A decade ago I had come to the end of a road. After a door that shouldn’t have been was firmly closed, I was standing high above San Francisco Bay, looking at the Golden Gate beneath a soft blue sky and the heights of Mt. Tamalpais to the north. I decided to rise. I raised my arms to the wind and asked to be blown to my allies. Then I wrote this chant.
Very soon after, I became a Druid. I haven’t looked back.
I got it! Why Pantheacon left such a bad taste in my mouth—why, of all the years I’ve gone, I got sick this time. Con crud has always passed me by before. I thought my “secret” was purely physical, a protection conferred by my homeopathic remedies and the fact that my job exposes me to basically everything, as well as all the walking I do, the trash I pick up barehanded, etc., etc.
It was something much older that made me sick, something I thought I had learned back in grade school when I became an outcast, and later, when I couldn’t find a boyfriend like everyone else. I realized then that there was no point in wanting what everyone else had. I knew, in a moment much like the one I experienced at the beginning of this week, that what everyone else has will never make me happy. Life is not one size fits all.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit it. What I wanted was to become a Big Name Pagan. I wanted to give talks and write books and not have to go back to this job that was not the deal I made with the Earth, lo, those many years ago.
Now it isn’t that I don’t have a book in me. I have many, as a matter of fact. I have songs and albums, the Awen has a metric fuckton of work for me to do. But not for attention. Not for status. For Gaia, and for Saturn, my taskmaster. For Taliesin, my inner container, strong and skilled, into which the Awen pours beauty. I forgot for a moment that all this stuff wants is a conduit to come through into the world, and that Cerridwen told me that all I had to do was serve my purpose. The rewards will come, and their form will be surprising. Jupiter will make me wealthy. I just have to remember that my conception of wealth has very little to do with money.
I forgot all this, and I made myself miserable and sick.
I’m all better now. Life is crammed full of wonder and wealth. The sun shines gold on me, the rain pours silver on my head. I met Rambling Jack Elliott yesterday, a Uranian twist of fate if ever there was one. I accompanied him around the vessel he knew well back in the day, listened to his silly jokes, and how he was chased off the boat at nineteen by the guy who used to own her in the Thirties. Amid the sound of the chipping hammers I’d do anything to be able to swing again, pulling dainty little covers off capstans that have no need of such fripperies, pulled from my servant’s station where I had been placed by the Hollywood Pirate who will never see these gallant Ladies as anything more than a rung on the ladder of status.
I went back to my bench, with my laminated slices of My Lady’s History, under the cotton candy clouds, beneath the brilliant blue sky, and realized that I am exactly where I need to be, for now. My sentence is coming to an end, with every status-seeker who moves on, with every story I tell of the 5,000 year history of deforestation that passed through our vessels, with every light that goes on behind the eyes of some traveler who thought they were coming to see the “pirate ships.”
You got more than you bargained for when you ran into this Bard, no? My workplace got more than it knew when it hired a resident Witch. And the Ladies got exactly what they deserved.
On March 20th, 2018, a circle of people stood in the rain, celebrating the day the genocide ended. The Ohlone had called us together with faith leaders from many communities to celebrate the vernal equinox on a parking lot that covers the last remnant of a shellmound complex that stretched for miles. At the ceremony, the Ohlone asked for our help to demand that the City of Berkeley follow their own rules, and those of the state in protecting this site. The developers are trying to circumvent the process and begin developing the site now: The facts about the shellmound and the developers are here.
The Ohlone want a city park built here to protect the site. They want to be able to come here to be with their ancestors. Such a small bit of land–already protected–about to be dug up and destroyed so someone can make a profit. Sacred sites belong to all of us. They are our memory of the peoples who came before. For the Ohlone, they are places where the bones of their ancestors lie. Such a small request. A city park for everyone to enjoy, and a place where we can all meet each Vernal Equinox. To commemorate the day the genocide ended.
Come, if you can, to the Berkeley Transportation Committee meeting tonight, Thursday May 17, 7 PM, North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Ave., Berkeley.
The First Peoples of North America killed the Black Snake. They warned us all of the web of dark pipe, creeping across the Land, poisoning the Land, the Water, the Air. They had to speak, hoping that at last we would hear because death came once again for their lands, and because they knew that all lands are one. They knew it would never stop until all the Earth was destroyed. They reminded us that Water is Life, that we cannot eat money, we cannot drink oil, or breathe natural gas.
