Author Archives: Charlotte

About Charlotte

Permaculture Designer and Writer, Explorer, Dancer, Enjoyer of Life!

Understanding Patterns

Here is the outline to my ‘Understanding Patterns’ workshop, available as part of my offerings through Charlotte Holloway Ashwanden. Enjoy 🙂

Pattern Understanding is a key part of holistic design. We are constantly nested within patterns, both visible and invisible, throughout our lives. Indeed, we can see patterns as a fundamental pattern of human experience. When we are open to patterns, we can feel how they function; and much of our relationship to patterns is based on intuition, which we cannot necessarily explain. So why is it important to understand patterns?

Bill Mollison and David Holmgren point out in the ‘Permaculture Designer’s Manual’ that patterns are something which we have an intuitive relationship with. But if we are to create effective designs which fit harmoniously within the systems we are part of, it is also important to consciously comprehend and communicate our understanding of patterns. This is where permaculture design is so useful, as it helps us to connect intuition and conscious design.

Here are some common natural patterns and their functions:

Spiral

Conservation of energy

Vortex / Overbeck Jet

Cycling of energy

Wave

Rhythmic movement

Fractal

Spreading over small spaces

Tessellation

Maximum cover with minimum materials used

Dendritic

Carrying energy over a wide area

Symmetry

Fitting together

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Story: ‘The Haunted Beach’

This is a tale of a vision received on a beach in India.

I look around at the rubbish scattered everywhere, the sand stretching away littered in every direction with empty bottles, plastic bags, broken glass, and other less identifiable items. At the rows of stall selling identical tourist trinkets. At the desperate-eyed men and women who wander the beach, asking for money in exchange for something – what, is unclear – at the horses and at the budgies kept close to them on tightly bound leashes.

The blasted landscape under the grey sky and reddening sun, the ancient crumbling temple on the shore surrounded by offerings of plastic and urine, the atomic powerplant looming ghostlily, a four-pillared mosque of destruction, on the horizon.

And Mother Ocean keeps dancing on.

“Shiva has already been here”, I say;

“This is a place of destruction and desolation.”

Shiva, smiling, hears me and appears, shaking his head.

“You humans did all this,” he assures me.

Then he looks thoughtful.

“Maybe it is time to shake things up a bit,” he muses, and opens his third eye.

There is a blast of blinding pink light.

When I look again, the beach is clean – uninterrupted sand running as far as I can see.

Other than this, the scene is the same as before.

“I put it all in the sea,” explains Shiva (whose third eye is closed again), with what seems like a mixture of mirth and pride.

He makes to turn away – I can see he is already getting into position to meditate – but I stop him, saying,

“Surely that is just creating more pollution in another place?”

And Mother Ocean accepts the gifts, with a sigh…

“And what about – all this?” I ask, gesturing at the stalls, the crowds, the horses; the sellers and the consumers, with their full hands and empty, empty eyes.

“Surely they will just create more rubbish, and within the next few hours it will look the same as it did before!”

Shiva looks around, smiling in quite a pleased way.

“Yes, it does look the same as it did before, doesn’t it?” he agrees.

“But, you see, I have replaced every single item in every one of those stalls. Every water bottle, every bangle, every ecosystem-destroying hand-crafted shell souvenir; down to the last tiny shell. They are all now illusions – little more than dust.”

I look around, not understanding.

“The sellers will continue to sell and the buyers will continue to buy,” Shiva continues,

“And probably no-one will notice, since they didn’t care what they were buying or selling anyway. They have trained their eyes to be blind. But from now on they deal only in illusions – and whatever waste they create is but a small amount of dust on the sand.”

He turns his formidable gaze to me, locks blowing slightly in the feeble sea breeze, and sees that I am still somewhat concerned.

“As for the rubbish in the sea,” he continues,

“It is even now collecting into a great island, which one day soon will hold half of all the things which you humans every throw into the Ocean, while the other half collects in another island further away. A few of your human years from now, these islands will reach a critical mass of chemical constituency which will begin a process wherein the rubbish starts to become bio-remediated by naturally-occurring organisms that are even now evolving within the islands themselves.

It will take some time, before enough organic matter has broken down to create enough soil to begin holding fresh water, and enough fresh water to begin supporting plants and trees. But when that time is passed, there will be two more islands on this planet – vast, green, luch, verdant lands, with pure water and clean air”.

I marvel at this, my head reeling.

“Of course, lots of people will try to claim them; to use for prisons or fancy hotels or whatever the latest trend is at the time,” Shiva goes on, musing,

“But somehow I don’t think they will be successful.”

He starts to go back into his meditation pose, but I have one more question.

“Wait! What about the horses? And the budgies? All the trapped animals…Can they go free?”

He opens his eyes, blinking, as if he has just come from very far away.

“What? Oh. Nothing I can do about them – it’s their karma. Maybe next life…”

And he is gone.

And Mother Ocean continues her dance…

Balance in Healing part 1

How can we recognise what needs healing in ourselves and our communities?

For my friends and community members

When I studied Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution, I learned a lot about going into situations of violence. I learnt that when people are in conflict they can be traumatised, they lose trust in each other, and they require time and space to heal. I learnt that, although all violent situations are unique, there are some unifying principles we can utilise in order to help us come to terms with violence and conflict and to transcend cycles of violence in order to create something new. In today’s world of UN Mandates and far-off wars it can be easy to think that this transcending has to be imposed from outside, but this is an illusion. It always begins on a personal and community level.

