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

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

tomb with a view

For years now, driving through Finistère, I’ve been meaning to turn off at the sign a few miles south of Roscoff, a hand-stencilled ‘DOLMEN’ sign; a dolmen I don’t know. Or didn’t, until today. Usually I’m either going for the ferry with no spare time, or disembarking from a night crossing and not inclined to stop.

But today is a beautiful day; I’ve spent 3 days working hard on the house and the garden in – mostly – sun, and I’ve finished pruning and cleaned up early.

So in this blue-glass day I turn right down a narrow bumpy lane towards the Penzé estuary which debouches into the Baie de Morlaix between St Pol de Léon and Roscoff. To my left are ripe artichokes, following a field of pretty purple-blue flowers with tansy-like foliage, flowers that I don’t recognise, possibly being grown as a herbal crop. To my right is a field of newly-planted artichokes and some huge brassica plants.

Now I pass a fat crop of fennel. All this is in late October. The land here is lush and productive. Last time we drove this way – end of September – we passed a field bursting with little flame-red ‘potimarron’ squash, exquisite against the rich dark soil. I’ve grown potimarron successfully in Devon – an abundant crop with smallish fruit just the right size for two. We also grow delicate crisp mild Keravel Pink onions that originate just about right here, between the Penzé river and Roscoff.

To my left now, maybe just 50 metres down the lane from the main road, is a massive pile of stones and boulders, all a-jumble. I suspect (and the signboard for the dolmen confirms the possibility) that this heap was once part of a major megalithic complex, long since plundered and dug up.

And there on the right is my dolmen: Kerangouez. It’s smaller and much less dramatic than, say, Maugan-Bihan of which there's a photo in the previous (linked) blog; basically 4 or 5 uprights and a couple of capstones with parts, like the one-time 5 metre-long sepulchral chamber built at right angles to the entrance chamber, missing, and the seaward side claimed by brambles. Dating from the Neolithic, it will have been built between 5000 and 2000 BCE.

So this one is a last lost remnant.

Brittany is full of megaliths; one of the reasons I choose to spend time here. Ancestral lines (there have been links between my homeland of Cornwall, and Devon where I've lived much of my life, and Brittany for millennia) are visible here; the past walks with us.

This one in its solitary unkempt fragmentedness was still worth the visit, situated as it is with a great view one way of the channels and white sandbars of the mouth of the river, and maybe 90 degrees to the north the beautiful Baie de Morlaix, today, as so often, exquisitely blown-glass translucent blue-green (Brythonic Cornish has a word for the colour of the sea: glaz. I imagine the Breton is similar.)

So the inmates of the funerary part would have had quite a view. 

Despite the traffic behind me probably only 75 metres away, I can hear oystercatchers down on the shoreline several hundred metres below.

At my feet are tiny bright flowers – sheeps’ bit scabious and a small cranesbill, and ahead the ocean stretching smooth as a sarong off towards Great Britain.

Megaliths mostly convey a sense of tranquility: their slow durability catching hold of our accelerated lives. You can step out of time at such places, and for an unmappable moment my world stops turning too.


I don't quite know how it happened but it appears my blog site has been colonised by background foliage. What do you think? To keep or to lose?

Monday, 22 October 2018

Salmon of Wisdom – Bradán Feasa

Image by kind permission of Adam Batchelor
Like calls to like, and the Salmon of Wisdom leaps from her saltwater home to her freshwater home, and then into air. Over and over she leaps the falls, bruised, battered, bleeding, until finally she is there – the Sacred Pool at the heart of the world, the Sacred Pool of the Secrets, the Sacred Pool where she was born.

Home. Water to water to air to water.

Celts know Salmon as the oldest being. Salmon lives now in the Sacred Pool, eating the nuts of inspiration from the nine hazel trees, the poets' trees. Salmon is wise; knows how to live in three worlds, knows when it's time to return. Salmon now is charged with keeping counsel for those who are ready to seek it out, who are ready to give away their old life for the sake of the new.

Those who approach Salmon at the right time in the right manner will be given the ability to see through the veils between this world and the other.

Those, on the other hand, who arrive too young, too unformed, or who have hungered for the wrong thing or grown fat on that which belongs to others will not make it up the falls; not this time. Or if they do, they will find their fingers burned – so close, so far away; the itch of the search for wisdom never quite assuaged.

Like calls to like and the woman hears the call.

The woman has been travelling a long time. All her life, in fact. All her life she has struggled against the current, feeling in her blood the pull of the Sacred Pool. Her long skirts are ripped, her hair dishevelled, her feet torn and muddy. She is alone, apart from the old grey mare with whom she has travelled so far.

The woman is no longer young. Like calls to like. The woman is no longer beautiful to the eye. The woman does not care for adoration. Now, at last, she is free. She can glide through the shadows without being noticed. She can watch, she can learn.

