About 15 years ago I was living and working in Dubai. A desert with the world’s biggest buildings on it, and a high street which is an eight-lane motorway, where public ‘gardens’ are created and removed overnight, trees in huge pots and incredibly realistic astro-turf. It was here I had a dream, a big dream, a dream where you wake up with a startling message. This one was not encrypted, no flying carpets or mythological animals present. The dream simply said ‘Go home’ and I saw rolling hills of green. My interpretation of this was Cumbria, where I was born and brought up.
Wainwright (a Lancastrian who came to the Cumbrian lakes when he was 23 and wrote seven walking guidebooks) said:
Surely there is no other place in this whole wonderful world quite like Lakeland…, no other than that calls so insistently across a gulf of distance. All who truly love Lakeland are exiles when away from it.”
This deep sense of belonging to land, to be exiled when away, and with that a sense of protection and love towards land, is ingrained within.
I spoke recently at the Orkney International Science Festival about the Cumbrian fells, this intimate connection to landscape and walking in the footsteps of ancestors, discovering the landscape through Celtic and Norse place names, and how they relied on the land, plants and creatures for their survival.
After the talk a number of women, spoke to me of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’, because not all of us are able to return home, or connect with nature and land. One said, now she was in her 60s, her home was here, in her body. A beautiful place to be settled.
Our bodies and the natural world
As a gardener I see a relationship between how society approaches the land and human bodies. The mainstream gardening push wants to have ‘perfection’ with manicured lawns and ornamental, non-native ‘beautiful’ plants, where those that fall outwith this definition are pulled up or killed with sprays and chemicals. And if I look at the fashion and cosmetic industry, we are targeted with ideals of beauty. Fortunately, this does seem to be changing in both areas, but still culturally, ingrained attitudes of beauty, rather than intrinsic health and beauty, are strongly propounded.
In 2010, a number of studies also focused on this relationship between our bodies and the natural world. They showed that ‘buying into’ a perceived image of beauty given to us creates hyper body surveillance, and shame to the extent that some modify their bodies.
Kari Hennigan, PhD, from Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, suggests that women who spend time in natural settings and interact with the environment are more likely to have a better body image and to distance themselves from societal definitions of beauty. And as a result of this are more likely to protect and defend the natural world. If we connect with the natural world, we are more likely to feel part of it, and our self image is defined or instructed by it.
A growing body of scholars are looking back at myths and stories to show us the intricate connection between women and the land. Many creation stories all over the world feature a woman in direct connection with the Earth, like the Australian aboriginal Rainbow Serpent stories.
In the West, Dr Sharon Blackie, mythologist, writer and psychologist is reclaiming indigenous Western spiritual traditions. She is revealing the relevance of our native myths, fairy tales and folk traditions to the personal, social and environmental problems we face today.
There is a particular story which describes the coming of the wasteland in old England (then called the kingdom of Logres with the Court of the Fisher King). This land was bountiful in all (animals, precious metals, foods) and nourished all. People did not lack for anything and all the beautiful wild creatures and plants of the land could still be found because the land was tended and cared for. People understood that there’s a contract between people and the land. You care for it, and it cares for you. The source of the kingdom’s life was the sacred water of the wells, flowing from the underworld. And these wells were tended by maidens, the Voices of the Wells, who gave any who asked food and water from a golden chalice, if they asked reasonably. This gift was given to all, freely, in the spirit of service to the land.
But there came a king in the land who broke the customs and didn’t understand the contracts. He took what he wanted, violated the maidens, and made her serve him. From this time on the Voices of the Wells retreated, as they were not honoured or respected, as the contract with the land was broken. With this, the services of the wells ceased. As Dr Sharon Blackie tells the story, “This is how the land was laid waste. The leaves on the trees shrivelled and died, plants withered, fields and meadows turned brown, and the earth lay barren and scorched. The waters of the land diminished and the rivers ran dry…”
The well and the mountain
As a woman who walks, I have sat by a water source in the Pennines called Hannah’s Well. A clear, bubbling spring rises out of limestone to cascade down a steep valley wall. I wonder who Hannah was? A distant Voice of the Wells perhaps still etched in consciousness? And I wonder if we walk with love and sensuality into the hills today, into their crevices and streams, can we re-connect and return to the contracts of caring for and being cared for, understanding through our senses the language of the land.
