Tag Archives: pilgrimage

Glowbugs and the walking calendar

A walking calendar is something not quickly created. It’s been a significant part of my personal Druidry for some years now. What I’m doing is developing a calendar that allows me to make pilgrimages to encounter what for me are key seasonal things. It’s a long term commitment, as my glowbug experiences demonstrate.

For several years I’ve been seeing occasional glowbugs at any time from midsummer through to late July. One turned up at our summer solstice sit out last year. Also last year I made my first serious attempt at a small act of pilgrimage to spend time with them. However, I ran too early, and the group had lost the will to look for wildlife before it was dark enough.

This year, drawing on last year’s experiences I was able to time things better and we were out at twilight – it helped that we had a cloudier night so it was darker earlier. A great many glowbugs were located during a slow saunter. One of our party hadn’t seen one before. They are enchanting – incredibly small bright gem like things. You only really get to see the glow, not what it’s attached to.

Building a calendar, year on year as a deliberate act of communion with the rest of the world, is something I’ve found powerful. It means identifying local, seasonal events, working out where best to see them and making the time to take that journey.

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Pilgrimage to the flowers

In previous years I’ve managed both an Easter and a Beltain pilgrimage. The Easter walk talks me via two Iron Age hill forts to Gloucester Cathedral, and is very much a pilgrimage honouring the ancestors. Like most modern Pagans, I have my share of Christian ancestors, and the cathedral itself has family stories associated with it. The Beltain pilgrimage is all about wildflowers – bluebells, wood anemone, wild garlic. This year the flowers came before Easter, and I had to choose. I chose to honour the unsettlingly early flowering and to make my ancestral pilgrimage at some later point in the year.

Part of the route for my Beltain pilgrimage takes me along the edge of the Cotswolds, through an area dense with barrows. People have been walking that way – but not that path, I assume! – for thousands of years.

The flowers I go out to see, the garlic, anemones and bluebells, are all indicators of ancient woodland. It’s not my motivation, but it is certainly a bonus. Beech trees are not long lived, so the age of trees round here is not an easy indicator of woodland age.

It was a beautiful day. Bluebells in swathes, like a misty sea in the Woodchester valley. The scent of them subtle and gorgeous. Very small lambs out in the fields. We sat near some of them (but not too near so as not to cause alarm) to have lunch. As we ate, a raven sang to us from nearby trees, pausing for the odd fly past to make sure we didn’t miss any of its raven-ness. It’s such a distinctive voice though that we didn’t need to see in order to know. Later, we found the heronry, which we’d been looking for, and several herons who looked to be in the business of making more herons.

I have personal stories and family stories about Woodchester Valley. I have folklore and history as well. Repeatedly visiting an area at a specific time of year adds to the web of stories as things happening to us are woven into the tale of our relationship with the land. The year we saw a buzzard take a rabbit. The variations we’ve walked, the people we’ve walked with…

We walk fairly quietly, but it is about engagement and engagement includes the people around us. The valley is managed, and home to a lot of wild things. There was a large flock of tufted ducks, bigger than any group we’ve seen there before. Last autumn there were dragonflies in great number. It’s not a pilgrimage to somewhere, but a big, circular walk. It’s a pilgrimage into the land and the season, a deepening of relationship with place and a commitment to holding that connection.


Walking at first light

The sun hasn’t cleared the hill as I set out, so while it’s light, the cold from the previous night still hangs in the air. It’s startling cold given how bright the day looked before I headed out.

There’s a clear line across the fields. On the shadow side of the line, night lingers in the dew heavy grass, and it is so very cold. My path is also on the shadow side. I am under-dressed, and seriously consider going back. What keeps me moving is the line I walk in parallel with – because on the other side of that line is the land the sun has already reached. It shines with the gold of new light, and promise and all good things.

I don’t walk that far, and when I turn around to head for home, the sun has reached the larches and other tree tops, bathing them in colour. The air is warmer as I trot back. I see a small rabbit out in the field, hear a pheasant. Outside my door, two robins are engaged in a dance that could be about pair bonding, or territory. I’m not sure how to read it. They are untroubled by my approach.

Pagan Pilgrimage need not be about distance. It need not be away into some supposedly pristine environment.


Wandering in early spring

January and early February are quiet months in the seasonal walking calendar. I don’t plan big walks at this time of year, because the weather is too unpredictable and I don’t like slippery surfaces much. Plus, tramping about in mud can do a lot of damage to land and plants alike, so I tend to limit walks to lanes and solid footpaths.

