Tag Archives: land

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


The land: always the land…

lambs_looking_01A guest blog from Talis Kimberley

I was fortunate enough t o spend my childhood in a house with a large garden. I have often said that the garden, not the house, are really where I lived; certainly my memories of it are stronger. Until I was 17 I knew a kindly green landscape where the wheel of the year was punctuated by the emergence of leaves, buds, fruit and nuts, all without any apparent ‘gardening’ whatever, and all free for the gathering, picking, eating, and – in my mother’s case – turning into jellies and jams.

The books I read as a young child undoubtedly romanticised farms and the countryside, and in my suburban garden, stag beetles, fox cubs, furry caterpillars and toads were common sights, and I thought myself a country girl for all I was living in a city suburb.

As an adult, I finally came to live in a village. For the last ten years my home has been in what feels, to me, a very much more rural setting, though as this already-large village expands, some neighbours feel it’s ‘not a village any more’.

I disagree. From the butcher’s shop where meat and dairy goods produced by local farms are sold, to the simple fact that a seven minute walk from my house in any direction will put me in a field, this, to me, is the contemporary countryside.

Most especially, I count farmers among my friends and acquaintances – unheard-of back in the city of my childhood. And those farmers and the things I’ve learned from them have shaped my experience of living here, and inspired many of the songs that comprise my ‘Cloth of Gold – Songs of Sheep and Farming’ collection. (1)

Farmers have it tough here. This townie-born Green activist knows the lure of the romantic idyll, the mixed farm with the named beasts, the five-barred gate, the speckled chickens in the yard, the vintage tractor – these are still the stuff of childrens’ books and TV series , though we should know better. The truth is that farmers are under pressure to diversify because the food they grow and raise often fails to cover its costs. The price of cheap food – and I know that many are hungry in the UK, to our shame, and that ‘food deserts’ exist in many of our cities – is that many farmers have left the land, and increasingly, our food will be grown by agribusinesses whose sole aim is to make a bigger profit than they did last year.

Don’t blame the farmers for the corners some may cut, for the less-than-sustainable choices some may make, when you and I do as much in other aspects of our lives, when we are under pressure and lacking better options.

The farmers I know, from the shepherd who spent most of April’s nights standing in death’s way for her lambs, to the farmer who taught me to kill and draw a chicken for the pot (I am not vegetarian, no. I challenged myself to do what was needful and take responsibility for the birds I raised that they should have a good life and a fast death, and that they should not go to waste) and the farmer-shopkeeper-and-cafe-proprietor who has had several careers in other fields … sorry…! … and who cares passionately about good food and the community who eat it – he sent out a tray of hot sausage rolls for the volunteers when a fundraising event was taking place on the pavement – and the much-missed farmer who sat beside me on the Parish Council making me giggle with his dry observations, drawn from a lifetime on the land: whose cattle were his delight, and who would disagree with me across the council table with gentle humour and civility and a big grin… none of these were or are, careless of the land, nor of the beasts in their care.

Townie-born, I know there is a depth of ignorance on the part of the city-dweller for the countryside, and vice versa as well. As with every other division between us diverse human souls who bleed the same kind of red and are all as prone to despair and loneliness as each other wherever we live, this division serves best those who are laughing down their sleeves at the lot of us, who make the biggest and most powerful national choices in our names, who think that fracking for oil and gas is a good idea, who think that licensing chemicals which are exterminating our bees and other pollinators is a splendid and profitable plan… those same people who have created systems in which good food is deliberately spoiled and sent to landfill while the most vulnerable in our society go hungry – yes, and have in cases starved to death. (2) Yes, in fair England.

I love the land. I always did, in a romantic way, a childlike way; trees were for climbing, streams for fording, grass for rolling down hills in. Now I have a little patch of land to tend and garden, and I know how deeply it feeds my soul, and the demands it makes on me, and I have learned that farmers carry that same weight manyfold.

Some of the songs on ‘Cloth of Gold’ were written about the flock of sheep I am privileged to know. (3) Others inspired by the BBC TV series ‘Wartime Farm’ (4) and still others emerged over the years as again and again, I have tried to tell in my songs the stories in my heart about the land and those who work it. Here are the sheep I know, here is the barn into which I helped harvest hay, here are the people who spend their hearts and strength serving the land that we live on, and here are the ways it matters to me. I hope you will enjoy the songs. Thank you.

