It was 26 November 2022, 11 a.m. I was at the Gloucester end of the Gloucester-Sharpness canal. I found myself accepting the arrival of winter. I was observing three cygnets, now without their parents but still keeping company with each other. The underlying temperature was around 7 C (44.6 F) and good for walking, But I was feeling the pinch of a cold wind. In memory I am feeling it now. The water and sky looked grey. The trees were starting to feel skeletal, whilst still retaining some leaves. My lingering sense of autumn had finally drained away.
To accept winter’s arrival in the presence of swans felt numinous. Swans are otherworldly birds in Celtic tradition. The three together, not yet in their full adult plumage, seemed auspicious. They suggested coming opportunities for creativity, love and celebration. Winter can be a preparation for renewal, both as season and as state of mind. My acceptance goes with a faith in winter’s regenerative darkness, and the riches this can bring.
Highly recommended. Brendan Myers’ The Circle of Life is Broken (1) is subtitled “an eco-spiritual philosophy of the climate crisis”. Myers is a Pagan identified author and a professional philosopher who teaches at Heritage College, Gatineau, Quebec. His Paganism is naturalistically oriented, and animist in a sense that “the things of the natural world are in some hard-to-express manner alive and spiritually present”.
The book begins with an view of the Earth from outside, through the loving eyes and words of astronauts. “It is as if the Earth as a whole was only discovered in 1968, when Apollo-8 astronaut William Anders shot the famous Earthrise photograph; the image of the Earth coming out from behind the edge of the moon”. This ‘overview effect’ is balanced at the end of the book by an invitation to immerse ourselves more fully and awarely within the world, through the practices of a weekly green sabbatical and an annual ecological pilgrimage.
Between this beginning and ending there are three main sections, each addressing a ‘root question’. Each question is rigorously explored, before receiving a carefully formulated answer.
The first question asks: what is the circle of life? A key understanding is that ecologists today do not see the Earth as “an aggregate of individuals competing for resources and survival”. Rather, they “are teaching us to see the Earth as a complex system in which everything is directly or indirectly involved in all the life around it, and in which symbiosis and cooperation, across multiple levels, keep the system as a whole flourishing”. This is the circle of life that is now breaking down. “It isn’t simply changing form. It is also short-circuiting; it is falling apart”.
The second root question asks: who faces the circle of life? This concerns humans and how we deal with realities of a higher order than our own. The exploration includes a look at how people see the world at different life stages. Myers wants to know “what becomes of the human reality when cast in terms of the encounter with the Circle of Life as the ultimate reality?” He notes that the Circle goes almost unmentioned in the history of Western philosophy, and also explores a perceived a tension between our ‘being-ecological’ and our ‘being-free’.
The third root question asks: can circle be healed? Myers quotes a saying of the philosopher Hegel: “the owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering”. When things are bad, new ideas and possibilities can emerge and philosophers especially are challenged to think big. Myers looks at the political and cultural obstacles to any healing process, with good sections on ‘eco-fascism’ and the ‘gatekeepers of human nature’. He also makes a number of specific positive proposals.
Although written in plain English as far as possible, The Circle is Broken is not a book to read in one sitting. Myers’ thinking is holistic, with room for scientific information, complex argument, deep feeling, contemplation and engagement. It is written with love and a sense of wonder, generously drawing on personal experience. I think of it as a long-term companion, a gift to anyone concerned with the climate crisis and creative responses to it.
(1) Brendan Myers The Circle of Life is Broken: An Eco-Spiritual Philosophy of the Climate Crisis Winchester UK & Washington USA: Moon Books 2022 (Earth Spirit series)
(2) For other posts about Brendan Myers’ work, see:
“Over the last twelve years I have walked every trail, every hillcrest, every stream-edge within a two hour walking radius of my house: everything between Lac-Des-Fees and Pink Lake, and a little beyond. …. I still encounter things I never saw before. Last year I saw a Great Horned Owl in the park for the first time. Its swift yet stately flight above my head caught my eye; a dark shadow in front of the sun, silent, and powerful in its silence.
“It rested on a tree branch not more than twenty meters away, and regarded me. I regarded him in turn. I had known for years that there are owls in the area: I’ve heard their hooting, and seen their pellets on the ground. But until that day and for ten years, I hadn’t seen one here before. Further, and I think more importantly, since I had entered the forest that day for no particular purpose but to enjoy a warm afternoon, to reaffirm my love of for the park’s landmarks and vistas, and to experience a few hours of pure human freedom, in simpler words to play, the encounter with the owl could take on a magical meaning.
“In the light of such magic, what a magnificent animal he was! How proud he seemed, as though in charge of the world, as though I required his permission to take another step. How unpretentious too: this owl had no need to pretend to be something he was not. The size of his claws, the laser-focus of his eyes meeting mine, was proof enough that he was a predator. No need to flex his weapons or brandish them. And what a delightful conversation we might have, if he were to speak. How much he could tell of the places he had seen, the adventures he had while hunting, and the pleasure of flight… Much as I would have loved to stay and hear him speak, I decided to move on after a few minutes. I did not know whether meeting his eyes might be provocative. And much as I might enjoy telling the story of how I got owl-claw scars on my face, I would certainly not enjoy getting them.