My seasonal plants of preference – snowdrops and catkins – are available right outside my front door, so seasonal plant-orientated pilgrimage does not have to involve much effort!

However, we’ve reached that point in the year when there are odd warm days, its drier underfoot and it can be good walking weather. It’s tempting to get out, but still risky. How risky walking at this time of year will be of course depends firstly on where you live. Are sudden blizzards a risk? Could sudden loss of visibility put you in danger? What’s the footing like and can it change quickly if the weather changes?

I live in a fairly mild part of the world, and I don’t walk in the mountains. My risks for this time of year are about getting cold. With crappy circulation, I suffer a lot if I can’t stay warm and while walking is good for circulation, if the ground is cold enough, or the wind chill fierce enough, it can get challenging.

I know for a lot of people the great challenge of pitting self against nature is an exciting prospect. I don’t have a body or a mind for conquering anything, so I have to work cooperatively with the natural world. I have to walk when it’s passably sensible and stay in if it isn’t. I have to consider how cold I can afford to get when thinking about distance. There’s no one right way of doing this stuff, but I assert that it’s absolutely ok to be not in the least bit macho about it.


How far should I go?

How far do you have to go for it to be a pilgrimage?

As far as I am concerned, pilgrimage is not a matter of time or distance, but a matter of communion. The single biggest factor in how far you go, how often and for how long, is your own body. We’re all different. The more involved a person is with walking, or other forms of movement, the more attention they have to pay to their limits, and those limits change. Some of us can expect to see increased strength, stamina and mobility over time. Others of us will be dealing with deterioration. Some of us will experience shifts back and forth between the two.

For the person interested in embodied spirituality, knowing your limits is a good thing. There’s an intensity of feeling that comes from pushing to the edges of what you can do – regardless of where those edges are. Start modestly, with things you know you can do. There is no race here. Build confidence over time, build strength and stamina if you can, or strategies. If you have to choose between distance and time, choose time. It’s the being outside that really matters. Better to spend an afternoon pottering about that a frantic half hour that leaves you exhausted.

Perhaps the most important thing here is that time spent walking is time away from the rest of life. This is equally true for time spent sitting out. There’s a chance to change our inner pace, to slow down and notice what’s around us. Humans are increasingly prone to rushing, stress and overstimulation. The more time you can spend away from that, the better.

In most aspects of life, the really fertile places are the edges. In this case, it’s the edge of your ability to keep walking. I find that when I’ve gone long enough, and far enough, peace enters me. My thoughts become uncluttered. About this time I notice the way the deeper breathing of cleaner air is impacting on my sense of self. I’ll tend to feel cleaner on the inside. More so if I’ve walked amongst trees. A kind of euphoria kicks in. This takes longer to achieve than it used to, and lasts longer than it used to. On the far side of the euphoria is exhaustion, and pain.

I have no problem with pain being part of my spiritual experience. I may be slightly masochistic because I feel better about my body when I can barely put one foot in front of another. If, for whatever reason, you need an element of martyrdom and pain as part of your pilgrimage, that’s your business. It’s not necessary to bleed and hurt to be a pilgrim. It’s also not the case that you need to settle on one way of doing this. Some pilgrimages may be gentle, some may break you, and you have to find the balance that answers bodily, emotional and spiritual needs.


Easter Pilgrimage

What is Easter doing in a Pagan walking calendar? It’s a time when my son is likely to be off school. It’s close to the equinox, but I’ve never quite known what to do with equinoxes. It’s a massively important Christian festival and many of my ancestors were Christian. But the real truth is, it joined my calendar by accident.

I suffer from depression, and the relationship between mental health and walking is something I’ll explore in more detail later on. I was in a desperately bad state, and made the decision to spend a day walking with my husband, to try and take me out of myself, to create the space to feel differently. We walked, for hours, through woods and hills, on a route I’d not done before. Two Iron Age hillforts, at the Cotswold edge, huge skies, and then down into the city of Gloucester, with leg muscles tightening, feet sore, barely able to put one foot in front of the other, we came to the cathedral. And I realised it was Easter. I was almost in tears. This was the moment when the whole idea of pilgrimage started to make sense to me. I had not set out to make a pilgrimage, and yet at the same time knew I had definitely done that.

I have a longstanding relationship with Gloucester cathedral, and I have a story about my great grandmother seeing a ghost there. It’s a place of deep ancestry for me. Walking in, exhausted, and sitting in the cool quiet of the space, and letting the space fill me was a powerful experience that cannot easily be described. I was mind-blown from the enormity of the journey, wide open to the place, and profoundly affected.

