Woven Earth – reflections on our attempt to ‘relearn indigeneity’ in the dales

By Keri Facer, from the Brigstow funded project Cultivating Interdependence with the Land

I am curled up in a hammock, swaddled in blankets on an early morning summer’s day in Brittany where I spend a few months each year with my partner. I’m in a pocket of forest and stream surrounded by industrial maize fields. The sun has just risen in a soft pink sky and I realise, watching it, that I cannot encounter this world as if it is new to me or to us as human people. I cannot see the red flecked dawn without hearing the ‘shepherd’s warning’ and looking for the rain clouds. People have been here before me, this new dawn has been seen before, and I see it through both those eyes and my own – pure seeing is not and will never be possible. Old and new are entangled. As I walked through the garden to the edge of the field this morning the deer scattered, hooves lightly drumming the green lane. Because I am here, they are not. But because we human people are here, they are here – they are so many deer because there are no predators, except for us, and the hunters pass here only every few months with their horns and fluorescent orange jackets and baying dogs and white vans, although we see their traces everywhere in the forest, orange markers, brushed wide trails.

In the distance now I hear farm machinery, a combine or bailer or tractor – the hay being carried home, the drone of endless endless activity on the land round here, never a year left fallow, grass drilled into rows each spring. Until I lived here, I didn’t know the grass of these fields was a crop, was planted as an annual into bare soil devoid of other plants. Nearer, the neighbour’s dog prowls his domain with a bell round his neck, and a far-off cockerel lets us know it is the dawn. A soft patter of raindrops falls on the leaves of the old apple tree above me. And crickets and grasshoppers are waking up in waves, calling back to the birds in the forest who, although I can’t see them, weave a patterned melody, a soft blanket of effortless intricate layers of song that falls around me – soft chirps, harsher trills, a sweet ripple of bells from deep in the elder tree ahead, a drilling above, the familiar hushing tones of the wood pigeon. Somewhere a squirrel is tapping the unripe hazelnuts against a tree.

And as I sit here, I’m thinking of another set of fields and forests, in Derbyshire, at High Leas farm, and of the Woven Earth project. And I’m reflecting on what we have learned about what it means to be a human person in a land populated by other beings, and on what I have come to understand, over the course of the last few months of talking with Rob and Mim and of visiting the farm. This is not a definite sort of knowing, it is more an edging sideways into a different way of seeing or feeling. And this is just a set of reflections as part of my side of the bargain in this process.


Where did this project start? For me, with an email from Rob, in the depths of December last year and a phonecall. This call overcame my tired wariness about an invitation to be part of yet another project because of its invitation to explore, together, what role there is for human people in land today, how we might move beyond endless extraction and exploitation of land and of people. And, also, it was an invitation to explore this question in country that was, if not known to me, then at least familiar – a land of drystone walls and dales, of rounded hills and pubs not far from where I’d grown up, a land that pulls on me with its familiarity and the memories it invokes of freedom and renewal from my early twenties.


What were some of the things I was bringing to this conversation? What shaped my understanding and thinking before coming to the farm?

I’d spent the years before Rob’s phonecall call reading and listening to stories of a relationship with land that felt very different from what seems to dominate the UK today. Through the Ecoversities network in 2014 I’d met people who understood land and people as deeply interconnected, as part of each other – who didn’t see land as ‘context’ for humans, or background, or resource – but saw human people living alongside other beings and people in a set of mutually constituted relationships that demanded respect and care, proportion and balance. The network introduced me to elders and teachers from Hawaii, to indigenous leaders and scholars from the land now known as Canada, to residents of ecovillages making new ways of living in community, to Italian and Russian artists opening up new ways of learning through forests. And alongside these good people, I’d been reading the work of Robin Wall Kimmerer, Vanessa Andreotti, Patty Krawec, Tyson Yunkaporta, who talked of becoming kin with the other beings of the land. Through this, I’d heard of ways of knowing and teaching and learning that fostered these relationships, and that offered an understanding of a human person’s place in the world as part of not separate from that of other beings.

This work and writing, however, comes in the main from Indigenous scholars and writers, able to draw on a long lineage of relationship with place and a cosmology that centred the relational. In contrast, I live and have grown up as part of a country and way of thinking that has been responsible for attempting to eradicate these Indigenous ways of knowing, as our ancestors pushed out across the globe in the search for more wealth, more land, more resources, pushed off the land we once made livelihoods from. My Scottish family, in particular, left a life lived on the land in the far north of Scotland to become settlers in Argentina, part of the movement forcing Indigenous peoples off the central plains to make way for beef (my great grandfather was a ranch manager). Could I even turn to Indigenous knowledge to think about relationships to land in the country I am living in, without it being another form of extraction? Equally, if one of the insights of such Indigenous knowledge is precisely about the interconnection of beings in the mesh of place and its deep histories, then does it even make sense to draw on these ways of knowing to understand what it might mean to be human in a country like England? I’ve been reading enough coyote stories to know there is a difference between settled ways of knowing in place and the sort of stealing of other people’s ways of being that causes trouble.

