The Secret Language of Twigs

I think we could all learn a lot from the Double Rainbow Guy. If you’ve not seen and heard his now famous three and a half minutes of ecstasy, click and watch it NOW.

Listen carefully as he sobs: “What does it mean?”

Just like the rest of us walking upright on this planet with large brains, and suffering wisdom teeth and the threat of appendicitis, for Rainbow Guy (aka Yosemitebear) a rainbow is never just a rainbow. It has to mean something. Stories are fables, and planets are gods and goddesses, and homes are castles, and every picture tells a story, and a girl tucking a wisp of hair behind her ear actually fancies you.

Our tendency to attribute meaning makes life rich and it makes us human. We must allow ourselves to be in dialogue with everything our senses encounter. I think philosophy has big words for this kind of stuff: existential phenomenology, personal mythos, cosmogony… but let us be spared them as I unfold ‘the secret language of twigs’.

A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heaven espy.
(George Herbert)

My dog loves sticks. She also happens to be one of my most trusted spiritual directors. Many are the things I’ve learned in her company. I thought perhaps I should take her fascination with sticks more seriously.

At first I noticed how different species have distinctive ways of growing that give rise to endless variations within the parameters of their genes. The elder speaks with one set of forms, and the beech with another. And then, a whole world opened up to me that means walking in the woods will never be the same again.

Beech
Beech

Divided Way – The most common and fundamental form of branch. Growth divides and divides again to the left and right. Even choosing not to make a choice is itself a choice.

A choice! Do you, my listener, know how to express in a single word anything more magnificent? Do you realize,
even if you were to discuss year in and year out how you could mention nothing more awesome than a choice, what it is to have choice! For though it is certainly true that the ultimate blessing is to choose rightly, yet the faculty of choice itself is still the glorious prerequisite.
(Soren Kierkegaard)

The top of a wayfarer’s staff often has a fork in it; how many times must a traveller decide between two paths?

Flip it over and you have a confluence of two ways. I’m more aware of divergence than confluence in life. The latter happens so quietly but suddenly you find that someone else is with you, or two creative ideas have joined to make a third.

Lomogram_2014-12-12_06-42-57-PM
Elder

 The Third Way – lest we forget that choices are not always ‘either/or’. If I find myself trying to decide between two things, the question I often forget to ask is: “Is there a third way?”

don’t mean a ‘middle way’, but there’s almost always another option that evades us when we are double bound and damned if we do or don’t do one thing or another.

Other people often present us with an either/or, forestalling our capacity to step back and think creatively whether there’s a potential we’ve missed. That third way may even be to do nothing.

We also have here the footprint of a bird, a creature of the air that has come down to feed on a creature of the earth (a worm). Earth is marked by its feet in a way that air is never marked by its wings … ponder this.

Ash
Ash

The Bow – sacred in human culture from our hunter-gatherer ancestors onward and right across the face of the earth: for hunting, making war and making music.

In the Bible, when God attributes meaning to the rainbow, the original language refers to her ‘battle bow’.

I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.
(Genesis 9:13)

It foretells the hope that the instruments of war will be beaten into plowshares and become tools for nurture instead of destruction.

In numerous mythologies, the heavenly bow is a bridge between the sphere of mortal struggle and the paradise of rest and peace. In Bantu cosmology, it is created by the dance of seven snakes. So, once again, Yosemitebear is not such a fool.

Beech
Beech

 Fe – the first rune of the ancient scandanavian ‘futhark’, signifying wealth and plenty.

‘Wealth’ meant something very different to the inventors of the runic alphabets. It was probably quantifiable in cattle. While we owe a lot of our letter shapes and sounds to these forebears, we may have lost their understanding of wealth. Mine is a number on a screen that pops up after I’ve typed a few passwords and memorable numbers on a keyboard.

