Long ago – but still happening now – and far away (well relatively speaking!) the ancient practice of Cow Drumming began in the wilds of Exmoor. This is a modern-day example. You can see just how much appreciated it is by the locals …
Today the sun moves on
Three days he has stood still
Rising at the same point on the horizon
While the two kings wrestle
Oak has been the guardian
Caring for the Lady
Since the Sun-Return of Midwinter
Now it changes
Now Holly wins the match
Becomes her lord
Now he holds her
Guards her as the sun’s arc drops
Lower and lower
Less and less light
From now until Midwinter
Now is harvest
Now the lady gives us her bounty
The hay and corn
The fruits of the forest and garden
All the goodness grown in her belly
Holly King gives us the gifts from his lady
Holds her in his arms as the sun’s arc goes down
Takes her down into the darkness
Oak King sleeps now under the sod
Ready to wrestle
Show he is worthy
At the next turning of the year
Image:the eternal struggle by arwensgrace
Land Song Series © Elen Sentier 2017 all rights reserved
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The road goes on
Over the cliff of nowhere
Into the lands of everywhere
The Mother’s blanket
Blue and white and grey
Hangs over all
Giving the water of life
Land Songs Series © Elen Sentier 2017 all rights reserved
The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘Pagan’ as being “A person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions, especially nature worship” – no sharp pointy or bright sparkly things (in the past the term was used in a derogatory sense to denote anyone who wasn’t a Christian), it also traces the word back to its origins in ‘Late Middle English’ from the Latin word ‘Paganus’ – a villager or rustic, and the word ‘Pagus’ – a country district. This takes us back to the Old Ways of our ancestors who were country dwellers living in close relationship to and harmony with the land and nature; this relationship and the knowledge of ‘how everything worked’ (both in this world and the Other-world, both mundane and magical) infiltrated every aspect of life and has been passed down to us (especially in rural areas) by both word of mouth and by being hidden in plain sight in such things as our customs, folk-lore and practices.
“A person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions, especially nature worship” – no sharp pointy or bright sparkly things (in the past the term was used in a derogatory sense to denote anyone who wasn’t a Christian), it also traces the word back to its origins in ‘Late Middle English’ from the Latin word ‘Paganus’ – a villager or rustic, and the word ‘Pagus’ – a country district. This takes us back to the Old Ways of our ancestors who were country dwellers living in close relationship to and harmony with the land and nature; this relationship and the knowledge of ‘how everything worked’ (both in this world and the Other-world, both mundane and magical) infiltrated every aspect of life and has been passed down to us (especially in rural areas) by both word of mouth and by being hidden in plain sight in such things as our customs, folk-lore and practices.
In what’s now called the Golden Valley are two little churches, either side of the Dwr river , Turnastone and Vowchurch. When the Normans arrived here sometime after 1066 they misinterpreted this Welsh word dŵr, which means water, for the French d’or meaning golden, and so misnamed our valley. In Vowchurch church, on the north side of the Dwr, are two amazing figures of the Lady and the Lord.
They’re very special; she is a Sheela-na-gig and he is a phallic man but, at some time in the past the bottom parts of these figures were removed presumably due to misinterpretation and prudery.
Their local story is interesting and amusing …
Like most married couples, they didn’t always get on and to make the partnership easier they each lived on their own side of the river. The story also says they were giants (there were giants in this world, as is told all through our legends) so, rather than throwing crockery at each other when they had a row, they threw great rocks.
Now, on the north side of the river is the remains of an ancient standing stone. It’s an upright which seems to grow out of a huge disc-like stone. If you stand on the disk and sense down into the earth you awaken a spiral energy which courses up through you and wakens a sky-spiral with which it mates. The two energies then course through you, like a double helix. This stone is one of Watkins’ originals, from his first studies of ley lines, and he, too, noticed the spiralling. Legend has it that the big disk is a stone the lord threw across the stream at his lady, when he’d got one on. She decided to deal with him, and it, in a very firm manner so she pinned his rock to the ground with her own spear-like one.
To many this may seem sort of backwards. We associate the feminine with the disc and the cup, the womb symbol, and the masculine with the spear, the penis symbol, but think about it. Everything contains both feminine and masculine so it’s really a rather wonderful image that he throws the womb to her then she stabs, and maybe also impregnates, it with the spear.
When christianity came to these borderlands where I live I can well believe my ancestors agreeing with their mouths to follow the new religion while, in their hearts, they still held to the old ways. Indeed, my own family followed the old ways, very quietly, for many generations and I know the same happened for many of my friends. So, the old ones built the chrisitian church, and they carved the figures of the lady and the lord but likely then, as now, the chrisitans called them Adam and Eve.
But there they are, in the church, and you can still see (partly from their rather smug expressions) just what they’re about even though the bottom halves of them have been cut off. And the most famous Sheela-na-gig over at Kilpeck is only about twelve miles away.
And then there’s the old story. The god lived on the Turnastone side of the river, said to be so called because he turned the stone; Vowchurch is where the goddess lived and so called because, after christianity, they said she vowed to build a church where the god’s stone fell. It’ll do, it’s good enough for those who don’t wish to recall the old ways. But go and stand on that stone, see what you feel …
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Blackthorn flowers before the leaves come and may flower as early as Imbolc, especially now climate change and global warming are well underway.
The two British thorn trees, blackthorn and whitethorn (otherwise known as the May Tree and hawthorn) hold the energy of two of our old goddesses, Ceridwen holds blackthorn and Blodeuwedd holds hawthorn, the tree of May. At Imbolc, Ceridwen hands over the cup of winter to Bridey so she can bring in the spring and, for me, the flowering of the blackthorn, coming as it does before the leaves, really holds this feeling. I watch for the blossom in our local hedgerows, and partly with a view to harvesting the sloes come the autumn and winter to make sloe brandy. Sloe brandy is even better than sloe gin for my taste buds.
Ceridwen holds and carries the energy of the dark en-wombing of winter from her feast of Samhain around to Imbolc. She is in her crone-form, the ancient wise woman who can link us with our ancestors and our roots. Like nature does over winter, it’s good if we humans also spend time during this season going back over ourselves, our lives and relationships, to see what needs to die, be left behind, recycled, and what we can bring forward into the new year. I’ve certainly been doing this, a form of early spring-cleaning, and I find it very valuable. It clears my head – too often stuffed with “bright ideas” so there’s no room for inspiration from otherworld to come in! I often find that, once the clear-out is done, real new ideas do poke their heads up out of the ground like the snowdrops, or blossom on the bare branches of my inner blackthorn tree.
