October 15, 2022

Claiming back our connection to the Earth

‘Rewilding: claiming back our connection to the Earth’ is the third in a trilogy of blogs where I talk about some of the key themes in my upcoming book. I will launch The Path to Forgotten Freedom: Healing Unresolved Ancestral Trauma into the world at the end of this month, and it's available for pre-order now (scroll to the bottom for details of the launch dates and how to pre-order).

In my first blog, I spoke of how a severance from the land can be the root cause of inherited ancestral trauma when our ancestors were forced to leave their farms and seek employment in the industrial towns and cities of Victorian Britain. In that first blog, I also explained the science of epigenetics as proof of how unresolved ancestral trauma can be inherited through DNA from one generation to the next.

In my second blog, I offered an insight into one way this trauma can play out in our lives: an unhealthy work ethic and the challenges this brings.

In this third blog, I will focus on different tools that can be used to help re-write the story, re-code our DNA and ultimately heal the trauma that began so many years ago up the ancestral line. To do this, I want to take you first back to the streets of London over a century and a half ago, to the days when my great-great-great grandmother first arrived in London from a famine-stricken Ireland.

Seeking refuge

Her feet were as black as the soot-covered buildings; a stifling smog hung low in the air. The birds had deserted those dark streets many years ago. There were no chattering sparrows, and even the crows that love to feed on decay had left. Blood ran thick in the gutters from the slaughterhouses, and bare-legged boys played with paper boats in dirty puddles.

Catherine picked her way through the cobbled alleys in her search to find her bother. Ireland felt so far away, the hedge-lined meadows and song of the robin would only ever be a memory now. Famine struck; her homeland offered no sanctuary to her anymore. Catherine asked directions from a group of gaunt-looking women, eyes sunken and with protruding cheekbones. With their bony fingers, they pointed up into the darkness of an ally close by. Catherine stepped through into the Victorian slum, on into a future she didn’t know how she would bear.

Power and powerlessness

On discovering my great-great-great grandmother Catherine’s story, I decided to go on an ancestor pilgrimage to London. I wanted to stand on the ground she walked upon. I made this decision just days after discovering the date she had died was exactly 142 years to the day that I completed my wilderness vigil, which I talked about in my first blog of this trilogy series: Severance.

I looked in my diary to find a time when I was able to visit London. The only two days I could take a trip down to London was on the 1st and 2nd November. This date was significant for me as that is the time of the old Celtic festival of Samhain.

Samhain, Celtic for ‘summers end’, is one of the most important dates in the Celtic calendar, if not the most important. It marks the completion of one year and the beginning of another, much like the 31st of December in the Gregorian calendar. Marking the period where we move into the darker months of the year traditionally is a time to honour the ancestors.

There is an old custom to cook a meal for the ancestors on the night of the 31st October, Samhain eve, and invite them to sit at the table. Jason and I had been planning to do this for my ancestor Catherine and Jason’s late grandmother Lottie. We cooked a roast, which was Jason’s grandmother's favourite. I researched dishes from Ireland that I thought Catherine might have enjoyed and chose Irish Colcannon, a potato and cabbage dish. We set out four places, one for Jason and me and one for our two guests. After the meal, we left two portions of food out for our ancestors overnight with a candle lit in the centre of the table.

Cooking a feast is just one way to honour the ancestors. There is great healing to be had in carrying out such rituals. I will explain more about this in a moment, as first I want to tell you what happened in the following days.

The next day, I set off for London to visit the places where I knew Catherine had lived. Catherine migrated from Ireland to England in 1848 during the time of the Great Famine. I had only found this out earlier that year. Prior to this discovery, she had been the unknown ancestor, hidden from me and at least the two generations before me. It took me eight years of researching my family tree to finally uncover her story.

I visited Soho, the area where Catherine had lived that I have just described. I imagined how different it must have been arriving in the slums from her homeland: the tall overpowering buildings, the noise, smells and busyness. I then went to stand at the place where Catherine had died. I stood next to the black iron gates and lay a spiral of ferns and heather on the ground, perhaps in front of the very building where she drew her last breath.

I had been instructed to lay this spiral here during a journey to my ancestral spirit guide, who I refer to as an ancestor ally. It was night time and I felt uneasy in this strange place as passers-by glanced over to see what I was doing. I spoke out some words of gratitude and then left to find my bed for the night close by in a nearby YHA. I wanted to take notice of my dreams. That night I dreamt of a time I had worked for a large corporation a decade earlier.

