Community ritual

It’s Saturday at the Rainbow Druid Camp, and that usually means community ritual – an opportunity for everyone at the camp to be an active participant in crafting and participating in a large ritual. It’s quite an opportunity.

The organisation of it is canny, and effective. A way will be found to assign all participants to one of a selection of groups (last year it was where Mars falls in your birth sign, for example).  This prevents cliques, gives everyone an equal footing, and a place to be. Each group is assigned someone to hold it together. An overall theme, or narrative for the ritual is figured out ahead of the day by a group of people who show up because they want to do this, and on the day, each piece of the ritual is planned by the groups who then come together to make it all happen.

From which you can comfortably infer that as a way of getting a lot of people, most of whom are not acquainted,   to all actively make and enact a ritual, I think this is brilliant.

However, I don’t do it. I’m not personally drawn to big rituals. I’ve done some of the circles at Avebury and Stonehenge where there could be a hundred people and more. I go along for the opening and closing rituals at camp, because that feels like the right thing to do, but otherwise, I find really big rituals with lots of people incredibly disorientating. For myself, twelve to twenty four people is about my comfort zone for ritual groups, and I’m happy to work smaller.

My personal preference is for more focused, more intense ritual with people I know and feel connected to. I like circles small enough that a person can sing in them and not be lost, and where I can do the formal bits without having to shout. I like to be able to see other people’s eyes.

There are many very good reasons to do big, public and inclusive rituals that engage and offer celebration and theatre. There are Druids (and Mark Graham who runs Druid Camp is one of them) who are brilliant at this sort of thing and can carry large circles and engage large numbers of people at one go. And there are those of us who need to do other things in other ways. One of the many things I love about Druidry is that this is fine, and there’s room for everything. The small scale deep sharing rituals, the big acts of public drama, the solitary Druids, the people who do not do ritual at all… there is room.

Falling Down

Falling down is an inevitable experience for anyone who thinks they are on some kind of upward spiritual journey. Perhaps ultimately what any spiritual path is for is some kind of growth, progress or ascension into a better and more enlightened state of being. The trouble is that as soon as you get into the idea of working really hard to become a more elevated, more enlightened sort of person, the slippery slope down into something else is also always really close.

In ‘The Gospel of Falling Down’ Mark Townsend talks about these issues with a degree of personal honesty and humility that really challenged me to look at what I do and what I think about myself. He’s absolutely right. There are things that all too easily take over from doing the work because they look like being important. Once you start thinking that being important is the measure of your path, the spiritual journey ceases to be the driving force in what you do. If you’re lucky, you fall from this, or something pushes you out of it and you have to reconsider and start over. The unlucky ones who continue unchecked may become smug, self important, dogmatic, egotistical and keep pushing away from the heart of what was once their spiritual journey.

Unlike some faiths, Druidry doesn’t hand out titles, but we can get very obsessed with giving ourselves titles and fretting about who is entitled to call themselves what. How big is your Grove? How many students have you got? How many books did you sell last year? Where are you on the billing? Did you get radio play? Are there enough 5 star reviews? How many people follow you on social media, follow your blog and how does that compare to the followers a more famous Druid has? Once these things start to become important, and you pay attention to them and pour energy into them, rather than the Druidry, it all starts to go awry.

I went through some of this earlier in the year, my third year booked for Druid Camp with no suggestion initially that I was worth putting on the fliers. It’s tough, being worth booking but not being worth mentioning, and I took it badly. However, the decision was made to include more of us who are not ‘big name Druids’ on the publicity, and so I managed to sneak in after all. A long way down the list. What smarted was the sense of not being able to break through. I do all the things – I blog and write books, I teach, I offer talks, I go to events if asked, I write articles and review books… but I can see no way at all of getting from where I am as a one of the many small and obscure Druids to being a headline act, a bestseller.

I realised I could pour more energy into feeling bitter and thwarted, in questioning my validity, in pushing myself forward and demanding attention. I was lucky, as much as anything, because I had nothing to support me in doing that outside of my own desires. I was also lucky in that Mark’s book turned up and reminded me of all the reasons that chasing fame is not what a spiritual path is all about. How many fans and followers and book buyers do I need to validate my path? And why would I imagine any of these things could validate my path? That it is meaningful to me should be the key thing, and if what I do helps someone else that’s great, and the rest really should not matter. I want to be a Druid more than I want to be an author or a big name.

