Being here is like living in a fairy tale. And these are some of the creatures we share life with. Calves of buffalo and cow who eat the grass we cut twice a day. In Norway they had to cut grass to last the whole winter but it was only yesterday that I began to glimpse the magnitude of the task. You have to cut A LOT of grass.
Most of the stories I tell the people are living something a bit like this. Except before school was usual for everyone, perhaps round 20 years ago there were more goats and sheep which the children herded so you didn’t need to cut so much grass. But without those little shepherd children, if you let buffalo and cow out on these steep Himalayan mountains they easily fall and crash to their death. So they need skilled herding or, easier, cut grass in the barn.
Here is our little kitchen. There is a light bulb but it doesn’t work and anyway the electrics were off. No, you cant make tea just by putting on the kettle.
You have to get the fire going and in the monsoon the wood is usually damp. So far I haven’t met anyone who reads a newspaper, so how to light the fire? I tend to produce smoke which billows out over the neighbourhood and they fall about laughing as I emerge from the kitchen with streaming eyes. Luckily Heid is pretty good at it.
Hospitality is such that cooking ourselves is actually unnecessary as any home we pass invites us in and there are offers of chai and roti once we enter.
Chai is made from rich buffalo milk tea and loads of sugar. Food is called roti and consists of loads of roti, which ipancake made from homegrown wheat and maize, and homegrown dahl (beans), maybe rice and a bit of sabsi (veg) which is so heavily spiced its hard for us to taste. Plus lassi and ghee (melted butter which tastes quite like cheese).
But right now I may have cholera so I’m fasting. Which sounds bad but actually its a scarey way of saying I’ve got the runs. I’ve just had a brilliant morning with these little girls.
She was 15, I never met her before. She took me out to cut grass and held up the two sickles to make a heart.
It was that day I forgot. The massacre of 2 days and 2 years ago in Norway. To me the most ugly thing anyone has ever done. Then in the aftermath came a more sincere and real response than I had ever felt in the country.
But have we followed it up? The murderer was one of us. He spent a childhood born and bred in the heart of our society. To me its one of an army of signs that we are heading wrong.
Look at this boy. He smiled spontaneously, a working lad. Like everyone in this village he starts young. Running after the goats, climbing steep mountains, cutting grass, weeding, harvesting. Kept an eye on, often by not just one but several dads, and then all those women! Like the 7 who invited me down to hear them sing this morning. Attracting a bunch of stray children.
Stroppy teenagers? No sign. Yesterday splashing in the rain two young men played for hours with a group of kids, running, laughing.
Last night I asked the lovely looking old woman who had cooked our supper what she enjoyed most as a child. Without a pause she said ‘Herding the goats on the mountain.’
Last summer in North Norway, I’d heard almost the same from Gerd, ‘Herding the cows on the mountain we regarded as paradise.’
Ok neither India nor the past has the recipe for perfect childhoods. But the children I’m meeting here seem motivated and content.
Storytelling? I’ll go into that later. But the little girl on the left carrying water told us this …
There was a white tourist who was trying to get to sleep and was bothered by mosquitoes. He turned out the light and a load of glow worms appeared. ‘Woah, the Indian mosquitoes are advanced, they carry torches!’ he said.
Before now I have only ever heard about monsoon. Before you have felt something its easy to be sceptical. OK it feels like a Turkish bath, but that thing about gallons of rain maybe doesn’t happen except in Indian novels. Day 2 we were visiting a controversial novelist in his gorgeous house in Dehra Dun when it started. After some hours of hospitality we decided to brave it. He insisted on driving and it was more like a boating trip. The few steps from car to house where enough to entirely drench us. And on and on it went all night through open windows. Wonderful!
But now after some days with thundering rain I realised had I not heard monsoon, but “There’s going to be loads of rain” I might have been less enthusiastic. As it is its thrilling.
First stop shopping, large green umbrella. I once tried to make an umbrella that looked like a huge tree. This has been Tree year for me and one of the big ones here is the Peepal tree. It grows on other trees, engulfing them and sporting its roots all over the trunk. Bless me if Rini didnt tell us that people sometimes get married to a Peepal tree. Single ladies and gents, what an opportunity!
Opportunity here is abundant indeed. After a death defying ride we will now be living in this Himalayan village for several weeks.
Here its actually possible for us women to have several husbands. The kind of thing you hear of in a fairy tale, like the one the grandmother told us yesterday about a woman marrying a frog.
The photo at the top is nice but I’m sorry does no justice to the scale of beauty here where we were cutting grass yesterday.
Quiz question. Legend hunting has moved. I met someone recently who hasn’t flown for 8 years then another family much the same. These people are cool in my book. In Norway if you try not to fly people say ‘Flyskrekk?’ meaning fear of flying.
