Dear readers I confess. I affirm and attest that I am a more than occasional countryside rambler. Because of that I understand that our relationship with the land is not a straight forward one. It can inspire and infuriate, it can scare us to death and nourish our spiritual needs. It can take us on a journey to places far beyond the literal surroundings of where we happen to be at any given moment, whether it’s a feeling to escape from crowded, chaotic lifestyles or just the feeling of a fundamental connection within ourselves.
We have words and phrases that allude to this magical, mystical quality: genius loci, ley lines, Cynefin and hiraeth (Welsh), psycho-geography, terrior and La France Profonde (Deep France), Aboriginals relate to it as ‘Songlines’ and more recently ‘spirit of place’ – a term coined by the Australian singer songwriter Shane Howard in his seminal folk-rock outfit Goanna.
These words might have different meanings, but they are all rooted in the belief that landscapes, like you and me, can speak to us in some way. I recall excitedly reading Lyall Watson was all the rage in the seventies with his best-selling books ‘Supernature’ and ‘Lifetide’. This scientist, biologist and spiritual thinker’s role in life was to build a between scientific investigation and mystic revelation. He profoundly opened the door to many around animalistic beliefs, stating “I have no qualms about seeing the soul in a rock and attributing awareness to a tree… I think the whole Earth is intelligent and we simply are the most vocal part”.
I don’t mind admitting that it took me over a decade to become converted. However please let me assure you I was no spaced out hippie leftover from the sixties. I consider myself to be scientifically sceptical and experimental in my existentialism. But I accept there is something more out there that we can possibly define or claim to have one source, one maker, one belief system.
A few years back I’d gone to Carreg Cennen Castle, an abandoned stumpy-toothed ruin perched on a cliff in the desolate Black Mountains region of the western Brecon Beacons. The ruin had such an unsettling – but not altogether unpleasant – effect on me. I cannot properly explain it, but a postscript to my journal at the time read “It feels as though a stronger light is on me, I feel dizzy, as though a sledgehammer punch has just been dealt”. I was frightened, tearful and yet exhilarated. The only other time I have felt that was standing at the base of Uluru, in central Australia (climbing up the rock is believed by tribal Elders to be an act of desecration).
Each time I have come away with uncontrollable shivers down the spine. Like Lyall Watson I believe that the reach of landscape extends way beyond the stuff that fills the confines of Ordinate Survey maps, it is alive; animate and articulate a repository of folk memories, war and peace, life and death, fire and rain, love and sorrow. And you don’t have to be a loopy mystic to join in. It’s out there (in simultaneously in there) for everyone.
Mostly I feel lucky in Britain, for the island is latticed with highly charged Celtic trails, ghostly highways (there’s one outside my door), old Roman roads and drover’s routes that can take us further than we’d ever imagine. Unsurprisingly the landscape is a constant source of literally and artistic inspiration, it’s the backdrop of a vast library that continues to expand our consciousness with a momentum that paradoxically seems to increase the further we distance ourselves from our primal past, the days when crops gave us our daily bread, not computers (yes I’m a Luddite but rather than slipping into that territory, I’ll get back to point).
Sadly some books I read have not always treated our landscape as the starting place of spiritual journey. In 1920’s Daniel Defoe of Robinson Crusoe fame wrote A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, finding the mountains to be “a horrid and frightening place, even worse than those mountains abroad”. OK Defoe didn’t like mountain then. But what’s not to like? They are primeval and magnificent, a magnet for any red-blooded man or women. However thankfully, and not a moment too soon, the travel writer and Observer columnist, Robert MacFarlane has but all this straight in his wonderful contribution ‘The Mountains of the Mind’.
It’s odd though, Defoe’s view was not in industrial Britain either, he was writing in the days before urban slums, teeming new towns, belching chimney smoke, huge furnaces and coal mines, when the mountains were only seen in terms of danger and death. As depicted in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, the industrial revolution changed everything, ushering in a new dawning of an age and a major shift in the relationship that we had with nature. The wild nature that scared Defoe now inspired different emotions. Nature became sublime, an escape from the harsh realities of a new, ugly, unforgiving “march of progress” of the industrial age.
William Wordsworth eulogised his beloved Lake District – romance was in the air and on the canvases of JMW Turner and John Constable. The doors of perception, possibly of Blake’s mystical vision – of a New Jerusalem, were beginning to open and we’d never look back on the landscape the same way again. It became a benign retreat, a space to breathe for the urban masses, leading to the creation of The Nation Trust, which would never ‘prevent wild nature having its way’. I don’t suppose Daniel Defoe would have signed up as member.
