ROOTINGS by Virginia Gillespie

My story was accepted as part of the of the If Women Rose Rooted  Like Trees project 2014 by Sharon Blackie in Donegal. Originally posted online, it was part of initial considerations as a woman with Celtic roots, but from North America.

“Like many with Celtic ancestry my people moved to the New World -whether by choice, or under duress. Primarily from Scotland, but with earlier Irish roots, my Father’s branch of the Gillespie family included survivors who arrived on the Atlantic shores of the United States and ultimately opened up the west all the way to the Pacific Coast.

I inherited that compulsion of western movement and adventure, chasing the setting sun from Oklahoma, to Colorado to Wyoming to Washington to coastal British Columbia. I have always been inspired by the mythic notion of west as a place of mystery, passage and transformation.

There are few records of my family story past four generations, yet my Mother left home-centered clues without really knowing their origins that moulded my Celtic sensibilities: singing and storytelling, a passion for words, a small chair by the fireplace, candles and rituals around holidays, outrageous sense of humor, love of horse back riding and dog companions, friendship as a sacred trust, love of cooking and feasting, expressing opinions and owning your truth, love of nature and wild places. And the more difficult ones sparked by warrior energies –  the challenging of authority, consequences of drinking and legacy of family disputes.

Bottom line: The home is the centre of culture and creativity. Hospitality is a code of honor and trust. Words have power.

Singing and playing guitar in the early 60’s during the folk revolution was my first conscious connection with my Celticity. I was a natural and began performing and even writing my own songs in my early teens as well as singing traditional Celtic and Appalachian folk songs and protest songs.

This opened many doors and also the desire to visit the Old World and play music. I lived in London for three years during the time of the Irish troubles and sang and acted in plays in an Irish Pub. My voice carries a lot of emotion, and I sang many sad folk songs about unrequited love and others about war. This often brought tears to people’s eyes. The world was on the brink of disaster and I believed so strongly in the power of words and the power of music that I decided to stop singing for a while so as not to bring any more sorrow into the world. And why set myself up for a broken heart by singing sad love songs anyway?

I learned how powerful we are in creating our world through our art.

I decided that I wanted to sing my world into creation in a new way like  I heard the aborigines did in their legends.

Fast forward four decades. I am now living in Crescent Beach, British Columbia, Canada on the west coast very near the US border.

I am a published poet, arts advocate, municipal public art advisor and playwright. My husband inspires people as a community elder, trail blazer, wordsmith, recycler and environmentalist. A modern take on the Green Man.

We built our home named Bardsroost on a property with giant cedar and Douglas fir trees, native bushes and lots of birds. We designed our home with green principles and technologies, yet decorate it with traditional furnishings we inherited and lots of art. We host salons, acoustic jams, feasts and celebrations of the seasons.

The main one for me being Imbolc. Brigid found me 20 years ago and what little I learned about her prompted me to celebrate this feast every year in my own way. Most people in my world have never heard of it or her. She just seems to have adopted me and I trust that. She quietly guides me and enjoys living at Bardsroost. Poetry, metal, hearth – it all fits with our lifestyle. We also welcome international guests from many cultures and our dining room table is the centre of learning about culture.

A Celtic story I like is the Salmon of Knowledge. We have many salmon rivers near us and we have even carried baby salmon from the hatcheries  in buckets through the forest and released them in salmon streams. Life-death-life cycles are their messages. And leadership. I like animal totem stories.

We value hospitality, creativity, cultural heritage and artistic innovation. When we married last summer we were inspired by Celtic shapes and symbols and created a ceremony that fused humans and nature as well as honouring our ancestors and revealing our love of creative expression, family and friendship. We used the symbol of the three interconnecting spirals in the shape of the ceremony – 1/3 of it in a field, 1/3 of it in a labyrinth with eagles nestled in the trees above and 1/3 of it in a hall with music and a feast – salmon of course.

The weather and landscape here are much like Dalriada (as I imagine it) that old country of Northern Ireland and Southwestern Scotland and the waterways and islands between. Green landscape, rocky shorelines with water passages and islands with mists.  When I moved here from the semi-arid High Plains and mountains of Wyoming of Colorado I found the mists and rocky shores a bit frightening, so unlike the big skies and open landscapes of my youth.

I also love stones and during the summer of 2013 I met quite a few in Scotland, the Hebrides, the Orkneys and Ireland. But it was in Argyll that I had the profound experience of connecting through them, with the Bronze Age culture. This gave me the deep roots I was sorely longing for without even knowing it. I was able to reclaim my indigeneity in the land, and in the cultural artifacts. I found peace and contentment. It changed my life. The memory permeates my body, my home, my artistic and community commitments and relationships with a renewed sense of power, compassion, artistry and endurance. And, it reconciled something significant. Since I was a child I have been invited into native Indian settings and ceremonies but knew they were not mine. I wanted to discover my own indigenous pre-Christian roots. And I did.

My singing voice has returned with a vigour and rich quality that is ripe for exploration in this new territory of home and creativity I intend to traverse.”

Virginia Gillespie


November Dawn

November Dawn

It is rare that I can wake up and see the colours of dawn in late November from my bedroom window. Normally cloud cover and trees diffuse light and mute the early mornings in a bland sameness that does not inspire getting out of bed. The colours were so enticing that not only did I leap out of bed to check the time, but also went outside to take this photo. The trees arched to reveal this gentle, playful sky.

“You are everything you feel beside the river…”

Another river theme. This is an excerpt from a piece by Paul Simon about Seamus Heaney. I don’t necessarily agree with Simon about the distant cousin aspect of poetry to song and labouring under a different set of rules. I suppose that would depend on the style of the writer. For me, I started out as a song writer and later a poet. The source of inspiration is the same. It is not so much about rhyming, but about cadence and imagery….and of course performance.

Recently I have been reading about the importance of poets or Filid as they were called in ancient Irish culture, in a pre-literate time. It makes sense that rhythm and rhyme and repeated phrases could help them remember the long epic poems for family lineage, recounting of battles and wondrous tales that could be passed along from teller to teller. I wonder if they were sung? In the following we glimpse this wonderful Irish treasure Heaney who was able to captivate audiences in ways that seem both personal and universal at the same time. Remember, Simon heard him. Different than reading the words, which also is an amazing experience. But the hearing bridges the gap that may once have been unified in earlier times – where song and poetry were more intimately related.

“Popular culture likes to house songwriters and poets under the same roof, but we are not the close family that some imagine. Poets are distant cousins at most, and labor under a distinctly different set of rules. Songwriters have melody, instrumentation and rhythm to color their work and give it power; poets accomplish it all with words.

Seamus, though, was one of those rare poets whose writing evokes music: the fiddles, pipes and penny-whistles of his Northern Irish culture and upbringing. You can hear it in “Casting and Gathering”:

Years and years ago, these sounds took sides:

On the left bank, a green silk tapered cast
Went whispering through the air, saying
And lush, entirely free, no matter whether
It swished above the hayfield or the river.

And later in the poem:

One sound is saying, ‘You are not worth tuppence,
But neither is anybody. Watch it! Be severe.’
The other says, ‘Go with it! Give and swerve.
You are everything you feel beside the river.’

I love this poem and return to it from time to time to hear the “hush” and “lush” of the fishermen casting their rods from opposite banks, like politicians across the Senate aisle. And I like the friendly pep talk Seamus gives himself when self-criticism is about to get the best of him.”