Wilderness

‘Wilderness’, it’s such an evocative word. For me, it immediately evokes daydreams of wild places, mountaintops, vast plains, windswept beaches, storm-drenched coast, beautiful nature in its unspoiled element. Our genes are programmed to love these places, to crave air and space and sunshine and rain. We need these things to thrive, to be happy. Research shows us this time and again. Yet, here in Britain this small crowded island with its cities and agriculture, for all our green and pleasantness, mountans, valleys and rivers, there is little that is truly wilderness; by which I mean, the places that nature is allowed to be, untouched, unmanaged by humanity. Almost every inch of these islands is grazed, managed, copiced, cleared or ‘protected’. Short of travelling a considerable distance most of us have very limited access to wilderness.

If you are anything like me though, you crave it, feel the ancient need for it deep within your bones and search for it as an essential source of healing. As a pagan, nature is where I find my deepest source of solace, I think of my ancestors who for thousands and thousands of years walked and lived in vast tundra and dense forest, the nearest neighboring tribe might have been days walk away. That’s not to over romanticise an idyllic existence of course, modern life brings us much comfort that I would not be without, but it illustrates the point that we’ve lived in the wilderness for far longer than as urbanised creatures. Even here in rural Leicestershire, in my tiny village of 180 people, I struggle to think of a single place I can go, certainly without getting in my car, where the horizon in every direction is free from settlement or farm building, where my view contains no field boundary or managed hedge.

In a search for the wild, perhaps for many of us, the places that we find wilderness most easily may be on the inside. We are animals after all, our humanity is just a civilised gloss over creatures who just need to eat, sleep, love, birth and screw; just as every other creature does. It is only our unique mental processes and the ability to manipulate our environment which affords us an illusion of difference. However, whilst we crave the romanticism of the wild, so often we fight it too with every fibre. We are social beings. We fundamentally need interaction, relationship and support in order to survive. We fear to be alone, really alone, or venture into the dark places of our heads where no one else can follow. Those places are scary and we avoid them, often for good reason. We fill our lives with constant interaction, facebook, phones, TV, radio. I suspect that we do this sometimes, to avoid the dark places. There is good evidence to suggest that the sights and sounds of the modern world, noise, traffic, screentime, crowds actually have abnormal affects on our brainwaves, changing our thought patterns and responses to the world negatively. Conversely, natural sights and sounds, green spaces, woodland, sky, birdsong, positively modulate and normalise our brain patterns and responses to stimuli.

How many of us can say that we have the balance right, spending MORE time in benefical environments allowing ourselves to naturally process our feelings and emotions than we do in the places, both physical and virtual, we are bombarded with images and chatter? I know that my interactions with social media for example can be profoundly damaging if I am not extremely careful, at times removing my ability to think clearly or independently. I’m overwhelmed by the detail of others lives and a level of interaction and sharing that feels to me sometimes, to be profoundly abnormal and intrusive. I am caught between the need and want to support friends and the need for peace, headspace, and solitude. It’s hard to get the balance right. For many of course, social media is extremely beneficial, relieving feeling of lonliness and social isolation, connecting people accross oceans and distance. But for others it adds another layer of complication to modern life to be navigated and managed. Or worse, becomes a sticking plaster to the things we really should be thinking about and dealing with, but aren’t.

All this returns me again to the need for wilderness. Sometimes we just need to disconnect from the chatter, let it all go, and to work out again what is authentic, the people, relationships and things that matter to us most in the real world. Sometimes in order to do that we need to be alone, to wander a little and get a bit lost. I would argue that there are times in our lives where this wandering is not only desirable, it’s absolutely essential because without it we only ever know ourselves as we are reflected in the eyes of others. To return to the wilderness even if that is a metaphorical wilderness is part of an ancient human process, when we can no longer bottle it up, button it up, suck it up, and when to continue to do so does us more harm than good.

