This little piece of writing was originally written for the University of Glasgow’s excellent blog The City of Lost Books.
At the Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic, I spoke about how mass extinction and climate crisis intensify the need to open ourselves to the wild intelligence of place, allowing the rocks, rivers, winds, and wild others to speak through our stories.
In her keynote, Terri Windling spoke about this in depth, and her closing passage stuck with me.
“An occupational hazard for the solitary writer is to live in the realm of the mind alone (or the shadowlands of the Internet), and not in the body, the senses, the wild rhythms of the local groundscape we each inhabit, whether rural or urban. For many of us in the fantasy field, the wild world is the very place that we seek to conjure and enter through stories and paintings — and so we must not neglect our relationship with the elemental wild around us. In our kind of work, “magic” is not a metaphor for gaining power, control, or authority, but for our numinous connection with the natural world, and our nonhuman neighbours. It is wild work. It is soul work. And we need wild stories right now, more than ever.”
As someone with a desire to write wild stories, I have spent too many hours in the shadowlands of the Internet. I have used it as an anaesthetic for grief and fear, and all the other shadows that live in me.
Well it just won’t do. I need to have more courage. Starting today, I’m going to immerse myself in wild places. An occasional stroll in the woods has not been enough. I need to go deeper.
Day 1 – A Hidden Dell
There are three small rivers that run through the woods next to my house. One of these streams possesses hundreds of the moss-covered stones I love so much.
I followed the stream the other day, and found a secluded dell hidden amidst the oak, ash and birch trees, with a pool and a small waterfall.
This is the spot I’ve chosen to get to know in intimate detail. If I immerse myself in this place with enough consistency, then perhaps I’ll find some of the wild source material I’m looking for.
Night I – A Moonlit Pool
From high on the slope, the stream is a patch of darkness hunkered in the lesser darkness of the surrounding dell. If it wasn’t for the healthy trickle of water, then that thick vein of shadow could easily be bottomless rift.
As I get down close, things change.
In the pool’s dark surface, the moon is illuminating a procession of clouds, heading north on a steady wind. Water boatmen are gliding across the mottled cloudscape, silver lips encircling the contact points between their feet and the pool’s surface.
There’s a root digging into my chest, so I shift position, and the moon in the river is drawn out into a quivering silver scarab by the turbulence of the falling water, dimming as a veil of clouds draws over it.
When this happens, the silhouetted canopy of ash and oak pushes itself out from the dark of the sky; thousands of shifting leaves, black against the moonlit cloud-curtain.
I lie back on the ground and allow myself to relax into the moment. It feels good to be here, with the stream splashing merrily away.
At the Symposium, Dr Saeko Yazaki was telling me about how Japan is covered in shrines for Kami – nature gods – and how the many numinous pockets of the British Isles felt a little naked without any shrines. I confessed a desire to make a small shrine of my own, as a way of entering into a conversation with my local cosmos.
It is here, on this shelf of slanted rock at the top of the little waterfall, that I will make the shrine.
Day II – A River Shrine
In the dappled morning light, I ask the stream for permission to begin the shrine. My question feels empty, so I kneel on the soil, bow my head, and ask again, this time not with words, but with the silent language of my body’s longing to connect – to be engaged in a conversation with this ancient little river.
My rational mind tells me this is somewhat ridiculous – that the stream and its dell have no idea I’m even here. Then I remember how many billions of living organisms reside in a pinch of the soil beneath my feet. Can they feel my body’s weight, or the warmth seeping out of my hands? Can the mycelium sense my footfalls? And what do they tell the trees? Are these grasses, ferns, moss and leaves breathing in my out-breath, or are my exhalations carried away in the breeze? I don’t know what this stream and its dell knows, but I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt.
I take off my boots, socks, and roll my trouser legs up. If I want to become indigenous to this land then I have to be willing to get wet.
It feels a bit rude to go shifting the river’s stones around without first getting to know them, and perhaps, strange as it sounds, asking for permission. Even if the river can’t give me a written notice to validate the rearrangement of its stones, it still feels right to ask.
I take a few deep breaths and look around at the rocks inhabiting the stream.
My eyes fall upon a curved, lichen-speckled boulder, with clumps of grass growing out of it. After spending a few minutes paying attention to the stone, I ask if it would like to be part of my little shrine.
If I were born into a culture that perceived the land as sentient, then perhaps the rock would answer me. But I’m not, and it doesn’t.
