There are places where the ‘veil is thin,’ where we can connect with the Other in the landscape — if only we learn how to listen. In this interview, Jini Reddy talks about how to find magic in the natural world.
- How can we connect with the ‘Other’ in the landscape?
- The attraction of islands
- Aspects of pilgrimage
- The archetypal attraction of labyrinths
- Seeing our local area with new eyes
- Can a traveler ever find home?
- Travel book recommendations
You can find Jini Reddy at JiniReddy.co.uk
Transcript of the interview
Jo: Jini Reddy is an award-winning author and journalist. Her latest book is Wanderland: A Search for Magic in the Landscape. Welcome, Jini.
Jini: Hi, Jo. Thank you so much for having me.
Jo: I’m excited to talk to you. I love the book. I’ve got it here in hardback on my desk.
Jini: How brilliant. It’s also just come out in paperback.
Jo: Oh, there you go. So let’s get into it because it’s just wonderful. I love it. And you write about “seeking the wild unseen” and your “yearning to connect with the Other in the land.”
The book is about a search for magic, but what do you mean by magic in this context?
Jini: I should give this some context so people will know what I mean. I’ve been a travel writer for some time before I came to write the book. And on my travels, I’d had opportunities to meet people from indigenous cultures, people for whom the idea of being in a relationship with a sentient, animate earth wasn’t unusual, it was something pretty normal.
The idea that there is human and then more than human life and we’re just one part of the whole was an idea, a way of being that really resonated with me. So this idea of wanting to develop a relationship with a responsive universe, this wild unseen, is something I wanted to explore in my own way. I was asking myself, might it be possible for a regular person like myself to experience a glimpse of the world I’ve seen through these eyes?
So by magic, I guess the understanding that as humans, we’re just one form of intelligence and that we exist in a world of multiple intelligences and asking how might we communicate with some aspects of this intelligence or intelligences? I wanted to inject a spiritual dimension into my roaming.
The seed for the journey was sown that way. So while I’m going into landscapes and while I’m appreciating the physical beauty of the landscapes, there’s a parallel journey going on while I’m where I’m trying to open up to the spirit of the landscape.
Jo: That’s fantastic. I resonated with the book because I feel the same way. I feel that there are these places as you write as well, where “the veil is thin” and where I’ve had these experiences where I felt like there’s more than human life here. I might only be the only human here right now, but I am not alone amongst nature. But I think one of the frustrating things is that this doesn’t happen all the time.
What are your thoughts on how can we open our minds or our spirits to be more aware of these places?
Jini: It’s not just places, but also the idea that all living creatures within the natural world have sentience. Animals, plants, birds, trees, as well as what we would call places.
But in terms of opening our minds, it’s to do with the sincerity of our intention, about listening deeply, slowing down, asking questions, putting questions out there, and entering into this with a beginner’s mind, in a spirit of playful experimentation and then letting go.
You have to want to fashion your own journey and that takes time and dedication. It’s not a dial-up experience. You can’t prescribe it in a way. You have to want to go on a journey yourself and create your own journey within your own life, relating to questions you may be asking yourself.
Jo: You’re a travel writer and you’ve written articles and various things where the focus has not been on that spiritual. So I feel like a lot of travel writing now is almost Instagrammy; like 10 best places to go in — wherever.
Jini: Yes. I was a travel writer, so I did those sorts of things myself too, but I found that as time went on and I was drawn increasingly to these wilder landscapes and when I’d have encounters with the people from indigenous cultures, it just opened up a whole new way of relating to places.
So it wasn’t just about the destination. It was about honoring the spirits of the people or the ancestors of a place and going there with that intention. And then discovering that really interesting things would begin to unfold when you went to a place embodying that spirit of gratitude and openness, and then magical things would begin to happen, I call them synchronicities, that would begin to unfold.
I feel that there’s this whole other layer out there and we all can access these things, but we have to want to and in our own way. And you could too, anybody could, it’s just a question of needing to slow down and listen deeply.
Jo: I wonder about that listening, because I’ve definitely had more of these experiences when I’ve been on my own as opposed to even with my husband or with other people around. Do you think you need to be alone to sense this?
