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Blackthorn Beeing

The Blackthorn Beeing

Once upon a time, there was a woman who lived in a small cottage by a river, in the hills of Donegal. One night, several years before she moved there, she’d dreamt that she was walking through an enormous beehive, watching the nursery bees carefully tend to the pupae. Wandering the strange vaulted halls of this golden bee-cathedral, she came face-to-face with the queen, and (much to her relief) she promptly woke up. Soon after, she became a beekeeper. She and her husband tended their bees lovingly in two vastly different places: a fertile croft on the shores of a sea-loch in the north-west Highlands of Scotland, then a wilder bog-bound croft on the far edge of the world, as far west as it was possible to go in the salt-swept, gale-ridden Outer Hebrides. One poor winter when the wildflowers were late to bloom, her husband kept the hive alive by laying at its feet armfuls of prickly flowering gorse which he’d brought home from the island’s only town.

Then came a difficult year, and a long, hard winter, and along with many other things in her life and on her croft, the bees died. The woman and her husband moved away, and came to a beautiful, tiny old cottage in a small wood by a waterfall in the far north-west of Ireland. Its garden was set in a sheltered hollow, the green valley was full of wildflowers, and the land cried out for bees. An empty hive was set near the hedge of elder trees down by the river; here, in her heart’s place, she waited and waited for bees to come. Many things had changed in her life; many things began to settle. Still she waited, bee-dreaming, and the year turned and the woman and her husband planted saplings as companions for the tall but elderly tree-beings in their small but beautiful scrap of land. Oak trees they planted, and apple; birch and yew, and other native species to create an Ogham wood. But above all other trees, the woman longed for blackthorn, and closely watched the small specimens they’d planted with hawthorn and hazel to form a small hedge along the back border of their land. Spring came, and the blackthorns were first to leaf. The woman’s heart was glad, for the blackthorn is the tree most beloved by the Cailleach, the old creator-goddess of this land. The Hag of Beara, the Old Woman of the World, the oldest of the oldest of the old. It was her blessing that the woman longed for above all other things. It was her hard lessons, on a bleakly beautiful stony shore, that the woman had undertaken to learn several years before.

Summer came, and in a bee-loud garden several miles to the north and east of that old cottage by the river, a swarm of bees broke away from their hive and settled at the top of a tall blackthorn tree. For three nights and three days they stayed there, in wind and rain, until their anxious bee-guardian climbed and cut and climbed some more, and finally persuaded them into a box where they might begin to think of making a new home.

The woman, who had heard about the Blackthorn Beeing, walked to the river and closed her eyes. Hardly daring any more to hope, quietly, she asked; afraid of one more refusal, one more hardening in the face of too fatal a softening.

But it was time, now, and the lessons had been learned, and that old Cailleach turned her stony face from the wild sea and smiled for a moment on her daughter. So it was that a long drought ended. Now there are honeybees in that green valley in the Donegal hills. Old Crane Woman shrieks her joy to the skies, and the Seven Sisters of the Derryveagh Mountains who stand guard over the country of Riverwitch peer down to the river in delight.

Bee tea
More thanks than we can express to our friend Aoife Valley for the gift of the Blackthorn Beeing. And to Heidi Herrmann of the Natural Beekeeping Trust for her encouragement and advice.

In the forests of Brittany: meetings with remarkable trees

I went to France in search of the legendary Broceliande, the ancient forest which once covered the whole of Brittany, and found something much more interesting: a present-day enchanted forest. Though it was a pretty place, I didn’t find the greatest enchantment of all in the privately owned, heavily managed forest of Paimpont, which claims to be the last remaining fragment of Broceliande. I found the greatest enchantment of all in the smaller but wilder old forest of Huelgoat, farther west in the region of Finistère. Huelgoat, ‘high wood’, scattered with old giant granite rocks.

Sometimes, when you wander through the forest with an open heart in search of mystery, you find it. I found it off the track, clambering down a steep muddy bank, my attention caught by a glimmer of water far below:

Huelgoat1 LR

I walked along the edge of a beautiful little river, and a series of pools opened up:

Huelgoat7 LR

I sat there entranced on a moss-covered rock in the silence of the wood for an hour and a half, watching the light change as the sun came and went. I looked up to see a single crow gliding slowly past, just above the water. Following its path with my eyes, just beyond the second central rock in the image below, I saw the figure of a reclining giant:

Huelgoat3crop LR

Here she is, Old Moss Woman, staring eyes and wide maw:

Huelgoat2 LR

Finally, I got up, and walked through the woods for a while. And through a tall, thin portal to another world, rich with old oak, ash, beech, chestnut and thorn:

Huelgoat6 LR

On the borders of the forest at Paimpont, I met with another remarkable tree. An ancient yew on the border of the garden of a new friend. A yew which has been cracked in two, its heart hollowed out, so tall that you can stand inside it and listen to its old bones creak in the breeze. The gift of yew: longevity and rebirth. Spirit-tree, memory-tree, oldest tree, crone-tree, the last tree. A couple of weeks before, a visiting friend had brought me the unexpected gift of yew, its Ogham letter carved carefully into a strong polished stick from a tree on her land. And what a gift it is:

Yew LR

I came home to the river, to this small cottage in the township of Min Doire, ‘plain of the oaks’. There have been no oaks here for centuries; they are buried in the bog, filled as it is with the ghosts of forests past. I brought back to the river the memory of oak growing strongly in a land across two seas, the forest floor cluttered with seedlings. I brought back a dried leaf and a dried-out moss-covered stick from the foot of a tall old oak, and I laid them at the feet of the two small oaks we have planted here, one sessile and one pedunculate. Look, I said to the trees: there are still so many oaks in the world. The web is strong. And I thought that there might someday be strong oaks again in Min Doire, if we plant our trees and then just let them be. If ever we can bear to just let them be.

