Thursday, 21 November 2019

St Werburgh: Resurrection, Reciprocity, & Rewilding ~ Celtic Advent Day 6


Stoke Festival's 'Werburgh Wander', 2019, Via Marg Hardcastle on Twitter

Over the next few days of Celtic Advent I thought that it might be nice to learn about two female saints with an intimate connection to the wild spirit of swans and geese. We have already learned that these water birds are more often found in relationship with the feminine and yet we tend to hear their stories in relation to male saints, such as St Martin and St Hugh. Instead, let's sink into the tales of St Werburgh & St Pega, both of whom have feast days during Christmastide. 

St Werburgh, whose Feast Day is at Candlemas on 3rd February, was an Anglo-Saxon princess born around 650 CE in Stone, Mercia (now in Staffordshire). Her father was the Christian King, Wulfhere of Mercia, & her mother St Erminhilda of Kent. She was a nun for most of her life & began her training at home with her mother and St Chad, later Bishop of Lichfield, who himself had been a student on Lindisfarne. Chad controversially followed the ways of Celtic Christianity, both before & after the Synod of Whitby which voted to place the British Church under the control of Rome. Later, Werburgh, who was instrumental in convent reform, followed in the wake of her grandmother & great-aunt as Abbess of Ely Cathedral. 

St Werburgh statue
Werburgh died in Trentham, Staffordshire & was buried there in 700 CE. It's said that her brother, Coenred, decided in 708 to move her remains to a more conspicuous place in the church at Hanbury, but I have discovered a tale which says that nuns from Hanbury stole her remains and took them home with them! It's said that at this time her body was found to be incorrupt, or preserved; a sure sign of saintliness. A year later, Coenred took holy orders and became a monk in Rome, which is when stories of Werburgh & her geese began to emerge.


The Goff Window, St Peter & St Paul's, Weedon Bec, Northamptonshire

The first was that, whilst living in Weedon Bec, Northamptonshire, she banished all the geese from the village & so protected the crops from damage. Interestingly, her distant cousin, St Mildrid of Thanet, is said to have done the same thing and was the protectress of wild geese in Kent. The geese were said to have done as she asked, a sure sign of relationship, rather than domination. 

Often these relationships were reciprocal, as in one story of St Cuthbert on the remote Farne Island. One day, a group of ravens flew down and began to gather straw from the thatch of Cuddy’s roof. He chased them away but, three days later, one returned as he dug his garden and bowed its head to him with wings outspread in apology. Cuthbert told the raven that they were welcome to return and on their next visit they brought with them the gift of a lump of lard, which Cuddy kept and encouraged visitors to use for the purpose of waterproofing their shoes. So many of the stories of our wild edge early Christian saints are grounded in respect and sharing with non-human family. What I particularly love is that this isn't a paternalistic interaction, where we are the pinnacle of Creation beneficently choosing to care for 'lower animals'. No, in these stories the other-than-human beings have agency and a will of their own. We negotiate, rather than impose. We accept having a little less for the good of all. And it works. So it is with the geese of Mildrid & Werburgh.

Wild goose on the Thames, Jacqueline Durban
The other tale of Werburgh & geese is extraordinary, as her most famous miracle concerns her resurrection of a cooked goose.

Werburgh discovered one day that a large flock of geese was destroying her growing corn by feasting on it. To prevent this she gathered them up and began to keep them as though they were domestic geese. In the morning, she called them to send them out for day but discovered one missing. When she found that the goose had been eaten by her servants she demanded that the feathers and bones of the bird be brought to her.

When they had been gathered together she prayed over the remains and commanded that the goose should live; much like La Loba, Bone Woman, singing over the bones of dead creatures in Clarissa Pinkola Estes' 'Women Who Run With the Wolves'. The geese were, of course, delighted, cheering and crying out at the return of their lost sister. Werburgh quieted them & asked that no goose should ever enter that field again. On gaining their agreement she set them free to become wild geese once more and, from that day to this, their promise has been kept.

Here is a mutual contract between humankind & the wild, one which at its heart carries the requirement to share what we have without resentment, rather than believing that everything on the Earth is here for our own benefit, or fearing that we might suffer a lack. The wild geese of Spirit remind us.

