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" One touch of nature

makes all the world kin "

William Shakespeare

Merci et a Bientot!

October 31st, 2009

A big thank you to guest bloggers Penny Billington, Mark Townsend and Maria Ede-Weaving! Your contributions have been marvellous.

After a visit to Brittany for an Indian summer weekend of music, meditation and laughter with 24 Order members and friends, I have returned to instructions from the publisher to write 100 illustration captions by the beginning of the week…  Quentin Crisp wrote: “I now know that if you describe things as better than they are, you are considered to be romantic; if you describe things as worse than they are, you are called a realist; and if you describe things exactly as they are, you are called a satirist.”  I’m going to see if I can combine romanticism, realism and satirism in at least some of these captions! In the meantime blogging will have to wait. A bientot, chers amis!

Guest Blog – Brown is the New Black – Maria Ede-Weaving

October 29th, 2009

Of all colours, brown is the most satisfying. Mary Webb

Before my Pagan journey began, for many years I hated the descent into winter; as life retreated and the darkness and cold encroached, my gloominess increased. Pathologically blinkered against the beauty of winter for so long, I remember the change as a kind of road to Damascus moment, and the lightning bolt that struck was not electric blue or dazzling white but good old dependable brown.

I had once called brown ‘boring’, an absolutely no thrills colour. Maybe as we get older, flashiness grates and we yearn for subtlety, the spectrum of our appreciation widening. Or maybe, life cannot bare anyone missing out on the full extent of its beauty and so gives us a swift but sharp poke when we succumb to ignorance.

When I started to really see winter, I saw brown as if for the first time. Suddenly I was seized by the inadequacy of the word. How could there be only one quiet syllable for what appeared to be countless shades? It started with dying bracken; I couldn’t stop noticing it – the warmth and depth of the colours that networked the lanes and fields, covering woodland floors. Then it was the ploughed soil itself, the mud that tenaciously clung to my boots as if to say ‘notice me!’. Soon every brown became a focus for my fascination, the contrasting tones rich and exotic to my newly educated eye.

I came also to appreciate how brown anchors the other colours of winter, giving our eye a more restful contrast to vivid sunsets, and yet strangely warming and energizing under the weight of grey cloud. In winter’s wet, earthy perfume, it is the base note that gives body and substance. Brown roots and grounds us, drawing our focus to that place of the dormant seed within; a colour of rest and patience and yet also the steady pulse –  muted but indomitable – beneath winter’s still surface.

Just recently, we were driving through the valley at the base of Chillerton Down, here on the Isle of Wight. As the road climbed southward, the setting sun crowned the downs. Small clouds passed swiftly over the rim of the hill, giving the sun a gauzy, cinematic light. The sky was vivid with the colours of sunset, the pale crescent of the new moon sharpening its outline as the sun descended. The browns in the fields, hedgerows and trees – not to be outdone – glowed burgundy.

The turning leaves never disappoint. It is easy to be swayed by the intensity of beech’s coppery orange – beech is one of my favourites throughout any season. And yet it has been the oak and its more subtle browning that has filled me with pleasure in recent years. Oak courageously holds onto its green longest; horse chestnut usually the most eager to transform. Oak is measured and takes its time. The colour brown knows and appreciates these qualities and so blesses this tree with one of its nicest shades.

And there is brown in me too – nature inside and out – my hair, the freckles on my skin, the birthmark on the back of my knee, even tiny flecks of it around my pupils. The words of Mary Webb speak well of brown: It is the deep, fertile tint of the earth itself; it lies hidden beneath every field and garden; it is the garment of multitudes of earth’s children, from the mouse to the eagle…It is dim with antiquity, full of the magic that lurks within reality…There is that in brown which surely speaks to all who are ever born into the world.

Guest blog – Eye to Eye with our Ancestors – Maria Ede-Weaving

October 28th, 2009

I am lucky enough to live only a short walk from Brading Roman Villa on the Isle of Wight. It is home to some very beautiful mosaics. One of the images that fascinates me is a stylised eye, earthy tones of tesserae, diamond shaped with a circle at the centre. The decorated floors radiate out from it; scenes of gods and goddesses of nature and the turning cycle of seasons. Some are vibrantly clear, others deeply faded or partially absent, each appearing to bleed through from the earth below as if the soil herself were a deep well of memory, her images rising up through the layers of matter and time.

