I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Wisdom Council member and retreat contributor Polly Paton-Brown’s reflection on doll making as prayer.
“That’s it. The trees are coming down and the field is going to be sprayed with round up. I’ve had enough!” I read the words written on a Facebook page dedicated to the condition Atypical Myopathy. This condition causes death in horses who eat the seeds from sycamore trees that have become toxic. It has always been around but in recent years the numbers have rocketed, caused the scientists suggest, by the trees becoming stressed by the extreme weather conditions we are seeing. Conditions caused by the changes in our climate.
Shutting the laptop lid, I sat staring into space remembering. That was how it had all started, my journey with the dolls. To explain, we have to go back a few years to 2019. It was a glorious autumn day and I was out in the field that was home to my horses. However, I was not aware of the autumn sunshine, the crisp air or the blue of the sky. I was only aware of the ache in my back as I bent to pick up more sycamore seeds. I had been at it for over half an hour and was grumbling to myself, complaining about the fact that I had to waste time doing this every day, wishing that we could cut the wretched tree down. At that moment, I straightened up to rub my back and my eyes fell on the large sycamore tree that stood in the hedgerow of the field next door. Her ample trunk and sturdy spreading branches showed me that she had been in that place for a lot longer than I or my horses had been on the planet. Her leaves, a mixture of burnished gold and copper shimmered and glowed in the sunlight as the breeze moved through them. I remember the sudden wave of sadness and feeling so ashamed. It was not the tree’s fault that her seeds contained a toxin. Human beings and their greed were driving the speed of climate change. I stood in the afternoon sun and a feeling of despair washed over me. It felt that there was so little I could do to make a difference.
“Make a doll and leave it in the hedgerow as an offering.” The words were very clear. “What?” The words came again. It wasn’t the fact that I was hearing them that was puzzling me. I am used to getting messages from the other- than- human world. It was something that had been happening since I was a child and since being immersed in eco-therapy and earth based spirituality, it no longer caused me to think I was crazy. No, it was the actual words themselves. Make a doll? I had never considered such a thing and no idea how to go about it. But make a doll I did, in fact I made a few, tiny little figures made by needle-felting some wool. Tucking them into the spiky branches of the Blackthorn and Hawthorn hedge that ran alongside the Sycamore tree, I offered prayers for all the trees lost, for the horses who had died and for the fear the humans were living in. I asked forgiveness for what we were doing to the climate by our greed. I thanked the tree for all she gave, for her beauty that lifted my spirits, the home she provided to birds and insects and finally I asked her and Mother Earth to protect my beloved horses from harm. I thought that would be it, my task complete. But in fact, it was just the beginning.
Dolls began to clamour to be made. The first was Old Lady Sycamore. I wrestled with materials as I had no idea what I was going and the doll who emerged was a dark wizened old crone who seemed to speak of ancient wisdom. As she began to take shape through my hands, I found myself thinking of how the sycamore tree is not a native tree to the islands I live on and how many consider her to be ‘an invasive species’. Sycamore doesn’t appear much in the popular books on tree wisdom because she does not appear in the Celtic tree calendar (which is often called ancient but in fact was an invention of the poet Robert Graves in 1948). Yet she gives so much. Her wood is used for dance floors and the making of violins. As I made the doll, who later introduced herself as Lady Sycamore, my own biases and suspicions of people and groups who were different came bubbling to the surface. I remembered how years ago, when a part of a charismatic evangelical church, I had taken part in activities where witches, paganism and the festival of Halloween were deemed to be evil. The image of the witch doll I made in response was accompanied by a public apology and posted on my blog.
So many dolls followed. A doll for the grave of a woman who had been in one of the infamous Magdalen laundries in Ireland. Her baby was one of thousands who were put in unmarked graves. There were dolls for healing, dolls of remembrance, stick dolls, rag dolls, needle-felted dolls and dolls made of clay. One doll in particular took me on a journey of discovery. As I made her, I found myself using techniques and symbols that were unfamiliar to my conscious mind, but my hands remembered. A friend mentioned the term ‘Poppet’ and as I began to research it, I learned that dolls have been used for thousands of years in rituals and ceremonies in many cultures. I discovered too that many of the crafts I had incorporated into the dolls, such as weaving, spinning and decorative knotwork, had been demonised by the church and would have been enough to get me executed as a witch!
These days, dolls are a way I pray. They are a way of hearing what the Divine might be whispering, a way of listening to the Ancestors and honouring the land. I will be sharing some simple ways to explore archetypes using Poppets in the upcoming Abbey retreat Visionary, Warrior, Healer and Sage: Archetypes to Navigate an Unravelling World (May 8 to June 10) The Dolls are inviting you …. I hope that you will join us!
The journey through Visionary, Warrior, Healer, Sage: Archetypes to Navigate an Unraveling World begins May 8th.
Polly Paton-Brown MA UKCP worked for many years as a psychotherapist and trainer in the field of trauma. More recently, Polly’s focus has been on helping people explore their spirituality and prayer, using creativity and connection with nature. Polly has a particular passion for creating healing dolls as a portal to transformation.
Always a lover of nature, horses and creativity Polly now integrates all of these into her practice. She has trained in Nature Based Practice and Eco-pychology, Environmental Arts, Expressive Arts and Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy. She is a licenced facilitator of Chakradance, The Art of Allowing , Creative Awakenings and the Wild Soul Woman Programme.
A member of the Iona Community, Polly was coordinator of their healing ministry for 11 years and when in that role ran regular retreats on the Isle of Iona. She is also a Sister of Belle Coeur. With roots in the contemplative and monastic traditions, Polly also draws wisdom from other spiritual paths such as Druidry and Sufism. She is passionate to help those wounded by the institutional church restore their image of God and themselves.