Tag Archives: land

Rooted in the landscape

Building a relationship with the landscape I live in has changed me. It’s been a slow process over some years, and there hasn’t been much drama in it. There have been no moments of revelation. Gods have not spoken to me. I have no special status or destiny as a consequence of what I’ve been doing. I am no more entitled to speak for the land than anyone else. But, it has been a good and powerful process for me and one I think I will continue to explore for the rest of my life.

Some years ago, I was struck by the phrase that I could walk myself into the land, and walk the land into myself. That’s pretty much it. I’ve built a body knowledge of the land around me for as far as I can walk in any given direction (and get home again). I’ve walked in all seasons and in many different conditions. I’ve walked in the early morning, in the middle of the day, at twilight and at night. I’ve met the plants and creatures living here.

There is a knowledge that comes from taking your body into a space. When we simply look at a landscape, we experience it as outsiders. It becomes a view. Scenery. The picturesque. We are spectators and consumers of it, not participants in it. To be a participant, you have to be in the landscape rather than simply looking at it. Moving a body through a place creates deeper knowing of the place, and how its aspects interrelate. To walk the curve of a hill or follow the journey of a stream is to develop understanding that looking alone cannot give.

I feel rooted. I feel a deep sense of belonging and of participation. I feel this landscape as part of who I am, part of how I make sense of myself. The many journeys I have made through it are part of the story of my own life. My body is shaped in part by how I have walked here and the muscles I’ve honed in so doing. My heart is affected by the effort it takes to climb the hills. I have sweated for this landscape. I’ve had my heart beat hard and fast for it. I have bled here, on brambles and hawthorns. I have fallen sometimes, and worn bruises. I have weathered my skin.

I’m not very goal orientated in my spiritual practice these days. I used to be. I was looking for meaning and purpose and a sense of how to serve and be useful. Much of that is better answered by work I do outside of Paganism – specifically at the moment in my volunteering for The Woodland Trust and working for Transition Stroud. It’s not my Paganism that best serves the land, but my working for environmental causes. I was never that attracted to the kind of revelatory Paganism that enables a person to set up as a guru and charge money for courses. Which is as well, because this doesn’t lend itself.

There was a time when I craved the validation of encountering Gods, or spirits, or anything else powerful that might give me a feeling of being good enough. A desire for approval, for specialness, for significance. Much of that has fallen away in recent years. I don’t think this landscape has any opinion of my either way, I’m just another creature moving through it, one of countless tiny blinks in the eons of its being. There’s a peacefulness in that, and it leaves me with nothing much to prove.

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Relating to the landscape

There have been times in my life when car use has featured – odd weeks here and there around holidays and time with my family, invariably with someone else at the wheel because I can’t drive. I do also occasionally (perhaps once a month) get lifts from people. I notice based on this how car use changes your perception of a landscape.

Speed has a lot of impact. Firstly you just don’t see as much from a car – a mere twenty miles an hour is much faster than a human body moves through a landscape. You miss a lot of detail. There’s so much you can’t observe or process at car speeds. The experience of covering miles in a few minutes also distorts your body sense of how far apart places are. On foot of course you can stop and look whenever you like, change direction, turn in circles – not something it’s a good idea to do with a car.

I note from repeatedly doing longer walks that I have a body sense of the distance between places. It’s very different from getting in a car. I know what’s ten minutes away from where I am, or an hour, or a day’s walk – because I’ve done enough of it. At any place in the landscape I know where I am in relation to everything else. I don’t think that’s possible with driving, not in the same way.

There are relationships we can only have when we’re showing up in our human bodies at human speeds. I think the pace you take has far more impact than whether or not you can use your feet – to ride a horse through a landscape, or move at a low speed on a mobility scooter would also give you that immediacy of being in a place and feeling the shape of it.

How we experience sun and wind depends on where we are within the shape of the land, what time of day it is, where the shadows fall, where the weather comes from. Again, these are things that you need to experience in a bodily way to relate to them. You need time to have that experience. Cars create separation between people and the land. Sometimes we need them to get things done, I grant you, but it’s worth looking closely both at what they give, and what they take away.