This story is the tale we told our children, the tale our descendants will tell, the story of how we, the blessed ancestors, made the right choices when the choices we made were crucial. They tell this story in this way because we must remember the things that we had to die to in order not to die of them. This story is a strong, beautiful container, fit to bring the knowledge down through the ages to come.
500 years ago, people who looked like me came to this continent. They named it America, after one of their gentleman adventurers. These men came to make their fortunes. With them came the dispossessed, the unwanted, the persecuted. The ones considered the dregs of Europe. They cloaked their pain at losing their homelands and being parted from their kin and the land their ancestors bones lay in with the story of a better future. They used it to forget the pain of their worthlessness. They created the story of the temporarily embarrassed billionaire that so many of us tell ourselves today.
They poured into a land depopulated by the disease that came before them and they mistook it for a wilderness. They brought with them the story of the Great Chain of Being, all the way from God in his heaven down to the lowest demons in Hell. They placed the First Peoples at the bottom as they took what they wanted. They forced the First Peoples onto lands they considered useless, worthless. They created a world in the image of the one they had been forced from and they prospered.
Now, those at the top have discovered something they want on those “worthless” lands. They came for them as well, and the First Peoples are once again fighting for their homes, their sacred places. They are warning us, reminding us that water is life. Telling us once again that you cannot eat money, drink oil, breathe natural gas. That true wealth is clean land, clean water, clean air.
We hear them, we of many creeds, many colors, many orientations. We know these truths down to our bones. We too are dispossessed. The sickness that brought the first Europeans here did not stop with the lands and lives of the First Peoples. Those who hold the wealth have begun to eat their own, all who are different, who do not worship the right gods, love the right people, hold the right truths in our hearts. We who know that there is no “them,” that there is only us, from the plankton in the seas to the birds soaring high above this land, from the homeless shivering in the streets to the richest in their houses of gold. We know that the first thing we look for when we discover the existence of other planets is the presence of Water, because Water is Life.
We know that we must die to the idea that there are worthless people, worthless beings of any kind. We know that all beings have a place and a right to exist in it. We know that the Land is not something one can own, nor is it something that owns us. Land and People and all Beings are in relationship with each other, and when we take from the Land, we must also give back in our turn. We know that all that we are is borrowed from the future, and received from the past.
We took the hands of the First Peoples and became friends. Together we did the hard work of throwing our shoulders to those feedback loops that were spinning towards death and started them spinning towards life. We stopped taking what the Earth could no longer give and stopped giving what the Earth could no longer take. We built a world where all beings are honored, where all people have food, shelter and clothing appropriate to our needs and our creeds. We all know that we are the Web of Life, and what we do to the web we do to ourselves.
We took the hands of the First Peoples and became friends. Our children took the hands of those of the First Peoples and grew up as siblings. Their children were born as one, peoples of many creeds, colors, orientations, an adornment of this Earth instead of a scourge, knowing a peace that we will never know.
But down through the ages they tell the story of us, the blessed ancestors who did what was needed when what we did was crucial. They remember that the First Peoples of a land once called North America killed the Black Snake, and saved us all.
/|\ /|\ /|\
This story is the heart of a workshop I will be giving at Pantheacon 2018. It is called The Story We Tell Now Is Vital: Modern Mythology And The Shaping Of The World To Come.
OBOD Hospitality Room, 253, Saturday at 5 PM.
Bring a notebook or a drawing pad and your imagination!
Deep peace of the Grove.
Silence in the back of my head.
Like the Druid’s tonsure, forbidden at Whitby.
When the Wild Celtic Church was tamed,
Rome had its way at last.
Or did it?
The Yews still stand in churchyards.
Ancient, filled with silence.
The deep peace of the grave is not so different
Once grief has fled.
The slate shedding
The names graven upon them.
I touch the young Yews,
Planted in a row on Hyde Street.
Have they seen a century yet?
I touch that Peace
Is it the same?
I ran across the One Million Redwoods kickstarter today. The thing that really brought me on board is that, besides the fact that this project is already underway, they are not just planting redwoods, but the whole forest community. They understand the difference between a tree farm and a forest, and they are doing the desperately needed work of reforestation that will save us all, if we do enough of it in time.
