Archive for the ‘sanctity’ Tag

First meeting of the Native Awareness twelve month programme

Last weekend was the first long weekend of the Earth Living twelve month programme. I’ll try not to give too much away for those who might be thinking of signing up to the programme next year, but refer to the topics as listed on the Native Awareness website.

The main thing I took from the weekend was the camaraderie between the students, instructors and volunteers. Spending time with like-minded people was (as always) a pleasure, and we bonded well as a team, which bodes well for the survival immersion week next April, which we are all working towards. This is when we venture into the wilderness for a week with only the clothes we are standing in and the authentic primitive tools we have made throughout the year.

This first weekend was focused on advanced skills and crafts. I really enjoyed the pottery making and intend to find and process some of my local clay to make more of the utensils we’ll need in the immersion quest, hopefully in time for us to fire them communally at the next meeting in June. I managed to make a small pinch pot, larger coil pot and small oil lamp at the weekend, but have lots of ideas and inspiration for other pots I’d like to make.

Advanced bow drill was a revelation, and I’ve taken away lots of tips that will help me better understand, and become more proficient in, this type of firemaking. You never stop learning with the bow drill, and I’m already thinking about building my next set, in accordance with the time-tested theory that the more love and attention you put into your kit, the better the attitude with which you approach the process of firemaking, and the more successful you will hopefully be.

The other thing I took away from the weekend was the experience of finding and purifying water and foraging for wild edibles. These experiences brought me closer to the environs of the camp in all sorts of ways. Learning the skills of survival is not just about dealing with extreme situations; its about re-discovering our relationship with the natural world by removing the fear and distrust that separates modern humans from nature. Only when we can enter the wilderness with nothing, and without fear, can we re-establish the communication our ancestors enjoyed with the world… and our spirits so crave today.


The real Avatar

‘Mine – Story of a Sacred Mountain’ by Survival International.


We went to see Avatar in 3D on Wednesday. It’s the story of the human colonisation of the fictional planet of Pandora, and the resistance of the native population of Na’vi (The People). The humans attempt to usurp the Na’vi on a number of fronts, including militarily and diplomatically. They genetically create Na’vi bodies (or avatars), which trained specialists can upload their consciousness to, in order to negotiate with the Na’vi and attempt to ‘educate’ them in human values and language.

Pandora is a breathtakingly beautiful planet, and rendered in high-definition 3D it’s pretty awe-inspiring. The Na’vi enjoy a close bond with their land and can access a kind of ancestral consciousness through forest network. They are experts in tracking, hunting, healing, caretaking and honourable relationship. The barbarity of the colonising attitude is at the fore throughout, but for once things don’t always go the usurpers’ way.

Avatar is well worth a view and hopefully I’ll be going back to see the IMAX 3D version before it leaves the cinemas.

Not just ten days in the woods

I’ve just returned from ten days at Hazel Hill woods in Wiltshire on the Native Awareness courses Native Skills 1 and 2. Whatever expectations I had of the course were far outshone and I feel that I have developed more as a person the last ten days than I have in the previous three years, thanks to the others on the course, who by the end of the week I had come to regard as brothers and sisters. The week was like a bubble and I experienced that weird time dilation by which you feel things are passing ever so quickly and yet you struggle to remember what life was like before you were there.

Ostensibly the course focused on the various practical skills associated with survival and earth living – shelter building, friction firemaking, tracking, stalking, arrowmaking, cordage, basketry, preparing and cooking wild foods. The amount of learning that was passed on in the course of ten days was incredible. The more I learnt, however, the more I realised that these skills are not just tools of survival, they’re exercises in living in harmonious relationship with nature. The principles underpinning them cut across many disciplines. By learning about the properties of wood, bone, stone and sinew we were learning as much about ourselves and our relationships as we were about the tools of survival.

