A Journey With Blackbirdowl

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The laughing willow– Hampstead women’s Pond

Sunday April 27, 2008:

The best time to be with the trees if you want solitude on Hampstead Heath is on a rainy Sunday morning. In search of a peaceful willow, my companion and I trudged through rain smeared paths towards Kenwood Ladies Pond. Though there may well be some hardy amazons swimming on this day, they would probably not bat an eyelid at two middle-aged, oddly behaving women loitering damply under a convenient tree. We would find our place of peace in which to connect with Lady Willow.

Since I’d last been at the women’s Pond, the powers that be had fenced it off. Now the waterside trees were separated from the bumpy green grassy field that enclosed it. Gone was that peaceful and secluded meadow with pond, that green and watery haven so beloved of women everywhere.

We stalked the perimeter looking for a likely tree. Nothing offered itself to us, whole and unimpeded. There was a beautiful specimen, complete with leafy dangling branches, casting its frail shelter over both bumpy grass and reedy water. This was the willow tree by water I had been dreaming of and searching for all month. Alas, the fence prevailed and no amount of surreptitious casing of the joint to look for a way over, offered itself.

A beautiful tree, it stood on the pond edge, bowing elegantly over the water and the field, its feet in reeds and a clutch of lively ducks frolicking in the nearby water. Pouting, I sat down and cast the circle.

The wet wind shook the leaves and we were showered with cool raindrops. Beyond the fence, amongst the reeds, a duck quacked and something splashed, subsiding into gentle ripples. Lavender and white sage entwined in the breeze curled around us. My rattle, its insistent gentle shu-shu-shu-shu-shu-shu-shu filled the leafy canopied space in which we sat. Softly, I called the spirit of the willow and whispered my intention this day.

“I journey to meet my healed heart and to know what healed it.”

The water was cool on my warm naked body. Cleaving through its cold cleanness, I struck out into the middle of its green grey opaque silver stillness. I was alone under a pale grey sky, watched only by the new green graceful trees.

Underwater, the banks were dark and dotted with what appeared to be the mouths of tunnels, two small for a human. The grey green world was shadowed with moving shapes, framed by the dark weeds and reeds. I floated to the surface and breaking it, gasped great lungful of fresh morning air.

I rolled over onto my back, stretching out my arms and legs and floated. I drifted slowly until I lay under her canopied green shelter. She bowed over me, dipping her lacy fingers in the water, trailing her fronds tenderly across my naked stomach. I had nothing to do but to be, and to submit to her and to the beauty of the water.

Cradled in the rocking water, its cool tongue licked my thighs, as it embraced me tenderly. I drifted into a still reverie, my mind calm.

Suddenly the stillness exploded. Under cover of a cacophony of quacks and feathery splashes, the pond erupted. Ducks swam around me until I was ringed with their damp feathery cheerfulness. I rolled over onto my stomach and, quacking enthusiastically back at them, dived under the water and away from their enclosing circle.

Turning as I surfaced, I saw the little armada making its way swiftly towards me. Again I was surrounded, again I dived and again, they followed and caught me. WE swam round the pond in this fashion for some time until surfacing once more, I found myself surrounded by a circle of upended ducks; their tails in the air!

Wondering why ducks did that, I upended myself gracefully and peered through the green grey water at the blurred shapes of the upside-down ducks around me. None the wiser, I rolled over and, breaking the surface of the water once again, saw ahead of me, the graceful willow tree. She was moving back and forth, her green leafy trailing branches flapping all around her. Was she laughing at me? She seemed to be rocking with uncontrollable mirth!

I began to laugh. Then I began to cough and splutter. It’s never a good idea to give in to hilarity when one is up to one’s neck in a pond unless intent on drowning. The ducks righted themselves and began to circle once more, a chorus of quacking filling the air.

