I Will Never Be Indigenous

Two natural standing stones
Natural Standing Stones, California

I’ve been thinking lately about studying Druidry in California, a land where it is not indigenous. I’m beginning to think that what I thought of as a predicament might just as well be an advantage. Instead of the marked wells and obvious stone circles of Albion and Ireland, my landscape is covered with markers that I have never been taught to recognize, wrested from the people who should have been our friends and teachers but were mostly murdered and driven into the Missions. I know that someday I will have to seek them out, the ones who survived, and learn the proper names for the places, the names and needs of the spirits of this place, and of the First Peoples.

We *have* to learn to share this land, to return, if not the land itself, all the rights and recognition that we of the dominant culture have, and have respect for what is left of their culture. They should be able to choose a fitting and comfortable place to live, rather than a bit of land that we don’t want, where life is marginal, and further breaks the bonds of culture. We have to become one people here, of many colors, traditions and cultures, who live together in peace and harmony. That is a process already begun, but it will take many generations at the rate we are moving because everyone needs to be a part of this and most of us don’t seem to realize that it needs to happen at all.

I can of course honor my ancestral deities–we all can–but if I am to live in this land, I must also honor the spirits who live here, who are indigenous. I think that that is part of what is meant by re-indigenization. That’s part of it, but it’s more than that. We all need to remember that we are part of this world, we are not the owners of it. I have altered my rituals to reflect this. I ask permission and guidance from the ancestors. I ask to honor them and make an offering. It really is the least I can do and I recognize that it’s only a start.

We have to learn to recognize the true strength in diversity, the inherent fragility of monoculture.  We need to remember what true wealth is: clean soil, clean water, clean air. We cannot live without these things. If we put toxics in the ground, we eat them. If we put toxics in the water, we drink them. If we put them in the air, we breathe them. We are doing this right now, and we wonder why so many of us are getting sick. We wonder why so many of us are getting fat and why we can’t lose weight, why cancers, once rare, are now becoming ever more common. Meanwhile, we use our drinking water to flush our toilets, and the traces of the drugs we take in order to heal ourselves from the conditions the toxins we have put in the land, water and air cycle back to be taken into our bodies again. We can’t get away from them, who can refuse to breathe, drink, and eat? All we can do is stop the cycle and clean up the mess.

So how did I get from holy wells and stone circles to the sicknesses of modern civilization? John Muir said it a century and more ago: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Our world is a largely closed system. What we do to one part of it affects the whole. If we want to be well, we have to heal the world around us. We need to recognize that we are part of this world, and that we have to care about the other living things around us. Every being in this world has a right to live well. The Kichwa people in Ecuador have a term; sumak kawsay. It means to live well, but it’s more than that. It’s a way of describing coexistence. An ocean has the right to live well, as does a plant, or a people. This right is now written into the Ecuadorean constitution. The country has yet to catch up with the words on the page, but at least they are there at last.

Where I live, there are so many people of Northern European descent. Many of our stories were lost as our ancestors fled their homes and we have struggled to find an anchor, a place to belong, and in the process have too often recreated the oppressive systems that were strangling our ancestors. Many of us follow other paths, from Atheism to Buddhism to Christianity. What was rootlessness has become a great mixing and could be a source of creativity and strength. It is a great blessing to have all these different ways to the center. None need be privileged over any other, and anyone of any ancestry should be free to choose that which calls to them.

I grew up Unitarian, and played in a chapel where banners stitched with the symbols of many faiths hung in the tall windows that ringed the space. I was never formally taught any faith, but many different ways surrounded me. I was an Atheist in my teens, but eventually found Paganism, and now Druidry. My path through the forest and to the land of my ancestors is a source of great beauty and meaning to me, and while I am happy to share it, I know that it is one among many, and that the world is a more interesting and beautiful place because we don’t all try to use the same one. A road trod by all can easily become rutted and strewn with garbage as people are driven along it by force. Better we spread ourselves out and discover places that have meaning to each of us. The path to my grove in the hills beside the Shores of the Western Sea is still full of mystery precisely because no one comes there unless they choose to.

Few of us can return to where we came from. Such a place doesn’t really exist for many of us as generations pass. All we can do is share the places where we are, and treat each other with respect. None of us get to choose where we were born, and few of us get to choose who we live among. We do get to choose how we look on the world and the people around us, and how we pass the land and culture on to the next generations. I hope those who come after live in a world that is healthier, stronger, and happier than the one I inhabit. I hope that they know a peace that I will never experience. I live in wonderful, terrible, pivotal times. I will never be indigenous, but I can work for a world where future generations can be one with the land, true citizens of Earth.

