[This month, we sit down for an in-depth interview with Roselle Angwin (who can found online here and here). Over the course of the interview, she discusses her personal spiritual tradition; her fascination with and devotion to trees; how to go from learning about to learning from trees; and her current and forthcoming projects.]
ev0ke: How do you define your personal spiritual practice? Does it have a name, or is it more intuitive and eclectic?
Roselle Angwin: Well, I do have some hesitation about labels; and yes, you’re exactly right with ‘intuitive and eclectic’. Nonetheless, the closest I can come is Zen Druidry. Both these practices have run side-by-side and synergistically in my life for decades, although I didn’t ‘come out’ as a practising Druid and Bard until relatively recently. My Zen meditation and mindfulness practice underpins my approach to life; a nature-centred spirituality embraces all that I believe, love and respect, I guess.
I’m influenced by many esoteric practices, and they include, loosely, the Western Mystery Tradition, plus tarot, astrology, and archetypal psychology. As a Celt, I have naturally flowered within the so-called Celtic shamanic and mythological tradition.
ev0ke: What Deities, powers, or other spirits are honored in your tradition?
RA: Given that I’m an animist, I feel strongly that we live in an enspirited world – everything is consciousness in one form or another. So I suppose I’d have to say I honour and respect all that is.
My focus in my own life and in the courses I lead is on bringing spirit and matter together; our cultural Western dualistic inheritance has separated them, and I feel this underlies many of our current ills, including, of course, the destruction of the rest of the natural world. More especially, I’m passionate about moving from an anthropocentric view of the world towards an ecocentric one.
I also recognise subtle planes of being beyond the physical: within these are what some people call deities and others archetypal forces. I have a particular attachment to the Triple Goddess; also to Brighid/Ceridwen and Elen as aspects of her; and Cernunnos.
I have a great deal of respect for Morgan le Fay and am currently researching our historical relationship with her; I’m also fascinated by Blodeuwydd. From Wendy Berg I found the idea that many of the women in Arthurian myth are Faery. This fascinates me too: the initiation of a man into the Otherworld by a faery representative.
My degree studies at Cambridge University were in Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, though I have to say it was only the latter that really engaged me. Struggling through the Mabinogion in its original Middle Welsh, and the Grail corpus (in Mediaeval French) that is rooted so much in those early Celtic texts, gave me a lifelong thirst for knowing more about the origins and inner meanings of such tales. My first book Riding the Dragon – Myth & The Inner Journey explores some of these ideas. I’m not sure whether that’s overly tangential for your question?!
ev0ke: You recently contributed to the collection, Anthology of Poems for GreenSpirit. What drew you to that anthology? And how did you decide which pieces to submit for inclusion?
RA: The editors approached me as they have often asked to include some of my poetry in the magazine. I sent them poems I already knew they liked; but also most of my poems focus on the more-than-human world and, I suppose, have some kind of spiritual underpinning – two things that GreenSpirit champions, too.
ev0ke: Much of your poetry centers around the natural world, especially the greenwood. How do you go about writing such poems? Long walks outside? Hours in the garden?
RA: Exactly that! I do walk a lot, and having always lived a rural lifestyle. I spend a lot of time outdoors: gardening, walking the dogs, and sitting very quietly observing, being as open and receptive as I can. I’m fortunate enough as to have wonderful ancient and mythic woodland nearby for part of the year.
ev0ke: How does one go from learning about trees to learning from trees?
RA: What a great question! I suppose it’s about closing the gap between self and other. There are practices that can help bring that about, and my yearlong Tongues in Trees course emphasises that; as does Part 111 of A Spell in the Forest. When I lead groups in person, we practice that shift in viewpoint.
Although the work in groups doesn’t overtly employ Zen ways of being, I think that it very much permeates everything I do, and I teach mindfulness practice almost as an addendum to the Tree work: being fully present; engaging all the senses; slipping the bonds of ego and separation.
To me, it’s really important to reclaim our ancient sense of being part of, not apart from.
Ultimately, though, if it doesn’t sound too weird, it was the trees who enabled/created that shift in me; nothing I was aware of doing, really. Walking in the greenwood at a time when I was undoubtedly wide open, psychically speaking, after and at a time of trauma in my life, meant that perhaps I was more receptive than I might otherwise have been, and I almost felt the trees approached me.
ev0ke: Tongues in Trees, the first book in your A Spell in the Forest series, will be released in July 2021 by Moon Books. First, congratulations! Second, how did this series come about? Did you approach Moon Books or did they come to you?
RA: Thank you. What happened was that I was writing a big baggy endlessly long memoir-type book that was trying to include stuff about the women (and faery-women) of the Celts in myth, and how they’ve been degraded since, plus memoir, plus material from my tree studies and experience, and had ended up – excuse the dreadful pun – not being able to see the wood for the trees. The book wandered about all over the place and then arrived at an impenetrable thicket.
Luckily for me, a friend asked the right question at the right time, and what is now the first book in A Spell in the Forest: Tongues in Trees quickly found its shape.
I had a different publisher approach me for the book: a lovely woman with whom I hope to work another time. But somehow I knew that I wanted to offer this to Moon Books, and I was very fortunate that they agreed to take it on.
ev0ke: Tongues in Trees is divided into three parts. The second deals with the Celtic tree calendar. What interesting tidbit about the calendar did you absolutely have to include in the book?