Mark’s book is written from a largely Christian-centric position, but as Mark has also studied with OBOD, it’s a Pagan friendly sort of text. His subversive take on Jesus is something I find immensely cheering. If you’re feeling lost and out of sorts, the gentle humanity of Mark’s writing might be just what you need. This is a companion book for people groping about in the dark and wondering what they’re supposed to be doing. If you’re feeling smug and superior and sure that you’re better than all of this, you definitely want to read Mark’s book some time very soon.


Writing the land

I’ve been reading a lot of landscape writing, and a number of authors writing about writing the landscape (Robert McFarlane, Landmarks, Rebecca Beattie, Nature Mystics, Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth). I’m interested in how we talk about landscape, the cultural impacts of how we position ourselves in relation to the ‘natural’ world, and I admit, the scope for doing more of this kind of writing myself.

I’m noticing a trend. The authors who stand out as nature writers tend to record something that is passing. These are often records of loss, whether that’s John Clare’s pre-enclosure world and the loss of freedom that followed, Thomas Hardy’s loss of rural tradition with the coming of industrialisation and urbanisation, lost traditions – drovers and pilgrims, lost ways of life, lost species or lost habitats, there’s a mournful, nostalgic quality to a lot of nature writing.

I think some of this is simply because people like a good wallow in nostalgia with a side order of self pity. It think it’s a curious counterpoint to the progress narrative that even as we collectively embrace the tale of the great forward march of progress, we are at the same time persuaded of a more innocent, better time before it all got ruined and degraded. When the magic better time was varies, but a couple of generations ago is a fair bet. Much as I don’t like UKIP, it’s clear some of their support comes from a fantasy of what England was like back in the unspecified good old days.

To be a successful nature writer in the long term is to correctly identify what’s on the way out and record it for posterity. Your peers will share in the mournful recognition, and the future will look back at the better things you lived to see the last of. That is of course a terrible simplification, but relevant nonetheless.

What that I love in this world is passing? Shall I mourn the fields disappearing under unaffordable homes, the bees, the rainforests, the lost species? Shall I mourn each new road and each place despoiled? It would be a bloody miserable project, to commit to recording every wound. Doing so would also tie me into the narrative of loss and decay. I don’t want to do that – this is not a story I want to feed into.

So, I’m going to go the other way. I’m going to start thinking about the facets of life that look untenable to me. I’m going to think about walking the margins of life in the 21st century, and all the things that could change if we ditch the progress/trashing narrative, and do something better. I’m going to consciously choose the era I want to see end, and I’m going to write, slowly and occasionally, about that. Not for some book I foresee publishing in a year or two, but for something decades down the line. Something that may only be relevant after I’m dead.

I’m increasingly interested in living the change. I will not be another poet of loss and backward glancing. I want to do something different.

Why capitalism doesn’t work

There are lots of reasons why capitalism doesn’t work. Some of them are ethical, some are about resource distribution, waste, and environmental harm. There’s not a lot of point arguing with a pro-capitalist from this basis, so I prefer to pick holes by other means. Capitalism does not deliver the things it claims to deliver. It does not work on its own terms for a good 99% of us. Most people in the system do not get to be as rich as they want to be.

The competitive element of capitalism means there have to be winners and losers. There have to be companies that fail, people who are paid less than their work is worth, people who pay more than the object was really worth. You can’t have profit without this combination of underpayment and overcharging. Capitalism works very well for the winners for as long as they continue to be winners, but the fear of losing is ever present. Losing your job, your home, you market share, your business, the edge, the advantage… that’s a lot of fear for a lot of people a lot of the time.

