Category Archives: Land

Walking, stories and landscape

I experience the landscape around me in a way that is full of story. At this point, these stories are a mix of local folklore, history, personal experience and fiction.

If I walk from my home to the top of Selsley Hill, I go through a tunnel where I once had a rather magical encounter with a fox. I pass a corner where there was a slowworm one time. I walk past a community garden where I used to be involved. There is a pub, which has a few personal stories associated with it. Then I walk past the field where the were-aurochs first transformed in my Wherefore stories. I will tend to remember the first time going up over the grassy part of the hill and saying there was a chance we’d find orchids and then being blown away by how many orchids there were. There is a path where the bee orchids grow, and I remember who I’ve taken to see them in previous years. There is a signpost that gave me a strange experience once in the mist. Finally, there is the barrow, and all that I’ve done there. And all the other points in the landscape visible from the hilltop and all the stories that connect to those.

Each re-visit adds layers to the story of my relationship with this landscape. Over time, some of the personal experiences turn out to be more enduring than others. The fictional stories build alongside this.

Part of the reason my relationship with the land is like this, is that I walk. At walking speed, there is time for memories of a place to come to the surface. There is time to share a story or a bit of folklore. At walking speed, the landscape becomes much bigger because we have more time in it, and that allows room in all kinds of ways.

The car is a rather new thing in terms of human history. Our ancestors walked, for the greater part. There were no road signs. Finding your way through a landscape may well have been a matter of having a narrative map in your head. We know that some early mapping – like establishing the boundaries of a parish, was a narrative that you walked in order to reinforce it. If you can tell a walk as a story, you can teach it to someone who has never been there. Stories make a journey more entertaining and can help you keep going in rough conditions – I’ve certainly used them in that way. Stories help us place ourselves in the landscape – as individuals, as communities, as people with a tradition of being in the landscape.

I don’t have that unbroken lineage that traditional peoples have living in deeply storied landscapes. But, my people have been here a long time, and I have a feeling of rootedness. Most of what I have, I’ve put together for myself, from the local oral tradition, from folklore books, from history, and shared experience. This kind of relationship with a landscape is available to anyone, anywhere – sometimes you have to mostly work with your own material, but that’s fine. Every tradition starts somewhere.


We need a tree strategy

At the moment in the UK, we are cutting down irreplaceable ancient woodland to build a high-speed railway. There are people who feel that the railway will deliver environmental benefits and that this means it is worth cutting down the trees for. There are people (me amongst them) who are deeply uneasy about the idea of the ends justifying the means in this way. The argument that we can and should trash wild places and unique habitats to save the greater whole is, I think, deeply suspect. It ignores the importance of specific places, focuses on human benefits and it turns care for wild things into a numbers game. And numbers are so easily manipulated to tell whatever story suits you.

Recently the PM announced that there are no trees in the UK over 200 years old. This staggering ignorance only increases the danger to our ancient woodland. If decisions about national projects and the spending of public money are going to be made on the basis of what uninformed people imagine is going on… we’re in trouble.

Ancient woodland is real. Trees over 200 years old are very real. You can get involved with The Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Inventory here – https://ati.woodlandtrust.org.uk/

The National Trust has a page on our most ancient trees – https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/enter-a-world-of-ancient-trees

Lack of access to green space has been a real issue during lockdown. The evidence for the impact of trees on mental health, and the necessity of green space for exercise and physical wellbeing, exists. It’s not a controversial subject. However, we’re short of trees, short of urban trees and short of access to trees and this needs to change.

A strong England Tree Strategy is crucial. It is the plan that will determine what the Government does to protect, plant and restore woods and trees for years to come. A plan informed by reality rather than the whims of those in power, would be a great help.

There is a DEFRA consultation underway. It is split into four key sections and below is some guidance to help people write their own personalised responses.

*   expanding woodland cover: target of 18,000 ha of new native woodland.

*   protecting existing trees and woods: at least 75% of native woods need to be in either good condition or improving for nature by 2030.

*   connecting trees with people: it needs to be mandatory for every local authority to have its own tree strategy.

*   trees as part of the economy: ensure that all trees bought with public money are UK sourced and grown.

You can share your thoughts here – http://www.woodlandtru.st/x5nAg

 


The Barrow People

There is a long barrow on one of the hills near my home. It is not signposted or protected in any way so it gets a lot of foot traffic. Children run over it and it is popular with mountain bike riders. I assume most of them have no idea that they’re on an ancient monument, and that it could do with kinder treatment from them.

It is a place I like to go, although I really struggle with how other people treat the site. I’ve spent a lot of time there, getting things in perspective – there is a lot of open sky on the hilltop and it tends to help. I go there to listen to the barrow, and to be with it. I’ve had a few interesting experiences there, but nothing it is easy to put into words. The barrow people do not talk much.

