For those of you who may be interested, at the request of some of my students and course participants I’m beginning to make recordings of me telling some of my favourite stories and uploading them to SoundCloud. You’ll find a couple of sound files of stories which I’ve already written on this blog at the link below. I’ll be adding more from time to time; to keep up to date, please ‘like’ the Re-enchanting the Earth Facebook page, or sign up for my newsletter.
I’m excited to announce my first ‘Singing Over the Bones’ creative retreat for women in Donegal, next September. It’ll be at the beautiful premises of the art workshop Cló Ceardlann na gCnoc, just around the corner from where we’re going to be living. Please do read all about it here: http://reenchantingtheearth.com/singing-over-the-bones-21-27-september-2014-gortahork-donegal-ireland/
Robert Bringhurst is a Canadian poet and academic whose work I’ve referred to quite a bit in previous articles on this blog. A kind friend (thank you, Norma) recently sent me an old book of his poetry, Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music, and in its pages I found, in poem form, one of the saddest and most poignant stories I’ve ever come across. It’s a story that resonates with me now for many reasons, but not least because it is a story about giving without counting the cost, and that is such a relevant notion as we approach the consumer-driven lunacy of Christmas.
The story-poem resonates mostly, though, because I love Dog – not just as a creature who shares my life and my house (we are fortunate enough to have two working border collie sheepdogs, Nell and Fionn) but as an archetype, a totem animal – and not just as Dog, but as canine. And so I include in this Dog’s canine relations, Wolf (as you may have noticed from the many howling wolf images around this website) and Fox. Dog as a symbol of so much that is good and beautiful and true in the world has been with me ever since I was put in front of a television showing the old black-and-white movie ‘Lassie Come Home’ as a four-year-old, and sobbed so bitterly and for so long that I had to be carted off to the doctor.
Bringhurst’s poem about the story of Dog came back to my mind this weekend, after I’d just viewed the astonishing video ‘The Animal Communicator’, about the work of Anna Breytenbach. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch it free online while you still can: http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/11936/The-Animal-Communicator. Breytenbach’s experiences reminded me of how much we take for granted in our dealings with animals, and how little we appreciate their complexity. The video reminded me too of one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read about human-animal relationships, Mark Rowlands’ The Philosopher and the Wolf. Compared to wolves, Rowlands doesn’t think much of apes and their descendants, humans. Apes, he argues, are the only creatures whose intelligence is characterised by the need to understand our peers so that we can deceive them and use them for our own purposes. ‘When we talk about the superior intelligence of apes, we should bear in mind the terms of this comparison: apes are more intelligent than wolves because, ultimately, they are better schemers and deceivers than wolves.’
And this resonates deeply: we humans are so clever with our language, with our psychobabblish tricksy word-games and our Catch-22s and all the other ways in which language allows us to manipulate reality and each other. Language allows us to lie, to confuse, to confound our senses. To tie ourselves and others in knots so that we no longer know what is true. To me, as to Rowlands, there is a strong sense that Wolf, and Dog, are true. At least, that’s what they represent to me: the truth that is inherent in a wildness that stays close to the earth, just like the women who ‘run’ with them, as in Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ wonderful book, which is the inspiration for much of the psychology work I’ve done in the past and still do today. Nose to the ground, following the track, focusing on what is there, Wolf/Dog just carries on, staying alive, looking out for her pack. She’s not interested in playing games, and has little patience with bullshit. She doesn’t inhabit this human world of me-me-me – MY place in the world, MY territory, what I need … And so it is no surprise to me that in Bringhurst’s story, Dog is the creature who sacrifices his own gifts for the benefit of his humans. Time after time, he just heads on back to the old woman who made the world and, without counting the cost, says Grandmother, do you think you could give … and in the giving of those gifts to his humans, he gives the most precious thing of all: himself. In this story, Dog reminds us that this life isn’t about us, it’s about the world; it’s about others. It’s about giving, without scheming, or deceiving, or withholding and resenting, and above all, without counting the cost.
The story which follows is my version of that in Bringhurst’s poem (which in turn was derived from a native Canadian story), adapted to the places to which I belong, and in prose form.
