This is the first chant I ever wrote. It was only supposed to be an exercise at an experiential camp. We wrote for several minutes, and then were told to distill what turned out for me to be several pages into three sentences.
Not surprisingly, few of us could do it. It’s hard to throw away the words that have welled up within you, and pick only a few to share. We forget that once written they are still there on the page. Looking back at them now, I see echoes of the future, the Druidic path that I now walk. The waters of Llyn Tegid stretch before me, and the gold and green of Netimus. The cauldron holds the experiences, and the words are shaped by the past and the streams of wisdom others left behind for me to drink from. That night, in ritual, the bare words cycled through my head, slowly clothing themselves in song. All I had to do was listen and remember.
What is within you? How has the past shaped you and where has the future bled into your own life? Each age needs a retelling of the Tales, we all must drink from the Well and give our gift to the world. We are all Taliesin. Now, more than ever, the world needs our inspiration.
I’m standing on the shores of Llyn Tegid, where Cerridwen brewed the Awen. I, too, did that task, with a pack of Druids I’d never met. One of them was sent down to Sussex, where I was Called, though I didn’t know it. On his shopping list was a Gwion, to stir her cauldron, and I, bumbling my way across England, Scotland, and Ireland, heard the summons and altered my trek to Wales. It was a picaresque journey, I was teased and scared, and ultimately invited in by Scathach, ferried over to Ireland, my supposed destination, to sing of Macha on the mound at Emain. A few precious minutes in the chamber at Brugh na Boinne, and a lovely session in Dublin. I busked the price of a couple of pints at Temple Bar and laid my head in the quietest hostel I’d ever stayed at.
Cerridwen made me prove my resolve. I found out why the Sail Rail fare was so cheap. Six hours on the train station floor at Holyhead, and there was no hostel to be had at Bath. I would have been better off staying on Anglesey. Eventually I found myself on the shore of the Lake. I hadn’t even known where I was going! A chill ripped through me as I realized what I’d gotten myself into. A weekend of beginning the brew and tending the Cauldron, then a year of full moons spent stirring. I knew I’d be returning to finish the brew when the ogam wreath Cerridwen had been offered washed ashore where I was camping.
In my mind is a Grove. In the apparent world it grows at the top of Mount Tamalpais in California. Over the year the circle of stones within it became a Well, spring-fed, in my mind. The stream that ran from it tumbled down the hill and I chose one day to follow it, to see where it led. It grew, fed by other freshets and I found myself on the path to the Lake. I came to the bridge that I’d crossed during that weekend of brewing in Wales. I climbed over the stile and found myself beside Llyn Tegid once more. The green, the rocks in the streambed, all led me back to that place where I can journey any time I wish, in my mind’s eye.
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?
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 made that first trip when I turned 50. Chance–or was it synchronicity–put my arrival the day of the Anderida Autumn Camp. I got off the plane and onto a train to Lewes, then cabbed it to Camp. I knew no one, had barely started the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) course, but I knew this was where I needed to be. The Camp was experiential, and the story we were to be working with was the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. It was a story I thought I knew well. I left that camp a changed person. So many new friends, the welcome of the folk of Anderida should be legendary around the world. I arrived an American stranger, dragging a bike trailer of camping gear, and within the hour I had a place to camp, a cup of tea (I think) and was sitting in a circle of new friends. It was a wonderful introduction to a weekend of music, magic, and deep spiritual work. When I left, I no longer knew my own last name. It had been gently taken from me by the Gods, as had my previous identity. I was still myself, but no longer the woman warrior I had been, I had been reborn a Bard.
At Anderida, I was invited to the Anglesey Druid Order’s Cauldron Camp. Kristoffer Hughes, the Chief of the Order, had come down to give some mindblowing talks on the Fourth Branch. A native speaker of Welsh, he very kindly opened my eyes to the deeper meaning of that tale, and I quite happily followed him north at the end of a month of nonstop discovery. Their camp, coincidentally, was held on the last weekend of my trip.
Based on Kristoffer’s book, From The Cauldron Born, the work of that camp was to brew the Awen. I’m slow sometimes. I booked that camp partly because I had learned so much in one weekend and wanted more, and partly because I wanted to experience as much of Druidry in the land it had sprung from as I could. For all I knew, this would be my only trip there. I didn’t realize that I’d not only booked myself into a camp where we would be working with the myth of Taliesin and Cerridwen, but we’d be doing it on the very shores of the lake where the myth had taken place. I got chills when I first realized where I was. Then I discovered that the work would go on for the next year. I had choices, I could of course have just gone to the camp and gone home. I didn’t have to physically stir the potion and go out in the woods to find the ingredients each month. Nor did I have to find a way to come back the following year to finish the work.
