We couldn’t come on holiday to the northeast of England and not visit Kielder Forest.
Here, in this 250-square-mile stretch of woodland in Northumberland there are plans to reintroduce our native big cat, the Lynx, which became extinct from the British Isles 1,300 years ago. I've been following this story for several years now, ever since I shape-shifted into Lynx during one of our retreats. I was to discover afterwards that the lynx has the fastest leap of all of the mammals on Earth and the experience had a lasting impact on me. The story of the return of the lynx fills me with hope.
Kielder Forest is England’s largest plantation forest and home to Europe’s largest man-made lake as well as being home to around half of England’s native red squirrel population. Arriving here amongst the fir trees has been a pleasant surprise as usually I'm drawn to deciduous woodland over coniferous. Light comes through the widely spaced out trees, and with moss and ferns carpeting the floor, patchworked with sun rays, it is very different to the plantation forests of Lancashire where we live that are dark and foreboding. It's a joy to bathe under these trees in this fairytale woodland landscape.
I first heard the lynx comeback story whilst sat around the kitchen table on our friend Tom's farm in the Yorkshire Dales. We run our Summer Solstice retreat there each year and I was chewing over ideas with Tom for the next year’s theme.
As well as a farmer, Tom is an archaeologist. His grandfather excavated the limestone caves in the surrounding area and Tom has inherited many of these ancient animal bones which he cares for in his private collection. I feast my eyes on them during many of our visits and run my fingers over their contours. Bear, wolf, hyena, lion and lynx, these bones lay preserved in the cave sediment, some for tens of thousands of years, each holding a story frozen in time waiting to be revealed. These bones hold the whispers from wild animals that roamed the limestone pavements in these upper valleys of the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
From Tom's large collection there are three bones that have caught my imagination: all from a lynx that crawled into a cave just a few kilometres away, Kinsey Cave. I am blown away by the fact that the discovery of these bones has made it possible for the lynx to be reintroduced back into our country.
There is a case to reintroduce a species which has become extinct from this country if the cause was because of human activity. Up until very recently it was thought that the lynx died out because of a change in climate during the last ice age, so there wasn’t a case for its reintroduction. When one of these three lynx bones found in Kinsey Cave was radiocarbon dated only thirteen 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, it is a game changer for the possibility of it being reintroduced back. And this very thing is happening. Led by Lynx UK TRUST*, conversations between landowners, farmers and conservationists have been successful here in Kielder Forest, and steps are now being taken to bring the lynx back: an application for presentation to DEFRA is being prepared as we speak.
Tom's farm looks out over to Ingleborough mountain, the largest hill in the Yorkshire Dales and with its flat tabletop peak it is prominent for many miles around: we can see it from forty miles away when we stand on parts of Anglezarke Moor behind our home. Jason and I have been coming back here for eight years now, each time bringing like-minded spiritual seekers to this stunning landscape around the time of the Summer Solstice. Ingleborough is a sacred mountain: a place that sits on the fringes. A place that clung on to the old ways for longer after the onset of Christianity during Anglo-Saxon times than many other areas in Britain. When the Neolithic farmers settled this area was purposefully kept wild, so individuals could leave the safety of their homes and touch in with the Otherworld. We know this land was held sacred as it was occupied by the early monasteries rather than divided up and handed over to the Lords.
I know from personal experience that encounters with the wild are important for us human beings. I experienced a sacred encounter with the wild when I undertook a wilderness vigil with the West Country School of Myth two years ago. For four days and four nights I sat in the dark forest, alone with just a simple shelter to protect me from the rain and only water, no food. I went into the wild and let it claim me, conversing with something far bigger than myself. I find that something deep inside me emerges when I go into dark places.
We have just passed the Autumn Equinox, that point where light and dark are balanced. We have tipped over the edge now into the long nights and the dark half of the year. I see this movement in the wheel as akin to what is happening here in the UK with the Covid-19 pandemic. Infection rates are rising, and there is much uncertainty. We wait day by day to see what announcement our government is going to make to restrict our freedoms. In Lancashire we are already under measures where households can’t mix: my stepdaughters can’t visit us in our garden anymore. This is going to be a tough winter and my intuition tells me that this will be a winter of discontent. The pandemic alone would be enough, but we have Brexit to contend with too. Badly managed, it will spiral us into further economic uncertainty. There is no doubt about it in my mind, we are heading into shaky times, many people are already there. As a nation we are going into the Underworld.
I am wobbled by this thought but I know that the Underworld is where the deep work happens. It is sticky, messy, difficult, but nevertheless, there isn’t a fairy tale out there that doesn’t have the hero or heroine of the story going into this place. They crawl around in the bottom of the well, pushing their fingertips into the mud and dragging themselves out in circles. Ropes are thrown down that are either too short or simply not seen in the darkness. However, there is a way out of the well of course, we just need to look upwards. There is the opening up above, a pin prick of light shining down waiting for that moment when we are ready to look up and see it.
In Scandinavia, the word for light is Lyn. As lynx are so secretive, they were rarely seen, and believed to be animals of the light: a mythical creature part in this world and part in the Otherworld. Lynx do not chase their prey: instead their large paws have retractable claws making them both excellent climbers and agile jumpers. They are able to climb trees that are almost vertical, and here they stay very still and silent, waiting to jump on their prey as big as a deer as it moves past. Their large paws also give them additional power as they spring straight up from the ground to catch a flying bird. They are able to strike down a bird up to three meters up in the air as quick as any mammal on Earth.
