Closure… with Cottongrass

It is with a little regret but with an overall feeling of rightness that I have decided to close this blog. Since 2012 I have been writing poems for the land and myths for the old gods of Britain and documenting my spiritual path.

This culminated in the publication of Gatherer of Souls and my lifetime vows to my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd. Since then I was a little lost, my cauldron was a little empty, until, with Gwyn’s guidance, I found a new path in life as a trainee restoring the Manchester mosslands, and through this serving my gods.

Since I started I have been channeling my awen into it in various ways from the more obvious, like writing poetry for a poetry trail and an article on the prehistoric archaeology of Chat Moss, to the less obvious like working on an introductory booklet to peatland plants, a management plan, and a funding bid.

Above all I have enjoyed being the awen. Sowing, propagating, nurturing, and planting the peatland plants and fixing the broken pipes and bunds. Seeing the difference we have made as the plants grow and the water levels alter.

Another reason for closure is that since… I’m not quite sure when… I stopped living my life as my own but as material for poems and blog posts. I want to be in the moment, rather than rehearsing how I am going to retell it.

Before I close I would like to say a huge thank you firstly to my patrons who have supported me through a difficult period and made these blog posts possible. I would also like to thank all who have followed and commented.

And to close… here is a photo of common cottongrass in flower around a pool filled with Spagnum cuspidatum on Little Woolden Moss showing how well some areas have recovered from peat extraction following restoration. 

Books Re-Released on the Ritona Imprint of Gods & Radicals Press

I am very happy and excited to announce that my three books, Enchanting the Shadowlands, The Broken Cauldron, and Gatherer of Souls have officially been re-released in print by the Ritona Imprint of Gods & Radicals Press (which specialises in mythic and mystic works).

Enchanting the Shadowlands has been updated with a new cover, layout, and foreword by Rhyd Wildermuth (below).

‘It’s thought human language derived from the songs of the land. The theory goes like this: our early ancestors, who were always walking through a world full of living songs—the caws of birds, the howls of wolves, the tiny buzzing of insects, the rush of streams, the crack and hiss of fire, the oceanic laughter of trees in wind—began to see meaning in those sounds. Playfully they would imitate them; others around them, hearing a familiar sound from an unfamiliar source, suddenly understood “meaning.” 

If one of them wanted to tell the others a wolf was nearby, he would make the sound of the wolf, and the others would understand. That there were bees nearby, which meant that sweet dripping gold was also nearby, could be conveyed with a buzzing sound. Then there were also all the clicks and soft explosive noises made with the tongue on teeth or palate, the guttural groans and gulping sounds, the labial pauses played upon the lips: all these tricks of the mouth and throat to bring the world around them into the eventual meaning of words.

It’s easy to fell disconnected to this truth now, when so much that is said has so little reference to the land and all that live within it. It’s all ‘buy this’ and ‘calculate that,’ language of fear, of power, of the human world disconnected from its source.

The earliest priests and shamans—up to and including the bards and druids, and many wise person roles in indigenous societies still—are poets. This is not surprising, because if it is your role to intercede between people and the powers of the land, then you ought to be able to understand—and thus also speak—their language. The birds call in a certain way and snow is coming, the trees creak and bend in a particular fashion and a storm shall soon arrive. The animals of the forest suddenly go silent: there is a wolf. The great herd beasts are uneasy, lowing mournfully: a sickness is coming.

To speak to the land you must sing as it does.  To translate for the land, you must understand what it is saying. That’s what poets are for, and that’s what Lorna Smithers is startlingly brilliant at.

She sings the stories not just of the land that is now, but also the stories of its ghosts, the land that once was. This collection, her first, is particularly filled with the songs of ghosts, the chants of ancestors, the wails of lost lives and felled forests, the low roar of the mills poisoning air and river and earth while all that lives there sickens and despairs.

There’s a particular poem in Enchanting The Shadowlands that once made me double over in sorrow, tears that were not mine running down my face. I looked around myself and didn’t know where I was, because I wasn’t where I had been when I started reading the poem. My fingernails caked with dirt, scrabbling through infertile soil for a root that looked like my stillborn child.

Yet I have never had a stillborn child, nor have I ever been in that place, which is the pure magic of her poetry. 

The best translators make you forget that you are not hearing the original in its own language; the best poets make you forget you are reading a poem at all. Again, that’s Lorna’s brilliance, and I’m deeply happy you are about to experience this, too.

Rhyd Wildermuth

The Ardennes 

15 April 2021′

You can purchase my books by clicking on the icons in the right hand menu. There are also free copies available for reviewers so if you would like to review one please get in touch.

Watering Cottongrass

Last August, at Brockholes Nature Reserve, I helped on work parties common cottongrass (Eriophorum angustifolium). Winnowing the tiny dark seeds from the fluffy white heads, placing 1 – 2 into each cell of a 60 cell tray, which we had firmly packed with compost, covering them over, praying they would grow.

We sowed 10,000 plants in total. Some have grown better than others. Later I learnt they were for Little Woolden Moss – a strange synchronicity for it was through contacts at Brockholes that I recently gained a six week contract planting common cottongrass and other peatland plants on this mossland (which was purchased by the Lancashire Wildlife Trust in 2012 after having been badly damaged by peat extraction).

