Episode #28  Fierce Tenderness and White Horse Hill Woman: the teachings of Carolyn Hillyer

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Musician, artist, maker-of-ceremony and guardian of the ancestors of the land, Carolyn Hillyer talks – and sings – about the three things that take care of this land: a deep honouring of the ancestors, a fierce guardianship, and the absolute heart-felt connection of tribe.

Carolyn lives on a 1,000 year old farm in the heart of Dartmoor. Her fierce, deeply spiritual guardianship of this place involves a heart-commitment to sharing the space with those who have been and those yet to come. As we near the end of (the first) Covid lockdown, she talks – and sings – of her spiritual connection to the ancestors of this land, of the ceremonial spaces she has built, of the Sami women and the bear skull that they brought in honouring – and of the remains of a Bronze Age ancestor-woman found on the hill overlooking the land, and the bear skin she was wrapped in. Carolyn’s deep, heartfelt connection to the land shines through her words, her art and her songs: a shining beacon of how life can be lived for those who choose to follow.

In Conversation

Manda: My guest this week is a remarkable woman of astonishing creativity, talent and unmatched connectedness to the land. Carolyn Hillier lives on a thousand-year-old farm in the heart of Dartmoor in Devon, where she and her partner, the musician Nigel Shaw, have created a sanctuary, a genuinely sacred place that feels to me like nowhere else I have ever been on Earth. There is such a powerful sense of the sacred there and of a deep, deep connection to the land and to the ancestors who walked to land. There’s a sense of tribe, of connectedness to the potential of who we could be.

As you’ll hear, Carolyn is an artist and musician. And I really encourage you to head for her Web site at Seventh Wave Music to listen to the beauty of her music and her songs and see some of her artwork. Carolyn lead ceremonies and ceremonial workshops. She weaves the ancient languages of this land into music that melts my bones. And she takes care of a herd of wild ponies on Dartmoor in a way that shows us how our relationship with the more than human world can be generative and beautiful. So people of the podcast, please welcome Carolyn Hillyer.

Welcome Carolyn Hillyer to The Accidental Gods podcast. You were on my very first list when I first drew up a list of people I would most like to have come on. It’s such an honour to have you here. And it sounds as if you’re in the midst of a glorious Devon summer down there with the birds really loud outside the window. How has it been in lockdown now at the end of lockdown for you?

Carolyn: [00:03:21.29] Thank you, Manda. It’s wonderful to be here with you. And I know we’ve been waiting to do this conversation for a few months now, so it’s great to be having this chance. Yes, I am sitting on our farm, which is in the middle of Dartmoor. We have been here locked down really since the beginning of January, because actually the pattern of our year is that we go into hibernation for three months once the New Year is with us. And we literally slipped from hibernation into lockdown without breaking stride.

So I haven’t really put my foot beyond the gate for quite a long time. It actually changed for us, became more busy because we had four young people come to live with us during lockdown. So, we went from quite an isolated place into having a small community. And that has been a rich and wonderful experience.

Manda: [00:04:16.52] Is it the sort of thing? Do you think you’ll carry on?

Carolyn: [00:04:18.71] Well, it’s interesting because we have been here now for 25 years. And last year my partner, Nigel Shaw, and I spent a lot of time talking about how we could enable greater access for young people to the land here. How we could make it possible for them to come to do their own work workshops, retreats, work on the land, whatever it was. And then, of course, in the last few months, we’ve been experiencing a little of what that actually feels like. And the energy in the dynamic of that has been phenomenal.

Manda: [00:04:47.51] So tell us and the listeners a bit about the land that you’re on because I’ve visited, but pretty much everybody listening probably hasn’t and may not have a chance to. So describe your farm because it’s so beautiful.

Carolyn: [00:05:05.15] Well, we came here 25 years ago, and we had been on our way to Dartmoor individually for a very long time before that. So our paths linked up en route. And we did these last steps of the journey together. We found this farm by chance. But we weren’t in a position at that point to take it on. So we went away, had a baby, came back, and nine months later, the farm was still here. And it was a point in time – a very unusual and strange point in time – when nobody was really wanting to buy farms on Dartmoor. And we were embraced by the people who were living here who needed to move because they couldn’t handle the winters. And they saw us walking up the track with our little family and decided that they would do whatever they could to make it possible for us to come here. So it was quite an extraordinary and magical encounter. So we took the farm on from them and we have made it our commitment to enable people to come to the land as much as possible. We try to open it up in many different ways. It feels like our guardianship is dependent on our generosity in sharing it.

Manda: [00:06:25.55] I first met you in person at a very large gathering and it was the last of, I think, seven years of gatherings. So, you have opened the land up a lot. And at that time we were working in a roundhouse that you had built. So, for people listening, Carolyn’s farm is right on the edge of Dartmoor, I imagine the winters are quite impressively bleak and cold. And you probably get stuck there for several weeks, if not months in normal pre-climate change winters. But then you open it up in the spring. And many, many people arrive and hold ceremony on your land. Can you tell us a bit about the kinds of ceremony and the ways that you helped to connect people to the land that you’re on?

