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.
Thursday, 2 July 2020
We the privileged have space, seclusion, a garden. Still, friends become strangers; and strangers, met in the lanes unleashed from their cars, friends.
Otherwise my conversations are with dunnock, buzzard, robin; wild rose, honeysuckle, meadowsweet –
of wild strawberries
The dogs hope for squirrels. On the hillside, rustle of tree-talk; near-silence of the A38.
of the little stream
A long elsewhere away riots, violence, families crammed into spaces that should house one individual. Front-line work, communities crumbling, machines, despair, distress, death and spreading spreading sickness. I imagine these things. I think of my own dead, who are always present.
On the hill
the cows have had their calves
Last year the sparrowhawks in the trees at the top of the meadow took both fledgling blackbirds and then their mother. The blackbirds were all raised a yard away, in the rockface of our courtyard; were tame. Too tame? Once again the sparrowhawk’s high-pitched tweee is overhead, and I feel my breath catch. New fledglings are now in clumsy half-grown flight, foraging for themselves, snacking on blackcurrants. The young robin has become more wary – in its own wild.
From first light to first star
thrush’s song sounds the valley
like a bell
And here in our garden are the first potatoes, small beans, new courgettes – so easily unheeded, annual quiet miracles like this.
In May one
wild cherry lit up
the whole valley.
© Roselle Angwin
This form, the haibun, is a particular favourite of mine. If you like it too, it forms part of the new 5-day online retreat I've been promising (and there's much else too).
POETRY, NATURE & MINDFULNESS is booking now for early August, and for early October. (You can read more on the link just above, and also here.)
It promises a way of dropping deep: taking time out to be still, quiet and present for an hour or two each day (or perhaps for the rest of your life).
I'd love to work with you. And please tell your friends!
PS: A big thank you to all of you who emailed after I posted my new book cover here, and shared it on social media. Please keep doing that!
Tuesday, 30 June 2020
It is always so exciting to catch the first glimpse of your forthcoming book's cover (and also a bit trepidating, if that word exists. What if you hate it? Although so far I've loved almost all of my covers.)
This came through this morning. It's so perfect I nearly cried. The book is still in production and the publication date a whole year away, but still.
This is what it says on the back:
'Trees occupy a place of enormous significance, not only in our planet’s web of life but also in our psyche. This book is part love-song to trees, forests and the Wildwood, part poetic guidebook to the botany, ecology, cultural history, properties, mythology, folklore and symbolism of trees, and part a deeper exploration of thirteen native sacred British tree species in relation to the powerful mythic Celtic Ogham alphabet calendar. "Tongues in Trees" is a multi-layered contribution to the current awareness of the importance and significance of trees and the resurgence of interest in their place on our planet and in our hearts.
'In the book, Angwin says: "...a planet without the Wildwood will, after a while, no longer support other forms of life, including ours, and a life lived without soul will also not support any kind of meaningful life." The book is, therefore, also a plea that we re-vision our relationship to the other-than-human.'
And I've had a lovely endorsement from Fred Hageneder, author of many beautiful books about trees: 'The poet who reignites within us passion and wonder for the living world does as much for the healing of the planet as any ecologist. Roselle Angwin is one such poet.'
Thursday, 4 June 2020
Writing the Bright Moment
If you really listen, you can hear that spider spinning her web in the corner of the window. Listen a bit harder – and there’s the blackbird singing to the rain. And oh – is that waves, breaking on a faraway shore? – The world going about its business on the edge of one vast ocean of space.
Listen more deeply again, and you can hear the fixed stars singing in their sockets, the planets spinning their deep hums, or their high whines; and – there, listen again – the chanting of the spheres.
Closer, there is the pulse beating in every animal, bird, fish, plant, insect – and did you know that trees breathe in and out too?
Closer still, right here, right now, you: separate and not separate. You with your central nervous system, your eyes, your hands, your heart; your thoughts, feelings, dreams; your fears, regrets, loves. Your bloodstream flowing through the branches of your being, and within it and beyond it all your consciousness that knows all this, sees all this, shares all this, embodies all this, transcends all this.
You and All That Is, eternally in relationship.
The rains have come after such sun, such an amazing start to our vegetable-growing season, and under the oak tree that graces our courtyard I turn my face up to the light drops; can hear and smell all the plants, herbs, little trees, bee-flowers sighing, opening, drinking.
