Monday, October 14, 2013

The Spaces Between

Like most shamans, I live in magical space all the time, for better or worse. And like most of us, I fluctuate between being more in the physical world, and being more in the non-physical world. And like most of us once again, I am probably more sensitive than most people to places that are between worlds.
Modern neo-Pagans tend to refer to certain dates as times when the walls (or "veils") between the worlds are particularly thin, and/or the space inside cast Circles as places that are between the worlds. Living between worlds (which I recently tried to describe to a bunch of modern Pagans as being similar in perception to a double-exposed photo), I can see places everywhere, many times a day, which are between worlds, and also times which are between times.

Time-wise, the spaces between are not midnight, which you might expect as its role in nominal day-changing, or midday, as you might expect because it marks the transition between morning and afternoon. No, the times between are dawn and sunset.
As to places, all of my life, back to my very earliest childhood memories, I have always looked through windows. Windows are for standing at and gazing out of. Doors too are for standing at and gazing out of, but windows are more powerful than doors. When I still worked in Sydney decades ago, I used to go to a particular café in Macquarie Street most lunchtimes, not just for the food but for the view of the Botannical Gardens. The café had lovely arched windows facing the park, and an al fresco area. I quite regularly took friends and colleagues there. I was regularly asked why I sat indoors "when there was such a lovely view". That was precisely why I sat indoors. If I sat outside, the view was quite tolerable, at least for an inner-city view. But if I sat inside, the view was framed, I could see a progression between one place and another, I could feel that as the equivalent of a shift between one world and another. That greatly improved the view: not only was it aesthetically pleasing, but it was just plain powerful as well.
When I was on the other side of the continent, I was particularly friendly with one of the local Aboriginal Elders. We were friendly for most of the time, but in my last months there, the friendship ramped up. He'd turn up and sit on my front porch most mornings before either of us had to get to work, I'd make tea for both of us, and we'd watch the day start in those long, comfortable, timeless Aboriginal silences. We watched the world, and we listened to it. To the breeze, to the birds, to insects, to the distant shouting of children.
Many of his people, who despite cars, houses, sociological problems and money, were essentially still embedded in their tribal spirituality, lived in the Dreamtime most of the time, pretty much as I live between the worlds most of the time, especially the very young and the very old. In fact, the two states are very closely analogous. Dreaming Stories were at once tales of long-ago-and-far-away, and immediate, playing out here and now. Changes of season, changes of weather, changes in nature, all reflect changes in the Dreaming. I never asked, but I'm pretty sure John also saw the worlds overlaid, like a double-exposed photographic frame.
Doors and windows are the places that I find myself in most often, where it is incredibly easy to see across and through. Other places are where land and saltwater meet, on beaches, cliffs, rocks, tidal lakes or estuaries. Less so but still effective are places where land and freshwater meet: streams, rivers, dams, pools, man-made canals and moats, irrigation channels, plumbing and drainage systems etc.
I find magic in places that have been ruined, also. Fallen houses, burnt-out remnants of cars rusting into the ground, toxic wastelands, they all have a ruination that is beautiful, and carries you between their magnificence and their ugliness, between life and death, between the physical and the non-physical.
Valleys are both above ground and under ground, thus are especially places that connect one to the Underworld, as are volcanoes and remnants of dead volcanoes such as granite plugs and volcanic chambers. Places of wind, such as hills, coastlines and even the concrete tunnels of streets that catch and channel the wind, are also places that the Elements meet, both sky and earth.
For some time I've worked with a local landcare group, who look after a particular nature reserve. It is infested with exotic weeds and going there is a constant battle against plants that simply don't belong. Still, there is always a huge temptation to down tools and simply stay, and look, and feel. A wind crosses the nearby lake, then rises up the earthen embankment, giving us a place between three elements. The land is buckled and ridged, giving us land that is both above ground and below ground. And a long time ago artificial steps were hewn out of raw bedrock, both manmade and natural paths through the magical and psychological landscape. It is a very, very magical place, and when a member of the Landcare group died, we commemorated him there, later raising a permanent memorial to him. Two or three of the group still comment on feeling his presence there, in some places much more than in others.
Recently a young girl asked me to clear her brother's home. I have no intention of discussing the entity that may or may not have been present there publicly, but what I will talk about are the parts of the house it preferred. It preferred the staircase (neither upstairs nor downstairs), both the hallways (neither one end of the house nor the other), a little-used doorway into a room that is only used for storage (both in the home and not a part of it), and windows (both inside and outside). It had, arguably, been sensed in the garden shed, too: both a part of the home and not a part of the home.