Baby oaks LR

The Moss Maiden, Heligan

Reclaiming the Wise Woman

I’m delighted to announce some preliminary information about a new course I’ll be offering from October 2015. It’s called ‘Reclaiming the Wise Woman’, and is the culmination of much of the work I’ve been doing, as well as the way I’ve been living and learning, over the past several years. Here’s the basic information; if you’d like to keep up to date with the course and new information about it, please do head over to the course page on my website and sign up to my newsletter.

As the state of the biosphere grows ever more perilous and contemporary culture becomes ever more alienated from the natural world, I believe it is the job of women to bring us back into right relationship with the land. Women have a special relationship with the earth, a unique understanding of her stories; the old mythologies across so many cultures tell us that it’s always been so. And in my native Celtic lands, once upon a time women were the guardians of the natural world, the heart of the land, ‘Sovereignty’ personified.

The Wise Woman springs out of those traditions: our own native wisdom and our own native lands. The Wise Woman  is more than just an archetype: she is a living, breathing woman with a deeply connected way of being in the world. She knows that this connection is the secret of women’s creative power. Woman is the land and always has been; the land tells its stories to her and through her. The Wise Woman knows how to listen, and she knows how to tell. She has fallen into the land’s story; she is part of the land’s dreaming. She is a land-whisperer, a place-conjuror, a story-weaver; she listens for the wisdom of the Earth.

Men have their own story-makings and myth-tellings, but in the old Gaelic traditions which are my heritage, women were bards and poets too. Still, today, the voices of women are quieter, and our stories are less often heard. The Wise Woman is a woman who has reclaimed her stories, and has found the voice with which to tell them. The Wise Woman is remaking the world.

In this course we will explore and reclaim the Wise Woman tradition, bringing it alive and making it relevant to the world we live in today. We’ll explore both old and new representations of the Wise Woman in myth, story, literature and art. We’ll explore a range of skills and practices – practical and creative, and always, always deeply grounded – which help us develop a rich and authentic relationship with the natural world around us, and bring us back into balance with the land on which we live. We’ll learn to listen to the land’s dreaming, and to weave ourselves fully into the web of life.

This course takes place both online and by post, and it lasts for a year. Just before each New Moon – every four weeks, i.e. thirteen times during the year – you’ll receive an emailed link to a password-protected page on the website for the course from where you can download that moon’s materials. The online material will include video and audio files, and illustrated text PDFs. Each moon, there’ll be a ‘wise woman’ story which comes out of the native traditions of Celtic and Northern Europe (both in written form and as an audio file, with me telling and commenting on the story). Other original written course materials will focus on subjects which include working with plants, animals and trees; the art of ‘land-whispering’, or listening to the land’s dreaming; the ancient practice of land-augury; uncovering and telling the stories of place … more details and a full list of subjects will be available soon. There’ll also be reading recommendations, and links to external resources on the subject we’re dealing with during that moon.

Three times during the year, you’ll receive a package in the post which will contain the gift of a ‘Crane Bundle’ – a few small items relevant to the course content, wrapped in naturally dyed fabric. Crane bundles will include some combination of the following items or others according to inspiration: a card, a homemade balm or salve, a herb or seaweed, a gift from the land here in Donegal, a small piece of hand-stitching or other hand-crafting …

‘Reclaiming the Wise Woman’ is a self-directed course and there’s no one-to-one element built into it, but there will be a private Facebook group where you can discuss the course contents and the Wise Woman tradition with others who are enrolled, and with me.

The course will open up for the first time on October 13th 2015, at the New Moon, but it will be possible to subscribe to it at any time after that, beginning with the first Module on the next New Moon which follows the date of your subscription.

This course is relevant to, and therefore open to, women. It’s aimed at women of all ages, but I believe it will be especially interesting to and useful for women who are approaching or going through menopause or other midlife and late-life transitions, and who are thinking about what it might be to become Elder.

Note for those who have already undertaken my ‘Sisterhood of the Bones‘ course: there is no direct overlap, and all material provided for ‘Reclaiming the Wise Woman’ will be new. Whereas ‘Sisterhood of the Bones’ is very much about working on your own story, ‘Reclaiming the Wise Woman’ is broader in scope and in the practices offered.


The course will cost 180 euros if you are based in Ireland or the UK; in the rest of the world (due to higher air mail postage costs) it will cost 189 euros. You can either pay the course fee in a single payment, or you can pay in six monthly instalments (30 euros in the UK or Ireland; 31.50 euros in the rest of the world). However, as an early bird special, and in an effort to make the course more affordable to those who are on low wages, if you sign up before the end of August 2015 you can pay in ten monthly instalments (18 euros in the UK or Ireland; 18.90 euros in the rest of the world.