When the cost of living goes up, people push for higher wages. It’s pretty basic maths. Wages have to keep up with inflation, and inflation is the increasing cost of stuff. So, you put up the cost of stuff to increase profits, and so does everyone else, and then the workers start to squeal because they now can’t afford things. They may down tools, wrecking your profit. They may not buy because they are too poor – bang goes the profit again. The economy may falter. No profit there. You put the wages up and the profit margin shrinks, and so not very far down the line, you’ll put the price up again. Inflation is a consequence of trying to make a bigger profit. It delivers economic uncertainty, and there are always those who lose. In terms of economic gain, I don’t think most of us get much from it.

To be competitive of course, you have to drive prices down, and while you can do that by screwing the workers, producers, sourcing in cheaper developing countries and so forth, there’s a limit. What happens when the people in the developing country want a fair wage? We’ve exported jobs to China and India, where people desire western lifestyles, and they will start demanding fair payment for what they do. Getting a profit on cheap goods has depended on finding cheap labour to resource and countries willing to sell their natural assets at bargain basement rates. That’s not infinitely available.

Capitalism depends on growth, on ever bigger markets consuming ever more stuff. At present we have just the one planet, and finite resources, some of which are going to run out and some of which we over-exploit at our peril. We’ve over exploited the sea, fish stocks are in crisis. We’re over using carbon based fuels, we could render ourselves extinct. What you get when you push for constant growth, are boom and bust cycles. These hurt a lot of people for the benefit of the few.

In evolutionary terms, survival of the fittest seldom means the biggest (think about those really big dinosaurs and what happened to them) the most dangerous (like, ooh for example, the sabre tooth cats) or the most violent or aggressive. Evolution favours the flexible, and thus far we’ve done well as a species because we’ve been adaptable. A system that can only think about more exploitation, more consumption, more growth and more profit is not adaptable. The world is changing, and capitalism is a big angry dinosaur that may inf act be chewing on its own tail. As long term strategies go, this isn’t one.

Fragile things

Butterfly wings and spiderwebs. Cherry blossom. Snowflakes. Ecosystems. Nature is full of fragility, full of beautiful delicate improbabilities depending on improbable balances, strange niches, and more than a little luck. In anything else, fragility of being is often considered a source of beauty and of wonder.

When we think about humans, fragile goes with weak. Special snowflake. The sensitivity that is admired in a predator, or a photosensitive plant is a world away from the sensitivity so often derided in humans. For whatever reason, we have decided that strong is the quality to have in humans. Strong, powerful, ambitious, potent, rugged, tough, resilient. These are the qualities we praise. To say a child is delicate is to imply there’s something wrong with them. If an adult is fragile, they are sick. To be sensitive is not to live in the real world, allegedly. I’ve yet to locate this real world but I suspect there are no orchids in it.

The toughness mainstream humanity values can be brittle. So easily offended, so jealous, so possessive of power and objects. What strength we have exists in deep denial of our mortality, and how easily these delicate, fragile bodies of ours can be broken. If not by injury or illness, then always, in the end, by time itself.

Perhaps if we as a species were more honest about our innate fragility, and the myriad delicate balances on which we depend, we might be happier. If we could posture less, if we did not have to clip our wings for fear of them being broken. If we did not have to tear off our flowers for fear of seeming too dainty. If we did not stigmatise emotional sensitivity and delicacy as a form of weakness… we might find other truths. For all its flimsiness, spiderweb is one of the strongest substances out there.

Weather, emotion and pathetic fallacies

‘Pathetic Fallacy’ is one of those terms you run into sooner or later if you study literature. Proper definition here but the gist of it is the mapping of human emotions onto non-human things to get the point across. The classic example would be a story with rain at a funeral. The trouble with funerals in stories is that a bit of them has to happen outside, and therefore there has to be weather, and it impacts on the experience. I remember the weather at every funeral I’ve attended, and as they were all in England, grey and damp has been the norm. The one in torrential rain was interesting because the woman we were burying loved the rain. It felt more like a blessing than an expression of grief, as a consequence. I have a lot of problems with how we put weather into stories, so bear with me while I grumble because how we relate weather and emotion is, I think, rather important.

I type this on a cold, wet day in late July. I’m of somewhat depressed mood. I do not mention the weather because it conveniently expresses something about my feelings, but because it’s influencing them. If today was sunny and dry and I could sit out for a few hours reading and watching the birds, I would be happier. Not as a poetic device, but as a direct consequence of being cheered up by sitting in the sun. It’s not a human foible, this. Most mammals are cheery when they can lounge about and be warm, and sad when they are cold and wet.