The mosaics’ meanings appear puzzling and yet paradoxically familiar: the goddess Ceres hands her corn to Triptolemus; the nymph Ambrosia transforms into vines; a shepherd holds his crook and panpipes; a river nymph with reeds in her hair pours life – giving waters from her jar, while mermen cavort with mermaids. When viewing these images, the distant lives of the Romano-British seem remarkably close. This island still grows its corn, the vineyards still nestle on the slopes of its downs, the sheep graze, the River Yar meanders through the valley and the fishermen bring their catches to shore as they have always done. If by some means time were reversed and our ancestors could view mosaics of our lives, despite our technological advances, I am sure they would recognise much – for the foundations of living and surviving remain the same.

I can only speculate on the original meaning of the mosaic eye but the image draws me. Eyes are compelling symbols. When we meet another’s eyes, it is the circles of iris and pupil that we focus upon. The circle is an equally compelling shape. It possesses such great significance for modern Pagans. We worship within its enfolding boundary. We feel its cyclical flow and energy in the seasons of earth, moon, sun and life, travelling along its curved and eternal edge. We also stand at its still hub, enveloped by its peace as it holds us at the very centre of each moment. Within its beautiful shape we find equality – none standing in greater value than another – the hierarchical structure of the old Divine order brought down to earth. In the circle our hearts are open and accessible to all who stand with us; all aspects of life are valued and understood as an interconnected and interdependent whole. It is the shape of sanctuary; the shape of a deep, spiritual ecology. The fullest expression of the circle is the globe. Nature’s many and diverse parts interact to form a miraculously functioning whole and what more perfect a shape to articulate such wholeness then the globe? It is no accident that this is the shape of our beautiful planet; the shape of the eye also.

It occurs to me that what I find compelling about the mosaic eye at Brading Villa is that it speaks to me something of nature’s mystery. Mosaics are made up of individual pieces; when we focus on a single square, its meaning remains obscure. When we expand our perspective – allowing our eyes to order the seemingly chaotic and scattered tessera into a pattern – we begin to appreciate the meaning of the wider picture. Similarly, when we perceive of ourselves as one part of nature’s complex totality, our eyes can open to its beauty and value.

In truth, our connections to those that have been, those that are and those yet to be born are closer than we might at first imagine; we each exist on different curves of the same spiralling thread. This thread holds all that has ever been or ever will be in a complex web of relationship and connection. We rest upon its lines, each at our own special point in history, quivering like notes upon a stave, the sounds of our living rippling back and forth in time.

Guest blog – Mark Townsend – Initiation

October 27th, 2009

As Philip has kindly invited me to contribute a word or two to the blog I thought I’d offer something that links together both sides of my spiritual pilgrimage – my Christian Priesthood and my Druidry. This is a piece that attempts to express the spine tingling enchantment of a Druidic initiation rite. Mine occurred a few months ago now but its magic will last forever!

The sword’s sharp end dug into my shoulder blade and jagged stones indented my knees. The discomfort was intense and my heart pounded as I awaited the next instructions. I’d been warned that such rituals were demanding! But as I knelt in the dark, wet cave I felt like I’d been plugged into an electric socket, such was the energy of the place.
All was silent, save for the occasional droplets of water that fell from above, splashing into the pool below. I raised my head and caught a few drops in my mouth. I wasn’t thirsty; I just wanted to taste the enchantment of the moment. I wanted to suck the magic marrow out of the very ‘bones’ of Gaia.
‘You’ve entered the womb of the earth Mother,’ the Druid Chief whispered, ‘now prepare to be re-born into a magical new universe.’
He gave a few more instructions and then left me.
I stayed for some time, knees sore and back aching, but it didn’t matter. The pain was worth the experience. The Druids had prepared the place earlier, while I’d been sat in solitude a little way down the hill. As I absorbed the breath-taking beauty of the Welsh mountain valley, so they transformed the cave into an exquisite grotto with candles, symbolic objects and incense.
There I knelt, gazing at the animal skull, left as a symbol of the death of my old life, and illuminated by orange flickering light. Were it not for the physical discomfort I think I could have stayed there for ever. I felt safe, held, loved and at one with the heartbeat of the universe. But now I had to make my way out.
As I approached the light, the Druid Priestess greeted me and gave me symbolic gifts of the rite of passage. Her words were comforting and she seemed to personify the Goddess herself.