Sailing Into Land, Sky, and Sea

The Golden Gate Bridge, and the waters of San Francisco Bay framed by the ship's rig.
The Golden Gate Bridge seen from the deck of the Lady Washington

It takes five types of lines to work a square sail. That means that if you understand this basic pattern, you’re well on the way to understanding the rig, and how it works. Sure there are well over a hundred lines on any ship, but there are only three basic repeating patterns–the square sails, the fore and aft staysails/jibs, and the gaff rigged spanker. There can be a few others thrown in there, depending, but once you know the basics, the others become pleasant variations. So I’m making a tiny demonstration mast with a square sail on it and those ten lines, one set of five for each side, to show people how it works.

I neither expect nor want the visitors to go out with an understanding of all of this, I just want to present the boat as something accessible and user friendly–because it is.  It’s sad to see people consider the language of the sea as complicated and impenetrable. It is short and precise, true, but based on patterns which are basically the same in any ship in the world. Our mission statement in part directs us to preserve the maritime culture and history of the sea. If I can’t paint and scrape any more, I can certainly do that.

As a Pagan and a Druid, I see Land, Sky and Sea come together in a sailing ship. This is a liminal space, and that’s why it’s so hard on ships and people. That’s why it can bring out the best in us, and it allows for a deep connection with those three realms. This is why skill has always been the yardstick at sea. The sea will always find you out, and the ship will do what she can to preserve the life within her, but she will not serve a bad master, or put up with poor seamanship, or craftsmanship. The sailor must put the ship first, for she is our life. We have to be aware of what she needs–that annoying deck leak will get worse if not dealt with. If there’s water in the bilge, where did it come from? If there’s rust, or rot, grab some tools and fix it. Keeping her brave with paint, bright with varnish and black with tar is not just aesthetics and respect for the vessel, it is what keeps rot and rust from becoming dangerous.

So a ship is a tool for developing awareness, and skill. The life of ships is measured in what sailors do and see. The tasks are repeated endlessly, but they are varied and can be endlessly fascinating. It feels good to get better at them, to notice when a line is getting worn or the coatings are failing–and to renew them. It definitely feels good to pass the skills on to the next set of hands. Sailors are links in a chain, passing the tasks and the vessels from hand to willing hand. Ships, like the world, are held together by love.

The ships talk to me. If the bilge water is salty, the ship is telling me that she leaks, down below, where it’s dangerous. That cleat that is crooked, leaning towards the strain of the cable is bedded in wood that is rotting away. The brightwork, shining in the sun, is the handiwork of a volunteer, an old man who sailed in steam and, strong and healthy still, comes in as dependable as the sun to do that work. The ship sustains him and he sustains her. I enjoy the sight and walk on. There’s a strange dull circle on the deck, inside where the mizzen mast passes through it. That deck used to be outside. The ship tells me where the fife rail used to stand by the marks it left in her deck. I ask the oldest shipwright about it. He points out the varnished deck and tells me of the capstan that used to be on display next to the mast, where it of course could never have been used. It kept a section of the deck as it had been when the ship was in service, because of course, the deck of a working ship is oiled. I remember the smell of a freshly oiled deck, the slow meditative work of pushing the mixture into the wood with a shearling pad on a pole. Together we find the square patch where a section of deck had been replaced long ago, where a capstan had originally been bolted down. Marks on the steel show where sections of bulkhead were altered, replaced. The ship wears her history on her hide.

Poetry is born where Land, Sea and Sky meet. A ship is a bit of Land, a dry place for humans to set their feet as we cross the trackless Sea under the endless Sky. I am a different person offshore and I miss the taste I have managed to get of that life. When conditions are good, it is like a bubble of quiet. I remember the Lady fighting her way north, up the coast, under power because there was a schedule to keep. The steady hum of the engine was the background all other sounds were built on. I learned to wedge myself into places on deck and below, becoming one with the steady pitch and roll, rocked to calmness by it. I slept like a starfish, spread out in my bunk, rocked to sleep. We are quiet because someone is always sleeping when the ship is under way, someone is always on watch. I crept through the darkness in the foc’s’le, a red lens in my flashlight as I checked the bilge, my crewmates sleeping around me. I stood on the bow, the eyes of the ship, walking quietly aft to report what I had seen to the watch leader. I climbed down into the hot, noisy engine room, making sure the straps of my gear were well tucked, my long braid securely down inside my coat. The cool air on deck was a relief when I emerged. The land danced beneath my feet for days after each voyage until I lost my sea legs. The poetry of wind and water will be with me forever.

Now I can no longer pull my weight aboard ship. So I limit my time to museum ships, retired like my Ladies. Since I can’t seem to keep my hands off the lines when others are working, this is simple self preservation. I’ve lost enough mobility and physical strength, thank you. I am still a link in the living chain of sailors, but my task now is to pass on skill, to inspire the next sets of hands and show them how to forge their own connection and find their own truths.

