In the summer of 2016, I took a long walk to talk to the land. I needed to be with it. I needed to ask it about what was happening in the world. I needed a place away from the broadcast catastrophe. I needed shelter. I needed to hold it close to my breath, to be held on its breast and ask it what to do. I chose Scotland because you only need to ask the ground where you can sleep and my ancestors approved: all the place names I don’t know how to pronounce speak to my blood and remind me of home. As I walked, it spoke to me. As I walked through my thoughts and let them drop, answers unfolded.
The places that call to us offer us healing and ask to be healed in turn. In this way the healing is mutual. She shows me her wounds and I offer up mine. They close together over time, like fault lines. When I am walking, I feel this process of healing. There is the destruction of my steps, but there is also a slow regrowth over what came before, the making of compost. I lay down my thoughts and ask my questions; they become something new. In this dialogue the land gives me answers. This time, her first answer was death. Death, my love, bones. I was the walker. The walker looked down and saw at her feet the bones of animals, flattened frogs, regurgitated slugs. Everything was a sign.
Once there was a time when everything was sign. The honeysuckle and the vine embraced the oak tree and spoke to me. Round white patches of fungus on rocks perfectly indicated my right path. I saw circles in trees, branches, leaves, and heart-shaped stones, remains, to pick up, to read. I remembered the story that put me on my scholarly path: Chevrefoil, gotelef, honeysuckle, written down in Old French rhyme by Marie de France. Here, Isolde leaves a branch for her lover in the wood, to indicate to him her passing. I left sticks on the ground, twisted or carved, messages for those coming after me and, like that branch did to Tristan, the forest spoke to me. It told me its story. It told me of silence, loss of self, but also of rebirth, coming in, arriving home. It told me of humans on the land, the absurdity of only valuing it for its use, for its monetary worth, and the damage caused by this. These are things I already knew, that many of us know, but they aren’t spoken widely enough. We ignore and consume. We agree to this kind of ignorance of the land and we don’t listen to the trees. The oak trees told me I needed no more preparation to speak for them, though they understood that finding the words is difficult. They want us to read the signs again.
I looked down on a path that was traced by the old Highland Railway line in the 19th century, packed by weight and sound. Called the Dava Way, it runs from Forres to Granton-on-Spey, an easy two or three day walk of solitude, sun, field, copse, rain. I saw more bones and butterflies, a shiny royal blue beetle, mud and rot, flowers. There are still flowers, and bees to make love to them; the lady-slippers and the aspens, Scotch Argus and raspberries, because it’s August. I eat these in the morning as I walk.
How the land remembers
The Dava moor, in its green and purple dress, tiny heather bells and squelch, started calling to me. There was the path, but the moor wanted more, the moor wanted me to come and stay, to disappear into the layers of peat, sheep turd, wool, moss and hay. The feeling wouldn’t go away. I saw myself alone, leaving the path, dropping down into the land, disappearing there, in a kind of orgasmic frenzy of forgetting, oblivious bliss. I was this. I wanted the moor in my eyes, the outside on my skin. I resisted the call and kept walking. A few yards further down the path, a well-intentioned marker to entertain the walker told the story of a body that had been found near there in 1927, a skeleton which at first was thought to be the remains of a Highland soldier, back from Culloden, or a Highland chieftain, even older. Everyone thought it was the body of a man. After it had been examined in the city, scientists declared it was a girl, and a young one at that, 20 years old, small and frail, only four feet ten inches tall.
I sucked in my breath and held it in my breast. This then was the call from the land that I’d heard just moments before; it wasn’t simply a suicidal wish, come too early in the walk to be blamed on loneliness. The spirit of this girl who had died on the moor had shown me her desire for death, for oneness with the peat. The moor had held on to the memory of the girl. The moor remembered her, that particular ecstasy of having found a girl again, of rediscovering its source.
At the source of every spring is a girl,
it’s a loch, it’s the breath in before
oh Caledonia, lie at my breast
the sheep have left the birds behind,
we’ve carved the fields
and cut the trees
till only bones remain.
