The question was put to me by a friend, a Haitian New Yorker called Delcarmise Napoleon. From it unspooled a series of nine letters, shared during the summer of 2016 with The Way of the Rose, an inter-religious fellowship gathered around the practice of praying the rosary. This group’s inclusive, eco-feminist slant on prayer and community has room for fidgets like myself, meanderers who might have to put ‘None of the above, but something’ in the religion question on the census.
Those letters were the starting point for this, the first in a series of Gyrovague meditations, inspired by the gyrovagi: the leaderless, wandering monks of the Early Middle Ages, repeatedly denounced for their vagrant restlessness by the representatives of the organised church.
Imagine the technologies that would be invented by a culture of inhabitation, that is, a sustainable culture, that is, a culture planning on being in the same place for 10,000 years. That culture would create technologies that enhance the landscape… that would decompose afterwards into components that help, not poison, the soil. The technologies would remind human inhabitants of their place in this landscape. The technologies would promote leisure, not production. The technologies would not be bombs and factory conveyor belts but perhaps stories, songs, and dances…
– Derrick Jensen, Endgame Volume 1: The Problem of Civilization
When the rose is gone and the rose-garden fallen to ruin,
Where will you seek the scent of the rose?
– Jalallud-din Rumi (1207-73)
Laid on my desk there’s a heavy shard of polished stone. Something I’m looking after for a little while, during its unfathomably long life. It’s a Neolithic axe head that my son Gabriel came upon in – of all places – a local bric-a-brac shop. The shopkeeper, preparing to retire and scaling down, was getting rid of stuff he no longer needed. When I hesitated over whether to buy his axe from him, he suggested I take it home with me for a week to have a think about it, and then bring back either axe or money when I’d decided. So I did. I walked out of the shop with his axe and carried it home. He didn’t even know my name.
That trusting shopkeeper had grown up on a farm on the edge of Falmouth, a place called Budock Water. During their childhood, I learned, he and his two sisters had amassed a considerable cache of Bronze Age artefacts, gathered from the fields which their family farmed – wool weights, pottery shards, even a torque. All of which, he recalled, is now stashed in cases somewhere deep inside the British Museum. The man told me how, one day back in 1951, his family’s farmhand came in with something that the plough had just turned up – this long, curiously smooth, oval stone.
The wool weights and other such stuff dug up on their land are about 3,000 years old. Back when the people who made these things were using them day to day, this hand-polished stone had already lain buried there for about that same amount of time. Quite possibly for over half as long again. I find myself struggling to get that in focus. This axe-head, hidden just under their feet, was in all probability far older to those Bronze Age people than they are now to us.
The stone itself is a deep, warm green, and surprisingly heavy. Jadeite, or greenstone, which may have been dug from the nearest seam to here down at St Michael’s Mount, or have been carried from as far away as today’s Portugal. Whoever made this axe stands, then, at a vast distance of time to the thrumming coastal town in which I live – with its ever-burgeoning population, the ubiquitous electric glow that never allows its population a fully dark night, and of course the endless traffic, forever coming and going. Mine included.
That depth of time seems to draw a blank in the mind. Too big to bring into view, maybe, or just too abstract. But if you hold this polished slab of stone in your hand, run your fingers along its edge, it’s a different story. After so many thousands of years buried in the ground, that edge, impossibly, is still sharp. The curved surfaces of the axe are not quite constant, either, but have visible planes where the stone was repositioned by other hands, as they gradually wore it down against a harder rock. Probably against granite, if it was made here in Cornwall. How long did it take to finish that task? A week? A winter? I imagine the person who made this thing working at it slowly, sliding the stone back and forth, back and forth, through many long dark nights.
And strangest of all, to me, is this: that the great dying that we find ourselves entering, the chasm into which our culture accelerates as if somehow we could think of no better plan – all this was preparing itself, even then, while those unknown hands held and worked this shard of green rock until it was ready. Of course from that far remove, our hyper-connected civilisation was likewise something unimaginable – an as-yet impossibly distant endgame. But an end, nonetheless, already being written by the incremental changes underway within those people’s manner of living. Invisible, unintended, but there: a gradual process of escalation that had been in motion for some thousands of years, in fact, by the time this axe-bearer and their small community of Neolithic farmers were living in the small coastal creek that today we call Budock Water.
For me, that idea stops thought more than the distance of time itself.