‘Community’ means many different things to each of us. For our ancestors, ‘community’ was perhaps simply the beings who lived around them. In tribal or similar societies, your community is your family and neighbours, who are also the people with whom you work, spend time with, make love to, have conflicts with, and generally create a life. It has become more complicated over time, and now for many who live in modern societies, community can almost be a choice; something you could be involved in, if you had time, but really, you are just so busy.

Because it’s not necessarily a matter of life or death whether or not you speak to your neighbours this week; because if someone does something you perceive as wrong, you can trust other people to deal with it; and because you see your internal traumas and healings as separate from those around you, you have maybe not consciously considered cultivating community within and without you.

An invitation

This article invites you to do just this conscious considering, as we explore what community is and how we can heal our communities. It is going to be quite a journey but I invite you to join me, if you can, with an open heart.

We begin in the forests.

We begin on the plains.

We begin in the mountains, with the sound of the swift-flowing mountain streams.

The forests, the plains and the mountains are our ancestral homes. Somewhere in the world are wild places from which you sprang; places where your roots reach down deep. Even if the trees have been taken from your root-forest, even if the plains of your ancestors are made now of concrete, even if the mountain streams from which your grandmothers refreshed themselves now run black and oily, the places remain.

At some point in our history as a species, many of us decided to engage in agriculture. Agriculture (from Latin ager, ‘field’) is the cultivation of plants and animals on a large scale, in fields, which are placed over the top of whatever ecosystem is already there.

The forest could not stay. The plains had to be dug up. The rivers were diverted for irrigation.

By destroying the existing ecosystem, those who create the fields thus become dependent on the crops they produce therein. They couldn’t live in the wilderness anymore as it had been changed from flourishing ecosystem to sterile desert, so they built houses in groups close to the fields. Most large-scale agriculture is based on monoculture – production of one crop in one place – which can rarely provide enough nutrition to feed all of the people who are needed to work the fields, so they have to also exchange some of their harvest with others in order to survive. Thus the simple invention of growing food in fields can be seen to have led to the invention of cities and trade, which in turn led to hierarchies (who decides who eats what?), police systems (how can we stop people from going agaisnt the system we all depend on?) and many more factors of what we would now recognise as modern society.

Down with agriculture?

This is not to say that agriculture is inherently a negative thing; or that it was the only factor in humans disconnecting ourselves somewhat (or at least, imagining that we are disconnected) from our environment. Farming has helped us to multiply as a species and live in more diverse areas than any other living creature on the planet. Right now, most of us do not have enough carefully tended wilderness or permaculture gardens in our immediate vicinity to sustain us without agriculture, so in a very real way, it is also keeping us alive right now.

And it is not to say that modern society is necessarily negative. But when we look at modern society from this perspective, it seems clear that the very foundations of the communities many of us were born into are rooted in the conscious destruction of the natural surroundings. This has helped us to survive. But it also means that any society with these foundations is probably going to be one of inherent violence. We may not be experiencing ‘conflict’ as it is recognised by the mainstream media: many of our houses are intact; a lot of us may never have seen a gun; our interactions in day-to-day life involve words and discussion rather than fighting or hiding.

Nevertheless, we can all to be seen to be living in a very real conflict situation, which Barash (1) would call “negative peace”; one which is so subtly set up and so deeply embedded in many people’s minds that it can sometimes be difficult even to recognise – which may ultimately make it even more dangerous than living in a situation of overt conflict.

I won’t do what you tell me…

Of course, this recognition of modern society as one of inherent violence is not a new revelation. People have been complaining and singing about it, probably for almost as long as it has existed. For example, someone may realise that the situation they are living in is inherently violent but that it does not necessarily provide any kind of safe or supportive space for the free expression of overt, actual, genuine violent emotions. A common reaction to this realisation is to express these emotions anyway. If they have been repressed for many years it could get very messy, unless the person in question manages to get a guitar in their hands, then they can just rage against the machine in a musical way.

For some people, the angry rebellious stage is a necessary one. Marshall Rosenberg, who calls it the ‘obnoxious teenager’ phase, describes our expression of anger and rebellion against those who we previously saw as authority figures as a way of beginning to draw our own boundaries, so that we can begin expressing our genuine wants and needs rather than going with what other people tell us to do (2).

Fire can help us to connect to our primal emotions. Photo by Catherine Brogan.

Intentional community healing

Having gone through this stage (because, in many cases, if you can release your anger you can be free of it), many people decide to become more conscious about how and where we live. One expression of this is the creation of ‘intentional communities’; groups of people who consciously choose to live together and share their lives, to a greater or lesser extent, while engaging in a new way of interaction which can transcend modern societal rules and norms.

I am one of those people. I have lived in many communities, and visited or studied many more. In a way, anyone who decides to start considering their life choices is making their community an intentional one, whether or not you actually physically move onto a piece of land with your intentional neighbours and friends.

Trauma and art

So now we have reached ths point in our journey. It was a long way from the forests of our ancestral birth-lands, through the blank concrete stares of the labyrinthine walls of our physical birth-lands, embracing the anger and rebellion at the realisation of the secret subtle violence which is present all around us, and a coming to terms with this, in whatever way is right for us, in the decision to be more conscious and intentional about our choices of how and where we live.

We are all at different stages of the journey and of course not everyone’s path leads in such a simply explainable way. But if you have read this far I am guessing that you are also somewhat considering how you are a part of an intentional community. And this is where it may start to get complicated.