Out West of Hannah’s Well is Celtic-named Blencathra, an iconic, imposing, northerly hill of the Lakes. It is etched into the souls of many. I’ve stood on the top in snow blizzards watching the ravens ride the currents, I’ve collected bones at its base, I’ve slid down it, ripping my trousers and been enveloped in fog in its gullies. It breathes me and I it. Sarah Hall, author of Haweswater, writes:
If the mountain were a star it would probably be Polaris, the Pole star, the North star. It almost acts as a navigation point. It’s a constant. It’s … a regional symbol of some kind. It occupies a deeply affectionate position in the conscious minds and hearts of so many locals and visitors; time after time you hear ‘It’s my favourite mountain’.”
Walking Blencathra’s flanks, by tall foxglove, medicine and poison, walking through centuries of ancestral sculpting, our connection running deep, side by side with myth and bubbling stream. Over heather once used to sleep upon, to flavour ale, to feed the bees for the honey, to brush the floor, to make ropes and baskets with, pegs and nails, for luck.
Local legend says Blencathra is the resting place of King Arthur and his band of knights, who slumber inside the mountain in a state of hibernation waiting to rise when needed and it’s also said to be the home of Afallach, a Celtic God of the Underworld.
As a child, I imagined tarns like Scales Tarn in Blencathra’s folds were doorways into an underworld. Two weeks ago I was swimming here, it was still pretty breathtaking, even in August as the water runs straight off the fell into Scales Tarn. The name Scales is of Scandinavian origin, from the Old Norse language skáli, meaning a shelter or dwelling.
Blencathra is old and belongs to a cluster of fells made of Skiddaw Slate, the oldest rocks in the Lake District. Created by black muds and sands settling on the seabed about 500 million years ago. All is change and flux and we cannot control these vast natural processes and in this moment humility wraps over me, a blanket in this vastness, and the importance of every organism descends. For a moment, I am free with the understanding that I am part of this place, no domination over or overwhelm under. Looking up into the vastness of the sky, we are whole. Sometimes I find myself praying on my knees, here in this place, with this rock or cotton grass, witnessing life on Blencathra. Altars under the heavens.
The feeling of the land
This relationship to land is difficult to understand and I’ve wondered why is a landscape like Blencathra so ingrained in myself and others? I walked the ways of the hill and asked. The reply?
“It’s a love affair.”
This surprised me. I walked step by step, wondering and then it all made sense. Love is getting to know another deeply, intimately through thick and thin. To be conjoined. And this is how I feel when I’m on the hills, as I walk each flank, on human and animal tracks, under crags and bare foot over bogs and mosses. This place, this being has a unique character and feel. I feel compelled to drop to my knees at the tarn and say thank you. I kiss the short grass on the top and say thank you.
Back in the valley it is hard to make sense of the conjoining, back in the reductionist, rational, fast valley with cars racing by. But up there, on Blencathra there is a purity, an untouchedness where ‘it’ all makes sense, dissolving into simplicity and sheer beauty. The tremendousness of being battered by winds gusting up the front: the sensual cold, it’s like nothing else, of swimming in the tarn. The breathtaking colours of purple heather and yellow gorse; the smells of coconut gorse and fresh bracken. It’s a complete sensory conjoining in all weathers and this for me, is love. Something held in a space of reverence and gratitude.
I believe these ancient contracts are in us, thrawn in our DNA, if we can step back and immerse ourselves into the natural world. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist.monk said:
Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet… There’s no limit to where or how any one of us can have an intimate conversation with the Earth… Mother Earth, …you are present in every cell of my body… you are not outside of me and I am not outside of you. You are more than just my environment. You are nothing less than myself. Your relationship with the Earth is so deep, and the Earth is in you and this is something not very difficult, much less difficult than philosophy.”