Carolyn: [00:07:16.87] Yes. Well, we’re actually right in the heart of Dartmoor, in the belly of the moor. It’s a place called the High Bowl of the Moor. So whichever direction you come from, you’re heading over the high hills and then into this dip in the middle of the moor. That’s where we are. And it is actually situated on the edge of a massive, ritual landscape that spreads west and north from where our farm is. All across the open, wild more where obviously nobody lives apart from the ancestor spirits. And we have used this location really to draw in as much as we are able of the wild and ancient energy of the moors around into the farm to infuse that into the farm so that over time we have managed to create a wild sanctuary on this place and develop a ritual landscape here, which people can come and work with in a very focused way.

Carolyn: [00:08:17.14] So we have many different ecosystems within the farm. It’s not a huge farm. It’s a small traditional Dartmoor hill farm that’s over a thousand years old farmstead itself. But when we came, we the first thing was to plant a lot of trees. So we’ve planted thousands of trees in this area of land. And worked with the different ecosystems to really protect and enhance them. And then within that, we have, as you mentioned, created a ceremonial ancestor house, a Neolithic-style round house, which is really the heart of all the ritual work that is carried on here. So everybody who comes in whatever form they come to make ceremony or participate in workshops or events, the roundhouse is within their journey.

And then from there, over the more recent years, we have created a stone room and we have embedded a cistvaen, a granite tomb on the land to hold the dynamic of the Bronze Age ancestor women. We’ve created a sacred stream area and many shrines – and the shrines changed all the time. So at the moment we have a Wild Horse shrine. We have a ‘shydi’ which is a different kind of connecting ancient form of shrine and that’s being held by Bear – bear bones, which were put there by our Arctic friends.

Manda: [00:09:50.77] The Bear bones. So the Bear bones are not from your land, that from the very ancient bears of Britain. These are modern Bear bones that have come from another land?

Carolyn: [00:10:00.52] Yes, we had probably about 13 years ago, some friends came from Arctic Sweden, Sami women, and they wanted to place Bear bones into the land -forest bears from where they are in the Tiga forest and put them into our ancestors shrine. So they created a ceremony there. And we’ve worked with Bear energy ever since in that particular shrine. And obviously anchored into that the ancestral remembrance of bear in our own landscape.

Manda: [00:10:31.18] And this is purely for me. Everyone listening, you can just go and do your own thing because this feels so interesting. Can you tell me more about how it feels to work with returning the bear energy to the land there? Has it affected your dreaming?

Carolyn: [00:10:46.81] Well, yes, it has. The journey we’ve taken is to consistently aim to deepen the memory of the land and to be able to bring that in a way that people can access it. So for us, moving back into ancestral memory and gathering that forward into our contemporary experience of life has been very key.

The bear has been very significant in terms of the work we’ve done around the Bronze Age ancestry here, because you probably have heard of White Horse Hill Woman who is a Bronze Age ancestor discovered on Dartmoor just about 10 years ago. Her remains were recovered and it was found that she had been wrapped in bear skin. And this was hugely important because it brought into our actual location on the moor here an ancestor who had been held by bear spirit as she moved into her next journey. And that felt very important for the whole dynamic of how we were working.

Manda: [00:11:55.52] And did the Saami woman know this? Is this why they brought the Bear bones with them or did the dream into the bear and it wanted to come?

Carolyn: [00:12:03.77] That was before the bear so that they brought the Bear bones and put them on the land before we knew about the White Horse Hill Woman.

Manda: [00:12:13.22] Oh, isn’t that interesting? Wow. Because at the time I was with you were just building the cist, the Bronze Age burial mound. And that was related to White Horse Hill Woman as well, if I remember, right?

Carolyn: [00:12:28.46] That’s right. Yes. So this was in 2014. We created a big festival, which you were with us for. And over three days and three nights we created ceremony as we symbolically returned White Horse Hill Woman in bone form into the cist. We felt it was important to do it at that point because she had been gathered up and spread around Europe into various scientific laboratories and museum archives. And we felt we needed to gather her into an essence and return her into the land. And we placed her in there in the form of Wild Horse bones, actually.

Manda: [00:13:12.63] Yes. Thank you. And I remember the ceremonies. A I remember one of those things that, as always remained with me. People ask, how do you know that this is real? And, you know, because the land speaks back. And I remember we were in a very large tent, I think, doing ceremony with many, many people from many different backgrounds and cultures. And our small groups that have been working together were working with the Earth. And we did the bit of ceremony that we had arranged and it was very much about connecting into the Earth. And I felt the quality of the silence behind me and I turned round and three of our group were looking at the ground with that look on their faces that says, ‘This really can’t be happening’. And a mole had emerged from the earth right in the centre of the little area that we were holding. And it just kind of looked around at all of us and turned around and went back into the earth again. And it was such an affirmation of the groundedness of what we were doing. And the Earth was speaking back. And it felt, even now it feels very moving to remember it. And it gave such power to what we were doing. So what have you done with the with the burial area, since you brought the essence of the Ancient Woman back to it?

Carolyn: [00:14:45.44] Well, we have been working with it all the time. The following year, actually, we had a very big women’s festival here on the land and we opened up the cist again. So that says that the women could also connect with the energy there. And they were women from many different cultures and lands.

