This is an extract from a work in process: The Land Incanted, (Earth and Memory).
‘What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new
under the sun.’
The Eternal Return, Ecclesiastes, Hebrew Bible
It took some time for me to find the silent place, A specific place and time, chosen to make an offering. A thread of shoreline, wind-caressed, rain-battered, a place beset by squalls and raging tides, where a rust-russet sky bathes the shore in eerie copper light. And yet here, in a tiny cove, scrambling over treacherous rocks cloaked in slime and algae, I would place these things, somewhere secluded, away from prying eyes.
A clutch of shattered blue-brown eggs, three of them, cast aside by some errant Kittiwake, now filled with worm casts, bladderwrack, and tiny motes of shoreline detritus.
But what compelled me to perform such a gesture? This tiny, ephemeral rite? Of all things, these discarded shells had known birth and life, and then abandoned, they lay in wait, lost, sequestered, wind blown on the tide strand. And equally the worm casts, lugworm excretions once coiled onto sand, the bladderwrack, and decaying seeds of unknown things retrieved from shoreline middens, all spoke of lives lived, now lost to the sea, orphaned on the shore, or ethereally set adrift in shivering tide pools.
I first made offerings on the cusp of summer, ten years ago on an island in the Canaries. My wife and I had been separated for 6 months, our relationship had strained and collapsed to a point where we simply could not be around each other, and so we went our separate ways. Yet with the passing of time, we yearned for each other once again, and reunited, we made the journey to an island place where we might find ourselves and start the process of mending our broken bonds. A quiet beach became our place of solace. We walked for miles and watched sunsets, talked, and danced, ate and drank, all of the things that couples do. Under the brittle lens of a blazing sun, we walked the volcanic shorelines and impulsively began making small circles and stacks of multi-coloured stones as way markers, crude cairns that spoke of our presence here. They somehow told our story.
As we scoured the rocky clefts, we arranged tumbles of rough hewn, rust-red ignimbrites over the black and claggy rocks in circular formations, and slowly we bonded again, and over these simple, shared acts of fun and placement, we realised that our emotional pain had subsided, and the process of healing had begun. We have been spiritually drawn to volcanic sites ever since, where the earth is at its most raw and elemental – Iceland, The Yucatan Peninsula, Santorini, Pompeii, places where the earth has eviscerated, opened, spilling itself onto the land, at once neutralising and cauterising the terrain, places where surfaces are erased, and then at a slow, geological pace, reformed into something newly reborn.
From that time onwards, walks for me became rites, meditations. I discovered the word Kora, a method of circumambulation used by Tibetan buddhists, a sacred walk in which the goal is not to reach a destination, but as a path to self enlightenment. This would be my chosen path. A way of attaining some form of inner peace and self-reflection, a way of laying to rest all of the conflict, turbulence and darkness that had troubled my soul since childhood. A way to heal, stitch thoughts, and commune with the land.
The nest of a small bird, a wind-blown bowl, now lost or discarded. Once a place for hatching and safety, elegantly formed, a delicate cradle threaded throughout with a weft of once-living things; mosses, grasses, feathers, lichen, wool. An organic vessel, still shimmering with the pulse of life.
I sought out those rare and wild places, uncontaminated by humanity, enriched with wonder, antiquity, and the dazzling spectacle of nature. And as I walked, I collected.
Discarded natural objects, husks, stones, feathers, marcescent leaves, fossils, seeds, bones and shells, the luminous ghosts of lost lives, faded with time, each with its own story, its own history. In some unknowable way these mute assemblages acted as symbols, physical mnemonics, caches for memory, and over time, words came, at first as unwelcome guests stirring my imagination, and then eventually settling into something fractured and half coherent that spoke of the land, of ancient voices, ancestral echoes that gained life once again on a page.
A shard of bark and a flake of flint taken from the floor of the ancient forest at Kingley Vale. The bark is from the mythic Yew, perhaps a thousand years old, the flint, is of similar antiquity, each elements in a story that spans millennia, the story of this sheltered vale.
I began to leave objects in the places that they were found, and created small, personal spoken rituals for them to fix them in my mind, and honour the places I had chosen. These innocuous votives will lie hidden, secluded in the landscape, and over time, will eventually succumb to the processes of decomposition, so completing a pattern, the carbon cycle, a returning of matter to its primal state. Nature does not know death – it only knows transformation, the Law of the Conservation of Matter, the eternal return, where all is held, suspended in equilibrium.
