Postcard from Wales

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My first blog was about my stay in Lexington in April 2017 (scroll down below). This time I’d like to write about a recent trip around Wales, a very different kind of journey and made in a very different state of mind (though always a little green). I went to Kentucky last year for a conference about narrative and storytelling. My rambles around Wales were much more personal. I’m currently not working at all, at least not for this semester. I’m devoting myself full-time to what some specialists call ‘the work of mourning’. Grieving my son, who took his life shortly after his 19th birthday in January, I am trying to learn how to live in a world where he isn’t alive any more. For 20 years my own life has been constructed around his precious and fragile one, my job being to protect and nurture and care for him. When he died on Feb. 17th it felt like a part of me died too. I wished I could go with him, keep him company on his journey between worlds, and stop feeling the pain of this one, as he did. But I have another child and I have a partner and his children, a parent, siblings, and friends, and there has been enough death for us now, so I have to learn how to exist without my first born child, diminished but not extinguished. The Wales trip had been planned since a long time, also originally linked to a conference, but the work part of it had already been abandoned, and the entire trip itself looked like it might fall a victim to the devastating wake of my son’s suicide. However, reassured that my daughter would be well taken care of by her father this Easter, my partner and I set off on our walkabout on the south-west coast of Wales. Staying mainly in Pembrokeshire, we first arrived in London and drove across the country, stopping only to visit Stonehenge, Avebury and a few special places in Wales along the way.

“The Druid’s Grove- Norbury Park Ancient Yew Trees” by Thomas Allom

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One of our main destinations were a series of ancient and/or interesting yews, a tree that has acquired a special significance to me of late. On his 19th birthday, when I took my son, Mathias, on a walk, I asked him what tree he would be if he had to be a tree. A whimsical question, I hardly know where it came from, but he answered seriously, after a moment, ‘a yew’. At his funeral, I spoke of this conversation and I had a friend read a poem by Lord Tennyson in which Love and Death meet and dialogue under a yew tree in the light of a ‘mighty moon’ in Paradise. In Tennyson’s poem, Death tells Love he must leave, since ‘these walks are mine’, and Love weeps but tells him that although Death’s shadow passes wherever there is life, nevertheless it is Love who ‘shall reign for ever over all’. The yew has fascinated many poets besides Tennyson, and Sylvia Plath wrote a particularly harrowing poem about yew trees and moons, in which the moon is ‘bald and wild’, and ‘light of the mind’ is ‘cold and planetary’. The poem ends with ‘the message of the yew’, which is far less comforting than Tennyson’s. It is this: ‘blackness and silence’. Clearly, much has changed in the world since the Romantics projected their hopes and fears onto nature. Plath’s world was one in which the Holocaust has happened, two atomic bombs had been dropped on city centers, and the war on nature was well under way  through industrial agriculture, frenzied oil extraction and consumption and the use of chemicals in every aspect of modern life. Now the 21st century is hurtling towards a planetary disaster caused by global warming, environmental pollution, species extinction, reckless resource extraction, and the commodification of everything. My son was worried and depressed by what he called ‘postmodernism’ and was looking for answers in right-wing thinkers and anti-moderns, searching for meaning and authenticity. I ask similar questions but look for answers from more compassionate thinkers and spiritual practitioners, social justice warriors, neo-pagans, native philosophers and writers. If he had stayed alive we might have met at some convergence point later down the line.  As it were, he plunged into the world between lives and left me with even more questions about the otherworld.

Pentre Ifan, Nevern, Pembrokeshire, Wales

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Our travels around Pembrokeshire were shaped by these questions. We visited ancient burial sites and wondered at how our ancestors seemed to make the fundamental mystery of life and death the center of their religious practice. The Neolithic dolmen at Pentre Ifan was smaller than Stonehenge but no less impressive in its steadfast endurance through the millennia and intriguing evocation of a portal to something unknown but highly revered. To the people who built it, and who built the many other burial chambers and dolmens around Wales and the UK and Europe in general, death was clearly an important journey, one which required tremendous energy and attention to create a kind of stone vessel for navigating through time and space. The work required to position that 16 ton capstone on the upright megaliths defies one’s imagination, not to mention the incredible fact that the stones at Stonehenge also come from Pembrokeshire, though it is hundreds of miles away. What was special about them and how were they transported so far and lifted so high?