Sage drifted on the soft breeze. Something was dripping down my neck. My left leg had gone to sleep. Beyond the tree amongst the reeds in front of me, a riot of splashing and furious quacking broke the peace. I quacked back, bowed and blew two kisses to what I was sure were two ducks, come to visit the curious tree worshippers under the Lady Willow.

“So that was how my heart was healed,” I mused, sitting quietly under the gently dripping tree. I struggled to my feet and reached out to touch the bobbing branches.

Wishes are granted by the willow tree if they are asked for in the correct manner, I remembered. Forming my wish, I took a tender tendril of leaves and stroking them, explained my desire to the tree. When it seemed that I had said enough and that she had heard me, gently, I tied a loose knot in the silky shoot I was holding. Softly I kissed the knot, and bowing I thanked her and the ducks and the water for their teaching this day.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Willow woman’s wisdom – Stanborough Lake, Hertfordshire

Wednesday April 16, 2008:

The earth felt warm. The sun peaked through the trees skirting the lake, stretching between the river and the railway. The park was quiet, save for the occasional angler and a small group of canoeists at the near end.

I walked upon the springy soft grassy earth with my companion. I wanted a willow over the water. I wanted to sit at her feet and be near the soft ripple of a river or lake.

We passed a goat willow, low and bushy, her tender silver pussy paws velvety, and her new leaves feathery and delicate. A willow dripping with golden catkins, lent over on the wrong side of the softly flowing river. WE walked on, searching for the perfect willow, a quiet place in which to be.

The ground beneath our feet gave spongily, thick mud sucked softly. We stepped over moss covered dark logs, bent beneath rough barked branches as we followed the stream.

There amongst brambles and fallen trunks, stood a misshapen old tree, bent, jagged branches like gnarled fingers pointing. Another one, humped and wide girthed and stunted, offered a green mossy platform for anyone who would climb it. WE walked on.

At the apex of a piece of land formed by two streams meeting, we found a tall grey-white willow, her bark deeply grooved, flaking and rough. She stood watching over the waters. WE sank down at her base to cast our circle.

The riverside was quiet and still, save for an unknown bird singing in the distance. I walked across the spongy damp ground, following the river. The grey sky shone in the rippling water, edged by darker shadows that were the trees on the bank.

In a small clearing nearer the water’s edge, stood a squat humped tree, bent and wide, with twigs like tangled hair, jagged branches her bony fingers, pointing this way and that. As I looked, she shifted, her grey bark glimmering greener, her branches swaying stiffly as though riddled with arthritis.

Movement amongst the brambles in front of me caught my attention and I saw something scuttling along, dart out into the open in front of the tree and dive between her roots. I crept closer and saw it was a little brown wild rabbit, curled up between two roots, his ears alert and twitching.

Was that a branch moving in the breeze or was she beckoning me. I watched and waited. The branch moved again and I stepped cautiously out into the little clearing and stood in front of her.

Close up now I could see how her body was misshapen and twisted, how her skin was scarred and her hair dry and tangled. Yet her face, lined and bony seemed kind; the dark eyes shadowed by wild hair might, I thought contain a glimmer of humour. It was as though she were saying – in a hoarse old lady no-nonsense South London accent, “I aint no oil painting matey, but I got my dignity, I’ll ‘ave you know! ‘Oo d’yah fink year starin’ at?”

I shuffled from foot to foot, embarrassed. Muttering apologies under my breath, I could feel my ears burning. I felt like a naughty seven year old.

“Speak up gel; I’m a bit mutton you know!” I swear she growled, though it might have been the wind rubbing two old branches against each other. I crept forward and knelt down beside the resting rabbit and began to talk.

I talked of my dreams and of my disappointments, of my victories and my fears, of my impatience and my routines. Creaking slightly, she listened, her breath like the crackle of twigs. And when I had done I reached out and touched her rough bark, gently stroking the ridges and grooves and I heard her breath deep in her throat like a rumbling growl. She was talking to me.

