Tuesday 19th November 2019,
Frontiers Magazine

The Language of the Senses

Elizabeth Woodcock October 2, 2019 Countryside

waterfall

Water, the elemental essence of life, of our bodies. A visceral trickle running down the flank of a hill. Yet walking in drought and the bare bones of the hills creak under foot, the brittle and brown grasses, the dusty streams holding no life-giving juice. Parched lips and hard land. Without water, we are and have nothing. The seeds cannot germinate, the worms cannot move in rock-like soil, the earth becomes dust. Our bodies will become dust.

Then it rains.

It rains. It rains for days and days; well, that’s what people say. But when you’re outside all the time, it doesn’t. It doesn’t rain all the time. All we know is change. The storms rise in their fury and lash down upon us and the land. They move, cripple communities, and dispel and change into lightning or light-streaked rainbows, once seen as bridges by the Norse to the gods and goddesses. The fell rivers then gush with water. Alive, vibrant, torrents of white-crested snakes, crashing down hillsides. Nan Shepherd writes in The Living Mountain:

I love its flash and gleam, its music, its pliancy and grace, its slap against my body; but I fear its strength. I fear it as my ancestors must have feared the natural forces that they worshipped. All the mysteries are in its movement. It slips out of holes in the earth like the ancient snake. I have seen its birth; and the more I gaze at that sure and unremitting surge of water at the very top of the mountain, the more I am baffled. We make it all so easy, any child in school can understand it – water rises in the hills, it flows and finds its own level, and man can’t live without it. But I don’t understand it. I cannot fathom its power.”

There is a mystery of the Earth we can easily forget about. A relationship we take for granted. An aliveness we ignore. A language we have lost. And that language is sensuality.

Walking in the mist

cairngorm

A few years ago I lived by the Cairngorms, where Nan Shepherd regularly explored. I walked into this landscape, once on a path toward Ben Macdui, the second highest mountain in Britain. We stopped at 1pm in bright sunshine and ate boiled eggs and marmite sandwiches. How good they tasted. A couple of hours later, just as we reached the summit, a grey mist swallowed us whole. There is no focal point, just white, grey, almost suffocating, steadied only seeing two boots on ground strewn with rocks and boulders.

There were no obvious paths, but as though a thousand feet had danced and moved all the stones into a frenzied mosaic of disorder. Utterly in the grip of the elemental forces about me, I realised what to do; talk to the mountain. I asked the spirits of this place for a safe passage through, I ‘talked’ to the wind and mists and rocks as they held us tight. This might sound peculiar to some. Why not use your compass or navigational skills? My rational mind was disbanded, as I fell intimately into a relationship with something bigger than myself.

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It felt like crossing over a threshold, ceasing to be an individual, and becoming aware I was not in control of my own destiny, when the cultural lexicon shattered because there is no ‘I’ as a single entity, only a vastness of belonging, a cosmic soup of life, melting into the fabric of time so utterly present that there seemed to be no time. Held in whiteness. A place, I believe our ancestors knew well. A place guided by forces and patterns we are humbled to, a place that has been forgotten as we have disconnected from nature. I asked the mountain and spirits of that place for guidance. Utterly present with the moisture of mist wrapped about me, barren, wet great slabs of rock underfoot, I was not ‘in my own world’. A wind rose, wind opened mist, for a few seconds, and we could see the way, as two ghostly figures disappeared behind a line of cairns. I set a bearing, and we walked, thanking the mountain, mist and wind.

The spell of the seasons

David Abram, cultural ecologist, philosopher and author writes: “The sensuous world itself remains the dwelling place of … numinous powers that can either sustain or extinguish human life.” Powers like the wind, like water, like mist. Communicating and listening to “the other organic forms of sensitivity and awareness with which human existence is entwined” is vital for our relationship with the Earth. The Earth “is alive, aware, and intertwined.” We have “This ability to immerse our consciousness in the sensuous world around us…” because humans are hard wired for relationship, not just with other humans but with all beings from a bank of moss to a mountain.

castle rock drought

Our challenge today is to feel, as we are programmed for sensual connection. David Abram begins his book The Spell of the Sensuous with “The eyes, the skin, the tongue, ears, and nostrils – all are gates where our body receives the nourishment of otherness.” And this otherness includes the Natural World and all its inhabitants.