Opening the portal…

By making intentional communities, whether in physical space or as a non-physical network, we can be seen as opening up spaces for people to come together and create. This may be with a physical space such as a community garden, or a network of like-minded individuals; it could be people coming together to create events, or those who have chosen to build everything they need to live, together, in one place. John Paul Lederach, one of the leading practitioners in the field of peace studies, says that creativity and the creative process is “the wellspring that feeds the building of peace” (3). If we can be creative, we can imagine ways out of situations of conflict. In this way we are building a positive collective of humans engaging with each other.

However, creativity is also an important part of dealing with the effects of violence. Those traumatised by violence (which, in this modern world, is probably everyone), require healing. Sometimes huge amounts of grief, anger or sadness have to be expressed before any other healing can take place. By making spaces for people to come together and create we are also opening up the space for this healing to begin taking place. So any intentional community also has to deal with the grief, the anger; we have to deal with community members lashing out at other community members, not because they have a particular personal problem but because they are expressing the effects of a deep and violent trauma, which in itself may also not even be personal, but part of our collective ‘primal wounding’ (4).

I say, we have to deal with it; because if we open this space, these things will come out sooner or later. Our psyches do not necessarily recognise when it’s a good time to express our wounding or to express a new creative action; and indeed there may be no separation between these things. So whether or not we are prepared, we do have to deal with it.

So then what happens if someone goes ‘crazy’?

What if the expression of collective primal wounding by one community member ends up hurting another community member – either physically or emotionally, or both?

In ‘normal’ society, the answer is simple – remove them from the community and put them in a contained space so they can get ‘better’. This way of thinking is so far removed from all of the intentional communities that I have been and continue to be a part of that it would not really occur to us to take this action. We can recognise that outbursts of so-called ‘crazy’ behaviour are not necessarily signs of illness, but parts of a process which is important to go through. But this does not take away the actual reality of community members being violent to each other. Having decided that we will not section each other, what can we do in these situations?

There is no easy answer. But in part 2, I will explore some possible techniques which could be practiced by community members together to try to achieve some kind of balance in healing.

Healing takes time…

Our collective trauma is still healing. Our ancestors’ grief at the loss of their connection to the trees and creatures with whom they shared life may not yet be fully expressed, and is awaiting expression through our own actions before we can fully heal. Our own personal expriences with violence, both overt and covert, may not be fully integrated. May we be kind to ourselves and to each other, as we try to recognise that we are all healing together.

References

  1. Barash (ed), 1999. Approaches to Peace: A Reader in Peace Studies. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.
  2. Rosenberg, R, 2003. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Puddledancer Press: Encinitas, CA, USA.
  3. Firman, J; Gila, A, 2002. Psychosynthesis: A Psychology of the Spirit. SUNY Press: New York City, USA.
  4. Lederach, J.P, 2005. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.

Poem: A Dedication

Under the stones of the river flowing cold

Reverberations of all the words so old

Sound for the connected souls who care to hear

Undulating rhythms, yet somehow so clear

Let those who wish to receive them gather in

And offer love; respect; honour – with a grin

 

Knowing what we have lost, wise beautiful soul

 

Let’s remember the way back to being whole

Ever the words remain while we can hear them

Gaining inspiration, and holding dear them

Using our power, hopefully, within the

Internal equilibrium, weaving, we

Now rejoice in the words which help us be free.

 

In memory of a great word-weaver, who this year joined with the infinite

Photo by David Ashwanden

Summer and the Way of Art

It’s been almost a year since my last published article on here – the Wheel of the Seasons has turned around and here we are already at Beltane; a time of cleansing with fire, of coming back to life, of the balance of light and dark tipping ever more towards the light. A time of freshness, creativity and renewal. I thought it an appropriate time to write somewhat of a meta-post (don’t worry, I won’t make a habit of it) on the artistic or creative process and why it sometimes seems so very difficult.

My last article was ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ (1); well, I might have fallen down it and got lost for a while. These are my experiences, I hope they resonate with you and maybe even help you on your own artistic path.

Why make art?

Much of our society appears geared towards short-term material gain. In a world of intellectual property rights, deeds of entitlement, money as time and where creating art in order to sell a product can gain you instant financial success compared with the uncertain and often penniless path of creating things simply for the pleasure of creating, is it any wonder that sometimes we may ask Why am I making this art? What purpose does it have? Can I use it in a professional context and if not, should I really be wasting my time on it?

Such questions, though understandable, miss the fundamental aspect of art: that it is absolutely neccessary for our continued existence as humans. We are creative beings; simply by being alive we carry the ability to make and regenerate, as well as the ability to stagnate and destroy. The choice is always ours. The creative process is an aid to so many aspects of our lives. Indeed, John Paul Lederach, founder of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at the Eastern Mennonite University (2) writes about how, since making and maintaining peaceful societies is an ongoing process of creativity, one must be in tune with one’s creative drive in order to effectively achieve peace (3). In this sense, art and peace can be seen as inextricably linked; we cannot live in a world which is more or less free of conflict unless we honour and exercise the artist within us.

The Moral Imagination

Who can make art? The answer, of course, is ‘you’; and indeed everyone. Artistic actions are not necessarily measurable and so their effect can often be overlooked. Lederach gives a number of examples of artists responding to times of extreme violence or crisis, and the possible consequences; though these can never truly be known except in the hearts of those who experience them. For instance, the cellist who sat playing in the public square of his town while bombs fell all around him, following the murder of many of his fellow townsfolk who were trying only to buy bread.

As Lederach writes,

When his spontaneous playing was done, Smailovic discovered that people had gathered to listen near the square… ‘I understood then,’ he wrote, ‘That…music heals, and that this was no longer a personal issue.’ He decided to return to the Bread Massacre Square and play every day for twenty-two days in a row, one day for each person killed in the massacre. Shelling never ceased during those days, but neither did his music.