Jini: I find it helps for me because there are fewer distractions. If you’re chattering away with somebody, you’re less likely to be open to what’s going on around you. You’re less likely to be sensitive to atmosphere, you’re less likely to be truly present.
I have a friend that I travel with sometimes and we’re on the same wavelength and interesting things have happened when we’ve traveled together because we’ve often set joint intentions and traveled together in that spirit. So yes, you can have interesting experiences if you travel with somebody else, for sure.
Jo: One of the places you write about is Iona, and you did talk about islands as well in general.
For Iona, in particular, for people listening, where is it and why did the island leave such an impression on you?
Jini: Iona is one of the Hebridean Islands in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. At this point in the book, it’s probably about halfway through the book, I decided I wanted to put my money where my mouth was and I was going to go to Iona, which if you’ve been, it’s a 12-hour journey and it’s not something you do spontaneously. I think it’s 12 hours even with a flight, a train, ferry…
Jo: This is from London?
Jini: Yeah, from London. If you live on neighboring Mull, it’s a lot shorter journey.
So I was going to go to Iona and I was going to ask the land or the spirit of the land. And when I say that, I don’t really know what I mean exactly because I’m a human, I’m not in spirit form. I’m not a shaman, I’m just a regular person. But I was going to ask this spirit of the land to guide me and whatever I would feel guided to do, I would do.
I didn’t have any plans. When I told a travel writer friend about this, he was a bit skeptical and he said, ‘You mean you’re just going to rock up there and be a bit spontaneous?’ And I said, ‘No. That’s not what I mean.’ This is different. I’m going up with an intention and it’s different.
I got on the train and then I think by the time I got to Glasgow, I had this email from an acquaintance and he said out of the blue in this email, ‘If you’re going to Iona, why don’t you try looking for this temple in the land and ask yourself in what dimension does this temple exist?’ I was just overjoyed when I saw this email because I thought, ‘That’s it. That’s my mission. That’s what I’m going to do. It’s the land. This is the land speaking to me.’
So I went to Iona and I was very excited. I went around asking people, quite randomly, ‘Have you heard of this temple in the land?’ And the first person was quite dismissive. That was the first person I spoke to on the Island, I think, and she was quite dismissive. I asked somebody else and yes, they could see it somewhere on the island. Actually, her husband, this woman’s husband saw it on a Google map and I thought, ‘Well, that’s not very exotic.’
Jini: Yeah. That’s not very spiritual. I was bouncing around from person to person, being sent here and there, but there was always some resistance to my finding this place. One person would say, ‘It doesn’t exist,’ the other would say, ‘Oh, it’s too difficult to get to. You just can’t find it,’ or whatever it was. I felt like there was some resistance to my going to this place and I got a little bit fed up.
After four days of this, I decided to let go of the idea altogether. I was on my own. It’s absolutely beautiful. It’s a place of pilgrimage. Both secular and otherwise, and the beaches are gorgeous. And I just thought, ‘I’m just going to enjoy the islands.’ So I’d let go of this idea.
On the last day, I walked into a cafe and I happened to see a woman I’d met three years earlier, randomly at a conference in Scotland and I went up to her and I told her what I had been doing and she said, ‘Well, why don’t we try and find this together?’ And I said, ‘Okay. Why not? I’m leaving the next day, why not?’
So we got up out of the cafe and as we were leaving the cafe, she randomly bumped into a woman she knew who she hadn’t seen for a year and this woman was going for a walk and we asked her where she was going and she mentioned this temple and I just could not believe it. My jaw just dropped open.
And not only was she going there, she was willing to take us there. And so, for me, that whole experience, and it wasn’t that difficult to find it either, but that whole experience, it just sent shivers up my spine, the series of events and the way they unfolded.
I think in the book I talk about the land and doing a pas de deux and neither of us quite speaking the other’s language but trying to reach out. I felt like this connection had been made in this way because of the way things unfolded. And so we went to this temple in the land. I don’t want to say too much about it because I wrote about it in the book. But it was a very interesting experience.
Jo: That’s definitely the synchronicity idea. I’ve had similar experiences too. And also what you’ve just described, that is a classic quest. You decide you want to go and do something and then there are obstacles in the way and then there’s a guardian or a guide that comes and helps you and it’s almost archetypal.
Jini: I know. The most amazing thing is it happened and when you experience something like that, it expands your field of perception and you think, well, if that can happen, what else can happen?
