An Ovate's Reflection
As I began my Druid journey, I along with many others have been initiated into the Mysteries of the Monarch Bear Grove by our Druid Chiefs here in Northern California. On this windy hill of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, throughout many rituals I was introduced to the Stones, the Trees, the Earth the Guardians and the Spirit of the Monarch Bear, all of which have become for me and for many a place of peaceful refuge and reflection, of solace, and of energy and joy!
The Grove is an excellent example of how nature and the spiritual artifacts of humanity, coming from various paths and traditions, can come together to reveal the interwoven complementarity of the whole, which I am coming more and more to understand as the complex rhythm of the Great Dance.
History of the Grove
The land which makes up the more than 1000 acres of Golden Gate Park today lies in the middle of the multifaceted City of San Francisco, near the Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay. For thousands of years, The Olone and the Miwok peoples lived and prospered in this part of California, until driven into eclipse and eventual destruction by the European immigrants. Sir Francis Drake was the first modern European to visit the area, and the Golden Gate (the narrow entrance from the Pacific to San Francisco Bay between the San Francisco Peninsula and the Marin Headlands, now spanned by the Golden Gate Bridge) was so named because of its similarity to the Golden Horn at Constantinople.
The land which is now Golden Gate Park was mostly sand dunes (as this colorized 19th century photo shows), running up to the Pacific Ocean which borders the Park to the West. During the late 1800s to mid-1900s, the work to transform the dunes (photo: 1912) into forested park land was undertaken. Monarch Bear Grove is located in the Eastern third of the Park, and borders the National AIDS Memorial Grove, in which the Manannan mac Lir OBOD Grove and Five Shaman Circles communities often do ritual, especially at Samhuinn. The concentration of the legacy and Spirit of the Olone, the Miwok. the Monarch Bear and the victims of AIDS contribute powerfully to the work of our OBOD Grove for the healing of the wounds of the Earth and its creatures.
The famous and infamous William Randolph Hearst (brilliantly caricatured in Orson Welles' 1941 Citizen Kane) is responsible, perhaps in spite of himself, for two of the most lasting spiritual distinctions which have come down to us in the 21st century Monarch Bear Grove.
The first legacy was part of the growing Golden Gate menagerie which was proposed and grew during the last decades of the 19th century. In 1889, Hearst, head of the San Francisco Examiner Newspaper, sent an expedition out to capture a California Grizzly Bear for the Park's menagerie. The whole cruel story of the Grizzly's capture and imprisonment is a chapter in itself told by Raymond H. Clary in The Making of Golden Gate Park. (Click here for the details of the Monarch Bear's capture and subsequent life.)
In the end, the huge Bear was named "Monarch" after the Examiner Newspaper's moniker and was placed in the Grove we now use in a specially designed enclosure, and lived there until his death in 1911, and is credited with being the ancestor of many of the Bears in the San Francisco Zoo today.
In 1931, Hearst's hubris again connected him to the Grove. Famous for purchasing and moving monuments and historical artifacts from Europe and elsewhere to his estates in California (Hearst Castle in San Simeon and others), he set his sites on a disused 12th Century Spanish Cistercian Chapter House of the Monastery of Santa Maria de Ovila, near the village of Trillo, approximately ninety miles northeast of Madrid. The Monks of New Clairvaux continue the story:
"In 1931, William Randolph Hearst purchased parts of the Abbey of Santa Maria de Ovila, including the entire Chapter House, for almost $100,000. A hundred men were hired to dismantle the purchased stones, bring them out of the valley over a narrow gauge railroad laid directly to the Abbey, and carry them by mule and truck to Valencia from where 12 ships brought them to America..
"Financial problems, beginning to afflict Hearst during the Depression, caused a change in his plans to reassemble these ancient stones as part of his estate at Wyntoon, on the McCloud River near Mount Shasta. Instead he donated them to the City of San Francisco and moved them from a warehouse to Golden Gate Park.
"World War II and numerous other situations intervened to hinder reconstruction. Consequently, the stones lay unattended for many years in Golden Gate Park where they became victims of a series of fires, theft, vandalism. Some stones were used for various Park needs, as in the Arboretum and Stow Lake. Eventually, it became more and more impossible to reassemble the stones into some type of structure.
"About 1980, Dr. Margaret Burke, a national expert in medieval architecture, surveyed and made a study of the stones. Miraculously, the beautiful Chapter House stones survived the fires and vandalism and proved to be salvageable. Its reconstruction could be accomplished." (from the Monastery Web Page)
In 1941 the Stones were unceremoniously dumped in piles in and around the Monarch Bear Grove, the Bear Enclosures having been removed years before. During the intervening years, besides being victims of wear and tear, the ancient building stones were, far from being unattended, also becoming objects of attraction to many, drawn by their antiquity, their spiritual origins, and beauty.
By the mid 1990s, Dr. Rodney Karr, our Druid Chief here, had begun to use some of the smaller stones for Altars in Monarch Bear Grove. His work most weekdays includes tending to the Grove, leaving food for the creatures which inhabit it, and continuing the work on the Altars.
When the Cistercian Monks of New Clairvaux in Vina, California (the spiritual descendents of the Spanish Monks whose Chapter House was moved in 1931) conceived the idea of moving the stones and rebuilding the Chapter House at their site, negotiations were entered into with the City of San Francisco. Finally, an amicable agreement to give most of the Stones to the Monastery allowed many of the smaller ones to remain for the spiritual use of the many seekers, both Druid and others, in Monarch Bear Grove.