On one occasion, during a lull in the shelling, a TV news reporter approached the cellist seated in the square and asked, ‘Aren’t you crazy for playing music while they are shelling Sarajevo?’ Smailovic responded, ‘Playing music is not crazy. Why don’t you go ask those people if they are not crazy, shelling Sarajevo while I sit here playing my cello.’” (3)

For Lederach, this story and many other examples are portrayals not only of people using creativity, but of the embodiment of what he calls the “moral imagination”. This is made up of four things, creativity being one of them;

1- Holistic thinking (this could also be equated to ‘permaculture’); an ability to view the holistic web of relationships which make up our experience

2 – A “paradoxical curiosity” about what is possible

3 – Creativity; A “fundamental belief” in the power of art and the creative act

4 – Risk; the willingness to take risks. (3)

The art of falling into a hole

I go into more detail about the moral imagination in my article here (4) and if you are interested in the subject, I strongly recommend that you read Lederach’s book of the same name (3). Right now I want to look at the fourth strand of the moral imagination, that of risk. This can be seen as, in many ways, the most difficult practice of all of them. Artists are kind of risk-takers by nature, in that we journey beyond what has previously been deemed possible, find ways to receive the gifts of what we find there, and bring them back to our respective societies. We walk the “sharpened edge of the razor,” as Joseph Campbell puts it (5).

But sometimes it is easy to slip into the comfort of not taking risks. This comfort could be in the fact that you feel pretty good where you are and do not want to change it. However, it could also be the opposite; that the status quo, however violent, painful or full of suffering it may be, has been going on for so long that you have become used to it, and to change it would be to upset your feeling of security within it. Along with this might be the lure of many artists, the idea that perfection is unachievable and pain is inevitable, which, if taken to unhealthy extremes, could lead to the conception that there is no need to change anything because it is already how it is.

If you keep going with that train of thought, in my experience, it can lead past a balanced view of the holistic equilibrium of life, to a kind of inertia in the face of it, or even an irresistible attraction to that which can be seen as dark and ugly; since that is what we are already accustomed to. As Ursula K. LeGuin put it,

Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.” (6)

That's when we might fall into a hole.

So how can we step beyond this potential inertia or depression?

Lederach says,

Risk is mystery. It requires a journey. Risk means that we take a step toward and into the unknown.” (3)

The unknown can always be a scary place, but not to go into it willingly and creattively is to somewhat let go of our enthusiam for life.

Lederach writes mainly from his experience of working with people in situations of overt physical violence or conflict, from Sri Lanka to Serbia, Colombia to Northern Ireland, where after over thirty years of “Troubles”, one peace researcher is quoted as saying,

Violence, fear and division are known. Peace is the mystery! People are frightened of peace. It is simultaneously exciting and fearful. This is mystery. Peace asks a lot of you. It asks you to share memory…it asks you to share the future…It is walking into the unknown.” (3)

Heading into the unknown

I believe that even if you do not live in a society where violence and conflict are overt, Lederach’s work can still be immensely useful and powerful. All violence and conflict can be seen as beginning within each individual human consciousness, and we need to exercise the moral imagination within ourselves in order to then bring it to our communities.

crawling out

Feeling pain and experiencing violence is part of life. Pretty much every society in this world has some kind of overt or inherent violence to it, and to some extent it can be helpful to accept this since it is how it is. But allowing it to influence our actions just because it has been so for some time is to refuse the call of the artist, which is the call of our own inner voice.

crawling out

Our art probably can help us in many ways, help us to heal, help us to be happy, help us to gain the resources we need to live. But until we listen to the voice inside us we probably can’t know how; the path of the artist is not really something which can be planned.

Listen to it, follow it, even into mystery and the unknown.

You never know where it might take you.

out the hole

References

1. Ashwanden, C, 2017. ‘Down the Rabbit-Hole: Storytelling and its Healing Potential in Modern Society’. Abundance Garden, 20/6/17. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2017/06/20/down-the-rabbit-hole/

2. Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, 2018. ‘About CJP’. https://emu.edu/cjp/about/

3. Lederach, J.P, 2005. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.

4. Ashwanden, C, 2017. ‘Permaculture and Community, part 1: Permaculture as a tool for peace’. Permaculture News, 2/11/17. https://permaculturenews.org/2017/11/02/permaculture-community-part-1-permaculture-tool-peace/

5. Campbell, J, 1959. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Griffin: New York City, USA.

6. LeGuin, UK, 1973. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas: A Story (A Wind’s Twelve Quarters Story). Harper Perennial: New York City, USA.

Down the Rabbit-Hole

Storytelling and its healing potential in modern society

Humans and nature: two things which many modern societies see as separate, in spite of the fact that we clearly remain very much a part of, and connected to, the natural environment around us. Just because you may not immediately sense the vast swampy wilderness beneath the city concrete under your feet, or smell the sweet, fresh tang of the mountains and wildflowers beyond the more immediate exhaust fumes and smog, it doesn’t mean that they are not there. The web of life is all around us and wild nature calls to us from within our own hearts if we just listen.

Our unique cultural advantage

Much of our modern society can be seen as far from perfect, and there are many aspects of our disconnection from nature which may be causing unbalance and therefore lack (or perceived lack) of abundance in our local ecosystems. Our ancestors rejoiced in the gifts of the wild forest and danced in the footprints of the animals whom they revered, adored and devoured; when compared to our own version, our fluorescent pre-packaged experience of food-gathering may sometimes seem a poor substitution.