She knows what it is to be betrayed by those she trusted. She has had her words and her dreams stolen, the lifelong work of her heart. She knows what it is to be loved, then to be cut off for not fulfilling another's dream.

She no longer cares about about false friends, false promises. She does not care. What she cares about is the pull of the Well, the Sacred Pool. She knows the songs of the birds, she can speak with trees and plants and animals. She knows how the planets move and the way the tide sings just so on the shore.

And she knows what it is to be loved; deeply loved. More, she knows how to love; and the cost of an open heart. She knows this is all.

She is no one's servant, though she will serve the true of heart. The pony mare is her sister; the morning mist her friend; dusk a cloak she can wrap around her. Rain does not trouble her, nor hunger of the ordinary sort.

Like calls to like, and she can be true to the calling, only to the calling, which means she is true to herself, to everything and nothing. In her freedom she can smile into everybody's eyes, through to their core.

Salmon has been waiting all winter, feasting on the fat of the hazel nuts. Visitors are few.

The woman kneels in the rushes and mud at the edge of the pond. A breeze whispers in the willows. The woman maybe sheds one tear. It's been a long hard journey. She can barely breathe for the shock and joy of arriving here at the heart of the world.

Salmon swims slowly over. She is huge, magnificent, a queen of all waters.

The woman kneels, asks permission of the waters' guardian to be here.

Salmon disgorges a nut, soaked in inspiration: Awen, the eternal fire in the head.

The woman lifts the nut from the water, holds it as if it were gold, gazes into Salmon's eyes.

In that moment she learns what will finally change her life: there is a current beneath the current; a reverse current that will always take her, without struggle, to where she needs to be. All she need do is nose it out. All she need do is surrender, relinquish control. Water will find her, take her.

Then she will have brought her life into balance: the perfect tension between the path of least resistance and the path of the will; the path that will take her beyond need, beyond striving, to the heart at the heart of it all, which is Love.

© Roselle Angwin, October 2018

NB: The insight about the reverse current is thanks to Philip & Stephanie Carr-Gomm

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Finistère September 21

Outside the kitchen window the single hollyhock, like Jack’s beanstalk, has reached the eaves and turned back towards the ground. It’s been flowering for two or three months now, and among the hard round seedheads there are still flowers up the main stem and on the tip.
    I’m particularly proud of this one. Unlike the ones I’ve planted with so much care and attention so often, this one has thrived in poor, or even practically no, soil. It’s emerged from the single seed I dropped into the gravel lining the dampcourse; a seed collected from a stray plant by a small bridge near the River Lot in southwest France in 2011. It’s a delicate pale peach with crimson centre.
    At the bottom of the garden the rosa rugosa have matured and evidently, from the number of fat spherical round hips, had a great flowering season, with plenty of pink and white fragrant blooms still opening.
    When the garden and hedge were destroyed for the legally-required replacement of the septic tank last year, my little garden gate and fence into the back private garden also disappeared. We erected a wooden arch, and I planted jasmine and a perfumed white climbing rose given me by a friend. The latter has rampaged over the top of the arch and down the other side, with the jasmine filling in the gaps.
    Unfortunately, the arch now frames the view of the washing whirligig. So I’ve brought in a reconstituted stone Buddha to draw the eye. It was so difficult to find a Buddha with the ‘right’ face, and this one is not perfect*, but I can live with it. Although my own spiritual practice is eclectic, my Zen meditation has underpinned it for more than 40 years. So the little Buddha, rather than being merely a garden ornament, is a focal point for me: an instant reminder to drop my concerns, my habitual anxieties, my judgements – just to drop my shoulders, drop into my feet, be present to this moment. (*This judgement has no place in a Zen philosophy but then, I’m not perfect either! Or at least, we’re both perfect in our imperfections.)

The willow outside the bedroom window is going to have to be topped. Nonetheless, I’m grateful for it: in the past it’s so often been a particular tree in the garden of a house I've been looking at with a view to renting that has sealed where I’m going to live next. Without going into details here, a willow tree insisted itself into my awareness at a time of shamanic enquiry into tree consciousness many years ago now, so I take notice, and this tree certainly added to my sense of 'rightness' about the cottage. I’m so grateful too for its cargo of small songbirds, warblers – yes, willow warblers – included.

September is beautiful in the Forest. There are fewer tourists, the Forest seems to be breathing out, and we’ve had a small heatwave until today’s pre-equinoctial gales, so that the woods have been full of spilled soft light. We seem to encounter dragonflies and herons wherever we go this time. I find a new-to-me little fontaine in the Forest, and its genius loci or tutelary deity was a bright and beautiful young yellow dragonfly.
    What a joy to walk through the woods – and another joy is the 2nd-hand English and French bookshop.

