Introduction from the AuthorAn Invitation to Ross County
Imaginative Origins of the Whittiers
About Ross County
An Invitation to Ross County
“We imagine our lives in order to live them. Granted, there is an external matrix into which we cast our imaginings -- a 'world' that cannot be other than what it is -- yet through our imaginations we alter and affect that outer world, bringing our life into it." (49)
- Daniel Westforth Whittier The Faring (Jenson Printing, 2008)Welcome to Ross County, where various versions of a dream of life-together-in-Earth-and-Spirit are being played out day by day by individuals & groups in a variety of settings.
This fictional world first arose out of the stuff of philosophical imaginings and explorations in the early 1980's, when I was casting about at the trailhead of my own vocation for a foothold; throwing off the dogmas of youth and seeking the ley-lines of what I came to call an earthen philosophy and spirituality. The rudiments of this life-philosophy initially manifested in dreams about the Yule; imagined as a season of poetic and inspiring motifs surrounding the event of the Winter Solstice. It also came to be formulated in poetic and philosophical speculations during night saunters -- in the woods, out along the railroad tracks, and down old country roads -- as well as during long, devout conversations with friends and students. We would sit together in candlelight, long into the night after our outings, and reflect on the nature of life and how to make it poetic and worth living. Ross County -- as my poetic landscape came to be called -- presented itself as a fecund staging ground for life experiments; a potent place where a genuine vision of life could be constructed, and where the deep questions I was asking about life could be asked and answers posed.
Out of these walks and conversations, a family emerged in the poems and short narrative scenarios I was writing about the Yule. Their name soon appeared on the page -- in the midst of writing one night, and I sat back and wondered at it, as I had not summoned the name up intentionally. They were to be called "The Whittiers." As I proceeded to envision their life over the next couple of years, I depicted them as living in an old frame house built in the last decade of the 19th century, on a hill south of a town that was soon named Wickersfeld. Their house was located on "Deer Hill". Soon it became clear to me that Wickersfeld was the county seat of Ross County, a fictional county in western Pennsylvania.
As I moved from writing Yule stories about the Whittiers to more broadly envisioning Deer Hill and Wickersfeld over the next couple years, my life-philosophy evolved through intuition, study and all of my experiences out in the woods, on walks alone and with friends. Over the next ten years, the vision of life-together that I was fleshing out came to be diversified, manifesting via numerous characters representing three primary traditions; (1) the secular/literary tradition (i.e., tied to American Naturalists, e.g., Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, John Muir, and Anna Comstock Botsford, among others) of the Whittiers -- a life philosophy that they would call "earthen mysticism," (2) a Wicchan Tradition called Keltelven spirituality; essentially a Celtic praxis, and (3) a Celtic Christian Tradition.
I have been 'visiting' Ross County since the early 1980's, culling themes from the play of landscape and character; gleaning poetic touchstones that informed and became embodied in the stories and poems that I wrote. Storytelling has always seemed to me a potent mode of thinking. To tell a story is to imply a world.
Here, at this website, I've brought together all of the characters that populate my poems, stories and narrative essays. Ross County has been a 'staging ground' for each of the poetic and philosophic experiments in which I've been involved over the last 40 years. It is now home to all of the spiritualities I've practiced and taught and eventually embodied in my published works. Herein you will find some of the most potent touchstones of the poetic naturalism that I now explore in my blogs, as well as runes of Wicchan, Celtic Christian and Keltelven spiritualities; each of which is practiced by one set of characters or another in Ross County. Celtic Christian spirituality is associated mainly with Ravenswood, Merlynwood, Windwood House and Abbotsford. Keltelven spirituality is primarily associated with Cornelius Whitsel, Michael Wolfenden and Karl Jackson of Scholar's Den in Wickersfeld and other characters in their orbit. A Naturalist and Aesthetic spirituality is exemplified by the Whittiers and their friends living on and around Deer Hill. Pages dedicated to aspects of each of these spiritualities may be found in each of the sections of this website.
I invite you, therefore, to come to Ross County, and explore as you will. May you find touchstones, here, for your own vision of Life-Together-in-Earth-and-Spirit.
Imaginative Origins of the Whittiers
“We came to Deer Hill in the 1890's to start a new life; Jonathan Whittier built the house that the family lived in for the next fifty years, until it was destroyed in a horrible fire. That we have returned to Deer Hill after all this time speaks to the power of the vision we had of the life we wanted to live. This place, this hill_ had a lot to do with the memories that stayed with us for thirty years.”