All these places, and more are between places, and powerful shamanically for jumping.

A few days ago I went to Sydney. My blanket dislike of all cities is legendary, that one in particular since it is the only one I ever lived in - and when I grew a brain, I immediately moved out of it. I don't visit cities easily or willingly.

But I did have an intercontinental friend who was going to be in Sydney for one day only before flying out to her home continent, and there was no question of missing catching up with her. I am between cars at the moment, so the trip down to see her involved an intercity train.

Every time I do any long-distance driving, I see the road not as a scar across an ancient landscape, injuring it (as some other occultists do), but more as a grey, insubstantial ribbon laid across the landscape. Sooner or later, the landscape and life it is teeming with will reclaim it as man ceases to use and maintain it: the bitumen will crack, it will get covered in dust, and sturdy, indifferent plants will force their way up through the cracks, helping wind and water to erode it. This may take centuries or tens of centuries, but the only certainty we have in life is that it will happen.

The spaces between towns are not the spaces between worlds, but just like towns, country areas contain many spaces between worlds. Sometimes they are man-made, like a gateway or cattle-grid that has become overgrown, or a line of fencing that leads into a shallow lake, an eroded gully running down towards a creek, or a corrugated iron shed, abandoned, rusting and falling down, or a path curving around the edge of a hill and out of sight.

More often they are natural: fissures leading to cave-systems large and small, both flowing and dry riverbeds wending their way through the landscape, rows of consecutive hills like the vertebrae of an immense creature slumbering under a thin layer of rock and soil, large weathered granite plugs in a flattened, eroded landscape or, dramatically, large, almost perfect granite spheres, often in "family groups", that have been fired out of long-extinct volcanoes at enormous speeds high into the atmosphere, cooling into spheres in the atmosphere, then becoming misshapen only slightly on landing.

These places become alive: the spirit of the land condenses thinly everywhere, but more thickly at such places, just as water in the atmosphere condenses more readily on a chilled surface than on a warm one.

On my train trip, I was travelling through a lush, over-watered coastal landscape, where the tree-trunks are thick and swollen with water and the trees are close together because the subsoil is moist fairly regularly, as opposed to the red, "barren" landscapes of my heart, where trees rarely stand much taller than a couple of humans, and are rarely thicker than a forearm, and where there is not enough water in the soil to nourish those dry, thin, wiry trees if they grow close together, so they space themselves decently apart.

For some of the trip, the sallow, brackish waters of the Hawkesbury curved through the coastal hills, mirrored by the curve of the railway. It lay in the landscape, quiescent, its course through the landscape carved between the hills by the force of its very body as it endlessly sought out the sea. Its muddy, grey-green waters were alive even though they were quiet, biding their time and silently watching everything that went past. I got a sense of immense power.

There are places on that train journey where rather than skirting around a hill or climbing over it, the train will plunge through it in a short tunnel, then emerge again. There is one place where the train does that, then crosses the water on a metal bridge, then goes through a tunnel on the other side again. I like to drop into a light trance, and allow myself to feel the different energies of earth all around me, water below me and so forth, just for those few moments.

When the city is reached, it is necessary to leave this train and catch another to the airport. This means descending from the grubby city air into a network of tunnels, and walking underground. Surrounded entirely by artificial surfaces, artificial light and artificial air, this is an odd experience.

It is made even odder if you reach out and try and feel the land-spirits. They are not there. Instead there is something alive, but it doesn't feel healthy, it doesn't feel comprehensible, and it really, really doesn't feel Australian. It's easy to say that the land is screaming because it doesn't want to be full of concrete, sewerage, people, machines and electrical cables, but that doesn't feel accurate, either. The land is not screaming. It is terribly, terribly quiet. No one talks to it, no one listens to it. The feeling was not unlike the "hollow" feeling you sometimes get in your body at times of loss.

