Rooted in earth

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For the past few years, I have been immersed in the folklore and history, traditions and myths of my land in a way I had never expected. This is not the country of governments and politics, nor the land of business and traffic jams or socio-economic divides. This is the deep well of life accessible to all.

I have seen and shared the growth of bluebells under the trees, the chalk cut figures spanning millennia, the hillsides and skies, the wildflowers, valleys and groves. I have danced the serpentine dance and walked barefoot where legends tell a dragon was slain. I have gazed upon living history in brick and stone, traced the human story in the earth and told tales of long ago.

The land itself has changed me, I think, or else awoken me to a deeper vision of the world that has, like the buried treasure of some ancient site, lain hidden from my sight. I do not think it is possible to work with the stories, currents and history of the land and remain oblivious to the rich tapestry of life.

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I have shared knowledge and received it, glimpsed understanding, heard tell of far off landscapes and peoples, stories other than my own, lives I will never know. And yet, they are the same. The details may differ, the names and the skein of history in which they are bound may change. There are redwoods instead of ash, deserts instead of moorlands, yet the human story within the landscape shares a thread that is lost in the same long ago and it bears a common theme.

Standing in the ancient holy places, it is these very differences that bring home the commonality of our heritage as human beings. They are but details seen through the vast lens of time. The emotions I feel are echoed, through the ages and across all the lands, by my ancestors and reflect a future yet to unfold over lifetimes yet unborn.

The same imperatives drive us, though we hunt now in supermarkets and trawl the internet for knowledge instead of parchment scrolls. The same human frailties and desires shape our lives. The same strength and courage in face of life’s challenges define who we become. The same reverence for the divine, however felt and conceived, carved both the great hill figures, carried the sarsens and built the churches and temples of our own times.

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To take time to seek the wildflowers in the hedgerows, to watch the snow lay heavy on the bough, or to watch a hawk in flight and a sparrow welcoming the morning, is to step outside of time for a moment, the attention turned away from the hustle and bustle of the mundane. To stand within the landscape and feel the ancient life both of the earth and her people is to see this great vista of history spread like a patchwork quilt at your feet. Each square a different pattern or design, the colours and fabrics changing and contrasting with each other, yet together forming a thing of wholeness and beauty.

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Watching the sunset tonight from a village garden, the urban traffic noise a distant hum, I wondered how many sunsets have been watched alone in joy or grief, or shared in laughter or silence by the millions of other eyes that have turned to that golden glow. How many more will watch as it sinks below the horizon, bathing the earth in a last flare of light?

Just sit for a moment, close your eyes. Beneath your feet, beneath the concrete, the wood, the tiles or the grass lies the same earth upon which I stand, upon which we all stand. It is there, ever-present. Evolving and ageing, changing just as we, but older and slower, deeper and richer, its surface buzzing with the same life that runs through us all.

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Once again I am reminded of a phrase from an old Hindu prayer that I love: Thou art everywhere, but I worship thee here. There is a reverence that comes when we are rooted in the earth of our landscape, when we listen for its heartbeat in the changing seasons and feel our place within it. Our human lives differ only in detail and degree, both from each other and from that of the land, yet the essence of life itself runs through all with a kinship too often forgotten or ignored. Yet it is beautiful, and within this earth our own roots are planted deeply, and our life is drawn from the same source.

Wish you were here…

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In Olden Times,

Holidays were originally just that…

Holy Days.

The whole community would lay aside their workday duties and together engage in deeply or intrinsically symbolic activities that related to the situation that they all found themselves in.

For example…

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Cheese Rolling…

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May Polling…

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…and Beating-the-Bounds.

The Big-Bold-Blue of Beyond…

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… When Brother-Warrior entered the chamber of the princess, because of his Cloak-of-Darkness, she thought she was enjoying converse and congress with a spirit.

So too, did all her hand-maids but before departing he took off his cloak and left them with the fleeting vision of a ‘Fairy Warrior’.

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After Brother-Wizard and Brother-Warrior had left for the wooded isle, Brother-Smith wasted no time in fomenting the populace who were missing the usual round of the wondrous cow.

He walked to each home-stead in turn crying “no milk today, the King of Castle-Hill has stolen your cow.”

In this way they were left in no doubt as to who was to blame for their loss of sustenance and the King of Castle-Hill spent the next nine months touring his lands putting down local revolt after local revolt without the use of his baleful eye.

