earthweal weekly challenge: EARTHCRAFT (A WAY OF WORKING)

Navaho rug


Sensings, mountings from the hiding places,
Words entering almost the sense of touch
Ferreting themselves out of their dark hutch—
‘These things are not secrets but mysteries,’
Oisin Kelly told me years ago
In Belfast, hankering after stone
That connived with the chisel, as if the grain
Remembered what the mallet tapped to know.
Then I landed in the hedge-school of Glanmore
And from the backs of ditches hoped to raise
A voice caught back off slug-horn and slow chanter
That might continue, hold, dispel, appease:
Vowels ploughed into other, opened ground,
Each verse returning like the plough turned round.

— Seamus Heaney, “Glanmore Sonnets,” II

According to the Old Testament, Adam’s original sin of tasting the forbidden fruit of knowledge got him and Eve expelled from Eden. It also cursed all humanity to follow with the necessity of work by the sweat of their brow. (It must have been easy peasy for us til then, chillin’ with creation ‘n’ Creator in the Happy Glade.)

What followed was a hard lot. As the Bronze Age emerged from the Neolithic from which the Judaic creation myth came from, half of humanity was enslaved, building pyramids and whatever other monstrosities of glory the privileged so deigned.

The rites of Dionysos – from which viniculture and Greek theater are both derived — were said to have taken root among slaves in the silver mines of Thessaly. The fiery drink of the black mother loosened the chains of slavery, and the ecstasy of the god took sanity to its wildest extreme.

Attic vase, 540 BC: Dionysos talks with Hermes next to a dancing silenus.

Even for freemen, survival was difficult and precarious. Tilling the land was brutal stuff and at the mercy of the gods of the elements. Anything and everything was called upon to appease them and get a fairer hand, sacrificing everything from the choicest cuts of the fatted calf to virgins and first sons. The Wheel of Fate creaked menacingly.

Eventually, though, humanity developed labor-saving devices — fire, flint tools, irrigation, the horse-drawn plow, the wheel, clocks, the steam engine, electric light, cars, computers, the internet. Slowly the sweat of our brow dried. These tools allowed us to distance from the field and enter the workforce of factories and offices.

But for most, one lean type of work was replaced by a more fattening other. I had blue-collar warehouse jobs in the ‘70s when I dropped out of college, eventually working for a newspaper’s white-collar world of purchasing agent, HR events organizer and then editor of company communications. (In 1982 I purchased the first desktop computers for the company, clunky Apple Lisas used by department secretaries for budgeting. Who knew what grand servitude would come of them?) I’ve had desk jobs now for forty years, quadrupling my salary and doubling my waist size as I marketed and edited and sold. My fingers have keyed untold millions of characters typing stories and memos and justifications and pitches. The hunched position of deskwork has taken its toll on my neck , wreaking excruciating migraines and shoulder pain.

I’m fortunate to have worked for long stretches in jobs, allowing me to save up considerably for retirement. I have two pensions and Social Security will be OK. All of this will allow me to retire just after I turn 65 (though I may choose to work on til I’m 70 to maximize Social Security). My life as a white-collar worker will formally end, allowing me, to take up free labors of my own choosing — probably writing full-time with some volunteer work added as well.

I see myself working until health and age forces me to stop: A normal course in modern life whose comforts and pleasures were doled out by the breadth and depth of labors. I’m fortunate to have worked in mostly pleasant conditions, but still I’ve been ruled by the necessity of devoting the majority of my conscious life to someone else’s wallet.

Off-clock, there are the chores of a marriage and life in suburbia – yardwork, grocery shopping, shared cooking and cleaning of the house. Poetry has been a lifelong avocation — at least for the past 30 years — which means getting up two hours early every day to read and write.

Not working is an almost foreign concept — meals, a little evening TV with the wife, six hours of sleep to the 4 AM alarm when the work starts up once again. The rarest pleasure of all is a one hour nap on a Saturday or Sunday with our calico Belle curled up with me.

That’s a typical course of work for the full-time worker-bee drone, but it’s certainly not the only one for the human main. Some folks work one, two or even three part-time jobs. Raising kids and caring for aging parents is work. Volunteer service is work, as is military service and school. Poetry is work, writing these challenges is work (as is reading them). Whatever endeavor humans undertake, it’s work. Work work work! Bang the drum on the slave-galley, march around the Wicked Witch of the West’s castle humming o-ree-o, oro-ho, get ‘er done before the end-time whistle of death.