Prior to gaining this work I had discovered my patron god Gwyn ap Nudd’s connection with peat bogs/mosslands* in the medieval Welsh poem ‘Y Pwll Mawn’ ‘The Peat Pit’ by Dafydd ap Gwilym. I promised to make an offering to Gwyn next time I visited one. As we were in lockdown I hadn’t expected to go to a peat bog soon (the only area of lowland raised level bog in South Ribble, Much Hoole Moss, has been drained and, to add insult to injury, commandeered as a paint balling site). On receiving the contract, when I asked what Gwyn wanted, he showed me a common cottongrass plant.

So my planting on Little Woolden Moss had meaning in terms of both conservation and devotion.

I loved my time there in spite of the difficulty and what some might call the monotony of the work – pushing heavy wheelbarrows of plant trays along unstable bunds and repeating the same motion of digging five holes with a spear-spade, planting common cottongrass plugs, moving on, for seven hours.

Although we had many cold starts and some days were grim – with constant rain and up to 50mph winds – most were temperate and we were surrounded by the spring song of skylarks and meadow pipits, curlews, lapwings display flighting, brown hares racing up and down the bunds, and deer tracks (but not deer) were often seen.

When encountering the glacial till, seeing the ancient bog oaks exposed by the excavations (with 8 metres of peat 10,000 years of the archaeological record had been stripped away, unknown stories, our exploitation only slightly redeemed in that the compost had been used to nurture new plants) I experienced profound feelings of sorrow, awe, and privilege in partaking in the restoration process.

I later learnt ‘Little Woolden’ derives from the Viking Vuluedene ‘Wolf’s Valley’. This was significant for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I had previously agreed to write a series of poems for a Ghost Wolf Trail in New Moss Wood, just down the road, for the Carbon Landscape Partnership. Secondly, Gwyn and his father, Nudd/Nodens, are associated with wolves.

Little Woolden Moss is one of the few places that, in the words of storyteller Martin Shaw, I have felt ‘claimed’ by. The only others are my locality of Penwortham and the stretch of the Ribble from the Douglas estuary to Brockholes and those to which I have been a fleeting visitor such as Glastonbury, Cadair Idris, Borth beach, and Coed Felenrhyd (beautiful in their own ways but not truly ‘mine’).

Thus I was disappointed when, after succeeding with an application, and attending an interview, I didn’t gain either of two paid Great Manchester Wetlands Traineeships. I received positive feedback from Lancashire Peatlands Initiative Officer, helpful for other interviews, but assumed I had no future in peatland restoration.

So I returned to my voluntary internship at Brockholes, which I continued to enjoy, 3 – 4 days a week. One of my jobs was watering the common cottongrass, which we planted last year, and is due to go to Little Woolden Moss in mid-June.

On Thursday, after watering the cottongrass, I heard my phone ringing and just missed the call.

“That’s odd,” I said to the Assistant Reserve Officer, with whom I was working, “nobody every rings me.”

When I checked the number I saw it belonged to the Lancashire Peatland Initiative Officer.

“You’d better ring him back,” my colleague said, with a knowing tone in his voice.

So I rang back and, to my surprise, was offered the Great Manchester Wetlands Traineeship on the mosslands, based at Little Woolden Moss, as the previous candidate had chosen another job.

So… of course… I have taken it. The funding for the job will last a year. I will hopefully be starting on Monday 26th April and I have arranged to work my contracted 30 hours a week Monday – Thursday so I can continue with my internship at Brockholes one day a week on a Friday. So it looks like I may be both watering the common cottongrass we planted at Brockholes and planting it on Little Woolden Moss.

In total there are another 45,000 plants to be planted on Little Woolden this year. When Gwyn asked me for an offering of cottongrass I wasn’t expecting it to be in quite such numbers or to be planting it later in the year and, if this traineeship leads to a permanent job in peatland restoration, for many years to come.

King Fishing

I.

Your azure blue splash.

The quickness
of your dive.

Your kiss of fire.

Your splendour.

Your spine-snapping
savagery.

II.
Your body weight
in fish eaten

every day

fishing for
each of your young.

Your aeronautics.

III.
You were here
before someone wounded
the Fisher King

red dripping into blue

the blood from
his groin

like blood
from his queen’s
menses

flowing into the sea

(when male and female
had to bleed).

IV.
You were here
before the fae danced
in your colours

in the hall
of the King of Annwn
like devils

burning red
and cooling blue.

V.
You sat on your perch
and you watched

the gods –

some say
you advised
the Fisher King.

VI.
His wound

is beginning to heal
with the demise

of industry.

The red rivers
are flowing blue.

VII.
You are no longer
a myth

we cannot reach

on boats
of fish bones

sailing for halcyon days

because
they are here
like you

on this river.

VIII.
The Fisher King
is fishing.

The red world
is turning
blue.

This poem is the third of three pieces about creatures who build their nests in sandy banks and can be seen at Brockholes Nature Reserve. I wrote it a couple of weeks ago when I was applying for a paid traineeship on the Kingfisher Trail – a 14 mile recreational route following the rivers of the Croal-Irwell Valley connecting ‘the rural West Pennine Moors to the urban communities of Bolton, Bury, and Salford’ (HERE). Although I didn’t get the job (of 300 applicants I made the top three) I intend to walk the trail.

