Of Redwoods and Beetles
In The Guardian today, Richard Powers talked about his rather astonishing (and Pulitzer Prize winning) book, The Overstory. This book is quite something. No really. You should read it.
The book tells a story about the relationship between a few human characters and the trees that are slowly, deliberately, guiding the humans to save them. The trees have agency, subtle but profound. And when I was reading it, I would have these moments of feeling, "You know, this is TRUE."
The Guardian article centered on Powers' "religious-like" conversation one day standing among redwoods, finally knowing in the depths of his being that the world is interconnected, and that humans are not alone in being alive and powerful in this world.
“But once I started looking, I realized it’s not about the size and scale [of the redwoods] … it’s that I’ve been blind to these amazing creatures all the time.” The result was, in his own words, a “religious conversion”: not in the theistic sense, but in the sense of “being bound back into a system of meaning that doesn’t begin and end with humans”.
Sometimes, just sometimes, it hits you like a thunderbolt.
Part of my reason for writing The Other Land is to explore this type of deep understanding about the world we live in. But it is also a book that seeks to explore how such "conversions" can happen. What if people (men, let's be honest) in power in early medieval Europe had experienced such a conversion, right at the pivot-moment between Christian thinking and the old, traditional ways of knowing? What if earth-based beliefs and philosophies had experienced a Renaissance rather than analytic-logical-mathematical-scientific thought...i.e. "reason."?
Don't get me wrong, as a scientist myself, I admire science and its profound way of exploring some aspects of our world. I just don't think it is the ONLY way to know the world. And I think a lot was lost when these earth-based religions were stripped of their traditions and knowledge-base.
Just like Powers, I have had several such "conversion" moments in my life, moments that ache in my memory with beauty and a nice helping of transcendent awe. There was no God or super-power. I just experienced, simply, profound connection in a moment of wonder. Blip, it was there. And blip, after a few seconds, it was gone. But the experience of it is enough to stay with me for good as I write these books, and try to put into words the experience of a human being who lived and died knowing in her bones such things. She knew them because her ancestors, her mother and grandmother, raised her this way. And the world around her still supported a full knowing of the profound connections between the entire living human and more-than-human world.
One of my recent experiences of this kind I put into my book as an event in the life of my main character, Una. Here is the snippet from the manuscript:
One of those herb collecting days will always stand out in my mind. It was an afternoon of little work for me. I sat in the low grass of a small clearing in the woods without any care or demands on my time. I had been out collecting herbs earlier, it was true, but was now trying to decide whether to sleep on the moss of the forest floor or to return to Hop and my house. Sionnach was sniffing around, discovering things, as a fox does, with his nose.
The moss won, I’m afraid. As I sat, I noticed an iridescent beetle making its way nearby. It was long and black, shiny, with purple and red, yellow and white rippling across its tiny shell of a body. I don’t think I had ever looked closely at his kind, so my eyes followed him for a spell. He was drinking dew off the moss and using his long front legs to rend small bits of leaf from the moss and devour it. He was very efficient at his work.
I don’t know how long I watched him, but it was as if time stopped for a spell. He eventually moved on and made his way under a brown leaf, but to my surprise he never left its shelter. I waited for a time, hoping he would re-emerge. I thought maybe his hole was under the leaf and that he lived underground when not eating. I took a small stick and lifted the leaf, just enough to be able to glimpse what was happening underneath. The beetle was asleep, curled up on its side like a baby. His legs were tucked under him.
I watched him for a long time, asleep like that, and felt the most overwhelming surge of love. The love that I felt, that pierced me deep in my being, was for more than just the beetle; it was for life, the living essence of everything around me in the forest. Tears welled up in my eyes as I watched this tiny creature sleep, so much like human and animal babies sleep. It wanted what we all wanted: a safe, warm, calm place to curl up and rest. How tender and precious it all was.
For the first time, I understood that human beings had a singular purpose — all of us — and that was to serve life, in whatever form it takes. Our lives should be spent making sure the beetle has a safe place to sleep, that the bear and her cubs can curl up in their cave undisturbed, that we work with life, for life, rather than somehow at odds with it or destructive to it. This observation, and the surge of joy I felt at understanding it, was perhaps the most important moment of my life, at least as important as what I observed in my initiation. So many people ask “why are we alive,” and in that moment I feel I knew.
As I was pondering the beetle and his small, beautiful life, that was then that I heard a cry.
'Was this some kind of religious conversion? No, not really. But it was a widening of my understanding of what the word "love" encompasses. The word "connected" too. And what the word "responsibility" means on a level the embraces the needs of the more-than-human world. As the Amazon rainforest burns, I cannot think of a more important way of understanding the world that needs to spread if we are to survive as a species and not bring down much of the biosphere -- this leaving, breathing, alive world -- with us.
May Richard Powers' conversion happen to us all.
While I've Been Waiting
My manuscript is out. Four agents, one publisher... all reading the whole enchilada. All 175,000 words. It is a waiting game, and while I have some writing I could be doing to further the story, I feel a bit stuck in a publication limbo. So what am I doing? I'm writing poetry instead. Here are a few of the poems I've been writing:
Sometimes Beauty Greets Me
Sometimes beauty greets me
first thing in the morning,
alighting on my still-dreaming life
like a butterfly
searching for solace
from dewy-sweet places.
In the afternoon, beauty finds me
as a hummingbird might
with a zip-zip flash
of the almost-seen,
leaving me to wonder
if it was there at all.
When the sun sets
beauty welcomes me as an old friend,
and holds me steadfast
as the light of the moon
with her shimmer
dancing on my skin.
But it is in dreaming,
that beauty comes to me and stays.
With the intertwined loom
of memory and creation,
my life is woven
one glimpse of beauty at a time:
The smiles of a child,
the lingering glance of the beloved.
the whisper of wind in the old trees,
preparing me to wake with the sun
and search again for the butterfly.
If You Walk With Me
If you walk with me, know this:
I stop for thistle flowers
and the smell of honeysuckle.
When birds warble in the field
I still my footsteps
to hear if it is me they wish
to bring into communion.
I rest sometimes
on a lonely shaded bench
and wait for the world to forget me.
And it does.
The insects whirr.
The frogs bleat again for a lover.
The birds go back to tending nests,
the trees dancing around them
courting the sky.
So if you walk with me,
know that we will not walk at a brisk pace.
We will not walk with the world outside us.
