Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Spellbound in Budleigh and Brewster

Brewster, our sister-town on Cape Cod, continues to surprise me. Like Budleigh Salterton it seems to be a tidy community which doesn't like too much change.

It's full of citizens who take their responsibilities seriously and contribute wholeheartedly to the common good.

I imagine that the churches are full on Sundays, and looking at the links page on this site you can see that there are certainly enough of them to satisfy most people's spiritual desires.
Above: Brewster's Northside Methodist Church

The Brewster landscape seems to be dotted with those delightful little white spires which one associates with the archetypal New England place of worship.

From Roman Catholics to Lutherans, from Baptists to those admirably progressive UUs who gather in their magnificent First Parish 18th century meeting house, almost every religious taste is catered for.

Budleigh Salterton too is a thriving community of caring and friendly people who are happy with the way things are.

As befits a town known by some as 'God's waiting room' it is similarly well provided with churches.
I love this little Baptist church in the hamlet of Knowle, to the west of the town, its classical early 19th century lines contrasting gently with its arcadian setting.

The Temple Methodist church on Fore Street, is of much later construction.

But that doesn't stop me thinking of its founder, the 18th century Dissenter and wealthy London bookseller James Lackington, who boldly faced down hostility from the local aristocrats of the Established Church of England.

Less noteworthy architecturally but worth the photograph if only because of this sign, outside the building on Station Road, is the Evangelical Church on Station Road with its appropriately named pastor.

Of course my favourite has to be East Budleigh's All Saints' Church.
It's a lovely centuries-old building where the young Walter Raleigh and his family worshipped in the early days of the English Reformation and the Tudor monarchs.

What came as a surprise to me while surfing over Brewster for the millionth time was to discover a group which, like other churchgoers, meets on Sundays - on the last Sunday of each month - but in the even more arcadian setting of Nickerson State Park. A few miles out of town, you're instructed to turn right down a dirt road with a painted sign leading to a car park. Then keep walking down the dirt road until you see... what, a church?

No, what you see is "a large green yurt," and a group of up to 75 people taking part in activities which might include a fire circle, sauna, hot tub, chanting, drumming, dancing, swimming, meditation, prayer, and discussion.

This is Cape Cod Community Daré, the word 'Daré' (pronounced ‘dar-ray’) being an African Shona term indicating a sacred gathering for healing purposes.

The group came together following a visit to Zimbabwe in 2001 by two Brewster residents, Wilderness Sarchild and Chuck Madansky. There they met Mandaza (Augustine) Kandemwa, pictured here, a Bantu shaman or medicine man. A former anti-apartheid activist, educated in the western traditions of what was then colonial-era Rhodesia, Mandaza, as the Daré website puts it, "was called by the ancestors to the old ways and taught the exceptional art and craft of being a true healer in the Shona and Ndebele traditions of Zimbabwe, initiated into the ngoma of the water spirits - the Central African tradition of healing and peacemaking."

The first Daré gathering at Brewster took place in January 2002. Interested readers can browse the website to gain a more complete picture of the group's activities, but it's clear that the first principle stresses the importance of resurrecting forces which all too often in today's busy world we have lost. As they put it, "Daré begins by calling in the spirits. Everything depends on this. The invocation allows Spirit to inform the participants. It creates a field of knowing and remembering. Daré also centers on telling dreams and receiving dreams as gifts from the ancestors to the circle. Council and dreams are channels between the world of the living and the world of the invisibles."

The Daré community is not on any list of Cape Cod churches, and at first glance it seems unsuited to the colonial setting of New England. San Francisco maybe? But then I thought of the original inhabitants of this area, of their respect for the spirits and for nature.

That thought was perhaps prompted by the recent news that two Massachusetts Indian tribes, the Mashpee Wampanoag of Cape Cod and the Aquinnah Wampanoag of Martha’s Vineyard, have claimed that the 130 wind turbines being proposed in Nantucket Sound would spoil their spiritual ritual of greeting the sunrise and disturb ancestral burial grounds. “Here is where we still arrive to greet the new day, watch for celestial observations in the night sky and follow the migration of the sun and stars in change with the season,” wrote Bettina Washington, historic preservation officer for the Aquinnah Wampanoag, in a letter to federal officials.

It sounds like the kind of scenario that one might find at Stonehenge, Glastonbury or perhaps Totnes. But Budleigh Salterton? Surely not.

Picture: Winter solstice sunrise at Stonehenge, an event sacred for our ancestors.
Photo by Tarotastic

And then, a few days ago, a revelation. It came during the Annual General Meeting of the Friends of Fairlynch, the town's museum.

After some routine business details about the Museum the guest speaker, Professor Chris Tilley, told us of the excavations that he had been carrying out on pebble cairns built by our Bronze Age ancestors on the pebblebed heaths, just a few miles north of Budleigh Salterton.

Picture: Professor Chris Tilley and his team at an excavation site outside Budleigh Salterton

Elsewhere on this site is a fuller description of his work, and especially of Professor Tilley's debt to the 1930s Budleigh Salterton archaeologist George Carter.

Carter had spent time in what is now present-day Pakistan, excavating pebble burial mounds which had been constructed according to sacred Vedic rites.

His theory, ridiculed at the time, was that the pebble cairns outside Budleigh Salterton, had been built in the same way and reflected similarly ritualistic activity involving fire. And now, it seems, George Carter was thinking on exactly the right lines, in a way that brings continents and cultures closer by contemplating the thoughts of our ancestors.

For the pebble cairns hidden away in the gorse and heather were built and can be lined up, according to Professor Tilley, specifically to mark the point of sunrise on 21 December, the winter solstice venerated not just at Stonehenge but all over the world since primeval times.

Nobody has suggested the building of a wind farm on the pebblebed heaths of Woodbury Common, but any such plans in the future may well come unstuck thanks to forces beyond our understanding. For Chris Tilley and his team of excavators are convinced that this corner of East Devon is as sacred in its way as Stonehenge. "We believe," they conclude, "that the pebbles were magical stones and the pebblebed heathlands were, and are, a magical landscape."

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