This year, I spent Christmas morning walking the hills. It was a truly amazing day – dry air and no cloud made the sunlight sharp and intense. We watched the first light flood the Severn plain with colour and paint the beech trees in startling reds. There were ravens. What had, recently, been a washed out wintery landscape of faded greens, muddy browns and greys suddenly acquired brilliant, jewel-like colour. The Severn River herself was the kind of blue children imagine the sea as being.
On Boxing Day (that’s the 26th for you international folk who do not participate in strange English customs) we did nothing involving either boxes or hitting people. (Theories vary as to why this day has this name and what it is therefore supposed to be about). We walked back the long way, which took most of the day, but enabled me to fill in some holes in my inner map. We saw more ravens, and a red deer.
The Christmas Day walk was along the route we used last year so I knew exactly what we were doing and it all went very smoothly. Coming home on the following day, I was winging it. I did not have a map – although I had consulted one at some length. Round here, there are always lots of footpaths that do not make it onto even the most detailed maps. So, while the Ordinance Survey is good for lanes and major walking routes, it will not help you once you get into the woods that cover the sides of the Cotswolds. According to the map, there were only a couple of footpaths where we were heading, but I had a suspicion there would be more, and when the ground has paths and the map none, the map can be a lot less than helpful.
I navigated by land shape. I know many of the valleys and hills round here – but not all of them. I was walking places I had never walked before, but I could frequently see bits of hills I knew, and from that was able to keep my bearings. I knew roughly the shape of the land I had to cross, and by considering the land shape as well, made a very smooth journey back – if a long one. There was only one notable mistake, where I did not chance a footpath that (I learned later) would have been perfect, but took a slightly longer and more certain lane route instead. I will know for next time.
Map reading is a dying skill, as people turn to sat nav increasingly. Holding an inner map seems to be even rarer. I think it’s a critical skill to maintain – as important as knowing how to light a fire and cook raw ingredients. Having an inner map is a survival skill. It connects us to each other, to resources in our landscape. An inner map grants independence and confidence.
I’ve been teaching my son how to make inner maps. It’s important to know how your mind works. A more visual person will favour a more literal map, supported by memories of how different bits of landscape look from different angles. My map is more narrative, a series of stories about how the landscape fits together, with occasional visual references where I can manage them. However you build it, you get there by paying attention, thinking about what you know and how it connects to what you can see. It takes time. The more complex, hilly and secretive a landscape is, the longer it will take to map it.
For me, knowing the land is an essential part of my Druidry. It gives me relationship, a sense of place, and an understanding. It connects me to history as manifest in the landscape, to ancestors of place and to all the wildlife that also lives in this landscape. It’s something I can recommend exploring.