When we need to find again a sense of self which is independent and a strength which comes from centre and not from others, getting lost can be helpful. There is profound use in stopping, sitting and peacefully acknowledging your surroundings, realising that you have no idea where you are or what to do. In the moment that you stop pushing, stop fighting, stop running, stop trying to be somewhere else, and recognise that you are lost in the wilderness, the panic and urgency is calmed and the answer emerges – for there is no other – you learn to say simply, “I’m here” and find a sense of presence in the moment. In the moment, we breathe, are able to hear the birdsong, the sea, the wind in the trees, and smell the honeysuckle when before we were distracted. In the moment, we can look for the place on the horizon where the sun rises or the side of the tree that the lichen grows to help us orientate again. But we can only do this effectively when we have the space and time to do so.

Of course few of us are ever truly alone, enforced  lonliness is a terrible place to be and the point is not to permanently isolate ourselves in the quest. Having people around us, who honour our need for wilderness and support the vision quest is vital. In such a way we can be lost in quiet company, where those who understand the need will stand with you and hold the compass as it spins, or quietly watch as you smooth out the map. What is needed in the wilderness are those able to suspend their own need to locate, push, solve the problem, move, chivvy or cheer us, knowing that wilderness is healing in itself, and the process of stopping and locating ourselves is the only way to go forward. This may take time, a lot of time, but when we finaly find the courage to move again, located in the moment, the path will emerge from the undergrowth and the wilderness will return to the familiar. The clarity and strength we have gained will teach us to be less frightened of returning to the wilderness again when we need to, because we come back to the world stronger than we left it. Perhaps most importantly though, in experiencing wilderness and its capacity to heal, we learn to support the process for others, suspending our own needs, and witness quietly as they too stop and smooth out the map.

 

 

 

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Gemænscipe*

As is usually the case, I don’t have nearly as much time as I would like to write within this context and usually when I do, it is because I have been strongly provoked to consider my own thoughts on something or other. I usually write entirely for myself, as a way of processing something, and more often than not, I wind up writing the words I would have liked to hear myself, in helping me to come to an understanding on something. Over the past few months I have been thinking very much about community, my place within it and what exactly it IS, other events of the past week have brought that even more into perspective. Community is a word that is bandied around a lot within any kind of pagan circle you care to mention, and the assumption often seems to be that we all know what it means, or that we are all singing from the same sheet. I usually find that the understanding of what community means will differ greatly between the traditions, even within them, understanding can be quite diverse.

If you will permit me an exploration of the word through my trusty OED (because I like words and their etymology), it offers a number of definitions:

Community

1.A group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common

2.A particular area or place considered together with its inhabitants:

3.The condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common

I find these definitions interesting because they immediately bring to mind that which is not just about the human, but the entire context within which we find ourselves. The first two consider community not just as collections of humans, but of humans within a place or landscape. There is something implicit within the word that suggests a group of people who share a commonality of experience. If we broaden that definition out to a more animistic understanding, where the people we are talking about are not just human, but plants, animals, bricks, rocks, water and the sofa, that widens again our understanding of what community might be and adds a another dimension to the picture. As I write, I consider the community I am creating in this moment simply by being conscious of it. I sit on the sofa and can feel the fabric, the cotton and plants, the oil that made it, the wool of the blanket, the wooden frame. In the hearth, the woodburner is lit, the flames adding warmth to the room, burning the wood from the basket. There is the cat on the sofa, the bricks and paint of the house, the rose bush outside and the bowl of daffodils on the window sill; it is a very consciously chosen community, my home, and the place that I feel most welcome. I am very aware that the place is happy with me too, we have an ease that has come from spending the last year here, talking to the spirits of this place, making offerings and most importantly listening to the response. It is a negotiated relationship, built with care, mutual trust, a sense of what each needs, and what nourishes who. We don’t always get it right (if I don’t hoover often enough the old lady who lived here in the 70s gets very grumpy), but the intention all round is to maintain that relationship for as long as it lasts for the good of all concerned. It takes energy, co-operation, and a shared sense of value and direction, a recognition of what the commonality is.