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One thing was certain: death was not an individual affair, nor was worship and one’s relationship to the divine. Life seemed to consist of extraordinary coordination, combined effort and communal ritual. I would imagine our prehistoric mothers and fathers all felt very connected to each other and to the world around them. Certainly the similarities in burial sites, sun pyramids, archeological remains and shamanic practices around the world suggest a planetary network of interacting cultures long before writing inaugurated what he now call ‘history’ (see the theory of Thor Heyerdahl and what’s called the ‘great pyramid mystery‘).  In fact, our story, our narrative as a species, by far pre-dates the time anyone began to takes notes and keep accounts. The many extraordinary archeological sites around the world suggest a rich human world culture long before the destructive appropriation of the planet by capitalism called globalization.  Modern druids and scholars tell us that the spiritual life of these ancestors were organized around a mother goddess figure, a fierce but also nurturing female deity who produces everything from herself, and is the origin and destination of all existence. Not a father who judges but a mother who creates and transforms. Christianity annexed many elements of pagan culture and, as is widely recognized, the Virgin Mary is a somewhat diminished and desexualized version of the Mother Goddess.

Ceridwen and her cauldron in the story of Taliesin

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Wales is the home of one of the most important stories about a mother goddess, named Ceridwen. The story is called ‘The Birth of Taliesin’ and is supposed to be the origin tale of the 6th century Welsh poet Taliesin (believed by some to have been a bard at King Arthur’s court). It also happens to be a key story in at least one modern school of neo-druidry, the British Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. ‘Taliesin’ is a story of transformation and rebirth. Ceridwen is a ‘Lady of great magic’ who has two children, a fair girl-child and an awkward and slow-witted boy. Wishing to offer her ungainly son the advantage of wisdom, she learns from druids the alchemical art of creating a potion that grants divine inspiration, called ‘Awen’, and a knowledge of all things past, present and future. The potion needs to be warmed over a fire for exactly a year without boiling and so Ceridwen hires an old man and a boy to tend to the fire under the cauldron in a cottage in the woods. On the last day the peasant boy, named Gwion, adds wood to the fire and three drops jump from the cauldron onto his thumb, which he sucks without thinking, and receives the sacred wisdom intended for Ceridwen’s son. Furious, she pursues him and he flees, first becoming a hare, and when she becomes a greyhound, he becomes a fish, upon which she becomes an otter, and so he leaps from the water and becomes a crow, and she pursues him as a hawk. Finally he becomes a grain of wheat and Ceridwen tranforms into a black hen and eats him. Nine months later she gives birth to a boy, whom she intends to kill, but seeing how lovely the boy is she puts him on a small round boat called a coracle and sets him adrift instead. He is eventually found and adopted by a Welsh prince who exclaims, ‘Look at his shining brow,’ when he sees the boy’s glowing face, and thus gives him the name ‘Taliesin’ (shining brow), who grows up to become the most accomplished and famous poet and warlock of Wales.

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Modern druids teach this story as a tale of creation and recreation, of change and transformation, and thus as an allegory of life itself.  Gwion is born three different times (the number three is sacred to druids and to Welsh tradition), once as a peasant boy, once again after gestating in Ceridwen, and a third time after floating adrift on the ocean (itself a feminine symbol for a womb like the cauldron). His great gifts of wisdom and poetry are the result of several violent changes and experiences, initiated by Ceridwen, who plays a role both of angry pursuer and compassionate mother. Contemporary druids believe that the tale has much to teach about the importance of balance between the feminine and masculine principles, the fair and the awkward, the young and the old, and the importance of change and renewal in life. It is a parable about letting traumatic events lead to renewal rather than death, embracing the dark along with the light, a lesson that comes too late for my son but might still be of use to me.

There is a detail of the story I haven’t mentioned yet. When the three drops were received by Gwion, the cauldron burst in two and spilled its contents, which was highly poisonous except for the three drops. The toxic potion spilled onto the ground and into the waterways and killed all the horses and other living creatures in the land. I’m not sure what the lesson of this is supposed to be; the tale is meant to be highly cryptic and must be approached like a riddle. But the portrait of devastation that it evokes is surely resonant for our time. It seems that many of our scientific and industrial attempts to master the secrets of nature — often for uses that will benefit only a small number of people — are accompanied by destruction and laying waste to the earth where we all must live. The scholar Allen Meredith believed that the yew is the tree of life, the earth’s protector and guardian, and as the yew tree fares so does the rest of the world.

