We made camp in a small copse of deciduous trees; an island in the midst of vast agricultural fields that sweep up and over the undulating land. Last night as the night grew dark we lay in the van and listened for sounds of the night. My husband turned to me and said, “it’s so quiet here; there’s not a road to be heard or any humans. Why is it so quiet?” In a place like this, that is far from nearly all humans, with no way past our little camping place to travel further into the valley. Yet the land is denuded of plants; the wildest of its nature has long been tamed or banished by agriculture and it may at first seem hard to find Anima, spirit, soul that isn’t just baking sun and dusty stubble from the already-gathered harvest. And silence at night.
With silence and gentle attention, I notice that here there is something speaking, but quietly.
It was obvious to me: if the land was tired and dry at the end of a long, chained summer, then I had to go looking for its Anima, away from my noisy, happy children on holiday and loving it, away from it all, back up the hill to an ancient church I had spied on the way here. It too was marooned in a vast field of ploughed stubble and most likely was looking forward to having someone pay a visit.
I got on the bike and cycled up the track to the church. There was not a person around, just a tractor in the far field, going up and down, near and far, in lines with his plough. The church was almost entirely surrounded by ploughed field, and to its side was a small square cemetery. I walked to its large, old oak door. It was locked. I peered through the generously sized key hole, expecting to see only the black of a close dividing wall. But I looked straight onto the back of the east wall, where hung a simple black wooden cross, over a simple altar with two candles and a couple of ornate devotional items. But for the cross I could have made this altar myself. (In fact, I have a Virgin Mary statuette on my altar at home, given to me by the very strange vicar of my youth. Looking back, I realise he was probably a mystic and esoteric. He was very wonderful.) The place was talking directly to me as I peered through. It said:
Not all who venerate the Christ are misguided, although I wonder if you cannot yet see that in truth. I hold a wisdom within my walls so ancient that these fields, that oak, that door, those bones, know it to be true. They do not begrudge me my locked door, nor my walls of rock and plaster. They do not scorn that I do not hold Mass under the trees. They do not begrudge the ancient site I sit upon. I am not a great cathedral of light and power. I am Saint Martin. Once a pagan, I was a hermit and lived a simple life, devoted to God. You are welcome here, who has pilgrimaged even just a little way to peer through my door at the simple devotion within. It is familiar isn’t it? I could just as easily take this into the fields, under that oak. But see, the farmer is ploughing and the wasps use that tree as a home. I am content within these walls. But you know that I am everywhere, don’t you?
I turned to the tree. Indeed, there was a busy collection of wasps, swarming into a crack in the oak. I looked back at the church and saw what must be bullet holes, at head height.
Yes. I have always protected those in need. Sometimes they have died for what I cannot protecting them from. You want to be a hermit too, don’t you, I think we would have understood each other in life.
Oh indeed, to be devoted to Spirit and to renounce all material life would be so beautiful. Yet my children grow, my husband needs me and my life is not one of a hermit. Not this lifetime anyway. Yet I am one step away from Spirit much of the time; I just have to listen. Listening (or feeling, to be more precise) is something I have become much better at.
I have for many years had a near-instant connection to the genus loci of a place and can tell with my gut (for that is where things communicate with me) if a place is good, positive, buoyant or if there is negative, unsettling energy there. This has led me unwittingly and unfortunately, to upset the human acceptance of what I should do and has in fact lost me money on pre-booked places, only to arrive and to leave within minutes, apologising and cringing to the unsuspecting owners. For if a place feels right then I’m really and truly right at home. If it feels wrong, well, then I am not. My skin crawls and my hackles rise. It doesn’t happen often but when it does I have learned to take heed, no matter what the cost. And cost it usually does. But not deep down, as the feeling of relief as I step away is worth any social discomfort and lost money. I sometimes wonder why other humans cannot feel it, in these places. Perhaps they do but do not put any virtue in taking heed.
I looked again at the oak tree, quite happily hosting a family of wasps. The noise of the tractor came nearer and the farmer began to stare at me. I stared back. It’s best to look like you’re looking, I think. Trying to look innocent makes me feel guilty.
Suddenly I was back in the time of the Nazi occupation of this place, where the French resistance fought for years and finally won. So many lives were lost and many rural buildings still bear the scars. This ancient, simple church was one of them.
I am a hermit, and not even bullets in my walls can hurt my solitude.
What of the land? Has it got nothing to say? Or do you always speak for this land now? Who are you?
If you choose to call me Martin, as others have done, then that is alright. You know that saints are placed in certain places in the land precisely because the voice of the land is loud there and sensitive, learned people can hear. This land has been speaking far, far longer than this church has existed here. It has caused fear in some. Some have seen this as blissful and joyous. They call me Martin because it helps them to hear the land with a human voice.
So what does the land say?
You know! You know, and you only ask me to explain because then it is clear. You know the land speaks in a low hum, vibrates constantly, pushes, grows, transmutes, births. You know the land speaks in the winds, in the buzz of the wasps’ wings and the feel of dust blown in your face. It speaks to you in the hill as you climb and the rush of the descent. It speaks through the heat and the coolness of shade. It speaks of it all; endurance and love, of creativity and acceptance of everything in all creation. It speaks of you, of me, of everyone, of the wasps and the corn, it even speaks of the tractor, as if it had a soul. The land knows of all and speaks of it in its own way. It speaks of the cat you saw hunting in the stubble and it speaks of your children. It tells me of your life, just as it is continuously telling you the very same tale. The land knows you, child. Knows everyone’s story.
Dumbfounded at this truth, I stand in silence. Of course, the land knows of me and my life. She has been telling me of it since the moment of my conception. The land is the Greatest Storyteller. It is me who is in Her story and I am a character of Her great tale.
Many have said it, the best known is your Shakespeare:
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.”
I am Martin, the voice of the Pagan and the Devoted, and the voice of this place, given to me to tell you of this hilltop.
I thank the church and step away from its being. I stand in silence and watch the tractor as it goes up and down the field, making such beautifully straight furrows, kicking up a cloud of dust that I can feel on my teeth. Suddenly, the complete and unshakeable truth of the moment hits me: even the dust cloud is telling me of my life. Even the wasps’ drone is the voice of Her, the Land, as she tells me my story. The walls of the church and the locked door are lines in the tale of my life.
With this knowledge, I get back onto my bike and I set of down the hill, back to my children and to the valley.
For nearly a decade, Harriet Sams has been reconnecting people to wounded places through bearing witness to the places we love and bringing healing to the imminently threatened. For more information please visit: www.radicaljoy.org