In this poem I link the kingfisher to Nodens/Nudd, an ancient British god of hunting, fishing, healing and dreams, from whose mythos the story of the Fisher King may have arisen (although Brân is a candidate too) and to his son, Gwyn ap Nudd, a King of Annwn/Faery, whose people make merry in red and blue costumes in his feasting hall.

Coincidentally, around the same time, Gwilym Morus-Baird published a video on ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and St Collen’ (HERE) where he discusses the symbology of Gwyn’s people wearing red and blue, which might have alchemical significance. Intriguingly he linked this to the two streams, Y Gwter Las and Y Gwter Goch which flow into Llyn y Fan Fach, the location of a story where a fairy bride is given away by a Fairy King-like figure.

Moving In With the Sand Martins

It lives in Europe, in winding holes in sheer sandy hills
– Linnaeus

I.
Riparia riparia
from ripa ‘of the river bank’
sounds like their djirr djirr prrt
beside the Ribble

as they arrive in sixes,
sevens, in their twenties,
swoop in from Africa

tumbling for gnats.

II.
Excited by the sight
of their forked tails and white bellies

we run to prepare the nesting boxes –

all 300 with their sandy tunnels,
dark and cavernous interiors,
tightly locked back doors,

dig out the moat to protect them from predators.

III.
When the world is too big,
the arguments at home intolerable

I think of them snug in their hotel
on their little island paradise.

“That’s it,” I tell my mum and dad.
“I’m moving in with the sand martins.”

IV.
I pack my rucksack full of feathers,
gather twigs, bits of reed, to make my nest

and push my way down the long, dark, sandy tunnel

to the cave where I stay all summer between
three pairs of sand martins and a mouse.

V.
As I sit alone and listen to the chatter
of males and females and soon their chicks
I realise it is not unlike being at home –

surrounded by happy families.

I listen to the tales they tell their young –
of the rite of leaving the cave, exiting the tunnel,
of the bright sunlit river and countless flies that lie outside.

Of how all this was made for them by the goddess of the Ribble.

Of how mighty Belisama loves riparia riparia
and her river-light guides them back.

VI.
I hear them tell of distant gods,
distant flying insects, distant animals
whose shapes I see dancing on the cave walls –

gazelles, cheetahs, wild dogs, buffalo, hartebeest,
scimitar-horned oxen with us no longer.

VII.
I hear the tales of the drought years
passed down from the legends who survived

(they have names like Long-Brown-Wing-Fly-Catcher
White-Belly-Diver-River-Dancer… chattering on
and on that I can’t pronounce in one breath)

the concerns of the elders who have seen
future droughts in the patterns of flies.

VIII.
I listen to their final farewells
to their young and hear them depart
to roosts where I cannot follow because

I do not have brown wings, a white belly, a forked tail.

I am not marked by a bar across my chest.
Thus barred from becoming a bird
where will I go this winter?

~

In early March, one of my tasks, as a conservation intern at Brockholes Nature Reserve, was preparing the sand martin nesting boxes on Number One Pit (this is the name of a lake that formed in a pit dug for sand and gravel quarrying).

We opened up the backs of the boxes, cleared out old nesting materials (which can be a hot bed for parasites), added fresh sand and re-filled the tunnels with sand for the birds to push their way through in imitation of tunnelling into a sandy bank. They usually excavate horizontal tunnels up to 1m in length with a chamber at the end.

At this point in time the sand martins had started arriving in sixes and sevens and the day we finished twenty were seen over Number One Pit. They tend to arrive between mid-March and mid-April and to lay their eggs in late May.

This poem was written following a conversation with one of my colleagues, who I prepared the boxes with, about how good it would be to move in with the sand martins.

Sandy Banks for Mining Bees and Belisama

One of my tasks as a conservation intern at Brockholes Nature Reserve over the winter was helping to clear the vegetation from the sandy banks, which are used as nesting sites by mining bees. Brockholes is next to the river Ribble, whose shifts of course since its valley was carved by a glacier during the Ice Age, have laid down sandy deposits (although most of the sand and gravel was quarried over a decade ago some remains).

These sandy banks are the perfect homes for mining bees (Andrena species). It is little known that, in Britain, of over 270 species of bee, there is only one species of honey bee, 24 species of bumblebee and around 250 species of solitary bees. 65 of the latter are mining bees. They make homes for their young in soil, sand, or clay, and can be found on river banks, road and railway embankments, cliff faces, garden lawns, allotments, open woodlands, and moorlands.

During their brief life-span of four to six weeks, in spring and summer, female mining bees gather pollen on their hind legs and take it to where they have excavated their nests. They dig a tunnel to a chamber, add pollen to strengthen the walls, lay an egg, seal it shut, and move on to the next. Once laying is complete they perish. The only function of the males is to mate with the females, after which they die. The larvae over-winter in the chambers and emerge in the spring to restart the cycle.

One of the most common species is the ashy mining bee (Andrena cineraria). TheLatin term cinerarius means‘of ashes’ and refers to the broad ash grey bands on the thorax of the female who is otherwise black. It flies from April to August and is an important pollinator of fruit trees.

Another is the tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva). The female has bright red hairs on her thorax. It flies from March to June and feeds on a variety of nectar-producing and pollen-bearing plants and trees.

