Spirit Level

We are thrilled to announce the publication of our twenty-fourth book, available now from our online shop, a dramaturgical exploration of the 'Eight Fires' of the ceremonial year, based on our workshop series, 'How We Walk Through the Fire'. Each section is introduced by the workshop 'guides' with ways of engagement in the more-than human world – from wild creatures to mythic beings, from wind walking to plant talking. For Lughnasdh, Lucy Neal crosses the liminal boundaries of seas and rivers, sharing her year-long practice of immersion in a watery world. With shoreline artwork by Tony Humbleyard and Jemima Hall.
is an artist and writer with a background in theatre-making. Her practical handbook Playing for Time: Making Art As If The World Mattered maps an aesthetic of care responding to an Earth in crisis. Her Walking Forest work draws inspiration from forest ecology, creative movements of resistance and women’s Earth defending.
In a water being practice, my attention is compelled equally, above and below the waterline.

Above the line, my head is up: I watch trees pass through the seasons and clouds scudding past, connecting their journeys in the sky as I journey below, arms moving slowly and legs giving timed, strong kicks. I sense the curvature of Earth’s atmosphere overhead, the fragility of which worries me. I imagine the water transpired by the trees around me, turning into rain that is yet to fall on us. I’m suspended within this giantness of time and vaulted space, and I lose the boundaries of myself. I drift and listen, immersed.

Below the line, I am goggled, face down and more creatured. Streamlining my stroke, I accelerate. Submersion frees me and I imagine an evolutionary past as I seek safe passage on a watery planet with my kin. On a hot day like an iguana flopping off the rocks, I dive to cooling depths. Today I am otter, penguin and eel.

Doing ‘lengths’ at the Lido, I study the glinting line. Above and below play with sunlight, breath and air. Inhale above; exhale below. Inhale above; exhale below. In an unsettling, overheating world, I can balance anxiety back to ease. With fluid spine, I find my spirit’s level.

A water being practice connects me to Earth each day, following the cycle of the solar year.

A water being practice connects me to Earth each day, following the cycle of the solar year.

It’s the summer solstice and the Earth is tilted towards the sun, but not for much longer. I time a trip to the river for when the planet’s northern tilt is at its greatest. Along the way I collect oak leaves and summer grasses, wild sweet pea, bramble in blossom, stinging nettle and a sprig of young holly; I will make a headdress to mark the height of the solar year. I swim upstream, acknowledging oak’s steadfast reliability in a ceremonial handover to spiky holly and the darker side of the year. A white gull flies overhead. Winter is on its way.

At Lughnasadh I swim further. These are the glory days and I spend time immersed, watching water’s gift of life to the world. Coot and moorhen chicks born earlier in the year are out and about on their own, unbothered as I bob nearby. A kingfisher dashes past. A heron stands stock still. The riverbank bursts with life. Blackberry bushes fruit. I resolve to create a gifting practice to honour water’s sacred powers.

An activist’s life defending the Earth requires daily attention to spirit. Atmospheric heat is accelerating water’s cycle at unprecedented speed: glaciers melt, floods flash, and whole riverbanks wash away. A lack of water here and a deluge of water there, the world over. Ocean heat maps are turning red. Our ancestors had traditions to ritualise healing, regeneration and the cycles of life and death. On the Wandle estuary near where I live, the confluence of rivers was a place of votive offering, for cleansing and purification. What votive offering can I make to honour water’s endless return to us of its gifts?

At autumn equinox, with day and night at equal lengths, I am grateful for the tilt to cold. I follow the degrees down as temperatures drop. At Samhain, en route to winter, I note the cold now bites. To swim year round the key is to keep going, taking it steady. The cold is an instruction; in an uncertain world, there is a certainty here. An uncluttered clarity. Perceived reality matches reality as physically embodied. I find it a calibration for belonging on Earth: the ground of my being. Without water, my ancestral gills dry around their edges.

Seaweed Shelter no.3 by Jemima Hall. Film still. Shiant Isles, Scotland.