We will not walk without conversation
even if we speak not one word
Know this if you walk with me.
Wherever Water Washes Over Rocks
Wherever water washes over rocks
stumbling both toward and away,
there I remember my first dream.
Thousands of voices
whispering watery together.
Liquid sound moving,
the echoes of permeable ghosts
or shadowy ancestors.
Words spoken in an indistinct language
such as water speaks,
sounds eager to return
to an unknown accord
that calls to them
through the whisper of gravity.
Such a sedulous source
welcomes us too;
and all of our first dreams
and the water of streams
moving to reunion with the sea.
I do what many people do -- I keep a nature calendar in my head and maintain small, interior rituals to celebrate some of the events.
For instance, I welcome spring with a ritual. When the forsythia first blooms, I pick a flower from the first blooming bush I saw and make a wish on each petal. I'm not sure where I learned this, but I suspect my mother taught it to me when I was very young. I have done it without fail for as long as my memory serves me. Three? Four years old? Forsythia is a harbinger of very early spring, just as the days are tentatively giving way to greening when everyone is begging for no more snow or cold. But other things happen around the same time, at least on the land I inhabit: the first spring ephemerals begin flowering just a little before the forsythia, Crocus and dandelion shoots push through the earth, the crows start building nests in my ancient maple tree.
Many people, I think, welcome the seasons with an internal calendar of events like this. What is happening in the land, what is happening with animals, what is happening in the sky. Of course, in the time before calendars (or the time when the institutional calendars still held little power over the day to day of most people), this was how people regulated their activities (such as trade), celebrations, and farming. What was blooming? What was happening in the sky? What were animals doing? Everything was fraught with meaning, even if that meaning was, "Now is the time to plant carrots." Earth-based religions focused their rituals around these land-based happenings so that their religious calendar could be seen in the land.
But we haven't kept these earth-based religious calendars for a very long time.
To reclaim land-based calendars, I've begun to keep track of the land's change more and more as I age. Here is an off-the-cuff example of a yearly calendar for my neck of the woods (SE Pennsylvania). I'll start with the fall equinox, and completely ignore calendar dates and religious dates (like Christmas and Easter) since these were imposed over the natural calendar late in the game.
Fall equinox, First fire in the woodstove, First fall color (tips of leaves), Full fall color, Smell of smoke in the air, Red on the maple, Trees fully de-leafed, Robins feeding en masse on holly berries, Ground hardens with first hard frost, First Snow, Solstice, Drooping rhododendron leaves, Snowdrops emerge, daffodil shoots, maple sap running, Crocus blooms, spring ephemerals blooming (Lenten Rose; bloodroot), Snow geese return, First forsythia blooming - wish ritual, Spring peepers, Daffodil flowers, Robins return, Spring Equinox, Ramps begin growing, Dandelions in bloom, Redbud blooming, Lilacs blooming, Hummingbirds return, Wild Garlic, Tree leafing begins, Lilly of the Valley blooms, Ferns rise, Fruit trees in bloom, Trees fully leafed, Grass needs cutting, Paw paws flower, Baby foxes barking at night, Lilacs bloom, Cherries in fruit, Honeysuckle is fragrant, Fresh greens in the garden, Summer Solstice, First Tomatoes, Canning and food processing, Fall Equinox.
The above was just off the top of my head. I've decided many times to make such a calendar officially, complete and outlined, for the year, but I always forget to write it down as the events happen. I guess this is what an almanac does, but it ties the happenings to the calendar dates. I'm more interested in what happens in the land in connection to what else happens in the land. For instance, crows begin nest building on March 1 is less interesting to me than crows begin nest building when the first forsythia blooms.
I'll bet you have such a calendar in your head as well.
To make matters even more interesting, I've been trying to make these calendars for my main character Una in The Other Land. I thought it might be an essential way to orient myself to HER landscape rather than my own. And her landscape changes -- four times -- in the course of the book as well, so for each place she traveled, I tried my best to fit the arrivals and departures, the comings and goings, the leafings and barrenness of nature into my writing of place.
For instance, for Ireland -- a landscape I did not know -- I made a calendar of trees, bushes, animals, birds, insects, and amphibians, and answered questions for myself: When did bilberry ripen? When did bluebells flower their fullest? Coltsfoot too? How about hawthorn and alder? When would you find primrose or cowberry? When did the Spotted Fly Catcher return to the land after winter? When did spring peepers begin? When did you hear corncrake for the first time? How about a warbler? When did bumble bees start buzzing around flowers or the orange tipped butterfly?
I made these calendars using online data and a great deal of research about what animals and plants are native to where. Some plants, for instance, are invasive in Ireland, so I had to find out which were native and which weren't. Before I began writing about the land and my character's relationship to it, I tried to have a nature-calendar as complete as the one I might have for myself in my own land.
This was a time-consuming exercise, I'm not going to lie. Some might call it procrastination. But these calendars helped me time and time again. When I felt blocked about where to turn next in my writing, I would seek out plants and animals from this list and describe THEM in the landscape instead of some aspect of my plot-driven narrative. Some of it got edited out in the end, but having more in-depth knowledge about the land in this way helped my creative mind look back to the source of myth, ritual, story -- the land.
"I don't remember when I found the National Geographic in question. My parents kept stacks of them in our basement, some of them published before I was born. I would regularly go through them, reading anything that caught my eye or piqued my interest.
One day I came across and article, "Vinland Ruins Prove Vikings Found the New World" dated from November of 1964. I was floored. Why wasn't everyone talking about this? The implications to our understanding of the "North America story" were profound. Christopher Columbus hadn't discovered anything that wasn't already known to others for hundreds of years! I went into school the next day and talked to my teacher about it. I was probably in 5th grade. She told me I had misunderstood, that it was a myth that Vikings had come to North America. Christopher Columbus had discovered North America and everyone knew it. Sit down.
I don't think I even bothered to bring in the article to show her.
This knowledge of an alternative story, and alternative timeline, to what most people "knew" as fact sat inside of me like a dormant seed in permafrost...that is until the idea for The Other Land came to me a few years ago. All I knew was that these ruins existed; I had long since forgotten where they were and the date of them. I had also forgotten that they were part of the story told in the Icelandic Sagas, and that they were mentioned there as "Leif's Houses" in a place the Greenlanders called "Vinland" ("Wine-Land," named after the abundant wild grapes they found.) So I began to research, attempting to find that old article, and found that a great deal of information has been gleaned from the excavations at the site named L'Anse aux Meadows, and the subsequent scouring of Newfoundland for additional sites. (Recent studies have provided some ephemeral remains of ore-collecting, and they might not even be Viking.)
