Nature Worship

They say our ancestors worshipped nature. What on earth does that mean? In Tartu, we meet Ahto Kaasik, Head of the Centre for sacred Natural sites.IMG_0570

Beside a stone which looks to me very ordinary, rather boring and dull. Ahto pointed out that there were pennies and nails  slotted into the cracks and said there are still hundreds of sacred places in use in Estonia.IMG_0561


He said the stone is a teacher of natural knowledge.

In 1880 an important theologist complained about this stone and asked Rector of the University for it to be removed. He agreed it was pagan and gave orders for it to be broken. It disappeared.

Some time later the professor of Archeology asked what had happened to it and the builder who was to destroy it admitted that he had hidden it. Now its protected and many come; for example newlyweds come with flowers or seeds to bless their marriage.IMG_0560

This stone is unlike any others in the area. It was brought here by the last ice age. It is 1.8 billion years old, way older than anything else around it. How on earth did the people who chose this as a sacred stone know this? I mean it looks seriously ordinary. Unlike many of the other prettier stones I have seen here…

The Estonian traditional belief is that everything has a spirit. In the North of Estonia are stories of trees that have walked. Near Viljandi (I think it was here), some women had washed dirty nappies in the lake. The lake was highly offended so it also got up and moved away. Not only every natural thing has a spirit also every manmade thing. Like this well, most Estonian houses in the country have a well..IMG_0594

Or these gloves which have been darned? Do they have a spirit?


Then we went to the sacred forest.IMG_0573

In the entrance was a stone and when Ahto first came here it was filled to the brim with money – roubles and Estonian crowns.

Ahto, gentle, alert, told us the traditional rules for how to be in this forest: Never harm anything in this place. If we curse our mouth might well swell up and if we relieved our physical needs other body parts might become swollen. If we even think of anything bad we might be cursed and that curse might hit not just us but our children down to the seventh generation.

Ahto told of an old man he had met – around 65 years old, being pushed in a wheelchair by his mother. He told Ahto he had once been the boss in a road making company. He had been preparing to remove some forest for a road. As he stood checking the site, an old man had approached, saying: ´Dont do this son, this is a holy ancient Hiis.´

The  young boss didn’t listen and gave orders for the work to begin. Soon after this he suffered a stroke and since then has been in a wheelchair. As for the man who carried out the work – he was a normal man, didn’t drink or seem unhappy. Soon after he committed suicide.

Ahto said – ´Our ancestors came here a lot. They may have walked on a pilgrimage the further the better. Here they played music, they danced. They said that the trees spoke to them. They gave advice – you might ask them if you were thinking of marrying for example.

As we enter we should think good thoughts. Our wishes and deeds should also be pure.´ Ahto said that he himself at times speaks to trees.

Before they entered the old Estonians would greet the forest and bow to it. We did the same. We had with us red wool as they might have, and we IMG_0575discovered that many others had been before us.

Lastly we went to the graveyard. Outside the gates stand tall Pine trees. After the funeral the godson or another relative may cut a cross. Here is a fresh one.IMG_0590

Others are filled with sap, welled up as if a jewel.IMG_0587

Each cross looks different. The cross is said to connect the soul of the departed with the tree. The tree stopped souls from leaving the churchyard to haunt the living. Only on special times could they leave such as all souls night, Christmas eve or Easter.  Then they might visit their old home.

There are about 300 of these places with crosses cut in the trees. They are not recognised by the church officially but they are not forbidden either.

In the 1990s a study was done showing that 65% of Estonians believe that trees and plants have spirits and a similar study was done in 2010.

Thanks Piret Estonias amazing storyteller for bringing me here!



Active Angels in Paris

There is a state of emergency here. How much will we dare to do? Yesterday we sat in a room stuffed with activists from all over the world. She called out: ´Stand up if you are a woman who can vote.´ Most women stood up. ´Stand up if you have weekends off work.´Most men stood up, and she carried on like that til we realised that all the things we were standing up for were freedoms given to us through activism.

So how can I not want to be active when so very much is at stake? Well Christmas is coming you know and I have made a Christmas pudding for the very first time in my life, now that Mum has turned 90. Then there is the celebration of Yalda, the longest night of the year when the Afghans will be gathering, its the night of storytelling, can I really miss that to languish in a French prison?