 

Talis Kimberley, May 16, 2016

[1] Cloth of Gold at Talis’s webshop: http://www.marchwoodmedia.co.uk/talis/shop/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=1&products_id=11

[2] The death of Mark Woods: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/feb/28/man-starved-to-death-after-benefits-cut

[3] Alfie Purl, a most remarkable Cotswold sheep: http://alfiepurl.co.uk/

[4] BBC’s Wartime Farm: http://www.open.edu/download-your-free-wartime-farm-booklet

 

 


Ancestors in the land

The presence and nature of ancestors in the land are going to vary a lot depending on where you live. For people of European descent living in formerly colonial countries, ancestors of land raise issues of appropriation, and of awful histories. Having never worked with this, I can only flag up the issue, I can’t really answer it.  I think relating to those who went before us as part of the land may help to make honourable relationships that take nothing, but maybe give something back in terms of respect. It wouldn’t be about visiting their places, but about recognising their continued presence, and knowing the stories of their presence in the land, and knowing what happened to them. As someone who lives in the UK, I’m not well placed to discuss these matters. Working with ancestors of place is certainly easier if there’s been no conflict between them, and your ancestors of blood.

Rather than trying to imagine all possible ancestors for all people in all places, I’m going to talk about my own experiences and hope people can use that as an effective jumping off point.

 

Ancestors in the geology

I live on Jurassic limestone. The internet is your friend when it comes to finding out about the rock where you live. Different rocks come from different eras and have different qualities, so there’s a lot to engage with here. Some of the soil here is thick clay, some is a more sandy loam, and there are areas of good topsoil for growing produce. Where it’s thin, sandy soil over rock, there’s often a history of quarrying, and a current presence of grazing livestock.

The Jurassic limestone is full of fossils – generally small sea shells, and other relics of a long departed shore. I’ve picked up fossilised crab shells, sea urchins, and all kinds of things that were probably plants. That these ancient ancestors of place can appear, so perfect and undamaged by time, is a startling thing. I cannot make any sense of the vast swathes of time between their lives and mine, and yet I can hold them in my hands. A dinosaur skull was found locally, some time ago, and I remain in hope of finding one myself. But then, having grown up on this limestone, I’ve spent much of my life finding fossils and longing for dinosaurs.

 

Ancestors in the archaeology

Prehistoric human life is only available to us as archaeology. I’m lucky – there are four barrows within viable walking distance, and more I have yet to visit. There are three Iron Age forts I can walk to from my home. I’m a short distance from a churchyard that was discovered to have a Roman villa on it, and an incredible mosaic, which is dug up at intervals – I have yet to see it. There’s a site reputed to be a Roman camp site, and stories and histories go forwards from there, becoming more certain as we go. Not so many miles away is the city of Gloucester, known to have been inhabited since people returned to these shores after the last ice age. Ancient ancestors are all around me, and visible. Much of the UK is like this.

There’s a great deal I cannot know about them, but I can walk the paths they used – some of the paths around here are 4,000 years old. I can visit their graves, and I can look at this land and try to imagine their lives in it. Currently, the Severn River is cut off from the Cotswold hills by a motorway, crossable on foot at only a few points. For much of history, there was no barrier to walking between the river and the wooded hills. It’s easy to imagine a mobile population doing just that – shifting out in times of flood, going where the hunting would be good, and coming to the hilltops above the river to bury their most significant dead.

Of course my imaginative engagement with them does not give me certainties about who they were and how they lived. However, I’ve walked from the river to the hills, I have a physical knowing of this place that must, to at least some degree, be held in common.

 


Walking without conquest

We did not go to the top of the hill, and as we skirted the side, the thought came to me ‘feminist walker does not conqueror the summit’. Exploration and adventure can often involve the language of conquest. There can be something decidedly macho about the bid for the top, or for covering the distance. Look back at older explorers and adventurers, and there’s a language of penetration, as the man takes the landscape, and the landscape is female. This is something H. Rider Haggard took to a wilfully absurd extreme in King Solomon’s Mines (the mountains that are the breasts of Sheba, and the treasure cave are, when you look at the map, pretty unsubtle).

