It would be impossible

this May Eve, at this time of pandemic, not to speak of the second plague in the tale of Lludd and Llefelys. Of the dragon’s scream heard this night which ‘pierced people’s hearts and terrified them so much that men lost their colour and their strength, and women miscarried, and young men and maidens lost their senses, and all animals and trees and the earth and the waters were left barren.’

It would be impossible not to recall how Lludd dug a hole in the centre of the Island of Britain, filled it with mead, laid a sheet of brocaded silk on top. How he called down our screaming red dragon, battling with the white dragon, spiralling, spiralling, spiralling down, through the forms of bulls, wolves, boars, into two little pigs who drank the mead and fell asleep before he wrapped them up in the brocaded silk like two little babies and buried them in a stone chest at Dinas Emrys.

It would be impossible not to think of how the image of the serpentine bodies of the dragons intertwining looks like two strands of DNA and one alone like a single strand of RNA and to be reminded of the structure of a virus with its strand or strands carried within the stone chest of its capsid. Of how, like the dragons, viruses shift through a countless series of mutations before they sleep.

It would be impossible not to call to Lludd, to pray to that he, with his serpent-staff propped in the corner of his laboratory as he bends over a microscope, silver as his silver hand, will help us find a vaccine.

It would be impossible not to ask him to bring an end to our being locked up, like Creiddylad in her father’s house, which for some is a dream and for others a nightmare they fear is never going to end.

It would be impossible not to wonder who unlocked the stony chest and set the dragons free. To desire to find some perpetrator, some key, some rational explanation, some meaning to these events. Vengeance by the angry hordes of monstrous animals locked in stone chests or by the gods. The laws of evolution. Science. A balancing act of the Earth as a result of human excess. But it would be impossible.

*The image is from 14. Balance in the Wildwood Tarot.

A Farewell

The ship is tall, leaning. Its only crew are the gulls, who tie the knots in the sails; old, old, sailor souls. On its prow stands Barinthus, the helmsman, dark-cloaked, stern, implacable.

No-one sees if his lips move beneath the shadows of his hood as he reads out the roll call: the names of Londeners, Devonians, Bristolians, Scousers, Mancunians, Lancastrians, Glaswegians, Brummies, whose accents mix in the huge make-shift camp that has grown up in the marshy hinterland between the worlds.

They’re mostly old. Veteran souls move between them, boiling tea on stoves that burn on no gas. They drink from metal cups, pull blankets around them, attempt to recall to one another their stories.

Some of them are funny – drunken exploits – other people’s knickers and roundabouts. Some are tragic – motorcycle crashes, the loss of daughters and sons, spouses who lost their memory yet lived on.

“How did we get here?” few recall that journey or what brought them.

White hounds with red markings on their ears, noses, the tips of their tails, patrol the edges of the camp. If anyone tries to leave they are there. A grin and friendly growl is always enough. The pups like to play amongst the child souls, tongues lolling, letting their bellies be rubbed. When their master calls them, not liking them to get attached, they leave whining with their tails between their legs.

“Where are we going?” few recall that journey they have made so many times before.

“The biggest shipload since the last war,” my god’s voice from where he stands invisible so as not to frighten the souls.

Their leaving seems to take forever, one by one getting up from their camp stools, boarding across a wobbly plank and taking their places in the cabins, more cabins-worth of souls than there are cabins on board?

“The number of cabins, the space of the hold, the expanses of the deck, are limitless, infinitesimal,” Gwyn informs me. Speaking ominously “no matter how many passengers the ship is never full.”

I watch with Gwyn as the camp fires go out and the ship sinks deeper and deeper into the waters.

As a gull flies down and with a practiced twist of her yellow red-spotted beak unties the mooring rope I clasp my hands, bow my head in mourning, say farewell to 980 Britons who I never knew.

As I leave, dropping a tea bag in a pot for the next souls, I see them already beginning to arrive. Some are escorted by their ancestors, others by the hounds, others by white birds. A little boy is carrying a white red-spotted hamster wrapped up in his school blazer.

Their numbers are endless.

