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21 Mar 2011

Saplings in time: A Heathen Tale

Article by Frederick Cheney

The two dishevelled figures sat, all angular faces and matted hair, talking and smoking together. Gazing upward, an ark of blue framed by the crater rim filled their vision and contained their wonderings. Picking up a pen, one of the two began to write:

We are come to an old, special place. We may not reckon the age of this Druid Grove in years; for like you and I, these trees are strangers to this land.

When the wind draws strong across the oaks and pines, they whisper to you of the Gothic forest, of an ancient homeland far across the sea, once ours, only half remembered. Old trees, emblems of time, the verdant houses of memory, the hidden memory of the Old People, planted in a new land. Terra Australis, the mineral, the earthen, stripped to its very bones.

And so here two children sit, talking of what could be. And if you cock your head, tilt the horizon just a little, and listen, just enough, and in the right way, you could almost lose yourself in the sylvan forest: Dwarven halls below –  the sky itself the concave head of a long-dead giant; primal Being. Men and women were first made from the trunks of trees, the legends say.

The Dance of the Mother changes through the seasons; She leads our steps in the ring of trees.

Erick threw down the pen and paper with an expression of profound disgust. What had in the first instance seemed like reasonable writing now stared back at him as just so much affected prattle. The mock-liturgy of the expatriate young.  Gwion had pressed the materials into his hand, made him write it. Gwion always put him on the spot like that, and Erick had always hated it, secretly. Gwion’s insistence had led to some good phrases being coined, of course, or so Erick had occasionally allowed himself to believe. Now all his ideals, and the inferior logic with which he framed them, lay in the grass just where he had tossed them. Gwion, a young man with a certain Biblical quality – ‘Jesus Freak’ the other kids had called him, before they had both left school – sat with his back against the warm granite boulder. Taking a drag on his joint with the nonchalance of a truly satisfied individual, he began to wax lyrical. In spite of himself, Erick, the younger of the pair, began to listen.

“Last night I had a great experience” – drag – “went up to the Look-Out and went into a trance, just a ‘fiftycount’” – exhale – “and concentrated on the Mother – saw – just for a moment, the barest fraction of a second – two joins between everything. Holistic view. I was the world, the world was me. All is one and one is all. There are no endings, man, only new beginnings.”

Gwion butted out the end of his joint with practised fingers.

Erick smiled at his friend. Bloody hippy he thought, with mild and affectionate exasperation. “Finished?” he said good-naturedly. He could carry on, could Gwion. Nonetheless, Gwion wasn’t the mindless New Age pothead that many took him for. Some of what he said was beautiful and beneath the bare, dirty feet and the pseudo-Kerouac prose stood an authentic individual waiting to come out. In time the pipe dream would dissipate, leaving a clearer view. Gwion was  a true believer.

In fact, it was his idea that they come up here, to the Mountain. Time to leave all that plasticity and bullshit behind, he’d said. The Mega-Society, Civilisation – an arthritic gargoyle perched frightened on the very edge of the continent, afraid of the interior – had spat them out of the dark city alleys where black buildings crouched with an almost  predatory intent. And then they’d stumbled along the sterile stone ribbons, past the softly lobotomised eyes of middle Australia, out here, to this place, where the kookaburras laughed incongruously amongst the oaks.

They’d parked the car at the bottom of the Mountain, a bosom-like eruption in an otherwise softly undulating landscape. Walking through the lava breach on foot – it would have been a sacrilege to drive in the crater, they agreed – the two young men made a spring camp amongst young saplings and boulders older than time.

Breathing hard over a half pitched tent, Gwion had said to Erick that “this place used to be sacred to the Kooris, you know.” But Erick had come seeking other, different spirits. Still, he knew that the Land was never a clean slate. Where had the Aboriginals gone? Sometimes, as he walked around the Mountain, Erick fancied he could hear the crunching of their bones under his feet, but it was just the dry leaves on the forest floor.

