In the town where I live there is a hill. Apart from this hill, most of the center of town is flat. It sits across the floor of a small valley in a shape vaguely similar to an octopus suddenly thrust up onto the land. There are arms and portions of the town squeezing out in all directions that look cramped and random from the air. They follow old railway lines and new street lines, the crevices between the large hills that surround the town and other features that have not yet made themselves known to me. There is also the mark of water everywhere, even in the long dry season of summer where most things give in to the heat and turn to brown and dust. Even then, the live oaks hold onto their insistent green, no matter what the season. Now more and more of them are bleeding red trails of Sudden Oak Death from their bark and collapsing into grey ghosts of their former selves as the moths born of the masses of caterpillars that attack the sickening trees take wing and search for a new host. I do my best to sing death songs for those I can, but there are so many.
The marks of water take many forms. Today underneath the Town Hall a torrent of muddy ripples surges joyously through the concrete channel the building straddles. Around the corner from me there is a small deposit of leaves and silt left by the runoff from the hill above me. A stream under a bridge behind me shelters one of the last remaining salmon runs in the area. Piles of sandbags sit silently at the edges of doorways growing grass and moss. They are standing vigil to the memory of the water that came 12 years ago and let everyone know that when water flows strong enough, it is best to get out out of the way. I have a photo from 2 days ago that shows my garden as a lake. Now there is only a pool slightly wider than the spread of my arms filling the hole I dug last year to encourage the water to stay and bring life to the trees around my house instead of pool underneath it and cause the foundation to slowly collapse.
The hill that is the only landform rising above the flatness of the center of town rises between a parking lot, a school playground and the edge of a small strip mall. This means blacktop on three sides that shimmers and stinks in the summer sun. Today braided rivers of rainwater meander across the surface of all three from the rain last night. I walk towards the hill from the west and think of another hill.
The other hill is larger than the one in my town, and it is on the other side of the world. For months I found myself there looking out across a vast expanse of marshy area full of light and the bellows of aurochs. My dreams were full of close-ups of wooden boats making their way through twilight in places where reeds grew taller than the people who poled or paddled them through the twists and turns of the narrow open passages. In the prow of each boat stood a piece of one of the trees that grew on the hill. It had been cut and carried across several miles to use as a navigation aid in the labyrinth of the marshes. The people who sat in the boats could hear the voice of the branch as it remembered where it came from. They could use this knowledge to help the paddles dip and the poles plunge so that the boats would return safely to land from their journeys into the marsh. Then as now, a marsh was full of bounty and death. The difference between the two was and is being able to find your way home again.
It never occurred to the people in the boats to drain the marsh because it would have destroyed their food supply. They saw the bounty and the death and chose to learn how to accept the gift without giving more than the received by getting lost and becoming food themselves. But they are no longer there, and others have filled the places where they sailed and have forgotten how to find the way back to the hill that served as the focal point for their navigation.
One day as I lay in bed sweating with fever, an article arrived from a friend who did not know about my journeys to the marshes to watch the aurochs plow gently across the mouths of streams and call to each other as they made their way through a land covered by either dense forest or swamps full of waving reeds. There were no fields, planes or farms in this world where I dreamt. It wa a time when all of that was unknown and unneeded. There is a Goddess here who watches over the marshlands and the forests. One night I sit on the top of the hill as she shows me what it looks like to her. The scene is too much for words, but fortunately I awake with a poem. It is not only for me, so I share it here.
Lady of the Plane am I
Where rushes grow
At Green Water’s edge
Lady of the Oak am I
Where the roots move down
Into the bog
Lady of the Stone am I
Where Hill Top looks
Into the sky
For every breathe
You take with me
Nine breaths go out in healing
Do not try to count them
And you will be a Blessed One
later in the day, I returned to read more of the article that arrived in me email. It told of another hill next to another marsh where people gathered to carve deer antlers into weapons for hunting the same animals they were carved from. They also made haunting masks from the skulls with antlers attached. As I stared at the empty eyeholes in the masks I found myself looking out through the same holes into the edge of a forest. I could feel the darkness falling and the powerful presence of the forest in front of me. The phrase “Too Strong” kept echoing through my head over and over. I came to know that the power of the reasons why the masks were worn would cause damage if it was used outside of its original context. I was not part of that context and never would be. The people who could wear the mask safely came from thousands of generations of ancestry who had learned to wear the masks they made because they needed to in order to survive. They knew how to shift forms and be deer or human or bear or goose because it had always been part of who they needed to be. It is my task to repair some of what has happened since that time to the relationship between humans and those we share this existence with, but it will take many lifetimes to get to the place where the connection is close enough to walk the paths the mask takes you to.
