Gardening with the Goddess – a slow landscaping project on the Scottish West Coast

An introduction

Here I am, at my computer at last. More that 2 years have passed since the start of my slow landscaping project (scheduled over about 5 years) here at Diarmid on Loch Long, and I think it is time for a first blog post. Tolkien fans, now you know where the entwives have gone, haha. Where to begin? Ah yes. In a hole in the ground… whoops, sorry. We are not in Middle Earth, although there are distinct similarities. It gets difficult to be linear when you are immersed in the rhythms and magic of nature.

appleblossom

Perhaps a brief introduction. Diarmid on Loch Long is an italianate style house built in Victorian times as a summer lochside residence for a Glaswegian family and is located on the outskirts of Argyll Forest Park, which is part of the fabulous Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. It sits in four acres of beautiful Scottish hillside that originally provided an orchard with a chicken coop etc, a kitchen and flower garden, a formal ornamental garden with waterfall on the lower grounds, a summer lookout right at the top, a couple of cottages, a coach house, and an orangerie that was attached to the house.

DiarmidOriginal

Imagine it as a set for a Victorian costume drama and you get the picture. Ladies in amazing dresses, big paddle steamers, horse-drawn carriages, gin and tonics while watching the boat races on the loch, a drawing room, a morning room and a tower.

Change must have been continuous with the coming and going of several generations, but real darkness befell the estate in the 1970s, when a fire ravaged the house, burnt a massive hole through the middle of it, and dropped the rest of the grand piano that had been in the top tower all the way down into the basement. The building was rescued, but the grounds ceased to be tended and gradually turned into a rather impassable jungle of rhododendron, hazel, sycamore, birch, fallen willows and thorny rootstock gone rampant.

fullmoonfromorchard

Talk about rewilding! Ancient fruit trees became overcrowded and laden with moss, and were pulled over by the winter storms. Fences and drainage systems crumbled. The summer lookout disintegrated. Nature moved in.

Enter the current generation, a spirited young lady with a grand vision to share this extraordinary place that came into her care and turn it into a magical retreat location. Funding is hard to come by these days, but after more than ten years of determined dedication, immensely hard work, and a willingness to sacrifice personal comforts in pursuit of a big vision, Diarmid has been transformed to become home to Good Shadow Studios, an enchanting and unique retreat space for groups and individuals that has a loch at the bottom of the garden and a forest at the top. Not just the light here is magical.

Efforts over the years to manage the grounds and transform them into something useful included various rounds of selective clear cutting, many a merry bonfire, a loose succession of vegetable patches and the adoption of two orphaned lambs in 2013. Mesmerised by the magic and potential of this place, I arrived with a rough plan to input my energy into regenerating and developing the grounds in 2014. Here’s what emerged as a project outline, as listed in my CV:

“April 2014 – present: 5-year slow landscaping project in Blairmore, Argyll.
Redesign and development of neglected Victorian era hillside grounds for Good Shadow Studios, an evolving retreat centre on the outskirts of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. The project aim is to create a retreat garden sanctuary, pastoral orchard and woodland environment that will provide a contemplation space for retreat visitors, encourage wildlife, and provide organic produce as well as sustainable heating for the retreat centre. This is an immersive experimental project that fully observes the rhythms of nature. I live on site and am in the process of developing natural structures, defining spaces and designing sculptural features according to permaculture and natural organic principles.”

Slow landscaping, immersive and experimental. And pause… I began by responding to the immediate challenges that mainly originated from our two adolescent sheep and the mountain stream (“burn”) that cuts through the orchard, goes underground, passes by the house, re-emerges as a waterfall in the lower grounds and then goes out into the loch. But mainly I wanted to listen and let this landscape talk to me through the seasons.

tentattop

Although I grew up in a similar geological environment in the mountains of Bavaria, Scotland’s west coast offers its own unique conditions. Unlike Bavaria it is at sea level, exposed to weather coming straight from across the Atlantic, very northern in latitude, and has ubiquitous water sources. I set up my bell tent with outdoors cooking area and a log burner at the top of the orchard and moved in.

 

Advertisements
Gardening with the Goddess – a slow landscaping project on the Scottish West Coast

Spirit Helpers

This morning as I was emerging from sleep it seemed that I was on the edge of a woodland looking up, and a large bird of prey, like a buzzard but more slender and elegant, was circling above me. It took one more turn, then it glided off towards the woods. I felt that it had been watching over me while I slept and was filled with immense gratitude for its presence. I hadn’t even asked for it.

At other times, having a long history in shamanism, I do ask spirit animals for help, and without fail help is given. Where does it come from?

Spirit animals and other helpers definitely do not reside in the mind, as any “ha ha” linear-thinking western rationalist will happily confirm. They show up in our shadow zones, in the border lands between waking and sleeping, at times of great despair or elation or emotion in general. It seems that our awareness of them requires an opening of intuition and feeling.

Moonbear

Interestingly, our ancestors probably wouldn’t have seen any difference there. I don’t think they distinguished between their body, mind, emotions and ultimately spirit as most modern westerners do. All equal aspects of their existence. Their surroundings – birds, bees, flowers, trees, rivers, clouds… also equal aspects of nature, of their existence, of their reality. All equally inhabited by life force, by spirit just like them.

From this perspective, communicating with other aspects of nature becomes relatively easy. Indigenous peoples still do it, and it is generally called something along the lines of dream time, or dream walking, or journeying. Why do they do it? To access their animal instincts and qualities. To look at a situation through different eyes. To cultivate their connection with everything else in their universe. The help that is obtained in this way is a change of perspective, and a renewed awareness of connection.

