that call with the clearest voice of the spirits of place. He ali’i ka’aina, goes another local proverb: the land is a chief. He kauwa ke kanaka — we are its servants.  To belong to a land …

Maui’s chief mountain is Haleakala, “House of the Sun,” though clouds often skirt the slopes.  How instinctively we realize: mountains earn and deserve our attention as vivid gestures of our planet, and as ancient and powerful spiritual tools. Viewing them, meditating in their presence, ascending them, whether on a clear day or through a cloud cover that may cloak them in mystery, can mirror and induce a spiritual ascent.

Here we are part-way up and facing west, overlooking west Maui.  You can see the ocean on the left, arching inward to central Maui.

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Vegetation thins as you climb above the clouds, till bare volcanic rock dominates. This is no longer the beach and sun of tourist brochures, but land still being born, raw from creation.

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Hikers can make the climb on foot; if you haven’t already noticed your car’s temperature gauge, the sign announces how far you have come above the sea.

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When you enter Haleakala National Park at either the coastal or mountain visitor center, you can pick up a bilingual pamphlet (Hawai’ian appearing first, too!) that clearly attests to the re-emerging potency of native Hawai’ian culture. Yes, you can not pick it up, or pick it up and not read it, or read and forget it.  But … After a short paragraph explaining the principle of kuleana, responsibility to the land, “passed on to us from our kupuna (ancestors),” the visitor is admonished: “Therefore, as you enter this sacred place, this kuleana is now placed upon you.”

Here is the otherworldly crater at the peak.

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Imagine such words in every park, every public place across the land! “Therefore, as you enter this sacred place, this responsibility is now placed upon you.” Then imagine people respecting and heeding such words. Here is a start, a seed.  Let there be many such seed-places around the world. May we plant them. May they grow from here, from every such place. We need them so desperately.  And may beauty help lead us where we need to go.  This for me has been a gift of Maui.

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*Maui Nō Ka ʻOi is also the name of a local island magazine, full of touristy articles and images.

“What Remains in the Journal, What to Communicate”

handbirdIn her comment on a post from August ’13, Lorna Smithers makes a distinction particularly vital for “Bardic types” that I want to take up here, especially in light of my last post:

The division between what remains in the journal and what to communicate is a question I confront continuously as a Bard, for unlike with a path that focuses solely on personal transformation through magic, Bards are expected to share their inspiration.

I find that some experiences are ok to share immediately, others need time to gestate for the meanings to evolve and take on a clearer form, and a select few may always stay secret.

I see good craftmanship to be the key [to] sharing experiences. In contrast to the vomit of ‘compulsive confession’, well-wrought craft lifts the raw material into the realms of art, creating works that affirm the awe and wonder of the magical world.

That Bardic instinct to share inspiration that may or may not have been shaped by art can get us in trouble.  The desire to bring into physical expression something that’s going on in your inner worlds can lead to what Lorna accurately calls vomit.  Sometimes, of course, awen really does drop a piece of loveliness in your lap.  It arrives fully-formed, and you run with it, dazed and delighted and puppy-like in your enthusiasm to share the wonder of it with all and sundry, but that (the gift of inspired loveliness, not the puppy-like response) usually only happens when you’ve done plenty of the hard slog of shaping already, alone or with only yourself and your gods for support of a vision no one else may even know anything about.

Sometimes the time and energy your pour into nurturing your creativity can make you defensive if you haven’t “produced” anything visible.  If you’re a writer, for instance, you’re not a “real” writer till you’ve “published.”  Few will care about the months, years or decades of work that may lie shelved in boxes or occupy megs of space on a computer.  The same holds true in comparable ways for anyone who’s devoted time and energy to a craft or art.

Lazy-at-workArtists who should know better sometimes like to hint, or let it be inferred, that this business of “awen on command” is how they work all the time, both mystifying us “ordinary mortals” and also doing a disservice to their craft and the nature of inspiration.  Talent, oddly enough, responds well to practice, and no one works most of the time without effort.

The Anglo-Saxon bard was called a sceop, pronounced approximately “shop,” “one who shapes” inspiration into language and song.  And the word bard comes from an Indo-European root *gwer- that means “to praise”  or “to sing,” indicating two of the roles of the Celtic bard. The same root appears in Latin gratia, and English grace — a whole cluster of relationships — the gift and our response, our gratitude, and the quality in things blessed with awen, the loveliness and fluidity and rightness they often evince.