The discovery of the bones from the lynx that died in Kinsey Cave 1,300 years ago means there is hope that the lynx will once again hide in our forests. And as the lynx returns, the light returns. The story of the lynx gives me hope. There is a rewilding of our landscape underway right now: it is on the fringes, but it is happening. Along with the reintroduction of the lynx, there has been a successful reintroduction of the beaver. Beavers are keystone species and the greatest of engineers in the animal kingdom. Their creativity knows no bounds. They have created the largest structure of living animals outside of humans, which can be seen from space: the 850-metre dam in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park. Because they build wooden dam structures across rivers that hold back the water, beavers create and maintain habitats which are relied on by other species. Deadwood is inhabited by insect and which in turn attracts bird species and the pools of water they create encourage fish and other pond life including frogs, toads, water voles, dragonflies and otters. Beavers create whole ecosystems.
Lynx too are a valuable species, and their reintroduction will plug the predator vacuum we have here in the UK. With no natural predators, the British deer population has exploded resulting in woodlands being overgrazed and their ecology reduced. With the lynx to be wary of, deer will change their behaviour radically, becoming constantly on the move and grazing only lightly on each patch of forest. This will help forest vegetation regenerate and help substantially with carbon capture.
Disillusioned by the modern methods of farming, farmers too are catching on to the benefits of bringing back the wild. I was inspired recently by reading in The Guardian recently about Derek Gow, the guerrilla rewilder who is shaking up British farming by introducing storks, beavers, wildcats and water voles onto his 120-hectare farm in Devon. Then there is Isabella Tree who through her book Wilding talks of how she has over the past decade led a pioneering rewilding project on her farm in West Sussex using free-roaming grazing animals to create new habitats for wildlife.
The creation of these wild edges brings me hope as it is here that change is lurking. It is here that the secrets to change lie. It is here that the energy for change lies and from where something different can emerge. We desperately need something different. We need a different way and the story of the Lynx gives me that hope: that glimmer of light from the other side guiding us forward.
I can see the wild awakening in people. It happened to me. It happened when I became disillusioned with the world I was born into. It started when I took myself off outside for prolonged and frequent periods of time, when I stopped and listened, when I stilled myself. During these periods I allowed those questioning thoughts to take a foothold and from there they grew. Once the seed was planted that was it.
The lockdown period we experienced and are still experiencing during this pandemic, as hard and disruptive as it has been for so many people, is doing just this. It has stilled people and it has encouraged folk to go outside. It has people tapping into the wild edge of their unconscious and has given them space and quiet to listen to the whispers that are lurking there. Once the quiet voices are given space to be heard, the work begins. It takes a few years, but the process is underway. This gives me hope. Hope that over time that wild part that has been awoken will grow legs and arms, wild knotted hair with birds nesting inside. Maybe even three heads, certainly with yellow bear eyes, wolf teeth and the scent of a fox.
Dr Martin Shaw talks of this wild twin residing within each of us in his recently published book Courting the Wild Twin. Here he brings through two European fairy tales that tell the story of how each of us has a wild twin who gets thrown out by society at birth. In both the story of the Lindworm and Tatterhood, our wild twin grows up an outcast away from the safety of the castle walls, but they don’t die. Instead they roam the forest, watching and waiting, excluded from court and biding their time until they can return. There is an encounter between someone within those walls who comes out to the edge of the wild forest and meets with the wild twin. This sets the ball in motion for the wild twin to return to court, a fully grown adult ready to shake things up. Oh, and how they shake things up.
As we drop down towards winter and begin our descent into the belly of the Underworld, I can feel the wild twin stirring.
Here in Kielder forest I keep on catching the glimpse of something or someone from the corner of my eye. As I turn around, there is nothing there. Or is there? Could it be the Lynx coming through momentarily from the Otherworld? I wonder. I wonder if the spirit of Lynx never actually left these shores. Instead perhaps it was waiting, hiding in the dark forest, much like those bones in Kinsey Cave, for the time when the door would open and the opportunity to return was laid down.
Now is that time. It is looking hopeful that it won’t be long before we have Lynx returning, all being well. Just as Beaver has. A coming home for Lynx, and a coming home for that wild part of us.
In these crazy times, maybe a little wild is just what we need.
It certainly gives me hope and a reminder that on the other side of the dark winter, the light will return. I will hold onto this knowledge and it helps me feel rooted going into an uncertain winter, knowing that in this dark much needed growth will happen as we will emerge on the other side, ruffled, perhaps with a few more scars, but perhaps just that little bit older, wiser and that little bit more wild having emerged from the Underworld.
An opportunity to go deeper with us
I have drawn on animal wisdom for many years now and the messages from animal’s have guided me through coping during this pandemic. Working with Animal Spirit Medicine is an ancient practice that can be traced right back to the Palaeolithic period over 50,000 years ago when our distant ancestors were drawing art deep in the caves and working with this old practice of our land is something we teach in The Mystery School.
If you would like to find out more follow this link: we would love to share this adventure with you if you aren’t already part of it.
*Lynx UK TRUST is the charity working to reintroduce the lynx to the United Kingdom. They run entirely on donations and so if you are passionate about this cause and drawn to helping out follow this link. They also have a petition you can sign via this link.