Nature Practice

Nowadays, for many, walking in nature has to be a discipline and a practice. In previous eras it was a necessity, but now people can go weeks or even months without any contact with nature.

The best way to explore our natural landscape is to go alone. Anywhere will do, but the further from traffic, people, and buildings, the better.

Often the natural world has remained unchanged for generations. Even if the landscape itself has altered, the elements of nature – earth, sky, the changing weather, still exist as they did for our forefathers.

This tree is a protected ancient lime, there has been a lime tree in this spot from before Roman times

The benefits of a regular ‘nature practice’ are many.

When we go into nature we escape from other people; it is people that cause us to harden our identity into someone they can recognise as unchanging. Without the reinforcement of other people we are free to drop our egos and our conditioning and spend some time in just ‘being.’

The presence of trees, grass, and flowers, which do not speak or seek to persuade us of their opinions, can encourage the walker to do the same, to let go of the need to project anything of our ‘selves’.

The gentle rhythm of breath and footsteps can lead to a quietening.

In the quiet of nature we are more inclined to listen – not for anything in particular, but to sense our surroundings more intensely. The wind, the direction of the sun, the ground under our feet, the buzz of insects, the cry of a bird. It is surprising what insights these can bring.

Many people are hardly ever alone and are afraid of being alone in a remote location. We are lucky in England that predators are few, but we can still use the fear of being alone to our advantage. It makes us more alert, we become more like what we are – an animal in the wild.

In this alert state, with our senses open, we are at once both bigger and smaller  – we are in an expanded condition, yet small in comparison to the immensity of nature and its longevity.

There are special places in the landscape that people have sought out for generations – a spring, a lake, a mountain top, a particular tree. These are places of pilgrimage. The English term ‘pilgrim’ originally comes from the Latin peregrinus (per = through and ager = field or land), someone on a journey. Often the sites have been marked in some way, but you could always find your own resonant spot, and mark it yourself.

A regular journey to the place you have chosen will mark that place for future pilgrims, even if there is nothing externally visible – very much in the way that continual journeying across a field wears a footpath. The process of doing this regular practice, alert to the changes of seasons both inside and outside yourself, is the transformative thing.

Honouring the landscape in this way, by your particular and decisive presence, connects you to all the others who have done the same, those from before, and those that will come after you.

When your time is over, the traces of your practice will still remain.

The Wearing of Horns 2 – Ram’s horns

I’ve been experimenting with the idea of wearing horns as a way of connecting with different states of awareness, and activating different parts of the brain. In my last post about this, I looked at antlers; today it is the turn of the ram. If left alone, ram’s horns are not shed like antlers but the horns grow throughout the lifespan of the animal, and eventually they may form a full spiral. These are different from the horns of goats which usually grow backwards from the skull.

The idea of a horn that curls around your ears is an old one, and the natural spiral is one of the most obvious in nature to early mankind. Sheep are one of our earliest domesticated animals, and the ram is traditionally the undisputed leader of the flock. In a fight for supremacy, competing rams would butt heads in shows of strength, and to show dominancy over the flock.

My main interest in the ram’s horn is that the imaginary wearing of these horns is a way to encourage deep listening. The ram’s horn was possibly one of our earliest instruments, and there is also something haunting about the sound made by the blowing of a horn, the most basic of ways to amplify the human breath. It survives still as a call in hunting, where the simple hunting horn is still used as a signal to riders and hounds. Despite its limitations of tone, many different signals can be given with this instrument in the right hands.

14th Century hunting horn players. Reproduction from a book by the French hunter Gaston Phoebus (Febus) count of Foix (1331-1391), showing a group of hunting horn players. Picture from the SciencePhotoLibrary

Just ‘Google’ ram’s horn, and the sound of it is enough to awaken some deep recognition of the call.

The word for “horn” in French is “cor,” and in Italian “corno” originally meaning an animal’s horn, directly expressing the animal origins of the horn. The word survives in the word ‘cornet’ and in our designation in the orchestra of the ‘horn section’. The British still find echoes of this in the brass band, that most quintessential sound at rural fairs and fetes.

Ram’s horn (Wikipedia)

The ram’s horn has long been used as a way to summon people to meet. In the Basque Country there is an old practice of blowing the horn from five mountains once a year. These mountains are called the montes bocineros, or ‘hornblower mounts’. Up until the late 16th century the people were summoned to the General Council in the town of Guernica by the blowing of horns from the summits. Biblical ‘trumpets’ were probably ram’s horns and survive in the Hebrew shofar, the horn used in various ritual calls to prayer.

In Irish myth, the goddess Brigid, a member of the tribe the Tuatha de Danann and the daughter of The Dagda was the owner of Cirb — king of all the rams and sheep of Ireland — including the seven legendary magical sheep owned by the sea god Manannán. These magical sheep were able to produce enough wool to clothe every man, woman and child in the world. So the ram and its horn was associated with plenty, both in the Irish myth and in other cornucopia myths. Many of these myths have the quality of infinity embedded in them – of the ‘never-ending’ ; never-ending food, never-ending riches.

Once a sound is begun, it keeps on reverberating, though it may now be inaudible to our limited ears. The waves of sound are continuing. A sound from long ago is still reverberating now. I have found this a helpful idea to sit with, as I stretch my hearing sense to listen during contemplation.

The ram’s horn signifies the hunt, the summons, the alertness and readiness of the sheep before it was domesticated. Put on the horns and heed the call.