I believe that you have to learn to walk in this world before you can learn to walk in others.
— Sharon Blackie
Why do you talk about our ‘indigenous’ knowledge and traditions? We can’t really use those terms in this part of the world, can we?
Well, yes, we can. I’ve spoken to a number of tradition-bearers from indigenous cultures who believe it’s critically important for those of us in the west 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 – when we delve deeply into the old literature and stories we find 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.
Is what you’re offering here a spiritual practice?
I suppose it is, though I’m not really fond of the terminology. ‘Practice’ implies something that is a bolt-on to everyday life, and that’s not how I see it at all. What I’m proposing here is a way of being in the world, a way of living, a way of walking – hence HedgeWalking. And the problem with the word ‘spirituality’ is that it is so often defined as something internal to us, almost like a personality trait that you do or do not have, and something which is entirely the province of humans. ‘Religion’ is even worse, because it has connotations of dogma and specified belief systems.
Are you teaching shamanism?
It’s much more than that, though practices which are usually though of as ‘shamanic’ are part of what I teach.
The word ‘shamanism’ is not, of course, one which occurs in our culture, but there is certainly evidence that our ancestors were using practices that we think of as shamanic in nature. One way to achieve the state which I call ‘falling into the land’s dreaming’ – becoming one with the land – is through practices usually associated with shamanism, such as journeying, and I work with and teach some of those practices. But there are many differences between what I teach and ‘core shamanism’, the methodologies of which bear little relationship to our own traditions and culture. I don’t, for example, teach journeying through drumming. There are other – infinitely less noisy! – especially when you’re working in nature – ways of achieving the state of consciousness required for journeying.
What is unique about HedgeWalking is the combination of these practices with others derived from my many years of working with developing the mythic imagination. And so we work in a very deep way with story, with archetypes, with oracles and divinatory tools, and with dreams. We also work with ceremony, with movement, with traditional folk practices which are designed to focus intent – so that we’re not just focusing on what we can do with our imagination, but what we can do with our hands and our feet. It’s a way of walking through the world that is fully present, fully open to all realities – including those which are beyond what we perceive to be the boundaries of the physical world.
Above all, I believe that you have to learn to walk in this world before you can learn to walk in others. And so that is why my focus is on land-based practice: on developing deep, embodied relationships with our places – and with the myths which arise from them, and the energies which inhabit them.
What do you mean by ‘falling into the land’s dreaming’?
It’s hard to put into words. But I’ve used this phrase for many years now to describe a state of being in which you are so attuned to the land, to its creatures, to its stories, that you see yourself as a participant in the larger story of its becoming. But it’s more than that: it’s about a two-way relationship between equals. When you are attuned to a place in this way, you understand that just as you are communicating with it, it is communicating with you. That just as you love it, it loves you. There’s a blog post about it here. It’s also about recognising that there are other realities alongside this one – other worlds, if you prefer to use that language – which we can in a sense step into, and interact with.
What would you say are the foundation-stones of your own belief system, since that is what you’re bringing to this work?
- The physical reality we occupy has fluid boundaries; there are other realities (e.g. the Otherworld, the mundus imaginalis) which impinge on it/ run alongside it/ are immanent in it.
- There are energies which inhabit the Otherworld (or perhaps Otherworlds …); we can interact with them and they can offer us knowledge and guidance.
- Everything has spirit: the features which make our places (hill, rock, river …) – as well the nonhuman others who inhabit it with us – are alive and have agency of their own.
- We are equal participants in a web (network/ meshwork/ matrix) of life on this planet, all inextricably entangled.
- The Earth is sacred, and should be cherished.
To me, these principles are not ‘add-ons’ to a ‘normal’ life: they are a normal life. They should become part of our way of being in the world, and inform our choices and actions. Every breathing moment, waking and sleeping. We need to build relationships with the wind and rain, with the crows and badgers, with the dandelions and oak trees, that are just as vivid and real to us as our relationships with human friends. We need to live consciously, searching for the part we can play in the world’s becoming, in the awareness that we are here to do something, or to be something – not merely to survive, or pursue our own individual wellbeing or happiness.
Are you talking about gods when you talk about ‘energies which inhabit the Otherworld’?
