A Journey With Blackbirdowl

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The circle of quiet men

Saturday January 17, 2009:

It is two years to the hour since my father died. I move slowly into the garden, aware of my sore belly and stand next to the recently condemned hornbeam.

I heard the rain early in the morning. Now the sun is beaming palely down upon the wet foliage. I lean my warm cheek against the hornbeam’s cool damp ivy clad trunk and breathe in the perfume of the wet garden. “I will mourn you later” I whisper to the silent tree and turn to move along the gravel path.

Parting the shining wet leaves of the caster oil plant, abundant and vigorous after the rain, I sit down opposite the holly tree and the ancestor alter I made on my father’s 86th birthday. As I lean to the right to pick up my cup of tea, pain bites into my side, I gasp and straighten. I reach again, and once more the pain reminds me that there are holes not yet healed and I remember the gallbladder operation I have just survived.

I am here to mark the passing of my father, to honour his life and his gifts to me. Nearly forty years ago my father had his gallbladder out. Only in those days it was a great slash under the ribs, three weeks in hospital and six more in convalescence by the sea. Inheritance is not always kind, I muse, getting slowly up and retrieving my cup of tea.

“Droo-droo, Droo-droo” coos a wood pigeon nearby, his song low and rasping, sounding somehow rather debauched as though the result of much whisky and cigarettes! Scirring, his wings beat against the branches of the tangle of trees in my wild hedgerow as he rises into the morning sky.

The square spreads out all around me, grey and empty. Busy London traffic circles beyond.

“Droo-droo, Droo-droo” calls a grey and navy pigeon bobbing and bowing at my feet. I ducked my head in automatic greeting and feel my wings unfurl as he spreads his and soars up into the sky.

Momentarily, I admire the toning of his colour with the pale grey blue of the winter sky. Then I am with him and we are rising above the spinning square below us.

Below us London turns, spreading out as far as the eye could see; its grey and brown buildings, its green patches all edged by black tarmac roads. And there below lies the great river, a silvery blue serpent snaking across the great city. Beyond it, the suburban railway creeps spider-like to the rolling green hills in the south. London, my London, the city of my birth, of my father’s birth lies beneath us in all its beauty, its crowded unkemptness.

We fly on, over the hills, across the woods and fields, the neat towns and cities of the south, heading for the glittering sea and a cliff top cemetery where a tree stands watch over the remains of an old man, nearly two years in his grave. And at last we come to rest beneath the shade of that tree, upon the rich meadow-grass and wild flowers of my father’s last resting place.

Sadness comes to me, creeping quietly into the pit of my belly. Something cool and wet touches my hand and I look up to see an old honey-coloured Labrador standing near. I stroke her velvety old head as she turns as though to lead me on.

Down through the undergrowth we move, through the thin forest of silver birches into an untidier thicket, the ground chalky white and sparsely vegetated, treacherous by merit of the rolling rocks that pebble our way.

Now the thicket opens up into a small untidy clearing. A group of men, ageless and generationless sit around the greying white ashes of a dead fire; they are sunken into apathetic muteness. The dog and I climb under a tree’s hanging branches nearby to watch and wait.

I study the men. Dressed scruffily in grey or brown baggy clothes that give no clue to their era, they sit sometimes speaking, often silent, gazing with dull eyes at the cold ashes before them. Each man somehow recognisable, the paternal features etched in a variety of ways upon their faces and yet all individuals. I know they are my father’s people. Sadness overwhelms me and I weep.

Beneath my hands, the old dog stirs. And I understand the Burdon that my father carries. This overwhelming inertia, the never getting round to things is the outward manifestation of a depression deep within the bloodline. Is this my inheritance too?

I look again at the circle of men and see each have a dog at their feet. Each has a hand upon their canine companion who sits quietly by their side. Beneath my hand, my dog moves. I feel the warmth of her filling my heart with love. Across the world, across the generations and the eras, dogs and humans give companionship to each other. The thought comforts me now.

She gets up. I climb to my feet and follow her, leaving the quiet circle of men behind. As we move across the hills and valleys, dogs and humans appear, quiet and contemplative, boisterous and happy, still and silent. Companions, connected in unconditional love.