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Here is a coffin of Ice, carried by men from the Andes as they played a mournful march. This action seems noble, so respectful, so right. How can it be at all that we are forbidden to make peaceful protest at this tipping point of global history? Most people I have met so far are young, peaceful and prepared to be beaten.


At the triple action we attended the other day a few went into the Louvre itself and spilt oil, they were arrested. Then the climate angels appeared, I hope you can see how very beautiful they were. After that those of us who had got through the search were attracted by a row of black umbrellas and joined them singing: ´Oil money out of the Louvre, Move, move move.´

Lets see what courage is found in the next days…


 Really I should be writing every day. Every day, a new bunch of kids, every day so many new meetings with the ancient pilgrims way.

We’ve been walking, pretty much every day for five weeks.

A graceful Somalian girl says ‘Going barefoot, it makes me feel like a real lady.’

This year were some kids from the more affluent side of Oslo. Kids who come from rich West side think this Eastside is scarey. But now they feel the adventure and history and kindness which is here too. Three girls from Kjelsås say they will walk to Trondheim when they get older.

A boy, he looked tough but kept picking bunches of flowers. During Per Jostein’s telling of Olav the Holy he quietly made an installation of twigs and stones. An artist. He told me he loves nature.

A kid asks – Do you beleive in God? I do, they say. I remember when I was a child, you couldn’t say that, it was uncool.

Norwegian kids are not brought up to share food. You bring your pack lunch, you eat it. But the kids from immigrant parents, they are different. One quiet mix race boy, kept following me. He said, you must be hungry, he shared his water then a lovely potato and home made meat ball.

Some days in April were unbelievably cold. As a medieval pilgrim I have no waterproofs and some of the kids do not have good equipment either. We are walking barefoot on the freezing ground. I hear squeals but no complaints.

At one point a bunch of robbers attack us – here you can see the robber chief in black on the hill, preparing to attack us.


The teachers are fabulous, we meet so many great teachers. But they can be so insensitive. The kids are in the middle of an adventure where I have been walking overland for 6 years. The teacher comes up and ask me how long I’ve been working as an actor etc.

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We are collecting gold coins. A short stocky boy is walking along and he says – ‘Today its not just about gold and material possessions! Other things are far more important. Listen! You should listen to me when I say wise things like that!’

Usually there are one or two kids during the 4 hour walk who hang extra close, have extra many questions. Might be a boy, might be a girl. One day 60 kids from the school at the end of my garden joined us. Most of them have parents who have gathered here from the far corners of the globe. Oslo is divided East West and most of the East side kids dont have white skin. But this girl was one of the few who did. She also had freckles and we both knew just the little hillock we wanted to sit on for lunch. She told me about how her family from the far North, Sami blood. We got on so well and she suggested that since I am a pilgrim and often have to sleep outside, I could stay that night with her. She had a spare room or maybe I could stay in her room. She could cook for me and show me the stream where she plays.

This happens fairly often, this kind of hospitality amongst kids which you pretty much never find amongst adults in our super rich town. The other kids were intreagued – ‘Hey the pilgrim is going to stay the night with her tonight!’ It was building up and I was starting to feel a bit bad. Near the end of the walk I say to the kids – ‘Am I really a pilgrim from the Middle ages?’ ‘No!’ says someone. ‘Does that mean I am lying to you?’ I explain that although I am not several hundred years old, the story I have told is based on a historic tale. A woman who tried to kill her husband and had to walk for 7 years through Europe as a penance before she could go back to the North of England. Otherwise she would have been burnt as a witch or put in prison.

Well this particular day, I liked that girl. I knew somehow that life was not so easy for her, she told how hard it was for her not to eat too much and she missed her mum. And I didn’t want her to feel betrayed or disappointed. So I decided I would go over to her house anyway since it was not so far. Another 20 minute walk is not so much after all. She was there. We went out and together we discovered a viking grave, just a few minutes from her house. We discovered we both love trees and she showed me the stream where she and her brother have made a den. We cleared up some plastic to make it more beautiful. She showed me the tree she loves climbing. We went home and she made me some tea, and then she read me her poems full of incredible insight! I asked her over to me the following week as I live just below her school and wanted to show her my ducks.

Later she sent me a message. Her stepmother said that she couldn’t come, she had to go shopping that day.


The individuality of the kids emerges as they have time to play, picking up their sticks and stones.

A kid says – ‘I like challenges.’

I ask how was it to walk in silence. ‘Deilig.’