Trees are the cheapest, fastest carbon sinks we have to hand. They are proven technology, the planet’s own way of locking up the surfeit we’ve thrown into the atmosphere over the last few hundred years. More than that, trees and humans are interdependent. We breathe each others’ exhalations–literally. We need forest products for so many things, food and fuel and the houses we live in. Our bodies and our waste products can feed the forest, if we do it properly. We are happier and healthier living around trees–we are so dependent that even when we cut down the forest to build our cities we plant replacement trees. Our relationship is so obvious and natural to us that we don’t even see it any more, even when it’s all around us.
We are beginning to die because we have cut down so many trees. The planet is getting hotter and drier. Fire, drought, extreme weather events are increasing. The oceans are changing as they absorb the excess carbon and acidify. It’s time to give back, and this project is one way to do so. I don’t know how to replant a forest. I know it needs to be done, and for me this is very close to home. I am watching many of my home groves die. Sudden oak death is ravaging California right now. I don’t know what to do—no one does. At the moment, the best we can do is not spread it. I have three oak seedlings in pots in my back yard that need to be destroyed because they have it. My potted laurel tree is a reservoir, so it too will have to go. So supporting the work of people like For The Wild is a way to support that learning process for us as a species, and to help build a seed bank and nursery for the future. This is one time when money will actually make a difference. These people have a week to raise the last 23% of their goal. Their rewards are pretty cool too. They include tree dedications, online classes, family legacy groves, and trips to the redwoods.
A goddess demanded that I plant trees. Sadly, my work does not lie along those lines. I’m a singer and a writer. I plant seeds of knowledge and awareness and that is why I’m posting this right now. At work, I talk about ships, one of which is the last of the Pacific Coast lumber schooners. She was built of Douglas fir, to mine out the forests of the West Coast. She helped to build the cities of the West Coast out of the cathedrals of living wood that we should have had the sense not to destroy. Her existence is an opportunity to explain that great mistake, and to ask the people who come to visit her to think about the forest she was once part of. She carried lumber once, now she carries memory, responsibility, and the seeds of the future.
We call trees natural resources. What kind of mindset does that imply? Forests are communities, not storehouses, and the way we treat these beings is already determining our own survival. We have forgotten that when we take, we need to give something in return. Please consider supporting this organization, a tree planted in your name is an investment in the future. I hope someday a tree will be my tombstone, of sorts, my body returned to the land that it was borrowed from.
I offer you a song, a few thoughts on what the city I live in now is, and what it could become:
The scholarly retellings of ancient tales can be hard going. The path to the past is often overgrown, the thread of the story difficult to follow as it passes over unfamiliar ground. Far from being work, Damh the Bard’s new album Y Mabinogi makes an ancient Tale new again. I know I’ll be listening to this many, many times, not just for knowledge, but for pleasure and inspiration–as I wait impatiently for the other branches of this tree!
I got lucky the first time I read the First Branch of the Mabinogi. The instructor in the Celtic Literature class I’d taken on a whim really understood these tales, and one of the ones she selected for the class was the First Branch. She taught us that these stories were passed on the breath, from poet to poet, meaning and understanding as vital to the telling as the words and events. She traced the path for us, from the filidh of Ireland and Wales to the bardic schools where the skills of memory, poetry, and philosophy were taught, where a tale written down was a tale killed. She taught us of the changes wrought by the first Christians who arrived in the same era that Viking invaders began killing the living libraries that held that knowledge, how the poets and priests learned from each other, and put the words they had in the cold storage of vellum and ink so they would have a chance to survive. She also showed us how to unpack that knowledge, to make it live again, and to tease out the meanings that lay hidden in the Tales. We all lived for those classes, to spend one evening a week with red-eared hounds, goddesses of sovereignty in the form of horses, or hags, and Tales chosen with care, to complement and illuminate each other. During her office hours, a line always stretched down the hall. When I listened to this album her wisdom and learning came to mind.
