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 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 or testable 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,’ however now out of date.  Yet 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 literary and 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 believed, once upon a time, and in which I participated 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 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) and 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.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Winter Nemeton (29 December 2015)

“Solitude is the luminous silent space of freedom, of self and nature, of inflection and creative power.” (299)
“In the silent hours near dawn when people wander through your thoughts, in the bright noise of almost-absorbing encounters when you suddenly glimpse, over a shoulder, a quiet place that wants you alone, a vision forms and draws you in: it is a vision of wholeness, of a life in which solitude and encounter, lived to their full intensity, find harmony and true balance.” (300)
-       Philip Koch
Solitude: A Philosophical Encounter (1994)[i]

The Thirteen Days are past and I have passed beyond the fulcrum point of Winter’s Solstice.  More and more as I live and dwell in the world, I find the December ‘Holidays’ less and less attractive as touchstones of a spiritual pathing of wholeness and self-transfiguration.  The ‘Holidays’ have become, for me, a time of overwork and exhaustion.  Those around me seem caught up in the rush to sell or consume, and there is little time left for peace and solitude; for the silence of a wintry night and the beauty of stars, snow, frost and mist.  _I find myself getting run-down instead of rested up.  _I want to  repudiate the ‘Holidays’ as a season of unrelenting acquisition.
I began pathing my way to the Winter Solstice last month, as I usually do, by beginning to get out the seasonal music and decorations with which to ‘deck my living space.’  [Not as poetic as “Deck the Halls” but then, you don’t need grand halls in order to brighten up your place of dwelling.]  As usual, I entered the Season formally at the Feast of Nicholas and the Elves (6 December) and then ‘observed’ each of the Thirteen Days (13 – 25 December) in succession, taking a few minutes each day to orient myself to their symbolism and motifs.  I have lived with the Thirteen Dayes of Yule, now, for over thirty years, and they are fully integrated into my psyche.
A couple of times this month I have thought to go out and visit the Whittiers on Deer Hill; but I was often too exhausted for such imaginative excursions.  At last, as I reached Solstice Night, I thought I had made as much of the Yule as I could, and wasn’t expecting any more.  That night, however, during meditation – in which I was listening to Stile Antico’s new CD “Wondrous Mystery” and going deep and rising – I had the sudden inspiration to go out – in my mind’s landscapes – and visit a nemeton that has been presenting itself to me for a couple of years.  It is called “The Crannog Oratory,” and as soon as I thought of it, I realized I was about to go ‘out on the witch,’ as I used to say, seeking solitude in an imagined faeryland!
It was on the verge of this imagined adventure that I realized just how much I had missed Silence & Solitude during the Yule.  Not since before ‘Thanksgiving’ had I been centered deeply in Silence; nor had I savored a taste of sustained Solitude since the first days of December.  In anticipation of the Feast of Nicholas and the Elves (6 December) I had listened to Anonymous 4’s CD “Legends of saint Nicholas” (1999) and fallen into a Deep Quiet that lasted most of an hour.  After that, however, I do not think I found my way once into my Internal Nemeton; the Cave of the Heart_
Until Solstice Night!
