Saturday, March 17, 2018

Patrick and the Faery—A Dance of All (17 March 2018)

-        Montague Whitsel

Down by the Cromlech where the green water flows,
_down by their Abbey when it snows—
The Faery come out with Dust on their clothes
_dancing in their Dolmen_ there it glows!

Down by the portal to the Sidhe there he goes_
_down by their Abbey when it snows—
St Patrick comin’ out, dancin’ in his throes
_circling with the Faery_ there he knows—

The wind and the pain and the fire in his head
_down by their Abbey where it starts—
The circle is a-turning, the Spirit looks ahead
_to the hooley at Meath_ amid the Airts!

Refrain1—
Dancing East_
Dancing West_
Ole Pádraig goes winding in and out!
Dancing North_
Dancing South_
He Crosses all the World and comes about!

Dancing at Meath with the Faery in their stead
_out beyond their Abbey where they go—
Circling with Patrick on the mead and the turf
_re-rhyming in a hooley_ there they go!

Dancing round the Well of the Olde Mystic Life
_Saint Patrick and the Faery tone the Tune!
Spiraling out their woes, writhing to the fife_
_down at their Abbey_ there they rune!

Refrain2—
Dancing East,
Dancing South,
The Faery come winding round the ring!
Dancing West,
Dancing North,
All the Good Folk laugh and sing!

Down by the Crannog where the Sluagh-Sidhe abide
_out beyond their Abbey where they ride—
Saint Patrick with the Faery, merry do they glide
Stepping on the sods_ there they slide!

A slippin’ through the otherworld, in peace they abide,
Joining hands and hearts_ division they deride—
Together now they dance_ for Love so full astride,
gathered at old crossings_ in rhymes to reside!

Coming now together where the Mystic Water flows,
Down at the Dolmen where the Faery Dust glows_
Patrick and the Faery, in their ráth they unclothe
the Presence of the TRIBANN_ witch now shows—

The unity of All in the World that’s now a-comin’
_out below their Abbey when it Snows—
Dancing in the UnderEarth in a Deep Blue River;
_let us all dance, now_ where it goes!


CODA—
          Dancing with the Faery _there he goes!
          Dancing with Saint Patrick_ there they go!
          Dancing with the faery _ there he goes!
Dancing with the All_ let us go!
Dancing with the All_ let us go!
Let us go!

Finis


Terms

Airts – the Four Directions (North, East, South, West).  In mythic terms, the four towers of the four directions.
Crannog -- a house, oratory, or other structure set out on the water near the shore of a lake or river,  set up on pillions and having a wooden deck around it.
Cromlech – a circle of standing stones with a dolmen or other stone structure within it.
Dolmen – a lithic structure, usually with three or four standing stones over which a flat stone is laid.  Probably an old Neolithic burial, but in Celtic times often treated as ‘portals’ between the ‘worlds’ and later – by the Celtic saints – as places of prayer and meditation.
Dust – Refers to “Faery Dust”
The Faery – the Olde Folk of the Celtic lands—the “Sluagh-Sidhe  (pronounced “Shew-a-shay”  People of the Sidhe)
Hooley – a house party; in this context: in the Otherworld with Faery music, dancing and singing.
Meath – the ‘central’ county of Ireland; in myth the seat of the old gods and goddesses and in spirituality a symbol of the “center’ of the person; the Heart—the place wherein we dwell most authentically in silence and solitude.
Sidhe – a name for the Otherworld or for the doorways between this world and the Otherworld.
Sluagh-Sidhe – “people of the Sidhe” i.e., the Faeryfolk


Friday, February 2, 2018

A Musing Life (2 February 2018)


“I travel through the untrodden places of the MUSE, where no one has gone before; it is a delight to approach fresh springs, and to drink.”
-        Lucretius
On the Nature of Things
(1st century BCE)

“The poets of every age are united in a common devotion and in a common dedication ‑‑ a devotion to their native tongue and a dedication to the Muse, a Goddess who, luminous and serene, remains the primal source of that light which irradiates the poet.” (27)
-        John Press
The Fire and the Fountain (1966)

 “The GODDESS has once again become the MUSE.”

-        Elinor W. Gadon
The Once and Future Goddess (1989)

