I grew up in rural Kent in the 70’s with the freedom to roam a hundred acres of woods and fields teeming with birds, butterflies and mammals. That hornbeam-chestnut place, with it’s iron rich streams, became and has remained my axis mundi. I have returned year after year, spending time sleeping on the ground, hunkering in the lee of grandfather oak in driving rainstorms, living off blackberries and sorrel leaves, tracking the growing number of fallow and roe deer, getting to know them as individuals, and watching generations of foxes come and go. In 1987 an old coppiced chestnut tree fell across a deep gully and became the bridge I used to enter ancient badger territory. I watched the slow decay of that tree over decades, until it finally crumbled into the stream last year. This is native knowledge of place: it takes a lifetime. I feel so fortunate to have had this opportunity, to know what it is to be connected to one place. To me this is indigeny.
In 1999 I moved as far away from my home place as is possible on this Earth: New Zealand. Ah, the grief! No oak trees, no badgers, no foxes, no barn owls, no crows, and an utterly different dawn chorus. Now I started to understand what it is like for people who have never had connection to land: the great wall of green loomed above me, a myriad plants whose names would never sing to me in the way names like Ash, Rowan, Stitchwort and Shaggy Inkcap do, the ones I learnt in childhood held magic. And yet I started to teach nature connection there - they say we teach what we need to learn, and I tried hard to connect with that foreign land, to belong.
The Maori words Tangata Whenua mean People of the Land, it refers to the local people of the place. Whenua - Land - also translates as Placenta. People are connected to their place by an umbilical cord, and the land feeds them. My cord was stretched half way round the world; but it was an honour to witness a culture whose language was still so strongly rooted in the land. There, hunting and fishing and tending a garden as a way to feed the family is still part of life for many, so while bringing up my kids, I absorbed something of the old way.
But the cord was elastic, and in 2014 my motherland called me back, not to Kent but to Devon (with which I’d forged a strong rope as a teenager). The mountains and rivers of New Zealand had wilded me too much to settle for the home counties, so now I live perched in an ancient oak forest above the River Dart. Most days I walk this wide hillside, tracking red deer through the denser thickets, listening for the peregrine in the rocky places, gathering chestnuts and acorns, paying attention to bent grasses and birdcalls, and grateful every day for the glorious unfolding drama of the turning of the seasons. The land holds me unconditionally, I belong.
The Old Way yearlong program, for me, is about returning to this trusting relationship with the land: if I love and respect, take only as much as I need, and work to preserve the wild habitats, there will always be abundance. Hunter-gatherer peoples’ relationship to land is like the child-parent relationship: unconditional. While there are times of scarcity, there is no fear of real lack because the land will provide another source of food higher up the valley, or down at the coast, all we need to do is travel lightly and shift camp, always leaving it better than we found it.
And laugh and sing: the Mbendjele people of the Congo say that when the forest hears laughter and singing, it wants to be abundant. I will happily add my voice to that joyful chorus.