What we know is that at the very northern tip of Newfoundland, just across the northernmost strait where the St. Lawrence River becomes the Atlantic Ocean, there sits a bay where Vikings pulled up their boats, built a few houses and sheds, attempted (only once or twice, it appears) to make nails to repair boats, stored items that came from areas much further south (wild grape vines, butternut, burl wood), stayed for only a few years (at most) and then, rather suddenly, they abandoned the site for good.
It was a perfect place for Greenlanders to situate a site. It would have been easy to find for anyone sailing south, hugging the coast-line from Greenland, along the coast of Labrador to the northernmost outlet of the St. Lawrence River (Labrador was a place the Vikings called "Markland" -- "tree land." Further north, what we know as Baffin Island today, they called it "Helluland" -- "stone slab land.") In the Sagas, the Greenlanders recounted the stories of these places in some detail so that future travelers could use their descriptions as a way-finding system. They spoke of a series of landmarks that were vividly described by those who wrote the Sagas down in the 14th century (300 years after these remains.) What most researchers think now is that L'Anse aux Meadows was a place known as "Leif's Houses" although the excavators believed for some time that the site was "Straumsfjord" -- a site now thought to be the Bay of Fundy. Leif Eiriksson built these houses when his ships were blown off course and he spent a long summer exploring the St. Lawrence River area, Newfoundland and further south in the year 1000 AD.
The great colonization effort that was attempted about 8 years after Leif Eiriksson's initial exploration stopped at these houses for a brief period. This expedition was led by a man named Thorfinn Karlsefni, who brought along about 120 others, a number of which were woman. He also brought domestic animals -- even a bull -- thinking that they were building a permanent settlement. They used Leif's houses as the initial base for staging their exploration further south to "Vinland the Good" (as Leif liked to call it.)
The site at L'Anse aux Meadows was not a good place to settle permanently. Agriculture was a very sketchy endeavor, if not impossible. While the site may have been somewhat forested a thousand years ago, it was exposed to the weather coming from the north, which was harsh and unforgiving. Icebergs often block the entrance to the bay late in the spring, even in June, and this made fishing and foraging in other areas of the island next to impossible. And Leif told tales of areas to the south where grapes grew wild, where there was self-sown wheat available (something the Greenlanders could not grow in Greenland), where one might find bog-iron or other iron ore sources (needed for nails for ship repair). There were enormous trees to be harvested. The winters were mild further south, Leif promised, making it possible for sheep and cattle to over-winter on pasture (freeing up the men and women from the labor of collecting hay, a chore that the Greenlanders struggled with each year. The lack of a substantial hay harvest was a constant threat to their survival in Greenland.) Leif also spoke of the fact that the further south you sailed, the more equal day and night became. No, L'Anse aux Meadows is definitely not the place he described as Vinland.
To the Greenlanders, Vinland the Good sounded like a paradise, and the colonizing expedition led by Karlsefni decided early that first summer (of a total of three summers) to leave a small group of people at "Leif's Houses" and move further south until they found the perfect land to settle.
The image below shows you a reconstruction of what the site looked like. A few turf and wood-built longhouses in a typical Viking style (found on Greenland and Iceland as well.) The site also boasted a few "out buildings." One was dedicated to blacksmithing (although it doesn't appear to have been used very often.) One was round, in the style of Irish round-houses. And there was one ship-shed, used to repair boats. There did not appear to be animal pens or graves, indicating that the settlement wasn't a permanent one.
A tidal pool flowed into the site, creating a shallow area from which one might launch and ground boats easily. A freshwater spring was nearby.
The archaeological drawings of the site, complete with the location of various finds.
Alongside the remains of the foodstuffs they collected were some tell-tale Viking objects: spindle whorls (used during the process of making wool into yarn), stone oil lamps, a whetstone, and objects made from iron, bronze, and copper, most notably a bronze ringed pin of a type made in Dublin in the late 10th and early 11th centuries. (See my earlier blog post about Viking Dublin for more on ringed pins.) The remains, while proving that this site was European, were scanty. The excavators think that this suggests that the evacuation of the site was done thoroughly. They knew they weren't coming back.
Of course, my research into the site made me want to visit the place, to see the land for myself. So during the late spring/early summer of 2017, I put my kids and a ton of camping gear and luggage into the car and drove us north. We stopped in Maine for a week for a conference on myth, and then drove the coast of main to the northeast. We crossed the border, and stayed for a spell along the shores of the Bay of Fundy. We then drove the coastline of the Cape Breton highlands, making our way to the overnight ferry to Port aux Basques in south-western Newfoundland. From there, we drove north. For hours. Many, many hours. We stopped to see Gros Morne National Park for a couple of days, and then we drove many more hours until finally we were at the tip of Newfoundland. It was early June and the icebergs still jammed the waters of the St. Lawrence. It didn't get dark until 11 pm, and it was still below freezing every night. But what a sight to see! Viking longhouses, here, at a place I can drive to! Even my jaded teenaged kids were impressed. Mom's archaeological adventures are no stranger to them, and they are somewhat inured to the charms of holes in the ground. L'Anse aux Meadows was a different kind of site. (See images below).
The excavated site has been preserved, as is, but off to one side of the excavations some of the buildings were meticulously recreated to the exact specifications of the excavated remains.
It is rather instructive to walk inside the reconstructed buildings. The longhouses are surprisingly large and comfortable, affording ample space for storage, cooking, sleeping, and specialized work. The excavators think up to 150 people could have lived and slept here for a spell.
The round building, an enigma, has everyone scratching their heads ... but of course I have my theories. It is a roundhouse, like those the Irish built in the Iron and Middle Ages. Who better to inhabit this than an honored Irish bandrui, whose ringed pin went missing at some point, only to be discovered in 1960 by Helge and Anne Ingstad, the excavators.
The Sagas tell us that Karlsefni and his entourage spent three years exploring further south, attempting to colonize a place called "Hop." They eventually gave up this settlement because of their deteriorating relationship with the indigenous people. But where was "Hop"? Where are those remains? Good question.
Where, exactly, was "Vinland the Good?" I will blog in another post about what I've come to believe about where Hop might lie, and where other places mentioned in the Sagas might be located as well.