Today I took TM to Mougau-Bihan – the magnificent late-Neolithic allée couverte I mentioned in a previous blog ('allée couverte' generally translates as ‘passage grave’, though in fact it might never have been constructed as a burial site; there’s still so much we don’t know about the megaliths). This one has some carvings in one end: two pairs of breasts, presumably a gesture to the Mother Goddess who was probably significant in that era, and some axes or swords (that could just as easily be phalluses).

We had a coffee in the shabby-chic little café-restaurant by the Lac du Drennec – checking out its potential for swimming for TM (verdict: good), and then walked the 7 kms around its wooded perimeter (along with many French/Bretons doing the same thing, if they weren’t on or in the water or having one of those extended Sunday lunches en famille at a picnic bench that the French do so well).
    It’s an artificial lake created by damming the River Elorn, but it still manages to be beautiful, with plenty of wildfowl and, apparently, otters. (Nearby is an area where a colony of beavers thrives.)
On the way back I stopped to show TM the Fontaine de St Jean, also mentioned in the previous post, a beautiful restored and tended holy well plus lavoir (often they are both; a comfortable rubbing-shoulder of the sacred and secular, which pleases me).

In the same vein, there is a picnic table here too: a huge stone slab with a little monolith behind it right next to the well. The hydrangea bush, with its erstwhile sky-blue flowers, is now adorned with that many-shades-of-bruise colouring in the striking (pun not intended) way that only nature’s makeup artist could achieve.
    I long to be the kind of person who would have organised a sumptuous picnic – and I long for TM to be the kind of man who would have really liked to sit and eat and converse in a languorous way for a couple of hours on a Sunday lunchtime; but hey, we are not.
Four or five lots of other writers have used my cottage now when I’ve not been here. I’ve had amazing, glowing feedback – this is truly a place of inspiration and restoration. Others appreciating and coming to love this place as I do sets in motion another dynamic: in addition to the conversation between me and the place, there’s a third strand now that braids those two, so that we are all interlinked: me, the Forest, the other people who, via me, come to know and love it. More strands in the web of belonging.
    I was nervous at first. This is the first and only place I have ever 'owned’ (I'm not sure one can ever 'own' land), and since I bought it with a legacy from my dad I feel precious about it, and am careful with whom I share it. However, I've always wanted it to be used and to contribute to the local economy, and in fact it’s been enriching and deepening for me too as an experience for others to come and share the tranquillity.
    My programmes of courses seem to facilitate change in people: a deepening of the way they live their lives, an enhanced sense of creativity, transformation, even.    
    How lovely, then, that I might help facilitate change and creativity in a different way, with the co-operation of this place. When someone ‘gets it’ here, the gift that was my father’s inheritance to me carries on round, circulates.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

notes from the lost valley

Early morning walk. Little yellow globes of crab apples in the lanes (I can't find the photo so this above is younger green crab apples in Brittany two months ago). A few still-healthy elm leaves.

A lump rising in my throat as 50, 60 swallows gather on the wires – so many more than I knew were in the locality. The skies have been so empty this year and I don't know if I'm grieving for that, for the imminent loss of the swallows to their winter home, for the danger of their journey (some of them without even pointy tails yet), or for the sheer joy of seeing them. I say a few words to the bird-gods and goddesses to keep them safe, return them to us.
A hot air balloon rises over Dartmoor to the northwest like a slow – very slow – thought.

A rough lick of my hand from a black-tongue bullock.

And then the field and our veg plot, bare feet in dew: a dozen butternut squashes quietly swelling; a new two dozen tomatoes; a few courgettes; exuberances of nasturtiums; the scent of mint.

A young buzzard's plaintive mew. A charm – two charms – of goldfinches. A family of jays gathering or burying acorns rising up as I approach (I read that a jay can gather and bury several thousand acorns in a day, doing its bit for reforesting, as it can't eat that many any day). The high peep of some bullfinches.

The orchard laden.

Wild windfall plums - bullaces (or mazzards as we call them in Devon) – for breakfast.


Writing is my day-job. Unfortunately, it hardly earns me any money. Gardening is my evening-and-weekend-job. That earns me nothing at all – though of course we're saving on food costs. In between, I walk, and read, neither of them for money; and on occasion remember I need to Get A Life, and phone a friend – or even see one.

My paintbrushes are cobwebby and stiff; but you never know. One day soon. Maybe.

