Ode to the Hawthorn and the Merry Merry Month of May

May…  A most hearty (if not a little tardy) welcome to you!

Almost every morning at the moment, I am awakened by birdsong.  Somehow, though, it’s hard to feel annoyed about this, because it is, quite simply, exquisitely wondrous. These so often invisible beings fill up so much aural space!  I love that they (birds) are always there, and yet so often hidden from view.

Outside, there is magic happening.

The countryside is literally exploding with life!  All the new leaves are young and fresh. Suddenly open space is smaller, as grasses, bushes and trees erupt with new growth. Openings are filled in and suddenly my perspective zooms in closer.  No longer can I see the horizon so clearly, and there is so much beauty to behold right in front of me.

Mint_garden

Everything about this time of year fills me with aliveness.  This is nature at her most vibrant – she is almost shouting “Look at me!  You thought I was dead.  Haha!  See how luscious and ALIVE I am!”

Horse_chestnut

The air is warm and the smell of blossom is on the wind.   Cherry, apple, pear, horse chestnut, all of them bursting with beauty.  And my favourite, of course, the hawthorn. Some people say how hawthorn flowers are meant to exude the scent of female sexuality.  Whether or not I know this to be true, I find the aroma that fills the countryside when the hawthorn is in full bloom completely intoxicating.  Yes, maybe even a little seductive.

Hawthorn2

The hawthorn, also known as the May Tree, is truly a tree of the HEART.  Traditionally, the Celtic fire festival of Beltane, marking the start of Summer, began when the hawthorn came into blossom.  Myths proclaim that this is the time when The Oak King reaches his manhood and the May Queen takes him as her lover.  Through their union, the May Queen becomes pregnant, and so all life begins.  Because of this mythology, since ancient times May is the traditional time of year for handfastings, marriages and unions of all kinds.  There is something about this month, and the bewitching magic of the hawthorn tree in particular, that incites passion, vivacity, joy, and the making of vows.

Besides its magical properties, hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) also holds healing properties within its flowers, berries and seeds.  Known by some as ‘valerian of the heart’ and others as ‘food for the heart’, hawthorn is perhaps most commonly used as a heart stimulant, increasing blood flow to heart muscles and restoring normal heart beat.  Simply because of these heart toning properties, patients using hawthorn medicinally are therefore  guaranteed a higher sense of aliveness and vitality.

Hawthorn

The blossoming of the hawthorn and the arrival of May never cease to give me hope. They lift my spirits and make me laugh out loud at the sheer shameless beauty of all I see around me.   And, they remind me that no matter what our Winter is like – no matter how dark, lonely, hopeless and despairing we might feel that things will ever change – there they are.

Out of nowhere springs growth.  Out of death springs life.

They remind me too, that long after we are gone, all of this wild abandon of nature will continue.  Even without human beings to bear witness to this annual bursting forth of sheer vitality, the leaves will keep on greening, the hawthorn will keep on flowering, and the wheel will keep on turning…

View_farm

Into the woods

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness

John Muir

In the past, T and I have discussed the question “Are you a plains person or a forest person?”  So, if you had to choose, would you live on the top of a hill with wide views all around, open space in abundance, or would you choose the closer confines of a woodland environment, surrounded by trees?  He’s always said forest.  I’ve been plains.

Here, in Cape Breton, we are surrounded by trees.  Everywhere we go… trees.  It is only when we’re on the beach, looking out on to the Gulf of St Lawrence, that there is not forest as far as the eye can see.  Other than the Daintree Rainforest in Northern Queensland, I have never before spent so much time in and amongst so many trees.  And it’s interesting what it’s doing to my psyche.

Intellectually, I feel excited.  All the reading I’ve been doing over the last year or so, about ‘wilderness’ and the impact of the loss of our native large fauna on our natural world, tells me that this landscape is how our own small and terribly overcrowded island would have looked before the forests disappeared.  This is what projects like Trees For Life, who’s aim it is to restore the Caledonian Forest up in Scotland, are envisioning.  A land literally COVERED in trees.  In fact, before we left home, someone said to me “Nova Scotia is just like Scotland, before they cut down all the trees”.  While this is true in some sense – there are huge numbers of lakes, some vast, some small, there are hills , there are blackflies aplenty (midgie equivalent), there is even a man playing the bagpipes just outside the cafe where I’m sitting right now – I don’t feel the immensity of space that I do when I’m in Scotland.   This is because not only are the ‘mountains’ here that much smaller, but in Scotland the bare and open landscape, devoid of trees in many parts, gives me much more a sense of expansiveness somehow.  And, although the Gaelic music also floats around in abundance here, what I hear around me are Canadian accents, and so I feel very, very far away from my own ‘culture’ and, most importantly, my own land.