RA: That’s a really difficult question! Every tree in the 13 (actually 14) trees sacred to our Celtic ancestors that I work with and have included in this book offers amazing and unique detail and tidbits: botanical, mythological, symbolic and so on. There’s so much to say! (And I do, of course, in the book.)
I want to say first that many, arguably all, species of tree are sacred; in my work, though, I go with the trees native to the Celtic uplands, as per early tree calendars (as far as we can tell).
First, I’ll go with that pioneering and solitary tree of the upland wild places, whose time arrives near the midwinter solstice: the Silver Birch. Max Adams in The Wisdom of Trees says that if ever the Birch were threatened, it would be the outcry from the poets that would save it.
Here’s the opening verse of my Birch tree poem:
Bone-white under the moon
her trunk is made of rock
and the poor soil under the rock
her branches of owl-call and distance.
The ‘keynote’ for this tree-month is ‘I am a stag of seven tines in the midwinter Birchwood’. In the book, I say:
‘In Celtic lore, a full-grown stag from the Otherworld (‘a roebuck of seven tines’) crashes through the Birchwood at the winter solstice, pursued for three days by the midwinter hounds of the dying year. Carrying on his back the spirit of the new year, he bears the returning sun between his antlers (‘sun’ becomes ‘son’ in Christianity; and before that, it was the time of the eternally-returning Son, Mabon, or The Mabon, in Celtic myth).’
That’s a long tidbit.
Here’s another: Here’s another: An apple, cut in half around the waist, bears the
pentagram of the Goddess. Here’s a thing: in some esoteric traditions, one
half is sacred to Venus, the other to Lucifer. Originally, before being
demonised by Christianity, Lucifer was sometimes paired with Venus as her
light-bringing twin, the dawn star, where she was the evening star.
And a third, though it’s not from the Celtic Tree Alphabet section, but Part 1: In an article in the New Yorker, M R O’Connor explained that, using precision dendrometers that can convert physical motion into electrical impulses, it had been shown how a tree’s expansion and contraction through the day appeared to be affected not only by the rising sun and by rain, but even by a fish splashing or a frog croaking! isn’t that amazing?
ev0ke: How many books will there be in the series?
RA: At the moment, I’m planning two. The second is embryonic, but so far is a pared-down version of what was left out of this first book of A Spell in the Forest, focusing on the feminine and archetypes of the Goddess.
ev0ke: Part III of Tongues in Trees includes practical advice on working with trees. Would you be willing to share any of your personal experiences?
RA: There’s a lot to say here; some, probably too long to duplicate (but it is in the book), like my first accidental deep encounter with a Willow that came close to a kind of benign abduction on the tree’s part!
I have to say that initially my encounters were more a reaching-out from trees than a deliberate act of wanting to learn on my part.
My first awareness of a significant encounter with a tree was something I’ve written about in my opening poem, which is a memory from when I was about five of visiting my cousins on their farm in Cornwall.
We went, as we always did in spring, to the field near the house where the orphaned lambs (every farm has a few each year) were bottle-fed every few hours. In that field was a huge and ancient Cedar. It had a horizontal limb that was very comforting to sit on. That was the first time that I became aware a tree was ‘speaking’ to me – in its own language; in this case Cedar. And I got it – I understood. I could speak Cedar. That began the journey.
ev0ke: For those who would like to deepen their understanding of and connection with trees, what other books would you recommend?
RA: There are a huge number of books on trees emerging. A classic, and one close to the hearts of many pagans, is Jacqueline Memory Paterson’s Tree Wisdom. My friend Fred Hageneder has written a lot of books on the science, spiritual and mystical aspects of trees; he’s also composed quite a few pieces of music, in the bardic style, in relation to trees.
The two must-reads, though, are Peter Wohlleben’s wonderful book The Hidden Life of Trees; and the most astonishing Overstory by novelist Richard Powers. I imagine Suzanne Simard’s first book on trees, just published – and she has influenced both the above writers and many others – Finding The Mother Tree – will be a must-read, too. I haven’t yet read it, but am very much looking forward to doing so.
ev0ke: You have also penned several guides for your fellow writers. What prompted that? And what piece of advice do you wish you had been given when you first started writing?
RA: Well, this year is my thirtieth year of leading courses and workshops. All of them are holistic; many of them have place, such as the Isle of Iona, or the far west of Cornwall, as central; most of them focus on developing the imagination. They all involve writing. The two books that are creative guides have grown out of courses I have led and sometimes still lead.
Advice? Three things:
1 Make sure the ‘inner critic’ is banished until you are ready to let him/her in
2 Even more important than being a ‘good’ writer, in the early stages anyway, is to be an authentic writer. Don’t compare yourself with others
3 Don’t just wait for inspiration to strike. Encourage it through activities that inspire you (and allow plenty of mental freewheeling time); and turn up at your desk anyway.
ev0ke: Where can readers find your work?
RA: Many of my books are available on various online sites. A potential reader can also see them here.
ev0ke: What other projects are you working on?
RA: Always too many! Currently: a plant-based cookbook for sustainable living; the second book for A Spell in the Forest; a book of essays on place and the more-than-human; a new poetry collection.
I’m very excited by two new online courses I’ve recently launched: ‘Poetry, Nature & Mindfulness’, and ‘Poetry, Imagination & the Ensouled Life’.
Plus we’re creating a permaculture and forest garden.