Thursday, 15 April 2010

mists of time

This blog now consists of 25% recycled material.

I found an article I wrote in 2002 when I was a member of Caer Clud, a druidry group full of mirth and companionship that inspired me and was a cruicible for many things. But everything has its season and Caer Clud has now, in the words of one of the co-founders,"faded into the mists".

It’s much more fun to do it outside.

I’m talking, of course, about ritual. Ritual can be performed almost anywhere, at any time and for many different reasons. However, many Druids, myself included, prefer to work ritual out of doors whenever possible. I am, perhaps, inspired by romantic and mysterious images of cloaked figures meeting in secluded wooded groves to gather mistletoe from oak with golden sickles. Or by magnificent white robed Druids with staffs and horns assembling at Stonehenge to welcome the rising sun at Midsummer? Or maybe I just enjoy going out and getting myself muddy from time to time.

Being outside has become an integral part of how I express my spirituality. Experiencing first hand the turning of the wheel of the year and the ebb and flow of nature’s tides is, for me, the most immediate and most visceral route to connecting with the spirits of the land and the seasons. Returning to the same space as the season changes, I see the cycle played out before me. Trees are clad in bright leaves, which fade, fall and bud again. The ground is sodden, or hard and lacy with frost, or a riot of spring bulbs. I gain an emotional sense of what the festival means, not just in the stories it evokes, but in the experience of being out of doors during that season. Of raising my voice to be heard above the wind, of the warmth of mulled wine on a cold night and, on one occasion, of hoping that torrential rain would stop long enough to actually perform a midsummer ritual. Of course, ritual is not only for the seasonal festivals, but for any time you want or need it. Increasingly,
because I can, because I want to has become a sufficient reason for me to perform an outdoor ritual.

My first outdoor, solitary ritual was just before dawn on the morning of the first of May. I had been up all night, cavorting around in the firelight at the Beltane Fire Festival atop Calton Hill in Edinburgh. I was cold and tired, I smelt of bonfire, my bum was damp and my clothes were stained with mud and grass and wax. And I felt bloody fantastic.

My tools were simple, a candle in a jar and some incense burning on a charcoal block in a fellow reveller’s discarded beer can. My circle, a quiet spot beneath a little tree just far enough away from the main party not to be disturbed. I sang, chanted awens and offered a goodly portion of my cider, which I had already drunk more than a little of, back to the earth. There were thanks to be given and healing energies to be offered for an ailing friend and, beneath it all, the knowledge of what was stirring in the land and within myself and the scantest of glimpses of the year ahead. It was at the edge of my perception, like the merriment and drumming all around me and just as contagious. No immense insights, instead a gentle perception of the movement of all things, progressing within and without my influence. A sense of place, not just a connection to where I was but to where I have been and will be.

The sky was paling, fading from deep indigo to grey, as I finished my impromptu ritual. Already there was a crowd regrouping on the hillside to welcome the rising sun. The horizon grew bloody as I trudged over to join them, handing the last of my cider into the crowd. As the sun crept higher the drumming redoubled. So too did the singing and chanting and stamping and dancing and sheer primitive, spirit born joy of seeing the sun rising again above the trees. From darkness into light. On any given night most sensible people slumber through this transition, when each of us pass through the cauldron of night and are reborn with the waking of the day. Just occasionally, some of us dance through that womb with our eyes wide open. There is freedom to be had in the darkness, contemplation and reinvention of ourselves without the harsh glare of the rational sun. There we can play and ponder the possibilities of self, for there is time yet before the darkness leaves us. At that Beltane festival there were fires blazing all night, an anchor to the daylight world I had left behind and a signpost towards my destination. And of course a powerful symbol: the fire on top of a hill clearly shouting, “Come to us! We are here! This is where the celebration is. When you get here, should you choose to, you can stay warm all night as you dance in the fire’s halo. You have a whole night to do with what you will.” Dawn then comes gradually, the fires burn down to embers, the night subtly fades and we follow it easily: not the oh so usual, bolt upright, alarm ringing, eyes snapping open and blinking against unwelcome light awakening. The darkest hour may be just before the dawn, but it makes the clarity of that coming light so much sweeter.

Dawn in a city is always slightly surreal, this one was even more so as I descended from the hillside and made my way to the railway station. A city needs people, without them it seems so lifeless, so in the dawn hours the city is quiet and almost ghostly until the occasional passing bus or early riser breaks the illusion of abandonment and desertion. This too is a transition; the empty streets seem unfamiliar and new, pregnant and bright with all the opportunities of a new day. Without the disguise of its citizens, I discover the city with fresh eyes. Stalwart old townhouses; bars and shops sulking behind shutters and grills; brash and confidant office blocks. I am told that cities are full of angular and sharp spirits, youthful and often turbulent, some newly realised and some centuries old and all mere children compared to the land spirits that have dwelt there since before our memory. The spirits of the land are, for me, harder to hear when masked by bustling crowds, traffic and noise. It is only when I see the city in an unusual way, like on a still and clear dawn where I could easily believe that all the people had vanished overnight, that I can remember to look and listen beyond what I am used to. Beneath the concrete, steel and pavement and indeed within it we will find not only the whisper of what has always been there, a land worked and lived by our ancestors, but also the voice of the now.

Stepping off the hill and onto the pavement I felt a subtle shift. I was leaving behind my night of partying where, for just a few hours, I had felt as if I was on an older, wilder hillside quite separate from the urban sprawl laid out before me. Now I returned to my other world, filled with trains and computers and meetings and books and customers and hospitals.

I have taken part in many rituals since then, both alone and as part of Caer Clud. To be honest, my favourites have been those that have been outside. In the middle of a wood with sunlight streaming through trees that stretch upwards forever; on a freezing hillside at midwinter to the light of a single lantern; on a beach at dawn or simply sitting for a few moments beneath a tree or staring into the river. They all remind me of my connection to the land and its seasons, of being a part of nature rather than living apart from it.

So should you too feel the call of those wild spaces, I urge you to answer and seek them out. Take what you think you will need, make sure that you will be safe wherever you roam, then set off. Wildwoods, moorland, beaches or hillsides. Parks, gardens or riverbanks. Discover those special places between the land and the sky and let the spirits of those places welcome you.

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