Archive for the ‘W B Yeats’ Tag

Wildness, and Thoreau at 200   Leave a comment

thoreauLong-time readers of this blog know my admiration for Henry David Thoreau (who rhymed his name with “borrow”). I’m well into a new biography* of him, and reminded by a New York Times book review that today is his 200th birthday.

*Walls, Laura Dassow. Thoreau: A Life. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017. (Go for the Kindle edition; hardcover is $35!)

Partly from Thoreau (1817-1862) and his Transcendentalist circle, but also of course from vivid Medieval conceptions, Westerners get Nature-with-a-capital-N, that idealized if not deified Presence. In the same millennium-old perception, we get two Books of Wisdom as well. The Book of Scripture, the Bible, yes. But also the Book of Nature. (Ah, but which is volume one and which is sequel?)

From the Concord, Massachusetts man and his most famous book, we learn his credo: “In Wildness is the preservation of the world”. For there is a tameness that allows us to live together at all, that is much but not all of what we mean by “civilization”, and another (or perhaps the same) tameness that makes us lie down in front of the onrushing disasters of the day, provided they don’t touch us too directly and painfully.

Or at least not right away. (Boil me gradually, and I’m a happy frog or lobster.) A few posts ago, I wrote of making coffee in an analogy for doing ritual: any trade deal made or broken is fine with me — until it deprives me of a ready supply of overseas beans. Or let’s say I do step forward, full of fire and righteous indignation (is there any other kind?!) to protest a worthy Druid-y cause, putting my life on the line, what then? Isn’t my life always on the line? As one follower* of a certain wilderness prophet cautioned us long ago: “I may even give away all that I have to the poor, and give up my body to be burned. But if I don’t have love, none of these things will help me”. More to the point, I’d say, will they help anyone else?

cernunnosThere’s also a wildness in “a certain forest god”, as John Beckett calls Cernunnos. As without, so within. There’s a wildness in each of us that politicians are eager to sedate and numb to stasis with material consumption and soundbites and spin. There’s a wildness like that of the Wild Hunt of European legend and myth, which modern Pagans, among others, have elaborated in provocative directions. The wildness of Nature isn’t Sunday-afternoon safe, and direct contact with it (if we survive) can strip away our pretences and excuses, can initiate us into powerful awareness and lasting change.

But like Tolkien’s Ents, we don’t like to be “roused”. I’ll fight tooth and claw for a comfortable cage, if one’s on offer, rather than for freedoms I claim I desire. For someone like Thoreau, Walls declares, “The dilemma that pressed upon him was how to live the American Revolution not as dead history but as living experience that could overturn, and keep overturning, hidebound convention and comfortable habits”. For we humans stand at the hinge, the pivot, the axis, in and of nature and yet able for a time to hold ourselves apart from it. Because where else is there?

Still, we strive to contrive and survive, little Sarumans every one of us. “Once out of nature”, writes W B Yeats in his almost infamous poem “Sailing to Byzantium”,

I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling …

Artifice, civilization, nature, justice? Just let me live forever, something in me cries. Just that, and I’ll sacrifice everything else to achieve it. You too can sail to Byzantium — for a price.

“Send lawyers, guns, and money”, says Warren Zevon in a song with the same title. “I’m the innocent bystander. Somehow I got stuck between the rock and a hard place. And I’m down on my luck …” Solutions present themselves. Not all deserve us. Few have anything to do with luck. And innocence or guilt completely misses the point of now. We’re all in it.

But wait …

“Once out of nature”? Are we now in that impossible place? Is that the legacy of the much-bandied about “Anthropocene“, our mythical present day, that time when human action carries geological force? “Health”, said Thoreau, “is a sound relation to nature”. “Physician”, says the Galilean master, quoting wisdom already proverbial in his time, “heal thyself”.

Oh Yeats, let me take bodily form from every living thing, let me know form, let me inhabit nature fully, and I will understand better, I will heal, and I will be healed.

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*1 Corinthians 13:3.

Images: ThoreauCernunnos/Gundestrup Cauldron.

June-cember — Seasons in Season   2 comments

Every season is in season. Here on June 4, a private foretaste of winter. Not because the world is cruel, or because I’m cynical or confused, or because the nighttime temperatures here in the hills still refuse to budge from the mid-40s F (6 C), but because all possibilities are alive at every moment, even as time sorts them into sequences, into sets of before-and-after.

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The first two cords of firewood arrived a couple days ago. I stack wood in June, and I’m reminded that I will lift these pieces again in December to carry in to the woodstove, my hands faintly scented with oak and maple and elm. This comes not as a rush of melancholy, but rather an intuition of a rhythm far larger than any one person or tribe or party. I sweat in the doing of it, and feel a familiar ache in the shoulders after I pause and straighten and stretch, another row done.

All around, we scrabble, dust ourselves off and parade our opinions, we joust and spar, not in our spare time, but in a time always spare of days. Meanwhile the great patterns we could apprentice ourselves to go largely unregarded, day following day, even as we wonder at what’s missing from our lives, and point fingers outward, away from where our lives point us.

At the close of World War 1 in 1919, two years shy of a century past, W. B. Yeats wrote these verses which too easily match today’s headlines:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Meanwhile what I need to know has always looked me in the face every minute of my life. It whispers in my ears, offering itself to my hearing. What I need to do comes to me in breathing, eating, working, sleeping and waking again, watching the worlds around me even as I take part in them and explore their textures with my skin. The moon waxes towards fullness, and birds sing all night long, making counterpoint with the peepers in the pond. The month warms towards the Solstice, and in a few weeks I will gather to celebrate it on a nearby hillside with half a score of others here in southern Vermont who also choose to honor the ancient rhythms.

With this blog I try to avoid “must” and “should”, “ought” and “have to”, except when I’m talking about myself and my own doings. Oh, I’m just as much a busybody as anyone. I have my opinions about what and how, who and when and why. But I also try out a path of wisdom laid down long ago and rein myself in, as much as I can, from dumping mere prejudices on you. And I submit that both of us breathe more easily as a result, and are the better for it. In their place, I strive to listen and reflect and marvel and shape into words what comes of that.

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I see my woodpile and I lift, piece by piece, the life that is given to me, and order it as it lies within my power to do. And you, friend — blessedly, you do the same where you are.

“Ceremonies of innocence” have endured all these long millennia — will endure, as long as we practice them. And the Center? The Center has always held, making everything else possible — it’s the edges that fray, that have always frayed. We stitch up, and rip, as we go. So I turn toward that shining Center when I can, I invite you to consider the Center where you are, as it may look to you. And I write about it here.

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Hunter, Hunted: Animal Guides, Denial, Persistence   1 comment

[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.

 

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