The early mining bee (Andrena haemorhhoa) is named for the blood-red tip on its abdomen and red hairs on its thorax and flies from April to July. One of the defining behaviours of the wool carder bee (Anthidium maculatum) is collecting hairs from plants for its nest. The small sallow mining bee (Andrena praecox) is a sallow specialist. There are many more species of these intriguing bees.

Learning about mining bees and their favoured habitat in sandy banks has led me to contemplate how I have long intuited a connection between Belisama, ‘Shining One’, the goddess of the Ribble, and bees. At first I thought this was because she is connected with light and sunshine and the coming of spring and summer, when bees emerge and take flight, but now I see she has a particular connection with mining bees who build their homes on the Ribble’s banks and sandy banks left by the river.

SOURCES

Ryan Clark, ‘Guide to Solitary Bees in Britain’, The Wildlife Trusts https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/blog/ryan-clark/guide-solitary-bees-britain

‘Solitary Bees: 8 Facts to Know Plus an Identification Resource’, Wild Care, https://www.wildcare.co.uk/blog/solitary-bees-8-facts-to-know-plus-an-identification-resource/

‘Andrena’, Nature Guide, https://sites.google.com/site/natureguideuk/home/bees/andrena

Review: Gods-Speaking by Judith O’Grady

Gods-Speaking is by Judith O’Grady, an elderly druid and biologist who had a career in veterinary medicine and lived on a tiny urban farm in Ottawa, Canada. She sadly passed away in December 2020.

Judith, like myself, was one of the long-standing writers for Gods & Radicals and I felt a kinship with her as somebody who honoured the old gods and had a deep relationship with the land and its spirits, upheld not only in ritual but in action such as going out and litter picking and planting trees. It is with regret I write this review after her passing. I hope, somehow, my words may still reach her.

In the first section of this readable little book Judith outlines what it means to be a ‘God-Speaker’. She relates this word, which she coined herself, to the better-known terms ‘visionary’, ‘seer’, and ‘mystic’ and says this is about ‘the belief in the Gods that I believe that are speaking to me, the belief that They can and do speak to me, and the belief that our communication has some purpose’.

Judith describes the ‘process of God-Speaking’ as ‘two-way communication’ and also refers to it as ‘Gods-Bothered’ as ‘the Gods don’t enter communication with us to pat us on the back or congratulate us on a job well done, but instead to give us difficult tasks and teach us unpleasant truths.’

She speaks of how most societies ‘have a place for the person who troubles hirself to speak with the Gods and whom They trouble in return’ and notes most Gods-Bothered people are segregated in some way, for example, in ‘the detached dwelling of the shaman’, ‘the hut of the hermit’ and ‘the monastery’. This draws to attention the lack of a place for the God-Speaker outside traditional religions.

She outlines some of the problems faced by the Gods-Bothered, one of the most common, for those who see visions and hear voices, being walking the fine line between being a seer and being crazy. This is distinguished by the ability to use discernment and free choice in accepting advice from the gods for the better of themselves and their communities rather than engaging in destructive behaviour.

One of the helpful analogies she uses is the ‘crazy train’ – it is always possible to ‘get off at “ask a question junction” or “find a guide halt” and refuse to descend to “the platform of destructive thinking”’.

Judith outlines how her conception of how God-Speaking relates to biology. ‘Imaging technology’ shows that when a person is having a mystical experience ‘a tiny part of the brain’ ‘lights up’. She calls this the ‘God-Speaker’ and suggests there is an evolutionary purpose to speaking with the Gods.

As an awenydd, an ‘inspired one’ or ‘seer’ in the Brythonic tradition, I found this section insightful and relatable and imagine anyone who speaks with or has been spoken to by the gods would also relate.

In the second section Judith speaks of her personal experiences with the gods and spirits of the land. As someone with an important relationship with my local river goddess and her ‘daughters’ (my local streams), I empathised strongly with Judith’s account of getting to know the spirit of her creek, Pinecrest Creek, which is piped from near her home, under a bus transitway and shopping centre, into a Parkway, then ‘comes out into a pool to flow for a brief free stretch before flowing into the Ottawa river.’

Judith provides an account of how her Druid Grove came to honour the Spirit of the Creek by collecting water and using it as an offering in ritual and by litter picking. Her vision of this spirit, who they came to know as Sionnach Du ‘Black Fox’ stood out to me as vivid and very real.

‘Ze steps out from the shadows, taking the form of an urbanized wild creature, a fox, to personify to me. But it was a humanoid-shaped being, apart from the fox face, and dressed in dark colours, black, and heavily cloaked as befitting a land spirit largely confined to sewer pipes and storm drains. Androgynous…’

Judith speaks of how the spirits of the grove, Black Fox Watershed, Singing Memory Frog, the ghost of large Snapping Turtle and the dragons, were slowly and organically gathered. I related to this way of discovering gods and spirits within the land rather than calling them from outside.

Throughout the book Judith, who is clearly not only wise but well-read in philosophy, outlines her conception of the gods. She says that rather than being ‘friends’, ‘allies’, or ‘partners’ to ‘work with’ they are ‘timeless, wise, philosophical, powerful and motivated by a greater understanding and comprehension than I have access to.’ The come from ‘Gods-Land’ and speak ‘God-ish’ not English or any other language (it is a function of our human minds that translates their language into our own).

