Beltane                                                      Moon of the Summer Solstice

Linneaous   Flower Clock

Linneaous Flower Clock

I last posted here after a trip to Tucson, Arizona in 2014. In retrospect it’s not odd that it’s been so long since I came back to this blog. It was in April of that year, in a spirit of reflection occasioned by the long drive and the inner work of the Ira Progoff Intensive Journal retreat I’d attended, that Kate and I decided to move to Colorado. The move took over our life together and the move itself didn’t really terminate until well into 2015  when we had both adjusted to the oxygen scarcity at 8,800 feet.

A bout of prostate cancer, an increasingly painful arthritic left knee, Jon and Jen’s divorce, total knee replacement and Kate’s rough time since then has distracted me. But now I’ve returned. My passion remains creating a sustainable human presence on the earth, following Thomas Berry’s conviction that this task is the Great Work of our generation.

Chambered_Nautilus_ShellI’ve imagined that my primary contribution to this work would be political, a strategy I’ve embraced for many years. Now though I’m focused on something less political, a reimagining of faith that can constantly remind us of the reverence we owe to the earth, the sun, the mystery of life. Reimagining faith will occupy me until I’ve written a short book proposing a way to reenchant our daily life, a way to find wonder in the everyday, to locate the holy not far away or in some ritualized observance, but in the here and now.

Baba Dioum

Baba Dioum

Baba Dioum, a Senegalese forestry scientist, wrote in a 1968 paper, ”In the end we will conserve only what we love…wiki  And so the question is how do we love the earth, the sun, the universe? They have conspired to bring us all to this moment when the survival of the human species may be in the balance. This is, after all, the critical reality: it is not the earth that is in danger, not the sun, not the vastness of our cosmos, but humanity. Our actions, unwitting until recently, have brought us to a moment of kairos: a time when conditions are right for the accomplishment of a crucial action, the opportune and decisive moment, as Merriam-Webster defines it.

Seasonal-roundKairos in its Greek origin is a counterpoint to chronos, our familiar and assumed understanding of time as sequential and linear: where past present and future separate cleanly and finally, moment by moment. Kairos is a sort of time when matters crystallize, when events are ripe for change, important change. It takes no special genius to see that our time is such a moment, a moment filled with kairotic potential.

Even with the spiral understanding of time that I embrace, seasons turning, pushing forward, but always returning to the same phase of life’s regularity, moments of kairos can occur. This one, when our most powerful elected official turns his back on global solidarity, when the CO2 in the atmosphere has passed 400 parts per million, when hottest years and biggest storms get surpassed often, when scientists suggest we have only a few decades to slow climate change (not eliminate it, but slow it), we have reached a moment of kairos. And it is our moment.



land abuse cannot brighten the human prospect

Imbolc                                                       Hare Moon

The moist air, the rising warmth gave the house a summertime feel last night.  Our seed zigguratsaver’s order for seeds came in the mail yesterday and I just got an e-mail from Luke Lemmer of Highbrix gardens about nitrogen for the 2014 garden.  I also found this Wendell Berry essay, It All Turns on Affection, a couple of days ago.  This is the Jefferson lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

(ziggurat of ur)

That’s background for my thoughts which turned toward the city, spurred by Berry:

“Though the corporations, by law, are counted as persons, they do not have personal minds, if they can be said to have minds. It is a great oddity that a corporation, which properly speaking has no self, is by definition selfish, responsible only to itself. This is an impersonal, abstract selfishness, limitlessly acquisitive, but unable to look so far imagesahead as to preserve its own sources and supplies. The selfishness of the fossil fuel industries by nature is self-annihilating; but so, always, has been the selfishness of the agribusiness corporations. Land, as Wes Jackson has said, has thus been made as exhaustible as oil or coal.” op.cit.

In this thought the farms lay on level ground and as one moved from country village to town to exurb to outer ring suburb and inner ring suburb to the city itself, the ground would rise, like steps cut into the earth.  This would leave the city figuratively on a flat plateau lifted high above the farms far out in the distance and reachable only by climbing the steps upward.  It was this image that struck me because as I considered it, the word ziggurat came to mind.

The tower of Babel was a ziggurat, an artificial mountain created to take humans closer to the gods.  It was a place where the priest could intercede with the gods from a spot between heaven and earth.