I think of my father at the end of his life, angry and disappointed, silent and depressed. For all the difficult things that he was, he had always unconditionally loved me as he had also unconditionally loved anything canine that came into our family.

We walk on westwards to the land of mountains and valleys, edged by the glittering grey sea. A busy little river rushes headlong through a gouged ravine. Where it opens on a gentle slope is a small pebbled beach. A man and his amber coloured dog play in the fizzing waters, their barks and laughter mingling with the rush of the torrent against the smoothe pebbles.

“Maybe I’ll have a dog one day,” I muse as I turn to walk back. We cross the country stopping to briefly watch the circle of quiet men and dogs before climbing up a chalky rocky path to the cliff top cemetery.

And with the shake of a bush, the dog is gone. I am alone.

“Droo-droo, Droo-droo” coos the pidgin in the tree above the grave. With a scirring and a beating of wings against the fragile lacy twigs, he takes to the sky with me close behind. The cliff top, the tree and the grave spin below us as we soar into the sky and across the rolling countryside back to the great city in the north.

“Yowl—sssssththth!” spat the shaking ivy before me as next door’s cat met something invading her territory.

“eeyoonne-eeyoonne-eeyoonne” peopned a sea-gull high overhead. Was he coming to me from the sea perhaps, even the cliff tops of Hastings?

My father’s bloodline is part of me. But I have a mother’s bloodline too. He dances in the place of sombre depression, the darkness that gives shape to the brilliance of my mother’s bloodline legacy, the glittering optimism witch lights up each day. Balance is about having both, I think as I rise and then stoop to place pieces of chocolate upon all the garden alters. For fathers, dogs and garden spirits all like chocolate, and so do I.

Between his hooves

Monday January 12, 2009:

A chill shadow shakes my body from top to toe. I can’t breathe. Someone is rubbing my left hand, talking soothingly, words which bubble and dance chaotically in a mind that will not understand what they are saying. All I know is that it is so close now … no way to avoid it, no turning back.

“Come air”, I say behind my silent voice, “come to me from that place beyond the sky, and above the clouds on the other side of the wind … come with understanding, calm and tranquillity … for I am so scared.”

Behind my closed eyelids a fire dances. I imagine the heart of the leaping flames, like the core of the life giving sun … ”fire … transformer... come!” the voice that is no voice says as the flames curl in my belly.

My blood snakes like the river across the round world that is my body. Whirlpools thunder in my ears. “Enfold and embrace me, carry me home” says the non voice, chanting song-like now.

And in all that is my flesh and blood, my bones and muscles I am here now, not in pain but fearing pain. From deep within my body I call “rocks and mountains, forest, planes and valleys, be here in your certainty!”

I imagine a circle drawn around me, turn it above and below me, feel myself in a protective sphere and call for Mama Bear to come and help me. And she lumbers close and takes me by the scruff of my neck and deposits me in front of the great hooves of the tall stag god who stands and watches all. I crawl between them and am safe.

“What the f ….! “ I think as the iron grip seizes my chin and yanks. Flashback … a teenager grizzles as nausea surges, all around the world is pink and glistening, shimmering, no faces, no contours, nothing but opaque pain. But I am not that teenager. Nearly forty years on and I remember I am lying on a trolley as the pain in my side nudges me into consciousness.

And I feel the hooves on either side of me as I lie curled within the orbit of the warm breath of the great bear that lies close. Breathing, I ride the morphine into oblivion...

Grunting, I roll from the trolley onto the bed and painfully sit up. Carefully I examine my swollen belly. Four holes, four painful places, but four small wounds, easy to heal.

“Don’t go” the voice behind the voice says to the Mama Bear and the Lord of the wildwood, the mighty stag god who are still there. “Thank you for your love; I have need of you still.”

My fingers wrap around the plastic bottle. I shake it experimentally. Its contents rattle dully. “Two pearls,” I muse as my stomach growls and reminds me that I am really quite hungry.

Friday, January 02, 2009

The Birch Maid and the Birch Moon – Finsbury Park, London

Friday January 2, 2009:

Dainty but hardy, the silver birch, the lady of the woods brightly shines. Her slender trunk rises silvery amongst her tapering branches, the twigs frailly fluttering in the breeze. A tree of beginnings, of inception of the time before Imbolc, heralding the spring, she is strongly associated with faerie and air.

