A small blue bird of grace

A small blue bird of grace

If you have known me a while, or have followed this blog for any time, you’ll probably know that for me the kingfisher is a sort of talisman. It’s a sign of things beyond feathers and beak and general bird-ishness. Which isn’t a word but you know what I mean. There’s connections to the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, As kingfishers catch fire, and a couple of other things as well. They’re not particularly rare birds, though rarer than they should be, and many people have never seen one in real life. Their habitat and feeding needs mean they are only found close to water. At this time of the year, the dearth of small fish in their usual hunting grounds sends them downstream towards the coast and you have more chance of seeing them there, perhaps fishing amid rock pools or in the streams that empty onto beaches.

I haven’t seen one for a couple of years. I used to see them on a regular basis while I stood on the bridge across the stream in the glebe meadow in the village a couple of miles across country from where I live. But that changed, and though I have walked down there fairly often (less often this year), I haven’t seen or heard one there in over 4 years. I keep a record of this kind of thing in a note book; it’s dedicated to my explorations of all things related to the Grail. The last mention of a kingfisher is from July 2016.

I

t goes without saying that 2020 has been a terrible year. Globally, nationally and personally, a bugger of a year. I don’t have any sense or expectation or hope of things getting any better quickly. Or, on a bad day, at all.

Today I took myself off for a walk. Inevitably, because this is Britain in October, it hammered down with rain when I was five minutes out. The washing was out on the line too, but I decided an extra heavenly rinse would do no harm and I carried on. The rain brought out some glorious scents and when I reached the glebe meadow, the stream was in full flow. Brightly coloured leaves drifted down from some of the horse chestnuts on the banks. Raindrops made expanding rings on the running water. The music of the water chuckling along and the sound of waterfall over the sluice gates half way up the meadow made a baffle to the noise of occasional traffic. After ten minutes, I headed up to the waterfall and stood watching it. I’ve often made a wish, a prayer, to see a kingfisher, to be given that sign of connection, but I knew that the residents here, if any remained, will have already headed down to the coast.

Then, to my amazed ears, I heard the distinctive cry, turned, and saw the electric blue back of a kingfisher as it flew downstream. I had not asked directly for this, just, as almost always, had a vague but heartfelt desire to see it again. Today was no worse than many days where I have craved that comfort of connection to the Other; why was it given today and not on the days when I was in utter despair?

I cannot tell. Such a gift (if you believe in these things) is a gift of grace, not given because you deserve or desire a thing, but because it is what you need at that moment more than anything you might consciously believe you need.

A kingfisher, said to be the first bird to fly from Noah’s ark after the deluge, supposedly received the orange of the setting sun on its breast and the blue of the sky on its back. It was considered a symbol of peace, promising prosperity and love.

 

Pumpkin Spice as An Ancestral Issue

Pumpkin Spice as An Ancestral Issue

It’s getting to that time of year again. The nights are drawing in, and the heat of only a matter of weeks ago is a memory (thank goodness; I wasn’t coping, especially with the hot humid nights). Cooler, fresher mornings are making me consider putting the duvet back on the bed; we’ve had instead a sheet with a blanket on the top for most of the summer. I’ve brought in the most tender, temperature sensitive plants back into the house after their summer break in the garden; the scented geraniums and the dwarf myrtle will follow soon, once I’ve cleaned windows and window ledges. The two olive trees will come in after that.

After the dry summer, the trees are bright with berries and their leaves are beginning to change colour. In woods we visit, the smell of autumn has been hovering for some weeks. We’ve spotted fungi erupting in all sorts of places. Bird song has altered. Our lawn is littered with more poo from hedgehogs as they forage among windfall apples and snuffle the cat food I put out every evening. The males will be looking for places to settle for their hibernation, while the females and the youngsters continue to feed voraciously to fatten up for winter. We rarely see slugs or snails here, probably because the hoggies and the visiting ducks hoover them all up.

I like autumn, despite the melancholy. The first anniversary of my father’s death has slipped by; I toasted him with a pint of Guinness with dinner. All Hallows and associated festivals lie ahead in October; there is usually a service here to commemorate our beloved dead. Last year it was too raw for me to attend, and this year spaces at the service will be fewer than usual because of social distancing measures. I hope to attend, and remember with love those who have gone.

