The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.
Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made
is star-stuff too?
– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –
dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.
Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.
Monday, 30 April 2018
An apology from me that you are rereading last Beltane's post. Too much going on.
However, I'm celebrating Beltane, that old Midsummer fire festival ('midsummer'??) by recharging myself from two extremely intensive ISLANDS OF THE HEART retreats on the Hebrides (next year's weeks are already nearly full): 5 Rhythms dancing this morning; digging the garden for my (very late) broad beans this afternoon; and with TM round the firepit in our 'horseshoe' veg plot, near the blossoming apple trees, this evening. And cooking up some new residential workshops...
Wherever you are, I wish you a joyous Beltane/May Day, and may the fires of inspiration burn brightly for you this summer.
Unite and unite, oh, let us all unite –
For summer is a-coming today
And whither we are going we will all unite
In the merry morning of May.
So begins the ancient May Day song of my childhood, for the equally ancient rites of 'Obby 'Oss in Padstow, north Cornwall, as the Old Oss, a fearsome snapping black and red ‘stallion’ of winter meets his death at the hands of incoming summer on May Day evening, welcomed in today.
The Obby Oss* is led on by a dancing ‘Teaser’, who prods him – he is of course in effect a pantomime horse – with a padded stick, or wand. Behind the teaser are the drums and accordions, and the crowds – these days many thousands – sing the traditional songs. All the time the Oss makes dives into the crowd to snatch a girl or a woman to drag under his cape, in a symbolic and laughing reflection of the old fertility rites of Beltane, for some say that this ritual dates back four thousand years (others say it’s more recent).
The whole event which, in true Celtic style, begins at midnight of April 30, involves much drumming, dancing, laughing, singing and general merriment, and even though the days when it was merely an event for the locals, as when I was a child, have long gone, the general excitement and fizz of its original power still remain. The town is decorated with flowers and a maypole – phallic symbol – and in addition to the Old Oss there is now a more recent ‘Blue Oss’, as well as a ‘Children’s Oss’.
In the old calendar, the year begins at Samhain, November 1st. Beltane, in honour of Bel, the ancient sun-god, six months on, is seen as the beginning of true summer.
Traditionally, fires would be lit on the beacon hilltops, and younger people would jump over or through them to ensure fertility. Sometimes pairs of fires were lit, and cattle would be driven between them, for the same reason. (This was also traditionally the time when cattle would be turned out onto summer pasture.)
It’s hawthorn day, that heart-balancer, whose five-petalled blossom represents the Goddess.
At Sancreed Holy Well
And you, solitary waykeeper hunched by this stile
and then again standing proud by the cloutie-well,
one among multitudes, and yet to each of you
your own song, here on this granite peninsula
at the land’s edge where you lean to the northeast
in a slant sweep, your compactness
like the people of this land, surrendering
to wind, to seafret and rainfall, to the deep
lodestones of the ores beneath your roots.
Midsummer, and your spilt five-petalled blooms
a bouquet for Her, sparks of milky light
harvested from sun, from cloud, from the misty
rains that stroll these ancient downlands.
To you, then, hawthorn, the secrets of guardianship
of this land, the protection of her sacred
waters, the wisdom of yielding to the elements
without giving up the one place
where your roots are nourished into blossom.
(RLA Sancreed, 2016)
It would be now that the May Queen, she of the hawthorn, may blossom, as chosen representative of the Goddess of Sovereignty, the Goddess of the Land, in early times would lie with her consort, Cernunnos, the Horned One of the Greenwood. This was in order to bestow kingship, sovereignty, on him that he might make a true servant of the land.
The gift of sovereignty was always more than the right to rule over a country and its clan. It was a divine power, bestowed by the goddess of the land in the guise of a particular living woman on the king, who thereafter acted as her representative. In his symbolic marrying of the Goddess he was also marrying the land. It was only through such a union – either a recognised marriage or ritualised sexual encounter, but always in the spirit of the Sacred Marriage – with her that the king could rule. By joining with the goddess of the land, he in turn became profoundly connected both to the land and to its people.
One such archetypal May Queen, Queen of the Land, was Gwenhwyfar, she who bestowed kingship on Arthur.