At the winter solstice, I cycle to swim at sunrise and hear birdsong all the way. I swim for five minutes at 6°C. The intensity of the swim banishes thought and readies my sentient being for another day. I acknowledge the bare trees, slowing their water cycle down for winter and quiet hibernation. By Imbolc, on St. Brigid’s day, the February temperature has dropped to 3°c. Mornings are dark and my wet bather freezes like a stick of rock as I put on clothes to get warm. Snowdrop, crocus and primrose bring joy in the morning cold. Spring’s transformation is on its way. I don’t offer the Earth porridge or cleansing milk, as is the Gaelic tradition, but another year I might. Gratefully, I eat my porridge hot and consider the words of artist Dominique Mazeaud who spent years ‘cleansing’ the Rio Grande: ‘I see what I am doing as a way of praying.’

On a swim in Loch Tay, in Scotland, it’s scraping 4°c. In the distance I see snow on the Cairngorm mountains. I swim for a full 12 minutes wearing a giant red paper rose hat in protest against the Rosebank oil drilling planned in the North Sea. The swim event is cancelled due to a sewage release along the shore into the Loch, and I thank heaven for my head-up breaststroke and closed mouth.

I yearn for repair and restoration. Around the spring equinox, I sit on the beach on the Erme Estuary in Devon and meditate on everything water gives life to. I craft another headdress, this time a salty one, with seaweed forming a ‘circuit’ between the ocean and the salty fluid that flows through my own body. As the sun dips to the horizon, I swim out, feeling the pull of the tide to the sea. With bladderwrack trailing down my back and into the water, the circuit clicks in and I laugh at my own performance of connection to the universe.

In time and place the river is everywhere: at the source, at the sea and in me.

May Day and the arrival of Belenus, the sun god, bringing light, warmth and the land’s fertility. Waking early, on a  whim I cycle north to the River Thames at Bankside where I watch T.S. Eliot’s implacable ‘strong brown god’ keeping the seasons for millions of years. In time and place the river is everywhere: at the source, at the sea and in me.

Thames neolithic settlers laid their dead in barrows, with their heads pointing downstream to be blessed by the river. Water was and is ever sacred and central. I’m at the beginning of weaving my water being practice into the traditions of the year’s eight fires. Next year I’ll wash my face with the dew of a hawthorn tree.

Now, however, I make a May crown from hawthorn, cow parsley and buttercups and ask my father, still going at 97, if he’ll wear it. He does, like the original green man. He won’t swim again, but thanks to him, I learned the art of swimming in the rain on Welsh seaside holidays, where my lips turned blue and water was another word for play. Above and below the waterline, readying for the Earth’s tilts once more, I am kin with the world, sentient and whole. This is the practice: an annual choreography of the watery world to which I belong.


TOP IMAGE: Tony Humbleyard
Digital print
Unst, Shetland Isles, Scotland

Tony Humbleyard’s work is a collaborative engagement with social/psychogeographical space, exploring the  ‘UseHistories’ of place and how they inform the current urgencies. He has lived and worked on the island of Unst (Shetland Isles) since 2005, engaged in a process of deep listening and sustainable social art practice.


‘Seaweed Shelter no.3’
Film still
Shiant Isles, Scotland

Within my art practice, I study landscapes and seascapes as a way of remembering our place as humans within them by working with the material that is present for the use of shelters and dwellings. I am inspired by the incandescent ability of seaweeds to allow light through. their changing textures and strengths. These structures play with the idea of humans having been born from the sea, finding our way to land by the tidal landscapes and building shelters with what the sea gifted us.

Jemima Hall is an artist and educator of ancestral skills based in Scotland. Her art practice records her interaction with remote natural landscapes – in sculptural works, drawings, visual and written poetry, and performative art. By living in these wild places she learns about ourselves as humans, about tradition, ingenuity and survival.


Dark Mountain: Issue 24 – Eight Fires

Our Autumn 2023 full colour edition is an ensemble exploration of the eight ceremonial fires of the year, celebrated in practices, stories, poetry and artwork.

Read more

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