Crow in a birch tree
shakes rain from its wings,
scattered jewels. In the fog,
what is near glistens.
What is distant
Crow in a birch tree
shakes rain from its wings,
scattered jewels. In the fog,
what is near glistens.
What is distant
Bring the Fire Down
Move through the hills unrolling
dense and shifting green below the night,
touch earth — between justice
and mercy, between nakedness and warfare,
between all that you would not do
and all you have done, unknowing —
move through the water to the streambed,
move through the mountains to the heat,
move through the empty sky, crying.
To touch the slick, smooth rocks wet
with life and blood and water;
to walk the land; to kiss the deep
echoing heart of the offering well.
Move your compassion. Move your peace.
Move slow and solemn in darkness
and do not be afraid, though their power
burns to brightness, busy, churning
life upon life, grinding colors from their bones
to paint their eyes — move, you beauty,
move, you simple world. Reach up
with your remembering. Reach up with your
longing. Reach up with your being
and your making and your singing
strength into the storm; reach up with all
the detail of the inbetween, the tragic
and the torn; reach up to touch the sacred
flame exalting in the midnight earth,
reach up to touch the sun as she is rising;
reach up to show your hands are empty;
reach up to leap your dance on holy ground,
the hills unrolling, the whole earth breathing
— reach up your love, and bring the fire down.
The latest issue of the Alternative Religions Educational Network’s newsletter just came out this past weekend, and I was excited to be included as one of those featured in an interview with the editor, Christopher Blackwell. We chatted about my background being raised in a liberal Catholic tradition flavored by my father’s Irish heritage, and how that shaped my spiritual journey towards Druidry as I live and practice it today. It was great fun! You can read the whole interview here.
One thing we touched on was the Oran Mór, or as I usually call it, the Song of the World. The Oran Mór is, in my view, very much like the concept of the Tao: it is both “the way of things,” a guide or path to follow, and also “the way things are,” the complex and irreducible nature of existence itself. Chris asked me to talk a little bit more about how this cosmological concept is reflected in my Druidry. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:
Christopher: You refer to something that you call the World Song. Could you explain a bit more of what that you mean by that?
Alison: This idea of the Song of the World is open for debate in modern Druidry — I don’t know many other Druids who work with it, although it’s become a central aspect of my own practice. There is a phrase that is found mostly in the oral traditions of Scotland and Ireland, known as the Oran Mór (or “Great Song”). In Christian times, it became one of the names used to refer to God, although there’s some evidence in Celtic mythology and folklore that suggests the idea goes back to pre-Christian times.
For me, the Song of the World is something like Divine Harmony — it’s not a personal creator god, so much as the on-going creative process of the universe discovering itself, unfolding playfully and joyfully in an endless and infinite variety of ways, all of which are part of an exquisite harmony that is inherent to existence yet always changing and deepening. In his book The Salmon in the Spring: The Ecology of Celtic Spirituality, Jason Kirkey explains it this way:
“The concept of the Oran Mór makes explicit a belief that existence is song and therefore a process rather than a thing. God, to the Celtic imagination, is Being not a being; the process of Becoming rather than something which creates; the on-going self-creation or atuopoiesis of the cosmos.”
This isn’t exactly monism, because the World Song isn’t a “substance” or a deity. Just as you cannot create a symphony with a single instrument alone but must have many instruments playing together in harmony, and yet you can still experience the symphony itself as a unifying whole in which all of these individual instruments participate.
In the same way, each of us has a song that we are singing by the way we live our lives — the ways we move through the world, the very physicality of our embodied selves, create vibrations (quite literally! but also metaphorically and spiritually) that participate in and actively create the Song of the World. We join with it our own voices, the music of our bodies humming, pumping blood, inhaling and exhaling, neurons and nerves buzzing. The air we move through shifts around us with every stride, and our laughing and crying shape it. When we sing and move and live in harmony with the World Song, our own songs are amplified, modulated and carried along — our lives become beautiful, our hearts become soft and permeable, our minds become nimble and familiar with the patterns of how things dance.
This idea — that we each have a song, a soul-song, and that everything, the landscape and the gods and the world itself, has a soul-song as well — underlies a kind of lovely animism that permeates everything, everywhere, and fills it utterly with life and movement. It bestows a special sacredness to space, to limits and the separation of necessary absence through which limited, finite beings move. The Song of the World offers us a way to understand our unity and community without sacrificing our individuality and uniqueness, our creativity and our freedom.
We talked about so many topics, this is just a small taste! So I hope you’ll head on over and check out the rest of the interview, as well as the other interviews and articles featured in the issue. (And thanks again to Chris for the chance to share with his readers!)
