The Ancient Bone Mother and the Hunter of Souls

raven_smaller

It is the time of Samhain: summer’s end. Here in the Northern hemisphere the mellow light of late autumn is sharpened by a growing chill. As the darkness grows, through the increasingly bare branches we catch glimpses of breath-taking stars; Orion the Hunter heralds the changing season. We let go of warmth like trees shedding leaves. We watch the radiant reds and oranges turn brown. Drying leaves are nature’s parchment; the year has written its story upon them and now it lets them fall; their wisdom is layered into the mulch that will fuel countless cycles of life, death and rebirth. Toadstools feed on the damp forest floors; life grown out of decay. The frosts wither and Grandmother Winter breathes upon us her mist and fog. Her wildness lashes us in strong winds and stinging rain, and in floods her cold fingers find their way into our lives to remind us of her power to shake us down to our core. And yet her light is the gold of the low set sun and her clarity as vast as the blue skies of autumn. As life withdraws, we too draw inward to sit at winter’s hearth and watch the future played out in flame and silent thought.

As Pagans, this festival sees many of us honouring the Goddess as Ancient Crone of the Earth’s Release. As Mother of Shadows, her wisdom is deep as the black of a raven’s wing; as sharp as the crow’s call; as mysterious as the veil of mist that shimmers between this and the otherworld. She is the timeless serpent who sloughs to bring healing. We call to her as infinitely wise Grandmother, she who knows us better than we know ourselves. By her we are swallowed, down into the still darkness of winter, down into her Sacred Cauldron of Rebirth, where peaceful release, transformation and renewal await us. She is the Ancient Bone Mother. When life’s harsh lessons weather our spirits, her strength and endurance fill us. Rugged and timeless, her wildness inspire journeys into the remote and lonely places of our souls, for it is here that we find her, her face bright in the darkness –  a torch through the moonless night; her knowing humour our sacred song of dark wisdom and mother wit.

Many also honour the God as Shadowed Lord of the Dead and Hunter of Souls. As all nature surrenders to the tides of release and the dying light, we recognise that he guides us to that dark place in the forest, that place where we let go of all we are; where the Earth Mother’s body opens to enfold us. We become yet another layer beneath the many layers, feeding the saplings that will grow upon the graves of leaf-fallen lives. Those who do not know him well can fear his shadowed face but there is deep compassion and tenderness beneath the seeming harshness. With him and through him we journey the cycle of the seasons – at Samhain he teaches us to trust in his season of release. As Lord of Death he serves the Goddess and all life in bringing us the perfect peace of surrender that leads to the ultimate renewal of life.

Samhain is the festival when we honour the Crone’s dark cloak of death. It is the time when its impenetrable blackness seems only a translucent veil; when the boundary between this world and the next is slight. We honour those who have passed over: those whom we have known and loved in this life but also those spirits, guides and ancestors who watch over us and bless our lives. We offer our hand to these loving ones that they might join us in our celebrations if they so wish. We feel ourselves most strongly a part of the greater mystery of life at this time.

There is a lovely prayer – written by Judith Anderson- that we use during our own Samhain ritual. We light an ancestor candle whilst someone speaks it. I really love it because it is written in the voice of the ancestors:

Re-member us, you who are living

Restore us, renew us

Speak for our silence

Continue our work

Bless the breath of life

Sing of the hidden patterns

Weave the web of peace.

Another image of the Goddess as Crone that, for me, strongly resonates with this time of year is the Sheela na Gig. Whatever her original meaning, for me she has become the Lady of the Sacred Gateway: Holy Womb and Tomb. She is the Ancient Ancestress who tirelessly births us all and takes us back into her Cauldron Belly. She dwells in all the liminal places and times: dawn and dusk; the edge of ocean and shore; the point between wakefulness and sleep; conscious and subconscious; between life and death; between this and the otherworld. At this time when the veil between the living and dead is so thin, she help us to stand in this in-between place; to learn something of her awesome mysteries; to feel the presence of those we love and know that they still dwell just beyond our senses. With her legs spread in humour and defiance, with her mischievous grin, she shows us the joy of paradox. She has one foot in this world and one foot in the mysterious other, teaching us that when we hold death and life within us, no longer seeing them as opposites, something in us cracks open, the waters break and flow and a new way of being and seeing can be born. She reminds me most powerfully that the Crone is the midwife of souls.