All those millennia and still we climb up the ziggurat, separate ourselves from the land 330px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_editedand pray to the gods of technology and economics to save us.  Babel has become a long-standing meme for hubris.  Why?  Well, in part because the tower lifts humans up, gives them a transcendent feeling high above the earth.  In that separation, that isolation, and, yes, I would say, alienation from mother earth the essential bond between creature and nurturer grows intolerably thin.

(Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel)

Again, Berry:

“Corporate industrialism has tended to be, and as its technological and financial power has grown it has tended increasingly to be, indifferent to its sources in what Aldo aldo leopoldLeopold called “the land-community”: the land, all its features and “resources,” and all its members, human and nonhuman, including of course the humans who do, for better or worse, the work of land use.3  Industrialists and industrial economists have assumed, with permission from the rest of us, that land and people can be divorced without harm.”  op. cit.

Here’s the clincher in Berry’s lecture:  ”There is in fact no distinction between the fate of the land and the fate of the people. When one is abused, the other suffers.” op. cit.

I love cities.  I love almost everything about them.  The jangle of people, the compressing of ideas one right after the other, the neon lights, the colleges and universities, the neighborhoods, the politics, the music.  All of it.

And yet.  Up on that plateau, on top the artificial mountain, the land seems so far away.I-and-the-Village-by-font-b-Marc-b-font-font-b-Chagall-b-font-abstract  It’s as if the food appears by magic, not grown, but made in the trucks themselves or in the boxcars, showing up when we need it.  It is not so.

Berry makes what I think is an unintentionally theological argument:  ”When we give affection to things that are destructive, we are wrong.”  This is the same argument that H. Richard Niebuhr makes in his essay, “Radical Monotheism and Western Culture.”  He critiques our devotion to centers of value:  money, job, ambition, nation, sports team, even family and self.   It is Niebhur’s contention that the only center of value to which we can turn with complete devotion and not distort our own lives is the God of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

(I and the Village, Marc Chagall)

While I don’t agree with his identification of God as the solution, I do agree with Niebuhr’s diagnosis of the problem, which, like Berry’s, turns on our misplaced affections.  The question for both Berry and Niebuhr is:  ”To what can we offer ourselves that will not destroy us?”

There are, I think, two answers, wedded in the intimacy of their bond: each other and the Earth. We need each other and we need the Earth.  The other, both the thou of Buber and the less exalted you we know less well, must eat, as must I.  The link between our day-to-day survival (yes, we should underline survival for that is what it is at stake) and the others is what?  Yes, the Earth.

That this is not obvious to all, especially not obvious to policy makers who, like most of the powerful of the Earth, gather in cities, is a function I think not of malignity, or intentional disregard, but of the splendid isolation that comes from living high up on the ziggurat and under the mistake assumption that there they are closer to the gods.  No, what they are is further from the Earth.


Imbolc                                                                     Hare Moon

March began the Roman year.  No surprise then that it gets its name from the Roman god Marsof war, Mars. The Romans were relentless campaigners, always concerned that the border was insecure and pushing it out further just to be sure.  Many historians think this expansion caused Rome to fall, but it has always seemed to me that a death of natural causes is closer to the truth.  Rome had just run its course.

When you string together the Tigris and Euphrates civilization, the Egyptian civilization, the Greeks, then the Romans and after them Europe and after Europe, the U.S.A., you find a civilization with roots actually deeper than those of China.

The apparent difference of course is the longer continuity between the ancient Xia dynasty and the rule of the Communist Party in today’s Middle Kingdom.  I bought this argument for a long time, seeing China as a deeper and perhaps richer civilization than the one to which I am heir.

Now, though, I’ve begun to see the long continuities in the West, too, and the division of mdc_westciv_at_cour heritage into the large categories I used above as not a lot different from China’s dynastic history.  What I mean is that the “Chinese” civilization actually has it roots in several splintered entities roughly equivalent to Rome, Greece, et al.

The Shang were a rough and tumble group, practicing human sacrifice and, according to their successors, the long lived Zhou dynasty, “drunkards” who lost the mandate of heaven.  The Zhou broke down in its later years into many states, states different enough to have their own money, weights and measures, armies and governance.  It was these states who became the warring states, giving a historical era its name.

The Qin dynasty, short, only an Emperor (Qin Shi Huang Di) and his dissolute son long,download was the first instance of a unified China, but even the Qin dynasty failed to include much of what is now considered China.

The Roman Republic was at least its equal in physical size.  And remember that the glory of Greek civilization, Egypt and Mesopotamia had come and declined by then.