What is the Muse?
As I now understand it, the expression – ‘The Muse’ – is a metaphor for the ‘source of inspiration,’ which resides naturally within us as the creative animals we are, wired by our evolutionary history to be creators.  Every human being has the capacity to be inspired, in small or great ways.  Artists either have a stronger sense of inspiration – because of their particular neurological wiring and life experience – and/or nurture it throughout their lives, making it stronger and more focused.  While this is clear to me now, it was not always so.  I have come to this understanding by way of a long and winding poetic adventure, along which I explored my own ability to create and sought to understand this ‘source of inspiration’ in religious and supernaturalist terms.  The story of my history with ‘The Muse’ is my a-musing life.
‘The Muse’ – as indicated in the epigraphs – has long been thought of as an external touchstone; a rune or vehicle for inspiration that ‘comes to us, from somewhere else.’  Creative religious people and mystics often relate to their personification of ‘the divine’ (God, Goddess, gods and goddesses, etc.) or perhaps venerable religious personas as their Muse.  Some creative and visionary people have found themselves inspired to creativity by other human beings, either alive or long dead.    I have been down each of these paths over the last fifty years and have had a succession of ‘muses.’
What does it mean to ‘have a muse?’  Is it necessary for the creative life?
Does the Muse have to be ‘personified?’
Over the course of the last year or so, I’ve been revisiting my various ‘personifications’ of the Muse, from childhood until the last decade of the 20thcentury,  and have been wondering why the Muse has so often been personified – not only for me, but for other creative people as well – and whether there is something psychologically beneficial in experiencing the Muse as such (i.e., ‘personifying’ the source of inspiration as a ‘Muse’).
My earliest ‘Muse’ was connected to my experience of ghosts I believe I’d seen over the course of my childhood and adolescence. (I was a very imaginative kid!)  My experience of what I came to call the ‘Ghost in the Hallway’ when I was nine and then the ‘Ghost in the Graveyard’ when I was eleven, hot-wired my youthful imagination to ‘supernal’ possibilities; seeming to show me a path beyond the ordinary rounds of daily life—a place where imagination could become manifest, at least in stories, poems and music. 
Why did a ‘ghost’ inspire me to creative acts and imaginative reveries?
Because that was interesting to me when I was nine to twelve years old, and even later in my life—up until about forty years of age.  The fact that I imagined ‘meeting’ these two spectral women over the next few years played into some of my earliest storytelling and writing.  When I was imagining them, I was ‘in touch’ with the ‘source of inspiration.’
I didn’t think of these two ‘ghost women’ as ‘muses’ until much later; not until the early 1980’s; when I was beginning to realize myself as a ‘poet.’  By then I’d had two more experiences of what I took to be ‘ghosts.’  Again, both were of spectral women.  These ‘sightings’ were shared with friends who also believed they ‘saw’ or ‘sensed’ the ‘ghost’ with me.  Regardless of the ontological status of these ‘ghosts,’ I later integrated these imaginative experiences into what I called my ‘Four-Fold Muse’ and told stories about the four women who comprised that ‘spectral association’ in poetic narratives.  But before that_
In HS I had been introduced to one of my first mystical ideas; that of The Blue Flower of German mysticism.  I recall vividly in active remembrance the emotional and intellectual experience of hearing our German teacher briefly tell us about the Blue Flower, and that’s all it took!  I began ‘researching’ it on my own.  I had also been introduced to other mystical ideals in books on the Occult, but few struck home like The Blue Flower.  It was Novalis who first introduced this poetic idea; the Novalis who said “the more poetic, the more real.  This is the core of my philosophy.”  _An aphorism I took to heart and recorded in a little notebook that I kept for decades.
The Blue Flower, which was a core image in German Romanticism (I was attracted to Romanticism even at that age, though I didn’t yet know what it was!), symbolized longing for an ideal, the yearning for growth, radical innocence, love, and union with the divine as ‘Goddess.’  I resonated with all those things, though without any deep understanding.  Looking back from a later vantage point, I can see that my fascination with the Blue Flower anticipated my later fascination with the Goddess, with the Virgin Mary, and even with female singers (Pat Benetar, Stevie Nicks, Emmylou Harris, Loreena McKennitt, Moya Brennan, etc); whose music inspired me to creativity, poetic visioning and storytelling!
The ideal of the Blue Flower and the ‘four ghosts’ stayed with me through the 1970’s.  Then, in 1980, I began to imagine the family who came to be known as ‘the Whittiers’ as a vehicle for telling my tales about Christmas and Yule; stories that were not religious in cast or conception but rather revolved around a Pagan and Naturalistic understanding of the Winter Solstice Season.  Within that process I came to imagine a number of women who seemed powerful to me and who eventually came together as a kind of ‘Triple Goddess.’  I quickly imagined a fourth woman joining the group, and then intuitively linked these 4 female characters with the four ‘ghosts’ I had experienced.  Together they became “The Four-Fold Muse:” their names were Magdalena, Christabell, Angellique and Elisabeth—and they were featured in an invocational poem that summarized, for me at that time, the creative process.[i]
These four fictional women – who featured in such old tales as “Ladies of the Wood” and “Incantamentum” – were my inspiration; or rather (perhaps) the touchstone of my imaginative energy—all through the mid- to late 1980’s.  It was with these four imagined women ‘haunting’ me that I wrote early drafts of The Fires of Yule, The Whittier Hearth, and a wide variety of mystical poems, essays and poetic narratives, some of which, in matured form, made it into my published books.
This poetic ‘personification’ of the source of creativity as the “Fourfold Muse” deepened through my immersion in various feminist authors I read, including Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon (1986), Elinor Gadon’s The Once and Future Goddess (1989), Merlin Stone’s When God was a Woman (1988), and Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance (1989).  These books fostered in me a much deeper appreciation of the feminine, deepening my understanding of women and their plight in history and the need for radical reform leading to full equality between men and women.  Leonardo Boff’s The Maternal Face of God (1987) then led me into the next stage of my Musing Life by introducing me to the mysticism of the Virgin Mary.
