Ritual: Three Book Reviews

Words by
Gil Teague
| September 9, 2015

So, is it ritual as habit or ritual as sacramental use we are looking at here? Both usages are common, and though the habit of showering, drying and dressing myself each morning leads to a certain physical pleasure and level of mental comfort, I can’t say it’s led directly to any transcendental experiences. Not that I’m aware of.

States of mind where I feel at one with the world – pierced through speechless by the beauty of the life within my view – attract me more than the daily routines. However, it seems those routines are essential to springboard one into other realms, and so wayfarers on the many paths of the spiritual life are prepared to undergo hours, nay years, of disciplined training – read ritual – to move on through.

Michael McCoy writes about this in his first book Michael McCoy’s Garden. As he works long hours making his own first garden, digging, turning what was lawn into well-prepared garden beds, he is ‘stopped by a strange feeling, as if there is something going on behind my back. I look around … and see and feel the stillness. There is an almost audible hum … and a beauty emerges that is normally veiled. Though I stand still – perfectly still – and scan my senses to try to discover which of them is detecting this insight, I cannot, and simply find myself standing, standing, and grinning from ear to ear.’ A beautiful description of the indescribable. You won’t find more of this experience in his book, but you will find plenty of excellent advice on the practice and art of gardening.

Michael McCoys Garden, by Michael McCoy, $19.99 from Florilegium
White Beech by Germaine Greer, $19.99 from Florilegium
Huanduj: Brugmansia, By Alistair Hay, Monika Gottschalk & Adolfo Holguin, $55 from Florilegium

There are various myths, Celtic and others, about the white hind leading people into the forest: a symbol of man’s spiritual quest. There are no white hinds in Australia, but Germaine Greer in her recent book White Beech found herself unexpectedly entranced by a Regent Bowerbird at the rainforest property she was inspecting. Having searched for many years for a piece of Australian bush she could live in, co-exist with, she was taken to a run-down farm in the middle of rainforest in the Gold Coast hinterland. Not impressed, she went back near dusk for one last look when out of the forest stepped the bird and began to dance to her. It wasn’t sexual: ‘My Regent Bowerbird was quite silent, and didn’t display his wings and tail, so he hadn’t taken me for some outsize mate’; and it wasn’t territorial. But it was a form of ritual connection between the bird and the woman. The next day she wrote a letter to the owner with a cheque as deposit: ‘The forest knew what it was doing. It could hardly have chosen a better envoy to help me understand where my future lay.’ White Beech is an inspirational read for anyone interested in matters environmental. It documents the first 12 years of Professor Greer’s rehabilitation of this piece of land.

Scientists from the West – particularly anthropologists and ethnobotanists, mostly from the 20th Century on – are becoming increasingly impressed with the sophistication of First Peoples’ knowledge of the plants with which they live. In the Upper Amazon, for instance, the local tribes use a wide range of plants, singly and in combination, for medicinal and spiritual use. The strongest of these, Brugmansia, is used there only by the shamans and then only rarely. In a fascinating first chapter of Huanduj: Brugmansia, the lead author Alistair Hay writes extensively about this beautiful and dangerous plant, setting it within a fascinating discussion of the use of entheogenic substances and the nature of shamanistic practice. The rest of the highly-illustrated monograph is devoted to ‘Western’ matters: its botany and horticulture, with stunning images throughout.

These three books are chosen for the quality of the authors’ thinking and writing. I hope they will excuse this brief discussion of their achievements. They all offer much more than is written about here.

Gil is the owner of Florilegium bookshop in Glebe. Florilegium specialises in garden books and is a treasure trove of planty goodness! He will be writing sporadic book reviews for us and we’re rather excited.

Note: Feature image by Michael McCoy.