On the 30-mile drive to the nearest supermarket after 6 days at Spirit Horse, Volt says to me, “People seem to get these wild eyes after they’ve been here for a while. Like, a little crazy. I’ve seen it in Rebecca and Mark, and now Ben has it too.”
I laugh. I know just what he means.
“You don’t have it, though – maybe you’re already so much like that, that it doesn’t make a difference,” I tell him.
“Yes, maybe so.”
There’s definitely something of the otherworldly about Spirit Horse, and the people who’ve been here all through the summer reflect it. When I first arrived in this mid-Wales valley overlooked by the moody, purple Cambrian Mountains, I took in the winding, characterful paths and the candle-lit rickety bridges connecting the various structures made with loving hands – the Women’s and Men’s Lodges, the two temples, the kitchen, the Roundhouse and the Sweat Lodge, all conduits for the continual song of the river – with the soul recognition of a wonder from my childhood, when I used to visit with the faeries in the garden.
I’ve been aware of Spirit Horse for years and Volt has come here annually every summer for 3 years to do an Enlightenment Intensive Retreat, followed by a work exchange, doing electrics for the co-founder and ‘chieftain’ of the village, an Irish storyteller, Tantra teacher and ceremonial guide called Shivam. Finally, I’m here to experience it myself.
It’s my Emerald Pool Initiation. I’m being led, barefoot, like a mountain goat, along narrow cliff-ledges above a roaring river for what feels like a very long time, to meet the place where so much of the wild spirit of this place is embodied.
Eventually, I graduate to rock-walking in the river itself: slippery brown-red rocks like dolphin’s backs or prehistoric creatures or the corrugated surfaces of far-away planets. An abundance of moss, coming away in chunks just when I start to treat them as handholds, like the moss on the side of the van that I like to pick at, to Volt’s annoyance – “I’ve been growing that for years. I like having those bits of nature with me”.
‘Go in spider mode’, Volt instructs often: this means going down on all hands and knees.. “We’re nearly there now,” he says as we crawl along the slick black and grey rocks. Volt takes a piece out of a huge quartz crystal that was already crumbling off, with the intention to give it to ‘someone’– that person of indeterminate identity will turn out to be the Ecuadorean shaman we meet later.
Finally, we reach the rich green pool, as ethereal as I imagined it. I face the waterfall in all its raw, unstoppable, primal power. The way that I can’t see how deep it is feels both mysterious and a bit scary.
We strip off and stand right under it, giving in to the way it takes your breath, your sense of skin. You have to swim right into the pool to get your head under the waterfall; you can’t simply walk into it. Your surrender must be complete.
It feels like a continuation of the time we stood staring at an enormous waterfall at Fernworthy Reservoir on Dartmoor, back in the winter, and I let out some of my fury in the face of that unstoppable cascade, when it could barely be heard against the backdrop of the spray. But that was a man-made construction and this is pure wild, and we’re getting right up close to it.
Volt goes right in and under, whooping at the shock of the cold, exulting – I bend my back into the fall and let the water beat against me, making me gasp and shiver, but I cannot bring myself to dive in. Still, I feel triumphant; I made it, and there has been a baptism of sorts.
The slight drizzle –– a near-constant feature of the Welsh countryside –– which has been steadily developing morphs into full-on rain and I feel a pang of fear as my euphoria recedes. It’s a long, hazardous and slippery path back over the rocks and along the mountain edge, and I keep visualising myself falling and smashing my head on the rocks below.
I suddenly remember a scene from the fantastic film “Into the Wild” where ‘Alex Supertramp’ canoes on a fast-rushing, wild river. It planted a seed, as so much about his wandering, free-form lifestyle did, because I thought, every one of the ten times I watched it, how alive and exhilarating that was. But I also doubted I’d ever have the courage to do something like it.
After we eventually make it back and curl up on the sofa with a reward of hot chocolate, Volt says, “Can I tell you something? I don’t think you are dyspraxic. You did that walk so well, you only slipped once and it’s very dangerous and tricky. Lots of people don’t manage it – they stop and go back before they reach the Pool.” He smiles. “You were singing on the way back and you were happy. It made me happy to see that.”
I nod, but I am also aware that I didn’t put my head right under the waterfall, although Volt did, twice. I was scared of not being able to breathe.
