“That which is regarded with the greatest awe and wonder by indigenous, oral cultures is ... none other than what we view as nature itself. The deeply mysterious powers and entities with whom the shaman enters into a rapport are ultimately the same forces – the same plants, animals, forests and winds – that to literate, 'civilized' Europeans are just so much scenery, the pleasant backdrop of our more pressing human concerns.”
David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous
In a bend of the stream, I watch my children play, piling stones into the current, packing the spaces with mud scraped from the small bluff overhanging the channel. When the dam is finished, they are scouring the ground, faces pressed to the cropped turf, their noses tickled by the moth's-wing touch of bedstraw and tormentil, wild thyme and milkwort.
They have found a peace in being outdoors that has grown with them as they get older; an accommodation with the natural world which asks few questions, but sees patterns and rhythms which my adult, over-intellectual mind fails to discern.
When they were small, there was a favourite oak wood we visited often for walks; a downy burr of green cloaking the side of the fell, merging into bilberry and heather on the higher slopes. For reasons almost lost in the mists of family apocrypha, we called it 'the fairy wood': it was the place where the sharp-eyed could see woodland spirits among the trees. Six or seven years ago a violent winter storm ripped through the wood, topping many of the oaks, leaving the mossy floor scattered with twisted and splintered limbs. The pain was palpable, a loss of life which the children felt as deeply as any of us. Their relationship with that wood had become a spiritual one, going beyond aesthetics. They knew the spirit of the place, and it felt good.
Their attitude to the natural world, their sense of kin and being which turns any walk into a treat of exploration, was formed in their early, pre-literate years. When their minds were not clogged with books and words, when they thought in tones and rhythms, not sentences and the endless chatter which echoes in our western minds, they were most open to the epiphanies which nature offers. Their unforced sense of the numinous made our own outdoor trips more alive, more intense. They became our guides to a world we had seen previously only through tired, jaded eyes.
In traditional cultures, the role of intermediary with the natural world was fulfilled by the shaman; the one who lived at the edge of the village, both of and beyond the quotidian world of human concerns. It was the shaman who understood the healing properties of plants and herbs, who could read the weather and keep the wild scavengers at bay. To view the role of the shaman purely in terms of 'primitive magic' is to ignore the magic which is open to all of us, every day; it is the magic which is felt and understood by children when they are outdoors, remembered in their limbs in the way that birds remember their migration routes, or the way that trees remember the change in light and temperature which opens their new buds in spring.
In our culture, the shamans are still at the edge of the adult, human world. They are to be found making dams in the stream, following beetles across a log, or bringing our attention to the dew misting a spider's web, the uncommon shapes of clouds, the woodland spirits which move at the edge of our disbelieving vision.
“Do you remember, when you were first a child,
Nothing in the world seemed strange to you?
You perceived, for the first time, shapes already familiar,
And seeing, you knew that you have always known
The lichen on the rock, fern-leaves, the flowers of thyme,
As if the elements newly met in your body,
Caught up into the momentary vortex of your living”
Kathleen Raine, 'Message from home'