For me, a key part of recognising myself to be a part of a community is in understanding what that commonality is. Potentially when considering something as large and expansive as ‘The Pagan Community’, or ‘The Druid Community’, even a community such as the friends we collect on Facebook, we may have a problem, because recognising what the commonality and shared value and direction is, can be almost impossible. Go back 20 years, even 10, and there were a great deal fewer pagans and the commonality found in isolation, discrimination or even a shared sense of weirdness was enough to bring and hold communities together. Nowadays ‘The Community’ is just too big, too diverse, with too many people all with different wants, needs and opinions for me to find much of a commonality of place or shared values and beliefs, let alone that shared sense of direction, which I need in order to really invest. And this is fine so long as we recognise that the only thing we may hold in common is the word ‘Druid’ and that difference of opinion will be as broad as it is possible to be. It certainly doesn’t mean that these communities are not of value, but if we are expecting all people within them to behave, act and think in the same way, or place expectations upon them about what they should provide us with, then we will probably be disappointed because they are to big and too open to engender the kind of support, validation or affirmation that so many of us seek in times of trouble. Because here’s the thing, and I feel slightly heretical saying it, I don’t consider ‘The Druid Community’ or ‘The Pagan Community’, or even the ‘Heathen Community’, to be my community. At least, not in any meaningful sense. For the most part, I find my own values and beliefs to be so different I often wonder if I’m in the right place at all. I find the expectation that I will be all caring, all supporting, all enabling, all understanding, not upset anyone, and always say the right thing tiresome, mostly because I would never make that expectation in this context myself.

I have run into all sorts of problems in being very open in these sorts of arenas and then being very upset when I did not receive the response I wanted, entirely through my own misjudgment of what that shared commonality was. Consequently I am selective about what I share where. This of course, creates an online persona which is not disingenuous or a fake, it’s just the bits of me I choose to share in a particular space, but it means that you never see the whole person and it certainly means you are not seen within your full context. Some of the most lovely people I ever met, seem to manage to create the most noxious online personalities which in no way represent them in real life. We all do it to a greater or lesser extent, and herein lies another problem; if our online communities are made up of ‘bits’ of people, placed outside of their context, how much of a community are they really? This bits-of-people phenomena creates the danger that we will make assumptions about others, to a certain extent we have to, in order to bridge the gaps and create something functional. This is particularly true where we really don’t know the people involved well, because we may never have actually met in person, or have spent only a limited amount of time with them. But that also means that as often as we get those assumptions right, we will get them wrong and we can’t really blame other people for making up the stuff we don’t chose to tell them.

It is for this reason I tend not to use these online communities for support or validation, choosing instead to share the difficult stuff in my life with the people close to me. I might choose to use the word ‘Hearth’ rather than community in this context for the warmth at the centre that it implies. These are those people I chose to spend time with. A lot. They are the ones I love, the ones I miss when they are not around, the ones that make me laugh, the ones with whom I can cry. Perhaps most importantly, I haven’t chosen them to affirm me, or tell me I’m right, but because I know they value me enough to tell me when I’m behaving like an idiot when it’s needed. I trust them to hold the mirror up in way that will support me to learn and grow that is gentle but challenging, because they know me. They are the friends and family of blood and not-blood with whom I have chosen to create conscious and nourishing relationships and with whom I am invested in a way I can never be online.

There absolutely is value in sharing in these wider, larger, more public communities. I’ve met and made connections with the some of the most important people in my life online initially, but those relationships have always had the most value where they work offline too. There are hazards in choosing to share our deepest truths online, with people we don’t know well, and who aren’t necessarily invested in a caring relationship with us. We cannot have the expectation that they will look after us or be gentle because they are working from a place of their own troubles and just maybe there is a really good reason that they weren’t nice when you needed them to be. It’s so important to understand that the words we put out there will often really push buttons and challenge people and that we may be seriously challenged in return. We need to be really sure we can handle that or we place ourselves in danger not only of winding up very hurt, but of alienating people too.

