HedgeWalking

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‘Women are spinners and weavers; we are the ones who spin the threads and weave them into meaning and pattern. Like silkworms, we create those threads out of our own substance, pulling the strong, fine fibres out of our own hearts and wombs. It’s time to make some new threads; time to strengthen the frayed wild edges of our own being and then weave ourselves back into the fabric of our culture. Once we knew the patterns for weaving the world; we can piece them together again. Women can heal the Wasteland. We can remake the world. This is what women do. This is our work.’
From If Women Rose Rooted, by Sharon Blackie

In Old English, the word ‘wyrd’ is usually used to refer to fate, or destiny; it’s actually a verbal noun formed from the verb weorþan, meaning ‘to come to pass, to become’. But originally, it was the name for a goddess: one who was fate personified. She was the eldest of the Norns, who in Norse and other Germanic mythology were the weavers of destiny. Urðr (the Old Norse equivalent of the Old English ‘Wyrd’) and her sisters Verðandi and Skuld are said to live in a hall at the Well of Urðr which lies beneath the world tree, Yggdrasil. The Norns design the destinies of all of those who live in the Nine Worlds of Yggdrasil, from humans to animals to giants and gods – but in contrast to the more deterministic Greek concept of fate, those beings still have some degree of agency in shaping their own destiny and the destinies of others. But the power of the Norns is great: no person, it is said – and not even a god – can overturn their judgement.

Wyrd/ Urðr and the other Norns are just one example of the Three Maidens – spinning and weaving women throughout European mythology – who were said to hold the fate of all the beings of the world(s) in their hands. In ancient Greece, they were called the Moirae; in Rome, the Parcae. In Germania, Eastern Gaul, and Northern Italy they were called the Matres, or the Matronae. There are many stories about them in Slavic mythology, where their various names are Sudičky, Sudice, Suđaje, Rodzanice, Narecznice, Sudiczki, Sojenice or Rojenice. In contrast to Greek and Norse mythology, they are young, beautiful, and usually dressed in white.

The importance of the spinning and weaving motifs can be seen passed down through European fairy tales: take the Sleeping Beauty, who pricks her finger on a spindle and falls asleep for a hundred years. Think of the princess in ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, who is required to spin straw into gold. Or Habetrot, a character from British folklore who was a spinner, a weaver, and also a healer: if you could persuade her to weave you a garment, you’d never again suffer from illness.

The Wise Women of Europe, spinning and weaving the world into being. In the old stories, it is women who make the world; why then shouldn’t we remake it? It’s time now, more than ever, to remember those old stories. Time to reclaim the Wise Woman. Time to walk the old path – the path through the hedge.

 

from Creation of the Himalayas

after the painting ‘Embroidering Earth’s Mantle’ by Remedios Varo

They say we are just embroiderers
but when we are working well, our tower turns
into burnished fire and the mantle flows
from our fingers, tumbling through the air
in loops of delight. There are always men
trapped in our weave. The sky calls their names
and they climb, trying to reach back
through the clouds to our blue fingers.
They glimpse us over the Tibetan Plateau,
our needles flashing like nimbus.
Each dancing thread and singing stitch
must be precisely placed in its matrix.

Pascale Petit

 

‘Are you really’ – someone asked me recently – ‘promoting the middle-world journey in your HedgeWalking practice? Isn’t that supposed to be really dangerous?’ To which my answer was, ‘No, I don’t believe it is. Though “middle world” isn’t the terminology I would use, as it derives from a cosmology which is quite different from that represented in our native traditions.’ (‘Middle world’ is a term usually used in the practice of core shamanism or neoshamanism to refer to journeying in our own physical reality, as opposed to journeying in another reality, such as an ‘underworld’ or ‘upper world’.) And I’ve heard others state their belief that ‘middle-world’ journeys are inherently dangerous, and shouldn’t be attempted by students for a good long while.

So I thought I’d better explain – because I happen to believe that what teachers of contemporary shamanism might term the ‘middle-world journey’ is actually precisely the starting point for an authentic, grounded practice. And all of this is one of the many reasons why I don’t like to call my HedgeWalking teachings ‘shamanism’. Even though some of what I teach involves techniques that might reasonably be labelled ‘shamanic’, the set of teachings and practices that I call ‘HedgeWalking’ is not based either on the set of practices, or the attempt to essentialise and organise global indigenous cosmologies, that are found in contemporary core shamanism. *

What I’m interested in is exploring a practice which is grounded in our native traditions and cosmology. So what is the evidence for the use of shamanic practices by our ancestors? Well, that’s a big subject, and if you’re interested in exploring it deeply you might like to think about signing up for my Celtic Studies: Myth and Tradition course, which begins in April and lasts for a year. In a nutshell, though: although there is no direct evidence for the use of specific shamanic practices, there are for sure strong shamanic elements in the old Irish literature, so it’s not unreasonable to believe that our ancestors – like those of so many cultures around the world – might have practiced some kind of shamanism.