Listening to the wind

I’m on top of Blencathra, an iconic Celtic-named hill in the North Cumbrian Lakes, and look over at Sharp Edge, wondering if I’ll return that way. Sharp Edge is a Grade 1 scramble, a knife-edge ridge of 500 million-year-old slate jutting into the sky. The British Mountaineering Council refer to it as a ‘scaly beast’, best avoided in ‘adverse’ conditions. As if in response to my wondering, I’m hit by a gust of wind, and I delve into a conversation with the hill, who butts me like an intimate friend, ushering me home the ‘safe’ way. “I guess not then,” and laugh as I listen to the wind howling, the breath of a huge being. My feet planted on the belly of a great slumbering Blencathra giant, that breath playing through my hair, sometimes gently, sometimes roughly, but I listen. For me, one of the greatest qualities is listening. I listen to the wind and the mist, the water falling. Today, it will not be Sharp Edge. Today instead, the tarn beckons, a black, opaque jewel like obsidian, resting in a bowl of rock and moss.

We need a different lexicon to understand our relatedness with the Earth, going ‘into’ it and ‘dissolving’ like Nan Shepherd, in this time where we can see the effects of our lifestyles on the Earth and on ourselves. The language of the Earth is sensory. It ‘speaks’ to us in wind, mists, rain, sun, river snakes, frost, ice and sound, if we care to listen, if we care to feel. It speaks in smells of autumn leaves and spring blossom, peat bogs and thunderstorms, if we care to slow down and smell. It speaks in processes and change where our senses are an interface, portals in this fluid relationship. Our senses and our attention. As Mary Oliver wrote, “Attention without feeling, is only a report.”

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Many have experienced this sensory connection with nature but the ‘fear’ of being ostracised, of being ‘weird’’ prevents them speaking out. Women have shared experiences privately, experiences such as:

I feel the Earth move up through me as I walk”

I have often wondered why my senses seem super-charged, especially when I walk on my own. Is it the simplicity, the lack of distractions that somehow frees … the feelings that get pushed aside in our busy daily lives or is it something more profound – a deeper connection to the earth, water and air – to the landscape as a whole?”

I’m immersed and enfolded in the oneness and softness of water as I swim.”

I kiss the trees softly and ask the land for permission before I dig.”

We all ‘know’ and can feel. We are at a time to normalise this intrinsic, intimate connection we have with the Earth, the land. To normalise a language of sensuality and oneness, because it is thrawn in our DNA.

A few years ago I was sitting on a grassy bank in Southern Spain. It was spring and a brilliant blue sky stretched overhead. Flowers were blooming in this brief window of life before the crippling heat of the summer scorched them dry. I looked across at a mountain and the words ‘”Slow down said the mountain” tumbled into my head. Held in a moment of enchantment, more words followed;


Slow down

Said the mountain

Soften into strength

Said the flower

Sing your own song

Said the bird

Stretch out your wings

Said the butterfly

Open your belly

Said Mother Earth

Send down your roots

Said the tree

Open to me

Open to me

Breathe a deep breathe

Breathe

And

Let go

All will be well

Trust

Slowing down, breathing deeply, attentiveness and presence are essential to feeling, to sensing, to connecting with the essence of the Earth, and these multifaceted threads and webs of life which pulsate about us. Mystics and Buddhists have known this for centuries, and we are being pushed to listen in.

To see beyond

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Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer is the author of Braiding Sweetgrass and Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, a Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology and leading bryologist. She writes how our senses, particularly sight, are being dulled:

We poor myopic humans, with neither the raptor’s gift of long-distance acuity, nor the talents of a housefly for panoramic vision.”

She writes of the technology we have to see beyond us like satellite imagery and the Hubble space telescope, and technology to see into our cells with electron microscopes.

But at the middle scale, that of the unaided eye, our senses seem to be strangely dulled. With sophisticated technology, we strive to see what is beyond us, but are often blind to the myriad sparkling facets that lie so close at hand. Our acuity at this middle scale seems diminished, not by any failing of the eyes, but by the willingness of the mind. Has the power of our devices led us to distrust our unaided eyes?”

Ecologist and author David Abram adds:

Perhaps the biggest tragedy for the peoples of modern culture is that we have forgotten the magical essence of our nature, preferring instead to replace it with the wonders of our technology.”

Finding the place

“Our senses seem to be strangely dulled” and “we have forgotten the magical essence of our nature” as we rush on, distracted with what’s out there or in here, not breathing fully, pushing through, constantly viewing apps and news and emails, distracted and hijacked by some urgency, to what, ‘Get It Right’, ‘Be Better’, ‘Keep up’ or ‘Achieve’? Rumi said:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
And rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass

The world is too full to talk about.

For me, that place is high on the hills, where ravens fly and gently croak as they are carried on the thermals. But twice in my life, I’ve reached a point where I have not listened, or slowed down, or laid on “that grass”, but pushed on regardless of health and well-being. Both times, in these storms of stress, there was a calm point in the eye of the storm where a voice inside said “You are not OK.” No drama but a turning point, if I so cared. I was being given a choice; make fundamental changes or break.