But if I opt to share something that’s not ready or right to share, I’ll usually regret it.  Let me enthuse or gab about a story or an inner experience before its proper time, and it may lose its luster.  It no longer thrills me enough to work with it, and I take what was a gift and cast it aside, its charm lost.  The spell is broken, and I am no longer spell-bound, or able to do anything with it.  Like the old fairy story of the goblin jewels, in the daylight of the blog, or the careless conversation with another, the one-time treasures that sparkled and shone under moonlight have turned to dead leaves.  One or two such painful experiences is usually enough to teach anyone the virtues of silence, restraint and self-discipline.

walkingAnother half (there are almost never just two halves, but three, four, five or more) of the whole, however, is that keeping the flow going, trusting the awen enough to go with what you get, and allowing the work to manifest, brings in more.  Jesus did know what he was talking about when he said (paraphrased to modernize the language), “To people that already have, more will be given, and from people that don’t, even what they have will be taken away.”  While this may sound at first like contemporary government policy and destructive legislation and current economics, it holds true on the inner planes, in the worlds of inspiration and imagination.

Lorna herself is an exemplar of this Bardic trust and inspiration.  As an Awenydd, one who receives and shapes the gift of awen, she demonstrates in poetry and photography on her blog and in performance the mutual bonds with the Otherworld and spirits of place that make up her path.

And so it was with considerable interest that I read her account “Personal Religion?”  well into writing this post, while I was checking that the URLs were right for the links to her blog.  She experiences a strong reaction on hearing about the OBOD Golden Anniversary celebrations, and launches into a series of probing personal questions without immediate answers which I urge you to read directly.  The challenges she faces are those of one attempting to be faithful to a call, and she follows a path with honor.  Her struggles illustrate the living nature of the Pagan path, with its many branches and trails.  Her practice flourishes precisely because she strives to be faithful to her own vision, which may not always grow and bloom under the “big tent” of orders like OBOD.

Making that struggle visible is valuable — posting it for others to read, ponder and benefit from.

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Images: handbirdhard at work; walking.

 

Hunter, Hunted: Animal Guides, Denial, Persistence

[A version of this post appeared in my column in the online Druid magazine Amethyst. My thanks to the editors for providing their well-edited forum for OBOD’s East Coast Gathering (ECG) community.]

I offer this post on the chance it may prove useful if you’re grappling with some aspect of animal guides, power animals, personal totems — the usages and terminologies haven’t settled down yet.

Last September, as I sat engrossed in the ECG 2013 workshop on Animal Guides, I simply had to laugh at myself. It had become clear to me over the weekend that sometimes your animal guide pursues you, rather than the other way around. In my case I’ve learned that gods, spirits, and guides often have to shout and do handstands to get me to notice at all. I’m just grateful they think it’s worth Their while.

boarpicWith Boar, my obliviousness ran deeper than usual, and lasted much longer. Maybe (I say, trying to excuse myself in any way I can find) it’s only because I’ve looked at my obtuseness more closely than usual. Maybe following two paths has scrambled the inner circuits. Maybe my inner discipline needs work (whose doesn’t?!). Laughter may be appropriate – and fitting for Boar, who can be a bit of a trickster anyway. As long as laughing isn’t all you do, I hear inwardly. Clues pile up. Here are some I’ve managed to account for so far.

My father, a city boy who grew up in Niagara Falls, NY, became a full-time dairy farmer a few years before I was born. For some reason he could judge pigs well, recognize the outstanding animal, pick out the prize pig. In fact he won several judging competitions when I was still a baby. But the ability perplexed him. He’d mention it from time to time, amused. (Now I ask myself, is Pig or Boar some kind of family or ancestral totem? One more quest to add to my list of quests.)

I was born in the year of the Boar, according to the Eastern 12-year calendar. OK, I thought. Interesting piece of trivia. Entertainment, really. Chinese restaurant lore. Fortune cookie material. My nominally Christian family never paid any attention to such things. And in my adolescent arrogance and ignorance, I considered myself professionally immune to astrology, which I was sure was for wackadoos. It didn’t help that it was part of the national conversation at the time. If you’re old enough to remember the Reagan presidency and the First Lady’s Nancy Reagan’s admitted fascination with astrology, you know what I’m talking about.