If you would like to know more about the excavations at L'Anse aux Meadow, you can read this summary of the excavations by the archaeologists. A lot of work has been done since that time, however, with other discoveries on not only Newfoundland, but also farther north on Baffin Island. The Viking Sagas -- the Saga of the Greenlanders, and the Saga of Eirik Raudi -- are primary sources that are mandatory reading on this subject.
Many successful writers have advice on how to finish a book or launch a writing career. I've heard the same advice over and over again: even if you don't feel like writing, get up early before the distractions of the day set in and write for an hour. Write anything. Make it a habit. Others insist that 1,000 words a day will have you finished with your novel in six months. Just 1000 words (roughly 4 pages). I've read over and over that you simply cannot wait for inspiration to strike you. You have to write without inspiration, even when it is the last thing you want to do. Otherwise, you'll never write.
This never felt like good advice to me. First of all, I have two kids that I homeschool. Everyone in my house is a night owl, and the idea of waking at 6 am before everyone else is completely unrealistic. My brain doesn't turn on until 11 am after 2 cups of coffee. Writing before that time will produce nothing. I don't have the luxury of writing later in the day either. My busy family and its needs, the house, and the work I do for pay (also from home) always take up space in my life, and by the time space opens up in the day, it is midnight and I'm exhausted.
So what to do? How did I begin writing The Other Land under these circumstances?
Well, for a long time, my writing was only in my head. I would tell myself stories, write beautiful paragraphs that never saw the light of day, and dream of a day when I might have space to write all this down. I talked myself out of writing and allowing myself the space to write. I regret that now, but that's the truth of it. I was denying myself my own creative life out of some sense of "practicality" and a lot of worry about "being good enough."
But when the story for The Other Land came to me, in that space between waking and sleeping, three years ago, well... I couldn't ignore it any longer. It was as if the story was alive and it was INSISTING that I make space in my life for it. The story DEMANDED that I pry open a way to make this story live and breathe as a book.
As an aside, I feel strongly that these stories are, in some way, entities. I know that sounds to some of you a little cuckoo, but my "relationship" with this story has convinced me otherwise. I thought I was alone in this belief, until I began to talk to other writers about it. To my surprise, almost every single one of them understood what I was talking about. One writer-friend recommended I read Elizabeth Gilbert's book Big Magic, in which she devotes whole chapters to this idea that stories are alive and choose us (and leave us if we ignore them.) Sharon Blackie (and others) have been writing about the Mundus Imaginalis. The more you learn about this phenomenon the more you realize that this is just another way some of us experience "creativity." So now I feel less weird talking about it. My experience is that the story chose me and "talks" to me in unusual, non-linear/non-logical ways. And I'm learning to listen to it like I would to a trusted friend.
I argued with the story at first: "Why me?" I asked. "I know almost nothing about the time period! You have the wrong person!"
The answer back, was immediate -- almost as if the story was standing in front of me and admonishing me. "YOU will write this story. Clear a path in your life. Right now."
As soon as I began researching it, I could feel a connection to the plot, the place, the time that was palpable. I began to understand why I might be the person to write this story. But over time, the connection began to fade. I felt almost a kind of panic. What if the story left me and went elsewhere?
So I booked my first writing retreat. I committed. I found a cheap cabin in northwest Pennsylvania in an old growth forest, and went there with my computer, no internet connection, and about fifty books. But when I sat down to write, the story wasn't there. How could I entice it back?
Over time and over the course of many such writing retreats, I've discovered a "ritual" of sorts to invite the story back in. For the first 36 hours or so (usually I'm gone for 7-10 days), I settle into my physical space and walk in the woods for a spell to orient my mind to the land. I pick up any unusual things I see -- a nice stone, a branch with a beautiful lichen on it, an unusual mushroom, an acorn or nut -- anything that catches my eye. I bring it back and place it around a candle, and light the candle. I keep the candle lit (except at night) for the duration of the retreat, adding objects to the mini-altar during the week.
During this 36 hours, I choose a book of fiction that I enjoy and read some of it out loud. Usually the topic is tangentially related to my own, but I'm not reading for information at this phase. I'm reading for the "flow of words" to return to my mind and to my voice.
I take out a notebook and my "story bags" (see image below) and pull objects from them. My "story bags" are leather pouches of objects I've collected throughout my life, each of which has a story of some sort attached to it. The stories might be merely emotional feelings, or they might be full-fledged stories. They might be impressions of a landscape, or a memory of a loved one. But several times over the 36-hour "courting the story phase" I pull an object and write about the story attached to it in my notebook.
Similarly, I listen to trance-like music, music without words that creates an atmosphere. (This song is a favorite that I play on repeat. Another one is this one) After about a half hour of lying down, still, and entering a meditative space with the music at my side, images begin to come to me. Voices. Feelings. Once this begins, I again pull out my notebook and begin writing. It usually isn't my story, but rather disjointed images, impressions, and thoughts. I write them all down.
I do the above for the first evening and the first full day I'm at the retreat. Toward the end of the first full day when I'm about to go to sleep, I will pull out the manuscript of the story and randomly open the "book" to a page and begin reading. I read until I'm tired and then sleep.
In the morning, without fail, the story is there. I'm overfull with ideas. I know where to begin. Whole paragraphs are coursing through my mind. For the next 5-8 days, I write and write and write. Sometimes I've written over 100 pages in five days; the words just come streaming out of me. I almost have to step aside and let them come. Also, during this time of creative hyper-intensity, I'm prone to experience synchronicities tripping over each other to get my attention, or incredible animal contact experiences, or wild weather, or water that sings songs to me. I become able to hear the land in new ways that are usually unavailable to me, a skill that I do not take lightly and incorporate into my writing as best I can.
Are my words in that "download space" 100% magnificent words, needing no editing? Nope. I still have to edit and flesh them out, massage some words and cut deeply into others. But that isn't the point. The point is that I've found a way to court the story back and we can dance together for a few days before I have to return to my day-to-day life where the story must take a back seat to my family and work.
I used to be afraid that the story would leave me. But I'm not now, because I've also discovered what the true meaning of a "ritual" is. It isn't some dead by-product of a religion that has no meaning in my life (what I used to think of rituals as being), but rather a way to court the Mundus Imaginalis to my side, to entice the stories to walk with me. Rituals are a way to heighten our awareness of the more-than-human world this is alive and talking to us. This is not a metaphor. Thanks to Terrence McKenna for saying it so plainly.