I’ve also spent the last few years hanging out with environmentalists and climate activists. And here, the idea of the relationship between human and land was a tortured and conflicted one. Humans were, quite clearly, ‘The Problem’. The Anthropocene, a name invented to describe just precisely how much harm the human species can inflict on one planet, recorded in radioactive deposits, chicken bones, climate heating – lays the blame firmly at the door of humanity, and, specifically, that part of humanity that has been responsible for extracting resources and consuming them at a vast scale and breakneck pace, namely, the part that I am from, northern Europe, as well as America and the growing global middle class that we are collectively ‘developing’ into these ways of being. The answer to ‘The Problem’ in some of these circles, is increasingly framed in apocalyptic terms – the planet will survive, the people just have to die off first. Is that the only solution we have, I wondered? What if we think humans have value? What is the human place in all this? I remember Wall Kimmerer’s observation that after 3 years of conventional ‘conservation’ and ecology undergraduate education, many of her students could tell her no stories of humans having a positive relationship with land and with other beings who live there. Unsurprising, in that context, that humans come to be seen as a harmful species that just has to be wiped out.

Just before Rob called I was also being drawn into reading about the rewilding movement – a movement that seeks to return land to its own patterns and rhythms. I’d been recommended to read a book about the Knepp estate in Southern England, with its withdrawal of human activity and introduction of grazing animals able to roam freely, which has made a popular case for rewilding as a turn away from intensive human agriculture and talks of letting the land heal itself. Reading the book and looking at the website, however, I can’t help but notice that many of its reference points are to African savannahs, to the patterns of animal migration and ecosystem dynamics experienced there by the current Knepp landowner in his youth, and specifically, its references are to landscapes with very few people. To reinforce the impression, the website shows images of safari vans, driving people on tours around the estate. I note also that the website shows images of animals and plants, but not of people interacting in this land other than as observers. This story is also a story of a country estate, historically a place where people are excluded unless employed or permitted on designated paths across the land, and originating often in centuries-old histories of exclusion and dispossession. And I think of the recent ‘Book of Trespass’, that outlines the history of the relationship between large landowners and land in England, and those who are being called the ‘Green Lairds’ in Scotland, city investors settling the land in the north for rewilding, whose relationship with those already there is an echo of earlier colonial movements[1]. I think also of the growing right to roam movement, and its recent battles for the right to wild camp on Dartmoor, and the questions that these groups ask about what it means to be on and be part of the land, and what ‘ownership’ means or entails. And this reading makes me wonder if we can or should inherit ideas inspired by colonial visions of African savannahs as a basis for healing relationships between people and land in the crowded little island we now live on, the little island where enclosures and loss of common land precisely pushed people off to become settlers in search of ‘empty’ territory across the Americas, Africa, Australia, with all the violence that then ensued. Is there a risk we mistake ideas of ‘stewardship’ that are actually cover for new forms of dispossession and extraction? Is rewilding a healing of human relationship with land or just demanding our withdrawal?

What other accounts of this relationship had I been thinking of and with before this conversation? I’ve been drawn to the growing story from the west country, from the fertile forests of Devon, of the semi-perennial intensity of the forest garden, the light touch creation of edible forests. While here in France, we see the recovery of the story of the maraîchage stimulating a new movement, characterised by a return to the intensive market gardens of old Paris, bringing ‘miraculous abundance’ from small territories, intensively cultivated by hand with the assistance of the big old horses, carving swales into the land to hold water, companion planting in densely woven tapestry of ever-changing crops, whose roots and canopy create multi-levelled tangles of production. Perhaps these offer different stories of what it might mean to be in relationship with land that work with the smaller more crowded tapestry landscapes of Europe? They also, though, remind me of the rich melding of Buddhist, Western horticulture and Indigenous American traditions on the damp coast of California at Green Gulch Farm, the world of Wendy Johnson and Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate.