- Susan Jean Whittier, in Geoffrey's Interviews with the Family (1981)
The origins of the Whittiers are rooted in the depths of my own experience; though not literally. The family I came to know as 'The Whittiers' were unconsciously framed by three sources before they ever emerged as a living example of the poetic life: (1) life with my own family; i.e., experiences at the two main homesteads with which I was familiar while growing up; my natal home and (2) my maternal grandmother's home in central PA, and finally (3) experiences at an old burned-out house south of the town where I grew up in western Pennsylvania. A common theme each of these settings had in common was an association with the Yuletide; with Winter Solstice and Christmas.
Christmas has been a spiritual and aesthetic touchstone for me for as long as I can remember. My childhood seems to cycle around from one Christmas to another. I have vivid memories of Christmas from a young age at both my natal home and at my grandmother's house; to which we journeyed on or around Christmas each year until I was in my teens. There, my cousins and I played, indoors and out, venturing up Jack's Mountain and exploring where we would, hiking down the creek or crossing stone rows and fields--seeking imaginative touchstones for intense play. I have concrete images in my memory of various Christmas trees we had in the house over the years.
Then, in 1969, I discovered an old burned-out house down along the railroad tracks and became fascinated with the place. Over the next few years, I went there with friends and also met mentors there with whom I had been fortunate enough to connect. Out of all of these experiences eventually came the runes of the life-philosophy that I have since developed and embraced. There is no doubt that my longstanding fascination with 'Christmas,' the Pagan Season of Yule and later the Winter Solstice (understood as a naturalistic event; the touchstone giving rise to both Yule and Christmas), is rooted in early experiences while growing up. Out of these experiences and the imaginative play they inspired arose what I came to call "The Thirteen Dayes of Yule," a season celebrated both by the Keltelvens and the Whittiers in Ross County. Both of these imaginative constructs are tied to acts of devout poetic construction at that old burned-out house along the railroad tracks; an 'empty form' in which I went adventuring, staging many of my adolescent poetic constructions.
As I awoke from my dogmatic slumber in the early 1980's and began seeking a philosophy by which to live life intentionally, many impressions, remembered experiences and dreamed touchstones of what I imagined life to be came together in a Mused Cauldron, being served up in the poetic narratives I was inspired to write about the family that became known as "The Whittiers." The family's life revolved around "The Yule," a symbolic 'calendar' which they celebrated each year during December, through which they observed the passing of the Winter Solstice; i.e., the longest night of the year, 21 December. The Yule is a thirteen day 'schedule' -- beginning on 13 December and ending on Christmas, 25 December -- during which the Whittiers engaged in a wide variety of poetic, imaginative and spiritual exercises, from hiking to storytelling to the singing of seasonal music. Each day is given the name of an 'evergreen' or some other icon of the Winter Solstice Season, and is associated with an iconic activity. By celebrating the Thirteen Dayes of Yule, the Whittiers 'resource' and 'recharge' themselves for the journey through another year.
The inspiration for this Yuletide schedule comes from my mentors, who taught me a version of Celtic Paganism when I was a teenager. They introduced me to the mythology of the Winter Solstice as drawn from European sources; mainly British, Irish and Germanic -- and showed me how our modern Christmas traditions are rooted in these older mythologies. During those years the Yule was, for me, a symbolic season full of Pagan intuition and wisdom. In the early 1980's, I re-visioned Yule and Christmas in naturalistic symbols. It was as I did so that The Whittiers first appeared in the poetry that was coming forth through me. Following the paths implied by the symbolic embellishment of the Thirteen Nights constituted a 'journey' to, through and beyond the Winter Solstice.
