Celtic Spirituality in My World: A Winter's Reflection on Dying Voles and Arboreal COMPANIONS

I am late rising this morning, the noise of the world already pressing into my inner sanctum. The wind howls relentlessly outside, swirling around the solid stonewalls of my home, frustrated it cannot press in, throwing fistfuls of light snow at the windows like a petulant child. Is it disappointed at not claiming mastery over all, at having come across something not willing to bow to its power?  Or is it so glad to be ruler of the day, clearly the leader of the elements let loose to run where it pleases, it turns away from my stone enclave with a dismissive flip of its snowy head.  Either way, I am safe within my adamantine fortress, free to peer out at the mid winter maelstrom untouched by its bitterness, wrapped in the cozy smell of brightly burning apple wood.

It is my habit to rise early enough to watch the day unfold, but I have overslept and the morning light is already well into the sky. I take my prayer stool to the large window in my husband’s studio where I can look out on the day without being in it.  In the warmer weather there is an open space in the garden facing east where I watch the day begin, but in the dead of winter, the best to be arranged is a spot by the only window in the house that reaches down to ground level and stretches up taller than I can stand.

The sky is white grey, with no discernable markings.  I sit to rest my mind, my daily attempt to humble myself before the enormity of all that I am not.  But I am restless. Though the wind cannot budge the heavy stones of the house, it seems to push at my mind, eddies of memory billow, puffs of dusty dislodged phrases from long ago conversations rise up and cloud my attempt at stillness.

My husband has come into his studio to work.  He knows not to disturb me when I am sitting very still.  But his work has begun and I am the intruder in the day. I hear him sit. The first gulp of his tea is loud and I am momentarily irritated, transported to a knotty pine recreation room where I sit as a child on a red sofa, my legs sticking out in front of me, trying to eat an apple without displeasing my father. It is impossible. The sound of my munching irritated him beyond measure. I was too frightened to leave the room, but not familiar enough with him to speak of it. And, I am supposing, I was not willing to give up the apple.  All these years later, I can feel that irritation pressing down on me, though now it translates to my ears and the noises made by the drinking or eating of another in a place that might otherwise be silent.

I listen again to the gulping sound. My husband’s mouth and hands are as familiar to me as my own. The butterscotch smell of his chai sweetens the air. I close my eyes and think on the pleasure of his mouth, the tea running down his throat warming him and my irritation turns to wonder.

That is the power of the white grey sky and the swirling wind and my willingness to sit before it early in the morning.

Later the wind will find me walking across the open field to the safety of the woods. The air is icy.  The flat ground almost bare of snow.  I am thinking of my neighbor Rob who has emailed me this morning.  He is an eager scientist and always so happy to share his considerable knowledge. I marvel at his tall beauty and his clickety-clack brain that seems to roam over the landscape, extracting information from the smell of the air and the feel of the ground, and then by some strange alchemy tie it effortlessly to a chemist’s chart or a physicist’s table, handing me a bouquet of scientific understanding tied with a raffia bow. He is a neighbour worth adoring if only for his marvelous ability to present deep scholarship as a bit of casual conversation over morning toast. That he, and his goddess of a wife Carli, grow supersonic vegetables positively rude with health, is, I imagine, one of the by-products of their collective erudition and a secondary reason to wonder at my good fortune in the neighbour department.  I think of them as the beloved giants across the valley. This morning, Rob writes to me about the vole situation. Well, that’s how my pea brain thought of it anyway.

 “Since we didn't get to run our ecology course for you, I thought I'd still share some of the interesting science which can help make sense of what goes on all around us. You may have been shocked, as we were, to wake up yesterday and see that all of our snow had disappeared in just a few hours. What happened was that unusually warm air, which was brought up to us by the extreme southerly dip in the jet stream, flowed in over the snowpack, was cooled past its dew point and condensed. If you woke up early enough you probably saw thick fog over the spots that still held a bit of snow. The latent heat of condensation (2000 joules/g of water) was then released into the snowpack, melting it many times faster than would have otherwise been possible. With the return of freezing temperatures, and no isolative blanket of snow, needle ice will now form in the soil, which can be devastating to plant/tree roots. All of the creatures that rely on the "subnivean" (below the snowpack) environment for warmth are now forced to endure the freezing temperatures. I predict this winter will see unparalleled mortality for most of the creatures that make up the bulk of the food chain (voles, shrews, mice, moles etc.). This change will ripple through the food web.”