I realised at my most recent visit, that they only ever come up behind me and that not looking is clearly part of the deal. Pretty much all that ever happens is that sometimes I will have a feeling that someone is stood behind me. If there’s anything else going on, it isn’t getting through to me. But, my feeling is that nothing else is going on, that they want nothing from me and are not offering anything other than their presence. I find that presence very powerful, and comforting. I always feel better for spending time with them.

There was a beautiful moment yesterday when the temperature dropped. I was lying down on the flank of the barrow, with my eyes shut. It felt like a rush of energy, and people left. There was too much wind noise for me to hear them going, but I felt the land clearing, felt the descending peace of absence, and it was lovely. I’m not terribly good at being around people, and I find people who are out and about consuming the landscape as a product for their enjoyment to be especially difficult. They took their noise, their dogs, their destructive children, and they went away.

I stayed longer, and put up with the cold, and relished the quiet.

It isn’t a park, it’s a should-be-wild landscape full of small flowers in the grasses, larks, and ancient history. But most people who go there treat it like a park, and I hate that.


Solitude, aloneness and landscape

I don’t need to be on my own to be lonely. Like many people, some of my loneliest experiences have been in the company of people where I have not felt I belonged.  I’m good at not belonging, and there aren’t that many people in whose company I find solace.

Solitude, on the other hand, has been something I’ve actively sought for much of my life. The peace to sit with my own thoughts, the freedom to be as I am with no reference to anyone else. Not being around people does not always cause me to feel lonely.

One of the things that lockdown clarified for me, is that I experience loneliness most intensely in relation to landscape. I don’t find wild, human-free landscapes lonely though. The kinds of wild landscapes other people might call bleak, barren or lonely, have never struck me that way. Expanses of land and sky give me a feeling of belonging, of being held and acceptable.

I am nothing to a hill. I find that immensely comforting. Skies do not judge. Trees do not want small talk. The landscape has little or no interest in me, but is also accepting of me. The loneliness of not being easy in human spaces is eased for me by being out under the sky. Finding the official guidelines when lockdown began were to only go outside for an hour each day was hell, and plunged me deep into depression. In the end I ignored what I was supposed to do, but walked at night and in the early dawn light so as to pose no risk to anyone else.

The loneliness that comes from being landscape starved is worse than anything I have ever felt about a shortage of people.

There are people I need. People I missed dreadfully when I couldn’t spend time with them in person. I know who they are now, and they know who they are, and some of those relationships have evolved of necessity. People I know it is safe to be emotionally honest with. People whose absence causes me the same kind of distress as not being out under the sky enough. There aren’t many of them.

I find the loneliness of being with people where I don’t belong is far harder to deal with in the short term than not having much contact with people outside my household. Over the long term, the absence of people I care about has been painful, but the absence of people generally has been fine, and in many ways a blessing.


Soul Land – a review

Soul Land by Natalia Clarke is a love letter to a landscape. It was a joy for me reading someone else’s poetry in this vein – having done something similar with a poetry collection of my own called Mapping the Contours.

Natalia is in love with Scotland, and her poems are passionate expressions of a profound love affair with place. The writing is generous, sensuous, wholehearted.  These are bardic braise poems directed at place rather than person, and I greatly enjoyed reading them.

I recommend this collection primarily for the pleasure of reading it. However, for anyone on the bard path wondering about writing love songs, love letters, and romances directed towards the non-human, this is a lovely example. For the person who feels alienated and craves relationship with the land, this collection may help you on your way.

To be a body in a landscape. To be alive and keenly feeling and in relationship with all that is around you is an exquisite thing. For me, it is a key part of the Druid path. I’m painfully aware though that many people do not have that grounding love in their lives. Alienation from land, landscape and a sense of place is a modern illness, and reading and writing can be one way back into the land. Poems can be maps, and guides to help us heal and to rebuild the relationships that should always have been ours.

More about the book here – https://rawnaturespirit.com/e-guide/


Owl Drunk

We walked towards the full moon. On the hill, the barrow stretched out, attractive, as though a barrow on the night of the full moon would be an excellent place to lie down and sleep. As though the barrow itself was calling, inviting. I declined politely, only to be almost lost, facing what looked like a high wall. The hill can be tricksy, it has played with my perceptions before. I found the signpost that once, in fog, I mistook for a tower. I found the right path, and we made our way to the wood.

I prefer walking without a lamp, but a leafy wood is a dark place, even under the full moon. Walking by torchlight feels like moving but so little changes that it also doesn’t feel like moving. It becomes unreal quickly. Dreamlike. You walk based on the faith that your body is indeed going somewhere, but the mind sits oddly in the flesh, closer to dreaming than waking.

The woods were full of owls, calling. The undergrowth alongside the path was full of sound, alive with small, busy presences. We saw one of them. Larger creatures moved in the darkness – badger most likely. There were many bats and some of them flew close in front of us through the small circle of light.