But what is “my own land” (by that I mean the land of my birth)?  What does it really look like?  I know WHAT it looks like in present times, of course, but now I also have a sense of what it must have looked like way back when (and perhaps what it ‘should’ look like now?)  And it’s pretty radically different.  While humans have clearly made their mark here – dirt tracks disappear off main roads, marking out thoroughfares used by people living in the near and far reaches of the forest – because of the impenetrable nature of this forest, it feels like there are large areas where no human foot can ever have stepped.  Up there in the hills reside bears, coyotes, moose, and lynx.  The kinds of animals that conjure up feelings of fear, excitement and WILDNESS in me.

So, it’s interesting.  As I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with those ecologists that lament the loss of our native wildscapes, those who campaign for the return of our vast forests, for the reintroduction of our lost megafauna, I also find myself questioning just how I personally would cope living in and amongst so many trees again.  I say “again” because once upon a long time ago all of our ancestors walked these forests. These tree-covered lands are in our blood, in the ancient memories stored in our very bones.  Their roots grow deep within our souls.  We are of the forest and we are one with the forest.  It is only because we cut the vast majority of them down so very long ago that we have lost that conscious knowing of the wild woods cape.  Not only that, but we have also, tragically, become afraid of it.

That comes as a huge sense of loss, for me.  When I was in the Daintree I felt fear of ‘what is out there’.  At times, I couldn’t fully enjoy where I was because I was worried about what I couldn’t see.  And here it is the same.  What is out there IS unknown and unseen.  We, as humans, do not fare well when we do not know and can not see what is coming towards us.  Or, indeed, as my own small family takes its first tentative footsteps out into the world, far away from the comfort, safety and loving arms of our home, family and friends, when we do not know what we, ourselves, are heading towards.

So, I take these forests as a fine metaphor for where I find myself in life right now.  I literally CAN NOT see what is out there.   I must let go of knowing, and trust that, step by tiny step, we will find our way.

When I first read John Muir’s quote above, I thought “Ha, not for me!”  Clearly, I have much to learn.  Or re-learn perhaps…

Forest

Threshold

tree_threshold

You will go with your guide to a wilderness place.  All you have will be the pack on your back.  A base camp will be established on the perimeter of the threshold area.  Now you are at the border of a land without borders.  You are about to enter the hallowed cathedral of the Great Mother.

The last night, by the firelight, the faces of people in the group have never seemed more honest.  Defenses are down.  Conversation is real and full of truth.  Like the others, you have come to the end of a trail littered with old spoor.  Soon you will walk away from it.  You are one sleepless night away from liberation…

For the next three or four days and nights you will see no one.  In the silence of your separateness you will seek a vision… This is the time to forget time, to remember what it is you are seeking, and to take it into your heart.

Stephen Foster and Meredith Little, The Book of the Vision Quest

It is almost a year to the day that I came down from a mountain in North Wales, having spent four days and four nights up there, alone, fasting, praying for a vision.  And, as I make my preparations to return to that same mountain, to ‘complete’ the ceremony, if you like, the memories of that time come flooding back to me in wild and unbidden ways.

The fear, the doubts, the hunger, the dreams, the seemingly endless passage of the sun through the sky overhead.  Then the clarity, the knowing, the feeling that my heart would burst open with the love and connection that I felt for everyone and everything around me.  An openness that I have not felt anywhere before or since.  A deep, earth-reverberating, soul-aching belonging to the world that made me want to laugh and cry in equal measure.

In any rite of passage ceremony, there are three identifiable phases which must be gone through by the initiate: Severence (where we separate literally from our former worlds), Threshold (where we enter the ‘sacred world’ and so begins the time of testing), and Reincorporation (where we return to our ‘village’, our people, carrying our vision before us).  Each stage is as elemental to the whole as each other.  Each one is unique, intense, and full of medicine that keeps showing itself in wild and mysterious ways.  Each one takes an enormous amount of courage that at times can feel insurmountable.