Tam Lin

Ballads were the movies, newspapers, and classrooms of their time. Easy to remember and self contained, they could be taken anywhere and brought to life with nothing more than a single voice. They passed from singer to singer, carried on the breath, and some of them have endured to the present time, long after they ceased to be a central carrier of knowledge. We haveFrancis James Child to thank for the fact that so many of them, in so many different forms, have made it to us. This version of Tam Lin was assembled from his collection.

Deeply magical and Pagan to the core, this ballad is one of my favorites. Janet is definitely a blood red rose. She isn’t afraid to go wander the forest alone, and she isn’t afraid of what she finds there. She went looking for Tam Lin, wanting to see for herself what the fuss was about. The story is a fantasy, couched in the language of myth, where Beauty rescues the Prince, for once. She chooses her own path throughout, and at the end of the tale, we still don’t know what shape her life will take when we leave her with Tam Lin in her arms, newly taken from the Queen of Faerie herself. That is another Tale, after all.

You never know what you’ll find wandering in a wild place. Very few of us have an adventure as dramatic as Janet did, no matter what the news would have us believe, but wandering does change us. It doesn’t have to be done in a forest, or even in a physical location of any kind. A gathering where we know no one, a library’s shelves, or our own imaginations will take us to the unexpected.

Even wandering in our own neighborhood can be rewarding. If nothing else, we’ll have a deeper knowledge of the place we live in and a stronger connection to it. Something as simple as knowing where the blackberries grow and not being afraid to taste their sweetness is an adventure available to all of us. Even here in the heart of Oakland I can find them. How many of us know where the city parks are, and go to them?

Where do you wander? What adventures do you have?

Next Stop: Robert Burns

The Druidry Of Place

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Love of Land. Reverence for Water. Respect for Fire. To me, this is the Druidry of California. It shapes my land and my practice. It’s the bucket under my tap as the water warms for a shower. It’s the ashes from the pipe I tap out into my open palm to be *sure* it’s out when I walk the hills. It’s the feeling of being home the first sight of poppies gave to me after three months in the Pacific Northwest.

Going to the homes of Druidry wasn’t at all what I expected, but it was everything I needed. I thought I was learning the forests the ogham sprang from, but I was gaining a greater appreciation of the trees I grew up under. Never had I realized just how dry my home is. Or how much of our ancient forests still remain. Here, I can stand inside a redwood and feel its great silence. The fact that human habitation here for so long was among the trees rather than in place of them means that much more of the forest remains to experience, and to learn from.

We went to Mendocino this weekend, my seed group and the new seed group that hived from it–was it only a month or so ago? This time, it was my home in Oakland that created the contrast. My bed was hard, but the trails were soft. Trees everywhere, and no one cared what I looked like or what I wore. I could talk to any nonhuman I pleased because there was no one around who thought it strange. Most of all, when I went down into the forest and just opened my ears I could *think*. Birds, the wind, and the rushing sounds of cars almost nonexistent.

I came back with treasures:

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California hazel is all through the understory. The leaves are furry, and each branch lies roughly on a plane which makes it seem to float above the ground. The whole tree is ethereal, as if it had its roots in the Otherworld. perhaps it does. Unlike its more substantial relatives in Britain, it grows as a series of slender poles. It is as if it has coppiced itself. 

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Poison oak is, of course, everywhere. In the old growth, however, it is part of the picture, in balance with the rest of the plant community. It climbs the redwoods like an ornament, startling green against the rough reddish bark.

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A tiny, perfect meadow.

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Yellow Leaf Iris, one of the flowers of the understory.

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The sorrel covers the land, outlining it in floating green.

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I learned a lot this weekend, between the ancient forest and the people I was with. Burls are a redwood’s way of trying to stabilize itself. A living buttress for a cathedral of a tree. This tree is called the Pan Tree, and I’ll bet you can figure out why. One friend taught me about burls, the other taught me what brewer’s droop was, all from the same example. You can’t say this pack ‘o druids lacks scope! 

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Not all the trees are rude, however. This one, like many of the larger ones, has hidden depths. 

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This one has grown into art. 

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As I walked up the path, the redwoods gave way to Douglas Fir.

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This tree is scarred by fire, as the redwoods are. How different the shape it takes from that, however. 

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This was the only running water I saw. There’s a river deep enough to swim in, but that is another adventure for another time. The calm of the forest is still surrounding me, along with the warmth of fires and shared wisdom, and for now that’s all I need.

 

Scathach’s Hall

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Only ruins stand today before our modern eyes
Green the grass within the wall
No more the music in her hall
Long ago the warrior’s fall
Or does our vision and our vaunted knowledge tell us lies?

