Saturday, November 17, 2018

How Dare You Pull the Rose?

Tam Lin was a human knight who had become the favorite of the Queen of Elphame. He was pledged to protect the forest that was sacred to her at Carterhaugh in the lowlands of Scotland.

Janet was the daughter of the lord who held legal title to the land. She had been warned that Tam Lin guarded the woods. One day while her father was away at war, she went down to Carterhaugh, her skirt tied high above her knee, to gather forbidden roses. The ballad tells us:

She had na pu'd a double rose,
A rose but only twa,
Till upon then started young Tam Lin,
Says, Lady, thou's pu nae mae.
Why pu's thou the rose, Janet,
And why breaks thou the wand?
Or why comes thou to Carterhaugh
Withoutten my command?

Janet has come to a place where the forest and all that grows in it are sacred to a Queen and her people who have been there long before the British crown gave her father’s people legal title there. Tam Lin is charged with defending the sovereignty of the people to whom the place is sacred.

Janet replies very much as the colonizer she is:

"Carterhaugh, it is my own,
My daddy gave it me,
I'll come and gang by Carterhaugh,
And ask nae leave at thee."

At this point, Tam Lin should have driven her off. But instead he takes her out among the reeds and rushes where they conceive a child.

Therein lies his betrayal of his Queen – not in taking a human lover, Elphame is not known for monogamy, but in allowing the plundering of a sacred space on his watch (and later leaving Elphame completely to become fully and solely human again, and to prevent the child he conceived with Janet from expressing his faerie genetics.)

He was sworn to protect those Roses from any who would take them without permission and respect and reciprocity and he broke that oath and incurred the wrath of the Queen who had loved him.

In this culture, we are not used to any part of the other-than-human world saying “No” to us. We are like Janet, believing we have the right to come and go as we please and take what we desire.

The King James Version of the Bible, in words that linger in the background of the minds of believers and non-believers alike, tells us that:

God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

Capitalism brings a secular echo of that cosmology and ethos – turning the world, including our bodies, into a set of commodities to be traded and materials to be extracted and developed for the generation of wealth. Socialist regimes from the Soviet Union to Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela simply shifted from treating the living world as a source of resources for generating wealth to seeing it as a source of resources to benefit the people and the state (and, all too often, the members of the regime and their families and friends.)

Even the rhetoric around conservation in this culture tends to focus on the idea of preserving wild places and wild creatures for the good of future generations or because of the joy humans take in experiencing their presence. (This is implied by the word “conservation” itself – the etymology of which implies that streams and salmon and ancient forests are ours to save or to waste.)

All are expressions of the same paradigm – the land itself and other-than-human life exist for humans to do with as we will. The debate is simply whether humans should use them for the glory of God, for profit, of for the good of a particular human society, and whether we should use them all now or set some aside for the tangible benefit they might bring to future generations and the intangible aesthetic benefit they bring us now.

This stands in sharp contrast to the view of animist cultures, which tend to speak of plants and animals and mountains and rivers as kindred, have cosmologies in which certain places and beings are especially sacred, and have stories about the dire consequences of doing things like poisoning water sources or taking uranium out of the ground.

In the Gaelic-speaking world, the Faerie realm has always been understood to have allies in the plant and animal realms and sacred hills and waters that must be treated with respect.

Drawing from her own experiences, Cora Anderson, grand-daughter of an herbalist who emigrated from Ireland to Alabama during the Great Hunger, wrote:

The [Faerie realm] is not some place put here for the sole benefit of humans. It is teeming with many forms of life, including those who are malevolent and dangerous to humans not because they are evil but because they are different. They are the wildlife of their native habitat. Most of their antagonism is caused by corruption and destructive behavior toward the environment.”

This understanding of the world remains especially strong on the west of Ireland, where Gaelic was the primary language well into the twentieth century and where there are still small regions, the Gaeltacht of Connemara, the Dingle and Beara Peninsulas, and the Aran Islands, where few speak English in their day-to-day interactions.

In August of 2017, Danny Healy-Rea, a member of the Dail (Ireland’s parliament) from County Kerry told a reporter from the Irish Times that he believed that an unexplained dip in a road under construction were being caused by faeries angry at the desecration of the land around a series of ancient stone ring forts that belonged to them. The Times reported that Healy-Rae spoke of:

the local belief – which he shared – was that ‘there was something in these places you shouldn’t touch.’

