A Journey With Blackbirdowl

Saturday, December 26, 2009

32 the Robin and the Wren

Saturday December 26, 2009:

It is St Stephen’s Day. The frenzy of Christmas is over. We humbuggers breathe a sigh of relief and can go about our business alone and openly again , no longer prey to the sentimental compassion of others who think that to be alone at Christmas means you are a sad loser!

I have spent an autonomously happy day with myself. I am quietly contented. At this quiet time between Yule and the new calendar year, I have time to think and be, to reflect and to work. I write, I dream, I journey and I SING.

With the turning of the year and the return of the light, Robin and Wren are the birds of the season. For me, they are the sacred twins, the holly and the oak and the storm and the sun. As a twin, I feel deeply connected to both.

All hail, wren the king of birds. All hail robin, the prince of the garden, I say as my companion and I create our circle and call in both birds with recordings of their glorious songs. On the alter are holly and oak, a gold and a red candle, and images of wren and robin.

Rolling up our circle and taking it with us, we walk up onto the Parkland Walk and make for a clearing to one side of the path. Here From time to time walkers pass, but they ignore the two middle-aged women sitting by a young tree beyond naked shrubs.

Our Intension today is to connect with the wren and the robin. We know the history of these birds and we want to apologise for how humans have treated them. We want to know how we personally can atone for what our people have done in the past. We want to know what we can do to honour and celebrate their lives and contribution to our diverse and rich ecology.

I play a recording of the robin. A robin in a nearby tree begins to sing back as though to say, “Call that beautiful singing, well hear this!”

I play the recording of the wren and the robin sings louder. I listen to the birds and wonder if I can hear amongst the trilling and whistling, the vibrant pulsing rapid shrillingly loud song of the wren. Beyond them, wood pigeons coo noisily, and far off, a crow caws.

My companion reads the following two poems in honour of our sacred avian twins.

The Wren

The wren, the wren the king of all birds
On St Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
Up with the kettles and down with the pans
And give us a penny to bury the wren.
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze
Although he is little his family’s great,
Put yer hand in yer pocket and give us a trate.
Sing holly, sing ivy – sing ivy, sing holly,
A drop just to drink it would drown melancholy
And if you draw it of the best,
I hope in heaven yer soul will rest,
But if you draw it of the small
It won’t agree wid de wren boys at all.

Who killed Cock Robin?

I," said the Sparrow,
"With my bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin."
"Who saw him die?" "I," said the Fly,
"With my little eye, I saw him die."
"Who caught his blood?" "I," said the Fish,
"With my little dish, I caught his blood."
"Who'll make the shroud?" "I," said the Beetle,
"With my thread and needle, I'll make the shroud."
"Who'll dig his grave?" "I," said the Owl,
"With my pick and shovel, I'll dig his grave."
"Who'll be the parson?" "I," said the Rook,
"With my little book, I'll be the parson."
"Who'll be the clerk?" "I," said the Lark,
"If it's not in the dark, I'll be the clerk."
"Who'll carry the link?" "I," said the Linnet,
"I'll fetch it in a minute, I'll carry the link."
"Who'll be chief mourner?" "I," said the Dove,
"I mourn for my love, I'll be chief mourner."
"Who'll carry the coffin?" "I," said the Kite,
"If it's not through the night, I'll carry the coffin."
"Who'll bear the pall?”We," said the Wren,
"Both the cock and the hen, we'll bear the pall."
"Who'll sing a psalm?" "I," said the Thrush,
"As she sat on a bush, I'll sing a psalm."
"Who'll toll the bell?" "I," said the bull,
"Because I can pull, I'll toll the bell."
All the birds of the air fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,
When they heard the bell toll for poor Cock Robin.

My heart feels heavy. I hang my head and lean against the tree.

“Sorry,” I say once more.

I enter a clearing in the wood. The sun is slanting low between the trees. It is the end of the day. I sit down and make a fire to warm myself with. I sit tending it and waiting.