Where’s the warrior to be found who ran her fabled school
Only those with ears to hear
Within her hall the music clear
Her name that struck the world with fear
Has left behind this castle for the wind and wave to rule

We children of the modern age are sure we know it all
For those who see the shape of things
Within her hall the fili sings
And warriors laugh and harpstring rings
And time is no true barrier to stand in Scathach’s hall

The Great God Sam Hain

Silliness ahead, Use Only As Directed. No resemblance to most Realities Intended:

I have a yearly visit from the Lord of the Dead, the Great God Sam Hain. His first visitation came one year when I was surfing the web on Samhain with some fellow Pagans. Once again, the twisted tale of the Scary (nonexistent) Celtic God Samhain, Lord of the Dead, was being presented by the equally twisted and fanatical followers of a minor desert deity. All the little kids were being initiated unwittingly into his Evil Cult by participating in the costumery and by trick or treating. Funny how they seize on that. For me, that door to door procession is the heart of the ritual.

The beginning of the dark half of the year *is* a scary time. Peering through the thinning veil is not a task to be undertaken without courage. Many things walk the night then, and this is why the Celts kept to their houses that night. The kids who trick or treat don’t realize that they are unwitting messengers of the Gods. You never know what you might open your door to on Samhain, so be kind.

That year, while we were indulging in our yearly dose of gallows humor, I felt myself filled with a Presence.

The Great God Sam Hain spoke through me, and to me. He Revealed His True Nature. He does indeed wait, up in the sky, snaring unwary Evangelical Christians, Enslaving them to his Wicked Will. He brings them to his throne by a very simple means.

Breakfast sausage.

Yes, you heard me correctly.

After all, what will kill you quicker than a regular diet of greasy, cholesterol laden food? And what meal is the greasiest of all? Those of you who throng to the Bob Evanses of the world, who feast on Farmer John’s bounty of a Sunday morning, you Know Who You Are!

The Sausage Avatars sit at a great poker table in the sky with Sam Hain. They game for souls, using the Sacred Grease-Proof Cards and Sausage Patty Chips. Their names are many:

Bob Evans
Jimmy Dean
Farmer John
John Morrell

Those who follow the Way of Grease, who pack the Denny’s and the Carrows of the world, who serve great and heaping plates of eggs and bacon, who eat sausage gravy at every meal, yea, and Chicken Fried Steak are Pleasing in Lord Sam Hain’s eyes. When they come to him, to become spirits who walk the world when the Veil is thin, then will come their test. Will they continue to see things in limited terms of good and evil, or will they see themselves at last as part of the Dance?

Time will tell, for we all must Dance eventually, from Beggars to Kings.

Stones In The Mist

ImageIt was raining when the ferry reached Stornoway. It’s Scotland, I didn’t expect any different. Grace was swathed in tincloth, I was likewise. I didn’t have a hostel reservation, because I’d planned on going straight to the stones, and then to Tarbert to catch the morning ferry to Uig.

I expected the hostel in Tarbert to be a bit of an adventure. It was also a fairly important link in the trip. There are two ferries per day to Uig. One at 7 AM, the other in the late afternoon. The problem is, getting hold of the proprietors of the place is a real challenge. Every email address I was able to locate bounced, and the review I found online had a very entertaining story, the upshot of which was, call them a day or two in advance and if all else fails, knock on the door. You may or may not get in. I’d gotten hold of the owners the night before in Inverness and they’d informed me that the place was closed.

When the ferry docked, I headed straight to the Heb Hostel, the only one listed for Stornoway. It was full, but the person who answered the door was friendly and told me that there was another hostel in town, as well as the location of the tourist information center. I couldn’t find the hostel from the directions, so that was the next stop.

Every tourist information center I visited in Scotland was beyond helpful.They knew where almost everything was, and what they didn’t know they were pretty efficient at locating. They sold great maps, along with souvenirs ranging from truly tacky to downright beautiful. The woman behind the counter was helping another traveler in the same predicament I was in, and by the time she was done I’d seen everything in the shop several times over. Good service takes a bit of time and I was on vacation after all. I was soon on my way with a map marked with the spot. The hostel was not marked, the door was locked and the phone number on the door wasn’t being answered, but eventually one of us got in, and the few of us with patience followed. The proprietress had had no cell service in the Tesco’s.

The hostel still has no name, at least not one I know, but it was almost the best place I stayed on the entire trip. It was brand new, and run by a couple. I only saw him for a minute or two, but she was the spirit of hospitality. She started by giving us all free run of the kitchen. There was a fridge stocked with food, proper pots and pans, and best of all, tea and sugar. The wi fi only worked in the kitchen as it turned out, but the kitchen was the heart of the hostel. Later in the evening, I came back to find her in her PJs doing the family dishes. It was their main kitchen as well. She found out I hadn’t eaten yet in the course of our conversation, by then we’d both come out of the broom closet, so to speak and she offered to cook me dinner, which I would not allow. She was on her way to bed, the kitchen was full of food, and I was feeling better cared for than I had since Anderida camp. If I ever go back to Stornoway, that place will be my first stop if it still exists. Stornoway, by the way, is a really nice town, big enough to be interesting, small enough to be friendly.

