I love this land. The season here is turning. I love the way that the mist clings to the hills on the far side of the valley, there is a faint wind from the west and to me the trees, though still green, seem somehow relieved that the intensity of the summer is coming to an end. I am the same, the low cloud and gentle drizzle suits my mood. It is the end of August. In modern times we still think of August in England as the summer, but our forebears, the Celts marked August as the first month of Autumn which feels more accurate when I am out wandering or working on the land and when I am in the weather. Everywhere the fruits of summer’s efforts are ripening. This year the valley-alongside the usual cattle pasture- is full of wheat-it gives the landscape a beautiful golden hue. The first blackberries are ready, rosehips too and with a closer look the still green leaves on the oak trees and in the hedgerows are showing the first signs of decay.
Chlorophyll is a word derived from the Greek; chloros and phyylon, meaning ‘green leaf’. It’s a quirk of nature and science that the leaf itself cannot absorb light from the green part of the electromagnetic spectrum, preferring blue and red, hence the reason that it is, or appears to us at least, as green.The leaf performs the alchemical labour of conversion; sunlight into new growth and life and its brief greenness hides temporarily at least, the imperfections, markings and bruising’s, the yellow, brown blotches of the true leaf, that are always there, though lost to sight briefly in the exuberance of our spring and summer months. There is something revelatory about autumn, even-maybe especially, in its first utterings. Not that, but this, she says, neti, neti; not that, not that. Reminders of the Upanishads, the world forever changing.
This morning I took my familiar walk down the hill and then back up the combe, following the stream to its source below Creech Hill. The land that borders the stream has been divided into several fields, wide strips of pasture and meadow divided by pollarded hedgerows of mature hazel, beech and oak. The footpath meanders out of Spargrove and really peters out these days at the combe’s head but it is still joined- field by field for half a mile or so, by a series of stiles. There is a particular stile that I like to sit on for a while most days and this morning as I sat there I was greeted by a hare.
The hare is a wonderful animal and truly a wild-as well as mythical- creature. The hare is very shy-except in springtime-the mad march hare. In the real world it can run up to 35 mph. In the mythic world, the Irish consider the hare to be sidh-one of the fairy folk. This particular hare didn’t see me sitting still on the stile so today I was really gifted some considerable time in its company and in the feeling for the world it inhabits. Noting its physicality first- this adult hare is a strikingly big animal, about the size of a small dog. Its ears were long, oversized, and stuck up like a pair of brown, black feathers, always moving, always sensing the environment. Its markings were quite beautiful; thick, coarse fur that had in it every imaginable quality of brown, and patches of black about the legs and face. It moved gracefully enough, a kind of lolloping gait, nonchalant not knowing I was there, stopping, sensing, nibbling the grass, moving on, both deeply relaxed and exceptionally alert all at once.
What came to me as I watched the hare was the Celtic word ‘neart’. Neart really describes the ancient Celtic understanding of the creative life force that is understood to pervade the universe, to be found in all things. Neart as a cosmological principle recognises ours as an animate universe, one that is alive in every sense and form, constantly changing and shifting but forever present.
The Celts had a particular love of trees and woodland and these were places where neart could be closely felt and directly experienced. In writing about the spirit of the American Redwoods, Stanley Coblentz wrote;
‘I think that could the weary world but know
Communion with these spirits breathing peace
Strangely a veil would lift, a light would glow
And the dark tumult of our lives would cease’
Trees reside within the flow of neart-they are vivid expressions of it, and I read in Coblentz’ words the elucidation of the relationship between neart and trees and the power of trees to heal; to speak to the dark tumult in our own lives. Trees, and more generally, nature as healer and guide would be typical in the Celtic understanding of the world and I love very much the image of the tree as a spirit breathing peace.
The Celtic Christians respected and embraced the concept of neart and re-homed it in their own understanding, speaking of the immanence or nearness of God in all things. In the Vita Tripartia, St Patrick said;
Our God is the God of all things, the God of sky and earth, the God of sea and stream, the God of sun and moon, the God of the great high mountains and the deep glens, the God above heaven, in heaven and under heaven.’