Gardening is a bit forefront at the moment And what a bumper summer. There are bucketloads and bucketloads of pea beans to pod and freeze for the winter. These are substantial tasty beans that we use in anything from pâtés to soups to burgers – excellent vegan protein.
We have a fabulous triffidy courgette and squash bed. There are at least a dozen fat butternut squash swelling quietly in among the leaves. This is quite a coup, as it's normally too damp down here for a good – or indeed any – butternut harvest, and this is just from two plants. At the risk of sounding like a playschool leader, perhaps you can spot a few in here?
On the other hand, the green-outside orange-fleshed squash that a friend gave me has not been quite so prolific in fruit, although it does quite well in foliage. Here's a runner making a break for the woodland:

– and this is the first of its fruits:

This is its second fruit:

– which is a beauty, albeit not ripe. Don't break it off, I said to TM, it's not ripe yet. Can you just lift it gently, while I prop it on a slate, or a slug collar (the green thing in the photo above) to stop it from rotting on the ground. TM broke it off. I don't think he actually meant to.*

And this is the third and as far as I can see final fruit. It's a squeezed squash. You can see our dilemma. I'd propped it on a slug collar and had forgotten it, and it grew into the collar. TM tried kicking it around a few times to release it, until I stopped him. It needs a chainsaw but we are a bit loath to trash one of our (100-odd) slug collars – precious and expensive commodities that they are, being at least 50% effective. Mostly.

* The problem is, TM doesn't know his own strength.

On the other hand, he did save my life the other day – I do mean that literally – when I had a very close encounter with death; shockingly close. He gave me the Heimlich manoeuvre, which is why I am here to write about encounters with squashes and squeezes. But I do now have some cracked ribs. And what's a cracked rib or two in the face of a near-death experience?

And I live to continue to write, and to garden. So the question now is is it day-job time or evening-job time, or time for a cup of tea and to sit in the courtyard listening to the screech of the young jays or the very-close-by yaffle of a young green woodpecker?

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

a question of balance

Wiki Commons image from a C15th Norman manuscript
The other day, warming up at a dance class, I found myself standing for long minutes on one leg, and then the other. Without wobbling. 

This might seem like a small thing – but despite decades of (very erratic) yoga practice, I can't actually do this. Except I just did. So it seemed worth noticing.

I read this, of course, as symbolic. What were the conditions that allowed this? – Well, apart from the dance teacher, Kay, occupied with setting up, I was the only person in the room. Kay was some distance from me, and there was very gentle music playing. I was already deeply relaxed. I'd had a little while when, for family reasons, I hadn't worked as hard as I usually do. 

Most significantly, I was in touch with my own centre.

We're only a few weeks from the autumn equinox, a time when day and night are briefly in perfect balance before the season rolls on again, with dark in the ascendant in the northern hemisphere.

I was born on the equinox. Not surprisingly, then, my life has been a continual quest for bringing the opposites together, whether in my inner or outer life. Esoterically speaking, I 'seek harmony through conflict'. Usually this has meant my being extremely unbalanced, as I try and find a midpoint, the 'Middle Way'.

My life no longer veers between the extremes of emotion, experience, lifestyle and the like that it did when I was younger. I no longer crave (mostly, anyway) the deep intensity of feelings that is closer to addiction than to love via my romantic interpersonal relationships.

I do still continue to want inspiration and passion, which I find in barrowloads through my work, through the arts, through my spiritual practice, through the experiences, friendships and other relationships, situations, people, creativity and most frequently my time alone outdoors with other species that enrich my life.

The reason I'm writing about this is because I've known for a long time that I can be thrown off my own centre of gravity, my own axis and balance, by important others, usually but not exclusively the men, in my life.

Sometimes it's a conflict between what someone else wants of me, and what I need to do for myself.

Sometimes it's a conflict between my need for a settled land-based growing lifestyle and my need for something more transitory, unpredictable and as I experience it more adventurous. 

Sometimes it's conflict between my love of human engagement and my need for solitude (solitude and intimacy, and getting this balance right, is I believe a big issue for many people in the Western world). 

Or silence and conversation. 

There's the perennial thing about trying to live ethically to the greatest extent possible when I have limited time, energy and money to do so as much as I'd like. 

There's the equally-perennial conflict between work and downtime.

I also know I'm not alone in this. Many women, in particular, have spoken to me of this issue (most commonly in relation to their own love lives), whether in the professional aspects of my life such as mentoring or workshops, or in my friendships. (I'm not qualified to know how frequently this applies to men, or to non-heteros who identify as differently-gendered.)

In some circles, this is known as 'giving away your power'. No matter how strong we are as individuals, many of us find that once in intimate relationship we feel in some ways less empowered. This is very deeply enculturated, I think, and still applies despite feminism. Perhaps it's less so in younger women? - I'm not sure my daughter would say she does this. On the other hand, I mentor younger women who seem to be strong, confident, well-qualified to be assured in their place in the world who still find themselves and their personal power-axis (I emphasise as always this is power to, not power over) compromised by relationships with perfectly nice and kind partners.

