Sunday 18 October, on a walk beginning at 7.20 am. This is a later start than on the previous week (1), and headed in the opposite direction. The day is overcast and the feeling-tone of this walk entirely different. Last week was magical and illuminative. This week is a time of relaxed enjoyment, of simple openness to the world as I find it. I can let go of agendas.
The fall here is still tentative. It mostly happens in November, though there are plenty of leaves falling gently to the ground, and a breeze to encourage them. Overhead, the gaps in the canopy let the light in. The remaining leaves form patterns that draw my attention and raise my spirits in a strange primordial way.
I enjoy built environments up to a certain level of density, when they become oppressive and too much. Here, a canal bridge blends in with ivy, water, trees and undergrowth without any sign of artificial arrangement. The place has been largely left to itself to make its own accommodations and adjustments. They are what they are. They haven’t been created for effect. I notice that I feel in tune with this space.
I live in an urban setting that is not at war with trees. The early morning absence of traffic helps me to appreciate the autumn colours opposite. Today is a day when I am easily pleased by life and I find myself caught up in a moment of spontaneous gratitude.
Now, I am under an arch, looking at the canal, at reflections in the water, and at a canal side entrance to somebody’s house. I have the sense of a congenial, inhabited space. The stretch that I have been walking on today is relatively built up, still part of the town. My walk has involved the interplay of town and country. In one way it has been very ordinary. In another it has been a trigger for happiness. I have enjoyed being part of it.
The picture above – somehow, for me, beyond words. I lose myself in it.
Sunday, 11 October, 6.40 am. My plan is to walk towards the dawn of a new day, but I take time to stop and photograph this liminal moment. It is still, on this normally busy road. It makes me almost nostalgic for the early days of lockdown in the spring.
In this moment, there are no cars and no other people. I am fine with the artificial light. I like the contrast of the street lights (bright and focused) with the softer light in the sky, dim yet with a promise of expansiveness. I enjoy the shadows and the presence, too, of outright darkness at this stage of my walk.
It takes me twenty minutes of enchanted meander to reach my next point, pictured above. The scene is inherently more spacious. Water and sky are prominent. It takes notable artefacts to make their presence felt. The main theme of the picture, as I look in a generally eastern direction, is the coming of the light. Clouds do not obscure it. The buildings have become more than silhouettes. There are the beginnings of colour and the detail it brings. I judge it OK to walk on the canal path itself, just visible on my right.
Another twenty minutes and the light seems to predominate, though I am not yet in full daylight. I am on the canal path. Even though the surroundings of the towpath are lushly green, the world I stand in is a little dusky, or dawny if there were such a word. Crepuscular. Looking up, I see pinkness in the sky, white clouds, hints of blue. I feel heartened and strangely moved by the effects of light on the autumn trees. They give me a warm sense of walking towards the sunrise, and encourage me to move on.
The picture immediately above is not part of my plan. It stems from delighted surprise followed by purposeful calm. Knowing about the heron in advance, I would likely have botched my picture in an anxious, clumsy effort to put the bird on record. I always have before. I think that herons fly away from me out of disdain rather than fear. This time I am a quiet human in a quiet world. I stand still for awhile and am almost elegant in my use of the phone. I wait for an intuited ‘right time’ before pressing the button. There is no drama at all. I do not know if the heron even notices me. The whole incident feels like a blessing of the still early morning.
Now, further on in my walk, the sun is on its ascent through the sky and I can picture it indirectly. The contrast between the sun kissed light areas and the shady ones is strong and vivid. I notice that, as the fading trees accept that their season is over, the ‘parasitic’ mistletoe – even the Druid Plant Oracle (1) calls it that – is gleefully green.
Now I am on my way back home. What draws my attention, after a little exploration, is the white owl. To me it looks very present and collected, situated just where it wants to be. It seems also to be acting as gatekeeper for its own arch.
I make stream of consciousness connections. I began my walk on the Bath Road. Bath is less than 30 miles away. There, the Romans turned a Celtic shrine into a city and called it Aquae Sulis (see http://www.romanbaths.co.uk/), acknowledging Sulis the Celtic goddess of the shrine. She was concerned with its waters and their healing potential whilst doubling up as a solar deity as well. The Romans called her Sulis Minerva, and that links her with owl wisdom. The white owl has a rich hinterland of associations for me. It makes the encounter significant. I note that two resonant avian images have met me on this walk into the sunrise, offering avenues for further contemplation.
