One of the perks of my day job is that I frequently get to read books before they come out. As my current study program is all about landscape, walking and the relationship between people and place, I jumped on Rebecca Beattie’s ‘Nature Mystics’. It’s a small book, and opened up new lines of thought for me. Nature Mystics explores a very specific time frame – the transition from 19th to twentieth centuries, looking at the relationship between fiction and the context from which 20th century Paganism grew.
Paganism is a very book orientated religious path. While we don’t have definitive religious books in the style of many other religions, we do have a lot of books. It may be that the absence of core texts has created both the need and the room to create this ever growing body of writing. However, the odds of a person coming to Paganism because they’ve picked up an overtly Pagan book are perhaps not so big. Thinking back, my personal path probably began with Alan Garner’s ‘The Owl Service’ and I’ve met a few people who came to Paganism through ‘The Way of Wyrd’. Tolkien’s books create a certain kind of longing. Or perhaps for some it was Kipling’s poems of history and mystery. Gettafix from the Asterix comics may have been the first Druid some of us encountered. Fiction has the capacity to get in under our radar, and show us things we weren’t looking for.
For me, Rebecca’s book raised a number of thoughts. How is the land portrayed in fiction? Anything that happens does so in a time and a place, in a season, a climate but these things aren’t always present in books and to include such details is to risk people treating them as symbols for the inner lives of characters, and not, simply, what the weather was doing.
Reading Rebecca’s book it became clear to me that the author’s personal relationship with the natural world is a key part of how they write. For many authors, nature is just backdrop for the human events being portrayed. An author who is sensitive to landscape and the natural world will write from a place of emotional engagement, and that in turn has the power to help others connect and be inspired. Finding those emotional connections with nature can be the first move towards conscious Paganism.
Nature Mystics sits well alongside Robert McFarlane’s Landmarks, which explores less fictionalised writing of the land. I find it especially valuable because of the invitation to step back and look at a whole host of bigger pictures. Paganism in the context of the fiction that went before it. Literature in the context of lives lived. Stories in the context of landscapes. At the same time, like Robert McFarlane, Rebecca also directs us towards the detail, the way precision in landscape writing creates reality, brings place forward as a character in its own right, grounds stories in something specific. The grand vistas and the intimate details are equally important, in landscape and in writing. They cannot be separated out without losing something important.