The Return of the Son

For three days
she journeyed there
and for three days
journeyed back

to return a lost son
to return a lost brother
and I alone stand witness
at the standing stone

that might have been
placed here for this day
as his golden rays shine
over the marshland.

How did she win him
back from Winter’s King?
That is for her alone to know
and the birds who sing.

This poem is a follow up of my poem ‘I light a candle for Epona‘ based on the journey of the Great Mare to the Otherworld to win back her lost son. I linked this to my brother’s period of hospitalisation. I’m glad to say he is back now and on the road to recovery so many thanks to the mare goddess and to those who sent good wishes and lit candles.

The photographs are of the sun beginning to set over the winter solstice stone at the stone circle at Brockholes Nature Reserve and over the visitor village and Meadow Lake.

Slowing Down

It happened when I was gearing up. Having given up my placement with Carbon Landscapes in Wigan as it was too office based I had returned to volunteering with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust closer to home and got the conservation internship at Brockholes.

One hundred per cent practical outdoor work, and just a 6 mile cycle ride away at a place I know and love, it promised to be my dream job. I’d completed my first 10k race in New Longton and was training for the City of Preston 10 miles. I was also preparing for my Taekwondo grading, on the Spring Equinox weekend, to gain my blue belt.

Then it struck. A series of lightning-like strikes. I’d heard the thunder. The first rumblings from China, the news the storm was getting closer, that it had hit Italy, Spain, France, arrived in the UK. We joked about it at first. Me with my perpetually runny nose, like a toddler, in spring, due to my hay fever. Anyone who coughed or sneezed, “I haven’t got coronavirus.” We’d seen it on the news but it didn’t seem real, like our little island with its green hills and fresh air granted some form of immunity. We’re British, right? We won the war. Then people started getting sick and started dying.

Around a fortnight ago hand washing or using antibacterial gel before eating became mandatory. On Monday the 16th of March when I was out with the Mud Pack at Brockholes the next step was stopping sharing PPE. No more slightly musty gloves from the collective stash. I was given my own hi-vis in preparation for beginning my internship on the Thursday. Still we worked together building a hibernaculum for great crested newts and ate our lunch outside on a day bright as coltsfoot.

On Tuesday the 17th of March we received an email saying we could no longer share lifts in the van or meet together inside. On Wednesday the 18th of March, another glorious spring day, I went out on another work party planting sarroccoca and eleganus amongst the daffodils on the rock garden on Avenham Park. There was little joking, even amongst the guys from Preston City Council, who were helping out. Everything felt ominous. Still, it came as a shock when I got home to find out all LWT volunteer work parties had been cancelled until the end of April along with my voluntary internship.

In some ways it was a relief because I live with parents who are over 70 and in ill health. I’d been torn between the choices, if I was to continue volunteering, of moving out or risking their lives. So I accepted it was for the best I isolated with them, just going out to do our shopping and to exercise.

Still, I was bitterly disappointed. After winning the struggle to give up alcohol and manage my anxiety without it, and feeling I was finally coming home from my exodus with Carbon Landscapes to the place and the job role in my local landscape where I truly belonged… this!

Yet, I also felt, in some ways my gods had been preparing me for it. If I hadn’t given up alcohol there is no way I would have coped with the situation or with the responsibility of looking after my parents. When considering whether to quit my placement I’d heard a clear voice telling me to “come home.”

Another point is that, at the beginning of January, after I had a mild attack of exercise-induced asthma as a consequence of running my fastest time of 25.21 for 5k on the Avenham Park Run, Gwyn told me during this Taekwondo belt (green with a blue tag representing growth toward the skies) I needed to ‘learn to breathe’. Since then I’ve been trying to discipline myself to spend time in stillness, focusing on my breath, in my morning and evening meditations, but not always managing it.