Highlights of the week for me included the drum stalk, whereby we were taken out into the woods at night and left blindfolded, having to return to the campfire using only the sound of the drum. This really made me realise how much of our perception is non-visual. The task become almost a meditation as I fell into pace with the drum, each footstep a prayer to the earth. An unintentional result of this exercise was that Emily lost her glasses during the stalk, and she and I made it our mission over the next few days to recover them (perhaps the most camouflaged glasses available for that terrain) using tracking skills, expanded awareness and personality profiling. We learnt perhaps more from this than anything else, seeing our environment with new eyes, eventually finding them by torchlight during a nighttime expedition after days of searching during the day. It seemed fitting that they were found at night around the same time the were lost, as though they were in the nighttime forest waiting for us to find them all along. A small triumph perhaps, but its elation was tangible, its excitement lasted days, and its lessons learnt and bonds forged are still with me.

Other highlights included a talk by Hanna, a wise woman in the Native American tradition, on the philosophies of awareness and relationship with the spirit that flows through all things. Skinning and gutting our own rabbits to make rabbit burgers was a lesson in gratitude and awe for the sacrifice that nature makes to feed us, and the debt we owe as caretakers of the world and each other. Watching two of the volunteers emerge from invisibility right in front of our eyes in full primitive camo was another one of many unforgettable experiences.

A pipe ceremony was another lesson to me in gratitude and the importance of not taking things for granted, for although nature provides everything we need to survive and thrive, we as humans are far from up to the task of attaining the knowledge and wisdom of how to live in harmony with it (and much, much further than our pre-agricultural ancestors). The message for me was not that we should censure ourselves too harshly for this, but that it is so important that we strive to be better, however small the steps we take, to learn more and to look after our brothers and sisters, human and non-human. The message of not taking things for granted was underlined when we went back to the kitchen area to find the electricity playing havoc. Eating dinner by candlelight was an unforeseen blessing.

I made personal connections with the others on the course that I was beginning to think I was unable to achieve. After the first few days I felt awkward and unsocialised as I am often accustomed to feel, but by the end of the week I felt at ease with, and fond of, everyone on the course. It was heartwarming to see how the group gelled and its members began to look after each other and provide the encouragement and support to allow each of us to achieve things we may never have been able to alone. The beginning of a community perhaps? … I hope so. It certainly alighted things in me that I had once known and have now come rushing to the fore with seemly infinite creative potential.

James’ and Alex’s approach to teaching these skills in that they want their students in turn to become teachers and help spread these skills, and the principles underlying them, to others. It is only by teaching these skills that we really learn them. So it was a real opportunity when on Sunday we were given the task of teaching friction firemaking to a group of conservationists also using the woods. Though nervous of our own abilities at first, by the end of the session we had taught all the participants how to make fire using the bow drill methods, two of whom managed to create a coal within an hour. Without meaning to we also managed to teach the basic principles of cordage, shelter, foxwalking and camouflage! Not only that, we had felt we had lit a spark of curiosity among them that would hopefully manifest itself again in the future. I was so proud of us, and so moved – elated and tearful at the same time.

One of the best things about the week was the chance to be childlike again, to play games, to sneak up on each other, to tease and to make games out of throwing sticks. Living in tune with nature is fun, and many indigenous tribal peoples are noted for their constant laughter and smiles.

Unfortunately my camera broke half way through the week, but I am hoping to get access to others’ pictures over the next few days, some of which I will try to post here, along with accounts of my dirt time over the coming weeks, months and years, developing my new found skills and passions.

My new bow

I got back late on Sunday evening from five exhausting but wonderful days of bowmaking at Bush Farm Bison Centre in Wiltshire. The course was run by James Watson and Alex Travers (Feathers) of the Native Awareness School. It was a challenging and emotional experience bringing a bow into being from bow stave to finished bow in just five days using only hand tools. As with a lot of these types of ordeals, it taught me as much about myself and my outlook as it did about how to make a bow.

Stages of bowmaking

On the first day we selected our bow staves from a selection of timbers. I chose a long walnut bowstave as I wanted to create a longish bow suitable for both field and target archery. The first stage was to remove the outer bark to expose a clean growth ring which was to form the back of the bow. This is one of the most important stages, as a bow back that cuts through a growth ring is more likely to snap or explode on being drawn. As my walnut stave was particularly pale, with close growth rings that were difficult to differentiate, I chose to back the bow with a rawhide backing, from a two year old doe. Each of these decisions were made in response how the materials responded, and each contributed to the essence of the finished bow.