And that is very important that we are constantly weaving ourselves into other forms of prayer and other forms of relationship with the Earth by connecting and sharing with our fellow kindred human beings in other cultures and landscapes. But in order to do that, we have to be strong in our own roots. And this is why we have felt over this time – all my work with women has got three main chords within it, which are: our relationship to the sacred wild land; our relationship with our ancestry – because unless we can deeply root, we’re not solid in the work that we do as we move forward. And then finally, our sense of community in sisterhood, because that’s where we draw strength and support from. And then expanding from that, of course, into our wider communities. So this sense of us having a true and authentic real understanding of our roots, that that drives all the work that I do here. That’s what took me initially to the north (Sami lands) because I felt I needed to do a geographical journey in order to make my chronological journey down into a memory of this landscape. So I needed to be on ice in the way the ice was on our islands. And that that’s why I started going north and then continue to do that ever since.

Manda: [00:16:40.75] And can you tell us a little bit about your experiences in the north, things that are okay to share?

Carolyn: [00:16:45.41] Yes, of course. I started by dipping into the Arctic region where the Sami people are in northern Sweden. We have established a relationship with a beautiful community of friends there, and we have gone quite a few times to perform music and also offer workshops at Reindeer Festival there that takes place every winter.

And then it felt that there was more journey to to make. So some time a few years after that, we began to step into Russia. And again, it was done with invitation to indigenous gatherings in order to present music. So by that point, we understood we needed to go carrying strong aspects of our own culture in order to be able to weave into what was happening at the reindeer festivals.

So we used the fact that we are Dartmoor pony herders – that we have a wild pony herd on the moor and the culture of that which is so old in this landscape. And we had obviously been working on a practical way with our herd for decades. So we went with that culture embedded in in in our ourselves as musicians. So I wore, you know, wild horse leather belts that we’ve made from the ponies that had gone.

And we took drums, horse drums that were made from these same herds. So we went with our Dartmoor hill pony culture in order to be able to stand there with the reindeer culture. And it was a beautiful way of being able to travel and participate in a nomadic gathering and be part of that journey and place our own ancient indigeny within that.

Manda: [00:18:38.36] Brilliant. And is there something leaving aside coronavirus and not travelling now is this something that will continue? It sounds like it must.

Carolyn: [00:18:46.32] We had a plan to go back to Siberia next February, but I think we’re probably going to delay that or look at it again, because although geographically it’s not the furthest I’ve ever been from home in terms of how it feels inside to be travelling in Siberia, especially that far northern edge, it feels like the furthest you could ever be from Dartmoor.

The length of time it takes to get there and the complexity of the travel and the permissions and all that, it takes a long, long time to organize. So we were just thinking maybe we don’t want to be sort of going out so far at the moment. We’ll just stay close in and see how the world unfolds.

Manda: [00:19:29.99] And build the community that you’re building on your land. So I would like to look a bit more about the world unfolding. But I would like before we do that, to go back to the Wild Horse shrine. And your working with the horses on your land. Because that has always seemed to me incredibly grounding and grounded and so full of compassion and heart. And I’ve just had a foal. Not obviously physically given birth to a foal, but there is a foal on our land. So the ways of interacting with the wild horses on your land. Can you talk more about that?

Carolyn: [00:20:11.06] Yes. Well, the horse shrine that we have on our land is created around four skulls of wild ponies who’ve had wild deaths on the moor. And this is one of the extraordinary experiences of being in the middle of Dartmoor – that death is very present as part of the experience of being on the land. So they go up into the remote places over the winter and some of them don’t survive. Or some of the mares don’t make it through foaling. And they’re just doing their experience in the wild place. And nobody’s coming in, tidying their bodies away: they’re there.

And it’s part of the journey of being on the moorland. And when you find these ponies, it is like finding a wild shrine that has been laid there for you to receive from. So from time to time, we bring them back and we have them then as part of what is happening here. But in terms of our our own herd: we started that probably about twenty-three years ago. We were given an orphaned foal from the top of the moor that would normally have been shot because she had no one to care for her. But they decided they would bring it to us instead and said, ‘Start your herd.’ So, we did.

And she was our matriarch for many years. We had her with us on the farm for four years, and then she needed start to interact with the herds that were up on the open hill. So we took her up there and she had a difficult first winter, then began to recover her wild life and started her own family of ponies: sons and daughters. And because we never separated them out, as happens for a lot of the ponies, she built up quite a strong tribe and therefore became a bit of a big matriarch up there because she had her sons. And that made all the difference. She had a lot of clout.

Manda: [00:22:16.13] You gelded them, I believe.

Carolyn: [00:22:19.37] Yes, we gelded the boys so they could stay on the moor. The control of stallions is nothing to do to do with us. Other farmers are involved in that. But we don’t get involved in that.

So we geld the boys and we keep as many of the girls as we can. But we have to bring some of them down to the farm so we don’t increase our size too rapidly.

Manda: [00:22:42.89] And I remember you telling me the story of her death. Do you feel able to share that?