(What has struck me and many others is that breath is central to this situation on many levels. Coronavirus attacks the lungs and those who get seriously ill face a battle for their breath which, in some cases, can only be won with the aid of mechanical ventilators, and in others not at all. The places worst hit have been cities where the air is badly polluted. Now flights have stopped and most people have stopped commuting by car, the skies are clear of contrails and air pollution has dropped.)

At first, after all that gearing up, I felt like Wily Coyote poised in mid-air off the edge of a cliff with my legs still running. Over the past few days I have been striving to ground myself, to slow down, to process the changes, to find space to breathe. Not easy when surrounded by panic.

My first response was to hit the news and social media to find out what’s happening and what everyone’s doing, leading only to tight chest, shortness of breath. To rush to formulate my own words, to share poems addressing the situation. Like I have some kind of gods-given responsibility… whilst aware of adding to the din of others doing exactly the same and increasing the massive strain on the internet that we forget is causing air pollution as we don’t see the power stations.

“Slow down,” the message kept coming through, from the stopping of traffic the virus has caused. As I ran more slowly, no longer worried about beating my best times, happy to be in the moment, feet steady alongside the Ribble in time with her flow where the daffodils watch with sad beautiful faces.

“Slow down,” as I began to take my time in my parents’ garden instead of rushing through the tasks. Appreciating the sunlight on the pastel colours of the hyacinths and the scent of the magnolia, the steady chuck of spade in earth and textures of compost from the bottom of the heap rich from years of decay.

“Slow down,” every time I sat before my mantlepiece in my bedroom where I keep altars to my deities, feathers and stones, to which I’ve recently added photos of my family ancestors knowing I’ll need their help.

I had developed a new routine based around prayer, writing, housework, gardening, shopping, and exercise when lockdown struck. It didn’t hit too hard as I was already living under those rules.

I’m anticipating a greater slowing. Right now I feel like I’m in ‘defence mode’ with my main prerogatives being to tend to the needs of and protect my vulnerable parents and to maintain my own health. I have also offered to run deliveries on my bike for family and friends, including the older members of my poetry group, if they end up isolating either due to illness or the government order.

An important point of support has been the Way of the Buzzard Mystery School online journey circles and coaching calls. I have been involved with Jason and Nicola’s drumming circles at Cuerden Valley and the Space to Emerge camp since they began and have appreciated being able to continue getting together to do journeywork and discuss the current situation from a shamanistic perspective.

With my daily routine and a support network in place I’m hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. If the UK follows Italy’s curve it is possible that my friends, family, and myself, may be not only be slowed down but locked away by illness, that we may be halted by the life-or-death battle for our breath. That we may have to face the final stopping – death – as usual a topic few think or talk about.

I’ve long had a plan for my funeral but am aware it will be invalidated by these circumstances. There is a huge lack of information about what will happen to the bodies of those who die of coronavirus in the UK. How they will be dealt with, where they will go, how their passing will be acknowledged.

Yet this great slowing gives us time to pause for thought – about the fears we’d rather not face and the solace we can find in each moment of these spring days so beautifully bright in contrast.

Crane-Dance in the Labyrinth?

Over the past few months I’ve been involved with several of the work parties building a labyrinth for ‘fun, exploration and meditation’ at Brockholes Nature Reserve. It was designed by John Lamb (an archaeologist and Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s Senior Conservation Officer) and opened on April the 23rd 2016.

During the period the labyrinth was being built, I was researching links between Gwyn ap Nudd as a ‘bull of battle’ and Gwyddno Garanhir (‘the Knowing One with Long/Crane Legs’) and Tarvos Trigaranus (‘The Bull with Three Cranes’).

Coincidentally I came across a ritual crane-dance in Greece called geranos initiated by Theseus after defeating the minotaur in the  labyrinth in Crete. Its blows and crane-like turns imitated the battle and the labyrinth’s winding course and the leader of the dance was known as geranoulkos. This got me wondering whether the name Gwyddno Garanhir may have been a title deriving from a similar role.