Suddenly the peace is pierced by tremulous staccato, loud and clear. Again and again the song fills the air. Its characteristic trilling flows tells me that wren is here. I look towards the sound and see the small brown bird sitting on a bush ahead and to the left. I bow low and he sings on.

The woods are full of singing this afternoon. In the distance, I hear pigeons, crows and an assortment of other unidentifiable songbirds. Amongst them, hard by me on the right from the depths of another bush, comes the silver whistling song of robin. I squint towards the bush which sits in shadow with the last of the sun’s rays behind it. I screw up my eyes and can just make out a cheerful robin sitting singing his heart out.
It is clear they know each other is there, the two birds duet together. Their songs intertwine, call and response, sometimes in tandem, together they sing in the warmth of the setting sun in the lively woods.

I sit listening, silently apologizing for the treatment of their ancestors. I think about what I can do to make amends and then it comes to me. I should do a ritual of atonement and to honour the wren and the robin each year on St Stephen’s Day.

“It would be my honour to do that,” I say to the singing birds, bowing my head.

I wonder if there is anything else they would like me to do. I wish I could find the words to put in a song. Perhaps I’ll work on that?

I sit and listen. Their singing is so beautiful and I feel so peaceful. Perhaps I should also take time to be in places to stop and to appreciate their singing.

“This too I will be honoured to do,” I say to the birds, bowing again.

The tiny birds sing in their bushes as the sun grows lower and the shadows darken the clearing. My fire burns down to glowing ashes. It’s getting a bit cold. I shiver.

The wren flies off. I hear him singing as he moves. Then he flies back still singing and darts off again. I get up and follow him, for I am sure he means me to.

We move through the darkening wood. He takes me to another clearing. A dead tree lies decaying, covered in fungus, gradually and slowly returning to the earth. Many creatures live upon it, feasting on the nutritious matter that is the decaying wood.

“All things must die to transform and be reborn again as something else. Death is life.” I think. I bow again in acknowledgement of a thought that I am sure was his and which he has given to me. With a crescendo of trilling, the wren flies off.

I hear him singing as I move back through the woods. I hear also the robin singing. I FOLLOW THE SOUND OF THE WRENT TAKING ME TO THE ROBIN.

The robin leaves his bush and I follow him through the woods. I walk into a glade that is still sunny with the last rays of the sun. The robin flies into a low green bush on a green bank. There in the beam of the sun’s last rays, a ragged bright red flower shivers in the evening breeze.

I kneel down and touch its silky softness. I gaze hard at its brightness and I feel my heart lift. It’s the kind of red to make you laugh out loud with joy. I throw back my head and roar with mirth. My voice bounces off the trees, ringing in the woods canopy. The birds sing back their joy in the final chorus of the evening woods. And as I listen I know that there’s always brightness. There’s always life and it is filled with joy. I bow to the little robin and to the raggedy red flower.

I begin to sing to the birds up in the bare winter canopy. They sing back. My companion and I drink tea out of wren and robin mugs (mine is the robin’s one). We eat vegan marzipan chocolate and share our experiences.

I tell her why the image of the robin has played an important part in my life. It symbolizes cheerfulness in the depths of winter and courage in the face of adversity. It was the first picture I drew when I returned to drawing after going blind. It led me to get to art school and changed my life.

The air is cooling. I’m thinking about dinner. We thank the birds again and pack up. Carefully we edge our way down the slippery bank back onto the main path and head for home and the warmth.

Monday, December 21, 2009

31 Calling Owls

Monday December 21, 2009:

Its 12:45 am. It’s the middle of the night for this early bird. Yet the city is still singing. I stand in my garden, wrapped up against the bitter northern wind, teetering on the glass smooth ice. A shift of balance and I’ll be over! I allow my knees to be loose as I carefully balance.

I’m seeking the owl. Twice I’ve heard him at dawn, several times in the middle of the night. His aloof hoot sometimes hard to hear and once early in the morning before the day had woken, shockingly loud and very very close. Tonight, it’s police cars, fire engines and ambulances that are howling against the darkness of the winter’s night.