Ceridwen is an amazing presence, energy. She’s closely connected with where I live and introduced our local Merlin – we call him Dyfrig – to beginning the teaching school he created just up the Wye valley from me. He was born in my local village, so living here, in his place is inspiring, instructive and generally delightful for me.
I’m going out this afternoon, now the rain’s stopped, to have a look at our local blackthorn hedges … hope they have lots of blossom.
In my end is my beginning … Eliot again, now at Imbolc as at Samhain. And now again, the story ends and the story begins, turning and cycling round the seasons.
Hiding in the bushes beside the clearing where the well stands, I watched. Fingers blue with cold, teeth beginning to chatter, the snow cold and dank, sending its freezing tendrils up through my boots. But I wasn’t going anywhere, not yet. They would come, along with the dusk, and I was going to watch them.
The sun slid down the sky, sometimes hiding his face in the clouds. The cold became bitter then, even the robin’s song would stop for a moment at a time. The blackbirds would hush in the bushes, watching the dying of the light. It must be four o’clock, the dusk was beginning and the sun clipping the horizon, soon to go down into the womb of darkness. I shivered.
‘Have ‘y come to see the snake then, boy?’ The voice cackled, croaked like an old crow. Somehow, despite being near frozen to the spot with both cold and fear, I turned. Back she was, hooded and with beak of a nose on her very like to a crow. The dark cloak covered most all of her bar her face. She cackled again. I watched the black and yellow teeth behind the blue lips and gums. ‘Yere, then,’ and she put out her claws to catch my arm, pull me along with her into the glade.
There was nought I could do, old she might be but she was strong. And, anyway, it was where I wanted to go despite my entrails’ protests, they roiled in my gut like a seething whirlpool. ‘Come ‘y yere, boy. I needs the cup. Will’ee get un for me?’
She let go of me. I was free, I could run. Except I could not. I tried putting a foot away from the well but nothing happened, the foot wouldn’t move. I tried the other way and the foot would go, towards the well. Leaning over the rank, dank breath came up from the depths almost choking me with its bitterness and cold. The rope on the bucket was already skimmed with ice, and the iron handle of the winch burned as I gripped it but I hung on, began winding. The winch creaked and groaned like an old man, or a donkey, as I lowered the bucket down into the dark. On and on it went, the grating sounds of pain, and then there was the sudden splash, the bucket had arrived at the water.
‘Hold un still!’ the old crone said sharply. ‘Wait!’ I clutched the burning iron handle, pulling it to a halt, feeling my hands must be frozen into it, stuck to it, never to come off again. And then I heard it, a soft whooshing noise followed by a brief whinny. The kelpie had come, up out of the depths. Then there was a clunk as something metal was dropped into the bucket. ‘Now! Quick!’ she commanded, ‘afore he climbs aboard! Ye dinna want a see him, laddie, indeedy not!’
I wound the winch the other way, winding the rope back onto the winch. It was heavier work now, fighting gravity, but also it was more than the bucket that I was pulling up, it felt like much more, much more than just a cup.
He came with a roar and a growl, shifting all the while, one moment a pretty black pony, the next a huge writhing serpent breathing fire, and leapt from the bucket straight at me.
‘No!’ she said. Quiet almost but such power. The twisting black shape stopped, hung in the air between the well and me. Its eyes moved, red and with long lashes of black flame, looked at her. She moved past me, came close to it and began to stroke its ears and face. ‘He’s mine,’ she told it, ‘doing my work, fetching my cup. You leave him be.’ Slowly the kelpie transformed, becoming again the pretty black pony. Except his eyes were red. ‘Get my cup,’ she commanded me, and I could move again. Dipping my hand into the bucket, I touched the cold hard thing and drew it out. Dark, black silver so it seemed.
The daylight was all gone now, exchanged for the dimming light of the waning moon, risen high now over the treetops and shining down into the glade. How long had we been there? It seemed only a moment ago that it was dusk, before the old woman came, and now the moon was high and already setting her path down into the west. I shook my head, what did it matter? Time was, time is. I am where I am, and when. And I was holding the cup in my hands.
The moon was lighting a trackway through the trees on the other side of the well and, it seemed, there was flickering movement on the track. I peered at it, a soft chuckle sounded behind me. ‘y can see ‘er then? Can’ee boy?’ I could indeed.
As the old one behind me was dark like a crow so the one coming down the track was bright like a star. Despite she walked the moon-track it was like she made her own light. Somehow I was afeared, I crept backwards towards the well, still holding the cup.
‘Good even, sister’ said the bright one as she came out into the glade. ‘Good even, indeed,’ croaked the old one. They stood there, the dark one in the east, heading west; the bright one in the west and heading east. The kelpie slithered away from the crone and round the edge of the glade to stand opposite me so he now held the north. Step by careful step the two women came towards each other, both of them smiling. The old one stood straighter now and the hood slipped back to show her pale silver hair. The young one looked older, a woman now and not a girl, her black hair shining like a crow’s wing in the moonlight. Together and together so they came, until their fingers touched.
And somehow, I knew what to do. I turned and dipped the cup into the bucket, filled it with water. As I leaned over the well it smelled sweet, like spring flowers, all the rankness gone. Slowly, my hearting beating as if I’d just run a mile, I stepped towards them, holding out the cup. They took it, both together, and gave each other to drink from it, then they turned and held it out to the kelpie. He snorted, then hoof by careful hoof, he stepped towards them. The women dipped their fingers in the water and stroked his ears, down his neck and shoulders, down his back, and then they let him drink.
It was like smoke, white smoke. It began to curl from his nostrils, then his ears, it steamed up from his shoulders and his hooves, all down his back until his tail was a shimmering fall of smoke. And he shrank, down and down into nothingness.
The women went down on their knees beside where he had been. ‘The snake is here,’ said the bright one, ‘just poking his head out of his hole.’
I came to watch. There was nothing there … but then, yes, there was. The tiniest glimmer of white was pushing its way up out of the black soil, I bent with the women to watch. It was a snowdrop, its white budding head resembling as snake’s head, a tiny snakeling birthing itself out of the ground. Its green body followed until it stood proud and upright, the head opened up, sending the three white sepals outwards and uncovering the three green and white petals, which opened in their turn to show the six golden, pollen-covered stamens.
