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Thoughts at Lughnasa: Our First Fruits

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August 2008
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Last Saturday I had a lovely celebration of Lughnasa with my druid grove.  One of my masonic brethren also visited the grove and though we were missing quite a few members of the grove, it was a lovely time.  I missed the druids who were not there, but the friends who came and shared the feast of the first fruits.  It’s all about bread and “corn” which is to say wheat, barley, rye, and maize too in this country.  The corn harvest was the first harvest of the year in the northern lattitudes and was followed by fruits and vegetables, and lastly the harvesting of the herds before winter set in at Samhuinn (Nov. 1st).  Meat was laid down for the winter, and the strongest animals kept to breed had to be fed through the winter just like the human members of the tribe.

I have been reading a good deal about the Anishinabeg peoples who lived in the northern half of Minnesota, and still do, of course. Before the white men came in their westward migration, the Anishinabeg peoples (also called Ojibway and Chippewa) lived close to the forests and the lakes.  They make their houses out of the bark of the noble birch tree, ate wild blueberries and blackberries and strawberries, harvested maple syrup, and wild rice and grew squash, corn, and beans in their gardens.  They wore the most luxurious of clothes, made of soft deer and moose skins, and breathed clean air and drank pure water.  They ate the many fish of the ten thousand lakes of our land.

I say “our” land because although I am descended from white European farmers who immigrated here, I myself am made of this land. My mother was born here and all her life she ate the fruits of this land.  The land made her body and my father’s and then subsequently it made mine.  All the tissues, atoms, cells, all that makes up what I am materially comes from this land we now call Minnesota.  I am a druid, which means in once sense that I am a white man who has take up the path of my ancestors and the path of those ancestors of the land who live in me as they live in anyone whose mother and father were born here.  The land contains the material remains of all the thousand generations who have lived here.  Some Dakota or Anishinabeg peoples might laugh at such a claim, but it is their ancestors and their people, as well as many whites, whose bodies have gone back into the land to become a part of it.

The physical remains of a person are not trivial.  Many religions would have us believe that the body is no more significant to the soul than a suit of clothes, thrown away when it is worn out.  But it is much more than this metaphor would imply.  We are made of the earth, the water, the air, and the fire of life in the land.  Everyone is combined of these elements.  Every atom, every particle and vibration that makes us up.

So, I feel a spiritual connection, kinship to this land in which I live and to the ancient First Nations who settled here before my Dutch, Belgian, and German forebears.  This is what it means to be an American.  Not abstract sworn oaths of loyalty or ego-inflated identification with our military might.  Not even lip service paid to abstract concepts such as “Freedom.”  Being an American means to be physically and spiritually a part of the American continent, the lands which Europeans (for some strange reason) named after Amerigo Vespucci instead of Criostobál Colón, the Italian explorers.

The history of our lands since the coming of these explorers on behalf of the imperial designs of Spain has been very sad.  It is not a “tragedy” because the essence of classical tragedy is that a hero in attempting to do good is thwarted by his fatal flaw, or the unwinding of a fate he did not himself initiate.  Everyone usually thinks of King Oedipus as an example of this sort of tragedy, but I am thinking now of Orestes and Electra, the son and daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra.  In the Oresteia, these children first of all witness their mother murder their father.  He went away to war, sacrificed one of his daughters, Iphigenia, to get the wind blowing in the right direction to take him to Troy (another “tragedy” and a foolish, vain, foreign military adventure).  Agamemnon’s remaining children watch their mother take a lover who aspires to Agamemnon’s throne.  Clytemnestra had a fairly reasonable motivation for hating her husband after the death of Iphegenia, and certainly must have supposed he would die at Troy anyway after the news reports started coming back from the war.  But, in any case, it must have been hard on the children.  Women in ancient Greece had very little power of their own.  They had to be attached to a man – father, husband, brother, lover – so for the Queen to act, she needed her lover as an ally.  However, it was she who murdered her husband when he returned (returned with a mistress he had picked up in the war, the famous seer Cassandra).