Jobs

I.
They’ve got jobs –
we finally see the key workers:

the paper-clad doctors and nurses
saving the sick and the dying (or trying to
on the linen streets of the front lines)

the stackers and cashiers within
the tin-packed walls of the supermarkets
who are saving us from starvation

and the students and unemployed bar staff
stepping up to pick and pack berries and lettuces
packed with vitamins to keep us healthy

whilst the grave diggers and funeral service
pack post-vegetable bodies back into the earth

and the binmen in their bleeping lorry continue
to turn up weekly to remove our waste.

II.
And no, I have never seen a binwoman, but
I was asked if I was one when I was litter picking.
Now even this small job has been taken away

I am flicking through job descriptions application forms
fingers hovering over wonky letters stuck on keys because
the originals were rubbed off over long years of writing
(which has never quite been a ‘proper job’) weighing

the balance between making myself enjobbed useful
and the risk to my seventy-odd year old parents.

III.
All the while the name of a job
that I have never seen advertised online
or even in a fluffy cloud in a Pagan magazine
is pressing its silver lining against the back of my brain:

low risk, innocuous, invisible: ‘MYSTIC.’

“By the Stars of Annwn are you having a laugh?”
I rage at my gods before joining them
laughing loud and hysterically.

Lost in the Glass Castle – The Rule of the Web in the Year of Coronavirus

It’s the last day of March. It has been a week since the lockdown to contain coronavirus began in the UK. I wake at 4am, as has become my habit, and lie awake with my mind running through all the things I need to do and all the worries that it is useless to worry about and then I beat myself up for worrying about them. By 5.30am I’ve had enough and decide to get up and do something useful.

Breakfast, my morning prayers to my gods and the spirits of place, my daily too often failed attempt to sit and breathe and listen. Then I fire up my laptop, open Firefox, and click on the link to gmail. ‘This webpage is unavailable’. Agh. How the hell am I going to send my patron newsletters? Now my conservation internship has been cancelled until who knows when I have no route into paid work and my Patreon account is my only source of income. My heart’s racing and I can’t breathe as I check the modem (green lights on) and my network connection (fine) then turn the machine on and off.

Thankfully it starts working. I can breathe again. And now I’m looking back at my reaction. What the fuck? How, in the space of a few days, have I gone from being happy in a role that involves making positive changes out in nature alongside likeminded people – building a hibernaculum for newts, planting wildflowers, installing an outdoor classroom – to being completely dependent on something as ineffable and fallible as the internet not only for money but for a place in society?

~

Over the past few days I have been reflecting on how much of my identity and reason for being have become bound up with this blog, which provides a platform for my voice as an awenydd in service to Gwyn and the gods and spirits of my landscape and my online communities, as well as for book sales.

Its small successes have partly been down to my use of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Over the past few years the former, in particular, has had a massively detrimental effect on my mental health. For me it’s the virtual equivalent of walking into a large, noisy crowd in a magical castle that has no walls but the multiplicity of glass screens that grant us access and contain us.

Attempting to find friends and acquaintances at some illusory fairy feast where the food looks its tastiest but cannot be touched and interacting only with their reflections in their best party gear. Like the speechless dead their mouths do not move and their facial expressions do not change one bit.

Yet words appear on the page and conversations take place, stuttering, dragging on for days, as people blink in and out of existence, moving between the worlds, like ghosts. Being able to flit in and out of the crowd, of groups, creates a perennial nosiness. It takes up an incredible amount of headspace trying to keep up, to find the right answers, to argue against points of disagreement, to read responses in the absence of real faces. When I get offline a part of me remains in the glass castle, a shadow of myself arguing with shades of my own imagining, exhausted, distracted, lost.

I recognise this. But it’s only when coronavirus hits and so many people are forced online for work and to communicate due to the social distancing rules I realise just how powerful the internet has become. To the point we can neither earn a living nor live without it. The web has made it possible for us to work and meet without travelling (which is also greener) and set up groups for mutual support. I admit these are very good things yet something within me is screaming a warning about the surrender of our power to the invisible rulers of the halls of the internet on their glass thrones.