Over recent years I have noticed the proliferation of items for sale that have the scent or flavour of “pumpkin spice”, and the attending ridicule of women for liking it. It’s largely contemptuous dismissal by men, powered by an underlying unconscious belief that everything women enjoy as trivial and without real value. Pumpkins as Halloween food and décor are a fairly new thing in the UK; pumpkin spice is actually a much older thing indeed, and has little to do with the vast round orange vegetables. It’s a mix of the sweet spices like cinnamon, allspice, cloves and a few others, traditionally used for baking certain recipes. As a child, trying to get my mother to cook and bake more adventurous things, I got her to buy a variety of herbs and spices. One of those was something called Apple Pie Spice. At home, she opened the bottle and took a sniff; her eyes went misty for a moment and she said one word: “Mammy”. Not, as she explained a few moments later, her mother, but instead her grandmother, who had lived next door. My great grandmother, in fact. That single inhalation of scent had taken my mother back to childhood, and brought a much-beloved grandmother into the room for a moment. Mum was someone who hated nostalgia and rarely reminisced. She seldom talked about her childhood, or showed us old photos but in that tiny breath of mixed spices, she went back, almost bodily. She was back in her grandmother’s kitchen, helping her bake apple pies and other delicious treats. I have often thought that many of her memories from that time are probably deeply traumatic; the roof of their house was blown off by a falling bomb while they sheltered under the concrete thrall shelf in the pantry. Brothers, uncles, cousins, were away at war; desperate shortages of food at times meant that while they probably never went truly hungry, food was doubtless tedious and boring and precious. Mum in her later years talked about never having had teddies or other soft toys; she had a rag doll that someone made for her, but that was it. We gave her a zoo’s worth of cuddly toys, which she loved, but that early lack went deep. I suspect for many that lived through such times there are cavernous wounds, papered over with material comforts in later years.

Spices were once as precious as gold, and their use in food sometimes a matter of conspicuous consumption. Cardinal Wolsey went one step further, using saffron (still one of the most costly of spices) as a strewing herb. In humble families, a pinch of ground cinnamon in a simple apple pie was a way of giving the food an almost magical savour, a pinch of love. That’s why so many of the traditional Christmas foods are heavy on spices, because these were things you could not afford to use every day. They were brought out for the feasts of life, when those you loved had gathered close for that time. They enhanced both the flavour, the fragrance and the properties of the food. Most spices have beneficial effects; cinnamon is anti-viral and many are antibacterial as well. Sometimes added to disguise the taint of food past its best, they protected the health as well as adding to the taste.

In the case of pumpkins, the spice is added as pumpkins have very mild flavour. I’ve made pumpkin pie just the once; we held a Halloween party for my daughter’s friends, some of whom were American (we lived close to a couple of US airbases at the time). The kids looked at it, and because it was unfamiliar to most of the guests, declined to try any. The one American attendee said she didn’t like it anyway. I ended up eating it all myself over a couple of days. I rather liked it. But I think that if they were a vegetable that grew well where I live, I’d feel honour-bound to find as many ways of using it as possible, because of the hungry times in my ancestry. At the moment I am processing as many of the apples from our nine trees as I can, stewing with cinnamon and honey and freezing them for use in the winter when the trees are bare. Last year I didn’t do this; there was too much going on to worry about endless windfalls and waste. But as I add the spice to each batch, I think of the great grandmother I never knew, and of the line of faceless grandmothers going back centuries, and then I think of the younger women daring to have pumpkin spice coffee, defying the (mostly) men who would shame them for liking such a thing, and then I think, “You go, girls. You enjoy that spice. And devil take those who would use it to diminish you.”

Lammas: Replenishing the Life-Well

Lammas: Replenishing the Life-Well

Since the pandemic lock-down began here in the UK, I’ve not spent a night away from home. The furthest I have travelled was a two hour drive to my mother’s funeral, back in April. As restrictions eased, we’ve been to the coast a few times and into Norwich. But we’re not going to be going away for a holiday and I have no idea when I will have my next work trip. I was supposed to have had a couple of Paris or Northern France assignments in later June/early July but obviously they didn’t happen.

At the same time as all this, I’ve had a massive, and utterly horrible increase in the amount of pain I am in, and an equally massive loss of energy. When you can’t sleep because of pain, anxiety, grief, the body has no chance to mend itself, to rest and recuperate and the spirit/soul has no chance to recover from the blows life has aimed at it. I would have loved to have been able to visit various locations and sites that nourish me, but until quite recently that sort of travel was out of the question for normal mortals who cannot flout the law like certain government advisors (and others). Even though many places are now open, at least partially, the limitations and the extra hoops to jump through put me off even trying. I don’t want to, say, go round Norwich Cathedral, following a set path that takes a truncated tour. I want to sit in empty corners and quiet chapels, or stand in the labyrinth and gaze at the sky.