The king had no opportunity to visit his daughter, as promised, and indeed, as few knew of the island’s existence, and the magic halter, and the wondrous cow were still kept there, it would have been foolish for him to do so.

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“It is time to collect the magic halter,” said Brother-Wizard to Brother- Warrior after a time.

Together, the two of them, again, set out for the wooded isle in the coracle and once they reached the tower and the nine home-steads they collected not only the magic halter, which the king’s daughter freely gave to them but also the ‘fruits’ of Brother-Warrior’s last visit.

The nine children of the hand-maids were given together in a blanket fastened by a thorn which Brother-Wizard carried on his back whilst the grandson of the king was kept in a separate cloth which Brother-Warrior kept slung upon his breast.

As they made their way back to the mainland the thorn holding the blanket broke and the nine children of the hand-maids fell into the sea and were turned into seals, by Brother-Wizard, so they would not drown.

Brother-Warrior brought the grandson of the king safely ashore…

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A Wooded-Isle…

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Brother-Wizard and Brother-Warrior immediately set out for the sea-shore.

There, moored at the mouth of a natural cave in the cliffs, bobbed a coracle.

They both clambered aboard…

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…The King of Castle-Hill took the magic halter to the cell of the tower on his wooded isle and presented it as a gift to appease his imprisoned daughter.

“Of what use to me is a magic halter,” sobbed the princess, “if all my days are to be spent cooped up here seeing none but my hand-maids.”

“With the halter comes a wondrous cow, my child, its inexhaustible supply of milk will sustain you,” soothed the king, “and I shall bring your food everyday and relate the comings and goings of the kingdom. Far better a sequestered life than one without a father.”

As the King of Castle-Hill left the tower to attend to his duties, the magic halter cascaded against the back of the cell door…

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Brother-Warrior and Brother-Wizard landed at the wooded isle in their coracle.

“The magic halter is with the king’s daughter,” said Brother-Wizard.”

“And where is the king’s daughter?” said Brother-Warrior.

“The king’s daughter, is in a tower in the centre of the wood which is surrounded by nine home-steads,” said Brother-Wizard, “you must enter the tower and sleep with her.”

“And what’s in the nine home-steads?”said Brother-Warrior.

“You’ll see,” said Brother-Wizard. He gave his brother a Cloak-of-Darkness and put a spell on his hands so that whatever door he came to would open for him.

“Wish me luck, brother,” said the warrior, turning to leave.

“One more thing,” said the wizard, “be sure to leave the magic halter with the princess, we will return for it another day.”

“I thought…” began Brother-Warrior but a withering look from the wizard stayed that thought and sent him swiftly on his way into the wood.

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A Red-Haired Boy…

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… The king immediately ordered a tower be built on a densely wooded isle off the coast of his lands and had his daughter put in the tower away from all danger.

Nine home-steads about the foot of the tower and nine hand-maids, one for each home-stead, to ensure that none but the king himself could enter the tower and see the princess.

Once completely satisfied that such a defence could not be breached, without his knowledge, the king set about planning the procurement of the magic halter.

After much deliberation he transformed himself into a red-haired boy and set off for the abode by the sea that housed the three brothers.

The disguised king arrived in the nick of time.

Brother-Smith was busy in the forge making weapons while Brother-Wizard stood alongside casting spells on those weapons.

Brother-Warrior was outside the forge holding the magic halter.

The wondrous cow grazed sedately in a field alongside the forge.

A dispute between Brother-Smith and Brother-Wizard had just arisen, over the tempering of the blades, and Brother-Warrior was summoned to settle the matter.

“Just look after this for awhile will you,” said Brother-Warrior to a red-haired boy who was passing by, “I won’t be a moment,” he handed the magic halter to the boy and entered the forge.

When Brother-Warrior re-emerged from the forge the red-haired boy, the magic halter, and the wondrous cow were gone.

He set up a shout and the smith and the wizard came running out.

“It can only be the King of Castle-Hill,” said Brother-Wizard looking into the far distance, “long has he coveted our wondrous cow.”

“You will have to get the magic halter back,” said Brother-Smith.

“I’ll need your help,” said Brother-Warrior disturbing the wizard’s reverie.

“Yes, yes, of course,” said Brother-Wizard, his eyes narrowing darkly…

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The King of Castle Hill…

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…There once was a king who lived in a castle on a hill.

He was lord and master of all he surveyed.

One daughter he had sired but his wife had died in giving the child life.

