Four years ago, I started writing a book with a core idea in mind which offered itself up in the Introduction like this:
In our own Western societies we are seeing more calls for a return to native wisdom, but we cannot live by the worldviews of other cultures, which are rooted in lands and histories that have little relationship to our own. And yet, so often we try to: we look for our spiritual practices to the East – to Taoism, for example, and to Buddhism; we look to the West for guidance on how to live in harmony with the land – to indigenous stories and traditions from the Americas. But fine as all of those traditions are, we don’t need to look to the myths of other cultures for role models, or for guidance on how to live more authentically, in balance and harmony with the planet on which we depend. We have our own guiding stories, and they are deeply rooted in the heart of our own native landscapes. We draw them out of the wells and the waters; beachcombing, we lift them out of the sand. We dive for them to the bottom of deep lakes, we disinter them from the bogs, we follow their tracks through the shadowy glades of the enchanted forest. Those stories not only ground us: they show us what we might once have been, we women, and what we might become again if we choose.
That book was If Women Rose Rooted, and it was published in March 2016. As I write two years on, it has sold many, many thousands of copies all around the world, almost entirely by word-of-mouth. There are so many of us out there who want to root ourselves back firmly into the heart of our native landscapes – or to find an anchoring in the traditions of our ancestral landscapes which we can bring home to new lands. There are so many who have never been helped to see that the way is already there – that the stories which show us how to find our way out of the dark woods of our forgetting already exist.
Here is another excerpt from that book:
For women particularly, to have a Celtic identity or ancestry is to inherit a history, literature and mythology in which we are portrayed not only as deeply connected to the natural world, but as playing a unique and critical role in the wellbeing of the Earth and survival of its inhabitants. Celtic myths for sure have their fair share of male heroism and adventure, but the major preoccupation of their heroes is with service to and stewardship of the land. And once upon a time women were the guardians of the natural world, the heart of the land. The Celtic woman who appears in these old tales is active in a different way from their heroes and warriors: she is the one who determines who is fit to rule, she is the guardian and protector of the land, the bearer of wisdom, the root of spiritual and moral authority for the tribe. Celtic creation stories tell us that the land was shaped by a woman … These are the stories of our own heritage, the stories of the real as well as the mythical women who went before us. What if we could reclaim those stories, and become those women again?
If women remember that once upon a time we sang with the tongues of seals and flew with the wings of swans, that we forged our own paths through the dark forest while creating a community of its many inhabitants, then we will rise up rooted, like trees.
And if we rise up rooted, like trees … well then, women might indeed save not only ourselves, but the world.
Two years on from the publication of that book, I’ve founded The Hedge School here in Connemara to pick up on those ideas and explore practical ways of manifesting them in the world today. The Hedge School arose from a conviction that our own indigenous stories are the ones that will save us now. It arose from a conviction that those stories, and the vast and complex body of old literature which holds up a mirror to the beliefs and customs of our ancestors, show us better ways of being in the world. And we need those better ways of being very badly now. We need them not just for ourselves, but for the planet. I wholeheartedly believe that the personal, social and environmental problems we’re facing today have arisen not just as a result of our profound disconnection from the beautiful animate world around us, but from a lack of rootedness in our own ancestral traditions. We have no lineage, no sense of continuity; no sense of who we are and why we are here. We don’t feel as if we belong to this crumbling and decadent Western civilisation whose values and have become abhorrent to us – but more often than not, we don’t know what it is that we want to belong to instead.
The Hedge School, then, picks up from where If Women Rose Rooted left off. It is about building a new folk culture – but one which is deeply rooted in the native traditions of Ireland and the British Isles. It’s about practical guidance for living well, living authentically, connecting with our places, and finding a deep, embodied sense of belongingness to this beautiful, animate Earth. It’s about reclaiming ancient wisdom – not to hark back to or try to recreate the past, but to use that wisdom to help us rebuild authentic indigenous traditions for today.
There’s an understandable caution about using the word ‘indigenous’ here in the West. But I’ve spoken to a number of tradition-bearers from indigenous peoples who believe it’s critically important for us to go and find our own indigenous selves, to reclaim our own indigenous traditions. And in the countries that we think of as ‘Celtic’ – especially here in Ireland – we find, when we delve deeply into the old literature and stories, many profound similarities between the worldview of our not-so-very-remote ancestors and that of indigenous cultures today. So, for example, Irish mythology tells us very clearly that we must live in ways that respect the land. Many of our folk tales are about negotiating with the wild. We see a reverence for the natural world, an acknowledgement that trees and animals have special kinds of wisdom which we do not, but which we can access … there’s a treasure trove of inspiration there, and it’s high time we reclaimed it.
Becoming indigenous, then, is about reclaiming our ancestral traditions, about bringing them back home and reweaving them into the texture of our daily lives. It’s about a sense of belonging which comes not only from deep immersion in a place, but a sense of continuity with the cultural history of the people we come from. The old stories show us the way. We might have a broken lineage; we might have little real idea of the devotional practices of our ancestors – but the old literature tells us the name of the old gods. It tells us the songs that the poets sang to praise a mountain or an oak; it tells us about the treasures that are to be found in the Otherworld. It instructs us in the art of shapeshifting, and reminds us why our world has become a Wasteland. It tells us that the Earth is sacred, and offers up an animistic perspective which tells us that yes, even a pebble on a beach has agency.
Although we can learn many fine things from them, we don’t need the worldviews and spiritual practices of other cultures to live by – we have our own noble traditions which offer up good enough guidelines to be going on with. We don’t need dogma, either, and we don’t need rules about what to eat on Sundays. What we do need is to overcome the loss of confidence which tells us that we must have mediators, or words written on tablets of stone, before we can speak to the old gods or the spirits of the land. We don’t need gurus or prophets or preachers – though we need teachers, yes, and elders, for sure. But we need above all to remember our own agency – to go out there with an open heart and a listening ear, and speak to this land which so longs for our participation.
A reclaiming of our indigenous traditions isn’t something which is relevant only to those of us who still live here in the lands of our ancestors – it’s relevant to the diaspora, too. I believe that there are two threads to all this work: a grounding in ancestral traditions, and a daily practice grounded in the place where your feet are actually planted. (I’ve written more about that here.) Sometimes those two threads sit side by side on the loom of our lives; sometimes they are separated by a distance of hundreds or thousands of miles. That distance can be bridged. And so this work will also be of interest to anyone who is looking to develop a sense of their own indigeneity – a sense of continuity derived from the traditions of their ancestors – which they can bring back in a meaningful and authentic way to the country and place they inhabit right now.
Becoming indigenous is a necessary response to a broken human culture and a profoundly damaged planet. It’s when we think of ourselves as not indigenous that everything starts to go wrong. We begin to think that the planet isn’t our problem. We begin to think that we can leave all that to other people – to people who know better; to people who are more connected. But that’s not good enough. We made these problems, and we must address them. Becoming indigenous means taking responsibility for our own actions, and at the same time embracing our innate capacity for transformation. It means weaving ourselves back into something remarkable: this complex and beautiful, animate Earth.
If you’re interested in these issues, please listen to my Hedge School Podcast with Pat McCabe – Woman Stands Shining, a Diné (Navajo) mother, grandmother, activist, artist, writer, ceremonial leader and international speaker. The discussion ranges around the question of what it is to be indigenous, and how those of us in the West can reclaim a sense of our own indigeneity. How do we create meaningful ceremony? What does it mean, to be elder?