A casual visitor to Dublin would never know that right underneath the feet of St. Patrick's Day party-goers in the trendy and touristy Temple Bar district sit the remains of the Viking town of Dubhlinn. Dubhlinn is the Old Irish word for "Black Pool" -- a reference to the wetland estuary and still waters at the confluence of the Poddle and Liffey Rivers. This area sat south of the River Liffey and was the easternmost edge of the early settlement. It was the perfect place for Viking boats to anchor, protected and secure.
There is some debate about whether or not there was an earlier trading and ecclesiastical center in the same place. There have been some remains found from the 6th and 7th century that suggest it was at very least the site of a religious settlement. But the "foreigners" (as the Irish called the Viking Dubliners) took control of the area in 841, and the local settlement was moved (or grew) somewhat to the west and was called "Áth Cliath" - "the ford of the hurdles" (referencing a bridge over a narrow section of the Liffey.) Today, road signs directing you to Dublin still read "Baile Áth Cliath." It makes me smile every time.
You can see from the reconstructed map below what the settlement would have looked like in 980 AD at the time of the Battle of Tara.
Reconstruction can be found on https://www.dublinia.ie
The enclosure that you can see in the image above at the southeast corner of the site is the longhouses and stronghold of the Viking rulers. This is where Olaf Cuaran lived and plotted, where Gormflaith -- his Irish wife, a Queen three times over during the course of her life -- had her children and walked in the gardens. This is where several chapters of The Other Land are set. And right now, Dublin Castle sits right on top of this site. The Viking remains have been excavated under later buildings, and you can see them on a tour of the castle.
This image is of the Powder Tower excavations inside Dublin Castle. The walls here are of a medieval fortress tower, but adjacent and to the interior, Viking longhouse floors and wattle/daub walls were discovered, along with metal-working evidence and deer-antler combs with runic inscriptions. Photo: Pam Tinley Earl.
Of course the city has become unrecognizable in the last 1000 years; the Black Pool was, long ago, filled in and only during construction and renovation do we learn what the city was like during this crucial time in Ireland's history. The ocean sits much farther away than it would have sat in the Medieval period as more and more land was "made" through backfill, channelizing the Poddle River, and wetland drainage.
Outside the walls of the Viking King's compound, the Viking city was neatly laid out into long and thin lots fronting an E/W and N/S fairly loose street grid. There was usually a building on these lots fronting the street -- either a shop or a house -- and if the shop was the public face of the lot, the house sat behind it. Archaeologists have found several items in these excavations that were made as far away as the Mediterranean (glass). Finds from several areas of the Hiberno-Norse settlement included Viking bone pins, antler combs, bone gaming pieces, amber pendants, metal dress-pins, quernstones, fragments of leather and textiles. Other unusual were the finds of walrus ivory pins, an antler handle with a runic inscription panel of gold filigree, a bone trial piece and a rib-bone ruler marked out with the Viking ‘inch’. Ringed pins, like the one pictured below, were made in copper and bronze in a Dublin workshop, and are found in excavations in Dublin as well as all over the Viking world, including Newfoundland (I will blog about this pin, the site of L'Anse aux Meadows, and the implications of the finds there in a later post).
The earliest modern map of Dublin was created in 1610, and shows how considerably the landscape had been altered by human settlement. The last 400 years have accelerated that change, obliterating much of the archaeological remains of the earliest settlement and its history. You can see that in 1610 the Poddle River had been built over, the Black Pool was no more, and that the city (in the form of Trinity College) was expanding eastward and across the Liffey to the north.
While much has changed since the Vikings dominated this landscape, a few things remain. The strong flow of the Liffey, the ever-present sound of sea gulls in the air, and the smell of the sea. Up through the pavement and sidewalks, wild-flowers push their way to the sun, and you can experience four seasons in one day, as you can everywhere in Ireland. The city's landscape may be unrecognizable from its medieval self, but some things stay the same.
If you are interested in exploring this topic further, I would suggest the following resources: This website by author Arran Q. Henderson is an invaluable source of information about medieval Dublin. The Heritage Council website on unpublished excavations in Viking/Medieval Dublin is a godsend as well. Dublinia, the website, is amazing. Check it out.
Some good, academic books on the subject usually turn up as conference proceedings. The Viking Age: Ireland and the West is a great one and has some fascinating papers on Dublin's archaeology. Others are: Viking Dublin: The Wood Quay Excavations, Scandinavian York and Dublin, and Medieval Dublin XV. There is even a book on Viking ringed pins, believe it or not, although it is out of print. These are just the resources I've used, but there are tons of conference proceedings and unpublished archaeology to explore. It is a rabbit hole when you explore this topic. Enjoy the ride.
It took me a long time to settle on a title for this book. When the story first presented itself to me, the word "Dawnland" kept coming into my awareness, and I thought that was to be the title. For a long time, I called it "Dawnland" until I discovered that "Dawnland" was the English translation of the the traditional name of Abenaki territory - Wabanahkik -- and that the use of that word outside of that context was cultural appropriation. I am working hard to make sure that my portrayal of First Nations people in my books be respectful. I have no wish to appropriate wisdom and teachings that are not mine to use, so I abandoned "Dawnland" as a possible title.
I came to the idea for the title The Other Land when reading about Irish descriptions of a mythical "tribe" who came to Ireland in the distant, misty past. This tribe was called Tuatha de Danann (pronounced "thuey de du-non), which translates as "the tribe/kin of the goddess Danu/Anu." Danu/Anu was the mother of the Irish gods and members of this tribe/kin group are many of the gods and goddesses that are worshipped by the pre-Christian Irish, including the triad of goddesses often called the Morrigan (Mor-EE-gan), who may actually be another name for the great goddess Danu/Anu. Textual references to this very ancient goddess are unclear and have been corrupted by the intrusion of Christian philosophical overlay, so we can say very little with conviction on the topic.
The place of origin for the Tuatha de Danann is similarly murky. The tuath arrived on the island of Ireland by ships over the Western Sea (the Atlantic) and then burned their ships upon arrival. Where did they come from? The stories indicate many things, most of which -- rather inconveniently -- conflict with each other. This land was said to have been an island to the north and west. OR this land could have been accessed by the Bronze Age burial mounds known as the sidhe (shee), already ancient when the Celtic peoples came to Ireland. OR this land was overlaid onto ours in some mysterious way and could be accessed by deep woods, groves of trees, lakes and pools of water, wells, and thick mist. There they would have met gods, or fairies, or mythical animals. It was considered to be a supernatural realm of wondrous technology and eternal youth, a place where heroes and mortals might find themselves lost for many years, only to return with the world changed forever.
