A conversation with Dartmoor guide, Emma Cunis about how her health forced her to step off the corporate ladder and find healing on Dartmoor.
Emma offers guided walks, navigation training and bespoke days out on Dartmoor. Find more details at Dartmoor’s Daughter.

Emma Cunis and Skye, image taken by Steve Haywood

BB: Would you like to share a little about what you do? 

EC: Dartmoor’s Daughter was set up about seven or eight years ago, really with the intention of inviting people into a deeper experience of connection or reconnection, if you like, with our bodies, with our communities and with the land. I have a particular love of Dartmoor having grown up on it and around it and really wanted to share the love of this place and some understanding about it as well with people and encourage health and wellbeing.

BB: You used to have a much more “high powered” job that really wasn’t connected to Dartmoor in any way? 

EC: I lived in and worked in London, Australia, Hong Kong and New York for many years, which was really thrilling at the time as a young woman working my way up the corporate ladder. I met some amazing people. I travelled to fascinating countries and learned about different cultures and had all sorts of really interesting clients. But it was also very stressful and after about 15 years I was getting very burnt out and my health suffered. After trying to stay in that corporate world for about six years with very ill health, I decided a change was needed. 

BB: Do you think that you pursued a career that involved a lot of travel as a reaction against your country upbringing on Dartmoor.?

EC: I think that’s right. After leaving university, I went to Australia and then didn’t really come home for more than a decade. It was all very exciting and I loved it, but it really took its toll on my health. I’d already started to miss being in wide open spaces, green spaces when I got diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome and an underactive thyroid at the same time. I decided I needed a bit of a change in my life and to come back to a more balanced way of living and I really felt the pull of home and this extraordinary landscape. 

“Illness tends to manifest for me if I’m not living in a way that’s balanced or healthy, either physically, emotionally or spiritually.”

BB: Were you feeling that something was missing or was it that you started feeling unwell? 

EC: I’d started to miss Dartmoor and Devon, even when I was living in Hong Kong in my late 20s, but I definitely wasn’t ready to come back to what I thought was a very rural, small way of life. There was lots more exploring to do. 

Illness tends to manifest for me if I’m not living in a way that’s balanced or healthy, either physically, emotionally or spiritually perhaps as well. I think getting ill with ME was a real wake up call to something that was already pulling at my attention, perhaps in the unconscious, and I wasn’t really aware of it. 

BB: Were you seeking other ways to heal before you came back to Dartmoor? It must have been really stressful, having to think that you’re going to give up your career and your security. 

EC: That was the biggest challenge. I was on the board of a chartered institute in London and I’d been with them only, I think about six months when we were on a trip to New York. We got stuck there for a while as flights were grounded due to the Icelandic volcano eruption. I had laryngitis and just never recovered from that point and got increasingly worse. 

There were long periods where I was able to be at work and still fly to offices around the world, but I would just get so exhausted. It wasn’t just the physical symptoms. My cognitive abilities were quite impaired as well. They still are a little bit. I had to take long breaks from work and try to find a way to get better inside of that environment.  I eventually realised that I could either be an ill person staying in that corporate world and trying to get through and trying to get better, or I could change my life and try and live in a way that was healthier, probably happier and certainly more balanced. 

BB: So when you came back home to Dartmoor, was that an intentional homecoming or was it intended as a stop gap?

EC: I realised I needed a fundamental rethink of who I was, what I wanted in my life and how I was living it. I’d started to get more concerned about the state of the planet and our increasing disconnection with it, certainly in the West anyway, and feeling like I wanted to do something more in my work. that would contribute to my health, other people’s health and the health of the planet. 

I had to relook at my life and I had no idea what I was going to do. I decided to take a year to have a complete break. It was in that year that I started walking again on the moor, very gently, very slowly building up my health and strength. That was really the pivotal moment where I started to think maybe I could do something with this.  It was a year of hard reflection.

BB: So was there a gradual understanding that you could make this your job? 

EC: Certainly the idea of being a guide in any sense had never crossed my mind really until I came home, but my grandfather had been a guide in the 50s. and my granny was still alive at the time and told stories of Dartmoor, the people here, the traditions, myths and legends. I  fell in love all over again with all of it. When I went on walks with other people and shared things about the places or the things that we were seeing, I got encouraged to think maybe I could do something with this. 

It doesn’t feel like a business to me. It feels like a series of invitations where we can feel the depth of possibility and connection with the land, with animals, with our traditions, our history, and just have reflection time about our lives. 

BB: I notice that you have a very calm energy. Our walk together felt very gentle, not that it was an easy walk, but the way that we were experiencing the moors. Were you always this calm and gentle, or is that really something that’s come from changing pace? 

EC: In corporate life, I had a very directive energy. However through ME, when my cognitive abilities are so impaired, I was really forced into a place of feeling rather than thinking.  I accessed a much gentler, calmer, quiet part of myself and wanted to bring that side to people. 

That more directive energy that I can have now sits in the background. It reveals itself in how I plan my routes, how I plan my days, how I do the insurance, and how I make sure people are kept safe. So it’s a very solid, safe, secure energy that I hold, very directive. and very firm, but the way I want to invite people into a different experience of the landscape and themselves is in a gentle way. I don’t want to force an experience on anyone. 

BB: Do you think there’s something specific to Dartmoor that allowed you to discover this? 

EC: There is something very particular about this landscape. An absolutely stunning mix of landscapes from the grand granite tors to the beautiful woodlands, the river valleys, the open vast space combined with its history. It’s a place where I feel absolutely humbled, and just one tiny cell in this incredible, interconnected interweaving of life itself. 

I think the personal connection I have with it and perhaps the family history goes through my DNA in a way that I don’t even fully understand myself. 