Yet there are some things we have which are unique to our culture and which, if we do it in a considered way, we can use to help us to re-strengthen our connection to the natural world and all its abundant wonders.

Adventures and shamans

Communing with the ‘more-than-human world’ (1), finding balance and harmony within to strengthen the balance and harmony without, and healing yourself and your community as part of a wider healing, are all traditional roles of those members of ancient societies who have been termed ‘shamans’ by modern anthropologists, although what they call themselves differs from culture to culture. All of these things can be seen as of huge importance in today’s world to help us to gain the balance and harmony which we can achieve within our ecosystems if we are attuned to it. Yet ‘shamans’, even in their own societies, are not generally seen as ‘normal’; the role is not one which everyone partook in, and probably not everyone would want to. Many of the things which ‘shamans’ did may well be seen by much of modern society as signs of ‘madness’ (see for example 2).

Are we all then mad?

However, one thing to bear in mind about shamanic tools is that the vast majority of people in modern society, regardless of how little interest they have in ancient cultures, are very skilled at using some of them, and if these words are creating sounds of sense within your head at this moment then you are one of those people.

What I mean is, with the skills of reading and writing which many of us may take for granted we can engage in powerful creative practices, the likes of which the ‘shamans’ of less literate cultures would have had to ingest strong entheogenic medicines, deprive themselves of food or sleep, or engage in repetitive activities for many hours to achieve.

As Serge King, author of Urban Shaman (3), puts it,

” We are part of a unique society that has already, though
unknowingly, prepared us well…Ever since you started reading about Dick and Jane and Spot you were in training to be a shaman. Radio, television,
and movies have all helped to reinforce your skill. The development
of intentional inner vision took a long time in
traditional societies, because it wasn’t reinforced by the
whole society. Exceptional people like poets, storytellers, and
shamans seemed to be using magic when they evoked waking
visions in the minds of listeners to their tales, legends,
and inner experiences.” (3)

Weaving our own magic

It is this magic which we can use to help us to create what we imagine, and to give special attention to particular things, people, places or events which can help us to respect and honour them. Perhaps you do not believe in magic and that is fine, since, as King would say, “the world is what you think it is” (3). It may be worth considering, however, that our connection of literacy and magic is present even in our modern language – when we speak about how to write a word we talk of the “spell” needed to create it.

King says,

You, now, have the skill of reading, a rare skill in the history of mankind, which trains you to focus your attention and evoke internal experience on your own at will” (3).

What took a gifted few years of practice, dedication, meditation and art to achieve is now accessible much more easily to huge numbers of us because of this skill. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need to learn how to use our imaginations wisely. We do, and this in itself, with the self-reflection and realisation that may come with it, may lead to what feels like madness, especially when considered from a societal point of view.

Treading the labyrinth

It is when we start to walk the path consciously that we may be most in need of stories to help to guide us. Luckily, such stories already exist in their thousands and many are freely available through that great storyweaving machine, the internet. The stories which we choose to resonate as part of our lives can help to sustain us and to heal our own psyches, thus enabling us to heal the outer world as well.  From this perspective even our most grotesque and seemingly destructive human creations can be seen to be a part of the web of life.

Big wheels and little wheels

How can we start on this path? How can we, as Joseph Campbell put it, pick up the golden thread left behind us by the storytellers of the past, and use it to help us find the way through the labyrinth? How can we step beyond the seeming comfort of a life half-lived and step onto the sword-edge of the path to our own bliss?

Perhaps a simple way to start is to consider what stories you wish to resonate with about the cycles of time in your own life. The moon and the sun are things which all humans have experience of, and in Europe the cycle of the sun was in the past by many and is by a few even now, closely followed and celebrated, with each stage having its own story and meaning, so that people could attune and resonate with the seasons and the unique gifts they bring. This ‘big cycle’ of the year, with its eight ‘feasts’ of Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, Bealtaine, Litha, Lammas, Mabon and Samhain, during which time the daylight present in the day goes from very little to a lot and then around again, is reflected on a monthly scale by the cycle of the moon, which is also noted and celebrated.

Sun is come

The ‘Wheel Year’ is celebrated now in Britain mainly by people who have picked up the threads of the old stories rather than as part of an unbroken tradition. This means that the stories are always evolving and reflecting our changing ways, and we can interpret them however seems fit to us. You may not care about the upcoming Litha or Summer Solstice, which is happening in the Northern Hemisphere tomorrow. Many people do, and in England hundreds shall gather at Stonehenge, in spite of the newly-introduced parking fees there, which were put into place even though they were fought in court by none other than King Arthur Pendragon (4). Those who wish to mark the Solstice by going to a special place but who do not want to ‘pay to pray’ (or who may find the crowds at Stonehenge not their cup of tea) may well choose to celebrate at any of the many other stone circles and ancient sacred sites around Britain.

All over Spain even nowadays, Midsummer’s Night is celebrated by jumping over fires, into rivers, springs or the sea, or in some places both. You may not be so interested in such revelry, but it may still be helpful to you in your own personal storytelling to acknowledge this shortest night of the year and reflect on its symbolism. What that symbolism could be is up to you; our pagan British ancestors probably (according to some sources (5)) associated the Summer Solstice with Ura or heather (ericaceae spp), a plant which needs fire for the seeds to germinate, so reminding us perhaps of the fire which gives us life, the sun which shines the longest on this day for the whole wheel year. In Spain and other parts of Europe the celebration is associated with St. John and his flower, St. John’s Wort (Hypericum Perforatum) whose yellow petals and red juice can also remind us of the fire of the sun. It is also a traditional symbol of protection and of strengthening energy, perhaps reflective of the long days reminding us to gather strength ready for the darker colder times ahead.

