The land’s dreaming

At the heart of the HedgeWalking path is a state of being which for a long time I’ve called ‘falling into the land’s dreaming’. Whenever I use the term, I’m asked what I mean by it. What is the land’s dreaming, and how do you fall into it? Well, it’s all a bit of a long story, but I’ll have a go.

What I mean by the land’s dreaming is its ongoing story, its aliveness, its process of becoming – all of those things bound up together, inseperable. I prefer to use the word ‘dreaming’ rather than ‘story’ in this respect, because to me it conveys more than narrative – it conveys a sense of being, a sense of becoming, and a sense of creation. We talk about ‘dreaming things into being’, and that’s maybe as close as I can come to expressing what I mean. The land is dreaming itself into being, and all the creatures who are part of it. We become part of the land’s dreaming, or fall into the land’s dreaming, when we no longer see ourselves as separate from that dreaming. When we see that our own stories and the Earth’s stories, our own becoming and the becoming of the land (and ultimately, the world) are inextricably intertwined.

It’s not a process that takes place in our heads. It’s something we might be able to grasp intellectually, but we can’t do it intellectually. We do it with our hearts. Because to fall into the land’s dreaming is to fall in love.

Let me tell you the story of how I fell into the land’s dreaming. It’s a story I’ve mostly told before; it exists in fragments here and there. Between the pages of my books, If Women Rose Rooted and The Enchanted Life; in odd bits and pieces, scattered throughout posts and down through the years on my main blog, The Art of Enchantment. For me, it happened out of extremity. It happened when, back in 2010, we moved to a croft in the wildest and remotest hinterlands of Scotland – way out there on the far west coast of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. There was nothing between us and Canada except St Kilda, which we could see from our kitchen window. It was an isolated place, barely populated. Our aim in moving there had been to escape from the horrors of ‘civilisation’, and to become as self-sufficient as we possibly could.

As well as my outdoor-focused chores around the croft and my role as sole keeper of a large polytunnel, I walked the beautiful wild land around us for long periods of time, twice daily, for four years. Every morning, before the rest of the world was awake, I would take the dogs out onto the rocky headland, in all weathers. Down to a hidden tidal sandy beach, or along to the small bay where a tiny river runs into the sea. I would walk the same paths and sometimes explore new ones. I knew that land as I have never known anywhere else, and perhaps never will. I came to know which wildflowers grew where and when they should appear and whether they were late this year; I watched every spring for the oystercatchers to return, and then the lapwings, and then the whooper swans. Sea eagles were a regular sight; herds of thirty stags freely roamed the common grazing land. I knew it intensely in every season; I walked it in storms so fierce that I could hardly stand up, and I danced barefooted on hot sunny summer rocks. There was no-one else out there to fall in love with the land as I was falling in love; there was only ever me. That land had been abandoned long ago, and abandoned in many different ways.

More than just knowing the place, I knew its stories. We had moved from a croft on the north-west coast of the Scottish mainland, where in the hills opposite the house could be seen the reclining figure of a woman. I now lived in a house where, in the mountains opposite it, could be seen … the reclining figure of a woman. There are a number of such locations throughout the islands and mainland Scotland, in which the shapes of specific mountains or ranges represent the silhouette of the reclining goddess of the land; the best-known of them is the Isle of Lewis’ ‘Sleeping Beauty’ mountain, known in Gaelic as Cailleach na Mointeach – the old woman of the moors, which can be seen at a distance from the Callanish stone circle. I looked out onto our own reclining figure every morning when I opened the bedroom curtains; she dominated the landscape when I walked or worked the land. She was always there, a reminder of the old goddess of the land, whose stories exist still both in Scottish and Irish mythology. In the islands, the stories tell of her two aspects: Brigid (or Bride in the Hebrides) and the hard, stony blue-faced Cailleach (the Gaelic word for old woman, crone or hag).