Elm leaf skeleton. Selected carefully from thousands found on a woodland floor, a desiccated bronze shell – decay has already begun, the rot set in, the leaf body has all but gone, yet the fragile tracery of a once living thing is still there. In every vein, a memory…
The placing, and re-placing of natural litter for me became a symbolic act, one that represented both the cycle of life, and also a private, personal transaction with the wild landscapes and places that resonated with me in some ineffable way. I began to question myself. Might it be that these obscure actions have some position in archaic folk practices? Was there some ancient mythic voice, lingering in my DNA? After much research, I can say with little doubt that acts of placement and offering do have some tangible connection with certain pagan rituals of the Norsemen, The Neolithic, the Celts or the Druids, rituals of propitiation or apotropaism, wish tokens or amulets perhaps. However, the impetus for me is intrinsically more prosaic, less couched in mysticism or religion than it is a simple act of marking, a way of locating my presence in these remote places, they are artefacts of remembrance. Or perhaps they are an amalgam, something close to way-markers, but also in some way spiritual, in nature, and of nature? It is a compulsion that I still strive to fully understand.
A parcel of leaves, twigs, seed shells and husks, bound with twine. Collectively they are an analogue of an exploratory walk through Wistman’s Wood, an ancient woodland nestled at the side of Dartmoor. For me they act as material context, integuments, connective threads that bind and tie me the this relict place. I will take this parcel with me to another place, far away..seeding it, marking it….
Over time, I began to transfer my little votives from one place to another, creating invisible filaments, lines of organic energy that connected me to a place, and connecting one place to another. Their forms evolved and mutated, and I began to bind elements together, composite forms made from natural disjecta that I assembled and kept, and then re-situated elsewhere. In some remarkable way, a significant place then becomes diffuse, atomised, dispersed, fusing landscapes and resonating anew in some fresh locale. I began to write short, powerful incantations and secreted them in the body of these parcels, an unseen gesture or private rite, a conversation with the land and a summoning of its essence. It all made a strange sort of sense that began to coalesce in my mind, which manifested in these wild places.
Cache of seeds and seed pods, left on Monamenach, Scotland. Assembled and arranged in a circle on a mountain rock, left for the wind to blow and scatter. Anemochory. Only nature and the elements can decide whether they take root, or rot and die, a lottery, a form of natural selection.
It began to strike me quite vividly, that these acts of placement and transference were in some way an obscure form of seeding.
The fundamental principles of ecology teach us that everything in the natural world is connected, or in the much-cited words of the natural philosopher John Muir – “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Things gradually started to fall into place, and with that, the realisation that words too are a kind of alchemy, with each element becoming a seed, that if assembled correctly, nurtured and cared for, could take root, flourish, and spark the imagination.
It is obvious to me now that my compulsion to make offerings springs from the need to connect, both to the land and the natural world. A way to learn the ways of things, and find my place amongst them.
Two glass phials, each containing an assemblage of seeds, insects and shells, each with an incantation folded into them, words that will stand the test of time. Interred, secreted, a miniature time capsule awaiting retrieval, at some remote and distant time, or perhaps never to be found?
Sometimes, the smallest things, the tiniest gestures, resonate in the most powerful ways.
B G Nichols is an artist/writer whose work is informed by lost and forgotten landscapes. Currently using the pen name Bran Graeme Nairne, he presents semi-abstract prose poetry, which he sees as ‘acts of retrieval which are attempts at reconstructing a half-imagined past’, re-enchanting and re-mythologising lost places.
Together with writers Martyn Hudson Watts, and Kerri ní Dochartaigh, he is currently working on Echtrai Journal, a newly formed independent publication that will include the work of the best new writing and art informed by landscapes lost, abandoned, forgotten, mythic. Submissions are still being accepted.
Nichols has written for Ernest Journal, The Learned Pig, The Clearing , Unofficial Britain, The Accidental Archive and others. He is currently in the process of writing a book of incantations and short-form prose, dedicated to his passions for lost landscapes, entitled The Land Incanted. You can find out more about his work and process here and here.
Follow him on twitter.
Photography by the author.