White Oak

As part of my Lughnasadh experience this year, I was fortunate to coincide a visit to my old and dear friend Ratnadeva – Rd for short.
He has been an ordained Buddhist monk for a few years now, and I still find that I sometimes call him by his ‘old’ (Irish) name of Sean – or indeed by his old Druidic name of ‘Barn Owl’. Like me, he straddles the paths of Buddhism and Druidry – though for him the emphasis is on Buddhism while for me it is Druidry.

Each of these paths has a lack of dogma, compassion for all beings, and a reverence for the land. So they overlap and fit together beautifully, each illuminating and informing the other; much as happens between us two friends when we get together.

So , on Thursday 2nd August, I drove over to the Buddhist centre near Ledbury in Herefordshire, where Ratnadeva is based at the moment. I was priviliged to enjoy a guided tour of the premises and gardens; all being lovingly restored and brought to fruition by members of the community.

Our intent and focus for the day, was a short pilgrimage across the fields and woods nearby, to seek out and honour an ancient tree called ‘The White leaved Oak’ as part of our marking this time of Lughnasadh: (Also known as Lammas) a time of gatherings, community, harvest and Summer )

The day was scorching hot, as has been the case for pretty much the whole of this remarkable and unusual, most ‘un-English’ Summer. The fields all sun scorched and more typical of Southern Summer France than the normally verdant green Western Shires of England.
It is small wonder that JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis walked these parts together, and were inspired to write their respective tributes in the form of Hobbiton and Narnia, due in no small measure to the fabulous field patterns and glorious oak trees of the area; representing what England at its best looks like as I see and feel it.

Weaving a labyrinthine path through the bracken, we emerged onto a field sloping away to the west, with what looked like an ancient tumulus at its head, commanding vast views over the parched surrounding countryside. Then at the other end of the field, stood the outline of a stark and oddly gnarled old tree – or rather the remains of what had clearly once been a most majestic oak: – As magnificent in death as much as I imagine it to have been in life.

Dramatic in its girth and arresting in its appearance. About its lower limbs were tied a variety of flags and ribbons, prayer offerings and blessings. In the native tradition of Britain, these are referred to as ‘clooties’ , and are more often to be found adorning ancient hawthorns next to half hidden springs; yet it seemed as we approached as if we might be at some high altitude pass in the Himalayas, with flags fluttering in the breeze on the multi-masted form of the tree. A vast ‘tree galleon’ afloat on the ocean of the land ; its hold full of hidden treasure.

What great presence awaited us with this singular tree of great grandeur; splendid and mesmerising in its form – a wizened wizard of the tree realm.
As we cautiously approached, our voices naturally stilled; first to whisper, then to silence.
Around two to three yards from the contorted bark of the tree, it seemed as though we crossed an invisible boundary into sacred space – a temple of sorts. A holy place.

Spontaneously, we lay face down on the earth and sang these words to a chant;
“Humble yourself in the arms of the Wild
You’ve got to lay down low
And humble yourself in the arms of the wild
You’ve got to ask her what she knows.
And we will lift each other up
Higher and Higher
We will lift each other up”.

Surely an anthem for our times and a sentiment crying out for expression.
So we had come – to ‘humble ourselves in the arms of the wild’.

Although well off the beaten track, others clearly shared our sense of pilgrimage and reverence; weather worn offerings of shredded rag and ribbon, all fluttering in the hot Summer breeze.
We each took a deep and mindful breath, before instinctively placing a primal hand on the trunk and ‘feeling in’ to the nature of the being: – In appearance long gone; in essence so very much ‘with us’.

We proceeded to make our peace and honour our connection with the spirit of place – the ‘Genius Loci’, embodied and personified in the beneficent and powerful, wise and yes, holy, tree before us.

In time we improvised and wove a touching and beauteous ritual together, intertwining and inter singing a Druid/Buddhist, Buddhist/Druid celebratory Lughnasadh offering in honour and respect, along with a good bit of humour , as we stumbled and shimmied barefoot on the spikey grass.

Tying shreds of an old and favourite t-shirt of Ratnadeva, (fittingly with an old and faded oak tree on its front) we added our blessings and prayers to the many already offered.
We made further offerings of apple and acorn – the nascent acorn oak sitting cradled in an old oak hand nestled into the trunk of the tree.

Singing “I am the land that is all that I am” , we rounded off a most potent and healing ceremony, before weaving our way back across the fields, through a hedge into the wood, and out along a winding track:
Friendship’s familar cloak of nascent nourishment accompanying us all the way.

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