The Story of Dog
The old woman who made the world had only just made it, and everything was strange and new. The wind picked up, and the sunlight cut through the air, and the old woman who made the world pitched her camp on a green meadow above the cliffs of a wild and rocky sea-coast, close to the edge, but not very far from the middle of things. She made a fire, and she looked around her; she looked at the world, and she said to her dog, Well, Dog, do you think it’ll do? And the dog said, Grandmother, yes. It’s the way I have always imagined a world might be. The spruce trees look like spruce trees, the mountain larches look like mountain larches, the balsam firs have the unmistakable odour of firs. But grandmother, these and the others seem to have places to be in the world. The rabbit, the red deer, the seal, the sea eagle and the pygmy shrew all have their places, like the mosses on the base of the trees at the edge of the meadow and the sage-green lichen clinging to the rocks by the shore. I’m the only one here, Grandmother, with no one to run from or run to, and I’m lonely in this world.
The old woman poked up the fire and sighed and said Dog, I will make you someone to love and look after, if that’s how it is. And she made men and women, then, as a gift, to cure the loneliness of the dog. And the dog said, Grandmother, thank you, and guided his humans out into the world.
The old woman sat there, thinking, alone in the meadow, tending her fire, watching the spring squill and tormentil sprout through the snow, and the milkwort and lesser celandine. A sea breeze whipped up, and she thought she saw something travelling across the valley, dodging the fallen-log bridges, sloshing through the burns and the lochans. The dog reappeared at the edge of the meadow and then trotted up close to the old woman’s fire, where he lay down and licked his paws.
You’re back for a visit already, said the old woman. Dog, is anything wrong?
The dog said, Grandmother, now that you ask me, yes. It’s those humans you gave me. They listen, you know, but they don’t seem to learn, and I came back to ask you to give them something I think they should have. Grandmother, please, would you teach them to speak? Would you teach them words, so they can tell one another their lies instead of keeping them secret?
The old woman took a burned stick from the fire and dug with it into the ground. She found a jagged, black stone, and washed it in the burn, and set it in the north end of the meadow. And then she said, Dog, that stone is the stone of speech and storytelling. Those humans will be able to say what they choose to say as long as it’s there. And no one I know would want to disturb it.
Grandmother, thank you, said the dog, and he turned and headed back through the valley to be with his humans again.
The old woman sat in the high meadow close to the edge but not too far from the middle of things. She watched the emergence of the kelp forests in the sea and saw the ripening willow buds on the trees at the far end of the meadow down towards the valley, and she listened to the wind. She watched the thrift and the self-heal and the butterwort, until one day she saw a way off, once again, a dark shape making its way across the grassy floor of the valley. The dog reappeared at the edge of the meadow and ambled up to the fire, his long tongue wet and dangling among the tall meadow grasses.
You’re back again, Dog. Is something wrong?
Grandmother, yes. It’s the humans again. You remember I asked you to teach them to talk? Well, now they just talk and talk all the time. It isn’t much, and yet it’s too much. Grandmother, please, would you teach them to laugh?
The old woman who made the world picked up a stick and poked at her fire and reached a little deeper down into the ground with her long, bony hand, and took a crooked, yellow stone and scrubbed it in the stream and set it in the east end of the meadow. Then she said, That stone, Dog, is the stone of laughter and the stone of dreams. Those humans will be able to laugh just fine, and maybe have a few new things to talk about too, when you see them again.
Thank you, said the dog, and he went right back to his humans again.
The old woman who made the world sat watching the purple heather begin to bloom, and the willow leaves turning yellow and red, and the fir scales floating down out of the firs, and then one day she saw something far off, moving slowly through the valley. It had four feet and a tail, and it was headed straight for the meadow. The dog came wearily up to the fire.
Here you are again, Dog, said the old woman. Is something still wrong?
Yes, Grandmother. You remember I asked you to teach them to talk and to laugh? Well, they talk and they laugh just fine, grandmother. No matter what happens, they keep on talking; no matter what their stories say, they just laugh.
Grandmother, please, would you teach them to cry?
The old woman who made the world looked a long time into the fire, and she sighed, and then she reached down deeply into the ground and found a smooth, grey pebble, and she cleaned it off in the stream. She set it in the south end of the meadow. And then she said, Dog, that stone is the stone of weeping and the stone of prayer, and those humans’ll have tears in their eyes when you see them again.
Thank you, said the dog, and he vanished into the trees at the far edge of the meadow and made his way back to his humans again.
The old woman who made the world sat in her camp in the meadow, listening to the wild geese honk in the darkness overhead, watching the golden plover busy among the stones in the shortening afternoon, and the flocks of blackbirds stripping the blaeberries bare. The first snow fell and melted, and after many days the old woman saw something slogging up the valley, through the leaf litter and new snow, breaking trail. The dog reappeared at the edge of the meadow and came and curled up close by the fire, chewing his paws.
You’ve been gone a bit longer this time, the old woman said, but you’re back so. How are the humans doing?
