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.
Tuesday, 31 July 2018
Lughnasadh. Lammas. 31 July/1 August. The most ‘outward’ of the four fire festivals, the cross-quarter dates of the Celtic year, each midway between one of the astronomical stations of the turning year (the solstices and equinoxes).
The other fire festivals are Samhain, Imbolc and Beltane.
Samhain, the start of the Celtic New Year on October 31st/November 1st, is the most inward of the fire festivals, and ‘feminine’ in tone: the Crone going into the cave of winter, readying the ground for new seed.
Imbolc, 31 January/1 February (some say 1/2 February) is Brigit’s time: a time for the Maiden, for creativity, for the thoughts of spring flowers.
At Beltane, 30 April/1 May, maiden-become-adult readies herself for Motherhood (which can mean, for a woman, all kinds of creative projects, not simply biological reproduction) in her union with the sun god (‘Bel’; Lugh in one of his guises). The Beltane fires are lit and couples jump through them, share the cup, then take each other joyfully in the long grasses on this cusp of late spring and early summer. The days lengthen; we live outside.
Lughnasadh is the first, the early, harvest. At Lughnasadh we celebrate; but also in the northern hemisphere we turn towards autumn, and there is a dying in the reaping, too.
‘Lammas’ in the old English calendar comes from ‘hlaf-mass’, meaning ‘loafmass’: that bread which we make from the new barley, just reaped.
Ale was the other product of barley: historically until relatively recently drunk in the UK because the fermentation process rendered it ‘cleaner’ than water.
Lugh is one of the gods of light (Bel, or Baal, Bala, celebrated at Beltane, May 1st, is also an earlier and less-well-developed, both in terms of the year and in terms of the ‘lineage’, fire or sun god). He’s also known as Llew Llaw Gyffes in the Welsh Mabinogi.
In Eire Lugh was a chief of the Tuatha de Danaan, Children or People of Dana (Aosdana in the Scots Gaelic); Dana, the divine feminine, being the mother of the god of poetry.
In some versions of the story Lugh was a triple-god (birth, death, renewal; youth, man, sage; page, prince, king – many variants), and he marries a triple goddess. This makes him a ‘primary’ god, so to speak.
Lugh’s trace remains at places in England that begin with ‘Lug’ or ‘Lud’ – I can think of a number on and around Dartmoor, and the ancient westernmost gate to the city of London was Ludgate, the name still preserved in the capital.
At this time of the grain harvest, having successfully impregnated the earth goddess, the sungod-king is sacrificed. (This sees the wheel of the year, at its peak now, beginning to roll down the hill to end in the river of dissolution, before the next rebirth.) New seed has been created, and as the old harvest is reaped so the fire-god in his kingly form is sacrificed to feed and water the earth so that the new green barley may shoot next year.
We remember this in the traditional folk-song of John Barleycorn (you may know the particularly poignant tune sung by – I think – Traffic), ‘murdered’ that we all may live. Listening to that version of the song, it’s impossible not to be aware of the ancient and archetypal rituals associated with harvest-time behind the surface words.
It’s a time of merrymaking in the outer world: dancing, feasting, games and competition, a time too of crafts, Lugh being an artisan-god.
At this turning point, it’s good to make some time to look at the ‘staple’ harvests in one’s life: what has been safely gathered in; what harvest is still not ripe; how one’s inner male and female are relating (or not); what might need to be let go of, ‘sacrificed’, as we turn away from longer days and the peak of fire and light.
The seeds we have planted have ripened now; what are we harvesting? At this peak of the fire festivals, this culmination of a cycle, something has to be given back. For new life to emerge in the psyche something old has to be sacrificed. We can’t resist what has to happen for the continuity of life; we can’t forever resist the natural cycles and tides of things and the continual drive towards transformation and renewal.
Autumn will bring further fruit, and the journey into the darkness will restore fecundity and vitality in the composting of what seems like loss but is simply a shedding.