wyconyWhen I was in my early teens, and walking the Wyoming County fairgrounds in late August, a show pig at our local county fair lunged at me as I passed – a serious, front-legs-over-the-top-of-the-pen, get-to-you-if-I-could attempt. I was passing by a good ten feet away, one person in a crowd of visitors to the week-long fair in our agricultural county. What set the pig off? Something I was wearing? A scent of sweat or lunch or shampoo? Pitch or timbre of my voice? I never did find out. But I’ll note that I was fascinated around this time by the Greek myth of the Calydonian Boar Hunt, and the relationship between Meleager and Atalanta, a fleet-footed huntress sent by the goddess Artemis, who had also sent the boar. Why? To punish the king of Calydon for his neglect of the rites due to the gods. (You have to understand: goddesses feature in another of my lists of embarrassing interactions with the universe. Sometimes when I get it down on paper it’s just downright embarrassing. But, I can hope, maybe my embarrassment will be useful to others.)

stylboarhelmI reflect, too, on my long* fascination with Old English, Anglo-Saxon society, and the war (and boar) themes in poems like Beowulf. To the left you can see the stylized (and outsized) boars on the warriors’ helms.

To cite just two instances from one poem, at one point the poet equates the warriors directly to the boar and to its symbolic importance as a fighter:  “The armies clashed — boar struck boar” (lines 1327-8).  And some hundred lines later, Beowulf’s own helmet is described in detail: “A smith crafted it, set boar-images around it, so that ever after no sword or war-axe could bite it” (1452-1454).

asakusajinjaFast forward a decade and I’m teaching English in Japan in Musashino, a western suburb of Tokyo. One weekend my wife and I were visiting Asakusa Jinja, a large Shinto shrine in downtown Tokyo. As I was poring over trinkets for a cheap souvenir, a servant of the shrine insisted that I take a small carved wooden boar token. It didn’t appeal to me at the time – I thought some of the other images were more artistic renderings. But I made a small offering and went home with the image.

The Wild Boar serves as the mascot at a private high school where I taught for almost two decades. Every day classes were in session, I entered the campus dining hall passing beneath a stuffed head of a wild boar mounted over the entrance. The animal had been shot decades ago by one of the first headmasters of the school, an avid hunter.

About a dozen years ago, my wife and I took a vacation to Italy and the Tuscan hill country, where not once but twice I ate wild boar, and was sick both times. You’d think at some point it might have dawned on me that I shouldn’t eat my animal guide.

porcellinoIn fact, a few years ago an alum donated to the school a replica of Il Porcellino, a famous boar figure from Florence, Italy by the Renaissance sculptor Pietro Tacca. I now walked past Boar twice a day, outdoors and in. I can’t claim the universe rearranged itself for my benefit (or embarrassment), but the effect was the same.

Why such resistance on my part? I still don’t know entirely. But Boar appeared in a vision during the East Coast Gathering drumming session with Thomas Deerheart and Maya Minwah, and gave me some very specific health advice for a longstanding issue I’m dealing with. Ever since then I’ve been drawn to touch Boar, run my hands over his coarse fur, feel the ridge along his back.

daoracleThe Druid Animal Oracle entry for Torc, the Boar, notes: “… he is a representative of the Goddess—his skin can heal you” (Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm, The Druid Animal Oracle, Fireside/Simon and Schuster, 1994, p. 39). It’s important to note I finally read the Oracle only after I wrote a second draft of this column (yet another resistance – I’ve had the volume on my shelves for over a year).

We say “my guide” or “my power animal,” but I’m finding that for me at least it’s the other way around. I belong to them. Whatever I think I’m looking for, it’s been looking for me even longer. The hunter is hunted. They track me down till I’m cornered and I have to listen, till I can’t ignore them any longer.

Recently Magpie has caught my attention again. I’m trying to listen better this time to whatever this new guide wants to communicate. What with running with Boar, and flying with Magpie, at least I’ve got the opportunity for plenty of inner exercise.

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As I look over these notes, several points stand out.  (I’ll put them in first person and speak only for myself, not to presume too much about who you are, or what your experience may be.)  First, to my mind, is the desire (I don’t know how else to put it) of the Other — Spirit or spirits, guides, deities, totems — to connect with me.  Second I must concede my own obliviousness.  I ask for help, or a “sign,” but even when it lies down in front of me and trips me up, I STILL manage to ignore it.

Next is the likelihood that once I start looking, the coincidences begin stacking up until it’s clear there’s more than coincidence going on.  Common themes emerge.  The animal I seek is also seeking me — in dreams, “accidents,” images, unaccountable emotional reactions to seemingly “unimportant” things– in all the different ways it can reach me, in case one or more channels of communcation are blocked (usually on my end).

