By Susannah Darling Khan
I was an unusual mix of a child. Energetic and full of beans, but at the same time shy, ethereal and not quite here. I needed ground and I knew it. I needed to dance, and I needed earthy physicality; rock and soil and wind and heather and hay. I needed to be with animals: cows, dogs, sheep, goats, horses and chickens were an intrinsic part of my childhood.
I sought them out and worked on many a smallholding or farm as a happy volunteer. I’d cycle home from school, where I was intellectually obsessed with science, do my homework and then disappear to whichever farm I was currently helping out at.
I was extremely lucky in having parents for whom holidays meant camping in wild places in the Lake District and walking those magical hillsides. I was also supremely lucky to have an Uncle and Aunt who were some of the first organic farmers of the modern era.
Uncle Arthur and Aunty Liz’s small 30 acre farm was called ‘Tyllwyd’. From some of the fields you could see the wide stretch of Cardigan Bay, coloured anew each sunset. ‘Tyllwyd’, which means grey house in Welsh, was an unpainted farm house with a dilapidated outside loo. My Uncle and Aunt gave a good, heartful ground to many young people looking for their way. In terms of money they were poor but, in the soul, they were the richest people I knew. They were interacting with the land, the elements and those beautiful cows. They were doing what was true and meaningful to them and so they were satisfied.
As a child already enraptured with nature, simply the rich intoxicating smells of earth and hay and cows were enough to keep my soul engaged and yearning for more. Each year we would go in the summer to help with the hay harvest and this was my heaven on earth. Their herd of about 14 beautiful golden Jersey cows were deeply beloved to me: Silver Rain, peaceful and gentle and wise, Maid Marion, beautiful and shy and Razzle Dazzle, huge and wild and a bit frightening. Each of them was tended personally and lovingly as my Uncle attempted to keep his deal with his cows. He had made what I can only call a spiritual agreement with them that they would give him milk to help him live and support his family and he would look after them as best he could, even when they were no longer economically viable. They were milked by hand and cared for with natural remedies. They kept their natural horns and fierce good looks.
Being allowed to learn to milk was a deep blessing. Silver Rain was the patient, older teacher cow for beginners such as 8 year old me. And I loved her and still do. My own life as a baby had been accompanied by much tender loving but a difficult relationship with feeding, which Aunty Liz had also helped my mother with. Discovering, as an older child, that I could get milk easily from Silver Rain was a beautiful healing. Those cups of milk, warm and directly from Silver Rain were a blessing in my childhood. I feel as if I know why cows are sacred in India; their beatific, peaceful and curious nature feels holy to me. And then, as well as that, they give us milk. I have spent many an hour, as a child and as an adult, comforted by the calm sound of cows, horses and goats eating hay.
I remember watching my cousins milking, the muscles of their forearms sculpted by long practice. I learnt to milk, and I had enough strength for one cow, but not for the long stream of them who came to the milking byre every single morning and evening. It’s a job that takes calm, precise, gentle, strong, movements (and incredible commitment – imagine, twice a day EVERY single day of the year) and offers a calm, benevolent peace. It’s rare now for anyone to have this experience of hand milking in the industrialised world. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to experience it. Milking is done, almost everywhere, by machine and it’s a totally different vibe. Learning how to tuck the milking stool under me, wash the cows udders carefully with warm water, absorbing the sweet smell of the oats and molasses as the cow licked her bowl clean, and then the satisfying singing of the milk rhythmically jetting into the bucket, the cow peacefully chewing the cud.
My early years of working with cows, goats and hay imbued in me a love of the land and my farming Aunty Liz and Uncle Arthur in Wales were my first teachers of how to communicate with body language with the animals. I am blessed to have had this unusual heritage that is rare in our world these days. I am very grateful to you Arthur and Liz. THANK YOU! I thought they might be surprised by how often I refer to their teachings in my teachings. I’ve since shared this writing with them and they tell me that are actually not surprised, but they are very pleased. Here is a little video I made to say “thank you!” to them. I share it with you with their kind permission.