One definition in the Oxford English Dictionary describes threshold as “a point of entry or beginning”.  Indeed, threshold marks a place between here and there, now and then.  It allows us a point in space and time to step through, shedding all that we have been carrying up to then – the point at which “(We) may face deep truths, extreme weakness and strength that (we) never knew (we) had; in order to stand in (our) naked truth and surrender into (our) uniqueness” (Pip Bondy, http://www.ancienthealingways.co.uk/vision-quest/).  We can, indeed we MUST, ask ourselves: What are we leaving behind in order to step through, past and beyond ourselves at this juncture?

Marking threshold is potent.  It can be a physical location in space, or it can be a point in our lives when we know we have reached the end of one thing, one way of being, and now we need to step into something else.  Another, different part of ourselves that we know is in there, buried deep beneath years of sorrow or pain perhaps, or simply a lack of recognition of seeing something for what it is.

sea_threshold

Now you stand alone at the gates of sacred time.  Before you lie the features of eternity.  By your own efforts you have become a worthy candidate.  Now the cord binding you to your former life must be severed.  You will cut the cord by actually entering the passage.  This is an auspicious and powerful moment.

Stephen Foster and Meredith Little, The Book of the Vision Quest

As I stand at that edge and ask myself “What am I willing to leave behind so that I can fully step through, in and beyond?” I feel fear, anticipation, excitement AND a deep knowing that this is where I have been coming to since I walked down that mountain a year ago yesterday, my bag heavy on my back, my vision light in my heart.

I have laughed, cried, worried, questioned,  stumbled and walked gracefully through reincorporation. I unconsciously re-entered severance during this time, and once again I find myself standing at the doorway that leads from here to there.

And I laugh too, because after two years of doing some intense self work, I promised myself that I would have a ‘year off’ this year.  Little did I know that by choosing to step up to this journey all those many months ago, all I really did was open a door.  One of many doors.

And, of course, with each new door comes a new threshold…

“An ounce of hope is worth more than a tonne of despair”

“Denial is everywhere. I have come to believe that it’s an intrinsic component of our humanity, an essential survival strategy. Unlike other species, we know that we will die. This knowledge could destroy us, were we unable to blot it out. But, unlike other species, we also know how not to know. We employ this unique ability to suppress our knowledge not just of mortality, but of everything we find uncomfortable, until our survival strategy becomes a threat to our survival.”

George Monbiot

This morning, whilst lounging in bed in the small cottage we’re staying in in Aberdyfi for the week, I finished reading Feral, the latest book by journalist and environmentalist, George Monbiot.  In a nutshell, it’s a book about rewilding; rewilding the land, rewilding the sea, rewilding ourselves.

While there seem to be numerous definitions of ‘rewilding’ out there, I agree with GM that two of those definitions are most fascinating.  The first relates to allowing ecological processes to resume within natural ecosystems.  So, rather than attempting to freeze nature in the name of ‘preservation’ or ‘conservation’, recognising actually that the natural world is not made up of  simple, static systems, but rather richly complex processes that go way beyond our initial understanding or imaginings; processes that must be allowed to return and evolve naturally.  The other definition relates to our own place within this ecosystem – the rewilding of human life.  GM describes this perfectly as “an enhanced opportunity for people to engage with and delight in the natural world”.

After reading Feral, I went on to GM’s website and came across the above quote about denial.  And I absolutely, wholeheartedly agree: we live in a world of denial.  I have questioned the status quo, the ‘boxes’ that we are all meant to fit neatly inside of, for almost as long as I can remember.  This, I have learnt, is not the easy route through life.  I’ve fallen out with a lot of people along the way.  I ask awkward questions, start uncomfortable conversations, bring things up that others would prefer just quietly swept under the carpet.  I’m fully aware of this, yet to not take this position feels, to me, insincere and disingenuous.  I made a promise a long time ago that I would NEVER give my daughters the answer “Because that’s just how things are, ok” because that response has ALWAYS frustrated me.  Quite simply, it is not good enough.

There is always more going on than I can see on the surface of things, so as far as I’m concerned there is always something else to question.  Yet another thing that I can not take for granted, whether it’s the clothes I wear, the food I eat, where I shop, how I travel, how I educate my children, how I earn my money, where and how I holiday… The list feels, at times, endless and exhausting.  But to not ask these questions would be to live in denial.  Denial that this fragile world we’re living in is not actually teetering on the edge of massive collapse.

