This, now, is our view from home. It helped to sell a compact apartment to us. It is a place of light and sunshine for much of the time, and allows us to see beyond the perimeters of our small historic city. Looking out, I see an expanse of energised space, providing room for the fecundity of nature. A wonderful gift for an old Druid.
Tilting my gaze a little downwards, I have more sense of our neighbourhood and the inevitable presence of cars. There was once an elegant square here, now somewhat sacrificed for a modest amount of parking space. But I do like the sense of an outlook on everyday life. I don’t want to be cut off from it. I’m glad that it’s there.
Elaine and I have not fully moved in as yet. This is a transitional moment. There’s still much work to be done. But there seems to be a shift in gravity now, and the promise of a benign base. As I se it, human flourishing enables the spiritual path too. It supports our capacity to be present in and to the web of life. At times in the journey, deprivation may need to be faced. But it is not a virtue, and in this moment I am glad of a space where the heart can easily open. Feeling gratitude, I wonder how this adventure will unfold.
The place is called Lower Parting, though it is actually a joining. The parting is 3km (just under two miles) up river. There, the River Severn divides into two channels, east and west, to flow around Alney Island. When taking the picture above, I was standing near the point where the channels meet again. It was around 9 a.m. on 22 June. I had not been there before.
Although every time and place is ultimately sacred, some times and places are easier for me to honour. In my experience this is partly a property of the times and places, partly down to culture and tradition, and partly to do with my own inner and outer availability.
On this occasion, I was within a midsummer period which for me lasts from a day or so before the solstice until around 25 June. I like to acknowledge the stasis (standstill) element within the solstice experience. It is not just about a point of time. Like its midwinter opposite and twin, my midsummer allows an extended pause before the wheel of the year turns. My walk on 22 June was an intentional celebration of the midsummer stasis, something between an outdoor walking meditation and a miniature festival pilgrimage. It was built around my first encounter with an intuited special place, now that I am fit enough once more to walk the required distance.
I can easily understand why people in many parts of the world have seen water, especially flowing water, as sacred. I am on a quiet part of a quiet island in the middle of Gloucester city. The wetland here is blissfully unfit for development, and now a nature reserve. I was able to stand here and look out at the joining of the waters, under a blue sky, and surrender to a benign spirit of place. I didn’t have to attend to my attention. In this extended, flowing, moment, nature was doing that for me. I found, here, a generous horizon, and a living peace that invites participation. I am glad and grateful to have discovered this place on this day.
In my tradition, at every seasonal festival, we are asked to think not only of the time we are celebrating, but also of its opposite. Walking back from Lower Parting, I see features in the landscape that help me. My pictures below do not evoke winter, but they do show light and shade within a single image. On planet Earth, the time of my summer is the time of someone else’s winter. These are both ways in which opposites complement each other in an interconnected world.
In these parts, there is a week at the end of April – St. George’s Day to Beltane Eve – that I would describe as mature spring. The rising year is leaning in to summer, but not quite there. I came close to missing it this year, at least as an outdoors event. I have made a good, if slightly fluctuating, recovery from the COPD flare-up described in recent posts. I met this moment, on this day, in the open air. At every level I feel better for the experience.
The location is Alney Island, now a nature reserve. The river Severn has divided into east and west channels, with Alney Island between them. Most of my pictures were taken near the (lesser) east channel, which flows into the Gloucester waterfront.
On 24 April 2022, I walked through this almost-city water margin. I was moved by its burgeoning growth, noticing the abundance of green in contrasting shades and forms. For awhile I had given up on going out during this delicious period. The experience, however fragile and transient both I and this space might be, was pure celebration. Taking pictures became an act of celebration, and also of giving thanks.
It is 1 March, a mixed day – bringing together grey sky, bare branches, emerging blossoms and vivid daffodils. It is chilly, and rain is likely, though not just yet. Daffodils (here the strongest sign of a changing year) are linked to St. David, the patron saint of Wales. 1 March is his feast day.
David lived during the sixth century CE, a flourishing time for Celtic Christianity. His defining early achievement was the founding of a Celtic monastic community at Glyn Rhosyn (the Vale of Roses) on the west headland of Pembrokeshire (Si Benfro) where St. David’s Cathedral now stands. He went on to become a Christian leader of great authority, and was eventually canonised in the twelfth century, a different historical period with the church under stronger Vatican control and Welsh identity under threat from the English. David became the patron saint of Wales and his day is celebrated in Wales with parades and other public events.
Gloucester is very much an English city, though not so very far from Wales. Today’s weather conditions would not be out of place there. My wife Elaine and I went out on a morning walk with a sense of the saint’s day and how both the day and the coming of March represent a shift in the year. I noticed, too, how I can honour a saint without thinking of sainthood as a model, or even remotely wanting to be one. I acknowledge that I am on different kind of path, less defined, less heroic, and less religious.