The flow that runs within
Buddhist monks, writers, ancient myths of all cultures, walkers, poets, foragers, artists, storytellers, we all know and feel the blood of life, the scared waters running through us as it runs through the trees and becks. This poem, called ‘Why You Go Hillwalking’ by Ellie Danak, says it perfectly (this poem won joint first in the 2016 Mountain Writing Competition):
Because you are a mountain-baby, born
with pebbles in your mouth, the future
carved on your limestone bones, the strings
of your DNA thrawn, all wrong, two buzzards
in your eyes wheeling and dipping into clouds.
Because you think in landscape, drink
the peat’s bitter smell as you labour further up
towards thickening silence, the heart thumping
in your ears. When you clutch a map – its creases
swell like river-veins, then shrink under the heel
of your palm. Because your body remembers
the sudden blossom of blisters, gales slapping
your face and hill-flanks the colour of old blood.
And you collect strange gifts from glens licked flat
by glaciers: scraps of sky, scrapes of deer-prayer.
Because they follow you home, those soft-peaked
shadows, and loom on your doorstep. You hear
their breathing in your sleep. Their whispers
muffle your dreams.
Into the mountains
Nan Shepherd, author of The Living Mountain, knew about connectedness to nature before it was scrutinized by academics. She writes in a letter to a friend in 1940, “To apprehend things – walking on a hill, seeing the light change, the mist, the dark, being aware, using the whole of one’s body to instruct the spirit … it dissolves one’s being. I am no longer myself but part of a life beyond myself.”
Nan didn’t walk to get to the top, or conquer mountains, she walked ‘into’ them. Robert Macfarlane says of her writing that “It was quiet, wise, humble and sensuous… It was a meditation not a manifesto. It was a pilgrimage and not an attack.”
I love her words as she goes ‘stravaigin’ about the mountain. She explores it in minute detail, describing herself as ‘a peerer into nooks and crannies’ and writing ‘Often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend, with no intention but to be with him.’ I would love to have met Nan and talked about those nooks and crannies, the high tarns and lochs, the bogs and heather, the being of the hill and mountain.
As I walk and travel higher, I feel and breathe the land and weather. It is a highly sensual and deeply meditative process of dropping deeper into my own being and that of those about me. My belief is we need to immerse ourselves intimately, sensually in the folds of nature to re-kindle the connectedness we once knew instinctively:
What if each puddle on the path
Was an eye of the Earth
Looking up at you
Each branch a hand
Reaching out to you?
Each waterfall a voice
A laugh in the
gurgle of a running stream
What if the sun stroking
Was the soft loving hand of a dear one
Would you then travel so fast?
We need a different lexicon to understand our relatedness with the Earth, going ‘into’ it like Nan Shepherd, in this time where we can see the effects of our lifestyles. It was incredibly inspiring at the Orkney International Science Festival to meet a number of women who are being with the land in their unique way.
Women like Eva Gunnare, food creator and curious explorer of nature, who writes: “I was in my true element being outside, finding fresh raw ingredients and spending a lot of time in the kitchen exploring tastes and learning the traditional craft. It evoked so much lust and gave me energy to keep exploring and learning more… My mission in life is to make more people aware of the wonderful treasures we have waiting just outside our doorstep.”
Women like Anna Canning, ethnobotanical researcher, medical herbalist and ‘forager’, who believes every person has a right to knowledge about plants, how to use them and the ability to take care of his/her own health. She writes: “The focus of my work is to help people reclaim this knowledge, inspiring and re-skilling them to look after themselves, using plants (mostly from local green spaces) safely and sustainably to provide cheap, nutritious foods and the basis for everyday remedies and body-care products.”
Women like Lin Chau, a Glasgow-based artist who explores locally sourced, natural pulps to make paper in the creative and meditative art of paper making, slowing down to re-connect us to the flow, and sweet processes of life.
If we each (re-)connected with our home, our bodies, our natural world, where we see no boundaries but dissolve as Nan Shepherd describes, because “the future [is] carved on your limestone bones… Because you think in landscape” – then maybe we can care and protect the earth and vital water sources as the Voices of the Wells did. Maybe, as Dr Sharon Blackie believes, these ancient creation myths can guide our way home, back to the knowledge we hold intrinsically, thrawn in our DNA.