Listening to the Land

Pilgrimage for Nature

Listening to the Land is a "pilgrimage for nature" in which a core group of 30 people (artists, performers and storytellers among them) will be walking from London to Glasgow this autumn for the UN Conference on Climate Change.

Asset+3My husband, Howard, is one of those 30 pilgrims. He'll be setting off from London in early September, walking up the "spine of Albion," and arriving in Glasgow in early November -- an eight week journey covering roughly 500 miles. The group will be holding community meetings and giving creative workshops, talks, and performances in villages, towns, and cities along the way -- listening to the concerns of the people they meet, listening to the land itself, and weaving it all into a performance scheduled for presentation to the UN climate delegates on Monday, the 8th of November. 

Listening to the Land has received funding from Arts Council England, and backing from the National Trust, the British Pilgrimage Trust, the Wisdom Keepers, Seed Sisters and other organisations -- but it's a big project, and they need to raise an additional £4500 this summer. (It's heartening to see they are already half-way there.) If you can help with even a small donation, please visit their Crowdfunding page -- where you can also learn more about the project, and how to get involved in various ways.

Howard walking a labyrinth on Dartmoor

I'm delighted that Howard is doing this...and, I admit, a bit nervous too. It's a long, long journey, and England is in a dark place right now...but we need the light that collective art-making creates, and the subject could not be more urgent. Howard is no stranger to pilgrimage, having already traversed the Camino to Santiago de Compostela through the French and Spanish Pyrenees; and for many years he criss-crossed Europe with his Commedia troupe, so he's used to being on the road in one form or another. This time he'll be walking with colleagues from the Nomadic Academy of Fools, doing fooling practice and performance along the way. Nature, pilgrimage, foolery. How could he possibly miss it? 

I have a vested interest in seeing that the pilgrims are fed, so please chip in if you can. (No worries if you can't. It's been a hard year for many. Good wishes and prayers are equally welcome.) The fund-raiser runs for 16 more days.

And the walk itself begins dauntingly soon....

Howard and hound

Picture above: Howard and Tilly earlier this week. She's going to miss him so much this autumn, and so will I. But for such a good cause. 


On borders and stories

Becuma of the White Skin by Arthur Rackham

Following on from yesterday's post, here's one more passage from Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh, a book about myth, land, language, trauma (both personal and collective) and its healing, and a deep meditation on the nature of borders, physical and internal, seen and unseen. Reflecting again on the "thin places" to be found in the north of Ireland (and elsewhere), she writes:

"My grandfather was born in the same week as the Irish border. He was a storyteller, and his most affecting tales, the ones he gave me that have shaped his life, where about place, about how we relate to it, to ourselves, and to one another. Good seanchaidhthe -- storytellers -- never really tell you anything, though. They sit by the fire in the hearth; they draw the chairs in close; they shut all the windows so the old lore doesn't fall on the wrong ears. They fill the room with a sense of ease, a sense of all being as it should be. The words, when they spill quietly out of the mouth of the one who has been entrusted with them, dance in the space, at one with the flames of the fire. It is, as always, up to those who listen to do with them what they will.

Muirne With Dogs by Arthur Rackham

"The stories he shared were fleeting, unbidden; they came and went as quickly as the bright, defiant end sparks of a fire, well on its way to going out. The stories, those glowing embers of words, were about places that were known to hide away, sometimes from all view. As if their locations are to be found in between the cracks, or floating above the grey Atlantic. Places that he mostly didn't even have names for but that he could conjure up as though they were right there in the same room. He called such places 'skull of a shae'. Now, I have come to think of the shae as 'shade', a nod to the almost ghost-like nature he saw such places as having. The places he spoke of seemed to scare him, a wee bit, or maybe it was talking about them that unsettled him. He came from a strict and hard background that allowed very little room for the voicing of much beyond the grind of being alive. I will remember, always, how he spoke of paths, particularly ones he found when walking across the border from Derry into Donegal. Paths on which friends and he had seen and heard things they were never really able to understand.

Title page for Irish Fairy Tales illustrated by Arthur Rackham"The places he spoke of were locations where people felt very different from how they normally do. Places from which people came away changed. In these places you might experience the material and spiritual worlds coming together. Blood, worry and loss might sit together under the same tree as silence, stillness and hope. He spoke, not often but with raw honesty, of places where people had found answers and grace, where they had learned to forgive, where they had made peace and room for healing. Places where a veil is lifted away and light streams in, where you see a boundary between worlds disappear right before your eyes, places where you are allowed to cross any borders and boundaries have no sway. Lines and circles, silence and stillness -- all is as it should be for that flickering gap in time. He never named the places, of course, and the first time he brought me to one -- Kinnagoe Bay -- on a soft, pink August afternoon in the late 1980s, he never spoke of any of this at all. He quietly read his magazine about pigeon racing, poured my granny's tea, and let me be."