Only the northerly wind shakes the twigs crossly as it skims across the frosty garden. I retract into the warmth of my thick duffle coat and stretch out my ears to hear behind the city scope, to the voice of the wild beyond.

In the lull before the next bright burst of wailing, the trees shake in the wind. The ice crackles as though someone stealthily steps along the path. Beyond the boundries of my hearing, something wails; is it a baby crying, a dog whining or a cat yowling … or is it something altogether more primeval, raw, and wild?

I quietly hoot under my breath. Only the wind whispers back, hissing like a breath, indrawn in protest because of the bitter cold.

The frost is sharply sweet, like damp earth translucently diluted by ice. Is that the smoky waft of a cigarette spinning across the garden next door? I breathe in deeply and the cold sears my nostrils achingly. The sweet green odor of ivy softens the acridity of petrol fumes wafting along the street beyond the house.

I imagine the silent owl; high in the ash tree beyond the fence. His hearing sifts the spaces between the yowling, howling city to the quiet crunch that might be dinner, stealthily creeping its way between the stiff leaves of the shrubs behind me. The breeze touches them and they clatter thinly.

I reach out to touch. An ice-hard teardrop of snow shivers on the leaf before it slides into my warm bare hand, there to melt away. The foliage is brittle, starched and bitter-feeling.

I imagine the owl, his wings stretched out, swooping down from the tree, down into the undergrowth to pounce on something small and scurrying, warm and alive and soon to be his supper. I hoot quietly again and stretch out my ears to hearer an anseringcall; but none comes.

A mile away, the crouch End clock tower chimes once. The wind lifts the sound and delivers it to me as though to say,
“Not an owl but a bell, will that do?”

I reach down and touch the concrete owl sitting squatly on his tree trunk. He is glassed with ice and frozen into stillness. Carefully, I trace his eyes, ears and beak, gently wiping away the frost rind.

The owl will not sing for me this night, it seems. So be it. I bow to the owl and carefully crunch my way down the garden path to the backdoor.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

30 Old crow woman – Highgate

Saturday December 19, 2009:

“In the dark, dark hart of the night, when all is still, when all is quiet, the earth sleeps. , Silently, she surrenders to the night, submits to the stillness that brings her deep rest that helps her recoup her energy for the time when the light will return.” I say as the company settle down to rest, all around me.

I sit in stillness. The drumbeat, a muffled heart-beat rocks me. The circle is quiet. Slowly, their breath unites to dance with the drum and the gentle rumbling snoring of someone who is too tired to dream

I call to dark mother to watch over us, to great mama bear to cradle us on her soft round belly, to fierce old crow woman to protect us from harm.

The earth holds me. I am still; in that place before it is time to grow. Conserving and preserving, I rest and wait.
“Deep in the earth,
Deep in her womb.
Cradled in the dark,
Resting in the tomb.”

I am in a dark cave. Far in the distance, a light flickers. Gold dances on the coal black walls, cracked and fissured in fine lines, like feathers.

I walk towards the light which dances beyond a great jagged black shadow. She stands before the fire, silhouetted against its leaping golden flames, her great beak cruelly sharp, and her black eye shining. .

I kneel before her, head bent. Silently, I make my request, the wish I can hardly name, so ashamed am I for having to admit it. But by voicing it, I make it real and my desire to change, with it.

“Trust”, she caws deeply and her voice bounces off the walls and comes back to me a thousand times.

“Trust … trust … trust … trust … trust” say the walls.

She stands aside and beckons me to the fire. I hold my hands out and dance with the flames. They move and grow as I shape the heat. As I weave the flames I resolve to let go of what I no longer need if I have trust. Brilliant blue flame leaps as though to snatch something from the air. The fire burns fiercely, consuming, transforming all.

The great dark figure turns from the fire and walks into the shadows beyond. I am drawn to follow her. The blackness swallows her up and I am left alone. Only my soft breathing tells me I am alive.

