from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Elders! The backwoodsman, poet and activist...

This is a PS to my last post: I called Barry Lopez my all-time favourite writer on Wild. How could I possibly have forgotten the wonderful backwoodsman, poet and activist Gary Snyder, who's shaped my thinking since I first met him as Japhy Ryder in Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, given to me by a traveller when I was an A level student and hitchhiked up (unbeknown, as they say, to my parents) to what was then Stonehenge Free Festival, on the summer solstice, where my life first veered strongly towards the road less travelled (except that there were a lot of us flowerchildren then taking it, and I guess my bohemian polymath father had always led us that way anyway). That's a long sentence!

The Wild

Heart of Dartmoor
Reader, I made it. I mean (if you are interested, and I'm aware how egocentric, clearly, a blog might be) I managed to get to my daughter's, in the snowy (and how snowy!) heart of Dartmoor just in time for Christmas, via six bags of rock salt, two and a half hours shovelling, a very hairy drive, a migraine and a lift at the other end in even-in-a-4-wheel-drive very dodgy conditions, courtesy of E's kind neighbour. On Boxing Day we walked/slid/trudged/waded through kneedeep and beautiful snow to walk to Merrivale (see earlier posting).

It's strange now to be sitting at the window watching a murky blueish morning dribble into the courtyard after such snowy extremes and clear skies. Now we're back to the Devon default - atmospheric mist and light skin-nourishing drizzle, trees faded-out. We still have snow heaped at the sides, but access is possible now, and we received our first mail in about 10 days yesterday.

The hunt went through the valley yesterday – illegally of course, in England now, though the coalition government will probably overturn the ban; but there's nothing one can do unless they're witnessed catching a fox/hare/otter/deer, or actually damaging land. My big silent dog rouses herself from her favourite place (bed) to bark her enormous deep bark now when she hears the hunting horn, even miles away, which at the moment is fairly frequently. This is my fault – the hounds poured onto our land a few weeks ago, and since we have fox earths and badger setts, and I'm opposed to hunting anyway, I found a voice and an anger I didn't know I had, either, and was beside myself (how apposite that phrase is) with fury and bellowing (to the amusement, it turned out later, of my neighbours, most of whom live at least half a mile away). The dog, who has never seen me so vocal with adrenalin, now takes it upon herself to warn me, hopeful of further excitement, it seems – and keep on warning me until all signs die down. I'm impressed – she's quite scary like that, unlike her usual laidback gentle and sometimes wimpish self.

I had a heartening and heartful circular letter from Sharon, who runs an idyllic retreat centre with her partner Alex in the Cevennes, in France. It's been run as a yoga and ayurvedic centre for many years, but gradually Sharon has included writing courses. If you click on Sharon's icon under 'fellow travellers' to the right (or on some browsers below) these blogs, you should find a link to her site. I'm leading an intensive poetry retreat there in June ('The Wind's Eye'). The name of the centre is Gardoussel, meaning – presumably either in Occitan or simply Old French – 'guardian of the birds'. Isn't that beautiful?

Plug time: one of the joys of the mail arriving yesterday was also the arrival of two great anthologies (apologies for the blatant self-promotion here, as I appear in both). Confluence is the first of 'my' Two Rivers group's joint publications, and I'm so proud of it. There are 16 of us showcased here, many of whom already have collections or novels in print (or plays in production). What holds us together, other than the kind of deep connection that arises in a close group working for many years in a way that feeds the soul and heart as well as mind, is this land. If you'd like to, you could buy a copy from  me at £8.99 plus £1 p&p. It has a beautiful cover, designed by group member and artist Mary Gillett. More soon on my website.

The other is a fine anthology of 21 poets from around the globe, all of whom are distinguished by their commitment to eco-spirituality. Edited by Jay Ramsay, Soul of the Earth is published by Awen Publications (, and is £11.99 plus p&p.