GM is a writer and activist who seems fairly controversial.  I don’t have an opinion on him myself (yet), but I do know that Feral has got me thinking and looking deeply, for it has radically altered the way I now see this landscape around me here in mid/north Wales.  From the ‘white plague’ of sheep that roam the hillsides and mountaintops, stripping bare ground again and again which could, and indeed should, sustain so much more wild life than it does now, to the unseen depths of the sea that have been devastated by commercial fishing on a scale that I find difficult, and yes deeply uncomfortable, to get my head around.  These are all things that are so easy to overlook – to see superficially what seems beautiful and benign and, yes, even ‘wild’.  But when you look closer, and you question what’s really going on, when you ask those awkward questions and you refuse to take “Well, that’s just how things are” as an answer, the truth becomes clear.  And shocking.  And frightening.  What kind of world exactly ARE we cultivating for all our inquisitive children?

So where’s the “ounce of hope” in all this despair?  As GM and many other environmentalists, activists and climate scientists explain, the answers are actually really quite simple.  The small changes that we can make to the natural world around us can have huge and far reaching effects (take the re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park as one example).  Effects that we CAN realise within our own lifetimes. Many of these will need to be made on a government level, yes, but it is the individual decisions we each choose to make on a daily basis that determine the course of things really.  We have to believe this.  I have to believe this.  It is where hope lies.  And without hope, well we really are well and truly screwed.

Here’s the TED talk GM did last year about rewilding.  And if you can get hold of a copy, I’d highly recommend reading Feral as well.  But be warned: the world around you might not quite look the same again…

Wild inspiration

I was meant to be doing something else this weekend.  I was supposed to be on a Way of Council course in Bristol.  I booked on to this weekend a long time ago and had been really looking forward to it.  A time to learn more about Council; a space to connect in to my own way of being in the world; an opportunity to hear what others have to say about all of this.  All held in a most sacred way.

And I didn’t go.  Because this week I have been feeling overwhelmed (again).

Overwhelmed with all the options that feel open to us at the moment with regards moving to Wales.  Overwhelmed because the girls are at home ALL THE TIME and I can’t often finish a thought process, let alone have a whole conversation about that thought process.  Overwhelmed because there’s so much I want to DO in life and how do I choose/prioritise, because obviously I can’t do it all?!  And overwhelmed because I feel that with all the different balls I’m juggling – mental/emotional/real/not real – I feel like I’m failing badly at all of them.  By Wednesday I’d convinced myself not only that I’d ruined my children’s lives by being such a bad mother, but also that I was never going to be anything of worth in the world because, well, just because I’m basically crap at everything.  And besides, the world is f****d anyway so really what’s the point?

Yes… those old chestnuts.  (Sigh…)

So, by Thursday I knew that what I really needed was time and space to get all of this CRAP out of my head, and for me, that means removing myself from pretty much everything and everyone.  I needed physical space, openness, air, hills, trees, vistas.  I needed to walk somewhere wilder than here, because when I do I always feel better – I can just give all of my overwhelmedness to the land and she will always take it.  This, I know.

The Malvern Hills are not what I would exactly call ‘wild’, but they are not too far away, and when I got there at dawn yesterday morning and the mist was down, well I could have been anywhere.  It was beautiful.  The mist gave me an atmospheric feeling of deep, ancient mystery and, other than the paths that criss-cross over the hills, I felt at times I could have been walking not just anywhere but anytime.

I kept smiling to myself as I walked – I had headed to the hills to get height, expansive views, distance, clarity and vision.  And it was so misty I could see only 30ft in front of me most of the time!  And so the message I received was loud and clear – you need to stop looking to the horizon, to what might be out there, to what you may or may not actually be able to see.  You need to look at your feet, at the ground right there in front of you, where you are walking right now.  And yes, you need to take small steps – you need to remain mindful of where you’re going, and what you’re doing!  

When, at times, the mist did clear, and I was given glimpses of the view, I was immediately distracted by other thoughts.  Thoughts that, quite frankly, are really not important in the grand scheme of things.  And so I found myself actually inviting the mist back in.  To bring myself back to the here and now.  To embrace the unknown and to not see it, as I find myself doing at times, as something to fear or worry about, but to see it actually as a gift in reminding me to come back to the present.  To myself.

After all, as Eckhart Tolle would quite rightfully remind me:  

As soon as you honor the present moment, all unhappiness and struggle dissolve, and life begins to flow with joy and ease. When you act out the present-moment awareness, whatever you do becomes imbued with a sense of quality, care, and love – even the most simple action.  