Well, the children were then faced with an even more awful decision.  Orestes by the code of honor of the Hellenes must avenge his father’s death, but that would make him a matricide.  This is the sort of logical double-bind that really seems to have appealed to the Greeks of old.  Like a man who unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother while appearing to the the savior of Thebes.  It is what the Hellenes called fate.  The playwrights were really the Bards of Hellenic culture in that time.  They were as much philosophers as Socrates or Aristotle, who made their living teaching rather than writing plays.  Anyway they were all storytellers.  Philosphers today write in a genre that hardly anyone can read, let alone understand.  I’m not sure what good that does.

I just picked off my shelf a book I bought some time ago (I’m always way behind in my reading).  The book is Rudolf Steiner’s The Philosophy of Freedom.  In the first chapter he begins by talking about the unreadable prose of modern philosophers and how they have abandoned the idea of “free will.”  The idea of Freedom which is so loudly shouted in the United States and which was so cunningly pondered in the Greek tragedies, this is an idea central to all philosophy and central to our American ideas of Patriotism.  As a Freemason I am frequently presented with expressions of patriotism, usually involving flags and the idea of supporting the troops.  The Masonic idea of supporting the troops goes back to that Masonic hero George Washington and his poor rag-tag Continental Army.  The newly declared states at that time were very bad at “supporting the troops” and our rebel army fighting the “evil empire” of King George III, was woefully under-supplied, under-trained, and had to endure a split opinion among the people back home over whether they were doing the right thing or not.  Sound familiar?

But sending the troops proper clothes, care packages, and good wishes for their safety, or even words of support for their military objectives (conquest, revolution, nation-building, regime change, or whatever) does not require a person to blindly remain loyal to a political regime and its political policies, domestic or foreign.  That is the great logical and moral mistake of so many who espouse the idea of Patriotism.  They suppose that being a patriot means fighting to defend your land, your people, your way of life, or your political ideals.  So it does, but it does not mean following political leaders like sheep, or like soldiers, who are honor-bound to do so whether they believe their generals and commanders are making the right choices or not.  A soldier takes a vow to give up his freedom of choice while he is being employed by the State to fight a war.  A Patriot, on the other hand, is not required, and I argue should not be required to give away his or her freedom in that way.  This is especially true in the United States, a federation of states in which Freedom is held up as one of the founding ideas of our way of life and our form of government.

All citizens of a state must to some degree give up part of their freedom if they are to have organized law-enforcement and rules.  You give up part of your freedom voluntarily whenever you choose to obey the law, or stop your car when you are pulled over for speeding by the highway patrol.  You choose.  Free will.  But the exercise of freedom of choice in a society requires one particular rule to make a society work as we wish it to work.  That rule is the rule of Respect.

Respect, in my estimation, is the fundamental tenet of Druidry.  From its deep springs come all the nourishing streams that guide us in life.  If we respect our political leaders, those who give up part of their freedom in the form of time and work to serve the governance of our society, then we must also respect the laws they make.  If we do not like the laws because we think they were made for bad reasons (to benefit individuals or corporations unjustly at the expense of the people, for example) then we are permitted to work to overturn those unjust or unwise laws.  But I am continuously appalled by the inability of many American citizens to respect the law enough to drive below the speed limit.  There is no better metaphor for what is wrong with our culture than the behavior one sees on our highways.

Today it has become obvious to almost any thinking person that wasting petroleum endangers our freedom as a nation.  This was obvious to me when I was a teenager in the ’70s.  But it has taken thirty more years for the reality and logic of this to penetrate into some level of the public consciousness again after years of denial.  Yet, even so, people break the law every day, exceeding the speed limit.  Why do they do so?  Is it because they are rebels against the State?  Is it because they are not Patriots?  Technically, these statements are true, but in their own minds, those who speed in their cars do so merely because they do not care or because they are in a big hurry, or because they do not think the speed laws are important.  There may be other reasons, but it seems likely that unconsciously the speeder is acting out a dream of freedom.  He or she is pushing on that gas pedal the way they wish they could push on the throttle of their lives and go as fast towards their goals as they wish.  Really, they want to fly.  The dream of speeding down a highway or even a city street strikes a deep chord in the soul.  It makes us feel for the moment as if we are in control of our destiny and can control not only our direction and destination but how fast we will move and when we will arrive.