We had a wonderful trip with my brother to a woodland near where he lives; we took a picnic and since he’s a butterfly expert, we got to experience certain examples of lepidoptera we’d not have spotted or recognised. He can identify a butterfly often just by its flight patterns, so this meant we got to see silver-washed fritillaries we’d otherwise not have realised were there; a purple hair-streak butterfly came down from the oak canopy and we were able to get a decent look at it. I’d never seen one before.

Then a few days ago, we went to Dunwich Forest, and had a deeply restorative walk there. We used to take our dog there, and since she died almost ten years ago, we’ve hardly been back. The fluttering leaves of birch, the high fronds of bracken, the deep dark green of planted conifers, and the solid green of oak leaves gave us shade from the intense summer sun; the scent of ferns and moss and the hint of fallen leaves and fungus reminded me of the ephemeral nature of the season. We saw many gatekeeper butterflies, coppers, large skippers, peacocks, red admirals, silver-washed fritillaries (which I’d never have identified if I’d not had my brother show me the week before), and a couple of white admirals too. Dragonflies of many hues and species flitted around like jewelled brooches that have come to life. The sun on gorse seed pods made them crackle and pop and fling the seeds a surprising distance; the few brilliant yellow flowers gave out their toasted coconut macaroon fragrance. Then, because an hour and a half’s walk had worn me out, we drove to the beach and got chips from the beach cafe, and ate them sitting on the shingle while the sea caressed the rolling pebbles at the shoreline.

I’ve spent a lot of time in my garden; I bought a couple of zero gravity reclining chairs which have proved perfect for lying back in to gaze at the night sky and try to see the comet. Later this month, we’ll watch for meteor showers. We’ve left the lawns uncut this year; closer to the house, they’re kept short by the assiduous efforts of our little squad of guinea pigs but further away, the grass has gone to seed, as have the various hawk-bits, cat’s ears, hawkweeds, and others. That’s brought in squadrons of seed-eating birds like goldfinches. The longer grass has encouraged grasshoppers and crickets, and I’ve spotted wall butterflies (whose larval stage eats grasses) and also clouded yellows (whose caterpillars eat clovers) flitting around and mating. The vegetable plants we’ve cultivated are all producing delicious food for us and the guinea pigs; the self-sown evening primroses draw both butterflies and moths. The flowers are like faery ballgowns of the softest, most vibrant yellow silk, and at night they give off both a gentle aroma and a strange, almost luminescent glow as the colour reflects moonlight and starlight. Bats fly in profusion over our heads as we lie star gazing, intercepting the June bugs and cockchafers that have launched from the lawn most nights during June and some of July, and hedgehogs perform their mating rituals (noisy) a few yards or even feet away from us, before adjourning to the feeding station to crunch up cat biscuits and slurp up the odd over-ripe banana.

Our apple trees are laden with fruit that’s ripening and drawing both wasps and blackbirds to the windfalls. The bees get on with their work and a steady hum of insect life underpins the sounds of bird life and the harsher hum of traffic. New dragonflies emerge from the pond, eye us up and decide we’re too big to eat (apparently they’ll intercept fragments of crisp or peanut flipped into the air, or so my brother has told me) and head off to find something more manageable.

I’ve had very few human encounters face to face in the last months; the few that I have had have been usually very welcome, with people I like and admire. The facility for video chats (many platforms available) has been a sanity saver for me and for many.

All of these things have been replenishing my life-well. It’s a term I have used (I might have coined it) for that deep pool of experiences and thoughts and memories and dreams that feed me at the deepest, most essential level. It’s where the ideas for stories are drawn from, where they sink down into the bedrock and sometimes emerge years or even decades later as part of something complex, and wonderful. Two years ago, we went back to Taize, and though the week(with two days of travel either side) left me so physically drained it took months to recover, the contribution to my life-well was so profound that it will stay with me forever. There was an attempt to get such a trip going from this diocese, and I was part of the meeting discussing it; it didn’t happen, and even had it been planned for this year it would have been scuppered. One of the things I needed to get across was how important that trip had been to me, but also how difficult it had been. The sad thing is how abled people react to information about difficulties in access to these kinds of pilgrimages. The general feeling is, “If it was that hard, why on earth would you put yourself through that to go again?” This completely fails to understand what life is like for the disabled. The idea that if they were in your shoes, they’d just not do anything difficult or painful is absurd; life is already constricted for those with disabilities, and the opportunities to replenish your life-well are also restricted. It’s the life-well we draw on in dark days, in days where getting out of bed let alone the house, is a major challenge and can be nigh-on impossible.

