Interview with Chris Park
Updated: Jun 21, 2019
We spoke with Chris Park from the UK about his thoughts on the connections between Wisdom
Keepers and their local land and ecology, the Druid tradition, and bee keeping.
WK: Where are you right now Chris?
C: I’m at home in England, Oxfordshire. West Mill Farm, an organic farm. I’ve been wandering around the fields picking out spear thistles, which is a shame really because I’m a beekeeper, and spear thistles are great for bees, but not so good for the farm, for the silage and the cows. We’ve been doing it as family and helping another friend that was down there, pulling out an old fence. So quite social. It’s been a good morning. Just had a scoot around the bees looking for swarms. We do an experimental style of beekeeping here. I experiment with ancient technologies, ancient styles of beekeeping. Looking to the past as a way forward, perhaps. Anyway, the bees are very healthy, very happy. And we’ve got the best honey in England.
WK: Of course you do!
C: Thinking about this interview over the last couple of days, I’ve been toying with the connections between being a beekeeper and a wisdom keeper. For the hives I make skeps, a type of basket or ba-skep, the root of which means container, as in skip, scoop or cup and coop, and, of course, keep, as in bee keeper or wisdom keeper, so there’s a nice etymological circle of connections between skep and keeper. And it’s not just a textual thing. The connections between words can provide traction rather than abstraction. As for being a wisdom keeper, I don’t know if I’m wise, in fact I probably get more foolish as I get older, but I try to keep the bits of wisdom I find in the same way as I keep bees. Treasure them and look after them as best I can. I try to share the wisdom, tell the stories. So yes, I’m enjoying the connection between beekeeping and wisdom keeping. There’s a word for the original encyclopaedias as containers of knowledge or wisdom, which is alveary, and some of the earliest wicker beehives in Britain, made with a wattle and daub technique, with a thatched roof on top like a miniature Bronze Age house, were known as alvearies. So a beehive is a container of wisdom, and that container of wisdom became the name of the earliest encyclopaedia. Another connection I like is that honey bees are wild animals, as opposed to domestic animals, a beekeeper does not own them. Like bees, wisdom is wild and free, and if we make a suitable place for wisdom to inhabit then we may harvest a little honey, and all the medicines of the hive.
WK: We have you pigeon-holed as keeper of Druidic wisdom. Which tradition do you feel most closely connected to?
C: The British wisdom traditions, and the European, I suppose, but I have taught yoga and have learned a lot of body wisdom from that tradition, and also qi gong, a bit of martial arts. I read all around comparative mythology and actually began an MA in the study of religion, but what I’ve really done is take my boots and socks off and delved my feet right down into this landscape, and I think wisdom is part of the landscape, perhaps. There’s this guy, I think he’s called Cipriani, who said that all religions grow out of a certain place, and I think the primary source of all religions is always nature, and the secondary source I suppose is us. But because I live in Britain, here I am, and part of the Druid path or way is to connect and interweave with all existences in the place where you find yourself. If I lived in Africa I’d probably be completely immersed in African traditions, and I have been there and feel a great kinship with West Africa for ancestral reasons. I’m sure if I lived in Australia I’d be eating witchety grubs with the best of them. But here I am, living in Britain and taking on board British folklore, British tradition and of course Druidry is not so much reinvented as rediscovered, it’s a living spirituality that is evolving all the time, just by initiates becoming Druids and working through the gwers, which is an Old Welsh word that means lesson; it relates to a ray of sunlight, which is a gweres. Oh, and bees are gwenyn, by the way. And I think when you really enter into a tradition then it does start to speak through you. I suppose the more you saturate yourself in it, the more you become it. But also it helps not to be attached to these labels sometimes, and just be a person, But, of course, it does inform my work, my play and lifestyle and conversations like this (laughs).
WK: Given that Druidry was originally a Celtic tradition and the Celts wrote nothing down, we only have the rather negative accounts of people like Julius Caesar to give us an idea of what Druidry really was. Apart from the folklore going back as far as it does, and the traditions as far as they have survived, would you say that your connection is largely intuited through your relationship with fundamental principles and Nature?