BB: One of the things that I like about Dartmoor is that it doesn’t care if you’re there. The landscape is not warm and inviting, it rains a lot,  it can be quite bleak in winter and I find that quite helpful, but I can understand why people might find that quite challenging. How do you feel about the unforgiving nature of the landscape and whether that actually is helpful to you?

EC: I absolutely love the moor I think for a couple of reasons. Firstly, you never quite know what to expect, or if you do, there’s always something new. Every day I discover something new on the moor or come across a patch that I experience in a different way. So it keeps me in the present moment. And that challenge of always looking to the horizon to see what the weather’s doing, looking at the ground below you to make sure you’re walking through it well and not going to a bog or a rocky section, noticing the livestock, the wildlife, the flora around me, it keeps me on my toes. And that sense of mindfulness, that sense of presence is so nurturing, is so nourishing. It is so healing away from our laptops, smartphones. daily stresses of life. 

I can understand why if you haven’t grown up here why it can feel like a very scary place. If you don’t have the skills to know how to navigate around it and you get lost or the fog comes down, it can be scary. That sense of vast open bleakness that you mentioned can be intimidating for people if they’ve grown up in a place where you’re always surrounded by people or buildings. 

I want to try and encourage people to build confidence to come out here, not to overstep what feels comfortable for them, but to try and be open to the possibility that there’s something beyond their thoughts about what Dartmoor is. 

There’s such an opportunity to invite us all to recognize that we feel fear and to find ways to very gently navigate that.

BB: What I find that works for me with Dartmoor is that you cannot really take it for granted and it does keep you present and that in turn clears your mind. I know it helps me with my PTSD. it’s not a place that I necessarily find relaxing, however, it has a positive mental effect on me.  Do you feel that as women, we  hold ourselves back from more challenging environments, but actually we have a lot to gain from them? 

EC: Absolutely. Whilst my walks and experiences and talks do attract both men and women, I do find that the feedback in particular from women and in particular on navigation training courses, is that they feel empowered to be braver, to go off on their own off the beaten track.  I’ve run night walks as well, but I do notice that in talking with women on night walks, that many of them have expressed that they have a fear of being out alone or camping alone and it’s emboldened them to try. 

I always suggest to do things in small doses first, don’t go over your edge. Go with a friend to start off with and try your new skills in an area that’s already familiar to you. 

There’s such an opportunity to invite us all, myself included, to recognize that we feel fear and to find ways to very gently navigate that, perhaps with some hand holding of a professional or by yourself if you feel like you can. 

In the outdoor world, when I first started Dartmoor’s Daughter,the majority of the outdoor leaders, the authors, the lecturers, the speakers were male and I felt there was a real opportunity and need actually for more. feminine way to invite people into this experience with nature and to move through some of the fear.  

BB: Do you think there is a difference between the way that men and women guides approach the landscape? Do you feel that women bring a particular energy to it? 

EC: My feeling is we all have masculine and feminine within us and it’s about tapping into both of those different energies to bring an experience to people that meets them where they’re at, because not everybody wants to lie down in the middle of a stone circle and imagine what life was like three and a half, 4,000 years ago and not everybody wants a route march. I think I’m unusual in that I bring both of those energies. to try to keep people safe, have an enjoyable experience, but also have some impact on their health and wellbeing and on their understanding of Dartmoor so that they care for it more. 

BB: Do you witness those transformations when you’re walking with people? 

EC: I do, it’s been deeply moving. At the beginning of most adult walks, I lead a very short meditation moment. It gives them a moment just to stop, reflect, feel how they are physically, feel how they are emotionally, noticing the different sounds, the direction of the wind, the direction of the sun. I realised over the years that I really see it as a transition for people, even in that short few minutes. People say to me,  I feel more relaxed, I feel more grounded, I feel here. Some people have been moved to tears because it’s the first time they might have given themselves a moment of quiet in their busy or very stressful lives. So to have somebody reflect that back to me is just incredible. There’s been times when I’ve invited people to walk in silence as a group, perhaps for a certain period of time, and just to not feel that social pressure to talk – what an opportunity to drink in everything that’s here, the beauty of the landscape, the history, the traditions, the people and the wildlife.  I noticed it’s really relaxing and changing for people  and they’re softer and quieter and gentler afterwards. They feel much happier and less stressed when they finish. 

I’ve had people write to me or put reviews on TripAdvisor, for example, where they’ve said, that moment where I sat on the river, sat on a rock by the river for half an hour and that was the moment when I decided to move my family down to Devon. It’s changed my life and my life’s path and that’s so moving. 

I don’t expect it from everybody, but I hope for that. 

Don’t let your health, your job, or your relationship get to a crisis point before you start listening and living your life in a way that’s balanced and caring for the natural world.

BB: So are there any ways that you would encourage somebody who maybe can’t come down here for whatever reason to connect with nature? 

EC: There’s many barriers to being able to have that connection in their daily life, no matter where they are. And it’s such a vast question inside of our increasingly disconnected, fast paced, globally connected world. So, whilst it’s wonderful to get to these big open spaces and it’s really important that we have access to them, no matter your income, your colour, your gender, whether you’ve got public transport or not, I think everybody should have access to some green space. 

If you don’t have easy access, then find little ways; get a pot plant or if you have access to anywhere without too much light pollution, go out and look at the moon. I remember being in cities and I didn’t even know what stage the moon was in and that has a real effect on our energy and our mood. Listen to the birdsong first thing in the morning, even if it’s just a moment or two.

My greatest hope is that everybody does this before they reach some kind of crisis like I did. Don’t let your health, your job, or your relationship get to a crisis point before you start listening and living your life in a way that’s balanced and caring for the natural world.