Having a life-well is important, vital even, to living a full, well-lived life rather than just enduring an existence. This extraordinary year I have heard friends talk about watching for hours as a spider spun her web, of books read they’ve long intended to read but never found the time for, of local walks where some kind soul has chalked the names of plants on the pavements, of meeting life-minded souls via Zoom, of taking virtual pilgrimages, of being still enough that wild creatures draw closer. I’ve heard nothing of holidays on exotic beaches, of sightseeing in distant lands, of the long-awaited family wedding, because the experiences that fill our life-wells this year are different. Some have been bitter, dark and filled with sadness and horrors. Some have been laden with home-made bread, bird-watching in back yards and reconnecting with much-loved old friends.

This is my Lammas wish for you: that your life-well this year be filled with unexpected riches that will carry you into the colder, darker months and give you joy and wisdom to draw upon as the year turns.

Blessings to you all.

A Light When All Other Lights Go Out

A Light When All Other Lights Go Out

A Light When All Other Lights Go Out

How are you? I mean, really HOW ARE YOU? Be honest, if you have the strength to be, because it really does take strength these days to express your real feelings.

I’m OK. Not always. Not every day, and not through the entire day either but at this precise moment, I’m OK. I’m having nights where I cannot sleep. I get up, go down and sit on the sofa and read. I’ve sat outside with the dawn chorus blazing around me, as the sky is streaked with the rays of the rising sun, and I’ve slept until mid morning having crawled back to bed around 5am. I’ve had a few nights where I’ve slept a decent amount, though never unbroken. My weighted blanket helps, though as the weather gets hotter it becomes harder to use it as it traps heat; I can’t regulate my body temperature well at the best of times so the summer can be a real endurance test.

The last three months have been such a strange time; we’re encouraged to see things in a different light, and yes, for sure there have been some benefits of lock-down. I dearly hope that some of these benefits will be nurtured and encouraged. I thoroughly enjoyed this year’s BBC Springwatch series: three weeks of nature and focus on the beauty and the wonder of the natural world. It was a balm to my soul. So has my garden, and the life within it.

The chances are that despite restrictions being lifted I shan’t be travelling anywhere very far off this summer. My own understanding of the pandemic is that lifting restrictions is premature and that by and large, people will not be sensible. Even if most people are, with a virulent virus around, it doesn’t take much to raise the R level.

I am restless, though. I want to go and see friends and family; I want to go to some of the beautiful places that nurture my soul. Just because we’re allowed to do a bit more does not mean flocking in droves to locations of desire (cough Barnard Castle cough). One of the places I’d hope to revisit this summer was the Chalice Well in Glastonbury, and the White Spring a few yards away; there is peace there I can never fully describe. They’re recently restored the lid to the well itself, replacing the wood that had begun to disintegrate and they have restored the stunning metalwork design, revealing many details long long under layers of paint and varnish. I’d really love to see that this year. But I can’t. In the end, I ordered myself a gift from the shop at Chalice Well: a little pendant, of reinforced glass, filled with water from the well, topped by a vesica piscis, and decorated with a garnet gemstone. 

After I ordered it, I realised what it reminded me of: Galadriel’s gift to Frodo, a vial of water from her well, imbued with the light of a star. She described it as a light where all other lights go out. Frodo tucked it in a pocket and more or less forgot about it as his journey through terrors and trials took him to the edge of Mordor and the not-quite-secret entrance. It was only in the pitch black of Shelob’s Lair that the vial was remembered and brought out. The light drove back the ravenous monster, enough to try and make an escape.

I haven’t checked whether my pendant glows or emits light. The chances are it doesn’t and if it did, I’d worry. The idea of a sacred well becoming radioactive enough that the water glows is a horrible one. But it does emit hope, and in wearing it I feel a connection to a place where the barrier between the ordinary world and the world of deeper connections is thinner than in many places. It’s only a little thing and only a symbol of something greater; it’s a potent reminder of the light that can never be extinguished. And that gives me the comfort I need for the darker days that are ever present.

What are your comforts, your symbols that support you in this time?

Beltane at the Cave

Beltane at the Cave

The sky is darkening, from an intense pale blue to a darker but equally intense and clear blue, flecked with clouds the colour of doves’ wings and that faint blush pink of a linnet’s breast. It has rained off and on all day, bringing the final April showers after a dry month. From below the wide ledge of clean, white sand that is the entrance to my cave, scents rise from the forest below. Resinous aromas from the many firs and conifers of all kinds, the fainter scent of blossoms, and the pungent odour of wet earth and vegetation, all mingle as I wait for the light to fade past a certain point.