I’m not sure if life would be better if we all did have that sort of freedom, but it is quite clear that we do not.  Oh, there are a few gurus out there who insist they have the secret to getting everything we wish for.  There always have been mages who promised that sort of thing.  Selling hope is a good way to make a living.  And hope does help.  But the realities of human freedom are more complicated than the old infantile wish-fulfillment fantasies that play out on our freeways.  Americans express their personalities through their vehicles (as we now call cars, trucks, and motorbikes), and in doing so they also express their beliefs about human freedom and patriotism.  Most of those who use the bus or the train (public transportation as they are called) do not have any alternative, but more and more people are choosing to use those vehicles to get to their goals because they see it makes good sense.  It saves them money, it saves our whole society money, it cuts down on air and water pollution, and it is morally good for the soul because it expresses solidarity with everyone else in our society.  It is an action, a choice made to get us off the drug of petroleum and dependency on the foreign powers and domestic moguls who act as the pushers.

Driving one’s own car, especially a shiny new one, expresses a different self-image and so a different image of how we relate to our fellow citizens and to the land.  By owning a car and driving it, we feel more free.  We can choose when we want to leave home and where we go.  We do not have to stand at the corner waiting for the bus and consulting timetables.  Public transportation in Minneapolis and St. Paul used to be first rate, back in the days of the trolley system.  But the trolley’s were bought up by private interests who wanted everyone to drive cars, so they dismantled the trolleys.  The current bus system tries to take the place of our good old trolleys but buses still are stuck with the traffic caused by all those people who have chosen to drive their cars instead of use public transportation.  Buses became stigmatized as only for poor people (meaning usually non-white citizens) who could not afford to buy a car.

This served the sellers of cars very well.  Just look at the car commercials.  They are all about selling the illusion of personal freedom.  Is this any different, I wonder, than the lies of the tobacco industry in the old commercials I watched on television when I was a kid?  Cigarettes were advertised as glamorous.  You were extra-tough if you were a man, extra sexy if your were a woman, if you had a cigarette dangling from your lips.  The cowboy was the symbol of this for men – the Marlboro Man.  Today’s young people maybe have no idea what those old commercials were like.  Still, the habit and the machismo of smoking is passed down.  It will probably take another generation at least before the old fantasies wear thin enough for smokers to just look silly or foolish.

True Freedom, suggests Steiner, depends upon consciously following one’s true inner nature.  That is, not simply following a pre-determined “fate,” but being aware of the reasons that lead one to make choices.  Certainly a lot of life seems to just sweep us along, but that is just a colorful way to say that we do not always see or understand the forces that lead us to situations in which we make our decisions.  We do, after all, make thousands of decisions every day of our lives.  Many of these (maybe most) are unconscious decisions, sometimes habits, sometimes autonomic functions like breathing, or functions that are more or less instinctive like eating.  The instinct to eat is a good example of the human condition, though, for we nevertheless can make many decisions about what we choose to eat.  Only our fellow humans who live a very impoverished existence have no choice at all about what to eat.  Animals normally make choices about what they eat at least within the scope of their particular diet.  Brother grizzly may choose to eat salmon or blueberries today, or seek out a honey tree.  There is a web of limitations (what the philosophers like to call “necessity”) in which choices take place.  The reality of the limitations do not spoil the freedom of choice that exists within it.

But acting out of ignorance of those forces that play upon us and limit our choices is not Freedom.  Ignorance or worse, the belief in false causes, is the antithesis of true human freedom.  Human imagination is a great gift but with it comes the ability to believe in crass falsehoods or preposterous stories told to us by our parents or elders.  If we do not understand that these stories are myths – that is they form a mythos, a web of story used to help us answer questions that often have no explanation in ordinary facts.  Creation myths are like this.  The theory of the Big Bang is scarcely more than a myth at this point, however much it may be argued scientifically pro and con.  It fills a gap in our factual knowledge and that is important to us humans because part of our nature is to imagine that which is not present to our senses.  However, to be taken in by a myth in such a way as to believe that it is factually true and all other opinions or stories are “false,” is to be trapped by the causes that form the web of limitations around us.  We may embrace the myth of machismo, or the dream of speed, without understanding what we are doing.  In that case, we are making choices that ultimately are not free choices.  Ironically, embracing these mythic ideas of freedom (such a driving an SUV through the Grand Canyon, or a sports car down a speedway) ironically encloses one inside a web of illusion that takes away our ability to make actual free choices based upon an understanding of why we do so.