Instead of today's tasks away, for once, from the computer and work – continuing to clean up Clarissa, my ancient and much-loved campervan who needs a new home, and potting up or planting out numerous seedlings, saplings or overgrown plants, or giving the young dogs a longish walk, I decide the rain means I can take pleasure in sitting quietly by the open door, in reading, writing, thinking, at least for a little while. These all feel like luxuries in how things have been for me since I switched my Islands of the Heart courses on the Isle of Iona to virtual courses, where actually of course these moments are essential nutrition.
And so my mind slips towards what I’ve been mulling: my new poetry, nature and mindfulness course might, this morning, have some room to spread its wings, then land on a twig not too far from me and resolve itself into shapes I might work with.
Poetry, nature and mindfulness. Embodied and transcendent practice: fully here, and fully inhabiting soul, including anima mundi – for we are ‘in soul’ as much as soul is in us.
‘...[Our] great works are done when we are not calculating and thinking... [through] long years of training in the art of self-forgetfulness. When this is attained we think like the showers coming down from the sky; we think like the waves rolling on the ocean; we think like the stars illuminating the nightly heavens; we think like the green foliage shooting forth... indeed we are the showers, the ocean, the stars, the foliage.’ D T Suzuki (I’ve changed ‘man’ to ‘we’.)
Mindfulness is 2,500 years old. It grew out of Buddhist practice, and then was honed and clarified in Zen meditation practice, a mere 1500 years ago. My own practice only goes back a blink of an eye, a mere mere 40 years.
Mindfulness meditation is a form of psychospiritual work. In the West, it’s become immensely popular in its ‘secular’ form as a stress-reduction technique, and it’s great for that.
But it is originally about waking up: to our true nature, to essential nature, to the truth in the fact that we are not separate but utterly interdependent, all of us, everywhere, human and other-than-human, to the tyranny of the ego, to the conditioned habits and patterns that run us, to the truth of transience and uncertainty, and to the beauty, fleeting and eternal, of this one moment – the only one we ever have.
My practice began informally in my early solo attempts in my teens after having read Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, then the poetry of Gary Snyder, and D T Suzuki and Alan Watts. Then there was a difficult formal attempt – sitting for long periods, in silence, with a group of older men, all hardcore Soto Zen practitioners – when I was a student at 19 or 20. We would sit with our eyes not quite closed, facing a blank white wall, for what felt like hours, and then leave without a word. My later involvement with the Network of Engaged Buddhists under the guidance of Ken Jones was a much warmer, and deeply inspiring, experience.
Mindfulness meditation is about being aware of the present moment, with all of yourself, with full attention and intention, and leaving behind your opinions, judgements and reactions to the content of this moment.
From such a place, we can pierce the veils of illusion, see into the nature of reality, appreciate everything about our surroundings, our relationships, the rest of the natural world and how beautiful it all is – even when terrible things are happening. But it’s not about quietism – it’s also about taking a stand for what we know is ‘right action’; simply not being ruled by our emotional reactivity as we do so.
And the writing of poetry or prose from such a place inside, especially when it meets the outer world, can be a profound way both of exploring and expressing this All.
It does not offset my despair at ‘the state of the world’: COVID19 and all the suffering involved in that; the earth burning up; the destruction of forest, the lungs of the planet, for our industry and our industrial farming; the suffering of the billions of animals kept in appalling conditions to be our prey; the starving of thousands of people each day; mental and physical suffering of so many; ecocide on an unprecedented scale. The prevalence of fear and cruelty.
But a way out of the suffering we experience in knowing all this, in being part of all this, in feeling hopeless and helpless, is to remember and celebrate the beauty and abundance that is around us, too. How privileged I am to be reasonably healthy; and to harvest and cook this artichoke and to eat it outside, with lemon and olive oil, garlic and parsley for lunch; and how I enjoy every single long moment of it.
I’ll write Part 11 soon. Meantime I’ve been uploading more Iona poems to SoundCloud, and there will be further podcasts to come.
For more on the new course, go to here.
My dear friend Michael has also found a way to record to MP3 and CD two creative visualisations, shaped by Jung’s active imagination techniques, that I developed for my Myth as Metaphor workshops in 1991, wrote about in my first book in 1993, and first recorded on cassette tapes (remember those?) in 1994. Another friend composed music to go with them, and ‘Sanctuary’ and ‘Journey to the Healing Spring’ will be available to buy from me soon. Feedback has always been that they’re relaxing, restorative and healing.