Better, Grandmother, said the dog, but something is missing.
The old woman who made the world stirred her fire and watched as the coals glowed pus-yellow, blood-red, bone-white and grey before finally turning black. Choose carefully, Dog, she said. Choose very carefully, Dog, because the circle is closing.
Grandmother, said the dog, heading up here today, wading through the deep snow, I knew what I wanted to ask. They sit and they talk and they laugh and sometimes now they cry, but something is missing still, Grandmother, something those humans need really badly. Grandmother, please, would you teach them to dance?
The old woman shifted a glowing log deep in the fire and reached down a great distance into the ground with her bony hand and grabbed a half-round, blood-red stone, and rubbed it with snowmelt and set it in the west end of the meadow. Then she sat back down by the side of the fire and shifted another log.
That stone, Dog, is the stone of dancing and the stone of song. Those humans can dance now, and sing. And they can talk and tell stories and laugh and dream and cry and pray, and I hope it is enough, because the circle is closed. And those were your gifts, Dog. They were yours, and you gave them away. And the circle is closed now, Dog; the circle is closed. Whatever those humans say from now on, you’ll only hear the pain and pleasure in the music of their voices. Soon you’ll forget you ever heard the words. Nothing now but barks and yips and howls will form in your throat. Now when they laugh, you’ll make no sound. They’ll weep, and you’ll whimper. Now when they dance, you’ll scamper between their legs. You’ll jump up and down, but the music will never enter your body. The words and the music and the tears and the laughter and the joy of the dance will all be theirs.
They owe you all this, Dog, and I somehow think they may never remember to thank you.
Adapted from Robert Bringhurst’s poem ‘Tending the Fire’, in Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music. It is based on a native Canadian story.
* The Gathering — An Trusach — is by my friend and ex-neighbour Celia Garbutt, and a print of it has pride of place in my kitchen. For more of her work, please visit this website: http://www.rhueart.co.uk/Artists/Celia%20Garbutt
When it comes to writing about place, there are certain books which so captured my imagination that I find myself referring to them time and again. Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places is one such book. The book emerged out of his anthropological studies of the Western Apache people, and it focuses on the ways in which place names are associated with stories which not only convey the history of these people, but which are used to illustrate good and appropriate ways of living and being. Basso’s story of the Western Apache people is primarily a story of place-making: of multiple acts both of historical remembering and transformational imagining which inform each other in complex ways. ‘If place-making is a way of constructing the past, a venerable means of doing human history, it is also a way of constructing social traditions and, in the process, personal and social identities. We are, in a sense, the place-worlds we imagine’, Basso tells us. And the stories – again, a mixture both of history and of imagination – which the Western Apache tell about specific places, inform their daily lives. ‘Knowledge of places is therefore closely linked to knowledge of the self, to grasping one’s position in the larger scheme of things, including one’s own community, and to securing a confident sense of who one is as a person.’
In this sense, Western Apache place-lore resembles a similar Irish concept, that of dinnseanchas, though it can be argued that the Western Apache variety is much more overtly focused on stories of place as methods for teaching societal mores and promoting certain ways of being in world, as well as offering a cultural history and associated sense of identity. ‘The land is always stalking people. The land makes people live right’, and ‘I recall stories of how it once was at that mountain. The stories told to me were like arrows. Elsewhere, hearing that mountain’s name, I see it. Its name is like a picture. Stories go to work on you like arrows. Stories make you live right. Stories make you replace yourself’, say members of the Western Apache community in Basso’s book.
The web of complex place-making woven by communities such as the Western Apache can only spring from a long and deep rootedness in place. And yet most of us now live in a world and a society from which that kind of rootedness seems to have long since disappeared, along with the sense of belonging that accompanies it. Does the idea of ‘place’ have anything to teach us, then, those of us who are more prone to moving on; those of us who are migratory birds? That sense of rootedness, of ‘digging in and digging deep’, is something I’ve written about on several occasions. But in spite of my admiration for the ability to root oneself in place, and wanderlust associated with Irish travelling genes apart, I have found myself throughout my life moving on from place to place much more frequently than I had ever planned. But this is not because I’m looking for the perfect place, just as I might once have thought of searching for the perfect love; rather, it’s because at each of those different stages in my life I’ve felt that different places have been needed. That different places – yes, the purely physical aspects of these places, as well as the various and varying human cultures that have been associated with them – have different things to teach me. And so in each place I’ve lived, for however long I’ve lived there, I’ve found myself for the duration of that stay digging as deeply into it as I can. Because this is another way in which we can learn the lessons of place, whether we’re inclined to rootedness or not, and whether we can derive a sense of belonging and identity from the places in which we stay or not.