After cutting the back of the bow with the draw knife, I then marked out the shape of the bow on the surface, avoiding as many knots as possible and following the grain of the wood. I decided on a 64″ length, tapering from half way down the limbs. The shape took advantage of the natural growth of the wood to form a slight reflex shape. Next came the lengthy process of cutting first the profile and then the back of the bow to shape using an axe and rasp. When this was complete, and the thickness of the back of the bow to the belly was just over half an inch, then came the process of cutting the nocks and tillering – of removing sections of the belly to ensure an even bend throughout the bow. If one section is too thick or wide it will resist bending and put pressure of the rest of the bow. If a section is too thin or narrow it will create a ‘hinge’ or weak point in the bow. After several passes the bow formed an even and pleasing bend and I could test shoot it for the first time at full draw.

The first few shots were successful – to great relief, although the fourth shot broke the nock of the arrow I was using, which shot off the bow into my forearm and produced a huge swollen bruise! The next day I began finishing the bow, painting the tips black with a mixture of charcoal powder and wood glue, adding a buckskin handle which I dyed red, and staining the belly of the bow with walnut husk dye. I then added coats of Danish oil. In subsequent days I replaced the red buckskin handle, which was a bit too bright, with a simple leather wrap handle sown on with linen thread and with red detail added. My bow was complete!

The finished bow

I highly recommend James’ courses. If you visit his website, like what you see and decide to book onto a course, please let him know where you heard about it.

What makes craft sacred?

Less than ten generations have passed since the mass-production methods of the Industrial Revolution properly took hold, and even then the majority of the population would have been involved in some form of craft work on a regular basis. Prior to that, thousands of generations relied on handmade items and tools.

As our ancestors learned more about the subtleties of their environment they responded with ever more sophisticated – and yet often startlingly simple – craft techniques. Knowledge was passed on and techniques evolved, forming an inextricable sympathy between craftsperson and natural world – a relationship that from today’s perspective (alienated as we tend to be from our modes of production) can seem almost mystical.

Sometimes it seems almost as if handcrafted items are imbued with the intention and consciousness of their makers, as if this is a physical trait that you could almost reach out and touch. In the voculabulary of spirituality you could say that handcrafted items are enspirited in a way that mass-produced items are not.

Can this be an objective quality – or does it require knowledge of the production method on behalf of the observer? Either way, it seems to me to be a vitally important link to a sustainable way of living that we seem to have mislaid … and increasingly need to recover.

The gods

Following up on the post on crafting simple ritual, I believe the gods as we understand them are human responses to external stimuli, in the same way as the concept of a thunderstorm is a human creation, a structured yet arbitrary interpretation of the sensations that enter our subconscious and are ordered by the structuring system of our conscious mind (which operates like a language). It’s impossible to know the ‘real’ gods, or the underlying reality they occupy, without recourse to the linguistic structuring of consciousness.

This underlying reality can be thought of as the realm of spirit, a unified place of infinite potential, the raw materials from which all interpretations of the world are forged through the process of classification. Things in the conscious world are sacred because they reflect this underlying potential. They are the stories and songs of our relationship with spirit. As I recognise this as being true for everything, so I believe that everything is sacred.

To those who honour the gods, they are as real as a table or a rainbow. As our structuring process is inherited, and as the gods were a crucial element of our ancestors’ worldview, so polytheism seems such a natural way to respond to the world for so many people today. Polytheism is a prototype, fossilised in myth, of our modern way of structuring the world. Accessing it speaks to something very elemental within us, connecting us to our earliest ancestors and reminding us of our place in the long process of becoming human and relating to Other.

Reason and logic are also ways of structuring, and often incompatible with the belief in deity. They don’t easily fit. To hold both is to be exposed to the gaps between the structures we use to conceptualise the world, to recognise that the process is arbitrary, an interpretation of an infinite underlying potential, not the sum of everything that is. But it’s not just their incongruity that makes the gods worthy of attention.