(1) Philip & Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druid Plant Oracle: Working with the Magical Flora of the Druid Tradition London: Connections, 2007. Illustrated by Will Worthington.
As the autumn deepens, I find that my canal walking has slowed down and detached itself from notions of exercise. It has become spontaneously and informally meditative. I am simply noticing what is available, rather than striving to get to some other place in myself or in the world. Followers of the Headless Way (1) describe such attention as ‘being capacity for the world’, since the world knows itself through this awareness. One of the Headless Way’s poets, Colin Oliver, has the lines (2) “In the oneness of things/ I am nowhere in sight”. I am like that with my phone/camera. I rarely have it in the selfie mode, so it is a good device for the purpose.
My combined walking and photography have become a contemplative opportunity, an informal opening to the magic of what is given, here and now, which I sometimes refer to as ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’. They have taken their place, unplanned, at the heart of my contemplative Druidry. They enable immersion in the apparent world, and provide a setting for what I like to call valley experiences, to distinguish them from the peak experiences more often discussed. I notice also an aversion to calling this activity a ‘spiritual practice’, a feeling that comes with the image of a caged bird. Not right for the context. Not right for that in me which does this.
Through this contemplative lens I can be appreciatively open even to appearances of dereliction and decay. They are simply part of what is. When I see an old and roofless building without this accepting contemplative gaze, I can become irritated and grumpy. Why isn’t it being renovated or pulled down, one or the other? Who is responsible? But in my picture taking mode, through the lens of contemplation, I am entirely at ease. The building has its place, just the way it is.
My meditative walk can highlight processes as well as still images. A decaying rose becomes a rose hip. The dying flower makes way for fruit, which will die back in its turn after seeding the next generation. ‘Decay’ is relative.
The lens of contemplation makes space for things that would be easy to miss otherwise. A waning moon, for example at 8 a.m. …
… or the delicacy, close-up, of old man’s beard …
… or a naturally sculpted head of an unknown bird or reptile, which also offers space for a cobweb …
These walks have taught me a lot. There must have been a gestation period between the time I gave them up – what with Covid-19 and my concerns about narrow paths and passing – and the time I resumed them. Along the way I’ve gained a different perspective on their role in my contemplative life. I used to see them as ancillary. Now they seem central.
I tend to feel thrown around energetically over two or three days during the autumn equinox period, and then a new calm takes over. I have crossed into the darker half of the year. I reached that place this year on 25 September and went out for a walk at 7.15 a.m., about 20 minutes after sunrise. The temperature was 8 degrees (46.4 F), not exactly cold, but enough to indicate a change in the year. I was glad to be wearing gloves. They demonstrated my acceptance of a new seasonal identity. There have been still lower morning temperatures in more recent days.
Walking by my local canal, I could see that 2020 has been a good year for its swans. I saw ten near-grown cygnets in a 3-4 mile stretch of water: the group of five in the picture, a group of three a couple of miles away, and two others on their own. I’m inclined to think that the full lockdown from late March until early June has played a role in making the swan population safer. A happy thought and a sad one at the same time.
I walked further out of town this time than I had since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis and went past more open fields. The grass was green but not growing wildly. I saw only subtle signs of a turn in these distant trees, and none really of a fall. The horses were contentedly outside: no need even for coats. It was dry. By this stage of my walk it was a little warmer, though never beyond 10 degrees (50F). The edge created by a cold breeze had gone. For me this image captures a tranquil moment, that represents my sense of this post-harvest moment in the year. The weather is adequately benign. The energy of nature feels partly withdrawn, into a subterranean state of latency.
Among the trees on the canal bank, I found much greater evidence of a turn. This is one of the times when I become particularly drawn to reflections in water, and the way in which they to an extent mirror the world above whilst also offering something of their own. The much quoted phrase, ‘as above, so below’ is altogether too neat and formulaic to describe a living world.
I took this picture on 17 September at Weston-super-Mare, a seaside town located where the Severn estuary becomes what is now called, in English, the Bristol Channel. Weston faces Cardiff, the Welsh capital, on the other shore (too far away to see in the picture). Looking at it gives me a sense of tranquillity whilst also showing clearly that major forces are in play. We notice the descent of the sun, as if into the water. A change in the light is linked with this process. In the near distance, not far from our feet, the tide is coming in – rapidly, as it turns out just a little later.