Yes, I have come to believe strongly in the lessons of place. And so, as we prepare to leave this wild and extreme land which we currently inhabit in the Outer Hebrides, and to head next spring for the Gaeltacht of Donegal in north-west Ireland, I have been very focused on what I have learned from this place, and on the results of that learning. I’m exploring both what drew me here at the time, and also the precise reasons why I feel it necessary now to leave it, and move on. Because this won’t be an easy place to leave. I have merged so deeply with the old rocky bones of this place – and of one specific wild coastal location in particular – that I have sometimes feared I would myself turn to stone, sink right into this hardest of all landscapes of gneiss and schist, become it once and for all.
But that is precisely the problem, and precisely the learning which must be taken away.
It’s hard to explain, but in a curious way it’s all to do with elements. Yes, those elements: air, water, earth, and fire. As Meg, the elderly storyteller from the islands, says in The Long Delirious Burning Blue: ‘everyone has their element: the element to which they are drawn, to which they are bound.’ In the novel, my character Cat is drawn to air, and the lightness and crisp clarity she finds in flying; she struggles with the idea of earth, and associates it with heaviness: ‘Everything is so simple up there. Just you, and the sky, and the will to survive. Everything comes down to this: you balance on a knife-edge but it’s a clear, clean cut and what bleeds away is doubt … I am immunising myself against the earth and all that would weigh me down.’ In contrast, her mother Laura is drawn to water: to the sea and seals and selkie-stories. For me, it has always been air and water, and in particular that misty liminal place where one becomes the other – what is usually referred to as ‘the distance’. And so it’s not surprising either that it was those grand mergings of sea and sky which led me to this beautiful place on the edge of the known world – or that it was the extremity of the cold, old hard earth which in the end almost broke me.
I’ve written before (see ‘Stone Teller: extracting stories from stones‘) about the location which I call simply ‘The Rocky Place’. Vast fields of metamorphic rock pierced with rock-pools sweep down to the sea, with cleanly carved cliffs behind. Here it is again:
It’s hard to get a sense of the scale of it from a photograph, but it goes on and on. And it’s filled with treasures of the imagination, all of which spring from the stories I’ve constructed about this place. (Here is one such tentative storied photographic journey.)
But the stories that this place mostly evokes for me, and which haunt my own newer imaginings, are the old stories. These are the stories which exist both in Scottish and Irish mythology, and which tell of the old Celtic goddess of the land in her two aspects: Brighid (or Bride in the Hebrides, who was later Christianised by the church as St Bridget or St Bride) and the hard, stony blue-faced Cailleach (the Gaelic word for old woman, crone or hag). One version of the story says that the old woman of winter, the Cailleach, dies and is reborn as Brighid the spring maiden on the old festival day of Imbolc (February 1). She is fragile at first, but grows stronger each day as the sun rekindles its fire, and turns scarcity into abundance. But as winter approaches and the light begins to fade she weakens again, and her sister the Cailleach begins to awaken. And by the old festival of Samhain (November 1) it is the Cailleach who rules this season, and Brighid who sleeps quietly in the hills. There are many stories about this battle for the seasons which takes place between Brighid and the Cailleach, but they can clearly be seen as two aspects of life in balance, of the need for both darkness and light, summer and winter, the cyclical nature of the world.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, it was the image and symbology of the Cailleach which interested me most as I tried to root myself in this unfertile, rocky land. Indeed, in the old mythologies she is in some sense a personification of land like this. She is associated with mountains and large hills, which she is said to have created (in some stories, to have formed from stones dropped from her apron) to serve as her stepping stones as she dances across the land, bringing winter in her wake. There are a number of locations in Scotland in which the silhouette of the reclining Cailleach can be seen in the shapes of specific mountains or ranges. The best-known of them is probably Lewis’ ‘Sleeping Beauty’ mountain (known in Gaelic as Cailleach na Mointeach – the old woman of the moors), but many others exist. There is one in the mountains to the east of our house, and I look out at her every day from the window of my study. Here she is, looking away from us, arm flung back and up above her head, burning in a midsummer sunset:
There is also a silhouette of the Cailleach in the Rocky Place, though it is a standing silhouette rather than reclining. Appropriately so, because we know from the old stories that it is in places like this that the Cailleach stands and stares out to sea, perhaps looking for her husband the Bodach, otherwise known as Manannan, the sea-god. (As a digression, what is interesting about this photograph is that you can see both the silhouette of an old woman with a hard, chiselled profile, facing left, and the face of a man, larger and full-on, just to the right of her. You have to stand back to see it, but once you see it, it’s there forever and you may well find yourself switching interchangeably between the two. He has a very short nose and a very large space between the nose and his upper lip, and his left eye is lower than his right. David pointed this out to me the first time I showed it to him, and it gave me some comfort to think that although I had seen her as a solitary figure in this harsh place, maybe her husband the sea-god is there with her, after all …)
Such locations and the stories associated with them – both those that are old, and those that are new, of my own making – bind me to this place, and whether I stay or go, and in whatever shape or form I might emerge, I will always carry them with me and they will in some sense bind me here. They may be stories, by which we often mean fiction, but they make the place more real to me, not less. They give it texture, layers, meaning … and both through these stories and through the direct physical experience of living in the places from which they spring, I am taught many lessons.