Our pre-modern ancestors had an innate recognition that experience was but a reflection of an underlying, unknowable reality. Language and cognition were but translations of that reality, subjective and arbitrary yes, but infused with poetry and artistry. Modernity brought an end to that realisation, in a process of disenchantment, when a worldview that had become standardised through shared language began to be mistaken for objective reality. An appreciation of deity re-enchants us, in that it reminds us of our relationship to the unknowable, to that which exists on the other side of language. It removes us from the centre of our cosmology, humbling us with the knowledge that we are subjects of our reality, not masters of it.

We need to honour the gods to remind us, and them, that we are still part of nature, still reflections of an underlying infinite potential.

Crafting simple ritual

I’d like to spend some time to think about ritual, taking it back to basic principles and ditching some of the stuff we do simply as a result of habit and fuzzy thinking. For me ritual is about carving out a sacred space, to mark our paths (individually and communally) through life, and to acknowledge and honour the spirits of the land, ancestors and deities (I’ll come back to what I mean by spirits and deities in a later post). In communal ritual it’s also about fostering a sense of community and shared intent.

Firstly, I think for it to be a ritual it has to be done regularly, regardless of whether that is daily, monthly, quarterly or yearly. Therein lies its strength. A sense of familiarity arises as instinct takes over from cerebral thought and the mind is freed to focus on the intent and respond to any subtle changes and outside influences that may occur. It also creates a relationship between the ritual participants and the spirits of the land, ancestors and deities that they gather to honour. If it’s a one-off then it’s a rite rather than a ritual.

The first stage of the ritual should be to state the intention, to focus the minds of the participants and to announce to the relevant spirits or deities that the purpose of the ritual is to honour them. I disagree with the practice of invoking or ‘calling in’ spirits in the High Magic tradition; it’s arrogant to think that these entities are waiting to be invited in at the whim of the ritualists, at a time and place of their choosing, and on their terms. If a spirit or deity is interested in what is going on, he/she will choose their level of involvement. Announcing the intention of the ritual and being open and responsive to the flow of events is sufficient.

A lot is made of protection and the need to ward off bad spirits, and even to cleanse bad spirits already ‘within’ or ‘attached to’ the participants. I don’t really believe that there are any such things as malevolent spirits out to get us. At worst a spirit may be indifferent, but on the whole I think they have better things to be doing than attacking unwary bystanders. The best ‘protection’, I believe, is humility, consideration and the ability to recognise and rectify any offence that might be caused during the course of the ritual. Negativity attracts negativity, so if there is anyone coming to the ritual with intent to cause harm then they shouldn’t be taking part in ritual in the first place.

As for the idea of cleansing people of negativity or bad spirits at the start of the ritual (usually by ‘smudging’) this strikes me as a little too close to the Christian concept of inherent or ‘original’ sin, that people are by default unclean or impure. There is an argument for cleansing in terms of leaving behind worries and preoccupations on entering the ritual, but I think it is important to stress that this is not due to anything inherently wrong with the participants. They need to recognise themselves as integral parts of nature, not something external that needs to be cleaned.

Nor do I go in for ritual washing. Dirt and sweat should be as much a part of the ritual as flowers and finery. Again there is the argument that the process of ritual washing helps the transition between normal life and ritual space. I’m in two minds about this as I believe that part of ritual should be to celebrate the mundane and to help dissolve the idea that only certain parts of experience are sacred, only to be brought out on special occasions.

It is important to mark ritual space as different, to help focus the minds of the participants on the present. There are ways to do this, however, without reinforcing distinctions between the sacred and the mundane. One way is to stress that everything is sacred, but that it is only by appreciating it as so are we able to forge a meaningful relationship with the land, ancestors, spirits and deities. Ritual space is differentiated as a place of heightened perception, and the celebration of what we see, feel and interpret.

Attention should be be focused the particular, including the peculiarities of the land, atmosphere and the current point of time within nature’s cycles. Ritual should be about celebrating the local, the particular and the one-off; it shouldn’t be a mindless reiteration, an archetypal pantomime divorced from place and time.

One of the few conventional elements of Pagan rituals I am particularly fond of is the circle, not cast to seal the ritual space off from the outside world, but merely as a shape used to focus attention. In communal rituals it is the most democratic of shapes, with everyone equal and able to have direct eye-contact with everyone else. The circle mirrors the cycles of the seasons, the tides, the paths of the sun and moon through our skies, and the horizon. It is a nurturing shape. The ritual circle is undoubtedly one of the best aspects of modern Pagan ritual.

