Category Archives: Land

Landscape, and fantasy landscape

I’m currently working on a Hopeless Maine novel. Most of the Hopeless Maine stuff I wrote years ago, but as the graphic novels will be coming out steadily from Sloth now, I feel it makes sense to get back into that setting and write more. In the time since I wrote my last Hopeless book, I’ve read a lot of landscape writing and this has had some considerable impact on me.

When I’m writing for the graphic novel of course much of the landscape stuff is down to Tom and the illustrations. It’s his island, he knows what it looks like. However, I’m working on a novel, so I have to do all the backgrounds myself! It’s really interesting putting to use what I’ve learned over years of reading landscape writing.

One of the things I’ve learned is that I don’t like writing that focuses on viewing the scenery. It makes the person in the landscape into a tourist. I’m interested in ways of writing that place the person within the landscape, and that often comes down to how they interact in a bodily way with the place. It’s not just about looking, but moving through, smelling, tasting, touching, eating, and so forth.

In a novel, great reams of description can be dull and irrelevant and slow the story down, so I’m working to make the experience of landscape a key part of the story. It also gives me opportunities to have my characters interact with the strange creatures that inhabit the island. This in turn gives me chance to air another issue that is close to my heart – challenging the idea that human and nature are two separate states.

We’re got some decidedly fantastical things living on Hopeless Maine. In the graphic novels, they are mostly background and the stories are about people. I think that speaks to the way in which humans are so often oblivious to non-human things going on around them. But, I want to do something different with this

Reading landscape literature has changed how I think as an author of speculative and fantastical books. I’m only now finding out how that works because I’m using it. Fantasy fiction is so often seen as an escape from reality, but I’m seeing the scope to make it an act of re-engagement and re-enchantment.

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The power of local stories

In the last few weeks, I’ve read three books set close to where I live. Two – Mirror Dead, and The Axe the Elf and the Werewolf I’ll be reviewing next week. The third was a friend’s work in progress and you’ll have to wait for that one. I noticed, reading this trio, how affirming I find it reading fiction set in my own landscape.

As a child, I had some local folklore and tales about landscape features. I had some local history, but I didn’t have novels. The real action always seemed to be somewhere else. Adventure would mean leaving my place of origin; that much was clear. And now Dursley has The Dursleys, and that probably doesn’t help.

We need stories to show us unfamiliar things, to widen our view. However, we also need to see ourselves reflected, to be good enough to be part of a story, to know we are worth telling a tale about. Girls and women need to be more than prizes and motivators in male dominated stories (film industry, I am looking at you!). With over a hundred thousand new books published every year, there is clearly room for diversity. We need characters of different race, age, religion, sexual and gender identities, class and location.

The implications didn’t hit me until I read these three stories that are in part set in Gloucestershire. It gave me an enormous feeling of belonging. I felt affirmed. One of the books offered me bisexual and polyamorous characters as well, and even though they were guys, I felt deeply affirmed by their presence, too. I find monogamous, hetranormative romance alienating, and if I read too much of it, depressing. It is not easy to look at worlds where you do not exist.

A novel set in your immediate landscape is a chance to get excited about home. It’s an opportunity to see the land through someone else’s eyes, to see it anew and to be excited about it. Making your landscape into a location worthy of a tale elevates it. So many UK novels seem to be set around London, or non-specific places. Seeing the details of a town or city is much more engaging, seeing what I already know reflected back in a way that is unfamiliar, I can get really enthused.

It’s worth asking why some locations seem more worthy of stories than others. It may be the sense of anonymity. In a big city, anything can happen. Your story won’t run headlong into reality too often. And yet, a big city is a specific place full of real details and real people. It may accommodate a fictional addition or two, but something different happens when we impose our fantasy onto a setting rather than working with the setting. Neither is invalid, but the effects are different and it’s worth thinking about what happens to us as readers when encountering each of those.


Seeking magic in the land

We all know of places that are officially important, magical and powerful. Stonehenge and Glastonbury being two obvious examples. Ancient sites, ancestral sites, places of extraordinary beauty. Places that attract people. Wonderful though these sites can be, they are also problematic. For a start, having lots of people in cars visiting a site will change it. Car parks, visitor centres, toilets, ice cream vans and the loss of peace and atmosphere that comes with a steady stream of tourists. The carbon footprint of your pilgrimage always needs considering.

