A few days ago I was staying with a friend who has a delightful house hidden in what, at least in British terms, is a vast forest. Surrounded by the green and grey of the summer season, the air filled with many layers of bird song, I found myself captivated by the spirit of place. Tomorrow I’ll be going into the woods again, this time in the company of two score magicians, to do our Work.
Woodland of course occupies a mythic place in the western folk cannon – Goldilocks wanders off into an uncharted area of the forest. In the dark spaces beneath the trees lurk all manner of monsters, wild beasts and outlaws. Woodland is emblematic of Mystery, the occult, the hidden.
Sometimes I wonder about the belief systems that emerge from wooded landscape, or the jungles of the tropics and how these insights differ from those encountered in the desert.
I love deserts too. I once spent three days walking alone in the Sahara and have travelled into the bush of Australia. In such places it seems to me it’s quite natural to come up with monist beliefs. Alone, with nothing but the sky and the dry land for company, we are stripped of relationships. Imagining an immovable Self or One True God is really easy in that situation. When we meet other beings they appear as strange ghosts; lizards that scuttle out of the way, tiny mammals who only emerge, wide-eyed and blinking, in the night time. Death lays out the bones of larger creatures on the dusty earth.
But surrounded by trees, by vegetation, by birds and others we are held more obviously in relationship with other life. We are clearly part of a matrix, rather than isolate selves we need to negotiate, navigate, sometimes cut through and sometimes climb over, the living mass of verdant ecology.
Speaking with a Sister and reflecting on the differences she has seen between incoming western culture and that of the indigenous Amazonian tribes, I wonder if much of the tension between these ways of being arises from our distinct landscapes. The Middle Eastern forest was destroyed aeons ago and climatic changes opened up the dry crack of desert across Africa in the pre-history of our species. From these desolate places of desert came The Holy Books and One God – definite, one-pointed, discrete, unique monomania. Monoculture farming, monoculture herding and monoculture social systems arose, with a linear chronology; a creation story, and a Fall with messianic, apolocalyptic punch line.
What religions come from the jungles? Those syncretic ayahuasca cults who believe that Jesus has already returned as the Vine of the Soul, those ‘shamanic’ belief systems which underpin many tribal cultures. Perhaps the nature of the jungle, of the woods, is such that the emerging beliefs don’t appear as ‘revolutions’ or radical new faiths. So while we can expect the Evangelistic missions to continue their work in places like South American, bringing the Good News of sexual shame, oil exploitation and legalism, perhaps something else may be happening too. Perhaps the damp wet of the forest, the green and grey of vine covered trees and pregnant rain clouds, may be soaking back into the soul of the west.
The eruption of the modern Pagan movement which, in a sense, is a direct reaction to in the rapacious industrialisation of the Victorian age, is an indigenous European species of this forest rot. A realisation that no Holy Book or Magick Tablet or Sacred Scroll can ever teach as much as direct experience of the world. An emphasis on the rhythmic passage of the seasons, an appreciation that animal and plant spirits are teachers, an awareness of ourselves as part of, not above or beyond, Nature.
May we all nurture woodlands, both inner psychological ones and physical ones in our landscapes. Not necessarily as pristine wilderness, from which humans are forbidden, but as a places that, especially for us in the west, may act as a corrective to our culture which unconsciously seeks to replicate the monotony of the desert across the globe.
May we all spend some time, in deep relationship with other beings, in the confusing, life-affirming, riotous world of the green and grey.
Check out Damh The Bard’s tune in praise of the green and grey here