The Summer Solstice has passed and American Independence Day. My druid grove met at a state park to celebrate the summer and it was a perfectly beautiful Minnesota summer weekend too, filled with mosquitoes (not too many) and does with fawns, and a young stag of summer, snorting, and stamping at me from the bottom of the hill, quite put out that druids had disturbed his realm. The stag of summer in the heat of the chase, says the ritual of my druid order. These deer, within the sacred precincts of the park are not likely to be chased, but with such a burgeoning population, it is possible that even they will be hunted to thin the herd, rubbing a bit too close, as they are, to their human neighbors. My friend Ted, who lives nearby, says that in town every house has its little family of deer who nestle down in its yard, and sample the leaves of its gardens.
Too bad for the gardeners, but how lovely really. Deer are among the most beautiful of all creatures and the entire week’s tone was set by them this week. On Monday last, I visited another state part by the Mississippi River with my friends Nigel and Caryl. There, we were met by a young hind on the driveway into the park. She stood, watching us carefully, but with little fear. If disease took us all one day and left the land to them, the deer would populate it nicely. Of course, the wolves and coyotes would come again to fill in the give and take of predator and prey. But while we humans last, the deer teaches us grace, caution, and to walk gently upon the earth. Caryl said that we must take the lesson of the deer and go gently this week.
At the gorsedd of druids by the banks of the Mississippi, I tried once again to act the leader for a camp while spending my nights at a nearby hotel where I could plug in my VPAP breathing machine and, I hoped, get a reasonable sleep with the help of drugs of various prescription kinds. It seemed that the currents of life had other plans. Somehow my digestive malady was triggered. It is becoming increasingly hard to figure out the culprit, but the usual, predictable course began by Saturday morning. I had slept but not very soundly and when I arrived at camp late in the morning everyone was up and breakfasted and off on a hike (despite the fact they had all been up much later than I had). There was no bacon left and no one seemed to care that I was famished. My father would have said, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself.” Dad had learned young that a man must grow a hard shell over his soft insides, like a turtle.
But I was being taken by a gut reaction, which in my case, does not mean a “hunch.” My gut reaction are overwhelming and when they come they sweep away all of the reasoning mind, all ability to stay calm, to use coping strategies, to “manage” anger. The anger wells up for no reason at all except as a biochemical energetic reaction of a gut that has been enraged and rendered terrified by the introduction of some food that other humans would digest quite happily. It may be a molecule of milk protein, a particle of gluten, or it may be something else entirely. According to my naturopathic doctor, my body recoils at shellfish, peanuts, walnuts, corn, and even chocolate. This gut is like a nervous deer, easily startled, easily rendered full of fear. But the fear is transmuted into the emotion of anger and not wishing to let loose an embarrassing and irrational temper tantrum at my family or friends, my this emotion is transmuted into motion. Fight or flight? I flee.
I flee my own anger, my gut reaction, then my shame at the gut reaction and the anger, my chagrin at being unable to digest the simplest ordinary foods. So, I was “taken.” It used to be that people spoke of others being “taken” by the fairies. Then psychologists taught us there were no such things as fairies and we were really just being taken by a fit or taken by some form of mental illness. These are scientific terms for fairies. The identity is apparent to me when these “fits” take me because the irrational state seems sometimes to open up my mind wide to the Otherworld. So it did on the first Day of Saturn this July. The dark father. Saturn was the father of Jupiter in the Roman way of thinking, a dark devouring father. Freud was quite interested in the devouring Mother, but here in the center of Western culture and the European collective unconscious is Saturn, the devouring father, castrated and murdered by his son. An interesting fellow although a monster. One wonders what his point of view might be.
Well, filled with the rage of Saturn and taken by it, I marched off, without sunscreen or insect repellant, hat, water, or even a walking stick. Indeed, in my sandals, not my boots. I walked in a rage, walked in order to walk off the anger. I was hungry and soon grew thirsty too, and was being led on a merry quest, a soul journey that had nothing at all to do with being a “leader” of my grove. The notion of a “leader” in our culture, American culture, if not the whole of the West, is that of being “level-headed,” a careful planner, charismatic, self-confident, and reliable. Great leaders inspire their followers, make them feel empowered, and are able to bring into manifest being their grand dreams and visions. They do not, as a rule, have temper tantrums or disappear for five hours into the woods.
I walked down a shady hollow, up a sunny hill at noon, down another long decline into shadow and emerged on a road where I slipped like a thief behind a park building, eluding the notice of the rangers taking a break there. I hid like an outlaw behind an oak while they drove off, then was summoned to pick up a fallen birch branch. There were several branches and their white bark was burned black by fire. Bubbles of sap had boiled out of the tree’s flesh and burned into hardened nodules of soot on the bark. I pulled these off like tumors, bursting them in my hand. The bubble burst into black powder.