The Han dynasty, roughly contemporary with the Roman Empire’s early centuries, had a bit more ofHan China, especially extending west along the great Silk Road, but as you can see it still only covers a portion of contemporary China. I emphasize this point to draw a parallel between Western civilizations consolidation under the Romans and the shifting fortunes of China’s ruling dynasties and their geographical extent.  Later the Han will fall and the period of the Three Kingdoms will occur, again China splintered into warring states, not unified.

This pattern of consolidation and disruption continues and becomes even more pronounced when the Mongols under Kublai Khan and later the Manchurians capture China and rule it for centuries.

Yes, there is a central continuity in the Chinese written language, a storehouse of history and art.  Yes, there is a continuity of sorts in the imperial form of government, but its thread is broken many, many times.

My only argument here may be with myself, disabusing myself of the monolithic cultural rise of Chinese civilization, but I’m not sure this aspect of Chinese history gets much attention in Western learning.

I am also saying that Western civilization, though markedly different, brings its own riches to the table of the 21st century.  Hopefully these two great rivers of human ingenuity can come to embrace each other and create a global civilization neither Western nor Eastern, but Earthian.

Following in their Footsteps

Imbolc                                                    Valentine Moon

On Ancientrails I posted this woodcut of my many times removed grandfather, Dimmick biographicalsket1888elli_0006Ellis, born in Ashfield, Massachusetts in 1776. The woodcut appears on the frontispiece of a long work of genealogy compiled in the late 19th century.  The first story in the book concerns Richard Ellis, our common ancestor, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1717, having been born in Dublin, Ireland of Welsh parentage on August 16th, 1704.

I mention this again here because it was Richard’s story that first interested me in my Celtic heritage, specifically the Welsh ancestors about whom I know almost nothing.  Richard’s father was a Welsh military officer serving in Ireland and was from Denbigh in North Wales. How I know this fact has passed from my memory, but it has strong residence there anyhow.

The Great Wheel and the Celtic pantheon I discovered while grounding my fiction in the belief world of my lineage.  I have branched out to the Norse pantheon, linked to my other line of ancestry, northern European Teutons.  I have made one excursion to Aztec gods and goddesses but that was long ago.  Since then I’ve stayed within Celtic and northern European traditions.

At first I had a curiosity about the cultural and mythological roots of my own people. Second, related to the first, I wanted to avoid cultural exploitation by remaining within my Detail_of_antlered_figure_on_the_Gundestrup_Cauldronethnic and genetic lines.  Kate suggested very early on in my writing that I stick to one culture in my work.  I chose ancient Celtic religion brought into contemporary life, later expanding that to include the northern European material.  Even the Aztec story picks up a storyline about Vikings who made it to the lands of the Mexica.

(detail from the Gundestrup Cauldron)

Today, some 25 years after I began, I find myself guided by the wisdom of those ancestors, though admittedly in a loose and baggy fashion.  That’s why you’re reading this on ancientrails Great Wheel.com.

Nature can do without us; we cannot do without nature.

Imbolc                                                                  Valentine Moon

Yes, it’s an odd combination.  The Celtic Great Wheel and climate science.  Ancient stories of myths and legends and lore behind our calendar and holidays mixing with the politics of third millennium environmental policy.  I know it is.

But here’s the thing.  None of us come to our understandings of the world stripped of either culture or a metaphysics.  None of us.  In fact-and I think the agonizing slowness of movement on climate change policy proves my point-science, the reasoned arguments, are trailing elements in our decision making.

six americas


Here is a study done by Yale and George Mason University called ‘Six Americas.’ The graphic above summarizes its results.  In spite of the settled science, in spite of the robust nature of both the evidence and the theoretical models, in spite of clear evidence that climate change is already underway, roughly 60% of Americans are either doubtful of the facts or opposed to the implications the facts have policy.

You can take the survey that the pollsters used for Six Americas at this link.

The Great Wheel helps me embrace seasonal change and to incorporate its metaphorical possibilities into my understanding of my own life and the lives of others.  By constantly returning my focus to the weather, the plants, the wildlife while at the same time reminding me of our repeated pilgrimages around the sun, the Great Wheel helps me stay in the physical, natural moment.

Whatever can tune our lives to blooming, raining, running, growing, whizzing nature comes before the science, before the cries of alarm, before the concern.  Absent from nature, alienated from nature we can proceed in our unintentional war against it.  Much as prosecuting action against a foe gains traction when the enemy becomes non-7 Generationshuman-a gook, a chink, a jew, a nigger, a dago-so taking action that harms the natural world is made easier, maybe even possible, by its distance from our lived reality.

