Friday, 5 December 2014

On Brentor

The South West of England possesses three dramatic tors, each topped by a church or the ruins of a church. Glastonbury Tor is the most famous, and justly so, followed by its near neighbour Burrow Mump, also in Somerset: you can see the one from the other. The third lies much further to south and west in Devon, and, situated right on the edge of Dartmoor, is the least visited of the three. It is called Brentor.


Clamber up to the rocky summit and you're rewarded with dramatic views of the moor (and, when we went, the rising moon).







Oddly for a working church, the porch is covered in graffiti, some of it quite old.


The church is dedicated to St Michael, as were the ruins at Glastonbury and Burrow Mump, and as so many high places have shrines dedicated to the saint, some have speculated that this was a concerted effort by the Church to put a stop to lingering pagan practices (St Michael famously stands triumphant over Satan).


The fact that you can draw a straight line between Glastonbury Tor, Burrow Mump and Brentor, and, moreover, one that points in the direction of the May Day sunrise, struck the writer John Michell as more than coincidental. As I've blogged about before, he posited that here was a major ley-line, a piece of pre-Christian technology if you will, that directed earth energy up country towards a harmonious end. 

Whatever the metaphors we choose to describe it, I think high places like Brentor have always been regarded as holy, long before there were either Christians or ley-hunters. Just as we can't help but let our minds reach out with wonder to the horizon, so some part of us, a part that longs to touch that which lies beyond, relaxes and unwinds.

Craggy, desolate, a little bit haunted, Brentor remains a numinous place.



Monday, 1 December 2014

Revels and wrens

And so to Ludlow Castle to play bagpipes at its Medieval Christmas Fayre.


Photo by Joolz Webb

I was invited once again by Paul Saunders to join Revellion, a kind of medieval costume band supergroup. It's a fantastic chance to dress up, play raucous tunes and make bad puns with old friends.


There's always lots to look at…




…but I was especially delighted to get another chance to see Alan Kirkpatrick's No Strings Puppet Theatre again, after a gap of a good many years.


Delivered with Goonish energy and a characteristic dry wit, his portative hand-puppet version of 'Robin Hood and the Monk' wouldn't be out of place in a Terry Gilliam movie.





But my meeting of the weekend was with a man who said he could call wrens to his hand. "How do you do that?" I asked. "Oh", he said, "I speak wren" and with that he started to whistle. It wasn't the moment to whip out my phone and record him so you'll just have to take my word for it that his rendition was perfect. I was dumbfounded.

The conversation moved onto robins. "Nah, I can't speak robin. Aggressive little buggers."




Wednesday, 12 November 2014

On walking with plants

Recently a post appeared on one of the Facebook groups I follow, wondering why it is that ayahuasca, an hallucinogen from "another very distant culture" has become so popular in Europe. There is, it went on, "virtually no evidence for any such substances having been used by native spirit workers to achieve altered states of consciousness. The Native European tradition seems to have been similar to that of Siberia, where you were regarded as a pretty poor shaman if you needed drugs to get you into an altered state in order to do your job".



Needless to say, the post prompted a lot of debate. Many agreed with the author, adding that the use of hallucinogens in shamanism was certainly a shortcut, a kind of cheating we should all frown upon. Some defended it, pointing to the plethora of psychoactive plants in our indigenous flora and the possible lines of evidence for prehistoric usage, while others pointed to the pressure that entheotourism exerts on indigenous cultures and ecologies.

I suppose a glib reply would be that having borrowed (or appropriated – take your pick) rattles, drums, power animals, journeying, sweat lodges, tipis, animal chants, soul-retrieval, tobacco-offerings, animism, dream-catchers, medicine-wheels, tracking, pain ordeals, vision-quests and smudging, why draw the line at power plants?

More seriously, with the notable, and perhaps uncomfortable, exception of opium, for which there is evidence of an unbroken chain of usage stretching back to the Neolithic, the post's author is right in saying there is little evidence for such substances being used in European prehistory. More correctly, there is a yawning absence of evidence, for or against, such that we are free to imagine the ancient past as drug-free or drug-filled according to taste.

When I was writing Shroom, I concluded that indigenous psychoactive plants, but particularly psilocybin mushrooms, had played little part in British prehistoric religion. In the ten years since, I've revised my position and I now think it inconceivable that no one ever tripped intentionally until modernity, such are the timescales involved. It's just that they left no trace of their having done so.



Be that as it may, we must be careful not to impose our modern Western notions onto people distant in space and time. The idea, common to many indigenous cultures, of plants as other-than-human persons, or teachers even, with whom one must forge a respectful relationship, has little to do with our typically pejorative discourses surrounding 'drugs' and 'drug-abuse'. Likewise we should remember that the term 'shamanism' is itself a Western construct, applied to the many cultural practices around the world that we, in our wisdom, have deemed similar enough to be worthy of the name. If we must use the term, and surely we are stuck with it, the best we can do is speak of many shamanisms. The idea that there was or is an original 'pure' shamanism from which others are ersatz and degenerate copies is untenable (not that that's stopped Western scholars and writers from repeatedly making that judgement).