Two books that have meant (and still mean) a lot to me, both non-fiction, are Robert MacFarlane's beautifully-written The Wild Places; his own journey through the palimpsests of land and place that 'speak' to him in Britain. A friend, fellow traveller, colleague and protége´ of the late and much-missed Roger Deakin, he has something of his enthusiastic style, but his own interpretation of land and what it means to be human within it.

A very different book, but equally celebratory, is the passionate and uncompromising Wild, by Jay Griffiths. This is unlike any other book on the wild, and WAKE UP is what she is shouting.

And here I should mention too my all-time favourite writer on wild: Barry Lopez. If you, like me, are impassioned by wild, land and our connection to it, and you don't know him, seek him out. My favourite is Crossing Open Ground. He is a quiet, profound and very humane writer on wild, and no less passionate for that.

OK. To walk and then to work (gently).

Thursday, 23 December 2010

ice, migrant blackbirds, ancient things, missing sheep, more books

Here the ice has thickened. Chances of getting to the heart of the moor to spend Christmas with my daughter are more remote, and walking the dog has become a dangerous sport. But, yes, it's beautiful.

The migrating blackbirds that normally hang out up in the woodland margins feasting on berries are gathering in the courtyard, increasingly less shy, and feasting on the pulp left from some of our apples that we juiced before they went over.

Two news items: a neanderthal family has just been discovered in a cave in I believe northern Spain – Basque country? – from 69,000 years ago... and this morning I hear of a massive skull of a pleiosaur – is that the correct spelling? Can't get out of this blog page to check – oh hang on, could use an actual dictionary, a real book – no, Longman doesn't have it and my Chambers is out in my arctic study in the garden – so that spelling will stand for the moment – found in Dorset, that fossil-county. This reminds me of a fabulous novel: Tracy Chevalier's latest, Remarkable Creatures – the life of Victorian fossilist Mary Anning. No, it's not at all a dry read.

Just had a call from one of my neighbours – yet again the sheep are out (seems to have been happening to several of my smallholding neighbours lately; poor animals looking for food), and he has to go and set up stall in the Christmas market (he sells Palestinian olive oil). So I'll collect the dog and go sheep-hunting.

And there are other books I forgot to mention. One of them, if you're an eco-freak and into Celtic spirituality, is Jason Kirkey's wonderful and erudite The Salmon in the Spring. From Kirkey's Hiraeth Press has just come the solstice launch issue of 'Written Rivers' – at the moment in e-journal form – of ecopoetry. I'm hoping it'll come out as hard copy. It's very beautifully produced (stunning photos) and Kirkey's intro would serve as a mission statement for those of us working in the field of ecopoetry/eco-awareness/ecopsychology/ecospirituality.

And I'm stuck into this book from David Loy: Money, Sex, War and Karma – notes for a buddhist revolution. Clear, penetrating, insightful, economically written.

More about books and writing soon. Now, off to stalk sheep.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

solstice, saturnalia, selenehelion

So now we're turning back towards the light, imperceptibly. The sun has reached its most southerly point in its cycle (or rather, since it's our earth that moves, we've reached the point where the sun seems to rise and set at its most southerly point), and now, after the apparent three days' standstill of the sun in the sky (mirrored in the three days' interment in a chambered 'tomb' of the initiate in pagan times, before the blocking stone would be rolled away to let in the first fingers of the midwinter sunrise, symbolising new birth) - where was I? - the days will slowly draw out again.

This is a time of disintegration; necessary before new growth can happen. Time to clean out our lives, let go of what no longer serves us, and feast. Or fast.

Thank you, Ruth, for the word 'selenehelion' (see - Selene being, of course, the moon goddess and Helios the solar god. I didn't know that that was the word for a lunar eclipse (of the full moon) taking place on the solstice. The BBC and the Grauniad apparently got it wrong: we were told that the last time this happened was in 1638. Apparently, according to NASA, it was 632 years ago. I THINK that makes it 1378, yes? What was happening in the wider world then? Is there an echo now?