Werburgh & Her Geese by Dru Marland https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/DruMarland

And here is also a story of rewilding. At first, Werburgh thinks to control the geese by safely cloistering them in her convent. When she realises that she can't guarantee their survival she liberates them, because it matters more that they live than that she guarantees her own security. This is a reminder of how delicately balanced our relationship with all other-than-human beings can be, and that, especially in this age of climate change, our decisions must be based in mutual benefit for all beings, not just for us (and only a small number of us at that!). We aren't only individuals, a society, or even a species. But we are a community; part of a web of wellbeing and co-operation. The saints remind us.

From pinterest.co.uk

Earlier I told the tale of Werburgh's body being stolen by the nuns of Hanbury & taking them back to be buried there. And there they remained until the Viking raids of the 9th Century threatened their safety. Then, they were relocated to within the walls of the city of Chester. By the 11th Century, Werburgh had come to be considered the patron saint & protector of the city. During the Middle Ages a badge of a basket of geese was given as proof of having made a pilgrimage to her shrine. 

15th Century St Werburgh pilgrim badge, via https://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/424565
 
St Cuthbert's remains were also moved due to the Viking raids. Having died on 687, his body was buried on Lindisfarne. In 875 Danish raiders took over the monastery & the monks fled, taking Cuthbert's remains with them. They wandered for seven years before finding them a resting place in Chester-le-Street. In 995 a further Danish raid prompted their removal to Ripon. There the saint 'revealed' that he wished to remain in Durham, and so he has.

Once, the bodies of saints mattered. It seems perhaps superstitious to us now but I find here an echo of prehistory when we believed that the ancestors became part of the land, when our barrows & stone circles held their bones and marked their passing, and, even further back, the time when our beloved dead were buried beneath the floors of our homes, part of life that included death. Once, we knew to keep the dead close. We have become so removed. And we understood that resurrection was a natural part of being, were reminded each spring in the return of green and living things, each autumn with the return of the wild geese. The monks of Lindisfarne didn't carry St Cuthbert's remains with them for nothing, and the nuns of Hanbury had reason to steal the body of St Werburgh. Once, we knew that there was power in bones; they anchor us, root us in place, remind us that we live on holy ground, whilst the wild beauty of life continues to spin and shine around us. 

And, just a little aside to perhaps reflect upon. There was a time when 'goose' became euphemism for a sex worker. In the medieval period sex workers, licenced by the Bishop of Winchester to ply their trade in the Liberty of the Clink in Southwark, were known as the 'Winchester Geese'. As my friend, Christina Zaba pointed out, wouldn't it be powerful to imagine that the 'goose' in St Werburgh's resurrection miracle was a sex worker instead. And it would put quite a different slant on the story of St Martin, who hid amongst geese when he was trying to avoid being made a bishop and was given away by their cackling! 

The Goose spirit may be even wilder than we realise!

Misericord at Chester Cathedral depicting scenes from the life of  St Werburgh, via: http://orthochristian.com/77344.html


References:

St Werburgh









St Mildrid  



La Loba 


St Cuthbert



Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Advent Calendar ~ a poem for Celtic Advent Day 5


Photo: Jacqueline Durban

For Celtic Advent Day 5, a favourite poem from 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. It's full of frost, and it melts me.

Advent Calendar

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

© Rowan Williams

Poem from Rowan Williams' first book of poetry, 'After Silent Centuries' (Oxford, 1994). Also to be found in his 'The Poems of Rowan Williams' (Oxford 2002).

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

St Hugh & the Swan Wife ~ Celtic Advent Days 3 & 4


Here we are at Celtic Advent Days 3 & 4.

Advent, Christmastide, & Epiphanytide begin with the goose of Martinmas & end with the swan of St Brigid at Candlemas. I love this image & yet, marvellously, I discovered just the other day that there is a swan here at the beginning of our journey too. This is the Swan of Stow & of St Hugh of Lincoln, the patron saint of swans, whose Feast Day is on 17th November (16th November in the Catholic Church).

http://www.danielmitsui.com/00_pages/hugh_lincoln.html

I have come to love and value the saints. Although 'saint', like God, can be an emotive word, for me these are the tales of our ancestors. Like all tales they contain many tangled threads, which we can choose to untangle, or not, as we wish. I have no doubt, for example, that many of the 'Royal Saints' who proliferated as the Anglo-Saxon kings converted to Christianity, had more to do with facilitating & legitimising land grabs than grace. But, underneath all that, there is a strata of beings in deep communion with the wild places & the creatures to be found there, a continuing animism that stretches back to the beginning of human consciousness & to the place where we are all bound together no matter what our religion. For example, there are few visions of which I am more fond than of the St Cuthbert who emerged quite naturally & gently during one 'Novena for the Fallen Through'; antlered, with a cormorant on his shoulder & otters at his feet.

