Can there be beauty in death?

Wiccan Rede * Winter 1987 by Merlin Sythove

At this particular phase in our lives Morgana and myself find ourselves on the path of the Hearth-Fire. I have written about this concept before, but for those who are unfamiliar with it, it describes a period in one’s life, when most spiritual activities have to be shelved for a while because the material plane needs attention.

One may be involved in building a career, in raising a family or in many other mundane commitments. Whatever the reason, we may find that there is a period of a couple of years when it is difficult to find the time, but especially the energy, to stay really active on one’s chosen path. In order not to lose touch with that path altogether, or become desillusioned at having become ‘mundane’ or even ‘materialistic’, it is necessary to incorporate as much as possible of one’s beliefs into daily life. If there is no time or energy to celebrate the festivals or esbats regularly; if there seem to be no people around with whom one can converse and share ideas, then it may be time to step out of the meditational daydream and become practical. It may be time to practice with your hands what you believe with your heart!

In our case, to be more specific, we are currently going through just such a phase, and even though we try to keep many of our activities going, often this requires conscious effort and higher time-management to succeed at all! Our main activity at the moment is raising a child and doing up an old house, which was rather run-down when we bought it. And although there is plenty of Craft idealism one can put into raising a child, the first 1,5 years or so are mostly concerned with feeding and caring for, rather than the transference of norms, values and ideas. So that leave the house to practice on. But there is only so much one can do with wallpaper – the only necessary activity is guarding it, magically or otherwise, from our cat and our daugthers crayons.

So I’ve found the solution in trying to express some of our Crafts ideals and beliefs in the way our house is decorated – in creating a definite atmosphere, a ‘feel’ of a place. One little aspect of this I would like to share with you. As everyone knows, usually it is the small detail, the personal objects, the plants and the bric-a-brac, the books, etcetera, which give a place the feeling of ‘home’. Just see what a room looks like when the window sills are completely empty, the curtains gone, the net curtains being washed and the windows cleaned. It looks like foreign territory! (Maybe that’s why I dislike cleaning the windows so much!)  So I tried to make some inexpensive nice and effective personal objects. The material I chose for this, is dead wood from forests.

When one takes a walk through a nearby wood, it is quite possible to come across very interesting pieces of wood. They may be old trunks, they may be roots, it may be a very interestingly formed branch. This waste material can be give a second life in our home – either as a decoration, or with a particular function in mind. I have used a very contorted and irregular branch, about a yard long, to make into a stand. It is used by my wife to display all her jewellery on – chains and necklaces, rings on smaller branches, bracelets and pendants, and even the odd scarf can be put on it. Another small branching stump I’ve made into a paper-stand, using a piece of clear acryllic as well, which hold my papers when I’m doing this magazine. But they can be made to take a hanging basket with a plant, or they can support a climber such as ivy, and of course a ritual wand can be made out of it too.

So far the idea. For those who are not too skilled with their hands yet, or who have always believed that DIY is for somebody else, here is what to do. It is very simple – if you can hold a brush you’ll be able to do it. First, go out into the woods and look around if you can see something which is promising. Tentatively check it with a shoe, to see if it is not too far gone and disintegrates with your first touch. It may be mouldy and rotten in places, but if strenth is needed for any reason, test it first. If it is too large, just break off the piece you want. Next, when you’re home, fill a bucket with nice hot water. No soap or anything, but ammonia may be added. Clean the wood thoroughly with a stiff brush. This way much of the old bark will come off – it will come off evenutally anyway. Take particular notice at this stage of the colour of the wet wood: if you don’t do anything further to it this is the way it will look when it’s varnished. Next, let it dry. On a heater if you wish – it will force it a bit, but that doesn’t matter. When the wood feels thoroughly dry to you, and looks horrible and grey most likely, it is time for the next stage. Test the wood again with a wet finger what the colour is like. Trim off any excess branches or saw off a ragged edge, take off loose bark and clean up moulded bits. If you want to stain it, use a water-soluble stain. Wood-colours are very nice, but be carefull not to overdo it! Let the stain dry thoroughly. Again the wood will look lighter and greyer than when it was wet – so if you’re not sure about the colour anymore, test it with a wet finger. Next, see if it needs a stand to keep it up. Another peace of dead wood can be used for this, or a block of oak can be bought at your local DIY. Affix the branch by driving a screw through the block into the branch, and use a bit of woodglue to keep it in position properly. Put four little nails into the bottom of the block, to act as temporary legs so ti is possible to stain and varnish the whole thing in one go. Check the stain again, possibly doing a bit more to create some extra depth in colour or form. Next, varnish it, using a high-quality (outdoor) varnish, high gloss or matt as preferred. Do the bottom of the stand first, then stand it on it’s four nails and do the rest. Give it three coats of varnish, possibly more where the wood is very porous. Before the last layer, sand down the varnish very lightly to create a smooth finish. When it is finished and dry, take out the four nails an put little pieces of felt on the bottom to prevent it from ruining the rest of your furniture.

I have found this to be a quite enjoyable way to make some small decorative pieces for our home. It is easy, inexpensive, does not take any heard labour but only a few constructive days, half an hour per day or so. And I find it enjoyable too to become really close to a piece of wood which has taken nature years to create, and which for some reason or other has died, and to give it a second life and an esthetic function. So to answer the title question: Can there be beauty in death? Yes – provided we are willing to see it!

If you have any practical ideas which may be of use to others, please write them down and share your, often painfully won, practical skills, with the readers of Wiccan Rede. It may be a special cake, a seasonal recipe, a pattern for a robe, herbal teas you’ve found to be very effective, handcrafts to make regalia or to bind a book, ideas for decorations or the making fo candle sticks – any thing which can help others to become familiar with the many crafts which are used will be considered!