The lessons? Well, when we moved to this place in the spring of 2012, it was exactly what we were looking for. We had had enough of the world, and of what passed for civilisation. We wanted not only remote but remotest; we wanted fewer people, fewer frills. We wanted instead to dig ourselves deeply into the land, to be with, stand with and to witness what remained of one of Britain’s last wild places. And so we came here, to one of the most beautiful and remote places on this part of the planet. We had found exactly what we thought we needed back then, and we immersed ourselves in it – David in his rocky, boggy fields and his fencing and his farm animals, and me in my beloved bogs and my hidden rocky places by the sea, trying all the while to create the Garden of Eden in a place with poorly drained acid soil that bears the full brunt of salt-laden prevailing south and westerly gales. Both of us were by nature creatures of air and water, but we tried to transform ourselves into creatures of this harsh, bleak, old, stony, solitary piece of stunningly beautiful earth. We learned to live without trees and fertile ground and green grass. We learned to live without people. We turned inwards into ourselves and into the land, all the while believing in some strange fashion that we were turning outwards.
I immersed myself in those stories of the Cailleach, a solitary old woman carved out of age-old gneiss. It was the utterly magical Rocky Place to which I was drawn time after time, and which in some strange (but beautiful) way I came to believe defined me. Here, I have become Cailleach for a time; I have become Storm; I have listened to the stories of stones – some of the oldest stones on the planet. I have stood for long periods of time by the side of that silhouetted Cailleach in the Rocky Place and stared out to sea with her, imagining the long ages and the unyielding rock and the unending power of the sea. I have learned about endurance. I have learned about standing – and more than I ever wanted to know about making a stand. I have learned about digging in, and for sure I have learned about digging too deep.
From a cultural perspective, I have learned other things too – though in truth, I think they’re probably the same things. I learned that the pendulum of our lives had swung too far: that I do after all need other people – and in particular, real, live, in-the-flesh people who I can talk to about words and stories and music and art. I have learned that for all its failures and horrors, for all the things that I find abhorrent in this civilisation, I am nevertheless a human being and human culture is something I can’t seem entirely to eschew. I have remembered that the Cailleach, for all her seemingly harsh ways, danced her way across the mountains even as she brought the onset of winter, and I have remembered that I too have always loved to dance. But I have learned above all else that it is good and fine and very probably necessary to be out of your element for a time – but yes, only for a time. I have learned that I am not after all a creature of rock, or stone. I am not gneiss. I am still a spirit of air and water: mutable, changeable, transforming. And when you dig yourself too deeply into an element that is not your natural element – as I dug myself into this hard, dour, peaty earth – then if you are very, very lucky it will spit you out rather than swallow you up.
It was a close thing, but she spat me out. Back to the horizon, and the distance; back to that clear light place where water meets sky, moving on, fluid, transforming, migrating.
And so the idea of migration is uppermost in my mind right now. And migration is informing my writing, which has been stagnant for too long, and which is dancing its way back to life in new forms: always a prose writer by instinct, I seem to have fallen into poetry. I’m especially glad during this new migratory phase to be involved in a collaborative project on this very subject of migrations, organised by a wonderful new friend, Tasmanian artist Desirée Fitzgibbon. The project, towards infinite horizons, is ‘a celebration of islands, migratory species, vessels and journeys across the seas with artists, poets, writers, storytellers, migrants, performers and seafarers’ which will culminate in an event at the Australian Wooden Boat Festival in Tasmania in February 2015. A new poem, Peregrina, is my first contribution to the project.
