“Whenever we tend to a single strand, we are participating in the care of the whole.” Mirabai Starr, Wild Mercy
Alice’s adventures in Wonderland begin with her falling down a rabbit hole and include her eating from the infamous toadstool with its’ cream coloured stripe and scarlet cap spotted with white scales. Spotting a Fly Agaric (or Amanita mascara) in the shadow of a Silver Birch on an autumn woodland walk took me down my own rabbit hole into the wonderful realm of mushroom-forming fungi.
After over a decade of living in Australia, my memories of British landscapes and their inhabitants had faded whilst I learnt new plants, new animals and new seasons. Now, back in the UK and making a new home in Devon amidst the restrictions and lockdowns of a global pandemic, I found myself with the time and space I craved to reconnect with the land of my ancestral lineage and cultural heritage.
As a Circle Holder, I am a space holder, facilitator and ceremonialist. My guiding philosophy is that Circles are not something we do, but who we are. By which I mean, that what we learn and experience in the Circle process, offers us a guiding map for how we live our lives in relation to each other and the more than human world.
I was reading fairytale stories, local myths and folktales, learning to identify trees and herbs and undertaking a Celtic Studies course. As I walked through local woodlands I was seeking to embody what I was learning and deepen my capacity as a gatherer of people, a guardian of this ancient circle tradition and modern circle movement, and a guide for those who wish to attend or hold circles.
If you are unfamiliar with attending Circles, I invite you to imagine gathering in a physical Circle with a group of humans (around a fire or a boardroom table) with a shared intention and purpose. Guided by a Circle Holder, you experience a deep connection with the other participants, you feel held by the circle energy, you share in collective ritual, you contribute a part of your story or an idea or your desires and are witnessed with love and compassion and acceptance. When the Circle closes, you are not quite sure what just happened, but you are changed and know that there has been a ripple in the field instigated by that experience.
I am on a quest to develop a Circle philosophy that supports us to reimagine our world.
I see the potential of Circles to provide us with an equitable, restorative and regenerative way of inspiring and creating connection and cooperation between humans. I hold a vision that Circles can be embraced by organisations, businesses, institutions and governments, as a process for reclaiming our innate capacity to communicate, collaborate and co-create, and meet our collective need for connection and ceremony.
The Celtic Mystery Tradition includes the three cauldrons of transformation, rebirth and inspiration. And on that woodland ramble, I was contemplating whether circles could offer us the cauldron we need.
In the time of a global pandemic, on the brink of the Anthropocene (or sixth) Extinction and in a world increasingly divided by conflict, the mushroom that caught my eye that day, symbolised how easy it is to privilege the seen over the unseen.
The striking scarlet and cream cap is the fruit body of a partnership between a huge underground network of hyphae working cooperatively. This was an invitation to gently dig deeper beneath the surface of my vision.
The hyphae are thin thread-like formations which form masses and create mycelial networks through the complex process of branching, fusing and homing. The hyphae need to find each other and they need to form relationships with other species. Through this process they break down and recycle nutrients from rotting trees, leaf litter and soil, many also work in partnership with trees and insects, and others are parasitic.
In the case of the Fly Agaric and the Silver Birch Tree, the fungus obtains its energy from the photosynthetic reactions in the tree’s leaves, and the tree receives nitrogen and phosphorous from fungal action in the soil in an association known as mycorrhiza. In this way, both the fungi and the trees survive and thrive as species, and support other species to do the same.
As modern-day humans, we are wired for connection with the capacity to cooperate with one another. The first wave of humans to move out of Africa were brought to the brink of extinction. The theory for their survival and subsequent successful migration across the world is that they learnt to prioritise their relationships with each other by forming family groups, tribes and clans, and learning how to work together.
The issue we seem to be facing in our current worldview is that we have forgotten (or are choosing to ignore) this and the dominant patriarchal culture engenders an environment of separation, oppression and harm.
Although we cannot know the importance of Circles in the societies of our ancestors, based on archaeological evidence from the middle and upper Paleolithic periods in Europe, we know that humans have been gathering for spiritual and ritual purposes for thousands of years.