These were ‘sacred places’ and fairies were believed to inhabit them, he said.

“’I have a machine standing in the yard right now. And if someone told me to go out and knock a fairy fort or touch it, I would starve first,’ said Mr Healy-Rae, who owns a plant hire company.”

The newspaper went on to add that a formal investigation of the problems with the road were the result of a “deeper underlying subsoil/geotechnical problem.” People working within a rationalist paradigm tend to assume that the presence of an empirically observable process unfolding in the material world negates the possibility of magical or metaphysical forces also being at play. For example, many atheists hold that because imaging technologies show certain parts of the brain “lighting up” when people are having religious or mystical or spiritual experiences that gods and other non-embodied spirits must be phantoms conjured by human neurological quirks. Yet if show the ways in which different human brains respond to sunlight, the same people rarely express the opinion that this is proof that the sun is a figment of our collective imaginations. In her gorgeous novel about a contemporary Welsh girl’s encounters with the faerie realm, Jo Walton writes:

You can almost always find chains of coincidence to disprove magic. That’s because it doesn’t happen the way it does in books. It makes these chains of coincidence. That’s what it is. It’s like if you snapped your fingers and produced a rose but it was because someone on an aeroplane had deopped a rose at just the right time for it to land in your hand. There was a real person and a real aeroplane and a real rose, but that doesn’t mean the reason you have the rose in your hand isn’t because you did the magic.”

And so to an empirically observable mechanism that causes a roadbed to collapse doesn’t mean that the collapse isn’t also the result of triggering a curse laid to protect the place the road threatens to defile.

From a traditional Irish standpoint, underground geological and hydrological disruptions destroying a roadway would be completely consistent with the faerie realm expressing its displeasure. As we discussed earlier, Irish tradition holds that when the ways of the invading Galatian Celts became too strange and brutal for the Tuatha de Danann, Mannanan mac Lir, son of the sea god, gathered his people at the mouth of the Boyne where the descended into the Otherworld where lies the well that is the source of all the waters of the world and took up resonance beneath the hollow hills – Neolithic tombs. The magic of the Tuatha de Danann included the ability to summon storms. Beneath the hollow hills, would not the Daoine Sidhe work with earth and water in the same ways that the Tuatha de Danann has worked with air and fire when they walked the surface of the earth?

The stretch of the N22 highway that kept falling apart passed through an area rich with the ceremonial and burial sites of the people who inhabited the land before the sons of Mil arrived from Spain.

The west of Ireland is full of ring forts, stone circles, and passage tombs, preserved because it was the region that fought off English domination most persistently and most successfully, allowing the language, the culture, and the ancient sites to be preserved. Since independence, the continued fear and reverence people of the west tend to feel around sites that are sacred to the Daoine Sidhe has served as a buffer against development, leaving many hills and streams and fields in many areas in a semi-wild state not much different from the state they have been in for the four centuries since Queen Elizabeth’s armies cleared most of the country’s remaining Oak forests in order to deny rebels a place to hide.

Developers are often hard pressed to find a crew that will work on a site sacred to “the Other Crowd” – every rural community is full of stories about what befell the workers who last disturbed such places. The kind of mishaps that insurance companies tend to refer to as “acts of God” are often seen as signs of the displeasure of the faerie realm as well. I know a place in Galway that became conservation land because a tree fell on a man who was trying to cut it down and the community took it as a sign that the land was being protected by the Daoine Sidhe.

The Daoine Sidhe are known to be particularly protective of Hawthorn trees.

In 1929, Irish naturalist, Arthur Kells, wrote:

In Ireland, it is the solitary and small-sized thorn trees that grow singly by the side of streams, or in little groups on the faery raths or mounds, that are held to be the particular haunts of the good people.”  

As late as the 1990’s, folklorist Eddie Leninhan found many people in the west of Ireland who shared stories of the woes that befell those who damaged Hawthorns:  one spoke of the tree beginning to bleed when cut with a cross-cut saw, another spoke of a man who, after cutting a Hawthorn, felt thorns in his bed every night for the rest of his life. Those were among the milder consequences associated with such desecration.