But, of course, you don’t want to attach to those things too much. You want those things to happen, but not to put too much pressure to make those things happen because then that stops them from happening.
Jo: I think that’s important. Often, if you do say, ‘I’m going to go to this place and have this amazing experience,’ it might not happen, but you’d actually given up at that point. You’d let it go and released it to the world.
Jini: Yes. And later, I called up the acquaintance who suggested I go and find the temple and I said to him, ‘You’ll never believe what happened.’ And so this man who’s well-versed in things to do with the landscape and energies and the landscape and all that kind of thing. And he’s actually a scholar. He said to me, ‘I kind of did that on purpose because I thought if the land wanted you to, you would find this temple.’ If the land accepted you, it would help you to find it. And so that sent another shiver up my spine.
Jo: I wonder about islands in general. You mentioned Lindisfarne in the book as well in that islands are cut off from the mainland. They’re harder to get to. They often have quite distinct accents, for example, or they have distinct subcultures in a way. Do you think there’s something different about islands and islanders in a way?
Jini: I actually grew up on an Island. I grew up on the Island of Montreal even though I was born in the U.K. and I grew up with water at the end of my street with the St. Lawrence River at the end of my street. I love islands. I love that cut-off, remote feeling.
I think there is something in that. I’ve never lived as an islander. I can’t provide the kind of insights that an Islander might provide, but I’m just really drawn to them. And I think maybe there’s something in the air there, that feeling of it being its own entity and things can happen on islands in the way that they can’t in the mainland.
Jo: I wrote a modern Viking thriller, Day of the Vikings, which ended dramatically on Iona. So I love it. It’s an incredibly beautiful place.
You mentioned pilgrimage there and in the book, I’ve got a quote here, you say,
“A pilgrimage walk is about loosening your death grip on everyday life.”
So many people, the word pilgrimage, I’m not religious, but I’ve done pilgrimage as well and I feel like the word pilgrimage doesn’t need to be religious anymore. And I think you feel the same way. How do you suggest we can incorporate pilgrimage? What are the aspects of it?
Jini: Pilgrimage is really an opportunity for reflection, a chance to ask a question. We all have things we want answering, things we want in our lives, things we want to let go of. So you choose a question to reflect on or an intention to carry with you and create a walk around this purposeful walk and you potentize it by declaring your intention.
The Pilgrimage Trust, which is co-founded by Guy Hayward, I think he calls it, “a walk determined by your heart and activated by your feet.” It’s helpful to have a destination to give it some definition, but it can be anything, really. It could be a park near you, it could be a favorite spot. It doesn’t really matter.
It’s the intention that matters. Pilgrimage can be secular or it can be religious. I’m not religious, but for me, it’s a meaningful way to journey.
Jo: Could you tell us about the one in the book in Cornwall, which I thought was really interesting?
Jini: That’s the St. Michael’s Way. It goes from one side of Cornwall to the other and it’s a day-long pilgrimage. I think it’s 13 miles. It’s actually an official part of the Camino de Santiago. And there are even seashells along the way, which I was surprised about.
A friend and I had just decided to walk this and we slightly had different intentions. I think I just wanted delight. I wanted to experience magical things, really, I think if I’m honest, I wanted interesting things to happen on this walk.
And the friend I was with, I think she wanted to change something in her life. So we went on this walk and I think the walk itself was nice. The coastal bits were gorgeous, really gorgeous and there are many interesting points where we stopped and we took pictures and we took notes and we tried to get into the feeling of the thing.
But the walk itself didn’t feel like a pilgrimage walk to me. I was expecting to see people walking along and waving and that camaraderie. And we didn’t really feel that on the walk, but I felt like we were very faithful to this pilgrimage route. We’d even downloaded these notes from the Pilgrimage Trust.
We went into it with the right spirit and we tried to be very present with what appeared, but the real reward came the day after. It was almost like we did the work of the pilgrimage. I think there was one part on the walk where there was some mythology around a giant and if you wanted to right past wrongs, you had to find this water and carry the water to another part of the pilgrimage and deposit it there. And we did all this, we did everything. And so we were very faithful to it.
