Shaping the world

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Back in the earliest days when mankind had his beginnings, it was the land and our response to it that had shaped us. It has been suggested that it was the long grass that caused us first to stand on two legs… a need to spot potential predators at a distance. As animals our physical defences are minimal. It is our intellect, adaptability and ability to use what comes to hand to serve our needs that allowed us to thrive. It was the land, the environment and climate that offered the raw materials to the responsive hunter, moving with the game and the seasons and which later planted the first seeds of agriculture from which our modern societies have sprung.

We are not very old as a species. It is thought that the earliest homo sapiens dates back a mere 200,000 years. On a planet that is 4.6 billion years old and where cellular life has existed for most of that time, that is a drop in the ocean. Yet from the beginning we have shaped the world to suit our needs, carving our presence on the landscape, altering the ecology with our predation and finally building upon it on a massive scale. No other species has impacted upon the life of the planet as drastically and visibly as we.

Yet on the whole we are still children, building sandcastles on the shore of time; things we see as permanent and solid that will, inevitably, be washed away when the tides change. Civilisations have sprung up, flourished and faded, leaving arcane structures, mysterious traces we can only strive to interpret and never fully understand for we have, inevitably, lost the context of their creation. Even within our own short history we have seen this happen time and again and no doubt it will continue. Yet these mysterious histories have influenced our own; the foundations of an ancient realm may be all we think remains, yet much of what they knew will have been carried outward, casting ripples on the pool of human understanding and knowledge. Our present is built upon their past.

There is a similar process in our own lives where the fragile castles we build around ourselves as a personality, reacting to the landscape of family, society and events is shaped by and shapes the way we see ourselves and the way we project our image into the world. Events experienced through the eyes and mind of the child may leave an arcane trace, a mysterious ruin in the tangled undergrowth of being that we stumble across in wonder, trepidation or confusion. It is upon these very places that we have built the person we see in the mirror and their influence contributes to the shaping of who we become.

Yet beneath the ruined castle or lost pyramid there is a constant. The foundations of all are rooted firmly in the earth. They are shaped from the land and to the land they will eventually return, gently gathered by the creeping tendrils of plants and washed away by rain, becoming once more a part of the landscape rather than apart from it.

There is an analogy there too for those who believe in the soul, that essence of self that is beyond the realm of the of the outer world and it is from this we spring, our foundations rooted within its light and it is to this we return when the edifice of the incarnate personality is washed away.

Does it shape us as the land shaped our forefathers, or do we shape it? Both I think… within it we touch the source of being, and draw its essence into our lives; yet our living teaches and enriches and the sum of experience shapes the next ripple we cast upon the waters of existence.

Looking out across the winter fields of my home today, watching the cloud shadows race across a gilded landscape I wondered how many of our ancestors had sat thus, watching the land and pondering the nature of the soul, seeing in the earth they held sacred an echo of their own inner light.

Fragile strength

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Unfettered beauty

Riding the storms of Chaos

Fragile as a heart

There are few things as strong…or as fragile…as a butterfly. Their delicate wings can withstand both wind and rain, yet the touch of a finger can damage them beyond repair. Their physical strength starts early when, as caterpillars, they munch their way through leaves ten times their size before moving on to the next, decimating the plants upon which their parent laid their eggs.

They have another strength though, not visible to the irate gardener or passionate lepidopterist… they have the strength to yield to the inevitability of their own dissolution. Retiring to their homespun cocoon, metamorphosis occurs; they are dissolved into the component parts of their own being before their final emergence as beauty incarnate.

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It makes you wonder about the strength of the impulsion of Nature…and whether the caterpillar is aware of its future. How much awareness does a caterpillar have? Enough to fear its transformation… or just a blind obedience to the urgency of instinct? Either way, the process is inescapable. They cannot hold on to their juvenile form… only let go and allow Nature to do her work and the inevitable transformation to occur.

We face the same fate as we live and grow… that too is an inescapable process. We can cling on to youth or to the past, to our illusions or to people, desperately trying to maintain the life and comfort-zone with which we are familiar and that conforms to our image of self… or we can let them go. Not everything that we release will fly away; sometimes they remain and in that there is great beauty, for what we then have we do not need to hold, for it is a gift freely given, not the product of restraint and a grasping hand.

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The saddest thing of all must be the butterfly collector. His strength, he imagines, lies in his knowledge and expertise… and in the completeness of his collection. In truth, he is more fragile than the flying petals he seeks to acquire; he imagines himself master, yet can only appreciate what he has squeezed the life from before skewering it with a pin, preserving its perfection by robbing it of life.

There are many who seek to ‘collect’ people, knowledge or a perceived truth in the same way. Seeing beauty flutter by, they seek to capture it in their nets, pinning it down so that it cannot escape them, yet all they are left with, to display to the world in their pride, is an empty and lifeless shell.