Walking and talking, the two men sought the cave and the tree-top, smelt the bird bone and the wood ash, and somewhere between Earth and Sky they contracted and expanded to the rhythm of some larger, ineffable breath. Sometime in their journeying – was it three weeks, was it six? – Erick picked up his pen again. This is what he wrote:

It was a sudden, violent storm that had given no hint of its approach. Electric fire darted across the sky, followed immediately by an almighty CRASH! It was as if the giants of old had been awoken and were at dangerous play. As we leaned our bodies into the wind and were nearly blown over, I instinctively reached inside my cloak to feel my Hammer amulet, cool against my chest. The low-hung darkening sky sung itself into human-like form with a banshee wail as a wyrd, mid-day gloaming turned fear to terror. Howling, an eight-legged wind-steed and his grim, one-eyed rider passed close over our heads, with all their ghostly wain in tow.

We felt – feared – that something like this may happen. Over the past hours we had, both of us, achieved a heightened sensitivity; the walls between the worlds were thin and for some time everything had seemed to encode a pattern of significance: the sudden flight of birds, the voice of the river, all seemed to hint at an interconnectedness.

Deep wells of ancestral memory bringing form to the in-dwelling spirit-of-place; the encoded mystery of the landscape unfolded in a numinous light: heart and mind transfigured.

That ominous, awe-inspiring moment as the creaking pine and gum saplings contorted this way and that as if to break, seemed to last an eternity. But at length it passed away, leaving us bathed in the eerie twilight. Cresting the rim of the extinct volcano, no more words were needed as we beheld the most incredible sunset that either of us had
ever seen. Perhaps the Gods had not been hostile; we were given an insight into the Great Mystery, even if just for the
duration of the setting sun.

The rest of the journey was passed in respectful silence.

The sharing of the experience had made us somehow inseparable. The circle was complete and we two would remain connected thus, forever.

Author’s Reflections On Saplings in Time

This short story seeks to capture that peculiar sense of unease which seems to confound the mental life of  contemporary Australia. In recent times, and most particularly since the advent of the counter-culture in the 1960s and 70s, the ‘sacred’ has begun to re-assert itself and to be acknowledged as a valid category of experience. With the decline of the Christian faith this resurgent spirituality has begun to present itself in some unusual ways, especially among some sections of our youth.

This eruption of the Spirit has occurred within a staunchly secular and industrial Australia. Accordingly, as Australians, we are often deeply troubled, one might even say ‘haunted,’ by these spiritual presences. Arguably, this breakdown of the secular paradigm has occurred concurrently in other New World contexts, such as North America. Therefore an examination of the material thrown up by the resurgent Sacred in Australia may yield insights that speak to the American experience as well. Unresolved issues related to race and identity, sovereignty and symbolism, truth and fiction plague us, and, strangely, we are often ignorant of the deep religious roots of these themes. But why should a resurgent sense of the sacred have anything to do with race and ethnicity as such? Within contemporary Australia many schools of thought, including proponents of the “New Age,” environmentalists, and some Jungian spiritualists, have posited Aboriginal religion as a means of reconciling Modernity with itself.1 We may assume a parallel process  within American intellectual life, with the reification by whites of traditional Native American culture.

The dialogue between sacredness and modernity, configured in this way, is fraught with a host of definitively  post-colonial problems. In their enormously valuable book Uncanny Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a  Postcolonial Nation, Ken Gelder and Jane M. Jacobs engage these themes directly. They note that a shifting Australian identity becomes entangled within the contentious relationship between sacredness and territoriality. Who authorises  the sacred, and at what point does synthesis become appropriation?2 One might ask the question: are the diverse  claims of an Anglo-Celtic Australia in spiritual crisis and a resurgent Aboriginal spirituality even commensurable?

My short creative piece is intimately concerned with this negotiation of spiritual identity in a post-colonial Australia. Some hard thinking and reading in this area has allowed me to place some rather puzzling events in a broader context. For although my story has been fictionalised, it is in fact based on lived experience. Lest my analyses come across as too intellectualised, then, we should remember that these abstract formulations have their correlatives in lived, psychological reality.

It will be seen immediately that the sympathies and origin of the piece lie within Romanticism, and a Heathenish Romanticism at that.

