contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Web of Life

BOOK REVIEW: THE CIRCLE OF LIFE IS BROKEN

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:

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2015/05/22/the-worship-of-the-gods-is-not-what-matters/ (Reblog from Naturalistic Paganism)

BOOK REVIEW: THE EARTH, THE GODS AND THE SOUL

BOOK REVIEW: RECLAIMING CIVILIZATION

ETHICS AND ‘CIVILIZATION’

BRENDAN MYERS: A FOREST ENCOUNTER

BRENDAN MYERS: A FOREST ENCOUNTER

“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.

AN EARLY WINTER TWILIGHT

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.

ALBAN ELFED: A TIME FOR RECEPTIVITY?

Blessings of the season! Where I live, the sun is descending but still has a certain power. We have entered the period of the Autumn Equinox, honoured by modern Druids in the festival of Alban Elfed. Traditionally, the emphasis has been on harvest, but Dana O’Driscoll (1) suggests ‘receptivity’ as a resonant theme, “because with receptivity, rather than cultivating an expectation of what we want and expect to come, we are open to what is and what comes our way”.

She relates her approach to the changes that the world is experiencing now. “It is a counter balance to the effort-reward cultural narrative that is tied to the Fall Equinox and themes of harvest. There is one enormous problem with the effort/reward theme on a larger cultural level. It belongs to a different age. It belongs to the Holocene, an 8,000-11,000 year period of stable climate that allowed humans to develop agriculture, allowed humans to have some predictability about their surroundings, and allowed us to develop symbolic understandings like those drawn upon for the modern wheel of the year. … But we are not in the Holocene any longer, both climate-wise and culturally; we’ve moved on to the Anthropocene … characterized by human-driven planetary changes which destabilize every aspect of our lives.”

I find the call to receptivity challenging. Part of me wants the late Holocene back, in a reformed version – socioeconomically, culturally, technologically. Part of me accepts that it has gone for good but doesn’t want to acknowledge the speed and severity of the transition. Currents of anger, fear and grief cry out for recognition. These are as much part of my life-world as are the climate crisis itself, initiatives for adaptation, and the forces undermining those initiatives. I somehow have to find a receptive space for all of the above, without being overwhelmed.

The good news is that my ‘receptivity’ seems to be sourced by a deep peace at the heart of experience, a peace that grows rather than diminishes with time. In my daily practice as a modern Druid I call for peace in the east, south, west, north, deep earth & underworld [below], and starry heavens [above]. Then I say: “I stand in the peace of the centre, the bubbling source from which I spring, and heart of living presence”. These words are vibrant with life for me however often I declaim them. I experience this deep peace as a fruit of my contemplative inquiry. Perhaps there is a harvest aspect here after all.

Certainly, to stand in such peace empowers my receptivity, linking it to other qualities like reverence, delight and awe. None of this changes the world. But it allows me to contemplate it with an underlying confidence, and to face its challenges in a more resourceful way. I am very happy to mark Alban Elfed as a feast of receptivity.

(1) https://thedruidsgarden.com/ – see Fall Equinox: a Spirit Walk and its internal reference to Equinox on Receptivity

NOTE: Pennsylvania-based Dana O’Driscoll is steeped in Druidry and the US homesteading movement. She is Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA) and an OBOD Druid. She is a Mount Haemus scholar, lecturing on Channeling the Awen in 1912.

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/06/09/book-review-sacred-actions/ )

For AODA, see: https://aoda.org/

LIMITS AND BLESSINGS

In my world, this is a time of laboured breath and limited capacity for walking. While medical investigations are underway, I am constrained in what I can do. But walking outside, taking slow deep breaths, and drinking plenty of water are medically and spiritually recommended. Today I went outside for the first time in some days, water bottle to hand, and a rhythm of slow, deep breathing established.

I walked in my neighbourhood and a nearby local park. The picture above is a treescape from that park. For me, it is images solidity and endurance alongside blue sky and spring growth. In itself, it occupies a unique niche in the web of life. I enjoy its company, and the opportunity to record its presence here.

My world may seem, at least for the time being, to have shrunken. My own presence in it, and my perceptions when present to it, do not have to shrink along with the physical distance I can cover. A necessary slowing down contains it own opportunities. I have space and time to enjoy the willows here, their leaves, and the shadows of their leaves. I am constrained to take notice. I appreciate the experience of noticing. I am reminded that I am just outside the period assigned to willow in my personal tree mandala (1,2), but of course it is not too late to connect and commune. There are compensations nested in my unwanted condition.

I find the houses and their surrounding plant life photogenic, not least under a blue April sky. The season has been advancing, the equinox now well past. Around me, I find an energetic acceleration towards summer. Hildegard von Bingen called this kind of natural power viriditas. I can recognise and enjoy it even when I’m lagging behind.

Very close to home I encounter the ruins of Gloucester’s Franciscan Priory, sadly with a nondescript mid C20th building tacked on behind them. They are a landmark for me on my return. I’m tired. I’ve about reached my limit. Although I’m sad that my walking distance is so limited, I feel blessed and nourished by what I find within the limitations. I am also glad to sit down and recognise feeling at once refreshed and exhausted.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/tree-mandala/willow/

(2) The mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the spring quarter from 1 February, the positions and dates of the four trees for this quarter are: Birch, north-east, 1-22 February; Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 February – 16 March; Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April; Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April. The summer quarter then starts with Hawthorn at Beltane. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

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.