There are few exceptions to work; the only ones who have it easier than our pets are the very rich. My wife and I toured Cumberland Island a few years ago and the ruins of 59-room Dungeness Mansion of the Carnegie family. Built as one summer home for the family in the 1880s, the lavish indolence of the super-rich is on display in vast ruins which are almost Roman in stature. (The place burned down around 1960). Andrew Carnegie built his Gilded Age fortune in steel — the blast-furnace toil of modernity; though he would give away almost all of his fortune as a philanthropist, his children grew up immune to the labors of everyday people. Nothing to do but play and play and play.

Today’s tech billionaires have translated extraordinary work for stratospheric privilege. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos now earns about $150,000 a minute. No one would say he hasn’t worked hard to get where he is now, but no one sees any economic necessity in billionaire wealth. Clearly, there is work for work’s sake, banishment from Eden or no.

Disuptive digital technology and labor-saving automation is now replacing a vast swath of the workforce. Newspapers are an example from my experience. When I left the Orlando daily newspaper in 1998 to take a writing/design job elsewhere, it took 1,700 employees to report, write, lay out, sell ads for, print and distribute The Orlando Sentinel. Digital classified enterprises like Craigslist first took a third of the company advertising revenue away. Free digital news then disrupted the costlier print subscription model. Starting around 2000, relentless cost-cutting and labor-reducing measures whittled away the workforce until in 2012 there were less than 200 employees working there. Printing the newspaper was outsourced to another production plant; the presses were sold, dismantled and shipped to South America; eventually there were less than 50 editorial employees in one room on the second floor of the vast three-story, two building newspaper complex downtown. They were evicted in October, eventually moving to a tiny office elsewhere downtown and now those building is completely empty but for dreams. (I have many of working there.) This is a miniature of the white-collar ghost belt where symbolic work is being taken over by machines.

“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:19)


Quality of work enters into considerations of craft, the ten thousand careful repetitions which creates work of an order close to perfection. The well-made thing is the grace of learned and patient craft. In the medieval era there were craft guilds, associations of artisans — weavers, dyers, bookmakers, leatherworkers, embroiderers, cobblers and candlemakers. You entered these guilds as apprentices, learned your stuff as an apprentice, eventually gaining master status; but the products were always of the guild not the individual, a collective stamp of quality.

To own one of these crafted products — a fine book, exquisite lace, shoes so good they were were re-cobbled many times, extending their life for a lifetime — was to come as close to perfection on earth as humanly possible. Labor can become redemption when its difficulty is its possibility.

Medieval bookmaking guild

As individuals emerged into the modern era as makers of personal destiny, the craft guilds slowly disintegrated and craft as a hallmark of work grew scarce. Manufactured goods were cheap and disposable, and we treated them as such. Craft became a hobby, an avocation for cooking or interior decorating.

Poetry has distanced a long ways from the old oral tradition when poets lay in dark singing-hut learning the entire canon for years before they were permitted to compose anything of their own. Writing cut short that process – why learn recite an odyssey from memory when you can check out the book from the library? — and the academy came to produce MFA degrees which minted the profession of teaching writing.  But teach what? Academic poetry is narrowly defined and published in academic journals read mostly by teachers of writing; an expensive privilege considering the cost of higher education nowadays. Online forums like this are the most cheaply and widely available, and with it comes whatever the writer says is poetry.

Here at earthweal, the craft we specialize in is earth-poetry. If the earth is sacred, then our craft must reflect it; if the earth is damaged, our craft must also take that into account, like the flaw in the Navaho rug which allows the spirit a way out of the pattern.

If craft is the highest order of our work — a concentration of all the wisdom, experience, talent and energy we can muster — it somehow restores the balance of Eden, where animals, humans and the divine lived together. Earthweal craft then is yoga, a shamanic drum, a honeybee hive and whalesong, all rapt in song.

For this weekly challenge, write of EARTHCRAFT, that work of restoring earthly perfection through craft.

  • What is the nature of work and its perfection in craft?
  • How does a poetry of earth attempt that craft?
  • How is work changing, and what tools are there for keeping balance?
  • What can we learn from this work in nature, be it bee-craft or forest growth, whale song or wind-work?
  • If there is an alchemy to earthcraft, what does its labors look like and what is the quinessence?

Consider those things when your write of EARTHCRAFT. Let’s see what we together can discover!

