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The call of the woods

For the last two or three years I have been mainly working within temple spaces.  These have varied from rooms booked in community centres to my own altar space. The one thing shared by these various spaces however is that they are indoors. This might seem obvious and inconsequential but in fact for most of the time on my path I have worked outdoors. I always used to work indoors as well but the vast bulk of my work, celebratory or ritual, was outdoors.

The reason for the shift to indoor working over the last two or three years has been the focus on ceremonial magic. I will never have the seriousness that I suspect really needs to go hand-in-hand with full blown ceremonial magic — I’m far too irreverent for that — but I have enjoyed and benefited and learnt from the more singular focus on the ceremonial that has taken up the majority of my magical work in the recent past.

Interestingly over these last two or three years I have changed the practice that I engage in with my altar. I have always maintained an altar but for most of my time I tended to keep the altar clean and sprightly. During the last 2 to 3 years however I have cleaned very carefully, more specifically I have tried not to clean at all and simply maintained the altar space, most commonly removing dust and various residue from in front of it. I have more recently tried to cultivate a layer of dust and spider webs, a layer perhaps of the outside, a layer of the living and the dead.  I now think this was a kind of unconscious retrieval of something important, something that takes time, that involves allowing things to settle and fall in their own way, to grow and decay and grow again in their own way.

Me and my partner went camping a couple of weeks ago, travelling all the way to Gloucester with our youngest daughter of 14. We don’t have a car and so had to travel by train which limited the amount of kit we could carry. There were three people so there were three rucksacks.  We had a brief crisis as we packed our kit before leaving – the rucksacks could only carry so much, so something had to be left out.  The biggest thing we left was the air bed.  This might seem slightly ludicrous but we’re into our forties and sleeping on the hard ground takes its’ toll.  My wife, in particular, was reasonably concerned that she might simply not get any sleep for a week.  We discussed it, thought about it and decided to bite the bullet and leave it, thereby freeing up nearly half a rucksack.   This might seem a trivial detail but it proved to be crucial, vital and perhaps obviously so.  We arrived at the campsite and set up the bed, using two sheepskins to line the sleeping bags.  Then we slept.  Comfortable, warm, sexy sleep, a sleep that laid on the earth, rather than floating above it in a strange limbo space of social artificiality.

It is unsurprising that the woods are calling.  The woods form out of the earth in the same way cities grow from the human community.  Woods form skylines, express variety, punctuate the sky and call you inside.  To be inside the woods is to be warm, to be alive within the earth around.  The trees grow, fall, offer shelter, warmth, feel like the earth as you run your hand across the bark whilst walking past them.  The woods are the crowd on the horizon, whose faces are too often lost in poor definition.  They are the social earth, not the bare earth – they form the link, for me and for my place, between bare earth and social human.  The social earth is the place of the voices and faces and lore that stands outside the town and city but which also infiltrates every street and avenue, unnoticed but always watching, breathing so that we might breathe, growing so that we might grow.  It is unsurprising that the epidemics of destruction such as Dutch Elm’s disease provoke such atavistic grief, since the call of the woods is so deeply ingrained.

DSC01673 [1] In a beech grove I have worked in a lot the earth is bare, as it so often is within beech groves.  A carpet of seed pods surround the grey brown curves and twists of the beech trees.  If you take a broom, or simply drag your feet, it is a simple matter to clear the shells and reveal a dry earth that calls out for marks to be made on it.  The beech pods stack up around the edge of the circle, forming a natural edge, hardened by digging moat line with a knife or emphasised by white flour poured around to pick out the graphic nature of the creation.  I will be returning to this grove when I begin the new set of workings that I am currently planning.

Responding to a call is a curious and idiosyncratic aspect of the magical path.  In fact, responding to a call is a curious and idiosyncratic activity full stop.  Artists and activists might respond to a call just as often as a magician.  The artist is not called to account for their knowledge and the activist justifies their response more often than not in a moral or ethical terms.  When the magician responds to a call it is as a source of knowledge, albeit a knowledge without justification.  This lack of justification is central and inevitable if not desired.  The lack of justification for the knowledge the magician works with is why the magical path is often assimilated to the irrational, a move that may or may not be correct but which is too quick to do justice to the complexity of magical knowledge.  The lack of justification prevents magical knowledge from playing a public role.  Within the public social context knowledge needs to be justified for it to be accepted.  Without justification we fall into dogma.  For the magician, however, the knowledge they work with is not orientated towards the social.  It is instead the ground of their orientation towards the social.