Suddenly I saw it, the black serpent becomes the white snake who puts his head out of his hole at the turning of the seasons when the Winter crone gives way to the Spring maiden.
I had come to see them, to see the snake put its head out its hole as the signal that spring was come, but I hadn’t expected the kelpie, nor the transformation, nor what the snake would be. I realised the two women had stood up, were looking down at me, kindly-like and smiling. Clumsily, I got to my feet. They gave me the cup, ’Take it back’ they said, ‘put it back. We won’t need it again for a year.’ It was different now, the silver shining and the darkness too. I took it back to the well, dropped it into the bucket and let the bucket down again into the water. When I drew it up this time it was light, easy, only some water in it. I was thirsty, so I drank. I turned in time to see the women kiss and, as they did so, the moonlight shifted and became a dazzling, sparkling whirlwind that encompassed them both and took them out of my sight.
The moon was sinking fast now, little light coming between the branches. I scurried back down the path to the village like a rabbit with the fox after it, but nothing was chasing me but my own fears. A candle stood still in the window, and no-one had yet barred the door. I slipped inside, the warmth hitting me, pulled off coat and boots and went to sit in the ashes of the fire.
It was done … the end had happened and the beginning had come, as ever it does, turn on turn of the wheel. The crone had given the cup of winter to the maiden of spring; the dark kelpie had transformed into the white snake and had put his head out of its hole to tell us all that spring was here. Bridey’s flower had come, yet again.
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Driving up to Cheshire last week we knew the moles had woken up, molehills everywhere, yards and yards and yards of them, in every field and even along the grass at the edges of the road. Well, it is that time of year! Moles wake up soon after the light begins to grow, after sun-return. Even more importantly, worms wake up too and, as moles eat worms, the two naturally go together. The molehills are signs of the worm-larders the moles build.
And it is that time of year, in fact it’s just about Imbolc. This is Bridey’s feast, the goddess Brigid – she, the goddess, was Christianized as “Saint” Brigid. At Imbolc, we make Bridey crosses and a doll-figure of her, called a Brídeóg, which we parade from house-to-house so she can visit everyone’s home. She’s greeted with a bed and folk leave her food and drink, and clothing is left outside the house for her to bless as she’s a protector of homes and livestock; her tylwyth (what you might know better as “totem”) is the white cow. Holy wells visited and dressed, and it is a time for divination, for asking what the future holds as well as what the Earth needs from us at this time.
Nowadays, many people celebrate on 1 February, but in older times our day began and ended at sunset – as the sun passed down into the dark – so celebrations begin on Imbolc Eve, the 31 January. Timing might likely be more fluid too, based around the actual seasonal changes as well as the astronomical ones, and far less concerned with man-made-calendar dates. Imbolc is linked with the onset of lambing which, in the days when we still followed the seasons, might vary by as much as two weeks either side of 1 February. It’s also linked to the blooming of the blackthorn, Ceridwen’s tree, which signifies her transformation from crone back to maiden, the cycles of the year, and it’s also when Ceridwen gathers her firewood for the remains of the winter. If she chooses that the winter shall last a good while longer then she makes sure the weather on Imbolc is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood. But if Imbolc is a day of foul weather it means the she is asleep, not gathering firewood, so the winter is almost over. On the Isle of Man, where my granny came from, Ceridwen is known as the Caillagh ny Groamagh, who takes the form of a gigantic bird carrying sticks in her beak. This always reminds me of the ravens who are doing their courtship in January; the male will bring new twigs to refurbish their nest (they mate for life) to show the female he still loves her and is a good provider.
One of the Imbolc stories I love is of Bridey’s Worm. It was, indeed still is, a sign of how the weather will be for the spring. We watch to see if serpents (or badgers) come out of their winter resting places; this may be a forerunner of the North American Groundhog Day, and for the same reasons as us. This Scottish Gaelic poem gives the idea …
Thig an nathair as an toll
Là donn Brìde,
Ged robh trì troighean dhen t-sneachd
Air leac an làir.
The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bríde,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.
So what might this serpent be? Post-Norman literature tends to try to make us think of dragons but our ancestors were very practical folk, and very connected to the Earth and her rhythms – which brings us back to the Gentleman in Black Velvet, Mr Mole. Worms are a form of “serpent”, tiny serpents unless you happen to live on the planet Dune! That trip up to Cheshire told us very firmly that the worms were out and about again, and that the moles know it. Look at that poem, “the serpent will come from the hole on the brown Day of Bride”, and brown says “soil/earth” to me, especially looking at the molehills. It’s worth noting that a major component of a badger’s diet is earthworms so they, too, will be watching for them, sensing for them. The badgers will wake and come out of their setts when there is food for them, to maintain their energy, once the worms are hatched and moving again. And the worms won’t come until the soil is warm enough and there is sufficient light-energy from the sun.
When the ground gets really cold, and when it freezes, some worms (depending on their species) lay eggs and then die as the ground becomes too cold for them. Others burrow very deep, some as much as six feet under, and survive there through the cold spell. Either way, as the soil begins to warm, as the sun shines for longer each day after sun-return, the worms know when it’s warm enough either for the eggs to hatch or for them to burrow back up to the surface. And when they hatch or re-emerge they “come from the hole”, and the moles know it too, hence the molehills which are worm-larders.
So many of our old traditions show us how to live successfully with our Mother Earth and they are so worthwhile knowing. Yes, it’s good to celebrate the Mother in all her forms of which Bridey is one, but our old ways here in Britain are “and/and” – we don’t do this or that, we do this and that! So, we celebrate Bridey with our gifts and food and beds and, at the same time, we celebrate her by being very observant, by watching for the molehills, watching to see how the soil is warming up and how the worms are working. That helps us know when to plough and sow to get a good harvest.
As followers of the old ways, we don’t try to “manage” nature, or force her into working how we want her to with crazy chemicals and horrible deep ploughing which wrecks all the “threads”, the mycorrhiza who carry food and information between the plants. No, we watch the land around us, we watch the stars above us, we watch how the moon turns and we “work with”, we do not try to control.
So go watch the molehills, learn from them … much more fun than your X-box !!!
