Green Woodpecker

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Sitting at my table at home, I am frequently delighted to hear a sudden, sharp laughter coming from the garden. Looking out, I see a visitor, clad in green with a red hat looking back at me. A gnome? A fairy? Nope, it’s a resident Green Woodpecker who has taken to using the lawn as a food larder.

The European Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) is a large bird, the largest of the three woodpecker species in Britain. Their laughing call, known as a “Yaffle” (the inspiration for Professor Yaffle from Bagpuss) is incredibly distinctive and once you’ve heard it once, you can’t mistake it for anything else.

The Green Woodpecker is a shy bird, and it’s taken a long time for the one in my garden to come down from the willow tree they usually nest in to the lawn, and then to come ever-closer to the house, so that now I can stand at the window and watch them without them flying away when they spot me.

Perhaps surprisingly for a woodpecker, the Green Woodpecker rarely pecks at trees, preferring instead to use the same “drumming” motion to stick their beak into moist soil, looking for tasty ants. Ants, of which there are many here, are the Green Woodpecker’s favourite food, and they use their long tongue to hoover them up much like an anteater does.

According to folklore, the Green Woodpecker is known as the “rain bird” because their appearance portends rain to come, but in my experience they arrive after rain more often than not, when the ground is softened up and easier to excavate for ants and grubs.

I can’t be sure if the one who visits/lives here is male or female, or if there are in fact two. Green Woodpeckers are monogamous, and I do hear call-and-response calls sometimes so I suspect there’s a breeding pair in the area. Males and females of the species are harder to tell apart than in many other birds, as there is very little sexual dimorphism. Both male and female Green Woodpeckers have yellow, green and red plumage and are around the same size. The only difference is that males have a slightly more pronounced redness in their cap and under the bill.

Now a near-daily visitor, the Green Woodpecker in the garden always brightens my spirits with their laughing call and bright, almost tropical, plumage. It just goes to show that if you make a space for nature, and build a relationship with the wild in your area, even a suburban semi can be a haven for life.

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Lessons from a Gorse bush

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Ever since I got given the Gorse Ogham few at Druid Camp in August, this spiky little shrub has been teaching me lessons.

Gorse (Ulex europeana) is not exactly the stately, ancient, tall tree of the forest one might first associate with Druids and with wisdom: that title surely goes to the mighty Oak. But, it is not without insight.

Gorse thrives on the margins: clifftops, coastlines, scrubland, cleared forest, waste ground. For those of us on our own margins, for ethnic and religious minorities, LGBT folk, eco-activists, 2016 has been a hell of a year, and 2017 looks set to be even worse. The UK and US have been turned upside down in a wave of xenophobia, sexism and right-wing extremism. Fascists, racists and ecocidal maniacs are in the ascendancy and much of what we now hold dear will be laid waste over the coming year.

Yet Gorse teaches us to dig in, to put down our roots and not be moved. Gorse is a tenacious bugger, and survives harsh weather, poor soil, cutting down, and even wildfires, always springing back up, spikes raised up like so many middle fingers, as if to say “I’m still here, you sods, now what are you going to do about it?”

To say that Gorse is prickly is an understatement. It is covered in spikes, every leaf is a needlepoint blade. This spikiness is its great defence. Small animals, who can slip through or under the spines, shelter in Gorse bushes from predators and use its protection. Gorse teaches us to protect ourselves and those we love when predatory politicians or dangerous ideologies threaten us and our world. Whether through learning self-defence, joining a group or cause and gaining strength in numbers, protesting, being present as an ally for oppressed people or just locking your doors and protecting your hearth and home, Gorse reminds us of the importance of protection and defence.

These spines also remind us of the importance of allowing ourselves to be prickly, to be angry, to not have to be “nice” and polite accommodating and docile in the face of blind hatred.