The softest of golden rays hits the shining wall to my right. It ripples with iridescent sparkling currents. I walk towards its inviting light.

“Light is returning,
Although it seems the darkest hour.
Nothing can hold back the dawn.”

“It is an act of will, an act of courage, in the darkest times, to affirm that light will return …” says the other priestess.

“… We call upon the brightness that will heal the earth that will whisper to seeds that it is time to put out green shoots that will warm the dead places in our hearts that will make newness, life, joy and laughter both possible and right. Because we have rested with the dead, we who believe in life must always be ready for the next rebirth. Because the times are difficult, we who believe in life must sing and dance to call the new light into being, knowing that it cannot be held back.” She continues.

I pick up the drum and begin to beat steadily. Throwing back my head, my heart filled with hope, I sing:

“Celebrate the birth of the sun,
Light the way O Lucina.
Dance around on Sabbath night.
Blessed be the great mother!”

I feel my body begin to move as the circle bounces into life. Voices rise in joy; we dance a spiral dance for the love of life. Smiling dances pass each other as they circle me and I am bathed in the warmth of the ecstasy of their dance. The sun is born. We are alive as the world is alive!

The song soars. Hands reach out and capture the energy and direct it down into the earth. She who has been betrayed by the farce of Copenhagen is given our love in hopes that it will help to heel her.

Laughing, we pass the sack of bounty. Together we feast an drink, blessing each other as hand to hand, we share sustenance.

And in the back of my mind, I see the old crow woman. I taste pomigrannit on my tongue sweet and rich. I savor the juicy fruit of the mince pie and I thank her silently for her wisdom. At the back of my throat, I feel air moving through my vocal chords and, Under cover of a raucus laugh; a quiet caw escapes in honour of her. I fold my hands across my breast and slightly bow my head, before reaching out and liberating a piece ofchristmas cake from a passing platter.

29 Crow’s feet – Finsbury Park

Saturday December 19, 2009:

“The crow she is the Cailleach’s bird,
She brings magic to the world.
The bravest man is he who shows
No fear to talk with big black crows.

The crow she brings you news of death
Where‘re a baby draws its breath.
And as he grows, where’re he goes,
He’ll be followed by big black crows.

There is a man amongst the grain
Through the summer he shall rein.
His father sent him many foes.
His enemies are big black crows.

There is a woman by the hill.
If she’s not dead she lives there still.
The henbane all around her grows.
Her only friends are big black crows.

The biggest crow I ever did see,
Was taller than the tall oak tree.
We shot him with arrows and with bows,
And we feasted for days on big black crow.

Fly away big black crow.
Crow don’t go where ploughman go.
Where the seed grows, the good seed grows.
Without the help of big black crow.

(Words adapted by LH from an original song by someone else … thanks, unknown songstress!)

The garden is stiff with frost. It crunches beneath our feet as we step carefully along the slippery path. The shrubs hiss grittily as we brush past them, their twigs frozen in stillness against the sharp northern wind.

“There are bird prints in the snow”, says my companion, carefully placing her model of a crow down amongst them on the grey slate bench. Theconcreate owl perched on his log hard-by sits silently watching as we make ready to connect with the spirit of the crow.

It is so cold that we determine to move about, even hopping perhaps as the crow does. I stand on one leg and tentatively bounce. Nothing happens. I don’t seem to be able to get lift off. I flap my arms as though they are wings and try again. My knee groans in protest and I desist, placing both feet firmly on the ground, I shuffle a bit and then grow still.

Across the curved breast of the snow blanketed hillside, large bird prints March darkly into the distance. I put my feet down carefully so as not to obliterate their sharp three-pronged beauty and follow them. At the top of the hill, I see the tracks ascend into an Oakwood, dark twisted arms, tangle stark against the white sky. I step carefully down into the vale.

