contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Wheel of the Year

INQUIRY NINE YEARS ON

My contemplative inquiry began as part of a Druid initiative launched nine years ago on 1 November 2011. The inquiry “soon broadened into a wider exploration of contemplative spiritualities, drawing on the enduring wisdom of many times and places.” (1)

By August 2018, I had anchored the discovery of “an ‘at-homeness’ in the flowing moment, which nourishes and illuminates my life. Such at-homeness is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given. I have found that, for me, the realisation of this at-homeness has supported a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity.” (1)

This is still my core insight. It does not tell me to be a Druid, or not to be a Druid. It does not give me a metaphysical or religious foundation of any kind, though it is possible to build these around it. It does not make my existential choices for me. I do find myself distant from faith based and devotional approaches to contemplation and spirituality. Recently, I have lost interest in debates about consciousness as foundational, or in distinctions between ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ manifestations of it. I was drawn to this philosophical openness in part by the ancient Greek philosopher Pyrrho of Elis, himself influenced by (probably) Buddhist and Jain teachers in India (2).

Experientially, it is as if I exist within a field of awareness, or presence, whilst also living a human life between earth and sky. Here, I am intimate with the stream of experience, but not fused with it – allowing a space for compassion towards the apparently unwanted sensations, feelings, thoughts, images, and strings of cogitation that continue to arise. Stepping back from demands for ‘healing’ and ‘transformation’, I discover myself to be simply and securely held.

Looking out, I find a living world. I am part of the web of life, deeply interconnected with other lives and with the whole. Here I align myself to those Pagans, identified by Graham Harvey (3,4), who “use ‘animism’ as a shorthand reference to their efforts to re-imagine and re-direct human participation in the larger-than-human, multi-species community. This animism was relational, embodied, eco-activist and often ‘naturalist’ rather than metaphysical.”

Understandings like this have re-anchored me in Druidry and Paganism. The Wheel of the Year is a wonderful basis for outward attention in spirituality. I am now also strongly drawn to questions of culture, history and human imagination, which I will explore more in future. Here again, I find an open and inclusive Druid perspective to be a good base to work from.

I seem to have satisfied myself on the questions with which I started in 2011, though not in the way I expected to. But new questions arise, and I no longer see an end point to my contemplative inquiry.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/about/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/04/27/pyrrho-scepticism-arne-naess/

(3) Graham Harvey (ed.) The Handbook of Contemporary Animism London & New York: Routledge, 2014 (First published by Acumen in 2013)

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/02/22/animism-is-a-hard-working-word/

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DEATH (THE APPLE WOMAN)

In the approach to Samhain, thoughts turn to death. In R. J. Stewart’s Merlin Tarot (1,2) the Death card has The Apple Woman as an alternate name.

Stewart explains that “the original image for Death is that of the taking or destroying Goddess”, for “who but the creatrix may truly destroy and withdraw created life?” He adds that, in Celtic tradition, she often appears as a female power offering magical fruit.

In his source text, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin), we find a mysterious woman – ex-lover of Merlin – who lays out poisoned apples to entrap him. These apples, arranged “under a tree upon a pleasant green”, are eaten by Merlin’s boon companions: they are either killed or driven insane. Although Merlin escapes the apples, he does not escape his own later insanity in the Caledonian Forest, brought on by the traumatising Battle of Arfderydd.

For Stewart, the Apple Tree is one of the simplest expressions of the Tree of Life. “It is the Otherworld or Underworld Tree that reveals eternal potential, the fusion of ending and beginning in one paradoxical form”. The apples are the fruit of raw, untransformed power. Whereas Merlin’s companions snatch at the apples and eat them greedily, the legendary Thomas Rhymer volunteers to pick magic apples for the Fairy Queen, who recognises his gallantry by giving him the bread and wine that can nourish him. He wins the gift of prophecy and the tongue that cannot lie.

Both lover and killer, the Goddess of Death and Change is young and ancient, weaver and unweaver of a web that is the universe. She is destroyer of hope and giver of hope, for “in her hand she bears the fruit of perpetual life and rebirth, and the razor Sickle that cuts the tread of continuity”.

Stewart ends with this reflection: “perhaps Merlin’s sub-story of The Apple Woman simply means that adulthood is our most deluded period of life. We reject understanding and substitute self-image, habit and even dogma, in our convoluted attempts at survival; the hostility we experience is not that of the Goddess, but our own hostility reflected upon us. Reject love, risk poisoned apples – such fruits are deadly to the greedy and unprepared. But if we accept the fruit or any of its many transformations (such as bread and wine) from the Goddess, she blesses us with gifts of timeless understanding. These gifts may appear in the outer world as prophecy, attuning to the land; death itself is a timeless moment of understanding when all relative interactions cease. Ultimately, we are the fruit”.

(1) R. J. Stewart The Complete Merlin Tarot: Images, Insight and Wisdom from the Age of Merlin London: The Aquarian Press, 1992 . Illustrated by Miranda Grey ISBN 1 85538 091 9 No cards, but a full explanation and discussion of the system and its imagery.