Samhain is a truly magical time. May this season of release tenderly transform each of us, preparing us for our coming renewal; tending us in our grieving and healing. May its lessons of surrender bring rest, peace and wisdom, a renewed strength and joy.

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Gilbert White and the Universe in our Back Yard

A couple of years ago I visited the home of the naturalist Gilbert White. Selbourne village in Hampshire had been a favourite place for me in childhood. My family had visited it often, climbing the Zigzag path cut by Gilbert and his brother, up the steep Hanger and across the Common. Strangely, we never ventured to the Museum that had once been his home. Some experiences need to be saved until the right moment when their impact will strike with a deeper resonance. Walking out into Gilbert’s garden for the first time as an adult, I felt like a flower opening. I wanted to cry, an inexplicable welling of emotion and joy rising in me. I love this man – he was a humble genius.

The Rev. Gilbert White was a man of great worldly ambition and yet somehow circumstance repeatedly brought him back to the place of his birth, his dreams of a life beyond the tight confines of its landscape never quite coming to fruition. The nature of Selbourne’s topography meant that before modern roads, winter access to the village was made almost impossible, the terrain of deep, waterlogged hollow lanes impassable for large sections of the year. At times Gilbert was quite literally stuck in the village. In a modern world obsessed with new horizons, Gilbert White’s life might seem perhaps stifling and deeply restricted but I think he has much to teach us about how we might re-engage with the local in our lives.

We currently face tough decisions about how we organise ourselves as communities. Our relationship with our local environment is key to our being able to lessen our negative impact on the planet. Local production and a greater use of local resources would certainly make a huge difference but how do we wean ourselves off the travel bug, which in itself increases everyone’s carbon footprint considerably?

Travel is a marvellous thing – no doubt about it. Potentially there is the opportunity for exchange – of goods, information and experiences. Travel broadens the mind and the spirit, opening us up to alternative views and approaches. The circulation of humanity across the globe has brought cultural exchange, ideas shared that have brought major advances in the evolution of humankind.

Travel can also be just another form of mindless consumption, something we buy whilst remaining oblivious to the impact that our travel has upon the social and natural environments that we visit. Travel can be a form of compensation for the unhappiness we might feel in our day to day lives. I always remember someone Laurie worked with telling him to get all the overtime he could and have ‘a bloody good holiday twice a year’. It always struck me as incredibly sad that so many people endure day to day work lives that they loath, their happiness on hold until some future and transient event.

Gilbert White – in the main – stayed put. What might seem like a shrinking horizon to the rest of us was for him the ingredients for creativity and discovery. His love of gardening led to a detailed daily journal which is a wealth of information born of trial and error – a labour of love. His focused observations of the natural world –which he expressed in correspondence, eventually became his Natural History of Selbourne. It is clear when reading it that Gilbert got out there in his local environment, studying it with an extraordinary focus and engagement. His observations in the field were to change the way we view a great deal of the natural world. He was the first to realise the importance of the earth worm on the health of the soil –up until then they were perceived as pests! It seems to me the more Gilbert looked, the more he saw. In one small area of Hampshire, he found an extraordinary diversity of life, the magic and mystery of nature there to be seen for all who seek it.

When I think of him, I think of the value of the botanist’s square. This is an object – a bit like a large picture frame – that botanists place upon the ground. They then proceed to study what is contained within the frame. It can be surprising how much life a meter square of earth can sustain. It seems to me that we need to challenge ourselves to do just this – on a slightly grander scale – with our own local environments, truly engaging with it, observing it with fresh and enquiring eyes, coming to know it intimately by our observations and, in doing so, learning to love and cherish it. This might go a long way to easing our travel bug and reducing our carbon output.