Friday, 8 May 2020
From the ragbag: no Iona (but new courses & poems); no-dig gardening, no dog accidents, no traffic. Oh and no-meat cooking
About half a dozen more significant blogs (at least in my head) – philosophy, ecology, natural health, 5G, politics, literature, myth and story – have been and gone, in potentia only, in the last few weeks, while I've been working, briefly at least, harder than ever.
The lanes are wearing their May best – it's the season of the blues, pinks and whites now, with the yellows of early spring less prominent. I'm sure I say this every year, but this must be the plushest most luminous and most ecstasy-producing spring yet (easy to say, living here in the relative wild where we can walk the valley and the lanes every day, I know). Each spring feels like the first and last, and our valley, already swimming with wildlife, has given us the most amazing dawn chorus each day, enhanced by the absence of the already very little traffic we generally have. (The thrush, in fact, greets the dawn enthusiastically until about noon, and then begins to herald dusk mid-afternoon.)
Now, in the Celtic tree calendar we're moving into hawthorn, by whose flowering our ancestors would have entered into May (one of the other names for hawthorn). A potent time with this full 'flower' supermoon in Scorpio, increasing those energies. Courtesy of hawthorn (in addition to allopathic meds) my heart rate and blood pressure have gradually normalised (but do consult a herbalist if this interests you). 'Our' hawthorns in the field are magnificent:
– and the bluebells at the field margins this year are beginning to spread.
The local wild garlic – the white flower in the top photo – a little of which has finally 'taken' in our copse, has been leafing since late January. It's about to become tougher now, but is still edible. I've been using loads, most often in pesto (a good handful of washed and torn wild garlic leaves; about half that of fresh parsley; about the same amount of cashew or hazel nuts or sunflower seeds, or of course pine nuts if you have them, as garlic; salt and pepper and generous quantities of a good cold-pressed oil: olive traditionally, but I love the taste of Clearspring's cold-pressed sunflower oil; start with a tablespoon and add more if you need more liquid. Eat with pasta, on bread, on potatoes and salads.)
I also use it in my current favourite dish, potato, leek or courgette tortilla.
I was in the Basque Pyrenees through one winter when my daughter was small (with her too, I hasten to add). Most of the local bars had slices of potato tortilla (or frittata) for sale. A dispute rages still about whether a 'proper' potato tortilla should contain onions or garlic; purists, and I'm one, say garlic only. As a lacto-veggie I used to use eggs and put cheese on top. Now, as a vegan, I make it like this, and even TM swears it's as good as the old one (and he's a committed dairy-eater). Quantities are approximate; I do it by eye. For two:
2-3 large potatoes, thinly grated on the slicing edge of a box grater (or 3 courgettes, or 3 leeks, finely-sliced)
1 very generous handful wild garlic leaves, washed and torn
Yeast flakes (I use the Engevita one with B12)
Half a mug of gram (chickpea) flour
Half to three-quarters of a mug of water (or even more)
Smoked paprika to taste
Salt and pepper
Oil to cook
Frying pan with lid
Slice the potatoes and warm the oil until a slice dropped in sizzles. Cook all the spuds on a medium heat, lidded.
Halfway through, stir in the torn garlic. Add salt and pepper.
Once it's nearly cooked, whisk half a mug of the water, yeast flakes, paprika and seasoning into the gram flour: it needs to be a thinnish batter, and deep enough just to cover the potato mix. You may need to add the rest of the water, and maybe more too. Don't worry that it's thin. Pour the mix onto the spuds etc. and put the grill on to medium high. After about ten minutes on the hob on medium heat, transfer to under the grill. Here it should set, pretty much, and turn golden brown. It may be runny and creamy still – a lovely variant on pommes dauphinoises – or it may set enough to slice, depending on proportions. Either way, it's delicious. (When I come to complete the vegan cookbook I've not been writing I'll tighten this up a little!)
We live in two acres of wildish meadow, an orchard, two copses, a bee-bed and a herb-bed, and a courtyard garden around the stone, wood and glass house that TM built. (Most of that isn't as swanky or tidy as it sounds.) Our veg garden is on a steep north-facing slope, in the only flat area, the old silage pit. All the soil in our raised beds has been carried or barrowed up there by TM. He has been working on an eco-house for a client for the last year: a very elegant timber-clad straw bale structure. One week before he was due to finish, the joiner who was making the staircase suddenly closed, so TM has been back home every day for a month or so. This means we're ahead of our normal schedule in the garden, so it's all prepped and sown (or the seeds are sown and have germinated in the greenhouse). Our onions and potatoes are well-grown now, and the broad beans too.