Most profoundly: ‘I do not think that my belief or the lack of belief of others affects the beings of place or the Gods; I believe that They are present whether believed in or not. They see us regardless of what we see when we look towards Them. Their world lies behind ours like a bright shadow of reality: the shadow does not reflect what we have built (or destroyed), but what might be.’

These are the words of a true God-Speaker, a seer, a wise woman in the modern Druidic tradition.

This book is essential reading for all who are new to God-Speaking, for in Judith you will find an older, wiser guide whose voice is filled with love of the land and the gods, rich in counsel and humour. It will also resonate with those who have been speaking with the gods for a long while. I would recommend it, too, to those who are curious about whether they can speak with the Gods (yes, you can – I believe, with Judith, this is a capacity we all have and can develop with practice) and to those who don’t want to try it, but would like to find out more from an experienced practitioner.

Gods-Speaking is available through Gods & Radicals Press HERE.

I Say Farewell

Farewell Little Woolden Moss.
Farewell Great Manchester Wetlands –
an end of contract and news of a failed job interview
fall on the same day but I haven’t failed
because we planted that last plant,

that last little plug plant of common cottongrass,

greening and rimmed with red like a sunset,
ready to turn golden next month’s dawn.

Farewell to hare’s tail cottongrass,
tails showing like the tails of brown hares
racing up and down the bunds like celebrities.

Farewell to all eleven species of sphagnum,
bog rosemary, cross-leafed heath, long
may you grow and prosper beauties.

Farewell to the oyster catchers who we saw
back-to-back on the bund, reflected in the water,
who cried weep weep in the air far from human tears.

Farewell to the lapwings in their black-and-white mating flight.

Farewell to the curlews with their cur-lee cur-lee-eee,
to the four flying over with down-curved beaks.

Farewell to the skylarks keeping our spirits up
and to the meadow pipits piping away.

Farewell to those I worked with now friends.

Farewell to the porter cabin and the fact we had a toilet.

Farewell to the journeys down the M6 (busy and contentious).

Farewell to a journey now complete – back home now
I will wait, again, to hear the will of the gods…

~

This poem relates to the completion of the contract work I have been carrying out planting on Little Woolden Moss for the Lancashire Wildlife Trust and my failure, on interview, to gain the paid position of Great Manchester Wetlands Trainee.

These photographs show the development of common cottongrass on a mossland over time.

Wooden Idols of the Bogs

I. The Roos Carr Figures – Voyagers to the Otherworld?

A few weeks ago, fellow awenydd Greg Hill drew my attention to the Roos Carr Figures HERE. These fascinating wooden warrior figurines, eight in total, their shields, and their serpent-headed boats were sealed in a wooden box and deposited in a boggy area (‘carr’ means ‘bog or fen covered with scrub’).

They were found in a layer of blue clay by labourers cleaning a ditch in 1836. Of the eight, only five remain (the fifth was returned after one of the labourers gave him to his daughter as an ‘ancient doll’ to play with), a couple of the shields and one of conjecturally two boats due to decay.

Radiocarbon dating to 606 – 508 BCE places them in the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age. Carved from yew they stand between 31cm and 45cm tall. Their faces are angular with prominent noses, slit-like mouths, and striking eyes made of quartzite pebbles set into eye-holes. Elongated trunks with drill-holes at the shoulders for arms taper into thin peg-like legs. Each has a central pubic hole.

The figures were found with a number of dis-attached appendages, some of which were arms, some of which were phalluses, to be placed in the empty holes. Typically, the Victorians mistook the phalluses for oars. Since then their manhoods have been returned to their correct positions.

I immediately fell in love with these little figures who might be interpreted to be living or dead warriors sailing their serpent-ship on a voyage to Annwn, ‘the Deep’, the ancient British Otherworld. Their representation reminded me of the medieval Welsh poem ‘Preiddu Annwn’ ‘The Spoils of the Otherworld’ in which Arthur takes three loads of warriors in his ship, Prydwen, to assault a series of otherworldly fortresses to steal the Brindled Ox and the Cauldron of Pen Annwn.

It suggested the existence of a pre-Arthurian tale in which warriors set out on a quest to Annwn to visit the dead and the deities of Annwn and perhaps bring back treasures to Thisworld.

II. Wooden Idols of Britain and Ireland – Threshold Guardians?

My research on the Roos Carr Figures led me to discovering that a number of wooden figurines have been found across Britain and Ireland. All were found in wet places which were seen as liminal – where crossings of bogs or waters needed to be made – suggesting they were threshold guardians. Some of these ‘idols’ have been interpreted to be gods and goddesses, others spirits of place, and others ancestors and, of course, the boundaries between these terms are intrinsically fluid.

The Ballachulish Goddess was found on Ballchulish Moss, in Inverness-shire, Scotland. Dated to 600 BC it stands at a height of 145cm, the size of a girl, and is the largest of our British figures. Carved from alder wood it has a large head with a long, thin nose, a full mouth, and small white quartzite eyes. Its chest is flat with two pairs of incised circles representing breasts and nipples. The objects it is holding have not yet been securely identified (a couple of scholars have suggested they are severed penises!). Its legs end in a solid block of wood.

It was discovered during building work, in 1880, in deep layers of peat ‘lying face down on the gravel of an old raised beach, around 120 metres from the shore of Loch Leven’ and may have stood beside a pool. ‘Under and above’ were ‘intertwined branches and twigs and ‘straighter poles which might have formed a ‘wickerwork container, or a little shrine’.