The thing is, giving away your power in this way is a sign of co-dependency, or emotional fusion (too often confused with love). What does this mean? – In its simplest form, giving over to another things you need to be responsible for yourself, such as determining your way in the world. Basically, making another responsible for your happiness.

For me, my interest is in how we can live, and love, openly – fully engaged, from our core, living in our own centre, while being sufficiently mindfully non-attached to notice what happens and how we relate to it: to relate from the heart but not driven by the emotions – two very different states of being.

In the latter, we tend to react rather than respond.

In the former, we know how to listen to our deeper wisdom, how to care for another, and how to remember that, no matter how much we love, we are still two autonomous individuals, responsible for our own paths, our own lives, our own happiness.

It was Rainer Maria Rilke who said: 'Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest individuals great distances will always exist, a wonderful living side-by-side can grow if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky.'

In this way, we learn to give without giving ourselves away. That is a burden for another, not a gift.

The upshot of all of this is that we truly inhabit our souls, our deep selves, rather than live 'beside ourselves'.

Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.
Read more at:
Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.
Read more at:

Thursday, 9 August 2018

the next day – a poem

The next day

Above my head the mouse
has started nibbling again

perhaps this time it’ll be
the wiring – who knows –

and above a single swallow
arcs over the ash’s bare twigs

above both ash and swallow
a pigeon purposeful and fast

the ash is dying

and who knew that the sky could bear
such an absence of swallows

the world has its ten thousand
ways of being born    living

and leaving this world
and I am still here writing

about these things
because I can’t write about her

but look the evening
has its ten thousand ways

of being beautiful
look how you can see

right through the sky now

© Roselle Angwin 2018


Tuesday, 31 July 2018

the fires of lughnasadh

This is one of the entries (I'm sure I've posted it here before) for the 8 Celtic festivals on my site The Wild Ways. You can see the other festivals here (use the dropdown menu).

Lughnasadh. Lammas. 31 July/1 August. The most ‘outward’ of the four fire festivals, the cross-quarter dates of the Celtic year, each midway between one of the astronomical stations of the turning year (the solstices and equinoxes).

The other fire festivals are Samhain, Imbolc and Beltane.

Samhain, the start of the Celtic New Year on October 31st/November 1st, is the most inward of the fire festivals, and ‘feminine’ in tone: the Crone going into the cave of winter, readying the ground for new seed.

Imbolc, 31 January/1 February (some say 1/2 February) is Brigit’s time: a time for the Maiden, for creativity, for the thoughts of spring flowers.

At Beltane, 30 April/1 May, maiden-become-adult readies herself for Motherhood (which can mean, for a woman, all kinds of creative projects, not simply biological reproduction) in her union with the sun god (‘Bel’; Lugh in one of his guises). The Beltane fires are lit and couples jump through them, share the cup, then take each other joyfully in the long grasses on this cusp of late spring and early summer. The days lengthen; we live outside.

Lughnasadh is the first, the early, harvest. At Lughnasadh we celebrate; but also in the northern hemisphere we turn towards autumn, and there is a dying in the reaping, too.
‘Lammas’ in the old English calendar comes from ‘hlaf-mass’, meaning ‘loafmass’: that bread which we make from the new barley, just reaped.

Ale was the other product of barley: historically until relatively recently drunk in the UK because the fermentation process rendered it ‘cleaner’ than water.

Lugh is one of the gods of light (Bel, or Baal, Bala, celebrated at Beltane, May 1st, is also an earlier and less-well-developed, both in terms of the year and in terms of the ‘lineage’, fire or sun god). He’s also known as Llew Llaw Gyffes in the Welsh Mabinogi.

In Eire Lugh was a chief of the Tuatha de Danaan, Children or People of Dana (Aosdana in the Scots Gaelic); Dana, the divine feminine, being the mother of the god of poetry.

In some versions of the story Lugh was a triple-god (birth, death, renewal; youth, man, sage; page, prince, king – many variants), and he marries a triple goddess. This makes him a ‘primary’ god, so to speak.

Lugh’s trace remains at places in England that begin with ‘Lug’ or ‘Lud’ – I can think of a number on and around Dartmoor, and the ancient westernmost gate to the city of London was Ludgate, the name still preserved in the capital.

At this time of the grain harvest, having successfully impregnated the earth goddess, the sungod-king is sacrificed. (This sees the wheel of the year, at its peak now, beginning to roll down the hill to end in the river of dissolution, before the next rebirth.) New seed has been created, and as the old harvest is reaped so the fire-god in his kingly form is sacrificed to feed and water the earth so that the new green barley may shoot next year.