The association of God with water birds is as old as prayer, as ancient as bone. Marija Gimbutas writes often of the life-creating and protecting Bird & Snake Goddess, appearing in ancient iconography “as separate figures and as a single divinity. Their functions are so intimately related that their separate treatment is impossible. She is one, and she is two, sometimes snake, sometimes bird. She is the goddess of waters and air, assuming the shape of a snake, a crane, a goose, a duck, a diving bird."1 She tells us too that “geese, cranes (herons), and swans are encountered painted or engraved in Upper Paleolithic caves.”2

12,000 year old carving of human figures & water birds, Image: University of Barcelona
I remember a poll of Britain’s favourite, and least favourite, birds that was carried out some years ago. Swans were amongst our favourites, but they were also much disliked coming second to crows. The main reason given being that their necks were ‘too snake-like’.

In his book, ‘When God Was a Bird: Christianity, Animism, & the Re-Enchantment of the World’, Mark I Wallace speaks of both Moses and Jesus as employing a form of ‘snake shamanism', with Moses casting a bronze serpent to mediate the healing power of God (Numbers 21), and, 800 years later, Jesus aligning himself with the serpent of Moses and “animistically shape-shifting into becoming the sacred serpent for the renewal of the people.”3 "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up." (John 3:14-15).

Despite the attempts of representatives of worldly power, such as King Hezekiah (715-686 BCE), to eradicate this ancient ‘snake cult’ & to impose a more governable & useful religion, Wallace suggests that, “the Bible articulates an unbroken line from Moses to the reign of David and the time of Jesus as a continuous exercise in shamanic healing featuring one of God’s non-human creatures ~ the snake ~ as central to restoring biological and social equilibrium.”4 It matters then to notice that goddess-saint Brigid is associated totemically with both the swan and the snake. 

These ideas may be unfamiliar, and perhaps challenging, to some but there is nothing to fear. Here is an unbroken thread from the first drumbeat and praise song stretching through all of the world’s religions if we have the open-heartedness & the courage to see it. Attempts to sever this thread, and so to locate power in worldly things, are about control & the enslavement of Spirit, nothing more. Why would we want to unroot ourselves? There is something here both about our 'animal bodies', and about our solidarity and relationship with the wild, that is longing to be included in our spiritual, and religious, experience. Something lost waiting to be welcomed home. The water bird, the snake, the wolf, the bear, are waiting to be offered room at the inn.

Bone swan pendants, Siberian, Middle Upper Palaeolithic


And for us, if the waiting of Advent is about anything, then it is about the coming of mercy, grace, and justice for all beings in physical form, the embodiment of God on Earth. Although that world-shaking event has been hijacked by Empire, it remains deeply subversive and liberating & needs to be reclaimed as just that. At Advent we wait in the luminous darkness for the Child of Light to be born, and this child will turn the world upside down. That includes the Church. No wonder then that so many fear him. The Saints, often choosing to live alone on the wild edges with only other-than-human beings for company, rejecting power & status, are a rich source for reclaiming what this season truly means.

And so to St Hugh of Lincoln and his companion swan.

Altarpiece from the Carthusian monastery of Saint-Honoré, Thuison-les-Abbeville, France, Wikipedia

Hugh of Lincoln, also known as Hugh of Avalon, was born in 1135/40 as a member of French nobility. His mother died when he was just 8 years old &, later, his father withdrew from the world, entering a monastery taking his son with him.

Having chosen a life within the Church, Hugh was sent to England in 1179 in order to found the first Carthusian (or charter) house. That Henry II facilitated this was part of his penance for the murder of Thomas Becket, the then Archbishop of Canterbury.

We are told that Hugh was often in conflict with the Crown, establishing his independence from the king & standing up to him where needed. He even excommunicated the king's forester for mistreatment & extortion of the poor. This was brave when Thomas Becket had been murdered for much the same thing.

