How to Use the Land as a Mirror: Lessons from a Mysterious Medicine Walk on the South Downs
Saddlescombe Farm nestles in the shadow of the South Downs
October. Outside the sun is shining and the air is clean and fresh. Inside, ten of us are sitting in a circle on the floor. It's a hard floor, but we’re on cushions, the woodburner is alight and no one is complaining.
We’re here at Saddlescombe Farm in the shadow of the South Downs for a Medicine Walk and Council, a ceremonial solo journey into the 'Mystery', a way of staying open to the land so that it can be a mirror for your inner landscape.
After a slow take-up over the last few weeks the event is full, and as we settle in, our guide, Rebecca Card, calmly explains what we’ll be doing today.
When she’s finished, one by one it’s our turn to speak.
As I listen to the others share their stories so that we can each find our own theme for the day, I'm surprised at everyone's willingness to talk openly about what's going on in their lives, and I feel a bit of an inner tussle: as organiser, I feel cautious about how much to share, as participant I want to say more.
When it’s my turn I also notice a familiar nervousness in front of groups, and in my first attempt I waffle, not quite knowing how to articulate what I’m feeling.
The morning has already started a little weirdly. There have been two last minute cancellations due to illness - we’ve found someone to fill one space but she’s worried about getting here on time - and my head is full of that and the small stresses and responsibilities of making sure the day runs smoothly. Plus there’s no mobile reception. And I’ve forgotten to bring milk.
I think back to earlier in the day: while Rebecca is setting up the room, I go outside to help guide people to the hall. Saddlescombe is part of the National Trust and as walkers and visitors turn up, I'm unsure if they’re here for us or not. I'm also mildly irritated that we won’t have the whole area to ourselves.
The gate I choose as threshold. There's a ladybird on the back of it
As I wait outside in the sun, a line of 15 runners jog down the hill towards me. As they come through the gate, they look as if they are going to stop. I wonder if there's another event going on at the same time, in the same place, and as this thought crosses my mind, the runner at the front of the line looks at me and says: "Have you put the kettle on?”
For a moment I’m completely thrown.
What? …Could they be in the same hall? ...Has there been some mistake?
Er… it slowly sinks in that she’s joking, but her question hangs in the air, reminding me about the details that I may have missed, and that I need to take care of the participants.
“Yes, but not for you,” I tell her.
It’s her turn to be thrown, and she turns away, leading the line of joggers back through the gate and up the hill, to continue their morning run.
In our second round of sharing I tell the others this story, they laugh, and it helps me feel my way into the day. Rebecca smiles and suggests that the Mystery is already working.
When we’ve all shared our stories, and have received gentle guidance from Rebecca on what to work with, we head off to the land for the medicine walk.
"Do something different, notice what feels uncomfortable, what feels right... Choose somewhere as a threshold to start and finish," she advises.
I hang back to allow the others to head off and then walk out, using the black metal gate that marks the entrance to the venue as my threshold.
As I walk through it I spot a large orange ladybird. I smile. I’ve been thinking about ladybirds these last few days after some large bites appeared on my head - in my research into what could have caused them, surprisingly ladybirds are included in the list of potential suspects.
I pick the ladybird up to have a closer look at its jaws. The bites have been bothering me for days now, but it’s hard to believe a ladybird could be responsible so I make friends with this one, then gently blow it off my hand into the meadow opposite.
An interesting start.
The sun is still shining and I take off through the farm buildings, along a path that runs eastwards, past three tied cottages and up onto the South Downs Way.
Just past the cottages at the entrance to some woods, gently falling leaves spiral slowly down from a tall tree. Yellow and brown. Autumn is here.
Walking towards it and through a gate, I fall in behind David, one of the medicine walk participants. The path splits - he takes the right, up through the woods, I go left, across a sloping open field.
As the path rises up, I spot an orange bucket in the middle of the grass. My heart sinks. Cows. Or maybe a bull. But with Rebecca’s advice not to indulge our usual behaviour, instead of avoiding it, I walk straight to the bucket. It’s empty. Phew. Likely no large animals in this field today.
I continue on. Up on my right is a small cluster of hawthorns and I can see a tree stump in the middle. A good place to stop.
I sit down on it and eat a sandwich. The view of Devil’s Dyke to the west is partially obscured but I feel protected and out of the wind here. As I eat, I look around and see plants I recognise. I gather and munch a few of them: ground ivy, dandelion, yarrow… it feels good to eat food from this land. A way of connecting with it at another level.
I get up and carry on my walk, emerging onto rather bleak windswept downland.
My view towards Devil's Dyke
Behind me to the west the view of Devils Dyke is stunning. The way the low autumn sun falls on the Downs highlights the undulations and ridges of the land, the sheep and clusters of trees. It’s gorgeous and I’m feeling a little disappointed that I didn’t walk in that direction.
It’s too late to go there, so I carry on east, up this side of the Downs. There are fewer trees up here. I crest the brow of the hill and continue over the other side - a valley is laid out below and there's a windmill in the distance. Not a bad view.
A hundred metres on and a solitary runner runs past me. He gets to a lone hawthorn tree, runs round it, and turning to me he says, “Halfway.” I take the hint, and a few metres on I spot a small crow's feather sticking out of the ground.
It’s the turning point.
"Halfway." A lone hawthorn marks the turning point.
From then, I stop questioning if I've come the right way and just start wandering. Across the field, towards some sheep, following where I’m drawn. I bimble along, but at the field boundary there’s no way through so I turn back towards a gate and a much smaller footpath leading south through a narrow gap separating two fields.
I hesitate. This path is enclosed by hawthorn trees and brambles, and it’s dark, like a tunnel. I feel afraid, of the unknown, of narrow spaces, of getting scratched, but it looks intriguing, so I take it.