His daughter was very beautiful and the king looked forward to the day when she would come into her own.

By a cunning device of his mother the King of Castle-Hill had been made invulnerable and was possessed of a baleful eye which was capable of blighting all that it gazed upon.

The eye was normally kept covered by five leather patches.

The King of Castle-Hill was also a great wizard in his own right, well versed in the magical arts, and nothing happened in his kingdom without his knowledge of it.

There was little that the King of Castle-Hill wanted save for a wondrous cow which was looked after by three brothers who lived by the sea.

One of the brothers was a blacksmith, clever and skilful.

One of the brothers was a wizard, cunning and resourceful.

One of the brothers was a warrior, strong and fair.

The wondrous cow was possessed of an inexhaustible supply of milk and it daily traversed the kingdom supplying the people with nourishment.

The wondrous cow was governed by a magic halter.

Wherever the halter went, there too went the wondrous cow.

The King of Castle-Hill determined to acquire the wondrous cow and realised that if he could somehow get the magic halter then the object of his desire would follow.

About the same time as the king determined upon a plan to acquire the wondrous cow it came to his attention that certain prophesies were doing the rounds of his kingdom.

The prophecies spoke of the king’s demise.

The king summoned his soothsayer.

“It is true, my lord, words have been uttered describing your death,” said the king’s soothsayer.

“But I am invulnerable,” said the King of Castle-Hill, “I will live forever.”

“Not so,” said the soothsayer, “your grandson shall slay you by casting a spear through your baleful eye and on out of the back of your skull.”

The king fell silent in thought.

It might possibly be true, the king’s baleful eye, though a potent weapon and an effective deterrent against those who might oppose him, was also his only vulnerable spot.

“Will he indeed!” seethed the King of Castle-Hill fingering the first of the leather pouches that covered his baleful eye, “we will see about that.”…

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The Lion’s Share

 

 

“Tell me,” said Joshua, “why is that person carrying a lamb to the city ?”

Judas Thomas said, “So that he may kill it and eat it.”

Joshua said, “Whoever has come to know the world has discovered a carcass, and whoever has discovered a carcass, of that person the world is not worthy.

Damn the soul that depends on the flesh.

Damn the flesh that depends on the soul.

How miserable is the body that depends on these two ?

Together they are like a dog in a cattle manger, where neither the dog nor the cattle can eat hay.

During the days when you eat what is dead you make it alive, but when you are in the light, where the dead are not alive and the living will not die, what will you do ?

If the body came into being because of the spirit then it is a marvel: if the spirit came into being because of the body then it is a marvel of marvels; I marvel that such great wealth dwells in so much poverty.

Cursed be the man who eats a lion

that the lion becomes human.

Blessed be the lion that eats a man

when the lion becomes human.”

Extract from The Living One

 

The long night

The seasons turn as we approach the turning point, the Solstice… the longest night… just three short weeks away. And yet, the sky is beautiful this morning, a clear, deep blue graced with the lights of heaven. The world is still and silent, even the birds are hushed as dawn creeps over the horizon of a rain-washed world. The moon lights the village and touches the rooftops with silver. Branches are down in the lane and few are the leaves that still cling tenaciously to the trees, most stripped away by the vicious fingers of winter winds.

There is such strength in the grasp of leaf to twig, both so fragile they can be plucked and broken by a child, yet the bond of life so strong it can withstand the most inclement weather. Until it is time for them to fall.

Even when the leaves fall it is part of a greater renewal, the confetti of the marriage of the seasons, nourishing the earth and the tree from whence they fell. The tree sleeps through the winter, seemingly lifeless, husbanding its resources against the coming of spring. Beneath the skeletal surface of this dying time the life within shapes new leaves and blossoms, waiting in pregnant patience for the warm kiss of the sun.

northagain 064Leaves fall, branches break… the old and sere stripped away by the turning wheel of the year, clearing the way for a green birth.

There is so much laid out before us, even in the avenues of our city streets. The life of nature is so strong and so beautifully balanced. So easy to damage when, with careless hands her children grasp at her skirts, taking anything that claims their attention and desire… yet strong enough to recover when we are no more.

In the little wood where we sometimes walk, the small dog and I, man has left his traces. From the earliest times, track and road have passed this way. From the air, the circled marks of ancient homes can be seen in the fields, the line of a Roman road, lost now to plough and furrow. And still we carve this little patch of green to serve our needs. Yet as soon as we turn our back the wild things cover our tracks, reclaiming the earth for themselves, our little lives more fragile than their delicate blooms.

