Mabh Savage April, 2016
Rebecca Beattie: Nature Mystic
Author of Pagan Portals: Nature Mystics, Rebecca is also a regular contributor to the UK’s premier Pagan magazine, Pagan Dawn, and is in the process of writing another book called Urban Nature Mystic. I had the chance to find out a bit more about Rebecca, and about nature mystics.
Tell us a bit about Pagan Portals: Nature Mystics. Who are Nature Mystics?
Nature Mystics are people who connect with Nature as a part of their spiritual lives, and experience mystical epiphanies in nature. A mystical epiphany is something that brings knowledge from outside of yourself, something you would not have otherwise known. They might have a slightly ‘otherworldly’ air, as they exist between different realities, and not just our supposedly solid, physical world. Nature Mystics can come from any religious or cultural background, and the mystical experiences will differ from person to person, depending on their worldview. For example, someone from an Abrahamic religion may frame that experience as being one that fits within their religious framework (seeing a burning bush is one example), while a pagan may encounter a god like Pan or Cernunnos, nature spirits, or elementals. The key thing is that the experience happens whilst being immersed in Nature. It is the Nature Mystics’ ability to transcend all religious or spiritual labels that appeals to me (although I realise it also conversely creates another!)
What inspired you to write this volume?
I was doing a PhD on Mary Webb, who was a much forgotten writer of the early Twentieth Century. She used to meditate in nature for long periods, and then awaken with a fully formed novel in her head, which she would then have to write down frantically, before she lost the details. Using this method, she wrote her first novel in three weeks. I fell in love with her last completed novel, Precious Bane, when I was fifteen, but always struggled to see how she fitted in with mainstream writing of her time. When I started doing an MA in Modernist Literature a few years ago, and I spent a good chunk of my time wondering where Mary Webb could or should be placed among her peers (writers like Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, Vita Sackville West, Evelyn Waugh etc) and she just didn’t seem to fit in anywhere. The Bloomsbury set looked down on her as she made her own clothes and wasn’t fashionable enough, but she also didn’t fit in with the Victorian writers of the generation before either, as her subject matter really wasn’t Victorian. She felt like a Modern Pagan, but I knew that Modern Pagans didn’t emerge until a few decades later, after the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951. I started to research other writers of the time, to try and trace who she might sit alongside, and I discovered that quite a few writers also had very pagan elements before they ‘should’ have, writers like D.H. Lawrence, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Mary Butts etc. I revisited Hutton’s Triumph of The Moon to look for clues, and had a bit of a lightbulb moment, when Ronald started talking about the influences that contributed to a culture from which Modern Paganisms could emerge. Gerald Gardner and his peers were not working in isolation. These elements were all found in both Webb and the other writers I was re-discovering. That was when I realised there was a whole research project there, waiting for me to dive in.
This is your first work of non-fiction. Will you be writing more?
Absolutely! I love writing, full stop, but I realised non-fiction allows me to write about the things I am interested in. It’s not academic, but it is definitely influenced by my academic training, and I absolutely love the research angle. All those libraries to visit and get lost in! At the moment I am writing another ‘Work In Progress’ blog for Moon , which is called “Urban Nature Mystic”. In it I am exploring how we practice our Nature based faith systems whilst living in the city. Someone once asked me how I could be a ‘proper witch’ whilst living in the city, and my immediate answer was, how could I not be? Nature is all around us, even in the most urban settings. It’s great, as it enables me to reflect on my own practice, and the differences between Dartmoor (where I grew up) and London (which has now been my home for nearly twenty years).
How was the process different to writing a novel or a short story? Was it more challenging?
In some ways the process of writing is similar, as you have to have the same discipline, but they do use slightly different skill-sets to get there. With non-fiction, you get a chance to go down the rabbit hole and explore topics that you are fascinated by, and then share that with other people. One of the dangers in post-graduate research is the risk of getting lost in the research and forgetting what it is you are ‘supposed’ to be doing. You can end up going off on tangents, and getting lost in the woods. Writing non-fiction gives me a chance to go off the designated path and deliberately get lost. It can give me a legitimate reason for exploring, and examining, and uncovering truths I was not consciously aware of. I am absolutely passionate about reading and writing, and the non-fiction writing enables me to share those enthusiasms with other people, and really see the world from a different angle. With fiction writing, you get to show people the view inside from the character’s head, which is a different skill entirely. I trained as an actor originally, and that skill is very useful when writing fiction, as I get to put on another person’s skin, and walk around in it for a while. Non-fiction keeps me inside my own head a bit more.
You enjoy walking; do you have a favourite route?