We remember this in the traditional folk-song of John Barleycorn (you may know the particularly poignant tune sung by – I think – Traffic), ‘murdered’ that we all may live. Listening to that version of the song, it’s impossible not to be aware of the ancient and archetypal rituals associated with harvest-time behind the surface words.

It’s a time of merrymaking in the outer world: dancing, feasting, games and competition, a time too of crafts, Lugh being an artisan-god.

At this turning point, it’s good to make some time to look at the ‘staple’ harvests in one’s life: what has been safely gathered in; what harvest is still not ripe; how one’s inner male and female are relating (or not); what might need to be let go of, ‘sacrificed’, as we turn away from longer days and the peak of fire and light.

The seeds we have planted have ripened now; what are we harvesting? At this peak of the fire festivals, this culmination of a cycle, something has to be given back. For new life to emerge in the psyche something old has to be sacrificed. We can’t resist what has to happen for the continuity of life; we can’t forever resist the natural cycles and tides of things and the continual drive towards transformation and renewal.

Autumn will bring further fruit, and the journey into the darkness will restore fecundity and vitality in the composting of what seems like loss but is simply a shedding.

May the Lughnasadh fires burn up the old and your first harvests be safely gathered in, my friends. Here’s the traditional and mysterious John Barleycorn song for you, redolent as it is with memories of early vegetation rites.


John Barleycorn

There were three men came out of the west,
Their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow,
That John Barleycorn must die.
They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in,
Throwed clods upon his head,
And these three men made a solemn vow:
John Barleycorn is dead.

They let him lie for a long, long time
Till the rain from heaven did fall,
Then little Sir John popped up his head,
And soon amazed them all.
They’ve let him stand till midsummer day
When he looked both pale and wan,
And little Sir John’s grown a long, long beard
And so become a man.

They hired some men with scythes so sharp
To cut him off at the knee,
They rolled him and tied him by the waist,
And served him most barbarously.
They hired men with sharpest pitchforks
Who pricked him to the heart,
And the loader he served him worse than that,
For he bound him to the cart.

They wheeled him round and round the field
Till they came unto a barn,
And there they made a solemn mow
Of poor John Barleycorn.
They hired men with the crab-tree threshing sticks
To cut him skin from bone,
And the miller he served him worse than that,
For he ground him between two stones.

Now, here’s little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl,
And brandy in a glass;
And little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl
Proves the strongest man at last.
For the huntsman he can’t hunt the fox,
Nor so loudly blow his horn,
And the tinker he can’t mend kettles nor pots
Without a little Barleycorn.

Monday, 30 July 2018

the path through the rocks

I spend part of my year in a forest by a lake, among huge granite boulders like great sleeping animals, rock and tree cohabiting, adapting to each other.

This is where I come for stillness, to write, to feel the expanse and spaciousness that is ours when we stop cramming every minute full.

This is also where I learn from trees, find green healing, remember the way a tree joins heaven and earth – arguably our task, too, in our inner lives.

I walk the forest, listen for the birds, the rivers, the cascades, the stories of the wildwood that rustle in the leaves above me and the growth on every side, think of the great interlocking network beneath my feet, the mycorrhizal network that keeps each tree in connection with the all, the forest, and carries its own stories of carbon, sugars, water, messages from tree to tree. How much we can learn from such an ecosystem – invisible, utterly interconnected, vital.

In the forest, I walk on paths trodden since the Iron Age (the great oppidum whose ramparts are shown above is mentioned in Caesar's De Bello Gallico, The Gallic Wars, and I like to think that it was the last village to hold out in the face of Roman invasion, as in Asterix) and possibly since the Bronze Age and the late Neolithic before that.

Beyond the forest, our ancestors live on visibly in the great structures they've left; structures whose purposes we're unclear on, but that they had purpose we can be sure. This great longbarrow, allée couverte, dates from the late Neolithic; has been standing for more than 5000 years. I smile at the inscribed pairs of breasts – the Great Mother – and the inscribed 'axes' that to me look much more like phalloi, but there – who am I to question the experts?

In the forest I step into a different kind of time. It's not simply that it – in human terms – so clearly stretches back so far into the past, but also that it allows me what Thoreau described as a 'broad margin' to my day, and my life. I love this; love the unaccustomed spaciousness where I'm not striving for anything, trying to complete anything, trying to get to the end of/get on top of anything; be responsible to anyone; I'm simply letting the natural rhythms of my day and night unfold in forest time. Everyone needs a broad margin to their day.

One of the things the French do so well is their holy-wells-come-lavoirs, just outside a hamlet. This one is dedicated to St Jean, and there's a sculpture in the niche of a very homely saint with a big head.
Ever pragmatists beneath the romantic veneer, the French have diverted the water from many wells into channels and baths where until relatively recently the village women would bring their laundry. I love this mixing of the sacred and the secular.