5,000 year old yew in churchyard at Defynnog, Brecon Beacons National Park

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Anyway, as everyone knows, early Christians liked to adopt pagan traditions, festivals and sacred sites for their own uses.  Scholars believe that the story of Christ is an adaptation of the story of the annual rebirth of the sun king during the winter solstice. There are elements of Taliesin in the story of Christ as well. Many European churches are built on far more ancient places with energy that far surpasses the waning force contemporary Christianity. In fact, it is possible than many churches were built on top of actual pagan burial mounds. We visited many Welsh country churchyards and were struck by the number and importance of yews, many of which clearly predated the churches and cemeteries that has grown up around them.  Although the ancient druids held the oak in highest esteem, it seems that the yew was extremely important to early Europeans (and people on other continents as well), and may even be origin of the immense mythical tree, Yggdrasil, that connects the nine worlds in Norse cosmology.

One of many representations of Yggrasdil which depict it with branches that are roots, a particularity of the yew tree

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The yew tunnel at Aberglasney Gardens, Carmarthenshire, Wales, made from the branches plunging back into the ground to create new roots for more stability

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In any case, the yew is believed to be a tree that connects the world of living with the world of the dead, which is one reason it may possibly be found so often in cemeteries. We visited a yew that has been DNA tested and found to be 5,000 years old, at Defynnog, a giant tree with its trunk split into several huge branches. We saw another that was totally hollow but had a new tree growing inside it (Bettws Newydd) and a tunnel of yews at Aberglasney Gardens whose branches had plunged back into the ground and become roots, a property of yews that no other trees possess.

The church and yew at Bettws Newydd

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At least one scholar, Allen Meredith, has suggested that the Christian cross is inspired by the yew and meant to represent its seeming immortality. He argues that the early churches were often built on an east-west axis, like pagan ceremonial sites, with the cross placed at the point in the nave where two parts meet. Previously there would have been a yew at this exact spot, representing longevity and a link to the afterworld. The word ‘nave’ comes from ‘navis’ or ship, and alludes to the feminine principle of the womb-like boat (as we see in Taliesin), as do the baptismal wells, which are descendants of sacred cauldrons, also feminine spaces of rebirth. Thus, the earliest sacred sites would have used the yew as a symbol of the goddess’s sacred womb. According to Anand Chetan and Diana Breuton (Sacred Yew, 1994), stone circles like Stonehenge are themselves possibly modeled on an earlier natural formation, the sacred grove, as created by the way yews plunge their branches into the ground around them to support themselves and create new trees, in a circle around a mother or ‘heart tree’. It is possible, they aver, that Stonehenge itself once had a yew tree at its center. One thing is undeniable, the yew tree was revered both for its longevity and its complex real and mythological links to death and the afterworld.

Yew trunk growing within hollow trunk of older yew at Bettws Newydd, one of the many ways yews regenerate almost indefinitely

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One of the reasons that yews can survive as long as they do is because they are very toxic both to humans and to animals.  They can kill a cat or a cow in several hours, and some tribes of the ancient Celtic world would commit suicide by ingesting yew if they were trapped or unable to fend off attack (according to Wikipedia). Yews are linked to death and fatality in yet another way. Archeological findings suggest that weapons have been made from them for hundreds of thousands of years due to their supple but resistant hardwood. Although the oldest yew longbow (discovered in Essex) dates back 400,000 years, longbows experienced great success in the 15th century, especially after the role they played in the extraordinary defeat of the French by King Henry V’s forces at the famous Battle of Agincourt (the subject of Shakespeare’s King Henry V, and the origin of the expression ‘band of brothers’). For a while the English demanded that every ship which docked in one of their ports bring several longbows for every barrel of wine. Mature yews were cut down in such great numbers across Europe – especially in Germany and Austria – that they almost completely disappeared. Such is the inevitable result of unregulated resource extraction. I happen to live in a country that has one of the largest populations of yews on the continent – Switzerland – because it was spared this frenzy of yew harvesting thanks to its distance from the sea and its English-dominated sea trade. It currently plays a crucial role in sustaining the yew population of Europe.

One of several weird and wonderful yews at St. Brynach Church at Navern

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Nowadays, the yew remains a tree of curiously paradoxical uses.  It is one of the most stunningly impressive or weird looking trees, especially in those old churchyards I mentioned. It is also a common hedge plant, since its needly foliage easily grows in a boxy dense evergreen shape that lends itself well to trimming and sculpting.  It is thus one of the most ordinary and unremarkable plants of many landscapes as well as the star attraction of many others.  Its toxicity may also be a more prosaic reason why it is used in churchyards, since it prevents animals from grazing among the graves.  Whatever the reason, Wales is rich in churchyards with magnificent and weird looking yew trees. There is a website that lists hundreds of them.

Here at the Bois de Vaux cemetery in Lausanne, where my son is buried, all the hedges are made from yews, as you can see in the foreground.