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When beauty chooses to land in our lives, it is a privilege. It is not something to try to capture, not something we should attempt to pin down. It is a gift, to be savoured, with gratitude and wonder, for a breathless moment and then let go, to fly free. Beauty, whatever its form, is as strong as the life we allow it… and as fragile as our fear. It will not always stay…it will not always leave… but our recognition of its inner life and freedom may help us find our own wings.

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Naked earth

Looking at the map of prehistoric sites in Wales after our recent trip, where there are just so many to see, I wondered just how long it would take to visit them all. Derbyshire is the same. In fact, most of Britain is the same once you get outside the cities…

except the place where I live.  There is not a stone circle, dolmen or standing stone for miles. Granted, we have our fair share of historical landscapes and plenty of holy wells, but other than a handful of barrows and the odd hillfort, trackway and chalk carving of debatable age, there is not much to see of the prehistoric landscape.

What is found tends to be unearthed during the archaeological investigations made prior to building work… and subsequently re-interred where only future archaeologists will ever see it.

I was enormously excited to read of a massive prehistoric burial complex on the edge of Bicester, just fifteen miles from my home. Archaeologists investigated  134 trenches and found archaeological remains in 41 of them, including a Bronze Age axe head, an Iron Age settlement and hearth, plus later Roman and Saxon remains. If that wasn’t enough, the site was declared of national importance when the burials were found to be around 5,500 years old! The building developers had been slammed with an exclusion zone around the remains so that they would not be lost or damaged. The plans had to be altered… perfect. I was all ready to grab my camera and go!

Until I read further. The remains are now perfectly safe…and buried beneath a primary school playing field, with no trace of them showing above the surface…

It is undeniably frustrating. When our adventures were drawing such inspiration from the oldest churches, my area was the perfect environment for our forays. Very many ancient churches remain here, often no more than a mile or two apart. It has always been a relatively wealthy area and the churches have been well preserved. Wall paintings and carvings have survived, stained glass windows survive from medieval times… symbolism drips from the walls and we had a field day exploring their bounty.

It is not a tick-box affair, visiting these sites. When we visit a site we stay long enough to get a good feel for the place. It is almost always a first visit, not an only one. We tend to go back, sometimes very many times, and each time we look at the site with a different perspective born of an increasing familiarity and intimacy with its earth and stone. We had done the same with the churches, learning our way around them, little by little, missing much to begin with… until we learned what to look for. The same methods we use now in an older landscape.

On the odd occasion when we visit a place too far away to have any guarantee of being able to get back there once we have left the area, we take our time. Frequently, we return before we move on and, as at Bryn Celli Dhu last winter, the stones seem to respond, knowing the limitations of time and our desire to understand.

But what we learned edged us further and further back in time, into a more ancient landscape where the temples were roofed with stars. Following the trail, we were drawn into the ancestral past and began to learn how to work with the sites and stones of the old ones.

And I now live in an area where there are none.

I am working on that particular problem.

But, it occurred to me, driving home through the darkness with a full moon above, that before there were those sacred sites of worked stone and wood, we could go back even further, to a time when the sacrality of the earth itself led our ancestors both out onto the high places and deep into the caverns that are the womb of the earth. Only recently had Stuart and I felt the ‘invitation’ to go below ground seeking these sacred places.  I had even suggested, just a few days earlier, that we needed to visit the site of some of Britain’s only surviving cave art dating back thirteen thousand years.

I flicked on the laptop to watch videos of the incredible paintings at Lascaux and Chauvet caves. The creatures of Lascaux were painted over seventeen thousand years ago, deep underground. They include a bird-man, thought to be a shamanic figure, and quite obviously both the paintings and the making of them held some kind of ritual significance that can only be called sacredness. The Chauvet caves date back thirty three thousand years…and they are so beautiful that even the video made me weep.

They put our five- or six-thousand year old remains in perspective, just as they had done for the thousand year old churches.

In one of those moments of lucidity, when what you have always known, what you have even spoken of with others, becomes so crystal clear that you kick yourself for blind imbecility, I understood… finally… that mankind’s concept of sacredness goes back even further than Chauvet. Not just because to reach that level of sophistication in art, they would have had to have been learning their skills for generations… even before that.

The dates on the earliest art made by humans keeps being pushed back ever further and art in itself is an attempt to capture something magical.

Yet, before ever paint was made from ochre and charcoal, the first Venus figurine shaped from clay or the first etchings made on bone. Before anyone spoke what was in their hearts, one human being looked upon the land and felt its life to be sacred, even though there were not yet words for what he felt.

Whatever temples we have built since then, from the mounds of earth to the pyramids, from the forests of stones to the starry roofed churches, we have echoed the forms of that very first sacred place… the earth.

It matters not at all that there are no prehistoric marvels near my home. I was born in a sacred space and my body will never know any other. All I have to do is step out of my back door and I am standing in a place as old as time and older than Man.