Where I grew up on Dartmoor, I had one favourite walk I used to do regularly, that I really miss, even now. It took me across the moors to a little valley with a brook that flowed through it. I used to sit for hours under a beautiful old Willow tree, and tell it all my troubles. For years I really resented the fact that I couldn’t go there as often as I would like, and then, more recently, I have tried to stop looking back with regret, and instead focus on what I have near me now. I realised I need to walk regularly in order to ‘walk things out’ in my head – it helps me to think through what I need to write about next, lowers my stress levels, and enables me to connect up with my gods. Although I have an active spiritual life with my coven, the walking becomes my day-to-day practice, and keeps me sane. Last year I discovered there are a number of ‘green trails’ all though my part of North London, and I have now discovered a trail that is my favourite walk. It goes through a nature reserve, and then winds on towards a farm with a riding stable. Finally, it ends in a wood where there is a pond that I can sit by and contemplate the world. If I am lucky, I get to see cows, horses, lots of birds, and the pond at the end is visited by the occasional swan or heron. Even when it is not, it is a lovely place to just sit and watch the reflections of clouds, or ripples on the surface of the water.
What’s the most mystical or magical place you have ever been?
Dartmoor is a very mystical place for me. Wherever I go in the world, I will always have an invisible cord that ties me to it, so much so, I have already bought my burial plot, several decades ahead of time (hopefully!) so I know that I will always end up there, just next to my Mum. There are a lot of other very special places where we can connect to the Divine in nature, and it is usually the really wild places that I connect to, like Scotland, or the Isles of Scilly.
I think the most mystical place I ever went to was Egypt. I have had a lifelong fascination for Egypt, and went there eight years ago. I went with the intention of visiting as many temples as I could in a week.
From the moment I landed there, I felt more awake than I have ever been. It is the first time I have consciously had that sense of ‘knowing’ about a place, the feeling that you have been there before. I was drifting up the Nile seeing sites that were so familiar to me, and when I visited the Temple of Philae near Aswan, even though the island itself has been moved from its original location, I could tell you where the gardens were laid out, and what went where around the temple.
Egypt is also one of the places where I have felt the presence of the old gods most clearly. It was a week of deep emotional shifts, and coincidences, and magic, and I would be lying if I said I came back the same person. I had been studying Psychic Development classes at the College of Psychic Studies, and also learning NLP and undertaking my work of the first degree in Wicca, so I had a lot of different development work going on. I think I felt my way around the tour that week, which is how I could connect so deeply to it all.
And the most mystical experience? A truly magical moment you could recount for us?
I think the key with Nature Mysticism is that you are connecting to life in a way that most people wouldn’t notice, as they go about their day to day lives. There is a big dollop of mindfulness involved, and you also have to be prepared for experiencing things that your senses can’t quite explain, and also for knowing things that you wouldn’t otherwise know. Some of the most mystical experiences can also be the most personal – the moment when a friend of mine came and tugged on my hair when I was at his funeral (he was a very playful person) or midwifing my mother through a terminal illness was pretty mystical. There is also an element of ‘knowing’ things – insight that comes from those mystical encounters that I couldn’t otherwise know. But it is also incredibly subtle – I won’t tell you that I experience daily visions of the Goddess while commuting to work on the Underground. Mystical experiences can be indicated by minute details – for instance, under my willow tree on Dartmoor, I would gradually start to see the ground beneath me undulate in waves, which I knew was not ‘physically’ possible. For me those mystical moments in nature are a way of ‘checking in’ to see what’s next on the agenda – a life in Wicca is also a life of service, so it’s a bit like checking in to get your instructions for what you need to do next. Also, the insights that come can’t always be shared – you have to get a feel for what you can and can’t appropriately tell people, without them thinking you are barking [crazy, for the American readers!].
How do you think the perception of modern paganism is changing as it becomes more widely understood through books like your own?
I think that the biggest change we have seen in recent years is the shift from ‘Modern Paganism’ to ‘Modern Paganisms’, as we have realised that it is perfectly acceptable to have many different blueprints for this faith system, and they are all as valid as each other. What appeals to people is the ability to follow your own path, and not to have too much dogma or doctrine imposed on you (unless you like that kind of thing). In the past we have gone through periods of debunking old myths (such as the unbroken line to pre-Christian societies) or the de-bunking of the myth-makers, like Margaret Murray who wrote The Witch Cult in Western Europe, or Marion Zimmer Bradley, who wrote The Mists of Avalon. I feel like we have spent many years apologising for some of our roots (when we are not arguing over them!) whereas now, I think we are coming back round to acknowledging that, while those myths may not be true, it doesn’t mean they are invalid. Margaret Murray’s view may not have been factually accurate, but it still influenced a lot of people, which means it still has value.