The ideas of Patriotism and Freedom are covered with the barnacles of platitudes and old sayings and bumper-sticker aphorisms that sound logical because they conform to (and indeed create) a convincing story, offering us something that seems like meaning.  Take for example, the platitude “Freedom isn’t Free.”  This bumper-sticker phrase sounds clever, implying that our freedom is purchased by the spilled blood of soldiers, or at the very least the taxes we pay to fund the military and the arms race.  In fact, however, it directs one’s attention (or lack of it) away from the fact that freedom is in fact free in the sense that we are born with it as an innate quality of human being.  We have freedom of choice by virtue of our faculties of reason and imagination.  It is true that other people can interfere with our choices.  Parents do so all the time with their children.  Employers and police do so as part of their social position.  Part of the social contract that exists between individuals gives to parents, police, teachers, and employers, as well as armies and government officials, the power to limit our freedom of choice.  But it is a particularly American tendency perhaps to try to keep this to a minimum and let people make their choices for themselves wherever it does not seriously threaten the society as a whole.

This attitude toward freedom takes some strange turns.  Conservatives tend to believe that individuals should have the freedom to pay taxes or not, as they choose, but that limitations should be placed on their sexuality, or even on their religious beliefs.  Liberals, on the other hand are happy to place limitations on citizens in the form of taxes and government regulation of business practices, but desire to give more freedom to students to choose for themselves, and teachers to choose how they practice the art of teaching.  Liberals also are quite sure that religious freedom must be absolute, including the right to believe in nothing at all, and that women have a right to choose how to manage their bodies in the process of reproduction.  The most liberal-minded do not feel that any limitations should be placed on sexuality between consenting adults, which the more conservative tend to follow the attitudes of the Jewish Torah or the writings of the apostle Paul in limiting sexual behavior very strictly and keeping its legality controlled by religious institutions through the institution of marriage.  Hence the great argument going on today about “gay marriage.”  What seems to go unsaid in all the media coverage of the pseudo-debate is that marriage has been for centuries the primary institution by means of which religious authorities limited the freedom of individuals, particularly women.  That is why they do not want a secular substitute to cut in on their turf.  It was bad enough in the last generation to allow civil marriages, but to allow members of the same sex to marry seems, quite understandably, to the conservative religious mind, a complete travesty of the whole institution.
The odd thing is that politically, conservatives are the first people to trot out “Freedom” as their by-word and wave a flag, as if Freedom was uniquely American and had something implicitly to do with military might.  Perhaps they are hearkening back to the Revolutionary War in which the American rebels took up arms against their lawful lords and overturned the existing political order.  That rebellion was a rebellion against arrogance and stupidity and prejudice and greed at least as much as it was a rebellion against “tyranny.”  But it was in a way an attempt to break free from an oppressive regime that limited the freedom of our 18th-century ancestors.  However this may have advanced the freedom of choice for some Americans, it clearly made matters worse for the Native Americans, and did little at all to help the slaves, whose status remained unchanged.

So, American Freedom is really a work in progress.  Each generation has grappled with the fundamental tension between individual and corporate freedom of choice and limitations placed upon individuals or groups by a democratically elected representational government.  Every human society has had to grapple with this problem.  One fact that emerges about humans is that they are very prone to give up their freedom if they think a strong man will do everything for them.  They seem instinctively want Big Daddy to make all their choices for them.  This was the tendency that George Orwell parodied so darkly in his novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four.  It was the tendency that Aldous Huxley parodied in another way in his novel Brave New World.  Those are two excellent books to read to prompt one to think about the nature of our freedom.

The Owl flies free.  And I must go for this week.  Think about what reasons lead you to make the decisions you make this week and act freely out of that knowledge.

– Gookooko’oo

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