Mine was going to be an unorthodox trail through the landscape: no sitting down with maps and charting routes from one side of the country to another.
The Other has always loomed large in my life. I was the child longing for a magic carpet ride, or a Narnia beyond my wardrobe. I was into witches and spells, and one of our first homes in Canada, in rural Quebec – where I’d moved from my birth land, England, at the age of seven – was haunted. These things seemed perfectly normal to me.
I have also always been seen as Other, the perennial square peg in a round hole – British born, parents of Indian descent, from South Africa. The colour of your skin inevitably makes you Other in the West, to some degree.
The question “Where are you from?” has always induced a big intake of breath. Now, in hindsight it seems perfectly natural that I, an outdoors lover, would end up being drawn to the Other in the landscape – really, I was seeking friends and kin.
In truth, the bewitching, beguiling Other ‘out there’ – what some might call spirit, the numinous, an animating presence, the ancestors – has always been my companion, my secret lodestar.
The fascination is not so surprising: there were healers in my family, and my grandfather, my mother tells me quite calmly, used to perform exorcisms.
As an adult, settled back in the UK, I eventually found my feet as a journalist and travel writer. On work assignments abroad, I was always eager to meet people from Indigenous cultures, people I often instinctively felt I could connect with. In some unspoken way, I felt I had much more in common with them than with the guides I was assigned.
They recognised something in me, too: I wasn’t white, I wasn’t part of the dominant culture, I was drawn to their ecocentric, animistic ways of being, and so the walls would come down quite easily.
Closer to home, through my own fledgling experiences and the insights I gained – being a writer afforded me plenty of opportunities to meet fascinating people operating from an expanded field of perception (and with an equivalent humility) – I began to realise that the Other was something I craved a more personal and direct experience of.
Atop a mountain in the Pyrenees, I’d yearned so badly to hear Nature’s voice and to encounter the unseen wild. And do you know what? I did. I don’t possess any special gifts or abilities, which was what made the moment even more goosebump-worthy … It was a breakthrough of sorts. And when you cross the threshold, you want to keep going.
My thoughts coalesced and I decided to set off on a journey through the ‘Wanderlands’ of Britain. I wanted to hear that voice – or some version of it – again. Mine was going to be an unorthodox trail through the landscape: no sitting down with maps and charting routes from one side of the country to another.
Trust, intuition and sincere intention would be my compass. In the spirit of playful experimentation, I would ask the land to guide me and then I would listen and go where I felt guided to go, through signs and clues and hints, so that, hopefully, the veil would draw back and I could glimpse things I wouldn’t ordinarily glimpse.
Whimsical? Yes. But also deeply heartfelt. And a certain logic did begin to present itself, as one thing led to another.
I needed to roam, to immerse myself in the simple beauty of a natural landscape, but I was focused on the inner journey. I’d set my internal compass, invoke the magic, be a spell caster, a creator of my own experience. And why not? There was no one to tell me I couldn’t.
But what did I mean by the ‘spirit’ of the land? A friendly, animating ‘umbrella’ presence in Nature I somehow knew was there and on my side, waiting to be invoked? The Divine? The sentient essence in every living thing? I wasn’t entirely sure. And how would I know if a connection had been made, and that I’d been heard?
I wasn’t bound by the rational. I’d know. I’d feel it – that’s where the trust would come in. I’d twiddle the radar and get myself onto Radio Magic, surf the vibration. The unfolding of synchronistic events and encounters would be a good sign too, I reckoned. As it happened those things turned out to be pure unalloyed joy, my desire rewarded.
I’ve not mentioned the Other in the context of British mythology, and that is because most of the time I understood little of the lore of the land, or if I read folktales and enjoyed them, I was enjoying them from a certain distance. I certainly didn’t feel any of it related to me – I’d had a secular upbringing in Montreal with a bit of Hinduism by osmosis. (To be fair, I’m not especially attuned to the folklore of my ancestral land, India, either.)
I knew snatches of things, but I never had a sense of belonging to one tradition or another. With roots in four continents, I felt that the wider world was in my DNA, not in one specific culture. And I wanted to be true to that feeling.
Besides, I’d travelled far and wide enough to know that regardless of culture, the notion of a more than human presence hovering beyond our ‘normal’ field of perception is universal. That’s not to say that I didn’t imbibe a bit of mythology along the way – I did. I just wasn’t in thrall to it.
My own feelings of occupying a peripheral or in-between space, of never being quite one thing or another, and of having to navigate misperceptions about who and what I am, routinely, lent my journey a unique perspective: I’d be the Other encountering the Other. This was going to be an organic wander, not filtered through history or tradition. I felt good from the start.
So one of the most unusual years of my life began, and I delved into the British countryside in a way that I never had before. I enjoyed the ride, and sought levity too – I run from a surfeit of earnestness and can’t bear it in others.
By the end of the year, I was sure of a few things: that believing really is seeing; that the Other certainly exists; that magic is available to anyone, even someone as untutored as I am, and that despite the heightened tensions on our island there are many kind, open-hearted people who dwell in it.
And, finally, in doing something I’d yearned to do for a long time, I was able to retrieve parts of myself that I’d muted, consciously or otherwise, and brought them out into the light of day. I was also able to see that the place of ‘Other’ that I inevitably occupy is a unique and special place to be and that I could claim it and make it my own.
In writing the book about my journey, I like to think I have done my small bit to bring the wild and human Other in from the cold.
Jini Reddy is an author and travel writer. Her latest book, Wanderland, is published in April by Bloomsbury. She tweets @Jini_Reddy. This article was first published by Resurgence & Ecologist magazine.