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Sometimes the simple call of a bird transports me across worlds, to another time, a memory time …
I’m suddenly back 50-odd years, walking a lane in deep midwinter, snow piled up along the hedgerows, clear over my head, and ruts a car’s-width wide channelling along between the high white banks. Icicles hang from the bare, black thorn-branches overhead. There’s a fluttering up there, brown wings carrying a small round body to just above me. Then the song. His little scarlet breast quivers as he sings, calling to me. I reach into my pocket and, yes, there are some crumbs – more than crumbs in fact for I put the last crust from the cob loaf in my pocket before I came out. And there’s some cheese rinds too.
I take off my glove and collect some crumbs and a bit of rind on my hand, stretch it out where the bird can see. Down he comes. Tiny, delicate claws grip my finger, the sharp pointy beak pecks at the crumbs. He stops, turns his head to look at me, a piece of cheese rind dangling from his beak, then flutters back up into the tree. And more flutters follow, another little brown bird is up there. Peering, I see her as he dips his head, offering her the cheese. She takes it, delicately, chirps a thank you.
And down he comes again, eats some crumbs for himself and then grabs another piece of cheese rind to take up to her. I can see her better now, she’s come down to a lower branch ans perches there, dipping and fluttering her wings like a chick asking for food. But she’s not a chick, this is their courtship, he is wooing her with cheese rind. Her red breast quivers as she cheeps imperiously, ‘Bring me food!’ she demands of him, for he must prove himself, show her he will be a good provider before she will consent to mate with him. And back he goes, bearing rind. She opens her beak and takes it from him, then sending him off again for more.
I’ve frozen stiff. I don’t want to move, to scare them. I want to watch, and the cold is helping me be still, so cold I don’t even feel any ache in my arm as I hold out my hand for the robin to take food to his mate. It’s early, so early, although the snow is late this year. Other years it’s well gone by now, the end of February, but not this year. How is it the robins are mating now when there seems no chance of food for the chicks, at least not yet. What do they know that I do not? And how do they know it?
They’re tuned in, always on the thread, always connected to the Earth and everything around them. They know without needing to know how the weather will be, when the spring will come. All the need to do is touch into those threads that spin their web through the air and everything as mycelium spin through the soil, spreading the word throughout all the living things. Except ourselves.
We humans have lost it, lost the plot. Once we knew, as the robins do, what was happening throughout our planet. Then we decided to see if we couldn’t do better than she, better than the mother, and control her, make her do what we wanted. Well, we’ve screwed that up! We now haven’t a clue, we need machines and programs and algorithms where once we knew in our bones. We no longer trust our bones, our guts, our instincts. We only believe in our minds and they’re not much cop for connecting to everything else that lives.
I learn from the robins. As those tiny claws clutch my finger I let him speak to me with his touch. ‘Listen!’ he tells me, ‘Listen. And look. And smell the air, feel the wind in your hair, the touch of a snowflake as it lands on your skin and the sensation of it melting.’ I hear him. I stand, frozen cold outside but burning with life within. I will listen …
Big day for us here today, with lots of biodynamics to do. We’ve spent the past 11 days stirring Prep 500 (horn manure) each day … one day for each month of the coming year … and today is the final day. And today, we also stir the 3 Kings Prep. That’s made from gold, frankincense and myrrh, usually homeopathic gold, i.e. the energy of gold rather than the real stuff, but the herbs myrrh and frankincense are the real thing. Making it, as you can imagine, surrounds you in the most heavenly scent.
You might be thinking, “What’s she doing, doing a christianny thing? Thought she was a pagan through-n-through!” Well, I am indeed pagan, of the land … but this is not a christianny thing. Like just about everything they do, they nicked it from us … sigh! … just changed the names and the stories to fit their way. Everyone who could get it has been using gold, frankincense and myrrh since time out of mind, they are indeed special and one of our old British stories tells us why. You can read my version of it HERE, it’s the old, old story of the roebuck in the thicket and the battle of the trees.
It tells about Gwydion and his brother, Amatheon who brought us the 3 basic needs of agriculture … the lapwing brings the starlight-fire in her crystal egg, the roebuck brings the ancestral bones, and the bitch-dog brings us the clay which binds the energies of the Earth (bone) and the Sun (crystal) together, and also enables them to be used by all the plants and animals. Deep stuff in a wee little story, but so it always in the old ways, and the old ways of all traditions not just ours here in Britain. As ever, in our old ways, we work with the Earth and the Sun, weaving their energies together to make good. It works scientifically too, read about it, especially the use of clay, in my Gardening with the Moon & Stars.
Now, gold, frankincense and myrrh represent those three basic needs of agriculture too, and take them to another energetic level. Let’s have a look at some correlations …
In biodynamics, we use silica, clay and calcium through the preparations, most of us do this with relevant stirrings each month and through how we make our compost. I find it quite lovely and amazing how I connect with the 3 worlds, the 3 faces of the goddess, with the world of potential and the world of the ancestors, as well as middleworld where I live and work. And that goes for all the biodynamic folk I know.
The same happens, but up several orders of magnitude, when I stir and spray the 3 Kings prep, so today (6th Jan 2017) is going to be a full, exciting and slightly overwhelming day! I’ll be connecting to all those things in the table above. It’s like journeying but you don’t go off in a trance. You’re awake and aware all the time … with one foot in thisworld where you’re stirring preps and then walking round the garden with a bucket and wallpaper brush, sprinkling the stuff on your land. But, at the same time as you’re stirring and walking and sprinkling, you have the other foot firmly in otherworld, indeed across the worlds, in company with Arianrhod and her spinning tower, the place of potential, in upperworld and, at the same time with Ceridwen in lowerworld, drinking from her cauldron of wisdom. Woof! You have to hang onto your hat! But wow, is it fun, exciting, glorious and completely magical! Oh yes! No way would I miss out on this!
Putting the 3 Kings on the garden (or your farm or whatever your land is) does things to help the energy spirits of your land. The little ones of the soil and roots who we call gnomes love it, it sparks things like the mycorrhiza as well as the worms, bugs, insects and all the things that make the soil fertile for the plants. The leaf-spirits, who we call ondines as they have so much to do with water, get a lovely jolt from it and begin to make themselves ready for the changes coming at Imbolc. In their turn, the flower-spirits who we call sylphs also get a buzz, and they will be ready to give us Bridey’s flower, the snowdrop, for our Imbolc celebrations. And the fruit spirits, fire spirits, who we call salamanders also get all stirred up so they’re ready for the coming changes of springtime.