I notice where I live that many people drive to park at local beauty spots and then take relatively small walks – often for the benefit of dogs. I go to the same places, walking from where I live – which admittedly takes more effort, but I have a totally different relationship with reaching the hilltop. It’s a powerful thing, having your body affected by the land – to sweat for it, to ache and strain and feel it impacting on your body, and then to feel the wind, the sun, the water in the grass. These are all things we lose when we take the easier option. And if you have a body that doesn’t need an easier option it’s interesting to ask how much benefit there is in the allegedly lower effort choice.


Revisiting a landscape

Going into a landscape for the first time tends to be exciting. Humans respond well to novelty. The excitement of a new place can have some of us making our way around the world – a habit that does not do the world itself any good at all. Novelty can break us out of our own disinterest. A distant and exotic landscape can impact on us in ways a familiar one won’t. Not because the landscapes closer to home aren’t beautiful, but because we can become complacent about them. We’re not always good at properly seeing what’s right in front of us.

In the drama of encountering a significant landscape for the first time, it’s normal to have a lot of feelings. If there are a lot of stories attached to a landscape, those can shape our responses and feelings of significance. However, we don’t inhabit those stories and they are not inherent to us – not when we’re in an unfamiliar landscape. It’s all tourism at this point.

When you revisit a landscape repeatedly, you build a relationship with it. If there are stories about the landscape, you deepen your understanding of them. A story can be as simple as a few lines about who once had a temple here, or how folklore re-imagined the bumps as treasure mounds… After a while, there will also be stories that are about your relationship with the landscape. These may also be very short – the field where we saw the huge and really shiny fox. The lane that was full of tiny frogs. A story doesn’t have to be long or complicated to be part of your relationship with a place.

Revisiting places and building stories of relationship, you bring the place into yourself. You craft relationship over time and through revisiting. Seeing a place in different seasons, your understanding of it will deepen.

Over time and revisiting you also build a body knowledge of place. A physical sense of how it feels to move through the landscape. A body knowledge of the distance between one key feature and another. A sense of where the wildlife is, or where to stop, or where to avoid. The trick at this point is to stay alive to the land and not start seeing what you think is there. It’s important to stay open when revisiting a place – as open as you would if you’d never been there before and have no idea what to expect.

Any landscape has the potential to enchant you. The question is not whether the place is new and exciting enough to move you. The real question is, are you ready to treat each experience as new, and to be properly open to it?


Spring Views

In a landscape dominated by deciduous woodland, the views change with the season. Once the leaves are on the trees, it can become harder to see any great distance. Views are caught occasionally, through the gaps.

We have a history of cutting down trees to create views. The eighteenth century notion of the picturesque landscape had landowners creating views by cutting down trees. This movement has informed landscape art and is part of the story of what we tell ourselves a good view means. We expect distance, drama, and plenty of scope for looking at it. Where the views are to be enjoyed, and where the trees are to grow for being viewed distorts the landscape itself. If we’re trying to make it something pretty to look at, if we want to see the dramatic shape of the land, we take out nature to replace it with human ideas of beauty.

We may see beauty in landscapes that are ravaged. If we come to them not knowing what should be living there and how they might look if we’d not pared them back to a few inches of closely cropped grass, we may perceive the drama and not the damage. The Lake District in the UK is an example of a close grazed landscape revealing the drama and views of big landforms. It is a landscape that should have a lot more trees in it. That we want to have a certain kind of experience when looking at it has an impact on the land.

Seeing a long way should, I think, be treated as a seasonal activity. It’s a pleasure available in spring before the leaves emerge and in autumn after they are gone. We can have the trees and the views, if we don’t insist on having the views all year round.


Druidry and relationship with space

Capitalism encourages us to think of places in terms of ownership. The laws of ‘the land’ also focus on the rights of the owner, not of the inhabitant. It’s worth noting that in most places, the ownership of land can be traced back to violence and conquest.