Wherever I walked, then, the stories of the land were made visible in the permanent features of the land. The silhouette in the mountains opposite our house was clearly that of a young woman rather than a hag; to me, she represented Bride. I found her sister, the Cailleach, by accident. While haunting the shoreline, in a hidden fragment of coast well below the ground level of the rest of the headland, I stumbled on the place which afterwards I only ever called the Rocky Place. My place. I recognised it as such the first moment I saw it. Vast expanses of slabbed rock extending underfoot like a multicoloured, layered carpet which slopes gradually down to smaller rocks, coated with emerald green algae, onto which the sea continually crashes. This undulating rock carpet is founded on Lewisian gneiss, one of the oldest rocks in the world; it slopes up to and is bounded by a long, curving, carved cliff face, perhaps the height of two average people. In the cliff face behind the pool, on a corner, is the silhouette of a hag, staring out to sea. The Cailleach. The old stories tell us that she stands in such places, looking out and waiting for her husband, the Bodach – identified in some of the old tales as Manannán Mac Lir, an old god long associated with the sea.

And then, around the corner from this Cailleach stone, I found a vast flat rock slab wedged into an alcove up against the cliff face, which looked for all the world like a bed. I called it the Cailleach’s Bed, and sometimes I slept there under the stars, with the Gasker light flashing way out to sea to the south of me, and the Flannan Isles lighthouse to the north. I was the Cailleach there, and this was my stone bed.

And so, directly out of the land and the features of the landscape, I found those old stories … or maybe they found me. They became part of my life, and my life was part of the land as the stories were part of the land. Intrinsic, inseparable: me, the land, our stories. I hardly noticed how they were all beginning to entwine. At the Rocky Place, I became Cailleach for a time. I sat there often by the shrine-pool, cross-legged. I stood for long periods of time by the side of that silhouetted old woman and stared out to sea with her, imagining the long ages and the unyielding rock and the unending power of the sea. I shared her vigil and told her all of my stories; I wept by her side when, for a few months, life became unbearably hard. Leaving that place was one of the most difficult things I have ever done; turning my back on that solitary old Cailleach stone felt like a betrayal.

But I took her with me, in my heart; when we left Lewis I took her memory to the Beara peninsula in south-west Ireland, where I sat by the side of An Chailleach Bhéarra, another stony old hag looking out to sea, and I told her stories of her sister in the north. I took with me more than that, though: I took away with me something which I struggled then to put into words. An ability to merge with the land, to become the land, not only knowing but living within its stories. It is the deepest connection of all, a facility that can only come from years of intense grounding in a place. I took with me the knowledge that when you live as I lived, when you are with the land as I was with it during those years, you fall into its story. You become part of the land’s story of itself, part of the land’s dreaming. And no, that isn’t just a pretty phrase. When you reach out to the land in the way that I reached out, there are consequences. It communicates with you. It reflects you back to yourself. It teaches you. Above all, it tests you.

Sounds crazy? Maybe; I am old enough and grounded enough and sceptical enough not to worry about whether it sounds crazy. There were experiences I had there (and some that David had there) which taught me that lesson. The four years that we spent on Lewis were mythic years. The land spoke to us in shattered ideals and dead totem animals. We learned the lessons of our life, and each one of them arose directly from the land. They were hard lessons, but they changed us. They were lessons we needed to learn. The land taught us, and it tested us, and finally it took pity on us, and spat us out.

I had a dream, the night after I first stumbled across the Rocky Place. It was a Big Dream. You know the kind: the kind you have just a few times in your life. The kind of dream you know is telling you something, though often enough you have no idea what. A Big Mythic Dream. I dreamed that the Rocky Place was peopled with animals, and these animals were the rocks in the cliff face and in the ground. In the cliff face above the shrine-pool was an eagle with outstretched wings, and above the Cailleach’s Bed was a stalking wolf with holes for eyes where the sky shone through. In a shallow channel of sea-water which I would somehow have to cross if I carried on walking in my dream, was a huge whale for a stepping stone. I could sense something stirring in the air around me, and it was a sense of power and of danger. If you tread on that sleeping whale, the place seemed to be saying to me, if you waken the animals, the sleeping heart of the rock, if you waken the sleeping power of this abandoned land, you never quite know just what it is you are going to awaken. Will you wake them anyway, the old stories? Will you do it? Will you do it, without fear of the consequences?