(2) R. J Stewart The Merlin Tarot London: Element, 2003. Illustrated by Miranda Grey ISBN 000 716562 5 (First published by London: The Aquarian Press, 1992). Cards, handbook and notebook for record keeping.

WALKING TOWARDS SUNRISE

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.

ATLANTIC ANCESTORS

I am beginning to feel the pull of Samhain. It is not here yet, but its themes are drawing my attention. One of these is the remembrance of ancestors.

A recent post by poet and awenydd Lorna Smithers (1) has prompted me to look again at Barry Cunliffe’s work, and the book I have to hand is Facing the Ocean (2). It is about early human history in Atlantic maritime Europe. including Britain and Ireland. One of its threads concerns living with the ocean. Another, related to the first, looks at communication by sea at a time when land travel was difficult. I will follow up these threads in future posts. In the meantime, Cunliffe’s sense of the interaction between nature and culture is shown in the extract below.

“To stand on a sea-washed promontory looking westwards at sunset over the Atlantic is to share a timeless human experience. We are in awe of the unchanging and unchangeable as all have been before us and all will be. Wonder is tempered with reassurance: it is an end, but we are content that the cycle will reproduce itself the sun will reappear. The sea below creates different, more conflicting, emotions. True, there is the comfortable inevitability of the tides, but there is also an unpredictability of mood, the sea constantly changing, sometimes erupting in crescendos of brute force destroying and remoulding the land and claiming human life. The sea is a balance of opposites. It gives and takes. It can destroy quickly and build new; it sustains life and it can kill. Small wonder that through time communities have sought to explain these forces in terms of myth and have attempted to gain some puny influence over them through propitiation.

“Nowhere is this relationship more apparent than in the legends and folk traditions of Brittany. In the howl of the wind can be heard the screams and laments of those drowned at sea, and much of human life – birth and the gender of the newborn and death – was believed to be conditioned by the tides. Below a thin veneer of Christianity lie beliefs deeply rooted in time. A century ago, in the parish of Ploulec’h on the north Breton coast, the first Sunday in May saw the people in procession climb to La Croix du Salut – an isolated landmark that could be seen from far out to sea offering assurance of the approach to a safe haven. Here the sailing community gave thanks for their safe returns before descending to the chapel of Notre-Dame across the bay on the headland of Le Yaudet. In the church today, fine model sailing ships hanging from the roof beams are among the more evocative offerings made to the Virgin by grateful mariners. The deep underlying awe of the ocean is poignantly expressed by the Breton poem

War vor peb ankenn

War vor peb peden

(Sur la mer toute angoisse, sur mer toute priere

At sea all is anguish, all is prayer).”

(1) https://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/2020/10/04/britain-begins-debunking-the-myth-of-celtic-invasions/

(2) Barry Cunliffe Facing the Ocean: The *Atlantic and Its Peoples 8000 BC-AD 1500 Oxford: the University Press, 2001

*NOTE: I wish the subtitle had specified ‘eastern Atlantic’, since every corner of the Americas has been populated for periods ranging from 12,000-24,000 years. The western Atlantic coastal people amongst them are not my focus, but in a post about ancestors I don’t want them to be implicitly erased.

A CONTEMPLATIVE LENS

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.

(1) http://www.headless.org/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2016/04/28/poem-the-oneness-of-things/

EXPERIENCING LATE SEPTEMBER

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.

MOR HAFREN

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.

 

AUTUMN EQUINOX 2020: HAZEL, SALMON, AWEN

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.

(1) See the ‘house’ section of: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/12/meditation-wisdoms-house/

(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.

EXPERIENCING EARLY SEPTEMBER

Months, and moments within them, have their own atmosphere and meaning for me. I try to indicate these through pictures. Where I live, early September takes us fully into autumn, and the fruiting of the horse chestnut tree (above) is a marker for the transition.

Early in the month, the sun sets a little after 7.30 p.m. and reminds us that the nights are drawing in more quickly. It still seems early for sunset, but I notice that my sense of ‘evening’ is adjusting to a more autumnal perspective. The picture below was taken on September 3rd.

The feeling-tone of this period is not yet equinoctial. Wooded spaces are still vigorously green, still majestic, still imaging what my heart wants more of the world to look like. The light of day remains strong, even though temperatures are characteristically lower. There is a lingering aftertaste of summer at the beginning of the new season.

Nonetheless, it is easy to find muted colours leaning in to decay. These have their own fragile and poignantly fleeting beauty, as the alchemy of the waning year does its work. Early September has a character of its own, to be enjoyed while it lasts, as the wheel continues to turn.

MR. BRAMBLE

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.

(1) See the ‘house’ section of: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/12/meditation-wisdoms-house/

(2) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druid Plant Oracle: Working with the Flora of the Druid Tradition London: Connections, 2007 (Illustrated by Will Worthington)

(3) Joanne Harris Blackberry Wine London: Black Swan, 2000

(4) The image at the top is from John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003

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