The names for this original "homeland" for the Tuatha de Danann were varied. Sometimes parts of the this mystical realm were referenced by a specific location within the land, indicating a kind of inner-geography. In Gaelic, the more general names are: Tír nAill (The Other Land), Tir na nÓg ("The Land of the Young"), Tír Tairngire ("Land of Promise"), Tír na mBeo ("Land of the Living"), Emain Ablach ("The Isle of Apples"), and Tír fo Thuinn ("Land under the Wave"). Specific places within this mythical land are: Mag Mell ("The Plain of Delight"), Mag Findargat ("The White-silver Plain"), Mag Argatnél ("The Silver-cloud Plain"), Mag Ildathach ("The Multicoloured Plain"), Mag Cíuin ("The Gentle Plain"). There is also an additional otherworldly realm called Tech Duinn ("The House of Donn/The Dark One"); this land is sometimes identified as an island toward which the souls of the dead departed westwards, to the land closest to the setting sun, over the western sea.
Ireland's geography is that (generally) of an upland, fertile plain surrounded by mountains along the coast in every direction. When the Irish poets described the Other World to their audience as a "Plain of Delight," or "The Multicolored Plain," they were describing a very familiar inner-space of a landscape much like their own.
This is the "long story" about why my book has the title it has. Just in case you were wondering.
If you wish to know more about the subject, and there is a great deal to learn (and I'm still learning), I recommend the following: Take Sharon Blackie's Celtic Studies course (there is a new intake happening this April). Sharon Paice Macleod's book Celtic Cosmology and the Otherworld is fantastic, and a great resource on the Otherworld specifically. Also, Mark Williams' Ireland's Immortals is a thorough book that has a historiographical bent (which is refreshing), although I think he gives the Morrigan short shrift... (but that's just my personal bias.)
-- Marie Goodwin
The Battle of Tara
Photo: Anthony Murphy (Mythical Ireland). The Battle of Tara took place in the open fields surrounding this hill.
I briefly mentioned The Battle of Tara in my last blog post, and I thought I might want to expand upon the importance of it a bit. It took me months of reading, re-reading, creating family trees in a notebook, and developing a detailed chronology to understand the political maneuvering that took place during this time period, and I have a new-found respect for any historian working in medieval Ireland. Kudos to you...
This battle was an important turning point in the power relationship between the Irish and the Foreigners (the Irish name for the Vikings). For two hundred years, the Vikings pillaged up and down the river systems in Ireland and along the coasts as well. They established cities and controlled their important trade markets. (Dublin was founded by Vikings, as was Limerick and Waterford.) They settled in numbers around those cities as well, and owned land and intermarried with local families, both royal and common. The Foreigners took untold numbers of Irish women and girls and sold them into slavery throughout the Viking world. And they inserted themselves into the chaotic and complex political world of competing kingships and regional alliances.
Hundreds of Irish kings held large and small tuaths (kingdoms) in Ireland at the time, and the kaleidoscope of ever-shifting alliances, competition, and enmity with each other during this period did not allow for a unified defense by the Irish against these Foreigners. Not until the Battle of Tara.
The lead up to the battle was complex. There were two key players: Máel Sechnaill (pronounced "mell sheknal") and Olaf Cuaran.
Máel Sechnaill was a young king (31) of Mide (the area to the center of the island, north east of Dublin). He had only been king for a few years when the long-time high king Domnall uí Níall (Máel Sechnaill's uncle) abdicated and went to a monastery at Armagh to live out his days (he died shortly after). Máel Sechnaill was from a royal line of the Uí Néill dynasty (ruling northern Ireland) who had, for some time, dominated the title of Ard Ri -- the High Kingship -- with its seat at the Hill of Tara. He wasn't untested in battle, but he was relatively inexperienced. Relative to the Viking king Olaf Cuarán that is.
Olaf Cuarán was the Foreign king of Dublin. He was also Máel Sechnaill's step-father. At 53, he had been involved in Irish political life for many years. He made alliances through two marriages, and saw both of those alliances fall apart. His first wife Dunflaith was the sister of Domnall uí Níall (see above) and Máel Sechnaill's mother (by a previous marriage), but that did not secure peace between the north, Mide, and Dublin. In fact, Domnall and Olaf fought bitterly for many years, brothers-in-law, and late in the the 970's Olaf Cuaran murdered Domnall's two adult male children and heirs in a wedding procession. When Dunflaith died, probably in childbirth, Olaf married Gormflaith, daughter of Murchad mac Finn, another regional king. Gormflaith was a teenager at the time of their marriage, but widely considered to be the most beautiful woman in Ireland. She bore him at least two children, perhaps three, by the time of the Battle of Tara. Her relatives proved to be unruly and combative against Olaf's interests as well, and the alliances between their families fell apart almost as soon as the marriage was made.
Olaf's ire was not only directed at his brother-in-law. He spent much of the 970's harassing and battling with other kings in Leinster (central/eastern Ireland) and Mide, vying for better trade advantages and access to land and power. He had a long history of capturing enemy royal family members, ransoming them off (if they were lucky) or killing them. A few months before the Battle of Tara, Olaf Cuarán captured the Leinster king Domnall Claen. He also captured Domnall's son Broen when Broen attempted to rescue his father.
This capture was made even more interesting because Domnall Claen was Gormflaith's father's murderer. Domnal Claen was said to have killed Murchad in cold blood (not in battle) in some sort of vengeful rage about which we have no details. Gormflaith had to have been quite happy that her husband held her father's murderer as a prisoner. To me, it seems likely that she may have had a hand in it. I will do a whole other post on Gormflaith later. But for now I will say that I am quite sure she was not just sitting in her room weaving while all of the intrigue swirled around her.
Both sides knew that this kidnapping of the Domnall Claen meant war, but the Leinster leaders could not openly amass an army for fear that their King would be killed. In secret, they gathered an army of allies -- an unprecedented alliance in such a fractured political arena -- north of the city. Olaf must have not known this was happening, because he didn't kill Domnall or Broen in retribution. But Olaf had his own plans. He must have sensed that the Irish were plotting or that he had an advantage, so he amassed an army by calling in allies in the Hebrides and Orkneys and snuck the men into Dublin, probably on merchant ships.