It was 2010. “Giu-on, Giu-on!” I call to the oxen. I wait. Nothing happens. I hold the ploughhead, an ancient horn of metal, its tip piercing the deep dark loam of this Andean mountainside, ready to feel the ancient earth curl up from the ploughhead in this ancient way, as I had just seen it done by our indigenous host. I call again, this time more of a shout; “Giu-On! Giu-On!”. The oxen turn languidly to look behind them, their deep brown eyes contemplating me curiously. One more try: “Giu-On! Giu-On!” I shout with even more volume and oomph. Nothing. More slow, languid looks from up in front. The indigenous people watching are bent double with quiet laughter. As I join in, recognising that there was something here that I seriously didn’t understand, they let their laughter peal out and we all join in this joke of mis-communication. I’d known how to communicate with Arthur and Liz’s cows. This was clearly different. “What am I doing wrong?” I asked, through the translator. “You need to whisper”, came back the response. “Oh!” That is not what I expected to be told. “Please show me” I say. I held the plough, the teacher whispered the words which mean “go” and taught me the words which mean “go right”, “go left” and “stop”. The oxen move forward now, the surging steady power of them, pulling the plough through the deep, black soil. I follow its dark cresting wave, the fertile black volcanic soil arcing to revealing its luscious underbelly. Now that I have managed to make myself comprehensible to the oxen, it seems easier than I had imagined, the earth curling back in loops of glistening black fertility. I whisper the words, they pull, haul the plough up and down the narrow terrace of this field. I experience the land. I feel it through my hand. I smell its pungent warmth. I hear it call to me. I’m in tears, tears of gratitude for the earth, the mountain; Imbabura, the oxen. When we stop, I rest with them, and feel the heart of them. They lick my salty hand with their rough tongues. I feel home. I hear the whisper of the land saying to me: “You are a child of the land. You need land. You need land to tend and to tend you”.
Soon after that, back home in Devon, we were playfully looking at houses for sale on the internet. We had accepted the instruction about land that I’d received in the Andes, but we had also accepted that the ‘land time’ in our lives might come in ten years or so. However, we were amusing ourselves looking online at houses with land. As Ya’Acov scrolled down the page, two beautiful golden horses caught my eye. “Oh! Let’s look at that one!” I said, just wanting to look at the horses. Then we saw it: ‘Mini eco-estate’ We decided to go and have a look, chiefly (and cheekily) to look for inspiration about what was possible. Once we walked into the house, Ya’Acov, feeling the warmth from the ground source heating underfloor, sank onto his knees with tears in his eyes and said: “We’re home!” And so it was.
Johnny, who was selling the land, let us stay there one night in our camper-van. We did a drum ceremony and tuned into the spirit of the land. We introduced ourselves and our dreams to the land and asked, if we were to come and live there, whether that would be good, and what it would want from us. We heard the land whisper to us, and we’ve been following that whisper ever since. It said to me: “Help me flower again!” I sense that this dance is only just beginning.
One of the dreams we have is to make hay by hand, and my Uncle and Aunt might even find a way to come and show us how. Hay meadows are one way to encourage and support bio-diversity of plants, insects, butterflies, bees and all that is supported by them. Watch this space!
You might say: What has this got to do with Movement Medicine? For me, it is all part of the same dream, to return home into deep connection with the nature inside us and around us. I am beginning, gently, to write my harvest to share with the world and our teaching journey goes on. Ya’Acov is preparing for the launch of his new and superb book: Shaman – Opening the Doors Between the Worlds (Hay House October 2019). As our work widens out into the world through his literary flowering, we are also rooting deeper into connection with the land that holds us. From Ugborough to Imbabura, THANK YOU land! And from the nourishment of this rooting, I look forward to sharing the blossoming of our membership site – Movement Tribe (see Ya’Acov’s article) and everything else that will flow from it as we continue to teach. I am anticipating that for me, the proportions of ‘home and away’ changing. This has become a personal need for me, and I am incredibly happy and grateful to be able to return to ground before I am ground down into it, and thereby to nourish my offerings out to the world.
David Attenborough recently said when interviewed by Prince William at Davos:
..... There has never been a time when more people have been out of touch with the natural world than as now. And we have to recognise that every breath of air we take, every mouthful of food we take comes from the natural world. And that if we damage the natural world we damage ourselves. We are one coherent ecosystem.
It’s not just (my emphasis) a question of beauty, or interest or wonder. The essential ingredient, the central part of human life, is a healthy planet. We are in the danger of wrecking that and if we don’t recognise the kind of connections I’ve been talking about, the whole of the planet becomes in hazard. And we are in danger of destroying the natural world and with it, ourselves.
I thoroughly recommend Ecosia (a green google – try it, they plant trees and are wonderful) and taking a look at David Attenborough at Davos, and Greta Thunberg (TED, Davos and others). It feels like time to think global and act local, and I’m so grateful that the internet, for all its shadows, enables the kind of direct communication that it does.
I wish you the joy of deepening the relationship with nature inside you in relationship with the natural world outside you, and I wish you faithful following of the whispers that are guiding you, all love, all courage.
You are the earth in the form of a human, so dance!
THANK YOU for being you, love,
Susannah Darling Khan
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