Meanwhile, I’m curious: for those fellow Druids out there, is the Oran Mór part of your approach to Druidry? Does it shape your beliefs or practices in any way? If so, how? And if you’re not a Druid, do you have a similar concept in your own tradition?
Let me know in the comments!
• “Queen of Wands,” by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law © 2010 [source]
Tidepooling is a practice in patient observation. It’s also a reminder that some things happen in their own sweet time.
That’s the thing about low tide. Sun, moon and earth turn through the steps of their celestial dance, and once in a while you get lucky and the three of them meet just right in a moment of revelation. You have to be ready.
Here on the Salish Sea (which includes Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Canada’s Georgia Strait), the lowest tide of the year usually occurs around the full moon nearest the summer solstice. The earth, with its axial tilt, leans in towards the sun for a kiss on the longest day. The moon waxes to full, exerting its own pull of gravity in the opposite direction. And the earth’s oceans — rippling out around her like a full blue skirt — rise and fall in mighty tides offering a glimpse of dark, secret places usually hidden from sight.
It’s funny that my mind should be drawn to dark places and hidden treasures on days suffused with so much light. But sure enough, I find myself longing to wander down along the knobbly shoreline of Puget Sound and poke around under rocks.
This year was especially lucky. The full moon (a “super moon,” apparently, whatever that is) happened to fall on a weekend, so Jeff and I had the chance to head north to Deception Pass State Park to spend the day hunching over algae-slick rocks and peering into damp crevices in search of intertidal treasures.
There are so many different ways to hide.
At Bowman Bay, it was impossible to take a step among the exposed rocks without catching a glimpse of scurrying movement out of the corner of your eye. A casual glance out across the beach, and you might think there was nothing to see but slimy boulders and scattered pebbles. A closer look reveals hundreds of tiny, well-camouflaged critters dashing from nook to cranny, or burrowing themselves in the sand.
Purple shore crabs (Hemigrapsus nudus) are especially common along the coast of the Salish Sea, with their mottled carapaces and spotted claws helping them to blend in among the shadows of kelp fronds, sea lettuce, shell fragments and wave-smoothed stones on the rocky shore. Another common species, the Green shore crab (H. oregonensis, also sometimes called the Oregon shore crab), is similar to its cousin — the same size and square body shape, with three “teeth” on its carapace behind each eye — but with tiny bristly hairs on its legs and spotless claws.
This little guy was particularly striking and held still long enough for me take quite a few pictures.
Is he a Purple or Green shore crab? Believe it or not, it’s actually hard to tell in this case. Colors of both species can vary pretty widely, from pale yellow to olive green to shades of red and purple. Plus, not all Purple shore crabs have spots on their claws, and not all Green shore crabs have hairy legs!
(This is where working with animal totems can get tricky, too. While some folks believe that every species has its own specific totem (no pun intended!), the natural world is far more complex than our systems and categories suggest. Scientists are constantly re-classifying organisms based on new ecological insights and DNA evidence. In my experience, some totems — like Shore Crab — embrace multiple related species that share many of the same physical, behavioral and ecological traits. Shore Crab is tiny but tough, and although not naturally aggressive can be quite fierce in self-defense.)
Although these little marvels can stand out and stand up for themselves when backed into a corner, most of the time they prefer to remain crouched under rocks or buried in sand where they can hide from potential predators while staying cool and moist, waiting for the tides to turn. Even on a beach brimming with crabs, sometimes the only way you can spot them is by relaxing your gaze and watching for movement.
Tucking her legs in under her protective shell, this Green shore crab nestling down in the muck becomes almost indistinguishable from the surrounding pebbles:
While low tide might be the perfect time for humans to explore the beach, the retreating water presents serious challenges for the creatures that live along the shore, many of whom develop strategies for coping with the intermittent absence of the life-sustaining waters that offer them protection and access to food during high tide. The most obvious and abundant of these — and most likely to be overlooked — are the barnacles.
At Rosario Beach, the difference in water levels marking high and low tides was especially obvious. Darker and lighter stripes across the rocks show where different species of barnacles have colonized every available surface, thriving especially higher up and on boulders facing the more energetic wave action of open waters — environments too harsh for some of our softer, squishier intertidal friends.
During low tide, barnacles close themselves up inside their protective shells along with a small amount of seawater — kind of like an astronaut inside his space suit using an oxygen tank to breathe. Some of the hardiest barnacles, living in the highest areas of the intertidal zone, can go days or even weeks without being immersed in water. If you listen, you can actually hear the quiet gurgling noises of these creatures biding their time inside their clamped-tight shells.
