On Druids, Trees and Truth

Eiche und Basaltsäule, Joseph Beuys, Düsseldorf (1)
One of the 7000 Oaks inspired by artist Joseph Beuys with basalt stone
Friend Lewis asked me about “druids”. They are much maligned (is it, I wonder, mainly by the English?). They don’t understand their honourable history in ancient Celtic cultures where they were members of the professional class including religious leaders, legal authorities, lorekeepers, medical professionals and political advisors.

The modern word druid comes from the Latin druides, but behind that Latin word is Old Irish, Old Cornish and Middle Welsh words which hypothetically might be based on a proto-Celtic word reconstructed as druwids (plural is druwides). Druid is thought to come from the Celtic word for the oak tree, duir. A drewid is a “knower of oak trees”.

What led me to this clearance of understanding was a look at one of Joseph Beuys’s works (1982) which consisted of the planting of 7000 oak trees in Kassel in Germany. in conversation with Richard Demarco, Beuys said:

I think the tree is an element of regeneration which in itself is a concept of time. The oak is especially so because it is a slowly growing tree with a kind of really solid heart wood. It has always been a form of sculpture, a symbol for this planet ever since the Druids, who are called after the oak. Druid means oak. They used their oaks to define their holy places. I can see such a use for the future … The tree planting enterprise provides a very simple but radical possibility for this when we start with the seven thousand oaks.

Other words derived from this root (excuse pun) include the Old English treow from which we have tree, truce, truth, troth, tryst – what a vast array of fruit those words represent! And that leads me to the moment Jesus was hung from the remains of a felled tree and, with true love, excruciatingly transformed the Tree of Death to the Tree of Life.


PS You may be interested in a series of poems written by Jim Bridgman called The Tree Cycle, for example, this Nightmare of the Rood

Grains of Sand

Grains of Sand is a rebrand. I originally called this blog The Jog. That has run its course. The blog was The Jog but now it’s just Grains of Sand. Why?

  1. Grains ain’t heavy and take themselves lightly
  2. I like my questions blowing’ in the wind
  3. I like the sound of sand sifting in the sea
  4. There are too many to count
  5. Jesus did all his best writing in sand

There’s rocks and then there is sand. Or is it the other way round? Time managers insist on getting to the rocks first but that suggests we don’t have to make time for the grains of sand. I get concerned that the blogosphere will be taken over by experts with their weighty opinions. Am I wrong in thinking that posts are getting longer and look more like journal articles? It’s as if they’re uttering the last word. I’m wanting space for the first words of consciousness and wonder.

They’re too many count. Nobody in their right mind would ever dream of counting grains of sand (although it might be a better way of getting sleep than counting sheep). In the Bible grains of sand stand for plenty. They stand for the extent of his love and the extent of his amazing grace. When we say “how much?”, we hear “so much, you can’t even begin to count”. His love and his mercy is measured in grains of sand.

How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand (Psalm 139:17f)

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven and said “… I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.” (Genesis 12:17)

The sins I have committed against you
are more in number than the sands of the sea. (Manasseh 1:9)

Jesus did his best writing in the sand. I say that because there’s no evidence that he did any writing other than the writing he did in the sand (John 8:1-12). In this passage Jesus subverts the judgments of his community.His opponents framed a woman – they said “caught in adultery”. They want Jesus to confirm the judgement that she should be stoned to death but Jesus refuses. He writes in the sand. He says the first stone should be cast by the one without sin – at which her (and his) accusers put their stones down and leave. Jesus, as the one without sin, should have been the one to cast the first stone. Instead he says, “I don’t condemn you”.

We don’t know what Jesus wrote in the sand. Instead we read into his writing his merciful love and his despair at those who don’t realise the damage they are doing when they judge others. There is one  fanciful suggestion (Derrett) that what Jesus did write was two verses from scripture. He was sitting down when he wrote – the theory is he would have been able to reach as far as being able to write only 16 Hebrew characters, which might have been:

“Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong… do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd.”(Exodus 23:2) and
“Have nothing to do with a false charge.” (Exodus 23:7)

We just don’t know what he wrote. But if the suggestion is true, or if he wrote something similar, it is clear that it was the malice of the chargers that bothered Jesus, not the alleged wrong of the woman. I would say that this is beautiful writing, calligraphy that spares the ones the world accuses (rightly or wrongly) – writing for salvation.

That is the way to write, with the grain of that sand. So Grains of Sand it is. Just a few grains, a tiny part of a large harvest. Just grains, secreted and buried in the blogosphere. It’s not for me to know what happens next. Thanks for reading and thanks to all fellow sifters.

You smell – and I’m not being rude

My wife (her name is Jeanette, not Kate, and she has a rather fine nose) has suddenly got her sense of taste and smell back after a senseless four or five years. She tried many things over the years, including many returns to the House on the Top of Great Orme for their lemon meringue pie (that worked once). Her senses have been restored just when she had given up trying. She is now going round sniffing things (Comfort fabric conditioner is a favourite) and is enjoying the tastes of food. It’s like coming to life again. I am delighted for her.