I remove the mask and walk over to a large stone that rises from the earth slightly uphill from where I was when I first looked out from the bone eyeholes. The black remains of a fire are scattered about a circular depression near the base of the stone. A familiar smell is in the air. It is a smell I had experienced as a child in Alaska peering out across the shinning water while straining to catch my first glimpse of a glacier. It is a smell that I once stood tall and filled my lungs with before shooting through fresh powder underneath a forest of fir trees on the side of a mountain when I was 17. It is also the same smell that filled the air where the marshes swayed in the wind and the aurochs ran across the only grasslands they could find, down by the edge of the marsh at the foot of the hill where I found the poem.
The bridge between these to places is contained within the smell. In my research I find that as the land emerged from the grip of ice, this area and the huge lake it contained formed the headwaters for the flow that fed the marshes I had seen the boats making there way through on the other side of the peninsula that would one day become Britain. First I had visited the result, and then the source. Two hills connected by water in my dreams with horned beasts making their way through fields of reeds.
Back at my home, one day I feel the need to carry incense in my pocket. I walk with it and listen to learn why. With my eyes closed, I feel the pull of the hill. I have been climbing it over and over again to stand on the top of a small stone that just barely peeks out of the earth. I have been raising my arms to face the sun with the palms of my hands and the plane of my forehead. I have been breathing the light and the warmth down through my being to share with the stone and whatever is below it. Today I feel that there is more to do. It is the wet brown time of winter that is the opposite of the dry brown time of summer. That time is ochre and grey and dust. This time is chocolate and worm tailings and squishy. I climb the hill carefully between the two boulders that stand sentinel on either side of the path up. As I near the flat area at the summit, I know what needs to be done.
One stick of red incense. A few words chanted. Another stick of red incense. A whispered phrase. A third flame to finish the spell. Then all three placed carefully between two rocks at the foot of the largest stone at the top of the hill. It is a stone ringed by shattered alcohol bottles and the persistent funk of frustration and despair. Behind it is a grove of young oaks. At the foot of the oaks is a sagging assortment of abandoned furniture and lumpy things that have lost their purpose. Remnants of bottles and bits of unnamed trash are scattered around. At the bottom, just before the two stones and the path, there is a rotting mattress. All of these things bring the special kind of sorrow that comes to a place when people throw their forgotten purchases onto it and leave. I stand with the stone and take in the questions of the hill that arise after my offering awakens its voice to my ears.
Why do these things happen? The rest of the hill has been taken (for the three squares of blacktop). We were sleeping. Now you have awakened us. Why did you do that? Can your people not hear when this place calls out that it is sacred? What will you do to make it right?
I listen to these, and many more. The questions spill out into the space that is held for them so that they can become part of the story of now. I help guide them as they make their way into the rapid pace of the present from the slowness of the slumber that has sent them forth. I listen and do not answer because most of them are not for me. I do not know the names of the people they are for. I catch a shadowy glimpse some of their shapes as the questions set out to find them. All the other details I hold in confidence and do not share because to speak with a stone is to be a place where secrets can be kept. When it is done, I give my reply to the question that was for me alone. At the end of the moment I leave with tears in my eyes and the image of a truck full of trash in my mind.
The water from my eyes on that day and the rain that was filling the sky yesterday morning both fell onto the same earth. And in the earth there are sometimes many secrets to be found. Last year around this time I was digging the whole that is now holding the water to keep it from working with the earth to swallow my home. When a hole is dug, by a human or a glacier, the earth that was there has to go somewhere. The two marshes in my dreams were each beside a hill. The earth from the pit in my yard had to go somewhere, so I decided to build a hill with it. It is a very small hill under the spread of a pear tree, but I found some interesting treasure while helping it to rise.
Since I was very small, I have been soaking up as many myths as I could find. They are all full of amazing things, but what matters for this story is that many of them are full of giants. And the giants come in layers, just like the earth I had to dig through to make the pit and the hill in my garden.
The top layer was fairly loose. It was made of different kinds of debris, such as fallen branches, leaves and bits of trash. I could easily scoop it up with my hands. I removed more of this layer than any other because it was first and covered the widest area. Moving from dirt to myths, this is the layer of so-called children’s stories and fairytales. There are hundreds of versions of the same stories spread across wide areas of culture. In these stories the giants are typically rude and stupid. They break things and fight constantly. In an interesting bit of cultural imperialism, they are very often shown dressed in clothing or accessories that come from one of the Gaelic-speaking lands, while the heroes who vanquish them are often shown in the dress of the 17-th Century Continental nobility. But these giants are not the only giants.
I had to use a shovel for the next layer. It was composed of dense topsoil that was fortunately wet enough for me to move. In the summer its clay content makes trying to dig in it as much fun as trying to shovel a brick. But as the fog rolls in during the rainy times, it can be slogged through and scooped up fairly easily. In the world of myths, I found that this is the time of slightly older stories where the giants are much smarter. This is where Oisin comes back from Tir Na Nog on Nieve’s magical horse. It is where he is so big that the people trying to move the stone don’t know precisely what or who he is. Before he was seen as a giant, some of the stories tell of him being raised as a deer in the forest where he was free to be a little deer in form as well as in name. I think of him and I think of the antler masks from the village below the hill at the side of lake Flixton that archeologists now call Starr Carr. Two places where a human can become a deer and return to being human again. For me, this raises the question of how old the story of Oisin really is. Does it oroginally belong to ten thousand years ago when Britain was a peninsula and Doggerland connected it to what is now France like the antler masks do, or is it from a more recent time and place where the same fluidity of being still held sway because people had not forgotten how to do it safely? For now, this question must remain unanswered as I dig in the mud.