A child is crying, the wind is still
the heather lies upon the ground
that hides the ways we went before,
the wood ant and the boar,
the slugs go slow,
the woods will wait,
in the quiet of the growing
that will come.
On the non-use of land
That was the first sign, first a feeling, then a signpost. Then there were more. There wasn’t always a sign post. The lamb that was now only a heap of bone, skull and wool in the shelter where it had gone to rest. Why did I look in? Later I took the wrong path, despite the vociferating tractor not far behind, and continued on into a pretty wood. I found two bloated sheep bodies in a pile of refuse, the smell of decomposition and manure, a bird calling me away. I stayed on that dead end through dampening ferns, long after the path had ended, and scaled a deer fence to return to the light, hard road of my map. George Monbiot in his book Feral calls sheep the white plague, and though I enjoyed their company on my way, I know what he means; I saw how they have stripped the earth, how we have used them too. We use the sheep in the same way that we use the land, and this will not change until we take the supremacy of profit away. Could use be more personal? I could carve needles from all these animal bones. I could weave myself a blanket from the wool I find lying by the way. I could look at sheep they way I look at small children and not as objects to be thrown away. These personal relationships must change for the landscape to change. For the world to be wild again we need to stop using it.
There were things that didn’t make sense on this walk. The way the land was divided, the fences and names. The signs that capercaillies get beheaded by deer fences, the deer fences that protect the newly planted trees; the wilderness that was not wild, the parks, the land management. It is as though the people who care for the land don’t talk to each other, don’t talk to the trees. In Aviemore I stayed in a hostel and rested, contemplating in this tourist station how we still divide and conquer the land, today as entertainment, how we buy gear to walk on it but not be of it, how we don’t see it.
From Aviemore I walked west on the East Highland Way. This is an unofficial walk, pieced together for the walker looking to stray from more frequently travelled highland ways. I’m not sure why it’s unofficial, or even why we have official walks and unofficial ones. It stretches to Fort William, west and to the sea, though most take it the other way, east and to the mountains. I walked through a changing landscape, from glen to moor and back again. Here there were homes for birds, and near Loch an Eilein the smallest ones greeted me, curiously, as one of their own. Many of the paths on this walk go through forests that have been planted, harvested, planted, harvested for years, in neat rows. One area of forest was alive one second, mossy, dark and damp, and next, an expanse of clear-cut, no bird song, no mushroom. Then the mushrooms were back, then the birds and squirrels came, then the machines stripped all that green down to grey again, leaving stumps and shards, the birds stayed away. The dead forest told this story and I felt the tree’s sense of time, of cycles, as though they were moving quickly before my eyes on the land. The land waited, the remaining trees mourning, holding the space of the dying, praying. I saw that trees pray, gathering round their stark, leafless, absent ones respectfully, as in a churchyard. Here the signs said ‘sustainable forestry’ and showed a picture of a red squirrel. I saw some play, on the Dava way, but none in those godforsaken landscapes of stumps and gouged earth, as I picked my way, sometimes off the path to get a better idea of what that death wanted to say. I sat among the devastation and spoke to the trees of what was happening in the world. They showed me patience, and endless dying, endless letting go, but also endless growing. All of it sang of wanting to be seen.
In Fort William I slept at the foot of Ben Nevis but didn’t climb it. So often our approach to the world is one of conquering, going up, going down, having done that, been there, seen this. Climbing the tallest peaks, mastering the terrain, knowing it without speaking to it, giving it a name. I let the mountain lie as I lay at its feet and felt its loneliness. In our desire for recreation in nature we have forgotten its speech. Later that summer a mountain climber spoke to me of the puzzle the cliff proposes, the logical pleasure derived from finding the path across its surface. That is how he described his connection to the mountains when I asked him to describe it for me, but I wanted to know how he communicated with the soul of the rock. He did not understand what I meant, and stayed on the surface, with his footholds and satisfied striving. I wanted the words to speak to him of what Jim Wohlpart has called ‘sacred reason’, that logic from the land which gracefully communicates purpose, wordless. So in Fort William, I went to a campsite in Glen Nevis and let the mountain be. I watched as the humans moved around its base and I left it dreaming. What does a mountain dream of? The sun set on it last. It glowed as small climbers could be seen still descending its side. I imagined the animals that would come out after nightfall to climb its now golden slope, still warm in the gloaming. Perhaps it was dreaming of them. I slept and dreamt of it.