Our senses of taste and smell are often overlooked. There are no words that I am aware of which describe the taste-less and smell-less state. Blindness and deafness describe severe visual and hearing impairment, but there is no equivalent words to describe the impairment of the other senses. Maybe that is because blindness and deafness affect lives in a far more critical way, whereas the senses of taste and smell are pleasures. The pleasure is usually taken for granted, and our senses are often dulled because we don’t really appreciate the senses we have been given.

The Smell Report suggests that western civilisation has devalued the sense of smell in a tendency to compare and rank the senses. The sense of smell won the wooden spoon in the Sense Games, while the gold medal went to the gift of sight. Long noses and nosiness are not welcome here.  “You smell” is a common playground insult, whereas “you see” isn’t.

The Smell Report points our noses at other cultures. For example, in some Arab countries breathing on people as you speak to them is a sign of friendship and goodwill – and denying someone your breath and smell is a shameful sign that you don’e want to get involved with them.

The Onge people of the Andaman Islands tell the time by smell. They have a calendar based on the odours of the flowers that bloom at different times of the year.  Their greeting is not  “How are you?”, but “Konyune onorange-tanka?” which means  “How is your nose?”. Sometimes people respond by saying “I am heavy with odour”, at which the greeter, to be polite, must inhale deeply to remove some of the surplus. At other times the greeter may need to blow heavily on the person she is greeting if that person is a bit short of odour energy.

Ivan Illich discovered that smell is not something to be sneezed at when he was in Peru. It was pointed out to him that there was a connection between nose and heart, smell and affection that he had not made. In his address The Cultivation of Conspiracy, Illich recalls:

“I was in Peru in the mid-1950s, on my way to meet Carlos, who welcomed me to his modest hut for the third time. But to get to the shack, I had to cross the Rimac, the open cloaca of Lima. The thought of sleeping for a week in this miasma almost made me retch. That evening, with a shock, I suddenly realised what Carlos had been telling me all along, “Ivan, don’t kid yourself; don’t imagine you can be friends with people you can’t smell.” That one jolt unplugged my nose; it enabled me to dip into the aura of Carlos’s house, and allowed me to merge the atmosphere I brought along into the ambience of his home.”

Illich refers to the old German adage Ich kann Dich gut riechen” (“I can smell you well”) which goes with another German saying “Ich kann Dich leiden” (” I can suffer you well”).

We mustn’t look down our noses at the sense of smell, or taste. And if you think that’s cheesy you might be interested in Giles Milton’s book, Edward Trencom’s Nose: a novel of history, dark intrigue and cheese. Milton has a nose for history. Trencom, and his predecessors, has a remarkable nose, just for cheese.

PS Big Nose Kate didn’t have a big nose. She was just nosy. She was Doc Holiday’s girlfriend. The photo is by TLfromAZ

Russell Brand tastes revolution in the Watford Gap

Russell Brand is always worth listening to. He is passionate and outraged. He is intelligent, and, he admits to being “fucked up and naive”. He gave voice to his outrage in an interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. Simon Kelner described the scene in the Independant. “On one side was a rather effete figure with an unruly beard who found it hard to take anything seriously, and on the other side was Russell Brand.”

Since then Russell Brand has been reflecting on developments since that interview. They are published in today’s Guardian. He is passionate about change and connects with the new movements such as Occupy. He writes of his commitment:

Well I am naïve and I have fucked up but I tell you something else. I believe in change. I don’t mind getting my hands dirty because my hands are dirty already. I don’t mind giving my life to this because I’m only alive because of the compassion and love of others. Men and women strong enough to defy this system and live according to higher laws.

He has seen the Apocalypse:

The less privileged among us are already living in the apocalypse, the thousands of street sleepers in our country, the refugees and the exploited underclass across our planet daily confront what we would regard as the end of the world. No money, no home, no friends, no support, no hand of friendship reaching out, just acculturated and inculcated condemnation.

and he has glimpsed the revolution at the Watford Gap:

One night late at the Watford Gap I got chatting to a couple of squaddies, one Para, one Marine, we talked a bit about family and politics, I invited them to a show. Then we were joined by three Muslim women, all hijabbed up. For a few perfect minutes in the strip lit inertia of this place, that was nowhere in particular but uniquely Britain, I felt how plausible and beautiful The Revolution could be. We just chatted.

The freedom of all the children of God

Today we celebrate the anti-slave campaigners, William Wilberforce, Olaudah Equiano and Thomas Clarkson. It’s today because it’s the anniversary of William Wilberforce’s death.

Campaigns against slavery, human trafficking and child labour continue, as do campaigns  for a living wage. They must. We pray this prayer;

God our deliverer, who sent your Son Jesus Christ to set your people free from the slavery of sin:
grant that, as your servants William Wilberforce, Olaudah Equiano and Thomas Clarkson toiled against the sin of slavery,
so we may bring compassion to all and work for the freedom of all the children of God, through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.