It’s easy to have even the tamest of walks turn into something that is about achievement, in a way that has a really interesting impact on our relationship with the land itself. The top of the hill is just as much about reaching the summit and looking down on everything as the top of a mountain might be. Not that there’s anything wrong with climbing things or getting to the highest point. The issue is how motives and intent affect experience. There is more to a hill than reaching the top of it, but if we’re only interested in the summit, we may miss a lot of things along the way.

This is perhaps doubly interesting  as an issue for Pagans. Many of us see land, or the Earth as a whole, in terms of goddess. Mother Earth, Gaia; if we understand this as her body, then how we walk upon it, is worth thinking about. Are we here to penetrate the forest, or the cave? Regardless of gender, we can cast ourselves in really macho roles in relation to our journeys.

It’s a different process to walk as someone who is interested in seeing how the landscape unfolds. Being someone for whom each wrinkle, each bump and curve, is important, and engaging. To be someone who seeks out not just the pretty, picturesque faces but is willing to walk through old industrial sites and new ones, along main roads, under motorways – this too is the land. The land does not always wear the face of a beautiful virgin goddess – if previous visitors have ravaged her, she may bear scars and open wounds, lines of sorrow, and she may seem hostile.

If we simply go to take, if we walk to possess and to be gratified, seeking only what is most pleasing to us, caring only for the face of the land where other humans have not bruised that face with careless treatment, we are still colonialists. Regardless of personal gender, we are still the man in the pith helmet who wants to penetrate virgin forests to bring back prizes. We don’t have to be that. We can walk in sympathy. We can walk with empathy and with a desire to know and understand, to be present rather than to conquer. Then we find that the side of the hill has its own precious qualities, different from the summit but no less worthy, and everything changes.


The logic of ownership

Our laws and society are very much underpinned by ideas about ownership. Ownership of property, wealth, and the land itself. This is so deeply entrenched in how we do things that it’s not easy to even imagine what any other model could look like, but that doesn’t mean what we have is right, just or reasonable.

I have no problem with the idea of private property, let’s be clear. A home, and the things you need should be considered a right for all of us. A little private use of land for gardening and growing food.

In the UK, the history of land ownership is not much discussed. I understand that we have one of the most unequal distributions of ownership of land, and that this probably dates back to the Norman invasion, when about a thousand years ago an invading French nobleman parcelled up the land and gave it to his friends. We can also think about Henry the eighth taking land from the church for himself and his friends, and the enclosures act, putting previously common land into the hands of the few at a dire cost to the many.

Much land in the UK is inherited. Any land ownership is likely to have its roots in invasion and conquest. In any country that has experienced colonial takeover, the history of land theft tends to be more recent, and very bloody. Land ownership and death go hand in hand. Those who own the land then own the resources on the land and are able to make a profit or get a profit out of those who do not own the land. This is the foundation of many of our laws. It’s something we could afford to question.

Rivers are poisoned, air polluted and land wrecked by exploitation so that some people are able to make a profit. It’s bloody stupid to trash our irreplaceable, finite environment in this way, but we also ought to be looking at why a few people are allowed to make money out of this exploitation, while others are left with no clean drinking water, polluted air, unfarmable land, and so forth. We take more than we should, as a species, but we do not share the loot of our pillages fairly either.

We all need food, air and water. We all need access to the resources of the land, and so do the generations who will come after us. Why do we continue to believe in the idea of ownership, when we are all affected by the use and misuse of the commons (air, water, land)? Why do we continue to support the few in exploiting essential resources? Why do we continue to believe there is an entitlement to make a profit at the expense of others, from land ownership, when land ownership is often little more than the consequence of historic bloodshed. Why does historical slaughter beget modern rights?


Lessons from the landscape

Yesterday we walked the Stroud Five Valley’s walk – 21 miles up and down the hills. It was our second attempt. Last year we managed the whole thing, but limped home in significant pain, a long time after the last buses had gone and the checkpoints closed. This year my lad bailed at 19.55 miles, and came home on the bus with a certificate, while Tom and I managed the whole thing and strolled past the last checkpoint with it still open.