When I wrote recently about spirits of place, I touched on the idea of ownership. Having had time to think about this properly, I realise that when I wrote ‘ownership’ what I meant was belonging. Or a kind of ownership that also involved being owned. A depth of relationship with a specific place, or places, that binds you to that place, and that place to you.

If you do ritual regularly at a specific site, you may come to feel that sense of ownership/being owned, and that can make it hard to see other people doing ritual in the same space. This is one of the big problems with choosing to do ritual at famous sites. No one has the right to own Avebury, or Stonehenge, or anywhere else on that kind of scale. As with all relationships, our relationships with places are open to possessiveness and jealousy, and what we feel most keenly may not bring out the best in us.

If you want a relationship with place that is personal, where you own and feel owned – then small and local is the way to go. You probably won’t have to share your grove in the woods with any other ritualists.

To feel belonging is to feel part of a community of place. When we belong, we don’t have to feel rivalry with anything else that also belongs. That includes other people. Any number of beings – seen and unseen – can belong to a place. It’s a more spacious idea than ownership, which capitalism has taught us to see as individual. Belonging does not free us from conflict though – especially if others come in and act like they own the place when they have no real relationship with it.

Belonging takes time and the investment of care and attention. It means getting to know the space and the community of living beings already in it. It means recognising that you are not more important than the other beings that belong to the place. It means not giving yourself instant authority by imagining you know what the land or the spirits of place really want. To belong you have to be a bit more humble, and not invested in putting human activity centre stage. Belonging means not trying to use your relationship with the land and its community as a power base to further your own ends.

Belonging is a subtle, quiet process that takes time. It is not the same as the short term excitement of finding a place resonant or welcoming. It’s what you do in the years after that moment.


Cold Spots

In magical terms, cold spots are often associated with supernatural activity – usually of an unwelcome variety. They can of course happen for all kinds of reasons, and being wired the way I am, I like to look at those reasons before inferring anything.

I live in a landscape of folded hills and numerous valleys, with a lot of trees. This is a place where the shape of the land and the different positions of the sun through the year combine to create microclimates. If I walk anywhere, sudden cold spots are something I will encounter. There’s nothing uncanny here, or threatening, just the way the land and the sun interact. Frost lingers some places and seldom even forms in others during the coldest part of the year. Summer turns some places into suntraps, while others remain cool and shady.

This is not the kind of thing you can learn about a place by looking, or by passing through it at speed. A body needs time to notice this, to enter and depart slowly. This is the kind of knowledge that only comes with walking a place over time.

It would of course be easy to enter one of these natural cool spots without a body of knowledge about it, feel the temperature drop and experience that as a magical effect. I’ve talked about this before in terms of how we read signs from nature in the behaviour of birds and wildlife – if you don’t show up all the time, you can’t tell what’s unusual. A cold spot may be a highly significant thing – but only if you know whether a place should be cold or not.

Whether a cold spot seems welcoming or forbidding also depends on the context in which you encounter it. On a hot day, those naturally colder places can be an absolute blessing. If you are cold already, a really cold spot can seem threatening – that’s a perfectly reasonable body response to what’s going on. It may be tempting to read presence, malice or intent into the cold when the cold is harmful. What happens to a place if, over time, people passing through it interpret its conditions as unpleasant, negative or threatening?

Intuition is a response to a situation that you haven’t got the details on yet. We absorb a lot of information – far more than we can consciously process. Often, intuition is the result of a deeper level of processing identifying something before the conscious bit of the brain gets a look in. What we experience as ‘intuition’ can be a really reliable source of spotting and knowing, and a wholly rational experience. It’s when we start attaching stories to that experience that we can trip ourselves up. A sudden drop in temperature does represent a threat sometimes – but it doesn’t imply an intention.


Seasonal walking

One of the reasons I’ve done very little seasonally-orientated walking this year is that the summer itself thwarted me. I don’t do well with high temperatures and this year, the British summer was unusually hot.  I need to work out more routes I can walk in the darkness so as to have options in future years, but even so, I don’t think night walking will make sense or be safe enough for longer routes.