Its location, overlooking ‘the dangerous straits linking Loch Leven with the sea’ are suggestive of its worship as ‘the goddess of the straits’ to whom travellers made offerings for a safe crossing.

Another intriguing example is the Somerset God Dolly which is the oldest of Britain’s known wooden idols, dating to between 2285 and 3340 BCE. This hermaphroditic figure was carved from ash wood, was 16cm high, and had a ‘round featureless head, no neck, and a small stubby body with two asymmetrically placed breasts and a large horizontal penis’ ending ‘at the base of the trunk without legs.’

It was found on the Somerset Levels, ‘driven upside down’ ‘within a cluster of pegs’ ‘that formed part of Bell Track A’ and ‘stratigraphically below the Bell B Track’. This suggests it might have been a threshold guardian of the earlier trackway, then made redundant, and buried beneath.

Nearby, in Hillfarrance, an oak forked-branch figure dated to 1131-1410 BCE was retrieved from a pit in a ‘riverine peat wetland’ ‘beside two brooks, both tributaries of the river Tone.’ Only the lower limbs and torso, 45cm long, have survived. It was buried with shards of pottery, a burnt stone and worked wood. Again, this was a deliberate deposition, perhaps of a former guardian.

The Kingsteignton Idol was discovered on the banks of the river Teign, in south Devon, ‘lying up against the trunk of a fallen oak tree’. Carved from oak wood, 33cm tall, it has a ‘long thin body’, ‘elongated neck’, and ‘large head’ with ‘eyes, nose and chin’ ‘indicated’. There is a hole in his neck for insertable arms. Its ‘trunk is straight, square-shouldered, with carefully carved buttocks and erect penis’ and its ‘short, kneed legs end in stubby feet.’ It has been dated to 426-352 BC. It was likely associated with the oak tree, a threshold marker, and may have been its guardian spirit.

On the Dagenham marshes, on the bank of the Thames, down river from London, the Dagenham Idol was found in close proximity to the skeleton of a deer. It has been dated to 2250 BC. Carved from the wood of a Scots pine it stands at 46cm tall and has a large head, flat face, sockets for eyes (‘the right deeper than the left’), and no ears or hair. Its trunk is armless. It has a central pubic hole, potentially for the insertion of a penis and its legs are straight and footless. It might have been a guardian of the marshland and/or river and possibly had an association with deer and other animals.

In Ireland the Ralaghan Figure was found in a peat bog and the Lagore Figure on a crannog in a peat lake. A model dug-out canoe was discovered at Clowanstown 1, County Meath, and might be seen to resemble the serpent boat of the Roos Carr Figures, paddling the lake, and between worlds.

The existence of these idols provides evidence that, from the early Bronze Age into the Iron Age, the people of Britain and Ireland saw wet places as sacred and inspirited as well as potentially dangerous. The gods and spirits appeared to them in anthropomorphic forms and were carved into wooden idols, which were seen to embody them, and to which offerings were likely made for safe passage.

For unknown reasons some of these idols were deposed and buried in or near the place where they stood. Had they reached the end of their power and thus served their purpose? Had they requested to be returned to the waters of their origin? Were they seen as just as or more powerful when buried like the dead? The answers to these questions are as unknowable as the minds of our distant ancestors

III. Wooden Idols and Ritual Landscapes in Northern Europe

Numerous wooden idols serving a similar function have been recovered from across Northern Europe. The best example of a ritual complex is Opfermoor Vogtei in Germany. Situated on a bog, which includes a shallow lake, it was in use from the 5th century to beyond the Roman period.

Within circular enclosures of hazel branches were altars where wooden cult figures were worshipped. Wooden idols were also found on the edges of the lake where they overlooked the waters.

During excavations on Wittemoor timber trackway across a bog in Berne, Lower Saxony, in Germany, six wooden figurines dating to the Iron Age were found. Two of them stood on either side of the track where it crossed a stream. Both were ‘carved in silhouette out of oak planks 3 to 7cm thick’. The male was 105cm tall ‘with a rectangular body’ and the female 95cm tall ‘with breasts or shoulders indicated by a slanted cut, broad hips and vulva’. The male slotted into a plank and the female stood on a mound. The other figures are described as ‘cult poles’. Fire sites ‘at each end of the crossing’ and ‘stones and worked alder sticks’ around two of the poles suggest offerings were made.

These discoveries show that wooden idols served a significant function within ritual landscapes for the Germanic peoples. As representations of gods and goddesses and spirits of place with threshold functions they were raised on altars, fires were built in their honour, and offerings were made to them.

Similar idols, such as the Braak Bog Figures, have been found elsewhere in Germany. From Denmark we have the Broddenjberg Idol and figurines were found in Wilemstad in the Netherlands.

One of the most impressive, from Russia, is the Shigir Idol. Dated to 10500 BCE, the Mesolithic period, around the end of the Ice Age, it is ‘the oldest known wooden sculpture in the world.’

Found in a peat bog in Shigir it is carved from larch and may have originally stood at at 5.3m tall. It has a small head with narrow eyes, a triangular nose, circular mouth, and pointed chin. Its body is flat and pole-like and covered in ‘geometrical motifs’ including ‘zigzag lines’ and ‘depictions of human hands and faces’. It speaks to me of a death god filled with the spirits of the dead.

