The lynx claimed me two summers ago.
When I first heard this mysterious and magnificent wild cat was going to be reintroduced back into England, I didn’t believe it at first.
Stories like this give me hope. As the very survival of humanity dances on a knife edge, it is a sign that something is changing in the right direction. This is important to me in a world where some days it can seem that everything is beginning to fall away.
The return of the lynx holds something huge for me. It is a real symbol of change.
So, I was blown away when I found out how this had come about. It is a story which brings me right back to my heartland, the Yorkshire Dales, and the very farm where we have run our summer retreats for the last five years.
I can’t wait to share it with you!
I want to do this by taking you with me on a walk up onto the limestone pavements of the Yorkshire Dales. We are going to go to the very place which revealed a secret which has made it possible for the lynx to return.
It is a glorious sunny afternoon just a few days after the Summer Solstice. The landscape would have been quite different back then, wooded, but the limestone patterns in the limestone landscape would have been the same.
Well I don’t mind saying I got rather lost finding my way here, but I am finally at a cave known as Kinsey Cave. The limestone hasn’t changed from the photographs I found on google, but the vegetation has.
There are multiple little rowan trees growing in front of the cave entrance and I didn’t recognise it from the photos. But I found it from above, working out the field configurations across the other side of the valley. It has been worth the hunt.
I am up on Giggleswick Scar, which is limestone pavement country. I have come here because of a bone. Well three bones actually. They were from a lynx which roamed this very hillside 1,400 years ago. So why does this have so much relevance to me that I have spent the best part of this afternoon hunting this cave down?
The Yorkshire Dales is unique in that is it built on limestone which creates a vast network of caves beneath the ground. These caves serve as portals into another world. Just as our ancestors would go into caves to seek a connection with the animal spirits, so too we can glean information from them
From a purely archaeological perspective, caves preserve physical information from the past. They serve as a stable environment regardless of great temperature fluxes outside, including the ice age. Certain species of animal use the caves for shelter and die in them, and they also bring the carcasses of their prey.
The bones which are left are preserved, for tens of thousands of years. The bones which have been collected and dated from caves of the Yorkshire Dales date as far back as before the last ice age, when lions, hyenas, hippopotamus, elephants and rhinos roamed this very place where I am sitting.
This area of the Yorkshire Dales contains more lynx bones than any other limestone cave area in Britain. Now until recently it was believed that the lynx died out due to climate changes either around 10,000 years ago, not long after the ice retreated from the last ice age, or about 4000 years ago as the climate turned cooler and wetter.
However, these lynx bones tell us a different story.
They tell a story of sacred lands, of protected lands and of the potential to reintroduce the lynx back into this country. Let me explain why.
There is a case to reintroduce a species which has become extinct from this country if it was made extinct by human activity. Up until recently as I have already mentioned it was thought that the lynx died out because of a change in climate, so there wasn’t a case for its reintroduction.
When one of these three lynx bones found in Kinsey Cave was radiocarbon dated only twelve years ago, what astounded archaeologists and ecologists alike was how recently this lynx died. They were shocked to discover that this lynx died between AD 425 and AD 600, establishing for the first time that the lynx survived in Britain into early medieval times.
Now we know that the lynx in fact died out because of human activity, there is a case to reintroduce it back…
… and this very thing is happening. Conversations between landowners, farmers and conservationists have been successful up in Kielder forest in the northeast of England, and steps are now being taken to bring the lynx back.
The lynx is a very secretive animal. They hide away deep in the forest and are only seen occasionally. They are no threat to humans, and livestock are rarely taken as the lynx prefers to hunt in the forest than out in the pastures.
The lynx is an incredibly beautiful animal, and also an incredibly powerful one. It has the fastest leap of all mammals on the Earth. It leaps so fast and is so secretive that our distant ancestors believed that they were half in this world and half in the other world. They believed they were animals of the light. The Scandinavian word for light is Lyn, of which the Lynx derives its name.
I have been captivated by this story of a ‘pile of old bones’. They were excavated by the Victorians and kept in a collection in Settle, which were then passed to Tom's grandfather when the museum closed down, and ultimately inherited by Tom Lord of Winskill Farm. We have known Tom for a good while now and run our summer retreats up at his farm. We were enchanted by his old bone collection, which he has meticulously kept.
We tentatively asked one day if we might hold an old cave bear skull he had, which was 30,000 years old. He said yes, and at that moment as I held it, I asked if we could run workshops where other people could hold the bones too.
