Tag Archives: land

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.

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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.


Night Walking Druid

I’ve loved night walking ever since discovering as an insomniac teen, the delights of being out alone late at night. I’ve never found it especially hazardous – stay away from pubs at closing time, and it’s no riskier than any other activity. I don’t see well in the dark, I lose depth perception in failing light so walking by moonlight is challenging, but possible.

I only walk familiar paths when night walking. In part I rely on my memory of the land to guide me around the hazards I know are there. It’s quite a good test of my relationship with a path if I can walk it easily in the dark and know where I am from non-visual cues. However, I’m also excited by the way in which places change in the dark to become unfamiliar and uncanny.

I’m not easily spooked being under trees at night. I have a pretty good idea what sounds in the undergrowth mean, I don’t find owls or bats creepy so a lot of the horror film standards about scary woods don’t really influence me. I can be unnerved by the feelings of uncanniness that sometimes come on a night walk, especially if there’s a sense of presence not present in the day. Some places do feel more haunted at night.

I find there’s something deeply affecting about being out under the night sky. Feeling the night air on my skin is particularly powerful, and I try to dress lightly if I’m night walking in summer. There is a sense of enchantment, of having the night seep into my skin and my mind. I come back from such walks feeling uplifted and empowered. My sense of magical possibility increases when I spend time away from artificial light.

I’m fortunate indeed in that there are some easily walked paths round here that have no lights on them, aren’t much influenced by roads, nor subject to light pollution. I can walk in proper darkness, by moonlight, I can even experience starlight. The night seems very different when it isn’t glaringly lit. It feels wilder, and being out in it, I feel wilder, too.


Landscape, and fantasy landscape

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

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

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

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

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

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


The power of local stories

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

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

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

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

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

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


Seeking magic in the land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The politics of wetlands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.