Baba Yaga by Kirsteen Bell
There is a little world of possibility sitting on tall wooden legs on the north-facing slope of
Glen Nevis. The Peat Track winds up the side of the hill through spruce forest, towards the
flat peaty dip in the hill between the Glen and Loch Linnhe. Anyone climbing the track would
be forgiven when nearing the top for focusing solely on the end of what is a fairly steep
climb. But it would be easy then to miss the gap in the trees, the worn plank of wood set into
the ground, engraved with one word: Outlandia.
Through the gap the wooden planks keep going, unwritten, one after the other. The path
ducks under the heavy wet greenery leading down and around the hill, into the quiet of
wood. Sounds from footsteps are stilled by fallen needles. The path holds tight to the bank of
stone and bracken, cutting through the tall thin trees as they crowd in their silent migration to
Baba Yaga, of Slavic folklore, lives in the woods. This ancient woman of wind and bones has
a home that moves on long thin chicken legs, whirling through the trees until the visitor
speaks an incantation that stills the screaming hut and throws open its door.
Two years ago, three tourists from Warsaw in Poland found this little wooden path and
followed it quietly, until, sitting out from the hill on thin wooden stilts, they found Outlandia, its
tall roof reaching towards an open patch of sky. Surrounded by the thick grey trunks of
spruce, the path steps down the hill to a little bridge, at the end of which is a closed door.
This wall of the larch cabin is equally closed to the eye, and the other three sides can only
be seen from the forest floor which falls steeply away from the path.
It is a beautiful clear day. On the other side of the hut is a window, level with nothing but
songbirds and spiders, and, though it is cold, the window is open to the soft air. I sit facing
out of the hut, looking through a gap in the trees down into the glen, with the door behind
me, the door that leads onto the little wooden bridge from the hut to the hillside. It is locked.
Like many of the ‘crones’ or ‘witches’ in our folklore and histories, Baba Yaga was also a
healer. Women with these skills, with knowledge of humans and the Earth, did not fit within
the narratives of power in a patriarchal culture; they were to be discredited in a world that did
not afford women with agency and authority. However, as I sit within this hut, a lone woman
in the middle of a sound-deadening forest, I wonder how much of the fear engendered by
these women contained an element of self-protection.
In The Spell of the Sensuous, ecologist and philosopher David Abram writes about his
encounters with shamans of Indonesia and Nepal: he suggests that many of them cultivate
an attitude of fear in their villages as a method of maintaining their privacy – only those that
really need help are able to overcome their fear and ask for it. The shamans’ position at the
edge of the village also allows them to retain their connection to the wild, the living
landscape that exists outside the boundaries of village society; the shaman is a bridge
between these two worlds, the bridge reinforced in equal parts by solitude and society.
How many people venture down the path and are disappointed when a knock on the door
yields no answer? No answer to the mystery of a little wooden house on stilts in the middle
of a forest on the side of a glen in the Scottish Highlands. Sometimes though, the door
opens. When the three Polish visitors knock today the door is unlocked – not to reveal Baba
Yaga, but instead a mildly anti-social writer and mother of small children who finds solitude
hard to come by.
I am glad that I didn’t ignore the knock, that I chose to open the door. It was M. and her
friends who introduced me to the legend of Baba Yaga; they were so delighted to find a
living representation of their mythology. I suspect that Baba Yaga, this fearsome
grandmother of wildness and wisdom, may have been protecting herself, protecting her
solitude, and perhaps protecting her vulnerability. At the same time, her legend exists
because she still played some part in society; the solitude that separated her may have been
the very thing that enabled and empowered her to define and fulfil her own role. The space
of solitude, no matter how small, becomes a space of possibility, a space from which a
woman can connect with the world on her own terms.