There’s a big cause and effect issue here, and a lot depends on which you think causes what. Do we only notice the weather when it speaks to us of ourselves? For me, the weather is a big contributor to mood. Too many wet grey days in a row and I’ve no chance. My being depressed can be wholly separate from the weather, but isn’t immune to it – the sun lifts me, no matter what else is going on.

Inevitably there’s an overlap, because most of us aren’t trained in the use of precise meteorological language, and so are unlikely to talk about low fronts, wind speeds, and the number of centimetres of rain falling in a month. If the weather impacts on us, it does so as an immediate experience. I think because it’s emotionally affecting, we are more likely to frame it in emotional language. Thus a fast wind can seem angry, vengeful, violent simply because of what it does (tearing things and throwing them about) and how it affects us. I do not need to be experiencing inner rage or violence to find the wind threatening simply because of what it can do. If it drops a tree on me, I’m in trouble.

Warm, sunny days seem benevolent, and again I don’t think that’s about imposing a human sentiment onto the world. Sun powers the growth of plants and is the driving force of most ecosystems and life on earth. It seems reasonable to experience it as something benevolent. Rain after drought can also seem benevolent – and is equally life restoring, while torrential rain and flooding are literal threats and easily represented by more aggressive language.

I spend a lot of time watching whirlwinds. For reasons I cannot begin to fathom, I live in a place that gets them regularly. Tiny whirlwinds a foot or two across that play with the leaf litter. I can see a dozen in a week and it not be unusual. They fascinate me, and regardless of my mood, I see them as playful. If I am full of misery and the world seems a cruel and hostile place, the sun is still benevolent, and the whirlwinds are still playful. My sense of their emotional impact has nothing to do with my inner state, which is a big part of why I question the logic of the pathetic fallacy. I think the deliberate use of, and the inferring of the pathetic fallacy can be about a dislocation from lived experiences of weather and a failure to recognise that all fictional characters need to inhabit places with climates in order to be fully functioning people. They are an opportunity to explore the impact of weather on the psyche, but doing so should not automatically cast weather as reflections of an inner life. It can be deliberately used that way, but I don’t like it as either a strategy or an inference.

(This is a slightly unusual blog post in that it is a contribution to an ongoing conversation, that started over an as-yet unpublished novel of mine, in which there is a lot of rain. The relationship between rain and the inner lives of the characters is important to me, but for me this is not about weather as reflection of inner landscape. John, as ever, thank you for the prompts to go further and think more about things.)

Feelings for nature

“That we have feelings (sentiments) about nature demonstrates that we are separated from it (her?).” Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth.

I haven’t read the entire book yet, but this statement leapt out at me and I wanted to take it out of context and poke it a bit. Largely I agree with it, as it stands, with some caveats. As soon as we define ‘nature’ as being a thing, that is not us, all we can do is believe we  stand on the outside and either ignore it, or have feelings about it. If nature is other, we cannot see ourselves as participants.

A lot of the language around nature is incredibly binary. Culture and the intellect are set up in opposition to what is allowed to be ‘natural’. As soon as dirty human hands have violated the pristine, virgin landscape (and I use those words very deliberately) then it isn’t pure nature anymore and further despoiling is fine. Progress is at odds with nature. Technology is at odds with nature. Humanity is at odds with nature. Art is at odds with nature because art is artifice and nature is real. The only state we allow ourselves to imagine as natural, is naked, devoid of language and eating berries.

With ‘nature’ set up this way, how can any modern human consider what is natural to be available to them? Nature is all the things you have to get away from in order to make life bearable. This causes us all manner of problems.

Ants farm fungi, build huge nests and modify their environments. Bees and wasps undertake amazing construction work. Birds make nests, some of them incredibly ornate. There are many animals who craft homes and shelters underground. Hermit crabs use empty shells, octopi make portable houses out of coconut shells. Trees emit chemicals into the air and soil to help modify their surroundings to their advantage. From the tiniest organisms to the largest, life does what it can to manage its immediate environment for its own benefit. Nature innovates, and anything that can do better than silent berry eating, does better. We aren’t the only communicative species.