The truth is, I’ve often written about migrations. The Long Delirious Burning Blue is about many things, but it is very much about migrations and transformations. A few years ago I wrote a handful of short poetic prose pieces (not quite prose poems; I’m not really sure into which genre they might fit) about migrating sea-creatures: eels and salmon and sea trout (see for example, ‘Here’, which I posted recently and which was originally published in Waterlog). Clearly, it’s been a preoccupation for many years. But there’s still a strong part of me which hopes to find itself beached up in a place where it’s possible to settle and stay forever. And a part of me now that fears it, too; as if the end of migrating might become the end of transformation and of fluidity … But I don’t think that is necessarily so. Whether or not we plan to go on learning new lessons of place through all of our days, in ongoing wanderings and wayfarings, or whether we hope finally to come to rest on some richly textured meant-to-be shore, maybe the best lesson of place is simply the lesson of how, and how not, to be. Something we can carry with us, wherever we might go, or wherever we might stay.
Sometimes – though there is a strong argument that as a psychologist I should know better – I make the mistake of thinking that there are only so many transformations a person can or should make in their life without looking like an adventure-junkie, or a fool. Sometimes I think that once you’ve had a couple of good serious old-fashioned midlife crises, you really ought to be a bit more grown-up, and learn to settle, to stay put. But then sometimes there’s a shift in the air, a scent on the wind, a shadow on the water … and off I go again, looking to shed another skin and see what might grow in its place. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to emerge out of my own choices, but from someone else’s actions, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or whatever. But wherever it springs from, somewhere along the difficult and painful journey into the darkest woods that is a necessary part of any shedding of skins, I get a sniff of a scent and off I pad down a new trail, wolfpelt prickling with excitement.
And so yes, there now comes a new adventure. Those of you who are regular visitors to this blog will know that this has been a difficult year in many ways, though of course only a small number of our stories can or should ever publically be told. It’s been a difficult year especially on the croft, and as our work around EarthLines has grown and my own writing and narrative psychology work has expanded again and David has been deeply embroiled in community crofting activities, we came to a point in the middle of the summer where we recognised that we were living too many fulltime lives simultaneously, and that something, or possibly everything, had to give.
Everything gave – or almost everything. And so it is that we have emerged from that crisis of faith and meaning and decided to move on from this beautiful place, sell our croft, and head off again with our eyes seemingly always set on the distant western horizon, to Ireland.
There are threads here, to be unravelled. Threads of my own weaving that now I’m trying to follow back to their origin. To explain why it is that I can be so deeply rooted in a place, and so deeply love it, and yet often find it easy to move on. My mother usually laughs when I say that, and reminds me that one set of my great-grandparents were Irish travelling folk. Including the notorious Jimmy Dunne, who fathered thirteen children on his first wife until she died finally, giving birth to the last of them, and then fathered thirteen more on his second wife, my great-grandmother. Irish genes are strong, she’ll remind me, and sometimes indeed it does seem so. And I was brought up with an Irishman for a stepfather, brought up on rebel songs and poetry and stories which seemed to spring directly from that Celtic Otherworld which was so vividly alive in my imagination. I was 31 years old before finally I set foot in Ireland, though it wasn’t for want of yearning in all the years in between, and I gave up my job and moved there the following year. How do you explain that strong an attachment to the idea of a place? For all my fine words, I have no idea. It simply is. And so I lived in Connemara for four years, both full-time and part-time, and when I left, fleeing an increasingly lunatic first husband, I left behind a big chunk of myself both rooted and fossilised in those gloriously windswept bogs.
David and I moved here to the Outer Hebrides in 2010. We didn’t know when we first came house- and croft-hunting that we were going to move here; we were just looking for somewhere – anywhere – remote from a world and a civilisation that seemed to be growing increasingly pathological with every year that went by. And as we drove for the first time down the long winding road to Uig from Stornoway to see this house that we would eventually end up buying, at a certain point in the journey I sat up straight and said to David, ‘It’s just like Connemara!’ – and then I began to feel at home. Everything that I have loved about this landscape, I loved first in Ireland. Everything in my life has, does, and I suspect always will, point me back there. Not necessarily to Connemara; right now my heart tells me Donegal. But either way, my compass is still very clearly pointing west.
And so I move from wondering whether I’m not simply a serial rooter-in-place, with gypsy genes too dominant for my own good, to a sense that no – maybe there really is sometimes just one place in the world for each of us where we can truly feel at home, where we can truly belong. It’s a humbling idea, because I’ve argued against it in my own writing – not least in a recent long article I wrote for EarthLines on the subject, which you can read here. I find myself – literally, in some ways! – all at sea. But after all, isn’t that part of the adventure? To be able, even after 52 years on the planet, to overturn deeply held ideas on the strength of a sudden flash of insight? To be able to let go of precisely the thing that you thought defined you, and follow the new path of understanding wherever it might take you?
