Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Less Pleased you than the Stars?

The Ancient Celts had some strange ideas. However, strange is not necessarily bad, and value does not usually depreciate with age, so perhaps we should look at and evaluate one of the more important of their beliefs. For you, and maybe for me as well, time is linear. After all, you get up in the morning, have some food, go to work, come home and go to bed... that’s pretty linear. So is it that you are born, you get old and then you die. 

However, some things seem to be more circular; this December 14th was cold, wet and it got dark early. I’m not a great one for telling the future, but I fully expect next December 14th to be pretty similar. Years and days do have this circular, repeatable function. To the ancient Celts, time did not move in straight lines at all, rather in circular coils; December 14th (not that they would have called it by that name) was a point that was revisited once every 365 days. It’s a bit like a roundabout in a park. If you sit on the roundabout and it starts to move, you begin to see the same things come round each time; trees and buildings will come up every time you go by. Of course, seeing a tree from a roundabout once and then once again, does not indicate that the tree has changed position at all. Obviously the tree is changing too; moving in the wind, shedding leaves, growing and eventually dying ~ remember you are on a coil, not just a circle ~ you move around as well as along.

You can see how the Celts came to this idea of thinking that life is just a big roundabout, and you get on as a baby and fall off when you die. If you are lucky, you get to pass the same points many times before leaving the fairground, and for some of the time, others come and sit beside you for the ride.

We can easily embrace the idea of a coil of time by just thinking of it in the same way that we think about place. If the house where you were brought up still exists and you were to visit it, you would not expect things to be the same; décor, gardens, people and sounds might have changed, but you would still think of it as being essentially the same place. Is it much harder to think of the current year as being the same as the one just gone? This Christmas might be different from last Christmas but are you sure they are not just the same in essentials, with different weather, events, people and sounds? Some Christmases may seem very different; that person riding on the roundabout is no longer there next to you; we never know what is waiting for us with the next rotation.

It is the winter of 1871. On December the 14th, many things are happening. The house in which I am now writing is still new and its first family of inhabitants is getting ready to celebrate Christmas. But my mind is not here; that's to say, it is here in time, but not in place. I am in London and it is, as you might guess, a cold and damp evening. A gust of wind blows dozens of wet and browning leaves past me and I suddenly feel a chill and want to be out of this wet and windy weather. I turn to find myself in a room lit by two oil lamps. Yes – this is who I wanted to see ~ step with me for a while...

To suffer from SAD is a good start to understanding Christina Rossetti. And here and now, Christina sits at a small writing desk lit by one of the lamps. Despite being of Italian descent, she looks very pale, almost anaemic, and her eyes are red ~ either from crying or from working too late by this poor light. She seems to be about forty years old and is instantly recognisable from her brother’s paintings. She looks thin, wan and fragile. I look over her shoulder at what she is writing. I try to be quiet, but I doubt that she has any awareness of me; Oh yes! I have got the precise moment that I had hoped for; I squint my eyes as I read her delicate, beautiful handwriting in the yellow flickering light;

In the bleak mid-winter frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter long ago..

I look up into her face and try and understand her; sad eyes, mouth tightly closed, cheeks drawn in. Oh Christina, is it so bad? Is life always going to be as bleak for you as that midwinter you wrote of? I have a great need to comfort her, to run back to my own years and bring her my light box and a handful of St. John’s Wort tablets, I want to give her a comforting hug and tell her that she is not alone and that tens of thousands will love her for her work, but I can’t do these things. It doesn't work like that. I am no time traveller, just a wistful winter wanderer. I watch her for a while and eventually she leaves her little writing desk and takes herself to an armchair. I am trying to stay with her...

Christina, you have lost your lovers before, and you will lose those to come, very soon you will be diagnosed with Graves Disease. Later your depression will deepen and you will die, lonely and broken hearted, of breast cancer, having undergone some awful and vicious Victorian surgical technique; yours is to be a life of pain and loss. We never know what is waiting for us on the next turn of the roundabout or perhaps you had a better idea than many. The room, and Christina with it, fade into the dark and damp night..I have lost her.

I still remember singing her words at school in those long dark days leading up to Christmas. ‘In the bleak midwinter’; then I did not fully realise the meaning of the word 'bleak' but now I am fully aware of its accuracy when placed before the word midwinter.

We are about to break up for the holidays. I stand praying ~ it is the end of the day. Miss Maskell has told us to put our chairs up on tables for the cleaners and we now stand by them. To pray, as a six year old, is to hold your hands flat together, fingers close to one another ~ I press so hard that my hands are beginning to turn white while I try I think of Jesus. Miss Maskell has told us that Jesus said that the meek shall inherit the Earth. I was not sure what being meek meant exactly, (nor what inherit was) but I was sure that I was meek and that Jesus was on my side against the bullies, the thugs and the cruel adults that seemed to fill my life. My eyes were tight closed but I opened them in that way children do, looking through my eyelashes and believing that no adult could tell that I was looking out at the world. At once I saw a star, cut out of green metallic paper and stuck to a window pane by Miss Maskell ~ that star is still with me in my mind. Is it the star of David or the star that guided the Magi? Is it that star that still catches my eye occasionally when life takes a sudden and unexpected pause, when the roundabout stops just for a brief moment? At such times it is curious that her handmade attempt to brighten a tawdry dark classroom with a small piece of green metallic paper and a pair of scissors should fill my mind, but it does, often.