Many wanted to be pilgrims, talked of getting their family to do it with them.

One thin active girl tells me towards the end –  ‘This is the best thing I’ve done. And I’ve done a lot of crazy stuff.’




20150404-172739.jpgNearly eighteen years ago me and my family dug up the roots we had so carefully planted in the countryside of England and moved to Norway.

It was so fun! We moved into an artists collective with a panoramic view of the Oslo fjord. The kids played up in the attic with the other artist kids, the adults hanging out with the other arty people. To start with I didn’t miss England in the least. I didn’t miss the language or the people. I didn’t miss all my friends or even my mum and dad.

But after some months there was something that I did miss. I swear to you the first thing I missed when I moved to Norway were the English trees. The giant beech tree, with its grey bark like elephant hide. The spreading oak with its tens of thousands of shiny acorns each sitting in its own dainty cup. In the winter I missed the spiky holly and in the spring I missed the hawthorn. Its blossom lining the hedges like scented snow. I really missed the English trees.
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Its not like there are no trees in Norway. Check it out – the whole place is one gigantic forest. BUT they were totally the wrong kind of trees. When I was a girl they started planting fir trees in long long endless lines across my country. If you’ve trod in one of those arid spots you’ll know its less a forest than a sad prison.

My Dad told me – ‘You see those trees, they’re foreigners! They have shallow roots, they make the earth acid. They don’t belong here. They should go back where they bloody well came from!’ Well Ok he didn’t actually say that last thing but the fact is, like it or not, I was, and I’m not proud of it… But I was a Tree Racist. I despised needle trees one and all.

Until one day. I was sitting outside. We had moved out into a log cabin. The garden was a little forest, emerald moss studded with white wood anenomies and flowing beside us the black Sørkedals river. It was then I saw her. In all her grandeur and poise. Her branches, each one just a tiny bit wider than the one above, she held them curving upwards, like a graceful ballerina. For the first time I had fallen in love with a Norwegian tree. And its just gone on from there really. (See Trees)

It took a long time for me to see the Rowan. Crazily I thought it was some kind of weed. There is one in my garden and I was going to cut it down! Then, mainly due to my Finnish friend, the Finns have a deep history with trees, (we all do, but they sometimes remember it). She told me that the Rowan is a holy tree. A feminine tree, women used to give their girls a coming of age ceremony with Rowan in the forest.

In Norway its been a protector. They would put a sprig over their doors or the barn door to protect the brown eyed cows. The 90 year old man we walked with on the Pilgrims way would crunch a berry and offer it to the kids. ‘These kept us healthy during the war.’ He said.’So many vitamins.’ Since then its beauty has revealed itself to me, and when I tried to steep the leaves as a tea, I couldn’t believe the taste. Its like Almonds. Why don’t we all know this?

Its looking very much like I’m going to die here now. I mean hopefully not right now. But my roots are growing year by year. And when I do, I hope my children will take a little sapling. Perhaps a tiny rowan or a birch. And plant it over my body. A body I’ve spent years feeding, full of nutrition. And then that little tree will start to grow its roots down into me.

I will turn into a tree. My feet will turn into roots, exploring down into the earth. My red blood will become translucent sap. My soft, pale skin will turn into hard, shiny bark. My trunk will become the trunk of the tree. My arms will spread out into many many branches and twigs. My crown will become the much larger crown of the tree. As I reach up, my leaves will turn sunlight into sugar. I will become a tree, a meeting of Heaven and Earth.

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Birch Mari Jerstad in Karasjok.


Students of storytelling

It’s a dark Thursday evening and twenty storytelling students are sitting in a small empty room. Storytelling comes under the Aesthetics department at Oslo University College but anything less aesthetic than this bare room would be hard to find. Utterly soulless, the hum of 20 smartphones and the ventilation, windows you can’t open and selflocking doors you need a code to enter. We start to sing. We sing our way out of this dry and empty room and into another. As we pass nearer or further from one another our voices vibrate together jarring and ringing in the air. They listen to my story and it’s like I can sense their keen visualization in the atmosphere. This kind of ‘teaching’ is a bit like surfing on a wave. I provide a kind of structure but all the time tuning into their energy, their questions, their worries and their great enthusiasm. And the sea that’s carrying me and them is essentially a sea of trust without which none of this can happen.