After last year we spent a lot of time discussing what had happened and how we could improve on kit, pacing, and food. All of that went to plan, and made a definite difference. The lad of course is bigger, and that helps, but in addition we’ve spent the year improving our stamina for longer walks, and our ability to get up and down the hills. My thighs are still not what they could be in this regard, and my aim is to do it next year in the time and with considerably less pain! Working with a body that is prone to fatigue and pain at the best of times, meant that pushing to do this was an enormous challenge. I was very nearly thwarted by sleep deprivation a week ago, but was able to pull back from there, although it was a close thing.

It’s a lot easier doing a tough walk when you know what’s coming and can pace accordingly. Simply having done the route last year changed our relationship with the journey. One long climb with four different spots that look like the top but aren’t put a huge dent in morale last year. This year we approached it saying ‘right, you bastard….’ and found it easier just because we weren’t caught out by how much there was to do. Still a tough hill, but it didn’t break us because we knew what it was. Often it’s not what the body can take, it’s what the head can persuade the body to take.

One of the biggest impacts for me was the overall change in relationship with the landscape. A year ago, and there were many places on the walk that were unknown to me. I frequently didn’t know where I was. This year I knew at all times at least roughly where I was in relation to everything else. Every view revealed a familiar feature, and there were many points where the route crossed other walks I’ve taken. There might be more sense of adventure walking in an unfamiliar place and not knowing what you might see next, but a long journey through a familiar landscape is a much easier thing.

Much of this is to do with thinking. If everything is unfamiliar, there’s a lot more mental processing involved, and this is tiring. I suppose if you don’t really look at the landscape, this isn’t an issue, but I wouldn’t be much of a Druid if I went through the countryside in a state of cheerful oblivion just following the route markers. There were lovely surprises in the form of little paths I’d not known about. We saw deer, buzzards and ravens despite the number of people around.

Today I hurt, but nothing like as much as I did at this point last year. I’ve learned to pace, to recognise that my body can’t do everything, and needs gentle treatment if I am to accommodate anything more ambitious. If I am careful, I can keep body pain down to tolerable levels, and I can do the odd outrageous thing. If I choose carefully, I can do what I intend, and if I try to do everything I can end up able to do nothing. I’ve learned a lot about recognising and honouring my own limits, and the consequence is that sometimes I can push those limits to good effect.


Language and landscape

I’ve recently read Jonathan Bate’s The Song of the Earth – it’s a book of literary criticism looking at landscape writing from a more ecological perspective, and it’s decidedly interesting stuff. In places I found it a bit more technical and academic than I could manage, but there were long, more accessible passages that more than made up for this.

One of the key theories underpinning the whole text, is that language is an act of separation from nature. Language is one of the things that makes humans, not natural, and so to speak of nature in language is to heighten separation. Further, that language is not experience, not the real thing, only ever a way of expressing something else. It makes an interesting juxtapose with Robert McFarlane’s ‘Landmarks’ where the message is that specific language helps us recognise and connect, and brings us into better relationship with the natural world, and that human communities living closer to nature have more words for what they encounter. On the whole I am more aligned to Robert McFarlane’s perspective.

I do not see language as unnatural. Nature communicates, with fellow members of its species and with other species when needs be. It does it with sound and movement, smell, chemical emission. If you know a dog you can tell the difference between its wanting to play bark, and its alarm and posturing  bark, while full on aggression sounds different again. A blackbird’s warning call is not the same as its sundown song. We can make sense of the bee’s waggle dance, although they don’t do them for us. Tress give off signals to attract the allies they need if they’re hit by a plague of insects, and on it goes. Communication is intrinsic to life, not some weird human addition. It may be arrogance to assume that other species have fewer ‘words’ as well.

Talking is not the experience itself. Writing and reading are very human activities, but they engage our mammal emotions and our minds. What we learn from any form of exchange goes with us, back out into the world, to help us notice. It is easier to discuss something you have words for, and to extend knowledge by means other than direct interaction.

Verbal communication has been given primacy in human interactions, but we do still use body language if we deal with each other in the same space. We are affected by how other humans smell – not just the binary of gross/acceptable, but subtle messages that come in through the nose. Tone of voice affects us. There’s also the exchanges that happen heartbeat to heartbeat, skin to skin, when we are close enough to be communicating in largely physical ways. The dialogues of holding and being held.  You can tell someone a great deal simply by how you touch them.

Language itself allows us to hold and explore ideas that it would be hard to imagine without the words to frame them. Truth, belief, the difference between experience and the expression of experience… but these are issues for another day.