“No man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent.” Abraham Lincoln

Every year Snugbury’s Ice Cream Farm entertain Cheshire with a sculpture with a good twist of humour. Last year it was the meerkat. The previous year was Big Ben. This year it’s for the team pursuit in the Olymplicks. Mike Harper, of Harbrook Engineering, is the creator of this piece of art. It took 3 men 3 weeks to fabricate the steel, and 4 people 2 weeks to stuff the straw. The piece weighs 7 tons, is 35 feet high, with the bike alone being 8 feet tall.

Ringing true

20120725 Olympic opening ceremony rehearsal DSC_3479.jpg

Marcus Brigstocke couldn’t quite understand why there are so many countries represented in the Olympics. He assumes that some of the countries are made up. I too kept saying “where’s that?” as the athletes paraded. My favourite was Micronesia, which, if I remember correctly, is next to Amnesia, and next to its far larger neighbour Magnesia (famed for its milk and antacid industry). @marcusbrig has suggested other countries that could have been taking part, including Neverland, Narnia and the Land of Nod. Personally I don’t ever see Legoland being able to put together an opening ceremony like the one we saw on Friday, but I do look forward to the opening ceremony in Oz.

Ai Weiwei’s contrast in the Guardian between the Beijing and London Olympic ceremonies is telling. For me, the Opening Ceremony rang true. Aidan Burley MP’s tweet apart (he wrote: “Thank God the athletes have arrived! Now we can move on from leftie multi-cultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones!”)  the Opening Ceremony has been praised from all quarters. Danny Boyle held up a mirror to the world representing his reading of this “green and pleasant (ironic) land”. People liked what they saw in the mirror, and us Brits said “yes, this is us”. We recognise how the industrial revolution ripped our landscape and communities apart, and we recognised the values which have made for modern Britain. These values of care, generosity and hospitality are not exclusively British, and they are contested values in Britain, but care, generosity and hospitality were celebrated as the building blocks of community. It was good to see the parade of achievements (music, film, comedy) alongside the parade of sporting talent, and to see the national treasure of the NHS polished to the wonderful accompaniment of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and In Dulce Jubilo.

So many highlights rang my bells. Besides the NHS scenes there was the ringing of the bell, the music, Rowan Atkinson, the drumming (particularly Evelyn Glennie), the Industrial Revolution, the silence, Abide with me, the cast of volunteers and ordinary people, the inclusion of the construction workers and the marvellous lighting of the cauldron designed by Thomas Heatherwick.

Michael Sadgrove has posted his reflections on the Opening Ceremony. He highlights the spirituality of the Opening Ceremony. For Edward Green the Opening ceremony is a sign of the shape of the church to come.

The photo is from powderphotography

So the NHS is 60 years old this weekend.
Apparently, in the summer of 1948 every household received a leaflet explaining the new NHS. It said: “Your new National Health Service begins on 5th July. What is it? How do you get it? It will provide you with all medical, dental, and nursing care. Everyone, rich or poor, man, woman or child—can use it. There are no charges except for a few special items. There are no insurance qualifications. But it is not a charity You are all paying for it, mainly as taxpayers, and it will relieve your money worries in time of illness.”
What an amazing national achievement is the NHS. Of course there’s stuff wrong with it – but none of it is terminal. I hear staff are demoralised, but people have always complained like that. What is amazing is the commitment of so many to the enterprise – doctors, nurses, researchers, admin staff and ancillary staff.

Swing Low Sweet Charity

>Chewing over the phrase “charity begins at home” (it always sticks in my throat!) my mind went to “Swing low sweet charity” (must have been watching too much rugby over the weekend!) Since 1988 Swing Low Sweet Chariot has been the anthem of the England Rugby Union supporters. The song has a long history – from being sung by Afro-Americans to being a pretty obscene drinking song (about which I know so little!)

According to my friend Wikipedia, the song was composed by a native American slave, Wallis Willis around 1862. He also wrote “Steal away to Jesus”. Unbeknown to Rugby Union fans both the songs have hidden references to the Underground Railroad by which many slaves escaped to freedom.

“Swing low” refers to the escape “conductors” going down south to get their “passengers”. “Sweet chariot” was the carriage to “carry me home” to freedom. “Looking over Jordan” refers to the rivers Ohio and Mississippi beyond which is freedom. There was no physical railroad – but the slaves used the language of the railroad as code to help slaves escape. The Underground Railroad consisted of meeting points, secret routes, transportation, safe houses, and assistance provided by abolitionist sympathizers – who were the “conductors”. The churches were involved in this underground movement through which, some estimate, up to 100,000 slaves found their escape.

How many rugby fans are freedom fighters I wonder? It might make them think again if they were to sing the song standing in the shoes and chains of slaves.