Something funny happened at the end of the evening. A confident teacher and coach shared her dread of the coming performance with me. I talked about how my own terror abated and how dread can contribute. Then I tried something new. At the next session I want them to open out their stories into a whole days experience for kids. So I splashed up my website on the wall with bits of video from various projects. Ow! Suddenly I found myself very uncomfortable and nervous as if I was painting a huge selfie on the wall. Had to cut it short. So weird the way an image of myself made me feel vulnerable and fake.

Our next session was yesterday. I had given them copies of stories which Marte and I are working on for a book. Of course as soon as they start to work on them they discover the holes. Holes I half knew were there but in the act of telling or preparing to tell they surface. This is going to make this book even more fabulous. Like the woman who was working on the story of Johnny Appleseed picked up on something that has been bothering me. How come Johnny Appleseed went round America planting apple trees when you have to graft apple trees to make them produce proper apples? She had gone home and dived deep into the story of the real Johnny. I called Marte who is a biologist – ‘Johnny was against grafting, so his apples were used for pie and cider.’ Those true life stories are tricky as hell. You are bound to end up lying because as you weren’t there and are not God you have no chance of knowing the truth. But my heart swelled as I saw that lady turn into young Johnny Appleseed boy, pick up a piece of imaginary earth from the horrible aestheticless room and bring it to life, complete with earthworms and the autumn smell of a thousand rotted leaves. M1 The students went to town. They opened up what was just a story to a day where the kids are getting a huge experience which involves maybe 3 or 5 subjects in their curriculum. Whats wonderful, in my experience, is that the children will remember both the story, the knowledge and the day for years. In the story where the King of the Deer turns India vegetarian the students brought in a domestic science teacher so all the kids can learn to cook a good veggie dish. In ‘The First Wolf’ they got all the kids to create their own animal from sticks and moss and bits, and then make their own story in their own setting in the forest. They taught the kids to plant a fig tree, to sow seeds with and without water.  A cornucopia of creativity it was. And they taught us to sing. Again.

The story Marathon


I took this picture from the end of a 17,5 hour train journey to get to Skellefteå for the first ever Storytelling conference in Sweden followed by a marathon. Was it worth it?

The conference was fantastic, loved sharing my stories with such a lively listening audience.

Then you look at the marathon programme from 12 to 21 with hardly room for breath and are suspicious it may suffocate you.
Christina Claesson starts. She has reworked her story since yesterday and decided to tell only in nouns.

What? Can it work? Especially for me can i fathom a story told only in Swedish nouns? She tells the story on 3 levels. She is quite hot, her eyes wide. She is giving a lot. Nouns are pictures and beneath the gallows tree I see Yggdrasil. Wow, it works, I follow all three levels.

When Ida Junker tells you a story you hardly notice she is doing it. Before you know what has happened she has picked you up and taken you on a journey. You are safe. Its a really enjoyable trip, she points out all the interesting details and you got a gift to take home. Because the story is so clearly told you will remember when you retell.

Abbi Patrix was a joy to hear, Roi Gal Or was so moving, but among all the excellent one storyteller stands out for me that day. Jorgen Stenberg. He seems not a storyteller but a man. A pretty large Sami man. Young. He starts by telling of the men who are his sources. They speak like this he says…………………..

He stands there quite silent staring at us intensely. Sometimes after this kind of speaking the old men say to him – “Well? Answer for hells sake!”

He tells an incredible story of his meeting with a bear. How the bear came nearer and nearer so he could reach out and touch it, so he finally decided to follow the old men’s advice. He warns us this is rude. Then he bends down and holds it in the crutch. It works, the bear stops attacking.

He talks about the Swedish language. It’s a crow language and he squawks in Swedish to demonstrate. We look at one another. Can it be this nice good man hates the Swedish language? He goes on, “Yes, you should be like me,” he says, “speak my language it sounds so much nicer, so much better than yours.”
“That’s what they told my grandparents.”
Oh right yes, thats actually what the Samis were told. For so long. Both in Norway and in Sweden. Your language is ugly, stop talking it. We get it.

Then he tells us how he feels sometimes out on the Vidda. Knowing that climate change, mining, our ignorance and trashing of nature means the life with reindeer, in his family for so long, is drawing to a close. He says he feels so bad he can’t say. He has made a joik. To express the unexpressable.

What a day! Thanks to Rose-Marie, Jonas and all who made such a warm and wonderful festival. The train journey was 21 hours but fantastic trees and breakfast at the Grand Hotel, here is the toilet: