THE MAN WHO SPOKE TO THE DRYADS
THE MAN WHO SPOKE TO THE DRYADS
My paternal grandfather was an English shaman with a profound connection to the dryads. My mother, at the age of seventeen, fell in love with him as soon as they met. This was at the first Beltane festival ever to be held just outside Malvern in 1961 where she offered herself to him immediately.
There were some understandable reasons for this. Not only was she, at the time, of an age when she was wide open to the possibility of falling in love, but it was also acknowledged by almost all who knew him that my grandfather was a man who radiated sexual attraction. In his youth he stood well in excess of six feet six tall. It was only after a lifetime of stooping over the harvest, rodent traps and his clients, that necessity bestowed upon him an intermittent requirement to walk bent at a forty-five degree angle. However, until those later years this rural giant stood erect and proud, as many surviving monochrome photographs still attest. The same photos confirm my personal recollection that he had one of the most unusual faces I have ever seen. With a long, angular nose, a narrow mouth and the most powerful of horn rimmed spectacles, this was clearly not a face such as one might expect women to fall in love with. But it was one that wore an expression of intensity, wisdom and power. It was these characteristics, I believe, that were later to account for deep disturbances in the energy fields of both of them, of the family and of the karmic line.
Being that we were a family steeped in generations of traditional witchcraft, we were amongst the first to make a public commitment to the new religion that flourished in the West Country in the middle of the twentieth century. My grandmother, an unusually territorial individual for one so skilled in the ways of the Craft, made it clear that my mother’s selfless offer, though admirable, was not going to be accepted by her husband. Instead, she introduced the young woman immediately to her own son. Clearly taking after his father, he was a tall, angular youth of nineteen who put all who saw him in mind of an under-watered oak sapling.
The surviving photographs of my mother from this era attest to the commonly acknowledged observation that teenage girls are often more sexually developed than teenage boys of a similar age. With flowing black hair that reached the middle of her back, dark eyes, and a petite but hour-glass figure she might, in a different life, have become a model. As it was, for this lifetime her contract was what we might now refer to as Wiccan and by her fifteenth birthday she was wont to dance naked before Adonis under the grey light of the harvest moon.
My mother was less than delighted at the proffered substitution of my father for her first choice, but recognised the potential it offered for subsequent interaction with the real target of her hormonal disruption. The betrothal was formalised at Glastonbury during the Mabon dance offering, where she was renamed Persephone and he Bacchus. It was not surprising that Persephone’s new name became that by which she was known for the rest of her life. By contrast, once Bacchus had heard a number of people suppress giggles when introduced to him, he reverted to his original given name of Alan, shortened to Al. By Yule his Coven name had lapsed entirely.
Grandfather himself was named as William Peter Dente in his year of birth of 1926 and did not take a Craft name. A man of Mediterranean ancestry, and one for whom the world was a very serious place, he never did see the potential for humour in his choice of name for his son. Grandmother was named for the abundant provision of the Earth Spirits long before any thought was given to her eventual name change upon marriage. Her own parents cannot therefore be held responsible for the subsequent mildly humorous consequences upon marriage of having given her the name of Plenty.
William and Plenty were Somerset farmers who hailed from the rural community to the west of Frome and whose outlook on life they largely shared. Most people who tendered currency at the market instead of bartering were considered to be potentially attempting to cheat them. Virtually anyone originating from across the county boundary two miles to the east of Frome was in essence foreign. And absolutely anyone who pronounced Frome to rhyme with home rather than room was considerably less intelligent than any member of their rapidly fattening herd of pigs.