Damh the Bard understands these Tales in his very bones. His new album, Y Mabinogi brings the First Branch of the Mabinogi to life for our time. It is as close as we’re ever going to come to that spellbound tribe around the fire, listening to a gifted poet tell the tales that inspired a people, showed them who they were and how to live lives of connection with their past, present, and future. On his breath floats the wisdom and the beauty of the living tale, and somehow he straddles the past and the present to bring it to life again for our time. In our Now, it’s time for all of us to gather around fires, in concert halls, and yes, around iPods and speakers to share the stories of all peoples. We are living in an amazing moment in time, where we have a chance to experience the living threads of story that make up the wisdom of our whole world and learn from them all. We needn’t fear difference when we have the chance to celebrate it, and Damh’s inspired telling of this pan-Celtic Tale is something to savor, to be carried away by.
These tales were never meant to be hard work, at least in the listening. They were the movies, novels, and albums of their time. They were teaching tales, political commentary, serving as the warp of familiarity that a trained member of the Druidic class could and did use to weave the messages the people and the nobles needed to hear. The different recensions of each story that have come down to us, separated in time, snapshots of a particular era, show the remains of this process clearly. The differences in time and place are in the process of being woven together to give us a clearer picture of the Celtic world and how it changed, but the work is hardly finished. There are still many manuscripts that have not been studied, translated, remade. What might we learn as people are inspired to do the work of scholarship by beautiful retellings like Y Mabinogi?
These Tales can and should be made new again–we are lucky enough to live in a time when some of them have been. Morgan Llywelyn’s novels, for example, are excellent retellings of the Ulster cycle, the coming of the Milesians, etc. OBOD’s courses, among others, use them as teaching tools, as they were in the past before the cultures of the Celtic world were shattered, their living libraries of inspired and highly trained poets killed. What Damh has done, however, seems to me to be a recreation of the kind of performance the oral tradition might have produced–tales that could hold a people in thrall for an evening, or a series of evenings, each installment weaving them closer together in a shared experience. These stories are layered, revealing more to the listener each time they are told, and as a person or a tribe grew in wisdom, the stories grew and changed over time.
The Tale is always the same, but the emphasis and point of view has to change to fit the time it is part of. It has to be relevant to the listener in order to become part of us and whisper to us the insights we need to gain from it. This album has that power. Damh has not only produced an incredible piece of entertainment, he has drawn deeply from the source of inspiration to give us a new version of what each generation had, up until the time these tales were put in written form, and so frozen in time. The path to their power and the passion they inspire became harder and harder to reach as times and languages changed, and the cultural body of knowledge necessary to make sense of them became the province of a few specialist scholars. Luckily for us, the incredible flowering of the nineteenth century and the Celtic Twilight brought us people with the skill and the will to unpack these stories for their age, and inspired enough people to learn their nearly lost languages, to study the remnants of glosses and other materials the last generations of poets had left behind, to bring these stories through to our age and put them in the hands of a new generation of inspired poets. Damh has brought a medieval telling of this Tale into the 21st. century, and given humanity a new snapshot of our understanding of this ancient story. He has edified us, and honored the people who first committed these Tales to writing for a future they would never know.
I’m looking for the stars in their eyes at the sight of tall masts and white sails.
I’m looking for the woman I once was, eyes on the horizon, feet on the topgallant footropes and hands on rough canvas. She’s out there, I’m hoping that she will still be out there a century hence doing the work I once did. Now that I can no longer do it, I’m looking for the next set of hands who will take joy in making ships brave with paint, bright with varnish and black with tar.
I work in a museum of ships. I came there with stars in my eyes. I was so taken with them, their beauty and the adventures that could be had aboard them, that I took the hands of the sailors that came before me and volunteered to help care for them. My weekends were filled with the lessons that only an historic vessel and living sailors can teach. I learned the precise language required, the names of things and tasks that allow specific instructions to be passed in few words. By doing the various jobs that must be done if the boat is to make it to the future, I forged relationships with every vessel I worked in. I couldn’t help it—I came there in love with adventure and the sea, and it wasn’t long before I fell for the ships too.
There is nothing like being part of a crew. I’d wanted this since my teens, when I was a Sea Scout. A wooden whaleboat wasn’t enough, but being female, there was no way at the time that I could find to take the adventure farther. By the time I returned, in my late thirties, tall ships had become, if not common, far more numerous and it wasn’t long before I made my first trip as a volunteer. Times have changed. Women are an accepted part of this world now. I came to it too late to do it for long, but I have been out of sight of land in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans now, furling sail high above deck, the sky close enough to touch. It has changed me in ways I couldn’t have foreseen and wouldn’t trade for anything. The adventure has been mine for long enough to know how to share it.
