Updated: Mar 24, 2018
By Angharad Wynne, June 15 2015
Someone once told me that before mankind could read words our minds were attuned to reading landscape, drawing forth from it the layered histories and mythologies invested in it over millennia. I’d like to believe this, and also that in attuning the human brain to forming and deciphering letters, that not all of our ability to read landscape was lost. I’d like to think that something of that skill is still available to us, if only we can cultivate and nurture it, keep an open mind and have faith in the possibility that the earth beneath our feet is still to be engaged with in a profound way.
“The act of imagining or dreaming enables us to offer our own contribution to the landscape’s story, to invest a new layer of meaning within it. This is traditionally the role of dreamers, of sensitives, of artists and writers, but it is open to anyone willing to try.”
Our early hunter-gatherer ancestors must have relied heavily on their ability to read landscape for their very survival. Their understanding and knowledge of the broad and varied terrains travelled to follow wild herds, and the berry and root harvests, must have established an impressive body of lore handed down from generation to generation. Add to this a deeper guidance on how to live in balance within that landscape, so that the tribes could take what they needed to survive, but not too much so as to disrupt the ecosystem and jeopardise future food supplies, and the first teaching stories begin to emerge. Add wonder at the cycle of life to the mix, awe at the changing seasons, daylight, darkness, birth, death and regeneration, and we glimpse the genesis of the first deities. Soon stories become mythologies, chants become songs, and together they become the basis of each tribe’s philosophy. They formed guiding cosmologies, an aid to navigate the inner and outer pathways of the land, to live in harmony with it and to reverence each patch of earth upon which they subsisted during different times of the year. Perhaps this is how that which the Aboriginal nations of Australia call ‘the dreaming’ was formed.
Most of us will have a bond with some childhood landscape. It is usually developed through memories created in that place, of what we learned about it, our associations with it, and the marks we’ve left upon it. My most cherished childhood landscape is the fields and woods around Fachros Farm where my father was raised and where three generations of our family farmed. The home field and the orchard were places resonant with the touch and toil of my ancestors. As a child, they were magical places to explore, to share with loved cousins my own age, to imagine worlds within these few acres that only we inhabited. Then, in the summer months, the home field was shorn to stubble and golden hay and straw baled. Friends and family would gather to bring in the hay harvest on an old cart that had come with my grandmother upon her marriage, from the farm she was raised, a few miles away over the hill. In the woods that flanked the home fields, my cousins and I carved our initials with penknife blades, alongside those of our parents and grandparents, on the gnarled trunk of a particularly fine oak. Perhaps the impulse to do so was not really that different to the early farmers of the Neolithic who, having settled on a patch of land, left their mark in standing stones, earth enclosures and burial chambers. Just like my cousins and I, these early tribes were finding a way to express connection with land, mark a continuation of ancestral line on the landscape, of leaving a sign that this patch of earth was important. Just like us, they were expressing that they were bound to it in some profound way, that they belonged with it.
“It requires the uniquely human act of imagining to make a bridge into the past, to empathise with those who have gone before and touch a shared experience of human interrelationship with earth, with land and landscape, and ultimately to find our own place within that dreaming.”
From about eight years old I regularly walked hills and mountains with local Rambler and the Welsh Cymdeithas Edward Llwyd organisations. Every stop for a drink or a packed lunch involved the sharing of knowledge about the landscape – and, what delighted me most as a child – a story or legend born of that particular place. Looking back, I can see that these stories, this sharing of knowledge and understanding of the landscape, transformed a walk amongst vast moorland and hill ranges, spectacular mountains and spume whipped coastlines, into something altogether different. It gave me a connection to land, a way of engaging with it in a deep and immersive way. These were keys to getting hold of unfamiliar territory and becoming entwined with it on a molecular level, because that kind of contact has profound effects, physically, emotionally, psychologically.
I headed to university in search of stories and a deeper understanding of mankind’s interaction with landscape, taking a degree in English Literature, specialising in Anglo Saxon, middle English and creative writing, alongside archaeology. It fed me for three years, inspiring me, deepening my knowledge and understanding, informing insights and transforming my relationship with this land. I immersed myself in old stories, great mythological cycles of Britain and learning to read the lumps and bumps, stones and structures that we encounter in our landscapes. I discovered what archaeological findings might suggest about our ancestors’ beliefs, their lives, their interrelationship with nature. It also gave me an appreciation that prehistoric findings alone will never tell us all we want to know. They are at best pointers, co-ordinates that map out a space into which theories and ideas about the lives of our ancestors arise.
An appreciation of stories, folklore and traditions and some knowledge of history and archaeology are great tools to have, but to my mind, there is one even greater. That is an open mind, or perhaps rather an ability and willingness to dream, to be open to whispers, subtle inspiration and hunches; to be silent enough to just be with a patch of land, to let it seep into you, to grasp silver strands of potential stories, fragile as spider webs, and yet, meaningful, impactful.
To do so is to become part of the ‘dreaming’, part of an ancient but almost forgotten heritage of reading, listening and honouring the landscape. Importantly, this act of imagining or dreaming enables us to offer our own contribution to the landscape’s story, to invest a new layer of meaning within it. This is traditionally the role of dreamers, of sensitives, of artists and writers, but it is open to anyone willing to try. This is how we draw the stories from the land so that we can re-story it here in Britain, where the fabric of our native ‘dreaming’ is fragmented and tattered. We cannot ever know all the stores that were born from this landscape, so many are utterly lost to us, but that is not to say that we cannot invest it with more.
If we are to re-story our land, and find deeper connection with it, then with a little help from archaeology, and while honouring the stories we know, there is an absolute need for a little dreaming. It is only through imagination and listening to the landscape and the resonances left by ancestors upon it, that we can plug into the story of human interaction with our wild places and nearby spaces, and flow with the timeless tides of shared human interrelationship and reverence for the land.
When looking at the scant remains of a settlement, or the naked stones of a burial chamber, it can be difficult to appreciate that these places were once vibrant with sense of belonging, tradition and shared memory. That was the context of carving my initials on the oak in Fachros’ woods. With the passage of time of course, such human sensations are utterly lost. My carved initials will become meaningless, and I anonymous in a few generations time. The carvings will become curious marks left for a generation as yet unborn to ponder at. My hope, however, is that if anyone does pause to wonder at them, that they’ll dream and imagine their way towards a story of what happened long ago in a wood by the edge of a field; that they’ll strive to connect with the humanity of the act, not just the text-book historical and archaeological explanation for it. Because it requires the uniquely human act of imagining to make a bridge into the past, to empathise with those who have gone before and touch a shared experience of human interrelationship with earth, with land and landscape, and ultimately to find our own place within that dreaming.
Members of the Dreaming The Land team regularly organise walks, retreats and pilgrimages across some of Britain’s most resonant landscapes with aim of dreaming, re-storying and honouring our ancient places and wild spaces. If you’d like to find out more about the forthcoming pilgrimage across Anglesey, exploring the ‘Druid Isle’ or about the 2015 Dreaming the Land Retreat: The Poet’s Stone (coming up in September) led by Angharad and Eric, please have a look at www.dreamingtheland.com