Beyond the trees, I see something dark flickering against the white snow. I speed up but it seems to be moving away faster than I can walk. Through the trees now, the path rises and then dips down into another valley. More bare leaved trees stretch, climbing the steep sides of the hill. I trudge on, sure I can see something dark and moving against the silver sky.

My boots crunch sharply on the frost rind snow. My labored breathing meets the beat of my feet with every step I take. Still the bird prints lead me on, up and over another hill, through rocks and boulders, their deep black showing only in the parts where the snow has not settled...

“takka-takka-takka-takka!” rattles a magpie three gardens away …

Down amongst oaks and birches, guarded by dark, dark sharp holly, with berries deeply red like shiny beads of blood, stands the blackest of squat, gnarled hollow oaks. The bird prints lead right up to it. Beyond is mystery, but I am determined to follow. Bending low under the prickly protective arms of the holly, I stoop and enter the low wide gash in the side of the tree.

Black against the black she stands, her feathery clothing trembling in the chill of the dark chamber. Her face, the great beak, severe and cruelly sharp, the black eye shining as she observes me. I hold my breath and wait.

“Death is silence and stillness” she caws. Stillness is patience, patience, patience.”

I bow my head in submission and caw …

High up in the sky, circling over the ash tree beyond the fence crow caws three times...

Bidding crow farewell, I bow and back out, turning I climb stiffly under the overhanging holly. I look to see my footsteps following the crow’s, but I see only two pairs of crow’s feet, one smaller than the other., Casting my eyes down to my own feet I see a pair of crow’s feet, half submerged into the snow, their curved black talons pointing in three directions.

I raise my head and caw. The hills throw me back my own call and we duet competitively for a while.

The slate crunches beneath me as I bounce up and down on one leg. But this is very hard work and I soon give it up. Cawing to each other, my companion and I stump back to the house and the warm.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

What the Raven said – Tower of London

Friday November 27, 2009:

We’ve come to the tower of London, my raven appreciating friend and I. It’s a lovely November day. Behind the snapping wind, the winter sun warms our faces. We move through the courts in search of ravens.

We’ve timed it just right. The Raven Master, a beefeater who rears and handles the birds is about to feed them. We are amazed to learn that the ravens think he is one of them!

Three ravens are in the aviary. One (Gwillum) is elderly, another (Elizzie) almost blind and a third (Merlin) is recovering from some illness or injury. I want to go to meet the blind one, but the aviary is on the other side of the lawn.

I stand by the fence and sing deeply in my throat. “Guarg-guarg” I caw.

“Oh” says my companion excitedly, “Here comes one!” She describes his hopping gate as he bounces across the grass. I begin to hop and flap, but find it too much hard work and stop.

I speculate on how we could fashion a raven dance which imitates (respectfully of course) their gait. They hop one foot raised delicately off the ground. They bounce, clipped wings flapping. They masterfully stalk, head held high and proud.

But we’re here to do ceremony, I remember at last. Outcome our raven masks and we begin our call to them with our attempts to do the raven dance. Sure that we look silly, and attracting a certain amount of attention from both ravens and tourists, we subside into seats and allow ourselves to connect more decorously.

It is windy on this crag, but the sky is blue and clear above me. I sit and wait.

“Guarg”, says the big black bird standing before me. I sit still and gaze at him, dark as the dark rock on which he sits, his head held still as he eyeballs me.

In a moment he is closer. He leans his head against my knees. WE are silent as I force myself to keep still. It is a huge effort of control to stop myself reaching out and touching.

He turns and offers me his back, his great wings outspread. I see this for the invitation it is. Carefully I climb upon his back. It seems hardly possible that he can take my weight. We soar suddenly into the sky.

The black rocks spin beneath us. We climb high into the pale blue sky, and the land takes shape beneath me. The rocks are edged with a pale glistening sea sparkling in the sunlight.

We fly across a dark cliff and into a deep cave. Out of the wind, if feels warm, if not dry - I can hear dripping water somewhere.

In front of me, a deeper darkness moves. I hold my breath as my eyes become adjusted to the gloom. There before me stands an enormous raven.