Hugh was known for his kindness & generosity, particularly towards the outcast, & attempted to protect members of the Jewish faith, who suffered great persecution at the beginning of Richard I's reign. His biographer, Adam of Eynsham, writes that Hugh would "wash and dry the lepers' feet, sit with them, teach them, console and encourage them, and embrace and kiss them one by one."5



From St Benet Church, Beccles, Suffolk, by Simon K on Flickr

But, at this Advent time, it's Hugh's 'deep & lasting friendship' with a swan that we might reflect upon. We are told that Hugh loved to spend time in nature, delighting in the company of wild creatures. Around the time of his ordination as a bishop, a swan appeared on the lake of Stow Park, where he often went to find peace, & drove off all the other animals.The swan was particularly aggressive towards humans but, on meeting Hugh, it became docile, eating out of his hand & refusing to leave his side. It even watched over him as he slept and attacked anyone who came close. Their friendship endured for more than fifteen years.



The swan is revered in many of the world's cultures. Often seen as symbols of love & fidelity, they are also representatives of light.

In Norse mythology two swans drink from the Well of Urd and are turned white by the purity of its water. Five flying swans are the emblem of the Nordic countries. In Hinduism they are connected to saints, who are both in the world and unattached to it, just as a swan's feather can be in water without getting wet. A royal swan was the vehicle of the Hindu goddess, Sarasvati.

Swans are believed to have the power to move between worlds, possibly because of their long migrations. Hence, their role as psychopomps, carrying the souls of the dead to the Otherworld. In 2016 a Mesolithic era burial of a young woman and her infant son was found in Denmark. The child had been laid on a swan's wing.

In Western Europe, swans arrive in the autumn and leave in the spring. When whooper swans and greylag geese migrated northwards from Scotland in springtime, it was said they were carrying the souls of the dead ‘north beyond the north wind’. In addition, swans often travel at night and so may have contributed to beliefs about the Wild Hunt & other processions of the dead found throughout Europe.

Although so intimately connected with the dark, swans are also deeply woven in with the light. Through their association with divine twins they have become solar symbols of the Indo-European Sun Goddess; the Sun and the Son being born in Midwinter from the deepest dark. Their star constellation; Cygnus (the Swan, also known as the Northern Cross), marks the beginning of the Great Rift, or the Dark River, a band of interstellar dust clouds that appear to divide a third of the Milky Way lengthwise in half, much like parted legs. Here, light flows from the womb of primordial darkness through the constellation of swans in flight.

A.T. Hatto, in his paper, “The Swan Maiden - A Folk-Tale of North Eurasian Origin7, tells us that shamans of Arctic or North Central Siberian societies often wore bird costumes, with the Buryat, Tungus, and Yakut, considering the Swan to be their ancestress and/or totem. There are echoes here of the celtic bards who may have worn feathered cloaks known as tuigen, including the skin, feathers and necks of swans. Hatto suggests too that swans and geese were particularly associated with female shamans, as is also the case with female saints! More of that tomorrow perhaps.

But what then of St Hugh of Lincoln, patron saint of swans? There is a concept in shamanism of the 'spirit spouse', a primary helping spirit who assists the practitioner in their work, & the world's mythology is threaded through with tales of the 'animal wife'. These are shape-shifting women, often alternating between human form and their other selves as seals/selkies, foxes, cranes, and yes, swans.

Via Twitter

This may seem to have little to do with Advent & the birth of Jesus, and I am not suggesting that St Hugh thought of his swan in this way, although many of us know how deep the love can be between us and a companion animal and how that can connect us to, and guide us in, the more-than-this. We can remind ourselves that the Holy Spirit often appears in the Bible as a dove and that Christ might also be described as a 'spirit spouse'; appearing to nuns, who are the 'Brides of Christ', in dreams. Some, including male clerics & monks, have been inspired to write the most beautiful and passionate love poetry in response. Some of it makes me positively blush! In addition, the oldest known example of a form of possible 'swan shamanism' is to be found in Israel at the 420,000 year old cave site of Qesem in Tel Aviv where evidence has been found of deliberate defeathering of a swan's wing for what is believed to be ritual purposes.

And so, here at the outset of our journey through Celtic Advent, we have the swan; a symbol of the sun, of light being born from star-filled darkness, and of both earthly royalty & otherworldly divinity, & so of negotiating between the two as St Hugh of Lincoln was able to do. Here too is our reminder that we will struggle with 'turning over the tables in the temple' if we have not first wedded ourselves to the wild & its Wilder God. Once, God was a bird.