I missed out on spring walking because I was ill for much of it.

As a consequence, here we are in the autumn, and I have missed a lot of what, for me, is my primary means of communication with the land and its wilder inhabitants.  I’ve been walking for transport all year, and that brings me into contact with all kinds of beings, but it’s not the same as a long day moving through the countryside.

However, being out all day in the hills can be physically demanding. One of the things I’ve found is that I need to stay really hydrated to avoid getting locked down by lactic acid in my muscles. I get very sore, really fast if there’s any anaerobic work to be done. Staying really hydrated translates into needing to pee a lot. During the summer this is less of a problem, but when there’s less undergrowth, there aren’t many options. I’m putting public toilets, pubs and cafes into walking routes. Yes, it would be nice to be away from human concerns all day, but it’s not feasible. I’m fortunate that I can now afford to put a pub stop into a walk.

Walking is an act of creating relationship between my body and the land. For that to work, I have to be realistic about what my body can take. If I try and walk too fast, or too far, or over too many hills it won’t go well. A walk dominated towards the end by pain and fatigue can be memorable, but it doesn’t create meaningful relationship, I’ve found. If I hurt too much, I’ll be too aware of my body to pay attention to anything much else.

Despite this year’s various health setbacks, I’m hoping to be well enough to take on my favourite autumn walk – which goes along the hill edge and through the Woodchester valley. I will however, be going on a day when the cafe and loos are open, because it greatly improves my chances of getting around.


Lord of the Wyrde Woods – a review

Escape from Neverland and Dance into the Wyrde are two books but between them are one story so I’m reviewing them as a pair – their collective title is Lord of the Wyrde Woods. You have to read them in the right order and the first one doesn’t stand alone.

It’s been a while since an author has so completely captured my imagination. Neverland is a rundown area, with a facility for young people who have already fallen through the cracks. Narrator Wenn is one such young person. She’s had an awful life full of monstrous betrayals and setbacks, and she is as bitter and angry as you might expect. One of the threads in this book is the story of her learning to trust again and open her heart. It is the woods that she first lets in, and then the people associated with the woods. The story about learning to become a fully functioning human when reality has beaten you down, is a powerful one.

Going into the woods offers Wenn respite from the miseries of her daily life. What she finds there is enchantment. Most of this is the kind of enchantment any of us could find by getting out into greener places around us. There were obvious parallels to be drawn with Mythago Wood, but where Holdstock’s vision tells us the magic is largely unavailable, Nils Visser does the opposite. He invites us to see our surroundings in these terms, too. These novels are an invitation to magic, and to personal re-enchantment.

The story itself weaves folklore and history together around a series of locations. There’s a fair smattering of radical politics, and a fair amount of paganism, too. The story places human narratives in a landscape, and does so to powerful effect. The tale itself is full of magical possibility, but it’s also startling, sometimes devastating, haunting and full of surprises. If you enjoy the kinds of things I blog about, these books are for you and I think you’ll find much to love in them.

This is a story about how important it is to have stories about your landscape. It is through stories that we stop seeing places as so much scenery and start to have a more involved relationship with them. Those can be mythic and folkloric stories, they can be historical, and they can be personal. They can also be the stories we imagine of what would happen somewhere like this.  The process of learning and creating stories, and storying yourself into a landscape is a powerful one, beautifully illustrated in this novel.

I loved these books so very much. I heartily recommend them.

You can find Nils’s work on Amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Nils-Nisse-Visser/e/B00OK5RMSY


Novelty and the landscape

There is a definite joy in walking somewhere I have never walked before, and seeing a view that is wholly unfamiliar to me. For people seeking a relationship with the land, I think the excitement of not knowing what’s around the corner is very much part of the attraction. However, there’s a risk in thinking of this relationship in terms of the exotic and the unknown. If we’re too focused on the quest for novelty and beauty, we can miss what’s around us.

Landscapes change all the time – with the seasons, and less happily, with human interventions. A person doesn’t need a large number of places to walk to have every chance of experiencing something unfamiliar. I could spend my whole life exploring just the county I live in, and I would never run out of new things to see.

