Tag Archives: sacrifice


17 Feb


In Norse mythology, Odin, the father of the Aesir (the Gods), had an insatiable thirst for knowledge. He wounded, then hung himself upon the World Tree Yggdrasil in order to learn the secret meaning of Runes. He journeyed to the roots of the World tree to seek out Mimir at the pool of Urd in order to drink from his sacred well and gain the gift of insight.

The price of Odin’s wisdom was an eye. I have often wondered whether sacrifice is the key to wisdom.

A wise young friend of mine, told me he had made a sacrifice just recently, in order to, in his own words, “be able to socialise better”. A great conversationalist, he dislikes direct eye contact (classic autism).

Years ago I made the mistake of offering to play a game of chess with him, when I was working as a Ranger for the Parks and Countryside department of  Sheffield City Council and he was a volunteer. I do enjoy a game of chess, but within half a dozen moves I realised I was playing against a truly prodigious talent. My friend displayed an intellectual plasticity, and strategic flexibility, I had never before encountered. I resigned quickly, not wishing to experience a crushing defeat Рit would have been physically painful to me.

Imagine my surprise then, when he told me recently that he had decided to quit playing chess!

In my case Bipolar disorder was the gift that just kept on misgiving.

I was diagnosed in 2001and when I came out of the psychiatric ward 18 years ago I discovered I had left a trail of destruction around me. Relationships damaged, trusts broken and fear left in its place.

Cognitive therapy helped me to understand that I could perhaps repair some of the bridges I had burned in those years, when I had lived without knowledge of or insight into my condition.

I took the first step by first learning how to listen. The second step was learning to let go.

I let go of ambition. Between 1979 and 1998 I had been a successful academic, but I felt I could not return to this because it was too solipsistic, too antisocial in a way.

I have been told I was a good teacher – a very social profession, but I could not return to teaching principally because the practise itself is emotionally stressful. I don’t have an off switch for needy pupils.

I took professional advice at the cross roads in 2002:

Advisor “What do you really like doing?”

Me:”I like being outside, fresh air, making things and I also like people”

Advisor “Have you ever considered environmental conservation?”

That led to 10 years as a countryside Ranger. Nice job!

I ignored the jibes – “You are the only person I know who has had a career in reverse Henk! Academia, Education, Parkie and now Chippie”

So, I gave up worrying about fitting in.

What did I gain after insight?

In the words of my wife who has loved me throughout the journey:

“What I found was that there was no more walking on eggshells, and not being frightened to say something. The laughter and fun returned.”

Losing ¬†the ‘I’ is no sacrifice.



15 Dec

In the ancient Celtic tradition a Druid was priest, healer, soothsayer and lawgiver. Druids were not liable to pay taxes, they were an elite who protected the lore, traditions and the spirits of these ancient Islands and of the other Celtic nations across the water in Gaul (a large area encompassing most of France, Luxembourg, Belgium, parts of the Netherlands and Germany and parts of Northern Italy). Their influence was so strong that the Roman invaders under Caesar and later emperors tried vigorously to suppress them, so feared was their influence and practise. In particular, human sacrifice in the form of immolation (burning alive) in the Wicker Man was seen as particularly barbaric.

Training a Druid could take up to twenty years, and because the education was entirely oral (there were no written texts) and experiential, members of the order were trained to have prodigious memories.

It takes about twenty years to train a modern human to become a Doctor, from childhood to first qualification and then many more years training in a specialisation such as surgery or anaesthetics. It takes about the same length of time to gain a Ph.D..

I was 23 when I gained mine in Zoology. Throughout this time my mind was engaged in an ever more esoteric progress from ABC (learned in primary school in West Africa) through Algebra and Grammar (in Matlock) and eventually through closer and closer study to a highly specialised new field of enquiry – in my case centipede biology.

The discipline and the patience required of an acolyte of the Druid order, or a modern Ph.D. student is prodigious, because every step of the way is fraught with the very real prospect of failure. The slope is very slippery indeed.

I came across this strange apparatus whilst cleaning out my desk yesterday, a pair of iridectomy scissors – probably the smallest hand-held scissors money could buy back in 1980. Displayed on a piece of inlay work just finished for a client it made me think how peculiar the tools of my former trade and how refined the intent they represented.


Like the soothsayer I had become in my late twenties and early thirties I spent long hours spinning my own myths and legends around the bits of Arthropods I had dissected in order to forge a career as an academic.

Instead of reading tea leaves or the giblets of a sacrificed chicken I would, as a research Zoologist conduct experiments on the bodies of tiny segmented creatures. It was as if by delving into their secret anatomies I would understand life and perhaps myself better.

The basis of medicine is physiology and anatomy. Most people do not realise that the robust understanding of nervous transmission at the synapse is thanks to years of painstaking research on the squid, Loligo, or that much of our knowledge of genetics is thanks to the endless selective breeding programs of the fruitfully, Drosophila. Our understanding of life is a chimaera, based upon a mixture of animal model systems from the rat to the flatworm.

I am no Druid, but this pilgrim has journeyed from micro dissection and neuroanatomy to marquetry and mouldings. My old friend Peter Craggs likes to joke that I have had a ‘career in reverse’. From academia, through secondary education, through conservation to carpentry. I prefer to think of it as a necessary unlearning of aspiration, to discover my true nature. I am a Littlewood after all.

Just because you can, does not mean you should. The Druids understood this, and in their reluctance to write knowledge down they honoured the true spirit of our Earth and the living creatures that form a living alliance with her.

Tread gently amidst the trees, for we do not stay not long in this world. I wish you seasons greetings as we celebrate the Solstice on the 21st of December and the return of the Light.