A Handbag Full of Caterpillars: Life as an Urban Nature Mystic

By Rebecca Beattie

Rover Thames graphic

The city is full of liminal spaces into which we can step for refuge and healing, before stepping back into the city and the hurly burly once more. Rebecca Beattie says it is an environment in which the mystic can thrive.

At various times on this Pagan path, I have tried to affix various labels to myself: Solitary witch, Hedgewitch, Wiccan, Nature Mystic. I am simply someone who expresses my spiritual and creative life by a connection with nature, and through nature I connect with the divine. While looking after my friend’s esoteric bookshop in Bloomsbury one day, a young seeker came in full of questions, as is only to be expected at Treadwells, which functions as part bookshop, part community centre, and part school.

‘Are you a witch?’ she asked, followed by ‘How can you be a witch when you live in the city?’

A simple question, but one I often return to. After all, like Granny Weatherwax or Lolly Willowes, witches live in cottages in the woods, don’t they? My kitchen does have many jars of herbs for making incense, but the kitchen is in a very tiny studio flat on the outer edges of the metropolis. No cauldron bubbles over an open fire (though I do affectionately call my large soap-making pan my cauldron), and wood fires are still frowned on in London, which was choked by smog in the past. But what we do have in common with literary witches is our position on the outer edges of society: just not the geographic ones.

We are used to existing in the edgelands, on the outskirts, the fringes of civilisation in a very liminal world. If we participate in ritual, then the concept of being ‘between the worlds’ is familiar. But it’s not just in our ritual space that we step between the worlds; we do it in everyday life too, and sacred space can be found (or created) in many places. One of my oracle cards advises the querent to inhabit the world as if it is a cloak, worn loosely around the shoulders, to be put on or taken off at will. And if you have a rural heart, this is the best way to live in the city: urban spaces are there to be stepped in and out of at will, but I choose how much of the ‘real world’ I drape around my shoulders.

Don’t get me wrong, my ‘day job’ is working for one of London’s largest drug and alcohol treatment charities, so life isn’t all fluffy bunnies. However, it helps to realise that the city is full of liminal spaces into which we can step for refuge and healing, before stepping back into the city. And so it is possible to live a life steeped in nature, right in the heart of the city.

In 1917, my favourite nature mystic and proto-Pagan, Mary Webb, wrote:

“No accident of environment or circumstance need cut us off from Nature. Her spirit stirs the flowers in a town window-box, looks up from the eyes of a dog, sounds in the chirp of grimy city sparrows. From an observation hive in a London flat the bee passes out with the same dumb and unfathomable instinct that drove her from her home on Hybla of old.”

We need to be more observant than our other fellow city dwellers; more alert to the subtlety of its presence, than in a rural setting. We have to actively seek it out.

Where I grew up, on the highest point of Dartmoor, I couldn’t help but be consciously aware of nature every moment. Every window looked out on fields and granite tors, a stream gurgled past the house, and I stepped out of the door to birds, foxes, rabbits, deer, sheep, cows and ponies. Everything about life on the moors screamed the power of nature: but rural life can be hard, physically and economically. It’s only sustainable if you can financially support yourself, or are prepared to travel great distances (my daily commute to school was 28 miles each way). Since the Industrial Revolution, most of us, for economic or familial reasons, have chosen to live in more metropolitan spaces. So how can an urban life still resonate with us spiritually?

The threads of my upbringing still bind me together. My garden overlooks other gardens, not  open moor; I use public transport, and my wardrobe is more urban than fleece, but I still look to the sky for a connection to the elements: I still have mindful respect for the nature around me.

Even at a subliminal level, the most urban of inhabitants still seek time in nature. If you don’t believe me, then just visit Lincoln’s Inn Fields on a fine day at lunchtime. Lincoln’s Inn sits in the heart of central London. You will barely find a square inch of grass that doesn’t have some city worker or lawyer draped across it. They may not realise this is what they are doing, but they too are seeking peace, refuge, escape and healing in the city’s natural spaces. We need to in order to survive the bustle and noise for the rest of the day. It is those pockets of green in the city that keep us sane.

