Tag 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.


Druidry, place and thunder

I feel very strongly that Druidry should be rooted in where you are and that your relationship with your landscape should be part of it. This in turn calls for developing a deeper knowledge about what your landscape is like and who else lives in it. Time invested in knowing the land, encountering the spirits of place and being present through the seasons can be a large part – or even the whole – of your Druidry.

One of the things that makes my locality really unusual, is how storms behave here. This is an area of hills and interconnecting valleys. The hills are big enough that sounds will echo off them, and they are close enough together that some sounds will bounce between them. This means that most thunder storms are extra noisy and have a lot of reverb.

However, sometimes a storm will get down between the hills, and then the effects are dramatic. We had one yesterday where the thunder rolled for more than a minute at a time as the sound moved back and forth between the hills. It’s a really dramatic effect in the daytime, and more so at night.

For a person who thinks in terms of deity, this is clearly a place where the thunder Gods speak. For a person of a more animist persuasion, this may seem more like a conversation between the thunder and the hills. For a person who doesn’t believe in anything much, this is a dramatic experience born of the natural landscape. However you come at it, the experience is a significant one.

I’m not persuaded there are right answers to how we think about these things. Just pick the perspective that makes sense to you and allows you to enter into something you find meaningful. Sacredness is bigger than us, all we can ever do is respond in a limited, human way.


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.


The Emergency Tree Plan

The Emergency Tree Plan is The Woodland Trust’s plan to increase tree cover across the UK and tackle the climate and nature crises. The Committee on Climate Change states that the UK needs 1.5 million hectares of additional woodland by 2050 to help hit the net zero carbon emissions target.

Trees and woods can help to fight climate change by storing carbon, keeping it locked up for centuries. The trouble with seeing trees as a ‘magic bullet’ for climate change is of course that we could end up with something fairly sterile designed to benefit humans, but no good to wildlife, nature, ecosystems or the complex wellbeing of life itself. This plan doesn’t simply see trees as a commodity for human benefit, but is about integrating climate action with nature recovery.

Happily, the first priority expressed in this plan is to protect and expand existing woodland. Without a doubt, saving existing trees and helping woods naturally regenerate are the most useful things we can do. But, that won’t work everywhere.

I think there’s a great deal of good to be done here with urban tree planting. How many ‘parks’ are little more than big empty areas of grass? Good perhaps for the odd football game, but utterly boring and featureless the rest of the time. Not only would more trees help store carbon, but they would enrich such urban spaces with beauty and interest, and create urban habitats for wildlife.

The plan varies depending on which country you are in within the UK – here are the links.

Wales http://www.woodlandtru.st/jBtws

Northern Ireland http://www.woodlandtru.st/H2D33

England http://www.woodlandtru.st/dUfva

Scotland http://www.woodlandtru.st/qvqKE

 


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.


Winter Druidry

At this time of year, I’m not out and about as much. The shorter days mean I don’t walk in the evenings as an act of connection. The odds of more challenging weather conditions mean that I am less likely to walk for purposes other than transport. I’m more likely to be ill and stiff – which will also keep me in. I can’t sit out, I don’t have a suitable space for that.

Some years I’ve been able to dig into other areas – community, creativity and service do not require me to get outside and engage. In recent years, lack of space has meant people can’t come to me. Almost anything I might do with anyone else requires a walk of about half an hour each way in the dark of an evening. At this point I’m doing better with being out at night. There have been some winters when weariness has kept me home, and isolated.

Living in a small space, I have no private garden space and nowhere a person might undertake solitary ritual. There are spaces where it’s possible to meditate. But on the whole, I don’t have a lot of options. I can read, study and think so the philosophical and intellectual aspects of Druidry remain totally feasible for me. Overall my experience has been that in the depths of winter, doing anything I can recognise as my own Druidry becomes difficult.

It makes me think of how much of what I do depends on my relationship with place. When I can be outside without that being too unpleasant, that makes a lot of odds. I can do wilder encounters with the elements, but I can’t sustain that when I’m ill and exhausted. What kind of spaces I can access depends so much on my ability to walk. Privacy really matters to me for some of the things I might do. In summer, the combination of undergrowth and drier ground makes it feasible to sit out and that opens up all kinds of smaller, private spaces for me. In winter, those don’t exist.

This in turn brings me to thoughts about what kind of access most of us have to the land. What green spaces are available to us? What kind of wildness can we meet? What room do we have to do that?


Consuming the landscape

I’ve spent a lot of time recently trying to get to grips with the issues that underpin my depression. One of the things I’ve identified is that I have a deep need for wildness, and without the experience of wildness, I am depleted and spiritually under-nourished. This led rapidly to the question of why my immediate landscape isn’t nourishing me.

I don’t need to be miles from people, or in pristine wilderness. Some of my best ‘wild’ time in recent years was spent on the edge of the Severn – locations that certainly had other people in. I’m not automatically upset if I go for a walk and encounter other people. The presence of other people does not automatically undermine my experience of wildness.

Back in the canal days, we’d find that about 5pm, the noisy, careless people would go home, and the canal would start to feel wild again. People who came in the evening did not disrupt the experience of wildness. It is, I realise, the same here, especially in the summer.

There are a lot of popular places to take your car, dog and/or children. The landscape is full of people talking noisily and walking carelessly. Some of them stare at their phones, or play music everyone in area can hear. Some ride their mountain bikes over the barrows and insist on offroading in the woods, causing damage. The paths on the commons have expanded as they stomp carelessly through the grasses, apparently oblivious to the delicate ecosystem under their feet. Their dogs chase the skylarks. Their children pick flowers.