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But you were expecting to hear about Calanais, right? You’re about to, but you can’t separate the place from the people and the people of Lewis were wondrous indeed. I’d missed the last bus to the stones finding a place to sleep, so I got on the first bus in the morning with a fellow traveler from the hostel. The ride was misty and wonderful. The visitor center was still closed so we went straight to the stones. The mist got thicker the longer we stayed, and quite soon I had the place to myself in a light rain that only made the weight of ages close in further.

The quiet was immense. It was more than just the usual quiet misty rain brings. The gray of the sky set off the gray of the stones, and the green of the grass, just as it does in my home on the shores of the Western Sea. It was so similar, yet so different. There were no trees, but the green of the moss and of the grass more than made up for it.

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I could see the shape of the land to where it disappeared into mist, and the bare bones of the rocks where they broke through on the hilltops. The rain ran off my duster and my sou’wester, its soft dripping the only sound there was, or could be.  

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I walked slowly around the perimeter of the stones, and set my back against the farthest one, where I was sheltered from the wind and could look up the long avenue of irregular rocks. No, the stones didn’t speak to me, not as such, but the quiet slowly seeped into me and I came to know that we humans didn’t know any more what these stones had meant to the people who raised them, and we didn’t need to. The keys to this place have been lost, at least for now. It really doesn’t matter because it served its purpose for the people who built it, and it is impressive enough to us to make us act to preserve it. Like any great work of art, its existence is enough.

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Eventually I walked up the avenue and into the stones. I felt as if I had all the time in the world, and for that moment, I did. I sang the song I had brought to the stones. Giant, by Stan Rogers. I did it without the drum, there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell it would have been playable in that weather. It didn’t matter, all that was necessary was that I did it.

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By then, the rain had stopped and people were beginning to filter back up to the stones. When a large tour group showed up, I went down to the visitor center and learned enough to make me very curious about what was going on in Britain and Ireland 5,000 years ago. These people were not Celts, though their blood of course runs in our veins still. They seem to have done things in a much more egalitarian way, as perhaps the people of Stonehenge did too, in the same period. There’s a very interesting Nova episode that can be watched online about the alignment of Stonehenge with the solstices, and another nearby site called Durrington Walls. Calanais may have had a lunar alignment.

This strand properly should lead through Newgrange as well, the same immensity of time draws those places together for me, but I will give that tale its own space.

 

The Shadow of Dun Scaith

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The closer I got to Skye, the more I realized how much I was dreading this part of the trip. Sure, it was a long walk to what would probably turn out to be nothing, but surely a pile of rocks and a rainstorm weren’t that scary.

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I saw my first hooded crow as I got off the ferry in Stornoway. I didn’t know what the creature was. It hopped like a crow, it was shaped like one,  but a gray-bodied crow? Crows and ravens had been scaring the pants off my partner and I since before I left for the trip, and sure enough, once again there were three hooded crows, not two, or five. We found out a day or so before I left that both of us had been keeping our mouths shut about this fact, so as not to scare the other. Once again, I told the Morrigan that if she wanted me, she would have me, but I hoped to make it home.

Two mornings after I was walking around Portree on Skye at a ridiculous hour of the morning. I had tea at the only place open, where the people who actually made the town run got theirs, and pulled Grace around town checking out what would be open when and when the buses ran. When the tourist center opened I went in and asked about Dun Scaith. The woman behind the desk didn’t have a clue about where I was talking about, but she knew the island and was more than willing to look things up. Every tourist info center in Scotland was like this, by the way. I am turning over a new leaf and hope to be as helpful when I get back to work in San Francisco. The upshot was, she thought I was a little nuts, but hid it well and wished me luck. She told me to tell the bus driver to let me off at the road to Ord, and the walk would be a little shorter. Drivers on the islands will let you off and pick you up almost anywhere they pass by, which was a blessing indeed.