The next day we were just chilling out and we were going for a walk on a part of the part of, I think it’s called St. Ives Island peninsula and we came across this dolphin and we thought this was wonderful, but then this dolphin preoccupied us for a bit and we carried on walking and then we saw this amazing double rainbow.
I know it sounds crazy, but it was like nobody else around us could see this rainbow. And we were leaping up and down and there were teenagers next to us and they weren’t even looking at it and there was a Japanese couple and they weren’t even looking at it.
We felt we were still in this liminal space and maybe it was incredibly egocentric to think that this double rainbow was there just for us and maybe we had really vivid imaginations, but that’s how it felt to us. And it was just this really beautiful sight. I guess in a way it doesn’t matter what it was or wasn’t, it’s how it made us feel, and it was really nourishing.
Jo: I’ve also found that the gifts of pilgrimage come later. I did the Pilgrims Way to Canterbury from London and when I arrived, I was just was full of disappointment and I was really tired, obviously. And I was like, ‘Why haven’t I had some massive insight into the world?’ And then the following month, I had this huge burst of creativity and a load of realizations that didn’t happen on the pilgrimage but happened later.
I wonder if that’s actually a common experience of pilgrimage — that the gifts come later?
Jini: I think maybe it is. I find that often with journeys, it’s later, even nowadays, I think I often intentionally go for a walk if I want to stimulate my creativity as a writer. And the ideas don’t come on the walk, I’m just walking. The ideas definitely come when I finish the walk though.
Jo: There’s some kind of psychological rest that can go on when the body is engaged.
Jini: Yeah. And there’s something to do with walking, the way it stimulates the brain, I think. The left and right hemispheres of the brain, I think are stimulated when we’re walking. I remember reading that somewhere.
Jo: One of the other things that was quite exciting when I was reading your book, I discovered this Worldwide Labyrinth Locator. And what is hilarious is I live right next to one on Solsbury Hill in Somerset.
I went and visited it and put a picture on Instagram because I was like, ‘I’ve been walking past this for years now.’ I’ve visited labyrinths in other countries, and churches, and different places, but I walked past this one locally to me and hadn’t really become aware of it. So I wanted to thank you for that.
Why do you think labyrinths have this archetypal attraction, and what’s been your experience?
Jini: Well, first of all, I think it’s interesting that you saw the labyrinth after you’d read the book because isn’t it fascinating how sometimes things are they’re very nearby and we just don’t see them? I think that’s interesting.
For me, partly it’s to do with the visual appeal: the spiral, it’s land art. And equally, I find mazes appealing too.
For anybody who doesn’t know, the difference between the two is that a labyrinth is a single spiral with one entrance and one exit and it’s long been associated with the inner journeys, with finding yourself. And a maze is just the opposite. A maze has dead ends with twists and turns and it’s all about escapism, about losing yourself.
Labyrinths are found all over the world, in deserts, at the foot of mountains, in forests, and beaches. They’re made from all kinds of materials. You can see them on the floor of cathedrals, on coins in ancient times. People have walked them for contemplation, for serenity, they’re featured in mythology.
I see it as a kind of land art and for me, it’s one that teeters on the mystical and it brings an otherness to the landscape. I saw it as a portal, as a way of potentially altering my relationship with the landscape or the way I experienced or viewed the landscape.
In Wanderland, I wrote about how in London I’d seen a labyrinth printed on a tube wall and that got me thinking and so that’s when I Googled and came up with the Worldwide Labyrinth Locator, and that sent me down a rabbit hole to this labyrinth overlooking the sea on a private nature reserve in Cornwall. And it looks so extraordinary, almost like a UFO.
I decided I was going to visit and start my book’s journey there. People talk about the oracle-like powers of a labyrinth, of its ability to act as a lightning rod for an answer to your question and I thought I’d go there and ask the question about my journey, what was it that I was really seeking to connect with? And so that’s what happened, really.
Jo: We just talked about walking there and a lot of people will walk a labyrinth, walk the path. Is that the other issue with a maze? A maze has walls and you can’t see where you’re going, whereas a labyrinth, you can see where you’re going, but it’s still a path round and round.
Jini: Yes. I think there’s something quite meditative about a labyrinth. Maybe it’s something physical in your two feet are walking and you’re stimulating your brain, your left and your right hemispheres of your brain, and stimulating your creativity. Maybe it has to do with that.