My daughter, who's with us at the moment, after a chance remark of mine about growing in straw bales instead of making more raised beds, has invested any time, money and energy that's left over from her weaving into making a huge swathe of the meadow into a hay bale veg garden (hay doesn't need added nitrogen as straw does, hence the switch). Watch this space!
For myself, the more I read about mycorrhizal networks, the fungal 'highways' that are symbiotic with the roots of trees and plants, the more I am convinced that permaculture, forest gardens and no-dig approaches are the way forward, and urgently needed. We're nowhere near that yet apart from our fruit trees, and TM is a hardcore digger. However, there is one little bed on which I'm using the no-dig method (though TM couldn't resist 'lightly' digging over the patch where the last leeks have now come out): in the top two photos, it's the one with dark soil. It's been created by layer after layer of mulch: horse manure, seaweed, compost, composted bark. I didn't think I'd see myself posting a photo of a handful of soil, but look! AND it's jammed with earthworms. If you're interested, Charles Dowding is a bit of a pioneer.
So that has taken care of TM's last few weeks, and my snatched hours. I've been intensely busy. To my grief, and that too of the participants, I had to cancel my Isle of Iona courses.
This is troubling in terms of an income, but also devastating in as much as this would have been my 20th spring on the island, and I love both this sacred island and the work we do there (it's also a top-up of the Atlantic, by which I grew up). And I work with lovely people. So I designed some 'virtual' courses for the would-be participants. Of course they're no substitute for the island with its Otherworld shimmerings, nor for the meditative walks, writing hours, laughter, tears and trips to the seals and puffins on Staffa that we share in our extraordinary and warm gatherings. But it was something; and it took a lot of work and time.
Side-by-side with that my next book came back from the publishers' copyediting process for me to check and re-edit with a tight deadline – on a computer that didn't like the version of Word and inserted random phrases and characters throughout (long story. Took ages too.)
And I had some outstanding mentoring to complete from the Tree course I lead.
Now, all that behind me, I can breathe, and sort out unsorted website and work stuff, and design new online courses (including a 'virtual' Iona one), and think about which of the three books I've started to write I shall continue right now.
And make some forays into the audio world. I have a SoundCloud account, and have uploaded stuff that others have recorded for me. This time, I thought I'd 'make my own' on the ancient Mac. I have; so if you'd like to hear 8 minutes or so of the first few poems in my last poetry collection A Trick of the Light – poems from Iona you can hear it on this link.
So there are things to celebrate here.
And here's another: our lovely pups have been in and out of the vets' since October (until about late March), one or other almost all the time in a buster collar, those awful lampshade things. Lots of very long stories, some of them about breaks for freedom that did my stress levels no good at all, but much of it down to highly-active, very fast, daredevil young males acquiring serious cuts (ditto re stress); if one was bandaged, both often had to wear buster collars as they'd pull each other's bandages off; ditto with an eye infection they caught and passed back and forwards.
For a month, now, all has been well (apart from the odd adventure over a Devon bank, barbed wire or a high wall having caught sight of a hare or roe deer). Phew. And look – butter wouldn't melt, hey? They are the sweetest; and TM, an avowed cat man, is utterly, soppily, in love with them both.
Friday, 1 May 2020
Wishing you all, despite our strange circumstances, a gentle – or maybe lively – coming-in of summer for MayDay, Beltane, today. Warmth and blessings to you.
I've been frantically busy with many things, of which more anon.
Here for you is the May excerpt from a longish poem in my book Bardo.
Entering the Wood
the periphery path
is a flattened hemisphere
in fact it’s
half a heart
entering the green eye of the woods
you go naked
as in the presence of a lover
or a god
stripped of the might-have-been selves
and all that is not now
crossing the threshold with the whole of you
and all that fecund body stretched out above, around, below you
the old gods linger still
where the trees have eyes
and twigs finger your passing
stories in the soil and the palimpsest of history
which is here, now, as we are, flickering, present – not vertical, of time,
but horizontal, stitched into the green spaces and throbbing around us –
in the language of wodwose and dryad
flower maiden and green man
and the green lady kneels with her earth-dark hands
and the wood is a living and fertile presence
there are voices here
the moist darkness
the bursting soil
its unthinkable numbers of lives
their separate rhythms pulsing
© Roselle Angwin, 2011
Monday, 6 April 2020
One of the lovely things about my yearlong Tongues in Trees course has been the enthusiasm with which participants have engaged with both the trees and each other, and Facebook has turned out to be a rich resource. Last year's group is continuing to use their Fb page, and one member, Ali Walters, posted a poem last week which reflects our current strange time so well. With her permission, here is the poem and the accompanying photo.