The Hawthorn is, in many ways, a perfect glyph for the realm whose gate it protects – its flower is strangely seductive, its berries are deeply nourishing to the heart, and its thorns will cut deep into the flesh of any who come grasping greedily. It is a tree that can be generous with humans who treat it with respect, but also sets a fierce limit against exploitation.

The presence of the Other Crowd sets limits on human destruction. Where to they draw the line?

Drawing on folklore and her own experiences, Morgan Daimler makes the case that the faerie realm is really only interested in protecting its own sacred places:

[T]oday’s pop culture fairies also reflect aspects of our culture, shifting into spritely little eco-warriors who show up to impotently bemoand modern human destruction of the environment, as if we haven’t been merrily clearcutting entire countries and driving species extinct for millennia. The modern crisis may be a more extreme threat to our own survival, but humans have had an enormous impact on the world around us for as long as we’ve existed in significant numbers. We may well be courting our own destruction and unlike the Gentry we don’t have the Otherworld to return to if we ruin this one, but arguably They have never cared about the things we do to the world around us as long as we leave Their places alone. While there would be no reason for Themselves to suddenly and inexplicably turn to warning us about saving our environment.”

I agree with Daimler’s reading of the folklore, but not with her reading of human history. Yes, Paleolithic humans drove some species to extinction and the destruction of forests is at least as old as the Epic of Gilgamesh, but the rise of capitalism and industrialism set off unprecedented levels of destruction, accelerated further by the rise of the global petroleum-based economy. Paleolithic and Neolithic peoples did not permanently alter the climate, and while they did decimate some species, they did not set off waves of mass extinctions. Nor did feudal societies. Their scale of destruction did not impact the Otherworld. And the persistence of animist echoes in rural areas kept the lone Hawthorns and the Hollow Hills and the ring forts safe for a few centuries after the rise of capitalism. But when the wind and the rain themselves are changing, the Other Crowd take notice.

John Moriarty wrote “This World and the Otherworld are the same Great World.”

And the havoc this civilization is wreaking is being felt throughout the Great World.

My Wild Queen speaks of storms to come and out of Annwn a voice thunders “I am the war and the war has come.”

What that storm, that war, mean for humanity as a whole is another question – and one my Queen seems chillingly unconcerned with.

The great bard and Feri priest, Gwydion Pendderwen had a vision of her while at Tara, the seat of the High Kings of Ireland, that haunted him until his untimely death. He saw her rising from the sea on a blood red horse with a scourge in her hand. Then:

From that hill I could see all of Erin aflame,
and I knew the rest of the world was the same;
For the wrath of that Goddess would never be spent
Til the last human corpse had been broken and rent”

Perhaps. Should it become necessary, my Queen, like Babalon, would not shirk from unleashing bloodshed.

But, like Babalon, she too offers another path – a path of devotion, of relation, of alliance with those who would join her in unleashing the erotic and thanotic forces that would bring the end of this civilization and crack the world open in ways that would allow for the return of Her people, who are also our ancestors and her descendants, and whose ways of being are carried in genetic memory that is awakened when we accept her kiss.

And if we betray her, if we accept Her kiss and then break the promise it implies to Her world and Her people who in that moment became Our world and Our people?

Tam Lin, who was also called Thomas, was Her knight and Her lover. When she learned of his betrayal, he was already beyond Her grasp, but in her anguish she spoke of how she would have cursed him had she known what he was about to do:

'Had I kend, Thomas,' she says,
A lady wad hae borrowd thee,
I wad has taen out thy twa grey een,
Put in twa een o tree

'Had I but kend, Thomas,' she says,
I Before I came frae hame,
I had taen out that heart o flesh,
Put in a heart o stane.'

To civilized ears this sounds brutal. But she is not speaking in a civilized tongue. She is speaking in the tongue of a people for whom all worlds and all things are alive. From this perspective, to take out Her lovers’ two grey eyes and put them in a tree is to give him the ability to see the world from the perspective of the trees he is sworn to defend. To replace his heart of flesh with a heart of stone is to make him feel what the land feels.

Just as the wages of that other Thomas’s faithful service to Her as lover for seven years were a green mantle and a tongue that could not lie.

Her blessing and Her curse are one and the same: to be forever transformed in a ways that bring the imperative to serve the preservation of Her world and the re-enchantment of this one.

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