A Celtic Legacy

The widow Mackinnon and Mrs. Neil Ferguson ~ St. Kilda, 1909

From Oban to Skye, from the Outer Hebrides to St. Kilda they traveled: two Aberdeen photographers intent on capturing and preserving the life of a remarkable people.  The beautifully colored lantern slides of  George Washington Wilson and Norman Macleod,  an iconic collection put into book form by Mark Butterworth, were produced in the late 1880s, fifty years before color photography came to Scotland.

Even as Wilson and Macleod pursued their photography, Alexander Carmichael was traveling the highlands and islands from Arran to Cithness, from Perth to St. Kilda, collecting traditional prayers, invocations and blessings. Between 1855 and 1899, he compiled his Carmina Gadelica (Gaelic Songs),  magnificent examples of Celtic tradition combined with Christian faith.

After St. Patrick’s arrival in Ireland and St. Columba’s missionary journey to Scotland, a unique culture, theology and spirituality began to evolve: one not at all inclined toward our modern separation of the sacred and the secular. In the words of Avery Brooke, “Celtic Christians seldom left the spiritual behind in the living of their lives, nor the world behind in their prayers.”  

Tolerant of  Celtic beliefs and practices, Christian missionaries wove adapted Celtic prayers, blessings and invocations into the fabric of their daily lives. As Brooke writes in his introduction to Celtic Prayers:

Christ was the Chieftain of Chiefs, but the old tales, songs, customs and runes – not to mention the crops, the fish, the daily work and nightly sleep – were sained, or marked with the sign of the cross, just as were  fæiries, banshees and people.

At its heart, saining was a matter of consecration, though not in our modern sense of setting aside, or apart. We tend to understand consecration as removal from the realities and routines of daily life, but for the people of the Isles, consecration elevated and hallowed every ordinary circumstance.

Certainly there were morning prayers and evening prayers in Celtic devotion,  invocations of the saints and hymns to Jesus.  But far more than obviously religious prayer was woven into the fabric of Celtic spirituality.  There were rituals to mark the passing of the days and cycles of the year. There were blessings for households, for the smooring of fire at night and for the rekindling that lifted up morning fires.

There were songs for heifers and milk cows, prayers for protection of cattle, and songs of praise for the ocean and moon.  There were blessings for fishing, hunting, and reaping;  prayers for travel, and prayers for sleep. 

Celtic prayer was less something to ‘do’ than an attitude to nourish: an attitude at once grateful and receptive.  Like hearth embers nurtured each morning and protected each night with ritual and prayer, the spark of divine presence, the mysterious ember glowing at the heart of the world, was meant to be tended by a grateful humanity.

The maids and matrons of St. Kilda ~ 1886

Among the blessings and invocations collected by Carmichael are “The Clipping Blessing,” “The Loom Blessing,” and “The Consecration of the Seed.” The words shimmer with  reflected light from a nearly forgotten time, charmingly embraced without hesitation or embarassment. In “The Clipping Blessing,” the petitions hardly could be more specific.

Go shorn and come woolly,
Bear the Beltane female lamb,
Be the lovely bride thee endowing,
And the fair Mary thee sustaining,
The fair Mary sustaining thee.
Michael the chief be shielding thee
From the evil dog and from the fox,
From the wolf and from the sly bear,
And from the taloned birds of destructive bills,
From the taloned birds of hooked bills.

In the Outer Isles, on the Island of Uist, Carmichael tells us:

When the woman stops weaving on Saturday night, she carefully ties up her loom and suspends the cross or crucifix above the sleay. This is for the purpose of keeping away the brownie, the banshee, the ‘peallan’ and all evil spirits and malign influences from disarranging the thread and the loom.  And all this is done with loving care and in good faith, and in prayer and purity of heart.   

Again, the concreteness of the petition and the certainty that even the smallest detail of life concerns the divine is made clear:

In the name of Mary, mild of deeds,
In the name of Columba, just and potent,
Consecrate the four posts of my loom,
Till I begin on Monday.
Her pedals, her sleay and her shuttle,
Her reeds, her warp, and her cogs,
Her cloth-beam and her thread-beam,
Thrums and the thread of the plies.
Every web, black, white and fair,
Roan, dun, checked and red,
Give Thy blessing everywhere,
On every shuttle passing under the thread.
Thus will my loom be unharmed
Till I shall arise on Monday.
Beauteous Mary will give me of her love,
And there shall be no obstruction I shall not overcome.

Finally, in “The Consecration of the Seed,” the intimate relationship between early Christian and Celtic belief is laid bare. Carmichael notes that “three days before being sown the seed is sprinkled with clear, cold water, in the name of the Father, and of Son, and of Spirit, the person sprinkling the seed walking sunwise the while.”  The baptismal and Trinitarian influence is clear, while “sunwise walking” refers to pre-Christian ritual.