We all need to be a little more like Gilbert White. He discovered that the Universe could be found in your own back yard; that with tender observation and care, the earth magically expands to reveal the greatest of wonders – right beneath our noses. He wrote about it in his tiny little study in Hampshire – four small walls contained him but as he wrote, the depth and expanse of the world poured from his quill; the flight of birds still vibrant in its shaft.

Red Deer, Red Skies and the Wisdom of Lonely Sunflowers

Red Deer at Sunset

Red Deer at Sunset

On Sunday, Laurie and I got a little lost driving in the west of the Island. It was dusk and the tiny back lanes seemed to appear completely different, as if the Pixies had mischievously moved them around. We had driven to try and get a glimpse of the red deer herd just past Chale Green. The Island is thought to have no wild deer; this appears to be a farmed herd, high deer fences around the land that they occupy. I feel sad that they are being farmed – I would love to see them roaming wild on the Island, although I know that some control would be necessary in such a small area.

I spotted this herd last autumn, on a very similar evening, the sky vividly red in the west. I nearly gave Laurie a coronary, screaming at him to stop the car. Darkly silhouetted against a stunning autumn sky were the unmistakable shapes of deer just beyond the hedge. At an opening near a gate, we stood just feet from the herd. The hairs on my neck rose and tears welled as I realised that at the centre of the group stood a massive Stag, a full rack of antlers. They were all utterly still and silent, their elegant heads focused in our direction. Laurie and I were equally hushed – it was hard not to be awed by such a beautiful sight.

On Sunday, we arrived at the spot but only a hind and her calf were present. We drove further west, watching as the tip of an orange sun sunk into the sea. The sky grew fickle and changeable, its bleached blue – sharpening the silhouettes of trees already beginning to shed – turning quickly to richer shades; pastels darkening into that vibrant salmon red so much a feature of autumn sunsets.

Getting lost proved fruitful. The lanes were full of bats, treating us to close range aerial displays, skimming low over the car and across the windscreen, the trees channelling their flight up and down the open roads. A red eyed hare, caught in our headlights, loped beside us, agitated and uncertain, eventually risking a crossing and merging into the dark mass of a cabbage field.

We eventually found ourselves back on the road that passes the deer feeding racks. We were delighted to see that many of the herd had now arrived. Stood by the gate in our usual spot, we watched them as they watched us. The big old stag was absent but younger males were present. Last year, many of these would have been recognisable by their single spiked, vertical antlers; now the familiar rack of tines had developed, three or four, not yet the seven of a mature Stag. Even so, they made the most impressive of silhouettes.

I wondered how being a farmed herd impacts on the rut. This is rutting season. In the wild, throughout the year the females and young remain together while males roam in groups or wander alone. The rut brings the two groups back together. On the mainland, we would visit the deer park at Petworth House, West Sussex in October. Here the deer are Fallow. The whole park would resound with the bellowing of Bucks defending their territory. Red Stags and Fallow Bucks beef up at this time, their necks thickening – they are powerful and beautiful creatures and their roaring during the rut is a wonderfully primal sound. I have a stag tattooed upon my upper arm; I feel a great attraction to these wonderful animals. They have the most soulful faces; the deepest, darkest eyes that speak of something old and barely remembered: endless ancient forests; musk and leaf mould; darkened branches a mesh of locked tines against the half light of dusk and dawn. 

Driving home, the wildlife continued to grace us – a fox trotting down the lane at Chale Green; a badger at high speed, its low rump comically disappearing into the grassy fields of Gore Cliff. But perhaps the most surprising encounter on the journey home was not fauna but flora – in the dead autumn grasses on the low banks of Chale Lane, a single sunflower. Its lack of support meant that its long stalk had not grown vertically up, strong and straight, but had spiralled, and in doing so had enabled a kind of low level support. There in the dying light – incongruous in this season of shedding – a vibrantly alive, beautiful golden head, packed with the seeds of countless more sunflowers. It had seeded and grown here, surviving in a time and place that appeared so at odds with its nature, and yet had made the most of where it found itself and blossomed nevertheless.