Stories and spells

Whether you choose to acknowledge the Solstice tomorrow or not, you will surely continue to tell stories of your own, as well as being exposed to many others. How you choose to tell your stories is up to you, but as King would say, just by reading story books and watching films you have already started on a path which can aid you in healing, imaginative creation and gaining stronger connections to yourself and your world.

Your own way is yours to follow and your call will be unique. May you go with sunshine.

References

1. Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in the More-than-Human World.  Vintage: New York City, USA

2. Logan, K, 2017. ‘A Shaman’s View of Mental Illness’. Forever Conscious, 2017. http://foreverconscious.com/a-shamans-view-of-mental-illness

3. King, S, 1990. Urban Shaman: A Handbook for Personal and Planetary Transformation Based on the Hawaiian Way of the Adventurer. Simon & Schuster: New York City, USA.

4. BBC News, 2017. ‘King Arthur Pendragon loses Stonehenge ‘pay to pray’ court challenge’. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-wiltshire-40033998

5. Sentier, E, 2013. Trees of the Goddess. Moon Books: Hants, UK

 

 

Elemental Depths and ideas for how to dive into them

Explorations into our Relationship with Water

All photos by David Ashwanden

It’s all around us, flowing beneath our feet even if we do not see it and condensing far above our heads, weaving its way through our lives in our every daily task and cycling ceaselessly as part of our bodies, refreshing, revitalising, rehydrating.

Our ancestors praised this most basic of elements – the one we are grown within before we are born, and which comprises around 60% of our beings (1). Many cultures around the world still celebrate water and use it in an effective and regenerative way. Yet somehow a lot of current activities, both on a large and small scale, seem to be ignoring or misusing water, which results in a cutting-off from the flow and thus from an important part of ourselves.

How are we disconnecting from our relationship with water and how can we reconnect?

Why does it matter what stories we tell ourselves about water?

And what actions can we take to address the imbalance caused by those interfering with flow?

This article will attempt to answer some of these questions, with an in-depth look at the specific case of the Mekong River, though it is by no means a complete answer. Think of it more as a flowing stream to which you can add if you wish.

How we relate to water

Throughout history, and in many current resilient societies, water has been and continues to be revered. Our human cultures show countless variations on the personification of water as a deity, from Varuna, the Vedic god of water and the Celestial Ocean, who rides upon the Makara, a kind of magical crocodile (2), to the Aztec “jade-skirted” Chalchiuhtlicue, serpent-goddess of rain, purification floods and childbirth, to the Inuit Sedna, fish-tailed goddess of the ocean and the underworld (3), to the Chinese Dragon Kings of the Four Seas (4).

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A Naga guards the entrance to a temple next to the Mekong River in Vientiane, Laos. Photo by David Ashwanden.

Many societies throughout the world still celebrate and worship water and water deities, such as the Yoruba people of Nigeria, who celebrate Oshun, the goddess of sensuality, sweet waters and the moon, with an annual festival on the river which bears her name (5). Throughout South-East Asia there are various festivals dedicated to the Naga, which are serpent-formed water guardian spirits of Hindu origin (see for example 6). Many of these festivals have since been appropriated by the Buddhist religion yet the Naga still play an important part in the folklore of the region (see for example 7).

In Kerala, South India, the Naga are also remembered with the creation of “sarpakkavu” (8), sacred groves of trees dedicated to these spirits, while in the North of the country the goddess Ganga is remembered on a daily basis all along the river which bears her name, in particular in the holy city of Varanasi, where pilgrims come from all over the country to drink and bathe in the sacred waters, and into which the cremated bodies of the dead are also cast in order to be purified (see for example 9). In modern-day Mexico live the Wixarika people, known to Spanish-speakers as ‘Huicholes’, who follow one of the oldest unbroken pagan traditions in the world (see for example 10). Though they now live many thousands of miles away from their ancestral homelands they still make an annual pilgrimage to the deserts which produce the Hikuri cactus plants which form the centre of their mythology, on the way paying homage the serpent-goddess Nacawé (11) at a number of sacred springs in which they bathe (12).

From 'The Dao Oracle'.

From ‘The Dao Oracle’ by Ma Deva Padma.

When it comes to tracing the origins of my own ancestral myths it can be a little more difficult as the pagan origins of my European culture are to a great extent broken, especially in England, the country of my birth. Many water-deities which were once venerated in Europe are now simply stories, such as that of Coventina, naked lily-bearing British goddess of abundance, wells and springs (13), or Danu, the fertility river-goddess and mother of the ‘Tuatha da Danaan’ or fairy people, whose name, some believe, is the origin of the major European rivers Danube, Dniestr, Don and Dniper (14).   Interestingly, Dewi Danu is also the name of the serpent-riding water-goddess of the Balinese Hindus (15).

 

What Are We Doing with Water and Why?

Water is so much a part of our lives that it may be sometimes easy to take it for granted. One thing which seems of paramount importance to remember is that water represents, both physically and metaphorically, the principle of flow. All water is constantly cycling throughout the world, from the clouds to the ground, to the ocean… and back again. As we are made up largely of water, we literally embody this principle and so it may be worth bearing it in mind next time you consider yourself stuck in any type of situation.

As water is constantly flowing, it can be seen as an infinitely renewable resource. Up until around 100 years ago, the way in which we used water reflected and supported this. Water would fall from the sky, and we would collect it, use it, and re-cycle it. Water flowed from the ground, and we would care for the spring, tend it and ensure that it helped to nourish the land around as well as ourselves. However, when we started using more groundwater, this balance began tipping.