Until Tudor times this stretch of water was known as the Severn Sea in line with the Welsh name Mor Hafren (Cornish Mor Havren). For me, the name ‘Bristol Channel’ makes a claim as much as it describes a place. It disrupts my sense of psychogeography and I am drawn to the Welsh ‘Mor Hafren’ as a name to connect me to these waters. It is older, naturalistic and retains a link with the river.
Weston-super-Mare is, by nature, a liminal space, not least of an autumn evening. The picture below is of Brean Head – brilliantly used in Dion Fortune’s occult novel The Sea Priestess – and the sky above it, a little after sunset.
Sky, sea, land. From this distance, the head, like many coastal promontories, has a slightly serpentine or dragon-like look. You half expect it to rear up and move. But it doesn’t. It remains quiescent, power in potential. The active power, here and now, is in the clouds and the afterglow of the sun.
On this visit, I discovered the cycle track, also a pedestrian path, that allows improved access to Brean Head from the Weston side. This helped me to revive a connection to Brean Head which I had allowed to lapse over recent years.
My final picture gives more space to the water element as an incoming tide, whilst recording the sun sinking below the horizon near the island of Steep Holm. The name is of Norse derivation (‘holm’ referring to an island in an estuary). The Welsh name is Ynys Rhonech and the early English called it either Ronech or Steopanreolice – ‘reolice’ being derived from an Irish word referring to a church yard or graveyard, suggesting a sense of a one-time sacred space. These names give a sense of the different peoples who took an interest in this stretch of water in early times. Steep Holm is in England, although Flat Holm, Ynys Echni, a little closer to the opposite shore, is in Wales.
In the outer circle of my mandala of the year (1), hazel presides over the days from 16 September to 8 October.
In the middle circle, divided into quarters, the one beginning at Lughnasadh/Lammas is represented by a salmon.
In the inner circle, where there is no sub-division, I have three seed pearls standing for the Awen. The Autumn Equinox is a time when images from the three layers of the mandala line up particularly well. (See NOTE below)
The lore and legend surrounding hazel have a stronger hold on me than the physical tree, though I do find hazels in my locality. For the ancient Celts, the tree was linked with wisdom and known as the food of the gods. Irish tradition (2,3) speaks of the sacred salmon who swim in a pool surrounded by nine hazel trees. This pool was known as Conla’s Well or the Well of Segais and it is the source of the River Boyne. When the trees drop their nuts into the water below, the salmon eats them and so carries them into the sea and back in their annual spawning run. “The cycle was seen as a metaphor for the passing of wisdom from age to age and from person to person” (2). The ancient Druid temples of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth are to be found in the Boyne Valley.
Ireland and Western Britain are watery places, well-located for intimations of wisdom in watery forms. In modern Druidry, circle work makes links between the west, water and autumn, understood as the quarter following Lughnasadh/Lammas. There are suggestions, too, of love and intuition flowing together in harmony. The Autumn Equinox stands at the point where the light half of the year gives way to the dark half – not suddenly, or violently, but as part of a gentle transition, where the qualities are more or less balanced on both sides of the divide. Tradition also gives us the image of the Well of Segais as “a shining fountain, with five streams flowing out of it” (3). Here, the invitation, at least for ‘the folk of many arts’, is to drink from the five streams (the five senses) and from the fountain itself (the source of life). In a nutshell, our wisdom is best served by drawing on both the life of the senses and on the flow of inner inspiration (Awen). Neither needs to be sacrificed to the other.
(2) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003. Also source of the image at the top.
(3) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druid Animal Oracle: Working with the Sacred Animals of the Druid Tradition London: Fireside, 1994 (Illustrated by Will Worthington)
NOTE The two pictures below give a rough sense of the mandala, and of relationships at the Autumn Equinox, though not the way it looks as a mosaic in my innerworld. The tree images are taken from The Green Man Tree Oracle (2). They stand in for the ones in my mandala, which are more naturalistic and sometimes involve more than one plant: hazel, west; rowan, west-north-west, yew, north-west; elder, north-north-west; holly, north; alder, north-north-east; birch, north-east; ash & ivy, east-north-east; willow, east; blackthorn, east-south-east; hawthorn, south-east; beech & bluebell, south-south-east; oak, south; gorse, south-south-west; apple, south-west; blackberry & vine, west-south-west. The selection as a whole is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. The elemental images are from R. J Stewart The Merlin Tarot London: Element, 2003. Illustrated by Miranda Grey.
