a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Two years ago, I needed to connect with her. My grandmother, my father’s mother, she who had been dead thirty years.
“It’s become a touristy area. I have no desire to go back there myself. It was a prefab house. It’s probably been knocked down,” my uncle in London told me.
But in August 2019, I jumped off the bus in the Highland village where I’d spent summers as a girl. Until I was ten, my father would drive my family overnight from our place in southern England to the homeland that was his and I hoped mine as well.
Decades later, it looked and felt the same, patches and undulations of a dozen shades of green, a big Arctic sky wet with its own breath. At the far end of the grass, a boy practiced the bagpipes and the broken notes lingered in my ears and my ribs.
My husband, Bob, and I turned past a field. There at the Highland Games I’d raced jumping in a sack, barefoot to find my old sandals in the heap, holding an egg on a spoon. A little higher up, Highland cattle stood in the paddock still. I broke into a laugh and called hello.
The path was becoming bracken fern. I went up to the edge. To the right, my grandmother’s cottage, overgrown and with some car in the driveway, still stood.
And the same sign with the same name that she had given her home, Cluny, was staked in the front bed. And by the front door, it was her trellis that was stained with a detritus that was fossilized, dark, but higher, a long-stemmed rose had escaped to the edge of the roof, the same blossom I knew, that I had seen in photos, liberated and open and full.
I bent to pull a dock leaf at my feet as if I had a stinging nettle rash that I needed to soothe, as if I was ten again, and while my father was going to move me away from this place to America because he dreamed of making money, I did not yet know the pain this would mean.
The leaf was too deeply rooted, and I let it go.
Witches believe that holes in stones are portals. They hold them up and travel with one eye to a new abundance, to new wisdom on the other side.
Likewise, at home in Maine, I stop at trees with lacunae in their leafy branches through which the sun pours and take pictures on my phone, trying to bank the light.
A few days into our journey in 2019, Bob and I went by a train through space to a location previously unknown. An hour east of my grandmother’s, we disembarked at her birthplace, Elgin, which means Beauty in Celtic, which had once been a summer resort favored by the wealthy of Europe. Now the medieval downtown was hardly discernible amidst the sooty sprawl of cars and people and shops.
We escaped to our real destination in the environs. We walked the grounds of the old cathedral complex. Stones stuck like massive teeth in the ground with Pict agrarian scenes on one side and Celtic crosses on the other. In the middle ages, Elgin Cathedral had been renowned, but when Scotland shifted from Catholicism, the slate in the roof was sold.
To love a ruin is likely foolish, and today people talk of “ruin porn,” but on the grounds of the now skeletal complex, I found one structure I loved. An elegant arch was still embedded in the remaining frame, but its interior wall had crumbled. And my eye so wanted to travel through the darkened hole to what was beyond, where it went to a stand of swaying trees and I saw and heard the rustling in the light and could not step away.
Scotland was radically deforested thousands of years ago. When the Romans invaded in A.D. 82, only half the woodlands remained. Now only five percent are standing and yet to pay attention to trees is still lifegiving, perhaps more so than it has ever been. I forgot about the cathedral, what it had once tried to mean, what it did not mean.
In a new book, The Witch of Eye, the poet Kathryn Nuernberger investigates the sensibility of witches. Why do witches have their own state of mind? Because they are tortured by living in a patriarchal world. They desperately need something better and more, which the poet describes this way: “something to float on that was not just another abyss,” and/or “an old forest growing wild in defiance of all reason,” and/or “an unreal world beyond all this.”
The poet describes witches’ mind-and-body shift toward these states as “ecofeminist botanical mysticism.” She doesn’t sentimentalize this condition, which she defines as “a variant of psychosis,” so that the reader understands that in its own way it is full of hurt.
Once, when I was in my twenties, I brushed up against a powerful man, and it became a recurring desolation, and I became scarred by the memory’s awfulness and thought that someone was going to hurt me more. One day, someone lay on the floor with me to cure me, but my head still succumbed to waves of fear, and after a while I got up and got into the passenger seat of a car and someone drove me to the hospital.
There I found a roommate, and together we formed a coven of two. She had aphasia but we wrapped ourselves in our white sheets and ate and slept as if we were friends. I attended to her methods of communication, which included placing whole apples in the toilet. After she came back to her bed, I slipped into our bathroom trailing my sheets to try to discern if anyone on the other side of the mirror had been watching her.
When he sent me home on the fourth day, the head doctor said, “Well, I don’t want to see you in here again.”
From then on, I understood, it would be my task: to lift my head smoothly from the pillow, to not desire to seep into the ground, to release my suicidal thoughts like doves.
