contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Seasons

ON THE CUSP OF SAMHAIN: A NEW MOON

You can just see it, above the buildings, at the last breath of sunset. A sliver of light over murky cloud, the slender crescent of a new moon has appeared. I took the picture just after 6.45 pm on 28 October, still inside British Summer Time. I chose this time on this day because it was not yet dark. The sky is making room for a variety of effects, not just the stark duality of darkness and light. I stand at the cusp of the year’s endarkenment, before the festival of Samhain.

At this time of this year, I find myself tuning in to the lunar cycle as much as the solar one. To me, now, it feels subtler and more nuanced. Anne Baring and Jules Cashford describe its significance in a way I find illuminating:

“The moon was an image in the sky that was always changing yet was always the same. What endured was the cycle, whose totality could never be seen at any one moment. All that was visible was the constant interplay between light and dark, in an ever-recurring sequence. Implicitly, however, the early people must have seen every part of the cycle from the perspective of the whole.

“The individual phases could not be named, nor the relations between them expressed, without assuming the presence of the whole cycle. The whole was invisible, an enduring and unchanging circle, yet it contained the visible phases. Symbolically, it was as if the visible ‘came from’ and ‘returned to’ the invisible – like being born and dying, and being born again.” (1)

When out walking, I noticed that Christmas lights had started to appear. The ones below, at Gloucester Quays, seemed suitable for a new moon. They shifted on and off in a flowing, liquid kind of way, at slightly different times. They did not dazzle or glare or demand my whole attention. They illuminated the space without dominating it. They did not claim that their light was all that mattered.

If I tune in the another cycle, the wheel of the day, I remember how much to thank the sun for. Barely half an hour before I took the pictures above, I experienced the very different colours of the two immediately below. In the first, there is the pink of sunset cloud and some draining of blue from the sky – but, still, a sense of vivid green in the grass. An autumn evening in what is still the light of day.

The second shows a tree-lined street, with full autumn colours, fittingly sundown colours, against a misty looking autumn sky.

It seems that I am saying farewell to one season whilst welcoming another, and that my evening walk on 28 October, partially shared with my wife Elaine, somehow enabled this. There is a starkness and wildness in my last image from that walk, below, which draws me in, despite the remarkable contrast with what has gone before. Just to notice, to fully experience, and make meaning of, the cycles of moon, sun, day, year and life itself gains importance for me year by year, as the wheel turns.

(1) Anne Baring Anne and Jules Cashford The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London: Penguin, Arkana Books, 1993

STATES OF LIGHT

This is the face of dawn outside my window, just after 6.30 a.m. I welcome the mid September day, appreciating this moment in the year. I like the infusion of pink into grey clouds, and the suggestion of warmth in the old church tower.

I have now grown used to getting up in the dark, and to beginning my morning practice with an awareness of darkness outside. The nurturing dark and enabling light are both part of my experience. A transient time of balance has begun. It feels numinous to me, and a time of great potential. I am energetically alert and alive.

Later, a little before 9 a.m., I am walking by the Gloucester-Sharpness canal. I notice light on leaves, and its influence on the gaps between trunks. The view, here, is over water. But it is the influence of sunlight that makes the greatest impression on me – captured in the picture as well as in real time.

By contrast, the spaces furthest away from the light source are able to show their earthiness, their woodiness and the depth of their green. The light is everywhere, but it is subtle and not over-bearing. It reveals its influence in different ways. Rather than radiating raw power, it allows possibilities in this small, fragile habitat. Contemplating autumnal states of light, as I approach the autumn equinox, I have been shown something about power and its manifestation.

AFTER RAIN

I am in Alney Island again, on the River Severn as it passes through the ancient city of Gloucester. Above, I am looking at the weaker, eastern channel of the river as it flows around the island. After rain, the water level seems adequate if relatively low, and the willows still seem lush. At first glance, as I walk past, the plant life seems healthy in this watery habitat. Stopping to look more closely, the scars of a summer both hot and dry become evident. The horse chestnut leaves, below, are dramatically shrivelled and their conkers are appearing early. Summer is becoming autumn swiftly and abruptly this year.

Much of Alney island is rough water meadow, as below, and it is a joy to see green grass. Normal? No longer a useful word in this, as other, contexts. In a time of climate chaos fatefully intertwined with runaway wealth, ‘normal’ loses shape and definition. Half-reluctantly, I am adjusting to a new, more dislocating and unpredictable reality.

On this walk I discovered a woodland on the island, shown below. It is far from ancient, being planted in 1983 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of a charter given to the people of Gloucester by King Richard III. A rare monument to the monarch in question.

Richard’s Wood is pleasant enough, although subject to somewhat whimsical curation. A decision was first made to plant non-native trees – red oak, turkey oak and horse chestnut; then to add native trees as well; and later still to thin out the trees so as to create a “wood/pasture habitat to contrast with the wetland meadows on the rest of the reserve”. ‘Rare breed’ cattle were introduced, though I have yet to see any.