Did you ever marry and have children Miss Maskell, or did you spend your life looking after the children of others? Miss Maskell, are you still here, on the roundabout, do you still live with us or were you carried away like Christina, broken down, depressed and ill? I hope not ~ you were one of the few adults of my childhood that I look back on with fondness. It would be wrong to say that you treated me with kindness. That was not the way in those days ~ but you did treat me, all of us, with fairness and consideration ~ that was important. You listened. It was you that first read me ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. I remember you for your huge pleated skirts, for your unflattering glasses, your pale and blotchy face and your star making ~ you made the star that gave me the first religious experience of my life and I love you for it. God bless you wherever you are.

And what did you think of me, that skinny sickly looking boy who asked you silly questions like ‘what does meek mean?' Within a few months of that day, the day of the star, I was in hospital ~ for the next six years I was in hospital more often than I was at home ~ my education, and my childhood, was put on ice. Miss Maskell went on to teach other children, for a teacher's life is never linear ~ for them, the coil is made up of new terms, new faces, new exercise books and fresh pages on the register, but it's still the same school year ~ every Christmas a new star on the window. For me, the future was hospital, medication and meekness; I would never see Miss Maskell again after my illness ~ we can’t tell, we never know what is waiting for us on the next turn of the roundabout.

Am I moved by paper stars today? Sometimes perhaps. Am I moved by renaissance religious paintings that hang in the galleries of the worlds greatest cities? Not often ~ religious art does little for me, not all the crucifixions and nativities... except for one painting. A painting not on canvass or on some majestic ceiling, rather on wood. Not an icon, but iconic in its way.

Christina, and Christina’s brother, Dante Gabriel, had a good friend called Holman Hunt and on one cold and damp December day, he, sitting in his workshop, finished cutting the stars in the hood of a lamp that he had been working on.

The lamp was in the ‘arts and crafts’ tradition and the stars were designed to cast star shaped light onto the ceiling. It does not look to me to be the world’s most practical lamp, but it does seem the most beautiful. Just a few years later, Holman painted his lamp as held in the hand of Jesus, in his painting ‘The Light of the World’. The original of this painting is on wood and it hangs in Oxford, with a copy to be seen in Manchester. Some years later, in ill health and with some help, he painted a third copy for St. Paul's Cathedral in London. The lamp, complete with stars, is in the hand of Jesus as he knocks upon the door ~ or, as I think, is about to knock on the door as we have come across him in the woods.

The scenery is not the Middle East. It is not Jerusalem. It is Britain and by the look of the dying vegetation and the fallen apples and weedy brambles, it must be December, and a damp and chilly night when the wind has taken the last remaining fruits from the trees. A very British looking squirrel cheekily reaches for one of the fallen apples in the right hand corner of the painting. Jesus himself looks nothing like the Jewish man that we know him to be, but like a Celt! Look at the redness in the beard and the hair. Jesus looks like King Arthur or perhaps a druid. Was Holman familiar with the words of Columba “I do not hold to the voice of birds, or any luck on the earthly world, or chance or a son or a woman. Christ the Son of God is my druid”. . It is the door that is the key to the painting. We don’t know what is behind the door any more than we know what waits for us on the next turn of the roundabout. Whatever was in Holman’s mind when he painted this picture, he encapsulates what the roundabout ride is all about ~ however many times we go around, however many times we pass the same thing, some things are always there for us; the light of the world leading us to the true maker of stars and lanterns, doors and squirrels.

Have you forgotten how you praised both light
And darkness; not embarrassed yet not quite
At ease? And how you said the glare of noon
Less pleased you than the stars? but very soon
You blushed, and seemed to doubt if you were right

Christina Rosetti

(c) Ray Lovegrove 2011


'In the Bleak Midwinter' Poem

'In the Bleak Midwinter' Song Video (perhaps not the tune you know best, but the one I sang at school.)

More about Christina Rossetti;

Large copy of  'The Light of the World' on which you can enlage sections (find the squirel)

More about Holman Hunt;

More about Columba;

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Where the Wind Hit Heavy on the Borderline...

I am a borderliner.  I live so close to a border that my cats regularly travel from one country to another by paw... take a look around and then wander back home again. Just taking my children to school and bringing them home every day means I cross the Wales-England border four times! The border is peaceful now but in the Middle Ages it was fought over continuously (my own village changed hands many times), and the Welsh borders had the highest concentration of military castles and forts anywhere in the world!  The border is now between England and Wales, but once it was the border between the Kingdom of Mercia and the Kingdom of Radnor.

