I went out seeking Elen today. I put on my thermal trousers, got on my ski jacket, slipped on my handwarmers and proudly placed my Winnie the Pooh earmuffs upon my head. Grabbing my bag, I opened the front door with excitement and stepped out into the cold January air.
What a beautiful, cold scent! I love the smell of winter, of snow – there’s nothing quite like it. It reminds me of home, in Canada, where that scent stays for longer than a couple of weeks like it does here in Suffolk. The snows were melting – the pavement was now showing and bits of grass here and there.
Walking down the bridleway, more and more mud started appearing, but I knew that wouldn’t last long. Out on the heath the snows, though they were settling, were still enough to cover everything with a mantle of white. I crossed the track to the riding stables and set out upon the heath with a light heart.
I looked in the first usual spot for the fallow deer – they weren’t there. I went to the second, and again, they weren’t there. I could count on one hand the amount of times I’d been out in the heath and woods and not seen deer, and yet was afraid that this would be another one of those times. A minute later, I knew that it wasn’t.
Straight in my path was the first herd – about 10-15 strong. I saw no stag, but lots of lovely does in all colours, from nearly black to a light fawn colour. They raised their heads, their large ears listening. I took a step forward for a closer look, and they turned and began walking away. I stopped, not wanting to frighten them, but then one doe that very distinct “Eeep!” and then they all turned tail and ran a few hundred yards further down the path.
I continued, watching them melt into the gorse bushes without a sound. I considered following them, but then knew that I should leave them alone and not hassle them. I had a plan – I was going to find one of their spots and sit there, feeling their energy, and hoping that would bring me closer to Elen.
I crossed along the trail to a smaller side track, along the edge of the wood. I knew they often gathered beneath the pines in a small section to the left and all the tracks confirmed my path. I followed, a lone doe under a pine tree about three hundred yards away watching me intently. I stepped on a dried twig, which snapped audibly, and out of hiding another herd ran out to find another shelter.
Again, I felt bad for disturbing the deer, but at least the way was now clear for me to enter into Elen’s realm. I got to the edge of the pine trees and silently asked permission to enter the space. A voice in my head said, “Go quietly,” and so I did.
I shook out my blanket and laid it upon a bare patch of ground where many deer had been under the pine trees. I sat down cross-legged for a few minutes, simply looking around. I realised that I might be here some time, and so I sat with my back against a pine tree, simply listening and looking. The musky scent of deer was heavy in here, mingling with the sharp scent of pine. I breathed deeply, and quieted myself down.
I simply listened, first with eyes shut and then opening my senses, one at a time, to the world around me. The first thing I noticed was the sound of traffic from the road to the village – some days when the air is still, or the breeze blowing in the right direction, the sound is quite loud. This was one of those days. I then heard a plane overhead, a small craft with a growling engine slowly making its way out towards the North Sea. More traffic. My own breathing. I then realised that the birds had stopped chirping. The only sounds I could hear in the middle of the heathland were human sounds.
“You have pushed us further and further,” a voice said in my head. “Our territory is smaller and smaller, and still you encroach upon us, further and further.” I suddenly felt ashamed, not only for my species but also for myself – this was a place for the deer, this was one of their spots. I was intruding upon their space. It was like being found in another person’s front room, making yourself comfortable. I whispered my apology and, scattering some seeds and grains in thanks, packed up my blanket and quickly left that place.
As I made my way back to the path, I saw more deer deep in the wood, shadows flashing between the light spaces behind the tree trunks. “Where is my place?” I asked the heathland, silently. There was no answer.
More deer came out and stood on the path in front of me, leaving the wood. They were curious, and I asked them “Where is my place?” They did not answer. Instead, they melted into the brush once more. I continued down the path, watching more and more deer leave the wood and go out into the heath once more. I saw the white doe, watching me intently from the edge of the gorse, and I whispered softly, “Hail, Elen”. After a moment of watching me, the rest of her herd began to run around the perimeter of the wood, and she eventually joined them. I wished with all my heart that I too could run with the herd, to see what it felt like to be so powerful and yet so light. Without a sound they ran. “Where is my place?” I asked once again, feeling a hint of despair creeping in.