When out walking, I see how the ordinary world seems to transform in the light of a loving gaze. I am looking at the world as it is, not for signs of a creator’s hand or influence or expectations. For me, laid out below – at the micro level – I find grass, earth, twigs, purple crocus and dead leaves. They are simply themselves. All ordinary in an ordinary moment. But an ordinary moment, as we might conventionally call it, is an extraordinary event. It is a small miracle, in its naturalistic way, yet easy to access in a receptive frame of mind.
I do appreciate that a ‘receptive frame of mind’, as a private experience, is facilitated by favourable public conditions, like a well-managed public park. I may not be dependent on such external conditions, but they do make a difference. I am grateful for their current presence in an uncertain world.
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.
On Friday 13 March I tasted spring in its fullness. I was flooded with gratitude. Yet ‘gratitude’, especially in religious settings, was for a long time a tainted term in my life.
Growing up, I faced demands to be grateful whether I felt it or not. Over time I came to link this idea to formal performance and competitive public piety: being seen to be ‘good’. It also left my natural feelings of gratitude, when they came up, unrecognised and untended. In this stunted state I developed a cynicism about how language is used, rather than finding ways about how, authentically, to identify and cultivate my own sense of gratitude.
I am sad about this, because, even from a self-referential perspective, the capacity for gratitude is linked to wellbeing, happiness, self-acceptance and a sense of purpose in life. Psychological studies (1) show that gratitude is an active agent and not simply the result of already existing wellbeing. Exercises in gratitude work for many people, for much of the time. There are now considerable academic and self-help literatures on the subject.
Most spiritual traditions recommend gratitude, and for many of them this is linked to a sense of the divine, or some other ultimate point of reference. But this isn’t necessary. Gratitude is named as the third of thirteen principles in Atheopaganism (2), which is based on an entirely naturalistic, science-based cosmology. Here too, gratitude is seen as a habit that has to be learned and practised. The practice can alter both our internal dialogue and our behaviour. “It is good for ourselves, our relationships, our society and our world”.
I came late to gratitude, in the sense being discussed. But I’m a convert now. Being older has somehow helped. There was a decisive moment just under fifteen years ago, when I was 56 years. I was diagnosed with a cancer that might have killed me and I started to ask myself how I was going to maintain my quality of life remaining if I found myself on a downward slope.
I concluded that I would need to do what I could to count my blessings whilst I still lived. I recovered – with the insight still in place. I have built on that with greater awareness over the years, especially since beginning my contemplative inquiry. Now I’m nudged by the coronavirus and the same principles apply. I’m enjoying the experience of spring, usefully aware of my mortality, and grateful to be here, now.
(1) Rupert Sheldrake Science and Spiritual Practices Coronet, 2017
(2) Mark A. Green Atheopaganism: an Earth-Honoring Path Rooted in Science Green Daragon Publishing, 2019 (Foreword by John Halstead)
In my world, early March is a pre-equinoctial period of its own. In the emergence from winter, it manifests both resilience and regeneration. This year I have experienced an elephant’s ears plant (bergenia cordifolia) as an marker for resilience. This evergreen lives close to our back garden gate. It has been flowering, and it leaves have kept shiny, for most of 2020 so far. It has given me a lift every time I have walked past it, in all manner of weather. I feel grateful to it just for being there.
Why have I noticed it this year in particular? In the past I’ve taken this plant for granted. I’ve walked past without seeing it. I’ve only paid attention when the leaves need pruning, having strayed onto a path. Yet now this plant feels like a friend and nourishes me with its presence. It doesn’t just demonstrate its own resilience. It supports mine. I’ve been experiencing 2020 as tough and likely to stay that way, so I suppose that something in me has been looking for ways of feeling resilient. As a result, I’ve been able to notice something that’s been there all along, though largely neglected.
As well a resilience, I’ve been having a sense of regeneration, though the dynamics are a little different. One difference is that I expect to be leaning into regeneration at this time because it’s part of my wheel of the year narrative. I also expect it to be linked to the presence of willow trees (see picture below) because I befriended one many years ago. I have stayed in touch even after moving to a different town. The early re-greening of willow trees is part of my direct experience, and also part of my myth. It feels as if I am being taken by the hand and led towards the equinox.
I don’t want to get there prematurely. A patient, attentive journey emphasises the freshness and novelty of each year. I took the photograph below a couple of days ago on impulse, and it felt like a nudge into a process of renewal that I don’t want to undertake too quickly and don’t want to make assumptions about. Regeneration happens. Although I’m starting to feel my age, I’m still part of it. Let’s see how it goes in 2020.