Over the next few years the Whittiers evolved into a vehicle for stories about not only (1) the Yule and the Winter Solstice Season, but also (2) a naturalistic understanding of human dwelling, and (3) a poetic and philosophic vision of human life in its ever-haunted, mortal, dimensions. The family eventually began appearing in stories outside the Winter Solstice Season and became the central narrative focus of Ross County. The Whittiers remain in this role to this day in my poetic landscape. Each of my published works deals with Ross County and the three spiritualities/life-philosophies practiced by my characters in a particular way:
The Whittiers, their history and their life-philosophy, are the focus of my book Heart & Hearth: Poetic Explorations of Authentic Human Dwelling in Earth & Spirit (2009, AuthorHouse). My book, Tales from the Seasons (2008, AuthorHouse) features characters from all around Ross County having epiphanic experiences in a variety of contexts. It explores the idea that "the extraordinary arises out of the ordinary." My novel, Ham-Farir: The Faring of Matthew Thorin Dier (2008), features characters from all three main groups in Ross County -- Naturalists, Keltelvens and Celtic Christians -- coming together to understand a traumatic series of events that they had gone through having to do with an old family that had lived in Ross County in the 1880's known as "The Dier." My book, WellSprings of the Dier (2002), is a primer in Celtic spirituality, rooted in historical and imaginative sources. It delineates a paradigm of "Nine Wayes" that can be lived today. Characters in Ross County can been seen living this spirituality, esp. Catharine Abbot and the Druids of Merlynwood -- in various stories in my more recent books. My most recent book The Fires of Yule: A Keltelven Guide for Celebrating the Winter Solstice (2013) is a fictional exploration of a Pagan version of "The Thirteen Dayes" as seen through the eyes of four Keltelven Practitioners living in Wickersfeld PA. The book is 'penned' by Cornelius Whitsel and his house-mates and partners in the Craeft. It brings together Celtic and other Pagan myths about the Winter Solstice Season in the hopes of generating a vivid poetic imaginative environment for experiencing the Winter Solstice. It is open to a "Pagan following of Christ" as a dying-and-rising god, and refers to the Christ-myth as related to the Winter Solstice, but is not Christo-Pagan in conception.
As such, this website is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to provide an introduction to the poetic landscape that backgrounds all of my books -- for the benefit of readers -- and to provide an interesting 'space' in which visitors may engage in imaginative play and hopefully find touchstones for their own envisioning of a life-together worth living. So be it.
About Ross County
“Imagination is not an alternative to lived experience but its extension. It acts out the same patterns of being subject as lived experience, though in a limitless variety of imaginary instantiations.” (49)
- Erazim Kohaks Idea and Experience (1978)
Ross County is a primarily rural landscape in central western Pennsylvania, more west of Harrisburg than it is east of Pittsburgh, situated in coal and lumber country, in what has sometimes been called "Westsylvania," that is, "the West Woods." It's culture is a 'melting pot,' becoming home to one wave of immigrants after another, from the early 19th until the early 20th centuries; English, French, Germanic, Irish, and finally eastern European. The land that became Ross County was heavily lumbered in the first half of the 19th century, the majority of its native forests being leveled by 1875. After this time, second growth forests grew up and became dominant, now hemming in farms and towns from one end of the county to another. In the mid-19th century coal mining took off, and boomed into the mid-20th century, after which the industry petered out, owing to the depth of the remaining coal. In the mid-19th century the railroad came through Ross County, opening it up, culturally as well as economically, to the wider world. Some limestone was quarried in the south eastern corner of the county, and a couple of small oil fields sprung up in the north west corner of the county in the late 19th century, but then went dry by 1910 or so.
The County seat of Ross County is Wickersfeld, located somewhat southeast of the geographic 'center' of the County. In the East of the County is the smaller town of Milvale; these two towns being the largest in the County. North of Wickersfeld is a small town called Tannersville, and south of the County seat is Sommerstown; a 'cross-roads' town that functions as a hub for the farming community in Ross County.
Despite the history of logging in the County, there are two places where a stand of primary Old Forest still persists. One of these is on the ridges of Windsor Forest in the NE quarter of the County. The other is Deer Hill; a prominent 'hogback' rising out of the local landscape, having a mysterious, nearly always enigmatic, presence--located about a mile south of the outskirts of present-day Wickersfeld. Here, four farms were cleared in the 19th century, but aside from these properties, the rest of the forest was left untouched. The original inhabitants of the land had considered this hill to be sacred, and the first European settlers -- a family by the name of "Henry" -- adopted the native peoples' reverence for the place and established the precedent that it should never be logged. This reverence for the Hill was later taken to heart by the Whittiers, once they moved onto "Second Farm Property" in the 1890's.
The Whittiers came to the area that would later be known as Ross County in the 1790's. They made their homestead near Deer Hill, along Willow Creek, and became friends with the Henrys as well as other local farmers and entrepreneurs. They were from Northumbria on the NW shores of England, where they had been involved in the shipping and logging industries. They came to western Pennsylvania in search of new sources of timber, and it was the Whittiers who founded the logging camp along Willow Creek that eventually became Wickersfeld.
Disclaimer: As is true with any fictional world, any seeming similarity herein -- in the pages of this website -- to places in the 'real,' external world, beyond my imagination, is purely accidental. I have modeled Ross County on no actual existing place. No actual, existing person or group of people is represented herein. It is an amalgam of all of the most interesting features and dimensions of many places, both real and dreamt, transformed -- via the poet's imagination, into fodder for reflection.
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