Everything is sacred
That walk went through copse again, through glen, by lochs, through towns. I saw these things again, and left behind the crying pines, in turns. I came back to houses, cars and buses. I noticed that humans seem to only see what is closest to their bodies, as though this gear has replaced those outer signs of ourselves that would, that could, speak to us. Yet when one listens in, that speech is endless. The sounds of the Earth began to resonate within my body, as sending out my attention I take it in. It responded by showing me sacred places now forgotten, altars that had not received offerings for far too long. When I found one, I left something, leaf, water, stone. The sacred places seemed very literally to be calling to me, or to anyone who would listen, calling out to be remembered. Each time I got lost I made a magical discovery, a testament to the witch bones in my own body. Appropriately, near Kingussie, I lost my way climbing around a mountain and found myself scaling boulders up towards Witch’s Hill. The path was too challenging for the weight I was carrying, but before turning around, I came to an ancient cedar growing out of the crags and knew I had reached that detour’s destination. I had felt led to it, drawn as I had been by the moor, straying from my path. There it was, growing straight out of the cliff. Flat stones had been placed before it, making a small shelter in which I placed a flower, some water, a gift. Whenever I got lost, I always felt this pull that was something sacred wanting to be seen. I felt honored to be led by these invisible hands of the land. I felt how the Earth is dying to be held in our gaze, to be recognized as sacred, as part of our bodies, and I felt that my body was not separate from the land, that my feet were doing that which they were meant to do, that my hands were part sky, part sun, part skin and bone.
My walk turned to stone. I felt the slowness of Earth time, the cauldron of cave where things are mixed and stirred and the Earth magic is made. In answer to my fears and anxiety, my queries about this period of decay, a time of trials and endings, of death, I was shown that our small lives matter not at all, in the slow time of the eternal. In the span of Earth time, we are nothing, like ants crawling the earth – even the seriousness of our own destruction becomes insignificant. The mountains and caves will be here much longer than us, breathing, forming, the rocks alive in ways we can’t comprehend, so slow and deep. I bowed at its feet, at the foot of that cedar, on the shores of the lake, nameless and deep. I slept again and dreamt of my own roots going as deep. I wept on the path at my blindness and human desperation, at my incapacity to see so far and wide. The leaves washed away my tears, the silence my loneliness. I kept walking through my sadness in that slow time way, turning my worries over and leaving them behind. One morning I awoke after a sleepless cold night to frost on my tent in a glistening glen by a cool river. I learned of how the moisture changes with the lay of the land, how it gathers and settles in drops in certain vales, how the wind changes the temperature there. I waited for the sun to rise enough to dry my things and warm my bones before setting out again. I think this is the only time I was scared. There are no predators in Scotland anymore. My fear of the cold was strongest of all. In Fort William I bought a warmer sleeping bag.
Following the river
After Fort William, I took a bus back to Aviemore and started out on the more civilised Speyside Way to the sea. I put my tent up near an aspen tree and the leaves spoke to me. Another posted announcement told me the aspens were once thought to be like women, endlessly chatting, when in fact, it explained, the shaking was to keep the tender leaves intact, to shake off overly-invasive caterpillars. Where were now the men who named the language of the trees after these women who talked too much, who farmed and tended the land? On the walk I didn’t do much talking. Where were now the women whose speech the leaves mimicked, who copied the trees? In the silence after the farm I saw a deer running through woods. It stopped and looked at me. This place was still alive, though there was no longer anyone to see it. The informational boards on the path were old, the farm had clearly been sold. The trees spoke their communal history of connection with each other and with the land, especially in protected places like Abernethy Forest. These woods were quiet and thankful, peaceful and relieved. I also heaved a sigh of relief and sat on my bag in the path. No one would be going past and the moss was sweet.