Carolyn: [00:22:48.94] I’d love to share that. Our whole approach is a very personal one. It is different from the way that most Dartmoor pony herders are using their way of being with their herds. We’ve always wanted to keep everything as wild and true as we can and have a very intimate relationship with the ponies, but on their terms. And we had been really working in that way with this mare for a long time, and she’d had many foals over the years.

We were away doing some concerts one time, and we believe that she got hit by a car while she was just about to foal. So she had stumbled off the road and gone into labour. And our daughter had been out looking for her and found her and we all went to where she was. And by then she was in a lot of trouble. And we worked with her for 16 hours on the hill there to try and get her up. The foal was dead. We had to pull the fall out. But she was really struggling. And all the time that was happening, her herd of her sons and daughters were gathered around her while we were trying to get her on her feet again.

And then we realized that this wasn’t going to work, that she was on her way out, really. So we went to get old tractor and a box at the back, and we managed with the help of neighbours to roll her into it. She was, you know, still struggling on there, still connecting with the ponies that were around her. And then we started to drive very slowly down the hill towards where our farm is, and the oldest son brought the rest of the herd behind as she was going down, followed her down. It was nothing to do with us calling them in or anything. They just chose to do that.

So as we walked very slowly with her, she was calling out to them and the oldest son was bringing the rest of the siblings down behind. And then he stopped and wouldn’t let them go any further. We carried on down into the valley. And just at that moment, he and another of the gelding sons, just let out this huge call to her and rose up. He rose up on his feet and she called out back and then he took everyone off galloping across the moor. And it was the most extraordinary send-off. They were all entirely aware of what was happening. And she was aware that, you know, this was a completion of something. We just witnessed it and were in awe.

Manda: [00:25:39.21] And it makes me cry every time I hear that. And it leads me this is a side-track we won’t go down much, but because I am now so much more involved in ponies again here, and seeing the ways that we treat them in standard horse terms. In standard human/horse interactions. And then really becoming involved with the ways that we can connect with them if we choose. And they connect with each other. We routinely break up family groups without even thinking about it. And I think for people to hear that and to understand the extent to which family matters to all of the species around us, is huge. So thank you for that.

So from that and your Wild Horse Shrine, I would like to begin to look forward to how things could be. Because it seems to me you have created the healthiest model that I have ever come across of that triad that you speak of, of the healthy connection to ancestry, that feels to me it doesn’t deny the wounding of all that has gone before us at all. But it connects back to a time when, if not unwounded, it feels to me that the ancestral links are healthier, they’re whole. There are from a time when we were genuinely living in context with the land. And there is so much for us to learn from that sense of being whole. And yet you’re looking forward rather than becoming embedded in the past. You’re looking at the community, the sisterhood, the engagement with the land. And so what I’d really like to do is to take us forward a little way to build a vision of how the world could be if we were able to create that sense of connectedness to the land and to each other and to a whole ancestry. Do you have any sense of a vision of how your world could be if you were able to bring together the community that it sounds like you’re building?

Carolyn: [00:28:03.39] Well, there’s so many threads in there. I think what feels really important at this particular moment in terms of coming out of our recent experiences in the world with our lockdowns, is that we have a sense within us of being prepared for what’s coming up ahead and gathering our energy, using this time to restore and repair and incubate.

I found it hard to have a concept of incubation until just the last few weeks. I felt that it was quite an incubation that is not chosen it’s hard to imagine how you can use that in creative and productive forward ways. And among the conversations I was having, especially with women, there was a sense that we were all floundering. Nobody could gather up momentum. So it didn’t feel like a positive incubation.

But what I’ve come to feel in the last few weeks is that the incubation, although it’s felt hollowed, has still been a waiting time for all of us. And there are so many things that maybe we will understand much more clearly later on about this period of time. It’s very hard, isn’t it, when it so recently in our laps, it is hard to kind of get a perspective on it. But it feels that for all of us in our different ways will have been presented with an incredible opportunity for us to reassess and recalibrate and be ready. Because we’ve got so much work to do. So it’s like the pause before we leaping and surging into whatever is required of us. And understanding that we have to meet the challenge. We don’t have an option not to meet the challenge.

Manda: [00:29:53.89] Yes. And I’m so glad that you say it’s felt strange because we have an elder group together, which is mostly women, but some men and the men have felt much more gung-ho in a way. And pretty much universally, the women have felt scattered. And there’s that sense of a wild winter where the winds are blowing and the seeds are not lying and not setting yet, and the land is churning. And we felt exhausted. It’s very, very tiring and it’s only since the new moon that I’ve begun to feel as if the dust is settling. And we’re beginning to set a route of some sort.

Carolyn: [00:30:41.67] Yes. And it is trusting that process that the that within this scattered a. hollowed time, there is something there such that, without us even being aware of it, something is being created in which we can gradually step into the flow of that. And see where it takes us.

I think what I was referring to earlier when we were talking about the young people coming here to the land, I do feel that’s hugely significant to I’ve started into my seventh decade. I’m beginning to appreciate that this period of life is about having worked so hard to gather and bring together and to understand and increase perspective and all of these things that you do when you’re on your path, that this is a period giving as much as possible.