You Have to Laugh

It is always interesting to see what the ‘possible related posts’ are that appear at the bottom of each individual post. These are apparently automatically generated and to prove that the gods have a sense of humour, I noticed today that beneath my poem ‘Death of a Sister’ – which obviously has quite a sad subject matter- the suggested related post was What’s your worst baby poop story? Yep – life doesn’t let you stay sad for long!

Not Even the Rain

I have really been enjoying the poetry season programmes on the BBC lately. One of these had the comedian Robert Webb talking about the emotional impact of poetry upon his life. A poem’s focus is intense,a form of meditation, like staring at one object and discovering  that you see more and more of that object, the intensity of your gaze opening to the richness and complexity of something that had once seen mundane. Poetry can reconnect you to yourself. 

 At one point in the Rob Webb programme he spoke to Clive James about their shared love of  e e cummings. Cummings writes brilliantly about the experience of love. A friend recently wrote me that love can so often break us open, all illusions of our being in control – of our selves being held together – crumbling away. Love works on us in mysterious ways; it makes tender all that we defensively stiffen; it forces flow in those stagnant places. I keep thinking of Joni Mitchell’s song ‘Willy’ : And I feel like I’m just being born, like a shiny light breaking in a storm… It takes skill to write about love without slipping into cliche but cummings is touching and truthful:

Your slightest look  easily will unclose me.

Though I have closed myself as fingers

you open always, petal by petal my self

As spring opens, touching skillfully, mysteriously, the first rose

I do not know what it is about you

That closes and opens,

Only something in me understands

the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses.

Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.

e e cummings

That Saving Water

When you went down into the water, it was like night and you could see nothing but when you came up again it was like finding yourself in the day. That one moment was your death and your birth; that saving water was your grave and your mother.

                               Cyril of Jerusalem – Font Inscription, Portsmouth Cathedral.

And you are…?

In his book ‘What We May Be’, Piero Ferrucci writes that “each of us is a crowd”. The English humanistic psychologist, John Rowan, once spoke of an internal society composed of the different people inside us. The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa writes,” In every corner of my soul, there is an altar to a different god.” These quotations express the same idea – that a person consists of a multiplicity of selves.        

 Howard Sasportas – The Development of the Personality

How objective can any of us truly be about ourselves when ‘the self’ is so slippery and nebulous a concept? In truth we are many selves and yet for me this doesn’t conflict with the notion of ‘self’ discovery. I know that the concept of a singular me that can be miraculously known and understood is simplistic, but uncovering and learning to integrate all that we are is surely a noble aim?

Back in the dim and distant past, when I was feeling particularly passionate about astrology, I became heavily influenced by the books of the Psychological Astrologers Liz Greene and Howard Sasportas. They set up the Centre for Psychological Astrology which ran courses that creatively merged the fields of astrology, psychosynthesis, humanistic and depth psychology. I gave most of my astrology books away but retained my copies of their Seminars in Psychological Astrology: The Development of the Personality & Dynamics of the Unconscious (Arkana); The Inner Planets (Weiser) and Liz Greene’s wonderful exploration of  Pluto: The Astrology of Fate (Mandala) because they had an enormous impact on me and I couldn’t bare to part with them.

Greene and Sasportas suggested that chart positions and aspects could be viewed as psychological sub-personalities – multiple selves – some working in harmonious interaction, others in conflict. This idea posed interesting questions about how we might manage our many selves and how this might impact upon our psychological well-being and development. For instance, how would a person who had say, a lovely Moon trine Jupiter aspect – which is essentially an emotionally expansive and generous sub-personality – deal with being bed fellow to a Mars square Pluto aspect – a rather more intense and potentially difficult sub-personality to express? Ultimately the trick lies in honouring and integrating these multiple selves, being flexible in their application and remaining free from a domination of any one subself:

The value of subpersonality work is not just in identifying your subpersonalities and working with them. It helps in another way…you become aware that there is a part of you that has these subpersonalities: that you are an “I” with a hurt child, a bully, a mystic, a pragmatist subself etc…Who you are is not just any one of these things but you are the one that shifts from one to another. In this way, you are strengthening your sense of having a higher organising centre or higher unifying centre which can identify, work with, contain and make room for your various subpersonalities.