I ended up standing on the road to Ord at about 10:30, thinking that this was another fine mess I’d gotten myself into. I went through my pack for some trail mix and came across a camping meal I’d been given back at Anderida camp. Beanies and weenies. I ate it all, even though I didn’t particularly want it, knowing I needed the fuel and blessing the wondrous soul who’d given it to me. I repacked Grace and pulled out my little flashing light to attach to the trailer. The mist was closing in and the road to Ord was one lane wide. I kept my ears open and was ready to leap to the side at any minute. I remember telling Scathach I was coming to see her, knowing that was a little nuts, but also knowing on some level that it was only manners. I also gave myself permission to take a ride if it was offered. I wasn’t expecting anything, but I was willing…

The first car that passed me stopped, backed up, and offered me a ride. They were holidaymakers, just like me, and I climbed in back with their baby girl, who got over her fear of the stranger in about two seconds. We proceeded to have a lovely drive up the road to Ord. They drove me literally to Dun Scaith. They didn’t know where it was, and didn’t mean to do so, but on one of our numerous stops to see the gorgeous scenery there it was. They didn’t want to come across the field of sheep with me, which was probably wise, and a blessing on them and their house for being my magic bus.

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I manhandled Grace across the sheep field. There were a couple of signs pointing the way to “the castle,” but they were just signs the landowner had put up. When I couldn’t drag her any farther I left Grace beside the path, her rain cover firmly in place. Good thing. The mist got heavier and heavier. I got to the castle, and even took a few pics before the rain started, and with it the wind. OK, I thought, the rain has been off and on since I got here and it has always cleared in about twenty minutes. The bridge had been the first thing I investigated, and, how appropriate, the bottom had fallen out of it. A salmon leap was needed. I tucked myself into a corner of the bridge, out of the rain and almost dry, and waited. And waited.

After a bit, I put myself in a meditative state. Seemed the thing to do. After a bit, I started to hear music, tunes I had never heard before. I admit that for a moment I was crazy with the knowledge that it was too wet to pull out my iPad and try to sing them into the device, but I got over it and just listened. Maybe I was nuts, maybe I wasn’t, but Scathach asked me my business, and asked me for the songs I’d written that would go next to hers. I gave her a song, then another. She invited me in. I tried, but I couldn’t find a way up the hillside that would’t result in a broken leg or worse in that storm, and I had miles to walk to get to Armadale. She kept inviting me in, and wouldn’t take any excuses. She asked me of the tales I knew of her. To my great embarrassment, I couldn’t tell her. I knew they involved Cuchullain, and she only figured in them in relation to him, but I started to tell her–and couldn’t finish. I’d read the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi repeatedly, but hadn’t even thought to reread how Scathach trained Cuchullain.

She laughed at me. She did a lot of that and who could blame her? I was sent back to bardic preschool. Learn the tales known of her, and make her a song based on them. Come back, sing it, and come inside, and then we’ll see about other stories.

In the end I had to leave. I needed to get to Armadale while I could, and the rain wasn’t letting up, nor the wind. The waterproofing on my boots failed on the way back through the field. I was sloshing by the time I got to the road, but the rest of me was fairly dry and I was warm from the walking and confident I would remain so. Sleat was beautiful, almost Otherworldly. Birches, hazels and rowans lined the side of the one lane road, the beach and the wild ocean on the other. I stopped often to take pictures, and as the road wound up and down the hills I clipped the flashing light to the back of my sou’wester and pushed the earflaps off my ears. If there was a car coming I wanted to know it!

I was a couple of miles down the road when I came across the road crew. I was wet and swearing by now. The rain and the walk I could deal with cheerfully, but the wind was too much. I could stay warm, but my skirt was soaked to the thighs and my boots were wet inside as well because the duster only snapped to the knees. Walking in the wind of course made it ride up considerably. I couldn’t see the mirror of the first truck, and so I knew he couldn’t see me. He was cleaning out the turnouts with a streetcleaning brush off the side of the truck. I maneuvered myself to where he could see me and waved my arms till he stopped and let me by, quite sweetly, actually. I asked him how far it was to Armadale and his jaw dropped. The second truck drove up to me. I’ll bet there was a radio involved. A beefy black-haired guy cranked down the window, smiled at me and asked me if I had a screw loose. I gave him a big smile back and said yes, I did! And how far was it to Armadale?

He told me to go up to the bend in the road, he’d turn around and give me a ride! It was a *lot* farther to Armadale than I thought. Along the way I learned a lot about the bus system, which only runs as far as it does during the season. It’s there for visitors, not locals. I also learned about the road work on the island, and a thumbnail view of the daily life of the area, things I never would have learned anything about otherwise. Not once was the word “tourist” used, and all of his information was just that, his point of view, delivered with wit and a complete lack of malice. I wanted to buy him the regulation pint, I would have loved to have sat in a pub and continued the conversation, but his crew was shorthanded and it was the middle of the afternoon. He had apologized for the state of te lorry–it wasn’t his and he’d had a time getting the side of it down when he’d picked me up. We shared a smile as he reached over the side and pulled out the same rock he’d persuaded the latch with back on the road.