If 'as above so below', then cosmic patterns appear repeated in every aspect of the macro- and microcosm - as quantum physics has also shown. So there are reflections of the outer events on an inner level too; the solstice, like an eclipse and indeed a full moon, also symbolises a point where a cycle has gone as far as it can go, and an ending needs to occur before a new cycle can begin. Certainly I was aware of a process of fragmentation and letting go in my own life yesterday.



The snow hides what is normally visible
and lays bare the hidden lives of others –
animals and birds, I mean – their secret
meetings and conversations for the reading.

The badger sett low in the banks of Simon’s
field, under the frosted catkins, at its mouth
has melted a narrow aureole back to grass,
upright and alive, defying the foot-thick coverlet
of snow to the four directions, and it seems

to me that love’s like this: a curl of breath,
faint but distinct, steadily streaming upwards,
and a circle cast of warmer air against
the encroaching arctic depths of night.

Roselle Angwin, December 22 2010

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Merrivale & the moor's white winter grasses

the veil of midwinter

snow upon snow
the moor's white winter grasses

at the threshold
of the greater silence

one unseen bird
calls us to the wild and hidden edges
of this world

Roselle Angwin


Today I was due to lead my pre-solstice Dartmoor workshop for the turning year, but, to my immense frustration, here in the gentle South Hams I find myself utterly snowed-in, our lanes impassable to cars (though I'm appreciating the hush, and the quiet solo walking nonetheless). So the next adventure will be for the vernal equinox, on March 20th.

I'm touched and honoured that two of the would-be participants braved it and went out anyway to our beautiful site of Merrivale. (Thank you, Brian and Robbie. Robbie came - what, 80 miles? - and over the snowy Bodmin Moor to make it.) It's a constant joy to me that one lights a touchpaper in some way and it rips into flame; so my 'Ground of Being - re-imagining the world' days have taken on a life of their own.

Merrivale is an utterly magical site. It consists of, primarily, two double long stone rows (and a vestigial single one off to one side), a small stone circle, a ten-foot-high menhir and various cairns and kists, probably all from the Neolithic. A little off to the north are a number of low stone walls marking later Bronze Age huts; in the days when these were erected the climate would have been gentler and the summers hotter than now for these early agriculturalists, living in cleared land in the great forest of Dartmoor.

The stone rows are aligned east-west. There are a number of theories as to their origin and purpose: a great terrestrial 'calendar', using astronomically-sophisticated stone markers to predict equinoxes and solstices (creating alignments to the most southerly point and most northerly point of the setting sun's annual journey in the west); alignments to mark the 'earth currents', 'serpent energy', or 'leylines' (Merrivale is only one of hundreds of interconnected sites in Britain, some of which supposedly mark out a great landscape giant, or zodiac constellations – according to which theory you subscribe to); or the remains of a serpent temple, like the much larger one at Avebury, in which the processional row/s of stones leading to an inner sanctum (the stone circle) were walked at certain times ceremonially.

It seems to me that none of these purposes is contradictory or mutually exclusive; quite the opposite, in fact. The leyline theory has been very well developed since Alfred Watkins first brought it to contemporary eyes in 1925 with The Old Straight Track. I could write a whole book myself on the follow-on from this, but for now let's leave it that Watkins found that many of Britain's ancient and significant megaliths and monuments, including the later siting of hilltop churches and chapels on ancient pagan sacred sites, suggested an alignment with each other and/or with the sun or a star. There are similarities with the Australian Aboriginal ideas of Songlines; and if we take an Oriental perspective on dragon-lines, we could see the leylines as being meridians of energy concentrated in specific nodal points (and measurable as electromagnetic force): the circles, menhirs and hilltop sites representing these concentrations of energy, rather like chakras.

All of these seem plausible to me; and I find the serpent temple idea a kind of synthesis of them all. Plus there's a neat and beautiful added extra in the serpent temple theory: as at Avebury, the processional rows seem to be laid out in alternating taller/thinner 'masculine' and shorter/squatter 'feminine' stones, implying its use as a symbolic ceremonial way of bringing the opposites together in order to transcend duality, perhaps at a significant time of year, such as Beltane, May 1st, with its fires – the Celtic midsummer, when earthly man and woman would also symbolically come together. I need to check this out, but it doesn't seem impossible to me that Merrivale is actually sited towards a May 1st sunrise, which might well make sense if the earlier proto-Celtic Goddess-focused Neolithic culture also centred their ceremonies on this date.