It’s not just the ecologists, horticulturists and systems biologists who have ideas of human-land relations though. There’s also the poets. It’s impossible to ignore, in England, the romantics – the Wordsworths and Coleridges, wandering the lands and the lanes, revelling in the beauty of wildness, of vistas, of the extremes and otherness of nature – turning what was feared into ‘Nature’ – a source of transcendent encounter – of mysticism even, that promises eternal truths, profound insights (and getting reported for spying while they did so, so strange was their behaviour to the locals at the time). This is ‘nature’ as solace and source of recovery. As mirror and standard by which to judge ourselves. This is nature as the ultimate other, and yet still, in many ways, this is Nature for us – for our enlightenment, for our rapture, for our rapt contemplation. We could turn also to the countryside writers – Thomas Hardy, George Elliot, John Clare – with their accounts of the hardships and dignity of rural labour and its toll on the women and men who do not fit the mould of village life. Then there are the contemporary ‘nature writers’ – the Deakins’ and Macfarlanes – offering to jaded urban eyes new ways of seeing a jewel-bright world of rivers, telling stories that risk becoming bedtime stories of distraction from the degradation that characterises those rivers, from the injustices that structure the right to wonder, alone, around the country.

What I had been reading, in particular, before Rob’s phonecall, were older stories of land – thousands of years old. I’d been turning to mythtellers like Martin Shaw and John Moriarty, whose retelling of ancient celtic myths and Arthurian legends bring into sight the constant traffic between city and the forest, the necessary entanglement of the village and the wild, of the gifts of both and the necessity of balancing that relationship, learning from both. Such mythtellers tell us that this relationship between village and wild, between the gathering and the forest, has always been there, that the forest is as necessary to being human as the city, and that the forest has its own sovereignty – it is not and can never be, ours. These stories come from small islands where the possibility of the truly ‘wild’ landscape is rare, and the focus is more on understanding the ongoing encounters between people and the spirits of the wild places. Understanding these relations, the nature of this traffic, is central to survival. Attending to and being in conversation with the beings alive in the woods and the hedgerows is part of what it means to be alive on a day to day basis. This is not land as ‘quest’, this is land as familiar relationship.

So – these are some of the things I was thinking through when Rob and Mim and the farm at High Leas came into my life, asking me to help them develop a project that would allow them to explore, on this 150 acre farm, what it means to create new relationships between people and land. They understood the ecological systems, they said, what they weren’t sure about was the ‘culture’ – the ‘people stuff’. Could I help? I couldn’t say no, I was curious. But I was also aware of what little I had to offer in practical terms. I had the questions and qualms I’ve just discussed, as well as a sense of some of the traditions of thinking about human and land from a cultural and educational perspective. I was supervising a PhD student – Katherine Wall – who was working specifically on the relationship between land and racial justice, looking at what it means to recognise the history of colonialism and continued and ongoing exclusion from land of people of colour – who also brought facilitation skills, and who was also looking for some work. And, as Rob pointed out, I was also, usefully, able to apply for funding – by the deadline the following week – from the university to support collaborative research.

And so – with me bringing more questions than answers, offering funding and a willing researcher, we began to explore what this relationship between humans and land might become at High Leas.


I’m not going to document what we did – we’ll cover this elsewhere – other than to note that there was a lot of talking and a lot of uncertainty about the nature of this exploration, what were we actually trying to do?  Did Rob and Mim already have ideas of the role they wanted people to play or was it completely open? How can we bring together perspectives that see humans as functions in an ecological landscape, with actual humans who see themselves in so many other ways – as storytellers, as walkers, as people with a claim on the land, as people in need of things from the land, as farmers, gardeners, birdwatchers, walkers, mental health workers. What might being in relationship with the land in this place, at this time, mean?

As the seasons changed, we visited the farm, making a little pilgrimage up from Bristol – first Katherine on her own, then Katherine and myself, and then myself and Ross, the researcher who replaced Katherine. I took photos each time, meeting the land in that old romantic tradition I find it hard to let go of – as a place of escape, of radical otherness, of beauty, of contemplation, of invitation to transcendence. I recall my first visit was all dandelion fireworks in green fields and bluebells in the woods, and a soft grey mist over the valley in the morning with a wild wind whipping round the barn as we talked, lambs about to arrive to heavy ewes tucked under spring green trees. My second visit was all cow parsley and hemlock, meadows waving in the still present breeze, creeping thistle dotting the tops of the grasses with purple, ox eye daisies abundant, bees humming and hunting over the short grass of the paths curving across the fields. The wheat, just planted on my first visit, now standing firm, blue green tall. The first workshop was humans feeling each other out – new neighbours, old residents, interested parties – what could be done here, what are we all doing, who are we planning to be to each other. The second workshop was strangers to the land, those drawn by a sense of possibility, bringing their own stories of how they had made and remade relationships between people and place, the institutional struggles and tensions, the resources they had drawn on and developed. We planted yellow rattle and hoped for the best.