A shaman is arriving, and he’s not one of those British twenty-something people who run monthly Ayahuasca ceremonies in Brighton. He’s a genuine shaman from Ecuador (though based in London now). Volt has been rattling the path he is due to arrive on for some time, and has also rattled the river. I accompany him for a while, wading through the river past the scattered pink petals, relics of earlier ceremonies.
But when he reaches a point where it gets too slippery for me, I step out and make my way to the women’s lodge, where it feels so deeply warm and safe. The hangings of paintings of bears, the diffuse orange patterns in the material, the stones in the centre, the atmosphere created by all the women who’ve done ceremony in here before.
The shaman was expected at 7 pm but it’s now 8:30 and still no sign of him. We join the vigil on and off: dark gathers as we all hang around in clumps near the bridge. The women have created a colourful flower drawing on the ground to welcome him. Two of the men – with wizardy hoods and hats – start playing with martial art staffs to pass the time.
Finally, after 9 pm, as my stomach is growling with hunger, the lights of the co-founder, Erica’s, car can be seen from the carpark. Collective sigh of relief. We all line up solemnly in rows facing each other and Mary goes to the bridge to do the initial greeting. I feel the awkward agitation of nerves I always get when anything ceremonial is about to happen.
The shaman is indeed the real deal, I see as he comes into view. Dark-skinned with traditional garb, a fringed-jacket and a ponytail. I hear him being welcomed by Mary in her gruff voice. As he appears at the head of our greeting line, he holds what looks like a bundle of tied-together plants above his head and begins to swish it from side to side, singing. Then he walks through the middle of our human tunnel, continuing the movement and the song. I am not sure where to look.
He thanks us for our welcome. “Now, I’d like to hug each of you.” Mary mutters loudly, “We’ve all been waiting for 2 hours and we’re hungry,” and I try not to laugh. But, of course, everyone ignores her and the hugs begin. I wait for mine with a mixture of nerves and excitement. When it comes, it’s friendly and warm and I feel myself relax. We then make a procession to the kitchen for the evening meal of shepherd’s pie after some prompting from Shiv to ‘go and eat’.
The next day, when Volt announces his decision to have a healing session with the shaman, my heart sinks a little, even as I have hope it will help him with the ongoing health issues he’s been facing. I know it’ll be Something Big, and take a long time to integrate. And I’m right.
After the process is complete, he tells me that at the height of it, he was lying near the waterfall, thickly covered in ginger from head to toe, his eyes burning from chilli (to cleanse his sight) while the shaman leaned over and sucked on the area right above his head to get the dark spirits out. I’m secretly glad that the shaman was booked up by the time I considered having an appointment myself.
The shaman felt that Volt had picked up some dark spirits on his journey, because he’s so open. He said that it was a tendency for that to happen in England. Volt speculated that it could be because, in our culture, shamanism is not the consensual worldview – it’s not something we all grow up knowing about, so when we start to open to energies and experiment with connecting to the hidden world, it’s harder for us to be sure what we’re tapping into. Perhaps the history of England also plays a role. “So much has been buried, spirituality and earth connection destroyed: the ancestors are still upset,” he tells me.
Volt creates a kind of retreat camp down by the river to support his integration from the healings. He’s surrounded his tent – a precarious few steps from the water, and definitely a flooding risk – with a circle of quartz stones and an improvised standing stone. He spends his days playing guitar, making fires, staring at the water, and drinking tea, impervious to the fact that the lively ‘Cauldron of Plenty’ community camp is going on up in the Spirit Horse village.
Sitting with him there, merging with the perpetually winding water, the never-ending let-go, I start to feel like I’m shapeshifting into a mermaid. I’ve been bathing in the river most days, a cleansing ritual which leaves me tingling with new life, however resistant I am when I approach it. The dreamy Pisces Full Moon brings out my Neptunian energy and amplifies the wateriness. We make up a song together about the moon and the water. And when the time comes, we dismantle the camp together, taking down the tent, throwing the river stones one by one back into the cleansing place from which they’ve come.
But we leave the protective stone circle and the big moss-covered stump with the white feather he stuck there, that I left in his tent during the tumultuous Buddhafield Festival in July when we had a row. We agree we’ll take the feather, but after I take it out, it doesn’t feel right; I put it back. It’s leaving something of us there, a relic of this watery journey we’ve both been on.
