Originally published in “The Cauldron” issue #142, November 2011
The farmer made his way slowly around the whole of his land beating the bounds with a handful of freshly cut birch twigs performing the rite his father had taught him and his father before him on this very land. Finishing his round at the main gate he left some bread, made by his wife that morning, and cheese from their cows on one of the posts and poured a shot of whiskey on the other. He nodded at the invisible outdwellers and continued on his way up the hill to the threshold where field met hedge. His wife waited for him there with a luncheon of food and drink from their land and hard labour. The farmer took a knife out of the sheath on his belt and cut a large square of turf full of grass roots and set it upon the earth beneath the trees of the hedge. Together they ate their meal off of the turf; eating the beef they had raised, the bread baked from their grain, wild greens and berries harvested from the hedges, and drinking water pulled from the well. They ate in silence smiling at each other in contentment. After placing the remnants of their small feast in the hole the earth clod was cut from, they poured out a portion each of milk from the cows, honey from the hives, and water from the well, and put the clod of earth back from whence it was cut. Farmer and wife looked into each other’s eyes knowingly; the rite was complete with the land bound to them for another year.
The sorcerer lived deep in the middle of a dark old growth forest whose wights knew nothing of boundaries and ownership. He had come to this wood since he was a small boy and knew it well. Long had he climbed the towering trees, sat silent watching the forest’s creatures, drank the cool clean water of the springs, ate of the wild fruits, swam in its hidden pools, and sat in the darkness of its caves. Long had the boy loved the forest and spent as much time their in solitude as he could. The forest itself at first merely tolerated him for his youth and then grew to care for him and his gentle silent ways. The boy took care of the forest’s wounded creatures, trees and plants harmed by storms, cleaned out strangling foreign plants, and picked up the careless leavings of other people. He did it from love and didn’t think much about his actions, but the forest watched closely and saw the one boy who cared so much above the hundreds who came through the forest and only took from it.
In gratitude for his caring, the wights of the forest made themselves visible to him and told the boy they would teach him all the forest’s secrets. The boy left the comfort and safety of the civilized world behind and the forest cared for him warning him of dangers and showing him the best foods to eat, what plant medicines to use for what ailment, where there were natural shelters to take refuge in during bad weather, and how to make the tools he needed to survive. He grew into a man who spoke the languages of the elements, the birds, land animals, fish, trees and who could shapeshift into them all. He could see through the eyes of the forest creatures from a crow high in the tree tops to a mouse scurrying across the earth. Calling him a sorcerer, people from the surrounding villages started to seek him out for advice on what to hunt that season and how many. Soon they stopped asking for advice and started asking for permission when they saw the misfortunes of those who did not heed him. They started to ask him to predict the patterns of weather, what to do when predators attacked their livestock, or what plants from the forest would heal their wounds and diseases. With the sorcerer as guardian no one wanted to offend the forest lest the game disappear from the woods, the fish from the waters, or the wolves destroy their flocks. They were afraid of the sorcerer and his wildness, but they saw his knowledge of the forest ran deep and they needed it to survive. Generations later the villagers still believed the sorcerer was living in the woods as its caretaker and they were careful to follow his guidance and warnings; living as close to harmony as they could with the forest and leaving the spirit of the sorcerer offerings to appease him. They gave the forest the sorcerer’s name and eventually in the people’s minds there was no separation between the spirit of the forest itself and the spirit of the sorcerer who ever guards it. In the end the sorcerer served the forest best in teaching others to be its stewards. His moss-covered bones lie beneath the roots of a tree waiting for another gentle silent child to climb the ancient oaks and swim in the deep pools.
What is Land Guardianship?
Land guardianship is the physical and spiritual stewardship of wild or cultivated land –the caretaking of its plants, animals, waters, and spirits. It is a path and a practice largely based in animism; the belief that all animal, plants, elemental forces, and land features have souls and sentience and deserve ethical treatment. Land guardians are intermediaries between nature and humankind. Guardianship is not magical environmentalism, but environmentalism can be a part of land stewardship. One can be chosen by the land to become a guardian or one can make a conscious decision to become one. It is better to be chosen and to always have permission. The land must always be willing as guardianship is a life-long commitment; a symbiotic marriage of souls. If you would not force yourself upon another person, than you should not do so to forest, field, and fen. In speaking their oaths to the land a guardian can choose the level of their involvement from that of a simple caretaker cleaning up garbage and invasive plants to the role of a Green King or Divine King who is completely one with the land serving as a full-time intermediary between nature and man and who continues to serve it even after death.
Cultivated Land Guardianship
Traces of cultivated land guardianship in the British Isles remain in the form of beating the bounds, the rites of blessing and protecting of crops and livestock, the carving of protective designs on fence posts, sacrificing portions of livestock and other foods to the fairies or the devil, and giving up a piece of the land to be left wild –known in Scotland as the Gudeman’s Croft. The husbandman’s duties to their land are many. This person is responsible for saining the entire property at the cross quarter festivals with torches lit from a sacred bonfire. The husbandman is responsible for the health, protection, and blessing of the livestock and crops. He/she is responsible for ensuring the happiness of the land’s spirits; the trees, hedges, and waters, as well as the spirits dwelling in any ancestral mounds or more recent burial sites on the property. All souls dwelling up the steward’s land must be acknowledged and appeased.
