Tag Archives: land

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.

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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.


The Northern Forest

The Woodland Trust, alongside The Community Forest Trust are undertaking to plant 50 million trees over 25 years to create a forest in the North of England. There’s details and a map on this website – https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2018/01/new-northern-forest/

The government are investing £5.7 million in this scheme. However, it doesn’t let them off the hook for loss of ancient forests elsewhere. It concerns me that politicians don’t seem to grasp what a wood actually is. A wood is more than just planting some trees. If you plant trees in what was previously a field, unless that field was itself ancient woodland within the last fifty years, you probably just get trees in a field. You don’t get a wood. If your field is right next to an established wood, this can also work. A woodland is also the low to the ground plants, the fungi in the soil, the birds, insects, animals. You can’t offset the cutting down of ancient woodland.

I’ve seen trees planted in fields, and they do not feel like woods. They are missing much of what makes a wood into a wood.

Given the scale of The Northern Forest it is clearly going to have sections next to existing woods, allowing the expansion of habitat for woodland plants and creatures. With the twenty five year time scale, there’s every reason to think this can be done in a way that expands existing woodland, rather than just sticking trees in fields.

I’m excited to see people in the UK talking about tree planting as a way to deal with flooding. We send experts to developing countries to tell them to grow trees on high ground to better manage rainwater, but in the UK too much of our high ground has grouse moors on it. I wonder how much land currently wasted as grouse moors will be allowed to return to a more natural condition in the areas where this is happening. The forest will surround Manchester, location of the infamous grouse moor in protest song ‘I’m a rambler’.

Articles about the project talk about improvements to air quality and to the mental health of people living in cities that the forest will embrace. This is good in many ways, but it is not the answer to either air quality or the current crisis in mental health. We need to cut pollution to improve air quality. We need to deal with causes of anxiety and stress to solve mental health problems (excellent article here – https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/07/is-everything-you-think-you-know-about-depression-wrong-johann-hari-lost-connections) And yes, tree planting is a good answer to excess rain, but we need to do more than tree planting to deal with the climate crisis causing the excess rain in the first place.

While I am always going to be in favour of tree planting, my worry is that this will be used by politicians as a way of saying they are dealing with issues. It could be a big PR and greenwashing exercise if we aren’t careful. It does not substitute for affordable public transport, reducing air pollution, dealing with an increasingly toxic work culture or tackling the root causes of climate change. Even planting 50 million trees in the UK (which sounds like a lot, I know) does not give us the freedom to carry on exactly as we are.


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).


Body as landscape

The body as landscape is an obvious thing to explore in earth-orientated meditations. It’s something I’m wary of, because of the relationship between the female body and landscape in certain kinds of writing and attitude. For the colonial explorer, the exotic, unconquered landscape was something to be entered and used. Penetrated. Exploited. Abuse of the land and abuse of the feminine often go together, and using feminine language for landscapes is part of this process.

At the same time, we’ve a long history of seeing the feminine as closer to nature – not as a compliment, but to make clear that wild, intuitive womanhood is inferior to logical, reasoning masculinity. These gender assumptions harm everyone. Thought and feeling, logic and intuition are available to all of us, we should all have the right to them. It’s not a case of being one or the other.

Currently my midriff looks like the surface of the moon – pale and cratered, while my thighs look like the consequence of mediaeval ploughing. I note that the usual woman/world language doesn’t do this so much. The parallels are usually made to evoke richness and beauty, and not the damage and despoiling intended to follow. In my case it’s just the consequence of weight loss – another paradigm where the language is all about beauty, skipping over the truth of an often unsettling process of transition.

I note that the current vogue in female ‘beauty’ is deforestation. I note the parallel.


Staying on the beaten track

There’s a romantic appeal to getting off the beaten track. It can suggest getting ‘back to nature’ – into some purer, more pristine space, less defiled by humans. And of course for a Pagan, that’s got to be attractive. We’re nature people, we want to be close to nature, so why am I suggesting we don’t get off the beaten track?

I mean this very literally, by the way.

First up there’s a practical reason to stay on the path – otherwise you can very easily get lost and in some places, getting lost can kill you. At the very least, stay on the tracks and build stamina and experience before you even think about doing something that takes you further into the wilds.

Consider though, that the more people get out there, off the beaten track in search of pristine nature, the less ‘pristine nature’ there is going to be. If you see human presence as at odds with wildness, then adding your presence is questionable as an action. And no amount of saying ‘I am a special priest of the land and my being there is different’ makes rocking up in your vehicle to do your bit of erosion any less of an impact.

Humans are pushing the rest of nature to the margins. The more we insist on traipsing off into what marginal wilderness remains, the more pressure we put on it. The more resources we use to ‘get away from it all’ – by flying to exotic places, taking 4x4s so we can get off road and so on, the more resources we use and the more harm we do.

When we’re on the beaten path, we are predictable to other creatures. They know where the paths are, it is easier for them to avoid us, and they tend to feel less threatened when we are where they expect us to be (based on my own experiences with deer). If we push into their spaces, they are going to feel threatened. We may frighten them or drive them off. They do not exist for our amusement and we should think carefully about how we treat their space.

When we’re on the beaten path, we can see where we are putting our feet. Some birds make their nests on the ground. Some rare flowers are very small. When we spend time stomping around off the path, we are more likely to harm or kill something.

Paths are ok, and they aren’t unnatural. Deer and badgers make paths. Sheep make paths. Pathmaking is part of how creatures interact with landscapes. Humans are creatures too, and using our own paths to move through a space in a way appropriate to our own bodies, and inoffensive to other life forms, is not some kind of Pagan-fail.

You can, I promise, stand on a path and look at, be moved by and enjoy that which is not on the path. It may be less macho but it’s a good deal kinder and more respectful.


Poetry: The Dirty Britons

When did my people stop being indigenous?

Before enclosure stole their commons

And industry stole the shape of their days.

Before peasant labour in feudal field strips.

Perhaps before Vikings, Romans, Celts,

My ancestors lived in knowing harmony

And were people of this land.

 

Before memory. Before history.

 

I walk myself into this land.

I walk this land into me.

Step by step, season to season,

Making body knowledge.

I am not my ancestors,

Cannot channel what they knew

But all traditions start somewhere.

I teach my son what I can of presence.

Generations hence we might find

What it is to be English indigenous

On English ground, despite the crushing,

Severing, looking the wrong way and

Getting excited about the wrong things

History of conventional Englishness.

Even we might yet relearn soil songs

Become genuine people of the earth