And our Mother and Grandmother is the Earth
upon which we graze
upon whose breast,
it is said,
we suckle all of our lives
never being weaned
– from The Universe is our Holy Book, Jack D. Forbes, in Columbus and Other Cannibals
What would it mean for this culture to recover what the Native American writer Jack D. Forbes calls ‘the pollen path’? The path of sanity that would lead us to – which would itself be – our ecological recovery? Just how far back do we have to reach, to name the point at which some of our species began to stray from a genuinely sustainable way of living? A way of living that, as Derrick Jensen puts it, were you to return after a gap of 10,000 years, you’d find more or less where and how you left it?
I don’t know. I do know that there are many who deride the very idea of a ‘before’ to our current insanity – and I’ve not much argument to offer against such dismissal, other than to notice that, for me anyway, just to glimpse the distance we’ve travelled to reach the cliff edge at our feet brings an odd sort of calm. Maybe it allows the grief at what humanity’s doing to Earth’s life-communities to breathe a little easier. To be just that, grief. To shed some of the bitter, fruitless overlay of recrimination that often seems to gather round – or to stave off – that mourning.
Not that it’s hard to understand why more and more people, especially the young, now speak of hating their own species. The image of humanity as a virus or pernicious infestation, familiar to them, is so very far from the complacent, post-imperial, sleepily Anglican notions of the human that I was born into. I’ve watched my own children grow up with this emerging revelation hanging over their lives, spoken or unspoken: look for beauty in the world, and what you find, over and over and over again, is something immanently threatened, or something already being destroyed by the proliferation of our own kind.
Yet, however unbearable this situation seems, my stubborn gut feeling is that to blame humanity for what it’s become isn’t simply unhelpful, it’s a fundamental error of perception – one that leads us down a blind alley. It’s an error that feeds on a lingering sense of self-importance. A final, desperate throw of the dice by our embattled hubris, whose ironic parting gift is a bitter, mystified frustration as we cling stubbornly to the idea that we, the last few generations of civilised humans, could somehow have rewritten this culture’s 12,000-year suicide note in its final sentence, if only we weren’t so fucking stupid.
Perhaps when we begin to loathe our own kind, it’s because we’ve failed to grasp what holds this ‘culture of occupation’ on its ecocidal course, like a silent undercurrent which has been carrying it, these 12 millennia or more, towards an inevitable edge. An edge we can see all too clearly now, but like a dream, we somehow cannot find it in ourselves to steer away from.
The question for me, as it slowly becomes apparent that there’ll be no last-minute rowing back from that edge – that we crossed it some time ago, in fact – is how do we set down this acrimonious burden of blame and turn to meet the sorrow of our shared predicament with something more worthwhile, more up to the job, than bitterness and reproach? What would ‘setting it down’ even mean, as we watch the living world, human and non-human alike, being consumed by civilisation’s self-immolation? Perhaps what that requires of us, ultimately, is that we finally learn how to live, by learning how to die. Which is to say, I think, that we learn how to live by learning how to trust.
But how are you going to die one day, Narziss, since you have no mother?
Without a mother one cannot love. Without a mother one cannot die.
– Hermann Hesse, Narziss and Goldmund
Trust. That seems to be what ‘recovering the pollen path’ comes down to, for me. Trust in life, if you like, if not in institutional religion. Looking back across the three decades of fidgeting involvement with one after another school of Buddhist training that eventually led me to pick up the rosary, trust seems to be the thing I’ve been fumbling towards all along. That I’m still trying to fathom, even as I write this: what could ‘learning to die’ possibly mean, other than learning to trust?
But start talking about one thing, and you’re soon talking about another. I set out clutching a greenstone axe, hoping it might open up a meditation on how I came to find myself addressing God as Mother. Perhaps I just wanted to hear myself say aloud who exactly I think I mean when I recite Her names each day: Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, Hail Our Life, Our Sweetness and Our Hope. Well, before I come around to that – and although it may mean waving goodbye to any remaining vestiges of credibility – I want to throw one more element in the mix: fairies.
For those who’ve had no personal dealings with such beings, it’s probably fair to say that actual fairies exist somewhere well beyond the margins of respectable plausibility. Those who’ve encountered them at first hand – not as clichéd literary motifs but as ambiguously present, elusive neighbours – will have their own view. I’ve met people in both camps, but so far the latter’s been a tiny, if fascinating minority.
Fairies? Oh, like those New Age shops you find in Glastonbury or Penzance? Ceramic dragons, sparkly unicorns, butterfly-winged girls in not quite enough silk. A sort of lightweight, patchouli-scented kitsch, the fond notion that there’s something out there beyond the utilitarian certainties of our business-like, ecocidal culture. An attempted assertion of mystery, maybe, but one whose coy tone of voice in fact betrays the opposite, unspoken conviction.