In June of 980, both sides readied their armies and met near the Hill of Tara, about a day's ride north-west of Dublin. This hill was the traditional and mythical seat of Irish kingship, and so the choice of location was purposeful and symbolic, probably Máel Sechnaill's decision. At the end of the day, the Viking army was routed. The annals describe it as being a bloodbath. Olaf's son Ragnall (the lead commander) was killed. Máel Sechnaill then surrounded Dublin and took control of it, freed the all of the slaves, and then pillaged all of the amassed wealth in the city and burned much of it to the ground. Domnall Claen managed to survive, but Olaf had killed his son Broen in the lead up to the battle. Olaf was sent to a monastery in Iona and died soon after. Gormflaith married Máel Sechnaill and he took in and raised her children with Olaf and they had children of their own. Máel Sechnaill was now Ard Ri -- the High King of Ireland. But not for long, because Brian Boru, a powerful king in the south of the island, had other ideas about who should have that title.
Even though the much more famous Battle of Clontarf (in 1014) has been traditionally seen as the final downfall of Viking power in Ireland, it was really the Battle of Tara that brought it to a close.
From left to right: A computer recreation The Hill of Tara; A map of the battle's location; a map of the entire complex of structures on The Hill of Tara
The Last of the Bandrui
Image by Patricia Ariel entitled "Compassion."
I knew a few things about my character Una when I began writing The Other Land: that she was born about 960 and that she was caught in the political intrigue leading up to the Battle of Tara (June, 980). I also knew that she was a Bandrui, a female druid, the last of her line in a hereditary tradition of Bandrui. I also knew that Christianity had all but eliminated her Bandrui lineage in Ireland. Indeed, the time period of my book represented the very last of this long-standing indigenous religious tradition. I knew that it would have been a shadow of what it had once been, changed utterly from the time six hundred years before when the Druidic powers were ascendant in Ireland.
But what of the Bandrui? Who were these women in Ireland? What were their traditions? I wanted to show that these women in my book came from a long and proud line of woman who could heal the sick, birth babies, foretell the future, interpret dreams, throw lots, act as conduits for prophecy, shape-shift, and were conduits for communication between the human realm and the natural world. But what would this look like in a world where the teachings of the Church instructed people to be suspicious of such women? What was the social standing of these women in their local community? How would they interact as political players? (We know that, historically, both Druids and Bandrui were deeply involved in the political sphere of influence at play in Ireland, which was complex and ever-shifting.) What did their everyday life look like as they stood on the cusp of the annihilation of their lineage and their training?
When I began to research these questions, I realized that there is so much we cannot know about the indigenous, pre-Christian religious tradition in Ireland, especially when you begin to ask about women's roles in this tradition. I was confronted with this reality almost immediately when I started to research the book.
There is an abundance of textual evidence that the Bandrui lived and thrived in the earlier part of the first millennium in Ireland. For instance, we see Fedelm in the Táin Bó Cúailnge; Bodhmall in the Fenian Cycle; Bé Chuille, Dub and Gaine in the Metrical Dindshenchas; Relbeo from the Book of Invasions; Eirge, Eang, and Banbhuana are bandrui in the Siege of Knocklong; and of course Tlachtga, the daughter of the great blind Druid Mug Ruith, in the Lebor Gebála Érenn. These are only a sampling, and there are many, many more tales that come down to us from not only Ireland, but Scotland, Brittany, and the Celtic mainland as well. The Romans, complicated witnesses though they were on these matters, were fascinated with these women.
But did they even exist in the years leading up to the Battle of Tara? That is 600-1000 years away from these earlier tales and come after the cultural disruption and overlay of Christian thought and power. What evidence is there for Bandrui approaching the turn of the first millennium?
Let me begin by saying that the evidence for women's lives, in general, during this period of the middle ages is often circumstantial no matter what area of interest you are trying to investigate. Archaeological evidence for women's lives is ephemeral at best. Of course, we know that women lived and died, and raised families and tended to the economy of the household in a myriad of ways. But what do the texts of the period say?
To begin with, very few texts dating back to 980 exist. Most of the texts we have pertaining to this time period are copies of copies of copies, written and re-written by male Christian monks in monasteries. These monks were people, with biases and causes to advance, like any person writing today. This means that some ideas and traditions were illuminated (some quite literally, with gorgeous paintings on the parchment) and brought forward in time by copying. Some were, sadly, discounted and not copied. Stories of powerful females in a pre-Christian world were unlikely to be thought important, and so many of them are now lost to us because of this erosion of the oral and written tradition.
But yet, some evidence remains.
And this is where Max Dashu comes in with her unbelievably important work Witches and Pagans: Women in Indigenous European Folk Religion: 700-1100. Seriously... if you are interested in this topic at all, order this book. This book saved me years (and that is no exaggeration) of research. There IS evidence of how women were involved in folk religion around the turn of the first millennium. In fact, there is enough to fill a book.
First of all, these women had many names that are mentioned in medieval texts: (fyi: "ban" = woman, "cailleach" = old woman) Bandrui, banfili (highly skilled and initiated female poet), banfissid (seer), ban feasa or cailleach feassa (woman of special healing and symbolic knowledge); ban leighis (medicine woman); banthuathaid (woman of the north), calleach phiseogach (an old woman who uses charms). These texts that mention these women include dozens of stories, law texts, Christian religious texts (often admonishing lay people to stop using the services that these women provided). The Annal texts from Ireland sometimes mention the death of these women. In fact, one such woman is mentioned in my book: the Ollamh Banfili Uallach daughter of Muinechán, who died in 934 and is recorded "the woman poet of Ireland" in the Annals of Innisfallen.