I do not mean to imply by this that my grandparents were ignorant – quite the reverse. Each of them possessed an unquestionable empathy with the natural world. William was known throughout the county as a Cunning Man of great power such as in more recent years would be called a shaman, and in particular for his ability to heal with earth energy. To watch him at work was nothing short of a joy. He would have his clients lie supine on the floor, place them into trance with a combination of murmured incantations and slow fixated breathing that few could resist the inclination to imitate. Once he had achieved what he considered to be an effective connection to the patient’s higher self, he would assist them in drawing energy down from the light. I and my contemporaries who heal in much the same way talk of crown chakra, solar plexus and the like. But William knew nothing of these terms. He had this way – and I have never been able to replicate it – of circulating the energy and accelerating it and, as it were, throwing it to whichever part of the physical or astral body was expressing distress. This he referred to as ‘spinnin’ th’ cauldron.’
In the all the years I watched him work I never once saw his technique fail. By the time he had finished, his client would invariably be asleep. Then, upon rousing, a short period of disorientation would follow. William would sit them in the farmhouse garden. Here they would re-orientate on a seat he had carved from the stump of an old elm tree that had died in the attack of Dutch elm disease in the late 1960s. Or if it were winter they would sit in front of the ever-burning fire in the kitchen inglenook and drink unceasing glassfuls of Plenty’s elderflower cordial. Payment would occasionally be in the form of money. But in truth William and Plenty had little use for currency. It was much preferred if the grateful client would leave behind them a chicken or two, or perhaps return later to mend a fence or a cartwheel, depending on the wealth, skill or calling of the individual concerned.
Let me state clearly the significance to my grandparents of that attack of Dutch elm disease that commenced in 1967. Of the two of them it was William who was more deeply affected, for he was the one with the ability to communicate directly with the dryads. Nevertheless, Plenty was very much of the same mind and had a more systemic connection to the children of the earth – her animals, her birds and even the insects for which she exhibited an enduring respect. I never once saw her kill anything other than out of pure necessity or to end suffering. There was to be much suffering and homelessness exhibited throughout the animal kingdom with the arrival of the Elmish infection. So strong was William’s connection that the trees themselves had made him aware of the impending incursion of the dreaded disease upon our shores from 1965, some two years before its actual arrival.
I might also mention almost as a footnote to this much more important narrative, the marriage of my parents in 1962 and the birth of me, their first child, in 1963. At eighteen Persephone was perhaps not so unusually young a mother. But at twenty, Al was surely too young to be a father. I have always sought to forgive Al’s abandonment of her and me a little before my fifth birthday, considering it as being attributable to too early an entry into parenthood.
Unsurprisingly Persephone was, for many years, unable to share what she regarded as far too charitable an interpretation of Al’s departure as I chose to make. Additionally, I was demonstrably too young at the time to interpret the significance of his preoccupation with a traveller girl who passed through Frome that summer, en route to the Solstice celebration in Glastonbury. But whatever the interpretation, the fact was that one morning in mid-June the traveller caravans were gone and so was he.
Given that we all lived together on the farm anyway, and in particular in view of the amount of time I was wont to spend with William, Al’s departure had far less impact upon me than might otherwise have been the case. Regrettably, the same was not true for Persephone, who at the age of twenty-three was barely an adult herself. It was predictable that her husband’s desertion would initially cause grief and anguish. Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight it should have been equally predictable that the emotional confusion of his leaving would lead to further disruption within the extended family.
Al’s departure coincided with the approach of my fifth birthday, which engendered much discussion within the family as regards the nature and style of education I was to receive.
William was forthright upon the matter. “We don’ see no call fer booklarnin’, ” he ventured. “My granfer’ an’ my dard din’ get none and neither did we. An’ we’m not seein’ why ’e need be wasstin’ ’is time in the schoolarse.”
Nevertheless, we were living in an era in which the authorities took rather more interest in the delivery of booklarnin that had been the case during William’s childhood.
“Oh, don’t be givin’ me that, Dad,” Persephone replied. “The world’s been changin’ since your day. I think school learnin’ will be good for the boy. And anyways, he be my son an’ I’ll be decidin’ what be good for ’im.”
Given that Plenty was broadly of the same opinion as her daughter-in-law, it was determined that I would, just prior to Mabon, attend at the Schoolarse in Frome along with the other children of the local community.
