Dr. Sharon Blackie is probably best known as the best-selling author of If Women Rose Rooted, which weaves together Celtic mythology, stories of modern day ecological heroines, and her personal story of escape from the Wasteland of so-called civilisation into the wild and wonderful edges of Ireland and Scotland. Her work explores the relevance of myth, fairy tales and folk traditions to the personal, social and environmental problems we face today.
She now lives in Wales, in an old house which began life in the 1700s as a tiny nonconformist chapel, on a small farm in the Cambrian mountains. She and her husband live there with their hens, a flock of pedigree sheep, four border collies and Maeve, a tabby kitten also known as The Kitten of the Apocalypse.
Sadly, we didn’t get around to discussing the Kitten of the Apocalypse – although the kitten did come up in conversation before we started recording, as she had just irreparably destroyed Sharon’s headset – but we do talk about Celtic mythology, connection with land, talking to crows, the hero’s and heroine’s journeys, the Soul of the World, community, social media, the patriarchy, and Sharon’s forthcoming book on the joys and role of the older woman, Hagitude.
Sharon tells me her favourite fictional character is Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax, a not-to-be-messed-with old mountain witch in whose image she plans to model her old age. When in doubt, she asks myself, ‘What would Granny do?’ Granny seems to be doing a great job so far of being a guiding star for Sharon, having recently helped her navigate a major international relocation, a global pandemic, a bout of rheumatoid arthritis, and lymphoma.
I know you will enjoy this conversation. I really appreciate how Sharon emphasises the importance of our own place – not trying to save the planet as an abstract idea, but really cherishing the land beneath our feet, the birds and animals we encounter in our everyday lives, the very real reality of right here – and also this idea of touching the natural world, and allowing it to touch us, feel the rain on our face, the wind in our hair. And trust me – if you can grow to love and appreciate the weather in the north of Scotland, or the west of Ireland, you can love it anywhere.
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Recovery from the wasteland really began when I moved from America to a croft in the northwest Highlands of Scotland. And really began to think very carefully about that my roots both in the land and in the myths and stories of the land, our inheritance, our folk and mythical tradition. That really revolutionized everything. It opened up all kinds of new possibilities – writing, teaching, all of the work that I do now was founded on that experience of going back to the land and really learning how to belong to it.
I would be walking the land with the dogs, and there were no people to talk to. So I talked to the land, and completely immersed myself in all that weather. And that really was a radical way of connecting, of actually making a proper relationship with the land, because I was talking to the land, to rocks, to all of the things that were in the landscape, living or rocklike. I was talking to them as if they were people, as if they were my friends, because there was nobody else there. And to me, that is how you really build a sense of relationship and belonging to a place.
[Women in the old stories] are literally guardians and protectors of the land, forbidding humans to take too much, to go too far, because we are very embodied creatures, women, by nature of all the things that we’re able to do, from giving birth through to all kinds of other biological phenomena. And I think that’s the nature of female wisdom.
I love consequences. And I like a good consequence in a story. There are consequences if you mess it up, the land becomes a wasteland or there is an inundation, a flood… Either wastelands or floods happen constantly in Celtic mythology as a response to humans messing up the balance between them and the natural world and also disrespecting the Otherworld.
The Otherworld in our tradition is not some transcendental kind of “out there” or “up there” place. It’s not a place at all. It’s entangled with this world, it overlaps it, envelops it, surrounds it. It’s another layer, if you like, through which you can sometimes pierce the veil and see. And if you don’t respect the other world, which in lots of ways is kind of similar to the very old concept of the Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World, then again, bad stuff happens and that and all of this stuff is presided over by women. The Otherworldly women are the ones that understand when enough is enough, and when too much has been taken.
In the old tradition, love is fierce, love is protective. Just as any mother would feel very protective towards her child if it were threatened, and be fairly fierce, that is the kind of love we have to have for the earth… the idea that we can love people into not committing atrocities is crazy. It’s that fierce love that we see time and time again in our old stories. It’s a bit of tough love. But it is love, it comes out of a love for the world and an unwillingness to see it break.
I find it very sad when people are constantly looking to the east or, or further west, even to the very beautiful Native American tradition, for stories of living in balance and harmony with the Earth, when we’ve got them here. And it’s not just that we’ve got them here, it’s that they are tied to our land and to our places. They’re in this country. They’re part of our lineage. And I think that if we don’t have a sense that we too have that tradition, we too have a whole lineage of stories about living in balance and harmony with the earth and all kinds of other good stuff, then we never really feel ownership of the problem that we’ve created.
We hear so many bad things about the West, and what we have inflicted upon the world. And of course, we have, but before that happened, we had some really good stuff. And it’s not all that long ago. And I don’t see why we can’t reclaim those stories, and reclaim some of the wisdom, and particularly the women’s wisdom that is so lost from the world.
The same kinds of acts that are perpetrated against us, as women, against our daughters and our mothers, are perpetrated against the planet, the earth which gives us life, the earth with which women have for so long been identified. Our patriarchal warmongering, growth and domination based culture has caused runaway climate change, the mass extinction of species and the ongoing destruction of wild and natural landscapes in the unstoppable pursuit of progress.
There are many ways to change the world. And there are people who go out there who are activists, like the very wonderful Extinction Rebellion, and so on, who come at this from a very necessary level of political change, or social and cultural change. I was trained and still see myself as a psychologist. And to me, that kind of action is useless if you can’t change the way that people perceive the world and their relationship with it. So you need both.
Just a simple act like that, of walking outside your house, turning the screens off, walking outside, talking to a crow, talking to a tree, just addressing it like you would address a neighbour in the street makes all of the difference. It undermines that separation that we have fallen into. And it makes you see yourself as a part of everything else around you rather than something that is standing above it.
Older women are really trivialized at best. We’re required to be invisible, we’re not supposed to have a voice, we’re supposed to go away quietly and die. And again, all of these older stories show us a very, very different world, in which older women were profoundly respected and had a particular kind of wisdom. So [in Hagitude] I wanted to really begin with those stories. And to see what those stories told us about the various ways in which we could grow into a more meaningful elderhood and a more contributory elderhood.
A lot of people see that as having things taken away from us, because we’re menopausal, whereas I really genuinely do see it as a wonderful opportunity to focus on different things. And so yes, it ends. It’s a journey, inevitably, that ends with death. And I have inevitably drawn on my own experience of befriending death, I suppose, and walking hand in hand with death for a little while in talking about the later stages of elderhood. But now that we’re living longer in the West, we often have many decades of what we might think of as elderhood in which to do meaningful and useful work.