May the Lughnasadh fires burn up the old and your first harvests be safely gathered in, my friends. Here’s the traditional and mysterious John Barleycorn song for you, redolent as it is with memories of early vegetation rites.
There were three men came out of the west,
Their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow,
That John Barleycorn must die.
They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in,
Throwed clods upon his head,
And these three men made a solemn vow:
John Barleycorn is dead.
They let him lie for a long, long time
Till the rain from heaven did fall,
Then little Sir John popped up his head,
And soon amazed them all.
They’ve let him stand till midsummer day
When he looked both pale and wan,
And little Sir John’s grown a long, long beard
And so become a man.
They hired some men with scythes so sharp
To cut him off at the knee,
They rolled him and tied him by the waist,
And served him most barbarously.
They hired men with sharpest pitchforks
Who pricked him to the heart,
And the loader he served him worse than that,
For he bound him to the cart.
They wheeled him round and round the field
Till they came unto a barn,
And there they made a solemn mow
Of poor John Barleycorn.
They hired men with the crab-tree threshing sticks
To cut him skin from bone,
And the miller he served him worse than that,
For he ground him between two stones.
Now, here’s little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl,
And brandy in a glass;
And little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl
Proves the strongest man at last.
For the huntsman he can’t hunt the fox,
Nor so loudly blow his horn,
And the tinker he can’t mend kettles nor pots
Without a little Barleycorn.
Monday, 30 July 2018
I spend part of my year in a forest by a lake, among huge granite boulders like great sleeping animals, rock and tree cohabiting, adapting to each other.
This is where I come for stillness, to write, to feel the expanse and spaciousness that is ours when we stop cramming every minute full.
This is also where I learn from trees, find green healing, remember the way a tree joins heaven and earth – arguably our task, too, in our inner lives.
I walk the forest, listen for the birds, the rivers, the cascades, the stories of the wildwood that rustle in the leaves above me and the growth on every side, think of the great interlocking network beneath my feet, the mycorrhizal network that keeps each tree in connection with the all, the forest, and carries its own stories of carbon, sugars, water, messages from tree to tree. How much we can learn from such an ecosystem – invisible, utterly interconnected, vital.
Ever pragmatists beneath the romantic veneer, the French have diverted the water from many wells into channels and baths where until relatively recently the village women would bring their laundry. I love this mixing of the sacred and the secular.
Because food is important to the French (in which I'm including the Bretons for my purposes here), another thing they do well is the picnic bench. Here's a beauty: right next to the well-lavoir, there's what looks like a mini-monolith off to the right, and the table itself is capped with an old stone.
Next to it is this ultraviolet hydrangea, ubiquitous in Brittany, and truly here the colour of heaven.
Wednesday, 11 July 2018
This year’s Ways With Words litfest must be the best yet. I’ve gorged on a handful of excellent events, and now I've had to close my purse and open my computer, though there are plenty of great-sounding talks, and a whole poetry day, yet to come.
Once upon a time, I was a surfer (though I rarely managed to stand up on the board, wipeouts being more my natural style). In that fairy tale, we (being my Italian ex-, now late-husband, and down the line our daughter as well), worked the summers in GB making stuff (him beautiful leather bags and belts, I plant-dyed handspun knitwear to my own designs, which meant that my daughter spent many of the first few months of her life slung from my chest while I gathered plants from the North Devon coasts, woods and fields), and spent the winters in our campervan following good surfbreaks down the Atlantic coast of France into northern Spain.
So my nostalgia for the surfing life was well-tended by the first talk I went to, one by Iain Gateley who spends much of his life, even now after a hip op, checking surfbreaks from the southwest of Britain to Galicia. Can I say it was gratifying to see his clips of so many other surfers also suffering wipeouts? And the final one of a tube (which is when you surf parallel to shore INSIDE the great curl of a breaking wave’s green tunnel towards the light) conveyed something of the ecstasy and almost-transcendence of catching a wave (though I never managed a tube).