Half of the problem with talking about ‘nature’ is that to discuss all of existence as though its just one thing is incredibly reductive. What troubles me about Mr Bate’s statement is the idea that as soon as you have a feeling relationship, you are on the outside, and I think that’s wrong. When you can only have feelings about nature as an abstract idea, you are on the outside. When you care about this hill, that tree, these flowers, the birds in this valley, this stream, it’s an entirely different process. If you are depending on something, for food, or shelter, of course you care about its existence. Perhaps not in a conscious or benevolent way, but it’s still a form of care. To assume that we alone are capable of caring about nature and this only because we are outside of it, is a lot of assuming as an opening gambit.

If you’ve ever watched a cat rolling in the sun, or a horse rolling in the grass, or a dog frisking about in water, or a crow riding the wind, or a buzzard on the thermals, it is difficult to hold onto the idea that the rest of nature is all about the mechanics of survival. Watch any creature long enough and you’ll see it doing things just because it can, because it enjoys doing it, not because it serves some evolutionary function. Watch a cow come out onto grass for the first time in the spring, and you’ll be hard put to suggest that cows don’t care about grass, or have any feelings.

To hold feelings about any other living thing is not an act of separation, or proof of not being natural. Probably the only truly unnatural thing we do as humans is to imagine, foolishly and arrogantly, that we are somehow on the outside in anything other than our own imaginations.

Life on the margins

8pm on a Friday night. My hands are too sore for crafting or music. I’m too tired to concentrate on reading. The rest of my body is too stiff to even consider going out anywhere, and even assuming I could push through that, the flatlining of my brain makes me dreadful company. Who can I ask to spend time with me when I’m like this? And so I sit in weary silence and look at the rain, and fail to flag up even to the people I’m living with that I’m sad and sore and lonely. This is not unusual for the end of the week.

What worries me is the knowledge that I’m a pretty minor case. Most of my issues are intermittent, meaning I get good days. I get patches when I can pull my attention together enough to be sociable, and when I have enough energy to go out and do the sorts of fun things that other people do. Many people are in this sort of state full time, always in too much pain, always short of energy, always depressed and otherwise struggling to engage. All the things I can’t do much of the time because they start too late, or are too tough for other reasons… there are people who never have an option on those things. And I know how much of a fight it can be getting people to accommodate me, over things like not being able to do late meetings. ‘Normal’ wins most of the time, and the preferences of the many tend to make it seem ok not to bother with fitting me in. Rare are the places where I’m so essential that setting something up to accommodate me seems worthwhile. Again, it’s not just going to be me who experiences this.

I know when it comes to issues around depression and exhaustion that there are a lot of people who go quiet. They don’t mention there was a problem until it’s dealt with, often. There can be lots of reasons – pride and the desire to hang on to what little dignity remains, not having the energy to even start the conversation. Knowing that things probably won’t be fettled to accommodate you. I wish I knew how to step up to that, to better express that if a hand goes up I might spot the difference between waving and drowning, and I’m certainly going to try.

Physical barriers (stairs and no lifts) are not the only reasons people can find themselves excluded. It’s terribly easy to exclude anyone who does not conform to a standard of mobility (bodily mobility and car access) affluence (can you even afford to get there? Can you turn up to that place wearing the kind of clothes you own?) energy levels (because 8pm is just not a good time to start things for some people). Having young children, and not having on-demand child care can push some people out. Events that become male dominated because women don’t feel ok to turn up because they don’t feel safe in that part of town at that time of night. Places you can’t get to on public transport.

Of course it’s impossible to run everything to accommodate every possible need. But it’s nice when just now and then there’s a bit of flexibility to accommodate the known needs of people who have said they would like to turn up, but have issues. There’s a kind of tyranny in normality that means if you can’t fit with what’s on offer, and you don’t expect to be heard, you just shut up and go away and don’t get involved. Which is a lonely sort of outcome, and means that places of activity can have a very narrow selection of people involved in them.