Pre-Bronze Age there is a mass of evidence to support this view that the spirituality of the time was focused on a Goddess-based culture with the earth revered as the great mother, and the serpent as one of Her sacred symbols: as in other older-than-Christian traditions, a mark of wisdom rather than something to be reviled/feared/suppressed. (I point you to the Caduceus, the healing staff of medicine, around which twine two snakes.) It seems to me that St George and his dragon-slaying has a lot to answer for, as does the notion of the 'evil' serpent in the Garden of Eden, if one assumes in both cases that the dragon (interchangeable with the serpent) is a symbol of the Old Religion, the pagan. (More another time on St George, St Michael and the dragon. Or see my book, Riding the Dragon - myth and the inner journey.)

The Neolithic peoples were acquainted with the most sophisticated principles of Pythagorean geometry – before Pythagoras. This is a bit staggering to our modern minds, which have a tendency to imagine that our ancestors lived brutish and crudely barbaric lives – though I am not wishing in any way to glamorize their time, they showed, in their monuments and artefacts, a profound understanding of cosmic principles.

And so, and so. The snow this morning brought vast numbers of little birds into the courtyard; the five territorial robins spent their time jouncing and jumping at each other while the finches and dunnocks and tits got on with the business of eating. The day seemed to call for the haunting plaintive 'white' music of Officium: the ancient plainsong of the Hilliard Ensemble woven around with the pure ethereal jazz sax of Norwegian (is he?) Jan Garbarek. I noticed again the beauty of the album cover, and of the little poetry quotes from Max Frisch, and Pound's 'Cantos'. And now this short day has wound down into the black-and-whiteness with which it started; and I shall go and check that my caramelly-fudgy-Christmas cake (thanks Dan Lepard of The Guardian) hasn't burnt while I've been thinking of things a bit further back than the two hours ago of insertion of cake into oven.

Thank you, Eloise, for the photo

Friday, 17 December 2010

and so to books

Here are the books that, this year, have added something both significant and immeasurable to my life. It seems to me that what a book can set up in the imagination is something akin to a previously-unknown door to a new (though sometimes familiar) landscape; and a book that absorbs me completely enlarges permanently, even after I’ve forgotten all the details, what Manley Hopkins called the ‘inscape’ of my life.

Lindsay Clarke, the novelist, once said in a magazine interview I was conducting with him: ‘Without imagination compassion’s not possible’. This is a blindingly obvious truth, but so obvious I’d never formulated it, and I’ve never forgotten that phrase. In a post-Enlightenment world we are taught to revere the rational mind, which of course undeniably has an essential place in consciousness, but often at the expense of the imagination and the qualities of empathy that accompany it. This seems to hold true in every area of human experience, but before I get onto a rant about the defective collective imagination, the absence of which allows us to objectify and exploit other people, species and the planet, I shall return my attention to books. And I’ll start with Clarke’s newest book: The Water Theatre, in which he redresses the balance. It’s a book that champions the world of the imagination and the feeling nature, although never in a sentimental way; and it is also in some ways an overtly political book, in which friends oppose each other over poetry, politics and philosophy, with initially disastrous consequences; and yet at the end there is reconciliation; redemption, one could say. And growth, that essential component of human consciousness.

Poetry, politics and philosophy are themes to which I return, and I see that others of the books on my 2010 list address this. Afterlife, the novel by poet Sean O’Brien, is a gripping, burning and hard-hitting exploration of these ideas through the lens of a small group of friends, some of whom are poets, who graduated from Cambridge (as did both O’Brien and myself, though I was later in the decade) in the 70s; so it also explores counterculture ideas, drugs, loyalty and betrayal and dissolution. Finally, it’s about values. Think Coleridge, Wordsworth et al updated to a contemporary mindset; and with a very good plot.

