Even in the bright midday sun the gully was dark, almost forbidding. Crowned by stunted oak trees, the rock walls were damp and full of moss and lichen. The floor was littered with dry leaves, cowpats, fresh hoof marks and splintered fragments of flinty rock. It was the last place on earth I would have chosen for a vision quest, but when spirit directs you, you don’t have much say in the matter. I eased the rucksack off my shoulders, set up my tarp, unrolled my sleeping bag and wedged my precious container of water between some rocks. Just what had I let myself in for? “Welcome to the vision questing place from hell!” my instructor, David Wendl-Berry, laughed as he peered down into the gloomy gully. “There are four things that can happen to you now. You can go mad, you can disappear, you can die or you can return” For four days and four nights I was going to fast alone on that mountain. There was no going back.
Part of my own journey in reaching this point in my life was a heartfelt desire to enter into a deeper relationship with the natural world. The tension of working long hours for a very difficult boss was beginning to show – loss of appetite, poor sleeping patterns and an increasingly stressful relationship with my family. The breakdown was gradual and I badly needed some medicine. The Doctor listened attentively and suggested a course of anti-depressants. And of course, he added, I could sign you off work for as long as you needed. It was very tempting, but I felt that the medicine I needed lay elsewhere. Reluctantly I closed the surgery door and slowly walked back home. I needed time to still my racing heart and take my brokenness out onto the land.
It is not easy stepping out of your life. There are bills to pay, relationships to maintain, rubbish bags to put out, phone calls to make and the washing up to do. As you begin the process of separation, the minute details of life crowd around you ever more urgently, demanding your attention. It takes a big burst of energy to escape the gravity of domesticity and guilty words like ‘selfish’ and ‘indulgent’ continually try to short-circuit your conscience. Finally, after some tearful hugs, the castle door of your home closes behind you and you are left alone to make the long journey north.
The first challenge on arrival was to prepare for the quest with a night walk. ‘Take the lane to the end and then walk across open moorland for about quarter of a mile until you come to an upright standing stone. Touch the stone and then return. Do not take any torches or headlamps, this is to be done completely in the dark.’ And dark it was – black as the skin of a coracle. Not a splinter of moonlight. No stars or street lights, just the wind roaring through high hawthorn hedges. Barely able to see my feet on the road beneath me, I stepped out into the night. Fear ebbed and flowed. The road gave way to moorland. I stumbled, cursing the dark, and started to panic. Was I heading in the right direction? Very gradually my eyes began to adjust. The faintest outlines began to appear, like images on an underexposed print sloshing about in a tray of developer. But the distances were impossible to judge. It could have been a thousand miles, not a quarter. The stone appeared and I hugged it in sheer relief.
The challenge the following day was to find your own questing place. I had extremely clear ideas about this. I needed a small plateau where I could look out onto the hills and observe the sunrises and sunsets. Somewhere to lay my sleeping bag, where I could lie under a night sky crowded with stars whilst enjoying deep and meaningful dreams. On my way to try and find this mythical plateau I passed through a dark and deep gully. Ha! I thought to myself, pity the person who chooses this place and I clambered out of it as fast as I could. I never found the plateau. For me, all tracks led back to the gully. Try as I might, I was magnetically fixed and geo-tagged to this point in the landscape. The gully had my social security number, date of birth and star sign and it wasn’t going to let me go. I walked back to the centre and shared my deeply disappointing story. When I heard about the beautiful woodland clearing and open countryside questing places that the others had found, I realised that I’d definitely drawn the short straw.
I returned. As the days wore on, I gradually began to feel at home in the silent gully. It protected me from the cold north wind that swept down the mountain. The trees became a canopy and protected me from the rain. The birds and wild animals began to accept me. Perhaps my choice of questing place wasn’t so mad after all. To begin my healing journey I began to assemble a circle of small stones. One stone represented each year of my life. It took three days to complete the six foot circle. I held each stone tightly, releasing a flood of memories from my childhood in a confusion of prayers, laughter and tears.
I began to observe the little treasures of life. Time slowed. My own breathing slowed. From here I could watch the slow arc of the sun time-lapse across the sky, enjoy a pygmy shrew nosing its busy path through the piles of fallen leaves, hold my breath as a buzzard landed a few yards away in the branches above me or pour out my gratitude to a tiny wren singing its heart out. Tics and insects crawled over me. I became grubby, unshaven and bleary eyed. The margins between me and the land began to blur, merge and leak into one another.
I found myself returning again and again to an ancient oak tree, its mossy bark providing the perfect backrest for my contemplation. The oak tree quietly enfolded me and, as the twin demons of hunger and tiredness gnawed away at me, offered me sustenance. The voice was very quiet, barely on the threshold of my hearing.
“ Draw on me for your sustenance”. I sat up startled. Did an Oak Tree really speak to me? Wasn’t I just becoming delirious? I sank back again too tired to move, and as I did so I was aware of a strong energy radiating into my back. I stood up completely restored and renewed and look around. Something utterly profound had happened in those few seconds. I had received a deep healing – not from a pair of hands, or some tablets, but from a tree. A beautiful tree had stood in that glade for a hundred years or more. In that moment I realised that everything I needed to truly heal me, lay in the natural world.
The Oak tree gave me the energy to endure the final challenge. On the fourth night, we were told to step into our life circle at sunset and to stand through the night until sunrise. ‘This is the night you will face your deepest fears. Whatever happens, don’t leave your purpose circle until sunrise’ David had reminded us. I had two irrational fears. One was of the darkness, which I was starting to work with. The other was a childhood one of wild horses – a fear that I had never shared with anyone. As if on cue, a stallion trotted up to the ridge above the gully, just after I had stepped into my circle for the night. I knew exactly what he was after. Just beyond the gully was the lushest softest grass imaginable. And the only way that he could get to it was through the gully. The gully was narrow – there was certainly no room for me and the stallion and I wasn’t about to move. I started to sweat. There was nothing in the Vision Quest instruction manual about handling wild horses. The stallion began to paw the ground. His ears twitched back and forward. His mate appeared by his side. There was some whinnying of the kind you hear on spaghetti western soundtracks. They were obviously having a conversation. Things were not looking too good in the self-preservation department. I explained to them very tactfully that this was my night out on the land and I would be very grateful if they could find somewhere else to eat.
After a while I heard a quiet munching as they decided to eat the grass around them. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and offered up a deep prayer of thanks. The darkness was complete. These hours were the hardest, loneliest and slowest of all. I lent very heavily on my staff. The water in my container had become brackish and I hadn’t drunk as much as I should have done. I was feeling dehydrated and light-headed, but I survived until dawn. When it finally arrived, after numerous false starts, I gradually packed my rucksack and slowly walked back through the woods and fields to the farmhouse. There had been no big moment of enlightenment, no blazing sunrise to welcome me, just a quiet realisation in the soft grey morning light that my soul’s medicine chest lay in the land around me.