Words are powerful things. They conjure different responses and it’s relatively easy to mis-interpret an author’s meaning. I’ve had a hard time coming up with the words for this latest post, my weekend on Exmoor, as I feel some mis-interpretation may occur. The words I use are my own. They may mean something different to you. I shan’t try to explain my meanings.
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Some places leave their memory indelibly printed on your soul. Not picture memories you can replay in your head but an energy that spontaneously rises when you think about the place. For me, there are three: ancient, unfettered Kanangra Walls, timelessly mysterious Mossman Gorge and the wild joyfulness of Exmoor. They are felt and follow me round as three guardians, playmates and friends.
A connection to a landscape, a deep joining of the roots within my soul to the roots of the rocks and soils on which I stand, is always a deeply spiritual experience. It’s not often understood on the spot, as it were. The connection to Kanangra Walls didn’t settle for many years afterwards as lessons were learnt and tested. I have yet to understand on a conscious level the messages brought by a dip in Mossman Gorge. And now Exmoor, fresh and singing in my ears with the vividness of sunshine after a spring downpour.
I first experienced Exmoor on June 6th 2009. After a National Trust working holiday near Lynton on the north Devon coast I drove to Charmouth on the Dorset coast in the south. I chose the B roads. After a breezeless week of berry-browning sunshine clouds moved in from the west and dumped an entire sea on the road in front of me. I was wild with joy. This journey was free time, my time. No specific need to report anywhere. A limbo I hadn’t experienced since I was a child. The deliciousness of the lack of responsibility filled me to the brim.
I had to stop. Stocky ponies looked on quizzically as I bared my bottom putting on waterproofs and boots. The rain connected me more quickly to the land, running down my clothes to bare hands, dripping to the Earth – grounding, energising. I trusted my nose and my toes to carry me to where I ought to be. They know where to go, not often where expected but always where needed – through the scrub, I bog-squelched to a line of trees running along an ancient hedge.
Plump, water-logged sphagnum moss coated the trunks and branches. Vividly green, it looked cool and cleansing. My hand bounced off, enjoying the sensation again and again. Time stood still, the world ceased to exist. There was only the rain and the moss. I leaned forward, closed my eyes and put my forehead against the tree. The wild, dancing frenzied energy calmed and spread evenly, confidently through my body. I can still feel the soaked, springy moss on my forehead.
The roads brought me down from the hills, through agricultural land, villages and eventually the motorway network. I was sorry to reach it so soon and immediately wanted to return to Exmoor.
I didn’t get the chance until nearly a year later when the gorgeous Hen who weaves baskets invited me to stay on her 40-something acres of woodland regeneration land. I leapt at the chance. We already had a Twitter connection and knew we would probably get on IRL, as they say.
It was a smooth, easy journey despite the prevailing westerlies bringing buckets loads of rain that lasted nearly two days. The fields were soaked, the trees dripping but the bender dry and soon warm. A couple of sparks on birch bark got the kindling going quickly in the extremely efficient wood burner. We went for a walk. Silence is hard in waterproofs without moving at a true snail’s pace and wildlife (namely stags) were well out of sight.
Ancient, moss-covered tree hedges guided us down to the river at the bottom of the wooded valley. The energy became apparent immediately. This wasn’t the joyful, mischievous boy I recognised as Exmoor, this was softer, a nurturing energy like a warm blanket and mother’s breast – the water meadow a pace away younger, more sprite-like, a woman before motherhood. Hollow trees became fairy camps and entrances to secret worlds.
We ran, we walked, we stopped and looked at anything that caught our eye. We sauntered and chatted soaking up the rain and the beautiful moment. That night we carved, my first time but a wholly splendid first attempt. We shared journey stories, the routes we’d taken to be able to connect deeply with the world around us. We laughed, ate stew and dream-slept through the rain.
The next day, exploring more of the land through the wooded south-west slope the energy felt deeper, older somehow, a benevolent father telling bedtime stories of mystery and magic with the power to terrify and delight in equal measure. In a small clearing by an old badger sett we tapped a birch. The sap ran slowly and tasting had to wait till the next afternoon. It was worth the wait.
At dusk we made our quiet way along the ridge, stag hunting. They weren’t in the gorse as we hoped but across the valley in a neighbour’s field stood three magnificent beasts. They might have been barely discernible against the darkening hedge-lines but I was awestruck. Joyful Exmoor ponies blasted across the fields in pursuit, startling the stags that leapt into a field closer to the moors. They joined another five younger bucks and we watched for about 30 minutes as the “men” chatted and the ponies ran wildly through the lower fields. Molehill lines criss-crossed in the grazing pastures, the cloudy sky darkened. I was overwhelmed.
The power and energy of the stags, even way across the valley, mixed with the multitude of personalities I was finding within Exmoor crashed to the surface as hot, joyful tears of gratitude appeared. Not entirely unexpected when responding to a deeper connection but not one I often share in new company. Hen knew, and we shared our gratitude in eruptions of laughter.
That night the stars came out. For a moment I lost my bearings as the constellations fought to be seen through the myriad of lights that pricked the sky. A bright waxing crescent showed its dark side.
The next morning under a radiant blue sky the land glowed fresh and zingy. Out came the handmade longbow and arrows for my first go at pinging. There aren’t many sporty pursuits that I don’t take to, rock climbing and horse riding aside. I loved having a go at archery.
Seven bullseyes out of my first fifty shots might be considered beginner’s luck but I reckon I could do it again. Each bullseye was accompanied by a couple of steadying breaths and a blast of energy through the soles of my feet, connecting the Earth through me to the arrow and the target. Addictively satisfying.
Come time to go I didn’t want to leave. The bender with its wood burning stove was homely and replete with all things necessary to thrive off the land. It was comfortable. It felt like home. And Hen? Like a sister.
Our complex relationship to ourselves is mirrored in our relationship to the landscape. We are nurturing mother, benevolent father, joyful girl and mischievous boy but so is our landscape. These relationships within ourselves can be connected to and healed through the realisation that we and nature are one in the same thing. The relationships we yearn for are all around us. The Earth is our mother, father, brother, sister.
Our planet is the sole source of everything we need to live and sustain ourselves physically, emotionally and spiritually. We don’t often provide sustenance to our spiritual aspect, we have let it atrophy in our pursuit for physical fulfilment. And all it takes is a conscious walk in nature.
Next time you’re out and about, stop, just for a moment and feel the Earth beneath your feet. Breathe the energy in through your soles. It’s there, waiting for you. And it’s abundant.