Crane-dances are found in many parts of the world. One of the most famous is the Japanese Shirasagi-no-mai ‘White Heron (‘Crane’) Dance’ which is one thousand years old and ‘was originally performed to drive out the plague and to purify the spirits on their passage to the next world.’ Cranes are also associated with the otherworld in Celtic mythology.

Shirasagi no mai (White heron dance) of Sensō-ji, Wikipedia Commons

Shirasagi-no-mai, Wikipedia Commons

Cranes are depicted accompanying the Eight Immortals in Chinese mythology. They inhabit five islands in the Bohai Sea which include Mount Penglai. This is known as Horai by the Japanese. In both cultures it is a paradisal place with endless amounts of food and drink where nobody grows old. This is intriguing because Gwyddno is a sage-like figure.

Eight_Immortals_Crossing_the_Sea_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_15250

Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea, Wikipedia Commons

One of the earliest finds relating to a crane-dance is an 8,500 year old crane wing found on top of a cattle horn core in Çatalhöyük in ancient Anatolia. The crane bones were pierced by holes of a suitable size for string which suggests they were tied to the arms of a crane-dancer. Two black cranes are depicted on a painting on one of the walls facing a bull  on the opposite wall. A dance scene depicting a sacred marriage and mother and child may prove the dance focused on fertility and birth.

Dance of the Cranes John-Gordon Swogger

Dance of the Cranes by John-Gordon Swogger http://www.savingcranes.org

Crane-dances have many meanings across cultures. One theme that stands out is passage: from the trials of the labyrinth, from one world to the next on birth or death. Gwyn and Gwyddno’s conversation takes place upon Gwyddno’s passing from thisworld to Annwn, possibly in crane-form.

At Brockholes the closest likenesses to a bull (or minotaur!) with cranes are the long-horned cattle and numerous herons who can be seen on the river Ribble and lakes.

When I walked the labyrinth for the first time my intention was getting a feel for its path within the nature reserve between the car park and stone circle as skylarks loudened the summer sky and oystercatchers pipped overhead.

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I found myself pondering whether a geranoulkos would have used such a setting for a crane-dance and what the steps would have looked like at various rites. But I didn’t dance. I’ll leave that to those more agile with longer legs…

SOURCES

Edward A. Armstrong, The Folklore of Birds, (Dover, 1970)
Nerissa Russell & Kevin J. McGowan, ‘Dance of the Cranes: Crane Symbolism at Çatalhöyük and beyond’, (2003) HERE
‘Hypocherma’ (Geranos), Wikipedia HERE
‘White heron (“crane”) dance: Shirasagi-no-mai and heron symbolism’, Japanese Mythology and Folklore HERE

Mid-Winter Reflections

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The Mid-Winter Solstice arrives: a time to pause and reflect. It’s been a turbulent month. Floods have drowned much of Cumbria. Here in Penwortham in Lancashire we’ve not been badly affected but the Ribble’s been high and during heavy rain the roads and footpaths have taken on the apparel of rivers and streams.

The water’s been washing up into my dreams. In one I was working at a riding school where the horses could only be turned out at certain times due to tides covering the path to the fields. In another instead of roads we had transport akin to fairground water-rides.

This future is not unperceivable. Following the agreement at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris to reduce global warming to 2 degrees, the UK government announced 68 new shale gas drilling sites including a well in the North Yorkshire Moors National Park.

Along with environmentalists and pagans across Britain I was outraged. A greener future will not be brought about by causing further damage to the landscape in a ruthless quest to extract expendable fossil fuel which benefits only rich share-holders. This can only mean more industry, more roads, more cars, more pollution, worse climate change and more floods.

Earlier this year Lancashire County Council stood by local people and refused to grant permission to Cuadrilla to drill at Roseacre and Little Plumpton. Cuadrilla have appealed and it was recently announced the decision will be made by the central government. With their plans to ‘get shale gas moving’ it’s obvious which way the decision will go. The last resort will be resistance at the sites themselves.