As I have already mentioned, William had prior warning of the arrival of Dutch elm disease upon the English shores in 1967. It had constituted, as he put it, ‘T’only inn’rcourse ’tween Elm and Dryad’ since that date, and one entered into with progressively more fear as time had passed. The English dryads were in systemic contact with their fellows in North America where the disease had already taken hold. In 1967 the actual arrival of the elm bark beetle in a shipment of Rock Elm logs from North America led to a tsunami of arboreal panic that swept across the country from south to north. This emotional wave was to be followed by the death of twenty-five million Elm trees out of a national population of thirty million.
Thus, for two years William did what he could to prepare his beloved trees for the coming storm, which, in honesty, was little. And with its arrival in 1967 he and other dryad-connected humans did what they could to move the energy in favour of the trees and away from the beetles. But the inexorable march of the invertebrates was beyond even his powerful majik. Empathetic humans and dryads of other tree species looked on helplessly as their fellows wept inconsolably, wandering aimlessly amongst their dead flocks.
It was in this context that William arrived at the decision in the summer of 1968 that he would begin my training as what we would call in our generation a dryadic shaman. Neither of us could have realised at that time just how important that learning was to be. For, as it later transpired, my training was to prepare me for intervention into a terrifying conflict between humanity and the dryads which at that time none of us could have foreseen.
On the night of the full moon of July 1968 he woke me from my bed, dressed me and led me deeper into the forest than I had ever been before. As we journeyed onwards I became aware that I was treading territory that I had never previously crossed. Suddenly William let go my hand and strode on into the darkness at an adult’s pace I was incapable of matching. My reaction to this was surprise rather than fear. Already the forest was a home to me, a haven of nurturing rather than a threat. But it had rained heavily that day. The ground was soft and the terrain uneven and sloping. Though my eyes had adjusted to the moonlight and I could see, the problem was simply that I didn’t know where I was. Then, as I slipped and slithered my way forward, I was suddenly aware that I was not alone. Just as I was losing my balance I felt a presence on each side of me. I turned to the right to confront the first, but could see nothing. As I turned back towards my left confusingly, the presence on my right came into view while that on my left remained oddly invisible. What I was experiencing was the concentration of rod cells in the edges of the human eye and cones at its centre. It was my first lesson in seeing peripherally that which cannot be seen face on – a lesson that all should learn at least metaphorically, even if not physically. As I adjusted to this new means of visual perception I was better able to see the physical presences that were assisting me. Each was a creature larger than me, but well short of the full height of an adult human. Thin and angular, with bony faces, horizontal, slit-like eyes and sharp chins, they put me first in mind of skeletons. Yet these creatures were very much alive, and as they gently touched and supported me it was clear that they were well-intentioned towards me. With them as much carrying me forward as leading me, we advanced into a clearing that I had never realised existed. There in the centre stood my grandfather, naked. And around him, now that I had the eyes to see in the grey moonlight, perhaps two dozen other creatures similar in appearance to those who had taken charge of me.
My training began that full-mooned night with a history lesson. As William sought to expound to me the “hist’ry o’ th’ dryads” many interruptions took place as dryad after dryad extended bony hands and fingers to touch my soft skin, or to stroke my hair, or inhale my scent, much as we might run our fingers over pine needles or inhale the perfume of the swaying trees on a warm summer afternoon.
“You needs t’unnerstand,” he said in his broad Somerset voice, “that Dryads work with trees as shepherds do with sheep. Each man’ges a flack o’ between a dozen and a hunert trees. But it’s a two-way matter, you sees. The trees’ll not prosper without the nurturing of t’ dryads. But t’dryads also can’t live without t’trees.”
Indeed, while few humans really have a genuine appreciation of this, the dryad symbiosis with the trees is not that different from our own.
“Two thousand years ago,” he continued, “this were covered by forest, mostly oak. But with the comin’ of t’Romans and the creep o’ ’uman civilisation, the great forests was driven back.”
