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  • Writer's pictureMegan Willoughby

Like Talking to a Brick Wall...

About two weeks ago I found myself sat on the floor of a seminar room in central Oxford, blindfolded and smelling a lump of compost. I think it may have been one of my favourite smelling experiences, so familiar. Each sniff muddied my veins, taking me to the deep caves under-earth, into the frequency of darkness where the worms dance, curling into dank soil… Upon removing my blindfold I saw that the dark grains of soil had soaked into the creases of my hands, leaving a velvety dust upon my skin. It made me chuckle a little because for the two previous weeks I had been experiencing a sort of mild hand dissociation. I had been staying with family for Christmas and as my cleanliness increased my hands had developed a synthetic, squeaky sort of static texture. But now I could feel the pleasure of my skin drinking in the wet soil like a thirsty dog.

This experience happened as part of a workshop called “Soiled:Composting Trauma” at the Oxford Real Farming Conference. From spending two weeks in a house, although lovely in many ways, I had returned myself to bad habits. With my face in my laptop much more than usual I was going to bed at 2am, waking at 11am, having to force myself to go for a walk and engage with the world. With all my energy concentrating in my head, old patterns of hard to reach sleep and anxiety started to congregate for a reunion. Now, back in the woods spending everyday sooty, muddy, breezy, rainy, my whole body is drinking in the elements and my old cycles are easing away. (Although, i would just like to add in the face of romanticism, that being here mirrors its own set of challenges and habits.)

So, I returned to Tinkers Bubble last Sunday with a deep sense of gratitude, but also scarcity; Relishing in how lucky I am to live immersed in a place which makes me ‘earth’; a process I cannot take credit for. This land for me is a pocket of freedom in which I seep, unrestricted, into my environment. The amount of wild plants I have met this year and know by name again does not feel like a personal achievement; they have been shouting at me, desperate for attention. And from listening to them I have begun a journey into herbalism, at the root of which is a learning that the earth wants us all to heal. So the scarcity comes in because I often feel the grief of how few people in the uk today get to access land like this, and how that means so many of us are missing out on the transformative healing the land holds. Especially in these trauma ridden times where we all desperately need to re-earth. But, to think that everyone should live like us at Tinkers Bubble is somewhat closed minded. So what is it that I am experiencing here that is missing elsewhere?

The day before the ORFC (Oxford Real Farming Conference), I visited the Pitt Rivers Museum and Modern Art Oxford to see work produced by performance artist Marina Abramovic. Abramovic’s exhibition asks for the visitor to become the performer, the inquirer. In various ways you are deprived of certain senses and asked to trust the process. You are then introduced to various scenarios, to meet different materials; a copper frame topped by a magnet, a wall, a blind fold etc. Standing face to face with the huge brick wall, eyes closed, ear defenders on, I grasped what this experience was wanting to show me. Previously in the exhibition I had felt charged, hot and heady, almost scared and certainly uncomfortable. But I thought it was just me. Then, facing the wall, I felt its coolness soothe me, its largeness support me. My head drained and I calmed, realising that I was being affected by this wall just as how my previous discomfort was also an affect. For those minutes I was In relationship to the wall as it cooled my palms and mind. I recognised how interdependent I am, we all are and how ingrained with our environment we always are. We just don’t notice. I was surprised by how grateful I was to this wall, usually only attributing reactions like this to mighty oak trees, beautiful rivers or far reaching horizons. But a brick wall, painted white, within a concrete building was alive too.

Interestingly, back in the seminar room smelling compost, one of the facilitators asked why so many had not chosen to put the plastic objects into our compost piles? Everything has come from nature at its root they said, what does this plastic bottle represent that we are not willing to compost? That we are not willing to transform? It’ll take too long, I didn’t make it, it doesn’t look nice, it’s not natural it’s man-made, it’ll hurt the soil… But it’s here, so what are we going to do with it?

So, maybe when thinking of places like Tinkers Bubble my scarcity mindset needs to transform… What has actually just popped into my thoughts are the hundreds of Ox Eye Daisies growing by the roundabouts in Yeovil, the thousands of Nettles that line the footpath to the village. Are they not also shouting for our attention? Both are healers; Ox Eye Daisy heals bruises, Nettles are the unsung superfood waiting in the ditches. So maybe we don’t all need to go deep into the dark woods upon the fringes of society to transform. Aside from the facts that we simply all can’t and that some wouldn’t want to anyhow, perhaps what we are actually suffering from is a loss of attention. A loss of attention which entails a loss of our non-human knowledge, our understanding of and belonging to the spaces that we inhabit and ourselves, our co-creation of stories/meaning with the environment, our trust in our interdependence, our care.

The biggest gift I have taken away from the ORFC is the remembering that we are not in it alone, we are not on individual hero quests to save the world. We are all precious pieces within the waves of change that can be seen when we pay attention to what moves us. On my journey lately I have spotted witches popping up all over the country, and not just in the woods. They are exhibiting in Art galleries, on display in the cases of the Pitt Rivers Museum, they are the people we meet who have got into drying their own herbs, making their own teas, tinctures, foraging… a cultural revival of wild, intuitive, accessible, ancestral, autonomous healing. And scientists are hot on the tail. The amount of research going into herbal medicine, land connection, intuition etc is all pointing towards what I think everyone secretly knows; That the world is not human, it is and always will be beyond our understanding and because of this we are blessed with the gifts of beauty, magic, miracle and wonder. The world is so much bigger when we stop trying to know everything. The Seed Sistas said at ORFC, that the idea of healing and magic being separate things is ridiculous and I agree. Magic requires us to trust in what comes to us, to listen, imagine and play. Potential healing is everywhere. The most revolutionary thing we can do today is to free our attention and listen. Because the world is abundant, and perhaps if we do, we can start to make better choices about what we create from this abundance.

"Maybe the change coming into Earthsea has something to do with no longer identifying freedom with power, with separating being free from being in control. There is a kind of refusal to serve power, that isn't a revolt or a rebellion, but a revolution in the sense of reversing meanings, of changing how things are understood. Anyone who has been able to break from the grip of controlling, crippling belief and bigotry or enforced ignorance knows the sense of coming out into the light and air, of release, being set free to fly, to transcend."
- U.K. LeGuin, Tehanu.

Us volunteers at ORFC 2023 | Marina Abramović, Presence and Absence, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford | The Seed SistAs at ORFC 2023.


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