If you have purchased land or own land, no matter how big or small, you must court it, heal it if it is wounded, and win it over to your side with offerings and good stewardship. You must belong to the land in spirit as much as it belongs to you on paper. It is a process that may take years. Declare yourself to the land and, if possible, have the previous owner give to you a clod of earth from the land from their hands to yours to physically show the spirits you are the new caretaker. To avoid an odd conversation, simply don’t tell the previous owner why. If this is not possible, collect wild foods and water from the land, asking permission from each nature spirit, and eat it off of a dirt clod you cut yourself on a mound, hill, other high point, or threshold of the property. Do this once a year in the Spring to renew the bond. As soon as you move in set up protections for your property in the form of wooden staves of rowan, oak, or thorn carved with symbols or runes of protection consecrated to their purpose and driven into each of the land’s four corners during a rite. Ask that your land and all upon it to be protected from storm, drought, disease, pestilence, curses, and evil spirits. Do this every one to five years replacing the boundary staves with new ones when they start to degrade.
Walk the bounds of your property regularly and memorize its every feature and beast. Educate yourself about the native plants and animals you share your land with and how to properly care for wildlife and their habitats. Do the same for any animals you keep and gardens or crops you grow. Give a tithe of each harvest back to the land whether it be meat, grain, fruits, milk, or honey. Keep sacred places clean and unblemished such as graves, groves, mounds, springs, streams, or stones. Plant trees to show you give back for what you take and give the trees on your land regular offerings whether it be practical fertilizer or ritual libations at cross-quarter days. Overall, be consistent, be sincere, and always follow through on any oaths and promises made to your land.
Wild Land Guardianship
Remnants of wild land guardianship in British Isles history are harder to find; forests named after hermits and spirits, stories of hunters leaving one of their deer kills every season on a certain mound or stone outcrop for the Cailleach, ancient tales of sorcerers going mad and dwelling wild in the forests learning its languages and secrets, and the hints in old Scottish folktales of wild women who lived with herds of deer and determined which could be culled that season by the hunters and which were to be left alone.
Wild land guardianship is for shamans, sorcerers, and witches –magical folk with one foot in this world and one foot in the otherworld. Some may have a natural bond with a forest, mountain, wild grazing lands, or sea side from being born and raised there, but others and outsiders must forge that bond over time. Land guardianship can be even more specialized when wild; one can be a guardian of a specific river, spring, hill, grove, or marsh rather than a whole tract of land. Other guardians may be grave tenders and practice necromancy working with the spirits of the dead buried on the land. Sometimes, in old forgotten woods, ancestral spirits can be discovered bound to an ancient burial mound, a gnarled old tree, or a mysterious spring bubbling up from the earth. The steward of a whole region holds the most power and also the most responsibility. This guardian is a type Green King or Divine King; the rain falls with his tears, the sun burns away the clouds when he smiles, a ghostly breeze follows him whispering through the trees wherever he wanders, and the animals act as if tame around him. He is responsible for all the spirits of the land, living and dead, in both worlds. A steward who misuses the power given by the land and its spirits can have that power quickly taken away with the genius loci becoming hostile to that person forever more.
Spend time on the land and get to know its every sound, every creature, every plant, and every pattern of the seasons. Take time to lose yourself in its wildness almost becoming a wild thing yourself. To gain the trust of the land wights align yourself with the trees who are named for truth. If the trees speak well of you the others will believe them and the benevolent whispers of you will spread until many spirits are in your favour. The plants will respond to you first, and then the animals will come to you in the wild and in your dreams, and then the more powerful spirits of the land. Court them with offerings of precious consumables; raw meats, berry and root cakes, handcrafted incense, or beautiful arrangements of fruit, flower, and leaf. If you take of food, water, and other resources from the land you must give back a portion of your harvest in return either in raw form or as a finished product. To further gain the land spirits’ trust practice alignment rituals before going out onto the land to harvest, hunt, or weed. Ingest food or an herbal tea from the land and step in between. Declare your intent to the spirits and ask permission before acting whether your intent be to harvest a certain root or to weed out a bed of ivy to protect a sensitive plant. Always ask permission before attempting anything and always leave an offering after you are successful in your venture. Put back that which you will not put to use: return plant stems to the earth, fish bones and guts to the stream it was caught from, and leaves and bark stripped from wood back to where the wood was cut to honour and show respect to the wild spirits.
Create a fetiche or vessel for the land spirit to more easily attune to and communicate with it and fill it with herbs, bones, and stones from the land you steward. A fetiche of a bone, tooth, or claw each from a creature of the earth, the waters, and the sky will help to align with the genius loci as well as cross between worlds. Let a staff be your badge of office and let its wood be harvested in a sacred manner from a tree that is King or Queen of the wood –the oldest tree on the land. Carve it with serpents and spirals to represent the land energy. Let the hide of an animal dwelling on your land be your blanket to wrap yourself with when you wish to speak to the animals and the other wild spirits to receive knowledge and move freely with them in the otherworld. Let the drum be your voice to the spirits and beat it when the weather is poor, when the predators lurk too close to towns from lack of food, when luck runs bad –when help is needed.
Today it is no longer feasible or acceptable to run off into the wilds for years as a woodwose apprenticing to the land wights. Many of us are so far removed from nature and our once instinctual survival skills that such an endeavour would likely mean failure or death. The modern land guardian must learn how to balance the wild and modern worlds; to work with the spirits and the eldritch landscape alongside modern conservation groups and the wealth of lore available in field guides and reference tomes. Hold on to that healthy balance between the otherworld, the wild world, and the modern world and you will be able to serve the land as guardian and steward for many years to come.
Bibliography: “The Hair and the Dog” Folklore Hilda Ellis Davidson and Anna Chaudri (vol.104 no.1/2 1993), Priestesses of the Deer Stuart McHardy (lecture 2003), The Secret Commonwealth Robert Kirk (NYRB Classics 2006), Singing With Blackbirds: The Survival of Primal Celtic Shamanism in Later Folk Traditions Stuart A. Harris-Logan (Grey House in the Woods 2006), The Silver Bough vol. I & II F. Marian McNeill (William MacLellan 1959, 1977),