Monday, 23 June 2014

At The Still Point of The Turning World

You tell me that silence
is nearer to peace than poems
but if for my gift
I brought you silence
(for I know silence)
you would say
This is not silence 
This is another poem
and you would hand it back to me. 

'Gift by Leonard Cohen

There is a silence that falls softly here on a summer's afternoon.  Languidly stealing in between the hum of the honeybee and the occasional fluttering wing.  The birds have finally quietened, mates have been found, nests have been built, eggs laid and now the hatchlings rest with bellies full in the bliss of a sunny summer's zenith.

All June I've been waiting for it - that moment in the middle of a summers day when the birds stop singing and all you can hear is the heavy hum of insects.  It sounds like the cosmic OM, the Hum of Creation, and on the honeysuckle drenched air of a blazing afternoon it makes me feel as though I'm blissfully drowning in nectars freshly delivered from a honey-bee's tongue.

Finally, on mid-summers day, the hour came. It seemed very appropriate that the descent into bird silence should be at one of the most potent moments of stillness in the year, the tipping point between summer and winter, between the inbreath and the outbreath of the seasons, between being and un-being.

No one is in a hurry at this time of year. I wander the fields and woodlands with panting dogs, marveling at the wonders all around us and almost holding my breath so as to treasure the sacredness of this stillness.

Sometimes, it seems, even the ever-present desire for walking is overruled by the desire to be still!

Even the chickens can't be hurried on a day like this.

It feels as if the smallest step could take you through the crack between the worlds and far far away, 'love is unmoving' said the poet, and I am deeply rooted here and also there.

'At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh no fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.  And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered.  Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent no decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.'

T S Eliot 'Burnt Norton' from Four Quartets.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Olwen of The White Track; The Hawthorn Tree

I've been carrying around a story all week: It's the story of Olwen of The White Track and it's been going round in my head for no other reason than that her father's name in English is Hawthorn.  In Welsh it is Ysbadadden Pencawr and he was the fierce and powerful King of the Giants told of in stories contained in the wonderful Mabinogion.

There are countless tales, fables and folk beliefs about Hawthorn Trees:  Some say they are home to the Fey, they say that Thomas The Rhymer met the Faery Queen beside a Hawthorn Tree before she took him to Tir na nOg.  It's said that witches can turn themselves into Hawthorn Trees and that sprigs of Hawthorn will keep the cows milk sweet if hung in the dairy. These are just the top branches of a Hawthorn Story Tree that has roots running very deep into the psychic soil of our tribal histories.

It flowers in May, and is often called simply The May Tree. It features in most May Day Celebrations but it's not just the arrival of it's flowers in spring that call for attention. It's the tree you will most often find guarding a sacred spring, it's the one we tie ribbons in for wishing.  It's the thorn that is spoken of in that beautiful expression 'by Oak, Ash and Thorn', the one that opens the doors to the Otherworld.

Now (mid June) is the time of the year when all the Hawthorns hereabouts suddenly start to drop their petals.  Their beautiful froth of white - always so redolent of The Maiden - or indeed Olwen - starts to fall on the paths and roads everywhere.

The petal strewn path must surely have just seen a bride pass?  In ancient Greece crowns of Hawthorn blossoms were made for wedding couples and the wedding party all carried burning branches of Hawthorn.

Olwen was a maiden so beautiful of heart that every man who laid eyes on her fell in love with her and when she walked flowers bloomed in her footsteps.  Some say the flowers were Lilies but when I think of her footsteps I think of Daisies.

These one's turned out to be full of Starlings.

Culhwch, who falls in love with Olwen at the sound of her name, has had a curse put upon him by his wicked step mother that he shall marry none but the Giant Hawthorn's daughter.  Hawthorn has a geis (a curse, a doom) upon him that says that when his daughter marries he shall die on her wedding day.  Needless to say he is not keen for her to marry so he demands that Culhwch perform a series of seemingly impossible tasks in order to win her hand, which he does with the help of King Arthur and six of his finest warriors.

So many of the stories around Hawthorn seem to be about marriage. I was wondering, is that why we throw petals at brides?  (Yes I know, there are brides in every month, but isn't June the most popular month for a wedding?) The Hawthorn flowers in May when the sap is rising in all of us, and it casts it's petals in June.  So have the petals become a symbol for the loss of maidenhead?  Is the maiden's head the flower? Well of course it is but read that sentence every which way.