I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I learned so much! Many of the ingredients don’t grow in California. Some are here as exotics, but I had to find equivalents for quite a few and doing that work brought me closer to this biome I grew up in. Just coming back after a month away showed me my home in a new way. I’ve gone on to the OBOD course and now, on the verge of completing it, I feel called to learn the language of Druidry in the biome in which it was created. Whether Druidry was only a product of the cultures of Albion or not is immaterial to this particular task. The Druid Revival happened in Albion, and the Druid Orders who teach today are largely based in Albion and Ireland. Their teachings, their pantheons are all part of this particular biome. While it is perfectly acceptable and absolutely possible to practice Druidry in any part of the world, I am called to go back to the source, to spend an entire turning of the seasons in the biome Druidry’s newest incarnation was born in.
The website, and this blog are the start. I don’t yet know how it will happen–a year off is a difficult thing to swing for a lower echelon American worker in these uncertain times, but I can have a job and a dream, or I can just have a job. And I’ll be going back to that camp on the shores of Llyn Tegid in September. This makes trip number three. For a person who didn’t know how to swing even one trip, that’s a good start, I think.
The stones whispered “connection” to me. It took a while. A whole year, and the answer came from a different place entirely. Stones are like that. They just exist at a slower pace. Their connection spans the earth, through the crust of the planet. Sea, Sky, Land, from the changes that occur in the space of a deep breath at the planetary timescale, to the eons-long drift of the continents. One year I stood silent and listening at Calanais, the next, at Long Meg, I heard.
We have a hard time listening, we humans. There is so much to be heard around us that the subtle gets drowned out. The night sky is dimmed by our lights, the soundscape of the planet dulled by our sounds. Answers that come softly and slowly over time are often missed, with all the distractions of daily life. Luckily for us, the conversation the universe is having with us is never over. We just have to get quiet enough to hear it. The plants on a hillside will tell you where the water is, if you take the time to look. What do the weeds in your yard tell you about the soil? Are there crickets in your neighborhood? Where do the birds gather? More importantly, what does each small nudge of awareness say deep inside you?
Spending time in the same place has rooted me in it. I was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, and have never really left it. Truly, where you have done your living is the measure of your life’s connection to land. I have watched the land change here, returning to the same places year after year. The trees that formed the back of the grove at Mt. Tam are fallen now, returning to the land. Trees that were seedlings when I first came here are now taller than I am.
I had to leave for a time to get a different perspective on home. Even a month caused me to see my land with new eyes. Returning from Albion allowed me to see two different Octobers, side by side. Green grass and gold, rushing waters and dry creekbeds. The smell of home is much stronger after a journey elsewhere. I was fortunate to have two trips, almost exactly a year apart, to the same place. I was able to spend time walking through the same Welsh forest, and come back to the same place in California at the same season.
The first thing I noticed was the smell. High notes singing in my head, the smell of dry grass, oak and bay laurel. Powdery and golden in my nose, the incense of summer in California, it builds as the months without water pass, enduring until the returning rains wash it from the air and replace it with the crystal smell of water. As I walked farther down the trail, I was embraced by the forest coolness. Brown redwood needles underfoot, gold to copper, and the darkness in their groves. The huge trees towered over me. It was so different from the Welsh faerie forest, some large trees but most of the trees I saw there would be dwarfed by these redwoods. I stood in the middle of a city, but here beside the barely running creek the last remnants of the forest reigned.
I took a number of walks after each trip, to talk to the forest and to look for the connections between this place and the ones 5,000 miles away. It’s as if I’m walking through an Albion newly discovered, the forests still, if not intact, large enough to lose oneself in, given a little imagination. This land might have looked like primeval home to the Northern Europeans, who followed the Spanish, who both wrested this land from the First Peoples. There are place names reminiscent of Scotland, the town of Inverness, and Ben Lomond down south. Now that I have seen a bit of Scotland I understand why. The rocky, craggy shores of California were once part of a great temperate rain forest that stretched across the northern hemisphere, and remains of it still can be found. I chase fog, and in December, when what turn out to be the only heavy rains of that year arrive, I wander through our local redwoods and see the scarlet amanitas appear.
We have remnants of forests, Albion has years of human habitation. Waves of it, leaving traces everywhere. Stone circles abound. What were they for? At Calanais, I was sure I didn’t know. Now, I know something they can teach us today. It took many hands, and many years to create these places. They seem to serve no purpose in keeping us alive–no food, no shelter, few remnants of human habitation from the time of their building. Their building was a cooperative effort, connecting their builders together, and the land as well.