Following no reason, my hands began to strip the bark and the twigs off a branch, to smooth it, to pull at the rotten places with my fingernails, driven still my gut-anger. Then the oak tree told me to climb the tor, spiraling sunwise. I started to do so, using the rude birch staff to help me keep my footing in my sandals on the rough slope. Around a corner was a limestone shelf with a juniper tree growing on top of it. Have you read the Grimm’s Fairy Tale titled “The Juniper Tree”? It is not one that many read today, but it is one I know fairly well. The juniper is a wishing tree, a protective tree, a mother tree. The limestone shelf had a flat base comfortable for sitting and the shelf formed a roof just over my head as I sat as if it had been tailored to me. I noticed too that the birch staff, after I had broken it’s branches off was just about my height, and forked at the top, like the Twins, my birth constellation. I sat working that staff with a stone for a rasp like stone age Man might have done. Beneath the hill. I rested, but my hands were restless.
At last, after maybe an hour or maybe a half hour, I resumed my climb and came by stages to the top among the oak trees so familiar to me. Seven ancient oaks in circle surround a grassy clearing. These trees always talk to me. “Talk” is hardly the word. They prophesy, they offer comfort, they recognize me as a spirit, not as the simple life of this existence with its biographical facts and slight accomplishments. But I was still restless and did not stay long. I gazed to the far hills where the oaks have told me repeatedly my Avalon is destined to rise. I left the grove by the usual path but did not want to walk down the road exposed to the harsh sun. My neck and face were burned now, my feet tired, my throat parched. Exercise had quenched hunger, but the anger and the disconnection from ordinary reason was still on me. I took to the deer paths for the shade and knowing that if I could find the right ones they would return me to the shadier trail from which I had originally circled the hill.
But the spirits of the forest had other plans. Every track I followed led me to a new brambly path with thorns to scratch my feet and bare legs (I was in shorts too). My hands were scratched and blackened from the burnt bark of the staff. Now it helped me walk on steep slopes and uneven ground and to part the buckthorn that is taking over the forest everywhere. Great oaks met me – seven sentinels beneath the tor. Brothers to the sisters seven, they said to me. But, restlessly, I searched on, talking now to my guides, realizing that I was being forced to seek them out. One of my guides calls himself Endymion. It is a bit of a joke between us, but that is what I still call him even though he did reveal his true name. He is impatient with me and quick to point out that if my guides do not come to me it is because I do not come to them. Unless I listen, they cannot be heard. My fear, my timidity, my fear of unreason makes me hide from them. Who wants a “leader” who hears voices, who lives many lives, who forever has a foot in the Otherworld and a mind half vanished into a forest? But then it was the guides who told me to take up the job of being a leader in the first place.
In the forest after meeting the oaks, I met a hen turkey and one of her chicks. I startled them and apologized and then thanked them for the blessing of meeting them, although they had both vanished as completely as if they had never been. The lesson the turkey taught was that even seemingly lost in the forest, we are taken to wonderful meetings. I was not afraid, not too concerned. it was only mid-afternoon and I knew I could not be far from a trail one way or another.
In and out of the trees, down deer paths, along rills I went till I needed to rest again and could not determine where I was. Exhausted, the anger at last fading into bemusement, I met a large flat boulder, a stone place to sit in the shade. The trail I sought might have been twenty feet away and I would not have seen it. But every deer trail just let to another. Resting, breathing, feeling the aches and the sunburn and the cuts on my hands and feet, bug bites here and there, I somehow reflected on time. I was wearing my watch and I was amazed to see how much time had passed. What were the others doing back at camp? Had they begun to worry about me? Had they begun to suspect I was lost? Sarah had, after all, witnessed exactly this same phenomenon in Iowa not two months ago when I was taken and just walked off for two hours. Now it had been four. I babbled on about time and how it seems to expand and contract, how it is an illusion, how the stone on which I sat must experience it so much differently. I wanted to know the Elvish way of speaking about life without reference to this false notion that “time” is a “thing.” Our language teaches us to think that time “flows.” But it is our life and consciousness that flows.
Then Endymion explained to me that what we have come to call “time” is an artificial way of expressing that one’s consciousness exists in a particular place. I am here on the stone, then I am somewhere else. I move through space and it is that movement which we imagine to be “time” flowing. We imagine that everyone experiences time the same way because we are taught that it moves with the regularity of a clock. In fact, it is our clocks that have created this idea of time. Outside of clocks and our conditioned minds, there is no such thing as time. There is only consciousness in a certain place and then moving through space – or in the case of a tree or stone, moving very slightly, perhaps imperceptibly to our senses and lives. The spirit of a place, a tree, a stone, is just like us, but it has chose to exist in a certain place under certain conditions of movement or stillness or rootedness. Its very being is joined to the place. This is the same act of choice we take when we choose to exist in a human body. To do so, I confine my self to the space occupied by my body. So, the spirit of the rock choses to occupy the space of the rock’s material form. The human form has advantages of being rapidly mobile, but humans have come to grossly over-value this ability. Now we fail to appreciate our ability to be still and slow and to move our consciousness through space more gradually.