C: On the tree of Druidry one large limb, or root if you like, is intuition and, again, that primary source is one’s relationship with the natural environment and the culture that you find yourself in, the stars above you at night, the springs and the water that you drink, and the community that you’re in; all of those things. There are other taproots; perhaps there’s an archaeological one. We’re always discovering more and more about the past, but it was important for me at the beginning of my journey into Druidry that it wasn’t like a re-enactment of the ancient Druids. I was drawn to it, because it’s like an environmental, ecological spirituality that doesn’t split the world into good and evil, and it doesn’t say that you must transcend Nature; it doesn’t make that an ultimate goal. You’re just here, and enjoying it and trying to work your way through life, celebrating here and now, but with great reverence for ancestry and all the folklore and the symbols and the art – the kind of ‘Celticity’, if you like, of the ancient Druids.
But my first footsteps into this spirituality were as a modern person maybe thinking, the world’s a bit mechanised; I’d like to take a step back from that, and nourish myself and those around me through having a spiritual connection with the natural environment. That did change; I ended up living in an Iron Age village for seven weeks with a load of other volunteers for a BBC project, but before that I wasn’t really interested in the pre-historic Druids very much (laughs), but then I got really interested in them, and lived as one, or as we think they might have lived, and since then I’ve been building Iron Age round houses. I had such a great time; I didn’t want to leave that village, that hill fort. I just felt this real coming home kind of feeling. You know, no phones, not even any glass windows to look through; just in the elements all the time, cooking on a fire in a roundhouse, with animals and honey to make brews and people to tell stories with and make ceremonies under the full moon…
Was I born in the wrong time, the wrong era? I don’t know. I’ve always felt a strong kinship with less mechanised life, but I do love a bit of mechanism, a bit of modern technology (laughs). I guess that’s part of what it is to be a contemporary Druid is to try and marry culture and Nature, to try and honour the time that we live in. I mean the Wisdom Keepers is a sort of global weave of people and cultures from all over the planet, and that couldn’t happen without all the technology and the things that we have today. I try not to fly. I try not to guzzle too much carbon, but we love watching the odd film here, of course, and that kind of thing. But we try and surround ourselves with real music played by musicians, rather than electronic music, things like that. I don’t know. There’s no right or wrong, is there?
WK: What’s your basic set-up there? Are you there with a family, wife, kids?
C: Yes, we’re in a small wood on a farm. There are other families around, and other farm workers living on the farm, but it’s not an intentional community. Of course it is a community; everyone has a community. It’s called your town or your village, your nation, but the first one is your family. Yes, it’s a nice place. We like it.
WK: How responsive are your kids to your idea of right living? I mean, do you have a tussle over screen-time?
C: Well, last year CBeebies went away for the summer (laughs). At this time of year it’s so much easier to do outdoor play and get the children involved in so many outdoor activities. In the winter time we tolerate a bit more what we call ’watching’, and we do too. But in the summer there is so much to do outdoors. I mentioned yoga, well I hardly have time to practice any yoga in the summertime, because we’re just out, doing stuff, being physical. But in the winter time we might nip out to a class or something. But the kids, they love it, don’t they? They love screens, and you’ve just got to stick to your guns, try and have a hard and fast rule, but it used to be like “ok, you can watch while we’re cooking in the evenings, unless you’re ill and curled up on the sofa, and then you can have a bit more watching”. But to get them to watch less, it’s just a matter of us giving them attention, isn’t it? I think I’ve become this sort of Druidic character, if you like, because I felt a resistance to that highly mechanised world – born into the clinical light of the hospital; grown up on sugar, sweets, all those sorts of things. I think I maybe revered my grandparents’ way of life, and their organic veg growing, and allotments and orchards, a bit more than the mechanised two up, two down I grew up in. It wasn’t that bad, but I feel like it’s getting worse. Is that fair? I don’t want to get into right or wrong, but this is right for me, perpetuating the traditions, folk tales and triads.
WK: Triads? Tell us about them.
C: Many triads were written down by medieval Welsh and Irish monks, and they are mnemonic devices to help the initiate remember or condense wisdom or history, the lore, things like that. So, for example, there are three foundations of spirituality: your hearth as altar; work as worship and service as sacrament. I think that’s an Irish triad. That’s quite nice, isn’t it?