The next morning, I took a walk along a road I am sure Catherine would have walked along when she moved from one part of London to another. I noticed the wealth all around me in one of the most affluent areas of London. I followed the route through Regents park and towards Buckingham Palace. I wondered how she must have felt seeing so much richness around her when she had so little. I know during Victorian times, the homeless would sleep in this park. I wondered if Catherine had spent some nights sleeping here.

Then I came to the gates of Buckingham Palace. At this point, I was stopped in my tracks by a military parade. It was the Changing of the Guard, which happens every day at 11am. As I watched the might of the British military walk in procession to guard the Queen's palace, I embodied the realisation right there in that moment of the power and powerlessness dynamic playing out in the world. I reflected on how powerless Catherine was throughout her life,  and how she came to seek refuge in the city where the decisions had been made that had ultimately brought her here. Just a mile up the road were the Houses of Parliament. All around me was extreme wealth. I was standing staring at the most enormous house where the Head of State and the Head of the Church of England lived.

Catherine was born two centuries ago, and yet the dynamic of power and powerlessness she lived through is still at play today. In the wider world, communities are fighting for the right to stay on their land and preserve their culture. Here in the UK, which is one of the richest countries in the world, the gap between the rich and poor is growing. And many people feel powerless to achieve the life that they want to live. Our lives are, in many ways, controlled by the decisions made by the elite.

This encounter with the Changing of the Guard led me to explore the dynamic of power and powerlessness in my life and how it plays out daily. I did this with support from my shamanic teacher and supervisor, Jayne Johnson, with whom I meet weekly for ongoing support. There are things that I cannot change, which are things that are external to me. But there are many things that I can change, things that are in my control.

It has been eleven years since I was made redundant from working within a large corporation. I left my desk, company car and mobile phone, regular wage, five weeks of annual holiday, performance objectives and annual KPIs. Turning away from that career opened up a door that ultimately led me to do what I do now with The Way of the Buzzard. I know that many people in our community have also made the shift and are working where their passion lies. I know there are equally as many people who aren’t but want to.

Catherine’s story has helped me further understand the paradigm I am living in, where a few people are controlling the majority. Going on that ancestral pilgrimage helped me to see this and raised a flag that this was something I needed to investigate further on my spiritual path and see how this dynamic was impacting on me in unconscious ways.

Re-writing the story

Through this story, I have described several techniques I have used to heal inherited ancestral trauma: ancestral pilgrimages, ceremony, working with the Celtic wheel of the year, shamanic journeying, dreamwork, working with an ancestral ally and having a support team around you in this reality.

There is great power in these practices. Through these practices, we can uncover the ancestral trauma holding us back. This is trauma that has passed down from generation to generation until that time when someone is ready and able to take a look and heal it.

Once we find a story, it needs to be re-written. These practices can help do this. There is a power in the telling of Catherine’s story. I can look at her life through the lens of someone living in the 21st Century. Things that happened to her that were seen as shameful one hundred and fifty years ago are not shameful now. Ancestral healing is about re-writing the story. By re-writing the story, we can recode our DNA. Just as it was coded one way, it can be recoded back again, but it takes awareness.

The story of power and powerlessness is very much in our world today. In fact, it is being amplified as we move further into the 21st Century. This is not a new dynamic, however, as it has been playing out for a very long time. I speak more about this in the second and third chapters of my book, going right back to the ‘Dawn of Civilisation’.

For many years I went along with it, and I suppose in many ways I still am. But having these things highlighted to me, right in front of my eyes, helps me realise that I do have choices and that the spiritual work is to take back my own power and make choices in those areas of my life where I do have complete control. This includes what I choose to do for work, how I choose to spend my time and what I choose to spend my money on.

I find it so empowering to do what I want to do in my life. I took steps to leave employment working within corporations to follow my soul's calling. My ancestors didn’t get a chance to do this. They didn’t have this choice, but I do. This thought alone has spurred me into action. It was an instrumental factor in me leaving my corporate career and following my soul's calling to do something else in the world.

Coming back to nature

Another way I can empower myself is to reclaim some of the things our ancestors lost when they were forced to leave their homes in the country and move into the towns and cities. I can return to the land.

I used to think it was about owning land, but this isn’t the case. It is about falling back in love with nature again. It is aligning our lives with the natural cycles of the Earth, a rewilding if you like. There are different ways to reclaim our connection with the land, and I write about these in my book. There are some simple practices that anyone can do, even if access to the countryside is difficult. The return to nature is a gentle practice that can be done from home.