I kneel, the sand wet under my knees, and bow towards the setting sun, my head almost touching the earth. A shiver runs through my whole body. The evening songs of the birds falters, then ceases, and I know this is the moment. I lift my flint, and bring it down hard onto the rock, and miraculously, a shower of bright sparks flies out. It lands on the little pile of tinder, and after a moment, a thread of smoke rises. I lean forward, blowing gently, cupping my hands around the newborn flame, blowing, blowing, blowing, until the flames rise like hungry chicks clamouring for food. I feed them, dry twigs and resinous pine needles and they crackle greedily.

I add more fuel, slowly, letting the fire build until I can add small logs, and by that time, the light has faded almost entirely from the sky. When I am sure my bonfire is burning steadily, I fetch a stool so that I can sit by it. The knees of my trousers dry in the warmth that emanates from the fire. A chill breeze seems to roar down off the mountain, making my fire crackle and roar back at it. I pull my blanket around my shoulders, and gaze into the blaze.

There is great sadness, a weight that bears down on my heart, a sorrow that is more appropriate to Samhain than to Beltane, and I sigh. This is the place where I am always alone with my thoughts, where no other human comes to be with me, but this evening, I feel the void. A great change has taken place in my lineage. I have, my default, become an elder. One might consider I am a new matriarch, but it weighs on me, because I have lost my mother. Oh, I know, I know. Nothing is ever lost, they say.

Through the flames I see that my companions have come. Great she-bear who kept me company through the deep winter, Reindeer, and others, shadowy in the penumbra of the fire, sit with me, silent and respectful. I welcome them but I do not speak.

As the last light vanishes from the sky, and the Evening Star glitters into view, I hear one last burst of bird song. It’s one I have not heard for some time, for this bird, once common and little thought of, has become rarer. I see the singer, perched fairly close to me on one of the stunted apple trees at the edge of the ledge. A song thrush, singing so beautifully that tears, healing tears, rise in my eyes and spill over as I remember that my mother’s name means song thrush.

The incredible power of myths and fairy-tales

The incredible power of myths and fairy-tales

One of the highlights of last year (which was a truly awful year in most respects) was having the chance to go on a workshop with Caitlín Matthews http://www.hallowquest.org.uk/ Held at Woodbrooke, the Quaker study centre in Birmingham https://www.woodbrooke.org.uk/ , “The Paths to the Grail” remains an island of calm, learning, fellowship and a deep sense of the numinous, and a shining, beautiful couple of days of my life. A true oasis, if you like. I had wanted to go on one of her courses before, but never so much as this one. In the hell of all the horrible, sad events, this gave me respite.  Continue reading

Samhain at the Cave

Samhain at the Cave

Samhain at the Cave

It’s been so long since I visited this place that I am strangely afraid. Afraid that it will not be here, or I will not be welcome. Or that I will find everything changed beyond recognition.

I need not have been so afraid. While I cannot remember precise details, I find that when I pass into the lighter part of the cave, I feel that sense of coming home that always greeted me on arrival. I expected cobwebs and dust and perhaps for small creatures to have nibbled at the belongings I left here, but the floor is without footmarks in the deep soft sand, and the ledges are untouched, and the items stored as fresh as when I last came.

It’s early morning; the damp air is filled with the scents of an autumn forest. From the lower slopes of the forest I can smell the tang of fallen leaves, that spiced mushroom fragrance mixed with woodsmoke. From higher, I can smell the pines and the other evergreens that cloak the peaks. I can even smell the distant odour of snow, though the clouds today hold only rain.

A small movement catches my eye; rising up from the path at the edge of the clearing is a figure I had not realised how much I missed. The clear shining eyes are the colour of morning sun on spring water rising through peat-rich soils, that luminous, glowing brown. We greet each other, and I run my hands through the warm pelt that feels like rough silk, and lean my head against the strong neck of the reindeer who is my guide. I do not apologise for my long absence; for time does not run the same here, and apologies are not necessary. I am here now and that is all that counts.

We spend the day gathering against the coming winter: nuts, a final crop of berries to dry and store, wood, the last batch of herbs and barks to see the winter through. Soft rain falls all the day, but it does not matter. At midday I light a fire in the fire-pit at the edge of the cave; the smoke does not fill the cave but is drawn away and lost. I make pine needle tea to warm and restore me; it’s a good source of vitamin c, and of good cheer. There is a stoneware jar in a niche to the back of the cave; it’s stoppered with a well-worked bung of wood, and I lever it open to find that it is filled with honey. Thick golden goodness and some comb. I put a small spoonful into my tea for the glory of it.