The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment

Eckhart Tolle is probably the only person in the world I would actually allow to come along with me on one of these walks.  Ah yes, I’d happily allow Eckhart to walk alongside me awhile, speaking words of wisdom in that soft, meditative, inner peace-inducing, German-accented voice of his as we ambled up, down, around, within.

Him and the best dog in the world of course.  Now there’s a being who could give a good lesson in enjoying the present moment…

Gaia

(no that wasn’t taken in the Malverns…  I’m way too in the moment to be taking a camera with me on these solo walks in the wild, don’t you know)

Stags bellow…

Fallow_buck

Over the last few years, I’ve been thinking a lot about stags.  At the beginning of the year I even started making a scrapbook about them.  Bits of writing, pictures cut out of here and there, thoughts and emotions that come to me when I muse on the beauty and sacred majesty of these amazing animals.   And I’ve had a picture in my mind for quite some time of a piece of artwork I want to create using some of this imagery…

A part of me knows that the stag has come to me at a time when I’m wanting to understand more the balance of yin and yang forces within me, and especially to embrace more of my masculine spirit .  And then there is the sovereign energy that, for me, stags embody so completely.  You only have to see one of those archetypal pictures of a red deer stag standing proud on the side of a Scottish mountain to know what I mean.

Grace.  Strength.  Pride.  Presence.  Majesty.  Poise.  Dignity.  Balance.  These are all words that come to me when I think of stags, words that I have been reflecting on in terms of my own way of being in the world.  (Sometimes the comparisons are laughable… sometimes inspiring… sometimes they might even ring a little true – ahh those days are when life feels really, really good)

Now, at least, I have one component (well, two really) to keep my artistic vision alive.  Antlers.  I have wanted some for years, and never really known how to (ethically) go about getting my hands on some.  In Arctic and temperate regions, stags (and, notoriously, female reindeer, the only does to also always grow antlers) obviously grow and lose a set of antlers each year, so it’s not like antlers have to be removed from the animal in order to get hold of them.  And still I always knew some would come to me by another route.  And so they did, by way of a wonderful friend as a 36th birthday present this year.  They now sit on my desk, waiting for me to get myself together to use them in the way I’ve been imagining for a few years now.  The time will come… soon…

The process of antler growth and loss each year completely amazes me.  And I understand HOW it happens, but WHY?  It’s not enough for me to hear “It’s just what they do.”  Surely nature has more of a reason than simply “Well, why not?”  Is it, as I’ve read, more an evolutionary survival technique, to allow deer in colder climates freer movement in winter and spring conditions?  In many ways, it doesn’t really matter – it’s the process of death, loss, shedding, re-growth, renewal and regeneration that resonates so deeply with me.  The eternal spiral on which everything within nature and, of course, ourselves, rotates.

Autumn is the rutting season for deer in the UK and yesterday, the same wonderful, antler-giving friend and I went on a Dawn Deer Walk at one of our local National Trust properties, where they have one of the finest fallow deer herds in the country.  It was an early, EARLY start, but as light began to creep into the sky, we knew we were being blessed with a perfect Autumn morning, and all our tiredness fell away.

dawn

Have you ever heard a stag (or buck as fallow deer males are called) bellow?  The noise is unbelievable.  And when the sound comes to you in the dark, or through the mist, it is even more incredible.   Not only were we treated to many moments of these amazing sounds, we also saw numerous ruts in action, bucks’ antlers locked in battle over who would assert themselves as ‘champion’ in that particular stand.  It felt like a very great honour to be able to witness such moments at such close proximity, the bucks seemingly oblivious to our awed presence, the does a little more nervous.

buck_dawn

Our guide for the walk kept describing mornings and moments like these as “magical”, and indeed, we could think of no better word to describe the experience of witnessing it all.  And it made me feel truly grateful, once again, for this land of ours, where, amongst all the busyness and urban sprawl and noise and confusion, we can still find moments of pure wildness.  Moments that stop us in our tracks, make us catch our breath, and gently remind us that long after humans are gone from this land, these moments will go on.

And then the sun came up and it was time for us to leave all that magic behind… keeping just a little bit of it in our hearts forever.  And of course, I still have my antlers, which, most magically of all, came from this very same herd.  But more on those and the creative masterpiece I am still yet to start another time…

sunrise_Charlecote

(And here’s a link to the official video for Martha Tilston’s beautiful song, Stags Bellow, one of my most favourite songs by one of my most favourite artists: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2BVN91wW28 – a soundtrack to my ramblings perhaps…)