Nick Mayhew-Smith is a researcher and writer specialising in environmental theology, sacred landscapes, and Celtic spirituality. His books, including The Naked Hermit and the recently published Landscape Liturgies, explore holy places in both natural and built environments.
Nick will be speaking on the panel ‘Nature and Spirituality’ at this year’s Nature Matters, accompanying Satish Kumar and Jini Reddy for a conversation chaired by Annabel Ross on the ways the natural world can reflect and define perceptions on what it is to be human or divine.
I spoke to Nick about the value of the locality of place, the role of religion – particularly early Christianity – as a bridge between humans and nature, and the margins of the landscape as important symbols for conservation.
We also discussed some of Nick’s work to restore some of the traditions and practices of early Christianity, including creating sacred places in natural landscapes and going skinny dipping. Nick believes that spirituality and place have an important role to play in both the environmental and mental health crises, and advocates positive attitudes towards the natural world as well as restored definitions of ‘community’ in order to tackle these crises effectively.
How can landscapes and features of landscapes connect us spiritually within ourselves, with each other, and with our natural surroundings?
Our very longest stories are recorded by place names which are embedded in the landscape, through which we store repositories of our community commemorations and significant events, and remember people over really long periods. I live in Wimbledon, for example, whose name derives from its tenth century name meaning ‘Wynnman’s hill’ (‘dun’ means ‘hill’ in Celtic) – some lucky chap called Wynnman owned the area as his farm. Landscapes are more enduring than human structures or organisations, so they facilitate very long connections across time, linking us to the joys and pains and triumphs of people who have gone before. In this way, the landscape for me is a place where we meet the bigger picture, with the emotions and feelings of what has happened there before still resonating today.
What does this year’s Nature Matters theme (‘Local to Global’) mean to you?
When I started presenting my research, I was – rightly – tripped up by somebody who said that all my celebration of place in Britain might lead to a narrow-minded, nationalist sense that we in this particular country are special and blessed by God. (I’ve written largely about how special Britain can be in its holy places and mountains because it is where I live and can therefore easily see these places). It tripped me up because that is exactly the opposite of my political views and beliefs.
For me, the relationship between the local and the global is that your local connection to place is a way to experience universal expressions of human truths. An example is the holy wells we have in Britain – and we have thousands because it rains so much here. You could say that we are particularly blessed in Britain by having so many holy wells, or you could see this as part of human nature that runs very deep: not just the need to supply clean water, but also a way of recording universal metaphors such as new birth; this is a pure spring coming out of the ground, a place where a river is born. It is very important to me that local veneration of place does tie to a bigger picture in this way, which connects it to a wider meaning.
I was teaching a course recently and a few of my students from the Philippines taught me that the holy mountains in the Philippines serve the same purpose as those in Britain. It is these global resonances and connections between holy spaces that are the important bits for me. Rather than a nationalist or culturally chauvinistic statement of our land being special and defining us, therefore, I see it as being part of the universal. That’s where spirituality and religion come in, with the idea that there is something that is bigger than all of us. And we can meet and encounter that in local ways.
Alongside your writing about nature, religion, and pilgrimage, you also write about nude bathing. Could you tell us a little more about the overlap between this affinity for immersion and your interests in Celtic tradition?
The early church mandated that baptism had to take place in flowing, natural water because it was seen to have spirit and life going through it, and it had to be done with no clothes on (to the point where women were even told to take off hair fastenings and jewellery). Nowadays, the church simply wouldn’t understand that. It’s all very polite and buttoned up these days: you put a few drops of water of water on the baby’s head and then all go and have tea together.
So, originally, baptisms used to have a deep sense of going back into and embracing creation physically and bodily. We don’t do that now – it’s no longer remotely possible in our culture and I wouldn’t recommend it either. But what you can do is ‘skinny dip’ in water in your state of innocence. It is to my mind a devout thing to not take anything artificial and plastic such as swimming costumes or wetsuits into the water with you; they all release microfibres and particles into the water systems. Going in as you were born, on the other hand, will have no effect on the water, and I quite like that as a statement, approaching the water as something to preserve from contamination.