And it’s dependent on the generosity of the older generations in giving power and space and resource into the hands and the visions and the dynamic of younger generations. And the world has yet again turned away from a different possibility. And yet again, it’s in the control of aging men who draw power from inequality and strength from the struggle of others. And so it’s up to us to be able to bear witness and we who’ve been working this journey for a long time and moving into a different part of our lives that we are bearing witness and holding energy for this younger collective voice to represent humanity. And we mustn’t hold on to things ourselves because it’s dependent on us to keep allowing the flow, keep allowing it to move through our fingers.

Manda: [00:32:36.81] Yes. Giving your power and space and resource and being an elder circle for the younger generation. Now I sound like my grandmother, but it seems to me there’s a an awakening in the younger generations. And yes, the old reactionary men hold the reins of the power that was. But it seems to me they don’t hold any of the reins of the power that is coming. And increasingly that the governing system is a hollow shell within which other things are growing. And that if we can nurture the shoots of a generation that seems to have liberated itself or been liberated from a lot of the strictures that we grew up with. And has vision and a sense of connectivity that being the Internet generation gives.

Manda: [00:33:40.21] That if we can then help them to connect to the land, which is what you’re doing, then that becomes almost unstoppable. I would I would like to think. And so you’ve had four young people at home, but I’m guessing they’re connected to a much, much wider network. And that those four young people at home are deeply connected to your land. So have you a sense now of building a community either localized on your land or across the world, that is having a sense of a vision of what they can do with the power and space and resource?

Carolyn: [00:34:19.69] I think all of that’s still in the place of the dreaming, the place of anchoring. I feel that right now, exactly at this moment in time, it’s quite hard to be definite about any kind of concept of the future or to have plans for the future. I think what I’ve been feeling for myself that the most important thing is fluidity and being attentive, watching, watchful. And then seeing what unfolds. So it feels that the potential for change for us here on this land is there as well as for the way it is for the much wider global context for all of us.

But we don’t quite know what that means yet. And I think all we can do is watch and listen and be attentive and keep being flexible. Really remember to be nifty on our feet so that we can turn on a penny and go into a different direction. It’s that which is being called from us. It’s awkward, isn’t it? We talk about ancestry and ancient ways of being on the land, and yet we’re talking about this new younger concept of how our humanity is being represented. But it feels that there’s this massive work of gathering the fragments and mending all the ripped pieces of human experience and to throw a new cloth together, which brings out all are treasured and ancient and forgotten truths. It does depend on this deep sense of our own route into something that is strong and timeless. And with that within us, we can do anything. Thing is, when we get cut off from that, we’re not able to link ourselves into the rich tapestry of wisdom and understanding and connectedness that we can draw from the land and from this sense of our ancient connection with it. And that’s what we could ride on.

Manda: [00:36:28.48] When I met you, you were exploring. I think I remember with Oxford University, the very ancient Proto-Gaelic language that would have been in the lands of Britain before the Romans came, quite a long way before the Romans came. And we sang songs, I remember in that language that that melted the marrow of my bones in ways nothing has ever done. It felt magical in its truest sense. And I wonder, have you continued that exploration, and could you speak some of that language for us.

Carolyn: [00:37:08.09] I’d love to. I started working with this language about four years ago. I uncovered it through the Internet. The University of Wales hold the lexicon of Proto Celtic or Common Celtic. And it’s a mother tongue that fed into the living Celtic languages that are still spoken today. So this roots into the Bronze Age 4000 years ago.

And what I love about this language, which has been linguistically archeologically reconstructed by stepping backwards for more than living Celtic languages with all the words that are the same. So they obviously the older root words. And then reconstructing this more ancient tongue. And people have been working on it for a long time, over a hundred years or more. So there is a lexicon being held by the University of Wales. That’s where I originally found it. Possibly there are others elsewhere. And I love it because it came from Central Europe and all through North and Western Europe and then eventually onto this island. So it’s a very connecting language and it’s a language that can belong to all of us who feel that we want to language route into this landscape, into these ancient British islands. We want something to be able to represent the voice of people in whose footsteps we tread. And the first time I taught it was for a gathering that was to welcome indigenous women from other parts of the world into a big time of ceremony here in Devon, about 300 women there. And I taught this language as a song for the first time. And it was so liberating, I felt, to witness the women being able to have ancient words they could speak, which had no history or contemporary subtleties attached to those words.

It was purely from the earth and words express the earth. And so I have continued to work with it a great deal in that way, because it’s a bone language. It’s a language that can be felt deep within the bones and links you straight into the ancient resonance of the landscape. And that’s why I love it. So this is what it sounds like. And I should say, when I work with it, just in case there’s any linguists listening, I create songs like beads on a necklace. So I’m not bothering about plurals or tense or any kind of interconnecting words. Particularly I’m creating a necklace of words. And that becomes the meaning of the song and the pronunciation – I’ve done what fits my mouth. So I feel there’s a great liberation and a Bronze Age language. It can be what works for your own bones. So this is how it is.