To save myself, I wrote in my journal about every thought and feeling I had. I prayed. Over the phone, I quit my job. I tried to breathe. All of it helped a little until, one day, I realized I was ready to take a walk. I ventured into an old brick neighborhood.
I went down my path, the one I usually ambled with Flower. But she visibly didn’t trust me anymore. I had been somewhere, and she did not know where it was. I had been thinking wrongly about the wrong things, and she did not approve.
I stopped near the school with its ringing. The bell was a loud call to the immediacy of life. Other people were so vibrant, led lives that were so vibrant, and this swamped me.
I stopped near a white hydrangea and let a slew of mother/child pairs pass by. I had never been part of such a pair. I had never had a mother button my jacket, hold my hand so closely, I thought.
But standing there, I suddenly experienced some perspective and knew that those thoughts were mostly not true, but that it was okay to think them for right now because many of my other thoughts were true.
I turned to the white hydrangea, just a tall shrub.
I lifted my right hand. With the backs and tips of my fingers, I touched one lacy mophead. And I felt the remnants of my fear and pain blur into something else.
“We are here,” I said to Bob. I touched his elbow. What I meant was that we were entering my grandmother’s mind.
We ascended on a path of pine needles. Boys coming down on bikes dropped f-bombs as they skimmed by.
And I have to say that I didn’t then know anything of the local history, I had not seen the witch’s stone at the bottom of the hill, and I’m glad I did not on that near perfect day.
We had traveled by train from my grandmother’s birthplace to outside my grandfather’s birthplace of Forres. It was hot walking through the fields that Shakespeare might have called a “blasted heath.” My guidebook said we were crossing the only place that could be the real-life analog of the witches’ terrain in Macbeth.
Not far off stood a small, wooded hill. I had wanted to be under its canopy. And when we got close, I stopped and I saw that the hill was named Cluny.
I covered my mouth. I had cracked a code. One never understood by anyone now living in my family. My grandmother had taken the name of this hill between her and my grandfather’s hometown to name her two adult homes—the latter one a cottage a few miles off, the earlier one outside London where she had tried to raise my father into a kind man.
My father. As Bob and I climbed the hill, I fell just a little under an old familiar curse. I thought briefly of my grandmother trying to guide my father. He was more than a handful by the time he reached his teens, stealing her valuables and moving people’s cars around downtown, but she died an innocent about him who never knew what I would know:
After twenty minutes or so, Bob and I reached the top and I sat on a stone bench at the summit of Cluny Hill on a glorious summer day. I did so without any oppressive public history of the torment of witches spoiling the view. And in those moments, I felt that a long private history had finally shifted into something that was stronger between my grandmother and me.
Because I had come with a flat scarred torso just like hers. I had only been eleven years old when she had shown me her mastectomy scar in the dim guest room in our first house in Florida. And now it had been exactly one year ago to the day since I had had my own operation.
A doctor who was a woman who was my friend. A surgical room. Anesthesia. A radical simplification. In the sun on the bench, I told my grandmother that I too had put it behind me. I was now in a way more like me as a girl. I was now in a way more like her. I had even put my father and his interest in conventional female bodies behind me—as much as I ever could. And all this came together in my mind and I wanted it to stay that way and it has stayed that way at least a little.
However, when I got back to my home in the United States, there was more. That fall the University of Edinburgh released a digital map of all the known witch prosecutions in Scotland. It documented between three and four thousand instances, far more provable cases than had been recognized. The digital map caused a minor sensation and was published over much of the world.
I typed names of Highland places that I loved into the search engine, and, of course, there it was, that small, wooded hill where I had spent one of the sunniest afternoons of my life. That a place that had been a place of reunion with my so loved grandmother could also be a place of cruelty and murder—yes, okay, it was.
The newspaper provided the inscription on the witch’s stone I had not noticed:
“From Cluny Hill, witches were rolled in stout barrels through which spikes were driven. Where the barrels stopped, they were burned with their mangled contents. This stone marks the site of one such burning.”
I saw a woman in flames. I knew it could be any woman.
Such as my grandmother who, after a stroke in her sixties, was placed in a home for seven years, to spend the rest of her days lucid and not lucid and alone.
Such as my mother who my father still coldly curses and always will.
Such as me, who had to flee my father and that was not the end, who, after a brief period of psychosis, endured the stigmatization of mental illness inside my remaining family and this has never entirely gone away.
Once upon a time many of us lived in wooded landscapes that protected us and gave us some of our natures. But then it was gone. And, today, as trees are still felled around us, and as our scars may connect us, it can be experienced, and it is experienced, that our scars have not left us with any far greater hope of safekeeping.
So that it may only be amidst the trees and the plants and in the mysticism of our own minds that we will ever truly belong.