Immediately after this I picked up the ManBooker shortlisted The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker. A mistake. Not the book, at all, as it turned out; but reading it straight after Afterlife. The style is so different, and in the first 30 pages nothing ‘happens’. I found it tedious, and left it. When I went back to it a few months later I was so glad I had; it’s a beautiful, tender, reflective novel musing on poetry. Although I don’t agree with all his conclusions on poetry, it’s also a very able exposition of poetry, of creative ability, and of love and the muse.

A very different creature is Juli Zeh’s Dark Matter, in translation (the German title is quite different; this English one is inspired). The book’s a very accomplished work from an enviably young writer – she’s a 36 year old lawyer. It’s a profound psychological and philosophical thriller, and in between addressing matters of quantum physics she also, in her way, elaborates on this theme of the rational and the imaginative, and their apparent oppositionality; also on the ideologies of materialism and metaphysics. Kind of. The plot has a gripping inexorability.

This one’s cheating really, but The Man at my suggestion has been reading David Lodge’s Thinks, so I have been sneakily reading it again, many years on, in between to – why?  To sort of savour alongside the ideas that Himself is engaging with. Thinks is about the attraction between a cognitive scientist, champion of the materialist rational mind, and a novelist who, naturally, espouses the imagination as a primary faculty of consciousness. Lodge is not afraid to get into the arguments; and as the territory of the book is on the nature of consciousness it explores contemporary questions and the possibility or otherwise of definitive answers. From his research into this book arose the n-f Consciousness and the Novel; well worth reading. And it’s to Lodge I owe ‘qualia’.

A friend recommended Between Each Breath to me (Adam Thorpe). Read this book!

Why have I never read Barbara Trapido? The Travelling Hornplayer, I’ve just discovered, is a marvellous book, full of larger-than-life, as they say, characters who are still credible. And another whose plotline, cleverly constructed, starts to take on that inexorable pull to an inevitable conclusion.

Well, this regularly changes, but right now I would say that this book would be on my forever top ten list: The Vintner’s Luck, by Elizabeth Knox. I’m not going to tell you anything about this, except to say that – especially if, like me, you gag on the New Age peddling of angels – it will revise forever your vision of angelic life. It’s also a meditation on the darker questions thrown up by our dualistic notions of good and evil.

I suspect that this is a ‘woman’s book’: Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver. Again, read it. It’s uplifting and inspiring and never schmaltzy.

For poets: W S Merwin’s Migrations – new & selected is one of my two collections of choice this year. Merwin has a gentle understated voice and addresses the large questions unassumingly and quietly. His poems have vision in the most essential way, and he addresses profound issues with a kind of Zen simplicity. I have been looking for many years for a half-remembered tercet by him, to answer a particular personal question about the metaphysical significance of verbs and nouns; and here it is. That alone sends me back over and over.

And the other is the exquisite and luminous Vessel, the long-awaited follow-up to Learning to Row, by Matthew Barton. (This is from the excellent small Brodie Press, who also publish my friend Julie-Ann Rowell, another very fine poet.) Barton’s territory is the natural world, ecological and political concerns, and the personal in the sense of the universal themes of love, loss and ageing. This book has a quieter and more consistent tone than Learning to Row, though the voice is clearly recognisable. There’s a steadiness and maturity (in the sense of ‘good wine’, or cheese) here that adds depth (not that that was lacking before). His language is careful, honed, surprising, and he has a fine sense of timing in poetry in terms of line breaks, use of diction, sequencing and so on. Chiming behind the poems is a quality of enduringness and the transpersonal; by which I mean that Barton does not buy into the transient ‘truths’ of a materialistic age. Like Merwin’s, these poems have vision; are poems that bring together head, heart and soul – that’s a pretty potent mix.

Non-fiction is my staple, but that choice is very personal. One book I wish everyone would read, though, that is a constant for me, is David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous: a lush erudite and urgently necessary voyage through our alienation from the rest of the planet, and prescription for our return. Just the first paragraph of the preface is one of the most inspiring passages I’ve ever read.