When this twig cracked under my foot it seemed to shout in twig-speak: “We are wealth! We are woods, and water, and weather! Wait and listen!” So I did. And all I could hear in the the trees was this: “Ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff…” – a continuous whisper of plenty.

Hazel
Hazel

 Vav – the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, whose pictographic meaning is ‘hook’ or peg. Curiously its equivalent in our alphabet is also … ‘F’ – both in sound and numerical value.

As the very simplest single stroke of a pen or brush, this letter shape has been associated with one-ness and, as a sinuous curve from top to bottom, it has also been taken to represent the flow of revelation from heaven to earth.

Without needing to go down a kabbalist rabbit hole, I’ve found this form deeply appealing since the moment I tried to create it perfectly with a calligraphy pen several months ago.

I think the idea of ‘unity’ encompasses its meaning very well: flowing together, once again, between air and earth, my feet of clay and my wings of aether. All that I do belongs to flying or digging and the art of living is to do both at once: to pray as I work.

Alder
Alder

Tau – 19th letter of the Greek alphabet, final letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Saint Francis used this (the Tau cross) as his signature and it is fitting that this little alder twig should say his name to us, because he called the Sun his brother and the Moon his sister and was mindful of all living things.

For this reason I have a slight preference for this as a sign of Christ’s cross over the traditional form (which all too readily becomes a sword). This is the final letter, the end of present tyranny and the reconciliation of the whole created order.

Birch
Unidentified

 The Dancer – let the trees of the field clap their hands!

Not only did I find this exultant shape in the woods but it also looks very similar to the lines on my left palm, where I recently discovered the stick figures of two dancing people.

Maybe I’ll show them to you one day. But I’d like to end this epistle of the woods and hedgerows with a few words from the bard himself:

Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we but the penalty of Adam,
The seasons’ difference; as, the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which, when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
‘This is no flattery: these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.’
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.
I would not change it.
(As You Like It, Act 2 Scene I)

 If you enjoyed this, you might like to read more of my ‘Wisdom of Things Found’ posts:

I thought it would be fun if we blog hopped

My blogging badly needs a shot in the arm, nay an intracardiac dose, of blah-blah fuel, so it is with great pleasure I’ve accepted Rob Rife’s invitation to a blog hop.

Rob Rife - Ascendant Canadian Bard
Rob Rife – Ascendant Canadian Bard in Yakima Valley

Basically, it’s a writer’s pyramid scheme, blog-based chain letter, tasteful tag-fest thing. I’m one of three writers Rob’s asked to answer four questions about writing and the writing process.

It is hoped that this will entendril the blogging writersphere ecosystem with fruitful vines of interconnection, lead readers to discover new and lovely writers and give others an insight into what makes some of us tick.

Not only because Rob’s said nice things about me in his post but also because, in my opinion, he’s “one to watch” as he climbs steadily the ladder of latter-day bards, I really hope you hop back up the vine and check out his writing. I think it speaks for itself in a unique voice and it takes a lot make me think, as I do, “when that book comes out I’m buying it” whether the author is my friend or not.

So…

1) What am I working on?
When I’m not writing for others, I’m mapping the terrain between my subconscious and conscious realities, my dreaming and waking worlds, and dredging up short stories as I go. These are broadcast semi-regularly as a podcast at Stories from the Borders of Sleep. They are stories for hearing rather than reading, so any book that may come from them in the future will be more of a spin-off than a substantial target met.

Borders of Sleep illustration by Robyn Trainer
Borders of Sleep illustration by Robyn Trainer

This is a long-term project. I intend to continue it until the twelfth of never and would be quite happy to let it be my life’s work. It provides a creative discipline through the need to continually bring out new material and is immensely satisfying as I know it goes straight to an audience that, my stats tell me, downloads on average a hundred stories a day.