When the petals are lying on the ground the tree goes about making the berry, ripening to fruitfulness the seed of the next generation.  It's not chance I'm sure, that a tree with petals so linked to maidens, magic and marriage in our mythology,  should happen to be linked to the heart in our medicine.  The berries of the Hawthorn have been used by herbalists as a heart tonic for centuries.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The Museum of Witchcraft

A merry band of friends ventured into Cornwall to The Museum of Witchcraft at Boscastle, we had a glorious day; there was sun and sea and pasties and ice-cream and lots and lots of witchery and it challenged me on many levels.  Despite my recent profile picture, I didn't really think of myself as a witch - well not that kind of witch anyway.

But there were so many things in this museum that I think of as completely normal that I began to wonder. For example - an entire wall is taken up with small bottles of dried leaves and barks.

It looks much like the contents on one side of my larder. (Mine's obviously far less romantic and far less organised! But also, this is only a small selection as there are plenty to be had fresh in the hedgerow and more drying over the fire.)

But not just my larder.  The majority of the women I know have a kitchen shelf full of bottles such as these. Hedgerow cures for anything from headaches and indigestion to broken bones and flu.  These women do not consider themselves to be practicing magic (which is surely the remit for a witch?).  They simply love nature and know some of her many wondrous ways.  This led me to thinking differently about other things in the museum.

The Goddess

And The Green Man (or in this first photo Cernunnos)

Do they really belong in a Museum of Witchcraft?  I suppose they do - in our horribly secular world anything that is not 'ordinary reality' is by definition dodgy and when you add to that the cultural background of Christianity which has historically perceived anyone not adhering to its version of reality to be part of some sort of demonic conspiracy in league with the devil - then witchcraft it is.

But much of what is within this museum is nothing more than an expression of love for the enspirited natural world which we are part of and an understanding that there is more to it than meets the eye.

There are surely many country ways that still survive today, simple spells and blessings that are done even in the most un-witchy of households - ways that connect us through nature to a belief in something 'other'. Ways that are little more than the application of 'intention' to a thing or a task in the hopes of a particular outcome.

If these are witchcraft then long may it flourish and continue - and yes, I am a witch.

Monday, 2 June 2014

One Summer Doesn't Make A Swallow

The Cuckoos have been calling every morning and evening for most of May; calling for summer to get up off the wet grass where she's been lying and come and play in the fields. She can't seem to decide whether to shake her dew sodden skirts and fill the sky with water or swoop high and low with the swallows and picnic among the buttercups with the bees.

My Granny said it every year .... "one Swallow doesn't make a summer".  They are the first to arrive, these avian acrobats who twitter, squeak and gurgle their way through our summer mornings. They tend to come in dribs and drabs, hence the expression, but by June the nests are built, the eggs are cosily within and some of the first chicks have hatched.  (These pictures of fledglings are from last year.)

These are strange times, governments and big-business don't seem to care at all that they are poisoning our world, killing that wonderful living thing we depend upon for our survival.  I wonder if they have another planet - as yet undiscovered by the rest of us - that they can retreat to when they have ruined this one.  

To be truthful, although I know it's going on, I don't often experience first hand much of the mindless destruction of our natural resources in the little bubble of protected nature that is Dartmoor.  Life generally goes sweetly on, or at least it did until this year.  This year the uncountable numbers of Swallows who used to sit on the wires outside our house are reduced to four.  Yes FOUR!!  I cannot adequately express the sadness I feel as each day I scan the skies in the now seemingly hopeless search for more. 

Swallows are dependent on flying insects for their food - those same flying insects that GMO organisms and blithely sprayed pesticides are killing off as fast as they can.  Swallows are the heralds of an English summer when they arrive here to breed and the surest sign that Autumn is coming when they gather in long chirruping lines on the telephone wires as the nights grow colder.  

They use their aerial acrobatics to attract a mate and if you've ever seen them swooping and swerving through the air, hurtling earthwards and zigzagging low to the ground before hurling themselves skywards again you will know what a thrilling display this can be.  

In Ancient Egyptian mythology the Goddess Isis took the form of a Swallow in order to search for the pieces of Osiris, her dismembered lover.  For me these last Swallows are asking us to re-member, remember what we are, where we live, and what we have to lose if we don't look after it.  To remember that this is our one and only home; if we shut ourselves out, there is nowhere else to be.