My imaginative quest for poetic maturity had led me, through a variety of runes and touchstones, into Catholic mysticism and in that context to the Virgin Mary as Muse of Poets by 1989.  My devotion to Mary was as “Source of Inspiration” as much as Mother of Christ.  I saw her as the Mother of Poets and as Mistress of the Moon, Sea and Stars; imagery which I knew came over from ancient Paganism and that had been integrated by the Church into the Christian mythos of the Virgin Mother of God.
Remembering Novalis while composing this blog today, I realized that he, too, had been a devotee of the Great Mother mythos, and that for him as well the Virgin Mary was connected to the Goddess.  Were the ‘seeds’ of my fascination with this Christian Mythos of the Muse sown in my adolescence through encountering the myth of the Blue Flower?  Marian Blue has always reminded me of both The Blue Flower and Eckhart’s “Great Underground River that cannot be dammed up and cannot be stopped” – his metaphor for ‘GOD.’  However it happened, by 1990 I was writing daily and invoking the Virgin Mary as my Muse.  I would continue to honor her as Muse until I left the churches and their religion behind in 1997.
 Through the 1990’s, as I became more and more frustrated with organized, institutional religion, I turned ever more to Celtic spirituality as an alternative.  Celtic mysticism integrated both Christian and Pagan symbols, ideas, practices and motifs into a single Path; one that I was yearning to take by 1994-5.  As my sojourn in the churches came to an end, I turned to Celtic spirituality as an ‘interim’ tradition that would, at one level, ease my transition out of organized religion and also lead me on to whatever was going to be ‘next.’  While immersed in Celtic spirituality I came to understand and invoke the Muse as the Triple Goddess: Boann—Brighid—Ceridwen.   A description of this Triple Goddess can be found in my book on Celtic spirituality called WellSprings of the Deer (2002).
After publishing this book, I broke communion with mythic icons of the Muse as I went deeper into science, which wholly transformed me along with my entire worldview!  I once told a friend that my Muse had ‘abandoned’ me.  Yet I always believed She would be back.  As I re-grounded myself in the revelations of science over the course of a decade, I re-sourced the creative process in non-supernatural terms and came to realize that the seeds of inspiration are within us, and that, as the human animal we are, we are deeply and innately creative.  I came to understand that the effects we experience in meditation are not coming to us from a divine being or some Otherworld, but are, rather, consequent on the way we are wired, neurologically, as human animals, constructed via our life experiences.  I came to see that all my imaginative ‘visions’ and poetic ‘experiences’ were manifestations of this evolutionary programming; though in its own way unique to me as an individual pather of wisdom and creative self-realization.
We are the Creative Animal.  We are the Imagining Animal. 
Once I found myself re-grounded in the revelations of science I was free to begin imagining new scenarios and writing stories about them.  The Imagination plays a role in science, which grapples with the physical, objective world in which we find ourselves.  The Imagination also grapples – as in music, literature, poetry and film, etc., – with our intersubjective experiences (with others in the world) as well as our own subjective experiences.  It can create fictional worlds and fantastic scenarios as well as exploring and helping us to understand the objective, external worlds in which we live: the Earth & Cosmos that is our Given. 
Over the last few years I’ve begun thinking about the Muse, once again, reflecting on the various guises under which I have known ‘Her.’  And so, the questions: Does the Muse have to be personified to be effective?  And more deeply: Can a person be creative without having any kind of ‘muse?’
To the second question I would have to answer “yes, definitely.”  _At least if I mean by that question “any kind of personified Muse?”  We are imagining animals who can be ‘inspired’ to do one thing or another by any number of touchstones.  My understanding at this point is that the source of inspiration need not be personified.  Learning to be imaginative and channel one’s creativity – one’s creative vision – is a matter of poetic self-discipline.  As I said the outset, the idea of ‘The Muse’ is a cipher for the source of inspiration, which is innate to us.
When I am writing in a more rational, logical mode, I am often unaware of anything like a ‘Muse’ guiding me.  That metaphor recedes into the background of consciousness and I more directly appropriate and connect-to that state – emotional, intellectual, even physical – in which I can enter the flow of creative writing.  For several years, while immersed in the study of science and mathematics, I did not ‘call upon’ the muse or even imagine her in any particular way.  Yet, having had imagined ‘Muses’ guiding and inspiring me over the course of 40 years of my life, I was attuned to the mythic mental construct of a ‘Muse,’ and eventually ‘She’ returned to me, though without the artifices of religious belief or supernaturalism.
And so, in my own experience, I have found an imagined (imaginary) and personified Muse to be energizing and liberating in terms of my own creativity.  Why?  Perhaps because a personified ‘Muse’ functions to take the creative person ‘out of themselves;’ liberating them from the ordinary-waking-self which so often and so easily gets ‘in the way’ of creative visioning and poetic adventuring.  Why?  Possibly because poetic creativity is intuitively guided and grounded more in the subconscious than in the conscious mind?  While editing, revising and re-writing texts (including this one) is undertaken in a rational, practical ‘state of mind,’ the actual impetus behind creative work comes from a much deeper place; the source of inspiration within us—a psychological source.  By personifying it, we perhaps ‘step aside’ from our ordinary waking self and allow it to become ‘active.’
When I imaginatively engage with my Muse; communing with the “Four-Fold Muse,” the “Virgin Mary” or the “Triple Celtic Goddess,” I experience a side-step; a ‘stepping aside’ from the practical, work-a-day consciousness in which I normally live and can thereby ‘go out’ – in my imagination – to a place where I can more freely create.  Imagining and ‘heeding’ a personified Muse allows me to get out of my own way!
Thus, I continue to lead my Musing life, even now, as a Poetic Naturalist.