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Groundwater is easier to pump up all in one place and to distribute in measurable amounts so it has become a favourite source for cities worldwide (16). The problem with this is that groundwater can only be replenished by rainwater filtering down through the land, which is currently happening in many places at a slower rate than we are pumping the groundwater up. groundwater also contains more minerals than rainwater so if it is the primary source for crop irrigation, it ends up in causing mineral saturation of the soil, which means you need even more water in order to flush through the salts so that the soil can stay fertile (16). At the same time, we design our buildings and communities to deal with rainwater, the fruits of the sky which we could easily be harvesting, not by catching it but by directing it away. Brad Lancaster, author of Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, calls this modern phenomenon a move from the “path of abundance” to the “path of scarcity” (16).

Mekong Case Study: Controlling the sacred flow

A key example of people following this “scarcity” path is the case of the Mekong river. This giant, the longest in South-East Asia (17), starts in the Tibetan plateau and flows through the Yunnan province of China, then snakes its way through Myanmar and Laos, forming part of the Thai-Laos border (17), before entering Cambodia where it joins the Tonle Sap river, which it causes, once a year, to flow backwards, thus filling the Tonle Sap Lake (18). After this it passes through Vietnam where it splits into many parts at the Mekong Delta, a richly biodiverse area of around 39,000 square kilometres, whose fingers reach eventually into the South China Sea (19).

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Looking from Laos to Thailand across the Mekong.

The river is estimated to be around 4350 km long and is regarded as the 12th longest in the world (17). It is home to many water-species, and the source of livelihood as well as life to millions of animals and humans who inhabit the banks along its length. The humans are not as yet endangered, though many endangered species live here, including the Irrawady River Dolphin, the Mekong Giant Catfish, the Laotian Rock Rat  and the Indochinese Tiger (20). Because of its huge biodiversity new species are often discovered here, with the WWF reporting more than 2,216 newly discovered species since 1997,

“including a color-changing frog, a zombie-making “dementor” wasp, and the second-longest insect in the world”(20).

The name for the Mekong comes partly from the Thai or Burmese word for river, “meh-nam” (Thai: แม่น้ำ) which literally means “water-mother”, and it is along this river that the Naga water spirits are often celebrated, in particular on the night of Loy Krathong (7). This would seem to indicate that the people who live along the river have still some vestige of respect for the river and recognition of it as a giver of life. However, enough people in this region are following the “path of scarcity” that the Laos government has agreed to embark upon the Mekong river dam project, which involves building 11 dams along the entire length of the river. In the Chinese portion, there are already 5 dams which have severely disrupted the water flow throughout the rest of the river, causing drought and imbalance (21). Last year, construction began on the Xayaburi Dam (22), funded by Bangkok-based engineering company CH. Karnchang (23), and on the Don-Sahong Dam, a “joint venture of Malaysian company Major First and the Laotian government”(22). Both dams have been embarked upon without the permission of the Mekong River Commission, an international coalition set up to try to protect the river (22).

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Sunset over the Mekong

“If all 11 dams are built, it will convert the lower stretches of the Mekong River into a series of stagnant reservoirs and irreversibly alter the river system of one of the world’s most important and iconic rivers,(21) according to Maureen Harris of International Rivers (24).

The construction of the dams has been severely impeded by NGOs and other actors who would prefer the river to stay fertile and to continue sustaining life. There are so many factors involved with why the Mekong is being treated like this that there is no one simple solution to the problem, however, it seems important to look at some key ways in which the river is viewed in order to understand how to solve it.

Holy water and its powers

Firstly, as mentioned, many Mekong people still celebrate its abundant waters. Why is this important? Just because a group of people believe that the river is home to the snake-formed gods of the water, doesn’t mean it will stay protected…Does it?

All of our human action comes ultimately from our beliefs and values, and these are grown out of our cultural stories and mythologies. Therefore, if we want to change the actions of people, perhaps we have to first look at the stories they are telling themselves, and if the stories are not effective, help them to change them.

It is clear that those involved in the dam are following stories of scarcity – the idea that there is not enough water and so it needs to be hoarded. This can very swiftly turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy and indeed can already be seen to have done so in Yunnan: the dams there have created water shortages downstream, thus justifying the dam-builders’ fears of water shortage. This type of story can be seen as a negative cycle of erosion which can ultimately cause severe damage to all who tell it. Of course the water shortage is in fact caused by the dam’s blocking of the water’s natural flow, and so if we wish to regain this flow we need to encourage travelling outwards from the cycle of erosion into a new cycle of abundance.

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Many of the water deities throughout history and around the world share characteristics- they are symbolic of fertility, of life, and of the joyous act of procreation. This can be seen in the fact that so many water deities from diverse and supposedly separate cultures are somehow associated with snakes or snake-like creatures, the snake being, as Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell (25) would put it, an archetypal symbol of sexuality and procreation. Perhaps one way we can help to protect the rivers is to remember this symbology and recognise water as the basis of life, which cannot be contained in one place, lest it become stagnant and sterile.

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Modern myths

Yet it is not enough to just tell stories. We need to be really living this idea of water as abundance, that is, really feeling our connection to water as a sacred and constantly cycling force. How we do this is up to us. Our ancestors did it by personifying the elements and associating them with particular animals, places or trees which we can protect as part of our reverence. That doesn’t mean that we literally think the rivers or rocks are home to spirits, but the spirits, whatever shape they are, can be a useful metaphor to help us to remember the holistic nature of life and how we can help to protect and regenerate the things which in turn protect and regenerate us.