I don’t know any more about place, but I do know about belonging, and belonging isn’t just about place but about culture. It is an Irish culture that has always drawn me, and that always will – the culture that I grew up with, a culture that oozed music and poetry and laughter. Which was a culture of exile in many senses, and was never rooted in the reality of the present-day country until I came finally to buy an old tumble-down stone cottage in a Connemara bog in 1993. And a culture to which I will return and find that after these difficult economic years the reality of the present-day country will have shifted again, and again I will not know it. But I will know something that is more important: something fundamental, something that endures in the fields and the hills and the sea and the stone. And I will know for sure that however strange it might seem, it is a place where I seem to belong.
And so everything will change, and yet some things will not. EarthLines will endure, and I believe will be all the richer for the move. My own work will endure and my courses and my writing, and I believe they too will be richer for the move. But some things will not. We will never again try to run two or even three full-time lives in parallel, and smallholding to the extent that we embraced it should always have been a single full-time job. Livestock are tying and all-consuming, and we found that to our cost. So in future it will be a vegetable garden and a herb garden and a few hens. And time to write, and to be.
In so many ways this is a move that runs deep; it is also very much about a return to a world which I seemed to need to abandon for a while way back in 2010. I’ve written before about the importance of the Return part of the Hero’s Journey, about how a Retreat must always be followed by a Return, and for sure this is no simple return in the sense of going backwards. It is rather a Return in the sense of bringing something back into the community and the world – something precious hewn out of ancient, solid Lewissian gneiss during that necessary stay in the shadowy caves of the Underworld.
I’ll be sorrier than I can say to leave this beautiful place. But I hope we’ll pass on the house and the croft to someone who will care for it, and the sea and the mountains, as much as we have. And on that note, if any of you feel able to pass on the news that a beautiful croft by the sea in the far reaches of the Outer Hebrides is now for sale, I would be very grateful! You can find more information here: http://hebrideancroft.wordpress.com/
The Seven Of Pentacles
By Marge Piercy
Under a sky the color of pea soup
she is looking at her work growing away there
actively, thickly like grapevines or pole beans
as things grow in the real world, slowly enough.
If you tend them properly, if you mulch, if you water,
if you provide birds that eat insects a home and winter food,
if the sun shines and you pick off caterpillars,
if the praying mantis comes and the ladybugs and the bees,
then the plants flourish, but at their own internal clock.
Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what is happening.
More than half the tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.
Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet.
Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree.
Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden.
Gnaw in the dark and use the sun to make sugar.
Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: make love that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,
a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us
interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.
Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen:
reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.
This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,
for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting,
after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.
In Darwin, Australia in May of this year the World Indigenous Network held a conference. It brought together 1400 indigenous leaders from around the world to explore ways of standing up to the ongoing industrialisation of indigenous lands around the planet. One of the delegates and speakers was a Canadian called Eric Young, who gave a keynote speech about a story entitled The Magic Canoe (see below for the story) as a metaphor for social transformation. Eric Young is a kind of social change pioneer; he was one of a small circle of people who were associated in the 1990s with efforts by the Haisla First Nation and Ecotrust to protect the Kitlope, a large area of old-growth forest in northern British Columbia. He initiated one of the world’s first social innovation think-tanks a number of years ago and was recently appointed a distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University and is currently developing a new vehicle for social change known as The Boldness Project.