I put the dream to one side; I didn’t know at the time what it meant. But what I understand now is that in merging myself so deeply with the land, I accepted the challenge of that dream: I woke it up.

And then I left it.

In February 2014 I came to a little house in Ireland, and I spent a week there. It had just become mine, and in a very short time we’d be leaving Lewis for ever and moving there. I remember that I wondered which animal I would connect with, which animal would become the animal I most resonated with in this landscape – because ever since I had moved to a croft on the shore of a sea-loch in Lochbroom back in 2003, the animal I lived with which most captured my imagination was a seal. In that place, in the years before I met and married David and right up until the time we left for Lewis, I would walk down to the sea-loch early each morning and almost always there would be a solitary seal, grey head bobbing up and down in the water, watching me. I sat with it, sang to it, and it became a character in the novel I wrote in those years, The Long Delirious Burning Blue. If there is such a thing as a totem story, the story of the Selkie, the seal-woman who lost her skin, became mine. And when we moved to Lewis, on those long early-morning walks with the dogs down by the shore, most mornings we would find a seal there too. A single, solitary seal. I returned to Lewis after that first week in that new house in 2014, and the seal was dead on the beach.

We left Lewis because it had become clear to us that for all the stunning beauty of the land and the depth of my connection to it, we needed to move away from the island. There were a number of reasons for that, and a few years later it is clear that it was the right decision. The work I’m doing now couldn’t have been done there, though it was for sure conceived there, a product of my intense relationship to the place where we had lived and worked for four years. But because I had had a difficult couple of years, because some hard things happened there, when we moved to Ireland I turned my back on the island. It wasn’t that I didn’t look back on the land with love and with grief for having lost one of the most important relationships in my life; it is a place to which I lost my heart. It was, and always will be, my heart-place. I was firmly assimilating the lessons from those four years, but I wanted to put it all behind me, to move on, to focus just on the joy of returning to Ireland, and the pleasure of trees again, and the river and the green. I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to go back to Lewis.

And then, a year on, David returned to Lewis for a few days, to carry out some maintenance on the house. I asked him while he was there to go to the Rocky Place and say hello for me, and he did. And he found rather more than he bargained for: the Cailleach’s Bed – a giant slab of Llewsissian gneiss the size of a single bed’s mattress – had gone.

Yes, there are big storms in the islands, and yes, big storms can move rocks. I once was trained as a scientist; I was trained too to be a sceptic. I understand that water, under great pressure, forced into gaps and crevices, can do remarkable things.

Moving an enormous, thick slab of pure rock, bigger in both dimensions than a single bed? Lifting it completely out of the alcove which it so tightly fit, out of which it had formed, and casting it aside?

For sure.

And yet … just this particular impossibly large and heavy rock? Which was so firmly wedged into its place, and so high up, away from the water and waves?

You may wonder what I am trying to tell you here. Am I filled with delusions of grandeur? Do I imagine that because I left the land, the Rocky Place had no more need for a Cailleach’s Bed and spat it out? That the land was in some way communicating? I can’t possibly be trying to tell you such a thing – it would be ridiculous – and yet I suppose I am. I am trying, clumsily, to say that both things are true: that a storm (impossible as it might seem) moved the Bed, but that it is no mere coincidence. Because when you fall into the land’s dreaming, such things happen.

Do you think that’s a silly idea? Do you think that the land isn’t alive, that I’m just making things up, seeing significance where it doesn’t exist? Well, whatever else I may be trying to tell you, I can tell you this for sure: the land is alive. And everything is animate, in its own way. There was a lesson still to be learned from my time in Lewis, and the land carried on teaching me, even though I’d gone. The lesson, I think, was this: when you become part of the land’s dreaming, you can’t just turn your back on it. You can’t just walk away, even when you walk away. If you choose to wake the sleeping rock-giants, you have created a relationship with them and the land of which they’re part, and if you have a relationship, you also have a responsibility. When you actively forge a relationship with anyone or anything, there is power on both sides. Power, and responsibility. And the potential for grief when the relationship breaks up. We talk always about our grief at leaving the land, when we leave a place we have loved. The grief of the emigrant, the yearning for the land we once inhabited. But what if, when we leave it, the land grieves for us? What do we do then?

