Kelpie Wilson: England's Green and Pleasant Land
Visit to an Island Nation, Part II:
England's Green and Pleasant Land
By Kelpie Wilson
t r u t h o u t | Columnist
Tuesday 26 December 2006
Note: This is Part II of a two-part series. Part I, "Coming Home to Scotland," is here.
From Kilmartin Glen in Scotland, I boarded a series of clean and efficient trains and buses that whisked me down the west side of Britain and into the southern town of Marlborough. In Marlborough, I was to meet up with a tour group run by Glenn and Cameron Broughton of Sacred Britain Tours.
Our group was booked at the Ivy House, a comfortable hotel on Marlborough's High Street. English standards of comfort differ from US standards, but that was fine with me. Though it was Britain's hottest July on record and no air conditioning was available, I was happy to put up with the heat and avoid running the energy-intensive AC that is ubiquitous in America, even in areas with mild climates like Oregon. Another English advantage is that all power outlets have switches on them so you can turn things off that normally suck power on standby, like televisions. The existence of such things as switched outlets and efficient public transport mean that conservation is built into the infrastructure of British society far more than we experience in the US, and that is how Brits can use half of our per capita energy without even really thinking about it.
My room was quite pleasant, though it lacked amenities like a mini-bar. I hate mini-bars - you have to listen to the refrigerator running all night and the goods inside it are expensive and wrapped in disposable packaging. Who needs a mini-bar when there is a real bar just down the hall where you can try interesting foreign drinks like ginger wine?
Stone Circles, Stone Forests
Glenn and Cameron turned out to be charming hosts and wonderful storytellers. They quickly had our group of nine eclectic pilgrims doing OM chants in the West Kennet long barrow and dancing traditional round dances on the top of Silbury Hill. We communed with the ancient monuments of Avebury and Stonehenge. We visited the Uffington white horse carved into a chalk hillside thousands of years ago. Some say it is actually a dragon.
We learned that remnants of ancient stone circles are everywhere on the landscape and that they were built in diverse configurations, egg-shaped and serpentine as well as circular, with different cosmic alignments to sun and moon, solstice and equinox, as if people were experimenting. But whether their purpose was scientific or religious is impossible to distinguish.
Still, Glenn Broughton had wonderful stories about the megaliths and mysterious earth energies running in "ley lines" that he believes they tap into. To Glenn, the stone circles were a ritual means of reconciling solar and lunar, male and female. The balance was precarious, and the Celtic legend of Merlin and Morgan tells of a time when it was lost. We climbed Merlin's Mound and heard about Glenn's personal quest to heal our violent culture by ritually balancing the male and female energies. His story brought tears to my eyes. This is all definitely in the realm of myth, but it is myth with a meaning and myth that I find that I need.
Standing stones, forest groves and sacred wells all figured large in the autochthonous religion of the British Isles. I loved our visit to the Chalice Well in Glastonbury, gorgeously surrounded by gardens all tricked out with modern icons of the sacred feminine: chalices, spirals and the vesica piscis symbol of the source of life, formed by two intersecting circles.
The gothic cathedrals at Winchester and Wells also made my heart soar, despite my awareness that the Christian fathers often erected their churches on the sites of sacred oak groves, after cutting the trees and driving out the Druids. The cathedrals are obvious attempts to recreate those lofty arching groves in stone, complete with stone figures of forest creatures and "green man" vegetation spirits.
We were given a special tour of the sacred well in the crypt at Winchester Cathedral. Sadly, the well may be in danger of drying up from global warming. If only St. Swithun, Winchester's patron saint, could help. The ninth-century saint is said to have revolted when the bishops tried to move his remains from an outdoor grave into a church building. St. Swithun, a true son of Mother Nature who liked his bones out under the stars, stirred up forty days and forty nights of violent rain storms in protest.
We ended the tour in England's smallest city, Wells, home of the beautiful 13th-century Wells cathedral. I attended an evensong service, encouraged by the focus on prayer for peace in Lebanon. Though I left the Episcopalian church (the American branch of the Church of England) at the age of thirteen upon learning that the bishops had voted down the ordination of women, this service made me wonder if the Church today might have evolved into a community that I could once again be a part of.