I may be doing an injustice, but I get a sense of conservation by human taste and fancy, the manufacture of ‘scenery’ on a handy piece of wasteland that isn’t safe to build on. I don’t get any organic sense of the island, its history or its potential. I don’t get any sense of a wondering about what trees might be brought together to create a viable and self-sustaining woodland community, ‘native’ or otherwise. The horse chestnut, imported from Turkey in the sixteenth century, is now a well-loved English tree. The turkey oak is better suited to the southern England of today than the native species. I suspect they are a good choice. But I’m sorry about the thinning out. There’s no shortage of pasture in England. Overall I believe this kind of management to be a relatively innocent manifestation of the very mindset that is killing us.

Perhaps the trees will have a chance to develop in their own way. My feeling on being among them is gentle but muted. If I compare them with the crowded and chaotic wood that has grown up beside the Stroud cycle path, I sense a relative lack of viriditas – Hildegard of Bingen’s word for the green life energy in nature. It is a relative lack, not absolute. But as I go home, I feel a certain sadness all the same.

MEETING THE SEASON

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.

WATER MARGIN: TUNING IN TO PLACE

I was facing strong sunlight. I even felt warm. I risked taking a picture by angling down into the water. The water rewarded me with a patches of reflected light. I accepted a somewhat darkening effect in the photograph as a whole. The solar reality was brighter to my eyes, almost too much for them, flooding the path before me with intense light. When I looked back to where I had been, the light was gentler. My picture below shows a clear blue sky that I could confidently open up to include.

Though winter is not exactly over, I was experiencing an undoubtedly spring day. I was in a spring frame of mind, welcoming the change of season, as the wheel turns, and welcoming a still new landscape into my life. I have chosen this canal path as a place of regular walks and engagement. Over time, in the rising year, I will get to see and know it better. I seem to be a water margin Druid at heart, and I am finding possibilities in this new, more densely urban context. I find the energy of life everywhere I look – whether land, water, or sky.

WAITING FOR THE STORM

I took this picture from an upstairs window before 9 a.m. on18 February 2022,. It shows blue sky and the tower of St Mary de Crypt, Gloucester. The image is calm, and I enjoy its simple beauty. But I am bracing for a severe storm, officially named ‘Storm Eunice’. We are on red alert, which is very rare in this country. I contemplate the tower, which stands both for longevity and impermanence.

It is 10.15 a.m. now and the wind, at first just playful, has moved into serious gusting. Paper and leaves blow about in a courtyard. The sky is grey and there are raindrops on my window pane. Taking another picture, I notice I have lowered my sights. I have included more material substance, roof tops in particular. The invitation to skyward contemplation, so poignantly encouraged by towers like this, isn’t so present for me in this moment. The theme now is embodied endurance and solidity, weathering the winds of the world. For they don’t seem at all celestial, their current force at least partly the result of our own collective behaviour. Strong walls and a decent roof are the focus of my desire. I am, after all, a Pagan.

I am an urban Druid now, more clearly than before. It gives me a different view of nature. On one hand I am reminded that everything is included in ‘nature’. But in so far as I make a city/country distinction, I do notice a different experience of the elements, seasons, and the varieties of life. In an old and relatively small city (pop. 165,000) it is easier to see the evolution of human culture as a gradual and organic process than in other built environments. Today is a special day because raw and conceivably violent nature is coming on a visit. Whilst I notice fears around this, and am distressed by the notion of harm to anyone, I also find an aspect of Spring, and renewal, in this. I do feel energised, now, just after 11 a.m., and this at least is welcome. I have no idea of how the day is going to play out here, or what I am going to feel about my experience of Storm Eunice at the days end.

WELCOMING 2022

Bright Blessings to everyone at the turn of the calendar year. With some fears and greater hopes, I have crossed the threshold into 2022. I have welcomed it into my life and declared myself ready for the journey.

In a way, ‘2022’ is a fiction woven from our human experience of linear time and a cultural decision about numbers. But these things are thoroughly ingrained in me and feel like givens, completely natural. I remember clocking this, or signing up to the tribal custom, in the new year of 1957, when I was 7 years old and found myself remembering 1956 as a full, known year. It was the first time I had been conscious of such a thing. Now I was somewhere new and exciting (1957) though the feel of my bedclothes was familiar in the very dim early morning light. I remember this vividly and, truth be told, better than I remember waking up yesterday.

Flowing water is often used as an image for the passing of linear time. On my walk yesterday morning, I checked this out in nature and made two brief videos of a stream. Standing on the bridge at slightly different times, facing in opposite directions, I filmed a stream flowing both towards me and away from me. My feelings about the two were a little different.

The water coming towards me felt fresh and energised. I was curious about the patterns on the surface both from the flow itself and from the rain. I was drawn in, more meditatively, by the sound. I was also interested in what stories the water might hold. But I didn’t follow these up, out of concern for losing the immediate experience. Above all I, felt invigorated. I enjoyed this flow.