Actually, she was lecturing me. She was giving me a right talking to! I sat and heard her out. Went she had done, I reached and stroked her once more and lent my cheek against her rough bark. Softly I said,

“Lady Willow, I promise to listen to my body. Thank you.”
Somewhere nearby, a bird tittered merrily. His song a cascade of cheerfulness woke the quiet riverside. Reaching out, I stroked the tree against which I sat, climbed awkwardly to my feet and turned to bow my respect to her. The sun on my cheek, a slight breeze ruffling my hair, I turned in the direction of a singing bird, (a coal tit according to my companion, who knows these things) and bowed in acknowledgement of his beautiful song.

The Birch, the bog and the blackbird
Thursday April 10, 2008:

The dew was wet on the grass as I edged across the bumpy lawn to my temporary sit space in a large birch tree in the hostel garden. It had once been three trunked but someone had cut off the middle one which now made a more or less comfy perch. I eased my sleep stiffened limbs down and made my morning circle.

In the tree above me, a blackbird was giving it some welly! He had been singing practically non stop since I arrived three days before. Yesterday, I had snuck out early in the morning and had sat singing back at him, mirroring his song phrase by crazy phrase. AS my rather naff whistle-less whistling merged with his glorious fluting, I swear he began to wait for me to finish the phrase before he started on the next one. Before long I was in a significantly altered state and both that bird and this old bird were happy.

Anyway, this morning I felt the need to be with the spirit of the tree and let the beautiful blackbird song wash me clean as I sat and breathed with the tree.

I was pushing my way through a dark and scratchy tangled mass of briars and thorns. The mud sucked at my feet. The overpowering smell of damp pungent rotting vegetation assailed me as I pushed on forward.

The mud became a miry pool. I began to paddle, and then wade, eventually to swim, heaving my way through as the cloying mud encased me. I was seized by an incredibly dull and intense cold. My whole body began convulsively to shake.

A sulphurous rotting stench seized me by the throat. My eyes watered and I began to cough, so strong was it. Mud caked my face, its sludginess smearing me all over, slug-like creeping into my nose, ears and mouth. I couldn’t breathe. I was drowning.

Desperately I struggled. Thrashing against the thickly congealing mud, I pushed a hand, an arm then a shoulder free, reaching out and seizing the rough tufts of grass, my hand closing on razor-sharp leaves, I tried to heave myself free. Fingers sinking into the muddy bank, I clawed and grabbed at anything to leaver myself up.

Legs pinioned, heavily the mud embrace me, I wriggled and rocked, every vantage, every inch of gain of freedom, inexorably sucked back by the stubborn bog. My back found something harder, a slab of rock, and I braced against it, pushing myself up, inch by inch, out into the cool air.

I lay pewling on the muddy grass. Its rough sharpness cut my soft new babies flesh. A huge paw slid under my tummy and gently lifted me. I was clamped heavily to a warm and musty furry chest. I nuzzled close, still whimpering as big paws soothed and gentled me. I lay against the furriness and slept.

Light danced behind shifting shapes above me. The crisp-cross of branches against a soft blue sky was gilded with the light of a morning sun. It licked at my face as I lay, flat on my back on the cool grass, my fingers teasing soft new grassy growth. High above, a blackbird sang out. Across the sky, another answered.

With my back to the trunk, I breathe in the smell of the spring morning. My body zings and tingles and is echoed in the humming vibrating tree at my back.

The blackbird trills in glorious haphazard arpeggios of liquid joy. He takes a tune, sings it out, and then tries another and another. No phrase is repeated although he has some favourite motifs, every phrase ends in a characteristic whistling raspberry. I smile to hear him, blow him another kiss and rise, stretching out to meet the sun shining down on another new and shiny day in which I am glad to be alive.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Weep With the Willow

Tuesday April 8, 2008:

Willow comes in many shapes and sizes. In her tall guise, she sits by the riverside, her roots reaching out towards the water, her branches bowing in the wind. Her thickly gnarled bark flakes under the hand. In Spring, goat willow, more of a bush than a tree is the one to produce the irresistibly tactile pussy willow, silky globe-like catkins covered in silver down, soon to be replaced by pyramidal sprays of yellow catkins.