I will go out to sow the seed
In name of Him who gave it growth;
I will place my front in the wind,
And throw a gracious handful on high.
Should a grain fall on a bare rock
It shall have no soil in which to grow;
As much as falls into the earth,
The dew will make it to be full…
I will come round with my step,
I will go rightways with the sun,
In the name of Ariel and the angels nine,
In the name of Gabriel and the Apostles kind.
Father, Son and Spirit Holy
Be giving growth and kindly substance
To every thing that is in my ground
Till the day of gladness shall come.

To hear these invocations, blessings, runes, and dedications is to experience the Celts’ love and deep respect not only for life, but for language. Filled with power, intimately lodged in the hearts of the people, spoken out of silence to hallow and elevate every aspect of life, the words themselves were understood as gifts to be cherished.  In a morning prayer collected by Carmichael, this phrase stands out:

Praise be to Thee, O God, for ever, for the blessings thou didst bestow on me – my food, my speech, my work, my health.

Praising God for food, work and health is understandable. Including speech as a blessing worthy of praise is more remarkable. Perhaps praise for the gift of words comes more naturally to those steeped in oral tradition; perhaps isolation and difficult conditions increase a community’s gratitude for speech.

Whatever the motivation, it cannot be denied that Celts always have nurtured and cared for language because they recognize language as a gift as necessary as fire and powerful as the sea.

To live in a world where language is being reduced by our technologies and desecrated in advertising, politics and human relations is remarkable.  To have contempt for language, to willingly reduce the heart of our humanity by refusing the power of words, is utterly astonishing.  And yet, it happens.

In the midst of our remembrance of St. Patrick and our celebration of all things Irish, it would be well to remember the people of the lamb, loom, and seed. Celtic peoples offer us a legacy far greater than green beer, shamrocks and River Dance.  They offer a vision of life lived whole, life well-attuned to the universe and content with ordinary days. Above all, they offer to us the possibility of sained speech: words spoken and received with dignity in order  to celebrate and consecrate our lives.

Be the cross of Mary and Michael over me in peace,
Be my soul dwelling in truth, be my heart free of guile.
Be my soul in peace with thee, brightness of the mountains.
Morn and eve, day and night, May it be so.

Comments always are welcome.

The Serendipitists

Green comet milkweed buds (Asclepias viridiflora)

It wasn’t the sort of news that would entice just anyone to change their weekend plans. Still, as word began to spread that green comet milkweed had been found on the Nash prairie, and that Susan Conaty would lead a prairie walk to see both the milkweed and other late spring beauties, plans began to change.

Susan knows Nash Prairie as well as anyone, and a chance to spend time there in her company wasn’t to be missed. I arrived at the prairie to find Susan had been delayed, but eager milkweed hunters already were comparing notes, trying to pin down the plants’ location with half-remembered bits of information, a few cryptic texts, and entirely wrong assumptions about the plant’s appearance.

As we bumbled about, the search for the milkweed reminded me of my initial search for Nash Prairie itself. On that trip, a goat standing atop a shed and a utility substation served as unmistakable markers. Our flower-finding directions were more vague: turn left from the hay road; scan near the fence; look for the fallen gate; draw an imaginary line to the stand of trees.

Finally, a cry of triumph drew us to plants we had to have passed at least a dozen times, oblivious to their presence. Still in bud and unblemished, the large round clusters of flowers and trailing leaves certainly made the name “green comet” understandable.

With the day’s primary goal achieved, people spread out to explore the prairie: taking photos, identifying unusual plants, and gauging the readiness of seeds to be plucked. Among the plants still in bloom, the unfailingly cheerful black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) bobbed and nodded in the breeze.

A typical black-eyed Susan

I spent some time chasing butterflies among the Rudbeckia, hoping to photograph a black swallowtail at rest. Unsuccessful and ready for a different subject, I scanned a nearby group of flowers and realized I’d found something I never imagined I’d see: an example of fasciation.

A fasciated Black-eyed Susan 

Derived from the Latin word fascia  (“a band, bandage, swathe, ribbon”), fasciation describes an abnormal fusion or flattening of plant stems, flowers, fruit, or foliage. In the case of this black-eyed Susan, fasciation has caused both a broad, flattened stem, and a double, or “twinned” flower. The causes seem to be varied, and somewhat mysterious: viruses, genetic abnormality, insects, or physical damage all have been offered as reasons for the phenomenon.

The flattened and ribbon-like stem

I’d heard that photographing a fasciated plant can be challenging, and so it was. As I contorted myself this way and that, I heard a voice behind me ask, “What have you got there?” I untangled myself, sat up, and said, “It’s a serendipitous Susan.”