In towns and cities, sites and factories that were once hives of industry fall silent as technology moves on and we are proud of our advances, not noticing the quiet crown of plant and sapling our forgotten edifices wear, the gentle but inexorable hand of nature taking back her own as soon as we depart.

The seasons of the earth are echoed too within our own lives… we are part of the cycle, our bodies dance to the same natal song of the seasons. Life springs from death, death from life in an endless round.

northagain 108The cadence is echoed within us as we laugh for joy beneath the sun of summer and weep in grief when winter touches our hearts. In the dark days, we too may feel as if leaf and branch are being stripped from us, battered by the winds of change and the storms of emotion. Yet like the trees only the damaged and broken falls from us… the green heart is strong and holds the pattern of renewal within itself.

As the wheel turns it is easy to become lost in the dark days, feeling a verdant spring to be too far to reach, fearing in the shadows that it will not come. Perhaps, like the trees, we too are then husbanding our strength, withdrawing within where growth and renewal can work their magic unseen, ready to blossom at the first touch of the sun.

When the Solstice comes, the world, still facing the worst of winter, turns almost unnoticed towards summer. We know this, yet the winter is still to be endured. The days will lengthen, the light will be bright on days covered in snow, ice is yet to break open the cracked stones, and we will huddle by our hearths as if there is no warmth in the world, forgetting that we have passed the nadir and the eternal dance of the seasons carries us onwards towards a brighter dawn.

When we are lost in grief, gripped by the cold of fear, it is hard to see that light at the end of the tunnel, hard to believe that we have passed the worst point when we see a dark road still looming ahead. Yet this is the rhythm of life itself, as the earth holds us in the reassuring and loving embrace of a Mother and shows us that not all is lost in winter, it merely endures the frost while within, nourished by the fallen leaves that were stripped away by the storms and the turning year, the green life springs anew.

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To Greet the Dawn

sunrise 005I wandered into the living room at four, having given the whole sleeping business up for the night. Ani raised one ear and an eyebrow then curled up tight and refused to budge. It is odd though, now that I do not have to be up early, I seem to have reverted to an earlier mode when the house was so full of people that rising at ungodly hours was the only time I had to do things in peace.

There is something about the dark hours when the world is still sleeping, as if beyond the local noise you can hear the slow heartbeat of earth. There is nothing ‘ungodly’ about these moments, in fact quite the opposite.

How can you not feel close to the divine in a silence broken only by the wind in the trees… or looking up at star-strewn heavens? How can you not be touched by awe as the dawn paints the horizon in gold and flame and the first blackbird opens the day with song?

Our worlds are, for so many of us, artificial. Sunrise occurs behind closed blinds at the flick of a switch, TV and radio and the eternal rumble of traffic drown the delicate morning paean and a golden dawn cannot be seen in many places. We don’t realise that, of course, as we watch the first light creep into our rooms, busy with our preparations for the day. It was borne in upon me a few days ago as my son, also sleepless, had set his camera up to catch the dawn. I drove from village to town, stopping to capture something of the blaze of light on the way. He, hanging half-naked out of his bedroom window in the frost, caught only a tiny streak of gold above the rooftops, his horizon bounded by chimneypots.

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I love the dawn. From where I sit to write I can turn to the window and look due east, and will always stop to watch those fleeting moments of glory that touch the sky. I am incredibly lucky, yet so accustomed had I become to the daily joy of greeting the dawn it was not until a city-dwelling friend mentioned that it had been years since he had seen a true dawn that I realised just how lucky…. That seemed to me a tragedy, yet I have been a city dweller much of my life and know it to be true.

Knowledge and realisation are so very different.

We know things, take them for granted through habituation and it takes something to spark our attention before we can consciously notice them… and it is only at that moment that they become real for us again, vivid, vital and full of wonder.

As I write, the wind howls through the trees, drowning any sound but its own, an elemental tide of rushing air. From here there is no sulphurous glow from the town to colour the sky and the birds still sleep.

Soon, very soon, I will see that first shy blush as the false dawn touches the clouds and I will watch to see if the sky is clear enough to allow the painted horizon to blaze or whether the dawn fires will quietly suffuse the clouds with a gentle glow. I will listen to the waking of the morning as the birds sing and I will do so in full awareness, grateful that I can share a moment in solitude with something greater than I… and know It.

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