In the Celtic Tree Calendar that I use, we have recently moved from Ash to Alder, but each tree also informs our relationship to the next, and the previous, tree, in wonderful symbiosis.
I have also used Ali's poem in an essay-contribution to an anthology that is intended to lift and support people at this hard time. It's particularly aimed at those of us whose spiritual path is an earth-centred one, but hopefully will inspire others too. More anon.
Thank you, Ali.
Ash Tree Reflections
In an upside down world
I stare at my reflection
and tell you
I know about disease.
I know about shortage and want.
I know what it is like to dread the chainsaw’s roar
and wonder if it is coming for me.
I know what it is like
to no longer hear my friends
whispering on the wind.
In this upside down world
if you can't hug your mother, sister, friend, brother, father, child, grandchild
put your arms around me
and listen while I tell you
we are all in this together.
© Ali Walters
Monday, 30 March 2020
One of our would-have-been participants, on the first, 'Core', group, Jenna, sent me this poem. I reproduce it here with her permission and my thanks to her.
Love will be our bedrock
We are separate, but we all stand
on the same patient, greening earth.
All around us life is busy, a song thrush
practises its three small phrases, a crow
balances on the crown of a Monterey pine,
rasps its black throat, a buzzard circles.
Hedges are white with blackthorn blossom,
celandine brighten the lanes, lambs grow strong.
The city sounds are muffled, streets deserted.
Fingers send messages, smile greets smile on screen.
Fear prowls the tunnels of our dreams,
casts giant shadows on the bedroom walls,
but morning comes, we watch another sunrise
lighten the day, make a list of friends to ring.
Thursday, 19 March 2020
'Of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to nuclear war, none is so great as the deadening of our response.'
I have followed the work of Joanna Macy for decades now, so when my dear friend Simon emailed me this morning and included the idea, as in my title today, that this may be the first step towards a new era ('The Great Turning' is a concept of Macy's), I was reminded of two things.
One is that nothing is ever in vain. We live in a world where everything appears to be born, to live and flower, and to die, but that cycle is never finished. Everything is composted, everything renews.
The second thing is how easy it is to forget that we are part of this huge cycle and that in our smallness, from our smallness upwards, in our imagining, our thoughts, our words and our actions, we can help the process of renewal; we can be part of the Great Turning; we can also remember the vocabulary of active hope (the title of one of Macy's books). I have revisited her website to boost my own belief in her life-affirming model of The Work That Reconnects.
And how important that is right now.
The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way
our umbilicus. Is it a consolation
Wherever you go you can never totally disappear -
dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.
If you tune everything else out
the silence you hear is the white noise
of the singing spheres: the voice of the universe.
© Roselle Angwin; in Bardo.
Three things might help us through this strange time (in addition to poetry which, as Adrienne Rich famously said, can save your life; see below).
One is consciously to challenge our own impulse to close down, and open up instead, emotionally speaking, to the pain and the beauty of it all, and the tiny things we have to offer that might make a difference to someone somewhere. I'm struck by the generosity of people right now. And I've been particularly grateful for acts of kindness in my own tricky situation. We are not alone in our small homes on this beautiful planet, even if we're practising social distancing or self-isolating and it feels like it.
Another is to celebrate, despite everything, the possibility that this time might also represent the dying gasps of the monstrous capitalism on which our consumer society with its many injustices and inequalities is founded; the myth of perpetual and infinite growth on a finite planet might at last be seen for the Trojan Horse it is. What that means, who knows; but that it is unsustainable is indisputable.
And the third, even in the midst of fear and illness, or anxiety about lost work and income, is to continue to bring our presence to each moment. Every second is very precious; and see how the rest of the natural world continues to do its thing – still, and mostly, despite all our destructiveness. This moment, and how we live it, is what counts, given that 'how we live our days is how we live our lives'.