Speaking of work, I’ve been doing these weekly earthweal challenges for eighteen months now with occasional help from friends. It’s time to take a two-week summer break. Not that I’m headed for the pool or hammock; instead I plan to catch up on other work, like the collections of poetry I’m finally putting into book form. I’ll be back in time for midsummer celebrations.

— Brendan



Wendell Berry

To enrich the earth I have sowed clover and grass
to grow and die. I have plowed in the seeds
of winter grains and of various legumes,
their growth to be plowed in to enrich the earth.
I have stirred into the ground the offal
and the decay of the growth of past seasons
and so mended the earth and made its yield increase.
All this serves the dark. I am slowly falling
into the fund of things. And yet to serve the earth,
not knowing what I serve, gives a wideness
and a delight to the air, and my days
do not wholly pass. It is the mind’s service,
for when the will fails so do the hands
and one lives at the expense of life.
After death, willing or not, the body serves,
entering the earth. And so what was heaviest

and most mute is at last raised up into song.

— from Farming: A Handbook (1970)


earthweal open link weekend #71


Greetings all, and welcome to earthweal open link weekend #71. Share a favorite poem and visit your fellow linkers and comment.

Thanks to all of you who posted such fine poems about sanctuary this past week. What a fine place this earth, in all the special places you celebrated.

The weekly challenge which posts this coming Monday, May 31, will be the last before eathweal takes a summer break for a couple of weeks. Back in time for midsummer!

Happy linking!



earthweal weekly challenge: SANCTUARY

Stone circle at Columcille


Greetings all –

My father spent decades building what he called a megalithic park in eastern Pennsylvania, raising stones in circles and dolmens, in stone buildings and stones standing by themselves across the 22-acre park. He’s been gone several years now and I haven’t been back: But my memory of Columcille resonates with this simple yet precious sense of sanctuary. In such hallowed places—and I hope we will find and name many in this challenge—the veil between I and Thou is the faintest.

My thought on sanctuary stems from a book I am brooding about my father and his work at Columcille. Writing it was his only dying request and I share enough of his vision to feel I can contribute to his legacy in a meaningful way for the Columcille community which now works forward. I’m in no hurry; I retire in another year or so and it will be a good project to fill those daily hours. It takes a while for founders to find their way into myth.  St. Columba’s tale wasn’t taken up until Adomnán became the seventh abbot of Iona. His Vita Columbae or “Life of Columba” was written around 697-700 AD and played a pivotal role in establishing the cult of St Columba. It is also the most important surviving work of medieval Scotland.

If the Columcille community can survive – there are financial and leadership challenges, and the park must find the right balance between work and festival — I believe it can serve as a model for human and nonhuman relations that can provide vision and possibility for a healing Earth. So allow me to indulge the Columcille metaphor in order to expand on a new sense of sanctuary.

Manannan and Lia Fail at the far end of Columcille

The stones which are Columcille’s consonants  – some bigger than houses, other pebbles in a palm — were grated off Blue Mountain as the glaciers heaved south, tumbling and collecting in Fox Valley where my father lived. (According to geologists, the rocks to heave forth when the Earth first crusted formed a line from the British Isles to the Appalachians.) There is a cold feel to those stones, mute as death and almost as old as starlight. The St. Oran bell tower in the field is circular and close, its roofless view tugged by the changeful sky overhead; the St. Columba chapel is plainchant, a primordial vowel which human voices singing together echo the ages. Mananann down at the far end of the field is three times human height and the three stones which form the dolmen called Thor’s Gate are twenty to forty tons each. Rest your cheek on such stone and you feel yourself sinking into the abyss of time, descending from Bucks County to Stonehenge into the deep end of Lascaux.

Hallowed, somewhat harrowing stuff: But the sense of sanctuary you get from walking Columcille’s grounds arises from something more, Om-vowels that are nearer and habitable with the sacred. In the old conception, there’s always a Woodhenge next to Stonehenge. Maybe it’s the way animate and inanimate worlds blend so sweetly there, a communion of living and dead, tree and stone, human votives and lunar candlelight merging in one expression. Back in 2007 the word I found for it was “Halycon”:

Here in the halcyon nothing intrudes,
not even when it does. The off-road
toy whining round the house next door
and the gun range a few miles down
filling the distance with random shot:

they try to mar but can’t, not on a day like this,
so perfect in early autumn, fair and
cool enough to bourne the heart red and gold,
a boule in the burnsoak of oak and ash leaves.

The halcyon pays no attention
to the dozens of visitors who wander
about the tall standing stones,
nor to their aged lifter back up in the house.
Not even to the Maker of all in this pen
dreaming of solstice from a womb of cold stone.

