Not so very long ago, I spent four years living on and working the land in one of the wildest, harshest and most remote parts of the UK: on the farthest western shore of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The place where the road ran out, and there was nowhere left to hide. Those of you who’ve read If Women Rose Rooted will know that it was something of a baptism of fire. It broke me open; broke my life open. Four years with my hands in cold, wet, acidic peat which didn’t really want to grow what I wanted to grow there. Four years mucking out pigsties, close-shepherding sheep, cuddling milk cows, crying over dead lambs, burying dead dogs, screaming at ravens stealing away baby geese. Four years battered by the prevailing salt gales from two directions. Four years walking on Llewissian gneiss, some of the oldest and hardest rock on the planet. These are the experiences which tear open the veil for us – which not only show us the opening, but shove us the hell through.
That land taught me everything I needed to know; hurled me headlong into the biggest lessons of my life. I couldn’t have done it by taking a trip. I couldn’t have understood that land’s ecology, its flora and fauna, the way it adapts to every new season. I certainly couldn’t have fallen into that land’s dreaming, come to understand its stories, come to know its mythical characters and talk to them in my dreams. For that, you have to dive deep. You have to stay. And to keep on staying while everything you hold dear is challenged or ripped apart.
I guess I’m not good at dilettantes. To get the stories, you have to make the journey. Otherwise, you’re just stealing a tail-feather from Old Crane Woman. And if you’re going to steal from the gods, you’d better be prepared to have your liver pecked out for your trouble.
It’s all about apprenticeship. Yes, I’m still talking about it, for those of you who remember my post on the subject from over a year ago now: ‘On calling, and the lost fairy-tale art of apprenticeship’. Here’s what I wrote at the time.
It’s this rush to do, to accomplish, which is one of the most pernicious aspects of contemporary culture: it robs us of our ability to fully participate in the process of our own becoming. We want to have achieved our dreams — but we don’t necessarily value the work that must be put in to achieve them. We want to be writers, for example — but we don’t want to spend the years learning the craft of how to write. We see the results all around us, everywhere we look: overnight celebrities, instant experts, pop-up personalities with more form than substance. This is not how it’s supposed to be.
Here is what we’ve forgotten: we’ve forgotten the value of true apprenticeship. And as ever, we find the treasure we imagine we’ve lost hidden there in full view for everyone to see, embedded in our old myths and fairy tales. For at the heart of so many good fairy tales is the critically important concept of apprenticeship. In one of my favourite stories, ‘The Black Bull of Norroway’, a girl must spend seven long years apprenticed to a blacksmith — the only person who can make the shoes which she needs to scale the enormous glass mountain which prevents her from continuing her quest to save her ensorcelled husband. …
The messages are clear: sometimes, you have to step off the path you’re so determinedly striding along, and learn new skills. And learn them properly — through your own lived experience, not experience copied from others; and by continuing to learn for however long is necessary … To fully express our calling, we must be able to tolerate the idea of apprenticeship. To understand what we don’t know, to do the proper research, to find the right teachers, to embody the necessary lived experience before we imagine that we’re ready to share our gift with the world. Apprenticeship requires humility: a little-valued quality in a world hell-bent on glory. All the best fairy-tale heroines knew it to be true: sometimes it’s okay to say that you’re not quite there yet.
Then, I was writing about apprenticeship in the context of ‘calling’; now I’m writing about it in the context of the land. To fully enter into the land’s secrets, and to imagine yourself ready to offer them up to others, you need to live in that land. Not forever, but for long enough. For long enough to show it that you’re serious – no fair-weather friend, but someone who’s capable of true relationship. Who comes not to devour (there’s been more than enough of that) but to cherish. Who’s prepared to put the time in, to commit to being around. And while you’re doing that, you need to court the land. Just as you’d court another human. Sing it songs, recite poems to it, tell it stories – but above all, listen to it. Shut up about you for a while, and just listen. Because it’s not about us. It was never about us. It’s about getting out of the festering prison of our own egos, and letting the land lick us clean of our pride.