I will end with Mary Oliver's powerful-as-wild-wings poem, The Swan.

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air -
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music - like the rain peltingthe trees - like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds -
A white cross streaming across the sky, its feet
like black leaves, its wings like the stretching
light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it
pertained to everything?
And have you finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

- Mary Oliver




References:

1. p. 112, Gimbutas, Marija, 'The Goddesses & Gods of Old Europe', Thames & Hudson, 1974

2. p. 3. Gimbutas, Marija, 'The Language of the Goddess', Thames & Hudson, 1989

3. p.35-36. Wallace, Mark I, 'When God Was a Bird: Christianity, Animism, and the Re-Enchantment of the World', Fordham, 2019

4. p.36. Wallace, Mark I, 'When God Was a Bird: Christianity, Animism, and the Re-Enchantment of the World', Fordham, 2019

5. http://thegoodheart.blogspot.com/2008/11/swan-of-stow.html?m=1, retrieved 18th November 2019

6. As 5.

7. Hatto, A.T. (1961). The Swan Maiden: a Folk-Tale of North Eurasian Origin? Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 24(2), pp. 326–352. doi: 10.1017/S0041977X00091461, in 
http://www.thesoulofbones.com/blog/the-cult-of-the-swan

On St Hugh of Lincoln

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_of_Lincoln

https://catholicherald.co.uk/news/2014/11/13/the-saint-who-protected-the-jews-of-lincoln/

http://thegoodheart.blogspot.com/2008/11/swan-of-stow.html?m=1

On Marija Gimbutas

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marija_Gimbutas

On swans

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swan

https://www.poetseers.org/contemporary-poets/mary-oliver/mary-oliver-poems/the-swan/

http://maryarrchie.com/2019/01/21/vedbaek-burial-a-baby-buried-upon-swans-wing/

An absolutely invaluable resource on the 'Cult of the Swan'

http://www.thesoulofbones.com/blog/the-cult-of-the-swan

On swan animism

https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/swan-0012657

http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/sculpture/flying_swan_pendants.php

https://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/.premium.MAGAZINE-why-archaic-humans-in-israel-collected-feathers-420-000-years-ago-1.7883700

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/birds-and-people-mingle-rare-piece-rock-art-180971690/

Neolitihic swan bone flutes https://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/25/science/25flute.html

Saturday, 16 November 2019

The Spirit is a Wild Goose ~ Celtic Advent Day 2


Greylag goose, Jacqueline Durban, 2013

We come to Celtic Advent Day 2.

The 'Wild Goose', an Geadh-Glas in Gaelic, Geif Gwyllt in Welsh, is the name that Celtic Christians are said to have given to the Holy Spirit, perfectly embracing the untameable, free, & unpredictable nature of our connection to the indwelling Divine. There is little proof that the name was used before the 1940s but, for me, that doesn't discount the symbol. Christianity comes from a land of dry desert & wide open spaces where, perhaps, things are more obvious. Here, it finds itself responding to a landscape of green misty valleys & sea fog, of ever-changing tides & sheets of grey rain. Nothing is obvious here. Rather, like the Grail, it is only half-glimpsed before it's gone and we are lucky if we can catch a feather or two to reassure us that it was here at all. In the goose, Spirit is embodied in the form of a wild bird bridging water, earth, & sky, and that image is a vision of both God & land.

For our ancestors their goose would probably have been a Greylag, like this one encountered in my canal days. The Greylag is the ancestor of our domestic goose, having been domesticated as early as 1360BCE. The connection of the goose to the Divine is long. She is associated with the Sumerian healer Goddess, Gula, the Egyptian Sun God, Ra, & the love Goddess Aphrodite of Greece, where goose fat was once used as an aphrodisiac.

At Advent we await not a tamed & domesticated God but one who is destined to accompany us as we stand against entrenched power, a God who sought wisdom in the wilderness of desert & mountain. The goose, who in the winter comes to our shores to find sanctuary in the marshes, estuaries, & edge places, is a perfect reminder that we wait for a Wilder God, freed from a year of watching the Church both speak out against, & enable, many injustices in the world, made new in the pure starlight & biting cold of Midwinter, born outcast to call us back to the holy edge.

Great Spirit, Wild Goose of the Holy One.
Be my eye in the dark places;
Be my flight in the trapped places;
Be my host in the wild places;
Be my brood in the barren places;
Be my formation in the lost places.