Barry Cunliffe, that great historian, speaking on prehistoric sea-travel was his usual knowledgeable self, though TM and I were both disappointed that he stopped, more or less, before covering the western Atlantic seaboard of GB. I wanted to know more about the most recent findings in relation to the Phoenicians and their connection with the early tin trade in Cornwall.
In between these two sea-speakers I read my long Dartmoor water-poem River Suite, and – being broke as all freelance poets almost always are unless they achieve (usually posthumous) fame – was delighted to sell 6 copies of the limited edition artists’ book – that’s 250-ish sold now out of 300. (I would link to the video clip of my reading that Dartington made and posted, but a) I can’t stand listening to my own voice and b) I’m not sure who that fat old imposter reading in the clip is.)
Canon Mark Oakley delivered a passionate, erudite and eloquent talk on the continuing significance and essential role of poetry in an age of literalism. (I’d give you selected excerpts except it would mean transcribing the whole thing.) He also managed to convey deep soul, while only mentioning God twice (he is after all a canon). Oakley spoke quite a lot about wisdom, and as his next job will be Dean of St John’s College Cambridge I wanted to offer him ex-Dominican Matthew Fox’s words: ‘Looking for wisdom in a university is like looking for chastity in a brothel.’
Surfing links Iain Gately and Martin Dorey, whose new book Take the Slow Road Scotland (in a campervan) formed the story behind his talk. Predictably I loved it; the more so because I kept catching sight of what looked remarkably like my daughter’s van in his photos of the Outer Hebrides. (How I wish that TM loved the islands as much as I do. Good job we both like Brittany and France.) As the book was £20 I resisted buying it, but did buy his simultaneously-published No. More. Plastic. (I have to say that I – and probably many of us – do all this already, but still, it offers a focus.) Martin is behind the #2minutebeachclean initiative, which has persuaded a great many people that they can, in fact, help save the oceans (or verges, streets, lanes, fields) from more plastic. Of course, cleaning it up is stable doors: better by far not to buy it in the first place.
I’m on a big drive to reduce the (already-minimal) amount of plastic that comes into our home. Since TM is veggie but not vegan, but has voluntarily limited the amount of dairy products such as butter in his diet, my next venture is to try making (‘healthy’) margarine and keeping it in a Kilner jar in the fridge rather than buying all those plastic tubs. I already make our face creams and ointments – have done forever – so am hoping the emulsification principle is similar. If any of you has any idea, please let me know. I personally love olive oil congealed (in a Kilner jar) in the fridge as a spread, but it seems I’m on my own with that. Meridian does a good almond butter, but – it’s in plastic. (And yes, I know there are issues with almonds; I try and source them from Europe.) And – can I still write with a fountain pen? (Could I ever??) That would save binning a lot of plastic gel pens.
Raynor Winn’s new book The Salt Path is her account of the walk she and her husband did along the 630 miles of the Southwest Coastpath just after a devastating diagnosis for her husband, and their being made homeless simultaneously. Her talk was entertaining and honest; her book will be my reading matter in Brittany next week (also my sister’s, perhaps, as she’s coming too - hooray! - and for a few years her work involved walking and writing up circular stretches of the coastpath for the SWCP association, resulting in a series of little books).
Prof Raymond Tallis, philosopher and neuroscientist (Logos: The Mystery of How We Make Sense of the World – also at £25 too expensive for me at the moment) offered a rich and heady cocktail of ideas, though I didn’t always agree with his conclusions. When I posited, though, that while philosophy and science can help us make sense and/or meaning, they are currently generally set in opposition to myth, story and poetry (logos and mythos, which occur as a duo in many of my blogs here from the last 8 years), and that the latter are also very much about making sense and meaning of our history and our experience of being human and of the world, and should be brought together, he nodded in delight and said that that is also his conclusion. There are people working hard to cross divides, to bring false binaries back into harmony, in every discipline.
