Yule is a time when the season turns and the winter is at it’s peak. It is when we look to the return of the Sun and the warmth while still in the grip of the chill of winter. Yule is when the virgin Goddess is awoken and the God is reborn. Yule is a time of transformation when the long nights of winter start to give way to longer days. The reawakening of the earth brings hope and promise of ongoing life and the coming warmth as the God grows ever stronger. Yule is also a time when, legend tells us, Persephone is in the Underworld as the Queen of the Underworld and her absence from the earth brings us winter. The earth, like Demeter, grieves until Persephone returns to the earth once more.
This year Pagan Initiative held Yule at Mount Keira at the Scout Camp there and for the first time I was taking both of my daughters with me to an event. Jessica, my eldest, had attended other events but my youngest, Rebecca, had not been to any pagan events and was excited to go to her first. Both girls were looking forward to Yule and had been counting down the days expectantly for some time.
The drive to Yule was spent with my answering their many questions about what would happen and what they would get to do while there. The mood light and expectant, we quickly covered the miles from Goulburn to Mount Keira. (Why is it miles sounds better than kilometres?)
We found our way to the camp easily and were very happy to see the scout camp.
Already there, some of our friends in the pagan community were busy settling in and unpacking for what promised to be a good weekend with mild weather, good friends and interesting workshops.
Once people had gathered the event was opened with a few words from the organisers about the rules and the camp. We were encouraged to enjoy the beauty of the bush around the camp but should we wish to go bush walking we should not go alone and should tell people where we were going. Then we moved into the circle for the opening ritual.
Mount Keira has a long been a place where, long before the Europeans, the native aboriginal tribe of the region; the Dharawal and Wodi Wodi would come to Mount Keira or Djera as they called the mountain, as part of their own seasonal journey. The opening ritual honored the spirits of the land and the people who had walked the lands before us and asked them to watch over the gathering. We were then led into a spiral dance which saw people trying not to fall over as they tried to keep up with the rest of the group such was the speed and energy that the event opened with.
Mount Keira is also known for the lyrebirds which have made their home there. The lyrebird is well known for it’s mimicry and have been known to imitate a wide variety of sounds and other animals. One account of the lyrebirds of Mount Keira reported them imitating dogs and other animals. On Mount Keira there is a national reserve for the lyrebird and they could be seen and heard about the camp. It is interesting to note the lyrebird is the mythological story teller.
Friday night saw people telling stories and catching up with each other. Some had travelled just a short way, others much further to be apart of the Yule celebration.
Morning light showed Mount Keira in all it’s glory and I believe it is a truly magical place. So do many couples as it is a popular place for weddings and receptions. The climb from the bunk house to the main building was made for mountain goats and the extra fit, the rest of us puffed and panted as we climbed the stairs.
The morning consisted in workshops including poppet making and crafts and yours truly gave a talk on the Native American Flute. While I did so events were happening that none of us were aware of but that lead to a change in both the focus and feel of the weekend. While I was presenting and explaining how to play the Native American Flute, my youngest daughter by my side, Jessica was assisting some of the group get fire wood for the fire pit.
As a typical teenager, Jessica thinks she knows a lot. She is a girl growing into a woman and had been helping out with chores and getting involved in activities. When the group left the fire pit, Jessica began a different adventure. In the moments before lunch was served Jessica stepped off the path and away from the fire pit and like a television drama, vanished.
The bell rang for lunch, a large golden bell on a wooden frame that could be heard tolling across the campsite. As the rest of us began to prepare to eat, I noticed Jessica had not entered the dining hall. I asked Rebecca had she seen her sister. She hadn’t. I put my lunch aside and went out and began calling for Jessica. It was unlike her not to come running for a meal.
Searching the grounds revealed no sign of her.
Soon I was not alone searching for her though at first the feeling was she had just gone off to do something by her self and would show up. Thirty minutes. Sixty. No sign of her and the search parties getting bigger and covering more and more area.
Now I know as a parent we do not like to admit our offsprings faults but something told me this was not a game for her. Jessica wanted to be at Yule and was looking forward to the workshops and for her not to respond to people calling for her… Well as a parent it soon became hard not to picture her hurt and unable to respond.
Sixty minutes became three hours of searching the grounds not once but several times. Workshops abandoned. The other children led off to do some things to keep them busy and together. I want to thank those who cared for Rebecca while I was becoming more and more stressed. I know Rebecca was getting just as worried about her sister and I think she welcomed the distractions as much as I did.
We were trying everything. Those who could physically search did. Those who were more adept with sensing searched that way as well. One young man, who had a close connection to the land and the region and I tried to find her and while he sensed she was okay and that there were lyrebirds around her, he could pin point where she was. I just felt she was down hill of where we were.
After some hours of everyone searching, the Warden/ caretakers helping to look called in the police. Of course by now I was getting to the point of despair. How could I have lost one of my children? How would I tell their mother? Where was she? Was she okay? Was she hurt? So many fears filling my mind.
There was a tension in the camp as everyone held their breath waiting for news. The arrival of the police seemed to bring a new sense of hope. Soon they sent out searchers to check the grounds. Those who had already searched for hours quickly offered their services to the officers of Wollongong’s Search and Rescue.
Jessica, for her part, we found out later, had wandered through the bush trying to find a way through the thick scrub and found a trail. It seemed every time she went to leave it a lyrebird would appear and flapping it’s wings and squawking to turn her back onto the path.