Ray Simpson, Community of Aidan & Hilda, Holy Island of Lindisfarne.

On this second day of Advent we might also consider a daily devotion which could be gently adopted as a reminder of the journey we are on. I love the Celtic Advent Calendar from Contemplative Cottage. I have also set an alarm to chime every 3 hours from 9am to midnight each day until Christmas Eve. I love this practice because it echoes in part the monastic Liturgy of the Hours. When the bell rings I spend a few moments in mindful contemplation of the starlit dark, even if that only means taking a few deep breaths. I hold expectation gently. As Susan Forshey of Contemplative Cottage says, this is an opportunity to practice grace.

Celtic Advent Resources ~

https://contemplativecottage.com

including the Celtic Advent Calendar 2019


https://godspacelight.com/blog/

https://www.faithandworship.com/Advent/Advent_Celtic_Christian_Celebration.htm

'Celtic Advent: 40 Days of Devotions to Christmas' by David Cole https://www.eden.co.uk/celtic-advent/

Friday, 15 November 2019

Our Flight Through the Winter Dark ~ Celtic Advent Day 1

Image: 'Nights of Reindeer & Starlight' by Wood Hill.


Today has been the first day of Celtic Advent; an enfolding time of waiting for the birth of the Sun/Son at Midwinter.

There are several possible dates for Advent to begin ~ the first Sunday in December, the traditional church date & the beginning of the new church year, & December 1st, when we open the first door on our Advent calendars. This year both fall beautifully on the same day. 

But there is also an older tide; that of 'St Martin's Lent' or, what has become known as 'Celtic Advent', observed by the ancient church of Britain & Ireland; our 'indigenous Christianity' one might say, the one that listens, rather than imposes. This Advent is a waiting deeply woven through with the starlit winter dark, the Celtic saints, & the song of the sacred Land.

Most now keep Celtic Advent from November 15th (or the 14th eve), but 'St Martin's Lent' traditionally began at Martinmas on the 11th; a day still celebrated in some Eastern European countries as a men's festival marking the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter, with the women's festival, Catterntide, on the 25th.

It's interesting that one of the symbols of St Martin, who was an ex-soldier & a protector of children & the poor, was a goose. Of which more on another day. But, for now, it's telling that in medieval times, although many celebrated Martinmas with an autumn feast, only the rich could afford a goose, with the poor dining on duck or hen.

Which is why it was such a subversive delight for the Cratchits to have a goose for Christmas Day in Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol'. In 1824, Dickens' father was sent to the Marchelsea prison in Southwark for a debt to a baker & Dickens was forced to leave school to work in a factory. No doubt, like many amongst us now, he had many Christmases without good cheer.

At Advent we set our minds to asking for nothing less than the rebirth of hope & justice, the World Turned Upside Down coming as a vulnerable child amongst outcasts & refugees. But, first, we make our long journey through the winter dark, trusting to starlight & our own inner flame to show us the way.

Image: 'Nights of Reindeer & Starlight' by Wood Hill.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

On the Radical Hospitality of Ragwort


I want to write a love song to Ragwort, so often despised and derided, endlessly at risk of eradication. I have fallen out with several people over my high regard for Ragwort as she is (unfairly) blamed for the deaths of horses & cattle. We so often value creatures in whose eyes we can see our own reflections, both literally and metaphorically, over the health of our planet. Ragwort is one of many teachers inviting us to do better, as are so many despised beings. 


As for horses & cattle, proven cases of Ragwort poisoning are rare. They will only eat fresh Ragwort if starving due to our own neglect, and so it is dried Ragwort in hay that is the real challenge, if a challenge there is. In this way, again, Ragwort calls to us to be more mindful, more present, to slow down. Instead of looking to ourselves, we fear her & try to wipe her out. Indeed, she is one of five plants named as an 'injurious weed' under the provisions of the Weeds Act 1959, which means that the Government can require a landowner to prevent her spread.

Recently, there has been petition to have this act rescinded, although this was closed early due to the General Election being called. The Government responded to the petition by saying that they have no plans to rescind the Act at this time, particularly as the Act doesn't call for the eradication of the five listed 'injurious weeds'. However, I would reply that it is not the Act itself but the message that it conveys which is injurious to Ragwort and her sister plants (Broad-Leaved Dock, Curly Dock, Creeping Thistle, and Spear Thistle).