Gorse can be used in healing, and the wood is a great kindling for a hearth-fire. Gorse teaches us the importance of staying warm and healthy, of practicing self-care. In times of turmoil, self-care is not selfish, it is self-preservation and a form of defiance against those who would seek to diminish us.

Gorse has bright yellow flowers even in winter, and is rarely out of bloom. Gorse teaches us hope in the darkest of times, and reminds us to “bloom” even when the odds are stacked against us. Gorse gives hope that even when all seems lost, the sun will shine again and life always prevails. There’s a tradition to kiss when the Gorse is in bloom, which reminds us to hold our loved ones close, to enjoy love and to be in control of our own sexuality.

For 2017, let’s try to be more like this hardy, tenacious, stubborn, spiky little shrub. Let’s raise our spines against the forces of hate and put down our roots, bloom brightly, and always, always grow back.

A visit to Avalon

glasto1Last weekend, I went on something of a Druid pilgrimage, to Glastonbury. According to 12th-century historian Gerald of Wales, “What is now known as Glastonbury was, in ancient times, called the Isle of Avalon. It is virtually an island, for it is completely surrounded by marshlands. In Welsh it is called Ynys Afallach, which means the Island of Apples and this fruit once grew in great abundance. After the Battle of Camlann, a noblewoman called Morgan, later the ruler and patroness of these parts as well as being a close blood-relation of King Arthur, carried him off to the island, now known as Glastonbury, so that his wounds could be cared for. Years ago the district had also been called Ynys Gutrin in Welsh, that is the Island of Glass, and from these words the invading Saxons later coined the place-name ‘Glastingebury'”.

Glastonbury is steeped in both Christian and Pagan folklore and myth. The famous Glastonbury Tor, topped with its single tower, looms large over the landscape,  and the town is filled with interesting little shops selling all sorts of spiritual trinkets, books and supplies. It is also home to two sacred springs, the White Spring and the Red Spring.

glasto2The White Spring, above, is tucked away down a little lane off the main footpath that leads up Glastonbury Tor and can easily be missed. The main building that houses the Spring was unfortunately closed when I visited, but the water flows outside the building in a little stream that disappears under the paving, and also cascades from a pipe at the side. There were so many clooties and offerings left at the Spring from all sorts of different faiths. I even left my own offering: a small silver triskele pendant, before filling a bottle with the sacred water, which now sits on my shrine at home as a connection to this place.

I love the gate to the White Spring (pictured above). It reminds me of the Fire, Well and Tree that make up the Triple Hallows in ADF Druidry.

glasto3The Red Spring has its source in the Chalice Well, the well-head of which you can see above. The well is surrounded by a Peace Garden and every time I’ve visited, I have felt a real sense of calm and peace there, that is like nowhere else. Even in winter, the garden is beautiful.

gladto5The Red Spring is red because the water contains very high amounts of iron, which oxidises to produce this vibrant red-orange colour. The Red Spring is known for its healing properties, though because of the amount of iron in the water, you are advised to only take a few sips.

glasto4It being winter, and nearing the Solstice, I was delighted by the amount of mistletoe that was growing in the trees everywhere, even in the branches of one of the (several) Glastonbury Holy Thorns. Each one, a Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna “Biflora”) is said to be a cutting from the original Holy Thorn, flowers twice a year (unlike other hawthorns) and is associated with legends of Joseph of Arimathea, as well as being a sacred tree of the Ogham, Huath. Mistletoe (Viscum album), is of course a sacred plant in the Druid tradition. Pliny refers to Druids gathering mistletoe on the sixth night after a full moon and it has become the plant associated with Druids in popular culture.

I’ve been to Glastonbury many times before, and I seem to be drawn back there regularly. It is a place dear to my heart since before I ever heard of Druidry, and it has a unique charm. While I didn’t manage to get tickets to go to Glastonbury this weekend for the OBOD Winter Gathering, I enjoyed having a more quiet and personal pilgrimage to the legendary Isle of Avalon.

*All photos by me.