I find it really funny when groups of people who claim to be tolerant and inclusive (and I can think of several) can’t find any flexibility at all to deal with the fact that I just can’t handle late evening meetings. I’m sure if they thought I was ‘properly’ disabled, they’d go to more effort to fit me in, but I’m just a sore, tired woman who can’t handle late nights, and somehow that makes it ok to just go ahead and have the meetings without me. Those who suffer invisibly – the mentally unwell, those in pain – are easily dismissed, because the problem isn’t visible, so the exclusion isn’t so visible, and depressed people tend not to be very good at standing up for themselves. The less obviously someone suffers, the easier it is not to bother with it, because no one can see you letting them down, and apparently that makes it ok, in some circles.

Evening Meditation

I’ve never had a fixed daily practice. Things that I do shift, fluctuate and evolve over time. I try things, and if they don’t suit me, I let them go and move on. Not being much of a morning person, about the only spiritually relevant thing I can do of a morning is start slowly, marking the move from dreaming to wakefulness and letting my mind settle before the day starts. I find that leaping out of bed and rushing around suits neither my state of mind first thing, nor the direction I want my days to go in.

Meditation has been a part of my life for a good twenty years. How I do it, when and where and why has varied greatly over that time frame. Early on, pathworkings and visualisations dominated my approach. I have a vivid imagination and it’s easy for me to use that in escapist ways, which I gradually became uneasy about.

Like most people who meditate I’ve been exposed to the idea of being wholly present in the moment as the point of meditation. I’m no good at it, and it does not sit well with me emotionally. I cannot divorce myself from past and future. I’m too interested in knowing and understanding, and in gathering material to share as stories and poems. To be wholly present is to be cut off from all of these things. I recently ran into the idea of ‘abundant time’ which I like a lot more. It suggests being very present, whilst also keeping the context of your life and what you know as part of that mix. It feels more natural to me, and makes more sense to me. There are a great many approaches to meditation available, so finding things that make emotional sense, seems the obvious way to go. All else is dogma and submitting to someone else’s authority.

I’ve always loved bats (excuse the huge jump in this line of though). One of the things about pipistrelle bats is that left in peace, they roost in the same place, and hunt in the same place every night. They come out at about the same time in relation to the sunset, not the clock. Seeing the bats requires being alert to when the day is ending, which I like.

I know where my nearest bats are, and I’ve taken to going out in the evenings to stand and watch them. I’ve started to notice things that impact on the life of bats, and have become more alert to the early evening moths. Bats don’t emerge in the dark, but after the sunset, so there’s still a lot of light to see what they’re doing. I turn up to the bats very deliberately. Not to worship them, nor to worship some bat-related sense of deity through them. Not to seek signs or messages in what they do. Simply because they are there, and I like seeing them. I like the addition of their presence to the day. Standing still and largely quiet to watch their amazing flights as they hunt, is inherently soothing and takes me out of myself. The light fades, and I go home calmer.

While primarily it’s a simple kind of meditation for relaxation, I know I am also learning things about twilight, and the sunset sky, the settling of day-flying birds, and the less predictable habits of the owls. That I can stand still and quiet for half an hour or so with no difficulty comes from the meditation I’ve already done. That I have any interest in doing this at all comes very much from my Druidry.

Of Salamandra and Sloth

Nimue Brown:

One of the many projects I have on the go, is a long standing graphic novel series, Hopeless Maine, for which my husband, Tom does the art. It’s had a complicated life, but good things are happening. More on his blog…

Originally posted on The Moth Festival:

What more, dear reader, should I say? Probably very little, but that has never stopped me before. Our search for a new home for Salamandra and the other denizens of Hopeless, Maine has come to a happy conclusion, and I am both pleased and proud to announce that henceforth  their adventures (misadventures, perils, etc. ) will be under the banner of the Sloth! “What (I hear you ask) are you going on about,and what Sloth is this? Also, why does it have a banner? Additionally, what does it eat, and can I comb it?”  Well, to start with, no. You can not comb it, I am very sorry to say. Sloth is a fine comics publisher. Also an innovative and exceedingly cool one. Here, take a look. See? Told you! I very much like the diversity of themes and styles they carry. (Remember! Comics is a medium, *not* a genre.) Their…

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