You may argue that the border I live on is hardly worthy of the name; it has no wall, it has no fence, neither passports nor visas are required, no checkpoints, no customs.  Yet every time I cross the border I give it some thought. Our local stretch of the border has been marked, since the time of King Offa, by the River Dulas, and today the border can only be crossed by one of the many small bridges that have been built over the centuries.  (You can of course cross the border by getting your feet wet, but that’s not for me, nor my cats.)  We do, of course, have a language difference; a Welsh place name and traffic signs do not let you forget which side of the border you are on. I don’t speak Welsh, but my children are all learning ~ it is an ancient and beautiful tongue.

I don’t come from this part of the world originally, but it has been my home for a little longer than eight years and I feel very ‘at home’ here. It’s the place that I feel more at home in than anywhere else that I have lived, but why is this? Is that because that state of being ‘on the border’ fits me so well? If you too live on a border, any border, perhaps you will know what I mean. Of course living on the border is not the same as ‘living on the edge’ – people that live on the coastline of a country are always fully part of that country – yet those that live on the border are always something strangely different. Living on the edge (in both senses) may be more dangerous, but living on the border is more compromising.

Perhaps being a borderliner means that you never feel that you are fully part of anything; you always feel... not detached, but marginalized. You are at the boundary of the field and can get a good view of what’s happening in the next field –over the hedge. Perhaps being a borderliner means that you can too easily see the flaws in your argument and the good points of another. Overall, being a borderliner means that you are committed to your cause, but you don’t feel that it entitles you to dismiss the cause of another. Borderliners don’t feel that they belong on this side of the border, or that side, they feel that they belong ON the border. Some borderliners don’t actually live on a border at all; they just feel as if they do or, perhaps, if you live in a country that you have adopted, you feel that the border is just around you.

Borders are not only geographical, they are also philosophical. If I look at the descriptions people write about themselves on their blogs, Facebook or Twitter, you can identify those who feel that they need to describe themselves by adding a degree of shading to their beliefs.  People are sometimes reluctant to fit into just one group, or maybe they relish the chance to span more than one. I have listed (alphabetically) just a few of these below;

All religions are roads to the truth
Anglican, somewhat Friendly
Being a Quaker is not a religion, it is a philosophy
Buddhist Quaker
Christian Unitarian
Quagan (Liberal Quaker/Pagan)
Quakerly-inclined Unitarian
Quakers and Unitarians are cool!
Unitarian Universalist with leanings to Judaism

This list could go on and on, but you get the idea; lots of people are natural borderliners! Of course I have not included those that just say ‘Christian’, Baptist, Catholic or Muslim or those that say nothing at all, but perhaps at least some of these others are closet borderliners. I invariably describe myself as ‘Liberal Quaker’ but as a borderliner I realise this is not good enough.  I also feel very drawn to Celtic Christianity, Judaism, Unitarianism, Paganism ~ I might be better off with a Venn diagram and forget a written description altogether! And if you look at my list and spot contradictions of theology then let me tell you I can justify all!

 Look at any map.  You can easily find the borders. They are marked in thick lines, some borders following the course of rivers and mountains, others simply straight lines drawn on a map. Not all borders, it seems, can be seen.  Some borders lie within us; the borders between belief and disbelief, the borders between altruism and selfishness, the border between acceptance and prejudice, the border between compassion and disinterest. How many times a day do you cross these borders, what is your map and where are your bridges?


More about the ancient kingdoms of Britain

What's Hay Quaker up to this week?

The wind really has been hitting heavy on the borderlands this week. Little constructive work other than cleaning up the debris.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Is it a Gift to be Simple?

It is a dingy South London classroom, sometime in the past - my past. In the room are at least two people; one of them is Miss O’Keefe, my teacher, and the other one is my mother. My father may also be in the room, but I doubt it.  I may have been in the room myself, but I don’t remember it.  I think of the scene happening in black and white – everything was black and white in those days, or perhaps not black and white at all, more a multi-shaded grey. More than likely I was not in the room, but waiting outside in a dark corridor on an uncomfortable wooden chair – I remember spending a lot of time in corridors. Miss O’Keefe and my mother have come to a decision - they are going to change me for ever.  It is for my own good, they feel full justification and have no doubts about the correctness of their actions. They are going to change me from a little boy who is left-handed into a little boy that is right-handed.

Today we understand that ‘handedness’ is all to do with the brain, but in those less sophisticated days of not too long ago, handedness was considered to be a matter of the hand – nothing more. Children with a ‘lazy eye’ had a pair of spectacles fitted with a plastic cover on that eye; this made the other eye work harder. To Miss O’Keefe, hands were just like eyes. Miss O’Keefe was my teacher’s real name.  I think I can safely use it as she seemed well over a hundred years old and must certainly have died long ago. To my eyes at the time, she bore a striking resemblance to the Wicked Witch of the West and seemed a pretty good personality match as well!  Miss O’Keefe was not a woman to be told she was wrong - she had decided that to change my handedness was simple – just tie the left hand behind the back each day at school and the right hand would simply take over. The tying was done, I remember, with a length of stiff green school ribbon, the type used to tie school whistles around the teacher’s neck. The tying was done each morning and released only at break times and lunchtime. My mother was given strict instructions that I was not permitted to use my left hand at home and my parents complied by stopping me writing or drawing or eating with my left hand.
So simple was my response, I stopped writing, I stopped drawing and, for a while I stopped eating as well. Eventually they won the battle and I started to use my right hand. I can just picture the mean and twisted smile on Miss O’Keefe’s face when victory was assured.

