I’ve just seen a newt. My first wild one. It’s tiny and delicate looking, much smaller than I would’ve thought, about 10cm long and pretty drab-coloured. It’s swimming about on top of the water in the pond at the bottom of Vert Woods.
I think it’s pretty special but Stewart is more excited about the blue and red damselflies that are mating on the wing in the sunlight at the edges of the water. “It’s busy isn’t it,” he says, implying that this doesn’t happen all the time. It must be unusual because as the site director, he is in these woods a lot.
“Anyway,” he says, in between taking pics of the flies, “there aren’t many newts here because the adders usually get them.”
I'm camping on my own in these woods tonight and I’m already a bit nervous about that. I certainly don't want to come across any snakes.
“Don’t worry,” he reassures me, “unless you stumble over one that’s asleep in the sun, your footsteps sound like huge booms to them, they’ll slither away before you get close.”
And as luck would have it I see no adders, nor anyone else apart from Stewart for that matter til later that evening.
It’s a beautiful sunny day and Stewart has let me drive the car in to drop off my camping gear. He’s also lent me an axe, a wood saw, a trug and a wheelbarrow.
I pitch my tent, chop some wood for the fire, and go about the task of preparing for tomorrow’s Medicine Walk.
When enough setting up has been done, I take my camera for a walk around the woods. I can’t have gone far when a feeling of panic arises: I’m totally lost… the paths up ahead turn out not to be paths, just gaps in the undergrowth that lead everywhere and yet nowhere at the same time.
I stop walking because that’s the only sensible choice and reluctantly turn back the way I came.
I hate backtracking and it takes ten minutes before I stumble across a familiar fire circle in the middle of some trees, where I sit on a stump to recover myself.
The truth is I'm feeling anxious about tomorrow, and the forest is showing me that. Stopping and sitting in a familiar place calms me down. Perhaps this is my medicine.
A bit later, on the way back to camp I find a reassuring owl feather, it’s perfect for tomorrow’s altar.
I make a fire and a cup of tea, and cook my dinner: quinoa and chicken stew - no one’s going hungry around my fire, especially me.
There’s a full moon fire ceremony in these woods tonight. Ali, the shaman from Rodmell, is worried that no-one will turn up, but enough people come, as they always do.
I help Stewart get the big drum out, and we carry it to the fire area. A party in the distance becomes a backing track to his and Ali’s drumming, and our silent full moon fire wishes.
I watch closely as Stewart builds a textbook tipi fire lay, but he and Ali struggle to get it going and it takes a while before the ceremony can begin.
Ironic because my fire was pretty scrappy, but alight at the first attempt.
I leave as soon as the ceremony’s over and head back to my tent. I’m shattered from making camp earlier and can’t wait to get to bed.
In the dark before I drift off I hear the wolf calls, a tradition for the full moon-ers as they reach the crossroads on the way out, then Stewart’s van as he drives away.
At last I have the woods to myself. Just me, the trees… and the adders.
I fall asleep immediately but wake about 2.30am. The moon is out, and the party is still softly thumping in the distance.
It’s quiet in the woods. I see a moving shadow and momentarily scare myself with the thought that someone else is walking about.
It’s a fear that stays with me for a short while before I drift back to sleep.
Next morning, the participants start arriving for the Medicine Walk, a ritual of solitary wandering in nature. The fire circle and altar that I’ve set up in the woods on the other side of the track are ready.
If a Medicine Walk has an aim, it’s to let go of the worries and concerns of daily life and instead to focus on what happens, and to listen to your instincts, be curious, and explore and encounter your fears.
The learning and insight come from the experiences that you have on the walk, and from what nature and the Mystery of the more-than-human world reflect back to you.
There is a lot to be gained from it.
M is the first to arrive. I remember her from another workshop a few months before. She works in distribution for a toy company that has locations around the world.
B works in finance and has just moved to a town nearby.
E has recently moved to the south coast from London. It’s a tricky place he says. He’s an artist, and is great at interpreting our stories.
D is colourful and delightful as ever. “I’m totally cleansed,” she announces on arrival, alluding to something she’s been to the day before.
C is a little quiet. Something difficult has happened to her, she won’t say what.
We start with introductions and a talking circle, which helps shed light on the life issues that they each bring, in preparation for the walk.
By mistake I’ve put the talking stick on the fire, so hastily I make a new one. It’ll do. It’s passed from person to person as they speak, only the person holding the stick is allowed to talk.
This is the Way of Council, a system of sharing that’s been used by Native Americans for hundreds of years.
Everyone gets increasingly honest and open as we go round the circle. From career to relationship to life questions, the issues unite us all, and we’re each hoping for something helpful and meaningful to be gained from the walk.
I go last. My makeshift talking stick breaks in my hand. Everyone laughs, but I know I haven’t been as honest as I could've been and start again.
The more authentically you can share, the more you get out of it and the better the experience, I’ve noticed.
When everyone has said their piece, I explain about the Four Directions, which can be helpful to bear in mind on the walk, and then read Sometimes by David Whyte. It’s a powerful poem at a time like this.
Then they go off with an invitation not to chat as that can break the spell, though one has a need to speak more and is the last to leave, slowly heading off along the path.
They’ll be gone for several hours. My job is to keep the fire going and hold the fort. I settle in.
A few hours later and they return, with stories about their walks, rich with encounters, emotions and metaphors that shed remarkable insight on their lives.
We all listen and reflect back on each story to help find the meaning.
One has been drawn to symbols in the landscape that are to do with a past relationship, another finds pleasure in details that are relevant for her career, another has an encounter with an animal that is significant in her life, another starts to feel sad about what she’s doing, another has found some peace and creativity in the woods.
And Me? "I've been tending the fire," I say, "watching the trees knock together, listening to the wind, whittling the broken half of the talking stick into a sharp point that I used to lift the lid on the kettle, and I've made silver birch twig tea."
“I hear the story of a man who had a very productive time,” they say.
I’m amazed at the relevancy of each walk... It’s been a powerful afternoon.
But for now, we say our goodbyes and leave.
Later M texts to say a big thanks, she was super energised afterwards.
Apart from mine, names and stories have been shortened and changed in the interests of confidentiality.
With thanks to everyone who came, Rebecca Joy Card for showing me how to do this, and for all the beings who supported the walk.
Keep an eye this page for details of our next Medicine Walk.
Author & Curator
Nigel Berman is the founder of School of the Wild.