Associated with water, the moon and the underworld, her goddesses include Persephone, Hecate, Belili, Artemis, Cerridwen and Helice. Willow connects both joy and grief and with light and life in spring and with death and the underworld in autumn. She can heal those deep difficult to face emotions; especially the long laid buried ones from childhood.

She is a tree of fertility and in groves is inspirational. Willow gives us aspirin, is a powerful protector against diseases associated with dampness. Immensely flexible, willow is used to make all manner of woven goods from baskets to coracles.

Winter had returned. Two days on, the snow still lay in frost pockets deep in the forest. The muddy ground beneath my feet softened with my weight and clung as though to pull me down into its dark silence. I lifted my feet higher and climbed over the fallen trunks, pushing my way through the matted grasses and briers.

I was in Epping Forest, on the outskirts of London, on a witchcamp intensive spring retreat. The earth had turned and shown its winter face once more, in defiance of the sun that poked through the fast chasing clouds. I’d had far too much water in my life in recent months. I longed for the sun. It was for this reason that I had chosen to associate myself with the Salamanders as my affinity group this week. But today, I was out walking with the undines and of course, they were in search of water.

It had just turned willow time. Small vigorous streams swollen with the recent snow bubbled into the many ponds lacing the forest’s parameter. We wove our way unsteadily through the trees to the edge of a still green pool.

My companions knelt to scry into the murky waters. I stood and sniffed the dank air, the mouldy wet wood, the trodden old winter grasses and felt the earth beneath my feet tremble slightly, so watery was it.

And there was a willow tree; standing still by the green pool, leaning over the mat surface, like a great woodenasterix, her many trunks splaying from her thick rough base. She stood solid yet vital. I climbed amongst her and was held in her green arms.

She stood, tall and green beside the water. Her hair falling across her face and down, its ends just breaking the surface of the pond as she studied her reflection. I watched the face in the water, watching the face that was its reflection. Dark hair moved in the trembling water, tendrils across pale cheeks, dark eyes a deep mysterious green, gazed at the eyes that were their mirror, shining with unshed tears.

And as I watched, another face rose from the depths of the pool, a rounder, high cheek-boned shadowy eyed face, framed in neat short hair. This second face, with deeper skin tones looked sadly up. ON her round cheeks, the tracks of tears glistened.

A light wind shivered the water and both faces shook. A tendril of dark hair floated across the second face, and I felt something tickle my cheek. I looked harder and saw that she was me and felt the tears still wet on my cheeks. Beside me in the water the other one gazed up at herself and at me, her eyes now overflowing, tears shining, beginning to trickle down her pale cheeks.

“Quack!” The water shook, rippled and the faces swayed, distorted and broke into a million pieces. I moved and felt the rough trunk beneath my hands. A finger of sunlight came to touch my cheek.

On the other side of the pond came a splashing and a fluttering of damp feathers as a duck presumably took a bath. I quacked back at her and carefully climbed out of the tree.

Crouching down beside the tree, I felt for a lithe piece of new growth. Taking it in my hands, I stroked it gently, explaining what I wished for and why. Carefully I tied a loose knot and said:

“Lady of the willow; let me learn to allow intimacy with others, without shame, guilt or fear.”

I gently let go of the knotted willow and straightening, began to sing softly to the tree.

“Weep willow weep, then I’ll no longer need to
Grieve willow weep, and I’ll let go of shame.
Weep willow weep, and I’ll let go of fear and
Guilt willow weep willow weep, hear my prayer.

It was done. Bowing to the tree, I turned to join my companions. Together we move back through the quiet forest, our encounters with water complete for this day.