[i] These poems, “A Poetics of the Creative Process” and “Invocation of the Four-fold Muse” can be found in the front matter of my book Tales from the Seasons.” (AuthorHouse, 2008)



Friday, January 6, 2017

Wondrous Mystery: Music and Dance (6 January 2017)

“To a certain extent, we surrender to music when we listen to it—we allow ourselves to trust the composers and musicians with a part of our hearts and our spirits; we let the music take us somewhere outside of ourselves.  Many of us feel that great music connects us to something larger than our own existence, to other people, or to God.  Even when music doesn’t transport us to an emotional place that is transcendent, music can change our mood.” (236-7)
-        Daniel J Levitin This is Your Brain on Music (2006)

I am at the end of this year’s Winter Solstice Season. It is Epiphany; 6 January.  Reveling in the quiet beauty of the Night near the threshold of the Hinterlands, I am once again listening to Stile Antico’s A Wondrous Mystery (2015).  This CD has been my evening meditation music almost every night since St Nicholas Eve.  Listening to it, I’ve been led into reflecting on both the humanistic and mystical themes underlying the lyrics as well as being emotionally and aesthetically enveloped into the wonderful textures woven by this choir’s beautiful voices.  I ride the contemplative crescendos and decrescendos_ feeling the presence of the intervals in my flesh.
Music is – and has always been – a primary tributary to my spiritual life; endlessly providing pathways into peace and reinvigoration as well as runes of inspiration for creative work and empowerment.   Music accompanies me through the seasons and has often been the springboard for experiences of self-transcendence; as some of my blogs at this site will attest.  Some of my earliest memories revolve around music.  Music has been associated with each of the different spiritualities and religious traditions in which I’ve been immersed over the last five decades, and many of my fondest memories from my adventures in religion are deeply linked to particular musicians, albums and songs.  Music itself is a wondrous mystery!
The Winter Solstice Season has always been for me a time of intense musical experience.  There is just so much music to choose from and experience that one never runs out of new music to listen to during the Yule.  Good Winter Solstice music; deep, profound, uplifting music—proffers great joy and leads me down paths into depths often as-yet unexplored as I journey through the darkening days of December to Solstice Night and beyond.  Every year I seek out new music to accompany me through the Yule; from St Nicholas Eve unto Epiphany—and I usually find at least one CD to add to the growing collection. This year there have been two: the Stile Antico disc and a CD by Apollo’s Fire called Sacrum Mysterium: A Celtic Christmas Vespers (2013).  A Wondrous Mystery effectively centers me after a long day’s work and refreshes me for the remaining evening hours.  I have listened to Sacrum Mysterium in afternoons when I was off work, experiencing through the progression of tunes a sense of ‘poetic liturgy;’ of being involved in an unfolding story.
 These two CDs have kept rising to the top of the mix as I engaged with them, runing out the mysteries of their beauty, depth and mythic power.  This year I also danced from night to night through the season, being reminded again and again – by the rhythms of the music to which I was dancing – that carols were originally ‘round dances.’[i]  Loreena McKennitt’s Midwinter Night’s Dream (2008) contains a number of carols that evince this archaic origin, as does Moya Brennan’s An Irish Christmas (2013).  Lorenna McKennitt’s “Good King Wenceslas” and her rousing “God rest ye Merry, Gentlemen” were among the first carols I ever heard set to a music that facilitated circle dancing!  Each of these CDs lends itself to deep movement and meditative flowing, whether one is actively dancing or sitting cross-legged near the Yule Tree, Hearth or Meditation Table.
There is a restorative element to dancing.  Dancing in a circle is a refreshing way of leaving the linear paths of practical daily life; verging toward dreaming and hopes revived.  There is a rhythm that emerges from dancing the music which weaves you into the flow of the harmony and rhythms to which you are dancing as well as a rhythm that emerges between yourself and others with whom you might be moving in company within the circle, whether actual persons or imagined friends.  Egos melt, if the dancing is to continue, and there is then an emergent interplay of motion, sound, sweat and rising joy when the dancing gets good.  For me, dancing balances contemplation, one being active meditation while the other is the manifestation of being stilled in the ground of one’s being-in-becoming.
I have come to think of music as a ‘universal human language’ (it’s an old cliché, but I’ve found it true to experience) that is related to verbal language but perhaps stems from a source much deeper in our evolutionary history than the words and grammar in which we so readily express ourselves.[ii]  When music is good, it can heal, inspire, and educate us about the human condition. Winter Solstice music – whether Christian, Pagan or Secular – has always been, for me, a beacon of that wondrous mystery that is a dolmen of the mystic’s deep home, gathered into being-in-becoming.

Once I moved from dance into meditation each day, I often found myself listening to Annie Lennox’s A Christmas Cornucopia (2010).  The instrumental CD by Linn Barnes titled simply Yule (1995) also led me in a quieter dancing as well as being good background for readings on the Winter Solstice season and its music. When music accompanies meditation, adventures sometimes take shape; imaginative escapades and poetic scenarios form out of the interaction of the music and the meditative mind into which you settle.  When the music is good; that is, when it complements your meditative state and inner journey--you can be even more stilled, quieted and refreshed by the simple praxis of breathing, focusing and letting go than when meditating in mere silence.  Music can open vistas into which you may wander and be refreshed, inspired and even healed.  Physical stress often washes away as you enter devoutly into meditation’s inward paths; indeed—this is the practical first-fruit of rhythmic breathing.  This leaves the meditator feeling unburdened of the world and practical matters that were occupying one's mind.
As I emerge from the season, I am listening to Loreena McKennitt’s To Drive the Cold Winter Away (1985); a ’cold and chilling’ album (that’s not a critique!) of tunes that make me feel that I am sitting by a warm fireside in some old castle or ruined monastery.  There is a celebratory side to the music, while also facilitating silence and solitude.  It is beautiful in its ‘coolness’ and hypnotic in its rhythms and textures.  There is a sense of ‘openness’ to the music – as if it has ‘space’ within its realms – which makes me think of solemn wintry scenes and the freshness of cold night air in the epiphanic reaches of the imagination!  I will put all of these CD’s away tomorrow, and not hear them again for 11 months, yet listening to them has transformed me in subtle ways; once again--as such music does every year.

Leaving the Winter Solstice Season behind, I now turn to other musics that will companion me through the round of the seasons until Yule comes ‘round again.  The wondrous mystery that music is, the healing that it can bring and the way it can facilitate a move into the liminal realms of experience and existence, continues to fascinate me and keeps me awake – if not wakening – in the midst of living life day to day.  Daniel Levitin says in The World in Six Songs (2008):

“Music – and particularly joyful music – affects our health in fundamental ways.  Listening to, and even more so singing or playing, music can alter brain chemistry associated with well-being, stress reduction, and immune system fortitude.” (98)

_And I would agree.  There is music that girds up our strength and music that humbles and renews our spirit.  There is music that restores the soul, and music that liberates us from the humdrum, the drool and the persistently unpoetic sonority of ‘the world.’  Music can empower a person to be in-the-world but not of it.  At the Hinterlands at the end of the Yule, I affirm this potential!