Alongside that, and not a million miles removed from it, I’m working on a book that probably sits in the ‘self help’ section. Broadly, it’s about using different parts of the body as a way of connecting inner reflection with outward action. If that sounds too wooky, then it could alternatively be described as a book about anthropology and time management.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I honestly don’t know because, with perhaps one exception, I don’t really read the stuff that might be similar. The exception is that I have derived a lot from the works of George MacDonald. He occupies the high points of mythopoeic romance to which I can only aspire.

To feed myself, I study literary classics, folklore and history, watch TED talks and look for books in brooks and sermons in stones. I should probably be reading Paul Coehlo, Haruki Murakami, Susanna Clarke and Neil Gaiman, but I don’t have time.

3) Why do I write what I do?
It has always been the same motivation for me, that simple line from the screenplay of the film about CS Lewis, Shadowlands:

We read to know we are not alone.

Books have been my greatest comforters and companions in helping me make sense of this way between earth and heaven where we all have the temporary use of a body, a mind and some words. Therefore, put simply, “I write to let others know they are not alone either.”

4) How does my writing process work?
I need to work in long stretches of time so it only really happens when I have a few uninterrupted hours in the dead of night or the wee small hours. Saturday mornings are good, too.

I write standing up because I constantly need to fidget or walk away to calm down or let the kinks work out in my head.

Actually starting something is Mount Everest, everything after that is Cool Runnings (apart from editing, which is K2). Finishing something is a serious hit on my dopamine receptors.

I usually only need one or two ideas, the rest takes shape as I go along. So I might start just knowing I want to write about a couple of trees I saw with intertwined limbs. Then it’s just a case of letting my imagination play out and making sure I take notes and keep up.

That sounds easy but it takes quite a toll on me. I think I write in a trance – it’s a bit like getting drunk. I get elated, then I get hung over. Maybe a better answer to the previous question is just that I’m an addict.

And on to …

This is the bit where I tell you who to hop on to next … I’m still recruiting victims, but here’s my first:

Justin Lau – Writings of a Vagabond at Peace

When Justin first appeared in my life, I felt an immediate connection – although I suspect he has a gift for making most people feel like that. In spite of our very different backgrounds, our few conversations have got straight to the heart of the things that most interest me. We’re both multi-instrumentalists and we both love writing. We both see our creative calling as not fitting the box of one particular medium or art form although writing seems to be the brightest thread. We’re both gnawed by the great question of  ‘where is home?’ as people who have been geographically adrift among cultures from an early age. We’re both intrigued by Japanese culture – although he has more of an inside track on that. He introduces himself very well and explains why he’s a ‘Vagabond at Peace’ in this blog post.

Justin Lau's cheeky face
Justin Lau’s cheeky face

Justin describes himself as an ‘aspiring author’. That’s brave and honest. The title brackets him with millions of others who ‘hope to write a book some day’. The thing is, I think he just might be one of those who actually does. I dream with him that he’ll one day write the great Japanese novel. In the meantime he shows a flair for flash fiction, writes prolifically in search of his voice, studies English Literature at Durham University, has an eye for well-turned prose and an ear for a lyrical song.

Justin has recently restarted blogging (prompted by this post, in fact), and although there’s not a lot there yet, he’s definitely one to watch. You can literally watch him on YouTube and hear him on SoundCloud – but seriously … check him out!

Review: Witchcraft by Charles Williams

WitchcraftWitchcraft by Charles Williams

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is, as it promises to be, an un-sensationalising account of the history of witchcraft from Roman times until the end of the Salem Witch trials in the late 1600s.

I read it in the hope of unwrapping something more of the mystery of Charles Williams, the man himself, but quickly became drawn into the drama as he tells it, particluarly, through historical documentary evidence from trials.

Williams handles the material carefully. It is almost impossible to disentangle fact from fiction in this particular aspect of history, where hysteria and confession under torture were commonplace. He nevertheless outlines atrocities on both sides of the conflict between witchcraft and the church and secular authorities throughout the ages and makes it clear that he senses evil at work in both the prosecutors and the prosecuted. He doesn’t enter his opinion into the debate on whether witchcraft is material or illusory, but proponents of both views come under his scrutiny.