Growing on the shingle beach, Folkestone November 2019


Writer Robert Macfarlane tells us that 'pharmakos' in Ancient Greek ritual is a human scapegoat, exiled at a time of crisis in order to purify the sins of a community. The related word 'pharmakon', from where we get our word 'pharmacy', means both 'poison' and 'cure'. Ragwort is one of our great scapegoats, like foxes, like Hogweed. We think of it as poison but it holds within its golden petals so many cures. And yet, here too, we find echoes of the crucified Christ, and so of the crucified Earth. I wonder how many scapegoats we will need before we begin to take back our power in thinking for ourselves?
 
A native plant to the British Isles, Ragwort is a member of the daisy family & considered one of the top nectar producing plants in our land. Abundant on wasteland and waysides,she offers at least seventy-seven insect species home & food, thirty of these relying on her, & only her, for their survival. Ten are considered rare or threatened. A further one hundred & seventeen insects, including solitary bees, moths, & butterflies, use her as a wayside hostelry as they travel between feeding or breeding sites. She belongs, she denies no one, and she matters.

Growing in the edge places


Once, Ragwort was much used medicinally by the people of the land as a cooling wash for burn or for inflamed eyes. Her juice was also used to bathe sores & cancerous ulcers. Hence, one of her folk names of 'Cakerwort'. A poultice of her leaves was applied to bring relief in cases of rheumatism, sciatica, and gout. She was also used as a gargle for sore throats. In Ancient Greece it was used to make an aphrodisiac, known as 'Satyrion', and the leaves and can be used to make a good green dye, with the flowers producing yellow, brown, and orange hues.

No doubt mindful of the many benefits of Ragwort, known in the Isle of Mann as 'Cushag', to insect and human alike, the Manx poet, Josephine Kermode, wrote; 


Now, the Cushag, we know,

Must never grow,

Where the farmer's work is done.

But along the rills, 

In the heart of the hills,

The Cushag may shine like the sun.

Where the golden flowers,

Have fairy powers,

To gladden our hearts with their grace.

And in Vannin Veg Veen*,

In the valleys green,

The Cushags have still a place.

Other than Cushag and Cankerwort, some of Ragwort's folk names are; Stinking Willie, Benweed, St James-wort, Stinking Nanny/Ninny, Dog Standard, Staggerwort, and Stammerwort. The penultimate name refers to the old belief that Ragwort would 'cure the staggers in horses', and presumably the last to a belief that the flower was a helpful remedy for stammering.

I love too a new name for Ragwort, Benyon's Delight, coined by Dusty Gedge in 2011 in response to the wildly inaccurate comments by then Government Minister with a responsibility for biodiversity, Richard Benyon, who has a professed hatred for the herb. Oh, the irony! MP for Newbury Mr Benyon wrote that, "I hate Ragwort. And I am on the warpath for those who let this poisonous weed spread." His Facebook post was accompanied by a photo of him pulling up Ragwort, watched over by a benign cow. You can read more about why he was wrong on the excellent Poison Garden website here.

That Ragwort is known as 'St James-wort' (or herb) is intriguing. There are several possibilities for the St James to which this refers. One is the brother of Jesus, a leader of the early Church, although I can find no reason for Ragwort to be associated with him. One writer suggests that Ragwort's fluffy white seedheads are reminiscent of St James's white beard, although this seems rather tenuous even though the plant's former Latin name was 'Senecio Jacobaea' or 'Old Man James' (my woeful Latin translation skills notwithstanding).

Rather, it seems more likely that Ragwort is the herb of James, son of Zebedee, or St James the Great, who, again ironically, is the patron saint of vetenarians, equestrians, blacksmiths, and pharmacists, although there seems to be no particular reasn why. He also watches over those suffering from arthritis & rheumatism, both of which were once said to have been relieved by the medicine of Ragwort. It is to the shrine of St James the Great that the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St James, pilgrimage route leads. This was one of the most important Christian pilgrimage paths in the late Middle Ages and I like to think that its edges are graced by the shining petals of Ragwort. St James' Feast Day is on July 25th when Ragwort is at the height of her flowering. It feels relevant too to note that both the St Jameses were martyred, as Ragwort so often is too; a martyr to us seeking to deflect blame for our own behaviour to the beings of the wild.