[i] For one reference to this connection between carols and round-dances, see Ronald Clancy’s Sacred Christmas Music (2008), pp. 36-37.

[ii] I’ve been doing a lot of interesting reading this year on music, spirituality and evolution.  Among the best of my reading was Daniel Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music (2008), Steven Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body (2008), and Gary Tomlinson’s A Million Years of Music: The Emergence of Human Modernity (2015) as well as Daniel Levitin’s The World in Six Songs (2008).

Monday, March 21, 2016

Earthen Meaning (21 March 2016)

“By pleasure drawn from discovery of new truths, the scientist is part poet, and by pleasure drawn from new ways to express old truth, the poet is part scientist.  In this sense science and the creative arts are foundationally the same.” (101)
-        E. O. Wilson Letters to a Young Scientist (2013)
“We are walking archives of ancestral wisdom.  Our bodies and minds are live monuments to our forebears’ rare successes.  This Darwin has taught us.  The human eye, the brain, our instincts, are legacies of natural selection’s victories, embodiments of the cumulative experience of the past.  And this biological inheritance has enabled us to build a new inheritance: a cultural ascent, the collective endowment of generations.” (3)
-        Helena Cronin  The Ant and the Peacock (1991)

Walking in the woods this evening I was struck by the stark beauty of the leaf-less trees, ready to bud, and the dry ground waiting for its next watering; ‘patient’ (so I imagined it) for the wetting that will bring forth a new crop of lichens, mosses, flowers and seedlings.  The browns were prevailing.  Little green leaves were just stretching out from their buds on the low bushes and middling sized trees.  These always leaf out before the woodland canopy, and so get a jump start on the summer’s rites of greening.
As I walked, I thought how much I love the word ‘earthen.’  It reminds me of my connection to the soil beneath my feet; to dust and clay and mud and – at a level much further down – all of the basic elements out of which the cosmos is made.  Thinking of myself as ‘earthen’ aids my reflections on being a manifestation of those same elements – Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Calcium, etc. – for in this awareness I have a poetic and psychological link to the depths of Nature and my own being-in-becoming.  For me, ‘meaning’ is rooted in the soils beneath my feet and, by extension, in the most fundamental ‘stuff’ of Earth & Cosmos.  I am earthen.
An earthen meaning flows from one’s consciousness of being “of the Earth” and is given context by learning, understanding and meditating on the ‘Big Story’ of the Cosmos and the Epic of Evolution.[i]  As science now reveals it, the universe began with an event called ‘The Big Bang’[ii] – the whole of space and time in a singularity – which expanded, cooled, gave us the universe as we now perceive it and led to the emergence of life; if not on many worlds, at least on this one green planet.  Life on Earth has evolved over the course of billions of years into the diversity of life forms now alive on the planet with us.  We are one manifestation of this process.  To explore the particulars of the science of the various stages of this ‘Big Story’ is to come to stand in wonder & awe of what-is—without need for superstitions, myths or cults.
We each have a part in this Story.  Every living thing, every inanimate object, every phenomenon in the universe exists as an expression of the Big Bang and the expansion of the universe according to the laws of Nature.  The evidence we have now points to an age of the universe as about 13.5 or so billion years.  The age of our planet is around 4.5 billion years, and life has been evolving for about 3.8 billion years.[iii]  To meditate on the universe and the evolution of life according to these revelations is to experience an earthen humility in the face of grandeur, mystery and possibilities as yet beyond reckoning!  _For we don’t know everything, and probably never will; thus the process of discovery will be ongoing until we eventually exhaust the limits of our own abilities as human animals to explore, discover and understand anything new.  Yet the Universe – and ourselves as well – will always be a Mystery; no matter how much we come to understand.
Science has discovered and will continue to disclose the universe and the evolution of life on Earth as we proceed with rigorous data collection, exploration, theorizing and experiments.  The Cosmological Tale – which arises from this process – provides a context in which to set our lives, thus giving us a framework for meaningful action and self-reflection. It also provides a reason for mutual love, care and responsibility toward all living things.  From the Big Bang to our own humble existence on this planet, everything is linked.  We are all a part of one huge tapestry of being-in-becoming.  The inanimate stuff in the universe ‘evolved’ and is connected through the basic physical laws; the strong force, the weak force, electromagnetism and gravity.  Life emerged from these laws as they acted upon the physical conditions of the early Earth.  As Ursula Goodenough so elegantly put it:[iv]
“Life can be explained by its underlying chemistry, just as chemistry can be explained by its underlying physics.” (28)
My life has broader significance to the extent that I understand it within the framework of cosmological and biological evolution.  It is meaningful to contemplate our place in Nature and the Cosmos, and our place provides a basic ground for ethics; We are all earthen.  We are all connected.  Every human being and all living things subsist on this planet together, and our survival is interconnected.  Self-understanding – in these scientific terms – is the beginning of wisdom, and as E. O. Wilson has so succinctly said:[v]

“Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us.” (15)