This is a homecoming: reclaiming what was lost.

What does this look like? I think this depends on what a person’s particular interests are, but it begins by getting out in nature and being still. It is about listening to nature and learning about the trees and the animals and building a relationship with them.

Noticing the changing seasons is an important first step, and marking each turn of the old Celtic wheel of the year. The wheel cycles from the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, through to early spring at Imbolc, the Spring Equinox where the sun rises and sets at the same time each day, to Beltane at the beginning of May when the bluebells are beginning to flower and the dawn chorus turns up to full volume. On to the Summer Solstice and the long days and moving into harvest time at Lammas, the Autumn Equinox and then Samhain, summers end at the beginning of November when we move into winter once more and continue the cycle. Reclaiming our connection with the Earth is about learning the old ways of our ancestors, going way back to a time before cities and squalor, to the last tribes that walked these lands, the Celts. These people worked with the wheel of the year.

The Celts also had a special relationship with the trees. So much so that they based their alphabet on them, which they called the Ogham. The Ogham is made up of twenty letters based on twenty species of tree. Each tree has a particular energy, and by understanding each, we can draw out messages that are held there for us.

For example, Birch is the tree of new beginnings and forms the first letter of the Celtic Ogham. This is a tree that colonises new ground and is good to work with when starting a new project. At the other end of the alphabet is Yew. Yew is the tree of endings, a long-lived tree upwards of 5,000 years that is often found in graveyards. Every part of the Yew is poisonous except the red flesh around the seeds. Yew is a good tree to work with if you want to draw a line under something and bring it to an end, ready to clear and move on.

The animals also bring us messages. Wildlife would have been a part of our ancestor's lives, much more so than today. Animals are messengers from the Otherworld, and their messages can come through in all kinds of ways. For example, by hearing the drum of the woodpecker or the startled alarm call of the blackbird, seeing a deer leap over a wall or the repeated sighting of a crow with white flecks on its wings. All of these encounters can have meanings underlying them. It is from these messages that we can receive our spiritual guidance. Nature allows us to hear the quiet voice of our soul, take steps to move in a new direction, get a fresh outlook and lead us to our soul calling.

Looking back to move forward

In my book, I speak of something the Dali Lama said when asked what's the most powerful meditation we can do to help heal the world. He replied with this:

“Critical thinking followed by action. Discern what your world is. Know the plot, the scenario of this human drama. Then figure out where your talents might fit into making a better world.”

Part of our spiritual path is understanding how the world we live in came about and the origin of the patterns that repeat themselves. We can use this awareness to decide what we want to be a part of and what to step away from to create something different. We can also look back down the ancestral line to see what wounds we carry from our ancestors.

I have noticed an upsurge in people wanting to look back up their ancestral line. At our woodland community retreat Space to Emerge this Beltane, I decided to run my first ancestral healing workshop. Although this is a topic close to my heart and has been for some time, I hadn’t run an ancestral healing workshop before because, to be honest, I wasn’t sure whether people would be interested in the topic. I had over seventy people come along over two sessions through the weekend. Over half the people who came to spend time in those woods with us wanted to understand how to heal inherited ancestral trauma.

Maybe you are someone who has the ancestral calling within you too? Maybe you are ready to step forward into this rewarding, often challenging, but necessary part of healing? If you are, I believe my book will help you make these steps, providing inspiration and tools you can draw upon.

I am here because of my ancestors. I have been shaped by the decisions they made, the path they walked and the company they kept. Their actions have given me my body. Their reactions have given me my instinct. Their bones are lying in the cold earth now, gnawed away slowly by the passage of time, but their greater part lives on. Their souls have travelled back to the Otherworld, but their way of being in this world still shapes the living and still shapes me. How would they have responded in these troubled times of the modern-day world? Would they have questioned, peeled back layers, and turned over stones to find a deeper understanding of the world they were born into? One by one, they left a world behind for me. Now it is my turn to find my way through with the grace and wisdom that's been passed on. I wonder what guidance they would have spoken as they drew their last breath? I wonder what I will say when I draw mine? Will I speak of worry and toil, or will I talk about dance, art, joy, love? I think I know.

Moorland whispers

Up on the moors behind my home, there are the ruins of twenty farmsteads, which I speak about in my first blog of this trilogy, ‘Severance’. There is one house, in particular, that is my favourite, known as the ‘Hempshaws’. Perhaps I love it the most because it is the most remote. Or because it is the most intact. I often sit there and let my imagination drift back to the generations of families who lived here.