In Lincoln’s Inn alone, I can commune with London planes, oaks, maple, and some more unusual species. In spring there is a beautiful blanket of multi coloured crocuses on the south western corner, in autumn we have a corresponding crop of lilac-coloured autumn crocuses in the north. Each week I go there with a dear friend and fellow Nature Mystic, and we observe the passing of the seasons. ‘Bench Witches’, she calls us, as we sit and catch up and commune with the universe. There is always something to wonder and marvel at, even in the depths of winter, when the crows and the robins become our only companions. In spring and summer we sit beneath the oak tree and talk to the lunchtime dog walkers. And all of this within a stone’s throw of the Royal Courts of Justice, The Royal College of Surgeons, and Dicken’s Old Curiosity Shop, as well as the spot where (historically) Elizabeth I used to execute some of her most high-profile prisoners in some very gruesome ways, and, in the Second World War, Canadian airmen were stationed. This rich history is all around us in this city, it is beneath our feet. Connecting with that history enables us to connect to the spiritus mundi.

So what of the other liminal spaces? Where else might you find urban magic going on? The most obvious one that springs to mind is the Thames itself, that serpent-like river that coils its way through the heart of the city. It has been thought of as sacred right back to the Roman inhabitants, and probably before. The second longest river in England (after the Severn) there is some debate over its correct name. As it winds its way through Oxford, it is known as the river Isis, and in Victorian era, there were those that argued it should be Isis for its entire length. It is likely this stems from its Latin etymology, which designates it Thamesis, but even so, there is a romantic appeal to thinking of her as Isis, or Thame-Isis. I know it is more commonly referred to as ‘Old Father Thames’, but to me she is Isis.

Various temples to pagan gods have been dotted along her banks through the ages. Some very appealing fictional histories (such as Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor) have it that there was a temple to Isis or Astarte that pre-dated the Christian site at St. Pauls, and one to Anubis on the site of Westminster Abbey. With what we know now of Ley Lines and energy currents, and how humans are inexplicably drawn to sacred sites over the ages, it is entirely possible that there is a kernel of truth in these stories. But it wasn’t simply in Roman or pre-Roman times that this sacred quality was venerated – Aleister Crowley frequently held rituals at Cleopatra’s Needle, the obelisk that was brought here from Luxor temple, and plenty of subsequent practitioners still follow suit.

My own coven used to meet in Covent Garden, just a few streets away from Waterloo Bridge, and it was always a favourite location to finish workings, or offer libation, or just to ‘gift things’ to the river on our way home. I still think of it as a good place to go and commune and do workings, and while the waters may not be the same waters our ancestors visited (or even the same waters we visited last week) and the course of the river can change over time, it is a very strong link to our collective past. We are not the first to have offered gifts to the Thame-Isis, in happiness, in love, in sorrow and in grief, and we won’t be the last. Just seeing the range of artefacts washed up on its shores and taken to the nearby Museum of London demonstrates this. Even today, treasure seekers still swarm on the beaches revealed at low tide, brandishing their metal detectors, and digging through the silt in the hopes of finding some roman coins or a Tudor ring.

For myself, the Thames also links me to my own familial ancestors, just when I am wallowing in hiraeth for Dartmoor, and cursing my younger self’s need for adventures. My paternal great-grandfathers were boatmen on the Thames, and until they were bombed out in the Second World War, they all lived in the East End, while my maternal ancestors were all Devon born and bred. This explains to me how I can be at home in both places, as my roots wind through city and moorland alike.