The ‘Mountain’ which forms the backdrop of the tale is in fact Mount Franklin in central Victoria, known to the local Aboriginals, the Dja Dja Waurong, as Llalgambook. This was a place regarded as sacred by the Indigenous owners and there is some evidence of an initiation site on the slopes of the Mountain, yet since the late 1970s it has also become a place of spiritual significance to neo- Pagans, largely of Anglo-Celtic extraction. In our story the alchemy of Mountain and Human manifests two sets of ‘ghosts.’ On the one hand there is the continual presence of Aboriginal Australia, uncannily implied by the absence of any living Aboriginals. On the other there is the disruptive and sudden appearance of Woden, an archaic Northern deity of death and ecstasy, with all his Wild Hunt in tow.

There is a sense in which Gwion and Erick are productive of this vision, a sense that their mere presence, as two people whose ancestors hail from Northern Europe (the names ‘Erick’ and ‘Gwion’ have their own ethno-cultural associations) has initiated such a seemingly incongruous visitation in the Australian bush. Erick intuits this incongruity with his  piece of writing that opens the story. His – my – prose represents an attempt to disentangle the issues that are thrown up when an archaic, and specifically European, set of religious associations assert themselves in what is still essentially a foreign country. This sense of discontinuity is reinforced by the close proximity of the “oaks and kookaburras” to one another. And yet the Mountain is always there, as an active third presence. Woden is not merely an invasive manifestation, then. The strange phenomena which occur are as much a product of the location, the place, as they are of the two protagonists, or the agency of a god.

A closer examination of the landscape and theology, or more precisely the theology of landscape, of the piece can draw out the implications of this paradox.

Deep wells of ancestral memory bringing form to the in-dwelling spirit-of-place. The encoded mystery of the landscape unfolded in a numinous light: heart and mind transfigured.

More than any others in my piece these lines unify and express the theme of genius loci – spirit of place – and they do so, significantly, both in terms of the central Victorian landscape and my Northern European spiritual heritage. For if Germanic Heathenism, the religion of the god Woden, originated in one land, Northern Europe, then naturally it will be a religion replete with Northern European associations. Indeed, natural and desirable spiritual evolution  notwithstanding, the entire form and content of the religion are ideally derived from this source. How far can we, or should we, nativise our religion in Australia? There is something complex, problematic, and interesting when North meets South. What happens when opposites meet? When fire and ice clash and intermingle is there creation or destruction, or both? Is there a possibility of a marriage here?

When walking through the Australian landscape, the contrast with Europe can become acute. The radical discontinuity is not merely a physical fact of difference; the problem is constellated in profoundly psychological and spiritual terms. The primordial Australian landscape presents itself as the inverse of all European cultural and geographic mores; we  are quite literally ‘down-under’ and ‘up-side down.’ What we encounter here is not merely difference to, but in some sense the very inversion of, the European context. Author and academic David Tacey has written: “There is an enormous psychic gap between the consciousness of Europeans and the primal reality of the Australian landscape.  That gap is so great that consciousness could be swallowed up if it attempted to cross the gap in search of psychic roots in the local soil.”3

It can therefore be seen how the dynamics of my piece are highly problematic, in as much as it attempts a strange marriage between European and indigenous elements and entities. Were it not for the veracity of lived experience depicted, poetic embellishment notwithstanding, I think I would find it utterly artificial.

The story invites us to re-imagine ourselves as part of this Land, without repudiating our origins or appropriating Aboriginal culture. It also asks us to re-evaluate our own tribal origins, and our relationship as white people to Aboriginal Australians. Is the land going to render white people indigenous too? White people are not accustomed to thinking of themselves as either indigenous or tribal and few things could be more controversial in the current climate than the equation of white ethnic experience with the terrible suffering of Aboriginal Australia. This dilemma may apply equally to the Americas, with their parallel history of white invasion.

And yet there are points of connection between Aboriginal and European experience; we have both been dispossessed of our natural and rightful tribal and ethnic inheritance by a feudalistic Christianity, have we not? And with similar  social and spiritual (not to mention environmental) consequences, too, I would say. I maintain this is a point of  connection and no more. I do not in any way wish to conflate white and black experience entirely and in so doing  obscure the fact that, overall, the Aboriginal people of this country are suffering appallingly in comparison to the white population. I am acutely aware of the dangers in such a comparison; empathy and identification can quickly become a form of cultural appropriation.

