Connecting with the land and each other. Reflections from an Earth Dialogue on the South Downs with Charlotte Du Cann of the Dark Mountain Project
We’re walking back from our morning recce and discussing how I’m going to introduce the Earth Dialogue she’s running for us at Saddlescombe Farm on the South Downs.
Part discussion, part encounter, part perception exercise, an Earth Dialogue is a way of connecting with the land using your heart and your felt sense, not your thinking mind.
So although I’ve discovered Saddlescombe was mentioned in the Domesday Book and later managed by the Knights Templar, Charlotte doesn’t want me to talk about that, or any other historical facts that could get in the way of the information people might pick up from the land for themselves.
We do want them to get a feeling for this place though, so when it comes to it I paint a picture of the history of the rolling chalk grassland that surrounds us: 60 million years ago southern England was deep underwater, the chalk hills forming as billions of plankton died and fell to the sea floor.
The short springy turf on top of the chalk coming much later - just a few thousand years ago - when we humans first cleared trees for sheep grazing, and aided by browsing rabbits.
An ex-fashion editor, Charlotte is one of the well-respected Dark Mountain team, she has a confidence and a warm, keen intelligence. She’s also a powerful presenter, and a quirky whirlwind of energy. She gets that from the land she tells me.
Dark Mountain is a creative response to the current challenging times of collapse, and is redefining the stories embedded in our culture, shaping what a successful and good life on Earth could look like.
It’s not airy-fairy though, there are sharp minds involved, and Charlotte is one.
The challenge of now, Charlotte throws in when we’re all done, is to make wherever we are feel like home.
That gets us thinking.
She invites one of our group to light the beeswax candle in the middle of a circle of eight stones, an ancient clock that Charlotte’s set up on the floor in front of us.
An Earth Dialogue is about connecting with a place, but it’s also about connecting with time - the real time of the cycles of sun, moon, and earth, the equinoxes and solstices, the seasons that affect the rhythm of our lives.
In contrast to the way we try to live these days: endless growth, eternal youth, and 24-7 culture, real time includes a cycle of decay, so that new things can come into being.
The stones in the clock represent key moments in this cycle. It's not a coincidence that today is just a few days after the Celtic festival of Imbolc, the time of emergence when life is quickening in the soil, ready to burst through at the start of Spring just a few weeks away.
It’s a time of excitement, and stirring. The end of winter is approaching.
An Earth Dialogue is about listening to this, and it’s also about sensing the memory that’s held in the land.
We’re given instruction on how to connect.
“Feel the ground with your feet, the tingling is the earth’s energy, then feel your heart… go inwards… then boof… expand outwards to what you hear and what you see, and what you feel about this land, and this sky.
“See what you notice, and what you sense. The birds, the trees, other beings…
“We’re not normally aware of it, but nature is sending messages back and forth, like the mycelium that connect trees under the ground, passing information and energy from one to another. Everything is shifting and adjusting depending on what’s needed.
“Notice how everything interacts: the birds, the trees, the wind.
“See if you can get a sense of the energy of the place.
“You might even have a conversation with some of the beings. If you’re quiet and open, a tree or a bird might speak to you, in a word, or a sentence, or it could be quite chatty.
“This is two-way, it’s a communication not a meditation,” says Charlotte forcefully, gesturing from her heart.
“Of course your head, your thinking mind, might get in the way, but put that to one side and come back to your feet and your heart. And expand out with your senses again.”
“Got that?” she asks. We nod.
The sun is out. It’s a fresh clear day.
I sit on a slope by a small elder tree next to a sheep track, and watch crows joyfully flit across the sky. Cloud shadows wash across the forest of bare trees on the slope opposite.
When the sun comes out it warms my back, and lights up the luminous lime green lichen covering the elder.
I tune in and feel a fleeting sadness, then two gliders speed silently through the clear blue sky over head, taking my attention with them.
The elder tree looks asleep but as I look more closely, I notice one, then two, then tens of fresh red buds on its branches. The tree is waking from its winter slumber and life is about to burst forth.
Nothing is what it first seems.
I want to find stillness here but I’m agitated. The traffic from the nearby road is jarring in the cold air. The tree is making noises too. I feel it trying to get my attention. “I have to deal with this every day,” it’s saying.
I smile wryly but sense its frustration. The cars… us… humans… seem oblivious of the natural order, moving around and carrying on about our business without noticing our impact on the land and its beings.
From the road, is nature just a pretty backdrop to our busy lives?
It’s time we joined in.
I get up and look closer at the elder. The bark around the base of its trunk is worn smooth. “Sheep,” it tells me.
After an hour Charlotte calls us in.
A fox walked right in front of one of the group, a rabbit in its mouth (that reminds me of another story on here.)
Someone has seen a pair of Goldcrests, quite rare these days.
Someone else has been feeling their grief in the chalk, another found support in the seat of a tree.
A few have been watching the clouds scud across the sky.
There’s grief and joy, irritation and wonder. And lots of noticing.
Meaning starts to appear. A few words. Lots of trees. Birds. Representations of feelings, encounters, stories of above and below ground.
Charlotte gets us to talk about it. Her unbridled enthusiasm is infectious. “This is what we need to do to ground our experience. Make something, talk about it. It’s important. It’s what we’re here to do.”
We stop and eat, and chat some more, til all too soon it’s time to go.
“Tugged at my heartstrings on lots of levels. A beautifully connecting experience,” wrote one of the group afterwards.
The room is buzzy and I can tell we all feel a bit more at home in this place.
And I didn’t even mention the Domesday Book.