Becuma by Arthur Rackham

If you need any more persuasion to seek out Ní Dochartaigh's remarkable book, I recommend reading her essay "Unnameable Things," found online at The Clearing (Little Toller Books).

The art today is from Irish Fairy Tales by James Stephens, illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).

Becuma of the White Skin by Arthur Rackham

The passage quoted above is from Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh (Canongate, 2021); all rights reserved by the author. The illustrations by Arthur Rackham were first published by Macmillan in 1920, and are now in public domain.


Recommended reading: Thin Places

Wild Strawberry Unicorn by by Tamsin Abbott

One of the very best books I've read this year is Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh, a volume born from the edgelands between nature writing and memoir, but also well rooted in folklore, myth, and history.

At the core of the text is Ní Dochartaigh's account of growing up in Northern Ireland during the violent years of the Troubles, of her subsequent flight from the land of her birth, and of her eventual return. Although the story is necessarily dark, the telling is made luminous by the author's exquisite prose, shot through with flashes of bright connection to the twinned worlds of myth and nature.

Otter House, Allotment of Plenty, and Sacred Spring by Tamsin Abbott

Here's a taste of Thin Places:

"What does it mean to come from a hollowed-out place? From a place that is neck-deep in the saga of loss? ... What effect does where you come from, and what that land has been through, have on the map of your self? How deeply can a person feel the fault lines of their home running through their own veins?

"In Celtic lands it is not unusual to use the landscape as a mnemonic map. Geographical features hold a particular importance for our history, beliefs and culture -- places make up the lines of our very being. There is an understanding that we are part of and not separate from the land we inhabit. Celtic legends place the natural world at the very heart of story, maybe even inside its bones. In such stories things in the natural world can possess a spirit and presence of their own; mountains, rocks, trees, rivers -- all things of the land and the sea -- sing their own lament. Locations can be associated with a particular warrior, hero or deity. Places are tied to stories by threads that uncoil themselves back beyond known history, passed on through oral tradition, only some of which have been written down.

Young Stag Ancient Oak by by Tamsin Abbott

"Amongst these geographical features, whether manmade -- such as ancient mounds and standing stones -- or naturally created features, it is not unusual for some to be associated with the worship of pre-Christian deities. The aos sí (or aes sídhe) is an Irish term for a race that is other than human, that exists in Irish, Scottish and Manx mythologies, inhabiting an invisible world that sits in a kind of mirroring with our own. They belong to the Otherworld, Aos Sí -- a world reached through mist, hills, lakes, ponds, springs, loughs, wetland areas, caves, ancient burial sites, cairns and mounds. The island from which I come had no choice, really, than to find a name for these dancing, beating, healing places where the veil between so very many things is thin, where it has been known to lift, right before our humble, grateful eyes. 

"The folklore of almost every culture holds room for these liminal spaces -- those in-between spaces -- those unnameable places, not to be found on any map. Are these thin places spaces where we can more easily hear the land, the earth, talking to us? Or are they places in which we are able to feel more freely our own inner selves? Do such places as these therefore hold power?

Old Brock by Tamsin Abbott

"We have built up a narrative over many years -- decades, centuries? -- of 'nature' as 'other'. There is so much separation in the language we use with each other; we seek to divide humanity from its own self again and again, and this has naturally bled into how we view the land and water that we share with one another -- and with other species. What do we mean when we talk about 'nature'? About 'place'? I want to know what it all means. I need to try to understand. When we are in a place where the manmade constructs of the world seem as though they have crumbled, where time feels like it no longer exists, that feeling of separation fades away. We are reminded, in the deepest, rawest parts of our being, that we are nature. It is in us and of us. We are not superior or inferior, separate or removed; our breathing, breaking, ageing, bleeding, making and dying are the things of this earth. We are made up of the materials we see in the places around us, and we cannot undo the blood and bone that forms us.

"In thin places people often say they experience being taken 'out of themselves', or 'nearer to god'. The places I return to over and over -- both physically, and in my memory -- certainly do hold the power to make me feel light and hopeful, as though I am not quite of this world. Of much more power, though, is the way in which these places leave me feeling rooted -- as utterly and completely in the landscape as I ever feel, as much a part of it as the bones and excrement that lie beneath my feet, as the salt and silt that course through the water. For me, it is in this that the absolute and unrivalled beauty of thin places lie."