Does the word “slow” imply “time?” Of course, it does within our language, but the real issue is how is our consciousness, our attention related to space and place. If we dwell long and hard with attention and intention on a place, then we say we are there a long time. If we devote only fleeting, superficial attention to a place, we say that we are there a short time. But there is no such thing as time. Time is not a “thing.” It is a concept we have developed to think in a certain way about our attention, and I am not sure it is the right way to think. At least, it is not the right way for some purposes.
With new understanding from the conversation upon the rock, I held out my wand and asked Endymion to point me the right way. He asked if I truly trusted him. I told him I did, but in my mind I did not believe he was sending me in the right direction. Indeed, as it proved, he was not sending me in the direction I wanted to go. Instead, following his directions, I emerged at the foot of a steep hill. On its top I could see a stand of oaks. Well, if I climbed to the top, as exhausted as I was, I would at least be able to see where I was, above the trees and the seemingly labyrinthine rills. A climb. A tired chuckle. I was right back in the circle of the seven sisters, our oak friends.
So, Endymion and the forest sprites had led me on a merry round through the forest and back to the very hill I had climbed an hour or more ago (time was completely blurred at this point). The Sun’s attention shifted and moved through space. On a far tree was perched either an eagle or a vulture. I could just make it out. I called to it with a poor imitation of an eagle’s cry. It shifted and seemed to look around. But all day the vultures had kept their distance, circling high overhead, away, too far to see their faces. This one ignored me and I laughed. “Eagles do not come when you call.” Later in the day, or the following day, a young fellow visiting our grove, who is also named James, told me of his experiences with an eagle and a hawk close up and how he called back the eagle using a call that imitates a dying rabbit. Spirals and spirals. A burst of belated fireworks from the 4th of July rocketed over the far hill drawing my attention away from the eagle. When I looked back to the great dying oak on which is had sat it had vanished, as surely as if it had been a spirit.
I decided my need for water was too urgent to go back toward camp at once. The nearest water lay in the opposite direction at the ranger station, and the easiest way down was to descend the steep tussocky hillside on the south. So I descended, for the second time that day, and left the forest. At the ranger station I must have looked a fright. My tee shirt now filthy, my hands blackened, my hair full of leaves – the oak king or the green man? My last animal encounter was at the water tap behind the wood shed where a baby bull snake erupted indignantly from his hole under the well tap. Thinking he had found a cool place to rest, he was suddenly being drowned by this ridiculous druid.
The rest was an assertion of will to walk up the bluff on the road this time and down the well-marked trails back to camp. The result: I was too utterly exhausted to lead the grove in the Solstice ritual. I could not climb that tor again, after having been up and down it twice already. My legs were gone. I tried to rest and eat, but still there was nothing left in me. All my substance had been taken. The anger was gone – though still smoldering a bit. But so also was all my physical strength. Quite apart from walking for five hours, this was the predicable course of my “gut reaction.” After the eruption of anger comes complete exhaustion and usually sleep.
So, my discomfort at being the “leader” of the grove, the one to whom everyone turned to direct our feet was addressed when my own feet were led by some other force, and I turned to my herald and pendragon and all the others present and said, you go do the ritual without me. I wanted to know that they could. I never doubted that they could do it without me. But I wanted it to be demonstrated to all of us. It wasn’t however, really a plan, or a rational test, or anything of my own devising. The day of Saturn simply fellow out that way.
My need for water. This weighed on my mind the whole time. Water is the element of emotion, of love, of connection to others. My gut-reaction makes me feel alienated, unloved, unconnected, misunderstood. My battle with the emotions, with the Otherworld voices and visions were also watery things. Wellsprings bursting up inside me. My consciousness and attention moving through the magical landscape. Others might see that place as merely a nice bit of nature, some preserve, offering some respite from the city or town. Others might see it scientifically, with the eyes of a naturalist. But I am a naturalist of a different color and there are three places I have seen so far in that park that are clear, active, overwhelming doorways to the Otherworld. I do not offer the statement as a statement of objective fact. Rather, it is a statement of the truth as it is experienced by me. Others feel it in their own way, I believe. Even perhaps the couple who passed me on the trail and did not acknowledge my presence, as if I were invisible. Even perhaps the woman who passed me as we met on the path and who nodded to my “hello” even though she was wearing earphones.
I will continue next time with a note of two other experiences. One happened in the first hour after we arrived at the park and involves a Linden tree. The other happened on Friday night – Freya’s night – and involved the place my daughter calls “Spooky Hollow.”