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. This is something you can actually read about in the papers. How many people have problems nowadays with answering some of their most fundamental life questions? Feel disconnected or lost?

Perhaps they should consider dream walking or journeying.

Spirit Helpers

Why labyrinths?

Labyrinths are ancient tools and have been used by humans since the beginning of time. While the modern world around us may be very different from that of our ancestors, the essential aspects which make us human remain surprisingly unchanged: Among them is our need for contemplation.

Grass footprint of festival labyrinth with central wishing tree
Grass footprint of festival labyrinth with central wishing tree. Bestival, Isle of Wight, 2010.

In a world full of distractions, a labyrinth provides us with a dedicated space and pathway for taking this active pause and ponder our questions. It also gives us the opportunity to connect with our centre, with the earth under our feet, and with the sky above… we can put our lives in perspective.

Unlike mazes, labyrinths do not have dead ends and only have one entrance and exit. Rather than having to ‘search’ for the way, we can trust that our path is laid out right in front of us… all we need is our willingness to take the journey.

As a meditative tool, a labyrinth invariably takes us to ‘the point’ and mirrors our own journey through life, allowing us to examine and direct our intentions from a different perspective. It provides a calm, universal focus which is not tied to any particular spiritual approach and can therefore be applied as required. An empty canvas for our personal bigger picture.

Elevated view of a labyrinth drawn in the tidal zone at Compton Beach, Isle of Wight
The beauty of impermanence. “In Utero”, Compton Beach, 2014.

The process of creating a labyrinth is profound in itself and can be experienced in participatory events. As a labyrinth maker, I use materials found on site or recycled/natural materials wherever possible. Labyrinths created in the tidal zone on the beach hold a wonderful rhythm of ebb and flow and lend themselves to ceremony for all kinds of life transitions.

Walker standing at the centre of a tidal beach labyrinth
Labyrinth walker standing on the threshold. Summer Solstice 2011.

Each labyrinth has its own beauty and purpose and energises both the space it inhabits and the people who walk it.

Why labyrinths?

Talking stones

I’m still not sure what exactly happened there. I think I’ll just relate to you the course of events and let you form your own view.

There’s this beach close to where I live that has attracted me, although it isn’t anything special as far as beaches go, really. It does have a pleasant outlook on lands not too far offshore. My main attraction from the first time I went there, however, have been the pebbles and rocks you can find. There are all manner of white, pink, yellow and green quartz rocks, slate-like, flat stones, and what looks like tumbled crystals of garnet and other semi-precious gems. Wow.

On 25 April 2015 around 7am during my morning meditation practice, some pebbles I had picked up the previous day – pure and white, grey and flat – started to make themselves known, and I began to arrange them on the floor in front of me without thinking. 20150425_074834“Ah,” I thought,”visitors.” It seemed like they wanted to join me in meditation, and I welcomed and contemplated and sat with them. They somehow remained in my head all day, so the next morning I went back to the beach and picked up a whole bagful. Pure and white, grey and flat. I just had to, although it was a very blustery day. And sure enough, during the following morning’s meditation, more of them asked to participate.

20150427_082737Very puzzling. Even more showed up the day after.

20150428_091801

There was a way in which they wanted to be placed that seemed quite clear. Like a mandala. My heart was feeling heavy as I had become aware of events in Nepal, and my prayers were rippling out into the ether for the people affected by the earthquake. “Please ask your kind to go easy on my kind”, I whispered to the stones. When I emerged from my meditation, all stones had claimed their place.

20150429_081848

Stone language! After contemplating what I could see, I went online and researched the exact timing of the first earthquake.

The 2015 Nepal earthquake, also called the Gorkha earthquake and Nepal Greater Earthquake (महाभुकम्प mahābʱʉkəmp (mahabhookamp) in Nepali) occurred at 11:56 NST on 25 April.

That’s 7.11am British Summer Time. Yes, on 25 April. I’m amazed and bow to the forces of nature, which are far greater than I could ever understand.

Please send your thoughts and prayers to the people.

Talking stones

Home

The little girl was watching her own feet move swiftly through the summer grass. “Run!” they had urged her. Run. There had no longer been any options. Obeying their command, she crossed the meadow and made for the stream, and the woods beyond. Anywhere, anywhere, to get away from what now lay behind her, what had caused her breath to freeze inside her lungs before it could turn into a scream. She silently crossed the stone bridge and began to climb the narrow path at the foot of the mountain, her heart darting ahead in front of her like a startled deer.

Up and up. The forest rose tall on either side, in front of her, and then also behind her. “Keep running,” her feet insisted, but her body was beginning to tire and would no longer obey them. She left the path through a gap in the undergrowth and collapsed in a small dell, thick layers of pine needles tenderly cushioning her fall.

This was the end. This was as far as she could run. An abyss of despair grew wide and dark inside her chest, devouring her whole world. Nothing else existed, only it. Only it. Her breath began to return in sobs, small at first but then shaking her violently, making her gasp, forcing her to howl out this acrid void and replace it with soothing forest air.

After a while, a soft wind began to whisper in the trees, bringing with it the warm scent of summer and of earth. The girl wiped her eyes. Above her, treetops were swaying gently in the breeze, moving this way and that, making visible the breath of the world. “It’s alright,” the forest whispered. “You are safe with me.” A wave of warmth washed over her, and she felt herself cradled and protected by her surroundings. Her heart grew calm, and her strength began to return. Soon she would get up and walk back to the house, that place where her parents were so immersed in fighting with each other that they hadn’t even noticed her leave, this time for good.

Home