It also shakes up people’s notions about what religion and spirituality is. In early church manuscripts there are pictures of saints stripped off and going into the water, which nowadays people would deem outrageous, saying that ‘you can’t paint Saint Cuthbert’s bottom!’ for example. But there indeed is St Cuthbert going into the sea at Lindisfarne; there is a full illustration of him going naked into the waves. There are also early pictures of Christ being baptized in the nude. There used to be a real sense that a full embrace of creation involves the human body. I think environmentalism is a very bodily thing – protestors are gluing their bodies to the road and putting their bodies in the way.
I would never tell people what to do when it comes to their bodies – the church has done enough of that – but for me skinny dipping is a real act of innocence and is very moving. My encounters in the landscape felt very exposed and raw and vulnerable. Whenever I go into the river I take a bag and fill up with as much rubbish as I can as an act of cleansing. I always go into these places and try to make sure that not only do I feel refreshed but that I also come back with a bag full of plastic. And you find bits of rubbish absolutely everywhere: so I want to strip not just myself but also strip the beach of this plastic junk.
The first time I did it was on the Atlantic coast of France, where I was following a practice of the early saints who would preach to the birds. There was a sand bar off the coast so I stripped off, waded into the water, and walked up to these birds – and just thought what the heck do I do here – it felt ridiculous. I realised that actually all I could say to these birds was ‘I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry’. At that point I felt a bump on my leg and I looked down thinking I must be having a miraculous encounter with a fish – but it was actually a bit of green nylon fishing rope washing about in the waves. I still have it now. I felt embarrassed and ashamed by the whole wretched situation. So, I spent the rest of the day collecting plastic from the beach. Just by going in with that real sense of my own fragility and failure became a way in which the environment and I formed a sort of continuum, experiencing for myself what the birds experience in their damaged habitat.
In addition to being a beach-lover, why do you think it is important that overlooked places – like churchyards – are given attention?
A common theme in the Celtic stories is ‘the hunter and the hermit’, where the hermit will be praying in a clearing in the forest when a hare or deer suddenly breaks into the clearing pursued by a hunter (usually a king or knight). The hermit will protect this animal in their space and prevent the hunter from killing it; in many stories the hunter is magically frozen, and the hounds are unable to enter the holy space.
That sanctuary in the landscape became the early churchyard; this area would be set apart in the land and the church would subsequently be built there. The Welsh word ‘llan’ does not refer to a ‘church’, as is commonly believed, but rather the clearing around the church: a grove of trees much older than the building. That was a space set apart from human interests and exploitation; you couldn’t hunt or take weapons into the grove – it was a nonviolent human space in the landscape.
The early Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, who I’ve mentioned already, introduced a law banning Northumbrians from collecting eggs from the islands in the seventh century. That’s often held up as being one of the world’s first conservation laws; even today Inner Farne Island is a National Trust nature reserve, and is one of the richest places for bird life.
A lot of people – quite rightly – see religion as having done a lot of bad things, but I love the idea that you could regard a churchyard and other holy spaces such as hermit islands as being places where all of creation has the same protection. Celtic Christianity is all about reconciliation: the idea that all creation is good and needs to be respected. (Many early monks were vegetarians).
Your work and writing also goes beyond places like coral reefs and tropical rainforests typically associated with conservation towards images of labyrinths, depths, darkness, caves, soil. What is the role of those darker, less typically pristine spaces?
The margins of the landscape were seen in Celtic times as places that were slightly demonic or of the other world; people were afraid of them. There was a scepticism about the Christian God – a belief that this God would not have any traction or power in caves, mountaintops and the sea, which were thought to be places of darkness, full of beasts and monsters.
The early saints would work to prove to pre-Christian people that there is a God with dominion over all places by spending the night in a cave or on a mountaintop to show there was a harmony with all parts of creation, and light could be brought into these places. There are even stories about how the saints’ arms would actually glow and light up the cave with divine energy. They would also wade into the sea to pray. For them, bathing in the sea was a way of showing they could be kept safe and actually have a positive experience – showing that you can experience the divine in all parts of the landscape.
I like this idea that everywhere is touched and graced because it is created. I think you could extend that now to look at damaged and polluted landscapes as special; these are places which are important and for which we need to regain our respect.
Where does ancient spiritual tradition in the past meet the need for change – in terms of attitudes to the natural world – now and in the future?