What might come from this? …

And so, from these visits, and the ongoing conversations, what shapes do I see of the relations between people and place potentially emerging on this farm? Or what else have I come to think about what this question of becoming indigenous might be on these islands?  Here are a few hunches, potential trajectories for further conversation and exploration – I don’t know whether I have a role in these explorations, or whether these are observations for Rob and Mim to take away. .. but they are starting points for something!

What is a farm? For me, this emerged as a question later in the second workshop. It made me realise I don’t know what a farm is or could be[2]. It made me wonder if we are simply going back to absolute basics. What we are trying to do, perhaps, is redefine what a farm is? I note the emergence of a new sort of model for ‘being a farm’ is latent in the conversations during both workshops– perhaps not fully expressed other than in glancing references to other places that might act as models – a farm in east Anglia (Wakelyns) that has both growers and bakers. The idea that seems to be emerging is not about a farm as collective (everyone isn’t all doing the same thing) or as personal project (one person’s vision and control) – but as platform – as place for many, inter-related activities – bakers growing bread from the wheat, horticulturists growing salad crops, Mim breeding sheep, a care farm run by local counsellors, all with different relationships and different practices with the land. This also opens up to a new economic model – can these people, together, make something that nurtures both land and these people, that helps create separate but interdependent livelihoods that are gentle and relational. This, to me, is a question that can be clearly operationalised and clarified, as a set of invitations to contribute and become part of a joint initiative. I saw something similar recently on a noticeboard in France, at a local recycling centre – a new farm was looking for people to take on various defined roles, including baker, market gardener – and/or to say what roles they might want to play. It was an invitation to help shape and form a co-operative – and I begin to wonder whether it is a co-operative model that might not best suit this place (something I’ve had some experience of and confidence in).

Beneath all of this, a question about land ownership is raised tangentially – the landlords are not present, the land is not held in trust for these actors, what if they remove permission? Two future directions seem to be present in these conversations – the first, a future of continued and assumed precarity, where those working on the land plan to up sticks and move, taking their learning and their machinery with them – this direction raises questions for all involved, will bakers, gardeners, land workers, mental health workers and others want to invest their time in setting up their activities under these conditions? The second direction suggests a new model of ownership, the ideas of the Edith Maryon foundation in the 1920s were mentioned as a model to take land out of private ownership into collective, community ownership; ‘Shared Assets’ is mentioned as a response to how to deal with this question of land as property. These discussions raise the question – is it possible for the farm become a new sort of farm, a different platform for multiple livelihoods, without confidence in the longer-term relationship between these people and the land? How might those conversations roll out?

A second area of curiosity and interest for me arose from the clarity and urgency with which Mim expressed, in our last gathering, that we were not asking the land what the land needed. She asked us to think about whether it is possible to be in relation with the land without asking what the land wants. And here, we return to the question – perhaps we don’t know how to ask, we don’t have the confidence to inquire – who are we to speak for the land? What way of knowing is or could be legitimate to even begin to answer this question? We have to work out a beginning to this though, in this time, in this place, with these skills that we have, and so we turn to the only response that is possible – that of noticing and experiencing, sitting, watching, noting, asking. Row and Sarah have brought in arts practices and meditation practices, to help us in the workshops begin this sort of listening. What are we grasping towards in this practice? Mythtellers talk about being ‘dreamed’ by the land – of recognising that the land itself has dreams, that we need to open ourselves up, through sacred practices, to allow ourselves to ‘be dreamed’ by the land. This implies an opening up to a form of attention to the edge of perception, an attentiveness to the different rhythms and patterns that make up the whole. Myth, Sean Kane argues, is pattern – stories that draw our attention to relationships that make up wholes. Perhaps listening to the land, when we have no myths to learn from, is noticing patterns and beginning to see relationships between these.

This sends me in a different direction – I wonder whether those people who visit can be invited to become part of the processes of listening to the land, I wonder whether it is possible to invite the walkers and the visitors, the people who come for a day or two or more, all to help notice and attend to what is happening – and to gather this in ways that can be shared. Whether we can create new rituals and practice sthat enable those visiting to slow down, to sense, to listen, to be dreamed and at the same time, to bring these dreams back to the collective in the form of stories or recollections. And that this may be the beginning of a relationship of being dreamed by the land, of opening ourselves up to different patterns of perception. Re-learning indigeneity must, surely, mean learning new (re-learning lost) ways of noticing, seeing, relating.