Indeed, it was: wholly unexpected, entirely delightful, and odd as odd could be.

Over time, the excitement I’d felt at the discovery abated, although I enjoyed looking back at the photos occasionally. Then Chris Helzer added a new gallery of photos to his site, “The Prairie Ecologist,” and brought the joys of serendipity back into focus.

In 2013, as he photographed a crab spider on what appears to be a sunflower, an ant unexpectedly appeared. Describing the experience, Chris wrote, “Often, [these] older photos capture a particular moment of serendipity that still evokes strong emotions for me.”

I enjoyed his reference to serendipity as much as I did the photo, and began to ponder how often these serendipitous experiences seem to occur in nature.  We should call ourselves serendipitists, I thought, since we’re always hoping to bump up against some unexpected oddity of life.”

Horace Walpole, the British art historian and man of letters who coined the word serendipity  seems to have been a bit of an oddity himself. In his introduction to Walpole’s Hieroglyphic Tales, Thomas Christensen describes the author and critic as an exemplar of a somewhat peculiar strain of British tradition: one distinguished by “absurdity, ridicule, wordplay, wit, wickedness and just plain madness.”

There’s no question Walpole had a vibrant imagination and a taste for high jinks. When he wasn’t busy shepherding tourists through Strawberry Hill, his home outside London, he wrote volumes of letters  One of his most famous, a 1765 letter to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, written after Rousseau fled persecution in Geneva and took up residence in France, was a fake.

The letter, supposedly written by King Frederick of Prussia, offered Rousseau asylum-with-a-twist. Among other things, the faux King Frederick said, “I will cease to persecute you as soon as you cease to take pride in being persecuted.”

Rousseau first attributed the letter to Voltaire. Later, he suspected his friend David Hume, and the letter played a role in a spectacular falling out between Hume and Rousseau.

When he wasn’t stirring up trouble, Walpole amused himself by renovating Strawberry Hill, his “Gothic mousetrap” of a house.  Like most collectors, he wanted his objects to be ­admired, and Strawberry Hill was the perfect showcase.

Walpole often “gave personal tours to posh visitors, but left his housekeeper to herd the hoi polloi for a guinea a tour.”  Despite producing a guidebook to the place, Walpole eventually wearied of the numbers of guests traipsing through its halls. “Never build yourself a house between London and Hampton Court,” Walpole said. “Everyone will live in it but you.”

Still, he loved his home, with all of its “papier-mâché friezes, Gothic-themed wallpaper, fireplaces copied from medieval tombs, Holbein chambers evoking the court of Henry VIII, Dutch blue and white floor tiles, modern oil paintings, china and carpets.”  It seems reasonable to assume Walpole created Strawberry Hill as a concrete analogue to his writing. As he said,

­Visions have always been my pasture. Old castles, old pictures, old histories and the babble of old ­people make one live back into centuries that cannot disappoint.

Michael Snodin, ­curator of the Walpole exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum, suggests Walpole’s cultural legacy was “to pioneer a kind of imaginative self–expression in building, furnishing and collecting,” but his  fixation on the house and its furnishings didn’t exclude other interests. Much of Walpole’s “imaginative self-expression” was centered on language. Today, his extraordinarily useful word serendipity  has become familiar to nearly everyone, and he surely would be pleased by the increased use of the word and its derivatives.

Writing to Horace Mann in 1754, Walpole first defined the word as “a propensity for making fortunate discoveries while looking for something else.” He said he’d derived the word from the title of a Persian fairy tale titled The Three Princes of Serendip, a story in which the heroes “always were making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

As John Barthes notes in his retelling of the Sinbad saga, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, “You don’t reach Serendip by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere, and lose your bearings in the process.”

In that sense, my discovery of a fasciated black-eyed Susan on a day meant to be focused on milkweed surely was serendipitous. But it’s worth noting that Walpole’s serendipity is more than accidental discovery or happy coincidence. For Walpole, sagacity — the ability to link apparently unrelated, innocuous or irrelevant facts — was  equally important if previously unsuspected pathways for exploration and delight were to open.

Someday, a more sagacious serendipitist may stumble across another fasciated flower and make the intuitive leap to the unrelated, innocuous, or seemingly irrelevant facts that finally explain the phenomenon. If — or perhaps when — that happens, it surely will be fascinating.

Comments always are welcome.



A Grammarian In Winter


Winter speaks in passive voice
conjugates brief slants of light
parses out cold stars along a tracery of oak.
Beneath the rising moon, fine participles gleam.
angling remnant leaves pull free
to tumble down the winds —
evocative declensions of a season raw, cold-boned.
Split by ice, the pond breathes smoke.
Split by cold, the blackened ferns release their sharded fronds.
Split by hoarfrost, fences drip, refreeze, lean out across the land.
Infinities abound.
Silent, shrouded by the pond’s slight breath
clear-eyed herons sweep the snow
as if to skry its source —
their spellbound cries declaim the day
and punctuate the  phrases  of the hills.