Carolyn: [00:40:14.48] :
SAGO AN SNIJO (the blanket and the braid)

KOMMANO                         we remember
NIS WERTITO                       all that we have spun
NIS ANDEWEG                  all that we have woven
SNATEJA BRETTO               path of the needle to the cloth
SAGO AN SNIJO                  the blanket and the braid
KOMMANO               we remember
SAGO AN SNIJO                 the blanket and the braid
KOMMANO                         we remember
KWAKWO WITSU               all our wisdom


Carolyn: [00:41:04.94] And that means, ‘We remember all that we have spun, all that we have woven. Path of needle to the cloth, the blanket and the braid. We remember the blanket in the brilliant braid. We remember all our wisdom.’

Manda: [00:41:27.95] Thank you. When we do the transcript of this, if you would be able to send me those words, that would be good. Because it genuinely goes in at the level of bones. It’s an astonishing feeling. I’m sure everyone listening to it felt that it sinks into the ground of our being in a way that I have never experienced with any language at any time, which is so beautiful that you’re bringing it back.

Carolyn: [00:42:10.06] At the time I was mentioning the first time I taught the women as I was moving around this circle of the several hundred women teaching this song, ready for them to receive the visiting women, I was teaching them a different song. Sacred Grandmothers, our sacred bones. And as I was walking around teaching the song, so many women were crying because it felt that it did, reach into something they had forgotten about and that they were then able to remember by expressing it through their language.

Manda: [00:42:46.09] And have you begun to dream in this language?

Carolyn: [00:43:05.64] No, I don’t dream in this language. That’s not how it comes to me. I we haven’t touched on this, but I paint my journey. I’ve always done that. I’ve painted the cycles of the workshop journeys. I’ve painted my way into the books and all the teaching. This has just been my personal way of finding my path and then and then carrying it along into these other things. So the language connects to the paintings. And that has been a relationship. I’ve noticed increasingly that when I’m connecting to the women that I’m painting, they are coming with this language. And that’s been very wonderful experience to see that happening.

Manda: [00:43:55.89] Yes, and we will put links in the show notes to your website where there is some of the depictions of the images and art. They’re amazing. Again, they’re your paintings. Your art is something that sinks deep into the bones. Something that feels very real and authentic and grounded and that breaks apart the strictures of our current reality, it seems to me, so I could see how the language in that really links. And possibly we might be able to use some of your artwork in the on the podcast. We’ll have a look at that. So I’m aware that time is moving on and that you have another Zoom call coming up, as we all seem to. I don’t know about you, but as soon as lockdown happened, my life became a series of Zoom calls every day. That all seemed incredibly important. I have managed to cut some of them down more recently. So threading through all of your work that you do on the land and that you’ve spoken of here is work specifically with women and for women – and women of all ages. And you go to work with the women in the Sami lands and from the sound of things in Siberia as well. So can you tell us more about how that is for you? How you got to it and where you think it might go?

Carolyn: [00:45:17.92] So I have been working with women’s work for over four decades. I started off as a young woman with activism, with feminism, women’s politics, and moved from that into a more spiritual approach in the landscape. Something quite revelatory happened when I suddenly was aware of the strong sense of sacred womanhood in the land. And that began a completely new direction of of relationship with women’s power and women’s potential and women’s prayer.

And that’s unfolded over the years. It started becoming more focused when I began to paint, which was when I was around 28 years old. I was then able to focus all of that feeling of this spirit within woman and within our womanhood into the work I was producing – the paintings. And it was chaotic to start with. I was just using household paint, daubing on bits of chipboard, whatever I could do just to get the feeling of it out. But I began to catch up with myself and to focus it more. And thus the journey began. I used to sing to my painting. Once I started working with my partner, which was when I was about 30, 32, I started to record the songs that came.

So then it became a way of catching another aspects of women’s spirituality into the music. And around that time, I started teaching women’s workshops, and that’s been a slow unfolding process. But that really started the first year we came here to the land. So, right from the beginning, being on the land was a way of me being able to share something with women and to see what women were wanting from that experience. Gradually, the workshop program could evolve.

And where has the evolution taking it? Well, for many years it was it was based around the cycles of the painting. So wherever those paintings were taking me, that’s where I took the workshop. But for the last five years or so, I’ve been consciously creating a program. It’s felt important to bring in all the threads and all that different aspects of how we’ve worked here into a vessel that women can find a place within that feels right for them.

And for a long time, my aim was to go slowly. So I tried to avoid creating hierarchy. I really didn’t want hierarchy to be part of this process. And I feel that we were kind of getting there. It’s working. We have the Braided River program. The imagery of water is really significant within it. So we have long returning women who are the Salmon Sisters who return every season to keep on adding to their work.

And then we have women being brought in through the heart circles – the roundhouse holds the sanctuary place for them when they first put their feet into this kind of work. So gradually we’ve created and consolidated, in a sense, a fluid community. And I like the sense of it being fluid. I don’t want it ever to feel like as an organisation or system or a club or anything like that. It needs to keep having this river flowing through it. So that’s how we’ve been working.

Manda: [00:49:02.92] And when was the Bronze Age woman found? That was quite a long way into your tenure on the land.