We all need places we can ‘go’ where the hustle and bustle of the world around us is left at a distance and we can re-center ourselves in the best version of ourselves we can conjure; where we can be ourselves without the push and pull of the world’s demands.  Of course, it is living in the world that makes or breaks us; it is in the flux & flow of what must be, what can be, and what cannot be avoided—that we forge ourselves.  But there must be an ingot there to put into the forge, and over the course of our lives we strive to render it as ‘pure’ [for lack of a better word] as possible.  Meditation and the various other spiritual practices that are common to our species help us to ‘hone’ that ‘ingot;’ – it being the ‘person’ we each are when we are most centered, healed and undistracted.
The place I was thinking of going last week, at dusk on 21 December, is an imagined nemeton that has come together for me since May of 2013.  I first discovered it on an imagined ‘flight’ and then found my way back in meditations over the next few weeks.  I came to calling it “The Crannog Oratory” almost as spontaneously as I had found it.  I have returned to it periodically; often at times when I am most stressed or washed-out from living too much in the world—when I need a retreat into the Quiet of the Night in Solitude.  It has evolved into a place that reflects all of my best aspirations and deepest interests, from science and mathematics to poetry, music and literature.  It is a symbol of who I am; the person who walks out into the world each morning and returns each night.
I find the need for Solitude to be especially urgent during and after the December ‘Holidays,’ and last week – on Solstice Night – I had a refreshment that launched me into a deep pathing in which I am still engaged tonight.  While the Thirteen Dayes of Yule are over, I am at last sojourning at the Place of Silence & Solitude.  Silence is more than the absence of noise; and it is the very antipathy of the kind of disengagement that leads to boredom and ultimately depression.  It is an engagement with the Earth & Cosmos that transcends the need for words and the banter that so often buffets us in our daily rounds.  True Silence is akin to an internal ‘Stillness of the Soul;’ a calm of the psyche—in which we can listen to the ‘hum’ of what-is without distraction.
Solitude is similarly a state of being-in-becoming that is like a ‘place;’ we can ‘go to’ our ‘place’ of Solitude by turning inward and finding the Deep Center of our being.  It is – in an old phrase that still has resonance for me – a way of being “alone with the Alone.”  It is not loneliness, but a state of engagement with Earth & Cosmos while being solitary.  You can be in Solitude in a crowded place, once you learn how to facilitate it; but the best way to discover Solitude is to find yourself alone in a state of uplift that is open to discovery_ and even adventure; where we can allow ourselves to be caught up in wonder and awe!
The best way I know of to learn and sojourn in Silence & Solitude is to create imagined places that inspire in us a sense of peace, rest, reinvigoration and restoration.  While visiting such places in the world – groves, shrines, caves, chapels, etc. – is a good way to condition the body and the mind to the experience one wishes to nurture, these places are not always available, and so it is necessary to ‘construct’ them within our own Internal Worlds—using the imagination tempered with our own experiences to create ‘nemetons’ where we can resource, heal, reinvigorate and reconstruct ourselves.
 The Crannog Oratory is all of those things for me.  It is the latest in a long series of Internal Nemetons; the first of which I probably created in my mid-teens.  Along the way, they have been imagined according to different religious and spiritual symbol systems; Wicchan, Christian, Literary, Monastic and Celtic—but they have all served the same basic functions: to inspire, to cull me back into peace and allow me to hone myself into the best version of myself that I could imagine being at each stage of my life’s journey.  They ‘call’ to me, and I ‘go’ there when in need of restoration and reinvigoration.