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Singing In the New Year

Swallow in flight ~ Susan Scheid

On October 5, 1921, the Ukrainian National Chorus performed before a sold-out audience in Carnegie Hall. A song known as Shchedryk, already popular in other parts of the world, was particularly well-received. Composed by Ukrainian Mykola Leontovych, it drew on traditional folk melodies commonly heard in that country during celebrations of the Orthodox New Year (January 14 in the Gregorian calendar).

Eventually, American choir director and arranger Peter Wilhousky heard Leontovych’s work. Its bell-like ostinato inspired him to write new lyrics, attempting to capture the sound for his choir. After copyrighting and publishing the song in 1936, several choirs under Wilhousky’s direction began performing “Carol of the Bells” during the Christmas season.

Thanks in part to his Czech heritage, Wilhousky knew the old Slavic legend that, at midnight on the evening Jesus was born, bells began ringing spontaneously in his honor. His ability to capture that echo of ringing bells helped to make “Carol of the Bells” extraordinarily popular, especially in the United States and Canada. 

Though nearly two hundred instrumental and vocal arrangments exist, and despite the occasional use of “The Ukrainian Carol” for a title, neither Leontovych’s Shchedryk nor the folk tunes it drew from make any mention of bells, or of Christmas. The song we know as a Christmas carol began life as a Ukrainian New Year’s carol: one with distinctly pagan tendencies.
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La Danse de Mardi Gras

Say “Mardi Gras,” and it’s almost guaranteed: most people will think first of New Orleans. Other cities have their celebrations, but only in New Orleans has the combination of beads, bare breasts, fancy-dress balls, beer and Bourbon Street been elevated to high art.

In Cajun country, there’s no lack of beer and beads, but the traditional Courir de Mardi Gras at the center of the celebration has a slightly different emphasis: community, Capitaines, charity and chickens. (Yes, chickens. More about that later.)

In places like Iota, Church Point, Eunice and Mamou, the Mardi gras (when used as a plural for participants, it’s pronounced “grahz”) prepare for the courir, or run, under the direction of their Capitaine.  On horseback or in wagons, they visit surrounding farms, collecting ingredients for the communal gumbo that will be served later that night.

In exchange for rice, potatoes, or even a chicken, the Mardi gras frolic for the entertainment of the farmer and his family, singing a variation of a song known variously as  La Danse de Mardi Gras or La [Vieille] Chanson de Mardi Gras. A mainstay in Cajun Mardi Gras celebrations, and often heard in dance halls or concerts, the song may be the oldest in the Cajun repertoire.
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The Way of All Words

The sky lowers, and the horizon disappears. A turning wind blankets the moon with sea-born fog, shrouding the contours of its face. Impassive, harshly brilliant above the fog, it rises ever higher behind fast-scudding clouds, lighting the transition between old and new: between one year and the next.

As midnight approaches, a lingering few stand silent, shrouded in a fog of thought, tangled in life’s web, caught between the land of No-Longer and the land of Yet-to-Be. Perhaps a moonlit shard of truth reveals itself to revelers in the street: this is the way of life.  What has been passes away into forgetfulness, while that which is yet-to-be stirs toward vitality.

Armies rise. Nations fall. Children squall into existence, even as their grandparents sigh away toward death. Beyond the farthest reaches of the galaxies, unnamed stars explode with pulsating light while on our own shy, spinning globe, rotting leaves and the stench of mud evoke a season’s final turn. Continue reading

Spelling It Out

“A man must be a damned fool, who can’t spell a word more than one way.”  ~ Nyrum Reynolds **

Even tucked into a thicket of dense, interwoven phrases, the word stood out. Spotting it, I circled back for another look, surprised by what I took to be an obvious misspelling.

It was March, 2009, and the blogger known as Aubrey was considering a bit of milkweed fluff.

Walking to work, I saw a very peculiar thing on the sidewalk.  Its color was soft and meek:  a whimsical fluff, a piece of delicate detritus which had somehow lost its way and now lay defenseless on the granite causeway.

The word that captured my attention was detritus. I’d lived for several decades knowing it as detrius, so my initial inclination was to believe that Aubrey had misspelled it.  Clearly, each of us was using it properly, and our spellings were close, but the different spellings meant different pronunciations — perhaps even different words.

I’d been reading Aubrey long enough to recognize her writing skills and admire her attention to detail, so a little exploration seemed in order. I didn’t expect to be the one who was wrong, but I was open to the possibility.
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