I walked on for ten minutes, and came out to where my path normally would turn out into the open heath. Yet even more deer here, a darker herd with pale underbellies, standing in the snow. The saw me, and sproinged off in the way that only those of the deer persuasion could – bounce bounce bounce. I smiled, realising that everywhere I had turned today, there had been deer.
But still the question remained, “Where is my place?” Walking now in the open heathland, the snow crunching beneath my feet, I pondered the question with a heavy heart. I was not the deer, I was not wild, this was not my place. I was human. Were human places to be my places? I always connected with the wild places before, but knew that this was not my place. So where was my place? A crow laughed from the wood behind me, as I pondered and continued on.
That is the question that is most important to Druids, and what they seek to find most in their spirituality. Where is their place in the wide world? I trudged on, feeling the wind across my cheeks and feeling my bum getting cold. I was living here in the UK, is that where my place was? I was Canadian, is that where my place was? Yet I was out here – where was my place?
My path still followed the deer tracks left in the snow. Everywhere I wanted to go, it seemed I was following deer, lots of them, their little imprints in the snow going in exactly the same direction. I crossed the heath and made my way to the lesser travelled part of the heath, on which I had never seen any humans. This was my special place, where I came to connect with nature and the spirits of place many times before. I hoped that I would not disturb anymore deer, that indeed this was where my place was.
There were no deer to be seen, and yet the path was marked by deer tracks yet again. Less now, but still one or two had followed this way before. I found my footprints from a few days ago, and followed them – they mingled in with deer tracks now. On the edge of the open space, I saw the two lovely oak trees that I had often sat beneath, looking out over the heather and the clear blue sky. I walked to the edge of the bare canopy of the first, and asked permission to share that space. I was welcomed in with warmth. I literally sat within the arms of the oak tree upon my blanket, my back resting upon the trunk, my feet tucked up beneath me.
I closed my eyes for a while, simply listening. I couldn’t hear the traffic so much anymore – I was further away from the road. I distantly heard the church bells chime the hour, though the wind was in the wrong direction and I could not count the bells well enough to tell the time. It did not matter anyway. A stag coughed from the woodland down the way and to the right, and then again. I simply let myself be, opening my nemeton to the world around me, and asked the question once more, “Where is my place?”
I opened my eyes, and an answer came. “Not where is my place,” the oak tree said. “What is my place?” A wave of understanding washed over me – that was it! And here, beneath the boughs of the oak, I knew what my place was – I was a Druid. That was where I fit into the world. It didn’t have a physical space – I could be anywhere in the world and still be a Druid. It was what I was that mattered. The wisdom of the oak once again to the Druid’s rescue.
I lifted my eyes to my footprints just before me, leading to the edge of my blanket, and saw a single set of deer tracks right next to them, leading to this very spot. Not occupying the same place, or even the same time, still they walked the same path. This was the key. Elen of the Ways. Walking the paths, along with others, with respect, compassion and honour – this was what it was all about. Footprints mingling, trodding the same ways, in the same direction, going towards the same thing, branching off to other things, it was the path that was the key. It was The Way that mattered.
I smiled. I got up and thanked the oak for his wisdom, and Elen for showing the the Way. My bum thoroughly cold now, I sat up and the kneeled to leave my offerings of seeds, grain and home baked banana bread beneath the oak’s branches. I replaced my blanket within my bag and headed down the path I had previously trodden.
Again, my footprints were mingled with deer – a minute later new prints emerged, which lead to a dark, sandy patch that showed up through the snow. I followed the prints and found a fox den, to my delight. Recently excavated, they had come out after a long sleep, avoiding the worst of the snow. I could see their sandy pawprints slowly washing clean in the snow as they ventured out from the den. How lovely!
I continued on my way, and eventually came out onto the heath again. I saw the herd once again, with the white doe. She again watched me intently. This time, they made no move to run. I slowly continued on my way and felt a hundred eyes watching me behind the white doe. I turned around and waved a farewell, seeing their inquisitive faces and long necks following my every movement. This time, they did not run.
I made my way home, following horse tracks and deer tracks, rabbit, fox and blackbird tracks. All these Ways, all these paths, all these markers that were left behind in the snow to remind me of the shared path.
I honour you, Elen of the Ways.