But now I am eating my hypocritical hat and have flown a long way and maybe you can guess from the picture where I landed. Here is Heid on a 2nd class AC train, in a land where they appreciate biscuits almost as much as the land of my ancestors which I recently forsook.
Well my philosophy is that if you do fly at least stick around for as long time as you can manage. In this case I am staying for six weeks which is a long time!
But Hey, it’s hot here! It’s steaming hot and it’s monsoon and they have biscuits!
And we are collecting stories. especially stories of Weather and Trees.
The last night of wild camping I slept in this private graveyard. Two brothers who died round 1904 age 37 and 41. At the campfire some neighbors came over along with about two million midges and said that those brothers were heir to a fortune and drank themselves into the grave.
Even though it was such a gothic spot for the hammock I felt a bit disappointed in the tree itself. However lying there that clear night I saw the branches fabulously twisting upwards like corkscrews. Once again my vision is so sadly small!
In Sanscrit the word for demon is ‘Asura’, meaning ‘One of highly limited vision’. The Sanscrit word for god is Sura or ‘One of unlimited vision’.
Hey, as Geoff would have said. Let’s face it I have demonic tendencies. Like the way I think about archeology is that it’s boring. Actually part of my mind has opened up the last years to the realization that it possibly isn’t but most of me is still closed. So I asked Malcolm if we could have a session on a hill fort really seeing if we could feel the past. What could we actually sense, is there anything there? It was hard. Most people lay down and had a bit of a kip. But we did try too.
And it was hard in just the way that storytelling can be hard. I kept getting a picture of a fake paper mâché Iron Age dwelling, or some corny film. And I realized that so much of what is meant to take me back to my ancestors actually stands in the way. Then the larks were singing particularly loudly and I wondered if anyone had lived up there who could interpret the language of birds. Got glimpses into the skills as Wilf said. Untold dimensions of unwritten skills they kept alive. Steve saw a pointed hill in the distance. He sensed that to live all your life outside in the constancy and connection with
that landscape may bring a quite other security.
There’s no time to tell of the jeweled meadow, the singing path, the fiddle played in the distance. So I settle for one last picture. The final night we congregated in the upstairs room of a pub in one of the many incredibly cute (sorry I am a crass romantic foreigner in these parts) towns we encountered. We got ‘latterkrampe’,a Norwegian word meaning laughter cramps, from watching ourselves on video walking so solemnly and weirdly. Then someone suggested the bee song Eka had taught us. It’s African and we all started humming away. And it just went on and on. And we were linking and buzzing this way and that. Buzzing and buzzing, each with our own buzz but each part of the bigger buzz. And then James dragged Malcolm into the centre and we buzzed round our queen. And it seemed like the perfect metaphor. I remembered my bees the week before, how as one dies two others instantaneously pick up the little body and remove it for the good of the hive.
Without the contribution and the willingness of each of these different walkers and supporters this magical journey could never have taken place.
Day 3. A lot of the surface chat is wearing away. In addition to the poetry a new element is added. As we walk we try to speak directly without referring to past and future. Please try it if you feel like it, it can be such a different kind of communicating! It’s a bit like composing poetry direct. At times it moves towards song, or playing with sounds and rhythms or at times feels like shared meaning.
Some can launch themselves into this quite other form of speech and others find it harder to speak off the beaten track. The walking in silence is extending. Malcolm gives the sign that we are to ascend the next climb without talking and as I enter the silence I feel the safety of walking without thoughts and words intruding. Freedom from adding lies and distractions to just being here on these hills. The colors intense, the birdsong vivid, the winds touch felt on the skin.
Then after lunch I team up with my new friend Eka and we are off chatting 19 to the dozen. A potted biography flows out and it is so fun to talk story and girlie talk. We are walking so fast ahead of the rest that a scout has to be sent ahead to warn us we are striding miles in the wrong direction.
After a few hours of this we stop again and join the others and remember the sweet effort of being in Great Nature. And somehow it is so blindingly clear that during our highly enjoyable chat we had been SOMEWHERE ELSE. No longer on the hills. Transported by our minds away from the reality of the artistry of The Creator.
Zombie walking mouth opens and shuts like an automatom.
Then uneven ground challenges the feet and the zip of the lip
cracks open the liminal skin separating me from World.
I forgot to tell you that we heard, the first night, two girls in a school tell a tale they had made. My, this was delivered with punch, and a good yarn too. All this is part of the project where ‘A bit Crack’ storytellers are exploring stories to lead us back to our ancestors and the hills and forests. Stories based on archaeology and developed with children and with us. Pat told beautifully of the Viking raiders of Holy Island, and a really wired archaeologist did a whistle-stop tour over centuries.
But now we had spent a day walking, reached camp in a new field, swam the river and Nigel had made THAT chocolate cake. But I was not at peace, fed up with my lack of being. I put the hammock up in some truly massive sycamore trees, amongst a good bed of nettles. Lying and gazing up into the elephant like trunks, my innate racism hit me once more. I don’t think sycamores are good enough, they are intruders, and was secretly disappointed they were not oaks. This is not the first time my sad tree racism has been revealed to me. Seen, it dissolved and I slept well.