The halcyon blesses what releases
as if autumn day were sign,
its immensity belled in a thatch of
dying ferns’ airy curls.

Gnats and a jet overhead, people
coming and going through the
chapel behind me and the halcyon
weaves on those delicate stems,
souled to infinity as everything
slowly drowses and loosens
the God in us all
whose love graces our fall.

Everyone seems to sense the sanctuary nature of the land; an attitude of love and respect for the place pervades. In Columcille’s four decades of unfolding there has been almost no vandalism, no beer cans and tire tracks and rubbers in the deep wood, no graffiti on chapel walls. Some Westboro Baptist clones once demonstrated across the road during one of the community’s Beltane festivals, waving “God Hates Fags” signs and such, and journalists consistently get the narrative wrong digging up local color for newspapers and magazines: But whatever fret and angst of the falling-apart world vanishes after a few strides onto the field with its standing stones, another kind of time replacing profane with sacred.

The Glen of the Temple with Thor’s Gate at the crest

I’ve puzzled some over how that special sense of sanctuary came to Columcille. There were New Age influences; my father had visited Findhorn and Iona; he and I spent many hours drinking Scotch in the ‘70s and ‘80s yammering about Being and Becoming, spirits of the land and Guardian energies; we were trolling for Laws of Manifestation which would turn an idea about community into reality. But really, I think it was just decades of daily work on the land with a love and respect that would slowly harvest a beloved vibration in the land. You want sanctuary, sanctitude and the sacred? Treat something as such.

Religion has been practicing sanctuary for millennia, from the Hebrew cities of refuge described in the Book of Numbers, the temenos of Greek shrines, the sacred groves of the goddess or in the consecrated ground upon which Christian churches were believed to have been built, with an even more intense sanctum immediately around the altar, which in Catholic churches were often inlaid with sacred relics.

Door out from the St. Columba chapel

In all of these the sanctuary was between human and the divine. Fleeing slaves or those committing accidental manslaughter could find refuge in these sanctuaries, shelter from the chaos of the human storm. Today we also have animal sanctuaries, lands protected from the same predations of humanity. Last year a proposal by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity called for national parks, marine sanctuaries and other protected areas to cover 30 percent of the planet in order to stop a sixth mass extinction event and slow global warming.

But what about sanctuary shared by all creation, human, animal, vegetal and mineral? Images of Eden speak to a primordial condition of unity. The songs of Orpheus were so sublime that all creation gathered around in harmony to listen. The Otherworld remembered by writers in medieval Ireland was sinless — without blame — no moral code to remind us of our great error.

What strikes me now about places like Columcille – and may be the essence of the book I may eventually write — is that at it envisions that sort of sanctuary. There were days—days of hauling stone for the bell tower, or cleaning trails, or working in the organic gardens or traipsing along with hundreds of others for May Day or Samhuin — graced with a halcyon fairness which felt like walking on sunshine. On those days, the veil between words and world and vanished into an effervescent sense of sanctuary for all — critters, stones, trees, sunlight, fungii, flies, starlight, wind, water and tiny humans — a unity in glory.

I am sad for the scarcity of such sanctuary yet hopeful for the earth because seeds like Columcille are there. Sanctuary is not lost and irretrievable; no literal voyages to the otherworld are required, there are no drugs to take or demons to be cast out. All you must do is protect and border and greet the world with all your heart in the locale where you live.

The fragrant hope and strength of sanctuary can be grounded in astonishing Anthropocene damage; as Wendell Berry said, its difficulty is its possibility.

I’ve been making my way slowly through the Eco-Poetry Anthology, a 600-page contribution to the poetry of earth which does a lot of footwork pacing off the green sanctum we inhabit when striving for our best sense. “Co-editing (it) has been a labor of love against despair,” Ann-Fisher Wirth writes in her introduction. “…We are living out a colossal failure of heart, will, and imagination.”

Yet Laura Gray Street, her partner in editing the collection, defined well what that labor means:

In a sense, poetry has always been ecopoetry, in that the origins of poetry are embedded in the natural world and poetry has traditionally foregrounded nature, in a way that drama and fiction have not. Ecopoetry isn’t just any poetry garnished with birds and trees; it is a paradigm shift. It is the apprehension of real biological selves (as opposed to fantasy selves) inhabiting the planet along with us, a mix of negative capability and empathy expressed with the cadence, imagery and wit to make it visceral, so that it lodges in our neural systems and cultivates the environmental imagination that is analgous to the crucial biodiversity of the rainforests in our intestines.