So much for moderns and the space we allow for the daemonic. But fairies have been around a lot longer than that. Here in Cornwall, the most familiar breed are known as ‘piskies’. Whatever glittering flotsam now sticks to that name, it’s no New Age confection. The word reaches back into to the pre-modern memory of this land, to a time when such beings were thought of as dangerous allies at best, a general menace whose homes within the landscape were best avoided, and who were, at times, an utter dread. These were no marketable spiritual talismans, nor the stuff of children’s stories.
I suspect no single definition of fairies could cover what’s going on here at the ever-retreating margins of our brightly-lit consensus world, but for me, one of the most compelling speculations about who or what such beings are is also the simplest. And I’d hazard a guess that it’s one of the oldest on offer.
Piskies, pixies, or as the nearby Devon variant has it, picties. Another clue, if that’s not ringing any bells, lies in one of their other local names, the Daoine Sithe, or Folk of the Mounds. Fairies, you see, were closely associated with tumuli and other such prehistoric sites, long before a few of us lapsing moderns began slipping back to these places with our slightly embarrassed prayers, with the discreet offerings that one so often encounters, now, at these ancient landmarks.
For that Bronze Age community in Budock Water, these same mounds, chambers and stone rings were already, surely, a kind of silent enigma? A mystery hiding in plain sight, whose unexplained presence would, no doubt, have attracted stories. Stories that would perhaps tell you more about the people doing the telling than the places themselves.
Picties. Might not one of the things these old stories bear witness to, then, be simply our predecessors on this land? Here in Britain, that would include the Picts: ‘a smaller, darker-skinned, aboriginal race, long since assimilated or wiped out’. A people who were known – as W. Evans-Wentz wrote in 1911 – for ‘cunning, their only effective weapon against the mere strength of the Aryan invader’. A cunning, moreover, which ‘earned them a reputation for magical powers’.
These days, the connection Evans-Wentz proposed is regarded with scepticism, the idle conjecture of an Edwardian autodidact, as dated as his racial categories. Still, I’m attracted to the idea that, whatever else they became encrusted with, one thing these old names remember is the people who were here before us. Including those early Neolithic agriculturalists who left us their intricate network of stone rings, reaching from the Ring of Brodgar up in Orkney all the way down to the Boscawen-Un circle in the far west of Cornwall. People whose own ancestors’ cunning hands held and worked this soft jadeite axe against some rough slab of granite, before all of them were swallowed into the deep quiet at their, and our, backs – the otherworldly silence which civilisation refers to uneasily as ‘prehistory’.
That’s the story that most engages my attention: that fairies are none other than the older inhabitants of this land, the deeper layers of its memory. Are, not were. The numberless dead whose silent presence is remembered, especially, by these ancient barrows and stone circles huddled incongruously in the midst of our hyper-efficient extinction engine of a culture. Older neighbours who, it would seem, are still given to occasional breaches in that silence. We weave stories around the chasm in understanding opened by their incursions. And as ever, such stories have more to say about us than them.
Am I not here, I, who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need anything more?
– Nuestra Senora, Our Lady of Guadalupe, 1531, Nican Mopohua
We seem to have come a long way from praying the rosary. Or maybe we haven’t. Not if we turn back, here, to that question from my friend Delcarmise: what does it mean to you, to address God as Mother?
If I say that the fathomless chain of our long-dead ancestors remains an inseparable part of us, quite literally woven into our DNA – part of us not just metaphorically, but carried in our blood as a basic biological reality – that would seem a fairly uncontroversial proposition. But what if that’s not the whole of it? What if that’s just one face of an altogether more slippery situation? A thing we might look at in other ways.
Maybe another face of that truth is that our ancestors on this land remain right here, where they always were. That they’ve gone nowhere: their lives separated from our own by a vast river of time, or by the thinnest of membranes – geologically speaking, a mere moment – depending on where you stand to look. Shift your weight but a degree, and it’s we who move among them, at the same absent-present remove. All of us, each other’s living, each other’s dead; so many cells within the one, ever-changing, simultaneous body. The Body of God.
Names like that feel tentative, in my mouth anyway. Big ideas that tempt their own unravelling. But call it what you like, all of us forever at home within that body, because – and regardless of whatever befalls us, or what comes after us – there’s nowhere else we could ever go, or be.