By mid afternoon, I can feel the pull of muscles unused to this work and am glad when Reindeer suggests we have done enough. I stoke up the fire and we sit companionably, me with a blanket around my shoulders and Reindeer a little further from the fire. We watch the light fade from the sky, and the forest below becomes quieter. I can hear the wind in the remaining leaves, rustling them. I think I hear something else, but I convince myself I am imagining it. I walk to the edge of the clearing, where the ground drops away steeply into the forest. There are paths which wind down this mountain, and into the forest, but few use them but me. This night is the night when the ancestors may walk among us, but I cannot sense anything this year. Previous years I have seen the glimmer of souls passing by to reassure me that they are not lost, but this year, I see nothing. The forest is lost in a dense, velvety blackness. I look down; in the very far distance I see the flicker of a few lights, camp fires perhaps, but most of the forest is in comfortable darkness.

As I turn to go back into the shelter of my cave, for the night is raw with rain and a wind that is starting to chill me to the marrow, I see a light. Two lights, in fact, which are approaching up the steep path from the forest. It takes me a moment to realise that the lights are actually eyes, reflecting back the glow of my fire in the overhang. I ought to be afraid but I am not. I ought to run for cover, to grab flaming brands from my fire but I do not. I step back, to allow my visitor to enter the open space before my cave.

It is a great she-bear.

Reindeer stands beside me, unconcerned, and nudges me, reminding me of my duty.

I clear my throat.

Greetings, sister,” I say. “You are welcome to share our fire and our food.”

She-Bear turns her head this way and that so that she can look at us both, but she does not speak. I see that she is thinner than she should be at this time of year and there are wounds on her flanks, which look only half healed. She grunts, softly, and we all move back into the cave mouth. She-bear skirts around the fire, cautious but not afraid, and lies down, still watching us.

I bring food. I find dried, smoked fish (salmon, I suspect) and berries and even some dry bread, and then I remember the crock of honey. I unstopper it, and pour it onto one of the slabs of smooth bark that serve here as plates, and place it close to She-Bear. She sniffs at it, and throws her head back in what I interpret as delight, before licking the plate clean. I give her half the crock, and then she eats fish and berries, but declines the bread. Then she yawns. Her teeth are huge, and frightening, but she is a good guest and we do not fear her. Instead, we sit together, the three of us, and we talk, in our own ways. Of those we have lost, of our fears, of our memories and of our hopes. I do not know how it is that we understand each other, but somehow we do. I learn that She-Bear has come to guide me, to be my guide as well as Reindeer, but that her lesson now is that of rest. I learn that the deep rest of winter is essential, and that I have not rested sufficiently in previous years. I have fretted and refused to rest.

The sky has begun to clear of rain clouds, and the temperature has dropped, as the stars begin to show in the dark sky. I can feel frost starting, and my other senses can feel the snow that waits, not many weeks away. The sharp, bright, invigorating smell of cold and ice and snow is still muted by the soft spicy scent of autumn, but I can smell it. Unconsciously, I find myself leaning back into the dense fur of She-Bear, her breath sweet from the honey and the hawthorn berries she has eaten, and I find her solid warmth extra comforting. I curl up in the space between the two animals, pull my blanket around myself and allow myself to sleep, guarded by two sentinels who I trust entirely.

H is for Heresy

H is for Heresy

H is for Heresy

Long ago (and perhaps not so very long ago) I’d have been burned as a heretic or hanged as a witch, because my expressed beliefs do not conform to the required norms of Churchianity ( a term I believe was coined by Dion Fortune, who was a devout, if unorthodox, Christian herself)

I’ve always been drawn by the numinous, since quite early childhood. I remember making a shrine in my bedside cabinet when I was about six or so, using a Christmas card with a nativity scene on it as a kind of altar piece, and surrounding it with things I felt to be beautiful or holy, like flowers and stones and so on. I learned the Lord’s prayer around the same time. We weren’t a church-going family so I am not sure where this interest came from. I conducted a funeral for my beloved pet mouse (when he died, of course) that involved holy water and flowers and so on, despite knowing nothing about funerals or ritual. But when I did start attending church by myself, aged 11, I can only say I found it dull, bound by rules and by unspoken assumptions about life that I had no clue about. There was nothing of the hidden glory that I felt existed beyond the mundane, which was the whole reason for my search.