A paradigm shift: Nature’s voice in our own. When my father once visited Iona, he says he encountered the ancient energies of the island. “Our work is your work and your work is ours,” they said to some deep part of his listening. He took that as mandate to build what would become Columcille, perhaps he heard right. Ecopoetry can take up the same work, finding ways to greet and border and protect the world in front of us.

David Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous suggests how we can begin:

The human mind is not some otherworldly essence that comes to house itself inside our physiology. Rather, it is instilled and provoked by the sensorial field itself, induced by the tensions and participations between the human body and the animate earth. The invisible shapes of smells, rhythms of cricketsong, and the movement of shadows all, in a sense, provide the subtle body of our thoughts. Our own reflections, we might say, are part of the play of light and its reflections. “The inner — what is it, if not intensified sky?”

By acknowledging such links between the inner, psychological world and the perceptual terrain that surrounds us, we begin to turn inside-out, loosening the psyche from its confinement within a strictly human sphere, freeing sentience to return to the sensible world that contains us. Intelligence is no longer ours alone but is a property of the earth; we are in it, of it, immersed in its depths. And indeed each terrain, each ecology, seems to have its own particular intelligence, its unique vernacular of soil and leaf and sky.

Each places its own mind, its own psyche. Oak, madrone, Douglas fir, red-tailed hawk, serpentine in the sandstone, a certain scale to the topography , drenching rains in the winter, fog off-shore in the summer, salmon surging in the streams — all these together make up a particular state of mind, a place-specific intelligence shared by all the humans that dwell therein, but also by the coyotes yapping in those valleys, the bobcats and the ferns and the spiders, by all beings who live and make their way in that zone. Each place its own psyche. Each sky its own blue. (262)

Sanctuary takes a village. Its work is not easy. Seldom does Avalon clear the mist of first drafts. There are few mentors. The dream falters, turning moral or mortal. Conditions are not ripe. (At Columcille, the Anthropocene has seeped in; the oaks are besieged by gypsy moths and oak wilt, while beech bark disease afflicts the beeches; Superstorm Sandy leveled dozens more trees.) We need each other. The world inside each of our voices comprises the earthly choir of the forum. My faith is that a unique sanctuary is right in front of us if we can sing it forth.

For this challenge, write about Sanctuary. Where are those places near you in which you find the communion and forgiveness and renewal of sanctuary? How is it created and with whom is it shared? What can be done to ensure it grows into a deeper communion for generations to come?

I leave you with this poem by Mary Oliver from the Eco-Poetry Anthology as a ripe phrasing of sanctuary. May our poems work toward the same end.

— Brendan


Oaks in my neighborhood at dawn



You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting‑
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.



earthweal open link weekend #70


Greetings earthwealers, welcome back from your respective Otherworlds for earthweal’s seventieth open link weekend. Share a favorite poem and visit your fellow linkers to savor and comment on their favorite poems.

The link bar is open til midnight Sunday EST when the next earthly wonder-world challenge unfolds.

Happy linking!


earthweal weekly challenge: VOYAGE TO THE OTHERWORLD


As with myth and dream, modernity has almost lost its Otherworld. The language of wonder and flight is paltry and dry. As the Earth becomes haunted of vanishing life, so the everteeming Ocean is a faded, seldom and flickering place. Change is inexorable; ghosts and monsters abound. But all is not done. Thanks to mediums in the earthweal community (that would be you), we can return to the Otherworld hidden in this one, find renewal and gifts for the tribe through ripened songs of it. That is this week’s challenge.

Getting to the Otherworld is a voyage of equal parts doubt and faith. In the 12th-century “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” the saint reads a book containing wonder-tales of God’s creation; in disbelief, he throws the book into a fire. An angel punishes Brendan by sending him on a voyage so that he may see with his own eyes all of the wonders he disparaged. On his 7-year journey Brendan and his retinue of 14 monks travel to many islands in search of the Promised Land of the Saints. There are many wonders: an island of birds singing Psalms; an island with a magic well; a silver pillar in the sea; the whale Jasconius on whose back they celebrate Easter; a cold rock where Judas Iscariot is allowed respite from Hell on Sundays and Feast Days; an island of choirs, an island of grapes, an island of blacksmiths, an island on which they feed for 40 days. After he has witnessed all of these, Brendan sails back to Ireland to write the very book he had burned.