Animal images in poems also cry and echo for the nerd-Bard that I am.  We repress the animal guides in and around us, so that like other repressed things, they eventually spring, animal-like, into our psyches elsewhere, in sometimes strange and nightmarish images, in art, dream, eventually, even, in national obsessions and pathologies.  If they pool and accumulate enough cultural energy, they manifest in personal and societal outward circumstances, in political and cultural movements, in wars and other conflicts.   Think of W. B. Yeats’ apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming,” which famously ends “what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Or consider Philip Levine’s “Animals are Passing from Our Lives” in the voice of a pig approaching its slaughter.  Apocalyptic and angry poems like these, like most art, aren’t “about” only one thing.  Run them to earth and they keep meaning something more.  We use animals (animals use us) to communicate what we sometimes cannot say directly.  Among all the other things they do, animals help us express that deep love, that bitter grief, anger and darkness, comfort and healing, that simply may not be able to manifest in any other way.

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Images: boar; boar-helmed warriorsAsakusa Jinja; Il Porcellino; Druid Animal Oracle.

*Like many English majors, I studied Old English as an undergrad and grad student.  Like some others, my interests in things Tolkien and Old English stimulate and nourish each other.  Since then I’ve kept up my amateur’s interest by attending conferences, writing and presenting papers, shoring up my grasp of the language in discussions and translations on online forums, and in rendering portions of OE poems and prose into modern English, as with the lines above.  I say “amateur,” because with the exception of occasionally teaching the poem in translation to high schoolers, I pursue my interest out of personal obsession rather than professional necessity.

 

Opening the Gates: A Review of McCarthy’s Magic of the North Gate

jmccarthy(Special thanks to Amethyst, where a version of this review first appeared in the November issue.)

Magic of the North Gate is an intriguing book for those like me who have studied McCarthy’s previous works and might have expected another in the same vein. An inviting departure from her involvement in more temple-oriented magic, this book reflects a change of lifestyle as well for its author. A teacher, ritual magician and Hermeticist, McCarthy now resides in Dartmoor National Park in the southwest of the U.K. Think of a Golden Dawn mage taking up residence in Yellowstone or Yosemite. The book remains characteristically humble, wise, unexpectedly funny, and profound – qualities too often lacking in books on magic. Add to these its emphasis on being of service to the land, and it is altogether a valuable resource.

Throughout the book’s nine chapters, McCarthy recounts her rich experiences over the years of working with land spirits and nature magic. A resident for a time in the western U.S., she passes along many helpful observations in her stories and suggestions applicable both for the typically more settled inner and outer terrain of the United Kingdom, and the wilder landscapes of North America. To put it another way, her book often prompts a reader to meditate, reflect and then adapt her many ideas to the reader’s own landscape, circumstances, abilities and experience. No mere recipe book, this.

Nevertheless, along the way you discover that you’ve gained valuable insights on how to approach gardening and building outdoor shrines, advice on honoring the fairies and welcoming local deities, or strategies to deal with approaching storms and “death alleys” on infamous stretches of highways. She discusses ways of honoring old bones you may unearth, effecting a “deity transfer” to a statue, and interacting with Native American peoples, sanctuaries and spirits who will respect your heritage and ancestors if you own them outright, in keeping with how you respect theirs. The eighth chapter, “The Dead, the Living and the Living Dead,” offers much material for exploration and contemplation. As McCarthy observes, “A major skill to learn in life that has major bearing on the death of a magician is discipline of controlling wants and needs … it is a major tool” in making the transition through death (230).

The final chapter, “Weaving Power into Form,” likewise provides ample material to explore in one’s own practice. McCarthy’s Hermeticist training and experience re-emerge, particularly in her emphases and terminology in later chapters, to good effect, since she has contextualized what she says there by establishing a foundation in preceding chapters for her particular flavor of earth magic. Her insights into ways of working with the energies of the temples of the directions and elements are also helpful.

McCarthy’s writing style is both conversational and reflective. Her book reads in part like a journal and follows its own organic and occasionally circular order, though her nine chapters do deliver what their titles promise. Often, though not always, the points she makes are less a “how-to” – though she offers much advice clearly grounded in experience – than a “what-happens-when.” To give just a few for-instances across the chapters, here are some excerpts:

“Magic in its depth creates boundaries of energetic opposition and tension. This is part and parcel of how power works – it also protects the integrity of the inner worlds as well as beefing up the magician … It can also act as an idiot filter …” (17-18).

