Finding your spot: Sacred space in cities

By Rebecca Beattie

Image: Nemeton Photography, see more at nemetonawyld.deviantart.com or facebook.com/nemetonphotography

In 1922 DH Lawrence wrote: “I lose myself among the trees. I am so glad to be with them in their silent, intent passion… They feel my soul.” Throughout history, people have often found their inspiration in a favoured place in nature. While Lawrence liked to sit under a tree with his back against the bark, Mary Webb sat within a little wood near her Salopian home and Edith Nesbit liked to sit in a boat on the waters of her moated manor house.

Native American tradition would call these places of power, somewhere where you can connect with the divine and dissolve in your surroundings; somewhere to spend time without words, just absorbing and being. I refer to it as finding my spot.

I grew up in the luxury of a National Park. Nature was all around me. Finding a quiet spot in which to stretch out and switch off from the world was not difficult. I have had many spots over the years. My favourite spot was in a small valley, by the banks of a stream called the Wallabrook.

In winter the Wallabrook would surge down from the high moors and burst its banks, leaving the valley marshy and damp. In spring the valley would be filled with little cotton bunny-tail grass, the coconut scent of the golden gorse blossom and the bleating of spring lambs. In summer the Wallabrook dried up and left the foetid scent of stagnancy all around, while crickets whirred and the Dartmoor ponies sweated in the heat. In autumn the valley was filled with the purple bell-heather and damp mists.

My spot was right under an ancient willow tree; not a weeping willow, as you might imagine it, but an upright willow, a species that proliferates on Dartmoor. They thrust their way out of the riverbanks and are always found in the company of water.

I poured out my heart

Old Lady Willow’s gnarly old limbs reached out across the brook, hung with grey bearded moss, and some were too well aged to sprout leaves. Old Lady Willow always listened when I poured out my heart. Sometimes she would just sit and hold me in silence.

Sometimes we would sing together, my unsteady voice blending with her deep undertones. Sometimes I would sit and stare at the flowing water for so long that the earth all around me would undulate in waves. Sometimes I would lie on the mossy carpet of grass as she stretched protectively over me and let my tears flow into the earth.

When I needed to cleanse myself of mourning, I would strip off and immerse myself in the ice cold waters of the natural dipping pool that ran beneath her feet, the shock of the cold electrifying my body, my skin left soft by the orange-tipped peaty water. Even my nakedness was acceptable in this spot because not once in the 40 years in which I went there did I ever see another human being, unless they had gone there with me. It gave me a sense of safety and privacy and nurturing that is not always easy to find in the world.

However, my younger self was eager to stretch out into wider places and was not content to live within the bounds of the park. She wanted to explore and experience, and express herself in ways that were just not possible beneath Old Lady Willow and her younger neighbours. My forays into the world were punctuated by trips home, to plug in and replenish.

Now, though, my roots have been severed. I am cut off, re-planted in new clay soil; exiled, for the foreseeable future. How does a city witch retain her nature-bound mystical roots? How can we open a heart-connection to a landscape that is alien and noisy – sensually overwhelming at times? If I were to write a recipe for peace and connection within the metropolis, in a place of power, how would I construct it?

Ingredients

Take one tree to lie beneath

In a park or on the banks of a fast-flowing river

A blue sky overhead

A day without rain

Fold in some birdsong to help soothe the mind: some blackbirds, the occasional song thrush and a robin or two.

The occasional clatter of a magpie or the grey flapping of a fat wood pigeon’s wings.

The excited squeal of swallows playing overhead

Add some green withies on the tree to dance in the breeze, to catch the sparkle of sunlight and cast swaying shadows on the grass.

A spider or two to tickle your skin

Some rough bark to lead your eye ever upwards

A good helping of sunlight to peek down through the leaves and dapple your face

A plane or two to draw chalk lines across the sky.

Method

Silence is impossible. So do not try to block out the sounds of people or the dull drone of the roads. You must learn to combine them with the background soundtrack of nature. Even a gaggle of screaming teenagers can be blessed and blended with the natural space around you. Sooner or later, everyone else will melt away, leaving just you and your tree, and the birds.

Solitude, then, is imperative to open up that heartfelt connection.
One cannot fully commune while chattering with friends, although one can still appreciate the community of natural spaces; the plethora of human bodies that spread out in every green space at lunchtime on a sunny day.

In summer, the parks are covered with a layer of people but alone you can still switch off and zone out. In company you can compare notes and gratitude, pause for rest and support, a noble activity in a crazy world. But it is hard to open the heart to the pulsing currents of nature when in company.

If you can, seek peace in seclusion, don’t worry about outward appearances or good etiquette. Grow into your role as the eccentric crone – you can be freed by getting under her skin and while crones can hang out together, mystical experiences call for a level of abandonment that can only be achieved in solitude.

Talk to the tree or the river, out loud or in your head. Ask for its wisdom and listen to its response. You may feel the presence of the genius loci and it will certainly feel yours. In time it may accept you, work with you and support you. It is important to acknowledge the currents that run beneath our feet – they were here long before we were and they will exist long after we have gone.

Walk on grass whenever you can; shun footpaths and pavements, and feel the earth beneath your feet as you go about your day. Avoid main roads and take to the less trodden ways. Sit frequently, pause, breathe and do nothing. Just be. Sit or lie on the ground, using your coat as a groundsheet, your bag as a pillow. Remove your shoes. Allow the grass to tickle your toes.

Smell the roses and the lavender that decorate the parks and watch the incredible wildlife that lives all around us, intimate and unafraid. I have been closer to the streetwise urban foxes and the poised grey herons that live in the city than I ever got to their rural cousins that lived in the marshes within a stones’ throw of my moorland home. Ignore the dull ache in your lower back and the endless lists that flow through your mind. Let them stream on through and out the other side.

Allow yourself to float away

Focus instead on the sunlight, the birdsong, the currents of air through the branches, the gentle ebb and flow that lifts the leaves like seaweed drifting through water. Allow yourself to float away on the tides, dissolving your very self in nature. Allow words to move through you and out of you. Try to exist without language and somehow words will fill up the space; but these are words of inspiration, not words of restraint. The ‘shoulds’ must escape with the crows that fly from these places. Write if you must, sketch or compose. Give others the space to think you are strange and wonder why you are sitting alone beneath a tree. In time they may learn this peace for themselves. If not, then it is not your loss.

The end result may be a new painting, or a piece of writing, a play or a new design for a necklace. A peaceful composure or a composition. Insights will come and those tricky problems will melt away. Don’t be surprised later if you have picked up the odd stowaway – a spider in your handbag, grass seed and leaves in your hair, or a reddened sun-kissed nose.

If you, like me, are a city dweller and lack your own private National Park, do not despair. Even in the depths of the city one can find pockets of wildness. As I write these words, where am I now? I am in North London. I have my back to the rough bark of a weeping willow tree; I have spiders crawling over my bag and small green grasshoppers hopping over my skin.

I have found my spot.

I am, however, fully clothed.

Rebecca Beattie is a writer, Wiccan and author of three works of pagan-inspired fiction, including Nature Mystics: The Literary Gateway to Modern Paganism from Moon Books. She blogs at rebeccabeattie.co.uk and can also be found at facebook.com/rebeccabeattie13