During the long, hot summer of 2018, I was blessed to live closely with Ragwort when she came to live in proliferation in the hedgehermitage garden. She not only filled the air with sweet honey scent ~ who knew that she smelled so gorgeous ~ but taught me much about shame, maintaining boundaries without excluding, endless generosity in the face of condemnation, and how to endure scapegoating with grace & an ever open heart. All important medicines in these times.

Loving my first sniff of Ragwort for the year, 2019


I have watched Ragwort plants offer one another space to grow, sheltering other green beings through the long, parched summer, providing pollen, and sometimes dozing places, for bees when other flowers had succumbed to drought. It was incredibly noticeable that wherever the Ragwort was growing was a vibrant green, not just of Ragwort but of the other plants and grasses growing with them, where the rest of the garden was dry and brown. My husband informed me that, when he did need to uproot an occasional Ragwort plant, her roots were providing a home to all manner of invertebrates and were alive with life (which he carefully found new homes for). It seems, that where we are repelled, beings with more wisdom are drawn to her.

Ragwort in the Seabrook Valley, Summer 2019

2018's Herring Gull chick sits amongst the Ragwort



She has been less abundant this year, although I have particularly noticed her growing determinedly on the shingle beach here. I was pleased to be told that her growth has a two yearly cycle so I hope to be surrounded by Ragwort next year. I miss her when she's gone. Through the winter I will watch over the prayer of her roots until she comes again in the early summer. I am grateful and in awe of her spirit of hospitality and kindness, to both indigenous beings and migrants alike, and in the face of condemnation and risk to her own wellbeing when many of us would become stone-hearted and cold. She is an example to us all. I look forward to her return.


Ragwort seedheads


Mr Radical Honey clearing (some of) the Ragwort for winter
Notes:

Vannin Veg Veen is Manx for dear little Isle of Man


References:

Ragwort Advocacy ~

An excellent resource for Ragwort facts can be found here ~  http://ragwort-hysteria.blogspot.com/




and there is much reason to be found here  http://www.thepoisongarden.co.uk/atoz/jacobaea_vulgaris.htm 

and, especially, here in regard to the demonisation of Ragwort  http://www.thepoisongarden.co.uk/blog/blog160911.htm

Ragwort info ~


Ragwort as medicine ~   


On St James ~ 


Sunday, 10 November 2019

Lest We Forget


Folkestone Remembrance beach poppy, 2019

Lest we forget how our hearts, courage, and decency, our love, are turned against us by those in power. 

Lest we forget that our military recruitment services deliberately target schools in deprived areas, turning a broken society to their own advantage & attracting condemnation from the UN. 

Lest we forget that, although even we don't allow those under 18 to fight in war, when they do children recruited at 16 are twice as likely to die. 

Lest we forget, as we honour the dead in the 'Pages of the Sea' that many WWI soldiers drowned in their own trenches. 

Lest we forget veteran of the conflict in Northern Ireland, David Clapson, who died alone in a diabetic coma after the Government's Austerity measures deprived him of food and the electricity needed to keep his insulin cold. 


Folkestone Remembrance beach poppies, 2019

Lest we forget the victims of Yemen, those who die in refugee boats fleeing wars not of their own making.

Lest we forget that our media is more interested in Jeremy Corbyn's coat and the size of his poppy than that our last Prime Minister was married to an arms dealer and sold weapons to oppressive regimes on our behalf.

Lest we forget that we are the second largest arms dealer in the world & that our current Prime Minister pushed for arms sales to Saudi Arabia even whilst they were using them to murder Yemeni civilians, including 140 people who were attending a funeral. 

Lest we forget that the Church of England, who speak out against war, continue to rent buildings to military conferences and have historically benefitted from investment in the arms trade. 

Lest we forget that the Royal British Legion accepts sponsorship from the UK's biggest arms company, BAE Systems, who before they merged were Armstrong & Vickers who sold arms to the Ottoman Empire. The very weapons which were turned against British soldiers in WWI. 

Lest we forget the words of Harry Patch, the last surviving WWI veteran, who died in 2009; "Politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder."


Folkestone Remembrance beach poppies (detail) 2019

Never be fooled into thinking that war is anything more than the business of the rich and powerful with the poor as collateral. There is no such thing as the 'Glorious' Dead. 

At the rising of the sun and its going down, we WILL remember them. 


Folkestone war memorial, November 2019