White deer by Tamsin Abbott

Thin Places is one of those books that I long to buy multiple copies of and gift to everyone I know. It's a beautiful book, and a timely one. I urge you to seek it out.

For another slant on "thin places," have a listen to Philip Marsden on Scotland Outdoors (BBC Sounds) discussing The Summer Isles, his book about the wild western coasts of Ireland and Scotland. Go here for the interview, and start at the 29:50 mark.

Hare by Tamsin Abbott

The glorious stained glass art today is by Tamsin Abbott, based in rural east Herefordshire. Tamsin received a first class degree in English literature from Stirling University (where she specialised in the medieval period); she then returned to school to study art at Gloucester College of Art and Technology, and trained in stained glass at Hereford College of Art and Design. Her work has been featured in Country Living, on Country File, and is sold in galleries and shops across the UK.

The Guardians by Tamsin Abbott"I have always been influenced (and almost obsessed) by nature," she says, "but most specifically animals, continuously drawing and painting them; for a long time I dreamed of speaking with them, and of being absorbed into their world in a way that seemed more natural to me than this human community.  I don’t think I am alone in this as I find that this animal ‘spirit’ speaks directly to others too.  However, I am also inherently inspired by the idea of myth and legend as well as fairytale and medieval romances, and the sense that our ancestors, who inhabited this land, have left an imprint on it throughout the ages.  I also love the idea of the timelessness of the cosmos that overarches everything now as it would have done since time before humanity. It is the intermeshing of all these things that contribute towards my internal universe which I hope manifests in my work.

"Behind all this inspiration the underlying sense of what I am trying to portray is how much life goes on around us constantly but outside our awareness. Be it a shrew foraging for its young in the hedgerow as we walk by, or a giant spirit dragon that soars above us in the night sky.  Conversely, I also wish to capture a sense of the magic of the everyday in my work; the sacred washing line, the reverential bonfire, the glory of a scrap of garden."

To learn more about her work, please visit Tamsin's website, or read an interview with the artist here.

Golden Fox by Tamsin Abbott

Raycomb House by Tamsin Abbott

Thin Places

The passage quoted above is from Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh (Canongate, 2021); all rights reserved by the author. The stained glass art is by Tamsin Abbott; all rights reserved by the artist.


A very short story

Tilly & Old Oak

Tilly has been visiting her friend Old Oak and telling him about everything she's been through: illness, lameness, walks curtailed, too many pills and visits to the vet...while one of People keeps going away to a job in Cornwall, and the other disappeared for a whole long week.

"You've been brave and stout of heart," he says.

Tilly & Old Oak 2

He's right. She has been.

Tilly & Old Oak 3


There and back again

Beech Whisperer by David Wyatt

I've recently returned from a week of woodland wandering, and I'm still feeling betwixt and between: moving from the mythic realms back into ordinary life (with its own ordinary magic). I've been camping in the hills just south of here as part of Songdreaming for Albion, led by Sam Lee and Chris Salisbury: a deep dive into the folk songs and tales of Dartmoor, listening for the songlines of the moor, and "recalibrating how we engage with the land and converse with our brother/sister nations of plants, trees and beings."

Tales were told. Songs were sung. Food was cooked on open fires and music shared till the midnight hours. Dartmoor blessed us with dry, clear days and star-filled nights (never a given here). Then Howard and Tilly fetched me and brought me over the hills and home.

0ld Goat's Home by David Wyatt

In myth, the safe return from the woods (or the mountainside, or the spirit world) often marks a time of new beginnings: fresh starts, new paths, or lives newly illuminated by gifts brought back from the Otherland. Thomas the Rhymer, in the old Scottish ballad, returns to the mortal realm after seven years with the Faerie Queen bearing the gift of prophesy. Merlin returns from his time of exile and madness in the forests of Wales with new magical abilities and the gift of speaking with animals. Odin hangs in a death-like trance for ten days from the world-tree Yggdrasil, and comes back with the secret of runes from the dark land of Niflheim. I haven't come back with anything so grand as runes or prophesy -- but songs and dreams and spiderwebs of wild connection are just as precious, and as necessary.

I took no camera, no computer, no phone -- nothing between me and the moss green world -- so I have no photographs from the week to share with you. Instead, the pictures in this post are by my old friend David Wyatt -- who was, until just recently, a neighbour of ours here on the moor. There are many ways into the Dreaming, and art-making is one of them.

Song, as I learned again last week, is another...and perhaps the most direct of all.

Pencil sketch by David Wyatt 2

The art above: Beech Whisperer, Old Goat's Home, and a rough sketch (in preparation for a painting) by David Wyatt. All rights reserved by the artist.