Being left-handed was not my only ‘difficulty’; I was also a ‘mirror writer’. This is not uncommon – if a mirror writing child is given a sentence or a string of numbers to copy, they do it, but in a mirror image starting on the left of the page and working to the right. It is an indication of nothing very much, but to Miss O’Keefe it was a sign of extreme laziness and required a severe telling off. More than once the telling off was so severe that I wet myself – this brought even stronger condemnation and punishment.

As an adult I write with my right hand, in fact my left hand is pretty much without function except for using a mouse on the computer which I am unable to use right-handed at all. Some things that I have never mastered I blame on this ‘changing of hands’ in my early years. I cannot for instance drive a car – even lessons from a teacher of disabled drivers failed to turn me into anything other than the world’s worst driver. So what I am an environmentalist - I love public transport and the world is better for having one less driver in it, but still .... it might have been nice at least to have had the option of not driving rather than having it thrust upon me. Is this lack of ability the result of my brain having to rewire itself to being right handed? Who knows.  I am told that people that have undergone this kind of change are often unable to fire a rifle with any accuracy, but as a pacifist vegetarian who has never picked up a rifle in my life, this is no problem at all! In addition I am an awful speller, often getting the middle parts of words entirely reversed so ‘indicator’ might be written as ‘indtacior’ and a phone number with ‘987536’ might be remembered as ‘935786’. This I blame on the childhood mirror writing and cannot say how having my handedness changed affected it.

I am getting angry as I write this, thinking about why this was done to me without my permission.  I could have been less troubled by being left alone. I am so angry that I am going to burst into that room and stop the decision being made. I am going back...

The door bursts open and I enter the room.  It is so strange to be back in that greyness, my mother and Miss O’Keefe look shocked and Miss O’Keefe is about to tell me off when I start to speak. This is weird!  It is me talking, but with my five year old voice – I can feel the lack of lung capacity behind what I am saying and this makes me feel so small and venerable. I say;

‘There is nothing, NOTHING wrong with being left handed, nothing wrong at all.  Leonardo da Vinci was left-handed, and a life-long mirror writer, Albert Einstein was left-handed, Winston Churchill was left handed, plus a whole load of US Presidents and Marilyn Monroe.’  Miss O’Keefe is just starting to open her mouth - I need to shout out to stop her... ‘Jimmi Hendrix was left-handed,  and Paul McCartney.’  I can see I’ve lost them at this point. ‘Paul McCartney from the Beatles.’  No.  They just look at one another in puzzlement. I understand what has happened - they think I’m crazy.  My mother is looking under the table to conceal her embarrassment - ‘Paul McCartney is a Beatle not a beetle’ I shout, but my mother has unceremonially lifted me from the floor and I am being carried crying and screaming from the room. I have ruined my chance to change my life by a stupid anachronism  - the Beatles haven’t happened yet.

In 1964, Quakers in the UK published a statement called ‘Towards a Quaker View of Sex.’  It has a very famous quote in it; ‘One should no more deplore homosexuality than left-handedness.’ This is outstanding - such an enlightened view in 1964 – Miss O’Keefe was still alive, for heaven’s sake! What she was doing to left-handed children (presumably I was not the only victim over her long career in the classroom), psychiatrists were doing to gays – trying to make them something they were not!

If you are a parent it is wrong to try and change your children from the way they are; of course you have to feed them, clothe them, house them, educate them and  love them, but don’t try to change them. If they are left handed that’s the way they are – leave them alone. If your child is growing up gay then why not leave them alone – a list of high-achieving gays is as long as the list of high achieving left-handers. If they are boys that are too feminine or girls that are not feminine enough just leave them alone. Love them, look after them, cherish them and leave them alone. Perhaps they will grow into high achievers or perhaps just into decent, simple, happy adults.

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

One of the ways to ‘be simple’ is to not make things more complicated than they need be – like bringing up children.

(C) Ray Lovegrove 2011


Famous left-handers;
Simple Gifts;
Towards a Quaker View of Sex;

What's Hay Quaker up to this week?
  • sowing some late lettuce in the polytunnel (always the optimist)
  • planting rhubarb
  • planting garlic
  • digging bean trench for next summer

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

My Life as a Hedge

This weekend, during a rare sighting of the sun, I decided to get stuck into the hedge and do some work. We have about 600ft of hedge to maintain and it involves a lot of work over the course of the year.   It is as mixed as a hedge can be, with hawthorn, hornbeam, oak, holly, yew, privet and elder with a fair amount of bramble, ivy and bryony thrown in for good measure.   It forms a boundary around much of the property, but so much better than a wall or a fence. You can date a hedge (very roughly) by walking for thirty paces and counting the different, established species of shrub – each species accounts for a hundred years of hedge life. This makes the estimated age of our western hedge as being 500 years and that on the northern boundary 100 years.  Without doubt, part of it is older than our 140 year old house.