St. Brendan and his monks celebrate Easter Mass on Jasconius the whale

An act of doubt is repaid by a journey of faith, as Jonathan Wooding explains in “The Otherworld Voyage in Early Irish Literature”:

The immrama (literally, “rowings about”) were envisaged as a distinct genre in literature in the early Irish language. What distinguishes the immrama in structural terms is their leitmotiv of the sea voyage, acting as a framing concept for a voyage which takes in encounters on a number of islands in the ocean. Eremium (or desertum) in oceano quaerere is the phrase frequently appearing in saints’ lives to indicate the pious adventure undertaken.

The Christian voyage to Heaven was founded on much more ancient sails. The Immram Brain or “The Voyage of Bran” is an earlier text, written down in the late 7th or 8th century, and reveals the pre-Christian origins of this tale cycle. Bran is visited by a woman from the Otherworld who describes her homeland Emain with such beauty and grace that Bran assembles three companies of nine men each to sail with him in search of the Island of the Women. The company voyage for three days and three nights; on the third day a chariot comes riding across the waters up to Bran’s ship. It is the sea god Manannan, and god explains to Bran how the Otherworld looks compared to this world. Seamus Heaney translates the text thus:

Bran is astonished at the beauty of the waters;
his coracle lifts on the clear wave.
I ride where he rows; my chariot plunges, I
surge through a blossoming plain.

Bran rolls with his boat, the sea lifts and
lays him, he leans to the prow.
My chariot axle threshes a surf of wildflowers,
my wheels are spattered with flower juice.

Bran sees the backs of the waves like the quick
backs of dolphins; the sea surface glitters.
I see greensward, wild roses and clover,
the pelt of the grazing.

You look and next thing salmon leap out
of the foam; mother-wet silver.
They are my calves, my calves’ licks, my
lambs, my bleating cavorters.

One chariot, one charioteer-me at full tilt-
that’s all you can see.
You are blind to what’s here. The land is a drumming
of hoofbeats, a mane-flow, a host at full gallop.

The land is immense, we swarm in its
bounty, it flourishes for us.
You are welcome; from the prow, gather up
the fruit of the branches.

Men and women, lovely, at ease among
windfalls. No sin and no forcing.
They rise off the forest floor, they pour
out the wine.

We are from the beginning, won’t grow
old or go under the earth.
We cannot imagine debility; we
are unmarked by guilt.

The Otherworld view is contrary to ours. In the ancient Egyptian Underworld, the feet of the dead touch those of the living as each crossed the day. My patron saint Oran was buried standing up in the footers of the Iona abbey in 563 AD to appease a spirit (some say it was Manannan) who had been disturbed by the cutting of the sward. (A fish-woman had come up from the sea to tell Columba this.) After three days and nights, St. Columba wished to look on the face of his friend (Oran may have been his real brother) one last time a bid Oran’s face be uncovered. Oran’s eyes flew open and the mouth uttered these words: “All you say about heaven and hell and man and earth is wrong! In fact, the way you think it is is not the way it is at all!” Horrified, Columba had Oran buried back over in haste;  and yet he appointed Oran the tutlary spirit of the abbey graveyard (Relieg Odhrain, as it became known), saying, “No one may access the angels of Iona but through Oran.” So Oran’s brief oracle must have had some tooth of truth to it.

St. Oran’s chapel at the abbe of Iona.


What do we find in the Otherworld? When Bran comes to The Island of Women, he and his company remain there for a year, feasting and pairing off with the women. Good times. But eventually one of the company grows homesick for Ireland, and the company load back in their ships for a return trip. The lead woman warns Bran not to step ashore in Ireland. As they near Ireland, people on the shore recognize Bran and his company only from an old tale preserved in their tradition. The homesick man jumps ship but as he steps on shore he is turned to ashes. Realizing he is now more a part of the dead than the living, Bran decides to leave Ireland forever—but not before the tale of his voyage is written down.

In the Otherworld, one breath is a lifetime; three days and three nights are centuries. Dreamtime is wefted this way, an eternal now. Years ago w,hen I underwent therapeutic hypnosis addressing the damage of my past, the therapist told me that years of work could be accomplished in minutes down in the subconscious where time’s veil is thin.

