Dartmoor whispers its secrets to Elizabeth Wainwright.
Dartmoor has kept its secrets, and so have I.
In the 1990s, a granite box or ‘cist’ was discovered on Whitehorse Hill in Dartmoor National Park. In prehistoric times, the dead were placed in these coffins, often curled up like foetuses, awaiting rebirth into the afterlife. Archaeologists made efforts to preserve the cist in situ, but erosion was too big a threat. It would, sooner or later, be broken apart by the moor. And so, in 2011, the cist was excavated in order to learn from it before it was lost. Having been exposed to history, and time, and now the elements, the archaeologists didn’t expect to find anything in the Bronze Age burial box.
But they found a bead. And another. And then 200 or so more beads made of tin, clay, shale and amber. The Bronze Age people believed amber to have magical qualities, and thought that it could heal, and ward off evil spirits. Jumbled in with the beads they also found wooden ear studs, worn as ear stretchers, a bit like those worn by the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania today. They found fragments of textile and leather, a flint, a bracelet of woven cow hair, remains of a basket. Finally, they found the cremated remains of a young adult, probably female, wrapped in the pelt of a brown bear and secured with a metal pin. The cist was at an elevation of about 600m, and highly unusual. It was a burial fit for a queen. The moor inhaled the Bronze Age woman and kept her hidden for almost 4,000 years. As Egypt was entering the most glorious stage of its empire, decked in gold and Pharaohs and Kings, the moorland woman lived a small stone-carved life, and a solitary moor-held death. Now, erosion was breaking her apart, removing layers so that others could see.
When I was a young girl first seeing the moor, its golden-green rolling surface seemed like a soft blanket thrown over to cover it, to protect it. There were no sharp shapes underneath — hardness was for the exposed granite peaks and tors. The rest of the moor was all waves and rolls and velvet expanse, and it hid whole worlds.
In one early moorland encounter, the smell of wet evening earth fills the air. My head tilts upward, gaze pulled to a group of stars that clearly form a constellation.
“What’s that called?” I ask my parents, space-obsessed.
“The Plough,” one of them answers.
The Plough — something I knew was to do with farms and fields. But here it was, in the sky. I stare, trying to make out the machinery in the beauty. In Old English, the Plough was called ‘Charles’ Wain’, which means ‘the men’s wagon’. My maiden name — Wainwright, or wagon-maker — was hidden in the beauty, too. Over time, I came to feel a connection to this particular constellation.
“I read in my book that stars in the Universe are moving apart really fast. Will the Plough always look like that?”.
One of my parents tells me that even though the stars are flinging outwards from each other, they’re so far away that we’d never notice the Plough’s change shape in our lifetime. Did the Bronze Age woman look at the Plough? Did she see the same shape I do, did she use it to locate herself when the things around her changed?
Years later, my parents’ own constellations flung out from each other, the gravity of children no longer holding them together. My relationship with them found new layers of identity; sometimes mediator, sometimes friend, sometimes daughter.
Walking on the moor as an adult, I’ve taken shortcuts that were the long way round. I’ve opted for easy routes that were actually the boggy, marshy, slow routes. But all the while, I’ve felt the edge of my compass in my pocket, knowing that a compass in my pocket means I know where I’m going. Should I ever wander off route, I’d be ok.
Now, on the moor again, I feel myself dissolve into its shifting mists, sometimes individual, and other times part of the churning mass of life. Sometimes found, sometimes lost. The first question God asked man was to Adam and Eve, in the garden of Eden near the tree of life. “Where are you?”. They were hiding, ashamed at their nakedness. He could not find them.
Where are you?
This weekend, the grid lines on my Dartmoor map locate me, keep me, direct me. I’m being assessed for a walking leader qualification. Pete, the main assessor, is kitted in well-worn outdoor gear. He’s tall and reminds me of a geography teacher. I look up at the fog as it rolls in, hiding the peaks of the moor.
“You’ve picked the weather for it, Pete”, I say.
His eyes twinkle.
“Nah this is great, really tests your navigation skills.”
My navigation skills correlate with my confidence. When I trust myself, I can lead you to a stone in the middle of nowhere. When I doubt myself, I override my sense of direction, my map-reading, my inner knowing. My path wobbles.
I am put in a small group with two other people, both of whom are teachers. If they pass, they’ll become group leaders for school expeditions. If I pass, I’ll guide walks to help people find nature, space, self. We meet our group’s assessor, Simon, who is wearing an expensively branded puffy neon coat. I look up to the trackless expanse of moor above us, a place beyond the dazzle of neon and the intrusion of brands. Simon is relaxed, smiling. I get to know him through the day and learn that he is usually high up in snowy mountains, with special gear, at the edge of things. Dartmoor is a softer, more ancient kind of edge.
For the past few days, I’ve felt a little lightheaded, a little achy and weaker than usual. Today I feel pale. But still I walk, giving weight only to a drive to pass the assessment, and not to a rising sense of knowing in my body.
The day goes well. The fog comes and goes; navigation is hard at times, but I have my map. Always my map, looking at it even when I know the way ahead.
“Look, a Bronze Age settlement” I say to the group, pointing to the circle of rocks in front of us as we pause for water.
“Yea”, one of the teachers says, “they’ve found old burial chambers on the moor too.”
We walk on. A flock of birds hold their nerve and eventually fly upwards when we get too close.