It’s easy to think of barnacles as boring, since most of the time we see them, they’re hunkered down with a virtual “do not disturb” sign hung on their door. If you can find any that are open in a shallow tidepool, though, watching barnacles feed is a delight. Those feathery fronds, rhythmically waving and pulsing as they gather plankton, are actually their feet! After the free-swimming larval stage, adult barnacles glue themselves to rocks upside-down and spend the rest of their lives in a permanent headstand.
With some patience and close observation, even barnacles’ outer shells can tell a story of amazing variety — not to mention, admirably stubborn survival.
Compared to the brownish and yellowish acorn barnacles (Chthamalus dalli) in the pictures of shore crabs above, these young thatched barnacles (Semibalanus cariosus) reminded me of tiny, twinkling stars against the dark surface of this rock:
Like other crustaceans (such as crabs and lobsters), barnacles shed their exoskeletons as they grow larger — but the protective outer shells surrounding them will remain fixed and must be continually renovated and expanded to make room for the growing creature inside. The shells of thatched barnacles can get up to 2 inches wide and several inches tall, with the “thatching” becoming more pronounced, forming textured ridges all along their surface…
….but even the hard, calcified shell is no match for the relentless eroding forces of the ocean waves, which eventually leave it pitted and pock-marked, looking like some kind of desolate lunar landscape.
When I told my parents that we’d seen more than twenty different identifiable species of plants, animals and algae during our tidepooling at Deception Pass, they were suitably impressed. Probably they were imagining the stunning visual variety of tropical coral reefs, like you might see on the Discovery Channel, not the minute differences that distinguish different kinds of barnacles and crabs. (And limpets! Look again at that last picture — among the barnacles, you can see no less than three different species of limpet, a type of single-shelled sea snail.)
Still, there are some beautiful sights to see, if you know how and where to look. The squishy, donut-shaped blobs next to these barnacles might not seem all that impressive….
…but when submerged in water, they blossom into the tiny pink-tipped flowers of the aggregating anemone (Anthopleura elegantissima, also known as the — wait for it — pink-tipped green anemone, of course!).
Aside from its beauty, this anemone is fascinating for a couple of reasons. First, if you see a large clump of these anemones living together, what you’re actually looking at is a group of genetically identical clones. The aggregating anemone reproduces asexually by literally tearing itself in half once it reaches a certain size, to produce two new individuals. Colonies of these clones will actively defend territory against anemones from another colony — you can often see the dividing line between colonies, an empty “neutral zone” defended by especially tough anemones along each border that will use their tentacles to attack and injure any intruding neighbors. (This anemone can also reproduce sexually — although the process is a somewhat impersonal one, spewing eggs and sperm into the surrounding water and allowing the random chance of currents to do most of the work. Compare this to the similarly sessile barnacle, a hermaphrodite that actively seeks out nearby mates using a penis that is one of the longest in the world relative to its body size! And you thought barnacles were boring!)
Belying their competitive nature, however, these anemones also live symbiotically with two different types of algae, which is what gives the anemone its distinctive green color. (Anemones without algae are grayish-white.) Algae provides an anemone with additional nutrients; in exchange, the anemone will bend to reposition itself so that the algae can access the sunlight it needs for photosynthesis.
Aside from these relatively common anemones and barnacles, the lowest tide of the year also reveals its own array of rare treasures. On the underside of one particularly large rock, for instance…
…we stole a peek at two large Ochre sea stars (Pisaster ochraceus), and between them the huge, floppy form of a closed Painted anemone (Urticina crassicornis)….
…as well as these two bright orange sea cucumbers (Cucumaria miniata) nestled down amongst the seaweed beneath a group of Frilled dogwinkles (Nucella lamellosa) hanging out on the rock above:
Dogwinkles (also called dog whelks) are another favorite of mine. They come in an array of colors, shapes and textures depending on species, though often these differences are obscured by a uniform coating of muck and algae that help them blend in with their surroundings:
When I lead groups of school kids on beach walks as part of my volunteer work, it’s especially fun to point out whelk eggs. Here, you can see a cluster of the squat, vase-like eggs of the Northern striped dogwinkle (N. ostrina), distinct from the eggs of other whelks which tend to be thinner and look more like grains of rice:
Our trip to Deception Pass also included a couple of thrilling first-time sightings for me. Next to this group of parchment tube worms (probably Northern feather duster worms, Eudistylia vancouveri, or a related species), I spotted a Purple sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus). Although it was almost impossible to see in person, wedged in quite snugly under a low-hanging rock, I was able to get a picture of it thanks to my camera’s zoom lens:
And in one deep, dark crevice — the wild and weird-looking California sea cucumber (Parastichopus californicus), a creature more than a foot long and covered with bumps and spines that it uses to capture its food:
There were even some creatures that I was only able to identify after the fact, while flipping through field guides in the comfort of my living room. At the beach, I’d spent a good five minutes poking and prodding at what seemed to be a very oddly-shaped protrusion of rock before giving up and deciding it must just be a quirk of geology.