Is a Native American Church peyote ceremony less shamanistic than a Neo-Pagan sweat-lodge simply by virtue of its using a teacher plant? Is a modern Druid smudging themselves with mugwort the more authentic for not inhaling? To answer yes is to do violence yet again to indigenous worldviews, to judge them by our own implicit, yet questionable, moral standards and to fail to listen to what they might have to teach us.

Speaking as someone who has walked and worked with teacher plants, I can attest that to do so is not a shortcut to anything. It is its own path (though if the numbers of attendees of events like Breaking Convention and Kew's Intoxication season are to go by, one that is increasingly popular). 

There is always a danger of sanctimony in these kinds of debates, a risk that we remain mired in that ugly kind of Protestant self-regard where piety, as an ostentatious form of work, is taken as an outward measure of inner spiritual capital. But I would say this, that walking with teacher plants is far from easy. Their purgative effects can be punishing on the body, while they are nothing if not existentially and ontologically challenging. Many cultures regard the experience as something of a moral interrogation, where one is forced to review one's actions and their consequences from the standpoint of others. One's failings are typically brought to the fore. Perhaps that's why the path tends to be self-selecting.



I am quite sure that traditional, indigenous shamanisms, have always been rife with envy and competitiveness (not to mention sorcery and bad mojo, though that's another story). Surely, it's time we moved beyond such mundane human concerns because time seems in very short supply right now. The appeal of the many shamanisms to the West at this moment is that their varied techniques seem to offer a profound way with which to reconnect both with the other-than-human world and the parts of the self from which the mad march of modernity has sundered us. If this is so, and it is my profound hope that it is , then all shamanisms of all kinds have their part to play. We should judge them by their results and not their methods.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Seven-league boots

In what's like a curse from some forgotten fairy-tale, I seem quite unable to find a pair of shoes that fit. My feet are narrow to the point of girliness, and slightly different lengths, such that they deviate wildly from the average size 9 to which they're supposed to conform. While I can always get one shoe to fit perfectly, the other crushes my toes, bruises my arch and sends sciatic pains up my leg. Perhaps I was unkind to a cobbler in a previous life? A poorly-fitting pair of shoes brings quiet misery.

Well, I've finally given in to common sense and had a pair of boots made to measure and while my purse took a hit, the knowledge that I shall stride through the next ten years stoutly shod puts a spring in my step and knocks such paltry concerns to one side. In any case, I like to support the artisan where I can.



I went to a local Devon company, Green Shoes, and I can't recommend them highly enough. As a local this meant I could drop in to get my feet measured in person, and they gave me not one but two fittings. When it transpired that the left shoe was, indeed, too tight, they took it away and resoled it without hesitation. It was a very different experience from anything you'll find on the High Street. If you'll forgive the pun, they put the soul back into shoe-making.

In the end, I went for the Dartmoor Boot in chocolatey brown leather with a car-tyre sole (for ease of re-heeling), though the options were many.


I don't know if I've paid off my dues to the cobbler of yore but I'm exceedingly happy. They may not quite be seven-league boots but I'm relishing the thought of walking many miles in their company.

Raga for a wet morning in November

Curl up. Enjoy.


Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Intoxication at Kew

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew have been running their Intoxication season, all about psychoactive plants, and last weekend I was invited to speak on the cultural history of the magic mushroom.


Aside from the weird and wonderful plants in its collection, there's something Sergeant Pepperish about Kew, so it was a doubly appropriate place for such an event.





The aim was to draw people's attention away from drugs, per se, back to the plants from which they're derived, and to make the point that people around the world have conceived these plants and their effects differently.



For example, plants that are seen as sacred by some indigenous cultures are regarded by ours as so dangerous that they can only be displayed in cages.



Others, meanwhile, remain quite legal...


...but all came with a warning...


My talks consisted of a condensed version of Shroom and I'm pleased to say they went down well. Other speakers included Bryn Dentinger talking about the mycology and taxonomy of Psilocybe species; Monique Simmonds on Kew's advisory role to the Police on plants and drugs; and the indefatigable David Luke on mushrooms and psychic abilities. It was all held together by curator, Mike Jay. Huge thanks to everyone involved for creating such an excellent and vibrant weekend.

Demand was such that on Sunday we were moved to a bigger venue. Two hundred seats proved insufficient and I'm told at least another hundred people were turned away. Here's part of the, ahem, 'kew', which stretched around the building.



What's clear is that despite the pariah status of the magic mushroom, and psychedelics more generally, interest in the subject grows unabated.