The atmosphere in Preston is increasingly edgy. On the 17th I received a call from a friend asking me to join anti-fracking protestors outside the County Hall to stand against a pro-fracking vigil. When I arrived there were no pro-frackers to be seen: it appears to have been a farce spread by Facebook. However seeing the anti-frackers with placards, a group walking past shouted “let the workers get their jobs”.

That very morning the Fishergate Centre and adjoining roads had been shut off because an ‘incendiary device’ was found in the men’s toilets. Luckily a member of the public put it out. It wasn’t a bomb but a lot of people were freaked out by the thought it could have been.

The war against IS is fabricating divisions in the city. Recently The Daily Mail made a false claim about Muslim no-go areas. Fortunately this has been refuted by the Lancashire Police and Muslim faith-workers. There are more homeless people on the streets than ever due to austerity.

It’s 16 degrees and plants are flowering and it doesn’t feel like winter. Within the tumult it is difficult to pause and find anything positive to reflect on.

Looking back, on personal and community levels it has been a good year. I published my first book: Enchanting the Shadowlands, presented it to Gwyn on Glastonbury Tor and held a successful book launch. I’ve performed ancient British and Greek seasonal myths at local festivals with Guests of the Earth. It’s possible this is the first time the story of Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad has been told in the Old North for centuries.

My poem ‘Devil’s Bagpipes on Stoneygate’ was published in the pioneering Gods & Radicals journal: A Beautiful Resistance: Everything We Already Are. Korova Poetry has had its ups and downs in numbers of attendees but is still going strong after over a year.

I’ve met Potia, Neil and Heron from the Dun Brython group and contributed to The Grey Mare on the Hill anthology (edited by Lee). We’re planning a group meeting and new devotional and creative endeavours for 2016. I’m also arranging additional events with the Oak and Feather Grove to supplement the eight festivals of the Wheel of the Year.

I’ve learnt about the re-introduction of cranes in Norfolk and on the Somerset Levels. Over the past few years I’ve felt a growing connection with local wetlands. Much of Lancashire used to be lowland raised bog and marsh which is reflected in the name of the Romano-British tribe ‘the Setantii’ ‘the Dwellers in the Water Country’.

Over the past four centuries most of Lancashire’s wetlands have been drained and made into farmland. The most dramatic example is ‘Lancashire’s Lost Lake’: Martin Mere. Of its 15 mile diameter only the shrunken remnant of the mere, outlying lakes and place-names such as Mere Sands Wood and Mere Brow remain. However the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust are doing valuable work restoring Martin Mere’s reed beds. Thousands of whooper swans and pink-footed geese over-winter there every year.

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One of WWT’s recent accomplishment is the opening of Steart Marshes. To protect the coastal village of Steart the flood walls have been breached, flooding the Steart peninsula creating new saltmarshes to absorb tidal surges. This is good news for the villagers and wildlife with avocet hatching eggs for the first time and water voles, otters, oystercatchers, lapwing and ringed plovers doing well. This proves it possible to live alongside nature in this time of rising tides.

One of my favourite destinations for a bike ride is Brockhole Nature Reserve. Lying 4 miles outside Preston, its lakes, reed beds, meadows, woodlands and floating visitor centre occupy the former site of a quarry. Opened in 2011 it is still developing. Last year on the Winter Solstice with the Oak and Feather Grove I attended the opening of a new stone circle built by John Lamb and a team of volunteers (the OaFs will be celebrating there again tomorrow afternoon).

Every time I visit I’m struck by how Brockholes reminds me of (how I imagine) the landscapes of our ancient British ancestors with its lake dwellings, wooden walkways and new circle of stones. At places like Brockholes and Martin Mere I am able to pause and find hope for a future lived harmoniously alongside the birds and animals of our wetland landscapes and divinities of our sacred watercourses and the deep.

On that note I would like to wish everybody a blessed solstice and a hopeful new year.

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