In my mandala of the year (1), I have sixteen trees. In the quarter from Lughnasadh (or Lammas) to Samhain, these are apples, blackberry, hazel and rowan. Blackberry presides over the days from 24 August to 15 September.
My choices have as much to do with personal memories as with natural processes, traditional lore, or the ogham alphabet in which Blackberry is Muin. In England we have an August Bank Holiday in which the weekend is extended to include the last Monday of the month. This year it will be August 31st. I have early memories of blackberry picking walks during this holiday, with family groups doted around a wooded hillside, and an air of informal ritual. Although balmy days might follow, this was the final act of summer.
The plant, of course, is with us throughout the year. The Druid Plant Oracle (2) names it as Bramble. “If you have ever tried digging up Bramble roots, you will know how tenacious they are – they travel long and deep, and some root systems can cover a wide area and be of great age”. Blackberry was said to be the bush into which Lucifer fell when he was thrown out of Heaven. Bramble provided a challenge for the prince in Sleeping Beauty.
Bramble also provided much needed sustenance for the famished wayfarers in The Voyage of Maeldun. In Joanne Harris’ Blackberry Wine (3) a small rural community in the south of France is saved from unwanted gentrifying ‘development’ through the prickly stubbornness of key individuals. These, quietly supported by most of their community, defend their own vision of how to live in the face of personal, commercial and threatened legal pressures. Neglected flora, overlooked forms of intoxication and a little magic all contribute to the holding of a much loved space. Mr Bramble is a good friend to have.
On recent walks I have been noticing trees in nearby woodland, and becoming aware of how I experience them at this moment in the year. The three tree pictured in this post illustrate my story for later August.
In the first, I saw my first real hint of autumn, as green starts to turn yellow and brown. At this stage, it is a subtle shift affecting only a few trees. But it is a harbinger, like street lights at 8.30 pm.
My liking for this time goes back to my later childhood. It was still summer and I had a lot of freedom. My hay fever was gone. Temperatures were a little down. It was easier for me to spend longer periods out in the sun. I felt at home in my environment. In these precious days, I felt expansive. The world was on my side, and a hopeful place to be in.
In an earlier post (1) I talked about this as being a time of apples in my Innerworld. This is true of my outer world too. I grew up in Somerset, in England, where apples are abundant. It is cider country, and the summer country of Arthurian romance. My home town, Yeovil, is 19 miles from Glastonbury, aka Avalon. When I was small, I was puzzled by injunctions not to take apples from the tree or eat the ones which fell on the ground, though these might possibly be cooked. Only the ones in shops were truly safe. Commerce made them righteous. For me, this got a little mixed up with forbidden fruit story in Genesis 3, since “the tree in the garden” was identified as an apple in our part of the world.
For all the autumnal qualities of this time, it still offers a naturalistic ‘tree of light’ experience if I am open to it. I experience this most when sunlight catches green leaves, especially if they shine from recent rain. I am glad that the metaphor of the tree of light – like those of the tree of life, or world tree – does not remove us far from our experience of the living world. One of my attractions to Druidry is that even its more esoteric, Otherworldly dimension stays loyal to nature.
This picture was taken early one morning, at a moment slightly defended from the heat of early August. I was walking through woods to shelter from the sun.
Those days, intense in their moment, have already receded into the past. After a period of somewhat lower temperatures, and of flashes and rumblings in the sky followed by modest rainfall, we found ourselves in a flash flood on Sunday evening. For a relatively brief period, the A46 (a main road, locally) turned into a fast-flowing river not far from our house. Guttering held, but needs attention.
It was as if, following a period of contest, water had succeeded fire as the prevailing element. Now, the situation is less clear cut. But we are in a cooler and wetter place than we were at the beginning of the month. Daylight hours are reducing. We are leaning in to autumn.