As the Irish monk and writer Sean O Duinn puts it;
‘Advancement in holiness, according to the Celtic way, involves an effort to develop an awareness of the presence of God in everything and everybody, above us, below us and all around us at the four points of the compass.’
The Celtic tradition share’s much in common with many indigenous traditions. Here we see O Duinn’s reference to the four directions and the invocation of a whole world of cyclical or seasonal thinking. The Celtic language, with its cyclical rhythm is participative and inclusive and encompasses paradox; this and that not either/or, for them God is here and there. It is, for me, a language which gives me place, an axis mundi from which to make sense and meaning of the world.
The Celtic people were called muintir na tuithe: People of the land. The land and its creatures were teachers as well as providers, protectors as well as food- forming and informing the world through constant movement and flow. The hare as teacher?
Here in the valley I can hear the simple words of the Irish mythological text, Cath Maige Tuired
Spring for ploughing and sowing, and the beginning of summer for maturing the strength of the grain and the beginning of autumn for the full ripeness of the grain and for reaping it. Winter for consuming it.
These are the words of a culture, whose ears, over large like feathers, sense the landscape, the weather, the signs for what will give and renew life, honouring the cycles of life and death and the proper place for both.
The hare’s presence is what connected me to the principle of neart. I watched the way in which its ears constantly moved, absorbed in the world around it, every sense alert in every moment, absolutely awake to every sound and smell, noting the familiar, seeking out or perhaps better put-absolutely receptive to-the unfamiliar. Receptivity seems keen when life itself depends on it.
There was a quality in the animal that made it both distinct but at the same time indistinct-It was indeed hare-in the world and yet, it was so profoundly connected and immersed in the world around it that it seemed in another way-not separate or at least ephemeral. It was both hare-in-form- and yet also it was the unexpected expression of an eternal principle-it was like witnessing a single thread of an immense, inter-connected web, pulsing with brown black, hare-shaped life. In this space, the animate quality of the trees, the wind, the bird, the call of a buzzard, the cows moving like slow clouds in the distance-became at once apparent to me. Where does the hare end and the rest of the world begin?
When I finally moved, the hare showed its other neart quality-its capacity to shape shift. Neart, is the creative force of life; on- out, back and forth, forming, re-forming, melting and freezing.
We listen here in this place and what comes are echoes of the soul. Once a hare, now in a moment, a clump of grass, a bushel of wheat, an old rock-absolutely still, no longer itself and yet entirely itself but with dark black eyes that see everything. The hare is a fine exemplar of the universal principle of change.
I am reminded of the Welsh poet, RS Thomas’ Taliesin, which expresses the deep Celtic understanding of neart so beautifully;
King, beggar and fool, I have been all by turns,
Knowing the body’s sweetness, the mind’s treason;
Taliesin still, I show you a new world, risen,
Stubborn with beauty, out of the heart’s need.
Sitting on the stile, watching the hare, I saw the old world well today, ‘stubborn with beauty’. Perhaps we see such beauty in the times of greatest flux, the space between the seasons, the uncertain times. Here it is no longer summer. The days are shortening, the nights are cooler, the leaves are tinged, the corn full and waiting, old John Barleycorn. Yet it is not entirely Autumn-the leaf fall is still to come, not yet the rituals of smouldering fires and burnings, Samhain is still far off.
We are feeling the shifting of the season only gently but its certainty and the rhythm it evokes gives me a sense of calm and assurance. The green leaves of summer are only a brief mask, a brief monotony in the shape shifting of the leaf through the seasons, from bud unfurling, through the green months and then showing themselves in their ‘true colours, their blotched and decaying maturity, before the fall and return to earth. I look at my hands and see the slow decay there, the season gently shifting-inevitable. I welcome it.
The hare hunkered low as I walked very slowly past it and away along the track. Its huge feather ears were pinned back against its head, its unmoving eyes, watched me intensely, it was stone made animate. At some moment, it deemed me far enough away and ran for it, fast and low; it set off bounding for the hedgerow and having made it, stopped and considered me. I waved my thanks –the breeze made a slow sound like sidh in the trees and the hare was gone.