La Vagabondeuse

Having been on a search for many years for a word that would describe me best, I decided on Vagabondeuse. This of course, derives from ‘Vagabond’ from the Old French vagabond, from the Late Latin vagābundus and from Latin vagari ~ to wander. Meaning: ‘a person on a trip of indeterminate destination and/or length of time’ or ‘one who wanders from place to place, having no fixed dwelling, or not abiding in it, and usually without the means of honest livelihood’. Living in France, as I do and being a woman, as I am, it was necessary to change the masculine vagabond into the feminine: vagabondeuse. Simple.

It seems to suit me well as I tend to be a bit of a wanderer and am happiest whilst doing nothing much else but being out and about looking around. The best thing is when I have a few hours or even days to kill with no fixed agenda; nothing to achieve and I can let my nose lead me from one thing to the next at will. It is not about being vacant; I walk or sit with absolute unswerving attention on everything around me. It is about letting the tide of interest take you where it wants to go next. When you walk without a fixed purpose and leave yourself fully open to anything that may transpire, so much more is possible. When I go out with a certain goal in mind, I shut myself off from all the other myriad things that are happening in front of me and that I would have noticed, had I not been so fixed on a definite outcome.

I often come across others who are interested in this concept, generally from back-woodsy people who tend to live life at a slower pace anyway; sometimes it comes up in more mainstream conversations and Robert Macfarlane’s Twitter stream is always a good bet when you are looking for those kind of words and ideas. Here are a couple of  his recent tweets:

I just love the idea of all of this. It is totally what I am about. And I love it that many languages seem to have their own version, so vital it is to our health and well being; all of us need, whether we realise it or not, to wander without agenda, especially now our modern lives are so full of deadlines and to-do lists, bucket lists, places to go and things to do. People talk of a ‘Nature Cure’ that involves being out in the woods for extended periods of time and I think that this ‘wandering without purpose’ is an essential component of that cure.

Here are some more ideas from that thread (I love them all):

I tend to use the word mooch a lot. It is probably from the Old French muchier or mucier, which means ‘to hide, skulk, conceal, keep out of sight’, which I think, is very British (in America it means scrounging or begging) and a new firm favourite of mine: musarder (je musarde un petit peu ce matin); anything that allows me to become more animal-like and snuffle about in the undergrowth wins my vote any day.

Recording Nature and Functioning in the Wild

As a writer and a tracker, one of the most interesting things for me is how I record the things I see out in the woods and if, indeed, things need to be recorded at all. When I spend time at the computer, my mind goes into overload and I feel very disconnected from the world outside my door. It is the same with the TV and to a certain extent, books; when I am deep in the middle of reading, writing, thinking and  sharing, my connection to the wild diminishes to almost nothing, like I am in some kind of bubble. The only way to burst out of it is to go into nature and reconnect. Although I have distanced myself from Facebook, Twitter is altogether a harder nut to crack, as I enjoy connecting with the people who have the same interests as me. Moderation is definitely the key for me so that I do not get overwhelmed.

In his book ‘Becoming Animal’, David Abram writes that because the ordinary world is becoming harder and harder to bear, we slip even more readily into ‘machine-mediated scapes’ and take ‘our primary truths from technologies that hold the world at a distance’ and in doing so, avoid direct experiences; direct contact with the living world. That is why I struggle sometimes with exactly how to record what I see when I am out in the woods. I do not want to be taking lots of photos, as I know that this automatically diminishes my attention and awareness of the things going on in front of me. As soon as the image is captured, I more often than not, turn away from it, knowing that because I have a photo on my camera, I no longer need to look at the real version of it. It is hard not to take photos though, when I really want to share what I have seen with others.

As the earliest photographers started travelling around the world to capture images of those far-flung places, people were starting to recognise that our relationship with the world around us was changing significantly through the advent of technology. One such person was Oliver Wendell Holmes who in 1861 wrote ‘how we …

… skim off a thin, dry cuticle from the rapids of Niagara, and lay it on our unmoistened paper without breaking a bubble or losing a speck of foam. We steal a landscape from its lawful owners, and defy the charge of dishonesty and the sights which men risk their lives and spend their money and endure sea-sickness to behold, — these sights, gathered from Alps, temples, palaces, pyramids, are offered you for a trifle, to carry home with you, that you may look at them at your leisure, by your fireside, with perpetual fair weather, when you are in the mood, without catching cold, without following a valet-de-place, in any order of succession, — from a glacier to Vesuvius, from Niagara to Memphis, — as long as you like, and breaking off as suddenly as you like; — and you, native of this incomparably dull planet, have hardly troubled yourself to look at this divine gift …

– ‘A Photographic Trip Across the Atlantic’ by Oliver Wendell Holmes , 1861

I find that words have the same effect, especially if they are recording an aspect of the wild. Even worse, if a new blog post is due and I know that I want to find something to write about, I find it very hard to totally relax into my surroundings. When you are observing or tracking animals, awareness is the key and surrender is always a prerequisite to that awareness. When I have an agenda, I do not allow the self to completely dissolve. I walk or sit with thoughts in my head, with ego-related issues swimming round and round, “What would people think if I posted that? how could I get that to show up on the screen?” To rid myself of this curse; in order to become more of an ‘animal’ in awareness and connect more readily with the wild, it is important sometimes, actually perhaps 90% of the time, to walk out into the woods with no intention of recording anything at all.