Just as the sky was growing pale, we arrived at a local beauty spot and stopped to drink tea and look at the moon. Larks were singing long before any other bird. Here, we had an encounter with a local police officer, who had been checking the site and wanted to make sure we were ok and not intending to walk along the road – we assured her that we had come through the woods and would be safe.

We drank green tea under the full moon, raised a toast to someone we thought would appreciate that, and wished him well. And wished him safely with us.

We walked home towards the rising sun, with the woods slowly filling with colour. Bluebells, wild garlic, wood anemone, dog’s mercury, new beach leaves. On the hill, cowslips, early purple orchids and an extravagance of lark song. Owls were singing along with the dawn chorus and I thought I heard the lone voice of a curlew.

Sleep deprived, giddy, drunk on owl song, intoxicated by the dawn chorus, with a head full of hilltop, we came home. The town was swathed in mist, and the feeling of having walked in a magical realm was with is to the end.


In need of wildness

I was struggling long before lockdown with the need for wildness. I live in a beautiful part of the world, but the car noise, the careless walkers who leave bags of poo in their wake, the cyclists who treat ancient monuments as obstacles and things of that ilk had been getting to me for some time. I craved a landscape with fewer people in it, and more wild things.

Then we hit lockdown and everything got worse. The main walking and cycling routes close to my home are busier than ever in the day. Not wanting to add to that and finding it stressful, I moved to twilight walking, but as it has got warmer, ever more people are about at the end of the day. I used to spend hours walking, and the loss of time in the landscape has left me depressed and disconnected. On top of that, poor circulation and/or low blood pressure have caused me sleeping problems.

This week I decided to make some radical changes. So, rather than getting online when I wake up in the early hours, I got my walking boots on. Tom and I went out. The first time, we saw no humans. The second time we ran into a couple of people, but compared to how many folk there are out in the day, it was nothing. Narrow paths I would not have risked in the daylight became totally socially distanced. The world that I had lost opened up to me again.

I came home with the dawn chorus, euphoric. I came home able to sleep, both times, which means my sleeping has radically improved, so my head feels clearer. A tension is easing out of my body, that had come from feeling disconnected from the land. With more time outside and better access to the wild, I am more myself again and lockdown is a good deal more bearable.

There is also more wildness at night – foxes and hedgehogs, owls and others. The dawn is full of birds, and there are lots of wildflowers to appreciate as the sun comes up. With almost no other people out there, the landscape seems wilder. In darkness, familiar places become less so – there’s a lot I can work with here.

We don’t have a garden, so an hour of exercise might be considered the proper amount of outside time we can have in a day. Although guidance around how long a person can be out for varies. An hour is not enough for my mental health. I can’t walk as far as I need to in that time and it has really taken a toll on me. But if we set out in the night and see no one, I can’t see it matters how long we walk for.

I’ll keep doing this long after lockdown – walking to meet the dawn has changed my relationship with the place I live. I feel re-enchanted. Being liberated from the presence of people I have no interest in seeing is a great relief to me. In the silence, with the wild things and a most excellent walking companion, I no longer feel so lost.


Druidry and Trees

We know from the Romans that ancient Druids worshipped in Groves. While much Roman information may be dodgy propaganda, it’s hard to see what use this would serve as an invention, so I am inclined to go with it. There are reasons to think that the word ‘druid’ may be connected to ancient words for ‘oak’. We also have later things – particularly the tree version of ogham script, the poem The Battle of the Trees and Irish laws about trees that people turn to for the relationship between Druids and trees. It’s a bit speculative, but reasonable to assume that in some way, Druids were involved with trees.

There are lots of resources online for this sort of thing, if you are curious, I suggest looking around.

I feel very strongly that trees should, as far as possible, be part of the life of the modern Druid. That can take many forms, so this won’t be an exhaustive list.

Spending time in woodland to commune directly with trees. Opening up to trees as direct spiritual teachers.

Tree protection – woodlands, ancient woodlands and urban trees alike all need speaking up for. We need our trees and so many are under constant threat in the name of ‘development’.

Planting trees – urban tree planting is especially important and there’s less scope for messing up an existing eco-system through ignorance. We also need orchards, many of our historical orchards have been destroyed and we import a lot of fruit. Fruit trees are good for bees and other insects, so planting fruit trees gets a lot done.

We need more attention to trees in relation to water and flooding. Trees slow the movement of water and reduce runoff. Alders and willows are good in a wetland context, and wetlands are good at taking up carbon. Beavers and trees combine well to create natural water management systems that create and support complex eco-systems.

We need to think about trees in terms of our relationships with other countries. Rainforests are cut down to answer the desires of northern hemisphere consumers. We have to change this.