Hedgerows are perhaps the most diverse man-made environment you will find in Britain. Apart from the shrubs themselves, many smaller plants grow at the base of the hedge and many wild birds nest in its branches. Ours is a mainly dry hedge and provides housing for hedgehogs, toads and slow-worms  (as well as plenty of smaller creatures for them to eat); wetter hedges provide a home for bog plants, frogs and newts. Hedges last a long time due to the constant renewal of the shrubs themselves, but plants die or are damaged by weather, animals and careless humans.  Repairing a hedge calls for the skills of a ‘hedger‘ and a little hedgelaying - the art of weaving the living hedge into a lasting stock-proof barrier.

The exact pattern for hedgelaying varies around the country.  This design is popular in the Welsh Marches.  Remember this is a living hedge; after a few weeks it will be green with leaf and have a long lifespan.

Those who ‘do’ hedgelaying as a job are invariably weather-toughened men who have skin resembling the hides of elephants and the skill of a true artist. I have seen them working in freezing conditions without gloves, in amongst the brambles and thorns.  Carefully they turn an overgrown line of shrubs into a beautiful hedge.  For aesthetic reasons I have not included any pictures of my own attempts at hedgelaying, but it mainly involves finding a long branch of one shrub and weaving it through the stems of others. It works!

I wonder what those hedgelayers think about whilst creating their living length of knitting?  I think of Celtic knots – the comparison is obvious (well to me anyway) - the hedge is a Celtic knot! The Celts saw all things as being connected; in Celtic art this reveals itself as intricate patterns having neither starting nor end point - it all joins up.  Like the hedgelayers, the Celts realised that strength comes from interconnection.  Interconnection leads to strength through support – that’s important in hedges and important in almost anything else you can name.

In my youth I was very keen on compartmentalising my life. I had work, I had home.  I had what I studied, I had what I liked, I had this group of friends, I had this other group of friends.  Why I felt like this I cannot say, but I do remember how important it all seemed at the time? I also remember that it took a deal of organization, just in case some aspect of one ‘box’ should spill into another – this would result in personal disaster.  We change as we grow and for that I am thankful.  Nowadays, things are different; my life is messier but the interconnections are obvious and important.  Whether I am cooking, gardening, reading, talking, writing, cleaning, child caring or whatever, it’s part of the pattern.  Just like my hedge, it is hard to say what is supporting and what is being supported.

Today in my life I have no position, I have no morals, I have no ethics,  I have no point to make, I have no ‘axe to grind’, I have no politics, and I have no religion. I have instead a complex mesh of values and beliefs with long strands of simplicity, peace, equality and justice holding them together. In my life, politics and religion can no longer be separated from one another –they are just part of the pattern.  A long scarf, knitted from experience. Today  I have no family life, I have no social life, I have no work life, I have no other life - I just have my wonderful life, my Celtic knot, my living hedge – all is connected, all is interwoven, all is together.

(c) Ray Lovegrove

My hedge


For hedge lovers;
To date you hedge (go on just ask it!)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Tree Quaker

For some people, the great spiritual highs of their lives (apart from those “once in a while” things like graduating, getting married, having children etc), involve some form of religious worship, meditation, music or art. These things work for me too, but I can add one other form of spiritual involvement, enlightenment and pure joy to this list - the planting and growing of trees.

The joy comes not so much from the physical labour involved, as much as the pure beauty of them as they grow through the years, and the awareness of how long they will live. When I am dead, my plantings will live on after me, perhaps to irritate future generations or, I hope, delight them.  Any time when I have ten minutes to spare, I walk around the garden, just looking, and often touching the trees. To do this with a cup of tea in one hand on a sunny morning is as close to bliss as I can imagine.

A note for those who do not live in Britain or Ireland;   to successfully inhabit these damp and chilly isles on the western fringe of Europe, it is necessary to drink large quantities of hot tea. It is also advisable to learn to do as many things as possible with a cup of tea in one hand. If any job should require the use of both hands at once, then a cup of tea must be placed within nine inches of your leading hand for easy access. If, for instance, you are two-hand typing on a keyboard and the phone rings- then you can stop typing, reach for the phone with one hand and the tea with the other. With luck you can take a hot mouthful before speaking – if not, that accounts for the strange sounding, almost gurgling, ‘hello’ that you hear from the other end of the line!

When we first moved to our current house some eight years ago it had just three, established trees in the gardens. The gardens are sizable, consisting of the original land of a Victorian house, plus an old orchard that had been cleared and levelled by the previous owner. No sooner had the removal van moved on before I, spade in hand, had started planting. Within the first week I had added a mulberry, walnut and two apple trees; within a year several more joined these early members of the family, until, at the latest count, I had reached nineteen (not counting the original three) with two more on order for later on this autumn. Why?  Because I love every aspect of the tree - and the tree in all its forms is a wonderful thing to behold.