There are blackberries and dried hogweed stalks on this route, and it’s wider than I thought. It feels good to be walking here. A bit further along I stop in front of a bunch of twisted and intertwined honeysuckle vines.
They look interesting, "like a nest," I think. There’s a rustling in the branches above, a bird perhaps. There it is again.
I look up, and glimpse something grey and furry. A squirrel. Rebecca has accidentally killed one on the way here, and I think it’s good omen to see one… Only hang on, squirrels have bushy tails and that tail is long and thin.
Ah, it’s not a squirrel, but a large field rat.
It scuttles off as I wonder what wisdom an overhead rat has for me.
I linger on this for a few moments, then carry on down the path. At the end is a gate, opening onto downland with a view that stretches out before me towards the coast, and Brighton. The i360 looms large on the horizon.
The path is narrow and enclosed by hawthorn and brambles
Ahead I see four cows behind a fence, and I’m drawn towards them. The path runs alongside and as I walk past the cows I try making contact with them. One, with only a right horn, looks up for a second, then quickly down and carries on eating. It ignores me. As do the others.
I keep walking. In the distance I see fences going off to the left and to the right... I think about how to get back to base, maybe one of the fences marks a path that’ll take me back towards Saddlescombe.
Then up ahead I notice a long line of brown cows slowly heading south, away from me, in single file. They’re walking along the edge of a field and right next to the fence. It looks like they’re on a well-trod route.
I decide to catch them up, hoping the path they’re walking is not the footpath I need.
Luckily there's a track that runs on the ‘safe' side of the fence, and there's also another footpath going right, back towards Saddlescombe. My return route. I hesitate. Follow the cows, or turn off here. My heart says cows, so I follow them.
As I reach the rearguard cow, she turns to call to another that’s lagging way behind. I remember how cows have a strong herd instinct and that they seem to look out for each other. At the call the slacker gallops across the field to catch up, and they both carry on, plodding in single file behind the others.
I follow at the back of the line. Fifty metres up ahead there are half a dozen birds also walking the track alongside the cows, and as we all walk along together, I have an overwhelming sense of being part of the family of things (like in Mary Oliver’s The Wild Geese.)
So I moo. (...Don't ask.)
At this, the birds veer off, and the rear cow turns to look at me, and others further along the line also stop and turn to look.
Unperturbed, I keep on and reach the middle of the cow line, stopping next to the fence to look at them and the view. Some cows tentatively start to come towards me. The closest stand still, about twice arm’s length away, eyeing me with a mix of curiosity and alertness.
I hold my hand out to try and get one to come closer, like you can do with horses. It doesn’t move. I wave my arm slowly up and down to see if any of them will follow with their heads. They don’t. They just keep staring at me, motionless and expectant.
"What are you waiting for? What do you want from me?" I think. Similar thoughts that ran through my head this morning in front of the group.
The cows say and do nothing, so I look more closely at them. They are truly beautiful beasts: their rich red-brown coats shining in the afternoon sun. They all have yellow numbered tags punched into one ear, and this brings up mixed feelings - they’ll go for meat at some point.
It’s an uncomfortable thought, so I wave the feather and the stick that I've found over them, like a blessing, and silently thank them for their service.
I turn and sit down on the opposite side of the track on a small raised bank. I’m alone out here with a stunning view, in the sun, with a bunch of red-brown cows looking at me from the other side of the fence.
For an unknown reason a chant rises in my chest and I start to sing it, self consciously at first, then more confidently.
It has a Native American feel about it. I’ve no idea where it came from, or why I’m chanting, but it feels good.
And it has an amazing effect on the cows.
They close up, drawing towards me to try to to get as close as they can. Within a minute there are 20 cows crowding together directly in front of me. They press at the fence, jostling and falling over each other to get closer. Horned heads at the back pop up to get a better look.
It’s funny and powerful at the same time.
My chant slowly dies away, and I sit quietly, and calm, reflecting on what's happened.
If this is the medicine, I take it to be showing me something about being in a group. It seems all I need to do is relax and sing a spontaneous chant to get some energy going and draw a crowd. I might try that next time.
This is not what I was expecting on this walk.
Now that I'm quiet, the cows gently turn and slowly plod off in single file, back along their usual path, their well-worn route. The disruption forgotten.
Maybe. I’d like to think that we’ve all been changed by the experience.
I eat the last of my sandwich in the sunshine, and spot a pineappleweed (Matricaria discoid) by my foot - it smells like dessert, so I pretend it is.
The cows have all gone now, so I get up and walk back towards Saddlescombe, across one field then another, and through a gate that leads to a small path enclosed by a hedge on one side and a bank on the other.
Rosehips aplenty on the South Downs
It’s protected and calm, I sit down next to rose, hawthorn and bramble bushes and rest for a bit. It’s been a long day!
After a while I get up and notice that I’ve been sitting on poo - a reminder to look first (!)... I leave my feather as a marker and an offering.
Back at the hall we each share our journeys in turn and hear Rebecca’s interpretation. Our walks vary from the emotional and intense, to lighthearted forays, to the interesting and healing. Rebecca is skilful and supportive and we each get something meaningful, insightful and useful.
When it's my turn, smiling, she names me "he-who-connects-with-cows", a scout-warrior who takes care of the community.
"I'll take that," I think, and add it to my insight about spontaneity in a group.
But this council is ending, and it’s dark now and time to go. We put the cushions away and head out into the night.
All in all, it’s been powerful medicine.
NB due to confidentiality, no one else's story or journey has been shared here.
If you’d like to join our next Medicine Walk & Council, it’s on Feb 5th, 2017. Details and booking here.
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Author & Curator
Nigel Berman is the founder of School of the Wild.