It has been proposed that the decorations tell the story of a creation myth or ‘serve as a warning not to enter a dangerous area’. Whatever the case, it would have been a formidable figure at the centre of a ritual landscape, seen for miles around, imbued with great meaning for the early hunter-gatherers.

What strikes me the most about these wooden idols is that they seem hauntingly familiar. I’m not sure if this because, as a Smithers, I have Saxon ancestry and connections to the figures from Germany or because, when I’ve been travelling wetlands, physically and in spirit, I have caught glimpses of dark figures who might be wetland spirits or echoes of their representations.

What is certain is that the presence of spirits and the urge to carve them from wood has been felt across Northern Europe since, at least, the Ice Age. In the Norse myths, the first humans were created from ash and elm by the gods and, in the Brythonic myths, soldiers were conjured from trees by a deity. I wonder whether our creation of wooden idols was seen to mirror this divine process?

SOURCES

Bryony Coles, ‘Anthropomorphic Wooden Figures From Britain and Ireland’, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 56, 1990

Clive Jonathon Bond, ‘The God-Dolly Wooden Figurine from the Somerset Levels, Britain: The Context, the Place and its Meaning’, Anthropomorphic and Zoomorphic Miniature Figures in Eurasia, Africa and Meso-America, Oxford: Archaeopress/BAR International Series 2138

Jeremy Clark, ‘The Intriguing Roos Carr Model Wooden Boat Figures Found Near Withersea, East Yorkshire’, The Yorkshire Journal, Issue 1, Spring 2011

‘Ballachulish Figure’, National Museums Scotland, https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/scottish-history-and-archaeology/ballachulish-figure/

‘Introducing the Kingsteignton Idol’, Artefactual, https://artefactual.co.uk/2014/06/29/introducing-the-kingsteignton-idol/

‘Roos Carr Figures: Faces from the Past’, Hull Museums Collections, http://museumcollections.hullcc.gov.uk/collections/storydetail.php?irn=484&master=449

‘Shigir Idol’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shigir_Idol

‘Wittemoor Timber Trackway’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wittemoor_timber_trackway

The Lives and Deaths of Peat Bogs

Spending over a month doing restoration work on Little Woolden Moss has inspired me to find out more about the ecology of peat bogs – what they are, how they come to life, how they function, how exploitation by humans has led to the deaths of 80% of them, and how they are currently being revived.

The information that follows has been gleaned almost exclusively from the IUCN Peatland Programme’s Conserving Bogs: The Management Handbook, which can be downloaded for free HERE.

What is a Peatland?

A peatland is ‘first and foremost’ a ‘wetland’. Water is essential because peat does not form when the land is dry. Peat is ‘a wetland soil composed largely of semi-decomposed organic matter deposited in-situ, having a minimum organic content of 30% and a thickness greater than 30cm’ and a peatland ‘an area with or without vegetation but possessing a naturally accumulated peat layer at the surface.’

The EU Habitats Directive distinguishes between ‘active bog’ as ‘a system that supports a significant area of vegetation which is normally peat forming’ and ‘non-active bog’ which does not. It is my intuition that a peat-forming bog is a living bog and a bog that is not forming peat is dead.

The most common type of peat bog is raised bog ‘accumulations of peat’ ‘within a non-peat landscape’ or ‘a fen-peat landscape’ mainly found in the lowlands. Such bogs form distinct domes that rise above the surrounding landscape by as much as 10 metres.’ The ‘classic type’ is basin raised bog – ‘formed within a shallow lake that has then infilled through terrestrialisation’.

Other types include floodplain raised bog, estuarine raised bog, and the evocatively named Schwingmoor ‘swinging bog’ which forms as ‘a floating raised dome’ ‘over a deeper lake basin’.

A rarer type of bog is blanket bog which forms as mantles of peat in the uplands. Types include watershed bog, saddle bog, valleyside bog, spur bog, minerotrophic bog, and ladder fen.

How Do Peat Bogs Form?

The UK’s ‘classic’ basin raised bogs developed over basins created in the aftermath of the last Ice Age by the melting of dead ice, surrounded by sediment, which was left when the glaciers retreated. These basins filled with water and became lakes which were ‘colonised by a fringe of fen vegetation’.

As this vegetation decayed the lakes were filled in with ‘fen peats and sediment’. The plants at the centre were ‘cut off from the nutrients at the lake margins.’ These nutrient poor, waterlogged conditions were perfect for sphagnum mosses to come to dominate, forming a thick carpet.

As the sphagnum began to slowly decompose it resulted in an accumulation of peat. When this reached a thickness of half a metre above the original level of the lakes the bogs were separated from the groundwater and became ombotrophic (rain-fed) so dependent on precipitation alone. Slowly they expanded, escaping their lake basins, to become the lowland raised bogs we know of today.

Blanket bogs formed in a similar way in waterlogged areas of our uplands such as saddles and spurs.

The Structure of Living Peat Bogs

All living peat bogs have a ‘diplotelmic structure’ (telm is Greek for marsh, pool, standing or stagnant water’). The acrotelm (from Greek acro ‘topmost’) is the surface of peat-forming vegetation and the catotelm (from Greek cata ‘down’) is the ‘inert, permanently waterlogged peat store’.