I know I smelled of sheep shit on the ferry, and people looked at me as if I were from Mars, but I didn’t care. Yes, I failed to make the salmon leap, but I felt as if I hadn’t come off half bad. I’d had quite an adventure, and Scathach had invited me back, after all.

Crows and ravens went back to being their old selves from then on. I don’t know why, neither do I need to.

The Strands of the Tale

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A life, or an experience such as the trip I’ve just taken, is woven of many strands. You can’t take a bunch of those strands, spin them all together, and tell all the stories at once, though I feel that that’s pretty much what’s happened to me. No, if you want to be intelligible a little sorting is needed. I’ll start at the beginning–and the ending, because one strand flows through the two camps that began and ended my trip.

I flew against the sun to a place I had never been before, places my people had come from so long ago that I don’t know exactly where or when it happened. Those strands are broken, and I was not able to pick them up and spin them back into my life. But the land had plans for me, and new threads to be taken up.

I spent my first night in Sussex, sleeping with the solid earth beneath me, and hazels and hawthorns sheltering me from the rain that had kissed this land with green. So green. California is hot and dry in September, the hills shining gold and beautiful, and needing only one spark to erupt in flames. When I come down from the hills at home, I smell of Lugh, dry grass and sunlight and essence of summer. In Sussex we burned logs so large some had to be carried to the fire by two people. The sparks climbed to the sky and fell on the damp grass and no one thought anything of it. I was enchanted–I do love fire. We sang and danced and drummed around that fire for hours. I shared some of my songs, and heard some of theirs, and while I arrived a stranger, when I left Anderida I was a part of what we had shared. The same constellations wheeled above Sussex as they do in California, and now they have additional names: Corona Borealis is Caer Aranrhod (The Fort of Aranrhod), Lyra is Telyn Arthur (Arthur’s Harp). The Milky Way is Caer Gwydion (The Fort of Gwydion), and Cassiopeia is Llys Don (The Court of Don). So I began the trip by putting my feet solidly on the land and looking up at the sky.

One of the things I wanted to do on this trip was go to a Druid camp. Anderida Gorsedd just happened to be held the weekend I arrived. It turned out to be all that I’d hoped for and more. The story we worked, the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, was one I thought I knew. I’d read it multiple times, in multiple translations, had taken a Celtic Literature course from a wonderful and inspired teacher that worked with it–but I only knew the sequence of events! I was shown so much in such a short time, and I will never look at the Mabinogi the same way again. It took its place beside the Tain and the other Irish tales as part of my heritage, and it shaped and changed the trip, setting the stage for all the experiences to come.

I had also wanted to be in the biome the ogham was created in. There was enough woodland at Anderida to give me a taste, and to begin my education. September really was the best month to come. All the trees were in fruit, and I was able to see them in ways that wouldn’t have been possible in spring. The good people at camp were patient with my constant questions– “what is this tree? What does a blackthorn look like? Can you eat sloes, hawthorn berries?” By the end of the weekend the trees were beginning to emerge as distinct entities, and I had most of the ogham woods I needed to complete my set of feda. My baggage was full of sticks and berries, my heart was full of new names and faces. My kettle, bought so I could have hot drinks, was unused. There was always a kettle on, and these people know the meaning of hospitality. My first morning I was made a perfect cup of tea with milk and sugar. My first night the sweetness of the mead poured into my cup mirrored that of the people I shared it with. I also had a ride to the train station, and went off to London to spend the night before catching a train to Scotland.

I met Kristoffer Hughes at Anderida. He brought the Fourth Branch to life for me. I have only scratched the surface, but what wealth there is there! There is nothing–nothing–like learning from a native speaker and a scholar, who has read these tales in the oldest shapes we have, who understands inspiration and mystery and is in love with the beauty of these tales. He told me about another camp in Wales, conveniently on the last weekend I would be in the UK. It would involve going to Wales, however, something I hadn’t planned on. I hadn’t planned anything after Dublin, actually, and now I knew why.  

Before I had a chance to assimilate the lessons and the tasks I had gotten at Anderida, I was off to Scotland, and Ireland, but that is another set of strands. My last weekend I got on a train to Shrewsbury, and was picked up at the station and taken to Wales before I even had a chance to go and look at the Severn (can’t do everything!). It was like going back to Anderida, back into the fold of magical folk. Their house was full of delicious books, of which I only had time to take down a few titles, and warm companionship. We piled into their huge van and rocketed down the narrow hawthorn-lined roads of Wales. The folded land was green and beautiful and I felt as if I’d stumbled into Faerie. One minute the hawthorns would hem us in and all I could see was sharp leaves and red berries, and then the road would fall away and I’d be looking into a valley so green and inviting I just wanted to stop right there and explore. I know why dogs hang their heads out the windows of cars now…

On the ride, the penny was dropped. Bala Lake is Llyn Tegid, the place where the myth we would be working–the story of how Cerridwen brewed the Awen and Gwion Bach became Taliesin–had happened. I had been so caught up in making  travel arrangements, getting into the camp, and traveling that this had escaped me. And Bala Lake was a name that meant nothing to me. A pretty place, an experiential camp and more inspired education courtesy of Kris Hughes–sign me up! I felt as if I’d been presented with the treasures of the Otherworld, and something more. A shiver went up my spine. This was the very same story we’d worked at the only Witch Camp I’d ever been to. I knew I was in the lap of the gods. I’d been brought here, and had taken on a lot more than I expected.