Yup, it’s a big day, lots happening, lots to do. And I hope I’ll have enough energy to get off to our local wassail at an orchard about half an hour away come 6pm tonight. The wassail is all part of it, it celebrates the Apple Tree Queen, the goddess’ representative in the orchard and, as I live in a cider-producing county that’s quite important! The wassail uses the 4 elements too – the tree growing from the soil, the mulled cider for the water elementals, the cider-soaked toast hung on the tree for the robins – the air elementals, and fire in the torches we carry to the orchard, and the 13 fires for the 13 moon-months we light around the old tree.
Oh yes, it’s all there … hidden, unless you want and are ready to know. And it’s fun too, we sing, the Morris side dances, they do the mummers play which, at its roots, is about the bringing together of darkness and light who are the ultimate goddess and god. The play is also very funny and rude, we all heckle and shout like mad, joining in. and then, when it’s over, we go back into the pub for a sing. Our old ways are deep, but they’re also full of laughter and joy, and they can involve anyone, at any stage of their development along their path. Our ways are inclusive, not exclusive. And although we’re deadly serious about what we do, we’re not solemn and po-faced!
So, here I go, getting up, getting breakfast, and stirring, stirring, stirring, followed by a lovely walk round the garden, feeling all the little ones, the elementals, touching and breathing on my face and hands. Waling between worlds.
And then off, to have a whale of a time with a couple of hundred laughing people, from babes in arms to grandmothers like me. Oh yes, this is certainly the life …
Today is what we modern folk call new year’s eve but that is such a new invention, indeed the Gregorian calendar which we currently use dates from 1582, a mere 435 years ago! The idea of counting from January to December we bought from the Romans some 2000 years ago, so even that is not really old. These calendars work to somewhat jiggled solar rhythms, not the easiest to work out, whereas our ancestors worked with lunar rhythms, the rhythms of the moon which are far more obvious; and they don’t require adjusting for leap years either!
We found the oldest lunar calendars, along with the earliest (as yet) known constellations in the cave art found in France and Germany. The people of the late Upper Palaeolithic Cultures were no mean mathematicians, they understood mathematical sets, and the interplay between the moon’s annual cycle, the ecliptic, the solstices, and the seasonal changes that all these helped to show and produce.
The earliest calendar we’ve found so far in our archaeological explorations – from 34,000-odd years ago in the Aurignacian Culture of Europe – shows that we were very much aware of the stars, the patterns they make and their movements … and what these could mean for us in our lives. Back in 1964 Alexander Marshack began exploring these ideas and continued until the early 1990s. He published breakthrough research which documented the mathematical and astronomical knowledge of the Late Upper Palaeolithic Cultures of Europe. Marshack deciphered sets of marks – sets of crescents or lines – carved into animal bones, and sometime on the walls of caves, as records of the lunar cycle. The folk who made them were very skilled and able to carefully control the thickness of the lines so that those who read them (like Marshack, 34,000 years later) would be able to see the correlation with lunar phases. The sets of markings were often laid out in serpentine patterns, suggesting snakes perhaps, or streams and rivers.
Our ancestors carved these lunar calendars on small pieces of stone, bone or antler. Such things would be very portable, lightweight and easy to carry in one’s pouch as one moved about one’s range according to the seasons and migrations. Many animals, like reindeer, are wise enough to go up into the high pastures during the hot summer when they would otherwise be tormented by flies, and then move back down into the warmer valleys and forests for the winter. Our ancestors would follow them.
They hunted horses, bison, mammoth, auroch and ibex, and would watch the hunting behaviour of cave bear and cave lion, learning from these master predators. And all thes animals can be found in the constellations they drew on the cave walls and in the calendars.
Until Marshack’s work, many archeologists believed the sets of marks he chose to study were nothing but the aimless doodles of bored toolmakers – a usual misconception from people who preferred to believe they were superior to the ancestors who they call “savages”. Marshack uncovered the intuitive discovery of mathematical sets and the application of those sets to the construction of a calendar: our ancestors were much more in tune with both themselves and the whole of the world, and the cosmos, in which they lived than we are today. Nowadays everyone is encouraged to only work with their brain and all our other functions gradually atrophy from neglect – something we need to change. We understand, at least partially, that all animal activities (including our own as we, too, are animals) are dependent on time and the seasons. We get all hifalutin about it with regard to what we call objective physics, without realising we need an and/and approach that includes our animal-human awareness and our consciousness. Our ancestors had this. They recognised that there are phases of the moon and seasons of the year that can be counted, and that should be counted because they are important. That is profound, and we need to adjust our own preconceptions to include it.
Basic material source: http://www.environmentalgraffiti.com/featured/oldest-lunar-calendar/15204
It’s old, old, old. It’s the eve of sun-return, the 24th of December, that the Christians now call Christmas eve. It’s the night the mothers come together to rebirth the sun.
I was thirteen when I could first go. At Samhain, the October gone, I had shed my first blood, so now was able to be a mother and could join them all in the old place by her grave on top of the hill. She’d been a guardian of the well; my aunt was guardian now and the well itself was in the wall between her garden and ours. I knew it well. I knew her grave too, covered over now by the old Norman church that stood like a young cathedral on the hilltop at the centre of the village. But her grave was older than the church by a thousand years, more so the stories told for her name was Iwerydd and that name goes back to the Bronze Age, and further back even into the mists of time.
‘Hurry!’ Vera, my stepmother, called from the bottom of the stairs. I tied the blue scarf around my hair all in a rush. ‘Hurry!’ she called again and I half tumbled down the stairs, near tripping over the cat who was determined to get there before me. Woofah wanted to come too but Dad called him back to sit with him by the old Rayburn. Dogs, even tall black wolf-dogs, like men, were not wanted in the darkness of this night. ‘See you for breakfast, Joe,’ Vera called to him as she pushed me out of the door ahead of her. ‘Right you are,’ he called back to us.
