Less than 1 percent of the ancient Caledonian forest remains, much of it in the Abernethy region, where Rachel and I camped for a week in mid July. She wanted to prove to me that real forests still existed in the British Isles. Our first evening there, I went for a walk and discovered this dead sheep. Continue reading “2013 in photos: A week in the Caledonian forest”
2013 in photos: A visit to Meri Wells’ studio
In yesterday’s post, I mentioned our visit to the studio of the Welsh artist Meri Wells. That was last July, in the course of a weekend with Clive Hicks-Jenkins (pictured above with Meri) and his partner Peter Wakelin. Continue reading “2013 in photos: A visit to Meri Wells’ studio”
2013 in photos: Touched by a Rachel
I took a lot of photos this year, most of them during the two months I spent in the UK. I never did get around to sharing them all, so let me try to make up for lost time with a few gargantuan posts. One benefit of taking a look back is seeing patterns that one might not notice otherwise.
Here’s Rachel laying her hand on beech trees in Hebden Bridge, Continue reading “2013 in photos: Touched by a Rachel”
King’s Cave, Arran
On the west coast of Arran, quite near Machrie Moor, are a series of sandstone sea caves, formed by wave action when the sea level was higher than it is today. One of them is full of petroglyphs, some of which date back to the Iron Age if not before. It’s called King’s Cave — one of many caves around Scotland alleged to be the one where the fugitive Robert the Bruce famously observed a spider persisting in trying to attach its web to the slippery walls, and so resolved to be similarly persistent in fighting for Scottish independence. Continue reading “King’s Cave, Arran”
Encounters with the Neolithic (5)
(Read Part 4.)
After a week in the highlands of Scotland, we took a combination of buses and trains down to Glasgow and out to the west coast, where we caught the ferry to Arran, an island about which it is often said that it resembles Scotland in miniature: very mountainous in the north, with more rolling, agricultural land in the south. Continue reading “Encounters with the Neolithic (5)”
Britain BC with Francis Pryor
This two-part documentary, made for British television, is a great way to get up to speed on the current thinking about prehistoric Britain.
I’m certain that the people who did this believed in another world, another dimension beneath the ground.
In this new farming landscape, the cult of the ancestors is born. Their influence was necessary for the continued fertility of the land. For the ancient Britons, the discovery of crops, something that, when you cut it down, can be regrown from the seeds of the dead, must’ve been a kind of magic. And it’s possible that they believed that these ceremonial enclosures were fields for the dead, the place where the ancestors’ souls could, like the crops, grow to life again.
There’s also a book. And Francis Pryor’s blog For the Time Being is very worth following.
Encounters with the Neolithic (4)
(Read Part 3.)
Early one morning some two weeks after our Wiltshire trip, we stepped off the overnight sleeper train in Aviemore, in the heart of the Scottish highlands. We had reserved a campsite in the village of Nethy Bridge, a short bus ride away, but check-in wasn’t until late afternoon, so we had plenty of time to kill. A tourist map of Aviemore showed a Neolithic stone circle — one of many in the local area — a few blocks from downtown, so we decided to wander over and check it out.
The site was in a suburban neighborhood, across the street from a fire station. A team of carpet cleaners were at work in the house next door.
The ambiance was very different from Avebury — and the monument was, of course, infinitely less significant. The only tree on the site was a small rowan that had been permitted to grow next to one of the smaller stones in the ring.
There were, however, other visitors when we arrived, so we made our way to the back of the site and flopped down to rest, trying not to stare at the middle-aged woman sitting in Buddhist-style meditation at the center of the ring. A man of the same age waited near the street, while a teenaged girl we took to be their daughter sat with with her back against a stone, her facial expression and body language a comical mixture of boredom and acute embarrassment.
While the woman meditated, we each found things to photograph.
Rachel became entranced by a head of grass,
while I stalked some of the outermost stones.
They were most cooperative models, and beautiful in their variegated coats of lichen.
Finally the woman got up, and they all left. But we weren’t alone for very long. A few minutes later, a friendly black cat appeared.
What most impressed us about this site was its setting, best captured in this panoramic photo of Rachel’s (click to see a larger version on Flickr). In the heart of a residential area, surrounded by close-cropped lawn, the stones retained as profound a sense of presence and individuality as anything I ever saw in a Zen garden in Kyoto. Especially to an American, it’s astonishing to realize that the landscape is dotted with 4000-year-old stone monuments, and few people make a big deal of them. A few hours later, when we mentioned the stone circle to the woman in the train station who was watching our luggage for us, she admitted that she’d never gone to see it, despite having lived her whole life in the town.
So it seems that at least the less impressive Neolithic monuments in the U.K. are of intense interest to a small subculture, and are otherwise taken for granted — given some level of care and protection as sites of historical interest, but that’s about it. And stones, let’s face it, are not especially demanding things to look after. As for their suitability as meditation partners, the Visit Avebury website claims that “During a period of 20 to 30 minutes, you may feel deep peace, bliss and gain some truly amazing insights,” and they link to a wild “Avebury vision” by intuition consultant and healer Suzanne Askham. The specific content of the visions she describes may provoke skepticism, but I kind of like her central insight: “It is not the stones themselves that matter. It’s the spaces in between.” After an experience of oneness and bliss, she writes,
Gradually, as if from above, I become aware of the pattern of the stones again. I understand now how they act as a locus. The circular structure is helpful for returning back to your body.
We can think [of] it, perhaps, as a Neolithic landing pad for the soul.
And then I am back again, sitting on baked bare earth, the sun on my face, cool stone behind my back.
“A Neolithic landing pad for the soul.” Sure, why not?
I have a feeling the cat would agree.
(Continue to Part 5.)
Encounters with the Neolithic (3)
(Read Part 2.)
It was a long, hot mile through the fields from Avebury Ring, past Silbury Hill to West Kennet Long Barrow, and the cool air in the empty barrow was very welcome indeed. Continue reading “Encounters with the Neolithic (3)”
Encounters with the Neolithic (2)
(Read Part 1.)
When Alexander Keiller, the marmalade magnate, restored Avebury Ring in the 1930s, they cleared a lot of trees. But for whatever reason a few token beech trees were left, and these have now become a focus of reverence perhaps rivaling the stones themselves. Continue reading “Encounters with the Neolithic (2)”
Encounters with the Neolithic (1)
Avebury, early July. A sweltering day in a landscape made of chalk. I’m not sure about mad dogs, but the Englishmen and women were very much out in force. Not to mention a whole lot of foreign tourists, including at least one American. The Neolithic is more popular than ever these days. Continue reading “Encounters with the Neolithic (1)”