A Walk Through Ragged Beauty

You never know where you’ll find beauty amidst ugliness and waste —
and you never know when the act of making beauty there can bring extraordinary gifts.
 
This personal story by Harriet Sams of Yorkshire, England relates the story of a recent such adventure.
 
I awoke early this morning after having barely enough sleep. Outside was dark and starless. It would be one of those grey mornings when the sun wouldn’t arise and my barely awoken exhaustion would find no soothing transition into day; I would just have to endure being awake until I could have a noontime nap. Let me be frank here; I was not in a particularly happy mood. I cannot in all honesty tell you that this day I was filled with joy to be alive. I was feeling, well, totally crap. On top of this feeling was that desperate uber-consciousness that was reproving me of this feeling. I should be feeling blessed; to be alive is to be blessed. To be conscious was in itself a miracle, the day was a gift.
Yes, yes I know all that. Yet it is important to say that some days don’t feel awakened, expansive, grateful. This was one of them.
But I had one really important thing to do, which I had promised to a group of Druids the day before, and to myself. I had promised to take my deerskin drum and go up a local limestone carr, to find an overhang and to drum into the East. This task was to be a ritual of grief and failure. I had let them, and me, down and this task was my way of redressing the energetic balance, somehow. I needed to face them and to drum into the wind.
Taking my drum and dog I drove up the desolate upper Pennine Moor, up to Goldsborough Carr. Heading into the wind, the rising sun broke free of the clouds behind me and I was suddenly and spectacularly held between bright dawn light and an arching rainbow that seemed to have its ending and beginning right on the bonnet of my car. Transfixed, I slowly wended the car around the narrow lanes, watching fascinated as the rainbow swayed with my movement, left and right, just out of reach. For more than a few minutes this rainbow accompanied me, until finally it was subsumed by oncoming rain, with clouds enveloping the sun.
By the time I reached the carr the rain had begun to fall with real intent. It is so much windier, colder, up on high ground; the gods of the valleys give way to very different ones up here. I grew up in the far north of England, where the valley gods of seasons and harvest in the Lowlands live cheek-by-jowl with the erratic, unpredictable gods of High Ground. I can feel the difference as I climb higher. Winter can come and destroy all that I hold as reliable and solid with the descent of a single cloud. I have been lost in freezing mist more than once up on a fell. Lost, yes. I do not say that lightly. Not only lost to my bearings or where to place my feet but lost in a world which Beings who I rarely meet inhabit, where I simply pretend to understand. High places are not of our comfortable valley lives; high places are where the Gods and Goddesses really do live; to step into their realm is to walk in another world.
Up here on the carr, people have been venerating this place since the Neolithic. There are cups and rings dotted around the escarpment,  rock art pecked into the bedrock thousands of years ago. I chose a small overhang under which to sit, a cup mark directly over my head on the underside of the rock. I am not the first to shelter here. My deerskin drum, surprisingly, was still taught even in this rain, so I began to drum. The voice of the drum resonated around the small space and I felt a delight shiver through me at the power. Drumming to the East, I feel the gathering of Druids reaching out their energies to me and we connected.
Slowly, the drum began to loosen. The voice of the drum deepened until I knew I had only a couple of more beats before it would become too slack to play. So I finished the drumming, and allowed the silence to return. Curlews called as they wheeled about. The oystercatchers twittered, a couple of geese honked as they winged overhead. Dog and I sat and watched sheets of rain pass us by. Perhaps we had found a little foothold of the valley gods, for in here we felt detached, voyeuristic, apart from the elemental dance wheeling about the land.
After a time of sitting, Dog got restless and decided to walk out, sniffing for adventure. I followed him out of our shelter and up, out and into the wild, ragged moorland.
Faced with the sudden force of the wind and rain, my long hair escaped my shawl and flapped chaotically around my head. I could see it snaking like Medusa’s serpents around me and I laughed. Walking into the wind I felt the power of the day, the drumming and the elements combining within me and around me as I walked through the land. Northwards I walked, away from the road and into unknown land, towards a group of hills that I had always wondered about. If the carr was the seat of ancestral power, of rock carvings and mystery, then these hills were surely something else? Did they house huts, nestled in between them, safe from flood and wind? As I walked I sent my feelings out ahead and below me; my hands glided through the air, feeling for energies. My practiced Archaeologist’s eyes scanned for telltale lumps and bumps. A discarded bathroom sink lay on the top of a hill, inexplicable and comical in its randomness. Yet, whatever deeper secrets this landscape held it kept them close, not letting me feel very much at all, except questions. And a strong feeling of secrecy.