There’s a quote I’ve seen a number of landscape writers refer to: “To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width.” (Patrick Kavanagh). I would say that the same is true of Druid experience. Skimming over surfaces in search of excitement is fun, but it’s not Druidry. It is the depth of your encounter with a landscape that changes it from a tourist experience to a spiritual experience.

Depth of experience takes presence and attention. It calls upon a person to immerse themselves in what is around them, to step beyond their thoughts and into the physical world. You have to show up without assumptions or an agenda. I find that in taking an interest in the small details of a scene, I am guaranteed to always see something new. It may be a cricket in the grass, or the colour of a changing leaf, an owl feather in the path, the exact way the light is catching a hilltop today. In changing light, familiar landscapes become new and surprising, although you have to spend a lot of time looking at the same landscape in different conditions to really appreciate and enjoy this.

There’s nothing wrong with craving novelty and excitement. However, there’s much to be gained from thinking carefully about how best to seek it. What kind of carbon footprint accompanies our walking footprints? The further we go in search of the exotic experience, the more expensive our experience is, in every sense. If we set out, Bilbo Baggins style and follow the path from our own front door, we build substantial relationships as we go. I think there’s something especially magical about being able to see a somewhat unfamiliar place in relation to one you know.

Every journey brings the potential for surprise. There is no knowing what waits around the next corner, and even in the most familiar locations, unfamiliar encounters may await. A tree may have come down, a fox may be crossing the path, an unexpected flower may be blooming.


And very little happened

Being a Pagan blogger creates (for me at least) a certain amount of desire to come back with a good story. I was hoping to write about the lunar eclipse this morning. I sat out on a barrow above the Severn, I watched the sun set (as much as the clouds would allow) and I couldn’t even see the moon, much less any part of the eclipse. Today I do not get to write a blog about how beautiful and meaningful I found the night sky on Friday.

I also find this is often the way of it when I go somewhere more as a tourist than not. If I’m going somewhere once, or not very often, even if I feel like it’s pilgrimage, I’m always going to be mostly a tourist. It is daft to expect that I can rock up to a sacred site and have an off the peg, personal, meaningful experience.  It’s especially suspect if we think our experience as a tourist gives us more authority than someone who has lived near and worked with a site for a long time.

Landscapes reward relationship. It doesn’t matter whether there’s a famous historical monument there, or not. Landscapes reward people taking the time to get to know them. They reveal themselves slowly, over time. I think we need to be suspicious of anyone, and most especially ourselves, walking into an unfamiliar place and getting a big, dramatic revelation. Especially when the main impact of the revelation is to make the person having it look shiny and important.

When you’re working with intuition, and looking for magic, you have to be alert to what could be ego and imagination. You have to be alert to what you’re taking into a space and how that might colour your experience.  I think we also need to be alert to the ways in which talking about what we experience can create a form of spiritual inflation. If you’ve read a lot of woo-woo stories about other people’s amazing and dramatic spiritual encounters, will you feel comfortable saying that nothing happened to you? Or that a very small thing happened to you?

Coming down off the hill on Friday, I turned at the right point to see the moon, low over the hill and briefly free from cloud. Even so, the moon was partially obscured. What showed was large, low and yellowish. The eclipse had long passed. Off to the right, there was a planet and my little party was not sure whether this was Venus or Jupiter. Not knowing felt perfectly comfortable. I’m glad we saw the moon, and I wish we’d seen the eclipse in all its drama and beauty. But at the same time, the land desperately needed those clouds and the days of rain that followed. I watched the clouds coming up from the south and knew they were bringing much needed rain, and was glad to see them.

There is a power in showing up. There are things that happen when you keep showing up to places, open hearted and not expecting too much. There’s a process, and it leads to small wonders and a greater overall sense of the numinous. It doesn’t always lead to good stories or even to things that are easily put into words. There’s a lot to be said for being a person in relationship with the land and I think it’s better for us than focusing too much on stories that put us centre stage.