Important sites can create political problems. They can cause tension between Pagan groups and people with authority – again there’s a long history of this at Stonehenge. Even a small, obscure site can become a source of tension if two different groups want to use it. If you undertake ritual in a place, it is easy to feel a sense of both ownership and entitlement. A desire to identify yourself as The Druid for the site, and try to see off other Druids who might want to make the same claim.

All of this can also have the consequence of encouraging most of us to feel that the important magical places are away. Somewhere else. A sense of magic as other and unavailable of course gives more power to anyone who has some influence at an important site.

All land has history. There are ancestors in the soil everywhere. There are stories connected to landscape in even the least promising of places. And if there aren’t, you can take the place names and land features and start making your own stories. Everything has to start somewhere.

Get an ordinance survey map and you’ll easily see where all the ancient sites are. Some areas are richer than others in this regard, but you may be surprised by how much there is. Ancient trees can be found sometimes in the corners of otherwise unremarkable fields. Stone formations, caves, springs, magical pools in streams, tiny waterfalls, owl haunts… there are many kinds of magical places to be found.

You don’t have to get out into the wilds for this, either. One of my favourite magical places as a child was a pool supplied by a drainpipe on the side of an old industrial building. It was covered in ferns, and it had a discernible atmosphere. More atmosphere in fact that the pool caused by a spring alongside a much prettier and more ancient building nearby.

Magical places can be secret, they can be hiding in plain sight, they can be right on your doorstep. I think it’s much more exciting and rewarding to have a personal relationship with a place not so many other people even know about. Or a place other people can’t see. I like to go to a spring with a fairy hawthorn. It’s somewhere that gets a lot of footfall, but it is even so a secret place, largely invisible to the passer-by.

Finding the magic that is with you and around you has so much more to offer than assuming that it must be somewhere else.


The politics of wetlands

People have lived in wetlands in the UK, as far as I know, for as long as the UK has been inhabited. The fens of the east coast were vast, and Hereward the Wake hid there when trying to fight off the Normans. The Glastonbury area was once wetland. Subsistence living is entirely possible in fens. However, draining fens for agriculture has, ever since the Normans showed up, been treated as a civilizing process.

Wetlands will support people alongside wildlife, but there are things a subsistence lifestyle cannot do. It cannot pay for a military, for building castles or roads. It cannot support an indolent class who wish to have both considerable leisure and luxury. You need much more intensive agriculture for that. Before the Normans, we had a lot of wetland. After the Normans we started draining the wetland and we also developed the most unfair land distribution in Europe. I don’t think these things are coincidences.

Low lying wetland that has been drained is problematic. It may sit lower than the water near it. You may be obliged to expend a lot of effort pumping and draining. The land may keep sinking as it dries, and the sea levels now are rising. Wetland used to be part of how we dealt with floods. Stretches of land known as flood meadows – because that was where excess water went – have been built on and must now be protected from flooding. This is just as inherently political as that stuff with the Normans. We have more rain now, flooding is a bigger issue. We need flood meadows more than ever.

Many wetlands are not perpetually or continuously wet. With patches of land and water, a proper wetland is for most of the year a complex patchwork of habitats supporting a vast array of wildlife. Fish, amphibians, water birds, water mammals – they all need wet places. There are many plants that only really thrive in these wet environments, too. As we dry out the land, we kill off the wetland creatures. This too is a matter of political choice, and priority.

A combination of paying fair prices for food, and not wasting between a third and a half of it, would mean farmers might not need to keep all low lying land in ‘useful’ production. We might be able to give some of it back. This is a political choice that brings in the role of supermarkets in price setting, and the way we all contribute to the total immorality that is food waste.

Wetlands are liminal places, uncertain, wild, beautiful and full of wonder and mud. They are not entirely human-friendly even though we can live in them. They are not tame, and they change without our permission in response to seasons, tides and rainfall. As climate change makes everything ever less predictable, we need these wild margins to help us cope with unexpected floods, to soak up the water and to lay down the carbon.

It would take a large and complex network of human choices to make wetlands more viable and to let them return. We’ve harmed ourselves by harming our habitat, and I hope that we see that and make the changes while we still can. If we can’t do it for love of the world we live in, we should be doing it selfishly for our own safety and survival.


Druids for trees

There is no separating Druidry from trees. It’s there in what little written history we have, with ancient Druids cutting mistletoe out of oaks. It’s there in every etymology attempt on the word itself. It’s there in our history, ancient and modern, of celebrating in groves.