I walked on, over each denuded hillock and down into each dale. Suddenly I came to a strange horseshoe-shaped hill, two peaks connected by a high bank, within which there was a marshy basin, filled with reeds. Here, suddenly, was another place altogether. Two things could have made this place marshy: either it had once been dry and protected by the bank, making a perfect place for dwellings, yet over time it had slowly succumbed to the bog, or it was once much wetter, making this a secluded, private pool. My body felt the thrill of understanding; this was a sacred place. A pool I felt it surely must have been, a place of clear, pure water. I could see people gathered at the edge, dipping their hands in and drinking, or filling wooden pots. I could see people placing offerings, keeping strict rules about the water, keeping it clean and safe to drink. These rules became sanctity, Holy. This water had once been Holy water.
I stood for some time here, at the edge. Gazing, remembering, imagining. Until Dog turned his back and loped off towards another adventure. I made a final blessing and turned away.
We walked towards a quarry that I had not noticed before. How strange it was, I thought, that I have been to this carr so many times before yet had never noticed this wound in the land. As I walked towards the horseshoe shape that had been carved out of the hill, it seemed to shrink from a monstrous, dark gash to something much smaller, like so many of the older quarries in the area, its small size gave its age away. As I reached it, I realised that small though it was, vast volumes of stone had been removed, spewed, discarded all around. I picked my way gingerly over the uneven ground, drawn to the quarry face. Crags loomed all about me and overburden lay discarded and dangerous in large lumps on the ground. The place looked as though it had been suddenly abandoned; they had come to quarry, and then simply left one day, leaving the mess and the destruction all around. I wondered if many people ever came here. There was no obvious path. I pushed inwards and upwards yet felt as if there was nothing to find here, except desolation.
I reached the quarry face. As I crested the last brow of the cluttered interior I came suddenly and utterly unexpectedly to a still, black pool. I stood, gazing into its depths, spellbound. Dog stood too. We listened to the wind whistle above us; eddies caught and swirled around the quarry, ruffling the surface of the pool. Reeds swayed at the edges. This I knew was deep and dangerous, not to be swam in. I didn’t anoint my brow with this water, even though I usually do, when I come to magical pools. Of its magic I had no doubt. Yet this was wild, damaged magic, that had been made by human hands, but needed no human to restore it.
I turned away and picked my way back over the heaving, deformed land. Yet, walking away, I noticed, on a long-exposed rock face near the edge of the quarry, some cup marks, five of them. I stared and stared. Surely, I was mistaken. Surely rock art from thousands of years ago could not have escaped the pick and the dynamite? Yet, the more I looked the more I became convinced; this was really ancient. At very close inspection I could still make out the individual pick marks of the antler that had been used to make the cups. Yes, there they were. I stood, humbled. This wounded place held desperate beauty that brought tears to my eyes. Beauty from a human being from so long ago as to be nearly unreachable, and a beauty so wild and dangerous as to demand we humans stay away, for its beauty to exist without witness.
Turning one last time in a full circle around the broken place, I gave thanks to the Spirits of this hidden, secretive place, and left.

When I finally made it back to the car and headed home, I realised just how very tired I was. I can’t wait to make a veggie fry-up, I thought, and drink a hot cuppa tea. My mood had been lifted, my tiredness and grief transmuted by the walk. Who is wounded, I wondered, the land or me? Perhaps both, perhaps I see its wounds precisely because I have my own. Or perhaps we are both unbroken and whole, just as we are.

Trebbe Johnson
Trebbe JohnsonFounder
Trebbe is the author of The World Is a Waiting Lover and 101 Ways to Make Guerrilla Beauty. Her new book, Radical Joy for Hard Times: Finding Meaning and Making Beauty, will be published in Fall 2018 by North Atlantic Books. Her articles about people’s emotional and spiritual relationship with nature have appeared in Orion, Sierra, Ecopsychology, The Ecologist, The Nation, Harper’s and other magazines. She lives with her husband, Andrew Gardner, in rural northeastern Pennsylvania, a region currently under exploitation by natural gas companies.

Image Credit:

  • Sams Dog: Harriet Sams

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