“Guarg-guarg” he says.

I bow my head. My beak touches the rock before me; my neck is stretched out in supplication. Something touches my head. The heavy beak gently strokes the feathers. I feel soothed and gentled.

“Mine, mine, you are mind” says the raven.

I am still. He is still. Time moves on.

I am alone. Behind me I hear the scratching of claws on the rock. The raven who brought me has returned to take me away.

“guarg-guarg” bubbles a rasping voice behind my still companion. “Guarg-guarg” I say out loud. My companion responds, for this is our signal that our journeys are ended.

We talk of our experiences. I am clear that the raven has asked me to pay more attention to him in my spiritual work. I rfeflectwith some trepidation how that will turn out.

My companion tells of her encounter and the work she will do to honour the Corvus family including helping others to find their particular crow family totem. We discuss devising and demonstrating the raven dance as a way of connecting and other work we might do in their honour.

I stand by the fence and sing low in the back of my throat. A raven caws; I like to think it is in response to me.

The sun is low behind the buildings now. The air has definitely cooled. I shiver.

The Raven Master appears; it’s time for the ravens to go to bed! He begins to call them each by name, whistling to them, tapping the top of the aviary, walking about the grass toshepperd them safely to their night boxes. One by one, they come, some eagerly, some grumblingly, hopping, bouncing and stalking, cheerfully, dignifiedly, reluctantly.

All birds gathered in, we stand for a moment in front of their boxes. We call to them in thanks. Our work done this day, we turn into the warmth of a nearby souvenir shop for a bit of post ritual retail therapy. Every good ritual should end with a bit of shopping, I think. It’s almost as grounding as chocolate!

Crow circles – Highgate Cemetery

Tuesday November 3, 2009:

The sky softly arches overhead as we walk through the park. Beside the lake, ducks quarrel amongst themselves. Overhead, crows caw in the turbulent air.

In the deserted cemetery, we move silently amongst the graves, laid out in rows all around us. Not far past Marx’s tomb, a riot of wreaths is piled high on a newly covered grave. A large hammer and sickle tells us, we are at the right place.

We’re here now because I couldn’t be at the funeral. We’re also here because it’s the full moon and we’ve been working with the issues of illness and death these past two moons.

According to my personal bird calendar, we’ve now entered the time of crow, raven and owl. The earth has turned and, in that time past Samhain, where we move into ourselves, to reflect, rest and be still, it is a kind of annual dying. It is for me certainly a time to die to what no longer serves me.

A comrade has died unexpectedly. His influence has shaped a lot of my public work this last eight years. His life focus on socialism and justice reminds me that my work is not yet done, although his is.

My companion and I circle the grave, casting the circle and calling up the directions. We walk round and round, singing revolutionary songs in his honour.

The trees shake in the wind. The moving air brushes my cheek. A crow circles above and caws roughly. A young woman appears from somewhere and stands silently for a moment before moving on. I don’t know who she is. I stand still and wait in the quiet.

And I am a crow flying above the graveyard. I see the mounds spreading out, row upon row across the hillside. I see the figures by the flower clustered grave. They are very small.

So many dead. All gone. Nothing remains but the plot of land in which they lie. Amongst the well-known dead, this cemetery is the resting place of a number of comrades from my life. I think about my neighbor who died of AIDS. I remember a colleague who had a brain tumor. I remember another whose voice in the words she wrote expressed so much. All have affected me, changed me because they were in my life, deeply, daily, occasionally.

I stand by the grave and breathe in the sweetness of the flowers, and the richness of the recently turned earth. “Thank you”, I say to the comrade who is no more. Our work done. We open the circle and I bow to the grave and we move away.

Walking amongst the graves, we come across George Elliot’s. My companion reads her stone and the inscriptions on the graves around her.

It is late. If we’re not careful, we’ll get locked in as the cemetery is about to close. Hurrying now, we make our way to the gates. , a crow caws as he circles high in the sky above the silent cemetery.