An example of a much more literal stance is the case of the Whanganui River in New Zealand, which, four days ago, was granted the same legal status as a human being (26). This has been heralded as a ‘victory’ for the Maori tribes to whom the river is sacred (26), yet it seems to be missing the point somewhat. If the river has the same legal rights as a human, this means it has the right, to some extent, to be protected. But humans are also subject to laws which mean they can be locked up or have their lands taken away from them. Granting the river legal rights may help in the short term to protect it but throws up questions of the legal rights of all humans, and how they can be contravened. The Whanganui has always been sacred to Whanganui iwi tribe, who recognise it as a living entity. But enshrining this recognition in law must throw up questions about our relationship to all living entities, in an age where humans, animals and plants alike are locked in tiny boxes, killed en masse, exiled from their homelands, separated by barriers of earth and water, subjected to poisoning of all kinds, for reasons as varied as ‘farming’, ‘economic progress’, ‘doing a 9-to-5 job’, or ‘immigration’.

Part of our understanding of this relationship has to come from our understanding of our cultural and personal stories. Perhaps changing your own story is going to be easy, like moving one pebble to release a huge portion of flow. Or perhaps it will take a more careful and considered dive into your life-stream. Whatever it takes, it seems clear that this is an essential part of revitalising our relationship with water around the world, and hopefully restoring the balance and abundance which can so easily be a part of our daily lives.

For more practical ideas about how we can work with flow you can check out my Water Farming article (27) and be sure to check back for the second parts of both articles…

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Sources

1. Helmenstine, A.M (Phd), 2017. ‘How Much of Your Body is Water?’. ThoughtCo, 1/3/17. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-much-of-your-body-is-water-609406 

2. Naylor, S. T, 1997. ‘Varuna’.http://www.pantheon.org/articles/v/varuna.html

3. Miller, M.E, Taube, K.A, 1993. The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. Thames and Hudson: New York, USA.

4. Condon, R.G, Ogina, J, Holman Elders, 1996. The Northern Copper Inuit: A History. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, Canada.

5. Werner, E.T.C, 1922. Myths and Legends of China. Chapter VII: ‘The Myths of the Waters’. available as an e-text here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/cfu/mlc/mlc09.htm

6. Elgood, H, 2000. Hinduism and the Religious Arts. Cassell: London, UK.

7. Lexa-French, I, 2012. ‘Loy Kathung: The Night of the Naga’. Travelfish, 26/11/12. https://www.travelfish.org/beginners_detail/laos/24

8. Menon, S, 2010. ‘Saparkkavu – Nature Groves in Keralan Homes’. KarmaKerala, 31/1/10. http://www.karmakerala.com/news/2010/01/31/sarpakkavu-nature-groves-in-kerala-homes/

9.  Varanasi Temples, 2017. ‘Importance of the River Ganga’. http://varanasi-temples.com/category/importance-of-river-ganga/

10. Haworth, C, 2015. ‘Sacred Spaces’. Abudnance Garden, 3/3/15. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2015/03/03/sacred-spaces/

11. Austin, A.L, 1997. Tamoachan, Tlamocan: Places of Mist. University of Colorado Press: Colorado, USA.

12.  Allen, B, 2015. ‘Last of the Medicine Men: Peyote’. Our Amazing World, 2015. available in parts on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Bb_YC8pmCI

13. The White Goddess, 2017. ‘Coventina’. http://www.thewhitegoddess.co.uk/divinity_of_the_day/celtic/coventina.asp

14. Read Legends and Myths, 2017. ‘Danu’. http://www.read-legends-and-myths.com/danu.html

15. Lansing, S, 2006. Perfect Order: A Thousand Years in Bali. Chris Baldwin (Director), Should High Productions.

16. Lancaster, B, 2013. Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond: Guiding Principles to Welcome Rain into Your Life and Landscape. Volume 1. Rainsource Press: Tucson, USA (distributed by Chelsea Green: New York, USA).   

17. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2017. ‘Mekong River’. https://global.britannica.com/place/Mekong-River

18. Mekong Flows, 2017. ‘Tonle Sap Ecosystem’. http://mekongriver.info/tonle-sap

19. WWF, 2017. ‘Greater Mekong’. https://www.worldwildlife.org/places/greater-mekong

20. WWF, 2017. ‘Wildlife of the Greater Mekong’. http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/greatermekong/discovering_the_greater_mekong/species/

21. Rigby, J, 2016. ‘Dams, drought and disaster along the Mekong river’. IRIN News, 10/5/16. http://www.irinnews.org/news/2016/05/10/dams-drought-and-disaster-along-mekong-river

22. Fawthrop, T, 2016. ‘Killing the Mekong, dam by dam’. The Diplomat, 28/11/16. http://thediplomat.com/2016/11/killing-the-mekong-dam-by-dam/

23. CH. Karnang, 2017. ‘About Us’. http://www.ch-karnchang.co.th/en/#/about/us

24. International Rivers, 2017. ‘About Us’. https://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/about-international-rivers-3679

25. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Chapter 1: Myth and Dream. Pantheon Books: New York City

26. Roy, E. A, 2016. ‘New Zealand river granted same legal rights as human being’.The Guardian, 16/3/17.  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/16/new-zealand-river-granted-same-legal-rights-as-human-being

27. Ashwanden, C, 2017. ‘Water Farming Part 1: How and Why Can We Start Farming Water?’. http://permaculturenews.org/2017/03/20/water-farming-part-1-can-start-farming-water/