But all of this, of course, begs the question of what shamanism actually is. There are many definitions of the term, and there are many different variants of shamanism throughout the world, but it’s generally held to be based on a belief that the physical world is pervaded by invisible forces, or spirits, which affect our lives and the world around us. The role of the shaman is to act as mediator between the human world and the world (or worlds) of spirits. Many societies (but by no means all) who hold to the practice of shamanism believe in a three-fold cosmology, in the form of an upper world, middle world (this reality) and underworld; those worlds are connected by a central axis (such as a pillar, or a ‘world tree’), and the shaman can travel between all of these realms with the help of guides.

It is important to understand that there is no evidence in the pre-Christian Irish (or other Celtic) literature for belief in a cosmology which consists of upper, middle and lower worlds. (We do not, of course, know everything – or even much – about the beliefs of our ancestors, and so we can only go on what clues remain. It’s quite possible that there might once have been such a cosmology, but we don’t see any clear traces of it in the writings that are available to us today.) In our native Irish traditions (and, to the extent we can tell, probably the traditions in other Celtic countries too) there is only mention of an Otherworld which is immanent in this one – immanent in the sense of wholly entwined with, and inseparable from.

In the old stories, the Otherworld can be accessed in all kinds of ways: by crossing a physical boundary or threshold, such as a river; by passing through mist; by entering into a subterranean cave; by entering a hollow hill, by travelling to the bottom of a loch, or across the sea to various islands. It’s as if there are many different countries in the Otherworld, each one with its own unique topography and inhabitants. But the clearest illustration of the idea that the Otherworld is immanent in this one comes perhaps from the tale known in English as The Voyage of Bran. In it, Bran sets off across the sea in a coracle to find the Land of Women, Tír na mBan, to which he’s been invited by a beautiful Otherworldly female. One day, he happens across the god Manannán Mac Lir, who speaks to Bran of his world – the Otherworld – as if to see it, and enter into it, doesn’t require a physical journey to a specific ‘geographical’ location, but rather requires a change of focus, and an ability to see through the physical world and perceive the other realities which are normally hidden from us:

Bran deems it a marvellous beauty
In his coracle across the clear sea:
While to me in my chariot from afar
It is a flowery plain on which he rides about.

Bran sees the sea; Manannán sees a flowery plain. The Otherworld isn’t a different location: it’s a different level of reality beyond the purely physical, which humans do not naturally have the ability to perceive. (Manannán later tells Bran that he and his people have the ability to perceive other layers of reality because they didn’t ‘fall’ like the children of Adam, but that’s clearly a Christian overlay.)

How then do we begin to reach for the ability to see this way – to pierce through the veil and journey into those different levels of reality? How do we practice shifting our perception so that we can see beyond the physical reality we’re so comfortable with, and on into the other layers of reality which are entwined with it? Well, there are many ways to do this, and one of them (which also is core to HedgeWalking) involves working with techniques which kickstart the development of the mythic imagination. But there’s another clue in the form of the question itself. I believe that we start precisely in the physical reality that those other levels of reality are entwined with. Right here, in the ‘middle world’; in the reality we know. As I’ve written elsewhere, I firmly believe that to be able to walk in other worlds, you need first to be able to walk in this one. This is where it all starts. After all, it’s the ground of our being.

It’s also where you can more easily tell what’s real, and what you’re making up; and whether I was making things up while journeying was a major concern of mine when I first began to work with shamanic practices, many years ago. As a psychologist, my work at the time was focused on the creative imagination, and I had completed an intensive training in clinical hypnosis and other imaginal techniques. My therapeutic practice was focused entirely on the creative imagination and the mythic imagination, and on the use of visualisation and narrative techniques which were built on a foundation of altered states of consciousness. It was an interest in those altered states of consciousness, combined with my search for an authentic spiritual practice, which led me to sign up for a year-long training in ‘shamanism’ in Devon. I’ve written in a previous post about how that training didn’t really work for me, founded as it was on a cosmology and practice that was derived from two continents half a world away. There are other, quite specific reasons why I couldn’t work with the methodology I was taught; one is that it was based on inducing an altered state of consciousness through drumming, which I found actively hindered rather than helped (it made my head rattle, and I was always immensely irritated by the time constraints). And also because I couldn’t make sense of all that upper and lower world terminology; it bore absolutely no relationship to what I understood the Otherworld to be in my native traditions. Trying to separate the Otherworld into two different realms inhabited by different types of beings made me feel as if I was ripping my own psyche in two.