The police called in the air patrol and the helicopter flew over head for some time searching the thick tree line for some sign. Sadly the tree cover was too thick to see Jessica picking her way beneath and the noise of the helicopter too loud to hear calls for help.
Like the Goddess being woken by the animals, my daughter felt she was being guided and urged on by the animals of Mount Keira. Occasionally she felt despair and would go to give up only to hear a growling sound that would spur her into action again. One of the wardens told me later that there are wild dogs on the mountain but I wonder if it were not the lyrebirds mimicking the growl to keep her moving.
Around the mountain there are also wild deer and on two occasions, Jessica told us later, a group would run by. The trail she had found most likely was a game trail and not a bush walker’s path as Jessica had thought. Instead of leading her back to the camp the game trail led her deeper into the Australian Bush.
More than once there was reference to Persephone and her journey to the underworld and back. I know for me, the fear and grief I was feeling would have been akin to that of Demeter when Persephone was taken. As a parent I have experienced nothing more scary as the thoughts of what might have been. It was hard to do nothing and know there was nothing you could do. I begged the Gods to return her to me just as Demeter must have begged Zues to rescue her daughter.
Slowly the light faded and the darkness of evening began to close in around the mountain. Still people looked and prayed and those who stood by me rarely left me alone. I know some feared as much for my health as for Jessica’s.
In the fall of night the State Emergency Service and members of the Wollongong Police prepared to go into the twilight and search when a radio call came in. A girl calling for help in the woods some two kilometres away. A patrol was dispatched to check it out as local residents began searching the woods behind their property for the source of the calls for help. I remember looking expectantly between the trees towards the lights of Wollongong in the distance and praying to the Gods that it was Jessica.
My daughter was found between six and six and a half hours after she went missing. She had walked from Mount Keira to the ourskirts of Wollongong. Alone. Scared. Cold. Alive!
It was after six in the evening when it was confirmed that my daughter had indeed been found. She was taken to Wollongong Hospital and given a check up. Fortunately, other than exhaustion, a little dehydration and cold, the only injuries were scratches that covered her legs and hands. It was a such a relief to find her sitting in the hospital bed. Hands cut up. I could see in her eyes the journey through the woods had effected her.
Those waiting for news from me sighed with relief when they got word Jessica was okay and that we would be coming back to the camp. The camp had been subdued and waiting expectantly for any news. When it came people finally began to relax.
At nine thirty we left the hospital and made the dark climb back up the mountain. Jessica and Rebecca sitting in the back in silence. A far cry from the chatter of the journey to Mount Keira from Goulburn. The black road just served to remind me how lucky it was Jessica had been found before nightfall had enveloped the mountain in a curtain of pitch black. The air so cold that my windows were fogging over from our breath.
A good result, the Police and SES called it. I call it a miracle. My daughter had been through her own walkabout, her own journey into the underworld and returned safely to tell the tale.
I for one was happy to see her smiling the next day and while I could tell she was effected by her experience, she was trying to get back to normal including performing in an act that some of the children had scripted and choreographed themselves.
Yule had new meaning for me. The Gods had given me back my eldest daughter. That was all the gift I could ask.
Sunday saw emotions swing wildly as the effects of the stress of the day before really hit home. Some were exhausted. Some still tense. Some worked up and others just relieved. The weekend had changed and it was thanks to my family and friends in the pagan community, the wardens of Mount Keira Scout Camp, the Police and members of the State Emergency Service that my family and I were able to look back on the weekend with gratitude and a new respect for life.
The closing ritual of the weekend I think could not have been more perfect. After thanks from the organisers and words from both Jessica and myself we were led in a hug circle. Everyone, well most, hugged each other and as I went around I thanked every one in turn for their love, help and support.
Soon it was time to clean up and we all chipped in leaving the camp site clean and tidy.
Then it was time for final goodbyes and hugs. One by one people said good bye as they finished packing up.
I know I will never forget this Yule. I will never forget those people who helped me. I will never forget those people who put aside their plans to search for my eldest daughter or cared for my youngest. I will never forget and neither will Jessica who, like those of the land before us, experienced her own spiritual journey. One where she had to survive alone and through the journey return a little stronger and wiser for the experience.
Thank you all.
Events like those that took place at Mount Keira test us and reveal us to others. How we treat each other at a time of crisis, how we come together. They effect us each differently.
There are gifts the Gods give us. The gifts of life and love. Joy and community. We come together as pagans in celebration of that. Workshops and rituals are fun but when push comes to shove I would rather spend my weekend with those good friends in celebration of life.
Now reading this I know it might seem like some glorious quest. But living it I can tell you it has been the hardest, most painful thing I have ever experienced and the effects of it I am still feeling a week later. So while this article was to have been one about the celebration of Yule it is for me about the celebration of my daughters return from the underworld.
It is also meant as a warning. As a parent, I have a duty to my children. As an adult, I have a duty to the other children and adults around me. When you go to events pay attention to the rules, they are there to protect people. Pay attention to those around you. Everyone is there to enjoy themselves and by being aware of those around you you can play your part in making sure everyone has a good time.
I think we sometimes forget what is important in life. What things mean. Yule is meant to be a celebration of life beginning anew. It is a time when the longest night is at hand and the promise of brighter days to come. It is a time for family and friends to gather together in the dark and look longingly to the future.
While Yule at Mount Keira saw workshops cancelled and plans changed, it did see a refocusing on the true meaning of Yule, at least for me. The coming together of family and friends to celebrate life and the hope of better days.