The environmental story needs to have a positive message to it and a sense of hope in order to reconnect people to the landscape. The role religion has had in the past – and can have again – a mandate to regard natural places as special and sacred. If we were to capture people’s imaginations of place with a sense of magic and history and reverence it would give them a more connected enjoyment of the landscape.
I encourage people to re-adopt some of the very old relationships between humans and landscape that fostered a sense of reverence and care. For example, people used to come together and have councils at the foot of ancient trees which were regarded as meeting places. We don’t do that anymore, but I think local churches could meet at and re-sanctify ancient landmark trees in order to reconnect that relationship and foster the healthier idea of natural spaces as meeting places rather than as resources or even commodities. A lot of the answers are found in old communal patterns of human interaction with nature.
What role can groups like New Networks for Nature, and events like Nature Matters play in making change?
It is utterly important to network with other people and to create and share cultural outputs that have an impact. We need to gather and talk and share because a large part of our environmental problem is that we are all insulated in our own homes with our own cars; everything has become privatized and atomized. There is no sense of communal space. What I love is the idea that community can be a bigger thing, and New Networks for Nature has a strong sense of community at its heart.
Nowadays ‘community’ almost means the exact opposite of what it once meant. Community used to mean shared public space: a place everyone could go, like a market place, where people did not have to be similar but rubbed along together. Now, community means a collection of like-minded people interested in the same hobby or set of ideas.
New Networks brings in people with very different views. We have that communal space where we do not have to think alike but instead cohere around place, around a sense of loving the landscape. From the list of speakers, you can see there is a broad collection of people: it is community in the good sense rather than the narrow sense. My co-panellists, for example, have very different perspectives but I am honoured and flattered to be sitting alongside them. That for me is community: the idea we will support each other on our very different journeys, sharing stories and a common endeavour.
At Nature Matters, you will be speaking on the panel ‘Nature and Spirituality’ about humanity and divinity and the connections between nature and spirituality. What issues do you hope for the panel to tackle?
In my work and that of my co-panellists there is a sense of disembodiment and displacement and insulation from the natural world. Jini’s books talk about getting wet and rain thundering down in Scotland while Satish focuses on pilgrimages to cities. The connection is that we each put our bodies on the line, wading in in very different ways to find real joy and pleasure and an overwhelming sense of connection to the environment.
Nowadays a holiday is generally seen as being about luxury and self-indulgence. But there is also real pleasure to be taken from a walk in the rain in Wales or Scotland (though many people would say this is their idea of hell on earth) or a plunge in the cold sea. I hope we talk about these different ways we have put ourselves on the line and the healing of body and mind that results from it. (I’m still on a high now from some of my encounters sitting on a hermit island for a night in the middle of nowhere).
There is a real sense of depression and stress emerging from the lockdowns over the past year and a half which worries me. For me, the most important thing to achieve is to encourage people with reasons, excuses, and stories to follow us into the landscape – perhaps in less extreme ways – to make stories and connections for themselves.
You don’t have to go somewhere else to have a sense of the sacred and the natural. The ground beneath our own feet is also important.
Are there any other questions and challenges you are taking to Nature Matters, especially post-COP26?
The important bit is how you embody what you talk about. I can have my experiences in nature and bathe in the river, but I still have a car and buy consumer junk from the shops. I do consume less and I am more aware through my work and writing, yet I am as bad as anyone – though hopefully on a downward curve – when it comes to my consumption. So, I will be interested to hear ideas on how we can overcome that hypocrisy.
I would also love to know more about how we can remember and remind other people that there is actually a lot of fun to be had in nature – whether from wild swimming, nature therapy or walks – and it is not all about misery. Everyone likes and understands a beautiful landscape as a healing place so if we can boost that side to it then we can help people get out there and feel better mentally too.
Nick will be joining Satish Kumar and Jini Reddy for a conversation chaired by Annabel Ross about nature and spirituality from 09:45-11:00 on Sunday November 21st. The panel will discuss the role of the natural world in reflecting and defining our perceptions on what it is to be human or divine. See the full programme and buy tickets here: https://www.newnetworksfornature.org.uk/2021-event/.
Written by Noa Leach