The environmental ‘debate’ between Guy Singh-Watson, founder of Riverford Organics and hot from Desert Island Discs (and yet another surfer), Natalie Bennett, ex-leader of the Green Party, and Philip Lymbery, author of Farmageddon and Where the Wild Things Were, and CEO of Compassion in World Farming on the future for food: what is the balance between food security and food safety, and how do we feed 7.5 billion people? – was also lively and impassioned with, as you’d expect, each speaker well-informed. Of course it wasn’t actually a debate, as they all agree that factory farming is not the answer to any of the issues being discussed, and nor are pesticides or GM foods. Although they didn’t address the issue of water stress (which I think is going to be massive before too long, even though it may not feel like it here in England most of the time, if not actually right now), they all agreed that eating less meat is the only way forward. Of course.
Well, you know my views on that. And yes of course it’s hard to be vegan. I don’t miss milk in my tea – which was my feeble reason for so many decades of being lacto-veggie for not going the whole hog (so to speak); in fact now I find it disgustingly animal-fatty. Cheese is a different matter. Whereas once, in my youth, I fantasised about leaving the known world with a raggle-taggle gipsyman, now I fantasise about grilled halloumi, a Greek salad with feta, buffalo mozzarella... and resist. Mostly. (As these days I do those romantic barefoot musical wanderers.)
Finally, here’s my current most-delicious vegan recipe for you, its filling today consisting of the food-for-free nutritious and self-seeded fat hen (chenopodium album, and also a dye plant; photo at top) that is abundant in England this time of year, and that I’ve just weeded from our squash bed to use in place of spinach, and a picking from our abundance of courgettes (with their beautiful yellow flowers that the bees love).
I need to say that quantities and proportions are approximate and flexible. Experiment!
BUCKWHEAT PANCAKES WITH A SUMMER FILLING
In Brittany, the speciality is krampouez, or galettes de blé noir, which is buckwheat crêpes. Buckwheat is not a grain but the seed of a plant in the sorrel/rhubarb family, so it’s gluten-free too. I love these, and they are so easy to make. Vary the filling as you like – it's good with creamy mushrooms, ratatouille, mashed avocado with seasalt, tabasco and finely-chopped nuts and yeast flakes, or garlic-sautéed courgettes with onions – and any number of other fillings.
For the galettes for two people:
4 heaped tablespoons buckwheat flour
8-12 tablespoons water, added gradually and beaten well
half-teaspoon+ of any, or combinations of, tagine spices, turmeric, cumin seed, mustard seed
For the filling:
A big handful of spinach or chard, washed, destalked, torn up – OR fat hen! You can also use foraged orache (and it would be nice with sorrel as well, or samphire instead)
2 courgettes, sliced
bunch parsley, finely chopped
3 or 4 leaves mint, finely chopped clove garlic, finely chopped
salt and pepper
a little olive oil
juice of half a lemon
(Coyo coconut yogurt if you want to use it)
First make your pancake mix. I make mine fairly thick as they’re less likely to stick, and I use a small cast iron frying pan (about 8 inches bottom diameter in old money).
Sauté the courgettes in a dash of oil on a low heat until soft. Throw in spinach, chard, or fat hen, garlic, and herbs. Lid the pan and let it all wilt gently. Add the other ingredients, turn heat right down.
The secret to a successful pancake is a) proportions (roughly twice as much water as flour, or a little more than that), and b) the pan. Smear a heavy-bottomed pan with a very little oil and heat till smoking. Test it with a drop of the mix. If it sizzles, it’s ready. Pour a ladleful of the mix in, and immediately tilt the pan so it covers the bottom. After about a minute, turn the heat down slightly. Let it cook (but don’t burn it) for two or three minutes, until a knife slipped under the pancake will easily lift it. Then flip, and cook for another minute or two,
Hope you like it as much as I do. Let me know!
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