From the archives: Land-longing again

I’m a hedgerider, and so there’s always another side.

I was just rereading what I wrote in my journal at Yule, before I fell into this enormous wallowing pit of despair. I was struggling then, too, but it wasn’t so killing, and I was finding ways through it. (Of course, I didn’t understand then about the winter going on and on and on – didn’t understand that Yule here *isn’t* the first motion away from winter – but still.) I decided to type it up and post it here so people can see the other side, see me building relation with the land here.

Yule 2010. I wonder if, when I started keeping a diary, I ever thought I would write that. Certainly I had no conception of being 30; certainly not of writing this living in Quebec. Life unfolds in strange ways; so much is lost, and so much is found. “Love is not a mountain; love is a wheel.”

It is growing dark outside, and snow lines the balconies of Mont-Royal. Behind me a couple are speaking French, the strange slurs and angles of Montreal.

And I am waiting for my love.

It is not that the joy of discovery outweighs the pain of loss; it is that it makes life full despite it. It renders pain bearable, another thorn of the twisted vine.

Somewhere above the snowclouds the stars are coming out. There was an eclipse last night, the moon full-shadowed. Only the second time in the Common Era that it’s happened at the Winter Solstice, though I couldn’t see it beyond the clouds. (And part of me is grateful for the clouds – they mean warmer weather, damp, none of the ice cold that cuts my lungs and makes me cough and ache.

I am learning the weather, the moods of the land. The bird I saw in trance long ago was a red-tailed hawk: common here, unknown in Europe. I have drummed and chanted below the ground with witches. I have poured a grateful offering to Athene and Aphrodite, sweet wine and rosewater on the banks of a river where the new ice grinds.

I have seen Skadi, in the shadows on the snow. Cold wolf-night and the snow glittering: did she follow the Norsemen here? Freyr and Freya will come in the spring, with the ice-melt.

I am relearning my gods. Their voices are different here, like the rough half-comprehensible French, and I must learn to turn my ear so I can hear them.

Christmas does not come here with stag horns and ivy, berried holly and ancient woods. It is all glitter and cheer, city lights, popcorn and candy cane. The songs are bouncy and American, snowmen and Santa Claus. I feel at times like an exile from an ancient land: back in the Old Country….

But my ancestors knew the snow, the cracking ice. The stars are ancient and familiar; it is the same moon that wears the earth’s shadow. There is a fierceness here, a need for survival. To linger may mean death, so we must help each other.

The icicles are daggers, as long as my arm. They threaten the street below, the slush and car lights. I am more ancient, says the winter.

The native voices are opaque to me. I try to learn the stories, but they are hidden. The footprint of genocide; blood beneath the snow. I do not know the animals, skunk and raccoon, chipmunk and coyote, a litany of Americana. The squirrels may be black or white, the blackbirds have red wings. The river is like a sea; at Pointe-Claire you cannot see the other side. Flat valley like a delta and strange sudden hills. In summer, the heat kills too. Feral cats come hungry to our door: we feed them, and the birds. A small community of the powerless.

There is so much snow. Inside is warm, cut off and lighted. Last night I opened the window, wrapped myself in a blanket, to watch the shadowed moon turn the snow-sky red, to breathe the charged and changing air. Here the homeless sleep in subway stations – the mad, the sick, the outcast, out of the killing cold. The dogs are thick-furred and curly-tailed: winter dogs.

In summer there will be pumpkins large as tables, piles of strawberries, peaches, plums: the soil still rich and bountiful. Apples, in autumn. Does the land love the people? It surely has no reason to love the incomers, the invaders, but a land may tame a people. Does it mourn the loss of its own? It cannot be inseparable from the farmers, the industrialists, the way my own is, made of their bones and the very isotopes of their flesh. How many here have dead lying in the land, these white people around me? One generation, two? They have their own Old Countries written in the lines of their faces; blood remembers. Canadian and Dutch, Canadian and Scottish, Canadian and Slovene, Canadian and French, strange compound identities.

The lights are dimming. The dead are in the air. And tonight the wheel turns back towards the light, the long sun, gyre and gyre again. The centre cannot hold, and so we must look outward from the centre. Look to the margins, fold them in like dough. There is no centre, and no circumference. All things are plural, multiple, seething complexity. The patterns in chaos terrify us all, here in the heart of Old Night.

We dance, we dance.

There is no One Story in which we live, and the story of this land is the same if I learn to look. To go out from the familiar is terrifying. I do not think of myself as brave. And yet what a chance I have taken, what a step into the void!

The wheel carries us up, out of the abyss. From formlessness is form created, becoming slowly clear in the growing light. The light here is fierce, white summer sun and snow-dazzle: it reveals truth. Do I dare to look?

I know the answer, now. I have learned to dare.


From the archives: Lost in Space

I’ve consciously shied away from writing anything much about the culture shock (and beyond-culture shock) that I’ve experienced living here. It’s too vast and amorphous, and thinking about it too much makes me feel overwhelmed. But I’m reaching the point where, combined with depression and circumstance, it *is* overwhelming me, so I think it’s good to get it down, out. I can only hope it’ll help.