We need to think about how trees relate to the farmed landscape. Where agribusiness dominates, trees and hedges disappear in favour of being able to use large machinery. The food we eat exists in relationship to the landscape, and the presence or absence of trees. How much impact you can have on this may depend largely on your spending power, but it is something to be alert to.

Many of our relationships with trees are invisible to us. When you get on a train, the tree felling habits of the rail company are part of your relationship with trees. When woodland is cut down to make your toilet paper, that’s part of your relationship with trees. When landscapes are managed for the benefits of the few, that impacts on your relationship with trees. If you consider a spiritual relationship with trees to be part of your path, then all of these things need your care and attention.


Forest, Vale and High Blue Hill

At the weekend I went to see Johnny Coppin’s All on a Winter’s Night – a beautiful evening of seasonal music. I came home with a CD that included all of the album Forest, Vale and High Blue Hill and it has taken me on something of a journey. This album was part of the soundtrack of my childhood, and is full of songs about Gloucestershire. This is not a review for the album, but it is a wholehearted recommendation to check it out.

There are many Gloucestershire writers of course, some of whose poems are set to music on this album. Child-me knew nothing of this before I encountered the album, and had little sense of who the poets were. What struck me, between the words and the music, was the experience of having my own landscape expressed. For me, this album captures a sense of the Cotswolds and Severn Vale as an enchanted place, full of beauty and wonder. I think it likely that my sense of the possibility for enchantment in the landscape began here.

When I left the Cotswolds for the Midlands, these were the songs I turned to. I learned some of them and sang them as a way of retaining a sense of connection with the land I grew up in.

Listening to Forest, Vale and High Blue Hill as an adult, back in this landscape I’m painfully aware of what I’ve lost. I’ve been examining my feelings of disenchantment, and much of it comes down to cars. Car noise is everywhere. You can see, hear and smell them. There are rare places where the sound doesn’t permeate, and going out at night and early in the morning can be quieter. I find the intense presence of cars in the landscape a source of disenchantment. I can’t hear the wildlife, or smell what’s natural. Heavily used roads distort my experience of the land. The lanes are dangerous.

Cars do such a good job of turning the land into something we can use and consume. They insulate us, give us the big views, take away the experience of being in a place. There are so many people driving up onto the commons, and out to the beauty spots that it impacts on the very reason they are there. Leading to people traipsing round carelessly, often with dogs, leaving poos in plastic bags, filling the landscape with their noise. What could have been magical becomes a playground for those who can afford it.

I don’t know what to do about my own disenchantment. Johnny Coppin’s voice has, at times, something eerie and otherworldly about it, which I love. A quality that cuts through to the part of me that still wants to be enchanted, and reminds me that this is possible. Which mostly results in me crying pathetically, but there we go – it’s what I’ve got at the moment. Better to feel grief than to feel nothing.

No doubt the Gloucestershire poets have contributed to the making desirable of this part of the world. The weekend homes, the retired money moving in, the unaffordable villages. People come here looking for Laurie Lee and cider with Rosie and all the rest. They come here because rich and famous and royal people have come here. And there is no silence left in the hills most days where the magic can seep in.


Wilder Walking

One of the easiest ways to have a wilder walking experience, is to walk in more challenging weather conditions. If the weather is more dramatic, impacts on you, poses challenges and risks and difficulties, then the walk becomes an encounter with the elements. I wouldn’t recommend too much of this for the inexperienced walker, especially not in more treacherous landscapes. People who get too far out of their depth can be killed or injured. If you’re considering wilder walking, it’s important to know your experience level and not push too far beyond it.

In wilder weather, a landscape that is normally tame and full of landscape consumers becomes wilder. A wild landscape becomes potentially dangerous.  The sort of people who rock up in a car to air a dog don’t tend to show up in the frozen mist, the pouring rain, or the howling winds. This changes the feel of a gentler landscape significantly.

The trouble with this kind of walking is that you do need more specialist kit and that usually costs money. Getting soaked to the skin in winter is a wild and intense experience, but unless you have a really robust body, it can be an expensive one, too. I’ve never done it deliberately, although I’ve been caught out repeatedly having to walk in conditions for which I didn’t have the gear.

Stout, waterproof  boots with good grips are essential. I find waterproof trousers make the whole thing more feasible. I’ve also found that all of my waterproof coats will soak through at the shoulders and elbows especially in torrential rain. Get wet for long enough and the trousers soak through too, and water down the leg will eventually get into a waterproof boot.

This weekend I experimented with a poncho made out of the remains of a dead tent. I wore it over my regular waterproof coat. I was out for a long time and some of the rain was pretty intense – enough that it would have got through the coat in the normal scheme of things. I was delighted to find the upcycled poncho repelling water – my coat did not soak through. My scope for adventuring is much improved by this, and I’ve kept material out of landfill by successfully re-purposing it.