To the dryads this has always been a matter of considerable confusion, experiencing as they do, the immediacy of our shared dependency upon the trees. Why, they perpetually ask me, do we destroy the very source of oxygen upon which our own survival depends?
I had no answer for them back then and I have none now. And who can blame the dryads if they regard the tiny forested areas such as the Scottish highlands, the Forest of Dean or the New Forest in much the same way as Native North Americans regard the Indian Reservations?
Summer passed and the wheat ripened in the fields. My days were spent playing with Ruth the farmyard Collie, crawling through the fields in search of mice and lifting rocks in streams to seek out the innumerable tiny forms of life that dwelt there. Though perhaps unlike city dwelling children, I made no attempt to remove such creatures or disturb their habitats, for Plenty had instilled in me the same profound respect for all forms of life she herself possessed. And as the time for attendance at the Frome Schoolarse drew near, I played all the more intensely, somehow conscious that my life was about to change for ever and soon all this would be lost to me. As the autumn days shortened and the summer sun made her last stand against winter I commenced my formal education.
Were this a piece of fiction and not a true reminiscence, you might expect me to contrast my happy and successful learning amongst the dryads with profound unhappiness and painful experiences at school. It was not so. I remember the first day well, the playground a sea of nervous boys and girls tearfully clinging to the hands of their mothers, sucking thumbs and gripping, pleadingly, onto coattails. For my part, when that first bell rang, sounding the beginning of the end of my childhood, I simply turned to Persephone, said “Bye,” and, in my newly purchased short grey trousers, ran in through the entrance marked ‘girls.’ I have no recollection as to when the difference was explained to me, nor the proper procedure.
Each day as I rushed out of the Schoolarse to Persephone I related unending tales of childish confrontations won, information gleaned and new skills acquired. It took just a few weeks before I said to her, “Persephone,” (for I never used anything but her first name when addressing her since no one had ever told me to do otherwise), “can we go to Frome on Saturday to join t’library?” And from that day onwards the ancient farmhouse began to be filled with printed materials such as it had never experienced before.
When the leaves of autumn finally changed from a glorious profusion of colour to fall in crisp, lifeless brown to the ground, the dryads prepared first the trees then themselves for the long sleep of winter. By Mourning Moon our nocturnal visits to the forest ceased altogether and we focussed our attention on the coming of Yule.
I first noticed my grandfather’s overnight absences following the beginning of the new Gregorian year. There was something about the routine into which the house had fallen in order for me to get to school on time that made the absence of any member of the family particularly obvious. And while my own nocturnal visits to the forest were now confined to the weekends, William’s weeknight visits increased in both number and duration until his absences from the breakfast table were more frequent than his attendances.
It was following one of these overnight absences that William returned to the farmhouse to announce that ‘Th’ Dryads er sayin’ that th’ ’umans ’as declared war on th’ trees.’ Later a newly acquired transistor radio was to bring news of the mass application of agent orange defoliant across large areas of southeast Asia. William fully understood the purpose of its application in the context of the Vietnam war. But as he put it, “‘How we’m spos’d t’explain t’ th’Dryads why th’trees has to be killed fer ’uman to make war on ’uman?” As far as the Dryads were concerned, 1971 marked the declaration of all-out war. Inevitably there would be a response. It was to be more subtle and far more devastating than any of us could possibly have imagined.
My daily departure from the farmhouse for the purposes of formal education had left Persephone with reduced occupation and increased free time. Parallel to this ran her recovery from her husband’s desertion and a gradual increase in sexual frustration that such an absence was bound to engender. Of course, if I had been raised in a Christian or even simply a more traditional English mode of upbringing, the recognition that my mother even possessed a sexuality of her own would have been, if not beyond my awareness, then certainly taboo as a topic of exploration even all these years later. As it was, a pre-Wiccan upbringing such as mine and one that took place in proximity to nature rendered my approach to the subject quite different from the norm of even those sexually liberated days of the 1970s.
