We are just home from a few days in Glastonbury where, with dear friends from across the world, we met to share the Beltane celebrations. It was with deep sadness and incredulity that we heard of the folly that has caused damage to the venerable trees that are all that remain of a processional avenue of oaks. Morgana West of the Glastonbury Pilgrim Reception Centre shares a plea for care in honouring the landscape with flame and cloutie…
On the 26th April, just before the Beltane weekend, our ancient tree guardian, known as Gog, was set aflame. More than 2000 years old, Gog is partner to Magog and this is a plea to all those that that have ever used a candle (and ribbons) out on the land. There is someone out there, possibly still in the Avalon landscape, sitting with the knowledge that, in their misguided understanding of ‘honouring the trees’, they instead have burnt the bugger down.
Photo: Sally North
(EDIT These two ancient oak trees –with the traditional and biblical names of giant beings – stand in one of the further reaches of the sacred Avalon landscape, where they are in a relationship of alignment with other aspects of the sacred landscape such as the nearby Tor, Chalice Hill, the Abbey and Wearyall Hill. The Oaks gained their names from a legendary race of giants who, save for Gog and Magog, were slaughtered by Brutus and his Trojan army. Gog and Magog, marched to London, were held chained to walls of the city palace and their effigies can still be seen in the Guildhall to this day.
Known as the ‘Oaks of Avalon’, the two trees are said to be a traditional point of entry onto the island, and part of a ceremonial Druidic avenue of oak trees running towards the Tor and beyond. Gog has been dead these past ten years, and indeed has burnt once before, [Edit: It was Magog that was previously set alight] but stood strong, keeping vigil with Magog as she too let go of her long life. To make a pilgrimage to these two sentries is to take a walk through time. They have stood witness to ever-changing populaces, beliefs and cultures, and watched whilst individual humans, long forgotten, have come and gone, passing beneath the leafy canopies fed by roots reaching deep into the sacred land. Nowadays, a conscientious visitor, paying homage to the Oaks, is shocked to see spent night-lights placed at the base of the trees, some even in the bowls of the tree themselves and it took such foolish actions to turn Gog into a funereal pyre for 2000 years of myth and history.
Hey folks, have a care! Consider how leaving behind a metal casing, harmful to both flora and fauna and something that ‘hangs around on our planet’ for a very long time, can ever be considered ‘honour’. Muse a while also on how placing a burning flame at the foot of a tree, especially a 2000-year old dead one, is up there with the most stupid of actions. JUST. DON’T. DO. IT! Leave nothing behind save your love.
I might as well mention that the same people who leave their night-lights might also be about the landscape tying ribbons to a tree. DON’T DO THAT EITHER! This particular practice stems back to pilgrimages to holy wells, often places that would always have a tree growing by the side or nearby. The pieces of cloth, known as clooties, were dipped into the water before being tied to a branch with a prayer, often to cure an ailment, believing that as the rag rotted away, the ailment would disappear with it. Our forebears would use natural fabrics such as a strip of cotton petticoat and these would quickly rot away without harming the tree. Modern day ribbons are made from plastic and take an extraordinary amount of time to break down; tied to the branches of a tree, they strangle and prevent new growth whilst leeching chemical dyes into the wood.
I’m asking, as I am sure you are too, are both of these acts of ‘homage’ something to be undertaken by one who professes to care for the land and its spirit? No way, Jose! They are entirely selfish deeds, symbolic only of our own needs and desires. There are hundred’s of different ways in which we can serve those, but proclaiming that we are also working for spirit is to make a complete error of judgement. We are not serving anything, other than ourselves. This is a one-way street. We are no more re-enchanting the land and connecting with the Spirit of Place than we are when we drop litter. Leaving non-biodegradable products of the modern age is about as non-magical as it gets and, if we claim to be ‘of the land’, should these ever really feature in our thinking?
The careless act of the person that lit and placed a flame within the dead heartwood of Gog is hard for some to bear. Grief strikes at our own hearts and if we allow it, sinks into the soul. In 2010, another hallowed tree was destroyed in these sacred precincts when the Glastonbury Thorn on Wearyall Hill was chopped down, by persons unknown, in an act of wanton vandalism. A community came together and wept. Bridges across voids were built. Pagans and Christians held each other and mourned…and a shift of consciousness took place. In the seven years since the Thorn gave up its life, understanding, acceptance and mutual explorations have taken place. Bridges that didn’t exist previously have been created between secular and spiritual communities. The death of the Wearyall Thorn can, if we wish, be seen as an emblem of new understanding arising out of the collapse of an era. A new period where possibilities and positive actions are born out of the desire to connect and give way to a time where the re-connections of a community give rise to the re-enchantment of the land.