I make the decision to leave Facebook. It’s hard. I know the costs. I will lose contact with people, I will miss events, I will be giving up opportunities for publicity. Less people will see my blog posts and buy my books. These are the teeth, like a monster of Annwn, it has sunk into me. These are the tendrils of dependency that the beast beneath the glass castle has coiled around me, extending from my virtual being to my well being in Thisworld. It hurts when I pull them off, although there is no blood.

I return to Peneverdant, to the green hill in this virtual space between Thisworld and Annwn. I look back at the times I’ve been lost in the ether of pointless arguments and at the good it’s done. Through it I’ve helped real people connect with real lands and real gods and put real books in their hands. But at the cost of the loss of a piece myself, the surrender of part of my identity, to the glass castle.

Looking forward, to the promised ‘when this is all over’, I realise, if I survive, I no longer want to be ruled by the web. I want to walk again amongst the people of Thisworld and Annwn. To put down firmer roots in my land and my community – I determine that I will carry on volunteering for the Wildlife Trust whether it leads to paid work or not and put my name on the waiting list for an allotment. I will continue my service of blogging here but I will not let it rule or define me.

I whistle to that lost piece of my soul and pray to my god, Gwyn ap Nudd, to guide it back to his glass castle in Annwn where our souls are reunited and the dance of the dead reconciles illusion and truth.

~

Only once this process is complete do I feel ready to face the scary now this piece self-indulgently avoids. The escalating infections, the escalating deaths, of course relayed in figures and graphs by the internet. The rising numbers worldwide, across the UK, here in Lancashire. I see people are infected in Liverpool, Salford, Bolton, Wigan, Chorley, Blackpool, dying in the Royal Lancaster Infirmary.

That soon it will be here in South Ribble and Preston. That people will be fighting for their lives and dying in the Royal Preston Hospital, where the day centre has been allocated to coronavirus patients. I fear for my elderly parents, friends who are old or have health problems, know I’m not immune.

I’m asked to provide a pagan perspective on faith requirements in relation to excess deaths as a result of COVID-19 for the Lancashire Resilience Forum (Lancashire County Council’s emergency planning service). A small useful thing I can do. I revive my Microsoft laptop to attend a Skype meeting.

Right now there is no avoiding using the halls of the internet’s glass castle to bring about physical changes. All over the world fellowships are founded with people we may or may not see on the otherside. I walk these spaces more mindfully, my eyes on the goal, not allowing myself to get lost. I pray that one day some of us will meet on the green hills of Thisworld and, if not, on the hills of Annwn.

April Dogs

This is not an April Fool but an April Dog! As many people cannot visit local nature reserves due to the COVID-19 restrictions I am offering a free digital copy of my latest poetry pamphlet ‘April Dogs’. This collection honours the birds and other creatures of the wetlands and coasts of Lancashire and beyond and touches on the themes of the climate crisis, science, and war. Most of the poems were written in response to encounters with wetland birds on my stretch of the river Ribble and visiting reserves such as LWT’s Brockholes, WWT Martin Mere, and RSPB Leighton Moss.

You can download your PDF of April Dogs by clicking HERE.

The Strong Door

Be my
strong door,
mighty-girthed oak,
stout defence of
this island.

Be my
strong door,
dair, derwen, Daronwy,
Oak of Goronwy,
rooted firmly
where

yellow daffodils grow

be the defence of
my people.

Against
disease panic
the viral hordes
of Annwn

help us
hold firm.

Be my strong door.

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.

Breathe

We need to remember that our very breathing is to drink our mother’s milk – the air – made for us by countless microbial brothers and sisters in the sea and soil, and by the plant beings with whom we share the great land surfaces of our mother’s lustrous sphere.’
Stephan Harding

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Lungs. Two. Right and left. Each enclosed in a pleural sack in the thoracic cavity of the chest. Primary bronchus, secondary bronchi, tertiary bronchi, terminal bronchiole. In the alveoli, ‘little cavities’, across the blood-air barrier, gas exchange takes place.