“If I had known about [the impact on the physical body] beforehand, I would still have explored, but would have looked after my body better and would have made a point of reaching for inner contacts to help teach me about how to handle my body through this work. Hence this part of the chapter” (39).

“Land spirits don’t do ‘sorry’; if you break a promise then the deal is off” (130).

“You may notice that your home or building does not appear upon the land, which is normal if it is a modern building. Buildings, unless they are consecrated spaces or temples, tend to take hundreds of years to fully appear in the inner landscape of the land” (133).

I will return to this book to re-consider and annotate the portions I’ve highlighted and queried in a different way than I will her other books, The Work of the Hierophant, and the Magical Knowledge trilogy (Foundations, The Initiate, and Adepts). The latter texts help fill in gaps in my more intellectual understanding of kinds of work I will very likely not pursue in this life, though there, too, McCarthy’s earned wisdom transfers to other kinds of practice. But Magic of the North Gate is a more immediate companion and touchstone for what I am exploring already, in my own way, on my handful of acres on the New England hilltop where I live and anywhere else I set foot.

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McCarthy, Josephine. Magic of the North Gate. Oxford: Mandrake of Oxford, 2013.

Image: Josephine McCarthy.

Special thanks to Amethyst, where a version of this review first appeared.

Listening and the Land, Part 1

snoctober

Much of my learning before and during the Bardic grade of OBOD Druidry has been about listening. I’ve walked different landscapes here and abroad over the last couple decades, and almost always when there are negative energies, they seemed to issue from human presences that felt negative to me, or disrupted the native energy. The land itself is simply the land, with all its other lives and forces and history and presences. It may not always feel comfortable or easy or familiar, but it has an integrity that asks me to pay attention.  And yes, I’ve done that with varying success.  But the human is always an overlay, unless the place has been inhabited for a very long time, and the humans there learned to attend to and respect the place they lived. Which is sadly not often enough, though places exist here and there which are dearly loved and cherished, places in which the land spirits dance their joy.

California Druid Gwynt-Siarad tackles this directly in his blog entry, “The Curious Case of American Land Spirits.”  I’ve taken the liberty of reposting the whole of his short entry here (Druids are always talking to beings they can’t see):

Recently I was involved in a discussion about land spirits. As the discussion progressed it touched on what I feel is a very important issue to us druids living in the Americas. That being, land spirits are more often then not, tied to the land and thus couldn’t come to us from Europe, and thus how do we treat with the spirits of this “new” land? The natives of this place have a long and good history of working with the land spirits here. Sadly, in most places, and certainly here on the west coast of the lower 48 the natives are almost completely gone. This is a very sad thing, but not the focus of this post. The question is, can those of us of European descent summon, honor, call, and treat with American land spirits? It was suggested that the spirits here are used to being summoned with certain type of ritual, that being those of the local natives. That the land spirits here have native names, and should only be addressed as such. ok…what if the name is not known, and can’t be learned? And what of the idea that they can only be summoned with native American style evocations? Where does this leave the modern druid? Even if I were able to learn, say the dances of the Umpqua Indians to summon the spirit of the Umpqua river, that would most likely be considered cultural appropriation and that’s just not P.C.

I have been tumbling these thoughts over in my head for several days now, and here is what I have come up with. First off, spirits are as individual in personality as people are. What might be ok with one spirit won’t be ok with another. How do we find out? I vote for good old fashioned trial and Error. Go out there and do what druids do in the way druids do it. If the spirit doesn’t like it, I am sure it will let you know, if you bother to listen. Let the spirits be our teacher. I think and feel with but a few exceptions so long as the spirits are approached with offerings, respect and love they are not going to be over critical if you said the right name, pronounced in the correct native dialect or be upset if you didn’t dance in the native way. Using a name the spirit is familiar with would be very helpful in treating with it, but not critical. So those druids that are inclined to work with such spirits, I say do your homework and get out there and get to know your spiritual neighbors!

No surprise that the spiritual world resembles this one — the spirits wish to be treated as individuals, because that’s what they are.  What of spirits of a species which was transplanted to the New World by Europeans?  Is it the “same” plant or animal?  The best way to find out, as Gwynt-Siarad observes, is to start the conversation.

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image credit: http://www.etsy.com/listing/59674255/fall-autumn-photography-new-england

(Check out their gorgeous prints.)

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