I imagine a Native American elder disapproving of my decision to lift this stone from the riverbed when it didn’t give permission. I know I’m disturbing the homes of many small creatures, including the mosses, lichen, slime moulds, beetle larvae and the bacteria that live inside the rock, but screw it. I’m avaricious, like No-Face from Spirited Away, and this is a lovely plump rock that will do nicely in the shrine. I pluck it out from the river bed and shamble over to the waterfall.
An hour later, there is flat base of stones resting on the slanting shelf of bedrock. It’s far squarer than I wanted it to be, which is a little disappointing, since curvature feels essential. I’ll have to use smaller, rounder stones on the other layers. Still, there is an opening at either end of the shrine’s foundations for water to flow through, and it feels good to at least have that.
Night II – River’s Voice
No moon tonight.
Everything feels thicker – the sky, the undergrowth, the air, the darkness.
My wife, Laurie, and Robin, my baby son, are both away tonight, and I’m feeling their absence.
I don’t want to do any meditation or experimental exercises – I just want to sit in the river’s company and listen.
I listen as closely as I can, and begin to realise that the river has unpronounceable phonemes. It speaks them three at a time, continually – a babbling incantation that goes on and on. Not even a Mongolian throat singer can do that.
The silver splashes, the under-gurgles and the steady trickle of water flowing through the mouth of the unfinished shrine; together, these water-notes are the river’s voice.
Nothing. Just the slow building of familiarity.
Night IV – Speaking in Movement
The river is always in motion, but since coming here I’ve been fairly static, so my work tonight is to move.
I stand up and allow the river’s voice to urge my body into a fluid little dance. Spritely water-notes spill up to me as I sway over the river, then fade, becoming deeper, more subterranean tones as the dense bank comes between me and the water.
This discovery, that simple movement can reveal hidden dimensions of the river, is a reminder that I need to get outside my comfort zone more often.
Day III – Shrine Making
I slip into the woods before breakfast and spend an hour building the shrine. Nothing special happens. I just move stones, and the shrine grows. It is starting to take on the curvature I wanted. One more session will do it.
Night V – Talking to the River
The practice of speaking out loud to a place is something I’ve tried before and never really managed to get into.
Tonight is different. Once I begin speaking, the words come tumbling out.
I confess to the river that each time I come here, I want something profound to happen – a sublime moment or insight. In speaking this thought, I realise that I’m putting too much pressure on our friendship. We’ve only been getting to know each other for the last week or so. Deep friendship will require patience and consistency.
‘What am I?’ I ask the river. ‘This creature with two legs, a beating heart, a den made of bricks, and bills to pay.’
As I stare at the tumbling stream, I’m re-minded that my body is mostly water. My body and the river’s are made of much of the same stuff! How did I forget this?
The vast community of bacteria living inside me, and the intricate constellations of human cells can all trace their lineage back to the ocean. A common home to a common ancestor I share with every single creature living in this river and its neck of the woods.
I speak these thoughts to the river, and begin to feel more at home. A sense of kinship is growing.
An hour passes, with me babbling on at great length as thoughts and ideas pour out of me, but when it comes time to leave, something strange happens.
As I climb along the slope, the river’s voice recedes, and with it, my ability to speak.
I could force it, if I really wanted to, but I’m stepping into less familiar terrain now, and to speak out loud would feel like going up to a group of strangers in a train station and pouring out my darkest secrets.
It was only inside the familiar ambit of the dell that it felt safe to speak. The tumbling, splashing eloquence of the river’s voice coaxed out my words, and now that it’s gone, I’ve fallen silent.
Day IV – A ‘Finished’ Shrine
I’ve been worrying that the shrine will look ugly when it’s done and will be difficult to finish, but it comes together with ease this morning.
I remove the massive round stone that was sticking out brutishly, and just about manage to lift it onto the shrine’s lid.
It looks like a head now, looking downstream, and its ‘headness’ makes the rest of the shrine look like the squat round body an ancient creature, not quite human. What would happen if I imagined myself into the body of this shrine? What would it see? What would it know? If it could stand up and walk around at night, where would it go, and why?
I want to stay and let the shrine speak, but deadlines are approaching, and I still need to type up my notes for this post, so I greet the shrine with a bow, and head back to the house.
My conversations with this little river are changing me.
Its voice guides me in each night and gives me solace, wild dreams, and source material for work.
A place has opened up inside me, from knowing that there is somewhere I can go which invites a conversation with my local cosmos.
I feel anchored. I’ve left the shadowlands of the Internet. I’ve spent many hours in the woods, but now I’ve finally entered them.
And they’ve entered me.
As someone with a desire to write the kind of fantasy which ignites a wild participation in the planet’s story, having tap-roots in the local cosmos feels vital, so I’ll keep going to my little shrine.
The work is just beginning.