It was an awesome experience – my initiation into the bardic grade of the Druid Order – and the more I think about it, the deeper the parallels become between it and other ceremonies of my past – of my Christian past.
Almost a decade before, while still working as a Priest of the Church of England, I underwent a magical and, at times, gruelling Vision Quest in the New Mexican Desert. It was a Male Rite of Passage, modelled on the tribal initiation rites of the world’s various native cultures. It was Catholic yet Pagan and, like my bardic initiation it, was also a ritual of death and re-birth. Lasting for five long days and forcing me to dig deep into the hidden resources of my own soul, this process challenged body, mind and spirit. Only recently have I begun to realise what it did for me. During the period I spent researching for my new book it became clear how this New Mexican trial was a pivotal event in my life – like a detonator which, when triggered, released a fuse that could not be stopped. It was only a matter of time before there would be an explosion!
The fuse wire’s sparks finally reached the dynamite in the early summer of 2007… but that is far too big a story to tell here!

‘Mark’s latest book tells the full story of the ‘explosion’ he mentioned. It is to be published very soon: The Path of The Blue Raven’, O Books.’  Damh

Guest blog – NEIGHBOURHOOD DRUID WATCH: Forest report 1 – Penny Billington

October 23rd, 2009

The dead leaves rustled: the leaf litter stirred. Wit h the eyes of a weasel, I missed nothing. Gwion Dubh, Druid Investigator. Still here and still true to the mission; plumbing the secrets at the heart of the deep forest.

Samhain time, and I’m hunkered down back in the ol’ grove after the last case. Nothing to do but check the thatch on the hobbit hole, booby trap the nut store against the pesky squirrels and croon dryad lullabies like a druid Bing. So plenty of the ticking stuff available to disseminate a bit of seasonal wisdom…

Here we are at the Celtic New year, the gestating time. If you couldn’t see the woods for the trees in lush summer, you surely can now, so let’s take a walk and have a chat to the local flora and fauna. Learn nature’s lessons, and bring them into your home, translating the wisdom of the woods into the health of the hearth: like thisaway…

Gwion’s ten tips from a Samhain stroll:


1. We’ll start through that tiny path the deer have made, and we’ll stay sharp! The earth is quiet under the leaves; the beating heart of all life. As we walk, keep sending out gratitude, keep noticing, keep the connection going. Then take that feeling home to communicate with your loved ones on a different level.

2. You hear that bird trill? Whenever one whistles, remember Rhiannon and the messages that might be pouring from Annwn, the inner realm.  Look for the spiritual message beyond the mundane events in your life.

3. Look at that sunset – and prepare to salute the great hunter later! Orion will be striding through the sky this winter, protective and strong.  Strengthen yourself with good food, enough sleep and a sense of inner contentment.

On we go now…

4. Let’s pause here and have a moment with a tree. Those dryads might be somnolent, but they’re still in there. Think about sustainable ways to heat your home.

5. See that fungus? Next time, bring a camera or sketchbook, and appreciate the sheer range and beauty of its various forms. Celebrate diversity and difference in your own life.

6. Stop here to scoop up a handful of leaf litter and loam and smell it. See how it cloaks the ground; resolve to buy new woolly socks and lag your pipes!

7. And here we are at a secret treasure; a stream, bubbling out of the ground, clear as crystal. Throw a mental message in a virtual bottle to be carried down to the sea, sending greetings to the minnows, the shrimps, the nyads. Conserve water at home.

8. If you fancy taking that branch for your wand, work out which tree it’s come from. Reciprocate with a gift: leave a little (natural, biodegradable!) something – or just a thank you. When you get home, send a letter or card, or make a phone call that’s overdue.

We’re on the homeward trail now…

9. Collect some woodland fruits for your nature table; go home and resolve to eat seasonally and from local sources, where possible.

10. Look for signs of burrows and think about the hibernating under-earthers. It’s winter; dance with the earth’s rhythm. Go home, forget the parties and slowwwwwww downnnnnnnnnnnnnn.