C: That brings it all home, doesn’t it? There are three things that can never be retracted: an arrow sped from a bow; a look, and a word spoken in anger. There are some modern triads and there are some that might have been written four hundred years ago or so. For example, there are three medicines in the world: water, honey and labour. We’re told that we should drink six glasses of water a day, and honey, of course, has so many benevolent, wonderful properties, so long has it hasn’t gone through a honey-laundering process; and then cardiovascular exercise, a bit of good hard work! It’s good for us, and therapeutic; it gets us out of our minds and into our senses. And there are histories, like the three immortal drunkards of the Isles of Britain, and the three unfortunate deaths of the Isles of Britain.
Then there’s an ancient piece of folklore that’s come down to us from Geoffrey of Monmouth (12th C): the three names of Britain from the first were Plas (or Clas) Merdyn, which we’re told was the name of Britain before it was even settled. It’s variously translated as the precinct, or place, of Merlin, or Merlin’s classroom. But Merlin himself perhaps may not have been invented till around that time, when those things were written down. We don’t know, but Mer means sea, so it could mean ‘sea-girt island’. This is the land of circles – circular houses, circular henges, circles of stone, circular boats – coracles, circular beehives, circular communities, round tables and the circle of seas surrounding these islands.
The second name of the Isles of Britain, when it was first settled, it became known as Ivel Inis, which means the honey island. Isn’t that great? So whichever settlers named it that, it could have been after the first Ice Age or the last Ice Age, or it could have been an invasion, who knows, but they may have found the land covered with oaks from Land’s End to John O’Groats, dripping with honey and swarms of bees. But these were bards who were perpetuating these triads, and they spoke on many different levels, so it could have had a deeper or more mysterious meaning. The land is sweet here, its full of minerals. In some places on Earth just a few minerals predominate over vast areas, but we’ve got so many different minerals. The land is fertile here; the land is sweet and luscious. The name might even allude to the mead-amused bards of old. There are so many tales told in various mythologies of great speakers and orators and bards, wise people and saints and folks like that where, at their birth, a bee landed on their lip, or a swarm alighted on their crib to grant them that mellifluous, healing, poetic omniscience or whatever they had. And then the third name from the triad, if you’re still wondering, which I suppose is a bit of a comedown from the first two, is Inis Prydain, perhaps after the king Pryderi or Prydain, when it was first ruled under one king. So there are some triads for you.
WK: Thank you. Now, are you looking forward to Glastonbury.
C: Yes and no, because we’re going as a family and I’m not sure how the kids are going to fare. The worst case scenario is that my wife takes the kids back home. They’re one and a half and three, so they could absolutely love it, or…not (laughs).
WK: That might depend on the weather. If it’s balmy, it’ll be fine, but if we catch the June monsoon it can be difficult for younger families. Have you been to Glastonbury before?
C: Yes. I think the first time when I was fourteen, I just walked in, and there we were, in it. But I haven’t been for a long time, maybe ten years.
WK: What are your hopes for this gathering of wisdom keepers?
C: I hope it will be very inspiring. I hope that I’ll learn a lot. I like it when lots of initiates, or folks that are deep into traditions get together and then all the veneers drop off. That moment when you realise “oh you’re so similar!”. All the head feathers and all the different regalia suddenly become irrelevant, because there are so many different styles of it. And you realise that you’ve all sort of maybe opened a bit of your soul to the world and sort of try to keep an open heart to the world. So that’s quite exciting, that there’s a kind of universal bond of folks doing a similar kind of work I suppose. I’m looking forward to the quintessence of it all, the sort of cross-cultural spirit in the middle of it; what that’s going to feel like, and how that’s going to taste, and what that’s going to give birth to.
WK: If you met a young person at Glastonbury who asked you to define what ‘sacred’ means, how would you explain it?
C: Well, what would I say? What does the sacred mean? Well, I suppose I’d sit down with them, give them some eye contact, some body contact and say “This is it. This is sacred”. Of course, it would depend on who they were and how they were coming across. I might go down one of those etymological roots. The word ‘sacred’ comes from the word ‘secret’, something that is untarnished, secreted or veiled. Something that, when its revealed to you is a really inspiring, wonderful thing. Like an initiation. If you knew what was going to happen it wouldn’t be so powerful, would it? It wouldn’t challenge you, wouldn’t delight you as much. I suppose that the young person in question is already a seeker, if they’re asking those sort of questions, so I might try to cultivate their interest in how they might find the sacred within their life and their breath and their food and the place that they live in, and traditions that their ancestors adhered to.