I’ve come to the conclusion that certain kinds of human behaviour bring disenchantment into the landscape. It is a temporary problem alleviated as soon as they are gone. I can avoid it by walking the places they don’t go – chiefly the country lanes. It helps if I stay away from the car parks. I find it distressing to encounter a stream of people for whom the land is just an amenity to use, a product to consume. It’s better in the winter because I go out and mostly they do not. It’s better at night and at twilight, but that really limits my options. It is better to walk in the week than at the weekend.

To some degree, I can flex around this. I can’t see any way to change the culture here. Wildness is everywhere, but some kinds of energy and presence from people simply wipes out the magic of that.


Uneven ground

Mammals who frequent an area make paths – we humans aren’t unusual in that regard. Granted, other mammals just keep the undergrowth down and the ground compacted, whereas we’ve gone a lot further. We’ve taken our path making to the point of it being much more comfortable and reliable for us (until we can’t afford to fix the potholes) but is it as good as it seems? Accessibility is an issue, certainly. what I’m talking about in this post isn’t feasible for everyone, and will work very differently depending on how you body and senses operate.

Summer walking off the tarmac means a lot of undergrowth. Footpaths in Gloucestershire aren’t being maintained because budgets for everything have been cut. Walking means long grass, fallen trees, dense undergrowth, uneven footing. It is much harder work, and I inevitably go slower and have to make more effort. I also notice that this kind of involved waking takes most, if not all of my attention. I can’t think about much else because I have to pay so much attention to what’s in front of me, to my feet, arms, where the brambles and stinging nettles are, and what wildlife might be trodden on if I’m careless. In short, I have to become deeply immersed in my environment. In other contexts, I can spend a lot of time trying to get to that via meditation, but this is more effective.

Walking on rough ground, I have to be very focused on the present. I am alert to my immediate future – where the path is going, what hazards are coming up, and what I need to do now to make sure I haven’t set myself up for a bigger problem shortly. You can’t totally live in the moment when walking or you’ll have to spend a lot of time backtracking to avoid obstacles you’d have otherwise avoided, and then to go back round you have to enter a relationship with past and present anyway. What happens when walking is a relationship with time that is all about what you’re doing.

Curiously, I find that relationship with time also includes memories of when I last walked in a place. Some of that will be about how I felt and what I did. I also remember locations of wildlife encounters, problems with paths, routes that proved especially rewarding and so forth. Delving into the past in this way enriches the present, and is often practical and useful as well. Wild things have their territories and habits, so remembering what was where previously increases my chances of seeing things again.

I find there’s a mental health benefit to engaging this intensely with my environment. It stops me overthinking. I find it mentally tiring, but there’s also a cleansing, clearing effect that I benefit from. I like knowing that I do not need mental discipline to get into this headspace – I can do it from whatever mess my head is in. The path I walk will show me the way, and if I am too self involved, the path will trip me, cut me and sting me until I pay it the attention and respect it demands.


Haunted by landscapes

This has been happening to me for a while now – usually on the edges of sleep. Out of nowhere comes an image of a landscape. I won’t necessarily recognise it at first. It tends to come with a feeling of loss and anxiety about not knowing where and when this memory has surfaced from. Sometimes I am able to recall the origin of the memory, sometimes not.

Walking has always been a big part of my life. I’ve walked every landscape I’ve lived in, to at least some degree. I’ve walked wherever I’ve been on holiday – and while holidays haven’t been a thing for some years, walking daytrips have. There are a lot of landscape memories in here. Which means that the memory of a corner of a lane, or a bit of hedge, or a view across some fields isn’t always that easy to identify. It bothers me, remembering and not being able to place those memories.

Something is clearly going on here and at the moment, I don’t know what it is. Landscape is deeply important to me and to my sense of self. In the decade I spent in the west midlands, my dreams were all of the Gloucestershire landscape I grew up in. Most of what’s surfacing at the moment isn’t local to where I now live. Sometimes it feels like the landscape memories are happening as part of a letting go process; that they surface because they are leaving. They aren’t landscapes I can easily bring to mind in a conscious way – I don’t have a great visual memory in the normal scheme of things, so that also makes this odd. These are places I did not know I had memories of.

There are places I would have loved more had I been happier in them – and that certainly isn’t something that was ever led by my relationship with the land. If I had understood myself better, I would have walked more in my twenties. If I had been better understood, there would have been more support to enable me to do that. Perhaps what I need to do is forgive myself for the landscape relationships I did not have, for the places I never really opened my heart to and the emotional relationships I was never able to make.


Food for politics

Every hierarchical society has depended on the labour of an underclass – slaves or peasants, or both. This tends to go with a reliance on cereal crops, or potatoes – cheap carbohydrates that will keep your underclass alive and productive, but won’t do much else for them. What it gives us is an approach to farming that does the land no good at all – diverse crops mixing trees, horticulture and animals clearly works best for the land, but it doesn’t give you a cheaply fed underclass. Diversity also makes food harder to control.

Brendan Myers pointed out in his excellent book – Reclaiming Civilization – that once you have a granary, you have an essential resource that can easily be controlled by a few armed men. Storing cereals allows some people to become the ‘protectors’ of the cereals, and by that means they get power over everyone else.

People who mostly depend on one crop are much more vulnerable. One bad harvest spells disaster. One hike in the price of the key foodstuff and many are pushed to, or over the edge. Frightened people living in scarcity are easier to manipulate and control than happy people who experience sufficiency.

What if we were able to eat more broadly, and more locally? What if food wasn’t traded internationally for the profits of those who only get their hands dirty playing the markets? What if we had more food security around the world, and less dependence on the big companies that control seed, pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers?

What if the food you eat is a key underpinning of capitalism? What would changing people’s diets do to the world’s political structures?