On an inner level, this is a time to celebrate the bringing-together of our own masculine and feminine aspects, or anima and animus, ying and yang; for bringing together our inner and our outer lives. It’s time, too, to close the door of winter, for now, and welcome in the building energies of the summer months.
© Roselle Angwin 2017
* for photos, see: http://greatbritishmag.co.uk/lifestyle/what-is-obby-oss (the essay is slight and not entirely accurate but the pictures are true)
Sunday, 15 April 2018
You know how it is when an experience is too profound to write about, or write about yet? – That.
My lovely first group of participants, some of whom have joined me here every year since the beginning or close to, has just left (most of them – some are harder to winkle out), and the second group will start arriving soon (no doubt equally lovely – I just don't know them all yet).
And for once I'm lost for words; steeped in a particular kind of heart-companionship, immersed utterly in the beauty of this ever-changing little island, this thin place at the edge of the earth (though in prehistory on a major sea-route), and dredged in the words of joy and grief, longing and love for the world that these people bring.
And there was the launch of my new poetry collection, A Trick of the Light, here in the Community Shop last Monday; I watched in amazement as tens of people poured in, listened with deep attention, and bought the book. In Devon, swarming with poets and writers and venues for poetry, a launch might draw a handful of people. Here we were 50 and counting: islanders, visitors, and of course the group. My dedicated publisher brought a host of nibbles from France – French toast, tapenade and confit d'oignon most appreciated by the gathering.
And that's as much as I find I can say; so here for you are some photos, and three poems from the collection. This first one, though, is a small section of a new longer poem (first draft):
yesterday a small white boat
was pulled up on the narrow strand
of Eileann Anraidh opposite where I'm standing
where I saw the seal-people basking that time
a dozen lined up, a plump-bodied family sleep-in
today a lone seal is back
the white boat gone
I lean on the rock and take root
... at Traigh na t-Suidhe (above top) wave after wave of greylag and barnacle geese overhead christened the day Spring. The flock of barnacle geese above on the ground by the Sound of Mull was a fraction of the hundreds that arrowed west; just out of sight towards the camera are many greylags.
Almost A Prayer
After we’d trudged so far to the pass at the top
of the island, rain and wind beating our faces,
rising like a single uncluttered thought
from the lochan’s dark mouth a pair of swan,
whoopers, passing through to Siberia,
their curd-white a thickening, a measure
of silence hefted against grey air,
their presence an act of grace, almost a prayer.
My life as a breaking wave
I breathe in and out
spent, I loll in my own shallows
in a kind of intertidal doldrum
a shadow of the ocean breaker
I was not so long ago
I’ve travelled the whole Atlantic
to rest on this particular shell-white strand
under an April full moon
in my lips I’ve caught mussels
and pearls, the dreamings of crabs
green and maroon wigs of weed
I’ve caught the whisperings of fish
still blue keenings of porpoise
the ghosts of herring
I’ve caught a shoal of silence
out there in the deep sea
where we’re unruffled into one long fathomless body
the sailboats and gannets wing
I breathe, in and out
no end to the cycle of tides
no end to the I that is we
our deep song
and still I break
still I break
With your burden for its heart
you are walking the labyrinth
in an easterly March chill
and your feet are bare.
I can see from here that your eyes
The tails of my waterproof snap like sails
and I’m embarrassed until I remember
that noise and loss are as much a part of life
as stasis and silence are of death.
Behind us the bay is tarnished
with sea-fret. A gull keens.
First swallow’s back. Everything
knows its place in this world
even if that place is perpetual journey.
We seem to take so long to learn this.
See the way the gulls let the east wind
almost lazily lift them languid
into air, and simply leave them there.
All poems © Roselle Angwin; also photos (all from this year's first week)
Next year's Islands of the Heart is filling fast.
Wednesday, 4 April 2018
It's that time of year. In fact, it's 3 months past that time of year, but better late than... So we headed off to the coast on a gusty galey day that promised serious storms. The surf break was the biggest we've ever seen there (once upon a time I was a Malibu surfer). And yes, even with waterproofs I got soaked to the knickers, but it was exhilarating; and we brought back around 25 huge sacks of wonderful free fertiliser for our spuds, onions, leeks and squash beds (we found out the hard way that beans don't like seaweed).