Although my own background and training is in Wicca, I wanted to ensure that “Nature Mystics” was a book that transcended some of those labels – it can be just as relevant to a Traditional Witch, as to a Druid or a Heathen as it could be to a Wiccan. The readership seems to be reflecting that back to me, so I *think* it may have worked. The thing I love most about researching our cultural (and specifically literary) roots, is that it gives us space to embrace all of those ideas we love so much, such as the idea of Priestesses of the Goddess living on an island that is only one step in the mist away from the ‘real world’ or the world of faery, or the idea of rats and moles encountering Pan in the woods, or the idea of a woman leaving her home in the 1920s, to go and join a witches’ coven in the countryside. We can embrace those magical moments without having someone come along and break the spell, even if those moments are essentially fictional. And the poetry that comes from these authors’ love of nature seeps its way into the language of our prayers and rituals.
Did you always want to be a writer? What’s your ‘day job’ and how do you fit it around your writing, or vice versa?
As a child I was absolutely adamant that I wanted to be an actor from the age of about seven. I kept this going for quite a few years, until I was feeling quite bitter and unhappy as I had a lot of creative energy that was going to waste, as you had to land the acting work before you could use that energy. Having one of those ‘what if this is as good as it gets?’ moments, I decided that I needed to take a sabbatical, and would only return to acting when I could feel positive about what I was doing. This coincided with decision to spend more time exploring my spiritual life. Although I had spent many years as a solitary witch, I had met my HPS, and was just embarking on the beginnings of my year and a day. One of the tasks given to me was to explore your local folklore. As I was researching, I came across the story of the Lychway on Dartmoor – a pathway lead to the Parish Church across the open moors, before the Turnpike roads were built. If you lost a relative and were living in my village, you would have to have carried your dead loved one across the moors to bury them, a path that was said to be ‘eight miles in fair weather, and fifteen in foul’. My dad and I did the walk, and it was exhausting, even on a nice day (and we did it over two days). As I was walking, I started to think of a short story of a girl who had to make this journey, except when I sat down to write it, the short story kept growing and growing, and it became my first novel, “The Lychway”. Although it was a bit of a surprise at the time, I realised I got the same buzz from writing as I got from acting, only I had more control over writing, as I could do it any time I wanted to, as long as I had a pen and some paper. Somehow I never went back to acting.
I have always maintained a day job alongside the creative work I do. Although it started as a necessity, it has become a habit, and it has the dual functions of keeping a roof over my head, and also freeing me to write whatever I want to, as I don’t have to be governed by what will bring the money in. It also keeps me very grounded as I work in a drug and alcohol charity. When I started there sixteen years ago, I told my colleagues not to get used to me, as I was only staying for a month. (Did I mention I also like to think of the Divine as ‘the cosmic joker’?)
What other projects do you have on the go?
As well as the non-fiction writing, the full time day job and keeping my sanity intact (barely!) I am also studying for a PhD. Through two years of a traditional English PhD about Mary Webb, I struggled to make her ‘fit’ into among her Modernist peers, and realised I had to bring my interest of Paganism in as well, which was a bit of a no-no as far as my old university was concerned. I decided to jump ship and switch to a Creative Writing programme. Now I get to write a novel about Mary Webb, as well as explore my Nature Mystics a bit more for the critical commentary part of the project, so I get the best of both worlds.
Aside from that, I also write regularly for Pagan Dawn, and I also have the Urban Nature Mystic blog going for Moon .
If you had to recommend three books that highlight our connection to nature most beautifully, which three would you choose?
My first choice would be Mary Webb’s novel, Precious Bane. The lead character, Prue Sarn, has a facial disfiguration, which it is believed was bestowed upon her by way of a curse, as her mother crossed a hare during pregnancy. Prue is also accused of being a witch, and has to deal with the prejudice she encounters in her community, as they believe that if there is something wrong on the outside, it must reflect the inside. Prue is a Nature Mystic, so she gains consolation for this prejudice by going out into the landscape to commune with the unseen force that resides in Nature. There are some truly magical encounters in the novel, and reading it for the first time (at the age of fifteen) enabled me to make sense of how I saw the landscape around me. Webb writes the landscape as a magical, mystical space which has agency, and a space in which anything can happen.