Primitive peoples historically had no access to writing, books, cameras or computers. Their only way of recording what they saw was to hold it within their bodies and share it orally through anecdotes and stories directly to other members of their tribe. In this way, they kept themselves alive within the world around them and the world remained alive within them. Nothing had a chance to stagnate, nothing had a chance to be forgotten, the relationship remain intact. But when modern people start investing more importance to photographs, TV programmes, books and social media feeds than they do to the actual living world around them, things start to fall apart; they start to separate from their animal selves. They start to shut down this living, breathing two-way relationship with the wild. They start to objectify it; start thinking that their relationship with their screens is worth more than a living, breathing relationship with the earth itself. I could spend hours at the computer looking at photos of tracks and landscapes or videos of animals – it could rack up to far more hours than I would ever spend looking at the same things out of doors, so I have to keep myself in check. It is far easier to stay at home and watch YouTube but then, how much have we lost by doing so? The subtle nuances of the land, the multidimensional aspects of the weather; the glorious reciprocity, the rapt engagement, the direct and essential conversation.

If aliens came down to earth right now, they would see millions of people looking through their lit-up devices at photoshopped pictures and TV programmes, whilst the wonder of the world lies unseen. Most of them have never seen real animals in real life, never seen the subtleties surrounding their environments. They live in a world where technology reflects back to them a human idea of what the world is like, a fully-formed Echo Chamber where everything is objectified, manipulated, diminished and disturbed. No wonder we as a species, no longer have a hope.

So, although I love to write and take photos about a lot of what I see and to publish it online, most of the time I don’t. Most of the time I allow myself to slip into the world of direct experience that cannot be modified in any way by technology and the world remains exactly the way it is; alive, animate and aware. My focus is allowed to be drawn away from a human audience towards a more-than-human experience that relies on my complete and undistracted attention and involvement. When the real world becomes my primary focus, then everything starts to fall into place, everything colludes to work together, indeed everything becomes One.

And anyway, I function better that way.


“They are still after it. I don’t know who they are, except for the Rider and the Walker. I don’t know you either only I know you are against them. You and Mr. Dawson and John Wayland Smith.”
He stopped.
“Go on,” said the deep voice.
“Wayland?” Will said, perplexed, “That’s an odd name. That’s not part of John’s name. What made me say that?”

– The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper.

So many emotions have been stirred up for me in the last few days, so much so that I have been finding it increasingly hard to write about. This post has taken two days to write and I have gone over literally hundreds of edits as I try to grapple with exactly what it is I want to say; I have so much to say …

All because The Dark is Rising reading group over on twitter has been discussing many of the things I have worked so hard to recognise and integrate into my life over the last twenty years. I spent that time reading everything I could get my hands on (and writing) about the power of words and language, the power of nature and our connection to the wild, the names and maps we follow throughout the land, British legends, folklore, storytelling and spells (esp. the magic of the spoken word). I have taken myself through Robert Macfarlane, David Abram, Martin Shaw, Robert Bringhurst, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Sharon Blackie, Sylvia Lindstead, Robert Bly, Lorca, Nan Shepherd, Walt Whitman, Rebecca Solnit, Jay Griffiths, Richard Louv, Paul Kingsnorth, Ted Hughes, Alice Oswald, Robert Campbell and of course Susan Cooper, to name but a few.  Similarly, I have taken myself over every nook and cranny, stream and ledge, wood and rock of this mountainous landscape I call my home and still, I keep wandering and wondering at it all.

Maybe it has become my life’s work.

All these authors, poets and thinkers; I reel them off as if they are a handful of sparkling jewels. They have become almost mythic in my mind’s eye, as if just to name them is to summon their powers, absorb them into my own DNA. They mean so much to me, as do the books they have written and to name them out loud is like an incantation. Yes, I have been thinking a lot about the power of naming; of giving voice to those people we hold in such awe.

And because of Susan Cooper, I have been thinking about one name in particular. That name: ‘Wayland’.