As I meditate upon the Cosmic Tale I realize that this Grand Story is not just ‘for me.’  It is available to every human being on the planet; in any culture—regardless of gender, nationality or creed.  Science – as a method of discovery; revealing the nature of Nature as it is in-itself, persistently causing us to cast off once treasured ideas of what it ‘should’ be or what we would ‘like it to be’ – is transcultural.  While ‘invented’ in the ancient world and while having been developed and advanced in the West from the Renaissance onward, it is now practiced internationally and is seen by many people in various cultures around the world as a liberating force, helping its practitioners and those who learn from them to jettison superstition and false beliefs in favor of an understanding of how the world really is and how it really works.[vi]
The Cosmic Tale – as generated out of the revelations of science – is ever open to being narratively tinkered-with as science progresses in its understanding of Earth & Cosmos.  It is the ‘largest’ Story our species has ever constructed.  No matter how deep I go into the story of how the Cosmos began and has evolved, no matter how deeply I explore the evolutionary history of life and our own evolution as a species, no matter how far I go into understanding myself as a human animal through cognitive science, neurology and genetics, I never come up against that deadening sense that the story is too limited; as I did, repeatedly, when immersed in the mythologies of various religions.  _And the scientific “Tale of Creation’ is confirmable based on evidence.  It is not promulgated or enforced by authority.  The evidence for it can be learned by anyone willing to take the time to study and learn its narratives and discover the facts grounding it.   It is also not an ‘absolute,’ a story ‘written in stone for all time’ – because new evidence can always change the narrative.
Ancient societies had their Big Stories; the mythologies of all major religions have had ‘creation’ or ‘origin’ stories that framed the known universe and gave their participants a sense of belonging; allowing them to relate to and understand the world around them in ‘cosmic’ terms.  But these stories were not grounded in an understanding of the Earth & Cosmos that was confirmable; nor were their claims for the most part demonstrable.  Perhaps they were the best stories people could come up with at the time, based on non-rigorous and perhaps untestable observations, but they do not stand up to scientific scrutiny; at least in terms of their cosmological claims.  As science progressed, these ancient cosmological stories have turned out to be fiction rather than history; and while it is as fiction that their truest value can be relished—as I’ve suggested in other blogs at this site—they must take a supporting role within the larger Cosmological Story if we are to wisen with regard to how Nature really is.  That is, what they might reveal about human nature and our existential situation can still be embraced, once they are set within the New Story of Cosmological and Biological Evolution.[vii]
Where the Scientific Tale is concerned, there is always more to explore, more to discover and more to know.  I am continually challenged to change and grow and deepen as I discover more and more about Nature as it is in itself.  As a Poetic Naturalist – as someone living by an aesthetic immersion in life, informed by the revelations of science and therefore aware that I am made of the same elements as everything else in the universe – I live a meaningful life in a way comparable to that of practitioners of mythological poetics and religious believers who often experience their life’s meaning through their ‘Big Stories,’ now out of date they now may be.  The Cosmological Tale is 'bigger' than those stories, and while it ‘disproves’ them as empirical accounts of the world, it can also be a ground through which all of the various mythologies and religions of the world could be brought together and affirmed; the truths of one another's stories being admitted—if their adherents could but get over their narrow-minded, tribal self-understanding and the erroneous belief in the ‘necessary historicity’ of their ancient cosmologies.
The Cosmological Tale – from the Big Bang to us – is a ‘Big Story’ about the objective dimension of the Earth & Cosmos; the physical world—what I have long called ‘The Given’ because we cannot change it just by thinking about it differently.  (Though, as a friend once pointed out, thinking about it differently – i.e., as when science makes new discoveries and we accept them – changes our perception and understanding of it, though it doesn’t change.)  If we allow that the mythological stories – exp. creation tales, etc. – of the plenitude of cultural traditions around the world in which people are invested – are fictional and not historical accounts of the world (though they may make some legitimate historical references), then these stories can still legitimately function as literary and poetic texts and tales that may reveal various degrees of inter-subjective (at the social and cultural level) and subjective (at the personal level) wisdom about human existence, derived as a culmination of a cultural tradition’s living and lived experience.
Thus there can be a more local, historical, cultural and even religious sense of meaning set within the larger felt-meaning gleaned from meditating upon the Earth & Cosmos as understood in scientific terms.  I would also affirm that there can be a sense of meaning derived from participating in fictional, literary and filmic worlds; such as Middle Earth (Tolkien’s world), the universe of Star Wars or Star Trek or the worlds derived from superhero narratives.  Many people’s personal stories come to be deeply inter-linked with these fictional worlds, as presented in novels, films and other narrative media.  They derive a sense of meaning from them as well as gaining wisdom in living out their lives with exemplars of ‘how to be human’ such as Gandolf, Ob1 Kenobi, Wonder Woman, Captain Picard, and so many others, as their imaginary mentors and companions.  The tales of these characters lives – just like those found in traditional mythologies and religions – explore the human condition; its strengths and frailties, the possibility of goodness and all of the ways people can go wrong in life or else make something of their brief existence.
This is the value of mythology – especially religious mythologies, i.e., those from the great World Religions as well as ancient Pagan religions – and it is as fictional guides to life that these stories can be embraced within the broader narrative of Cosmic and Biological Evolution.  So long as a person doesn’t mistake their mythologies or fictional stories for historical accounts (as Fundamentalists do), these stories can function to give insight, contribute to an understanding of the human condition and facilitate wisening in the midst of life.  Being earthen and understanding oneself as a manifestation of Earth & Cosmos in scientific terms; being connected to the rest of life and the universe and its origin, becoming and destiny in objective terms—does not preclude fictional literary and mythological stories from consideration, so long as those stories are set within the Cosmological Tale and are understood to be fictional.  Earthen meaning can be derived from the objective story but also from many of those more local stories from human cultural traditions, once they are ‘de-historicized’ and set within the current ‘Big Story’ of Earth and Cosmos as revealed by science.