The journey to find that glory has been a difficult one, and I’ve found it, that shining, singing, wonder, in places that are far from cosy fellowships and regulations and restrictions. It’s found in birdsong, rain falling on dry earth, the rustle of a mouse in the hedgerow, and in the flash of electric blue as the kingfisher flies downstream at dawn. It’s found amid the ancient stones, forgotten bones, and the trees that bud and bloom, and at the graveside of ancestors and avatars. It’s found in the wordless keening of grief, and at the joyful song of celebration. It’s found in the endless silence, in the light between the worlds, and in old books.

I’ve begun to understand that my aversion to fellowship is perhaps neurological; introversion is not a crime but in organised faith, it is often misconstrued. It may be why anchorites and hermits chose to go far from the madding crowds, because so few accept that one can be alone and be filled with the numinous. One is seen as stand-offish at best. The truth is that being among people can become physically and emotionally unendurable at times, yet to admit this risks having the admission taken personally and as an offence. It’s seldom seen as acceptable to be alone within a busy society; our culture does not understand it, and perhaps never will. So the erstwhile hermits suffer or they go away into the distant, quiet places, where they can hear that silent song, and see God within the creation and not in the works of human hands.

Yet the creation itself is at risk, under immense pressure and threat from those human hands. It’s treated as a commodity to be plundered and despoiled for our convenience and gain. As humans relentlessly pollute, destroy and desecrate the natural world, we also damage our relationship with the divine, immanent in every living thing, and every stone, grain of sand and soil, on this planet. The often forgotten fifth mark of mission of the Anglican church is to: To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth http://www.anglicancommunion.org/identity/marks-of-mission.aspx .

So perhaps my heresy is only such when viewed from certain quarters. I’d rather not burn or hang for it, but I’m already suffering.

Tales of the Wellspring 5 ~ the White Spring of Glastonbury

Tales of the Wellspring 5 ~ the White Spring of Glastonbury

Tales of the Wellspring 5 ~ the White Spring of Glastonbury

The first time I visited the White Spring, the truth is I didn’t know its significance or meaning but I think I might have sensed something, for the place made a huge impression in my memory. Set at the foot of the Tor in Glastonbury, the building itself was once a reservoir for water for the town, filling from one of the two springs that well up from the earth there. The Red Spring, on the other side of the road, is now surrounded by the beautiful gardens of the Chalice Well trust, though an outlet in the lane means anyone can collect the water at any time of day or night. The Chalice Well is where Joseph of Arimathea is said to have concealed the cup of Christ and the waters run red to this day. The water is high in iron and has long been drunk as a health cure; miracles have been ascribed to it. (it appears briefly at the end of Strangers and Pilgrims too) 

But the White Spring has been the poor relation of this famous wellspring. When I first visited, the building had been converted into a cafe, with a few tiny shops selling themed gifts. Water ran through the stone floor in a channel and on a hot day, such as the one we first went, not far off twenty years ago, dangling your feet in the cool refreshing water was a treat as you ate and drank. A couple of small shrines peppered the edges of the cafe, and candles and incense burned, but it was still only a cafe.

When I visited again in future years, it was shut. I found out the cafe had closed down, and the building was locked up and deserted, though people did still congregate in the tiny garden, where the water ran from a pipe outlet from the spring. On our first visit, there had been a man in this garden, who had with him wild creatures who stayed with him for love of him: an owl, a fox and a stoat, I believe. I never saw him; someone on the camp-site said he was there but by the time I got there, he was gone.

Each time I’ve been back, I’ve gone to look, a feeling of longing and sadness tugging my heart as I find it locked and silent.

But this time, it was not.

I’d known from reading their website that the spring was now open again, though the hours depended entirely on volunteers. I’d forgotten to check when it would be open before we headed to Glastonbury for a four day silent retreat. Serendipity was on my side that day, though. We’d been up to the top of the Tor, where the wind made me giddy and dizzy, and we took the shortly route down and found ourselves in Well House Lane, to find the White Spring was open.

There’s a notice as you go in, informing you of the no photos or filming rule, and various other guidelines. I’m glad you can’t take pictures because it would be intrusive and it might well undermine the breath-taking atmosphere of the place.