Carolyn: [00:49:08.89] Yes. It was first discovered that her cistvaen on the top of the moor was being damaged around about 2012.They had been keeping an eye on her cist (kyst) and they knew that there were some issues that they maybe needed to go and investigate to see if there was anything in there before the whole thing fell apart.

Manda: [00:49:38.86] So they knew the cist was there, but they didn’t know who was in it.

Carolyn: [00:49:41.68] Well, the policy has been on Dartmoor not to disturb or cover any of the cists – that they’re left undisturbed. This one was getting damaged by erosion and animals rubbing up against it and all that kind of thing. So they they thought that if there was something in it, they would do some rescue archaeology. And when they found her bone bundle wrapped and Bear skin.

Manda: [00:50:07.32] And what do we know about her?

Carolyn: [00:50:09.43] We know that she was about 28 years old. We know that she was very well loved. Of course, in the way that people like to attach hierarchies, she’s had all sorts of names attached to her, such as the Tin Princess and all of this. But I prefer to say that the way that she was honoured shows that she was loved. And she had beautiful items, carefully handmade, that were within her bone bundle. And it was a very exquisite find and quite ground-breaking in terms of archaeological science. Things were found there that they didn’t really have very good examples of before. So they know that she was part of a community for which tin was their wealth. Tin was being brought from the ground here in Dartmoor and it was being traded into the Mediterranean. And that tin was being used as part of what fuelled the Bronze Age, so thetin was really important.

Manda: [00:51:10.96] And how long ago was she buried?

Carolyn: [00:51:13.30] 4000 years ago,

Manda: [00:51:15.93] Was it every one of her bones or had they put her out on a kind of a sky burial and then collected the bones afterwards?

Carolyn: [00:51:25.51] She’d been cremated, actually. So what was left in the bundle were her burnt bones. But she had been cremated without her robe or her jewellery. So then the robe and the jewellery and all her possessions were placed in with her burnt bones. So they were intact when they had gone into the bundle. But her bones were in pieces, burnt. And then everything wrapped around.

Manda: [00:51:50.93] And those bones themselves, you said, are in a museum?

Carolyn: [00:51:55.81] Yes. In a museum back room somewhere.

Manda: [00:52:00.25] Gosh. But her energy is back in the cist that we worked with back in 2014. And then you have Bear energy on the land as well. I’m still completely in awe of that. So thank you.

If we can envisage how the world would feel, not necessarily what it would look like and definitely not how we get there, if we were to be able to step into a totally generative community where the needs of people and all life and all of the web of life were met, then it’s something we could begin to move towards because we have very many felt sense images and narratives of how things could go badly wrong. We have none of what happens if it goes really wonderfully, right.

Could we could we create a sense together of that, do you suppose? Just as an introduction. I’ve been doing this meditation since the start of lockdown. At the start of lockdown, I went up the hill. I said, ‘What do you need of me?’ And they said, ‘We need you to do this.’ What if we got it right? Without defining what right is, without defining how you got there? And I think I spent the first two lunar cycles of doing this every day and hitting up against my own internal energetic and emotional boundaries.

My head was quite happy that this was a concept and I had no idea the extent to which I had internalized hopelessness and despair, and everything is going to go very badly wrong. And allowing that to soften under the gaze of just gentle inquiry. ‘Yes. OK, I hear all of that, but what if…? What if we didn’t go down those roads? What if we were able to create a really genuinely generative community? Because everybody actually wants that sense of purpose and connection and commitment and contribution. And if we were able to harness that desire with the connectivity to the web of life such that we had what you describe, that sense of being able to turn in the moment as as an impulse comes in of ‘We the Web, we need you to do this now.’ And we go, ‘OK, we can do this.’ How does that feel? And what I got to was a sense of extraordinary liberation in the beginning. I didn’t know how afraid I had been until I let that fear drop. And then connectivity arose.

And more recently, a sense that I find quite hard to give words to, of being in connected service. Of being fully open and free and of everything flowing through me such that I am the circuit board in the network where some things come in and flow out. And I don’t have to push them or pull them. I just am there.

And I can’t describe the sense of of liberation and of connection of that sense that one gets when we’re with a group, a tribe, and the tribe is all functioning where everybody knows what their role is because it’s what they can do. And you can trust everybody else to be what they need to be such that I can be what I need to be and everything flows and it hasn’t happened often in my life. But when it happens, it’s the best possible feeling.

And so more recently, I have occasionally – not for long – dropped into that place. So for me, that’s the vision – that sense of a global tribe of trust and connectivity and a sense of purpose that transcends anything that my head mind could generate. So I offer that as a starting point. Over to you.

Carolyn: [00:56:16.91] That’s beautiful, Manda. That’s a really beautiful flow of words. I love listening to what you were just saying. Okay, so.

Well, the first thing I would say is that all these decades I’ve been working with my focus being on women’s experience in the world. And that would be for me, the first thing, a sense of such a balance in women’s experience within the world experience that we no longer need to spend decades and decades working on women’s position in the world and be into a place of equality and safety and equal relationship.

But we do need to do that at the moment. So it’s a work of great importance. But that would be my first sense. That we have such a balance that we’ve no longer needing that within our world experience. The other thing in terms of talking on the way to getting to that place, I think we need to learn fierce tenderness in our guardianship of the world.