There’s a lot of stuff that’s hard just on the day-to-day cultural level, from milk in bags to the level of oppositional sexism here, the greater expectation of masculinity. I reckon I could adapt to that shit, though, given time. That stuff’s easier. What really hurts me is much deeper than that.

I don’t know entirely how to explain it, cos some it I reckon’s stuff you either <i>get</i> or you don’t. And I’m afraid it’ll just seem…silly…to people who don’t get it. I’ll try to explain, though.

I grew up in the country. That’s a massive part of it, I think. Working with my dad and our gamekeeper-cum-poacher; I grew up with the cycle of days and seasons – not just Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring but the small subtle seasons of the land. This is when the dog’s mercury comes up, green creeping slow and then fast over the wood’s floor. This is when the oak leaves shade a darker green, dull and dusty, in the heavy summer sun. This is when the fallen leaves are first limned with frost and the air smells sharp and cold and wild.

I can tell you what grows where and with what, the hazel and ash and bramble, the grey willow and the bay willow, oak and honeysuckle and bracken. I know from the smell of the wind when the wood anemones, the windflowers, will start their pale unfurling in the shaws. When foxes scream in the night, I know if it’s a summoning yell or a warning or a territorial response. I can smell where the badger has passed, spot the cleft track of deer. I know how to lamp for rabbits and how to snare, how to coppice hazel, how to dig drainage with the lie of the land. I can spot where a hidden spring rises from the change in grass.

This is why I’m a witch. Not some kind of abstract conviction about the sanctity of nature, but because it’s what I’ve lived. When I first read about the Craft,  everything in me went yes because it was what I’ve always known is sacred, always been saturated with. The procession of festivals – of course they run like that. At Imbolc, the first buds are showing, first green awaking, the sheep heavy with lamb. At Beltane when you breathe in the woods your head spins with the smell of bluebells, wet leaves, damp earth and the sex-and-rot of hawthorn. The year tips at Lammas, leaves dark, fields shorn and golden where the harvest’s been brought home; dust in the air, and thunderstorms. And the dark time starts at Samhain, the dead time, through which I struggle on the edge of depressive collapse until spring comes back again.

My religion is my land.

My land, the ancestors, the stories. The air and ground are saturated with them. Stones carved ten thousand years ago, the Pilgrim’s Way where I hunted for snails as a child, all the stories and myths and histories I’ve learned and loved since I could first read and hear and understand. It may be hard to understand if you’re not a witch or pagan yourself, but my soul and my magic are rooted so deeply in the land, twisted so deeply with the reaching roots of the oak and the grasses, that I’m honestly not sure they can be pulled up without tearing me apart.

I’m a witch. I don’t talk about that much here, but it is core to who I am. And my magic and my spirituality come from my land, my ancestors, my stories. The source of my self and my power.

I feel like I’m being torn apart.

I never thought of myself as having a strong national identity before I moved here. I hate so much of what modern Britain stands for. I live with the shame of our vicious colonial history, and with what parts of our population do and continue to do to other parts, including groups I’m a part of. And then I came here, and my bones hurt. That’s how it feels, a constant ache that’s close to physical. A very real pain.

Here, the snow lasts five months, and I cough when I go outside, lungs aching. I take steroids so I can breathe enough to walk. -10 is a warm day. There can be snow on Mayday. And then the summer will come, hot and heavy and wet, lying on me like a blanket until I vomit and pass out.

The land here is beautiful. The snow is beautiful, even though it won’t fucking go away. The scope of the river steals my breath, the tall reeds, the red wings of the blackbird and the slow flight of the heron. I’ve learned the smell of skunk, the footprints of raccoons; the sound that ice makes before it breaks. I could learn to love it – I am learning to love it. I’m learning to speak its language. But I still hurt. It’s being apart from something I love so much that it’s not even separate from me. My skin hurts, my soul hurts. My gods are not here. I have no power here.

Everything in me says it should be spring now, the first beginnings of the waking year. Buds on the honeysuckle, green shoots, primroses. That first soft wind should be pulling me out of this miserable, murderous depression. And yet every time I look out of the window there’s white snow, white sky, white sun, and there will be for months.

Leaving my family didn’t hurt me, not like it would so many people. Leaving my land feels like it’s killing me.

That ,and the culture shock (and the bloody language, which is a whole ‘nother issue), and me being more disabled here because of the climate (and the French), and employment being so hard for me here, and the immigration issues, and…. It all knots together, a hard lump of pain in every breath. Nothing makes sense. And I get the feeling as I write that I’m not explaining it at all, not communicating it.

I love this city. It’s bloody amazing. I love my friends here, and above all I love my wife, the most incredible person I can imagine being lucky enough to spend my life with. There’s so much joy here, for me. Love that I never imagined. Acceptance, freedom. Beauty. Nights in drinking scotch and watching stupid reality tv, hanging out with amazing friends, walking in the street at Pride unpoliced and unafraid. And so I feel torn apart, that same physical pain.

