Early, last Thursday morning, I hopped across the River Severn to the Forest of Dean, to attend Druid Camp 2006. Set in a wide, level meadow bordered by a gently flowing river, a hillside Oak grove and a small and mostly unsuspecting village, the camp is home to Druids and other folk of (mainly pagan) spirit for four days or so each summer. It’s a time to come together as a tribe, for clan-folk who might normally be dispersed around the lands to meet up and debate, celebrate and share the Awen.
This year the camp theme was based around the Ovatic work within the Druid path, which deals with the migration between worlds, with transitions, with shamanic journeying, with death and with healing. In so many ways this was precisely what I was needing. My mind has recently been set upon the movement between realities, between life and death and most of all in the dying. The ethics of dying, the means of dealing honourably with the physical remains, and minimising the trauma for those left behind are very important to me.
In our modern, ostensibly monotheist, disposable and isolating society, the elderly are not seen as ‘elders’. The old are seen as redundant and inconvenient. And fair or not, in failing to understand the transition facing each of us we put off planning the dealing with it until it’s far too late, until we are each faced with the uncomfortable truth that there is a body, and that we have to do something about it. At that point, time speeds up. Panic sets in. And a nice man in a dark grey suit steps into the frame, and with gentle smile he offers to take away all the anxieties, all the complications, and make things right…
And why not? He (mostly he, but I accept not always) is providing a fair service. But is it wholly what you might want? I’ve discovered over the last few years that it’s not at all what I want. I hope to live for many years, decades even, yet. But when I eventually die I want to have prepared for the event; who knows, perhaps even enjoy it! I don’t want to be plumbed into a machine to ‘survive’ a few years longer than I ought. I don’t want to be cremated and use up yet more fuel resources and pollute the atmosphere, I don’t want to be filled with formaldehyde and other preservatives (that kill off the very organisms that live within me to break down my physical remains) to look like I’m merely sleeping and I don’t want to place stress upon my loved ones; my family, my friends, my tribe, by leaving without paying the bill.
I do want to die having a fully worked out, worked through, costed and budgeted plan of departure or transition. I do want to put my physical remains into the ground in a beautiful woodland setting in order that I feed new life; new trees, new flowers, new insects… I do want a pleasant, perhaps pleasurable, and memorable rite of burial for my family, my friends, my tribe. And I want it all fully sorted now, so that if I go earlier than anticipated there will be a published plan, a book of instructions, receipts and reservations, that can ease the journey my spirit will already have made.
This post has wandered away from the Camp and into what ought to be another post, or even a sticky page (yes, why not publish my death plan on the ‘net? It won’t get lost so easily then!). But Camp itself was also great fun, a huge bubble of energy that burst up through the everyday mundane life we all lead and exploded in a million colours and washed over that be-tented meadow with inspiration, love and giggles. What can I say about a camp site that won’t sound just plain daft or, worse, normal?
The few hundred or so (I have no idea of the actual number) folk attending made do with six composting toilets. Six. Three lots of freshly dug, dual long drop holes in the ground. And there was next to no smell, and next to no waiting. I’ve been to smaller events with chemical or portacabin facilities that were hard to approach by the third day, and we stayed for up to five! I’m continually amazed by the simplicity and success of the compost toilet. I’ve even seen them inside homes, and it still amazes me when I return home to flush drinking quality water down the loo…
The stream at the back of the site flows cold and fast over a low weir. No matter how hot it got at the camp, and it did, there was always the opportunity to stand, sit or swim in wonderfully soft, bitingly cold water and emerge refreshed to allow the sun to dry your naked (if you chose) body. If the stream was too cool, then there was ‘water world’, a facility providing showers, hot tub and sauna – all heated by solar and/or woodburning stove – that was run by the camp organisation from early morning through to late evening.
Venues for workshops, music and dance, healing, eating and drinking etc were variously marquees, tipi’s, yurts, flag circles and wonderful tree-shaded groves, each set far enough away from the others to avoid intrusion – except perhaps for the drumming workshops… The café served great vegetarian and vegan food and drink, although I cooked for myself or shared in communal eating around the camp fires. Those fires themselves formed focal points for each group of tents (and a few caravans and campervans), and burned late into the night throwing light, warmth and the occasional spark onto those sat around them in blissed out (very occasionally mead-filled) contentment.
So, as I alluded above, many of the workshops concerned the act of dying, the preparation for ones own dying and dealing with the death of others in an honourable and ethical way while retaining all the gentleness and respect for other traditions. As the husband to a Catholic and son of a Baptist Evangelical, retaining honourable connection with the persons involved is just as important as my own wants and needs. The camp wasn’t over filled with the subject of death however. There was also a beautiful ritual performance that nearly all the attendees took part in, based around the cycles of the Moon, talks on Men’s and Women’s mysteries (not entirely sure what either of those are about!), a late night trance dance, Stav martial arts workshops and demonstrations, chanting workshops in the large tipi (where I managed to drift off to the marvellously resonant drumming, yet remain standing) and a small marketplace. But best of all were the folk there; Druids of all shades from fairy folk to Odinists, radical Greens to Shamen, poets, singers, dancers and dreamers.
It was my third year of Camp (which still sounds a tad ‘dib dib dib’ boy scouty, why can’t we call it the Druid Gathering?) and the camp itself has been running for six. It’s a fixture now in my year, it’s intense and splendid, go figure.