I think we’re all understanding – that increasingly with the things that have been happening in recent years around climate disintegration, we’ve come to realize that our tenderness needs to be fierce, that as we guard our boundaries, as we guard this precious heart of our vision of how we want our mended world to be, that we can’t be complacent or passive in that. But we need to retain the tenderness in that. So ‘fierce tenderness’ feels significant part of our journey to that place.

In terms of the vision itself, I love the things you are saying. I love that sense that we can occasionally have a feel of what that is. And I think we probably do all to step into those moments where it feels that everything is linked up and there’s a pattern that feels right. And obviously within that is our relationship with the land and with the world, with nature. All of that has to be key to our ongoing survival and relationship with each other as well.

I cannot imagine being able to stretch out my arms to hold more than the bit that is here. And when I’ve come to think about stepping into particular actions and moving to support something else and bear witness to these things , whatever these things are, but ultimately always comes down to, ‘This is the job. This bit of the earth, just this little tiny bit. Get it right. Get it shared. Get it working right. Make it a sanctuary. And that will join up with all the other things that other people are doing.’.

And that’s how we do it. It can be done only in these I feel in these small ways. And then suddenly maybe we’ll look around to understand that all the small things are joined up and now it’s massive. Because the massive vision is very hard for our human minds and hearts to be able to hold sometimes. So, it’s reaching out to the massive vision and then bringing it into a smaller focus and getting that bit good.

Manda: [00:59:44.98] Now, they say if everybody did that, if everybody worked in their actual geographic spaces, that they are to connect to the land where you are living, where we are living, and to create that sense of sacredness and the fierce tenderness that you spoke of that feels really beautiful. And and then were to reach out to everyone else doing that, then there would be a home.

Carolyn: [01:00:08.66] But the sharing is important. I mean, I just this this might be going up a little alley. You want to rent it out. But I feel I’ve witnessed up on Dartmoor here during lockdown a sense of guardianship of the land from people around who live here. But it’s not been very tender in terms of other people’s desperate need to come out and be in nature. And I do feel that the privilege of having the care of land, we have to remember. It’s a privilege and it’s not ours by right. And we must share is only being given to us to look after because we understand it must be shared and we have to keep doing that if we start holding onto it, creating more boundaries and divisions. It’s not a good position. And I’m quite shamed, shamed of witnessing some of the things have been happening in wild places where other people have come at last to be able to take some refuge and have not been so easily welcomed. I think that this is key. We have to share.

Manda: [01:01:15.65] Right. And this is about finding everybody’s needs. Needs rather than wants, and being able to work out ways where they can be met in a way that is healing. Because I saw some pictures of, I think, Bournemouth yesterday where they had to draft an extra police just to clear the gridlock because everybody had descended on Bournemouth beach. And I know our local little while, but carding Mill Valley a couple of weekends ago, a thousand cars were in a place, that has space for 50. And it’s taken three weeks to clear up the rubbish that was left. And I and people do end up feeling protective because there is a need to connect with the land, but then the respect of the land isn’t met, and we need to hold that balance also.

Carolyn: [01:02:23.72] And that’s where the fierce tenderness comes in holding the sanctuary space. These are the boundaries of the sanctuary. You’re welcome. We can make sure you honour the land.

Manda: [01:02:37.49] And to honour the needs of the land is key – it’s not just there for you to crap all over and then leave your picnic tables because you could not be bothered to carry them the 10 yards back to the car. It’s an interesting one of that sense of being able to hold compassion for all sides of everything and to honour the needs of the land as much as the people who need to be there.

And people who don’t understand that the land can be honoured or how to do it. And a lot of education needed. And I don’t quite know how that happens other than modelling it in a way that is felt and doesn’t come across as hectoring or evangelizing or just telling people what to do, which doesn’t work. So that’s probably whole other podcast.

Carolyn: [01:03:38.17] So I do have another song that is about our relationship with the land and I suppose for me it might be a more of a succinct summing up of why I do what I do. If that would be useful to you.

Manda: [01:03:54.19] That would be so beautiful. Yes. Thank you. As our closing. Thank you, Carolyn.

Carolyn: [01:03:59.14] Well, first of all, thank you, Manda, so much for inviting me and for being part of this. I really appreciated being on your podcast. .

[01:04:10.21] Caroline – song 2

[01:05:12.67] So that’s it for another week. Enormous thanks to Carolyn for her wisdom and connectedness and the fierce tenderness of her care of the land. And for the truly bone melting beauty of her songs.


The Jay, The Beech and The Limpetshell with author Richard Smyth

The Jay, The Beech and The Limpetshell with author Richard Smyth

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Clean Air, Clean Water, Clean Politics with Baroness Natalie Bennett of the Green Party

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In this second election special, we talk to Natalie Bennett (or Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle if we’re going to be formal – but she said we didn’t need to be) – one of two Green Party members in the House of Lords. Natalie is author of the Book ‘Change Everything: How we can rethink, repair and rebuild society’ – one of the essential books of our time that outlines in detail how we can create the total systemic change we need.


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