As part of this, of course, I have a hunch that I’d like to explore – it concerns how we think about time and relationships here. Time matters in so many ways to these questions we are interested in and I feel a need to see if this is a lens that will allow us to go deep. So much of what we are talking about so far concerns how we think about and with time. Can we create new temporal practices to allow people to slow down and to sense the ‘sacred’ landscape of dreaming alongside the secular? Can we create the economic practices that will allow different groups to coordinate and synchronise what they are doing, to create the timings that will work for the land, to create the long-term thinking that will allow for growth? I’m wondering whether we can understand the role of people in this place in part by working with the lens of time. The table I drafted with Rob and Mim after the first workshop maps out all the different sorts of temporalities – in terms of duration and frequency – that might characterise different groups’ involvement with the land. I still think there is more to explore here. How can we think of these relationships between land and people through different temporalities? I would like to map all the different rhythms and temporalities of the farm over a couple of years – to trace who comes and who goes, who stays and who grows, who cycles in and around again and again – and when I ask who, I mean both humans and non-humans. I’d like to map what old times are being drawn upon – when did this farm begin? What are the materials we are working with – and here Rob and Mim’s own writing helps for tracing some of these different beginnings. And perhaps that is something to explore too, the nature of multiple beginnings, multiple ongoing relations, multiple endings at different times.

And then, finally, I sense that story and storytelling will matter here. Storytelling comes from walking the land. Walking the land is precisely the beginning of a practice of storytelling and mythmaking – each time we walk, we notice what happened there, and then there, and then there –  walking is the beginning of storytelling. We walk, we recall what we noticed, what happened, what we saw. Story as simple as that. And here I go back to the observation that culture is already here, already woven into the land – it is not a layer on top, culture is what people have been doing and saying and believing about this place throughout its history, its present and its future. It is the ongoing relations and stories that are being told about those relations. It is the ongoing rituals and repetitions that arise, that give meaning to each action. When I think about stories here, I think about questions like: how are the people already here, how have people always already been here, over decades, centuries, millennia. How have people always already been shaping this place? What stories have they been telling? What traces of old relationships are still in the stories and the songs, in the stones and the fields? Who have ‘we’ already been here, over the different layers of time that we have lived in this place? What has happened to those relationships over time? What are the old stories have been forgotten? What ways of knowing and being and doing are locked inside bodies if we can stop for a moment too notice them, or if we can find the moments to call them into being? What old stories need to be forgotten? What harms have arisen, what alienations and distancing occurred? We might also want to ask: who has not been here but who are part of the story of this land in other ways? Those who have eaten or used what has come from this land? Those who left it to go elsewhere? Those who have never felt welcome here? All of these are part of the story too. 


So – after these conversations, how might we think about the ‘people stuff’ of this project, the ‘culture’ that I was invited to represent in many ways when I was asked to join this project. These aren’t, it’s clear, the right questions to ask. Culture and place is already, always entangled – the land, geology and botany, shape the people and the people, their stories, beliefs, ideas, in turn, shape the land. People are always, already here. We can’t ‘get back’ to something pure and right before humans; just as we can’t go back to humans without culture. We have no choice but to keep going – to work with the messiness, the impurity, the tangled nature of who we are.

So – four areas to continue to explore

  • the rethinking of what a farm might be and its economics;
  • the creation of new ways of listening to the land and being dreamed by the land;
  • the attending to time and rhythms;
  • and the role of story.

These – if I’m asked now, may be what I think the ‘culture’ work of this place is: a practice of redefinition and unpicking of meaning of a ‘farm’ that begins to take new social and economic forms, an intentional cultivation and encouragement of a new way of seeing, a set of rhythms and rituals, and a gathering of old and new stories. These are the new starting points I end up with as we finish this project.


[1] https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/scotland-environment-green-lairds/

[2] Interestingly if you look at the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of ‘farm’ relates specifically to fixed payments or lease, i.e. a ‘farm’ is a regular payment – which makes visible the entangled relationship of land, agriculture, property, economics. Other definitions relate to ‘land used for agricultural purposes, such as growing crops, raising livestock, or producing animal products, for sale or for food; (in extended use) the agricultural business or enterprise operating on this land.” A farm is ‘land’ that is ‘used’. There is also a wider historical usage – of a farm being where people are kept that can’t be kept elsewhere, particularly in the us – a farm as slang for prison, or as a name for where unwannted children are raised, for profit. In other words, all the uses of the word farm bring in a particular association and relationship between people and land. What we are trying to do, perhaps, is redefine what a farm is?

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