The Great Wheel is the best tool for me, right now, to show how my link with mother earth works and how much it means to me.  There are many others:  bird-watching, farming, gardening, bee-keeping, hiking the most obvious among them.  I’m not an evangelist for the Great Wheel, but I am an evangelist for what it symbolizes: our intrinsic, integrated, inescapable, necessary bond with the natural world and its cycles.

Here is the most important learning.  Nature can do without us; we cannot do without nature.


Poor February

Imbolc                                                                        Valentine Moon

February was the end of the Roman year and the name of the month comes from the Lupercalia bacchanal before a statue of Pan, Poussinlatin februa.*  The ides of a Roman month, either the 13th or the 15th were sacred to Jupiter.  On the ides of the last month of the year Roman tradition involved ceremonies and rituals related to cleansing and purification. (see definitional material below)  Presumably this allowed them to enter the new year in March clean of impurities from the old year.

Lupercalia, a celebration which has convoluted possible relations with Valentine’s Day, came to be dominant in Roman times during the ides.  Certain ancients related this celebration to the Lykaen region of Greece where King Lycaon affronted Zeus and brought about his transformation into a wolf.  Lycaos, the mountain after which the region got its name, was sacred to Pan.

Thus, Lupercalia was thought by early Romans to be a wolf festival, partly for Pan and triumph of Pan, Poussinthe wolf-like nature of the Lykaen kingdom, but also, and later more often, association with the she-wolf who suckled the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus.  Her cave was near the Palantine Hill and has recently, 2007, been provisionally located.  It was called the Lupercal and was, like Lycaos, sacred to Pan.

The Lupercalia festivities were held near the cave.

February was the shortest month and had an even number of days because, according to Roman belief, odd numbers had favor with the gods.  (Vergil:  God rejoices in the odd number.”  Until the 19th century the Germans called the month Hornung, or ‘the bastard gotten in the corner.’  The Scots Gaeli name, an Gerran, means the gelding.  Poor February.  It also had, in Europe at least, the reputation of having the worst weather of the year.

Much of the above information gleaned from The Oxford Companion to the Year, a 1999 imprint of Oxford University Press.

N.B.  Both of the Poussin paintings here:  Bacchanal Before a Statue of Pan (above) and The Triumph of Pan (below) have been associated with Lupercalia.


*from Lewis and Short via Perseus:

februa , ōrum, n., the Roman festival of purification and expiationcelebrated on the 15th of the month hence called February (v. Februarius); whence, Februālis , Febrūlis , and Februāta ,surnames of Junowho was worshipped at this festival; Februātus , the festival itself; and Februus , a surname of Lupercuswho presided over this festival

If Candlemas be fair and bright

Imbolc                                                                     Valentine Moon

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.   an English Poem

Ground Hog Day.  Candlemas.  The Meeting of the Lord. (Serbian, on Feb. 15, same Hans_Holbein_d._Ä._Presentation of Jesus, Candlemasas Feb. 2 in the Julian calendar)  An ancient European tradition proposed either a badger (German) or a bear (Serbian), who would come out of hibernation, see bright sun and go back to sleep or see a cloudy day and wake up for the year.  The bright sun presaged six more weeks of cold weather.(Hans Holbein.   Presentation of Jesus, Candlemas)

Linked with Candlemas–the Feast Day of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple–on February 2nd, this ancient pagan tradition came to be observed on this Roman Catholic holy day created to displace Imbolc.  The Meeting of the Lord, the Serbian feast day of the Presentation, posits that if a bear come awake on that day and see the sun, then six more weeks of winter would follow. (see Groundhog Day, wikipedia)

The groundhog got connected to this legend in the Pennsylvania German community. The formal wear at the Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania event gives the whole tradition a satirical nudge that makes it delightful.  At least to me.


Imbolc 2014

Imbolc                                                       Valentine Moon

Bride put her finger in the river on the Feast Day of Bride and away went the hatching Brigid2mother of the cold.  Carmina Gadelic


Today is the official opening of this new website, ancientrailsgreatwheel, or, simply, Great Wheel.

It comes onto the web honoring Brigid, the triple goddess of the old faery faith–the Celtic understanding of how to honor the relationship with the natural and supernatural worlds.

Imbolc is her feast day, her market week actually, since all of these holidays coincided with markets, making them special points in the year when transactions of all kinds took place.