 

 

*An Old English word meaning community, fellowship, union, common ownership,

Animist Blog Carnival – Animism & Religion

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My new article on Heathen Druidry has been included in this month’s Animist Blog Carnival on Religion. This month Heather of Eaarth Animist is hosting.

My article can be found here

I hope you enjoy the fantastic work that has gone into this month’s Carnival.

Walking the Cotswold Way.

A Pilgrimage to Sulis Minerva.

The Beginning and the End

The Beginning and the End

The idea of pilgrimage is always one that has fascinated me; there is something very sacred about taking the time out of day-to-day life to devote to making a journey. As a teenager I studied Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and was swept up as much by the act of travelling to a place of reverence as the characters and their raucous stories.

In a world where we travel a hundred miles in an afternoon and think nothing of popping down the road by car to our ‘local’ sacred site, which may actually be 20 or 30 or even more miles away, so few of us know how it feels to walk 100 miles or more, or the effort, energy and the determination that takes even for someone as blessed as I am with good health and the use of my legs. Yet, it was a more common occurrence to our ancestors for whom often, walking was the only means of transport.

As pagans, we often talk of the act of journeying as being central to our spirituality. Whether we track the inner paths of meditations, the shamanic journeys of healing and divination or the perfectly orchestrated journey of a well planned ritual for a rite of passage or celebration, the language of the journey is common to most of us. But, how often do we make a journey that is consciously and actually walked, step by step and moment by moment, a journey that may last a few days, a week, a month or even longer; surrendering ourselves completely to where that journey may take us and the challenges that may be encountered along the way? Of course there are many ways to create this kind of journey but as I discovered this week, a long distance walk is particularly powerful.

When my friend Sophie asked me at New Year if I would like to walk the Cotswold Way with her in the coming May, a 102.5 mile route that stretches from Chipping Campden, down and across the entirety of Gloucestershire, to Bath in Somerset, my immediate reaction was ‘YES!” quickly followed by a feeling of trepidation and the wondering of what I had let myself in for. I was a casual walker, easily capable of 7 or 8 miles without a problem, but I knew that that was not going to be adequate for this kind of journey where a pace of 10 -16 miles needed to be maintained every day for 8 days. Not only that, but we decided very early on not to use the services of a sherpa to carry our bags. We were going to do this properly; carrying everything we needed was an important part of the journey.

For both of us, the Cotswolds are a sacred place. The escarpment that stretches from the Midlands to the south of England has been a backbone to much of our lives. For me, it links the Cotswold stone of my childhood, the bedrock upon which I now live, a significant part of my life for the last decade, and the ancestral land of my mothers line deep into Gloucestershire and Somerset.  We knew that to make a pilgrimage along the escarpment following that line down to its natural end in Bath where the steaming red water pours from the rocks into the roman baths at the shrine of Sulis Minerva, who became our constant companion en route, would be powerful.

Having trained extensively this spring, we both had a fair idea that we could cope with the maximum daily distance of 16 miles. But, we had no way of knowing whether we could cope with it day after day without actually doing it.  In the event, the repeated distance, carrying of a pack and the hot weather we were blessed with for the first three or four days became a recipe for blisters, sore feet, and a not insignificant amount of pain and it seemed to be so for many of the other walkers we met on route. We quickly realised that this too was a part of the journey and that the pain became a devotional act, a sacrifice to the gods of the landscape through which we passed and in sympathy with the many ancestral feet that had walked the path before us. We soon understood that pilgrimage is not supposed to easy and the satisfaction and achievement of reaching the end is in direct proportion to the trials experienced along the way.

