Big Druid in his Cubicle - KKNK Oudtshoorn
BIG DRUID1 IN HIS CUBICLE2
For the DRUID, as I guess for most other people, writing about oneself is horrifying. One lies without knowing because one tries to make others see personal things in a certain way. Everything trips up equally on pretence and the refusal to be pretentious. Writing stinks, because it can be held as evidence – once written, the thing stays written. Druids and gnostics are inherently from an oral tradition. I take my cue from that arch-druid who was crucified for what he said, not for what he wrote.
In my younger years I was ridiculously religious – to the extent that I went into full-time preaching on the streets of Johannesburg and other South African cities. At the end of this phase, in my early thirties, without realising it, I fell prey to a rotten spell of lead poisoning (also called plumbism, colica Pictonum or saturnism) and was then subjected to twenty years of intense pain and discomfort. Driven to distraction I came to the inevitable conclusion that God is a fiction, but that He is nevertheless real. If you ask me today whether I believe in God or not my answer is unequivocally: “Yes, of course I do.” – and then again in the same breath: “No, I certainly don’t.”
Years ago I had all but memorised the entire New Testament and while poisoned, I was on a quest to understand every word in the more-than-twenty volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary. I felt I had a keen grasp on where the notion of God came from. I also set myself the impossible task to know every plant on earth by its botanical name and to tell it apart from all other plants. Not being able to sleep at night, I managed to write about fifteen dictionaries and transformed some of them into art installations. While raising a family, I kept to a stoic, Spartan, monk-like way of life and to cope with the neuropathic discomfort, I made more artworks than anyone I knew. Working and red wine were my pain-killers – pills did nor work. When I worked, my head went somewhere else and I did not feel the bloody hurt. I had never drunk a drop of alcohol till I was thirty six and thereafter I felt compelled to drink all the wine produced in the Cape, literally. At the end of this time I could no longer walk and the doctors, especially the specialists, told me to cut down on my lifestyle. I should be thankful for having led a ‘great’ life and that it was time to stop – I was getting old.
In 2005 Dr Derrick Wilton, a wise and wizened old medical specialist took a snippet of my hair for testing. He phoned back with the sombre result that I had been poisoned. I had to see him immediately!
It turned out that I had an inordinate amount of lead poison in my system – not merely the small amount of heavy metal poison we all have from exhaust fumes and factories. My excessive level of poisoning caused intense neuropathy and pain. I had contracted the problem by not wearing a mask when sanding down piles of antique wooden doors and windows some twenty years before and I should have been dead already.
In 2006 I received a few months of chelation treatment to remove the lead. During weekly sessions EDTA (Ethylene Diamine Tetra Acetic) was administered by syringe, accompanied by a torrid drip of hydrogen peroxide at the end which I was left dizzy and miserable.
At about this time I read some books on druids. Even though we don’t know a great deal about them, I thought that my lifestyle was to a great extent similar to theirs. Their name ‘druid’ is from an old Greek source drus, ‘tree’. A ‘dryad’, as found in folklore and Greek mythology, is a nymph inhabiting a forest, or tree, especially an oak tree and also derives from drus. My father was a carpenter and I had worked with wood all my life. Furthermore, I had spent many years studying trees and plants and I was able to identify most of our the local flora as well as a large number of universal species. I had taken three massive ‘gardens’ of plant words on exhibitions to a number of countries. I lived a little like a reclusive monk studying dictionaries, religion, philosophy, anthropology, botany, music and art. I imagined the druids as not necessarily religious, but knowing the secrets of why people were devoted to religion. Druids occupied a position where they were able to marry the ‘sciences’ of agriculture, healing, the stars, seasons, psychology, the weather and so on. Like me, they had studied many methods of divination and figured out why augurs were successful in making insightful pronouncements. The suspicious Romans were so afraid of druids that, in the year 70 AD they killed all of them. It should also be noted that they tried to kill the arch-druid seventy years earlier when, under the rule of Ceasar Augustus, they killed all two-year old babies.
In my books I came across some information indicating that in order for one to become a druid, one has to go through a near-death experience. I noticed that this was also true for the African sangomas and inyangas. In a project entitled INDEX OF (B)REACHINGS I had carefully studied divination as practiced by the ancient Greeks and today’s African healers and sages and I believe that they are somewhat aligned with the druids. The word inyanga literally means ‘man of trees’. I took note of the fact that these all had to face death and then come back to life and I thought of my own escape. Maybe I was a silly old druid after all or perhaps just a little druid.
The chelation treatment drew to an end, and I began to surface from my misery – badly battered, but alive. The lead was gone, but it had caused untold damage. My legs, in particular, continued to be extremely painful from neuropathy, but the rest of my body saw a great change. I felt renewed and exhilarated to the extent that I became acutely aware of the colours, shapes and textures of the world around me. Everything looked so new, it was as if I could see it for the first time. I had spent many years practicing different forms of meditation and it felt as if I now meditated for the very first time. I walked on water and I soared above the clouds. Life was distinctly grand.
As time went on, the sense of incredible sight and awareness increased. I was reminded of the fact that druids are seers. Paradoxically I was attracted to splendour and awe in the dust and muck on pavements and walls, so I started photographing it. I also, slowly at first, discovered that I could walk again and I began to venture on slow druidic walks.
My first druid walks were undertaken at the NIROX artist residency in the Cradle of Humankind, west of Johannesburg. It was wintertime in 2007 and the stems of the trees were exposed. I discovered signs of intense suffering in the Celtis trees. They are of the elm family (Ulmaceae). The elm trees had been blighted in Europe by Dutch Elm disease and I felt strangely attracted to be with Ptelea, the tragic nymph of the elms. My first druid walks made me see signs of abuse on the bodies of the Celtis trees that filled me with a sense of grief. I photographed what looked like sexual abuse and ge