How often do we allow ourselves to stop and listen? To fully appreciate the call of the land, and the unfettered stirring of something far beyond our self to initiate change in our lives? We take two courses of action, either we cultivate the change and push through the challenges or, more often than not, we hold to the status quo, resist the change and wait for some calamity that then initiates the change whether we like it or not. I had a very uneasy relationship with change from a child, yet as an adolescent, I realised that change was like deity in my life, all-powerful and had the potential to wreak havoc or bring wondrous opportunities; I quickly needed to develop the Bardic skill of listening, with my heart, soul, body and eyes. For if I had listened, I would have heard the call and worked through the change. This led me to explore my relationship with the land, initially on the chalk downs of Kent, my spirituality leading me to understand the world much better through Paganism. For over the last 25 years I have explored my pagan spirituality through Druidry. Yet I have explored and been tutored in many other traditions from Shamanism and Spiritualism to Christianity and Witchcraft and with a toe dipped into Buddhism and Hinduism. However, it was only in the last few years, that something was truly stirring within me, a deep change looming.
For the past 20 years, I lived on the North Downs in Kent, having a deep affinity to the gentle rolling hills of chalk and flint, and the clay of the Weald and the Neolithic Tombs of the Medway valley. Here my craft was practiced, honed, matured and shared with a community both locally and nationally. The spirit of a grove held in the branches and roots of a woodland that echo its chalk roots; the ancestors who sung a story that was of my blood as well as my land; a childhood dreaming coming to fruition. So deeply connected to topography, geology and all the spirits that dwelt there, I found my place of eternal rest when my mortal days waned upon this journey. I resisted change, yet I courted it; with hindsight, I see this now more as maturing of a path and evolution of my soul journey. Suddenly, everything was shaken to it foundations, the gods calling for me to re-evaluate this spiritual path. I felt that I no longer found a place for myself amongst the wider pagan community, the labels of my journey felt a little restrictive, in one of my blogs I speak of it feeling like ‘Your best jumper that is now too small to fit. You squeeze into it as you love it so much, just as soon as you put it on, you feel restricted and you have to take it off again to breathe’. I distilled my thoughts and experiences of my practice and journey to four main features; Wildcraft, Animism, Folk-Herbalism and Bone-Singing. A journey that draws on all the spiritual teachings and experiences I had been exposed too, in a simple yet deeply connecting way, to Land, the Ancestors and the old gods that you encounter there. Placing Nature as my muse, teacher and provocateur, finding the stories of our ancestors in land and singing them alive once more, foraging and growing plants of folklore, history, healing and inspiration. The magic is the blending of these threads into patterns that allow me to follow spirals of initiation and new experiences, connecting to nature with reverence and honour. Wildcraft is the blending of teaching in Druidry, Shamanism, Traditional Witchcraft, an Animistic path of knowing the essence or spirit of mountain, moon, sun, stream, love, hunger and fear, finding the tools to build a relationship to these essences or spirits. As a folk-herbalist, exploring the power of plants, their spirit presences and the stories of their relationship with humanity from our distance past to the modern day. As a Bone Singer honouring the ancestral stories of blood, land and heritage and singing them alive once more so that they are honoured and remembered.
This stirring still continued, for it was also a yearning for a wilder place, somewhere the elements would be truly felt. A place that fed the hunger of wilderness within my soul. Clearly, an intention was set in motion, unconsciously at first and more conscious as the months progressed, for I was given the opportunity to relocate, through work, to the Lake District in Northern England. Working with ritual and meditation to ease my journey, my partner and I strode boldly out of the gentle chalk Downland of Kent to
the wild mountains and tarns of the Lake District. This was the next major process of stripping my spirituality to its bare bones. Arriving at Imbolc, in early February, I tentatively walked the land greeting the sprits there, offering prayers and gifts of wild rose petals, yarrow flowers and lavender, mead and bread. This was a beautifully strange place to arrive in; suddenly the elements were more vital, where in some way, surrounded by mountains you are at the disposal of the elements in all of nature’s beauty and brutality. My humanity screamed, and I tried to recreate what I had in Kent, only for it to be dashed and crushed as quickly as the rational thought sparked in my mind. Time was for a solitary path once more, time to reconnect, to study, to explore, to dream and to write. It felt that I had come full circle on the spiral of my spiritual evolution; here I was once again at the start of a journey, yet this time with a little more experience under my belt! Spring Equinox arrived and I consciously performed a symbolic ritual of cleansing, awakening me to acknowledge this new and exciting, scary and challenging new phase of my journey. By Beltane, I visited a local stone circle to celebrate the changing season alone; I remembered it had been 25 years since I celebrated a festival on my own. As I ambled into my first summer in the Lakes, I experienced an unusually hot and dry summer, for the Lakes are well known for rain. The water to the farm upon which we live, comes from a local spring and our cottage is a converted medieval Lakeland barn of local stone. Therefore, I literally bathe and drink the water from this wild land and living with the very rock of this land and its mountains. As the summer drew on, I had to be more and more conscious of the water, solidity, and coolness of my home.