We were overwhelmed too with hospitality, folk seeming to understand on some level the importance of what we were doing. We met friends, and relatives who took us in, fed and watered us, shared supper or a drink and walked with us along the way. Other walkers on the same journey became our companions and whilst we were all walking for very different reason, there was a shared understanding, each became an important part, the journey being as much about the people we met as the landscape we walked through. In Sophie’s words we “had one the most fabulous and memorable weeks of our lives. We giggled and sang our way along the Cotswold Way repeating the mantra that ‘pain is only sensation and will arise and pass away’, when the pain in our feet was hard to bear. We walked through blazing sun and howling gale, climbing up and down the escarpment time after time. We walked through bluebell and garlic filled woods, regaled by birdsong and the wind in the trees; over hill forts and long barrows covered in cowslips where we stopped for the odd extreme knitting session; crossed trunk roads and the M4 and finally arrived in Bath where we made offerings to Minerva at her spring,” tears running down our faces as we cast the traditional offerings of money into the blood-red waters, breathing the warmth and steam of her sanctuary whilst tourists snapped pictures and milled around oblivious. For most, the traditional end to the Cotswold way is the Abbey, but for us it was here, in the caves beneath the city.

Having completed the journey and today resting at home, I am left with a deep impression of the power of the pilgrimage. Its ability to challenge and focus us, provide a medium for the outward expression of an inner devotion to ancestors and landscape. I know that I will do it again and I know other pagans who are helping to resurrect that tradition within our religion where it is sadly lacking. For me it has been the ultimate experience of learning to walk this sacred land in a way I had not experienced before and one I hope that others might be inspired to explore.

With thanks to Chris Hastie you can see the route from our GPS tracks here

Very many congratulations to Sophie too, who raised over £1300 for Prostate Cancer UK. You can still sponsor her here

Place Magic

This month one of my posts has been included in the wonderful Animists Blog Carnival otherwise known as the ABC. This month it is entitled, Place Magic and is hosted by Heather at Adventures in Animism. There are loads of great articles to delve into, a kind of online magazine from animists around the world and hosted by a different blog each month. Enjoy!

Spirits of Place

My husband and I are moving house.  We have found a beautiful cottage in a very old Warwickshire village. It is a village that has many local legends attached to it, an old tump which has (supposedly) been a Norman castle, Saxon settlement and ancient British mound. It has a 13th century church, and several very old pubs and orchards. The place is bound together by the thousand layers of human story that have created it, the many, many ancestors who have lived and died there; the candle maker from the old factory that was dismantled in the 1980’s and the shoemaker listed in the 1841 census, are all ingredients in the glue that holds the place together. A village is a mingling of folk, from the spirits of the deep landscape, the bedrock and underground water systems, to the rivers, hedges and field boundaries; the ancient badger set in the field, the people, dead and alive, human and non, the colour of the sky and the taste of the rain are what make it what it is.

I know that the house is old. Maps from 1837 show a building plan that is identical to today’s googlemaps, so I suspect it has been a residence for nigh on 200 years. We like each other, the house and I, although my husband and I discounted it initially. It has a number of things that I wouldn’t have chosen, compromises we will have to make and there is work to be done. But there are wonderful things I would never have hoped for too: idyllic, in a quiet courtyard, a studio in the loft, a farmhouse kitchen and an old, old, apple tree. It feels to be the right house, a place we could be happy, after a good few years of hard house-hunting and upheaval, it is a place worth compromising for. Falling into the category of ‘things I wouldn’t have chosen’ are, I suspect, a number of ‘former residents’ and some slightly ‘sludgy’ energy from the previous couple, who separated whilst living there. Most of us are prepared to put in some DIY when we move house, but how many of us are prepared to put in the energy work too? Making sure that not only do we feel comfortable in our new home, but also that our home feels comfortable with us, is perhaps even more important.

Having been sensitive to the dead all my life, I have always been wary of living somewhere that I am directly required to share my space with them. I grew up somewhat afraid of the dead, no one else saw or felt what I did, which meant that people either thought I was strange, deluded, or more probably, that we just didn’t talk about these things. I certainly frightened my mother on a number of occasions and soon realised that talking about the old woman in the corner of the room wouldn’t go down too well. Either way, I quickly came to understand that the dead were to be feared. Consequently, despite the work I do as priest and teacher, the dead still frighten me at times which means I have never learned how to work with them with much skill and I am aware that I need to learn how. The idea of sharing a house with some of them makes me apprehensive. It feels to be different to much of the ancestor work that defines my craft, because rightly or wrongly, I feel like I have more control of the situation and more importantly, I know them and feel comfortable with them.