Will Stanton calls the man by his full name in the quotation above and he knows not where the name came from or why he said it. But I think I know why. Wayland was a Norse quasi-god and master blacksmith who was said to have forged Beowulf’s chain-mail shirt. He is associated with Wayland’s Smithy, a neolithic burial site near to the White Horse of Uffington in Oxfordshire and the legend goes that whoever leaves a unshod horse and a silver coin next to the tomb will return the next day to find the horse shod and the penny gone. Sounds familiar?

waylands smithy

That name sent shock waves through me when I read it; the ‘knowing’ it evoked in me. For one thing, the name Wayland crops up in a book I recently read, The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth; a post-apocalyptic novel set in 11th century England, where he features as the main character’s guiding inspiration in his fight against French oppressors (under the rule of William the Conqueror). Wayland was, in this instance, a shadowy partisan figure who had retreated into the woods of SE England, plotting to replace William ‘the Bastard’ with a rightful Anglo-Saxon ruler. And another thing; Wayland the Smith may have also been a prototype of the Robin Hood Legend; representing all those people repressed by the current regime, all those on the margins and the edges of life, all those resting, waiting to rise up and retake the land for themselves; Green Men, the last vestiges of wild Britain we have lost and yearn to return to.

So for me, the name Wayland has come to signify the hidden story of Britain, rather like an archaeological dig reveals layer upon layer of our own metaphysical explorations and although nowadays, we tend to rely on maps to orient ourselves upon the landscape, I feel that names of people and places such as Wayland, (or even Macfarlane or Hughes) can be the real key to understanding our history and divining our true place in it.

I am now reminded of the poem That the Science of Cartography is Limited by Eavan Bolan, in which the poet recounts in a fragment

–and not simply by the fact that this shading of
forest cannot show the fragments of balsam,
the gloom of cypresses,
is what I wish to prove.
When you and I were first in love we drove
to the borders of Connacht
and entered a wood there.
Look down you said: this was once a famine road.
I looked down at ivy and the scutch grass
rough-cast stone had
disappeared into as you told me
in the second winter of their ordeal, in
1847, when the crop had failed twice,
Relief Committees gave
the starving Irish such roads to build.
Where they died, there the road ended
and ends still when I take down
the map of this island,

What things the land has seen, what sadness it has witnessed! All indigenous people understand the power of place names and the stories woven into their locations, be it the Songlines of aborigine Australia or the magical ley lines (old ways) of Britain, they all hold powers that we can connect with and need to rediscover if we are to fully ‘walk’ the land again.

I have been feeling a deep yearning for something very ancient whilst reading the Dark is Rising, just Will feels “a strange aching longing, a sense of something waiting far off, that [he] could not understand” not only because it had such an influence on me when I was young, not only because it takes me back to a time before mobile phones and emails (and constant connectivity and accountability) but also because it stirs up a most primitive feeling; the feeling of wanting to belong, of returning to that which is rightfully mine, of feeling the land under my feet and knowing it’s story. I yearn to discover more of this language, these places, this ancient knowing. And books such as those by the authors listed above and especially by Cooper herself, have become for me like a set of maps; a way I can delve into the unfolding layers of geography and myth and a way I can orient myself deeper within the psyche of Britain.

The Men of the Greenwood lie hidden; oppressed, banished, like the body of knowledge that also lies obscured in these books, there in plain view yet totally missed unless we use those names, those places as clues in the puzzle of mythic Britain. I remember the first time I heard Dr. Martin Shaw mention the word ‘chthonic’ – referring to something that inhabits the underworld and that is what I think we are dealing with here, so perfectly encapsulated in the world of fiction, especially children’s fiction, where inroads to the truth lie buried in every passing scene.

None of this has been lost on me – the irony of it I mean – as I myself am in fact, an exile in another land, moved to the mountains of France twelve years ago. I find I am able to only lightly skim the places here, named as they are in a foreign tongue I find hard to decipher, with histories I find hard to immerse myself in. No, I am not of this land for sure, although it holds me and I walk well upon it, there will always be a part of me that is Britain and Britain will always be inside of me. Perhaps it is because I am just too far invested in the myths of Wayland, Robin Hood, King Arthur to forget to rolling Wealds and downlands where I was born and lived my formative years and although I know that there are many equivalent French myths I can adopt as my own here, it will never be the same.

We are – all of us, no matter where we call home – no matter what ‘union’ we align ourselves with, still caught up in the age-old struggle to return to our roots, to our own land; to localise, to de-centralize, to fight the ‘oppressors’. We can make a movement towards re-rooting, re-finding, re-membering, re-claiming our stories for ourselves through reading these kind of deep and ancient books, by which we re-discover our ancestors, re-trace the Pathways of Old. Those paths come to unearth our real histories and although my thoughts are a little muddled today as I get ready to return to the book I loved so much as a child, I know in my heart that I am going in the right direction.