One more n-f work, that returns us to my intro, the (unnecessary but recurrent) apparent duality of reason and imagination: Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth; the comparison of mythos and logos. Stocking filler? Although I don’t mean in anyway to denigrate its substance and importance by saying that; it’s just that it’s physically a small book, and although wide-ranging it’s quick to read.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

the kissing stone

In my newness to blogging, for some unknown (to my conscious mind) reason, I originally inserted what was a completely content-irrelevant image into the frame at the bottom. I've shifted its place, and now I'll make it slightly more relevant!

OK, the kissing stone (below). Errr, it was a lateral choice - I just like it. It amuses me. I like imagining that people since megalithic times - since it appears in one of the megalithic stone rows in the Carnac area of Brittany - have also smiled to see it. It reminds me of a very happy holiday with three of my very favourite people: my daughter, plus friends Francis and Hanneke - one of those holidays that is characterised by laughter. And plus I have a bit of a thing about megalithic sites (I'm leading a Ground of Being ecobardic day workshop this Sunday at a significant megalithic site on Dartmoor, if the snow holds off long enough). And hey since I don't have a budgerigar...

And yes I promise I will write about writing soon. I just have to dig that braincell out of hibernation (it's in revolt against a truly unpleasant head-cold), flagellate it with some porridge, and promise it a walk first...

Monday, 13 December 2010

two O levels but no budgerigar

My blog was going to be titled ‘twobraincellsandahairymutt’.
‘I shouldn’t use that title,’ said The Man.
‘Why not?’
‘Because people will misread the last bit and you might get the wrong sort of visitor. Anyway why’s the mutt got such prominence?’
‘Because it’s allusive, of course!’
‘“Two O levels and a budgerigar?”’
‘OK what about “Two Sheds Jackson”?’
‘Well, I know about “Two Jags Prescott…”’
‘“Shagged out after a long squawk” etc…? Monty Python. Allusive.’
‘Well if I don’t get it no one else will.’
Begin to doubt self, sense of humour, and memory. OK, ‘lessthanonecell’.

Plus ca change. Police behaving pretty abominably in relation to the student tuition-fee demos. I’d forgotten what it was like to be under a right-wing government. Demolition of Welfare State. Demolition of right to education. But having said plus ca change, we were never kettled on all those CND, anti-Iraq-war (x2) etc demos (though my daughter was, in Madrid, at the latter earlier this last decade). The somewhat low-key profile of the Criminal Justice Act, passed in was it about 1995? — belied its gravity: it slipped through two little clauses which have had a severe impact on our freedoms. One was supposedly to address the ‘problem’ of ‘travellers’, effectively closing up the ability to reside for a length of time – even on your own land – in anything mobile. The other was – yes – to make even peaceful demonstrations (defined – and I need to doublecheck this but from memory – as a gathering of more than ten people in any one place) illegal, though the police were to use their discretion on whether to intervene or not. Had we been paying more attention to these clauses in what was admittedly a clause-heavy Bill – hundreds – we would not have given away our rights so unknowingly (which is grammatically self-evident, Himself would point out).

December dawn. Light’s just breaking. There’s a small chorus of birds waiting by the doors into the courtyard: robins, dunnocks, chaffinches, blue- coal- and great-tits, and a few of the shy migrating blackbirds who’ve discovered some rotting windfall apples in the orchard, along with various berried trees in the woodland margins. I’ll refill the feeders in a moment; meantime a handful of oats will keep some of them happy. Soon one of the great spotted woodpeckers will appear; we’re now on the third generation, and I notice that a female is the first visitor each day (no red on head/nape); and they are beginning to pluck up the courage to come to the feeder right in the courtyard, a couple of yards from this window. I love their black/white/red livery, with its alchemical connotations. In another blog I’ll write about our right-on discoveries this summer re our mutually-effectively functioning ecosystem, pesticide-free and pest-free courtesy of the birds and other inhabitants.

Oh and I might write about writing.

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