“…. Such is the magic of the forest. It can mean what you want it to mean under the aspect of play, yet at the same time it can surprise, and threaten and reveal itself, in ways no human artifact can do. It can suggest a kind of magic no human artifact can adopt: the dramatic discovery of a world not made by human hands. Thus it participates in the play, bringing its own contribution to the emergence of meaning.” (1)
(1) Brendan Myers The Circle of Life is Broken: An Eco-Spiritual Philosophy of the Climate Crisis London UK & Washington USA: Moon Books (Earth Spirit Series)
NOTE: Brendan Myers is a Canadian philosopher and author currently living in Quebec, where he teaches philosophy at Heritage College, Gatineau. He has written extensively on Pagan themes from a philosophical perspective, and his most recent book takes them further through an exploration of the climate crisis. I will review the book in my next post.
Winter shows itself though early twilight. The pictures above and below were taken at about 5 pm (GMT, now, with summer time a fading memory). The sky retains a certain diversity of colour – clouds are still visible. But there is a leaning towards indigo. St. Mary le Crypt sits in stillness and tranquillity.
For me, the artificial lighting behind the stained glass is just right for supporting these qualities. It illuminates but does not glare. It feels homely and welcoming. The heavy stone of this medieval church is softened by dusk. Christmas is coming – a friendly period in the church calendar.
Twilight makes space as well for another, more carnival mood. Gloucester holds a lantern procession and Christmas light switch-on every year at approximately this time and date (19 November). It winds through the old town, lights switched on overhead as it passes, to the Cathedral where a carol service is held. This year’s event was very well supported, with large numbers of people either following the procession or lining the route. It was as if everyone was ready for a festive moment, a chance for celebration and fun in a generally tough time.
Local artists had teemed up with local schools to work on an Alice in Wonderland theme for 2022. Hence the Mad Hatter in the shifting and slightly out of focus picture below. I think the makers have successfully created a Tricksterish image for him. Not entirely safe or bland.
In Lewis Carroll’s 1865 book, Alice is annoyed by the twilight zone of the Mad Hatter’s language. It seems to have “no sort of meaning” and yet be “certainly English”. He boasts about the great concert given by the Queen of Hearts, where he sang: “twinkle, twinkle little bat/How I wonder what you’re at/ Up above the world you fly/ Like a tea tray in the sky”.
What is the Mad Hatter bringing to the streets of Gloucester on this early winter’s evening? He is certainly a presence here, if hard to read, for the brief time it takes him to pass through. Winter twilight offers spaces for healing and festivity. As a liminal time, it is an arena for Tricksters too. Many possibilities are latent under this enigmatic sky.
For me, wisdom can take many forms. Below, Eckhardt Tolle emphasises contemplative process over cognitive product. I don’t treat this as an exclusive definition of the word wisdom. But I have certainly been nourished by taking Tolle’s understanding to heart and learning how to let the process unfold.
“Wisdom is not a product of thought. The deep knowing that is wisdom arises through the simple act of giving someone or something your full attention. Attention is primordial intelligence, consciousness itself. It dissolves the barriers created by conceptual thought, and with this comes the recognition that nothing exists in and by itself. It joins the perceiver and the perceived in a unifying field of awareness. It is the healer of separation.” (1)
(1) Eckhardt Tolle Stillness Speaks Vancouver, Canada: Namaste Publishing, 2003
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
Highly recommended. Unlikely Alliances (1) is set in the years 2029-2033, in a fictional town on England’s south coast. It offers a degree of hope about the climate crisis, presenting a positive response to its challenges at the global, national and, especially, local levels. Towards the close of the book, one of the characters reflects on a benign economic austerity that includes social justice: “limited food in the shops, clothes and shoes having to last many years, trips abroad requiring special license … but look around us, are we really worse off?” The answer is a qualified no, on the grounds that everyday life has become less constrained and less stressful, thanks to the choices that have been made.
Unlikely Alliances offers a gentle, compassionate and good-humoured lens on a subject that can seem grim and edgy. The title refers to the changing political, professional and above all personal relationships of people working on adaptation goals in their Bourne Valley community. They are from a wide variety of backgrounds, including local government, academia, trade unions, churches, the voluntary sector, management consultancy, the hospitality industry, sports organisations and farming. Unexpected synergies are generated. The novel shows how its band of protagonists find themselves, each other and a new sense of purpose in this work. As fiction, the book has the space to be about lives as well as issues. New culture, adapted to new times, is created in the lived experience of friendship, romance and community building.