WOODLAND CONTEMPLATION

Becoming the single eye, the eye of contemplation, I am a stressless, frameless window. Unboundaried and immersed, beyond the sense of window, joyful experiencing is vivid and intimate. I am a broken branch, stuck in mud. I am a sticky ooze. I am the shadowy reflection of a tree. I am ripples on water.

Walking, I am a body in movement. Then I become a space for memories. I recall the words: “a green thought in a green shade”. Relishing these words, I become a green thought in a green shade. Then I fall into the role of self-conscious observer, morphing from my original state into another one – lacking the immediacy of the first, yet still worthy of welcome.

The woods reach out to me. They and I are distinct now, though we are still held together in the dynamism of a living world. The whole of life is in these woods as summer starts to wane.

PEACE AS PURPOSE

This image, the 3 of Wands from The Druidcraft Tarot (1), is one of purposeful effort beginning to be rewarded. The process is gradual but the promise is there. A young man looks with confidence at the world in front of his eyes. He seems at ease with himself, a young man resting in peace.

He has never really died in me, despite the ups and downs of life. Indeed I am better connected with him now than when I was actually young. I sometimes bubble up with an energetic optimism unlinked to any particular context. Delusional? I don’t think so. It is more the sense of a true nature, ageless and timeless, sustaining me in every time and season.

The image on the card suggests a wider resiliency of nature and organic growth. The purpose and intention of the fire element is in alliance with the regenerative powers of the earth. The sun is seen indirectly in the health of the plant kingdom, and indeed of the young man himself.

I consider my own purpose at this time of my life. I think of some old Druid liturgy that I have re-written for my own practice, without much changing the original meaning: “Deep within my innermost being I find peace. Silently, within the stillness of this space, I cultivate peace. Heartfully, within the wider web of life, may I radiate peace”. I understand ‘peace’ to be an active agent in human affairs and not a passive or negative absence of conflict. It is a value, and stance, to understand and act on more deeply over time.

At the level of personality, I do not consider myself a natural for this form of witnessing and action. I am a work in progress, to say the least. Hence the importance of formal spiritual points of reference and a formal practice. I need these kinds of support. Writing this blog helps too. I see it as contributing to a peer community conversation. This community is not closely defined and is subject to change. It does not, in itself, provide any identity or role other than the reading and writing of posts. But it is good to have a purpose working within it. I aim, overall, heartfully to radiate peace, at least at the level of discourse and values.

(1) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The DruidCraft Tarot: Use the Magic of Wicca and Druidry to Guide Your Life London: Connections, 2004. Illustrated by Will Worthington.

BLUE SKY, CLIMATE CRISIS AND DRUID PRAYER

I love the sky in most weathers. I especially love it when it is azure blue and feels like a high domed roof, well able to contain the movement of wispy, shapeshifting clouds. The sky is part of nature, just like the earth. It is not a detached, alienated realm, beyond the influence of what some traditions might call our little life.

Sometimes I wish it was beyond our influence, as the news about the climate crisis goes on getting worse. The moment of joy is infused with a heartache that has every right to be there. It reminds me of our interconnectedness, and the Druid prayer for knowledge and love of justice, and, through that, the love of all existences (1).

I will stay open to my simple joy at inhabiting a living world of beauty and abundance, even if sadness keeps it company. The healing pleasure of sky-gazing is a part a long, common inheritance, not to be repressed, numbed or lost. I will continue to invite it in and let it nourish me.

(1) One modest practical way to enact the love of justice and of all existences, beyond lifestyle adjustments, is to support https://www.stopecocide.earth/ – now gaining momentum.

CANAL BANK: LATE SUMMER

It is late summer now, where I live. I am conscious of earlier sunsets and darker evenings. I also notice the canal bank in floral abundance as the year begins to decline. This set of pictures was taken in a small area close to my home. The predominant colours are mauve/purple, white, and pink – all set within a rough carpet where green still predominates.

When I walk by this small stretch of land and water, I am astonished by a burst of colour and fecundity, an extraordinary profusion of life. It has the visual effect of a firework display, though silent and not perceptibly in motion to the human eye. The declining year technically makes this a decadent time, now giving the place itself an almost decadent feel. For me, the combination of mallow and purple loosestrife below illustrates this quality. I get a brief image of Morgause’s kitchen garden, seen through the eyes of a hostile Arthurian narrator, where the very lushness has a toxic and scary edge. Then the image disperses, and I am present, and myself, on the canal path once more.

Looking more deeply, I see life finding a way to flourish whenever and wherever it can. These plants, with their natural will to thrive, have found this land a good place to take root. This is good to know, providing a moment of simple happiness.

My last picture shows both sides of the canal at a narrow point. I particularly notice the grass on the far bank, waving with the breeze when it blows; otherwise still. On the near bank I see it largely as a background to more vivid and colourful plants. But on the far bank it is the foreground. I enjoy its taken-for-granted strength and tenacity for awhile, before continuing my walk.

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