Sasportas recommends a technique of Lady Diana Whitmore (founder of the Psychosynthesis and Education Trust) whereby after identifying a subpersonality, you ask it three questions: What do you want? What do you need? What do you have to offer me? Working through a want, to discover the underlying need is psychologically freeing and in doing so, we might give ourselves the chance to benefit from a deeper archetypal energy that resides at the heart of any particular subself. I once put on two stone in weight; I just wanted to eat all the time. Eventually, my intense unhappiness about my body shape spiralling out of control became the catalyst for me to suddenly grasp that the need beneath all this relentless stuffing, was a need for nurturance, for emotional nourishment after a period of intense loss and hurt. I wanted mothering and in its crudest sense, I was fulfilling this need by feeding myself. Once I had uncovered the need, I could then plug into that archetypal energy of mothering, love and nurturance and give it to myself in a more appropriate way.

This process of bringing together, of balancing and integrating these selves that are a part of us, seems to me an inclusive and loving act, and one that fascinates; it offers the opportunity to see the value of even our most tricky of selves, those aspects that we might feel tempted to condemn:

Subpersonalities are like people: if we accept them, listen to them and treat them with understanding, they will usually open up and give us more of themselves. And, underneath it all, they all have a natural and basic archetypal drive or principle which is part of the great round of life. (Howard Sasportas)

 

Forked Tails and Knobbly Knees

Grey Heron

Grey Heron

As we drove back from Newport last week, taking the back lanes home, a grey heron flew over only a few feet above the car. I find these unexpected encounters with birds such a thrill. Grey herons are remarkable looking creatures, mini pterodactyls whose bodily bits and pieces – enormous wings, skinny little legs with knobbly knees, a vicious looking beak that dwarfs its head – appear as if they have been constructed from the oddments box of the gods. Despite such a seemingly peculiar and humorous design, I find them strikingly beautiful too. Impressive in flight, the measured flap of those great wings, that u bend neck and the relaxed dangling of their outsized, comical feet hanging loosely from ridiculously stick thin legs, makes them instantly recognisable from a distance. Watch them hunting and you learn a thing or two about focus and patience too. They are canny birds. I once watched a grey heron torment a bunch of geese on a lake in Cornwall. The lake had a tiny island. The geese were bothered by the heron’s presence swimming on mass towards him on the bank. As soon as they came within a goose feather of reaching him, the heron casually took flight and landed on the island, the geese turning on mass and swimming frantically towards it, complaining. As soon as they reached the island, the heron would take off and fly back to the bank. This went on for ages and I got the distinct feeling that the heron was rather enjoying it! The poor old geese must have been exhausted.

Laurie’s new work colleague Sarah lives just a mile from us down the cycle path at Alverstone. Her father runs the Alverstone Mead Nature Reserve, a place I have written about here before. It is a much loved haunt of mine. She informed Laurie that a red kite had been spotted on the Island at Newtown Marshes. This news is incredibly exciting. I have only ever seen one in Wales, three years ago. These wonderful birds of prey came close to extinction but now their numbers are gradually rising again, not only in Wales but in certain parts of England and Scotland too. It would be so exciting if they have made it to the Isle of Wight!

Like buzzards, red kites are supremely good at coasting, their wingspan measuring about five feet across. They have the most gorgeous colouring, particular their under wing patterning and a distinctive forked tail. I find birds of prey deeply moving and never fail to get that surge of excitement when I encounter one in the wild. I must now keep my eyes peeled and pray (excuse pun) to get lucky; hopefully the Newtown sighting was not a one off and I will be blessed with another thrilling bird encounter.

Red Kite

Red Kite

Moving On

Death of a Sister  

Over months your speech has dissolved, the slur heavy

as wet sand, words formless

as water.