When I understood that lesson – and, as a result of it, went on a pilgrimage back to Lewis to say goodbye properly – I understood fully, for the first time, what it really is to become a part of the land, to no longer be separate from it. I understood the nature of true relationship. Once you know that, words like ‘connection’ seem hopelessly bland: phrases like ‘reconnecting to our places’ don’t even begin to hack it. It’s not about connection, it’s about disconnection. Disconnection from a western worldview which tells us that things like the disappearance of my Cailleach’s Bed just don’t happen. It’s about breaking the chains we’ve wrapped around ourselves, which tie us to our safe houses and safe lives and safe technology and which bind us up so tightly that we couldn’t possibly – ever – fall. It’s about falling. It’s about fearing the fall, and letting yourself fall anyway. It’s about falling in love. It’s about falling into the land’s dreaming.

And now, for me, it’s about showing others how.

20 Comments on “The land’s dreaming

  1. A couple of days ago I was reading The Enchanted Life and sitting quietly by the fire thinking about what I had read when I realised that more and more the land here is telling me how it wants to be and become. And I am becoming more aware of how I need it to be to help me be who I am becoming. We are engaged in a conversation of co-creation. Then a friend rang to say he was ready to help me build some decking to link the house, garden and stream and as I pondered the design we had discussed I realised we are building a stage! Or rather a theatre because the deck could be the stage with the audience in the garden or vice versa. I have no idea where that is taking me. Like you I was a rational scientist (mathematician in my case), told I was no good at Art, tone deaf with no sense of rhythm, shy…. Exciting stuff this dreaming. Thank you for helping me make sense of it.

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  2. I deeply appreciate how you are sharing your experiences, Sharon, it is an act of radical generosity and these ways of being you describe are so desperately needed now. I too have fallen in love with land and know that the land knows and loves me back. I have chosen where I live based on that recognition–it is not always easy–other things need to be given up. I appreciate the reminder of the responsibility that lies in that relationship. Blessings to you and your land.

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  3. BTW, I would love to hear how you weave shamanic ways of being into ‘Hedgewalking’. Acknowledging the aliveness of the land and its creatures and being in communication with them is a shamanic practice–but I’m wondering if you journey out on the land? I’ve done a fair amount of journey work indoors, but it seems to me that journeying outdoors in sacred spaces (any space that resonates with us) is the way to journey in an embodied, literally grounded way. This way intuitively feels more ‘Whole’ to me (the difference between reading about a cow, and being with a cow) and perhaps could be the foundation for indoor journey work–for example–I journey in the field of Queen Anne’s lace and then later indoors I could take a flower essence I made there and my journey is informed by my previous embodied experience. I’d love to hear your thoughts/experience at some point. Thank you!

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    • Heather – I precisely journey out on the land, and it is at the heart of HedgeWalking. And yet core shamanism would have you believe it’s to be avoided, or dangerous. But it’s the ground of our being! There are ways to do it safely; I don’t blog about this kind of detailed practice because I believe it’s necessary and safer to work these ways in person. Journeying indoors is a poor relation – but has its place, in a balanced, grounded practice. If it is all there is – then I am suspicious 🙂

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  4. Finally! I also have had two very different, but intense, relationships with land. The first was a large, generalized place – but the relationship was no less intense, for that. The second, a large piece of grassland that I did my best to restore and re-wild while I owned it. While I was doing that, I often used to talk about “allowing the land to have sovereignty over itself” – which drew a few puzzled looks! I still believe that leaving the first “relationship” was a mistake, or at least a turn in the story that I don’t understand yet. The second place – I had to go, I had run out of options. I read If Women Rose Rooted Very deeply, but I was looking for an answer there that I didn’t find, even though it’s inspiring. I think this piece of writing is what I needed to read, so thank you so much for making it available.