Like many Druids, I am deeply disturbed by the way short term financial gain is always put ahead of the needs of the landscape. All too often when we want to build in the UK, tree loss will be dealt with by offset. As though a wood is nothing more than a replaceable cluster of trees. A wood is much more than its trees. It’s the fungi in the soil, the insect life, the undergrowth, the resident birds and mammals. Each wood is a unique interaction between precise local climate, underlying geology, and the bringing together of many different species. Ancient woodland, with its huge biodiversity, takes centuries to form. You can’t just recreate that by sticking a few saplings in what was previously a field.

Challenging developers means engaging with your local planning department to make a case for the trees. It helps if you can speak a language the planners recognise. To this end, The Woodland Trust has developed The Planner’s Manuel, which can be used in a number of ways.

It’s good information for activists to use when talking to planners.

If your area is developing a local plan, you can use this to find ways to get tree protection into that plan.

There’s also the possibility of getting in ahead of a problem and raising awareness of ancient woodland issues with your local planners before you need to protect a specific piece of land. There’s a lot to be said for being in first, and for having the space to raise awareness when you aren’t trying to fight a specific battle at the same time.

In the UK, planners working at a local level are usually are the ones making the decisions that can make or break the future of an ancient wood or veteran tree. Sometimes, as we’ve seen with fracking, local decisions can be overturned, but nonetheless, local is where to start with this. The Woodland Trust’s aim with the Planner’s Manuel is to educate and encourage planners to help them make the right decisions for our irreplaceable habitats.

I don’t know how useful this will be for anyone outside the UK, but it is a place to start if you don’t have other resources you can draw on.

Find out more here – http://bit.ly/PlannersGuide


A body in a landscape

One of the reasons I’ve not written a Pagan book in quite some time, is that my practice has changed and I didn’t want to over-intellectualise the process. I realised that I needed to get out there and try things without setting myself up to think that I was going to come back and write a book about it afterwards, and in terms of my personal spiritual journey, that’s been a really good thing. I don’t find this blog gets in the way, because there’s always stuff going on that I want to talk about.

I love words, language and communication. Which at first made it a bit odd for me wanting to go into something that wasn’t about words, and where the communication wasn’t about dealing with other humans.

It was an idea that occurred to me while working on the Pagan Pilgrimage project. I was going to write a book about that, but was finding the writing process getting in the way. I hit on a phrase – walking my body into the landscape and the landscape into my body, and beyond that statement, there was no real place for words. Mostly there still isn’t, although I’m getting to the point where I feel a bit more able to talk about what I’m doing.

Too often, the use of planned and ritualised language can actually take us away from the living moment and all that is happening in it. If we go in knowing what we’re going to say, our words get between us and our experiences. We make the spiritual experience about the inside of our own heads and not about any relationship with what’s outside our heads. Wordless and without so much agenda, there’s room for other experiences.

I’ve become interested in how sounds impact on my body. I’ve become alert to how the shifting patterns of sun and shade affect my mood when I’m walking. There are places I’ve walked often enough over a long enough time now that the shape of them, and the rhythm of moving over them is very much inside me. I don’t have much language for expressing this well. I’m not even sure I should be looking for such a language. Perhaps it is enough to offer wordy gateways, because any expressing of my experience, is only ever that, and what’s called for here is the first hand encounter between body and place.

We need to put ourselves back into the landscape. We need to stop treating landscape as a pretty background in which to do our exclusively human things. We need to get over the idea of scenery and into the idea of relationship. We need to show up, in our bodies, with our senses, and be places. Be part of places, involved with them, not casual users passing through. Not so locked into our human-centric concerns that we don’t see the wood, or the trees.

Things happen when you do this. Things that are not translatable into human words. Body knowledge and awareness. Felt things. We change, when we let the landscape inhabit us. It is a good change and I recommend exploring it.


Nibbling for Druids

British law amazingly enough upholds the right of people to gather food from hedges and margins. I’m not a serious forager, but I am a big fan of nibbling when out and about. I get a distinct sense of connection from eating what’s around me, it brings me into a really direct relationship with my immediate landscape.

I’m not a forager, I don’t go out to bring things home. Partly because I don’t have any scope to store,  partly because I’m not the only one who needs what’s in the hedges. At this time of year I’ll take a few blackberries when I pass them, I found some wild plums on the side of the canal a few days ago. Soon there will be apples, because trees have been planted locally for people to help themselves. I won’t take anything rare, or anything in short supply, and never more than a third of what’s present.