 

You lie beached upon the strand-line of your bed

and I walk it, combing the minutes and hours, holding

the hollow sounds to my ear.

 

Almost two decades between us;

no bonds built, brick by toy brick;

no mortar of sibling play.

 

In your wheelchair

your stricken body stiffens and twists,

the gasp of gills – hooked and reeling –

Your eyes pleading, ‘throw me back’.

 

And still the Hospice garden blooms…

 

You point to a trellis,

and with a clarity like the shock of cold water, you utter,

‘Jasmine!’

one startling word,

the last

I will comprehend;

one word

with the power of open ocean;

one seismic word that crashes over me.

And when the sound recedes,

what is left that I can recognise?

                                                                         Maria Ede-Weaving

The Gallery

Rowena Cade Takes a Well Earned Rest

Rowena Cade Takes a Well Earned Rest

Recently, I have set myself the task of an extended writing project, planning out a twelve month schedule for work, a series of targets stretching out in my head. I had forgotten what it felt like to make plans for myself; much of life has felt on hold during these last few years and for so long I didn’t even dare to hope for something more, fearful that the rug might be ripped out from under me. It’s a familiar reaction to loss, I have found, others confessing a similar fear. For me, it was a series of losses coming thick and fast that knocked me into a tail spin; I couldn’t quite believe that the worst was over because just at that moment of relaxing and trusting in myself and life again, the next crisis hit. The value of all this is that you learn to discover your own strength and resilience; the downside is that you can become habitually primed for battle. It is taking time to lay down my arms, knowing that I must, despite the continuing challenges that have come as a consequence of these events. It has been so good to feel my focus kick into touch once more; heartening to watch as something barely formed begins to gather more substance and grow in size. Engaging with a stronger sense of purpose has a magic all its own.

I am in the process of setting up a sort of gallery of inspiration next to the computer as an aid to keep me creatively buoyant. It is taking shape with pictures, portraits, poems, pieces of prose that lift me and strengthen my self-belief. There are people here I have known or know who continue to inspire me, and also those I don’t know, artists, writers, performers, creative people whose vision and dedication move me. It is turning out to be as enjoyable a project as my writing!

One of my Gallery luminaries is the extraordinary Rowena Cade, designer and creator of the Minack Theatre in Cornwall. A local production of The Tempest, due to be shown in the grounds of her house at Minack Head in 1932, prompted her to design and create the beginnings of what was to become a life long work of passion and dedication. She and her helpers, Billy Dawlings and Charles Angove, carved from the granite cliff edge a beautiful open-air theatre, eventually using concrete to shape and decorate its structure. She didn’t start this project until she was thirty eight (there is hope for me yet!) and carried on working to improve and expand it right up into her mid-eighties. It is amazing to think that this frail looking old lady was lugging sand and timber up the steep cliff from Porthcurno beach. I read once that when a shipwreck washed up a hoard of timber, she was caught by police on the beach in the act of attempting to smuggle wood up to the headland; they let her off because they couldn’t believe that this tiny woman was capable of hauling a heavy load up such an arduous path. They left and she got on with the business of claiming her booty!

I find her creative vision, her strength and commitment so moving and inspiring. I have a wonderful photo of her as an old lady, taking a breather from working on the theatre. She is sat in an upturned wheelbarrow, reading. Like Vanessa Bell (of recent posts), I feel heartened that the creative spark did not diminish with age but seemed to burn all the more brightly. She makes me want to create, to immerse myself in the thing that I love, regardless of how impossible it might appear to achieve: – who would ever have thought that the Minack was possible? Love, passion and creativity fuel us and manifest themselves through us – if we let them – and this in turn touches others, inspiring them in their own attempts to shape into form all that yearns for life within. This exchange never fails to amaze and fascinate me and so my gallery will no doubt be a very full one.

It’s exciting to be forging on in my own small way. No doubt there will be a few tantrums and tears, massive doubts and the blankest of empty page moments but that really doesn’t matter. As my gallery illustrates, it is the doing that proves the most crucial. Without such, how will I ever know?

The Minack Theatre

The Minack Theatre