The bark is diuretic, antiseptic and a tonic; it helps release pain. The leaves are used to treat urinary infections and are a diuretic. Ruled by Venus, she has powerful healing properties and is associated with the mysteries of the young goddess. Frigga , Arianrod, Eostre, Blodeuwedd and other goddesses of love and fertility are hers. Ubiquitous across Northern Europe, she features strongly in folklore.

The air is beginning to thin with the coming of dawn as I creep out into my silent garden. This is the time of birch, the tree of beginnings. When better to meet her than at dawn at the very beginning of the year.

My silver birch is a slender specimen about fifteen feet high. She stands behind a garden bench, branch in branch with a beautiful old fashioned and fragrant rose tree. I climb behind the bench and move to embrace the tree.

My fingers trace the fluttering papery bark. It shivers in the breeze against my tenderly touching fingers. I lean my cheek against the cool bark and breathe in her faint green perfume.

The body I hold is frail yet soft. Long limbed, straight backed, she is draped in the lightest of silky gossamer insubstantialness, yet she does not tremble with the cold, despite the icy sharp wind. Carefully I hold my arms to support her in a truly unconditional hug.

I can hardly believe it! She leans into me peacefully, her hair tumbled and tangled tickles my face. In the stillness, I am aware of the quality of our silence, companionable and simple. She shifts in my arms, lifting her face to lay her cool cheek against my warm one. My heart turns over, but I don’t intensify my embrace, I just become aware that I am allowing her to be and allowing myself to hold her.

Oh but then she is gone! Before I know it, my arms are empty and my chest constricts. I look round to see her darting away through the trees, skipping and laughing, she turns her head to look back, checking that I am following. I start to run.

It is twilight and really quite hard to see her against the gloom. She leads me a merry chase, in and out of the trees, across muddy brooks, through little quiet clearings and back into the dark woods.

Just when I think I can run no more, she darts into a silvery clearing and drops to her knees in front of a tall and graceful silver birch.

I stand in the shadow of the trees and watch as the tree sways, shining dazzlingly, and shifting shape until it is a tall and graceful somewhat androgynous figure. Our eyes lock for a moment before she begins to shift shape again, elongating and extending until she is a glowing crescent moon. I gaze in awe as she floats effortlessly into the dark sky and settles behind the tender frail branches of the birchwood.

The moon, a new crescent peeps out from behind the trees, their branches tracing a lacy pattern across its sickle slenderness, the light shining through and repeating the pattern on the clearing floor, like a silver doily.

I am lost, moonstruck and amazed. Cool fingers touch my cheek and I turn to see the birch maiden standing close to me. She looks up at the moon and bows deeply. I follow suit and hand in hand we turn and walk back through the woods.

To my left, I hear a soft pawed cat approach, her bells tickling softly. I smile and wonder when she will see me, but she pads carefully onwards. In the ash tree beyond the garden fence, a robin trills an arpeggio of joy and a crow caws crossly back. I lean my cheek against the birch tree, still spellbound and unable to move away. But it is cold and I can’t stand here all day.
Plunging my frozen fingers into a pocket, I pull out a small Green Lady plaque. Cold fingers fumble with the knots of the cord. I wish I’d brought green ribbon instead and make a mental note to exchange it for the cord that I am now tying the plaque to the tree with. Under my fingers, wreathed by leaves, she smiles out through the slender birch branches at the quiet garden.
This year I will follow the moon, I decide as I back away carefully , and bowing, bid my birch maiden a temporary farewell.

After my morning prayers by the rowan tree, I rush in doors to find the silky green ribbon. The exchange made, I arrange the ribbon ends and bowing once more, return to the warm to consult my Luna diary.

The Hollow Beech – near High Beech, Epping Forest

Wednesday December 31, 2008:

“Oh enough of all the fizzing and bubbling of mass celebrations (already)!” I say to no one in particular; I'm going to find a tree with whom to spend New Year’s Eve. So I march out to my Rowan tree to dream what I want into reality.