Plants that have grown in my locality have experienced the same weather as me, they are rooted in the soil I live on, connecting with underground fungi systems and soil bacteria. Normally what we do is eat food from anywhere and everywhere, we have lost the immediacy of connection with land because most of us don’t eat what grew around us. That can’t be replaced by snaffling the odd berry out of a hedge, but it’s better than nothing.

We don’t know what all the practical implications are of eating food from around the world. Certainly it helps diseases move around more quickly. We don’t know what the implications are of eating food that grew in one place with consistent soil bacteria. One fungi network. Or for that matter what the differences might be between working with your local yeast – the yeast living on your skin and in your air, instead of working with yeast from a package. Perhaps there are reasons modern humans don’t feel connected to each other or to the soil.


Not out of the woods yet

How we use landscape in human metaphor bothers me. Not out of the woods yet is a case in point. As though woods are a bad and dangerous place and safety depends on exiting them. American talk of draining the swamp is another one. Wetlands are fantastic habitats and great sinks for carbon. If someone is in the wilderness, it’s not generally considered a good thing. We use ‘desert’ to stand for barren, empty and insufficient. If we call something a jungle it’s often to convey a sense of violence, and a law of might is right. Mountains are metaphors for problems and challenges.

It’s worth noting that these are all wild landscapes and evoke things not used or exploited by humans. These are the places we don’t build cities, and we tend to overlook the people who live in such areas just as we devalue the land itself. Good land, by our current habits of thinking, is land tamed to the plough or exploited for oil and other resources. Good land is working for ‘us’. Good people are inside the system, not wild things in a wild landscape. Drain the swamp and get rid of the swamp dwellers.

It’s worth being alert to this kind of language use, to avoid doing it, and to challenge those who throw wilderness words around in casually negative ways. If we want to protect our wild landscapes, we have to change how people think about them in the first place.


Knowing the Land

I love visiting new places and exploring unfamiliar landscapes. It’s very easy to get excited about the unfamiliar, and the rush of discovery and encounter. The new view, the unfolding of a landscape that surprises at every turn – there are adventures to be had.

It’s all too easy (and I say this because I’ve done it) to come in for the first time, get caught on the wave of excitement and feel that you’ve got a deep and meaningful insight into a place. It’s possible (again, I’ve done it) to psyche yourself up into an especially magical Pagan mindset so that every part of the experience is charged with symbolic resonance and a sense of the divine. It’s easier to do this with an unknown landscape than a familiar one, because the unfamiliarity makes us pay more attention and tends to leave us more open to being awed.

It’s possible (yes, yes I have…) to come away from a very superficial encounter with a new landscape feeling powerful, charged up, spoken to… or whatever else it was that you wanted to feel.

Walking in a familiar landscape won’t give you that rush. When your feet know the shape of the land, and you’ve been there season after season, and you know what’s normal, and the land going about its own things and not therefore any kind of sign meant just for you… it takes effort to go out into the familiar and really see it. Seeing the familiar as magical is much harder work, because you have all the baggage of your everyday life and self in the mix.

What comes from a slower, deeper relationship with the land is less likely to make you feel big and important, and more likely to make you feel part of what’s around you (and thankfully yes, I’ve done that too).


Writing a view of the land

You’d think, that as a lover of landscape and a fiction enthusiast, I’d appreciate nothing more than a long, descriptive sections about a place, in a novel. Often I find the reverse is true, and these passages make me unhappy. For a long time, I’d not poked into that to make sense of the mechanics, but a recent reading juxtaposition has made it all make sense.

I’ve been reading David Abram’s Becoming Animal, and a great deal of work by Kevan Manwaring. I noticed over the winter that I greatly enjoy Kevan’s landscape writing, and that this is unusual for me. David Abram talks about how we treat landscape as scenery, and this helped me realise how much I struggle when descriptions of a landscape are largely, or purely visual. Often what happens when a writer describes a scene, is that you the reader are positioned as an observer. You’re stood outside, looking in, and the landscape is scenery. It’s the backdrop for the action.

As a walker, I’ve long been interested in what happens to bodies in a landscape. How we experience the land varies, and depends in no small part on our expectation. The person who is waiting for the view is not immersed in the same way as the person who is excited by every turn of the path. The person who goes out to be in the landscape has a different experience from the person who is just going somewhere specific. How a person is in the landscape must therefore inform how they write about it. Too often we’re consumers and observers of the land, not participants in it. It’s a self-propagating cycle, because if we only read about scenery, we’re in a mindset that won’t help us appreciate being present, and if we’re not present, we’ll only ever notice scenery, we won’t immerse. It is possible to break out, but you have to think breaking out might be possible.