I find it no surprise that the original inhabitants of these isles, well before the introduction of Christianity, were tree worshippers. The Celts left very little in the way of written explanations of their beliefs, but we know that trees paid an important role in their lives. Trees are big and slow to grow.  We watch them set the pace for the seasons with bud, flower, leaf and fall; and we know that much of them can not be seen -  the roots of the tree reach deep into the darkness of the earth and draw up water and nutrients from the depths.  We love the products of the tree; fruit, nuts and wood and we love what the wood is used for; building timber, furniture, firewood and books. As if this were not enough, we should also remember that the tree gives beauty, form and structure to our natural and man-made landscapes.

Every few years or so I, for want of amusement, will do one of those on-line ‘which religion are you tests’.  Perhaps you have done the same yourself in an idle moment. First of all, I have to say, top marks for the people that set up the tests to differentiate between a ‘liberal Quaker’ and a ‘conservative Quaker’ - this is one of those things that keeps we Quakers talking for hours, but strangely enough doesn’t seem to set the rest of the world on fire. Secondly, they have produced a fairly well-constructed set of questions that avoid the obvious clichés about religious groups.

These are my top three results from the latest time I have tried this test.  (By the way, should you want to try this yourself, please find the link below);

Liberal Quakers 100%, Unitarian Universalism 97% Neo-Pagan 95%.

Well - no surprise for the first one.  I became a Quaker by convincement as a teenager.  Unitarian Universalism ... again no surprise - I have a deep interest in Unitarianism and have many ‘UU’ friends.  Quakers and Unitarians share much and (in the UK) have a long history of cooperation and common causes. It was the neo-paganism that surprised me. The surprise came not in the revelation that I might have the odd ‘pagan tendency’ but that the test was so good at picking this up! How could they know about the trees!

Before you get the idea that I am a tree worshipper, or that I dance (naked or otherwise) around the trees in my garden, let me clear matters up. I cite the words of the Celtic Christian monk Columbanus in my defence.  He said:
          “If you want to understand the Creator, understand created things”.
 He was right – as was the medieval philosopher Eriugena when he wrote:
           "God speaks to us through two books: the 'little book' of Scripture and the 'big book' of creation".
Whatever your religion, and whatever your scripture, you can enhance your life and grow your sprit with a little gardening.

(c) Ray Lovegrove 2011

The religion test
The Planting of a Tree ~ George Orwell
The Apple Tree (old hymn)
For the Oak Tree Within an Acorn  (prayer) ~

What's Hay Quaker up to this week?

The old poly-tunnel has had it's day and has been stripped of its outer layer;
  • old polythene bagged up for recycling
  • remaining green tomatoes, chillies and aubergines harvested for chutney making
  • ducks free to forage over the exposed floor for slugs and larvae
  • wooden frame to be dried for wood-burning stove
  • remaining hoops to be used for a fruit arch next summer
Nothing goes to waste!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

About Tages

It’s November - not the most inviting month of the year. How is it that some months last longer than others? I know that some have thirty days and some have thirty one etc., but some are much longer than others. April, May, June all flit by far too fast – it’s just possible to get the sweet flavour of them ... and then they are gone. Even wistful September slips away from us before we can start to appreciate all that she has to offer before mellow October moves in, but November goes on forever! I can still remember as a boy, waking up and rushing downstairs to ask my mother ‘is November over yet?’ She would only look down at her feet and shake her head, saying ‘no it’s still here’. November is like an unwanted guest that comes to visit and always outstays his welcome.  

At least if you are an American you have the joy of Thanksgiving, family food and a long weekend off from work ; not in Britain, we suffer every day of November without any time off for good behaviour. We do, it’s true, have the 5th of November as a kind of celebration; it’s called ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ or, more commonly ‘Bonfire Night’ or ‘Firework Night’. This came into being not really because of the conspirator Guido Fawkes, but because the puritan Oliver Cromwell disliked the celebration of Halloween and had it banned.  As a result, people just danced around a bonfire a few nights later, calling it a different name. In recent years, Halloween has had a resurgence in the UK and Firework Night is beginning to lose its hold.
Let’s face it, the best time to have fireworks would be the 4th July or Bastille day (14th July) or even Chinese New Year at the end of January.  But no - we in Britain decide to have our fireworks in the dampest, foggiest, rainiest month of the year – November! Anyone brave enough to stand out in the cold and damp for hours on end, trying to light a firework, deserves better than to see the odd pathetic flash of light in the murky filth of a November evening. The bonfire, if it has not been soaked by the preceding week of rain, will pour out polluting smoke to make the unhappy spectators choke as they try to eat their lukewarm, damp and tasteless food. And that is only in the first week of this endless month of misery!