For now anyway, that feels about as near as I can get to what it means to me to address God as Mother: the living body in whom we’re all alive, and we’re all dead, and we’re all at home. When I bring my life’s dilemmas, my petitions and thanks to each new cycle of the rosary, that’s who I’m talking to. Talking to – not as some vague, transcendent abstraction, but as immediate, intimate presence; as friend, companion, mother. She who holds each muddled, radiant life in existence from one moment to the next, within whose hands the tangled webs of our day-to-day longings, our joys and miseries, are no less real and no less ephemeral than mycelium, than the vanishing old-growth forests, than the weather.
For me – and by whatever name – this living body of God the Mother also feels like the one space big enough to hold the unfathomable loss that we already see gathering around us, the ‘great narrowing’ that our culture is hurtling towards. She within whose broad lap the wiping out of our civilisation, or even of our species, along with all the immeasurable, complex beauty that they’ll carry with them as they go, is no more than a passing readjustment, a small shift of position. It’s in Her lap I set that loss down, to Her that I entrust it, every time I pick up the rosary.
Life is close. We learn that lesson first. Or we do not. In either event, it remains true. We come to this world in close quarters, and crave that closeness first and last of all. We may drift away from that lesson over the course of a lifetime. In that case we will be unhappy, no matter what good comes our way. Or we may remember and find happiness, no matter what harm may come. The breast is our first teacher, and what it teaches is simple: We belong to this world. We are satellites in a shallow orbit. Our destiny is to love, and to return to the One from whom we come.
– Clark Strand, Waking up to the Dark
Writing about prayer feels a bit like digging in mud. Things come to the surface, but whatever I pull out leaves an embarrassing hole that quickly begins to fall in on itself. I’m left holding slippery half-truths that offer me something to be going on with, for sure, but which I can already feel running through my fingers even as I name them.
If there’s no coherent theology here, there is instead a slow, rather wary experiment. For some 20 years now I’ve listened to an ever-growing number of commentators speak of what awaits us if civilisation continues down its current path. With most of those voices that if has now fallen away, to be replaced by talk of resilience, preparedness, adaptation, as they shrink-wrap an emerging obscenity in the measured language of data. Proliferating acronyms burdened with a difficult task, that of informing the unwilling patient of their terminal condition. As Rob Lewis’ poem ‘I Went Looking for the Wild One’ put it so unforgettably on the opening page of Dark Mountain’s first issue:
Meanwhile, poor scientist holds extinction
in a palm full of numbers
with nothing but data
to howl with.
Just suppose the bleaker end of current projections concerning what may unfold over the coming decades – however uncertain and based on limited knowledge – turns out to be true? How might we walk forward into that scale of loss without folding into apathetic despair? We hear much, now, about eco-spirituality, another over-burdened idea, tasked with bringing about the change in collective behaviour that reason, or even simple fear, have been unable to effect. But in speaking of inevitability, it’s just this curious momentum – our present soporific condition, if you like, rather than what comes next – that I’ve had in mind. Not that being swallowed into a mass-extinction caused by own species was somehow written in our stars, nor that anything ‘had to be this way’. Just that it is this way. That, as eco-philosopher Timothy Morton puts it, ‘the disaster has already happened’.
Yet Morton reminds us, too, that our crisis-ridden present is not merely the despoiled outcome of whatever led us here, an outward mirror of what we’ve become: right now is also where whatever we choose to become next begins. Forward thinking, Morton calls it. Well, it’s safe to say that I’ve wandered a long way from Morton’s arch subtlety in my own take on his phrase, but it offers a good name for what I’ve been looking for, all the same. If our situation does turn out to be as terminal as it seems, if we do in fact have that far to fall, then what manner of spirituality, eco- or otherwise, might best serve us in the teeth of that predicament, might speak to that level of collective need?
All of this was a steadily growing background noise when I accepted an invitation extended to me in 2015 after reconnecting with an old friend and mentor from Buddhist circles, Clark Strand: a sometime Zen monk, a writer and Buddhist scholar whose life had taken a profoundly unexpected turn in the years since we’d last spoken, following an ongoing series of apparitions.
The invitation Clark held out to me was the same one put to him by the young woman who first appeared beside him one quiet Woodstock night in 2011. Not to buy into some revised formula of the restless, queasy ‘half-belief’ characteristic of so much contemporary religion. Nor, for that matter, to abandon any such beliefs, Buddhist or otherwise. The invitation was simply to adopt a certain behaviour: to ask for help, and then to give thanks for it, by praying the rosary on a daily basis. To bring whatever life-issue felt most achingly intractable, and to lay that within the revolving circle-dance of the Rose-Garden Game. One full turn of the moon for the asking, a second full turn giving thanks – without measurement or proof of receipt. And then to continue, sharing this 54-day cycle with others. As I say, I claim no coherent position in having chosen to accept this invitation. What I do own is a shift in attitude, not least toward the need to adopt any such position.