We tried a second version of the walk the following autumn, with my son, and without one of the hill forts, and while that too was a powerful journey, the absence of a hillfort was clearly an issue.

We set out for the third time on what was explicitly an act of Easter pilgrimage, taking in both hillforts. Our route introduced us to an incredible oak tree, we met a lot of wildlife including a breathtaking close encounter with a deer. Coming into the cathedral my body and mind were, despite the challenges of preceding weeks, clearly in far better shape than they had been on my first Gloucester pilgrimage.

The cathedral used to be a major focus point for pilgrims – the tomb of Edward the Second (murdered just down the road at Berkley Castle) was the major attraction. These days very few people walk as we’ve done, and most people in the cathedral are there as tourists. There’s a strange irony to coming in as a Druid pilgrim to sit reverently in the cathedral while all around the tourists take photos and chat. One of the things I love about the cathedral is how it takes all sound and changes it into something like music.

It’s worth noting that historically, the lines between pilgrimage and tourism have always been blurred. Religious sites have made a lot of money out of pilgrimage, as well. It is not a thing set apart, but a thing of this world.
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Sauntering

In an essay about walking, Thoreau talks about the origin of the word ‘saunter’. He says “going à la sainte terre” means going to the Holy Land, and also offers ‘Sans terre’ – without land – as another interpretation. Both suggesting to him the idea of pilgrimage. The online etymological dictionary – http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=saunter – has it as a word from the 1660s to mean walking about in a leisurely way, and there’s no agreed history to the word aside from that.

However, poetic interpretation is just as interesting and valid as agreed history, and I like the idea that a saunter is in some way connected to the act of pilgrimage. From a Pagan perspective, it works very well indeed.

In a conventional pilgrimage, the journey is as important as the destination, but still the point of the journey is the place, or places you are going to. A person could not be a dedicated Christian pilgrim by sauntering slowly around a couple of fields unless a saint had left their relics there or some other dramatic event made said fields a religious focal point.

A Pagan pilgrim can saunter anywhere. Moving with less purpose, less intent and more presence changes how we experience a space. It makes it more possible to both see and dwell upon the details of our surroundings. Anywhere you might go, even in the most urban of spaces, there will be tiny signs of life. Or even big ones – it’s surprising how easy it is to miss large manifestations like urban trees if your head is down and you’re mostly thinking about what’s coming next.

A saunter gives us time to see a place afresh. Often the wonder is in the details, and if you want to immediately connect with what’s around you, noticing and rejoicing in the details is a big part of that process. It’s possible to become complacent about and oblivious to the wildest and most officially beautiful or picturesque of landscapes. Sauntering provides an antidote to jaded awareness.

A slow walk encourages us to stop and look more closely. Turn around and see the locality from a different angle. Sit down in it, lie down perhaps – if there’s no hurry and nowhere to be, then these things can all be part of the mix. At a slower pace there’s more scope to chat as well and this is not necessarily a distraction from the spiritual experience of being in a place. Sharing our responses to what we experience can broaden and enrich our perceptions, and this is an idea I’ll be back to again at some other point.

Humans are busy things. We’ve got a hectic schedule to fill, we’ve got to be achieving something. We’ve got to be somewhere else, or we’re running through the landscape for fitness. Slowing down is a magical thing, regardless of where the word ‘saunter’ really comes from. Slowing down opens out what’s in front of us, revealing the gems of water droplets on the intricate spider web, or the brilliance of a toadstool, the fragile beauty of flowers in the grass, or the presence of birds. Occult means ‘hidden’. If you want what’s hidden, slow down, and what was once obscure and unavailable becomes perceptible.

Walk on the ground beneath you as though you are walking on holy land. Every walk can be a journey to the most sacred place, because both you and the earth are present. And at the same time be sans terre – without land. If only we could let go of this mad human urge to own and control the land, everything would change. Be on the land and with the land, move over the land, find ways to explore your intimacy with it. Approaching without a desire to own, to conquer and subdue also opens the land to us in entirely different ways. In not seeking to possess, we make room for respect, and reverence, and create opportunities to be moved and possessed ourselves, instead.


Ideas of pilgrimage

Pilgrimage is usually understood as a journey to a sacred place. The journey itself is a spiritual process. Pilgrimages tend to be a bit epic – whether that’s Islamic people travelling vast distances to go on the Hajj, medieval folk walking to the sites where saint’s remains are said to perform miracles, journeys to The Holy Land, or to the graves of ancestors of tradition (all those people going to Gracelands to see Elvis spring to mind). There’s a sense that a pilgrimage has to be big and dramatic. You have to go a long way. The walking should be intense. Maybe your feet should bleed.