During this time I have been busy with my own harvesting. The meditations presented in my last three posts (1) complete a basic repertoire of formal solo practice in my renewed Druidry. I have been fruitfully indoors during both heat wave (beyond my comfort zone) and the return of rain. I have been inwardly focused.
In my own Innerworld wheel of the year, apple presides over the first three weeks or so of the post Lughnasadh/Lammas quarter. Apple, in many traditions, is a Goddess tree, associated with both wisdom and healing (2). It is linked to a visionary ability to see beyond the surface: perceptions grow wiser and the heart sees further than it might otherwise do.
In Irish myth, Lugh was sent to collect apples from a Tree of Light found in the Otherworld. In Britain, after the Battle of Camlann, Arthur was taken by three Celtic goddesses to be healed on the Isle of Avalon (=Island of Apples).
In a more everyday way, my meditations serve the same goals. The timing of my work on them wasn’t exactly planned. But it doesn’t surprise me that my commitment to living the wheel of the year has led to this result.
I notice swans at this time of year. They are mute swans, the largest birds in Britain, and they live here throughout the year. In my locality, there is an abundance of fresh water and they tend to do well. Now they are in their family groups, with the cygnets becoming adolescent.
Watching swans, even this soon after Lammas, cues me in to an elegaic mood, a slight bitter sweetness in the heart. Their family life is in its later stages. The generations will go their own ways before long. The parents will stay together since the swans mate for life, but they will be moving into a new cycle of life and parenting. There’s an anticipatory poignancy about this, where the current moment knowingly invites images of a probable future. I sense impending separation, not precisely fixed in time.
I am influenced by literature and legend, as I slip in to the autumnal quarter. Yeats sets The Wild Swans at Coole (1) at a moment when “the trees are in their autumn beauty”. He counts 59 swans “upon the brimming water among the stones” and the poem gives voice to the soreness of heart that goes with a feeling of unwanted change, and the foreknowledge of their departure from the lake. There are resonances here of the legendary Dream of Oengus, where King Oengus and his secret Cymric lover Caer Ibormeith (Yewberry) can meet only for a brief time at Samhain, and then only every other year, in the form of swans (2).
But the main reference for me is Tennyson’s Tithonus, a Tojan hero who asks for eternal life, and is granted it, by his divine lover Eos the Goddess of Dawn. He neglects to ask for eternal youth, with very sad results.
“The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thy arms,
To dwell in presence of immortal youth,
Immortal age beside immortal youth,
And all I was, in ashes.” (3)
Aldous Huxley published his novel After Many a Summer in 1939 (4). This was a year or two after he moved to California to become a Hollywood screen writer, and also to engage in earnest with Eastern spirituality. In a youth worshipping culture, a self-referential multi-millionaire hires an ambitious doctor/research scientist to extend his life span. What could possibly go wrong?
Meanwhile, in the wider world, Barcelona falls and the Spanish Republic is extinguished. At one level, the novel is a simple satire. At another it is a vehicle for Huxley’s view, on the eve of World War II, that political and military solutions to the world’s problems will, by themselves, always fall short. A spiritual dimension is needed to make a difference. Without such a dimension, ‘peace’ will be sought by unskillful means and ‘eternity’ will be confused with extended time. Both are found authentically in another – counter-cultural yet nonetheless accessible – approach to life. Huxley explores these ideas in more depth, with more of a sense of how to develop and maintain a healthy society, in his last novel Island (5) published in 1962.
Politically and culturally, I feel perplexed and disoriented. Individually, I have many ways of responding to my experiences of love and loss, growth and decay, life and death. Anxious anticipations of unwanted experiences and events are certainly a feature. My contemplative inquiry is in part about learning to be lovingly open and engaged with experience, whilst at the same time wisely anchored in the peace and stillness of living presence. An acceptance of falling short is baked into this stance.
(1) W. B. Yeats The Wild Swans at Coole In:A. Nroman Jeffares Poems of W. B. Yeats London: MacMillan, 1964 (Selected, with an introduction and notes)
(2) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druid Animal Oracle: Working with the Sacred Animals of the Druid Tradition New York, NY: Fireside, 1994
(3) Alfred, Lord Tennyson Tithonus (extract) In: Tennyson Poems and Plays London: Oxford University Press, 1968
(4) Aldous Huxley After Many a Summer Vintage Claasics e-book edition. (Original publication 1939)