And so I abandoned that teaching which was not only derived from a mish-mash of ideas from other cultures, but which almost entirely took place inside. I couldn’t be doing with that; I went back to the drawing board, and engaged in a years-long apprenticeship to outside: to the land. (I’ve written about some of that long apprenticeship here, so won’t repeat it again.) I focused on other ways of achieving altered states of consciousness which were derived from my training in hypnosis and other imaginal techniques – and one of the many benefits of working this way was that I could sit wherever I wanted to – under a tree, on the seashore – and practice them quite unobtrusively and without having to worry about whether it was nice weather for a drum.

I focused, then, on learning how to listen to the land’s dreaming. I am an animist; I believe that everything in the world has spirit, or consciousness, of some kind. And I believe that all of those consciousnesses, combined together, make up the anima mundi: the soul of the world. (As Plato described the anima mundi: ‘this world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence … a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related.)

The anima mundi is exactly where I wanted to begin. I wanted a mystical relationship with the natural world, and the energies which inhabit it. And in the Irish mythical tradition, the gods are immanent in the land, not cut off from it in some ethereal, transcendental upper world. We are creatures of this Earth; an authentic spiritual practice has surely to begin in it and of it. Right here, in the land where our feet are planted – right at the heart of the curiously forbidden ‘middle world’. The world of trees, birds, animals, and rock. The sacred world of which we know so little, until we learn to really sense it in different ways. That’s where we’ll find the wisdom we need to know first: the wisdom which comes, quite literally, from the ground of our being. Plato also wrote in his Phaedrus that the ‘first prophecies were the words of an oak’, and that those who lived at that time found it rewarding to ‘listen to an oak or a stone, so long as it was telling the truth’. Liars may be found in any reality, and so may dangers. The trick is apprenticeship. Don’t blunder in. Go slow, go careful, go respectfully; don’t push the boundaries of what you’re capable of too far; always go with help. But above all, go. This beautiful dreaming Earth wants to be in relationship with us, and this is the world in which we live. Let’s live in it a little more fully. Once we’ve listened to an oak or a stone or a crow; once we’ve learned to fully walk in this world – maybe then we might find we have the skills, judgement – and above all, humility – which will enable us to walk safely and authentically in any others we might happen across.


* If you are interested in an accurate and academically sound discussion of shamanism, I recommend Ronald Hutton’s Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination. The Quest for the Shaman, by archaeologists Miranda and Stephen Aldhouse-Green, is another useful resource.

If you’re interested in more information on HedgeWalking and the details of this practice, you’ll find a Q&A here.

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.

BECOMING INDIGENOUS

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?

Sharon Blackie

 

The work I do at HedgeWalking is relevant to anyone who is looking to walk in the world in a way that’s consistent with ways of being and knowing that we think of as indigenous. There are two threads to this work, two dimensions:

Ancestral traditions

All of us can benefit from a grounding in our ancestral traditions. For some of us, of course, it’s not always clear just where those ancestral traditions lie – many of us today are ‘mongrels’, with ancestry from a variety of different places.  If that’s the case for you – if you’re not obviously Celtic, or Scandinavian, for example, then simply choose the ancestral line which draws you most. This isn’t about genetic purity, it’s about finding grounding and a sense of belonging from knowing that you are part of a long line of people who once, for generations, belonged somewhere, and it’s particularly important if your immediate ancestors came only relatively recently to the land where you now live (those of you in America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, for example).

Ancestral traditions are great to explore, but ancestral practices – and especially ancestral divinities – really don’t always travel well. Use them for inspiration; don’t try to recreate them. Draw on native mythology for inspiration; love and learn the stories – but always steep your practices and devotions in the place where your feet are planted.

The place where your feet are planted

No matter how much you are drawn to the practices and mythologies of an ancestral country, if your feet are currently planted in a country which is different, it is critically important to develop land-based practices which make sense where you are right now. It is this landscape, and the creatures which inhabit it, that you need to connect with. It is this land’s dreaming that you need to fall into – not some longed-for land across the sea. To do otherwise is to be half-alive. But you can use your knowledge of ancestral traditions to help you connect in the place where you live. For example: if you are of Irish or Scottish descent, you might be drawn to myths and stories of the Cailleach – the Old Woman who made and shaped the world. And if you happen to be visiting Ireland or Scotland, you can indeed acknowledge her in the landscape. But you can’t export her to the New Mexico desert, or the Kansas plains. It makes no sense, because the Cailleach (like all Gaelic divinities) is absolutely immanent in the landscape here. This is the land she made and created; she is a creature of rocky heights and storm-soaked coastlines; she makes no sense elsewhere. But you can use that sense of ancestral belonging to the country of the Cailleach to help you find an ‘Old Woman’ archetype somewhere in the place where you live.

I hope you enjoy these journeys through the old and wild ways of these lands. Do join me in exploring what it might mean to dream ourselves awake, and to grow authentic, land-based spiritual practices based on the indigenous myths and traditions of Ireland and the British Isles. You can sign up to follow this blog via email or RSS feed, in the footer section of this page.

Sharon Blackie