Saint Oran has his own voyage tale. According to one legend, St. Columba bids Oran sail north from the Iona abbey off the coast of Scotland in search of the sea god Mannanan. Oran sails for three days and nights, coming to many islands: yet on each island he finds a note that says Not Here. One island has high cliffs on all sides, so Oran cannot land his boat; but down a cliff-face is lowered a tiny piece of parchment attached to a string which says Not Here. Oran eventually reaches the Land of the North and spends a day there; when he returns to Iona it is centuries later and the monks barely remember the story of a monk of their order who sailed north.

Not here but of course here, and here, and here, on this island, and the next, and the next… The infinite veld is ever here, unseen and unbelieved but open and waiting for any who would venture.

Voyages to the Otherworld feed something very old in the human spirit with the bread and water of innermost life. We yearn for this music, hear it twisting on the wind and crashing in the wave, in the swaying trees and wheat rustling in moonlight. The magic island in Shakespeare’s Tempest is alive and daunting with that music, full of “sounds and sweet airs which delight and hurt not.” It is almost sexual – the deep end of love suggests it — and the feminine is the medium of it.

In Poetry and Prophecy, Norah Chadwick traces the shamanic roots of manticism or “inspired speech,” a form of address which was itself a voyage to the otherworld. Chanted as poetry, a song is thus a ship. Writing of the Polynesian oral saga, the seeress is the medium:

The task of marshalling and controlling the spirits, and of conducting the soul and the dead person to its last resting-place in the spirit world, is performed among the Sea Dyaks in dramatic poetry by a seeress, whose only mimetic act is her seat on a swing — possibly reminiscent of her spirit form, her power of flight. She neither acts nor dances, but in song rich in realistic detail she conducts her hearers for many hours through the long journey to the abode of the dead.

“Every experience of the Otherworld is in a sense both an initiation and a marriage,” Alwyn & Brinsley Rees write in Celtic Heritage. Li Ban, “Beauty of Women,” a daughter of the king, Eochu, from whom the lake was named, survived beneath the lake as a kind of mermaid, half-woman, half-fish. In this form she lived for hundreds of years until Christianity was firmly established. In the sixth century she was caught in a net by a monk of Bangor, and accepted the Christian faith.

The poet’s tuion or “singing robe” may have been stolen from an otherworld woman who spends alternating years as a bird. In “The Dream of Oengus,” a man betroths a selkie (seal-woman), an while he is in possession of the (human) robe she is in his power. (Anne Rosse, Pagan Celtic Britain.)

The medium does not belong even to the seeress. Chadwick:

In the Thorfinns Saga Karlsefnis the seeress who is called to give an oracle insists that she cannot get the spirits to attend to her until she can get a singer with a good voice to chant the required spells (galdrar). Eventually a girl is found who is actually a Christian but who has learnt the spells in her youth. She sings unwillingly, but her voice is good, and the spells are the right ones, and the seeress is able to give her oracle. It is interesting to note that it is not the seeress herself who is the singer of the spells. Her own inspiration comes from the music and words sung by another. The spirits come in defining response to words and music, and not other compelling power is needed. (8)

 The medium of the Otherworld is our own imagination which sees an island at the bottom of every lake. In an anecdote of Colum Cille in Sancti Columbae Hiensis cum Mongano Heroe Colloquium, a mysterious youth appears to Columcille at Carraic Eolairc on the shores of Loch Foyle. When asked by Columcille about the original form of the lake, the youth gave a description from his own experience. The youth describes the prosperous country which the lake has covered, and says that he has at various times been a deer, a salmon, a seal, a wolf, and a man.

Nigel Pennick writes in Celtic Sacred Landscapes,

Islands in holy lakes have a special quality, for it is through lakes that the otherwordly land of Tir nan Og may be visited. This is the “Country of Youth,” where people and non-human beings live immune to the passage of time. It is said to exist in the depths of lakes, and the legend is localized in several places such as Lough Carrib, Lough Gur and Lough Neagh.

On occasion, these lands have been visited by human beings. Both the bard Oisin and the warrior O’Donoghue entered the otherworldly realm through the Lake of Killarney.

To reach Tir nan Og, one must pass through the reflective crystal waters of the lake, undertaking a journey from the outer world into the inner, just as the sun enters the waters of the underworld at sunset. It is a perilous shamanic descent into the unconscious depths where timeless archetypes reside.

The lake is a dangerous crystal castle where all is reflected inwards. There, the visitor may be trapped in an inner world that bears no relation to the outer one. Once entered, it is a region from which it is difficult to escape. But those who do manage to return to the everyday world are transformed by the experience.