When we look at living cultures around the world and the modern-day women’s circle movement, we see that they bring us together for a shared intention and meaningful purpose. As we gather in this way and share our stories, witness each other, partake in ritual and ceremony together, connect to the earth, sing and dance, we have an embodied experience of connection. They contribute to confirming the collective identity and contributing to community governance.
To make my vision a reality, I am continually learning more about the origin and architecture of Circles and the systems they can function within. This includes cultivating a deeper understanding of our interconnectedness with all beings and learning from our ancestral legacies.
In Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Maree Brown shares an organisation called Complex Movements; a Detroit-based artist collective supporting the transformation of communities by exploring the connections of complex science and social justice movements through multimedia interactive performance work.
They use an emblem system for learning the properties of nature and how they can be applied to our work. One of those emblems is mycelium, representing interconnectedness, remediation and detoxification.
When we come together in Circle we are remembering an ancient way of being; we instinctively recognise that this is how humans have come together throughout the world for thousands of years. We are reclaiming a way of being in community together and in relationship with each other which stirs a remembering of our interconnected relationship with all beings.
In the context of my work and drawing on the Celtic Mystic Tradition, Fungi and their mycelial networks act as a metaphor for the importance and potency of Circles for humans. Circles provide a process for the transformation of interconnectedness from an intellectual or spiritual concept to a lived understanding, for inspiration to collaborate and co-create remedies for our social and environmental challenges, and for cooperation and mutual empowerment to rebirth outdated systems into collaborative and regenerative practices.
As a Circle Holder, storytelling, traditional practices, ritual and ceremony are integral elements of my work. The striking scarlet and cream cap of the Fly Agaric is often depicted in books of fairytales with fairies and elves, lands of magic, adventurous heroes and heroines, and resilient villains. Seeing them always transports me through a portal to the Enchanted Forest, or to Baba Yaga’s house on chicken legs or to Wonderland.
In Alice in Wonderland, it is the mushroom that has the power to change her size, and it is an easy assumption that this is in acknowledgement of its’ psychoactive and hallucinogenic effects. Although in current mushroom field guides it is very definitely marked as poisonous and not to be ingested in any form, it must also be remembered that it has been revered as a ceremonial plant medicine in the British Isles. It was traditionally dried and made into a tea or smoked for rituals and ceremonies. There are stories of the Celtic Druids taking great care in its preparation and fasting before taking it. (This does of course come with a disclaimer “please don’t try this at home”).
My woodland walk with this beautiful mushroom as my guide took me into a world of interconnection, systems theory, network neuroscience, emergent phenomena, innovation, entanglement, communication, mystical experiences and collaboration.
The Biomimicry Institute states that biomimicry is about “valuing nature for what we can learn, not what we can extract, harvest, or domesticate. In the process, we learn about ourselves, our purpose, and our connection to each other and our home on earth.”
I believe that we can apply this principle to fungi and their interconnected relationships in woodlands, in many more ways than I have scope for here. However, what I have learnt is that we are only as powerful as our connections, we are only as strong as our community and we are only as resourceful as our capacity to cooperate. There are many ways to gather in Circle, but at their heart is connection and cooperation and this is what we collectively need.
That striking Fly Agaric pushing up through the earth served not only as a metaphor for Circles, but as a symbol of all that is magical, enchanting, mystical and wondrous in the world. It gifted me an illustrative reminder to listen to the land we live on and ground our Circle practices within our own cultural heritage, reclaim the stories and ceremonies of our ancestral lineage and reimagine them for these times.
Circles offer us a space to deepen into the innate value of connection, relationships and cooperation, so that we may reach across that which divides us and remind ourselves that we are one human family entwined with all beings. Think of the hyphae strands reaching out underground connecting, fusing and co-creating and hold in your imagination a scarlet cap, white scales and cream coloured stalk and see where it guides you.
Brown, A.M., Emergent Strategy, (Chico, Edinburgh, AK Press, 2017)
Sheldrake, M., Entangled Life, (London, The Bodley Head, 2020)
Starr, M., Wild Mercy (Boulder, Sounds True, 2019)
Sterry, P. & Hughes, B., Collins Complete Guide to British Mushrooms & Toadstools (London, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2009)