Hand in hand, we went down the path and out the gate onto the old trackway that led up across the hill, down into the valley and up onto the moorland beyond. We weren’t going near so far tonight but the track took us quickly to the gate in the east wall of the churchyard. As ever, the gate groaned on its hinges as we pushed it open. ‘Did you remember the oil?’ Vera asked me. I pulled the oil can out of my coat pocket and bent to drip some on the iron hinges. We pushed the gate again and this time it was quiet, content now it had been fed. We stepped under the huge chestnut tree beside the path and I felt a nut clinging to my shoe like a crab with its claws. I stooped again and pulled it off, putting it in my pocket. Vera chuckled, watching me, ‘Bringing a snack for the Lady?’ ‘Mmm,’ I muttered.
Down the path we went to turn up under the arching avenue of plane trees, up to the south door. In the porch was a gaggle of women pulling off their boots in exchange for soft slippers and extra socks, twittering together softly like a family of sparrows sharing the gossip of the evening. They greeted Vera, ‘The girl’s come then?’. She nodded, smiling. ‘Welcome, Elen,’ they told me softly, ‘You’re very welcome.’ Vera gave me a candle and my aunt lit it for me along with all the others, a twinkling procession of women and girls, a dozen strong, made its way through the big oaken door into the church and up to the side chapel. We took hassocks and cushions and sheepskins to seat ourselves comfy in a circle by Iwerydd’s grave.
Something soft and black twined my legs, then climbed into my lap, began to purr. My black cat had come. I held him close, and looked up at the others. ‘It’s OK,’ my aunt said. ‘Didn’t think he’d let you come alone. He’s welcome too, even if he is a male, at least he’s a cat.’
We settled together, our candles standing on the stone floor, a bottle of birch wine and a basket of sweet chestnuts in the middle. I took the chestnut out of my pocket and added it to the basket.
One of the women got out clap-sticks, another had a hand-drum, others had stones to clap together and two had homemade rattles. Susan, my friend from school, and I took out our whistles. My aunt had her old pot-drum, a skin stretched over a big clay pot, and began to tap it, humming softly the while, and one by one we joined her. There was no set tune, we each felt into the rhythm, into my aunt’s energy, and came together. Tweeniepuss’s purr sounded like a throbbing drone under it all. Sometimes the singing was strong and deep, loud and joyous, others it was soft and plaintiff. Susan and I played our pipes, and sometimes we put them down and hummed or sang. The singing would grow, then die away to a silence as deep and rich as honey. Then the humming would begin again and the sound pulse and grow, to fade away into whispers that chased each other round the stone columns and up amongst the rafters.
On and on, through the night, we sang and kept silence, sang and kept silence. Sometimes we drifted into daydreams, seeing colours and pictures, and folk as faer and as wyrd as any in the Victorian fairy painters’ pictures. And then, there came the first glimmer of colour shining down through the stained glass of the east window, painting the stone floor with light. Stronger grew the colours, and the light.
There was a knocking at the door. Strong male voices called, ‘May we come in?’ followed by a sharp, deep bark. ‘Come in, come in, and welcome,’ Called my aunt, and we all joined her. The men came in, and the dogs. Dad let Woofah off the leash and he skidded up the stone floor to bump into my back and lick my ears. My aunt’s collie was there too, and my uncle, and my boyfriend John from next door, and everyone’s husband and father, lover and brother, and all the animals too. Tweeniepuss sat up in my lap and did his best to look offended but everyone knew he was only pretending.
We made space for the men and animals in the circle, giving the men our candles, low and near guttering now but still alight. My aunt opened the birch wine and passed it round, followed by the chestnuts, while the men blew out the candles saying, ‘Praise to the Lady, and the water, and creation unfinished as the sun moves on again.’
Then the men opened the baskets they’d brought, and the scents were divine, eggs and bacon, fruit and porridge, hot toast dripping with butter and homemade marmalade and jams, tea and coffee. So we feasted, bringing home the joy of sun-return.
This lovely little piece comes from Save the Bees Australia. “At least twice in our short history #honeybees have attended their #beekeepers#funerals. In 1934, when Sam Rogers died in Shropshire, England, his bees paid their farewell at his graveside funeral. They landed on a nearby tombstone and as soon as he was buried they departed. When John Zepka of Berkshire Hills near Adams, Mass. died on April 27, 1956, thousands of his bees clustered inside the tent at the open grave site to pay their respect to the beekeeper who never wore any protective gear. As his coffin was lowered into the earth, the bees left the tent and returned to their hive on Zepka’s farm.”
I remember this. My Uncle Perce kept bees. I saw him lots of times carrying an armful of bees, a clump of bees who had swarmed, back from a tree to give them a home in one of his hives. He wore no protective clothing, bees were crawling on his arms and head and neck, and a few would still be flying and so would follow him home; the ones in his arms would be purring, all buzzing together and he would be humming to them.
When Uncle Perce died we had a ceremony by the hives. Like they say in this post, the new head of the house – in this case my Aunt Ida – knocked gently on each one of the hives to get the bees attention, and then she told them that Uncle Perce was dead and asked them if they wanted their hives to go to another neighbour who also kept bees. And she used the old song …
Honey bees, honey bees, hear what I say!
Your Master, poor soul, has passed away.
His sorrowful wife begs of you to stay,
Gathering honey for many a day.
Bees in the garden, hear what I say!
We all knew you must always tell the bees what’s happening in your – and their – home and life. If you didn’t they would leave you, and that often presaged more calamities for the household, and also for the next person who was to look after the hive. As the post says, trust, honour and respect are important between species and, when you practise them, they evolve into a collective consciousness between and across all species. The old ones who taught me as a child, in the village, all knew this and Aunt Ida was one of those, she was guardian to the village’s sacred well.
I have bee-keeping friends now who also, hold and cuddle their bees. And they talk to them, and not just when somebody dies! Midwinter is one of the times when they talk with the bees. It’s a big festival, after all it’s the shortest days of the year and the time when the sun is lowest in the sky. It’s also the time when the sun turns around, changes its path and its arc begins, again, to rise higher and higher each day in the sky. On 21st December the sun begins its standstill – that’s what the word solstice means, standstill – and then, for 3 days, the 22nd, 23rd, and 24th, it appears to rise at the same point on the horizon each day. Finally, on the 25th, it moves, rising at a new point on the horizon and turning its arc upwards again, so bringing more light to us each day.
We always use those standstill days and one of the things we do is talk to the bees, tell them how it’s been for us over the past year and ask them how it’s been for them. The past year? Yes, indeed, for us Midwinter is the turning of the year, and Sun-Return (what we call the 25th December) is the real new year. After all, 1st Jan is just a government concoction, for the convenience of business, and has nothing to do with the reality of the stars and the Earth or real cosmic time. So we follow the stars, the time the sun gives us, and our Earth, in their dance through the heavens. And the new year, the turning of the sun, is a very good time to go back over all that has happened in the past year, learning and giving thanks.