In my time in the Pyrenees I washed all my clothes in local lavoirs; sometimes too my hair, when the mountain streams were too tumultuous or cold.

Because food is important to the French (in which I'm including the Bretons for my purposes here), another thing they do well is the picnic bench. Here's a beauty: right next to the well-lavoir, there's what looks like a mini-monolith off to the right, and the table itself is capped with an old stone.

Next to it is this ultraviolet hydrangea, ubiquitous in Brittany, and truly here the colour of heaven.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

A ragbag: surfing, ideas, the slow road to Scotland, green politics & fat hen pancakes (recipe)

This year’s Ways With Words litfest must be the best yet. I’ve gorged on a handful of excellent events, and now I've had to close my purse and open my computer, though there are plenty of great-sounding talks, and a whole poetry day, yet to come.

Once upon a time, I was a surfer (though I rarely managed to stand up on the board, wipeouts being more my natural style). In that fairy tale, we (being my Italian ex-, now late-husband, and down the line our daughter as well), worked the summers in GB making stuff (him beautiful leather bags and belts, I plant-dyed handspun knitwear to my own designs, which meant that my daughter spent many of the first few months of her life slung from my chest while I gathered plants from the North Devon coasts, woods and fields), and spent the winters in our campervan following good surfbreaks down the Atlantic coast of France into northern Spain.

So my nostalgia for the surfing life was well-tended by the first talk I went to, one by Iain Gateley who spends much of his life, even now after a hip op, checking surfbreaks from the southwest of Britain to Galicia. Can I say it was gratifying to see his clips of so many other surfers also suffering wipeouts? And the final one of a tube (which is when you surf parallel to shore INSIDE the great curl of a breaking wave’s green tunnel towards the light)  conveyed something of the ecstasy and almost-transcendence of catching a wave (though I never managed a tube).

Barry Cunliffe, that great historian, speaking on prehistoric sea-travel was his usual knowledgeable self, though TM and I were both disappointed that he stopped, more or less, before covering the western Atlantic seaboard of GB. I wanted to know more about the most recent findings in relation to the Phoenicians and their connection with the early tin trade in Cornwall.

In between these two sea-speakers I read my long Dartmoor water-poem River Suite, and – being broke as all freelance poets almost always are unless they achieve (usually posthumous) fame – was delighted to sell 6 copies of the limited edition artists’ book – that’s 250-ish sold now out of 300. (I would link to the video clip of my reading that Dartington made and posted, but a) I can’t stand listening to my own voice and b) I’m not sure who that fat old imposter reading in the clip is.)

Canon Mark Oakley delivered a passionate, erudite and eloquent talk on the continuing significance and essential role of poetry in an age of literalism. (I’d give you selected excerpts except it would mean transcribing the whole thing.) He also managed to convey deep soul, while only mentioning God twice (he is after all a canon). Oakley spoke quite a lot about wisdom, and as his next job will be Dean of St John’s College Cambridge I wanted to offer him ex-Dominican Matthew Fox’s words: ‘Looking for wisdom in a university is like looking for chastity in a brothel.’

Surfing links Iain Gately and Martin Dorey, whose new book Take the Slow Road Scotland (in a campervan) formed the story behind his talk. Predictably I loved it; the more so because I kept catching sight of what looked remarkably like my daughter’s van in his photos of the Outer Hebrides. (How I wish that TM loved the islands as much as I do. Good job we both like Brittany and France.) As the book was £20 I resisted buying it, but did buy his simultaneously-published No. More. Plastic. (I have to say that I – and probably many of us – do all this already, but still, it offers a focus.) Martin is behind the #2minutebeachclean initiative, which has persuaded a great many people that they can, in fact, help save the oceans (or verges, streets, lanes, fields) from more plastic. Of course, cleaning it up is stable doors: better by far not to buy it in the first place.

I’m on a big drive to reduce the (already-minimal) amount of plastic that comes into our home. Since TM is veggie but not vegan, but has voluntarily limited the amount of dairy products such as butter in his diet, my next venture is to try making (‘healthy’) margarine and keeping it in a Kilner jar in the fridge rather than buying all those plastic tubs. I already make our face creams and ointments – have done forever – so am hoping the emulsification principle is similar. If any of you has any idea, please let me know. I personally love olive oil congealed (in a Kilner jar) in the fridge as a spread, but it seems I’m on my own with that. Meridian does a good almond butter, but – it’s in plastic. (And yes, I know there are issues with almonds; I try and source them from Europe.) And – can I still write with a fountain pen? (Could I ever??) That would save binning a lot of plastic gel pens.

