By Jane Alexander
Jane Alexander, a writer specialising in wellbeing and travel, shares her experiences of reconnecting with natural materials and the land in Material: The Alchemy of Making
Nature and creativity went hand in mitten for me from a very young age. It wasn’t just mud pies and whittling sticks – my childhood memories are full of attempts to make useful and decorative things from the wild. Way before I could knit or sew, I’d attempt to create baskets out of twigs and grasses; plates and goblets from leaves; hideaways from bramble patches.
I loved art but I loved craft more – creating something useful yet also beautiful from the natural world seemed the ultimate skill. Yet, as is often the way, as I grew older my wild crafting was left behind. So when I was invited to spend a week at Embercombe, near Exeter, to learn ‘Stone Age’ crafting skills, I felt that thud of nervous excitement in my gut.
Material – the Alchemy of Making promised to forge a ‘deeper connection between your hands and the land beneath your feet.’ It asked one vital question: ‘Do you think you can find the wild beating heart of the maker within?’
Could I? After all this time? Since those childhood days I had tried to rekindle my love of crafting but what had once come naturally now skittered away, shy or maybe truculent. If you abandon a skill, does it turn away, spurned and hurt, like a lover? Yet Embercombe promised me that absolutely no skills or knowledge were necessary. It was all about meeting the materials, watching how I reacted to them, seeing what happens. I signed up.
Embercombe is beautiful. Magical. A place where you immediately feel that strange and wonderful things can and will happen. I can sense it but I can’t feel myself part of it as I pitch up. We split into groups and my first feeling is regret. I wanted to make a stool – a piece of furniture that catapults me back to childhood. I still have the small wooden stool on which I sat when I was small. The corner space behind my grandparents’ sofa was my den, my studio, my place of safety and creativity. How wonderful to make one myself. Yet my accident a few years back has robbed me of a fully-functioning wrist. It would tire too easily, says woodwork tutor Nick, with a sad smile.
So I turn to weaving. It feels tame, the yin to the yang of wood. Yet I soon come up against my edge and it’s fierce. We forage most of our materials – reeds from the lake, grasses from the meadows, bramble from the woods. ‘Weaving is intense,’ says Steve, one of my group, and he’s right – it is. I smack up against my impatience, my ego, my judgemental mind (she’s better at it than I am; his pot is better than my pot). But it falls away as the hours pass, as we fall into the rhythm of weaving, of creating something from the plants around us. I make two pots – small, blissfully imperfect and I nearly cry at their humble beauty.
On my last day I sit in a circle of oak trees, planted by jays. Humans have added to the landscape with a circle of stones. I lean against one of them, the sun licking my face, and I sink into timelessness.
My time at Embercombe is a revelation. It plugs me back into connection – with the land, with our wild brethren, with our plant allies, with my fellow humans. If you can go, please do. Material is an incredible course but, if you’re not drawn to making, there are plenty of other options. All of them seek to help you rewild from within, to find your truest, most honest being.