I don’t keep bees, not in hives, but my garden is extremely bee-friendly and lots of wild bees and bumble bees come every year. They make nests in the ground, in hollows in the trees, and holes in the old stone walls, all sorts of places, so one of the things I do for Midwinter is to go round to these holes and talk with the bees who use them. Many are asleep now, the queens waiting for the rising arcs of the sun to bring the flowers and the pollen back so they can breed and feed their young again. But they hear me in their sleep, in their dreams …
I live near one of the places called Arthurâ€™s Stone. Itâ€™s on one of the long ridges that run roughly northwest/southeast along the ancient glacial tracts that swept this region of what is now Herefordshire and the Welsh Marches. In the last glacial the glaciers didnâ€™t go any further south than about Bristol so this is part of the southern edge of the glaciated lands. Arthurâ€™s Stone is what the archaeologists call a Neolithic chambered tomb, or dolmen, dating from 5,700â€“ 4,700 years ago. The ridge it sits on looks down into the Golden Valley on the southwest side and the Wye Valley on the northeast. A mile or two back east along the ridge from Arthurâ€™s Stone are the 6000+ years old â€œHalls of the Deadâ€ â€¦ theyâ€™re older than Stonehenge! Iâ€™ll talk about them in another post but it helps to show just how old and how complex, cultured and refined was the pre-farming civilisation hereabouts.
But Arthurâ€™s Stone is an incredible place in itself. The stones were originally buried within a mound which was aligned north-south. The mound was about 25 metres long with an east-facing entrance and a south-facing false portal. The mound is now gone and the capstone broken with a large section fallen into the chamber and blocking the original entrance passageway. To the north, there was once a cup-marked stone called the Quoit Stone but you canâ€™t see it clearly any more, and folk now call a stone to the south the Quoit Stone although it isnâ€™t and doesnâ€™t have the cup-marks.
The huge capstone thatâ€™s said to weigh more than 25 tonnes and rested on nine uprights. The entrance passage is curved, about 4.6 metres long, and was roofed to less than one metre high so you had to crawl down it. The whole stone structure was enclosedÂ in large earth banks, and post holes that were found at the edge of the banks which suggest some sort of post-circle enclosed it as well. As usual, few bones or burial remains were found in this big structure.
When I first visited it, sixteen-odd years ago, I was very much struck by the shape, and the entrance passage. In fact, it reminded me ofÂ the vagina, leading to the womb. Here is a photo I took from the entrance passage going into the stone chamber.
What could it have been for? Why did our ancestors build it? Why are so few bones found?
I sat there, sensing into it, feeling the place, and wondering.Â The womb-image stayed, got stronger. I decided to try crawling into it down the passage. Although it obviously wasnâ€™t dark as it would have been there was still a strong feeling of being enclosed. Iâ€™m claustrophobic and although there was no stone and earth roof over me I still had to keep feeling my breathing in order not to panic. Indeed, I got a sense that I would smash my head on stone if I tried to stand up. It was as though I was no longer in my own 21st century time.
I got to the end of the passage, where I would originally have been entering the chamber, and my progress was blocked by the fallen piece of capstone but I was determined I was going to get in by crawling. I had to crawl out to the right and then squidge myself in over the top of the fallen capstone and then I lay there, panting. The sound of my breathing seemed to echo off the stone above and around me. I shut my eyes and just listened to it. The stone was cold under my back and my hands felt its rough smoothness, the chamber felt bigger than Iâ€™d thought when I was looking from outside.
I lay still. To my shut eyes it seemed to get darker until it was pitchy black, and all around me I could hear breathing.
The sound slowed, and it also en-huged, it wasnâ€™t just me breathing, something far, far bigger was breathing along with me. â€œWho?â€ I whispered and that seemed to echo round me too. There were no words to answer me but I got the sense that the big breathing that wasnâ€™t me began to chuckle softly. Pictures began in my head â€¦ a cauldron, a woman stirring it, first she was old and grey and cobwebbed then young and slender with golden hair, she morphed between the two. Then the shadows behind her moved, like tree branches, but no, not that, they were antlers. Somehow, in the darkness, I saw a human face crested with huge wide antlers, eagleâ€™s eyes stared at me without blinking, golden coloured, and he smiled.Â The words birth and death swam though my mind. The cauldron of birth and rebirth, and the guardian and keeper of souls who guides us home. Ceridwen and Gwyn ap Nudd.
I donâ€™t know how long I lay there, dreaming and daydreaming. I was otherwhere for that time, and it was a time out of time. But soon or late I realised I was only listening to my own breathing again, the hugeness had gone, I was lying on a stone under another stone with the low winter sunset peering in at me from across Hay Bluff. I crawled out again, stood up and looked into the sunset.
Sitting and thinking over a drink of water it thought that was what we used this place for, and other places like it. We would crawl back into the womb, listen there for the Old Ones to speak and show us things, and then crawl out, back into everyday life. Yes, there may well have been bones there, ancestral bones of the spirit-keepers of our people perhaps, there to remind us who we are and what weâ€™re doing in that ancient place.
Stories go that up to the mid-19th century, we used to hold celebrations Â at the stone and dance there. Maybe, one day, weâ€™ll do that again. I work there now, and take my students there to crawl in and lie on the stone, speak with the Old Ones. Itâ€™s interesting how often they feel they must speak their name before they go in and, as they come out, they find theyâ€™re given a new name. That concept comes in so many of our old songs and stories, that no one who enters the wood, enchanted forest or wherever, comes out as they went in.
A Europe-wide, perhaps worldwide, concept is that you go into one of these places, like what we call sensory deprivation chambers, and come out again dead, mad or enlightened! Iâ€™ll leave you to judge which of those happened with me 🙂
At last, here’s the vidoe of my talk at Shamanic Lands in June 2015 :-). With many thanks to Wisdom Hub for making it available.
Following on from writing the Merlin book I’m giving a workshop on Exmoor on Exploring Thresholds. It will be anÂ intimate and informal workshop, just 4 participants, and happensÂ out in the wilds of Exmoor, at ancient crossing-places where I’veÂ worked with Merlin all her life, and my father before me.