The Climate Action Plan of a progressive coalition government provides a political framework, drawing on ideas from the US 1930’s New Deal and the UK reconstruction post World War 2. It is in power because of a wake-up call resulting from a huge inundation in the Netherlands and the presence of a large number of Dutch refugees in Britain – a disaster too close to ignore. For the first time since the mid twentieth century, serious wealth taxes are in place. Food and fuel are rationed: everyone gets at least something at an affordable price. There are new approaches to housing. A Civilian Community Service Corps provides training and jobs for the unemployed and a two-years national community service for school and college leavers.
In crisis conditions, this government is broadly popular. Even so, it is vulnerable to defections within its own Parliamentary ranks, the vigorous opposition of vested interests and those who speak for them, and the violence of militant climate denialists on the street. These struggles are not minimised, and they are vividly portrayed in the book. But most of the focus is on resource and resiliency building at the local and regional levels, and on the changes in the lives of the main characters, as they open up to each other’s influence and affection. It is their efforts that prevail, since they come to make practical sense to more and more people.
A brief review cannot do full justice to a book that deals with a civilisation at the edge, presented from a stance of generosity and warm commitment to human flourishing. Tony Emerson has long experience of working with environmental issues and is also an accomplished storyteller. I found Unlikely Alliances heartening and enjoyable to read, and a well-informed glimpse into a possible near future.
Vivid autumn colour signals a fall. Where I live, we are early in the process as yet. These leaves seem poignantly glorious to me. I respond to a beauty that I know will be short-lived. The tree is immersed in a cycle of dying and regeneration that furthers its larger life. Any sense of poignancy, glory and beauty is about me, being human.
I think of the last thirty years, and my own small deaths and regenerations over this period as I journeyed from my early forties to my early seventies. At the beginning I sensed a pull towards new priorities, which roughly fitted the Jungian notion of the second half of life as having different goals from the first. I experienced a nudge towards an inward, psycho-spiritual turn. I developed interests in experiential inquiry, Druidry/Western Mysteries, and contemplative spirituality, as part of this mid-life nudge.
This reduced my interest in career, acquisition and influence – though such interest had always been limited. In the nineties and noughties, I didn’t need a lot of money both to live well, if modestly, and accrue a reasonable retirement income. It would be much harder now. I am grateful to have experienced (relatively) favourable times, though of course the seeds of our current crises were already being sown.
Now I am ready for a new chapter, as my wife Elaine and I get ready to move to a new place of our own in Gloucester. The next move is into a smaller, more manageable space, and will involve elements of de-cluttering. I am the same tree but I will be shedding leaves and waiting for new ones to grow next year. In the moment I feel fragile, though my unknowing about the future also has an edge of wonder about the magic that may unfold. Falling is an oddly potent process at a special time of year.
Dawn is late now, and all the more welcome when it comes. Looking out on the world after morning meditation, I see light shining on the tower of St. Mary Le Crypt. I am seeing with fresh eyes, and the knowledge that Elaine and I will be staying in Gloucester. A local house move is planned, conceivably before the turn of the year, a few minutes walk from here.
We will not be migrating north (1). Our plans fell through. We have some disappointment about this. But there’s also an element of relief that at the prospect of a less disruptive move. In many ways we are already settled. Moving house is now a major detail rather than a life-changing event. We can focus on being in place.
For me, this includes deepening my connection with the landscapes I walk in as the wheel of the year turns. Autumn is my favourite season and October can be a special month. This is my first year in Gloucester. Taking these October pictures, I can celebrate the here and now. Having them, I can enjoy the record of a new chapter in my life, with other years, with their own Octobers, to come. I don’t know what the future will bring. I do know that I find this framing nurturing and hopeful. It is part of bringing meaning to my world.
Recently I watched Ronald Hutton’s first Gresham College lecture about Gods of Pagan Britain on youtube (1). It sets the scene for a series, raising questions about what we can know about the spiritual lives of our ancestors, what we can fruitfully imagine, and how to tell the difference.
Professor Hutton explores two specific topics. The first is our current archaeological understanding of the Stonehenge monument on Salisbury Plain, England, together with its legendary history and place in the public imagination. The second is the case of the Lindow Man, who was violently killed and thrown into a peat bog in Derbyshire, thus partly preserving his body for conceivably (but probably not) 2,000 years. He has been widely considered, including at times by archaeologists, to be the victim of a Druid sacrifice, though Hutton points out that there are good reasons to question this.
I was drawn to this lecture, both informative and entertaining, by my interest in learning from an ancestral culture without its own texts, as well as about it. This is part of my reason for following a modern Druidry that embraces indigenous themes long pre-dating the Druidry of the Celtic iron age. The people who built Stonehenge in the third millennium BCE bequeathed us the wheel of the year, with its circle and cycles, and its focus on the solstices and equinoxes. We can be inspired by this and honour the ancestors by embedding it in our own lives in ways that suit our time and culture.
For readers who have not yet seen and heard the lecture, I recommend that you take a look at the video.