Below the topsoil I found a harder layer that could only be coerced to move through the use of a pickax and considerable force. This layer had been undisturbed for so long it was starting to form into what would become stone by the time my life is as far into history as Doggerland now it. As I hacked and chipped away at it, I thought of stories from older times. These stories come to me from the beginning of the Greek sagas and from the Sumerian tales. They also come from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s telling of Britus’s landing on Beltane that began the changing of Albion into Britain. All of them come from places and times where the story matters more than what we now think of it. Times where Mythos was revered above Logos.
They also come from cultures who shared an interesting peculiarity of artistic representation. In those times where meaning mattered more than the literal details of surface, being big was not the same as it is now. To be rendered large in Sumerian, Eqyptian, and most other ancient artworks was to be thought of as important. Pharoahs were big. Kings were big. Gods were bigger. Older, more powerful gods like those that originated existence were the biggest of all. So Djoser was big, Horus was bigger, Isis was even bogger and Nut was the largest of all. This way of using size to denote importance was and is found all across the world wherever mythos is valued more than logos. It was in the paintings on the walls of caves. It was in Medieval European depictions of Saints, commoners and Deities. It was and is till found in the bas reliefs of Hindu temples. I saw it recently on a trip to Chinese Buddhist places of worship in Malaysia. It is in the Pop-star names that include the word Big. It is in the phrase “making it big,” which sounds to me like a contemporary version of the 6,000-year-old accounts of Sumerian Lugal (literally, the term means Big Men).
Put another way, giants didn’t have to be physically large to be giants. They just have to be seen as important. The oldest stories I found at the bottom of the hole where about humans who had hit the Big Time, Stone Age style. But what did that mean, exactly? What was it that made a person worthy of being called big in the time when the stories originated? The stories that have come down to us actually have a fairly solid clue. There aren’t that many of them, and they are sometimes hard to decipher, but there is a clue nevertheless. After spending some time with them, one day the reason for the giants’ power (and therefore their depiction as giants) suddenly became so obvious I laughed at myself for not seeing it earlier.
What do the giants fought by the Sumerians, the Greeks and the Britons all have in common? The answer has to do with what is under their feet. All of them live in wild places or disappear into them before coming again to fight Gilgamesh, Britus or whatever hero is setting himself against them. The heroes who fight giants are always men, which sticks out to me as important. And they always go to where the giants live to attack them and take the land from them. The giants fight back. They do not start the war, but they do their best to finish it.
The most detailed descriptions come from Greek and British sources, so I will continue with those. As the hero attacks the giants, he finds again and again that the giants have the magical ability to get up and rejoin the battle with no loss of strength. They are so in tune with the land that to be thrown down to earth is to be rejuvenated. Their power and importance actually come from the fact that they know how to walk and move so that every touch of the earth brings healing to them. They are giants because they are completely in tune with where they live. What they did to attain this is lost because the stories are told by the men who killed them by separating them from the healing earth.
But the most important bit of mythos is still there if we can see it and hear it and take it in. We too can be giants of power and healing, just as they were if we can listen to the land. The earth is still there to heal and restore us with every step if we are willing to live the kind of life that is required to accept this offering. In all the fear, denial and despair swirling around right now, many are forgetting that the earth will be here no matter what happens in the next few centuries. It isn’t up to us to save Her. It is up to us to listen to Her so that we can have a hope of saving ourselves.
Yesterday I found a round, smoothly-polished stone sitting on my gate when I arrived home from an errand. It was made smooth by water. I picked it up to carry it in my pocket as I write. It is a small reminder of the power of stones and streams as I think of giants and hills.
Today I walked home from taking my daughter to school. As I neared the hill in town, I felt a strong pull to pass by the guardian boulders and climb it. There was a sign that said “Dumping Prohibited,” which I paid little attention to. I was listening to the music of the sun as it came out from the morning mist. At the top of the hill I stood with arms outstretched and feet on the stone where the light needed to get in. With three breaths I pulled as much of the joy of the morning as I could down to where it was asked for. Then I gave thanks and took a step forward. As I moved, I noticed the energy of the place was different. Something was absent or missing. By the time I reached the larger stone higher up, I could see that the grove of oaks now held a series of silent, dark spaces where the discarded furniture had been decaying. The sign about dumping had actually been placed in the spot left bare by the mattress that had been taken away. The only trash I could find was two soda cans smashed flat and a few pieces of couch stuffing. I picked them all up and took them down to a trash can with a smile.
P.S. I am not the only person who is curious about what Yorkshire looked like 9,000 years ago.