The experiences which have broken me open, torn open the veil and pushed me through, have always been about the land.
Like feeling that you’re risking death each day, flying in a single-engined tin can in the bone-shattering afternoon turbulence of an empty New Mexico desert. (We’re not here to be safe. We’re here to risk everything. Until you’ve looked Death in the face, and smiled, and kept on flying anyway, how can you ever really live? How can you ever imagine you have anything to say?)
Four years on a croft at the farthest, remotest, westernmost edge of Europe, sandwiched between sea and mountain, battered by prevailing winds in two directions. Nothing but you and sea and stone. No quarter. No tree will grow there; can you? What you become, amidst this beauty-ridden extremity, is an apprentice to the land itself: to the deep imagination of this beautiful, animate Earth. You’ve learned how to fall before (if you want to learn how to fly, you have to be prepared to fall) so you close your eyes and open your arms and break your own heart and fall into the land’s deep dreaming.
A few more years, and what goes around comes around, and there you are in a New Mexico desert again, this time feet firmly planted on the ground. On a third long sojourn into that deep white canyon, the land makes love to you. (No, you don’t need to know any more than that.) You gaze into the heart of rock and understand the wisdom of the ashes of ancient volcanoes. There is something inside you that is other-than-human. In the middle of that long night, coyotes cackle and yip under your borrowed bedroom window. Funny guys, coyotes.
It’s deep, this apprenticeship – it’s deep. You walk out into the wild each day, and you start talking. Or singing, or dancing. Waltz with the wild western wind, and what a partner you’ll find. Screech your heart out to a scald crow, and she’ll out-Trickster you anyway. So laugh – above all, always laugh, and wherever possible, at yourself – and sit, then, and just listen. Never mind your stories: listen to the land’s.
It’s a long apprenticeship; you can’t just blunder in. You have to make the full journey to know the land’s stories, to decode the land’s language, and the price of tickets is steep. You have to make the full journey to know the stories and tell them true; you can’t just steal in like a thief in the night and squeeze them on like borrowed clothes. They’ll never really fit. You have to earn the land’s stories. And you earn them by showing up. By putting the time in. Become a supplicant, not a conqueror – for god knows, enough has been pillaged from these lands over the years by men who bring their foreign dogma to compete with our home-grown – land-grown – wisdom.
Dive deep, and when your lungs start to explode, dive deeper still. Deeper and deeper, till all your fine certainties drift away, till everything you ever thought you valued is lost, till there’s nothing left but you and the mother of the sea, you and the father of tides, you and the wild wave. Let your crown go, cast off your costumes and contraptions. Let it be. Let it be.
There you are, cast up, washed out – but still breathing. Cast aside your sea-longings and set foot on terra firma again. Now you’re ready to listen. Now you’re ready to begin.