Seeking to bring this still tentative experiment into conversation with a Neolithic axe led me back, unexpectedly, to a memory. Something I’d not exactly forgotten, but whose resonance with all of this came stumbling in late. It’s the winter of 1985-6. I’m 20, and alone for a month on the Quiberon peninsula in Brittany, lugging around a rucksack full of paints and brushes and a battered copy of Lucy Lippard’s Overlay as I loiter among the great stone alignments at Carnac, the network of dolmens and fogous scattered in and around the surrounding Breton villages. Exploring one such underground chamber, I find myself crawling along a narrow passage that ends in a circular flat-ceilinged room, too low to stand up in. Cut into the supporting stones that line the walls of the room are a series of Neolithic line-drawings: spiralling, labyrinthine, unmistakably feminine forms. How long do I crouch there looking at these familiar, archaic images? Long enough, anyway, for the world I’ve known thus far to fall away for a moment.
On the road outside I can still hear the occasional car pass by. Here in this chamber, there’s only the sound of my breathing, the steady drip of water, and the engraved rock walls around me exuding a deep hush – one that’s remained unchanged, presumably, these 5,000 years. At some point the faint roar of a distant jet passes overhead, and as I listen, the silence inside this place throws a backdrop, just for a moment, against which the sheer speed of our culture suddenly becomes tangible: an out-of-control machine whose accelerating rush will soon see it gone again – while these illuminated stones continue on their quiet journey through time.
In the 30-odd years since I crouched there in the half-light that winter afternoon, civilisation has devoured more of Earth’s body – her ‘natural resources’ – than our species had previously consumed since it first stood on two legs. On its current trajectory, in the next 30 years or so that figure will double again. Does anyone seriously think that this situation can continue for much longer? Travelling at such mind-numbing speed, how can we begin to fathom the precipitous moment at which we’ve arrived?
I cannot fathom it. But for now anyway, I choose to accept this – or if I can’t accept it, just to act as if I trusted in it, and see what happens: that whatever comes, we’ll meet our future from a position of ignorance, knowing who and what we are only partially, and in small measure; that such ignorance is not a failure on our part, but rather the growing conditions in which our species has always thrived, foundered, thrived again – like any other living organism; that the fathomless dark surrounding the human mind’s brief pool of light is not something to be feared, but is, as we have long been told, known most authentically through, and as love; that reality is at its heart relational, an endless dying-into-birth in which humans are not and have never been ‘alone’; that we have only to turn our face towards this darkness to find ourselves welcomed back into an old conversation, one within which our life, our culture, even our species are but a passing breath; that with this conversation as the basis of our day-to-day lives, we already have all we need to meet whatever arrives, and that as we learn to trust in this through shared daily habit, then regardless of what befalls us in this ever-burning house, we need, as all the angels repeat, Fear Not.
Images by Lucy Kerr, 2019
Artist, illustrator and lover of illusion, alchemy and the stuffness of things.
The Rose-Garden Game: The Symbolic Background to the European Prayer-Beads, Eithne Wilkins (Victor Gallancz 1969)
Endgame: The Problem of Civilization, Derrick Jensen (Seven Stories Press 2006)
Columbus and Other Cannibals, Jack D. Forbes (Seven Stories Press 2008)
Cultural Addiction: the Greenspirit Guide to Recovery, Albert LaChance (North Atlantic Books, 1991)
Narziss and Goldmund, Herman Hesse (Penguin, 1974)
The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, W.Y. Evans Wents (Colin Smythe Gerrards Cross 1977)
Nican Mopohua: 16th-century Nahuatl record of the apparitions of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe
Waking up to the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age, Clark Strand (Spiegel & Grau 2015)
The Way of the Rose: The Radical Path of the Divine Feminine Hidden in the Rosary, Perdita Finn and Clark Strand (Spiegel & Grau 2019)
‘I Went Looking for the Wild One’, Rob Lewis, Dark Mountain: Issue 1, 2010
The Ecological Thought, Harvard 2010, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence, Timothy Morton, (Columbia 2016)
Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory, Lucy Lippard, (Pantheon 1983)
The Way of the Rose, Facebook https://www.facebook.com/groups/398032263660376/
Dark Mountain: Issue 12 – SANCTUM (PDF)
The Autumn 2017 edition is a special issue of essays and artwork on the theme of the sacred.Read more
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