Maybe it’s just the walking round and round. It’s meditative and it helps you to find your answer, and maybe as you walk, you’re peeling back layers and, I don’t know. I’m not an expert, but I set out to ask a question or to try to define for myself what I was seeking in seeking magic in the landscape, and I hoped that this labyrinth might provide me with some answers.
Jo: Definitely. It’s funny, the poster you mentioned in the tube with that labyrinth image, I know exactly the one you mean. It’s in my head now. I remember it.
You do talk in the book about the importance of seeing and appreciating your own country with the eyes of a tourist, which is what you did with that picture in the tube, really, is look at it in a different way, whereas a lot of commuters would just walk past it. So how can we do that more effectively? Like me seeing my local labyrinth finally noticing it was really there.
How can we pay more attention or look at things in this different way?
Jini: I think it’s all about orientating ourselves towards curiosity, sending a radar or compass to curiosity, to seeking out delight. I do. To following your curiosity, to exploring, to visiting places we haven’t seen before, even if they’re close by. But it’s the wanting that. It’s placing all of that at the forefront of your mind, I think.
Jo: And then coming back to the word magic, I also wonder if it’s allowing yourself to be a bit more ‘woo-woo’ because we both said we’re not religious, but we’re using words that people have certain expectations around. And you’ve said several times you’re just a normal person. I wonder if it’s allowing ourselves to experience these moments of magic rather than pushing them away because maybe they’re a bit weird.
Jini: I think within the Western mindset or within Western culture, people can be very dismissive of these views. And I think it goes back to colonialism.
The indigenous beliefs were often oral traditions and they were not allowed to be part of mainstream knowledge bases. Why? Because whoever was creating those mainstream knowledge bases was afraid of difference, afraid of their own dominant narratives and beliefs being uprooted. That gets embedded in books and in consciousness and carries on down so that it becomes okay to be dismissive of these things.
And also, I think Descartes, in his meditations, he dismissed anything that wasn’t material and physical as illusory and that belief has carried down too. So I think these have these go back to historical context as to why we’re also afraid of being really what we are or really talking about these things that go beyond our belief systems in Western culture.
Jo: I think another reason I noticed the labyrinth is because during the pandemic, we’ve walked the same route over and over again during the various lockdowns and I feel like I’ve seen more than I did before because it’s been different seasons and I’ve just done the same thing a lot more and appreciated it a lot more.
The pandemic has been terrible in so many ways, obviously still going on, but do you think it has changed people’s appreciation of the local space?
Do you think this awareness is maybe a gift of the pandemic?
Jini: Oh, definitely. We were very lucky at the beginning of lockdown and I live outside London and we had beautiful weather and I would be out on my bike or walking my one allowed walk, I think, a day and discovering places nearby that I hadn’t even known existed, and I’ve lived here for years. And that brought me enormous joy.
And also, like you say, walking the same places in different weather and feeling a growing intimacy with places that are nearby. And so it’s a relationship like any other, in the same way that you get to know humans, you’re getting to know your local natural space, your local park, or your green space.
It also goes beyond that too, depending on your own mindset. I like to think of myself as a human being but just one part of the bigger picture, everything in the natural world is part of the bigger family of beings. So if I’m going for a walk wherever I may be, I often don’t feel alone. I often feel, well, I’m surrounded by my wider family in a way.
Jo: You mention family there and also your home being just outside London there you’ve got this mixed cultural background, even your accent is part Canadian.
How does your family history and experience play into your travel and your sense of home?
Jini: I was born in the U.K. in Wimbledon in London. I grew up in Canada, in Quebec. My mum and dad were raised in South Africa and their ancestry is Indian, South Asian. So these days, I like to say I’m able to see with more than a single pair of eyes.
I’m able to see the world through maybe four pairs of eyes, three pairs of eyes. And my relationship to a place has so many dimensions to it, as it is for anybody, including my own background, my race, my gender, my outlook on life, my interests, and I’ve traveled and I’ve traveled quite widely.
I’m often at the back of my mind alongside my excitement I’m also asking myself, ‘How will I be received when I go to this place? Will I stand out like a sore thumb? Will I be welcomed? Will I fit in or will I be too invisible?’ As I sometimes felt in India.