 I can still see the remnants of the vole’s long lines through my garden, evidence of their sharp noses to the ground, no doubt searching out something for supper before they head off home. Needle ice does not seem a good place to get cozy.  Are they all shivering in their little houses, huddling together, surrounded by shards of ice poking into their sides? Being an early lover of Beatrice Potter I am simply unable to imagine the real world of mice and voles. In my mind’s eye they are always wearing little caps and aprons and fussing over a stew.  Now a tsunami has come to their world, washing away pots and pans, baskets of knitting and fluffy quilts and they lie shivering in empty caves lined with shards of glass.

 Does it matter do you think whether I see the voles with their hats askew and their homes destroyed or as Rob sees them, dying rodent bodies breaking a link in the food chain? The result is still the same.  There is a mournful cast to the day.  As I walk through the frozen February garden and across the pasture, I am newly aware of the vole’s suffering.  How was it, I wonder, that Rob thought to send me this particular bit of science this very morning?  What might have been an open field smothered in a blustery wind has some new layer to it.  And it is that of a graveyard.  In the midst the almost mystical movement of the glacial wind, there is slow and painful dying beneath my feet.

The wind is so bitter out in the open I choose to walk through the forest, past the substantial ash and maple and down through the cedar grove. Out of the wind, there is the seeming steadiness of the woods.  Looking up I can see bits of blue ambitiously pushing from behind the bleak grey clouds. The tops of the trees sway and creak.  But along the pathway it is surprisingly quiet and still.

 At one point in the walk the path narrows and I can just fit through two large trunks.  In a passing fancy I put an arm around each of them and slow my step.  It feels in memory as if I am with two friends, one on either side, smiling at a camera ready to capture a special relationship on film. The remembrance halts my step and I stand quietly taking in the presence of my two new companions.  My left arm encircles what feels like a hefty man, larger and stronger than the trunk held in my right arm, which feels in comparison like the thick waist of an older woman.

 In the beginning they seem two steady comrades.  But I sense from the woman that all is not just as it seems.  I release my left arm from her boyfriend and gather her with both my arms in embrace, resting by cheek against her rough skin, listening to her breath.

 And then I feel the movement.  The trunk that had seemed so steady and still is not still at all, but moving ever so gently, back and forth, right down into the ground.  You have to be very still to feel it, but once you do, it is unmistakable.  After a time, I leave her side, and embrace the fellow, who surly is not moving at all, such a stout lad, burly and robust. It takes longer to feel his movement, but leaning into him and willing myself to absolute stillness, there comes eventually the graceful swaying of his centre.  I hold him tenderly to me and gently kiss both him and then her.  All is moving, and we three friends are moving together.

The grey white sky has given way to the brightest blue. The dying goes on for those little creatures that are hidden here and there around the garden and field and woods.  There is nothing to be done about it but to think on them and know this is their day too. And to remember holding two dear friends whose outer bodies are trees, but who live and breathe and move with all that is.

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We find here a wonderfully life-affirming and exuberant kind of Christianity that must owe something of its spirit to pre-Christian forms of religious life amount the Celts. The relative innocence and freshness of early Celtic Christianity is a discovery that the modern observer, wearied by the abstractions and dualism of body in opposition to spirit that have dogged the Christina tradition in its more classical forms, may find welcome.
— Oliver Davies, Celtic Spirituality, pg. 23

Poem: Patrick, Brigit, Come and See

Patrick,

Brigit,

Come and see,

I’ve made a garden near the Trees.

My own guardians

Tall and true,

Standing round

In grey green hue,

Breathing God with every breath,

Breathing God to offer rest. 

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Patrick,

Brigit,

Come and pick,

Flowers bursting blue and pink.

Bulbs are pushing

Through the Earth,

The green it heralds

A rebirth.

Goddess Spring in every breath,

Goddess sings to bring us rest.

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Patrick,

Brigit,

Come and smell,

My rose buds they begin to swell.

‘Evelyn’, ‘Gertrude'.

‘Mary Rose’,

‘Darcey Bussell,

To tease your nose.

The scent of Heaven with every breath,

The scent of Heaven to offer rest. 

Patrick,

Brigit,

Come and sit,

At my table candlelight.

Friends and family

Sharing grace, 

Jesus too

He has His place, 

Telling Stories with sweet breath, 

Listening Stories to give us rest. 

Patrick,

Brigit,

Gather round

Autumn’s gifts,

Riches abound,

Tomatoes, berries

Take what you will,

Bring your baskets,

Take your fill,

Heavenly Father grants us Breath,

Heavenly Mother grants us rest.

Patrick,

Brigit,

Come be still,

For winter now exerts Her Will,

Cloaks my dear garden

In her snow,

While all lies napping

Deep below.

It’s time to listen to our breath,

Winter’s gift, the gift of rest.

Patrick,

Brigit,

Come and be,

In my garden close to me.

Christ he walks,

Upon the land,

In the garden,

Takes my hand.

We are all of us one breath,

Come to my garden, come to rest.