In contrast, I’m not an advocate of the four quarters, particularly the Wiccan-style practice of calling in the four ‘guardians’. Even addressing the spirits of North, South, East and West in a non-invocatory style seems rather an arbitrary thing to do. To me these spirits don’t have a personality. It seems much more likely to me that our distant ancestors would have honoured the spirit of the forest, or river, or mountain, or thunder, rather than those of the cardinal directions, which gained prominence during the Middle Ages. That doesn’t mean that they have no merit, just that they are not essential, and (to me) counter-intuitive.

One of the perceived benefits of using the cardinal directions was their correspondences to the four ‘elements’ (earth, air, fire and water), and by extension the four humours, the four tarot suits etc. This whole cosmology again strikes me as rather medieval and out of place in modern ritual. Focusing on earth, air, fire and water however (though not exclusively or necessarily together), is a useful way to focus attention of the peculiarity of the ritual space and to celebrate nature. It is easy to imagine some of the earliest rituals taking place around a central fire, with participants taking turns to toast the spirits of the land and their ancestors in a similar vein to a modern Heathen blot, and I think this is still a very good practice.

Something I think still has a place in ritual is theatre, much as in the Mystery play tradition. An important element of ritual is to ground us, to allow us to position ourselves within the wider story of nature. Exploring cosmologies through drama is a good way for people to imagine their place within the world and so feel connected to it. From which cultures these stories and cosmologies come, or whether they are old or new, is not important, though if the intention is to honour a specific spirit or deity it makes sense to choose a story relating to them or to create a story within the cosmology they inhabit. To do otherwise would be rather insulting.

Storytelling is one of the oldest ways to bring communities together, to create relationships between people and their worlds and to honour the spirits of the land, ancestors and deities. It is only in recent centuries that it has become divorced from spirituality. I believe that part of a ritualist’s role is to draw attention to story as the material from which ritual is crafted, and insodoing remind the participants of the unity that once characterised our relationship with the world, in stark contrast to the alienated individuals we seem now to have become.


We went to see the film Australia on Saturday. I thought that the Aboriginal peoples and culture were represented quite well, though their story inevitably played but a supporting role to the romance unfolding between Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. I hope that most people coming out of the film would have felt the appropriate sense of outrage at the injustice of how the native people were dehumanised and abused by the colonisers.

Walkabout, dreamtime and songlines all cropped up, making me realise more than ever the damage we have done in destroying indigenous folk wisdom built up over hundreds of generations, not just in Australia but the world over. I have today signed up to receiving mailings from Survival International, the movement for tribal peoples.


I find this a fascinating word, in that, like ‘tangible sanctity‘, it links together the physical and the spiritual. Crafting is the physical process of creating something, as opposed to artistry, which has more cerebral overtones. The Craft is also another name for witchcraft, an earthy spiritual practice that has been reborn as Wicca in the twentieth century. There’s something very compelling about a word that blurs the boundaries between the mundane and the sacred.

‘Craft’ comes from the Old English and originally meant ‘strong’ or ‘powerful’, just as ‘kraft’ in Swedish means ‘strong’ today. It is linked with notions of authenticity through physical presence, strength and longevity.

‘Craft’ has its negative, as well as positive, associations, with definitions around ‘deceit’ or ‘cunning’. Is it a coincidence that the art of the witch so readily took the name ‘witchcraft’ rather than ‘witchery’? The cunning man or woman was the local practitioner or folk magic in centuries past, synonymous with the witch.

There’s something authentic and inspirational about ‘crafting’, with body and mind working together to create harmony between crafter and material world, crafting objects in accordance with pure will. You might almost say craft and magic are one and the same, our craftspeople akin to powerful and respected witches or cunning folk.

A craft is also a vehicle, but more specifically a small boat. Crafting an honourable relationship with our sacred environment and heritage is much like manoeuvring a small boat. Sometimes the waterways are calm and reflective, sometimes stormy and tempestuous, but we are always reliant upon our skills and our appreciation of the power of nature, and how to work with it rather than fight it.