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    • Thanks, Kris. And yes, it was hard to know how far to go with ‘If Women Rose Rooted’, without making it too esoteric for the wider audience I wanted to bring in. Also, from a practical perspective, the book was already too long! Some of these issues are picked up in ‘The Enchanted Life’, but really, the work here is ongoing, ever unfolding and revealing itself.

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  5. Thank you for this beautiful post, Everything you say is true and real and that is a rare thing these days. I envy the freedom to ramble. Here is Australia the land is vast but covered in fences. It’s all about ownership which seems to come from the way the land was “acquired” and proving a right to be here. A sad story and so hard to to move deeply into the lands dreaming without it getting overshadowed by bloodshed and poltics. That said I have learnt a lot from your recent posts about communicating directly with the land as one sovereign being to another outside the mad mental mazes humans construct around themselves. Anyway thank you so much for your work it’s giving some guidence to this displaced white woman trying to see beyond the colonial veneer to the old bones and songs of my country

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    • Thanks, Elizabeth, and glad this is resonating. You know, we have a lot of fences in Ireland too, and the same land ownership under a different guise. But there are plenty of wild places too, thankfully! I agree that the trick is to be sure not to replicate those fences inside our heads, and in our dealings with the land …

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      • I too am in Australia, and I too have found so much in your recent posts and podcast episodes to help me. I am following a strong urge to connect with this land here, and in particular the small piece of it that our culture allows me to call ‘my own’. I’ve been struggling to find a path through the traditions of other cultures in other places, to something that makes sense with my Celtic ancestry but also with my physical place. This post and in particular your podcast conversation with Pat McCabe have been such gifts. Thank you so much for your work. You are shining a light where previously everything was murky and confusing! I am energised by the possibility of co-creating the story, the mythology and the tradition that I seek, in direct connection with the land, rather than by looking for it elsewhere. I am coming at this with little experience but you’ve inspired me to believe that with time and trust and humility, it can be done.

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  6. What a remarkable post. Hedgewalking, indeed. Thanks for sharing the Lewis experience and the connection there. I so feel that sense of place, and while wandering in the world, know when I’m home.

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    • Thanks, Lisa! And yes, they really were mythic years … I look back on them with much wonder and a deep sense of loss, while trying to remind myself that staying there wouldn’t have been right, in so many ways.

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  7. Thank you for this. Thank you for the courage you have to explore your vast, expansive inner world so unflinchingly. It encourages me. Thank you too, for the courage you have to admit that while it maybe silly and crazy, you’ll do it anyway. It is freeing. I appreciate you.

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  8. So much to parse in these words! Beautiful and soul-feeding. I’ve been giving much thought lately to our use of language, that in our Western/colonialist/patriarchal culture we say we want to “live off the land,” when we want to reconnect with nature. Yet if we were to get closer to the truth of it, we would want to be of the land, or live with it. Deep appreciation for your poetic description which captures this difference. One snippet has pierced my heart and I wonder if you could say more about it: “The land spoke to us in shattered ideals and dead totem animals.” Your meaning around dead totem animals in particular. Thanks you so much for your writings. Go raibh maith agat.

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  9. I am so deeply moved by this story, so thank you.

    When I was growing up I lived on a rugged, exposed beach in the South of New Zealand. Between two beaches, in what looks like only
    a rocky head from either side, I found a small bay by climbing up and over a cliff. Now, reading your words, I look back and know that the experience I had there was of falling into dreaming with the land. Those words feel so poignant, so true, and I’m so incredibly grateful have a language to speak about and articulate my experience. In October last year I went back there to say goodbye, and wailed to the ocean a song I learnt in circle.

    And now, next week, I’m moving to the Isle of Mull in Scotland! So more rugged coastline is on my horizons!!

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