While I am an amateur science enthusiast – being into science and mathematics over the last 15 years has so changed my life; it has made such a positive difference in the quality of my existence – I am also an enthusiast of the aesthetic and poetic dimensions of experience and self-understanding.  I have learned a great deal from the religious stories and mythologies in which I have poetically participated, once upon a time, and in which I practiced living for about 30 years of my life.  I have imaginative worlds in which I play and go adventuring (as can be seen in my blog from last December, “The Winter Nemeton”).  I enter into filmic worlds – when the characters engage me and the story is well constructed and seems significant to me – and glean as much insight from them as from dreaming in my own created worlds (like Ross County and the Whittiers, including the tales of the Dier).  But I am grounded in the Scientific Cosmological Tale and I understand enough about it – from an amateur enthusiast’s point of view – to embrace it and be transformed by it.  My own fictional worlds help me flesh out my path through life, but they are always, now, set within the larger Scientific Story of Creation, which is my primary guide to earthen meaning.

And when I walk in the woods or go hoofing it off-trail along streams and marshes, I experience the beauty of Nature according to my knowledge of the Scientific Cosmological Tale and reflect on what I see along the way and my own experience within that ‘Cosmic’ framework.[viii]  For me, it also takes imagination acting upon my scientific knowledge to experience Nature and understand it locally in terms of the 13.5 billion year history of the universe.  Imagination grounded in devout study and regulated by earthen humility; this makes possible a deepening sense of wonder & awe as I walk along the trail or step wisely through the mud at the edge of a swamp.  All along the way, my experience is informed by my understanding of the revelations of science and is then fleshed out through my aesthetic sense.  And in that experience I am enlumined and transformed; in this I experience an earthen sense of meaning.  From the particular experience of the soil beneath my feet to my observation of the night sky, I know that I am Here. 
Earthen Meaning flows from scientific understanding of self and others and the world and then from the poetics of experience and the aesthetic engagement with existence.  The world is an aesthetic phenomenon as well as an objective, physical phenomenon.


[i] There are many good overviews of the Scientific Cosmic Story.  My favorites include Eric Neil Shubin’s The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets and People (Pantheon Books, 2013), Eric Chaisson’s The Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Universe (Columbia University Press, 2007) and, for a history of the Earth in one volume, Robert M. Hazen’s The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, From Stardust to Living Planet (Viking, 2012).

[ii] There are also too many good books on the Big Bang, but again among my favorites are Simon Singh’s Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe (Harper Perennial, 2005) and The Illustrated A Brief History of Time & The Universe in a Nutshell (Sterling, 1996; Unabridged) by Stephen Hawking.

[iii] Three books that have deeply impacted me with regard to the origin and history of life are: Robert M. Hazen’s Gen-e-sis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origin’s (Joseph Henry Press, 2005), Christian de Duve’s Life Evolving: Molecules, Mind and Meaning (Oxford, 2002) and Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004).

[iv] The Sacred Depths of Nature (Oxford: 1998)
[v] The Meaning of Human Existence (Liveright; W. W. Norton & Company, 2014)

[vi] For an example:  Meera Nanda’s Prophets Facing Backwards: Post Modern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India (Rutgers, 2004).  Nanda extols the virtues of science in overcoming age-old rivalries and cultural fragmentation, as well as the liberating effect it can have on the lives of people in cultures still struggling to be emancipated from superstition and religious oppression.

[vii] A great book on the relationship between evolution and personal understanding is Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (Pantheon Books, 2008)

[viii] See my blog from last September – “Nature, Music and Transcendence” – for an example of this.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A Poetic Naturalist’s Calendar (2 February 2016)


“There are clear imprints of an annual period in life-cycles of animals.  Evolutionary adaptation will favour the survival of innate ‘clocks’ that time the birth of offspring to coincide with times when the chances of survival are highest, especially in the temperature regions where the seasons change abruptly.” (115)

-       John D.  Barrow
The Artful Universe (1995)

