I’ve always had a thing for gateways. There aren’t any stone circles very close to where I live, without needing to drive a little way. I’m never more than about ten miles from one, I have to say, they litter this northern land. But I digress. Instead of stone circles, I have taken to finding the old stone uprights that demarcate an old footpath, too narrow for corralled sheep to squeeze through but perfect for a foot-traveller. They are a sure sign that travelling on foot was not only normal, but so ordinary as to be an integrated part of fencing when land became enclosed.
What came first, the tracks or the fields? It’s a combination of both; footpaths are ancient ways, yet many were officially rerouted, or turned into larger carriageways, big enough to carry carts and carriages or became drovers’ lanes. The Enclosures Acts were a series of Acts passed between 1604 and 1914, which slowly or drastically, in their turn, made it legal for landowners to put up hedges, walls and fences, although the act of enclosing land really began with the Bronze Age stone clearing. In order to make fields more workable and productive, they moved the rocks lying scattered in the land and built stone walls with them. In fact, some of the still used dry stone walls are over 4,000 years old. In the Middle Ages it became a norm to have open fields, stripped into tilled areas, communally worked by labourers and local families. These open fields were subsequently removed by the Enclosures Acts and many of the field systems we see today are the outcome of this aggressive succession of Acts, and many of the land workers and their families left to find work in the larger towns and cities.
Yet the tradition of keeping trackways open, like a thread puncturing the walls with a string that traverses this land, endures to this day. I walk these ghostlike trails, sometimes nothing more than a half-pipe of flattened grass, that join the punctures in the hedges. Some of the uprights are held on either side by robust walls, some stand utterly alone, where once a wall must have stood. Some are ancient posts in modern wire fences. Yet many are guarded by Hawthorn, Nettles and Brambles, which tells the traveller of very ancient roots.
It was the Hawthorn that grabbed me today, as I stepped a foot onto the makeshift stile. Caught in the act of passing over, Hawthorn punctured my skin on the wrist and held me to a charge. Eat one of my berries, it said. Take my flesh beyond this portal, and only then will I let you pass.
I took my foot off the stile and turned my attention fully to the bush. Its bright red berries are turning now to a glorious Burgundy colour, and taking one in my fingers I could feel how soft it was. Telling the Hawthorn that this is the berry I had chosen, I gently tugged and it came away into my hand. I nibbled it, around the stone in its centre. A wave of delicious, fleshy autumn filled my mouth. Hawberries taste a little like avocado, yet a wild, potent sort that is so good for the heart that I have made a remedy with it before. It is a beautiful kind of hedge medicine; hawthorns can be used in many of their forms; eaten as blossom (the delicate petals are rich with natural sugars and are really tasty), or their berries and leaves can be collected for lowering blood pressure and assisting with opening the arteries. It is potent, though so if you already take medicines do research if taking hawthorn is a good idea on top of what you already take.
I then passed through the portal. I repeated this ritual at every stile, noting how these uprights form the skeleton of human movements over the long centuries. OS maps show just how criss-crossed our land is with these footpaths and I feel that we have a duty to tread them. Not all paths lead to significant, historical places, yet all can lead us back in time, or to the now. Even if we don’t travel more than a mile radius from our home, but follow these ancient ways as they turn and cross, then we will be opening up a box of delights. What a gift our ancestors have given us!
Perhaps I am drawn to write this at this time of year, of the end of things and the beginning of things. Winter is the time of deep sleep and we can see it, feel it, in the world all around us. How vitally important it is to sleep. Yet there is another portal that I have been through. The portal of reawakening to the dread of climate chaos this is coming ever nearer. How can I sleep when I have been reawakened? I am being pulled both ways and I need to come to find the balance in this. I have a feeling that I am not alone. More than ever, we cannot go back to sleep, because very soon, if we do not pull back from the precipice, we will enter into full ecological collapse. And trust me, that won’t be pretty. Climate migration, agricultural collapse, famine, job losses and riots, economic collapse, the living world will collapse which means no fish, no crops, no fuel…. Just very desperate people in a dying world.
That’s what is over the precipice. And, no, sorry guys, I’m not going to pull any more punches. This is how it feels to be awakened.
Yet, we can and MUST draw back from that precipice; buy local, till your own land, work in communities to produce food and fuel, no more flights, no more fossil fuels. Keep the bloody stuff in the ground. Did you know that when fossil fuels were laid down, there were no mammals because the atmosphere wasn’t breathable and the mean temperature was simply too high? Those trees, which we are so blithely burning, made our atmosphere perfect for mammals by absorbing carbon dioxide and turning it into their own bodies, and still are doing so. The act of burning that carbon simply puts it back into the atmosphere, thus raising the temperature and eventually making our own world uninhabitable in the process. So KEEP IT IN THE GROUD! Change your energy supplier, walk, cycle, have webinars and don’t travel, buy local, organic food. Change the way we farm and divest from entirely fossil fuel-dependent agriculture. (How much farming does your local farmer do without his tractor, quad, bought in feeds, industrial fertilisers etc? Not much.)
This is a portal that I have been very unceremoniously shoved through. Yes, the turning of the year suggests that it is time to rest, but our human-made crisis is shouting the opposite. It’s time to listen, to walk our land and fall back in desperate love with it and our own survival, then to act.
Get involved or get educated and I’m here to support you, make small but significant changes but firstly, it’s time to acknowledge that things are moving fast.