Here, in a recent article about The Magic Canoe, is what Young says about the need for stories like this: ‘”The 21st Century is a battle for narrative,” Young says. “In the developed world, we are not only running out of resources, we are running out of narrative. We’ve come to believe that we live in an economy and that our entire well-being depends on that.” On the contrary, Young believes – and he says this was amply on view in Australia and in the reaction that The Magic Canoe got at the conference there – “story matters profoundly. People (in Darwin) were captivated by the sense of possibility in The Magic Canoe. My hunch that there is something universal and archetypal in this story was borne out.”‘
You can find a PDF of one of Young’s speeches about The Magic Canoe from 2007 online here. Here’s what he says about it:
“Let me tell you a story. It is set in a place called the Kitlope River – which is located up on the BC coast, not far from the border with Alaska. It is a place of wild and extraordinary beauty, remote and accessible only by water. The Kitlope and the lands that surround it constitute the largest intact coastal temperate rainforest on the planet. This is the ancestral and spiritual homeland of the Haisla people. The story involves a man I’ve come to call my friend. His name is Cecil Paul. He is 75 years old and Chief of the Whale Clan. He was born on the Kitlope when there were only a handful of families still living there. The rest had been wiped out by epidemics of flu and smallpox, or had relocated to the village of Kitimat. When he was a young boy, Cecil was plucked from the Kitlope by the residential school program. As if being taken from his family, his culture and the only world he knew wasn’t cruel enough, he was also subjected to prolonged and terrible abuse (all under the guise of that strategy whose proclaimed purpose was to “Canadianize the savages”). Broken by this experience, Cecil eventually made his way to Vancouver where, for the next thirty years, he became a drunk, living on the streets. The kind of person we see – with shaming regularity – in cities across Canada. It is not just their shame. But ours. We may turn a blind eye. We may feel pity. We may even feel a desire to help. But what we don’t do is to imagine the potential for power there. The power to transform their own lives, let alone the lives of their communities. But that’s exactly what Cecil did. At some point – and with considerable difficulty – he made his way from the streets of Vancouver back up to the Kitlope. He said he felt a calling (from his ancestors) that broke through the alcoholic haze. There were no people living on the Kitlope now. Cecil sat there alone for days – maybe weeks. And finally resolved to give up alcohol to assume his role and responsibilities in the community. But, understandably, the community was pretty dysfunctional, many of its members suffering from a legacy similar to Cecil’s. In 1990, Cecil discovered surveyors’ markings, indicating that a logging road was about to be cut into the territory. The logging company held the license for this part of BC, and they were operating within their rights. But this was a nightmare come true. Even though logging would mean jobs and money for the community, Cecil realized that it would do irreparable ecological harm and destroy the spiritual foundation of the Haisla. The story of what happened over the next four years is long and complex and involves many players. There isn’t the time to relate it here. But this is key:
At first there was just Cecil. As he describes it, “I was alone in a canoe. But it was a magical canoe. It was a magical canoe because there was room for everyone who wanted to come into it, to paddle together. The currents against us were very strong. But I believed we could reach our destination. And that we had to for our survival.” Not everyone agreed. The community was divided. The appeal of jobs and money was strong. For many, the chance to address immediate and pressing needs took precedence over the vaguer argument for existential needs. Short-term interests seemed more compelling than long-term dreams. But even where there wasn’t disagreement, there was a pervasive sense of defeatism. A sense that the community had no capacity – and no authority – to stand up to more powerful forces. To change the inevitable. But Cecil held to his ambitious dream. He won over the elected chief who joined him in his canoe. Then another member of the community. Then another. Though there were still divisions, more and more people began to align. To paddle together – with as Cecil says, “new hope in their hearts, as though they were waking from a long slumber”. Eventually they attracted the attention – and then the support – of an environmental organization called Ecotrust. They got to Mike Harcourt, who was premier of BC at the time. There was no simple political solution to saving the Kitlope, but he joined the canoe. Then, astonishingly, so did a man named Hank Ketchum. He was the CEO of the logging company. Swayed by an understanding of his company’s potential impact on the future of the place and the people, he announced that the company would voluntarily relinquish their logging rights to the territory (which comprised almost 800 000 acres) without condition and without compensation. In 1994, the territory was designated the Kitlope Heritage Conservancy, assuring protection in perpetuity for the largest coastal temperate rainforest remaining on earth. Saving the Kitlope was a big thing. A big, improbable victory for the place the Haisla call home, and for the future. I had the opportunity to visit the Kitlope once in the presence of Cecil and was waxing on with great enthusiasm about what had been accomplished there. Cecil looked at me with this wise, patient smile of his – he possesses the greatest moral authority of just about anyone I’ve ever met – and said, “You know, you guys call it ‘the Kitlope’. But in our language we call it ‘Huchsduwachsdu Nuyem Jees’. That means ‘land of the milky blue waters and the sacred stories contained in this place’. You think it’s a victory because we saved the land. But what we really saved is our heritage – our stories which are embedded in this place and couldn’t survive without it and contain all our wisdom for living.”
Young says of the magic canoe that it is “A vessel that can accommodate everyone who wants to come on board. That somehow becomes an attractor that draws people in. That aligns energy and thereby gains power. So that it can be paddled successfully against the current.”
We’re going to need more stories like this as we stand together in these difficult times and try to carve out new ways of approaching the future. It’s about building what Young calls ‘a culture of creativity’, rather than a culture of despair and defeat. It’s about preserving the heritage and the culture and the languages and the places. It’s about digging inside ourselves to find the strength and the resources to move forward with hope and with love and never, ever to give up.