Our daily world is filled with calendars.  We have calendars on our walls, on our desks at work, on our phones, tablets, laptops and pcs.  What all these have in common is that they are largely practical; we schedule our lives on them, we use them to remind us of important appointments, personal days, deadlines, etc.  While these calendars are valuable, I have always felt a need for what might be called a ‘spiritual’ calendar.  Not a calendar for keeping appointments and so forth, but for maintaining wakefulness in the midst of daily life.
The personal spiritual calendar that I now follow has been with me in one manifestation or another for well over 40 years.  It began as a Pagan calendar of sabbats & esbats and was later transmuted into a calendar of the Christian liturgical year that included feasts of the saints and major liturgical holidays (e.g., Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, etc.).  Along the way I got into Celtic spirituality – both Pagan & Christian – and this wrought yet another transfiguration of the calendar.  Since journeying beyond the bounds of traditional religion 20 years ago and turning to science & mathematics as a primary source of revelation about the objective dimensions of the Earth & Cosmos, I’ve continued following a personal spiritual calendar, though one which has now been transfigured into what I can only call a ‘Poetic Naturalist’s’ Calendar.
My calendar today is an interweaving of themes, ideals and observances drawn from my entire spiritual history.  I call it a 'Naturalist’s' calendar because it is grounded in the solar and lunar cycles that frame our life together in the Earth.  It is anchored in the Solstices & Equinoxes and is adorned with the dates of Full & New Moons.  Each year we travel through the ‘waxing’ and ‘waning’ of the Sun, which is an artifact of the tilt of our planet in its orbital plane in relation to our home star.  Each year our Moon passes through its phases owing to its relation to both our planet and our local star; the Sun.  While the Solstices & Equinoxes remain fixed, the dates of the Full and New Moons change from year to year.
I add a third cycle – that of the “half-season markers’ – to these first two between the Solstices & Equinoxes.  These days (1-2 Feb, 30 Apr-1 May, 1-2 August, 31 October – 1 November) are observed in many Earth-based spiritualities (i.e., in Celtic spirituality they are called Brighidmas, Beltaine, Lughnassadh and Samhain), and as they occur near the halfway points of the four seasons (Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn) in the temperate zone of the Northern hemisphere, I still find them edifying to observe in naturalistic terms.  When I get to one of these ‘cross-quarter’ days,[i] I know I am nearly half-way through a season.  For instance, when I get to 2 February – Old Brighidmas/Imbolc/Candlemas – I know that that I am about halfway through the Winter.[ii]
To these three cycles I add the more or less fixed dates of the annual meteor showers that can be seen in the northern hemisphere as well as a series of “Days of Acknowledgement,” which are the birth dates of people who have contributed to our growing knowledge of Earth & Cosmos and our existential experience of ourselves as manifestations of Earth & Cosmos [we are 'children of the Earth,' our lineage having evolved on this planet over the course of millions of years].  I include scientists, philosophers and then some poets, artists and composers in my own version of the calendar.  Recently I've even re-included a couple of Christian saints with whom I have walked for decades: Saint Francis and Saint Patrick.  While certain of these people undoubtedly belong here, others can be added or dropped according to personal preference.  [I have left a couple of composers and poets on this year's version of the calendar posted as a page at this blogspot.]  On each ‘day’ I try and bring to mind the discoveries, ideas and/or texts of the person remembered that contributed to our understanding of Earth & Cosmos and our place in it as evolved animals.
As I journey through the year, I ‘observe’ the days and nights associated with the various cycles in the calendar by engaging in poetic (including mythic) and philosophical meditations.  I try and experience Nature in some way to mark where I am in my annual spiritual journey through the seasons: What season is it?  What is the weather?  What can be experienced?  Depending on the season I may go out for a hike or at least a short walk, depending on what my schedule of work and play allows.  If it’s Winter, for instance, I may be house-bound by snow and ice and cold temperatures; unable to get our into Nature—yet I may still want to observe the snow and ice-covered landscapes from a window or while out shoveling snow.  I might read poetry, watch a film or read a story that I find appropriate to whatever season I am in.  I might go outside and observe the Moon, if it is visible.  After a certain amount of practice at journeying through the seasons with a personal spiritual calendar such as this, it takes only a few minutes to orient oneself to the season each day.
In all of these ways I hope to cull poetic and aesthetic experiences out of each day through which to guide me, awaken me and function as sources of reflection upon the meaning of life in Earth & Cosmos.  Philosophical and spiritual reflections often follow upon the poetic and aesthetic engagement with the day; esp. in morning or evening meditation.  This constitutes the 'Poetic' aspect of the calendar.  
I think of myself as a Poetic Naturalist as while the revelations of science & mathematics under-gird and inform a Naturalist’s life-philosophy and spiritual praxis, life is not fully comprehended through understanding the objective dimensions of reality alone.  Our subjective worlds matter, too—and this is where poetics & aesthetics come in; they amplify our naturalistic experience and understanding, building upon what science & mathematics have revealed.  Thus I include in my own calendar certain poets and composers who have – at least for me – contributed to a life more fully lived in Earth & Cosmos.  The “Days of Acknowledgement” for these people you may freely remove, or change-out for artists and other people who, for you, contribute to your own living of a naturalistic life.

The calendar as I keep it ‘begins’ on the 1st day of the New Solar year; 22 December—the day after Winter Solstice.  I find this date much more significant than 1 January, which has lost all of its mythic connotations and is now just an arbitrary secular celebration.  There are other possible choices for a “New Year’s” day within the Calendar; the most traditional would be either 21 March (the 1st day of Spring after the Vernal Equinox) or 1 November (the ancient Celtic New Year; it was the 1st day of the ‘dark half’ of the year in the Celtic mind).  I used this latter date as ‘New Year’s Day’ when I was into Celtic mythology and spirituality.  I find that starting my ‘year’ on the day after the Winter Solstice, however, seems very ‘natural’ to me these days, and so I adventure through the year from one winter Solstice to the next.  If you want to follow this calendar or use it as a template for your own, choose a date that for you seems significant in naturalistic terms.

I have posted my Calendar for this year as one of the “pages” on this blog. It begins on 22 December 2015 and ends on 21 December 2016.  I post it here merely as an example of a 'personal spiritual calendar.'  For myself, I have printed the calendar and have it displayed it in a prominent place where I can see it every day, in the morning and in the evening; whenever I need a reminder of ‘where’ and ‘when’ I am in Earth & Cosmos.

Each year as Winter Solstice approaches I set up the calendar for the next ‘year,’ which usually just involves plotting the dates of the New & Full Moons for the coming twelve months.  I have been doing this for decades, and it helps to keep me in tune with the Seasons.  As it is also something I do at the beginning of the Yule each year, it is proleptic; it points me towards the future even as I am dwelling within the Yule and often reflecting on the past—which is a characteristic experience during the Winter Solstice Season.



[i] “Cross-Quarter is a term from Neo-Paganism.  The seasons divide the year into four ‘quarters.’  These season begin and end at the Solstices & Equinoxes.  Thus, the half-way points between Solstices & Equinoxes are sometimes called ‘Cross-quarter’ days in some Pagan traditions, meaning that they ‘cross’ the axis of the Wheel of the Year between the axes of the Solstices and Equinoxes.  This makes sense if you think of the year as a Wheel with eight spokes; one for each of the Solstices, Equinoxes and ‘Cross-Quarter’ days.’

[ii] These dates are now, now, exactly half-way between the Solstices & Equinoxes.  They are a few days early. However, because of my own spiritual history, I still use the old Pagan dates for the Cross-Quarter days.  If you would rather be more accurate in your observance of the seasons, count the days between the Solstices & Equinoxes and set your Cross-Quarter days at the exact half-way point in each of the four seasons.