Next days walk led us to sit in a large stone cairn:
Our bodies wriggled into rocks,
Wind plays fiercely in our hair,
Horizon surrounding us.
Stones, bones of the biggest mother,
Hairy with shivering grasses.
Basin of hardness,
Holding a gathering,
From past to present.
We ended up at the Guide Hut.
Here I found an Ash tree to hang up the hammock.
We wolfed down some delicious dinner and next door was the village hall which was packed with people. Here the talents of Chris were revealed. Had he taken a burning brand and torched the school he could not have made us warmer. No he made everyone feel so at home and at the same time so inspired to be on this adventure, I don’t think Ive ever heard such a wonderful presenter. And then Malcolm told us how he had worked with the children and then gone up onto the great hill Yeavering Bell to digest, and how a lamb had found him there and spent the whole night nuzzling up to him.
Here is the lamb and then we heard the stories themselves, beautifully and clearly told.
Then after all that had happened we sat round the camp fire, and just when we felt we couldn’t take any more, we found out we could. And we began to share deeply and honestly what had happened for each of us that day.
The first morning was first swallow of a long summer in terms of pace. Leisurely. You never ever felt pressured to hurry. Time was taken, everyone could have their last cup of tea, pack and repack as one does, squash another sandwich into a pocket, we formed a ring and Andrew read us a poem. I cant remember what it was about, just that we all felt shaken, our hearts opened a little more towards what was all around us. And then we set off, our bags, food etc. being transported by Nigels team to our rendezvous later.
We walked along St Cuthberts way. So who on earth was this St Cuthbert? One thing I heard from the Venerable Bede alive at the same time.
Cuthbert wanted to be ‘alone’. What we call alone, actually when you are living out here in fields and forests you are far far from alone, but perhaps he wanted a break from us chattering people. So he went off to an island and the monks built him a little place and he pointed at the ground and they were skeptical but dug him a pit and sure enough soon it was filled with fresh water from a spring beneath. They left him a bag of wheat and he planted it but it didn’t come up so then he planted barley and although by now it was late in the year it germinated so he could live there ‘alone’.
They wanted him as Bishop of the kingdom but he said no way, he wanted to stay ‘alone’ in the company of God. So at last the king himself was rowed over to the island and his eyes full of tears he begged him to take the job so he did.
After Cuthbert died and after 11 years they decided to dig up the body and it looked as good as new, (incorruptible).Then monks put him in a coffin and carried the body around for years and miracles occurred, and this is the path they walked.
So we trod along St Cuthberts way, grassy ancient paths. And as we did so this first day we chattered. Great fun to get to know people but at the same time growing in me a discomfort to be disturbing the sanctity of Nature with all this clatter, so I couldn’t even see where I was going.
Malcolm asked us to walk in silence for a time, then we sat down to Renga (連歌), collaborative poetry). We sat in an ocean of grasses,
Ten 100 thousand whisperers
Bending their heads in crowds
Describing light and wind.
As I walked at times I imagined a tiny coffin inside my heart, with something holy inside it.
Like a bee collecting honey, this summer I’ll be collecting stories again.
Malcolm Green invited me to Northumbria, to something called Dreaming the Land, where a group of walkers would walk to Hill forts, Bronze Age and Iron age settlements and get nearer to the land up there. I was dreading it a bit. Imagining a group of hearty wind-blown archaeologists who would be off on the far horizon before I had got my boots properly laced up.
We met up in a field beside Holy Island. Nigel, Chris and James had set up a couple of bell tents and were in full swing making tea and preparing our first meal. As they did that, people put up their tents and I looked for a place for the hammock. There were no trees here on the wind-swept open land, just some scrubby hawthorn hedges. I crossed an electric fence to investigate a telegraph pole and got a shock on my thigh. It gave me a little leap in the air but happily no-one noticed. Nowhere to hang the hammock already on the first night? Then I found this spot with two bolts on the old barn.
Drinking tea and eating Nigel’s home-made flapjacks we introduced ourselves. The party was varied, including an archeologist, (more were to join), a geologist, quite a few storytellers, a furniture maker, a radio journalist, a permaculturalist, a musician and a dry stone waller.
When Nigel provided me with a small step ladder to climb into the hammock I realised the extent of luxury on this trip. Chris said that alternatively several of the men would be happy to make a human pyramid so that I could step on their backs.
Next morning those who wanted could meet at 6.30 for a meditation. I had a great sleep, and waking early I peeped over the edge of the hammock. Two large hares were facing eachother in the field beside me. They seemed to be boxing or dancing. Then suddenly they stopped and turned, facing the newly risen sun. They stood as still as stone. For a long time.
A great wave of gratitude flooded over me.