I’m talking about energies that we sometimes see as gods, goddesses and other supernatural beings. There are many ways of thinking about this question, and of course the truth is that we don’t really know who or what the ‘gods’ might be. Some people see gods as a kind of ’emergent property’ of the land, or of a bioregion – but some gods seem to travel (if we think, for example, of the major monotheistic religions). One way of understanding it is through a Jungian lens. In Jungian theory, archetypes are potentials which are then translated into specific representations of that archetype which are appropriate and relevant to the culture. So one archetypal ‘potential’ or energy is the Old Woman of the World; it is translated in Gaelic culture into the Cailleach (the old woman who created and shaped the land) and in some Native American cultures as Grandmother Spider. Same energy, different manifestation. To me, that’s what gods and goddesses are: very powerful energies which exist in the world, and which take on forms appropriate to the culture. When we perceive them to be gods, then in a sense we feed those energies, and they become stronger. Be careful what you feed!
What does the word ‘Hedge’ mean in this context?
It’s a funny creature, the word ‘hedge’: like all the best words, it’s something of a shapeshifter. In one sense we use it to convey a boundary, something which closes us in. Think of the modern suburban hedge: regimented rows of neatly clipped, soulless leylandii; privet which has been so harshly treated that it forgets how to bloom. But in another sense, we use the word ‘hedge’ to indicate something quite different: the wild margins which surround the cultivated fields. Think now of the gnarly old hedgerows of Britain and Ireland: thick, richly flowering, berried hawthorn and elder, blackthorn and hazel. An abundance of food and shelter for wild things. Secret places, where treasure might be found, where birds might speak to you, and foxes sing to the stars. An ancient hedge is a place where anything might happen. A liminal place, where the wisdom of the wild margins is available to all. Hedge wisdom.
Is your work aimed only at people who live in Ireland or the British Isles?
No. 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. 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.
Your HedgeWalking programme is focused on women. Why is that?
I’ve always been interested in re-visioning the place of women in our culture, and reinstating the voices of women in contemporary spiritual practice. I teach from the old pre-Christian traditions – especially the Irish tradition – and, as I wrote about at length in my book If Women Rose Rooted, that heritage sees women not just as guardians and protectors of the land, but as bearing the moral and spiritual authority of the Otherworld. You can see remnants of that in folk traditions right up to the present day. The skill of the bean feasa, for example – the uniquely Irish personification of the Wise Woman – is derived entirely from her close association with the Otherworld. And so that’s the primary focus of my work: reclaiming the Wise Woman. Teaching women today how to walk between worlds. And how to bring what they learn back home – not just for ‘personal growth’, but in service to Earth and the community. From the bean feasa, to the witch, to the old spinning and weaving goddesses who inhabit our mythology, and more – Europe is so rich in Wise Woman traditions, but those stories have been actively suppressed. It’s time to dig the threads back up, to weave them back together, and to inhabit them.
Why do you think this work is important now?
Because I 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 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 have become abhorrent to us – but more often than not, we don’t know what it is that we want to belong to instead.
I think we can handle the disconnection, the sense of unbelonging and the lack of continuity, with a practice which is deeply rooted in our own native traditions. It’s about living authentically, connecting with our places, and finding a deep, embodied sense of belongingness to this beautiful, animate Earth. It’s very much about reclaiming ancient wisdom – not to hark back to or try to recreate the past, but to use that wisdom to help us build authentic traditions for today.
I also believe that it is necessary for our health as humans, and for the health of the planet, to keep the waters of the Otherworld freely flowing. Because a belief in the importance of the Otherworld is associated in Celtic cosmology with a belief in the sacredness of the Earth – of the land, and the places we inhabit. It’s associated with an animistic perspective which tells us that even a rock has agency, and it’s associated with a profound respect for the very different wisdom that each animal or plant brings to, and manifests in, the world.
What do you think is unique or different about the way you work?
There are a number of people doing this kind of work who I admire. We all approach it in our own unique ways, making use of the unique gifts we each have. What I bring to this work is a deep and very grounded connection with the land, which is informed by and combined with a long training in myth and the mythic imagination. I teach a method of journeying – reaching out into the world; a kind of sensing – which can be used anywhere, and which is based on my professional training in therapeutic practices like clinical hypnosis to achieve different states of consciousness. (I never could journey properly through drumming; I find it noisy and intrusive. Perhaps our native Otherworld is just quieter!) I also have a strong academic background in Celtic Studies, which means that this work is grounded in sound and up-to-date knowledge of our native myths and traditions. I’m constantly astonished by how much inaccurate, or sometimes completely fabricated, writing there is out there on the web – and in books too – about this material. My aim is to offer an antidote to all that.