Quakers, as you will know, are not great ones for celebrations. The idea is that every day is a sacred gift of God and that setting days aside as ‘special’ really has no meaning. Having said this, most ‘modern Quakers’ will take breaks at Easter and Christmas as  secular holidays, because the rest of the world does so, and, after all, it’s a break. I myself as a Quaker was once very dismissive of all festivals until I came upon the strange Etruscan myth of Tages, by chance. The Etruscans lived in Italy before the Romans, and much of their mythology became incorporated into Roman mythology with time. I would like to boast that I came across this myth by reading Ovid but to be honest, it was discovered in a book of Roman myths that I was reading to my eldest son while waiting for the school bus a few years back. The story instantly appealed to me and I have woven it into my appreciation of the passing of each year ever since.

Once a man was ploughing a field and came upon something strange in the soil. At first he thought that it was a stone, but being of a strange pale colour, he decided to investigate it and found it warm to the touch. On digging around the strange object it soon became clear that this was the head of a human baby. The baby was young yet could speak like an old man. Soon a crowd gathered around the baby and it began to talk, telling of many things that would be the basis of the Etruscan (and later Roman) religions. The most amusing prophesy concerns chickens , whom Tages said hold secrets in their bodies, waiting to be laid as eggs. Killing the chickens and reading their entrails can reveal the secret but it may take many years of training to learn to do this. Tages eventually turned into an old man before dying and returning to the Earth from which he had come. One of his final and seemingly most important statements was about festivals – Tages warned that festivals must be kept because festivals are the columns that hold up the year.

I like that the idea that by keeping festivals you are maintaining the shape of the year.  Without them the year would just go on and meander along; those fixed points are important. Some things are predetermined for us depending on where we live; spring, first frost, leaf fall etc, but other things we build ourselves; birthdays, wedding anniversaries,  MLK day, Thanksgiving and even the soggy festival of Guy Fawkes Night!

So to all American readers of this blog - enjoy the build up, preparation and execution of Thanksgiving and enjoy the time with your loved ones. For those of us who just have a long month of damp days to endure, may I remind you of the words of one of my favourite Quakers who happens, (by a strange twist of fortune) to be one of my favourite Unitarians as well, Susan B Anthony who writes about ordinary days.

"Sooner or later we all discover that the important moments in life are not the advertised ones, not the birthdays, the graduations, the weddings, not the great goals achieved. The real milestones are less prepossessing. They come to the door of memory unannounced, stray dogs that amble in, sniff around a bit and simply never leave. Our lives are measured by these."

(c) Ray Lovegrove 2011

More about Tages
More about Guy Fawkes
More about Susan B Anthony

Thomas Hood poem about November

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Beating the Clock

It is no longer summer, fairly soon it will be no longer autumn either and the winter will be upon us. People prepare for the change in seasons in various ways and I, perhaps like you, give such preparations a deal of thought. It is not the coldness of winter that I think about (though in our old stone-built Victorian house, coldness is very much a fact of life every winter), as much as the darkness. So, as well as getting plenty of logs chopped and providing protection for the overwintering plants, I take trouble to prepare myself. Winter clothing for sure but also I need to dust off my light-box and stock up with 5-HTP and St. John’s Wort. Winter for me, as you might have guessed by now, means the almost inevitable return of ‘SAD’ (Seasonal affective disorder).

Please, don’t think that I am going to relate my symptoms to you or describe in any way the effect that it has on my life, because I’m not going to do that at all. Neither am I going to theorize about why I, and millions of others, suffer from this (except I do blame my Scandinavian ancestors fully). I only intend to mention it as one reason why the change in season is so important to me and how I live. Once I worked and lived in a city and the changing seasons meant something to me, but now I live and work in the countryside and the changing of the seasons means so much more.

Darkness starts to creep into my life from mid-September and, by the end of October, its effects are very obvious. In the UK we do something strange at the end of October - we ‘put the clocks back’ as a method of reversing the daylight saving time of summer. I know in North America you do this a little later – into November. What this means is that ‘early wakers’ like me find themselves roused from sleep in the early hours of the morning - and thus tired out by early evening – it takes me several weeks to settle into a new pattern. Add to this the fact that various children and animals around the house and garden all get hungry an hour earlier than they are due to be fed, and get ‘tired and emotional’ from late afternoon onwards. I have met people that claim to hardly notice the effects of this tampering with time, but for me, it is hard.

This gets me to my real point – it is about that darkness. As far as I’m concerned, you can forget that ‘hello darkness my old friend’ line. If we read material from the days before electric lighting, we find that light becomes all important. In religious writing, terms like ‘lighten our darkness’ and ‘light of the world’ are charged with an emotion that our modern ways may well have divorced us from. Poems, hymns books and paintings all stress the importance of light to us humans. Has that importance really been overcome? Are we somehow kidding ourselves? Does clicking on our (energy-efficient) light bulb when we enter a dark room really provide us with the kind of light we need? Is artificial lighting any kind of substitute for one of the most wonderful things in the world – the pure bright sunlight of summer?

