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

Saturday, 16 July 2011

the inland sea behind us

Even a Gordian knot is unbraided by walking – the rhythm, the moving in, through and on a landscape. For as long as I can remember this has been salve and solace for me; especially if the sea is involved.

So today in changing weather TM and I sallied forth with the Trusty Hound (you might remember perhaps She-who-wears-her-grey-matter-on-the outside from previous posts) for Slapton Sands (bit of a misnomer, as it's all shingle).

We had an excellent coffee at the new StreteGate beach-cabin opposite the little walled garden woodland walk (earmarked now for an ecopoetry/storytelling workshop day, or a Littorals workshop with my land artist friend Michael).

The southwest has at least 3 inland lagoons back of the sea: there's Loe Bar on the Lizard in Cornwall, where as a child I found what was to me a precious jewel: a tiny piece of oval sea-polished serpentine, a deep ruby red at one end and a deep moss-green at the other. There's the Fleet at Abbotsbury, in Dorset, with its snow of swans, a truly magical place for me. And there is Slapton Ley, barely a half hour's drive from home and yet to which I haven't been since my daughter was 3 or 4: I remember her round cheeks purple with cold but her laughing excitement at so many miles of (shingly) sand, and the 'other' inland sea just behind us.

I had forgotten the shingly flora, so similar to the flora of my childhood Braunton Burrows back of Saunton Beach: horned poppy, chamomile, viper's bugloss, trefoil, restharrow, sea thistle, miniature mallow, yarrow, horsetail (equisetum arvense - unchanged since prehistoric times) and the wonderful bright blue chicory.
And the birds – I was in heaven – wild geese, swan, coots with their glottal-stopped peeping whistles, duck, reed buntings, swallows, martins, black-headed gulls, and comical young starlings simply dropping from the thatched eaves outside the pub at the far end of the Sands to within a couple of inches of diners' plates and strutting unselfconsciously towards the morsels.

Having been brought up in a Devon village close to the sea, and running free in meadows and woods and hills and on the beaches with animals, wild and otherwise, for company, the culture-shock of arriving for university in a flat, albeit old and beautiful, city in the east of England was almost too much. I never got used to it, and yearned to get back to the coast and the hills; and despite making good friends felt miserably alone without animal life, wild or otherwise, around me. It was enough though to lift my heart simply to see a wild bird. I used up my grant (I was one of the lucky ones) each term getting out of the city to the (flat) East Anglian coast as often as I could; having spent my grant, in order to eat I cleaned loos in a pizza parlour after they closed at night and then cycled the couple of miles back in the dark on the (terrifyingly dangerous) fast Huntingdon Road in the early hours.

I've just finished Perrin's book West. I spun it out as long as I could. It is simply one of the profoundest, most profoundly moving, and erudite, books I have ever read. I'm missing it.

I'm thinking, as so often, about our relationship to the wild. So many ways humans respond to it: fear it; revere it; objectify it; go out and lose yourself in it (more about that in a minute); have it come in and wash through your life; find yourself in it, and establish an intimate friendship with it.

Here's Perrin again, echoing so much my own experience: '... closeness with a natural landscape is a life-changing experience, taking you into dimensions previously unsuspected, initiating you into the earth's mysteries, reinstating the old human senses that urban civilization has atrophied... In all weathers, in all lights or no light, at all seasons these hills became my intimates, disclosing, confiding. I slipped among them in the company of chough, raven and peregrine; of fox, polecat and hare... What the walking did, then and now, was to establish what I cannot but see as the most crucial, fulfilling and redemptive relationship of my life – the one on which all others depend and from which they have taken their contexts. Thoreau... puts the view to which I hold most succinctly: "To insure health, a man's relation to Nature must come very near to a personal one; he must be conscious of a friendliness in her; when human friends fail or die, she must stand in the gap. I cannot conceive of any life which deserves the name, unless there is a certain tender relation to Nature."'

Here at Dartington the Ways With Words festival continues. Alongside Matt Harvey and Chris Tutton, I gave a poetry reading from Deborah Gaye's wonderful anthology in aid of breast cancer: Of Love and Hope. So many anthologies are a mixed bag; this one is pretty well inspiring all the way through (all profits go to breast cancer charities). Between-the-covers bedfellows to Yeats, Marvell, Shakespeare, Neruda are many big-name more contemporary poets: Sharon Olds, Ginsberg, Andrew Motion, Don Paterson, Carl Ann Duffy, Brian Patten, Adrian Mitchell, Seamus Heaney, Leonard Cohen, Elaine Feinstein etc etc who have donated their poems. I read about 10 poems, including some of mine, and one in particular by David Constantine that moved me tremendously: 'Swallows on the Island'.

Yesterday morning I went to hear Neil Ansell speak. Ansell is the author of Deep Country; a book about his five years, in his early 30s, living in mid-Wales without road access (and no car), electricity, running water, phone, clock, radio (until later) or neighbours in a cottage he rented for £100 a year (plus poll tax as it then was). He could, he said, walk west 20 miles from the cottage and not come to a road, fence or habitation. Foraging, growing his own food, bringing in and chopping up his wood to light the fire on which he cooked and that was all the heating he had (been there – I know just how obsessive one becomes about collecting every fallen branch or near-rotting log on every excursion), he spent his days otherwise simply watching raven, redstart, blackbird, kite, or staring at the flames. By year two he had slipped a sense of self; he almost forgot how to talk (friends might visit every few months but otherwise he'd walk to the Post Office every fortnight or so for basic provisions and that would be it for verbal communication), and simply became a part of all that was around him.

The more he spoke the more I saw that what was happening to him was what my many years of Zen practice have been directed at: simply slipping the egoic sense of a separate self and going out into All That Is, being it. There are many moments (but only moments) when I achieve it, usually alone outdoors; for Ansell it became the status quo. I had just formulated this thought in relation to Buddhist practice when he said: 'My Buddhist friends say that that sounds like meditation practice, but for me it wasn't a conscious choice – it's what happened.'

And the silence and the solitude have, he said, become part of who he is, and see him through his family life now back in the city.

And more on solitude anon.

And I forgot to say that at Slapton we were picking ripe blackberries almost as big as plums – and six weeks or so early.

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