Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Inaccessible Pinnacle

My love for the liminal places and ancient stories of Brighid's Isles has, of late, led me to a discovery of Celtic Languages. I am currently attending Irish classes and each week the teacher asks us all to tell a story in Irish. I love this, for storytelling is at the heart of community and tradition and I have long held that truth is to be found primarily in story.

I have just finished watching a very special film, Seachd, The Inaccessible Pinnacle. It is the first full length feature film ever to be produced in Scotch Gaelic. The DVD has subtitles in English, Irish and Welsh so it is boon for anyone wanting to increase their vocabulary of Celtic language. But this is also a powerful film in its own right. 

Seachd has an interesting subtitle, Lan fhirinn na sgeoil (truth is in the story). Aonghas is a boy painfully coming to terms with the death of his parents in an accident on a mountain. He and is siblings are raised by their grandparents in the Hebrides. His grandfather is a storyteller. For him, truth, tradition, culture, magic, all that is of value is to be found in story. Throughout the film the grandfather tells powerful ancient tales to the children. Tales that are set against the stunning scenery of the Highlands and Islands. Tales that hold valuable lessons for the children. For Aonghas these tales are merely the distraction of an old man, dead words in an old book. He drifts away from his grandfather and seeks consolation in the "real world". There is a moment when Aonghas argues with his grandfather in English and attempts to run away to Glasgow. 

As a man Aonghas fulfills his wish, moves to Glasgow and makes his way in the world. Then he is called back to the Hebrides where his grandfather is terminally ill in hospital. With what strength he has left the grandfather leaves the hospital with Aonghas and takes him to the mountain where his parent's died, determined that he will not lose the most precious thing a person can have - a place in a living tradition.

On the DVD there is an interview with Aonghas Padraig Caimbeul, the Gaelic writer and poet who plays the grandfather in the film. In this interview Aonghas tells us that every word spoken in Gaelic is a a triumph and a victory, a thing of beauty and strength. Today, there may only be 58,000 people who can speak Scotch Gaelic but every word spoken by them means that the story and the tradition and the culture is part of a living present. He talks about another storyteller who was asked how he remembered oral stories that were so long they took several nights to tell. The storyteller replied that it is easy, just look at the stones of the wall and the whole story is laid out in the stones.

So, in truth, we all learn who we really are, the meaning of life and of death, through the stories we hold in our hearts. Stories make the wisdom of the past active in the present. Stories hold eternal truths that are a stronghold against the worm-tongue words of politicians. A community can be most fully measured by the stories it holds dear.

Today the old stories are very much alive. The Goddesses are once more present in our world through the stories we tell about them. Stories that jump from heart to heart bearing the truth that tells us who we are and secure in who we are we can scale the inaccessible pinnacles of life.

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Juniper Hill

My partner spent her childhood in Oxfordshire and has fond memories of the area around Juniper Hill. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that she introduced me to Flora Thompson's Lark Rise trilogy. Flora was born in Juniper Hill (Lark Rise) at the end of 1876. In 1891 she became assistant to the postmistress in the nearby town of Fringford (Candleford Green). She fictionalised her experience of rural Oxfordshire life at the end of the nineteenth century in manuscripts submitted to Oxford University Press in 1938. The Lark Rise trilogy is now regarded as a minor classic and is a finely crafted, intimate description of life in a rural backwater of England.

I doubt that without my partner's personal interest I would have heard of Flora Thompson or read her books. Until recently mentioning Lark Rise to others has almost always produced a blank look. However, this year, all that has changed as the BBC aired a television series loosely based on Flora Thompson's work. This series has been a surprising success with audiences of around six million people and a second series already promised. I guess the series has been such a success because in an increasingly cynical world Flora Thompson's light touch simply celebrates the goodness of human nature and the beauty of the English countryside.

To film the series the BBC lovingly re-created the village of Lark Rise and the market town of Candleford. Sadly the landscape around Juniper Hill is now despoiled by the geodesic domes of Croughton United States Air Force Base which handles one-third of all U.S. military communications in Europe. If the Goddess is saddened by this overt display of military power that has been firmly planted in the landscape She may also be disheartened by another change.

The villages the BBC re-created are faithful reproductions of villages in the late nineteenth century. However, the BBC seems to have forgotten about the wild flowers in the fields. In the late nineteenth century the meadows would have been full of wild flowers. Today even the most common wild flowers are rare in the English countryside. The charity "Plantlife" regularly examines more than 500 sites across the country for the presence of sixty-five varieties of wild flowers. The latest survey is very worrying. Of the 524 sites surveyed 121 no longer had any of the sixty-five varieties. Cornfields are particularly barren of wild flowers today. In Flora Thompson's day Scarlet Pimpernel and Poppy would have been present in every cornfield. Today 52 of the 107 cornfields surveyed showed no sign of either of them. The situation is hardly better in our woodlands where again once common wild flowers are increasingly hard to find.

The truth is that our land is much lesser healthy than it was when Flora was raised in Juniper Hill and she would no doubt be horrified by the state of the fields and woodlands. "Plantlife" estimates that every English county loses one wild flower species every year. But she and the Goddess would be pleased that "Plantlife" was formed to protect wild flowers, fungi and lichens and the habitats in which they are found.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Rooted in the land

With the approach of the Spring Equinox there is just the very first sign of greening on some trees. The beginnings of a surge of new growth and renewal in response to the brightening light. Trees are special, they have a very deep presence which is impossible to ignore. We are drawn to them, we have our deepest thoughts beneath their boughs. Though very different we have much in common. Trees are deep rooted in the land. Their connection with the land is firm and fixed. In a real sense they and the land are one. As free roaming creatures women and men do not appear at first to be deeply rooted in the land. At best they are fee to roam freely across the face of the earth. Yet this is to belie a deep truth. Women and men are just as deep rooted in the land as trees.

We all know where home is. After many years or even generations that may not truly be where we live. Wherever there is a diaspora there is a longing for home, a need to visit, to connect, to know. A longing to learn the language and customs of our forebears.

To dispossess someone of the land is one of the greatest crimes that can be committed. To dispossess someone of their land requires terrible force. It is like uprooting an ancient tree that has clung to the land for generations. There is always death, burning, torture and the rape of countless women, the deaths of many children. And then there is the cultural annihilation. The attack on culture and language. The ridiculing of the Goddesses. The forced worship of one all-powerful god or warrior leader. The pain of exile. The cry of the refugee. The tragedy of homelessness. The utter sense of loss.

This month has seen reports of the continuing agony of Darfur, the five year destruction of Iraq and the pain of the Tibetan people. It has seen the un-satiable greed of a few threaten the homes of many. In many ways a typical month in a world of patriarchy in which weak, unthinking men, always fail to learn the lessons of history. A world in which weak men who avoid at all cost war for themselves and their families, send the daughters and sons of others to kill, maim and die on the sole justification of fabrication, lies and Orwellian use of language. They are men guilty of enormous crimes against peoples and their land. They are men in whom we can put no trust.

The Spring Equinox is a brief time of poise and balance when the whole world is equally bathed in life-giving light. Trees achieve their own poise, balance and presence in response to the nurture of their native earth and the call of the light. From them we have much to learn.

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