Bones have memory. These bones hold the blueprint of a long-lost species which roamed these lands. As the species died out something was lost. In a time where we see so much destruction and loss, I think we can relate to this. It touches us deep inside. So, when I hear of a story that a species is coming back to this land, I am incredibly excited. The beaver has been reintroduced. Now the lynx is to be reintroduced, and all because of knowledge we gleaned from an old bone.
So, if we gleaned this information from an old bone and a whole species is coming back, what information can we glean for ourselves, to bring a little something of ourselves back to?
We have been trying this out over the last four years at Lower Winskill Farm, with groups of like-minded souls who are excited about the same question. Each year we have come to hold ancient animal bones or Stone Age tools to see what messages they have for us.
We have gone on a shamanic journey to them. We have shapeshifted as the animals. We have made masks and roamed the limestone pavements of these upper valleys as bear, hyena, lion, wolf and lynx would have done.
We have discovered within us our hidden poet and we have swum in the waterfall. We have laid in wildflower meadows and looked for faces in the clouds.
We have shared stories around the campfire and drummed the sun down over Ingleborough mountain.
Each time we get a little piece of us back, that wilder piece, that creative genius us we find sitting at the edge of our psyche.
Each time we step a little closer to our true selves.
This work just happens when we are up here in these upper valleys. Just over these last few weeks I have begun to realise why these lands are so powerful. Let me explain why.
Until recently it was thought that the Anglo Saxons and their intensification of farming the land, cleared the forests to the extent that our mammals higher up the food chain lost their habitat and were killed off. However, what archaeologists are now theorising is that there were some parts of England which were still protected by the natives.
What is interesting is that when Christianity spread, there was a bishop who was appointed a role in the little village of Stainforth close to Lower Winskill Farm, and in the shadow of the table top mountain of Ingleborough and the highest mountain of this region. It can be seen for miles. we can even see it from Anglezarke moor which is just behind our home which is over 45 miles away in Lancashire.
The monasterys, overseen by the bishop, took ownership of these upper valleys, and this speaks volumes. We know that the church took possession of the sacred sites in order to clear them of the pagan ways.
These upper valleys were until this point protected from the spread of agriculture. It is just starting to be theorised that they were bounded and kept safe and wild for sacred reasons. Timothy Taylor of Bradford University speaks of this as the transition from wildwood (the natural wild) to wildscape (or cultural wild).
These upper valleys were kept wild for people to come and gain wisdom which was not accessible to them in the tamed lands. The came for an initiation perhaps.
I liken this to when I did my four-day, four-night vision quest. This is an old spiritual process which is still undertaken by tribal people across the world. You go into the wilderness for a set amount of time to receive a vision, to learn something about yourself, to prove who you are and what you are capable of. I undertook this process in an old growth woodland in Devon. It only works when we remove ourselves from the everyday and take ourselves into the wild.
When Tom shared his theory with me it made complete sense. These lands were kept in their natural state, because when we humans go into the wild, something happens in us which is necessary for us to be the best we can be. With the monasteries taking control of these lands, this changed, and it was no longer possible to do this. It was another layer of the indigenous ways being removed.
The exciting thing is that we can claim this back. Just as the land is reclaiming the lynx, so too we can reclaim our connection with the mysteries of these sacred upper limestone valleys. We can come up to hold the very bones of the wild ones who roamed these lands. With our imaginations we can tune in with them and draw the healing that we most need from these powerful animals.
On our most recent retreat we did just this. It was an incredible experience. We are indebted to Tom and his bone collection to be able to do this.
In fact, it isn’t just the bones. we work with the Stone Age tools too. In Tom's collection there are ancient tools which go back a quarter of a million years, to another species of human, Homo erectus which was the species of human before our species. We can hold these tools, we can tune into a time when creativity was held in high regard, and when their minds were not as controlled as ours. We can listen to the whispers of the toolmakers and see what they have to say to us.
In a world where we can feel fragmented, this work helps remind us where we came from, what was taken from us, and helps us in a small way to recall what is ours, what is rightfully ours, and what helps us remember what it is to be human, and help to remember ourselves.
So, with the news of the return of the lynx, I wonder what wild part of you wants to come back. I think this is why these stories are so captivating, for they speak to a void within us which wants to be filled with the secrets of the wild wood, and the spark of the great animals which we once walked on this soil with.
As I said at the beginning, this fills me with hope.
We are indebted to Tom for inviting us to stay at his beautiful farm and allowing us to work with his fascinating and precious collection of bones and stone age artefacts which would normally only be available to us through the glass of a museum cabinet… and for sharing his theories, his knowledge and his passion.
Thank you Tom!