Imbolc itself means in-the-belly and signifies the time when, in preparation for lambing, ewes began to freshen and milk came back into the diet after the long winter. Brigid as Lady GreenFreshening, usually six weeks or so before the birth of the lambs around the spring equinox, signaled the emergence of new life, both animal and vegetable.

There was an ancient belief that the sun began to dominate on Imbolc and though this was a truer reference to the Winter Solstice, it did reflect the evident increase in daylight that had accumulated since the Solstice and, in combination with the freshening of the ewes, promised another growing season was not far off.

(Brigid as Lady Green)

This was important because in Scotland and in other Celtic lands, February came at a dismal time, bleak and cold with last fall’s stores dwindling.  The Scots called the time around Imbolc the wolf-month and others called it the Dead Month.

Brigid, the triple goddess of smithy, inspiration and hearth was at the core of ancient Celtic domestic life, poetry and iron working.  She was also a goddess of healing, triple goddessregeneration and abundance, and closely connected with cattle and other domesticated livestock.

She was the central deity of the ancient Celtic pantheon in many ways and honored by many sacred wells and sites of worship, among them the eternal flame at Kildare, a place of high importance on Imbolc since it is a fire holiday.  In later years, after the Roman Catholics absorbed Brigid as a saint, Saint Brigid, there was a double monastery at Kildare, both men and women in residence and 19 nuns kept the flame alive, tending it at night one at a time, with the 20th night left to the Saint herself.  It burned from the 6th century to the 16th, or so the old books say.

Brigid is also associated with the Bride who appears first on Imbolc.  One account says that Old Woman of Winter, the Cailleach or the Crone, goes off to a sacred well and drinks from a fountain of youth, coming back from the well as the Bride, the virgin who will later enter into consort with the Horned God at the festival of Beltane, thus assuring an abundant year for crops and animals alike.  This is a three fold division of the year john_duncan_015_the_coming_of_bride_1917-e1296621234846which gives one third to the virgin maid, in this case Bride, another third to the Matron or Mother, and the final third to the Crone, the Old Woman.

(John Duncan, The Coming of Bride)

So today can be a time to look into your heart, into your relationships, into the projects and work aspects of your life and find what needs inspiration, what could use a spark, a new flame.  You can also look for those aspects of your life that have begun to flourish, perhaps with only slight signs, like the freshening of the ewe or the advancing daylight.

This is a holiday for them, a time to find in your own well of inspiration, of home making and family building, of creative work the new and hopeful, a time to encourage them and yourself, remembering that a new growing season is not only promised, it is already underway.



The Days Are Gods

Winter                                                       Seed Catalog Moon


Thor Battles the Giants

Greek speaking countries, for the most part, changed their day names to conform to the tyr and  fenrirRoman Catholic system.  In the Latin world there was more variation.  Portuguese changed all the names, but in other Romance tongues the old planetary system of the Roman world prevails still with the exception of Sunday, Lord’s Day, and Saturday, Sabbath.

(Tyr and Fenrir

The most resistant have been the British and Celtic tongues.  English replaced Mars, Mercury, Jupiter and Venus with Germanic deities:  Tiw, Woden, Thor, and Frigga. English retains Saturn, Sun, Moon.

Who the heck, you might ask, is Tiw?

Well, Tiw is old English for Tyr,  a Norse god associated most famously with Loki’s child, the great wolf Fenrir, destined to kill Odin when Ragnarok begins.  Tyr stuck his hand in Odin, the WandererFenrir’s mouth as surety against a binding.  The binding held and Fenrir bit off Tyr’s hand.  He’s a martial god, too, sometimes called the Norse Mars.

Woden is Odin, the hanged one who gained wisdom hanging from the world tree Yggdrasil, and the king of the Aesir.

(Odin the Wanderer)

Thor was perhaps the best loved of the Nordic pantheon, a warrior god who specialized in killing giants.  His great hammer Mjolnir has had feature roles in two recent Hollywood blockbusters.

Frigga is a Norse fertility goddess.

Emerson’s quote on the masthead is not idle; the days are indeed gods and goddesses, Then-Frigga-Called-To-Her-All-Beasts,-Birds,-And-Venomous-Snakesno where more so than in the British and Celtic lands and those, like us, who follow them linguistically.

So, this Moon’s Day, weekly reminder of she who shines in the night, I bid you, good-bye.  Until Tyr’s Day.