Darkness is imposed upon us; it stops us doing what we want when we want, it stops us growing the kind of crops we want to grow and generally gets in the way of our free-flowing existence. The industrialization of the world depended on that fairly simple device, the light bulb, being developed. Of course we are thinking of darkness that is outside us - a simple lack of light - but there is also an inner darkness which has just as profound an effect on our existence. No light bulb can help with this one – it is pitch black and it doesn’t only affect us at night, nor only in winter. Loss, pain, disappointment, grief, betrayal, poverty and lack of hope all contribute to this inner darkness and many of us find ourselves overwhelmed by its ability to block the light from our lives, even when the sun shines.

It is unusual for a ‘Quaker blog’ to quote Richard Nixon (can anyone guess why?), but that is just what I am going to do. At the very dark time of Nixon’s leaving of the White House he said in his resignation speech, “only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be at the highest mountain”. Could we reasonably draw from this the idea that without darkness we can never ‘see the light’ and does that stand for internal as well as external darkness?

Quaker Elizabeth Watson wrote;
"Darkness is no less desirable than light. It is rather, a rich source of creativity… First there is the darkness of the earth in which the seeds wait all through the winter. Second, there is the darkness of the womb in which the young mammal grows into sufficient viability to be born and take its place on earth, as a separate being…. And third, there is the darkness of night, when the garish sun has gone down and the things of earth are blotted out, and we may glimpse the vastness of the universe of which we are part…

We say that God is the Inner Light, but I want to affirm that also the Inner Darkness, and I do not mean desolation or evil, but a quiet waiting and creativity. 'The darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day; the darkness and the light are both alike to thee*.'"

(c) Ray Lovegrove 2011

*Psalm 139:12 'Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.' King James Bible.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The New Digger

It has not been a great year for weather here in Powys, and as a self-sufficient grower, I can say that it has been an awful year for growing. Some crops have failed entirely whilst others have given a very low yield. It all started with the coldest winter for at least 150 years, followed by what is said to have been the driest spring since 1910. As for summer, it was not only dry but, in my particular ‘neck of the woods’ dry and very windy. Watering the crops was almost pointless as the wind just dried them up again. Some things have made it through, but it has taken more effort than normal. Even established trees needed watering – in Wales!!!  (For those of you who do not know Wales, it has a reputation for being wet.)
Question   ‘What do you call forty days and forty nights of rain?’
Answer      ‘ In Wales we call it  - ‘summer’.’

It’s not so bad. Having to dig in my shallot crop two months after planting, at least I have the option of buying some from the supermarket instead. In many parts of the world – once, it might have been in all parts of the world – crop failure results in hunger and even death. My grumblings, put in context, are trivial. A bad year of growing crops is, for me, nothing more than frustration and wasted labour. We will sit down to a good meal whatever the failures of the year have deprived us of. Our silent grace (we are Quakers) will give thanks for what we have, in the hope that others will ‘have’ too.

Time after time when working on the land, I think of what it must have been like in years long past. The village that we live in has existed, at least in some form, since the Iron Age and people have worked the soil continuously ever since then. The Iron Age people living in Wales were the ancient Celts and they saw a direct link between the forces of nature and their spiritual well being. Since becoming self-sufficient some eight years ago, this connection has not been lost on me; seasons, weather and the miracle of life are close to my work every day. Growing, gathering, harvesting, cooking and eating food are not only practical acts but spiritual acts as well. If modernity has divorced you from this simple connection then you need to find some way of reminding yourself about it in some way - and soon!

The poor weather has made this my least successful year of self-sufficiency and I will not be sorry when it is over.  I may not have to wait that long either  - the ancient Celts celebrated the New Year on the first of November (later Christianized to ‘All Saints Day’). Why start a new year in November? Well, the Celts, like the Jews, start each new day at sunset; so it makes sense to start the New Year at the annual equivalent of sunset, when the darkness of winter starts to fall upon us. It may be getting darker, but something is starting to happen. It’s not just a strange old Celtic custom -  it’s a pretty good idea!

 So what am I going to do at the start of the ‘New Year’, apart from putting the old year behind me. Working on the land means that the first job of the new growing-year can start - digging. I like to dig, it gives me time to think, and you can’t get any closer to nature than working the soil. I love the smell of the damp soil as I cut it and seeing the fast movement of tiny creatures that live in it. I feel an affinity with all of those that have worked this soil before me – I feel we are working together.  As we dig we are renewing the soil, and renewing ourselves in the process. The remains of what has been before can be dug into the soil and provide nutrients for what is to come. Digging is all about renewal and hope  - two things that are good any day of the year!  You may not be able to dig, but you can put things behind you by forgiving somebody. That is tending to your life as the grower tends the soil.

(C) Ray Lovegrove 2011

What's Hay Quaker up to this week?

  • Preparing new rhubarb bed
  • Planting blueberry plants
  • Harvesting tomatoes, chillies and aubergine (that's egg plants if you are American) from poly-tunnel
  • Harvesting lettuce, onions and mustard greens
  • Moving herbaceous plants
  • Pickling onions
  • Picking apples from the late harvesting trees
Poem by Edward Thomas about digging