So here we are, in the early 21st Century, with Darwinists like Richard Dawkins telling us fundamentally there is no God (and maybe his scientific argument is correct, even if his method of persuasion isn’t), however look closely and you’ll notice how science is coming up with ever more astounding revelations, binary codes, the mathematical language spoken by computers, transforming everyone’s live as the giants of Facebook, Apple and Microsoft slug it out for world domination. Who needs magic and mystery in all this? The probable answer is: most of us. There are other meanings and realities out there for the grabs, you don’t need to believe in science fiction, bug-eyed Martians, UFO’s, parallel universes to be touched by them. The evidence is much closer to home.
After my Uluru and Carreg Cennen baptism I headed west to southern Ireland. To Burren, that moonscape of fractured limestone rock just south of Galway. It’s an otherworldly grey dome of apparently barren landscape, except for the rare plants that grow in its fissures. The wind howled in from the Atlantic Ocean and the sun blasted through the clouds like some biblical searchlight as I approached Poulnabrone Dolmen (Standing Stone), the skeletal framework of a Neolithic tomb balanced on the limestone pavement. Those were only the elements of the scene. The sum of the parts between the rock, sun and man was somehow much greater. Something lifted up inside me, an energy – a synergy, that wants to escape my flesh and blood.
AE Housman’s ‘blue remembered hills’ from his ‘Shropshire Lad’ cycle of poems evoke a potent vision of Englishness and country life, tinged with a lost youth:
What are those blue remembered hills
What aspires, what farms are those
That is the land of lost content
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways were I went
And cannot come again
Reading this also takes me back to the work of the seminal TV dramatist Dennis Potter (remember when, in the good old days, TV plays were about something other than shouty social realisms). Anyway his words are suffused by a spiritual sense of place, in his case his native Forest of Dean, just down the track from Housman’s Wenlock edge. Potter pinched Housman’s ‘blue remembered hills’ as the title for his 1979 play featuring adult actor taking the part of children romping about the forest, a location that cropped up in ‘Pennies From Heaven’ (1978) and the Singing Detective (1986).
The Forest of Dean is one strange spooky place, a high plateau on the road to nowhere, bypassed, ignored, arcane and insular. These ancient Oak woods, laden with memories of the forest as King Canute’s royal hunting ground, begin to incongruously at the back door of the industrial terraces. Spirits even exist underground as one of the free miners of the forest once told me about the tradition going back to the 13th Century “this mine is a living thing for me, with a language of its own. It’s always telling me something”.
Then there”s Wye valley on the border of Wales and Herefordshire. Close by is a walk up to Hergest Ridge from nearby town of Kingston. One day I went up the graded slope and was met by wild horses. There they stood on the ridge so ethereal, perfectly still, I could not tell if they were really there or if they were an apparition of my mind at the time. I sometimes feel as though the mind does play tricks and yet when it happens I don’t mind; dreams and legends, hopes and fears all make up the tapestry of the land. It is a subjective world and such journeys can shine the brightest imaginably light, not only on the lives of our pre-historic ancestors, but it also offers an atavistic revelation bathed with an umbilical sense of connection to our lives today.
If any of this sounds too trippy for your taste, let me assure you again that I’m a level-headed kind of guy, for most of the time. Lots of New Age mumbo jumbo leaves me stone cold. I don’t do hallucinogenic drugs, instead dark ales and single malts spirits are my poison. And I don’t feel any great need to believe in pixies, fairies and the like, but I respect those I know who do. But I do believe when you follow an old drover’s road or pilgrim’s trail, those footprints that went before you, although long gone, leave behind a legacy. Such experiences lie on the surface and just below we have relics of timeless history. Their residue reveals a sense of attachment, or perhaps a higher purpose to life or it can leave us in solace and comprehension of the every-changing nature of things, the Tao, within our busy lives. It’s the same when you come across a place that immediately speaks to you in a language can – and yet can’t – understand.
Where next then? One day, I’ll travel up to the Orkney Islands, maybe in my favourite time of year mid-winter (it’s the only time to go, you know). I hope to end up, as you do, at Skara Brae, Northern Europe’s best preserved prehistoric village. My efforts to trace my family tree, reveals that I have Scottish ancestry near this lonesome part of the world. It’s a remarkable site that became known to the world, following a great storm in 1850. Before then it was lying buried beneath the sands for more than 40 Centuries. It’s not that I desire to simply poke about the dark confines of the dark low, covered passageways and well-preserved. For me it’s a spiritual journey to my own hereditary past. a nation of people I never knew, like Shane Howard, unearthing the roots of deeper cultural connection and sense of belonging, my spirit of place.
The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot
Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton, 2012)
A brilliant account of what can happens to ramblers in-between the country pubs.
‘The Other Side of the Rock’,
(Goanna Arts, 2012)
A great new album which illustrates how communities of Mutitjulu, Imanpa & Kaltakatjara, in central Australia have retained a strong connections to Uluru.
For Albert, my companion in the pilgrimage.