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Another paradoxical property of yews is that, despite its high toxicity, it has been used as a medicinal plant by many cultures (in ancient Europe, in the Himalayas, and by Native Americans) for many centuries (source: Fred Hageneder, Yew: A History, 2007). Since the 1990s, a yew compound has been the basis for a chemotherapy treatment that has ‘revolutionized the treatment options’ for women with advanced breast or ovarian cancer. The way that a substance may be beneficial and detrimental to the same person at the same time is associated with the Greek word, ‘pharmakon’, which may be translated to mean both poison and remedy. The yew may be considered one of the key examples of the phenomenon of the pharmakon.

On a larger and more historical scale, we could consider Wales itself as a kind of pharmakon place.  Thus far, I have alluded to Wales’ rich and sacred past of pre-Christian ritual activity and spiritual significance for peoples across the British Isles. Wales was also one of the earliest and most important centers of British industrialization and empire. Ironworks, quarries, copper mines and a range of other mining and ironworking sites opened up in South Wales in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As everywhere, industrialization brought extreme inequality of wealth, overcrowding, lack of sanitation, and among the highest mortality rates in the commonwealth.

Sirhowy Iron Works at Tretegar

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It is therefore interesting to observe that Wales has now become a land poised on the threshold to a greener and healthier future, having adopted one of the most ambitious sustainable living programs in the world. As of 2011, Wales has been aiming for a one-planet carbon footprint in 2050, and has already started supporting people with projects for reducing waste and energy consumption, increasing biodiversity and the use of renewable energy, and harvesting rainwater.  In practice this amounts to a green light for environment-conscious intentional communities to flourish, an incredible reversal of the suspicion and legalistic codes and obstacles in the way of people wishing to form alternative communities in most other countries.  Basically, most governmental authorities don’t want anything that looks like a hippie commune in their back yard, and the energy companies don’t want people trying to get off the grid. One can get a sense of how hard it is to experiment with sustainable building practices and materials from the terrific documentary about Mike Reynold’s Earthships in New Mexico – Garbage Warrior (2007).  Here in Switzerland I know of several groups of people who have tried and failed so far to get permission to start a green community of any kind.

Lammas Eco-Village, Pembrokeshire

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Luckily, Wales is not so short-sighted. Instead, with its One Planet policy it is leading the way to changes the whole world will have to one day make. One eco-village preceded even the 2011 law and perhaps helped clear the path for it, Lammas, one of the most important and famous eco-villages in Europe, founded in 2009 by a cooperative project spearheaded by Paul Wimbush. A pioneering experiment in low-impact living, Lammas is a peaceful but clearly dynamic place on the front lines of a more sustainable future. Paul (whose name now is Tao) kindly showed us around the grounds, the gorgeous community center, his gardens and home, and the round temple-like structure under construction, which will one day be the site of musical performances and community observances of all kinds.

 

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Lammas is an exciting frontier on the increasingly urgent search for more satisfying and environmentally sound forms of living. The homes are constructed out of local or recycled materials, and some of them are absolutely irresistible: rounded wood and glass structures, with grass and moss growing on top like an elegant hobbit house. The whole community is off the grid, uses only spring water or harvested rainwater, and produces most of its own food. Like most contemporary eco-villages, the relationship between members respects family units and individual plots rather than living all together as a group, and each plot has its own garden for its own use, but there is still far more interaction and community activities than in conventional rental buildings or residential neighborhoods. The human need for privacy seems to be just as strong as the need for community, and the most successful eco-villages we have seen around the world (after having visited half a dozen in the last two years) have found just the right combination of self-sufficiency and togetherness that allow people to really thrive.

Skomer Island, a wildlife sanctuary off the coast of Pembrokeshire, also a site of neolithic archeological finds

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All in all, Wales was a revelation, a beautiful and profound place, especially around the Pembrokeshire coast where we spent most of our time, and a healing experience. It made me profoundly sad that I wouldn’t be able to bring my son here once day to see it, but it made me hopeful that there are people who live gracefully in the balance between a sacred past stretching into prehistory and a practical vision of a sustainable future stretching into the lives of our children and grandchildren. One of my children is gone now – having sadly rejoined the ‘rocks, and stones, and trees’, as one of Wordsworth’s Lucy poems puts it – but I have another, a girl-child, who will hopefully see the world pull back from the brink and rethink its suicidal path of resource extraction, consumption, waste, pollution and profiteering. It is for this child that I am now exploring the ecological frontier, visiting the pioneers, and trying to understand how we need to change our lives to be able to keep living on this planet in peace and spiritual plenitude.

This post, like everything I do, is dedicated to my son Mathias (1999-2018), who was a wonderful travel companion and seeker of beauty.  

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