I was closer to people here though, as I followed the winding path of the river to the sea. I talked to them. I had dinner in pubs and shared whisky. In Boat of Garten I met Barb and her husband, a proud self-proclaimed descendant of Celts, and they helped me on my way with a ride and a walk for a day without my backpack. Spey, she was a goddess, he told me, and the true name of the path is the Spey way, which is also the way of this goddess. Did you know that most rivers are named after goddesses? Their moving is magic, their life is endless, though a river can die. What happened to the days when we remembered this? For some reason I didn’t get in to swim. I watched her, the flicks of fish backs in the sun, the way she absorbed and gathered the drops of rain, but I especially heard and saw the way she brought the mountains home. Runners ran past me – an ultra-marathon – 36 hours to do what I did in three days. I watched their different bodies in the sun. They were running home too, in a different way, looking to stretch themselves towards something vaster, to be the animals they knew they were inside. My steps felt plodding, my toes began to feel constrained by days of shoes. I didn’t run. I counted miles and once regretted the previous night’s whisky sharing – ten miles feels like 20 on a hangover. Some of the rivers in Scotland, because of the peat and iron, look like whisky. They run towards the sea in their brown dresses, churning up a potent magic of their own. Would it taste like whisky too I wondered? I didn’t try it, but wondered if the first people who made whisky felt like they were drinking the river, bringing that strength into their bones.
Arriving at the sea
Eventually I reached the coast. Days before I felt the anticipation of it, as I walked with the stones towards home. I listened to the sound of the rocks that rolled down their bed in softness until, their rough edges now round, they returned to the sea. In the surf I could hear the sound of the stones going home.
I’m an ocean inside
my sweat is salty too
my heartbeat is the rhythm
of the waves my blood
hears the same call
of the moon which pulls
my liquid back home
my breath the air
my air the breath
of the sea.
My bones learned to move like the stones in the river, to rattle on and down, to become smooth and worn, to lie, then roll, going home. My last stretch went along the Moray Coast trail that runs along the bay towards Findhorn, which is where I had started my walk. I found more forgotten places and mountain bike paths, scratching through the earth. I watched people run with their dogs in the breakers and looked at the patterns the water made in the sand. I counted the sea birds that ran ahead of me and read their imprints. I walked between pools of salty water and cut through the harbor. I slept to the sound of the sea. I couldn’t wear my shoes anymore and walked the last two days in sandals. Every step was painful. Like the little mermaid, I paid the price for having two legs and feet. Afterwards, it was hard to sleep indoors again. It was difficult to know how to communicate what I had learned.
I am still reading signs, the signs of the land, and talking to trees, and discovering the life of the Earth beneath my feet. I can still feel the longing of the girl on the moor, of my bone walk, myself dying, along with all the rest. I learned to respect this thing called death. Maybe I am just here to witness this. The trees said it was time, as I sat with them, time to speak for them, that there was no more need to prepare for it. They said that there is life within this death time. They taught me not to be scared of the dark, nor of my own decomposition. Don’t take these endings personally. The Earth is neutral about death, non-judgmental. The sorrow is ours. I learned that it is alright to be broken on the moor. I’m thankful to the river for letting me cross. I’m thankful to the grass and to the moss for holding my feet. I’m thankful for every place that I safely sleep. I can look at the land that surrounds me, that is in me, that is not the environment, not nature, the land that is of myself. I want an ecology of the soul. The world and I leave our imprints on each other, bone and stone. We make love to each other. The two white moths by the river, the two white butterflies by the tomb. The heart stones. The earth is my body. I’m learning to to sing with my bones. I am learning to read the signs again.
George Monbiot, Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding, Allen Lane, 2013
A. James Wohlpart, Walking in the Land of Many Gods: Remembering Sacred Reason in Contemporary Environmental Literature, University of Georgia Press, 2013
Photographs taken by Amy Heneveld
Dark Mountain: Issue 12 – SANCTUM (PDF)
The Autumn 2017 edition is a special issue of essays and artwork on the theme of the sacred.Read more
Wow. That’s absolutely beautiful and much needed.