There were friends from Anderida here. It was easier walking in to some faces I knew, and everyone was just as welcoming. We came in at the tail end of the witches’ tea party, which was a great way to meet people. Real china and Welsh cakes. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even need a kettle at Llyn Tegid. These folk actually did Anderida one better. In the marquee was a large gas fired kettle of hot water, teabags, and milk and sugar. All the little milk and sugar packs I had assembled in various hostels and takeaway places went unused. I finally had to jettison them when I was getting my gear down to baggage allowance weight.  

Llyn Tegid is Otherworldly. The lake is prone to flooding and the roots of the trees are exposed, twisted into weird shapes and disappearing into a soft gray shore of rounded stones and dusty soil. It looks as if the trees walk around at night when no one’s looking, and perhaps they do. It is as strangely beautiful as Mt. Tamalpais back at home, another sacred spot that looks as if it is half in another reality. The trees of the ogham are of course everywhere. I went looking for another spot like the one I had at Anderida, and found it. I slept tucked under two hawthorns and a hazel, the shingle was so soft it conformed to my body. It was a lot more comfortable than most of the hostel beds with my thermarest pad. It was warm enough at night to sleep with the top of the bivy sack open, looking up at the stars filtering through the leaves, listening to the lake lapping against the shore.

All too quickly the weekend was over. I have a yearlong relationship with the cauldron to develop, and songs to write, and songs to perfect. And this was only one strand of the tale!

If you are curious about the ritual work, or about the tales associated with it, the information can be found in Kristoffer Hughes’s book From the Cauldron Born. I’m devouring it even as we speak. It deserves a prominent place on any Pagan or Celtic Studies bookshelf. It will give an acquaintance with the relevant source materials to the one, and the flavor of experiential practice to the other.

A Different Rape Fantasy

Ballads were–and are–more than just entertainment. There’s a lot of cultural information packed in there too, in rhymed, easy to remember stories that told people who they were. Only some of these things apply to us here and now, but in making the distinction for ourselves, we see the shape of our particular culture and our times. We can see some of how we became who we are, and so the power of a ballad as a teacher remains.

Eppie Morrie has been on my mind a lot lately, a touchstone, particularly after the latest debacle in Texas. I think Wendy Davis and Eppie Morrie are kindred spirits. Both stood up for themselves in what looked like a hopeless situation and both won their battles. Both set an example for the women of their culture–Wendy Davis set an example *with* the women of her culture. Times have changed indeed!

Here’s the version of the ballad that I do:

EPPIE MORRIE

Eppie Morrie was faced with the prospect of rape in quite a different way than we are today, but many of the basics are the same. While women aren’t generally abducted on horseback by some guy and all his friends, getting passed around at a drunken party by people you thought were your friends isn’t all that far off as far as your chances of getting away go. At least Eppie Morrie got a ring first. Faced with the prospect of being bound to this oaf for life, Eppie Morrie manages to fight him off for the entire night. In the morning, still a virgin, she demands to be given a horse and sent home.

The ballad raises (and lowers) the whole idea of abduction, forced marriage, and rape to a battle and a battle the woman can win at! It may not be everyday reality, but it sure does help to see the story playing out like that once in a while. There’s a reason we don’t hear much about this in real life. If a woman avoids a rape, she usually doesn’t say anything about it. It’s a guaranteed hassle and if anyone is going to pay for the attempted crime it’s usually her. Eppie Morrie’s ordeal at least took place pretty much in public, and within cultural boundaries.

You know, I’ll bet there were men up there in that gallery the night of that filibuster. In the news I saw a lot of women in blue shirts going into the Texas Senate this morning, indicating that they were in support of abortion restrictions, just as there were men wearing orange, the color of the “other” side. While this issue is being framed solely in terms of womens’ rights versus the rights of the unborn, with men as oppressors and certain death on both sides, there are a lot of nuances that can’t be heard for all the shouting. To look at the Texas Senate, we really haven’t come very far since Child collected his ballads. Or is it just that it’s damned hard to turn the clock back, and this whole debacle is the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and chanting “La la la I can’t hear you!” Time will tell, I suppose, but I’m betting on the latter.