Raynor Winn’s new book The Salt Path is her account of the walk she and her husband did along the 630 miles of the Southwest Coastpath just after a devastating diagnosis for her husband, and their being made homeless simultaneously. Her talk was entertaining and honest; her book will be my reading matter in Brittany next week (also my sister’s, perhaps, as she’s coming too - hooray! - and for a few years her work involved walking and writing up circular stretches of the coastpath for the SWCP association, resulting in a series of little books).

Prof Raymond Tallis, philosopher and neuroscientist (Logos: The Mystery of How We Make Sense of the World – also at £25 too expensive for me at the moment) offered a rich and heady cocktail of ideas, though I didn’t always agree with his conclusions. When I posited, though, that while philosophy and science can help us make sense and/or meaning, they are currently generally set in opposition to myth, story and poetry (logos and mythos, which occur as a duo in many of my blogs here from the last 8 years), and that the latter are also very much about making sense and meaning of our history and our experience of being human and of the world, and should be brought together, he nodded in delight and said that that is also his conclusion. There are people working hard to cross divides, to bring false binaries back into harmony, in every discipline.

The environmental ‘debate’ between Guy Singh-Watson, founder of Riverford Organics and hot from Desert Island Discs (and yet another surfer), Natalie Bennett, ex-leader of the Green Party, and Philip Lymbery, author of Farmageddon and Where the Wild Things Were, and CEO of Compassion in World Farming on the future for food: what is the balance between food security and food safety, and how do we feed 7.5 billion people? – was also lively and impassioned with, as you’d expect, each speaker well-informed. Of course it wasn’t actually a debate, as they all agree that factory farming is not the answer to any of the issues being discussed, and nor are pesticides or GM foods. Although they didn’t address the issue of water stress (which I think is going to be massive before too long, even though it may not feel like it here in England most of the time, if not actually right now), they all agreed that eating less meat is the only way forward. Of course.

Well, you know my views on that. And yes of course it’s hard to be vegan. I don’t miss milk in my tea – which was my feeble reason for so many decades of being lacto-veggie for not going the whole hog (so to speak); in fact now I find it disgustingly animal-fatty. Cheese is a different matter. Whereas once, in my youth, I fantasised about leaving the known world with a raggle-taggle gipsyman, now I fantasise about grilled halloumi, a Greek salad with feta, buffalo mozzarella... and resist. Mostly. (As these days I do those romantic barefoot musical wanderers.)

Finally, here’s my current most-delicious vegan recipe for you, its filling today consisting of the food-for-free nutritious and self-seeded fat hen (chenopodium album, and also a dye plant; photo at top) that is abundant in England this time of year, and that I’ve just weeded from our squash bed to use in place of spinach, and a picking from our abundance of courgettes (with their beautiful yellow flowers that the bees love).

I need to say that quantities and proportions are approximate and flexible. Experiment!

In Brittany, the speciality is krampouez, or galettes de blé noir, which is buckwheat crêpes. Buckwheat is not a grain but the seed of a plant in the sorrel/rhubarb family, so it’s gluten-free too. I love these, and they are so easy to make. Vary the filling as you like – it's good with creamy mushrooms, ratatouille, mashed avocado with seasalt, tabasco and finely-chopped nuts and yeast flakes, or garlic-sautéed courgettes with onions – and any number of other fillings.

For the galettes for two people:
4 heaped tablespoons buckwheat flour
8-12 tablespoons water, added gradually and beaten well
half-teaspoon salt
half-teaspoon+ of any, or combinations of, tagine spices, turmeric, cumin seed, mustard seed

For the filling:
A big handful of spinach or chard, washed, destalked, torn up – OR fat hen! You can also use foraged orache (and it would be nice with sorrel as well, or samphire instead)
2 courgettes, sliced
bunch parsley, finely chopped
3 or 4 leaves mint, finely chopped
clove garlic, finely chopped
grated nutmeg
salt and pepper
a little olive oil
juice of half a lemon
(Coyo coconut yogurt if you want to use it)

First make your pancake mix. I make mine fairly thick as they’re less likely to stick, and I use a small cast iron frying pan (about 8 inches bottom diameter in old money).

Sauté the courgettes in a dash of oil on a low heat until soft. Throw in spinach, chard, or fat hen, garlic, and herbs. Lid the pan and let it all wilt gently. Add the other ingredients, turn heat right down.

The secret to a successful pancake is a) proportions (roughly twice as much water as flour, or a little more than that), and b) the pan. Smear a heavy-bottomed pan with a very little oil and heat till smoking. Test it with a drop of the mix. If it sizzles, it’s ready. Pour a ladleful of the mix in, and immediately tilt the pan so it covers the bottom. After about a minute, turn the heat down slightly. Let it cook (but don’t burn it) for two or three minutes, until a knife slipped under the pancake will easily lift it. Then flip, and cook for another minute or two,

Hope you like it as much as I do. Let me know!

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