WK: In respect to tradition, how do you feel indigenous culture has relevance for our modern lives?
C: Its relevance lies in the fact that it still has its roots in the ground, in the earth. Imagine if you had no electricity, no oil, how would you be? And I’m not saying that indigenous culture exits everywhere without modern technology, but it is a wise thing to sink your feet a bit deeper and look to the hedgerows and the landscape and the flora and fauna and folklore of wherever you live. Because these are things that last. Empires don’t. Empires rise and fall. Indigenous cultures just slowly plod along, with their feet and hearts in the ground. And in a nutshell, I think that’s why they’re so important. Einstein was very wise and he said he didn’t know what the Third World War would be fought with, but that the Fourth World War will be fought with sticks and stones. I mean, I’m not a doom and gloom survivalist sort of person, but I just think that it’s a nice thing to do: to still be able to source all you need from within a four-mile radius of where you live. And indigenous cultures tend to still have quite a lot of that, don’t they? Perhaps there’s a part of me that would quite like the sky to fall down and the oil to run out and the survivors with pockets of seeds to start afresh, if that doesn’t sound too utopian (laughs).
WK: If you could give a young person just one pearl of advice, what would it be?
C: Hmm. Maybe “Don’t seek out pearls of wisdom, just try to be ordinary”. Sorry that’s sounds rather defeatist of me. No, it depends who they are, how I’m feeling at the time. What might come out for one person might not come out for another. If someone was quite a good musician, for example, I might say “Don’t get a degree. Take a year out. Follow your bliss. Do what your heart calls you to do”. So it depends. On a general note, “Less mechanism, more organism”, maybe, or “Eat well; you are what you eat”. Something like that. Perhaps one should carry around a pearl of wisdom to dole out, as required. Perhaps there’s a triad of Druidic pearls of wisdom; I’ll have to give it some thought.
WK: Thank you so much for your time Chris, for your openness and your sharing. Just one last question before I let you go: What would you suggest to someone looking to follow the Druidic way to help them along the path?
C: Sure. There are many Druidic orders. I would vouch for what I consider the healthiest order (adopts grand tone) in the world: The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. They have a wonderful website at www.druidry.org and that’s a massive contradiction of everything I’ve been talking about (laughs), how we should get away from screens and everything, but do have a look. The primary source, though, is always Nature. I mean, look at the website, but get away from the text and into that delicious relationship with the flora and the fauna, and the seasons around you and the people around you, and begin your journey of exploration of the wheel of the year, which never stops. It’s ever-turning, and things are always surprising and enlightening and connecting. There you’ll find a lot inspiration. But we love the books, don’t we! And we love the websites, and you’ll find many referenced on the Druidry website. May it be like a hub, a departure point. I’d say, have a look at it and enrol on a course if you find it inspiring. It’s wonderful. It’s not a religion; you can have any kind of religion, or none. It’s just a course, and a path and a spirituality. It has much in common with other traditions around the world.
WK: There’s a wonderful teaching I heard from a Sufi sheikh, who met a Moroccan marabout (holy man) when he was a young man, who drew a circle in the dust with his stick and pointed to the centre and explained that the wheel of life has one hub, one boss, but many spokes, which are the great spiritual traditions. They all point to the centre from different parts of the rim. Hence the understanding that ‘the hearts of the wise are one’.
C: Yes, that’s great. I was once with a marabout in West Africa under a full moon and met the spirits, the djinn (spirits, as in genie) and he was working with a sacred spring, as I do here, and a sacred grove, like here, and I realised, gosh, everywhere in the world you can find similar people doing similar things and you should really be back home getting on with it. I mean, I had a wonderful time, and maybe he helped heal some ancestral karma or something, but at this time in history I don’t think we should be flying. Okay, maybe not ‘should’, you can if you want to, or if you feel a real need to advocate your community, like many of the wisdom keepers, I guess, have a real need to champion a suppressed culture. But I don’t, so I don’t feel the need to fly. It may be more exciting, more colourful, but here I am doing it all here. All you ever need… so okay, this is a pearl of wisdom that I could give to that young teenager: all you ever need is right under your nose, under your feet, above your head, in your heart and within your family or your community. Don’t let that stop your feet from walking the world over, but you will find that all you ever need is right within reach.
WK: Amen brother. Thank you so much Chris for all those pearls. We look forward to seeing you at Glastonbury.