O that we return! Merlin was trapped in the spell of Niniane, the Lady of the Lake, bound to the roots of a hawthorne tree. Whether he remains there willingly or cannot unbind the spell is not clear: probably both. Why come back to this world, so ruined by the ambitions and gambits of masterful apes?

Waving her hands and uttering the charm, [she] presently enclosed him fast within the tree.” Lancelot Speed’s illustration for James Thomas Knowles’ “The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights” (1912)

As the pagan world Christianized, avenues to the Otherworld faded, grew dim. Myth became legend became romance. Modernity’s nostalgia is greatly for that fabled past. We are enthralled by it and lost to it.

Richard Wilbur catches the moment of that world’s passing thus:


In a while they rose and went out aimlessly riding.
Leaving their drained cups on the table round.
Merlin, Merlin, their hearts cried, where are you hiding?
In all the world was no unnatural sound.

Mystery watched them riding glade by glade;
They saw it darkle from under leafy brows;
But leaves were all its voice, and squirrels made
An alien fracas in the ancient boughs.

Once by a lake-edge something made them stop.
Yet what they found was the thumping of a frog,
Bugs skating on the shut water-top,
Some hairlike algae bleaching on a log.

Gawen thought for a moment that he heard
A whitehorn breathe “Niniane.” That Siren’s daughter
Rose in a fort of dreams and spoke the word
“Sleep”, her voice like dark diving water;

And Merlin slept, who had imagined her
Of water-sounds and the deep unsoundable swell
A creature to bewitch a sorcerer,
And lay there now within her towering spell.

Slowly the shapes of searching men and horses
Escaped him as he dreamt on that high bed:
History died; he gathered in its forces;
The mists of time condensed in the still head

Until his mind, as clear as mountain water,
Went raveling toward the deep transparent dream
Who bade him sleep. And then the Siren’s daughter
Received him as the sea receives a stream.

Fate would be fated; dreams desire to sleep.
This the forsaken will not understand.
Arthur upon the road began to weep
And said to Gawen, “Remember when this hand

Once haled a sword from stone; now no less strong
It cannot dream of such a thing to do.”
Their mail grew quainter as they clopped along.
The sky became a still and woven blue.

In our time, the Otherworld shimmered in the books of our childhood, was luridly painted on the big screen and has become the haunt of digital realms. Yet at this moment it seems most distant, an abstraction. Maybe that distance has to do with the fading of the real world, the inability of imagined worlds to resurrect the myth of the living one. Certainly there are rhetorical and poetic challenges finding hints of the Other amid such damage; the doors themselves are burning, withering, decaying, flooding.

What does a voyage to the Otherworld come to mean in the Anthropocene? Our day is parallel to the late Medieval, where the voyage of a saint had no better luck finding the old Otherworld as discovering any new one. What echoes today do we hear in this  oem by the bishop-king of Cashel, Corma mac Cuilennain, who died in 908, as he contemplated a journey of penance on the sea:

Shall I go, O king of the Mysteries, after my fill of cushions and music, to turn
my face on the shore and my back on my native land?
Shall I cut my hand with every sort of wound on the breast of the wave
which wrecks boats?
Shall I leave the track of my two knees on the strand by the shore?
Shall I take my little black curragh over the broad-breasted, glorious ocean?
O king of the bright kingdom, shall I go of my own choice upon the sea?
Whether I be strong or poor, or mettlesome so as to be recounted
in tales, O Christ, will you help me when it comes to going upon the wild sea?

Shall we indeed? What help is there, in these immodest, shrinking and fuming times? Can we still hear the call, can Otherworld sails still trim, do islands still wait for us above the waterline across the main? And what does the Otherworld dream of a world such as we wander today? (Compare the Land Beneath the Wave to the Underground Railroad of America’s slave nightmare, now harrowingly transcribed from text to screen by Barry Jenkins.) Is ours a damaged redemption for which there can be no better the fate of the world?

In the Voyage of St. Brendan, St. Brendan and his companions come to an island of high cliffs with no entrance. Having circled the island for a number of days, they see a church, and hear the voices of people singing and praising God. A waxen tablet is lowered to them, bidding them to cease trying to enter the island, this is not the promised land (non ista tibi terra promissa). They leave the island, taking with them the tablet, which they used to read every day as if it had been sent to them by God.

The message Not Here is the sign of Heaven. The ruins of Eden is its very possibility.

I have used the medium of Irish myth, but voyages to the Otherworld are universal. Journey there this week from inside your own story-cycle, and report on the news you find there.