We humans right now are as connected as we’ve ever been–and as far apart. We turn people not like us into the grinning masks of our worst fears, yet I can get online and speak to my friends across the Atlantic in the time it takes us to check our messages. We humans have had a few moments of spectacular cooperation–the International Space Station and the founding of the UN being two that loom large in my mind, but we have also often left our most vulnerable to die. We have access to the rest of the world, on demand, but we don’t have a connection to it. In order to have a connection with people, you have to spend time with them. Working on a project together will create this. Working on something that will benefit people you will never see, your descendants, for example, or our world, is the task I think we’re all called to do right now. We have all lived close to five millennia since the first of these circles were built, and we are distanced from the daily lives of their builders in ways that make it easy to idealize lives lived in partnership with the earth. It is easy to forget that ancient peoples did these things because they had no choice, their culture drawing its strength from working in ways that let them harness the strength of the land they lived in, their technology having to be based on an awareness of how natural cycles worked because they did not have the strength or knowledge to do otherwise.
Now, we’ve achieved power enough as a species to do as we please–for a while. We forgot, however, that we live in a closed system. This planet and what it is made of is all we have. If we exceed the natural cycles of life, by unlocking carbon from the land and sending it into the sky, with no provision for returning it to the land, we literally change the face of the earth, determining what can live, and where. We are doing this with little thought, as we can’t see the faces of the future. The pace of change is accelerating, but for so long it has been gradual, taking generations to pick up speed enough to be seen as a real series of events rather than just a series of measurements taken. It’s as if we climbed behind the wheel of a bus, drunk, and let off the brake. The bus has been rolling, slowly gathering speed, and we are fast reaching the edge of a cliff. If we assume responsibility equal to our power, in effect, apply what we already know as a brake, we could slow the speed of the changes, and learn how to work in harmony with the rest of the beings we share this planet with. As the builders of the circles of stone did, millennia ago.
I walked the hills above my home until I came upon a rock that felt like Long Meg. When I sit there and let the stillness creep into me, I can feel my connection. A year and more have passed since I set my back against Meg, but the rocks of California remember.
Three minutes without air, and your brain begins to die. A first responder will check an unconscious person for breathing even before they look for bleeding. Our breath is our most direct connection to life. So I invite you to take a breath and hold it. How long can you do so? Unless you’re a trained free diver, it’s probably a lot less than three minutes. What does it feel like to hold your breath? How does this feeling change as you continue to do so? And how gooood does that first breath you take afterwards feel?
Our breath is shared with all beings. The proportion of plants to animals determines the ratio of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the atmosphere, and so the temperature of the biosphere and the range of life that can exist. We are directly dependent on all the living things on this planet for the air we breathe and the areas of the planet that we can inhabit. By changing that balance as we have by releasing such large volumes of carbon into the atmosphere, we are reshaping the only home we have. The atmosphere is the thinnest, most vulnerable organ the body of our planet has. We have grown so powerful that we are literally determining who lives, and who dies, and since we are doing it without awareness, or full knowledge of the consequences of our actions, we may well be killing ourselves, cutting the web of life out from under our own feet.
To the Celts, knowledge was carried on the breath. Their culture was an oral one, and for a long time, they believed that to write a thought down was to kill it as the vital spark of life in it was gone. The very word, inspiration, means “to breathe in.” To me, a song is carried on the breath. Music only truly exists in the moment it is being played. Even to remember it, you have to play the tune in your head. Yes, it can be written down, but that is cold storage. A page of sheet music does not sing. It takes a person to do that, to take those markings from the page and transform them into sound again. The invention of recorded music allows us all to hear the greatest performers whenever we please, and–truly amazing–to hear them long after their deaths, but the recording must be played in order to have its full existence.
Even this miracle is a double-edged sword. Most of us don’t sing any more, or at least not nearly as much as we used to. Many of us are literally afraid to open our mouths at all. We can hear virtuoso performances any time we want to, so learning to play an instrument or sing isn’t nearly as vital as it used to be, but the things we could be learning by being able to hear those performances over and over and learning in the process to duplicate them are lost to many of us. We can get some of the pleasure with no more effort than pushing a button but we are losing out on the greater pleasure of making the music ourselves. How many times have you heard someone say “I play the radio,” when asked whether they play an instrument? We’re allowing ourselves to be intimidated by the quality of those performances, instead of being inspired by them. How many times have you heard someone say “I can’t sing”? What was carried on the breath is now carried in the pocket. So maybe the Celts were onto something there. They adopted writing in order to save some of their knowledge because the living libraries known as fili, brehons, druids, were being slaughtered by invaders. While that innovation saved things that would otherwise have been lost, enriching our collective memory and making information that was in the hands of specialists available to a much wider audience, our individual memories are not the well trained muscles that they were. The linkages between knowledge that can only be made by people who have all the information in their minds, readily accessible, are no longer available to us.