“What are they?” Simon our assessor asks, testing our nature knowledge through the day as well as our navigation and leadership.
“Grouse?” one of the teachers says.
I think to myself, they look nothing like Grouse. I know they are Golden Plover. I do not immediately say they are Golden Plover for fear I will sound like a know-it-all. But I do know it. And it was an assessment after all; permission to be a know-it-all. And still, I pause, willing someone else to score that point, not wanting to weaken the young threads of relationship. Finally, as the last of the birds disappear, I reluctantly say, “they’re Golden Plover.” Turns out Simon didn’t know what they were. The group decide that hereafter, I am the nature expert. But I am no — only curious, seeking, excavating. Expertise feels like a narrowing, a constriction, and I am seeking expanse.
That evening, I eat a steak in the pub I’m staying in. I chat with others. I feel cold. Up in my room, I fiddle with ancient heating pipes, willing some warmth into the room before bed. Finally, lying in a strange bed, I hear what my body has been trying to tell me. The pain breaks out of the constricted space I gave it, and I know that I am miscarrying. I put off going to the bathroom, knowing that the red of unused life will only confirm it. I slip out of my head and lie in my body. I cry from and for the pain inside, for lost time, lost relationship, lost life. And then, in this frozen sadness, a prick of brightness enters my mind, like the distant light shining from black moorland outside: this day has poetry to it. I pick the thought up, do not know what to do with it except think how the medical word for blood formation, ‘haemopoiesis’, and the word ‘poetry’ contain the same root, to make. I put the thought down for later, crawl into the bathroom, and lie curled up like a foetus in the small dark room.
The next morning my husband drives me home. He feels his own particular sadness, but from the infinite distance of a person it is hard to enter it. He hugs me, I hug him, and like the earth that holds us all, it is enough.
Instead of finding my way through open moorland, I lay on my back in a small sterile room in a windowless ward in the hospital. I stare at the ceiling tiles, my map-adjusted eyes seeking a grid reference to tell me where I am and where to walk next. I can’t find it. I’ve walked off the map.
In the coming days, resting, I re-watch a documentary profile of American author and farmer Wendell Berry. In it, he describes the windowpanes through which he looks out at his farm from his writing desk. The panes form a grid, a kind of graph, but all that is alive outside won’t be contained by it. As the sun rises, I think about control and plans, and what it takes to create and let go, and wonder what creation — of a baby, a patch of nature, a book, a planet — really asks of us. A few pieces of truth came into view: that I read things, and know things, but don’t always live those things. That I champion the power of relationship, but can be bad at letting people in. That I show composure but can rage inside. I’d neatly filed these and other truths as anomalies that would get in the way of who people thought I was, of who I wanted to be. Like Adam and Eve, I felt ashamed at my nakedness.
Once, out walking, I saw the carcass of a dead moor pony and I stopped to look. It was sheltered in its death behind a granite boulder, and it clutched a half-born foal. Half in the world and half hidden. Dead before it was alive. The foal wouldn’t get to stagger on lanky legs, or doze in the haze of summer. Dartmoor can be barren, heart-breaking. But it is not cruel. It would turn to meet the death with soft grazed grass, and with it, feed worms, birds, plants. Nothing mourned, because nothing is lost. For a couple of years, we lived in a 400-year old cottage. I couldn’t not live there; there was something speaking under the layers of dust and old stone. We moved in, and found out that the previous owner, David, had died of a heart attack whilst out walking on Dartmoor. We were told he was a kind man, that he loved Dartmoor, and loved the house. I could feel that. In the first week, walking downstairs in the night, some battery-operated lights switched themselves on, seemingly unprompted. The light in the dark made me smile. I imagine David, and the pony, and the Bronze Age woman sitting together on the moor listening to the place, sharing care for old things, and home; waiting for us all to catch up.
Pregnancy left me feeling nurtured and nurturing, but also deeply vulnerable. My body and sense of time were changing, but I had worried my mind wasn’t. That weekend though, my mind started to shift. Things that I usually held at arm’s length were beginning to crowd me: buried thoughts, dormant feelings, forgotten experiences. A few months before, I’d been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. My body seemed to be attacking existing life and now rejecting new life. That weekend, I thought about how civilization seemed to be doing the same. Group sabotage as well as self-sabotage. The climate crisis, wars, poverty, injustice – the stuff I’d been working in or near for years. History, and time, and elements, were eroding layers of me and of the world, and I felt like I was glimpsing what lay beneath. Painfully unable to ask for help, or to be gracious and accepting when someone offers care, I’d usually fold my sadness inside, think of people who have it far, far worse, and pull myself together. But the pieces of me, and the pieces of the world I could see strewn all around, didn’t want to be pulled together just yet – certainly not back into the same shape, and not until I, we, had carefully excavated them, examined them, learned from them. Only then would they reform.
So now, as the pieces lay scattered around me, the moor having held me as I broke open, I begin by looking for the amber beads that my ancestors knew contained healing and magic.
Elizabeth Wainwright is a writer, coach, facilitator and District Councillor, with a background in international development. She is working on a collection of narrative essays about place, possibility, politics, faith, listening, Devon, Africa and more, shaped in part by her experiences working around the world, and in local UK politics. Her website is here. She’s on Twitter and Instagram, and has a newsletter you can sign up to here. She lives in Devon, and is an occasional moorland walking guide.