And yet, walking through those tunnels is still a magical experience. You have the sense, as with most tunnels, of leaving "normal" spacetime and entering a different reality, or perhaps more accurately, entering a bardo between normal space-time and the Otherworld. And you have the same shift of consciousness when leaving those tunnels, too. Yet the earth around you is dead or dying or transformed utterly to something its own spirit doesn't even recognise.

What is interesting is looking at the people you encounter, walking through those same between-spaces. Some of them have hunched, defensive body-language, most of them look sick (but that's true of city dwellers on the surface, too), but what stands out is that the huge majority of them have no comprehension at all that they are in a special place, a magical place, a place between worlds. Me, I never tire of places between the worlds and I never take them for granted: I enjoy and take notice of even the "special" windows and doors in my own home, which I experience many, many times a day. I cannot imagine having my senses so dimmed that I wouldn't even know - perhaps it's like being blind or deaf, you try to compensate with your other senses and you can certainly get by, but there is always that one form of perception which is a lack in life.

Two and a half, nearly three years ago, a friend of mine started asking me to dragonboat regattas (and lots of other events in lots of other areas of his life, too, but let's stick with dragonboats for now). There are regular annual regattas that take place in more or less natural watercourses: Dobroyd Point, Darling Harbour, the Hawkesbury, Tacoma, the Beachcomber. These recur every season. Then there are several per season that all happen at the Penrith dragonboat regatta centre.

When I was travelling to regattas with this particular guy, we'd get up at around three, to be dressed and have the car packed for a 4.00am start to the trip, we'd get to the regatta centre at about six-thirty, and sleep in the car, curled up trustingly next to each other, for an hour and a half before we got out and got the day started. Don't ask me why - he seemed to want to do it that way, and also really, really wanted my company. Once when a regatta coincided with something else in my life (and I came only as a supporter, not a participant) and I declined the invitation, he was terribly disappointed and I never heard the end of it.

I vividly remember the very first time I went with him to the regatta centre. It was in largely flat country, with flattened houses and the odd rounded hill. From perhaps a kilometre away you could see the approaches to the regatta centre: low rolling hills with bands of native trees growing on them ... but something was very wrong. Driving over to the parking on "the island", it got even creepier. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, that the eye could detect that was wrong, but the place was as-spooky-as. I just couldn't get comfortable, in such a wrong-feeling landscape.

Time went on, and I kept going to regattas. I loved regattas - the whole team accepted me, and I quickly formed personal friendships amongst team members, independently of him (which when he died later, was invaluable in my healing - many of the team members as well as many of his other friends sought me out privately later to tell me the kinds of wonderful things he'd been saying about me behind my back, stuff I wouldn't have minded hearing directly from him, but which definitely helped me heal afterwards). I also became useful to the team very quickly: I'd mind their kit when they were on the water, once when a mother couldn't get care for her kids I unofficially babysat all day, and so forth. I didn't go for that reason: I went firstly because my friend made it perfectly clear how much he wanted me there, and secondly because I ended up enjoying it anyway - although if he had stopped wanting me there, I would have welcomed being able to sleep till normal hours on regatta days!

After I'd been along to a few regattas at the centre, I began to work out why it felt so creepy. The land didn't feel alive. There was nothing to it - it was solid yes, but it seemed empty, somehow, lacking in some vital essence, not quite present there.

Then there was a regatta at which two Buddhist monks performed a ceremony to do with calling water-spirits from the water and into the actual boats. I dropped into a light trance, and followed the ceremony. I couldn't understand the language they were using, but I could understand the energy. And they were trying to evoke a water-spirit from dead water, and nothing was rising to their call. It was terrible, it was very sad to watch.

Afterwards that same day, remembering how I'd thought the phrase "dead water", I went for a walk around the island. I saw cormorants fishing and ducks paddling. I saw a fish that a cormorant caught in the water. I saw a heron fishing. I saw a shoal of baitfish, their flanks shining just below the surface. And I saw water-weed. The water was clearly not dead in any conventional sense - it supported life. But it was clearly not alive in a spiritual sense. Not just myself, but the two Buddhist monks evidently sensed it, too.