Consideration of this situation has led me to think long and hard about the best and most ethical way to work with the spirits of this new place. I wonder, what it will be ok to clear out and what I have no right to ask to leave? After all, any person living there may have been resident for 200 years, what right do I have to ask them to go and more importantly, are they integral to the place, literally holding it together in some way, part of the building itself? What door might drop off, wall start crumbling or pipe burst as a consequence of their leaving? On the other hand, helping blocked and stagnant energy to move through, energetic house cleaning, would seem perfectly acceptable when done with good relationship and consent, healing for all concerned. Ultimately, I think that is a discussion to be had amongst everyone after we move in; what and who wants and needs to stay, what and who can be released. There is also a balance too, just as with all things in life, what do we disturb and rearrange that we might exist with any degree of comfort, because it will have to become comfortable or we won’t stay.

All of this prompted me to ask these questions, both on the practicalities and the ethics of working with the spirits of place in this way, in an online, broadly Druid, discussion group. I was surprised by some of the responses I got. Everything from stories of folk who had been in a similar situation and found a way to create relationship with the place that was harmonious, to those who recommended a spiritual ‘butt kicking’ and a sense that the world is for the living, that the dead don’t belong here. The second school of thought led me to wonder how common it is that even within the Druid community we still carry so many assumptions left over from a broadly Christian and dualistic mindset. Firstly the assumption that the world is for us – the living, to be used as we see fit, regardless of what other persons we might share it with, and secondly, that the dead do not belong here; that they live somewhere else, another supernatural, unknowable dimension in another time and place. That somewhere might be Heaven, the Summerlands, Valhalla, Hel, Annwn or the many other places that our mythologies sing to us of. Wherever they are, we cross our fingers and hope against hope that they are anywhere other than here. The dead make us uncomfortable and so we comfort ourselves with the idea that they are somewhere else, in a collective hall, singing and feasting away eternity. If they are here, then (we assume), nature has obviously gone wrong, and the process has failed for some reason, they are somehow stuck and require help to be moved on. Is it really that they shouldn’t be here though, or just that we’d rather they weren’t?

Whilst I certainly do not discount the existence of any, all and many more of these ‘Otherworld’ places, the world is vast, multi-veiled and complex, I do not understand there to be only one ending place where we all ultimately end up. The soul too is multifaceted, rarely sticking together in any wholly coherent form after death. To the Animist, body and soul are not separate, with the animating force leaving the cold corpse behind at death. Consciousness fizzes through fingers and toes, heart and hair as an integrated whole. When we die, memories, personality, layers of thought, emotion, blood, bone, fluid, atoms, carbon and oxygen start to disperse and with it our human solidity and coherency. We become memories in mud, thoughts that remain with our living friends and family, songs in the wind, particles in carrots and piss in the water, wandering the places that we loved or were attached to in life. Parts may dream on in our concepts and memories of Summerland or Hel, spend a while held in the arms of our gods, whatever we conceive that to mean, or exploring the stars and becoming a hundred other lives and a myriad other existences. Reincarnation becomes so much more exciting! To me, there is no sense that there is only one option, that the same is true for each individual or that there are rules about where we go or where we should or shouldn’t be. Rather, I would suggest that here is a perfectly legitimate place for many of these ancestral folk and shards of memory in their varying degrees of consciousness and coherency, as a part of the collective of the tribe and community, the richness of place and within the humming wholeness of landscape, integral and essential to it as we understand it.  We should think very carefully before we make decisions about where these folks belong and what is best for them. Just maybe they have made a decision or know something we don’t? Perhaps the first thing we should deal with is our own sense of discomfort and unease?

We talk a lot in our tradition about the spirits of place and I wonder what each of us imagines we are speaking to when we call to them? Is it just the nice things, the trees, the sky, the wind? Or is it all of nature, present in its blood and bone, mess, difficulty, memory and emotion. All the things that actually make a place what it is?