But there are advantages and disadvantages to our respective identities. Sometimes I find it easier to connect with people from indigenous backgrounds because for them, there’s no fear of exploitation. I have no whiff of colonialism about me no matter how distant.
Sometimes women open up to me more because I’m a woman. But this idea of home, I think that’s a really interesting question. And if I’m honest, it’s one I’m still grappling with. I think home, if you come from many places or more than one place, home really has to be a sense of ease within yourself, I think.
Jo: It’s something I ponder a lot. I’ve had a couple of guests on the show talk about third-culture kids. Have you heard that term?
Jini: I haven’t. No. But I kind of guess what you mean.
Jo: I’d never heard it before. Third culture kids (TCKs) grow up in different cultures and maybe can never find one home because we feel at home in so many different places.
Jini: Yes. At home or never quite at home, both. Wimbledon is my home. I love it here, but I’m not entirely of the place. And if I go back to Montreal, I’ll have this greatest, wonderful feeling of nostalgia because I grew up there and I have all kinds of gorgeous memories there, but I didn’t really fit in there anymore either.
I’m not sure I really fit it in when I was there. We were the only Indian family in the neighborhood. And if I go to India, I look like everybody, but I’m not really Indian-Indian. And in South Africa, it’s even more of a sense of dislocation. Well, my parents are South African, but what is my connection to this country?
Sometimes it comes through the music or just the sense of something to do with the earth or the sense of the place. I understand that whole third culture thing, but I think if you are able to feel at ease wherever you are in the world, well that’s an incredible gift.
Jo: I agree. And you said there’s dislocation. I wonder whether the edge of dislocation that we feel in different places actually is what makes us the type of people who love traveling. Because this is a common theme on this show and the people I talk to, and the travel books we read, this desire for other places, the wanderlust, or whatever is in all of us.
Jini: Maybe it’s also driven by a desire to recreate feelings of belonging. Maybe we travel because parts of ourselves are in other parts of the world. I don’t know.
Jo: I could ask you questions forever, but we’re almost out of time.
Apart from your own book, what are a few books about nature or travel in general that you recommend?
Jini: I thought I’d go with a couple of books that I read recently and one a little while back. I’ve just finished a book called Spirit Run by Noe Alvarez. I hope I’m pronouncing his first name and last name correctly. It’s quite an extraordinary book.
It’s about a Mexican-American who goes on a marathon through stolen lands in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico, and he does it order to honor his parents’ struggles and their migration to America and to find a sense of peace and a sense of belonging within himself. And on his journey it’s quite a difficult one with all this running, but he discovers ceremony and he learns to connect to the land in a way that is beautiful as opposed to the hardship that his parents experienced when they were toiling on the land.
So that’s a book I highly recommend. It’s done really well. I think it’s done quite well in the States. I’m shouting about it all across my social media because I love it.
The other book is a novel called The Overstory by Richard Powers. It’s a beautiful book. It won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s a novel and the characters, the protagonist in it are both humans and trees. And it’s quite an inclusive book too, culturally speaking. And I really loved it. It’s a special book.
Book number three is one I read recently and it’s not coming out until later this year. It’s called Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles. And I think she has mixed New Zealand and Chinese parentage. And it’s coming out later this year and it’s an interesting book of essays, kind of, meditations to do with…water is the theme, but they take you into themes of belonging and journeys and I thought it was quite an original and poetic too way of looking at the world. I really like this book.
And the fourth one is a book called Afropean by Johny Pitts, which has won a few awards. It mixes travel writing and history. And it really blew me away because I had not read a book set in Europe which was written through this lens, which is basically, he was trying to find a unifying Africa in Europe, African cultures in Europe. And he writes brilliantly. So those are my recommendations.
Jo: Those are fantastic. I always get away with like, ‘Okay. Go buy some more books.’ It’s always good. Brilliant.
Where can people find you and your books online?
Jini: I’m on Twitter at Jini_Reddy. On Instagram, I’m at JiniReddy20. I have a website, jinireddy.co.uk.Wanderland is out in paperback and in hardback in the U.K. It’s coming out in paperback in the States and Canada in June. You can find it in all good bookshops.
Jo: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, Jini. That was great.
Jini: Thank you for having me. Love talking to you.