Surprisingly and unfashionably, the Spanish Inquisition comes out in a more favourable light when compared to other Inquisitions across Europe at the time, and King James I is commended for his intelligent handling of the issue in England. The medievals and the philosophical movement of the 1600s also seem to embody something closer to Williams own sympathies, while he draws the centuries in between as a full-scale war, a morass of perversion and confusion, touching every level of society and the church and fuelled by an unhealthy obsession with the Devil and sin. Ultimately, in Williams’ reckoning, it was the skeptics who saved Europe from insanity.

I did not obtain from this book much illumination to apply to the growing interest in Wiccan practice in our own times: Williams is talking about something quite different when he speaks of witchcraft. However, it speaks pertinently to the handling of our society’s spectres – real or imagined – in which a spark of truth ignites a profane fire that quickly gets a life of its own. Proponents of the “war on terror”, for instance, would do well to heed its lessons.

As far as the mystery of the author goes, there are precious few hints about his own spirituality, although a brief mention of the Zohar provides recognisable elements that are also found in his novels.

Ultimately, I was surprised not to find more of his penetrating vision of underlying spiritual realities in his description of the conflict. But I’m coming to realise that this is Williams to the core: the historical plane, to which he limits his analysis, incarnates and reflects all others such that there is virtually no need to be initiated into mysteries other than the open secret of Love.

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A Mysterious Message from Avebury

Last night, I had occasion to share my postcard collection with a room of some twenty people.

“Find me a picture that speaks to you of God,” I asked them.

At the top of the first cluster of cards I picked through was this:

Avebury
Avebury

Although this wasn’t the card I chose for myself in the end, it struck me how the sacred stone circles of Britain have played a part in my own journey towards Divine Mysteries. I flipped it over …

The back side of the card brought a flood of memories from my 18-year-old self, who sits like a lodestone in my consciousness and frequently pulls at my internal compass needle.

05-09-2014 11;38;03AM
Dear Seymour, We are sitting in a pub with our local draughts, (beer not women!) having journeyed to the sacred stones – and halfway back. Meeting bearded bards and chalkened travellers, Listening to tails From near and Far. Met the sacred guitarist of Avebury, Played a beautiful song to me as the moon danced upon the clouds and shone incandescent against the stones. LUV Owain, Meic, Rob Surtees 🙂 Robin.

I include a scan of the original to show how my messengers clearly passed the card around, each adding their own lines in the true spirit of the bards of old. They would have been excellent company: one of my English teachers (the biggest single influence on my education), his two sons (companions on many woodland adventures) and another pal from school (an occasional co-conspirator in mischief).

Ahhh … the summer of  ’95.

Review: Descent into Hell by Charles Williams

Descent into HellDescent into Hell by Charles Williams

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On the back cover of this book, the Saturday Review states, “Reading Charles Williams is an unforgettable experience.” Its true. Coming away from one of his novels, the world always seems intensified, as mediated through his vision. He gives me a taste of reality that rings true and reawakens my deepest convictions about the way things really are.

I am sure I held my breath for entire paragraphs during the unfolding of this novel, almost afraid to break the spell of the words.

In Descent into Hell, Williams uses a play within a play, within a setting that is itself merely a shadow of the cosmos, to build a story that simultaneously pierces several layers of heaven and earth and pulls them into each other. The characters are recognizable and, as a reader, I was constantly trying to work out which one was me. This had the effect of the best kind of fantasy literature, enabling a vicarious exploration of all the “what ifs” of our possible selves and their choices that is both instructive and therapeutic.

If you like a story that processes your soul and opens your eyes to the darkness of dark and the lightness of light as well as the blueness of blue and the redness of red, dive in.

This is one of those few books I expect to revisit – just after I’ve read everything else he’s written.

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