Continuing with my pilgrimage to the spirit of my new homeland, I found a rather wonderful place to stop and commune with, just outside the village of Coniston. A small ravine of ancient Oak woodland, gently holding a Beck (a stream of Northern lands) at its centre. I stumbled upon a small oak grove with stones, carpeted in moss, and where ferns grow from trees, a remnant of Northern-Eurasian rainforest, so I am told. I would sit here and sing to the spirits, make offerings of petals, herbs, flowers, bread and mead. After a few visits, it seemed to envelope me, curious to my presence, but welcoming none the less. I have a deep affinity with trees, studying them academically and in my work within the country park in Kent, and within my spiritual practice. I expected a great working relationship with these ancient Oaks, Birch and Alder, yet it was the water, the Beck, calling the strongest, like a siren of the sea calling me in. After a period of rainfall, it is a torrent of power, in full summer heat it is a babbling, glistening stream. I started by sitting at the edge of the water, then gently dipping my fingertips into the water to bathe my brow. I was truly enchanted by the very power of that word. However, it was clear to me that this was not enough; I needed to immerse myself in these waters! The rational mind kicked in and I started to think and plan for areas of water that would be safe and secure to bathe in. I found nowhere, and with hindsight, why would I?
One evening I had what only could be described as a prophetic dream. I arrived in the small car park of my Oak moss grove, on reaching the Beck, I stripped off my clothes and bathed in the waters, secluded and alone save for the spirits of nature that resided there. I awoke with a clear sense of what and where I need to be and it was to be the hottest day of the year. I arrived at the same car park, very early in the morning, no one else around. I purposefully headed along the track to my Oak moss covered grove, stripped of my clothes and waded into the waters. I sang my prayers to the water spirits, as I sat down in the waters. The breath retreating from my lungs, telling myself to relax and I started my meditation, awaking my physical body to the physicality of the water and my spiritual body to the spirits of the water. I then laid back into the flowing stream and the most amazing connection occurred. I felt the water was literately flowing through me and I became one with the water. I have never felt such a connectedness to the natural world as I did in that moment. The water and I co-joined as one; I looked up at the tall oak branches above as the early morning sun’s rays filtered through. I was alive, the water was alive and we flowed as one. After some time I left the Beck, sat on the bank beneath a nearby oak tree, and just allowed the sun to dry my skin. I felt completely and utterly alive, awakened and beautifully connected to this place; I entered into communion that was beyond words or gestures, but by simply being, soul naked and true. The spiritual ecstasy that I had not felt for a long time was amazing and for the rest of day I felt totally connected to the wild land of my new home and energised, a new phase of my spiritual journey had begun. This would lead to a completely new way of working with the land and her waters, being naked, simply enhanced the exploration, connectedness and honouring of my ancestors, in some way I was offering my body and vulnerability to show respect and honour to the wildness.
If I were to be asked if I was a Naturist, I would have said no! Being a Naturist for me was about sharing a human community without any clothes. How narrow minded was I, what about being naked in the non-human community? Here I found the true understanding and it enhanced that which I have been practicing for many years, forming a sacred relationship with nature, as nature intended me to be. For me water holds the memory of land. To enter into a sacred relationship with wild bodies of water in Nature, deepens and strengthens a bond with the landscape, the ancestral stories of that land and ultimately acting as a liminal place to which, leads to the otherworld. When we do this soul naked and true, there is a vulnerability, a reverence and in some way a re-birthing – in my case to a new land and the spirits that dwell there.
This whole experience has started a journey, not only to connect more deeply and spirituality with the wilds of the Cumbrian landscape and the spirits that dwell there, but also the physical engagement of water itself. I had many a pilgrimage to explore the shrine tombs of our Neolithic ancestors, the ritual rings of stone and henges, the burial mounds and the places of transition between the Pagan religion and early Christianity. I knew the power of liminal spaces; the trilithons of Stonehenge, the meeting of shore and sea, the mountain and the tarn. However, it was a new experience for me to explore the liminal space of water. In true Celtic tradition, I gave this exploration a name, to give it birth and meaning, the Nature of Water Journey. By working with these liminal spaces, these bodies of water, within a liminal physical state of being without clothes, I have discovered through experience that these bodies of wild water are gateways to the Otherworld. Through this experience, here and now, yet inspired by the spiritual understanding of water from our spiritual heritage, folklore, dreaming and bathing within the tarns, the becks, the rivers of this wild land in the Lake District, I have started to be carried to the Otherworld via a different practice.
The Otherworld for me is a parallel space or place, to this world, but to which our mortal eyes are blind. However, there are these places upon the land, which act as liminal spaces and entrances to this realm. These I have found amongst the tarns, becks and lakes of my homeland. Exploring different bodies of water has shared different pathways to the otherworld and the spirits that dwell there. From the healing and magical to the challenging and sacrificial. Water is alive and has memory, carrying the memory of this wild land, but importantly, can also flow from the other world into this; we can conjoin with it and flow to the otherworld of dreaming. The realm of spirits, of guides and guardians, a place of wonder, magic, fear and challenges, it sings to a distant soul that once was, and now, in this reality, its awen is flowing through modern eyes and pale skin body. I found little evidence for pre-Christian water rituals other than how our ancestor engaged with water, through ritual deposits of goods of value or indeed the sacrificial victims or bones of the dead. Therefore, I set about crafting a ritual framework from the modern need to engage creatively with Nature, and the inspiration from our Ancestral perceptions of water has set me on a journey through these waters. Allowing the wild waters to sing their song through my soul, to dream of water and all that lies beyond, and to know more deeply the magic of this wild land, and the wilderness in my soul, all while I am soul naked and true.
I have finally learnt to listen when the land and waters call. Wrapped in a blanket of my spiritual expression, coloured by the past teachings and flavoured by this new wild land as my soul loosens it edges and blends with beck, tarn, mountain and hidden valleys, the bog myrtle, buzzard and rain in torrents and gentle caress upon shivering skin – in some way, the journey has just begun.
~ Rob Wilson
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