I’m crying as I write this. I don’t know. I don’t know what to do.

From the archives: Hedge-Riding

Some years ago, as I was meditating, knitting and listening to music, working my way through the insomnia brought on by discontinuation syndrome from the last lot of failed seizure meds, the term hedgerider came to me as a description for myself. (And I found, upon researching all this, that other witches – mostly those with an English magic or Heathen background – are using the term for themselves.)

I was immediately reminded of friends and colleagues who describe their magical practice and their lives as edgewalking – a term which I’ve felt some identification with but which has never sat comfortably enough for me to claim it for myself. Because of my body and my history and my brain and my inclinations our culture places me in many liminal spaces, some of which I do not identify with and some of which I feel very deeply as mine. In a trance early in my magical practice, perhaps fifteen years ago, I learned that I am meant to be “a go-between”, a role I have embodied in many ways over the years. But even though I may live in or move in and out of or between liminal spaces, that image of edgewalking never felt like my own.

Perhaps it has something to do with one of my disabilities. Being deaf/HoH and dyspraxic, I’ve always had balance problems. I can’t reliably walk in a straight line down the street. I could never walk on balance beams in Gym at school.  And now I’m lamed too, walking with one stick or two.  To walk the knife’s edge…that’s not a metaphor I can feel in my bones. I don’t know what that feels like, to walk straight on that shining edge.

Riding, though: that I can do. I was put on ponies from the time I was a toddler, grew up riding. Riding the night, the storm, with the hunt: ancient images that speak to my soul.

And I grew up in a land of hedgerows, many of them 700 year old remnants of medieval field patterns. There have been hedgerows in my land since the Neolithic, and they have come and gone since: ancient hedges uprooted for the manorial field system, then returning the coming of the Enclosure Acts only to vanish again in the face of modern agriculture with its vast open fields. Ours were ancient: hawthorn, blackthorn, dog rose; holly and elder and the guelder rose that marks truly old hedges, grown through with straggles of brambles. They marked the turning year: the first hazy spring green of the edible bread-and-cheese hawthorn buds, foaming white with may blossom in the early summer, drooping with blackberries come autumn, and in winter bare dark bones between the faded fields.

I used to watch the hedging, learned the ancient words: the snedding, pleachers, brush and heatherings of true South of England style hedgelaying. I always wanted to learn it myself, though now I’ve moved to this hedgeless land I suppose I never will. That is the kind of work I could do happily with my hands, like the coppicing and clearing work I did over the summers, midge-stung and sunburned and rained upon.

And hedgerows aren’t simply a substitute for a fence; they are, as the UK Government advisors on nature conservation, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, point out: “the most significant wildlife habitat over large stretches of lowland UK and are an essential refuge for a great many woodland and farmland plants and animals.” The English Hedgerow Trust tells us that,

Hedgerows are the principal habitat for around 50 existing species of conservation concern in the UK, including 13 globally threatened or rapidly declining species (more than for most other key habitats). They are particularly important for butterflies and moths, farmland birds, bats and dormice… Over 600 plant species, 1500 insects, 65 birds and 20 mammals have been recorded at some time living or feeding in hedgerows. Over 100 species of invertebrates can be found in a typical 20-metre section of hedgerow… Hedgerows also act as wildlife corridors for many species, including reptiles and amphibians, allowing movement between other habitats.”<

They are communities, pathways, focii of the land. And they are boundaries: my field from yours, farmland from lanes, the domestic from the wild. The root of the word means enclosure; the hedge is the boundary between the known and the unknown. Like the hedgerow itself, natural growth shaped by human hands, it is a meeting of nature and culture, self and other: a marker of the line between this world and another. And unlike a wall, the hedge is not absolute: it is a permeable membrane through which things both animal and otherworldly pass.

Since at least the 16th century CE it has been associated with the outcast, the poor, the mean, the unwanted. And, of course, it has been associated with witches. Our word hag comes from an Old English term that has been argued to mean “hedge-rider”. (And I found, upon researching all this, that other witches – mostly those with an English magic or Heathen background – are using the term for themselves.) Associated with witches and ghosts, we may note as well in the perhaps-related Norwegian word tysja (fairy, crippled woman) a perceived link between the otherworldy and another class of being relegated by mainstream culture to the realm of the mean and vile: those of us who are disabled.

Like the bent pleachers of the hedge, meanings knot and twist together, grow into a living, thriving thing of many parts. And if we have the knowledge, we can straddle it with one foot in this world and one foot in that, ride it through the twilight in the smell of hawthorn and wet leaves. It’s not a comfortable ride. The twilight is not necessarily a comfortable place, and the hedge is knotted with thorns, with nettles, with the briar of the rose. But for those who have learned to be a part of the tangled community of the place between, it’s home, and it is beautiful. Unlike the knife’s sharp edge, it may prickle and sting but it will not cut your feet; those of us who cannot walk with balance may still ride, moving together with something growing, changing, and perpetually alive.