Impressions. Subjective.

Spring                                            Hare Moon

Spread it out this way.  The fields of southern Minnesota and Iowa, the poverty of Missouri, the plains of Kansas, the shabbiness of Oklahoma, the bleakness of west Texas.  Then, Carlsbad Caverns.  An entry way this Orpheus took, singing his own tunes of loss, passing through the twilight zone to the darkness of eternal night, lit only by the U.S. government.  When I returned to the surface, my journey through many benighted places had been purged, my inner world compressed by the weight of the earth over me.  I had visited Persephone only to find her gone back to her mother, her husband the dismal Hades now distracted and grieving.  Charon was not in sight.

After that the trail hit the desert.  Stark southern New Mexico.  New Mexico, of all the states on this trip, has cast its spell on me, its enchantment.  That vast sea of sand and sparse grass so amenable to the spirit, especially a spirit only recently returned to the surface, that combination, had me set up for the Intensive Journal Workshop.

Arizona, I admit, I come to jaundiced.  Sun City was my first experience of it and what the New Mexico desert was to the spirit, Sun City was its obverse, a place where the soul came to die early.  Then there were those 107 degree September days and the concrete irrigation ditches.  Not to mention the sheriff of Maricopa County. And the loony conservatism so wrapped up in flag, guns, chauvinism, xenophobia and homophobia. This is a state that, in spite of its great beauty has a pinched and impoverished heart.  It practices the dark arts.

The Workshop itself I’ll treat elsewhere.  This is a subjective, impressionistic journey.  Arizona grew in appeal to me as I turned north into the mountains, the temperature falling and the conifers and firs beginning to dominate the landscape.  In Holbrook, after stopping briefly to view the sky, I ended up in the motel with no phone, no wifi and no heat.  I stayed anyway.

This stop was a time out from the luxury of the trip, a reminder that many lived nearby in conditions not at all different from this shabby room with its torn lampshade, grime coated shower door and frayed bedspreads.  There is a lot of poverty and it comes in many forms, but that found on American Indian reservations is often its cruelest.  Here the people live on the land they consider sacred, but have been removed from it anyway by television, English, pickup trucks and alcohol.  Life in Indian America is tough and often brutal.

Leaving it behind at 4 a.m and driving under the sign of the sickle moon and Venus has provided the lasting image for this trip full of rich images.  Northeastern Arizona and northern New Mexico have geological, geographic, cultural and historical depth no matter where you glance out the window.  This is our Angkor, the place where the ancient sage-kings held sway, peoples so faded from memory that only their past remains and that impossible to understand.

It is not caverns or catcus here, here it is people and their astonishing and beautiful adaptations to the land they found.  The Chaco Canyon architecture of small sandstone and the pueblo dwellings hung from high canyon walls.  The adobe of Santa Fe.  The hogans of the Navajo.  Their pottery and their blankets and their painting and their writing. There is something special here.

Now I’m out of all that, up here in Denver where the Rockies and skiing and Century Communications and the National Western Stock Show mediate the meeting of East and West, being neither fully, unable to commit.  And I’m more comfortable here.  I fit in better here.  But it doesn’t stimulate me in the same deep way.



Healing Early Wounds

Imbolc                                                              Hare Moon

The gifts people carry astound me.  Tonight at the St. Patrick’s day ceremony of corned Crimapobeef, cabbage, mashed potatoes and Irish soda bread Frank brought in as a guest a friend of his Chholing Taha.  Chholing is a Cree woman who had a difficult road back to her native heritage.  At 3 she was taken from her people and adopted by a German couple who lived across the border in Niagra Falls, New York.  Why this happened was not explained to her.

She grew up full of rage and “culturally schizophrenic” walking in two worlds at once. Through a pull that seemed almost genetic she visited sweats, went to the sun dance, got an Indian name from a Blackfoot medicine man and finally did four fasts over a period of four years.  These were not easy nor were they obvious answers to her bifurcation, but they seem to have brought her to a peaceful place, a place where bitterness and anger do not dominate her.

She is an artist with terrific imagery, color and composition, part of a current generation of native artists that draw from deep within their heritage and themselves.  She dreams her works, whole, then records what she sees.

At the end of the evening she smudged us with sage that had been used in a sun dance Creeand gave us each a seeing.  She believes everything is visible, that the world is transparent and if you look, you can see.  She said Tom was comfortable with life, she saw him clad in flannel shirts and wandering the north country.  To Frank she said, brushing him as she did all of us with her eagle feather fan, “They continue to say not to worry.”