I don’t sail in these ships any more. I can no longer do the work, and I won’t inflict myself on a crew if I can’t do my share. But I can still be useful ashore. I know how to do the work and can teach others. I can transmit that DTI—that Deckhand Transmitted Infection of love for the vessel and joy in being part of a crew. Working where I do I can be there when those people walk in with stars in their eyes and I can tell them the things that no one was there to tell me. I can tell the stories of the ships and help everyone who wants one to find their connection to them. So many people come in with a fantasy. Pirates are a starting point, but adventure is a shared experience and sailors are far more interesting. My treasure chest is full of memories, tools, and skills. Sunrises shared as the watch was gathered around the tiller, the ship plunging and rising as the wind carried us along. I went aboard my first ship with a duffle bag full of books. I was afraid I’d run out of things to read in three whole weeks at sea. I’ve never been aboard a ship where there wasn’t an active and varied bookshelf. My canvas ditty bag is on the shelf in the next room, filled with everything I need to repair a sail or for that matter, fix anything else made of heavy fabric or leather. That is something I can still do. The knots I know are just as useful for tying down a load on a bicycle or a truck because these skills are not all limited to ships and sailing.
I’m looking for the next pair of hands now. The tasks and the ships are passed from hand to hand, sailor to sailor. The language of ships is an oral tradition. You can read about it, but what seems incomprehensible on the page is perfectly plain when the tools are in your hand and a living person is showing you how it’s done. When I tell you that the ship will also tell you how to do the job, you’ll probably think me fanciful—or insane—but it’s true. You just have to speak her language. You probably know part of it already. Flaking paint or bare wood or metal is easy enough to spot. Knowing how to prepare and paint the surface is not hard to learn. Is something broken? If the vessel is well cared for, the same equipment on the other side is probably fine and can serve as a guide for repair. Experience will tell you what is dangerous, what is annoying, and what is just unkempt.
A vessel forges a group of people into a crew, by the simple act of caring for her. A vessel without a crew will soon be gone. It’s expensive to take care of a boat. They truly are holes in the water into which you pour money. This is why a boat without a job is destined for the breaker’s yard. The time and effort her survival demands requires a purpose for her existence. The next pair of hands must be sustained by the work. So a vessel and a crew live in symbiosis, we both need to earn our keep.
My museum is that purpose, on both sides. When I talk of the vessels, I count their existences as museum ships as careers, as legitimate as their time carrying cargo, fishing, or any other purpose they served. Their cargo now is memory, education, and to serve as our living memory. I learned the beginnings of a trade in them and would be learning still if injury had not cut my days as a hands-on member of the crew short. I earned a living aboard then, and I do so still. In my own personal symbiosis I, too, carry memory and knowledge. A museum is a place where Muses dwell. Those vessels are nothing less. The people of my nation, and visitors of all nations are willing to pay to maintain these ships, and so they go on living. They grow ever more precious as the years pass because there are fewer of them every year. The sheer amount of work that is necessary to maintain them, and the lack of an obvious economic return for that labor means that many are lost. FALLS OF CLYDE is fighting for her life even as I write. WAPAMA was cut up in 2013, and WAWONA in 2009. Those three are just some of the latest casualties on the West Coast of North America.
Discovery is sexy, maintenance is not, except for the few insane individuals like myself who find meaning in scraping paint and tarring down. Those next sets of hands who will take these vessels into the future are a rare breed, and so my job, essentially, is being paid to be that crusty old sailor who used to haunt the dockside. Being able to make a living doing it is a relatively new development. The maintaining of ships simply to serve as repositories for memory and the teaching of skills is a product of prosperity. It is difficult, when money is the yardstick, to see the sense in it, but how precious is the maintaining of skills in the human database? What price can we put on living memory? If we value it enough to continue doing it, then we as a species will still be able to go to sea under sail, and the bodies and minds of those who choose to do so will still have the option of being shaped by that knowledge. We will retain something rare, a very special way of life and a hard and rewarding school for those who choose to enroll in it. The skills will possibly become very useful if the oil runs out before we find another means of powering our civilization. Wind will always be free, if fickle, and it is up to us whether or not we will still remember how to harness it.