Hermit-Crab and Hogwarts
I’ve been in hermit-crab mode for most of my time here. Periodically, I break out, even though in my introverted mood I’m still a bit wary of the jolly, cider-drinking banjo-playing folk and Shiv himself, a fiery Aries who tends to stride around in regal gear: big yellow kaftans over medieval-looking jester-type trousers, barefoot underneath to underscore his affinity with nature.
One night, I find myself hanging out with a group of young people in the lavish Red Temple – as opposed to the more oriental, green-and-blue temple with huge tree views. Outside, people are fire-juggling and playing flutes and drums. In the cosy, warm interior, I meet an astoundingly wise 16-year-old girl impressively called Merlin and talk to two young girls whose astrological charts I did a couple of years ago but have never met in the flesh – they are a stunning match to their star-gifts.
Before I know it, all the children and teens are asking me about their starsigns and we’re discussing which Hogwarts houses we all belong to in the world of Harry Potter. It can take me ages to ‘break into’ an adult group, and I feel touched at being so instantly included in theirs. The evening moves on to some storytelling, including stories told by the children, who all blow me away with their maturity and creativity. “The woman who had a story and a song inside her” feels like it is spoken straight to my heart. And when Erica ties threads of red, orange, green and yellow around my wrist to symbolise that I am now part of the village, I can almost believe her.
Where to Next
“So where to next?” Shiv asks us, as we stand in the drizzle outside the kitchen, sipping from earthenware mugs of tea, on the day we plan to leave the village. I’ve been here 3 weeks, and it feels almost as if I live here; getting involved in Cauldron Camp take-down has integrated me a bit more, but it’s mainly the land I feel an affinity to, rather than the people.
“I don’t know,” Volt replies, in an unconcerned tone. We truly have no idea if we’ll travel more in Wales or go somewhere else. Shiv turns to me: “And you’re going with him, wherever he goes. Is that the appeal?” and Volt and I both smile at this astute observation.
That morning, I went out for a walk up one of the many hills, alone. Along the river path, I ducked under the low-hanging branch like I was doing a Limbo dance. There were spiderwebs coated with dew everywhere, each one like a little masterpiece. The river was rushing inexorably down and the light glanced off a little pool at the top of the rocks, an undersea green colour.
At the top of the hill, I sat under a magnificent lime tree and sank into the burble of the river below and the hopeful chatter of birds all around me. The tree was so huge that the boughs were reaching down in front of me with the mountain as a backdrop, and for some reason I felt deeply moved by the trees halfway up the mountain, steadfastly clumped together on the vertical incline. I felt a great longing to be on one piece of land through all the seasons, to see it through all the changes, to love it through all the relentless death and rebirth. Will I ever have such a relationship with a piece of land?
Yet there was also something that scared me about it, about the inevitable change, decay, loss that we face in all of our lives. Even my joy in nature was tainted by the shadow of sadness, of the ecocide that’s going on, and I felt the terrible weight of not doing enough about it. But do we all have to be rising as warriors? Do some of us have a gentler, quieter place from where we weave the change?
As I descended the hill, I saw huge clouds of what looked like smoke rising from the river that disappeared as soon as I got close enough, like magical upswirls from a cauldron.
This is a community, and one with values that I deeply align with: nature connection, rewilding, healing, awareness. But it’s a transient, revolving one. People come and go for retreats, courses, camps; no-one stays. Even Shiv and Erica are only here part-time.
After our conversation, in a surprise turn of events, Shiv invites Volt to stay on for the winter to keep up the electrics, or at least until he finds another job – his remote programming job of the past 8 years has abruptly come to an end and we’re at a loose end financially. We’re both heart-tempted by the beauty of this land, but we know it’ll be too isolated, too windy and cold, and too far for me to travel to see J. regularly enough. Once again, the practical wins out over ideals. And the search for community continues. This time, in an effort to kill two birds with one stone, we start looking into working on organic farms in exchange for food and accommodation.
The magic of Spirit Horse remains with me, though: the location I’ve spent the longest period at during our wandering van travels, and a seed of inspiration of what is possible when you marry the mythical with the human.
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