This structure is created, mainly, by sphagnum mosses. Their densely packed heads, known as capitula, form a thick carpet around 2cm deep. Sphagnum leaves are specially designed to cope with water logging due to their ‘large and empty hyaline cells’ ‘sandwiching smaller photosynthetic cells’. This provides a ‘large surface area for cation exchange’ – absorbing ‘nutrients dissolved in water’.

Their swapping of scarce nutrients for hydrogen ions acidifies their surroundings making them more favourable for sphagnum colonisation and unfavourable for decomposer micro-organisms. This leads to conditions that are favourable for peat formation. Sphagnum mosses also release a ‘pectin-like substance’ called sphagnan which coats the upper parts of the plant and the water and ‘inhibits nitrogen uptake in decomposer bacteria’ further slowing the processes of decomposition.

(The anti-microbial properties of sphagna led to the use of packs of sphagnum as dressings in World War I).

Sphagnum mosses ‘grow from the top of the plant – the apices – and die at the base’ at around 10cm. The stems and branches collapse, flatten, and break down to form peat. This is the point of transfer to the catotelm. The living layer of the acrotelm can be between 10cm and 40 cm deep. The catotelm can extend up to several metres (the deepest peat bog, in the Netherlands, is nearly 7m deep).

Sphagnum are the dominant species of mosslands and our lowland raised bogs include species such as S. magellanicum, S. papillosum, S. capillifolium, S. tenellum, and S. cuspidatum. Other plants that can survive in these conditions include common cottongrass (Eriophorum angustifolium), hare’s-tail cotton-grass (Eriophorum vaginatum), cross-leaved heath (Erica tetralix), bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia), and round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia). Sundews are carnivorous bog plants ‘which gain extra nutrients (particularly nitrogen) by catching and absorbing insects.

Ombotrophic bogs gain their water not only from rainfall but from ‘occult precipitation’ – mist and fog.

Exploitation and Death

Humans have been exploiting peat bogs for fuel for many centuries. This began with domestic peat cutting. ‘Turves’ were cut by hand with a spade from banks 10m to 100m long, then stacked nearby to dry. The banks were reached by ‘peat tracks’ and carried by horse and cart or in creels or baskets

Traditional cutting has been replaced by ‘tractor-driven machines’ that ‘cut slits beneath the surface’ to extract ‘sausages’ of peat that are left on the surface to dry before their use as burning briquettes’.

Commercial peat extraction for horticulture and energy is currently taking place on a far greater scale and is far more damaging. Peat accumulates at ‘2mm a year’ and ‘a hundred times that depth’ is removed each year by modern extraction methods such as peat milling. This begins with the drainage of the land by ‘regularly spaced deep drains’. Once the upper peat has dried ‘the surface vegetation is removed’ to create ‘bare black fields’ then the top layers are ‘rotovated’ or ‘milled’ to allow further drying before the peat is ‘bulldozed into long ridges’ then bagged or taken to power stations.

Drainage of the land for human benefits has deadly results. The immediate effect is water loss from, and the drying out of, the acrotelm, leading to the decline in sphagnum and other peatland species.

Loss of water from the catotelm is slower (up to one million times slower than the speed of a snail!). However, water in the spaces between peat fragments seeps into the drain. This causes peat adjacent to the drain to collapse and shrink. This process is called ‘primary consolidation’.

The ‘drier catotelm peat adjacent to the drain itself becomes a heavy load on the peat beneath because the drained layer no longer floats buoyantly within the bog water table.’ It ‘compresses the peat beneath it and squeezes more water from the peat into the drain, causing the bog surface to subside still further.’ The entire depth of the catotelm subsides. This is ‘secondary compression’.

Drainage ‘allows oxygen to penetrate the catotelm’ which is usually prevented by waterlogged conditions. ‘Preserved plant material is thus lost in the form of carbon dioxide (CO 2 ), leading to further subsidence as the peat material itself vanishes into the atmosphere.’ This is ‘oxidative wastage’.

‘The three drainage processes – primary consolidation, secondary compression and oxidative wastage – cause the peat to subside progressively and continuously across an ever-expanding area. Drainage in effect continually widens the dimensions and impact of the drain.’

‘Where drainage leads to the loss of the peat-forming layer, carbon sequestration may cease’ and there are increases in the production of dissolved and particulate organic carbon (DOCs and POCs).

A peat bog in this state is termed haplotelmic. Without an acrotelm it is no longer living.

Sadly ‘80% of UK peat bogs now lack an active living surface as a result of human impacts’ and ‘therefore now have little or no capacity for resilience in the face of future climate change.’

Reviving Peat Bogs

Peat bogs can be revived by blocking drains and building dams and bunds to prevent water loss and begin the long process of silting up with vegetation that will lead to the development of sphagnum.

Bare peat can be re-vegetated by planting hardy species such as common cottongrass and hair’s tail cottongrass.

Sphagnum mosses can then be planted amongst the common cottongrass to form new hummocks and once these have formed species such as cross-leaved heath and bog rosemary can be planted on them.

Doing this research has provided me with a greater depth of understanding of the workings of peat bogs and the impact of my work on Little Woolden Moss. It has shown me how restoring a living acrotelm of sphagnum is essential to reviving a bog and reinstating the process of peat formation which sequesters carbon in the depths of the catotelm rather than releasing it into atmosphere.

I look forward to revisiting the mossland in years to come and watching its return to life.