My next stop was London, where my goal was to see as much ancient goddess art as I could find in the British Museum. That turned out to be a daunting task. Because the British Empire ruled most of the world at one time or another, the Brits brought back a huge haul of fine art and antiquities to their northern island. Pity about the imperialism, but it is amazing to see all these things collected in one place.
Museum fatigue soon set in, and the goddess figurines of old Europe blurred in my mind into two types: the faceless ones emphasizing fertility, with prominent pubic triangles, and the ones with huge, staring owl eyes that seem to say "The Goddess is watching you." The question I want to answer is: was there indeed a time when women ruled the world?
For help I turned to anthropology professor Chris Knight. I had read and admired his book Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture. Dr. Knight invited me to his home in the leafy London suburb of Brockley for a chat.
Studying hunter-gatherer cultures of the past and present, Knight has concluded that women originated human culture based on the rhythm of their menstrual cycles. Women invented the cultural calendar that governed sexual activity and food sharing. Their connection with the moon cycles sanctified their role as regulators and provided the first example of the hermetic dictum, "As above, so below."
We spoke about Avebury, which Knight agrees was an attempt to harmonize the ancient lunar culture with the new, agriculture-based solar culture. I wanted to hear more about his research, but our conversation quickly moved to current events. Knight is interested in the concept of solidarity and has been active in the labor and environmental movements. He feels that it was women's solidarity that allowed them to enforce the lunar order of shared resources by coordinating the giving or withholding of sex at the appropriate time of the month.
In his activism, Chris Knight keeps searching for the organizing principle that will bring out people's capacity for acting in solidarity. The solar culture, which is our modern culture, has diminished this capacity with its emphasis on the heroic individual male. The Roman Legions marched to the banner of Sol Invictus, the undefeated sun. And the sun never set on the British Empire of old.
The next day, in search of a good curry, I found myself on Edgware Road, a vibrant Muslim commercial district. I was intrigued by the variety of female fashions on parade - everything from the complete black chador that reveals nothing but the eyes, to the mini-skirt worn over jeans with a colorful head scarf barely covering the ears. I was astonished to see women in head scarves sitting at outdoor cafè tables smoking shisha, the tobacco water pipe. I was told later that it was a common sight in more-liberal Muslim countries like Lebanon - liberal Lebanon, where at that moment Israeli airstrikes were driving increasing numbers into Hezbollah's embrace.
Still, the only signs of conflict on Edgware Road were the Bible and Koran pushers stationed on alternate street corners. Other than the women, of course. From the porn shops of Soho to the chadors of Edgware Road, the display of women's bodies is a contested issue. Perhaps it has always been this way; at one moment a woman is valued for her fertility or sexuality; at another she is valued for her discernment or discretion. When, women ask, do we get to be whole persons?
Britain Bakes, and Embraces a Prophet
The final stop of my pilgrimage was William Blake's grave. I love Blake for his poetry and art, his reverence for the human form, and his refusal to abandon his beloved Catherine Sophia even when her body would not produce the child he wanted. Blake - the mystic poet-prophet of Albion - what would he have had to say about the state of London's Hyde Park, its normally lush lawns baked to a dead brown in this summer's extreme heat? As I write now in December, meteorologists have concluded that 2006 was the hottest year in Britain since record-keeping began in 1659.
Flying home, I saw Greenland's vast white ice sheet pockmarked everywhere with blue pools of meltwater. These lakes did not exist just a few years ago. Global warming is accelerating, and we are reaching the point of no return. If we are to survive, we must do what it takes to transform our human culture once again. For one thing, we must stop flying so much.
The British are far more aware of the climate change threat than Americans are. Perhaps it is because they live on a small island where farmland is limited, an island that will lose precious land to the rising seas. British politicians and scientists have taken the lead in raising the alarm on global warming. They have even hired Al Gore to reach out to Americans on the issue, sending our own rejected prophet back to us.
Al Gore as the Merlin for our age? Works for me.
Kelpie Wilson is the Truthout
environment editor. A veteran forest protection activist and
mechanical engineer, she is the author of Primal
Tears, an eco-thriller novel published by North Atlantic