Charlie Haislet reminded her of the light in the meadow; Scott sees things at their elemental level.  To me she said I had a precise mind, able to see something small and learn much.  And that I would do amazing things.  It surprised me, brought me tears to my eyes.  It felt as if she had called my name, a name I didn’t know I had.

Her stories and her presence were, as Frank said, remarkable.

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                                                                    Valentine Moon

There are models for humans living sustainably on the land.  Many of them no longer image_ahupuaaapply of course since populations have grown and become first settled and now urbanized.  Hunting and gathering, a sustainable way to live for example, becomes much less sustainable as population increases and people move toward agriculture, villages and cities.

There is one way though that so appeals to me, at a minimum for its heuristic value, and perhaps, in a rearranged culture, in pragmatic ways, too.  It is ahupua’a, a method of land division that ran from the coast into the heights of the mountains.  Practiced in Hawai’i, it divided the islands into wedges with access to the ocean and its abundant life, the mid-range for agriculture, like taro cropping, and the mountains for safety and a source of fresh water.  This meant that each family or clan, each o’hana, had adequate means of sustenance, able to fish and to plant, hunt and gather.

(Ahupua’a by Beth Marcil)

Thomas Berry, author of the Great Work, identified this as the Hawai’ian’s great work: to manifest Aloha in their treatment of the land.  Expressed in the Hawai’ian language, malama ‘aina means to care for the land as one would a family member. This makes such sense to me. The land is a family member.  She is our mother who gives us food from her very body.

Ahupua’a is not impossible to mimic even in our hyperdeveloped civilization.  One shift would handle it, organizing our political units by watershed rather than arbitrarily drawn boundaries.

Here’s a little from a February 27, 2008 post on this idea:

I worked out the watershed for Andover.  It begins in Lake Mille Lacs and focuses on the Rum River as it heads into the Mississippi at Anoka.

Think what it would be like if that watershed was a state senate district and two state house districts.  Imagine congressional districts composed not of gerrymandered counties and chunks of counties, but as an agglomeration of watersheds.  Imagine the citizens of these watershed districts imbued with malama ‘aina.  Don’t know about you, but that sounds substantial to me.



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

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

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.




Down to the Soil, Up to the Heavens

Winter                                                        Seed Catalog Moon

The Great Wheel seems suited to life in Andover, Minnesota. Its seasons roughly correspond to the actual seasons we experience.  Beltane on May 1, for example, is the beginning of the planting season give or take a week either way. (Usually)  When Samain and Winter come, the fallow season takes hold in earnest and even Imbolc, the freshening of the ewes celebrated on the cross quarter holiday, only holds out the promise of a spring still weeks away.

How the Great Wheel would fit the seasons in Denver, though, I’m not sure.  Jon watered his lawn and trees here yesterday.  That seemed very strange to Minnesota me.  Back home the same effort would produce a hockey rink. The Great Wheel would fit even more southerly climes less and less well the closer to the equator.  It would diminish in accuracy, too, as you headed north from our Minnesota position half to the equator and half way to the North Pole.

In that way it is an imperfect metaphor for earth’s diverse seasonal changes.  Since Andover sits in a position that defines temperate climate though, it works very well for  us.

So the larger question behind the Great Wheel is how we humans relate to the earth and its repeating solar pilgrimage.  That the impulse to do so is nearly universal is easily seen by examining a handful of sites around the world.  Take the Mayan observatories where early Mayan scholars sought for clues in the heavens for planting, sacrifice and fore-telling.  That they could do this is shown in the remarkable summer solstice event at the temple of Kulkucan at Chichen Itza when the feathered serpent appears sinuous and energetic along the great stairs.

Stonehenge, of course.  New Grange.  The pyramids and their careful alignment to true north.  The various zodiacs from around the world.  The list could easily go on.  Even the phenomenon known as Manhattan Henge shows that we contemporaries still find significance in the regular movement of the sun.*

Over the coming months Great Wheel will explore more about how we have looked down to the soil and up to the heavens, trying always to see the hidden relationship.


*The term applies to those streets that follow the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, which are laid out in a grid offset 29.0 degrees from true east–west. (The 29.0 degrees should be added to true east and west, making the western bearing approximately 299.0 degrees.) During Manhattanhenge, an observer on one of the gridded east-west streets will see the sun setting over New Jersey directly opposite, from the street, along its centerline.