Breathe in: oxygen 21%, carbon dioxide 0.04%. Breathe out: oxygen 16%, carbon dioxide 4.4%. 6 carbon glucose, oxidised, forms carbon dioxide. Product: ATP (adenosine triphosphate) ‘the molecular unit of currency of intracellular energy transfer’. The spark of all life.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Birds have lungs plus cervical, clavicular, abdominal, and thoracic air sacs. Hollow-boned they are light as balloons, breathing in, breathing out. Then there are the lungless. Through tiny holes in the abdomen called spiracles leading to the trachea, insects fill their air sacs. Earthworms and amphibians breathe in and out through moist skins. Fish breathe water in through gulpy mouth breathe it out through gapey gills.

Plants breathe through their leaves. By daylight they photosynthesise. Stomata breathe carbon dioxide. It mixes with water. The green lions of chlorophyll work their magic by sunlight. Oxygen is released. From glucose the magical hum and buzz of ATP. At night they respire glucose and oxygen back to carbon dioxide and water. 10 times more oxygen produced than used.

Underground fungi breathe the air of the soil through thread-like hyphae that mass as mycelia. They respire aerobically (with oxygen) or anaerobically (without oxygen), changing glucose to ATP (it’s all about ATP!), ethanol, carbon dioxide, and water. This old, old, metabolic pathway dates back to the days before oxygen ruled our breath and is utilised by microbes. The hidden ones of the deep, single-celled, or living colonies, breathe through their single cell walls in ancient ways – acetogenesis, methanogenesis – to gain the blessed ATP.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

And what is this creature that does not breathe (in or out) with no metabolism or need for ATP? This simple strand of genes in a designer jacket called a capsid? Does this thing, neither dead nor living, have a spirit? Like all living things was it breathed into life by the gods?

Or is this death-bringer undead? This assaulter of lungs? Lung-cell-killer and causer of coughs – dead lung cells coughed up as sputum, mucus, the yellow remains of what was ours?

By what dark programme does it turn the body against itself – alveoli ‘little cavities’ where the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen takes place filling with water – no space to make ATP? No lungs – no breath. The pump of ventilators, breathing in, breathing out, our new iron lungs…

Did it crawl from the cauldron of inspiration like the speechless dead or is it something entirely other?

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

To whom do we pray? To the gods and goddesses of breath and to the spirits of inspiration? To Ceridwen, Gwyn ap Nudd, Morgana and her sisters, who gave us breath, and take it away?

“Breath always leads to me,” says Gwyn. I find this reassuring and disconcerting from a death-god. From the one who releases the spirits of Annwn from the cauldron and holds them back.

So we breathe together with the lunged and lungless creatures with skin, fur, feathers, shells, scales, leaves, hyphae, the single-celled, the uncelled who ride our breath, until we return to the gods. To the winds that carry the voices of all ancestors over our 4.543 billion year old earth.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

*I adapted this meditation from an earlier version ‘The Ways We Breathe‘ previously published on Gods & Radicals following guidance from my deities to focus on my breath and being struck by the realisation that a distinguishing feature of coronavirus and other viruses is that they do not breathe.

The Best Defence

“Laughter is the best defence against madness,”
from somewhere in my garden
my god decries.

The hyacinths
are at their most beautiful –
white, pink, red, blue, and I cannot tell
if they are laughing at us or with us.

The full moon has burst her sides
(reminding me of lysis – the bursting
of cell walls, expulsion and release
of viral progeny like a sneeze).

“This crisis is no longer a laughing matter
with its potential to bring a tear to our eyes,”

I reply whilst acknowledging it’s laughable
how a strand of RNA in a protein jacket
can cause such mayhem worldwide…

… panic buying… shelves depleted
of curly strands of pasta and the virulent
internet replicating and replicating our demise…

“Stand your ground in this garden and breathe
the fresh spring air, laugh well, laugh deep,”

my god’s voice rises from Annwn grounds me.

“I can save none from the tragedy and sadness
in which my realm and your realm are steeped but
laughter is the best defence against madness.”