And I do mean breath-taking. When I came out, I had to remind myself that the building was just an old reservoir tank, built for nothing more than holding clean fresh spring water. You walk in, down some steps, and are transported to…somewhere else. It feels like an ancient temple or cave, the air filled with the scent of water, incense, candles and damp stones, echoing to the murmur of whispers and of water trickling. Candles burn on every surface, the reflections of the flames twinkling in the water of the pools. For there are several pools, including one huge deep one that (I believe) is about four feet six inches deep. You are allowed to bathe but you must inform the guardian first. If you bathe naked, you must be considerate of other visitors. One woman went in fully clothed, and with great dignity; I lacked the courage to do so. Shrines abound, to various deities, but mostly to the Mother, in her many guises.

A woman sobbed next to me as she made an offering in front of of a small shrine to a goddess figure I was sure was for child-bearing. Her partner comforted her silently, with a hand on her shoulder. People spoke, but in hushed respectful voices, and did not linger. You could not linger. The power was too overwhelming, emanating from the flow of the waters and the voices just below the threshold of hearing.

I emerged, blinking hard, into the bright sunlight of the lane, my face wet from my scanty baptism of hands splashed over face and head and heart, and took a long drink from the water spilling endlessly from the pipe on the outside of the well-house. There was refreshment and a tiny restoration; that I could sense a something here, though I could not easily name or quantify it, is a step forward, even if only a tiny one.

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Lammas at the Cave

Lammas at the Cave

Lammas at the Cave

The morning birdsong is over by the time I leave the cave; I have not had the energy to rise at dawn to see the sun rise as I should. I have slept in, lying on top of my bed-roll most of the night, for though the cave is cool, the nights have been humid, sticky and oppressive. It has been difficult to get anything done, for movement other than the most languid kind leaves me exhausted and sweating.

Cooler air greets me, laden with the scents rising from the forest below, redolent of the soft rain that fell last night, and of green growth and flowers and a hint of ripeness. I do not farm up here, so there are no grain crops to gather in, but other things are coming to the point of harvest. A willow basket is hooked over my arm as I head slowly down the path that leads steeply down from the ledge where I live. I do not know what I am going to gather, but it seems to me that I should take a basket just in case. For what seems like the longest time, I have lost interest in my home and my life; though I know the forest to be coloured with the most vivid of shades and hues, all I have been able to see has been an endless mass of greys.

Under the canopy of trees, the path is dark and were it not for the white rocks placed at the edges here and there, I might easily wander. That’s dangerous, for on my mountain there are precipitous drops that you can’t see till you are almost falling over them. It’s not a place for careless meanderings, yet again today I let my feet guide me, not my mind, and I find myself at the stream that tumbles down the side of the mountain. The path follows this, and the air is heavy with the cool moisture and the song of the stream.

I have to tread carefully for the path is narrow and hard on the feet, sometimes becoming slippery and I wish I had not come this way; I consider turning back. But I trudge on, shouldering the empty basket, tripping sometimes, which leaves me breathless with shock and fear. Eventually, the ground levels out, and I find myself somewhere I have no memory of having been before. A great basin of rock, wide and deep, opens out for many yards and the stream fills it before leaving at the far end, the water draining away in a series of beautiful little waterfalls no more than five or six feet in height. The noise of falling water is deafening, yet I do not move onwards. I put the basket down and find somewhere to sit, cushioned by lush moss, and dangle my sore feet into the water.

It’s icy and refreshing, and I realise I am sweating with the effort and with the heat, for the sun is now high overhead. I had not felt how time was passing, and passing so swiftly, that my morning is gone. The water is inviting, so I strip off my clothes and slide in, gasping with the shock of the cold. The pool is deep enough to swim in, though if I put my feet down, I touch the rock. I swim for a little while before dressing again, and sit back on my mossy seat, damp and chilled and panting. I do not want to leave here, either to go back or to go onwards. Despite the noise of the water, it’s a very peaceful place.

A dash of brightness catches my eye, flashing past and dipping into the water, a brief vision of intense, shining blue that reappears on the far side of the pool, its beak full of a silver wriggling fish that disappears down its gullet with little difficulty. I search my memory for a name: kingfisher. I watch it dive for another, and another, and the fierce, brilliant colours are like lightning in the night of my mind. Then, full of fish, it flashes away downstream, out of sight and I am left alone.

When I come to pick up my basket, to my surprise it is full of fish. Much larger than the ones the kingfisher was catching, these are salmon and trout, and they remind me that if I do not grow grain here, I must still eat in winter, and I lug the basket back to the cave where they can be prepared for drying and smoking.

As the sun sets, I sit out at my fire, and eat freshly roasted salmon, burning my fingers a little as I pick pink flesh off the bones, and feel the blessing of the fisher of kings.

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