Something has felt not quite right about how I have often marked the turning of the calendar year. I’ve partied along with others, getting mindlessly drunk and sometimes getting up to no good as a result. I’ve more soberly held a space for my chosen family in which we review our year and make wishes for the new one. Often this has involved a quick dash into the cold at midnight to prance about, if ever so briefly, in the firework splattered night singing “the Internationale” and “tower of Strength”. I’ve sat naked and sweating, hip to hip with relative strangers in sweatlodges under the sparkling Dartmoor skies; and I’ve even spent a romantic new year in snowy Amsterdam, falling inappropriately and hopelessly in love.

But it is the quiet and contemplative if damp ritual I did in my garden last year which has sustained me most. During 2008 I danced with bouts of depression, marked the successes, the disastrous disappointments, the fitness breakthroughs and health challenges - all part of life’s journey. That walk with the old she wolf gave me the strength to face the impact of political change in London and it’s consequences upon my career in public life; for the unconditional compassion of the she wolf is always with me, no matter what.

This year I was drawn to the trees. And where better to go than the ancient forest of Epping?

It has not rained now for nearly a week. The night is cloudy; a sharp easterly is just beginning to turn. The ground beneath our feet is frozen hard. We pick our way cautiously down rutted paths, skirt rank bogs and the strewn and discarded trunks of what seemed to be carelessly felled trees. Beyond the forest, the distant rumble of the M25 weaves together with occasional pops and fizzes of the ubiquitous New Year fireworks. This is the rhythm track that our feet crunch a counterpoint to.

Somewhere round the back of the youth hostel, we find a steep path leading down into a clearing. A circle of trees, many spindly and leggy surround a magnificent round and hollow beech! She curves and folds, reveals and hides her chambers, standing stolidly, great roots reaching out spider-like, and queen of all she surveys.

Were we athletic enough, I dare say that all three of us will find space inside her – albeit rather snugly. But for two of us, our hips and knees do not contort appropriately to allow this. We send our youngest and bendiest in to burrow amongst the leaves. I lower myself gingerly into the curved lip of her great chamber and my other companion sinks neatly against her roots.

The world turns. The sounds of life external to this place recede and all is quiet. Behind my closed eyes, the edges of the circle dance. Their presence, a watching circle of evvorvescence, for they just can’t keep still. I can though – I am frozen as though deeply in sleep into stillness. I am one with the tree in which I sit.

There is a silvery light in the centre of the clearing. It dazzles and shimmers, grows opaque and then still. Great white horns rise up against the dark sky, a shadowed face contoured in silver gazes at me; his broad shoulders are draped in something dark which hides the rest of him against the darkness of the tuffety grass. I hold my breath, I can’t move, I can only stare.

He does not seem surprised to see me sat in my tree in the middle of the forest whilst the rest of the world parties. I get the impression that he somehow expects me to be here and approves. I feel his gaze upon me, interested, appreciative.

We are silent, yet we are connected for I know he sees into my heart and I feel like I can read his thoughts. Vaguely I wonder if I should be doing that when the thought pops into my head that I am always safe if I am with the trees. I settle back to feast my senses on this experience and feel totally at peace.

Behind me, my flexible companion sighs and shifts slightly. The other one is completely still, wrapped in something beyond her. I breathe in the stillness of the place as I gaze at the Lord of the woods, who is regarding me quietly.

A sudden scattering of pops and bangs, fizzes, squeaks and pyratecnic hoots break the peace. Something flutters agitatedly through the undergrowth, a bird perhaps? And he is gone. I am aware that the wind has changed, as it sharply brushes my cheek. The spell is broken.

“What would you do with your leap second?” I ask my two companions. “I will spend mine being still with a tree, a moment to treasure when life is tough.”

“Save it up and add it to the end of my life” says one … what the other one, the bendy one in the tree says is lost in her sleepy stillness.

All around us, the world is exploding. The wind carries the distant sound of music; snatches of sudden laughter mingle with shouts and the revving of an engine.

“I met a faerie” said the companion who had sat at the beech’s feet. She begins to describe her.

“I met Cernunnus” I said, “and he was amazing!”

“I feel like I’m about to be reborn, when I get out of this tree” says the bendy one, beginning to wriggle.

We climb severally from the tree and turn to thank her with respectful bows and pats of her lovely trunk before making our way carefully back to the bubbling party that is London.