Tag Archives: land

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.

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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?


Rural Gothic

I have really mixed feelings about rural gothic stories – on one hand I love much of it as a reader/viewer. But I do worry about how it impacts on people’s feelings about wild places. In rural gothic stories, the landscape itself tends to seem hostile and threatening – trees and forests especially. The darkness beyond the human settlement can only be a place for horrors. These aren’t the stories I most enjoy.

The best known rural gothic tales concentrate on the big house in the middle of nowhere (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights etc) – in these the role of the natural world is often simply to provide remoteness, with the fear of it a force for isolation and a lack of humans to help, witness or explain. In the gothic house in the middle of nowhere, the horrors are all human – living, dead, mad, murderous, guilt ridden, incestuous and so forth. The landscape may initially take some of the blame. The subtext in such stories is often that, without other humans to keep an eye on them, some humans go very wrong indeed.

My preference is for tales where the main characters are not the massively rich inhabitants of manor houses, and the countryside is not absolutely hostile. I’m very happy to have some creepy landscape features – some landscapes are, after all, rather creepy. Just the one sinister tree in an otherwise benign forest. Just the one haunted landscape feature, or the one location for the malevolent dead, so that wild places can be a mix of the dangerous and the restorative. Marry Webb does this very well indeed, and it’s also there in Daphne De Maurier’s work and Sabine Baring Gould.

The Blair Witch Project is for me a fine contemporary example of a story that takes the landscape horror too far. That whole landscape is presented as hostile and dangerous. It becomes banal after a while. How much more powerful would the film have been if the landscape also held beauty and promise, so you could never be sure if you were safe or not, or what was imagined and what was real. And really, what are we doing telling each other to be afraid of woodlands when in practice, trees are incredibly benevolent beings who do us massive amounts of good?

Fear of the wild places is a very human response, but in practice, as well as in fiction, what we might reasonably be afraid of are the choices of the unwitnessed human, not the landscape itself.


Rooted in the landscape

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

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

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

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

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

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


Relating to the landscape

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

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

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

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

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

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


Revisiting a landscape

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

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

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

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

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

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


Spring Views

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

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

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

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


Druidry and relationship with space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cold Spots

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

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

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

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

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

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