And here we are, back at the grove. A quick blackberry leaf tea for me, and then off for the nightly badger/druid philosophical discourse – if the tail-biting juniors will leave us in peace that is! It’s dark now, so, fellow druids, be safe out there. As you wend you way home, let nature do the talking: walk gently on the mother, who is all quiet and sereno on top, but busy, busy, busy underneath.

I’m in hibernation mode until Imbolc – unless the big Boss pipes me off on another case. But until then it’s the hammock and the wooden flute. And, just maybe, a quick teal telegram to a certain tame biographer to get her quill here pronto for some note taking.

Nothing like tall tales to while away the long, dark nights…and what about that last poisoning case at the spiritual retreat?  ‘The elves and the stewmaker’ – that one’s just too good to keep to myself…

But for now……….Shhhhhhhhhhhhh!


Gwion’s biographer, Penny Billington, is an OBOD druid, Touchstone magazine editor and author. Find out more about her and the world’s first Druid Investigator at www.druidauthors.com

Guest Blogs

October 21st, 2009

Without hope we live in desire.

Away for 10 days in France, but watch out for the guest blogs!

Skidding in Sideways

October 21st, 2009

Anyone know the author of this quote?
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, martini in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming “WOO HOO what a ride!”
My goal is to do this but not ‘totally worn out’ – quite the reverse!

A Habit of Empathy

October 17th, 2009

Druids, Wiccans and Pagans are preparing to celebrating the festival of Samhain over the three days of 31st October to 1st November. One year comes to an end a New Year is born. This same theme is repeated at the Winter Solstice on December 21st/22nd, with a candle being lit after a period of time in contemplation in darkness. In some ways the gap between Samhain and the solstice is like the journey between lives, with the death of the year occurring at Samhain, only to be reborn at the solstice. In another way, though, the New Year begins on 1st November, and then on the morning after the solstice there’s another sense of beginning. Since many of us will celebrate Guy Fawke’s night or Thanksgiving and then Christmas with our families and then the secular New Year celebrations, the season we are entering now really is one of festivities and celebrations. I know for us here it feels as if the new year takes forever to take off – starting 1st November like a jumbo trundling down the runway and then finally lifting off on January 1st.

On the other side of the Indo-European arc the festival of Diwali this weekend, on 17/18 October, has some resonances with Samhain, particularly in Jainism, where it is celebrated for three days and marks the ending of one year and beginning of the next. Whereas Samhain is associated in Europe with the death of vegetation as Winter sets in, in Jainism it marks the time of the death and attaining of liberation (moksha) of Mahavira, the last of the 24 founders or illumined spiritual teachers known as Tirthankaras.

Here is President Obama giving a Diwali message. He talks about cultivating a habit of empathy – a great idea!

Why Not Do an Excavation on the Petty Cash?

October 16th, 2009

Last night Richard Heygate and I presented ‘The Book of English Magic’ at one of the most interesting bookshops in England. Waterstones in Canterbury is situated right in the middle of the old city, just a stone’s throw from the cathedral and the pedestrianised area of narrow streets and the river Stour which winds its way through the town carrying punt-loads of tourists (punters I suppose).

Martin Latham, the manager, has an incredible enthusiasm for what books can do for people: he’s organised hundreds of talks at the shop over the last few decades, inviting authors like J.K.Rowling, Philip Pulman, Terence Stamp, and Deepak Chopra. In the past he’s arranged over 100 events a year. Before the talk he told us how he had arranged for an excavation in the shop’s basement using the firm’s petty cash. It cost a bit, but in the end but it was well worth it – they found a Roman bath complex there. After the talk we had a look and Richard dowsed two ley lines that crossed there. It can be viewed by the public – if you’re ever in Canterbury take a look. Here, from their website:

In the basement you can see the Roman Bath-house floor, a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Latham exposed these remains by paying the Canterbury Archaeological Trust £1000: the biggest Petty Cash slip in history! According to the Trust, these very large Baths were probably ritual as well as relaxing: such Bath-complexes housed sleeping areas where bathers could enjoy beneficial dreams after their cleansing. Perhaps the site has a memory: the bookshop still develops the subconscious of its visitors, and our author talks over the years (Paulo Coelho, for example) have profoundly affected thousands of people.