Dancing in the Ring – Learning wisdom from our indigenous cultures

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photo: Wild Roses, by Tania Aguila, 2011

The English folk song “Here the Rose Buds in June” has long been one of my favorites. It sums up for me the riches of culture and our place in nature. Growing up in the nineteen seventies my environmental awakening was a school bird project at age 13, Young Ornithologists Club membership given to me by an older cousin set me on the route to birdwatching and later a life as a professional ecologist. Despite training as a scientist I have tried to integrate my love for nature into the whole of my life through art, culture and religion. This folk song I discovered at about the time that I started British traditional morris dancing and the words of this song and the earth ethic of folk dance has been a long-term influence.

The three time beat and haunting melody gives it an almost hymn like quality, and it has a spiritual resonance. The many authors and holders of this song, and no doubt there were many as it was handed down and honed by several generations of singers, were clear that they were part of nature, and not separated from it as I felt growing up. Here is the song and some of my thoughts.
Here the rosebuds in June and the violets are blowing
The small birds they warble from every green bough
The pink and the lily and the daffydowndilly
To adorn and perfume those sweet meadows in June

Chorus: If it weren’t for the plough the fat ox would grow slow and the lads and the bonny lasses to the sheep shearing go.
The first verse is an evocative celebration of a late spring in England, it transports you straight there! You can conjure up the spring birdsong, the rich full blown green of the woods, the wind on your face, the June meadows scented and riotous.  The chorus takes us to the farming year, part of the seasonal cycle and the sheep shearing time. I particularly like the comment on exercise and obesity – another  lesson we are now learning the hard way!
Our shepherd’s rejoice in their fine heavy fleeces
and the frisky young lambs with which their flocks do increase,
Each lad takes his lass down on the green grass
To adorn and perfume those sweet meadows in June
Chorus: If it weren’t for the plough the fat ox would grow slow and the lads and the bonny lasses to the sheep shearing go.
The life of a shepherd was tough, and for many still is. Out in all weathers, in the furthest parts of farms, up in the mountains, on the moors and downs. After the trials of lambing in late winter, June must have certainly been a time of rejoicing.  The lambs that had survived would be full of vigour, shearing would bring a new harvest of wool. Shepherds were often the ‘low lifes’ on the farm, a marginal  status faced by most indigenous peoples across the world. The fact that across England the only spoken survival of the earlier British language (n.b. old Welsh) into the modern era, as far as I am aware was the counting systems found in many counties that shepherds used for their sheep1. This hints that the conquered British communities survived as marginalised shepherds or even shepherd communities. In this verse I like to think of the shepherds as the wisdom bearers. This second stanza contains a poetic description of youthful romance, of love and attraction in summer days. I particularly like how this love and romance perfumes and adorns the already beautiful meadows.
Our clean milking pails are filled with good ale
At the table there’s plenty of cheer to be found
We’ll whistle and sing and dance in a ring
To adorn and perfume those sweet meadows in June

Chorus: If it weren’t for the plough the fat ox would grow slow and the lads and the bonny lasses to the sheep shearing go.

Here is the feast the Frolic, the shearing celebration after all the effort. One of my earliest conservation jobs was at Parsonage Down National Nature Reserve, a working farm in Wiltshire. The reserve was a fantastic area of chalk downland.  The floral diversity of chalk downland is hard to beat (30-40 species/m2). My job was sit at feet of Bill Elliot the farm manager/warden and document, for the reserve’s first management plan, how he and his grandfather had been managing the land for the past 60 years. I also got involved in the work of the reserve, fencing, shepherding and shearing. I took up the shears with the other reserve staff and am still proud of the fact I sheared over a hundred sheep that summer.  Wrestling over these struggling beasts, getting them positioned just right so that they cannot move and your can shear them effectively, battling with these fearsome gnashing shears, that will cut a big hole out of your victim. We had electric shears, shearing by hand must have require huge strength and endurance.  After all the toil the Shearing Frolic must have been a real highlight worth singing about! The food, the drink, whistling and singing and of course the dancing. But not any old dancing is mentioned here, not the individualistic dancing of the disco dance floor, but dancing in a ring.
Now sheep shearing’s over and harvest draws nigh
We’ll prepare to the fields our strength for to try
Well reap and we’ll sow, we’ll plough and we’ll mow
To adorn and perfume those sweet meadows in June

Chorus: If it weren’t for the plough the fat ox would grow slow and the lads and the bonny lasses to the sheep shearing go.

The seasons move on the sheep shearing celebration is over, now to the next farm task and the cycle of the seasons continues. Here is a story of a human community at least in some sort of harmony with the Earth. The diversity of animal and plant life, the cycle of the seasons and the hard work, fertility, celebrations of a community of peoples all adornments of the earth. This hints at the order of preindustrial Britain.
In Britain we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the collectors of traditional songs, that rescued many from extinction. There is a huge wealth of material, it tells us the stories of the ordinary rural people, as well as their wisdom. We are now in the process of rescuing the countryside, recreating meadows, woodlands and wetlands restoring areas after years of abuse and misuse. There is still much to do
species populations still decline but at least in some areas the meadow flowers, the ‘pink and the lily and the dafodowndilly 2’ still adorn areas of grassland. For Britain the recent extinction spasm for culture and nature largely happened between the period 1800-1970, since then there has been at least some recovery of both.
The world desperately needs the earth wisdom of the indigenous peoples of the world the Elder Brothers as some them refer to themselves as. Within our own British Culture that earth wisdom survived in a number of ways including wisdom of the countryside and folk ways.
Our modern industrial life has unleashed terrible forces. After years of doubt and ridicule climate change is becoming a harsh reality. The speed and with which it is arriving is frightening. There still is a dangerous blind belief in technology.  Technology has its role but it has to be a technology harnessed for us. Western industrial society has been dancing out side of the ring. This dance has brought us many material benefits, need, however, is turning into greed, wealth creation has become the end in itself. Corporate profits have become separated from the health of the planet.
The next hundred years will bring challenges where we will need to draw upon all our resources of skill and wisdom. We need to find the wisdom of the elders and as a society we need to relearn and once more Dance within the Ring.
Robert Wild, November 2004.
1 A song ‘A Linconshire Sheperd’ written in the 1930’s tells of the old Celtic counting system among shepherds of Lincolnshire. Ref. Palmer, R. (Ed) 1979. The English Country Song Book. Faber and Faber. See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yan_Tan_Tethera
2 Daffodils are actually woodland plants that flower in late March/April and so the song is, at least as far a I am aware, not quite biologically accurate – artistic license!

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