Thresholds can be tough and confusing, difficult places – I’ve crossed enough during this lifetime to have great respect for them. Merlin has always been my guide and ally, helping me across, and I’d like to offer the introduction to him and how he works this way to you.Â Nowadays, weâ€™re encouraged not to take particular notice of thresholds but it wasnâ€™t always so, we used to celebrate and work with them as I was taught as a child. Acknowledging thresholds, accepting and spending time at them, giving them respect, really works. It helps us, and it helps all those around us too.Â Exmoor is full of thresholds between worlds and we’ll explore some of them on this workshop â€¦ and what they hold for each of us.
I’m starting a new way of working too, working with Dr Kevin Ashby PhD, a poet and writer who’s been studying the old ways with me for several years now. Kevin’s great fun, has lots of insights and a wicked sense of humour, and he’s an ace drummer and overtone singer too. As well as working with me, Kevin will be setting out his own workshops in 2017. Between us, Kevin and I have done a load of threshold crossing and so are good guides to help you.
If you feel this might be fun, get in touch with me at email@example.com for more info, and to book. This workshop is really small and intimate, just 4 places, so it’s worthÂ getting hold of me fast to book yours.
And this is the Merlin book … due out Dec 2017
Keep an eye on my Facebook page for updates on publishing and pre-ordering.
Cat Scramble – a solitary walk on Exmoor.
Some of you will have heard this before but I think … think … I might just be getting the hang of podcasting via my website! Don’t hold your breath but please do cross all your fingers and toes 🙂
Dancing is something most of us want to do and love doing when we can, even if we feel we need to be on our own to do it else we get embarrassed. Rhythm moves our feet, all our muscles, we want to move even if our social experience tells us not to. Rhythm, of drums, rattles, of stones knocking together, hands clapping or of the feet themselves stamping on the ground, all of this moves us.
Dancing is something most of us want to do and love doing when we can even if we feel we need to be on our own to do it else we get embarrassed. Rhythm moves our feet, all our muscles, we want to move even if our social experience tells us not to. Rhythm, of drums, rattles, of stones knocking together, hands clapping or of the feet themselves stamping on the ground, all of this moves us.
Often when people dance, be it at a disco, at home, at a party or out in the wild, they find themselves not in their usual frame of mind, not in their usual selves, elsewhere. Sometimes this is called trance, and sometimes the experience can take you a long way out of yourself into someone you hadn’t known before or certainly hadn’t remembered for a long time. Likely this person is your wild self, the self whose cells and body-memory can reach you … and reach back in time, maybe back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors even, to show you how it feels to live in tune and in harmony with all the rest of creation.
It’s such a simple thing, to dance, or so it sounds when you say it, but often it’s not so easy for us to do. Have you ever danced your way along a footpath across Exmoor, for instance? All on your own, nobody there but the hawks and the buzzards and the ravens and the sheep and the cattle and the ponies, and all the little creatures hiding in the grass and the heather, and the larks rising and singing all around you. Yes, you’re certainly not alone even if there aren’t any other humans around. And the other life-forms take notice of you too. They watch and sometimes comment like a snort from a pony or a loud “Caark” from a raven tumbling overhead. Yes, I’ve had the ravens dancing and tumbling over me while I’m dancing on the path, it’s good to have friends dancing with you.
Once you begin dancing on the footpath you likely find yourself singing as well, probably something wordless, humming, making vowel sounds, maybe more. Voice singing is one name for it. The old peoples all over the world do it and have their own names for it, like dancing it’s another thing that is deep in our bones.
Dancing and singing are indeed deep in our bones, in everyone’s bones I think, but may well be heavily overlaid with the patina of reserve that our modern civilisation expects of us. And, for most of us, this is a taboo that’s really hard to shed. We get stuck in the “Who’s watching me? What will they think of me? They’ll think I’m nuts! They’ll shun me!” syndrome that probably got handed down to us by parents (from their own training) from when we were knee-high to grasshoppers, indeed the patina of normality begins to be painted onto us probably from birth! It’s like a second skin that suffocates our true skin and so our true selves … like being painted all over with gold. The new skins shines and appears beautiful to our conditioned eyes but, in truth, it suffocates our real selves.
Dancing helps us shed this unnatural skin.
And so does singing, and drumming, and knocking stones together, and humming.
We have to forget learning steps, learning tunes, and learning set rhythms – although these are not necessarily wrong they can get stuck in the thinking mind as the only right way to do things! We need to relearn to allow our bodies to connect with the Earth and respond to the rhythms she gives us through the land, the path, even the pavement and the floor of our house. She’s always there, always under our feet even if she too wears extra skins of concrete and road surface and buildings, and we can always hear her through our feet. Even walking to do the shopping, down the pavement of the High Street, you can allow your feet to slip into a subtle rhythm – no need to go break-dancing unless you really wish to!
And it makes a big difference to our bodies. It loosens up the muscles, relieves tension, opens up the senses, stops the mind grabbing such hard control that we see nothing but what it feels safe with. All of that stuff on clenched muscles and clenched minds causes inordinate amounts of stress in us and so makes us much more liable to pick up a bug, a virus, strain a muscle, and suffer from anxiety, possibly even depression. All that stress stuff helps us to feel bad for most of the time … not good!
And it successfully hides us from, and hides from us, all the wonderful world we live in, all the beautiful creatures and plants with which we share Planet Earth. And add in that is also means we cannot see all the non-ordinary reality around us – it’s hidden behind the mask of normality our conditioning keeps us wearing.
Shakespeare gets Hamlet to say something really meaningful for all of us – There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
There are indeed, at least in the current civilised view of reality which is extremely small and limited. And dancing can help us open that box, put our noses over the edge and smell the coffee.
I’ve danced all my life, wildly in the wilderness and professionally as jazz dancer too. I’ve done the specialised stuff of learning techniques and steps and choreography, and I’ve done (and still do) dancing in the wild. I dance in my home, in my garden and out on the Welsh hills a few miles away. And I still dance on the moorland paths of Exmoor and Dartmoor, and in the Highlands of Sutherland too. If you’d like to dance with me I do days on the hills, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Trees of the Goddess Danni Niles’ review … I enjoy her style :-). As Nimue Brown says, she does great reviews. As a writer I find what she says very useful and helpful, and its fascinating hearing someone else on a book I actually wrote!