Both times, I was instinctively driven into a deeper re-connection with the natural world because I had let my attention wander. I had forgotten the magical essence of my nature in relationship with the land. I had let my senses, mind and body be hijacked, and I had not nurtured my relationship with the landscapes about me, or navigated skilfully with care in this modern world. The first time, I walked for 10 days solid on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path. Even their local magazine had advice from a doctor: “A week walking is equivalent to a course in anti-depressants.”

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When I walk, I become fully present and all my senses are drinking in the motion through and over the land. Foot-by-foot language of kissing the earth rhythmically, smelling the salt air, feeling the breeze on skin, and sun melting away anxiety. Mixing with bird and creature, slug and swallow, sighting fox scat, and owl pellet, delving into close ups of spider web and caterpillar cocoon. Toxins squeezed out, oxygen soaking into blood, refreshing my membranes like water soaking into a sea sponge. Becoming present, full attention with all senses, learning the sensory language of the land and developing a relationship with the land that is symbiotic and nurturing. A relationship that was once recognized and honoured by all. There was a time, as Dr Sharon Blackie writes of the ancient myth ‘The Voices of the Wells’, where people understood there’s a contract between people and the land. You care for it, and it cares for you.

Mary Reynolds, former garden designer, author and environmental activist writes that many “…people don’t realise that the best way to fill the gaps within ourselves is to reconnect and develop a relationship with our land.”

The second time I was enveloped in a cacophony of deafening stress bells, I turned to water on the advice of a friend. In the story, ‘The Voices of the Wells’, the source of the kingdom’s life was the sacred water of the wells. Now, I’ve reached the edge of Scales Tarn. It’s as black as a deep well, and I’m looking down into the endlessness of the water, a teardrop nestled into the folds of Blencathra. Excitement ripples through my chest and I notice my breathing, panting like a dog. Consciously, I breathe deeper, slowing down, focusing, slowing, slowing my breath, slowing my racing heart. Stepping into cold water, slowly walking in, immersing into the soft, silky flow of sensation. The inner core still warm and the skin a layer conjoining with this elemental substance.

Stepping into water

Nan Shepherd spoke of water many times:

The whole skin has this delightful sensitivity; it feels the sun, it feels the wind running inside one’s garment, it feels water closing on it as one slips under – the catch in the breath, like a wave held back, the glow that releases one’s entire cosmos, running to the ends of the body as the spent wave runs out upon the sand. This plunge into the cold water of a mountain pool seems for a brief moment to disintegrate the very self; it is not to be borne: one is lost: stricken: annihilated. Then life pours back.”

Stepping into cold water, breath catching, body contracting and only through breathing, deep, long breaths can I be part of this microcosmic moment of divinity. That phrase surprised me, but the unity of human body being swallowed and held by each drop of water, itself merged into oneness, a body of water. Each skin cell receptor on fire, conjoined with the breathtaking cold. I am melting into the fabric of time so utterly present that there is no time. There is no other moment but here, head above water. Here, rock and stone embedded into the Earth surrounding me, an amphitheatre collecting weather, experiences, the call of centuries, and water.

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The first minute of cold water immersion can be dangerous as the body can go on panic mode. There is a desire to inhale quickly. Buddhist monk, Thicht Nach Hanh says: “We return to our breathing to collect and anchor our mind.” I return to my breathing.

Through sensing to belonging

We need the Earth more than we care to think. We are tuned to relationship. Krishnamurti, Indian philosopher, speaker and writer, writes of relationships and attentiveness.

One may hold the hand of another and yet be miles away, wrapped in one’s own thoughts and problems. One may be in a group and yet be painfully alone. So one asks: can there be any kind of relationship with the tree, the flower, the human being, or with the skies and the lovely sunset, when the mind in its activities is isolating itself?”

Lorna Graves was a Cumbrian artist who had a deep resonance and conjoining with the landscape here. She said of this mental isolation:

The modern psyche has been said to suffer from ontological disorientation or a loss of a sense of origins.”

For Lorna the power and effect of prehistoric monuments, Cumbria’s stone circles, triggered memories of belonging and connection. For me, it is the connection to nature and landscape through our senses which creates belonging, because we are of the Earth, made of the same elemental compounds. It is only through our relationship with the land and all the organisms which inhabit this place, through reawakening a sensual relationship with them can we begin to feel a sense of belonging through our bodies and sensory cells. A place where we are not isolated, mind wandering, but attentive to the intricate beauty and connection of the natural world. It is time to reclaim who we are, and we are an intrinsic part of a whole. Time to raise our voices into a great symphony of sensory belonging. Time to speak out in the language of the senses.

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About The Author

Elizabeth Woodcock

Elizabeth Woodcock is a Lake District National Park Walk Leader, an RHS gardener, a Garden organic Master Composter, and training as a Bryophyte New Generation Botanist. She has been a journalist, writer, and adventurer of many high, and low, places.