Thus, stones from a Mediaeval Abbey dedicated to the Theotokos (Bearer of God) are now being rebuilt in Vina, and also used for the celebration of Divine Wisdom (Sophia) and the Druid Path in San Francisco. The White Robed Cistercian Monks of New Clairvaux and the Bards, Ovates and Druids of Manannan mac Lir Grove and the Community of the Five Shaman Circles may seem vastly different, but through the joys and suffering manifested in the Monarch Bear Grove, they might find in this hymn to the Divine Feminine of yet another tradition, the Byzantine, a common cause of celebration:
"O Victorious Leader of Triumphant Hosts! We your people delivered from bondage, sing our grateful thanks to you O Theotokos! You posses invincible might: set us free from every calamity, that we may sing to you: Hail, O Bride and Maiden!" [Byzantine Kondak of the Annunciation (at the Spring Equinox)]
The Druid Grove of the Monarch Bear Today
The Grove is surrounded by powerful Guardians, a stand of Pacific Scrub Oaks and many massive trees, as well as thickets of flora. The primary paths which approach the Grove from the four directions are lined with stones from the Abbey. Since this is part of a public park, used by the whole population of San Francisco, the Altars that have been built over the years are sometimes vandalized, but always rebuilt. Simplicity and practicality, as well as spiritual authenticity are therefore essential watchwords for these sacred grounds.
The usual ritual approach from the Golden Gate roadway is in the North, at the Altar of the Goddess. Upon entering we leave our gifts of flowers, fruits, candles and the like, walking through the small stone spiral to the center of the Altar. Certainly we Druids are not the only ones to do so. Whenever I have visited the Grove, I have found gifts left here by her many devotees.
Sitting very still on the stones, before the Offering area, I have been privileged to watch as tiny field mice and squirrels bravely venture out to collect the gifts of fruit and seeds, watching carefully for the blackbirds and other sharp eyed predators from above. I vividly recall once having an urge to "protect" little mammals from these flying dinosaurs, but then realized that just as the seeds were food for the mice and squirrels, they were in turn prey for the birds. The Circles turn, life and death dance together.
Walking out of the Northern Altar Spiral, one can see the Central Altar, with a cross of stones marking the four directions, and a large section of a Tree Trunk on which may be set ritual objects. Around the periphery of the main circle there are set 8 stone markers for the 8 directions and Festas. At rituals, all of these are illumined by candles and often decorated with garlands of flowers. Besides individual rituals and meditations, the Manannan mac Lir Grove and Five Shaman Circle Community hold the four Solar Festas in Monarch Bear Grove, usually in the evenings after work.
Up a steep hill we walk under a low overhanging oak branch to the Eastern Altar. This Altar is in a dense thicket, and is surmounted by a male symbol. It is ideally suited to standing and allowing the winds to buffet one's face and hands, seeking the cleansing and purification of Air. It is through the passage of the Eastern Altar that the Five Shaman Circles Communities wend their way in a candle-lit procession to the AIDS Grove during the seasons of Samhuinn and Alban Arthuan for rituals of remembrance, sorrow, life and rebirth.
Walking back down the hill and reentering the main circle, we turn to the Southern Altar, the newest of our Major Directional Altars. Here are two enclosures for the Southern Fire Cauldrons, as well as the stone path of the Lightning Bolt of the male, Solar Energy which shoots toward the center of the Grove. Most of the Southern Altar was constructed of Stones unearthed in road reconstruction in the Fillmore District of San Francisco, an area which has endured much artistic power, but also many changes and troubles due to racial and cultural misunderstandings, conflicts and oppression by the powerful. We bring this energy of power, creativity and conflict into the Grove for energizing, as well as healing and harmony.
Turning again, we walk down a small incline to the Altar of the West, a Triangular Goddess Altar set in a natural gully between a nurturing Oak to the West of the Circle (the Oak that gave me my inner names) and another Oak Guardian at the edge of the Circle, at the base of whose trunk is set the capstone of the Western Altar. It is at this Altar that Druid Rodney and others of us leave eggs and other foods for the raccoons and larger animals of the Grove. Very often during our evening and nighttime rituals, these Raccoons and others are very much in evidence, enjoying our festivities!
Clambering back up the incline, in the North West corner of the Grove Circle, at the direction of Samhuinn, endings and beginnings, is the large Circle of the Moon. When we arrive for rituals, we place the foods and drinks we have brought for the Festa here in the Moon Circle. After the main part of the Ritual is completed, we retire to the stones of this Circle for Eisteddfod and Feasting! After this, we release the Directions and embrace one another in light, life and love!
The intertwining of so much powerful energy in its history and current spiritual celebrations cannot but make the Monarch Bear Grove a center of healing, joy and growth for San Francisco and the wider world. May we continue to walk between the Worlds within its Circle!
-- Druid Padraig
Steven A. Armstrong
Monarch Bear Grove is the primary grove of our work. Rodney Karr has been steward of this grove and care-taker for over twelve years, and is there taking care of the trees, animals and spirits every week. It is a sacred, powerful space which interweaves the history and energies of a primortial oak grove, the sacred twelfth-century stones of the Abbey of Santa Maria de Ovila, the spirit of the Monarch Bear, totem animal of the state of California, and the spirits and energies of the National AIDS Memorial Grove.
For more information about the Monarch Bear, please click here.