The earth, and everything about it, is alive. So say aboriginal cultures around the planet – and no doubt our lost, superseded and dispossessed ancestors felt that way too. Indeed, an increasing number of their inheritors are feeling it today.
Peter Knight, dowser, author and aspiring shaman, has managed to touch on an aspect of the tors and hills of the far South West that has been largely ignored by the majority of the longer-term residents, including myself. While most of us have been looking critically at the sacred sites erected by earlier cultures, Peter has embarked on a journey to understand the natural features that were revered, and maybe modified, by them.
Standing in the shoes of a shaman is no easy task. It’s difficult enough trying to see how any another person views their world – even when it’s ostensibly the same collection of stuff, in much the same space-time, and when that person has an almost identical DNA makeup. To do so with those who are countless generations away, and probably from a different ethnic root, is doubly difficult.
Yet the backcloth of this quest has been largely constant over the millennia. The granite of our western uplands has hardly weathered or degraded at all over the course of human history. Geologically, what the Neolithic people tried to make sense of in their landscape was probably very similar to what we process and interpret today – give or take the absence of a few million rather scrubby trees, and the impact of several centuries of somewhat invasive mining.
The crucial difference is how we choose to perceive it. Our concept of landscape development is based on the chemistry and physics of volcanism, erosion and deposition, coupled with a generalised understanding of molecular structure and sub-atomic combination. Aboriginal people, including those who lived on the western tip of the European landmass, would just have seen natural formations of various shapes and sizes.
Typically, today we see ourselves as somehow separate from the natural world – loosely associated with it, but essentially oddly detached from the rest of Gaia. Pre-western mankind tends to take a more holistic view – with the animals and plants, even geographical features, having a life and an entity not dissimilar to our own. Whether this is because they can sense the auras and the vitality of the manifestations of nature, or whether they are aware of their invisible kinetic fields, is still a project under investigation. However, if they saw a recognisable likeness in a rockface, it would be natural to assume it was something akin to the face of any other resident – only bigger, stronger, and probably rather more scary. Taking this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion has led Peter to re-imagine the moorlands of Cornwall and Devon in a more literal, yet also a more intuitive way.
The tors and escarpments of Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor are littered with examples of large boulders that look quite like people – at least from certain angles, and in certain lights. But many of them are on tors that I have climbed a hundred times and never noticed. It all depends on which interpretative glasses you don at any given time.
Optical and aural illusions show how we struggle to make sense of visual and acoustic data that has been deliberately confused. Chaos Theory takes this juxtaposition a stage further by suggesting that humans seek patterns in any apparently randomly constituted data set – such as the field of information that surrounds and includes us. So, we sometimes see faces in the clouds and tableaux in the flames of a fire. But are these in fact ‘real’ projections of our innermost thoughts – or are they meaningful patterns in an external ether?
Whichever way you look at it, there is something primal in personal experience.
Peter showed image after image of rock features that could have been interpreted in a far more animistic manner than most of us would choose to do today. Yet, many of these places also have interesting energy patterns and surprising alignments. They often bear names suggesting reverence or relevance – and even attempts at demonisation by a subsequent, less empathic, worldview.
Some appear to have been moved or modified to ‘improve on nature’ or maybe to work more closely with her. Either way, the impression is of cultures that were trying to come to terms with the unusual coexistence of naturally-sculpted geology and the forces of the earth, sensed intuitively.
Peter’s pictures of huge rocks propped, or edged to the point of balance, are particularly enigmatic. Were these modifications to, or imitations of, existing massive natural ‘logan’ stones, pivoting almost inexplicably on minute necks of rock? Teetering megaliths are known to emit very low frequency vibrations, imperceptible to those of us used to coping with the age of the internal combustion engine and the pneumatic drill. But, to the shaman, acutely aware of the subtle impact of the sound of his or her drum, such miniscule vibrations at the very edge of perception may have given a much deeper meaning to what we might regard today as ‘just a bit of old stone’.
Since first hearing Peter give a version of this talk, I have been looking at familiar places on the moors in a very different light – and I am sure others will be doing likewise in the months to come. What you see and what you perceive
really does depend on where you stand – both physically and philosophically.
Many thanks to Peter Knight and Sue Wallace for taking the time out to visit our Cornish dowsing outpost – and, as ever, to all those who helped to stage this hugely enjoyable event.
Nigel Twinn Tamar Dowsers October 2017
Dartmoor Mindscapes – re-visioning a sacred landscape – by Peter Knight