In this pile of stones, there once lived a family, warmed by the glow of the fire, which was kept fed with cut peat night and day. Faces would look out across the moor as I do now, watching the sunrise in the morning and then setting through the door come nightfall. Above the roof, kestrels would perform their courtship dance as the full moon rose. The white owl would hover over the ditches and dykes, it's feathers lit up by the auburn glow of the setting sun. The ravens would fly over, calling each other every night before sundown as the smoke from the chimney rose up into the cool night air. Stories were shared around the fire of past ancestors; a wild black dog to be feared at night on the moors; the faery mound on the moor to be avoided at all times outside of daylight. Now, because of the Anglezarke Clearances, all that remains of this home are mounds of stones and furrows in the soil from the plough.

I believe we can bring the wild that our ancestors experienced living out in the land back into our lives. This is the path to forgotten freedom. There was a time, not that long ago, when our ancestors didn’t need to rely on others for food or work. The severance from their land led to a trauma that has been passed down from generation to generation. Until this is addressed, how can we ever be free?

The ancestors that followed after the severance from the land had few choices available to them. So who are we not to take the choices that are available to us now?

Post blog update

The launch event

Over the festival of Samhain we held an online event to launch my new book, The Path to Forgotten Freedom: Healing Unresolved Ancestral Trauma. Click here to watch the replay.

Order your copy 

Click here to read more about The Path to Forgotten Freedom: Healing Unresolved Ancestral Trauma and order your copy. 

Further reading

This blog is the third in a trilogy of blogs on ancestral healing. If you would like to read the previous two blogs, here are the links:

  • ‘Severance’: Inherited ancestral trauma from forced migration. Click here to read.
  • ‘Non-stop’: The inherited work ethic. Click here to read.

About the Author


Nicola Smalley is an edge-dweller, shamanic practitioner and writer living in Anglezarke on the edge of the West Pennine Moors in Lancashire, England.
Following a career in corporate sustainability, she now runs The Way of the Buzzard with her husband Jason. Her passion is anything connected to nature and the mysteries of the Earth.

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  1. Thank you for your wonderful blog Nicola – so uplifting and also full of resonance. I also took redundancy in 2011 from a demanding, soul-destroying, high-intensity job so that I could spend the rest of my life doing what I had always wanted to do – working with dreams and writing books. It's the best decision I ever made in my life and I was very aware at the time how fortunate I was to be able to do this. Your blog has made me think about my ancestry and wonder more seriously about their lives. They came from Germany in the 19th century to avoid persecution but that's all I know. I'm so looking forward to the Monastery on the 30th Oct x x

    1. What an interesting story… On both counts! Your own story about leaving a stressful job to follow your creativity and also your family ancestry. I am excited for you and your ancestral investigations. And delighted you are coming to The Monastery 🙂

  2. Thank you Nicola for this fascinating insight -I can’t think of a better read that I could have had between Crewe and Oxenholme! The Yew jumped out at me -I have some endings to do methinks! I think I am now equipped for them -although apprehensive xx

  3. I have loved reading your stories Nicola. You have brought so many questions to my mind about my ancestors on many levels. Not just about who they were or what job they did but more about the dynamics of the family. How did they bring the children up and what impact that had on them. We often hear that kids were out all day from dawn til dusk, bathed only on a Sunday and shared the bed with six other siblings! I'm sure it wasn't that easy and pretty looking. I'm really interested in how my ancestors were as children.
    I'm interested to know Nicola if you did an actual DNA test to find relatives to help you on your quest?
    Thank you again for such wonderful insight to your ancestors.

  4. Thank you, Nicola for the sharing in your wonderful blogs. My family were also displaced from their homeland, in their case, due to war. You’ve given me some ideas and I look forward to finding others – in order that I might honour them and the trauma they experienced. This was on my mind pre Covid pandemic but came to an abrupt hall when we couldn’t move around freely. I look forward to joining you and Jason for your online event and I think your timing is perfect. Well done!

    1. Thank you Melanie, this is really good to read your comment here. Thank you! I too had plans pre-pandemic that I put on hold because of restriction of movement. I feel too now is the time to pick them back up again 🙂

  5. Loved reading this last part of your trilogy and so looking forward to reading your book. Your writing style is beautiful. I am totally immersed in your story and at the same time tugged in the direction of realigning with my own ancestral path.

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