Our planet, our lives, are a song being sung by all of us, carried on the collective breath we all share. Each of us has a part to play. Our every action is a note in the larger chorus. The knowledge within every being on the planet is the fabric of which we are all made. From the dance of photosynthesis, the knowledge of the plants of how to capture the energy of sunlight and make it available to all, the planet has built up to the knowledge that allows us to actually leave the surface of our planet, beyond the atmosphere to where we can finally see ourselves as the one living world that we are all part of.
Our knowledge is now the key. When the Celts adopted writing, they allowed us to hear the voices of the dead. They also expanded the range of time they could hold clearly in their collective consciousness, and the depth and breadth of the poetic meters that were available to them. They had no idea that all this would happen, it was a result of their willingness to adapt and change. We have begun to change our world, true, but we have also targeted the part of it that is the fastest to react to change. What we have done happens at a rate that is slow for us, but within the span of time that we humans are capable of perceiving. We have already done a related experiment on the outermost part of our planet, the ozone layer. Back in the 1970s, we discovered we were “holing the spacesuit” with our indiscriminate use of chlorofluorocarbons, and at that time in our history, we were able to work together, to ban the use of these compounds and reduce their use far enough so that we are able to see the healing happening. If we can do that, we can also do the same with carbon. It will be harder, CFCs are fairly exotic and far more easily replaced than carbon, the basis of life itself, but we are are inventive creatures, never more so than when our lives depend on it.
All that we are is borrowed from the organism we are part of. All of it must be given back, and at the beginning of this post, you had the opportunity to learn just how impossible it is to hold onto the breath, and how vital it is to life. It also can determine the state of our consciousness. Three deep breaths are the quickest way I know to calm down, if they are taken with awareness, and allowed to have their own shape.
Breath is a great wheel. I invite you to breathe in, slowly. Take the air in all the way to your belly, until it stops by itself. There is a natural pause there, and if you just let it, your body will round that curve, and give back the breath it has just taken in. There is a similar pause at the bottom of the breath, and your body will, if you let it, round that curve and breathe in once again. Can you concentrate only on your breath long enough to do that three times? It can be hard at first, but with practice, you can follow your breath, and feel the effect it has on your body and your mind. Three breaths are available to you any time, any place. No one will notice if you do this on the bus, at a meeting, when you are feeling stressed. And it costs you nothing. This is a benefit of our connection to all beings.
If you have the time, and the inclination, can you follow nine of your breaths with complete concentration? Awareness is a muscle, and this is not as easy a task as it sounds. The benefits will only become apparent to you with time and practice, but they will be as close as your next breath, whenever you choose to take it.
Transformation can be tough.
The way Blodeuedd was treated in myth has always bothered me. Created specifically to be a wife to a boy who was also in a sense created without consent, I saw her as more slave than woman. I hated the magician Gwydion for his lack of awareness and for using his power to create playthings for the amusement of himself and his cronies without a thought for their desires and their basic rights.
This song came out of he time I spent meditating on Blodeuedd and asking her what her side of the story was. I wrote it years ago, but was unable to finish it until I went to my first Druid Camp, Anderida Gorsedd, which revolved around the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. There I met Kristoffer Hughes, who was not only kind enough to teach me how to say the names in the story as close to properly as an American can manage, he deepened my understanding of the story to the point where I understood what Blodeuedd had been telling me. And why Gwydion couldn’t be anyone but who he was.
Only part of one verse had to be changed, in the end. The story I was told had been very simple, only Blodeuedd’s creation and her return to where she had come from. It was complete in itself, as she is. When I had asked for the story of her life with Lleu several times, as I considered it the meat of the story, she sang me her answer:
You silly little mortal,
I decide the tale I tell,
I decide the shape of it,
This time it’s mine!
I had to leave it at that, and I did, until last Fall.
One of the things I didn’t understand about the Fourth Branch was that it is all about impulsive action. No one in the story is blameless. Everyone does something dumb, and while everyone ultimately pays for it, they are also transformed into more than they would have been otherwise. Did they learn their lessons? As well as any of us do, I suppose. The story leaves that question to the individuals involved, where it truly belongs.
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.