Second would be Robert Mcfarlane’s book, The Old Ways. I loved his descriptions of walking the landscape and the feelings he encountered, especially the encounter he had with a mysterious force among the trees in the middle of the night when he was trying to sleep. The encounter occurs on the South Downs, and it is really eerie. Usually, Macfarlane is quite logical – It reminds me that even the most logical of us can still make room for the mystical.
Thirdly, I would probably have to say Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel, The Enchanted April, in which two very downtrodden women decide to flee the boredom and dissatisfaction they encounter in their own lives by running away to Italy for a month. The descriptions of the gardens overlooking the sea are so arresting in their intensity. As more people come to the house, they all gradually start to unfurl and find themselves among the flowers and the birdlife. The descriptions are really beautiful, and the place has a real sense of magic.
What is your favourite Pagan festival and why?
I really love the Wheel of the Year, and it has to be my favourite part of the Pagan path(s) as it allows us to pause in whatever we are doing, and just focus on nature. It’s a reminder to be mindful. This is going to sound a bit gloomy, but my absolute favourite festival is Samhain. I lost my mum to cancer about eleven years ago, and I love the fact that Samhain gives me an opportunity to focus on her and my other ancestral spirits. Attending Samhain circles was a really important part of my healing during the years when my grief was new and at its most raw.
On your website you say you help others who are creatively blocked to unblock themselves. How do you do this?
I have a few tools in my toolbox that help with this, but they don’t all get an airing at the moment. Firstly, I am a master practitioner of NLP and a certified coach. So, at times when I haven’t had the PhD on the go, I can use my coaching skills to try and help them work through things (although these days it is mainly me that I work with!) The other tool I have is as a proof-reader and editor for other writers. Again, it’s not something I get to do much of now but I really like the challenge of coaching other writers through their work, as it enables me to help them, and also to reflect on my own practices. It is something I return to from time to time, and I can see a time in the future (probably post PhD) when I dust this one off and use it again. I have worked with quite a few authors on their novels, and it is really rewarding, especially when you see someone getting a light bulb moment after struggling with something for a while.
As well as writing and studying for your PhD, you make beautiful jewellery and pendulums. How do you find the time for everything?
With some careful time planning, but also by following the natural patterns of my own energy cycles. I am definitely a morning person, so I have developed this slightly bizarre habit of doing most of my writing on the tube, during my daily commute to central London. I actually go out of my way to make this last as long as I can, choosing a route that gives me the time I need to have a fairly concentrated burst of writing. I tend to be a ‘short bursts, very often’ kind of writer. I wrote all four of my previous books this way, and it seems to work.
At weekends I tend to have more at home time. The beading work seems to work best then. It’s something I can pick up and put down, as my time and energy allows. I also used to make natural soaps and bath products, but when I started my MA I had to hang up my soaping shoes, as there just wasn’t time for everything. I think we have natural cycles for things, and times and moods that elicit different bursts of creative energy. It’s just a case of needing to work out what works, and then you harness it. But I also have to be quite ruthless about how I choose to spend my time. It doesn’t leave me much time for ‘shoulds’, which is never a bad thing. You know, ‘I would like to go for a walk, but I should be painting the bathroom’. Stuff the painting, I say!
How do you relax and take time for yourself?
I try and swim several times a week. I have an outdoor (heated) pool I go to in central London, which is just magical. On really cold days you get a mist that rises from the water, and I really love lying on my back in the water, watching the clouds and the birds flying overhead. It’s my water element moment.
At weekends, I take time for myself by walking. My husband is a night owl, which means he is still snoring while I am awake early with ants in my pants. He doesn’t love mud as much as I do either, so I use the mornings to go off walking while he has a lie in. These are my earth and air moments.
I think there is also something truthful in the idea that if you are doing the things you love, you find the energy somehow. I know when I am engaged in all the things that fit my life’s purpose (to have as many creative adventures as I can) somehow it all flows naturally. When my energy levels nosedive (I have M.E.) then I have to hibernate for a while so I can come back renewed.
And finally, what are you looking forward to most in 2016?
One of the things I am looking forward to is doing more talks. I gave my first talk at Treadwells hop in Bloomsbury recently, and I felt like a duck who had found her pond. Somehow it harnesses all the skills I have learned over the years and brings them all together in one place. I loved every minute of it – from the talk, to the question and answer session, to the social time afterwards. It was really nice meeting readers face to face and being able to share our enthusiasm for our literary gods, and people have been really enthusiastic. It’s a great (and immediate) way of getting feedback, and knowing if you are on the right track or not. And it’s also a lovely way to share the research I am doing.
Find out more about Rebecca at http://www.rebeccabeattie.co.uk/ and follow her blog at the Moon website.