The Thames is not the only river that winds its way through London. There are hundreds of smaller brooks and streams and rivers that punctuate this landscape. Some, like the Fleet River, are now entirely encased in pipes, running underground through new routes that have been chosen by city developers, while others have been left to their own devices. Rivers, both lost and remembered, been recognised at last for the places of healing that they are, and green walks and trackways have been wound along their banks. City planners have recognised the need for natural spaces, and have started to protect these places, and to develop them further. Much of my own spiritual practice is paced out on these routes at weekends, in a moving meditation of mindfully observing nature as I walk.

Compared with my previous practice of ranging across the open moors, this might seem poor, but by careful exploration I have developed routes and routines that still allow me the solitude I so frequently crave in these endeavours, and also to get my fill of the seasons. The Dollis River valley is one that winds its way through the city, from the borders of Hertfordshire in the North West, to the more familiar Hampstead Heath. My favourite stretch sits at the uppermost part of this trackway which ends by the side of the M1, and this stretch of green takes me through nature reserves, by farms and stables, and ends in an enchanting wood with a small mere.

At this little lake I am treated to encounters with birdlife who are also seeking some quiet from the busier parks in the city – herons, mallards, a pair of moorhens and a young swan. They too take their rest, their peace and quiet before returning to their everyday city lives. Encounters with wildlife are not limited to rural areas alone. I have had the fortune of getting closer to wildlife in London than I frequently did at home on Dartmoor.

This wood is another space I connect to by heart. By coincidence, when my grandmother was bombed out in the Blitz, she packed up my father and his brother and moved out to this far end of the city, and they too found sanctuary in this same stretch of woodland. How much of our links to the land are dictated by our ancestral history and our DNA?

It is easy to imagine that our urban green spaces are a poor relation to our national parks and other rural spaces, but just how much of the British landscape is really untouched by human hands? On Dartmoor, it might be easy to assume it is a completely free and untrammelled landscape, but a brief glimpse beneath the surface reveals a less than wild history. The landscape is littered with industrial ruins: tin mining pits, gun powder towers, and the various dwellings that these industrial folk would have lived, and worked and socialised in. The evergreen forests that now cover great swathes of the land were planted in living history – I have photographs of my grandparents hiking through the waist high pines, which now tower above us, and one of the original foresters I knew later expressed regret at his involvement with the plantations. They are a quick-growing species, which is why they were planted there by the Forestry Commission, but by that same token, large areas are frequently cut down, leaving a wasteland that takes several years to recover.

Today, the farmers carefully manage the landscape, burning back the gorse and heather in the annual winter swaling to encourage better grazing for their livestock. So if our rural landscapes are this man-managed, why should we think of our city spaces as being any less ‘natural’ for being so? And while there are campaigns afoot to encourage the re-wilding of our landscape, it would take generations of work to return the land to its original ‘natural state’ and even then it would have been engineered by human hands. While I don’t claim to know the rights and wrongs of how we manage our natural world, and, if we filled a room full of ecologists and pagans, I am sure there would be a million and one debates about how we should preserve our surroundings, what I do know is this: nature is nature.

The city still has spaces we can wander off and get lost in. We must each find the spiritual path that works best for us, that allows us to connect with the Divine, in whatever form we worship it. For me, while I may dance skyclad under the full moon with my coven, a waterproof coat and a pair of wellies is equally as important to my spiritual life as my athame and pentacle.

And, sadly for my colleagues, I will still be the person who has statues on my desk, and, occasionally, a handbag full of caterpillars, accidentally captured (and later released) whilst gathering some green stuff on my lunch time forays into the park. But then, I never claimed I was not slightly eccentric, another quality shared with our literary cousins like Granny Weatherwax and Lolly Willowes.

Rebecca Beattie is the author of Nature Mystics: The Literary Gateway to Modern Paganism (see page 34 for our review) and three books of Pagan-inspired fiction. A regular blogger at Moon Books, she is also a PhD candidate at Middlesex University. Rebecca, and her blog, can be found rebeccabeattie.co.uk

Image of London map by Matt Jeacock, via Istockphoto.