As a kind of tithe to the sea, I did a quick beach-clean, too. (I also like the idea of titheing a tenth of our produce back to the land via other species; however, the fact that the other species are pigeons beheading most of our fresh greens brings out a murderous streak in TM, and I have to say I can't blame him.)
A week later, after dramatic snow, we went back on a day that couldn't have been more different – gentle sun. However, what kelp there was was a great deal further down near the low-tide mark, and it was a struggle – for me, anyway – to carry half of the next lot of 30+ stuffed-full sacks back up the slope to the road. How satisfying, though, to feed the soil like this (in places such as the Hebrides the crofters' 'runrig' systems bedded their veg almost entirely in seaweed; and sheep still browse on it, as below, on Iona. I'm vegan so don't like to think of this much, but apparently the mutton is very tasty when they've browsed saltmarsh and seaweed shores.)
A second beach-clean done. Beach-cleaning is my promise to the land for this year, in addition to my other environmental commitments, but what with weather or being snowed-in twice I've barely managed the monthly visit I'd envisaged – so far.
As we headed up to the café for a late veggie breakfast, we met a family coming down with the most adorable little golden-curly-haired girl. I don't know what it is about blonde toddlers for me, given that I'm not especially drawn to others' small children, but they melt me completely. Perhaps it's a memory of my own adorable (mostly) daughter at that age. I longed to pick her up and hug her, and to show her where the snails go in the winter:
... but I didn't, of course. You can't now (I remember my shock at being warned a few years ago working as a visiting writer in a primary school that even if a child was crying, I wasn't allowed to offer them physical contact of any sort. What a sad sad world.)
Oh the snow! Thick thick thick here, and this is Devon. My beautiful hound would have loved this, galumphing and frapping around, tossing it in the air with her snout.
The birds had such a hard time of it. They clustered in our courtyard: bullfinches, goldfinches, marsh tits, willow tits, bluetits, coaltits, great tits, migrating redwings, blackbirds, chaffinches, dunnocks, and NINE (usually territorial) robins all at once. To my distress, the one who feeds from my hand appeared to have disappeared; since animals and birds with whom I have direct contact are my points of entry into the other-than-human world, to have lost 'my' robin companion after three years on top of my wonderful hound the week before was devastating. (I can't tell you how delighted I was when he turned up after the snowmelt.)
Two mornings running, a shy jay was on the doorstep (alongside the three pheasants). Perhaps they need landmarks to remind them where the buried acorns are.
One morning after first light – in other words in full daylight – a barn owl swooped up from the border of the courtyard just yards from us. They too have to feed, but I imagine there's one fewer vole now, or maybe one of this summer's family of mice who play at dusk copped it (see photo – that's an acorn beside it).
Another morning, a male sparrowhawk tore into the miniature weeping willow right beside the front door, where the smaller birds line up for food. As it happened, I was standing on the doorstep less than a yard away; not sure which of us was more shocked, but we were both immobile for long enough for the birds to scarper. Hawks see the ultraviolet trail of their prey; did you know that?
And so. I've been silent here partly because I've been grieving the dog as a family member, and mostly because I've been doing a lot of mentoring and also course planning, but also for once concentrating on my own writing.
A Trick of the Light – poems from Iona is out and doing well; and I've had lovely feedback (please, if you've read it, I'd love a sentence or two on Amazon). I shall be launching it on the Isle of Iona (Community Shop, 5pm) next Monday 9th, should you just happen to be nearby!
And finally, after 6 drafts, my new book, written and set in a forest in Brittany, has gone off to seek its fortune. That book was hard work. It's a memoir of grief; it's about treelore; and it's about the lost feminine through the lens of the Grail myths (and local legends) – my specialist study for over 40 years now.
So glad to have completed the book, and am wondering whether a new novel is gestating.
The next time you hear from me, I'll be on the Isle of Iona where the first of my two weeks of ISLANDS OF THE HEART begins this Saturday, to my immense joy. I've been leading this for 18 years now, and it has become a lodestar – not just for me, but for the many who join me year after year from all over the world. I'm so looking forward to sharing this week with those pilgrims, and with the newcomers who don't yet know how Iona has a habit of changing your life... 2019 is filling, but not yet full, should you be tempted.
Both photos are from the hotel garden. Sometimes, just sometimes, we see dolphins wheeling up that Sound.
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