These women are associated in texts of this period with many skills: powers of prophecy, divination, incantation, healing, herbal knowledge, shapeshifting, shamanic flight, dream interpretation; they carried magical staffs, wore masks, and often had associated animal spirits. The language used to describe them ties them to various kinds of wisdom, but also the ability to dictate and change one's fate. Texts also suggest that they took part in some sort of an initiatory process into (poorly understood and basically unknown) religious mysteries. Although the bandrui are not mentioned by name, the legal texts (The Brehon Laws) of this time-period indicate that some very unusual women (who had special skills, usually unspecified in the law) were honored as cultural authorities and granted power, land, and independence from male oversight (in many cases). There were legal statutes that mention women of special standing retaining power and property in marriage as well as the right to pass down property to daughters. The laws make it clear, however, that this was rare and special to only certain women of power. The Brehon Laws also describe penalties for banfili who make fun of powerful men in public, thereby dishonoring them. (This was not just a "saving face" issue, but rather a legal problem in Ireland, where your honor was tied to your legal standing.) The Brehon Laws were the "law of the land" from very early in the first millennium. They were first written down in the 7th century, but were primarily an oral tradition and their origins date back to an unknown (and unknowable) pre-literate distant past. They Brehon laws were still used in some parts of Ireland until the 17th century, although their universal and customary use was under great pressure from the English legal systems from the late 12th century onward when the Anglo-Normans invaded Ireland and never left. (To read more on the Brehon Laws, I quite enjoyed The Lost Laws of Ireland, by Catherine Duggan.)
One last bit of evidence comes from rituals in Ireland surrounding kingship. In a fascinating book -- Lady with the Mead Cup by Michael Enright -- we learn of the roles woman enacted in rituals when kings were "made" by their kin-groups. (Kingship was not hereditary, but held within kin groups, so new kings were chosen.) Christianity inserted itself significantly into these rituals by the turn of the millennium, but the texts indicate that special women, invested with the some type of atypical power, were involved in rituals of kingship in very specific ways deep into the middle ages. These women were symbols of the new king's marriage to the land over which he was to be sovereign. Who were these women? We know very little about them, other than the fact that they were there. So in my book, The Other Land, I've used the tradition of the Bandrui and fused them with the the kingship rituals of "sovereignty" that fill the old Irish tales to make for an even more interesting tale.
So, the evidence that exists for Bandrui is ephemeral and suggestive, rather than definitive. But there is an echo, a breath, a wisp of a "maybe" that they were still active, that they lived and died and worked in relative obscurity even as late as 1000 AD. My depiction of the bandrui in The Other Land is fiction, but it is an attempt to read between the lines of these old texts and breathe life into the woman who wove together the living fabric of those around them, in ways seen and unseen by history.
- By Marie Goodwin
A Wolf Visit
The wolves came at night, late in the evening of our first camp, with the almost full moon bright in the sky. The fire was dimming after we cooked and consumed our meal; there was talk of people settling in for an early night. We were to wake at dawn and be on our way. Everyone was tired from the long ride today, and tomorrow’s was to be even longer.
There were fifteen of us in camp, including my parents. Conall stayed behind to run the farm and tend to Manya’s needs, but three of my father’s field hands and their wives and older children were traveling with us to help with camp duties and to run the market at the fair.
My father spent the evening telling the old stories. He sometimes seemed as if he wished for another life, to be trained by some ancient poet, like Oisin son of Cormac, roaming the tribes of Erenn, honored for his words and memory above all others. My father’s calling, however, was to love the unusual woman that was my mother and to honor her family and her ancestors by keeping her land for the next generation of Bandrui. Caring for our lineage in this way was undoubtedly honorable, but Father could not hide his wish to bring the old tales alive and to advise kings on what history might reveal for those who asked it questions.
When his last story was over, we sat in silence listening to the wind creak the trees overhead, the smell of wet and wood-smoke in the air. A nearby stream rushed over rocks, pregnant with news meant for the expanse of the dark sea, rushing from the recent heavy rains that drenched the landscape. These consequences of this latest storm left patches of mist and unseasonable cold in its wake, but it was a pleasant night despite it.
My eyes were closed, listening to the water, trying to make out what it whispered and if it had any word for me. A rustle behind me startled us all, for I seemed to have drifted into an almost-sleep, that place where images from both worlds meet and shake hands like old friends. A stick-break echoed through the wood, closer now, and I sat up, rubbing my face. Only a few people were awake, and my father was prodding the coals of the fire, readying it for sleep as well. He stood up at the sound and moved toward the edge of the circle.
From a space in the woods behind me, a smell drifted into the circle and grabbed me — all of us. It smelled of wet fur and animal. Almost as soon as the scent arrived, a great, grey wolf, eyes glowing red-brown in the fire-light walked inches from me. She bent her head to sniff my arm as she passed. She sat first, then laid down next to the stones heaped around the fire, her eyes watching us, ears alert for motion.
Everyone froze. My father, still standing, didn’t take another step. I glanced to see if there were others, as wolves travel in packs and there were undoubtedly others around us, but I could see nothing in the dark of the wood. No one moved or even breathed.
The wolf glanced around at the faces gathered at the fire, and then — I swear this is the truth — she spoke words, words of people…not the howling, whining, and yipping of wolf talk. She spoke words to us, to me, in the old-fashioned way of the ancient poets, as if she were a woman sitting at the fire and not an animal:
“I have lived the days of my life. I have joyed and wandered in woe.
I am feeble and fain and would rest from my travel, searching to and fro.
But that day I am fain to behold, and I fain to behold that day
Raise up the stones from my mound, and cleanse my bones from the clay.
At that time, in times to come, the keepers of stories and lore
Will bring to this isle, to all our kin, precious treasures and so much more.
I was not afraid now. As soon as she had finished her impossible pronouncement, she got up, shook herself off, and left the circle at a trot.
Manya once told me a sign borne by animals was surely one from the Gods or from some past or future Bandrui walking the spiral and were to be believed absolutely. What would she would make of this? I committed the wolf’s words to memory and my mother sat wide-eyed next to me and did the same. Everyone else broke from the fire in silence
The earthy animal smell endured in our camp until day-break, a reminder we had experienced together something impossible. The children spoke of it in the morning in hushed tones, asking if the wolf was still here somewhere. The farm-hands packed the camp, some saying Christian prayers as they worked. I made my way to a nearby stream with mother, to wash the scent of animal off me, if it could be scrubbed from us at all. But I continued to smell the wolf for days to come. To be honest, I am not sure the smell of that wolf will ever leave me.
This is an excerpt from The Other Land, by Marie Goodwin. The book is filled with strange and mysterious stories, things most would find impossible in the 21st century. But if you read medieval Irish literature or the Icelandic Sagas, you will soon realize that such events and experiences were, if not commonplace, accepted as the way the world operated. What if such things were still welcomed into our lives, talked about, and shared with others around the campfire?