Back home again, I had a true head-desk moment when I stumbled across some photographs of the Black leather chiton (Katharina tunicata) and realized what I’d been examining had been a living but cleverly disguised critter after all!
Of course, I hadn’t bothered to take any pictures. As you can see in these photographs, it’s not like the Black leather chiton is exactly known for its stunning beauty:
Still, I’m humbled to realize how oblivious I can sometimes be to the wonders of the natural world all around me. And what treasures might yet be hiding right in front of me, in plain sight.
Hey look, someone on Twitter made a meme out of me! I feel honored! (Does this mean I get to start wearing a “Ask Me About My Meme” button on my lapel?)
— Mud and Magic (@mudandmagic) July 15, 2014
From my post, “Gods Like Mountains, Gods Like Mist.”
Today is the five year anniversary of my first date with Jeff, and the two-and-a-half year anniversary of our wedding. (Which means that, from this day forward, we’ll have been married longer than we dated. Weird!) Recently I was looking back through old journal entries, when I found this poem that I wrote back in March 2010, one year after we’d met. As the French say, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose… Happy anniversary, love!
The Wrong Kind of Poem
I am looking for poems
in the vast collections and anthologies
I used to read.
I remember so many
of them bursting with it, that something which was
almost like suicide in its sublimity
and sadness and inescapable
beauty. Sometimes I would cry
or gasp like a fish swallowing nothing
but longing, arching my shimmering, singular existence
against the hard new ground of my life.
I was young, and death
made my young body lovely, and unforgiving.
Now I finger the dog-earred pages, the bent old bookmarks.
They are all, every one of them, elegies
written by old men
overly concerned with their own lingering doubts
about who they might have been instead.
I know, I have been stupid.
I should have been reading the Romantics, the shamelessly
optimistic, the ones lost to themselves
in fields of daffodils and the sound of bells
who never stopped
to consider what it all was for, but knew
anyway, and with certainty.
Now I do not know
how to tell you properly what your love has done for me.
When I listen, there is only
the sound of our breathing together, softly
and without any pain
that would distract us from the gentle urgency
of being alive.
Photo Credit: Matt Lusk Photography
There is a kind of inner nature documentary going on in my head right now. I’m sitting here with pages of notes, outlines and brainstorms, juggling a dozen or more tabs in my web browser open to various resources and references. Any moment, I’m going to start writing. Any moment…
Between research and writing, there is a lacuna in which almost anything can happen. The hush is nearly unbearable. In my mental landscape, ideas rustle and nudge towards one another through the tall prairie grasses, their haunches twitching with tension, ready to flee. Eros is thick in the air. Ecology rubs up against ritual theory, playing with the hem of her skirt. Bruce Lincoln is making eyes at Lewis Hyde. Somewhere on the edge of the meadow, a magnolia tree languishes in bloom as if to flaunt the full sensuality of spring, while elsewhere it is autumn, the alders and willow trees leaning in towards each other over the cold, clear waters of the creek. The deer of my dreams raise their heads to listen hard for the hunter. The salmon of wisdom are working their way home.
My inner David Attenborough shushes me to stillness. The voice-over cautions patience and silence. This is a rare moment to witness in the life of an idea, it whispers in measured awe. The careful dance of attention and attraction that draws ideas together from among the countless fleeting thoughts that roam these wilds. Even the slightest distraction can disrupt the process. Even the smallest noise might scare them off…
With my mind’s eye, I watch the salmon of wisdom circle, sleek discolored forms among the rippling waters. They are battered and half-dead by now, much of their energy spent by the journey home against the currents of the mainstream. With the last of her strength, the female has cleared her nest of silt and loose gravel, making great sweeps with her tail, her whole body contracting as a single, powerful muscle bracing against the rushing world. Now the nest waits, as ready and empty as the blank page.
Between the busyness of research and the contemplative act of writing, there is a hush as thick as autumn mist. There are days when it is simply too much to push my way into that silence. I sit on the edge of the meadow, watching what vague shadows of dream or memory move just beyond my vision. I sit beside the rising waters of the creek, listening to the rain that patterns the surface and obscures whatever strange acts of beauty lie beneath.
There’s nothing for it but to sit in silence, and wait.