Driving home, I asked my friend about it. I told him that the whole landscape felt empty of spirits to me, and that the hills didn't feel like hills and the water didn't feel like water. He told me this: that it had been built for the Sydney Olympics a decade earlier. The original landscape had been bulldozed lock, stock and barrel, and all the soil, plants and rocks trucked out of there. Then they trucked in a whole lot of soil and rocks from somewhere else, sculpted the watercourse, the island and the pretty surrounding hills, and planted grass and trees.

That was my D'OH! moment. Of course. There were no ancient land-spirits in the land because that wasn't a land, just a land-shaped construction made of earth and stone instead of bricks and mortar. There were no water-spirits in the water, because that was no more a natural watercourse in the landscape than my old tropical aquarium had been a natural watercourse in my home: both had abundant plant and animal life, but neither had wild water-spirits living in them.

You cannot make nature-spirits live where you want them to. You can invite them, you can shape the environment in such a way as to make it inviting, but if they don't want to live there, you cannot force them. In Australia, which is the continent which has had its present geology the longest of any continent on earth, we have a lot of land-spirits. Sensitives can find places, overseas, where nature-spirits are present. In Australia, it is hard to find places where they are not present. In the first fifty years of my life, I found no such places, Then in the last three years I have found two: man-made tunnels under a city, and a man-made water-feature in the landscape. And because I and every other Australian are used to moving through an intensely populated landscape, we find it creepy to walk through places that have no spirits, whilst people in less well-populated landscapes find it creepy to walk through places that do have spirits.

And this is why I wouldn't and couldn't live anywhere else, although there is perhaps one other country I would like to see one day. Empty land just feels awful. I prefer my land alive, I really do, and I love visiting the spaces between.



  1. Hi Nis,

    Nice piece of writing. It is good to see another writing about the things that I have felt over the years here. I too have felt that the spirits of the land have been here for a very long time. Even the presence of aborigines is recent in the memory of the deeper land. The land remembers a time of volcanoes and fire yet it is now so old that all the young rock has washed away or been transformed into sedimentary stone. Our mountains are the bones of once tall and proud ranges.

    I live and work in a city and have all of my life. I travel frequently into the regional areas (I live right on the very outer edge of suburbia) and feel the natural spirits. You talk of the emptiness of the cities but deep down the ancient entities of the land are there with their deep and booming tones but on the surface there is still a lot of activity. Maybe Brisbane is a little different than Sydney? As you say however, parts are vacant and empty however. I find that Brisbane is full of little water courses, tucked away from people which are full of life and spirits. Butterflies are attracted to some undeveloped hillsides in the right seasons. So much so that 1000's show up and fill the warm soft humid air with their dance of love. Brisbane is a little unusual in some respects as there are large tracts of undeveloped land that intrude into parts of the city. The area around Mt Gravatt, the forest that runs up through to Belmont, The area around the Gap, parts of Kenmore, Mt Coot-tha etc.

    I think that some of the spirits of the land are used to the volume of babble from the masses of people that they become quiet. I have spent a lot of time on my own in parts of the city and I am always surprised by the little manifestations of life, energy and spirit that push through the cracks. As you say dawn and dusk are the transitional times where the energy is best, though I find that dawn is better as humanity is often still at home asleep.

    Next time you are in a city, ask the crows where the spirits are. Sometimes you run across one with an older soul who will show you some amazing things, hidden away. Currawongs are good too but harder to find.

  2. Hey Nis,

    I know we don't always agree on stuff which is good really, but maybe we should write something together? Something about what is beyond the basic neo-pagan spirituality in Australia. We both have moved into a place where specific religious beliefs are not terribly relevant but attitudes, ideas and creativity are.

  3. Thank you for your first discussion - it is really interesting. As to the second comment, perhaps we could write a series of essays on magical topics? Come up with a number of topics, then write the Kim-version and the Nisaba-version? That could be fun. I don't really have anyone who could babysit my house and Dan's animals so I can't invite myself up to visit and discuss this in person ...