So, given some of these complications, how do we go about engaging with the Spirit of Place, as modern Heathens? In  an insightful article for the Irminsul newsletter, Dirk Schmitt, formerly of the Assembly of the Elder Troth, has written:

“Land Wights tend to have the characteristics of the land which they are found in, and for a land like Australia, which is very ancient and which has held its current form for a very long time, the land spirits whom live here have a certain feeling to them which is very much aligned with the land that they live in. It’s similar to how people whom have been living in Australia for a few generations tend to change and become more like the land in which they live.”4

Schmitt’s first insight, that the land wights of this country are necessarily of this country, is rarely conceded by many Pagans in my experience. Ironic, for an ecological religion of Place, they are emotionally wedded to the spiritual and physical terrain of Europe. They worship in cerebral ‘groves of the mind.’ I have felt this tension myself and it is alive in the story. I fear our modern technological lifestyle, by cocooning us off from the natural world, allows us to indulge  such contradictions.

Schmitt’s last sentence is of particular interest to me. Are we ‘going native?’ I would say that I regard myself as English. I am ‘Englisc’ not by virtue of my place of birth (Melbourne) but because I belong to a distinct people. It is worth remembering, as well, that the English existed in continental Europe long before they made the journey west-over-sea to the land that would become ‘England.’ Of course living in Australia has given us a new psychological dispensation and a new, distinct sensibility. Nevertheless there are psycho-spiritual dangers and tensions inherent in our being here, as Tacey points out. Perhaps, like Voss in the Patrick White novel, we are in danger of being ‘swallowed up’ by  Australia.5 And yet there is an old Koori belief which states that the souls of the ancestors are reborn in the bodies of all subsequent generations who live on and with a given piece of land. This is a very destabilising theology and I do not  take it literally, yet it seems to me that it expresses, if not a literal truth, then a great psychological truth: that the Land  itself will eventually render us indigenous and that we will have to accommodate and acknowledge the first inhabitants as part of this process. Is it possible to configure and evolve our identity as a European folk religion whilst also integrating the spiritual and geographic reality of Australia, or North America for that matter? I believe so, but the changes that this process will render in us over time may alter us indelibly. Could we be seeing a new ethnogenesis?
This is precisely the tension that Saplings in Time pivots on.

Some of the time the destabilising potential of this tension confounds me, and I resolve to leave Australia and return to our Ancestral lands in England and Europe. Then again, wherever I go the Earth is my Mother, and it is the great insight of the Pagan religions that every land is the Holy Land, and all people the Chosen. Like so many Heathens I suspect I  idealise the landscape of Northern Europe. There is nothing wrong with that, but if we don’t adjust our psychic world to accommodate our new circumstances then our spiritual and communal lives can become very fraught, even  pathological, whether we declare ourselves enlightened Heathens or not. I have seen this first hand; it can manifest in a  siege mentality that demonises everything beyond the confines of our coastal fringe. I am suggesting that adjusting  to this land may be more difficult that we realise. Nothing about Wyrd is static. Why should I reify the past or another  place far away and expect nature to suspend Her laws just for me?

So where does this leave us? Some of these contradictions and tensions, thrown up by being a white person in Australia or America, are indissoluble. Therefore we are left with little choice but to engage with, even become habituated to, existential insecurity, or fluidity. In spite of the ambivalent nature of the resurgent sacred,  the contradictions and  tensions at the heart of white identity in Australia can evoke a productive mental and spiritual instability. This  productive state can be realised if we internalise and embrace the contents of this deeper and stranger Australia, as suggested in Gelder and Jacobs book. This process would be greatly aided by a renewed recognition on the part of Anglo-Celtic Australians of their own spiritual origins, if they became familiar with their own “ghosts.” As my piece demonstrates those origins cannot be repudiated, simply because they continue to involuntarily assert themselves as part of lived spiritual experience. Even in the Antipodes, Woden is never very far away.

1 Ken Gelder and Jane M. Jacobs, Uncanny Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1998) 1.
2 Ken Gelder and Jane M. Jacobs, Uncanny Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1998) 1.
3 Dirk Schmitt, “Spirits of House, Land and Ancestry,” Irminsul Newsletter 2.2 (2004): 12.
4 David Tacey, Edge of the Sacred: Transformation in Australia (Victoria: HarperCollins, 1995).
5 Ibid.

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