When the Crannog Oratory first ‘called’ to me, I was led to a lakeshore where – shrouded in mist – I experienced the cry of a loon and saw deer wandering up and down the banks.  At first, I didn’t even ‘see’ the Crannog[ii] or know that the small structure built upon it was an ‘Oratory;’[iii] i.e., in my own spiritual vocabulary at that point, a place of creativity and inspiration.  On the next inspired journey, I was able to see the Crannog, and then, on a later journey, realized the name of the structure out on the wooden crannog at the edge of the imagined lake!  Later yet, I was able to ‘walk’ out to the Oratory on the walkway connecting the Crannog to the shore.  Eventually, I was able to enter to Oratory, where I had a series of imagined meditations on creativity, poetry, science and mathematics.  I even once imagined myself studying Trigonometry while listening to the swashing of the water lapping at the pillions that support the Crannog!  On another occasion, I was playing a lute and singing olden songs.  I am always alone at the Crannog Oratory; it is a manifestation of the need for Silence & Solitude.

Eventually, as I pathed the Crannog Oratory over a number of occasions, a ‘journey’ unfolded by which I could go, find and visit it of my own volition.   Here is how that journey always goes; for now, at least, it is always essentially the same in its broad outline:
I find myself standing at the edge of a Great Olde Forest; the wall of it stretching on for miles in either direction.  Before me there is a Great Doorway; it has huge tree trunks as its doorposts and another one as its lintel.  The whole doorway is carved with runes.  I sense the Doorway is a Trailhead, and it is calling to me—so I mount my broom (lol)[iv] and ‘fly’ in through the Great Doorway.
I travel along the path, which twists and turns through the Great Forest, flying only a few feet above the ground,  The Forest is Deep Green and ever-moist, and there are Great Trees marking ancient sources of Inspiration and Poetic Power along the way.  I turn one way and then another, following the ley-line of the path below me, until I come to a Clearing!
I stop my flight at the edge of the Clearing and dismount my broom.  [There my broom vanishes and I see it no more in this imaging.]  The Clearing seems familiar.  It is about two acres in size, and at the very center of it is a stone hut!  I have seen this hut before; it is the Hermitage of Meath—my own Internal Nemeton from the late 1980’s and early 1990’s!  I am being ‘invited’ to walk out into the Clearing; it is now always night time and the Moon rides the white clouds above the Forest and the Clearing, illuminating the tall grasses, the stone hut, and my own desire for Silence & Solitude.
After lingering near the edge of the Clearing for an indeterminate time, I stride out into the field and walk toward the Stone Hut.  Reaching it, I see that it is in a state of disrepair; the artefact of the once inspiring nemeton being no longer a viable place of Silence and Solitude.  I lay my hands on the stones.  Then, after a few seconds, I enter the Hermitage of Meath_
Suddenly I am no longer in the Forest Clearing; nor am I in the Stone Hut.  I am on the sandy shores of a lake.  It is Night and though there is fog and mist, I can see – not too far from me – the outlines of the Nemeton I seek; the Crannog Oratory!   It is ‘sitting’ on its pillions about two feet above the rustling water level, the top of the Oratory itself rising about ten feet above the crannog platform.  The Oratory on the Crannog is centered on the platform about 20 feet out from the lakeshore.  There is a wooden walkway leading out to the Oratory itself, which is a beehive shaped wooden structure with one door and three small windows; one facing up the lake and one facing down its length and one opening to a view across the lake.  The doorway faces the shore.
A sense of awe and wonder come over me!
At this point any number of imaginative things can happen in my meditations.  On one occasion, instead of finding myself on the lakeshore, I found myself – after having passed through the Hermitage of Meath – standing cruciform, shoulder-deep in the water up-lake from the Crannog Oratory!  I stayed there, in meditation, for most of an hour, stilled and quieted, solaced in body and mind by the imagined setting and by being immersed in the cool lake water!  On other occasions, as I’ve indicated, I have entered the oratory and imagined myself engaging in a number of inspiring activities, from mathematics to music making.

This is all a matter of self-directed imaging; it is the positive use of the imagination—a praxis in which I have been engaged for most of my life.  There is nothing supernatural going on here; but there is a depth of psychological work happening – in me – as I engage in these extended meditation sessions.  While often inspired to undertake the journey to the Oratory, and while conscious of my experiences, much happens that is spontaneous and unanticipated!  I respond to my subconscious mind and intuitions in as positive a way as I can.  I usually sojourn at the Oratory or somewhere near the Crannog for a time and then come out of meditation, refreshed and ready to get on with the day’s work and obligations, and sometimes more ready to face the world once again, seeking ways to heal it in any small way I can.  This is the kind of imaginative work that takes discipline and practice, but such work has rewards—and I am experiencing some of them tonight, having written this blog.
This is now my Winter Nemeton; in which I will hopefully dwell until The Hinterlands (i.e., “Epiphany”  6 January) and possibly afterwards.  As I finalized this blog and summarized for a friend what I had written, he asked me – laughing a bit at my boldness – why in the world I would tell people how to the find the way to my Crannog Oratory?  “What if someone else finds it,” he then asked_ and laughed at the strangeness of his own question!  I told him I doubted anyone else could actually find my Internal Nemeton; and we laughed together at the idea!  But if you do, I will welcome you heartily at the Crannog Oratory, and we shall sing and dance and engage in ‘earthen prayer’ at the lakeside until the coming of the dawn!

Blessed be!

[i] This is a wonderful old book, and well worth repeated readings.  I know of almost no other book on solitude that has this depth of insight.

[ii] ‘Crannog’ is a term from the Celtic World.  It refers to a structure – a house, fort or shrine – built out upon the water on a platform which sits on pillions above the water and is stationary.

[iii] Oratory literally means, “House of Prayer.”  I understand prayer as ‘deep attention to the world’ and imagine this one as a place of creative aspiration, contemplation and spiritual awareness.  It is not an ‘escape’ from the world, but rather a place of restoration and self-recreation wherein we pay deep attention to the world and its troubles from a distance that lends us perspective.  From the vantage point of the Oratory, I hope to seek ways of changing what-is, where possible. for the better.

[iv] I had been watching the Harry Potter films all through December, and so was in that imaginative mode wherein a broom came quickly to mind as a mode of travel!