Flowing away was different. It wasn’t raining and I could hear – I think – sea gulls. They are certainly around. Again I enjoyed patterns in the water and the enlivening strength of the flow. But I was strongly aware of it moving away from me. Yes – it was reliably replenished … but for how much longer? And, in any case, a movement away is a movement away. Movements away carry a sense of loss. This isn’t just about my age. It is built into the experience of linear time. Things pass away into a temporal distance. Linear time is the mechanism that allows anything to ‘happen’ at all, but also the guarantor of impermanence. There’s a poignancy in this condition that I allow myself to experience and hold – not, here, seeking comfort in the eternal. I watch the power of a little stream, grateful for the miracle of existence, softly sad about its vulnerable brevity.

WHAT IS GIVEN

It is colder now, and gloomier indoors for much of the day. But outside, this November keeps on giving. My walking range has increased again with a walk to nearby Nailsworth, a leisurely lunch in this little town, and a walk back again: ten miles. The picture above includes both a stream beside my path and a small lake nearby.

But my attention hasn’t been all on the world around me. I have been reflecting on an old statement about my practice, currently included in my About section, and finding that it still holds. “My inquiry process overall has helped me to discover an underlying peace and at-homeness in the present moment, which, when experienced clearly and spaciously, nourishes and illuminates my life. It is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given. I find that this perspective supports a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity.”

There is no reliance on metaphysics here. This allows me a pared down focus on experience and values. My practice has been relatively stable over a long period, whereas my thoughts about metaphysical questions are more volatile. I experience thinking as volatile by nature, and fine within its limits. Over the years this blog has found room for diverse approaches to the meaning, if any, of terms like divinity and consciousness. I have wondered about the possibility (or desirability) of establishing any foundational truth about absolute or indeed conventional ‘reality’. I notice now that when I explore these questions – especially when reading – I am more interested in seeing how people put their worlds together than I am in identifying insights or finding answers to the questions themselves. It has become a human interest rather than a philosophical quest.

I have noticed this especially over recent days when engaging with Carlo Rovelli’s discussion of the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (1,2). My interest was in seeing how a distinguished physicist makes use of Nagarjuna’s emptiness doctrine. I have less stake in assessing the view itself, because my peace and at-homeness are the result of an experiential inquiry, and not of speculative thinking. I continue to find that this perspective supports “a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence, and a life of abundant simplicity”, My inquiry focus, if ‘inquiry; is even the right word, is about how best to walk the talk.

(1) Carlo Rovelli Helgoland global.penguinrandomhouse.com 2020 (Translated by Erica Segre & Simon Carnell, 2021). Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicist who has made significant contributions to the physics of space and time.

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/11/08/exploring-emptiness-carlo-rovelli-and-nagarjuna

A DANCE OF LIGHT AND SHADE

Sunday, 31 October. Hallowe’en. Greetings of the season! A chance for a ghost tree to move and dance?

Where I live, a change in clock time has made the morning a little lighter, wet and gloomy though it might be. The evening, of course, will be darker. It will launch an endarkening seven weeks for those open to the spiritual opportunities of this time.

I am noticing a dance of light and shade, at moments not defined by heavy cloud and rain. In these recent pictures I sense a yin/yang contrast where clear shafts of light illuminate, but do not dominate, spaces inclined to be shady. For me there is a living balance here – one thing that still pictures do not show is that the detail is constantly changing.

I celebrate the miracle of existence – my ability, or life’s ability, to see a world and be immersed in it. To respond to it and to share it. Sometimes this seems enough, with no need for any framework to explain or contextualise this astonishing fact. Here, from identifying a dance of light and shade, I can notice how this dance has different effects in different settings, a small sample of the vast diversity in our living world. As we move without illusions into the Cop26 summit, may it be preserved and protected!

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THE COMING OF AUTUMN

Walking in the woods yesterday I saw the coming of autumn, in the sky and in the trees. I felt it too, and not just in my physical sensation of coolness. I experienced a mood of loss and ending, not limited to the summer of 2021.

The natural wheel of the year, where I live, has classically been one of soft transitions. Our seasons have merged gently into each other, with September as a modified extension of summer. Leaves gently turn, but there is not much of a fall. For much of my life I enjoyed the sense of a predictable pattern in the the turning of the wheel. That sense has eroded in recent years and has now reached vanishing point. Hence the feeling of loss.

Summer 2021 seemed to die in August, after a short and faltering life. It may be succeeded by a once unseasonable hot spell, or it may not. Considering the effects of the climate crisis in other parts of the world, this is hardly dramatic. But this weird summer season, including a background awareness of developments elsewhere, has ended my already weakened feeling of security. The phrase ‘winds of change’ comes to mind. I think, what next? And when?

I feel challenged to be open to whatever happens, without obsolete expectations to confuse me. In the state of openness, I find that an inner peace and clarity are present. They act as my guides through a shifting, changing, world.

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