Although it seemed insignificant to me at the time, there were increasing numbers of weeks when Persephone would find some excuse to ask Plenty to take me to school on market days. On such occasions she perhaps surmised, and rightly so, that her mother-in-law would be inclined to combine the discharge of this responsibility with a chance to visit the market and an opportunity for more social interaction than might otherwise have been possible. Did it occur to Plenty that her absence from the farmhouse would create opportunity for Persephone to enliven her former inclinations towards William? I surely think it must have done. Perhaps she considered this preferable to the potential alternative of Persephone’s forming an attachment outside the immediate community with the increased likelihood of her and my departure from the farm that this would engender. Perhaps she simply accepted what she regarded as inevitable with the best grace she could muster. I will never know, for such matters were never discussed with me. Nevertheless, in 1972, at the feast of Brigid (which some covens will know by the alternative name Imbolc) Persephone announced her second pregnancy.
Superficially at least this was greeted warmly by both the Coven and the farm house community. I was nine years of age and a Wiccan. I had a comprehensive understanding of the physiology of reproduction but a total absence of understanding of its emotional implications. Do I recall a gradual waning of Plenty’s astral body in those days, or have I simply superimposed such a construction on my original memories? I cannot say for certain. Either way it is my honest recollection that the joyful and energised being whom I remember from the earlier years of my childhood seemed slowly to slip away that solstice, such that by the end of Willow she had become silent and reclusive. On those market days she accompanied me to school, I would hold her tightly by the hand as we waited for the bus, not as a result of any childhood insecurity arising from her mood, but as offering the most direct method for me to connect with her and attempt to replenish her energy.
William had been prone to spending increasingly lengthy periods in the forest over the first half of that year in particular, even prior to the awakening of the dryads and the trees from their winter sleep. From the occasions on which I had accompanied him I knew this was because he was struggling increasingly with the unremitting energy demands of fighting Dutch elm disease and caring for the dryads rendered homeless and friendless by the innumerable deaths. Looking back he knew, and I think I knew, that he was fighting a battle he could not win. This, however, was no impediment to his absolute commitment to that battle on behalf of the trees. But it seemed that each time we strode into the forest by moonlight the air of death around us grew thicker, the silent mourning of the dryads for their lost children more pitiful and his own anger less concealed.
That last night, the night of Litha 1972, we walked into the forest together once more. By now far more of the elms were dead than alive, standing brittle and bare, epitaphs to their own passing. Once again I watched him kneel naked in the centre of the clearing, more dryads around him that I had ever witnessed before. In incandescent rage he beat his fists down upon the ground, all but shaking the roots of the trees about him, screaming his anger to the moon and the stars and to Abnoba and Druantia. I stood back, as he had bade me do, unable to enter into this explosion of raw, undulating energy, this anguished aphorism at his own powerlessness to prevent the inevitable. I grew older that night, older beyond my years, older than anyone had a right to expect of me.
As his passion finally subsided, and with the circle of dryads looking on in their universal and perpetual silence, he bade me kneel with him. There, that midsummer night he bestowed two gifts upon me, one verbal, one written. And surely, if it had been within my power, I would have rejected both.
He spoke to me in perfect educated English that night, such as I had never heard him employ before. I looked up into his face, still reddened and tear-stained from his outburst, and saw such love in his eyes. “‘It is time for you to understand,” he started, then faltered. Drawing a deep breath, he continued, “It is time for you to understand that the relationship between us is not what you understand it to be. You call me grandfather, but I am not your grandfather. I am your father. The man you knew as your father, my son Alan, is only your brother. He and your mother made a bad match from the start. As far as she was concerned the marriage was only ever a compromise. She used to bait him, enrage him unnecessarily. On that final occasion just before your fifth birthday she went too far and told him that she and I had become lovers immediately after she moved in with us. He left the next morning with the travellers and we have heard nothing from him since.”
William went on to tell me he had provided for a future for me. I was to complete my local school education, proceed to Marlborough College and to Edinburgh University’s School of Forestry. From there I would know the road forward, drawing on my shamanic training and the particular propensity he had taught me for communicating with the dryads. My training would, over the coming years, be continued under the tutelage of D____ K____ who has asked not to be named in this manuscript.