I’m a Pagan. The idea of suffering as a spiritual good is not beaten into my path. I’m not atoning for my sins, I don’t need to bleed out some imagined misdemeanour. As I’m a Pagan, I hold nature sacred. This means that my sacred places are not ‘away’ requiring a huge journey to get to them. My sacred places are hills, valleys, streams, trees… in short, sacredness is around me. All I have to do is look out of the window or go outside. Last but not least, I know that not everyone is mobile. Many people have a limited capacity to walk. Many people cannot afford long trips to distant lands where the difference between tourism and pilgrimage may not be clear cut (also true of much mediaeval pilgrimage). Could pilgrimage be re-imagined as a more inclusive and available idea?

I’ve always walked, for transport and for leisure. It’s always been a key part of my Paganism, because in walking I experience the land, encounter what’s living around me, and have time for contemplation and just being.

Last summer I started thinking in earnest about whether Pagan Pilgrimage could be a thing in its own right, and what it would mean to wander about as a Pagan Pilgrim. I’ve spent time thinking about what I do, sharing walks with other people who think about this sort of thing, and wondering how to write about walking. I’ve been reading authors who write their experiences of the land – Robert McFarlane, Nan Shepherd, Llewelyn Powys, John Clare, Thoreau, Ivor Gurney… I’m looking for others as well.

I’ve long been interested in landscape history because this is often the only trace working people leave. Left out of official records, little bothered with in the classrooms of my childhood, there is a story in the land made of pathways, earthworking, old hedgerows and place names, industrial and faming relics, that tells of the people who lived close to the soil. This is a story I am drawn to.

I want to get past ideas of the picturesque, the manufactured landscape to be pretty around big houses, the focus on the summit or the approved view, and make a relationship with the land that sees beauty in the truth of existence, and does not need to airbrush out all evidence of life and death.

I’m going to try and write something about this exploration every week – because I’m failing to make time for bigger book projects, and this is the most realistic way of getting it done. The blog will be a first draft, bite sized ideas as and when they occur to me. If there is a book, it will be a better organised, redrafted thing. In the meantime, I thank you for sharing the journey. Please do pile into the comments section, I would greatly value input, and I will be keeping track of names so as to properly quote people if that turns out to make sense.

Let’s wander!


Guest Blog: Walking your talk

Mark put this out as an email, and I asked if I could reblog it because I think it’s a great example of doing your druidry, and quite literally walking the talk. So, with his permission, here we go…

 

By Mark Lindsey Earley

Well, I just about did it! I had foot problems leading up to the walk, so A/ wasn’t able to train very well, and B/ started the walk with very sore feet, which didn’t bode well!

Towards the end it made sense to stow my boots and I did about six miles (where the route was over soft grass) barefoot.

This made it feel even more like a pilgrimage (which in many ways it was, to me). Arriving at the Avebury stone avenue felt very numinous, and being barefoot,  walking at a very sedate and measured pace, holding two staffs, I felt like a bronze age high-priest making a very dignified entrance (and for a while, a bit less like a fat, middle-aged bloke stumbling along like a slowed-down Ozzy Osbourne).

As I approached the Avebury henge I came over all unnccesary. This was probably a combination of relief & achievement; the poignancy of my 300- odd comrades, who were nearly all walking in memory of someone they had lost to dementia, and the sheer magic of having physically linked two of Wiltshire’s (and the world’s) most magical places.

The walk was stunningly well organised and the route was fantastic. I would have expected a few dull bits, or maybe a few short spells trudging alongside busy roads, but we had none of that. The route led through the wild, martial expanses of Salisbury Plain, past barrows, ancient earthworks and target zones (!), down into the vale of Pewsey, through water meadows, parkland and picture-postcard villages, along the Kennet and Avon Canal and then up the huge and dramatic escarpment onto the wonderful Marlborough Downs. We passed  Adam’s Grave, a chalk White Horse, walked along the amazing Wansdyke (the West’s answer to Hadrian’s wall) and past West Kennet Longbarrow. I absolutely love this part of the world.

A huge thank you to all who sponsored me, spread the word, dog-sitted etc. and to John for the loan of two trecking sticks which saved my life.

Anyone who still wishes to donate has until Halloween. I’m 48 % of the way to my target, so please keep the sponsorship coming in. Thank you.

Lots of love

M