“I have to tell you,” he continued, “how this world will fare. The dryads have shared with me their deep regret for the war the humans have initiated, and how they will respond. Their plan is immaculate.” I remember his use of that word in particular. It was so uncharacteristic of the side of himself that William had chosen not to reveal to me until now, and represented an aspect of his persona that had hitherto been completely unknown to me. “They will do absolutely nothing,” he said, “for they need do nothing. They will simply withdraw their resistance to man’s destructive force. This alone will hasten humanity’s inexorable self-destruction, for as the dryads simply stand back the rate deforestation of the planet will accelerate. The dryads know the resultant de-oxygenation would kill all of us long before it killed all of them; and that though their numbers would be much depleted, the final self-eradication of humanity would create a world in which planetary recovery could take place.”
William’s second legacy was written, though not in his own hand, for he had never felt the need to master the written word. As we knelt together in the midsummer moonlight that filtered through the trees he handed me a document, drawn by a solicitor in Bristol, signed by himself and Plenty and witnessed by the High Priestess of the Frome Coven. It attested to their transfer of ownership of the farm and all their property to me. This I received in silence, understanding the facts he was telling me but uncomprehending of their import.
He stood, drawing me up with him and put his arms around me for the last time. Finally, in silence he turned me around. I took one last look at him and at the circle of dryads then I walked away. I never saw him again.
I wish I was able to report that during the intervening years the dryads had decided to declare a truce with humanity and attempt the rebuilding of the planet. Regrettably, to the best of my knowledge, they have not, and I watch with increasing concern as year by year our species races towards wanton self-destruction by the felling of countless acres of forest, now unrestrained by dryadic energy that might otherwise have saved it.
William has left to me, and to many others like me, the legacy of the education of our race in what we are doing to ourselves and to the planet. I discharge this responsibility with a little more hope than he was finally able to muster as to the possibility of reversing our self-destruction. Perhaps during my more emotionally elated times I even dare to hope that one day the dryads will again re-join their efforts with us in this work of healing, now that some of us have finally become more enlightened. I do not think William would have minded. After all, my paternal grandfather was an English shaman with a profound connection to the dryads.
This story first appeared in The Goblin Child and Other Stories by Michael Forester ISBN 0995524807
“There is one journey. We commence it the moment we enter the world, and complete it the moment we leave. Its purpose is to learn, to love and to grow.” So starts Michael Forester’s latest book, One Journey: A Travelogue of Awakening.
Michael is 62 years old. He lives between the southern edge of the New Forest and the sea, with his hearing dog, Matt. He is a full time author and public speaker, travelling both in the UK and internationally, speaking inspirationally and signing his books.
Michael’s own journey has taken him from early years in charismatic Christianity into middle years in management consultancy, management training and Neuro Linguistic Programming. It has taken him from normal hearing to near-profound deafness and, in 2004, the life-changing arrival of a hearing dog, Matt. It has taken him through a miraculously survived suicide attempt in 2002, into a spiritual awakening. He has traveled around the planet to over forty countries, from the Amazon Rainforest, encountering ecological devastation, to South Africa, experiencing post-Apartheid forgiveness; from the singing bowls of Nepal, to a first-hand examination of the darker side of economic modernization in the Philippines, besides many other destinations.
During his journey, Michael has written and released nine books. They address subjects as diverse as business strategy and marketing (now out of print), his life with his beloved hearing dog, Matt (If It Wasn’t For That Dog); an epic fantasy in rhyming verse (Dragonsong); a short story collection (The Goblin Child and other stories) Spiritual Learnings for a New Age (Forest Rain), a novella inspired by encounters with the devastating power of bureaucracy in our lives (A Home For Other Gods); a novel of Punk Rock and the Second Coming (Vicious) and, most recently, One Journey: a Travelogue of Awakening.
All Michael’s books are available at his website www.michaelforester.co.uk