Have you ever seen so many clustered primroses as in this early spring? Have you listened out, even in town, for the blackbirds first thing? Have you noticed the creeping quiet and absence of noise with fewer cars on the road? I'm noticing, too, how people are warm to strangers, even at the requisite six-foot distance. I'm always happy to interact with strangers, but somehow I particularly enjoy a conversation over a hedge with a young guy I haven't met before who is laying, carefully because it's a bit late in the year, said hedge, bending the hazel carefully and pegging it in place. Perhaps it's the fact that it's a small act of hope that uplifts me so.
I really recommend, if you can get out and walk, noticing what's out there, and foraging a little. It's very healing.
RECIPE (for 2-4)
I've been collecting the wild garlic and nettle tops to make a healthy immune-boosting soup. Even in this 'hungry gap' time of late winter/early spring in the UK, there is food out there. We still have leeks, that mainstay of English winter veg, and frozzen pea beans from our crop last year, and to my delight at last a patch of wild garlic in our woodland edges, so all of those things, with a potato or two, get sautéed together.
One fat leek
A can of butter beans, or haricot beans, or whatever you have
A handful of young nettle tops (pick with a plastic bag over your hands, or gardening gloves, and you might want to use scissors so as not to rip the whole plant out, and wash them well)
A handful of wild garlic, washed (or you can use cloves)
Salt and pepper to taste
Yogurt (optional) – I use Coyo from coconuts
Wash, slice, dice, tear as necessary. Sauté potatoes and leeks until soft. Add the rest and stir. Add enough stock (or water + yeast extract, or water + soy sauce) to cover well. Bring to the boil then simmer for 30 minutes or so. Whizz if you like; serve with a dollop of yogurt (I use non-dairy) and crusty bread.
My friend Dan is a medic and poet. He sent me these words this morning:
I work in the NHS. I also read poetry to make sense of my life. Poetry will change nothing, yet I am reading poetry daily.
We are going to lose a lot of people. Quarter of a million of us. Quarter of a million. Each one storied and unique.
Death happens everyday. That is one of the gifts of being a doctor. Daily, we receive that unfathomable reality. But this is death rampant, death with his war-time face.
Most of us will be lucky. It will mainly take the older, those for whom, perhaps, their ending has been imagined already.
In the NHS, we are putting on our uniforms and we are going out there. Society is putting on a serious face and quietening before what will happen. Our hands are raw from washing.
I sit in a GP Surgery, one of our outposts amongst the well. We are the dividing line between the land of the sick and the land of the well. I am preparing myself to be redeployed, to walk towards those who are dying, to care where care is needed.
Every morning, I am listening to the scientists. Everyday I am listening closely. This is the time for science. We are all working as a team. We make sure that we are calm, attentive, kind, responsible and we listen to the scientists. If we want to save as many of us as we can, we need to listen closely to science. This is no time for poetry. We need to use brave scientific words. They are pretty stark.
But when I come home from work, as I unwind in the rest of the evening, on my own, my family away, I need poetry to make any sense of this all. To find the lessons that others have won hard. Or to delight… Or to laugh… To get on with living.
Saturday, 14 March 2020
I think almost all of us would rather have a certain outcome, even a challenging one, in most situations than live with uncertainty. Of course, being alive guarantees that the only thing that is certain, after mortality, is uncertainty. Various meditation practices, especially Zen, require that we face that, in order to free ourselves.
We live always in uncertain times. At the moment, it seems even more uncertain than ever on so many fronts, doesn't it? Our future might in part depend on our not being driven by fear: acting wisely, but without panic. We may not have much choice in what happens, but we can choose how we relate to it. Strength resides in that freedom.
And given the unknown aspects of the coronavirus situation, we've plenty of opportunities to practise. It's helpful to remember that fear has physiological and psychological impacts on us, and that protecting ourselves from these may be of benefit not only to ourselves and our wellbeing, but also to our community, panic being as contagious as it is (and having an impact on our immune system).
Isle of Iona
And so I raise the fact that a place has come up on my Iona retreats (due to the happy occurrence of an unexpected pregnancy in a participant from the States) knowing that, because of sensible fear, or panicky fear, or wisdom – who can know at the moment? – that place may not fill; indeed, there's a slim chance that the course may not happen. As things stand, I'm very much intending to be there – this will be my 20th year of leading retreats on this sacred island, and for me as well as for many of the participants this is the highlight of the year. (The photo above is dawn from the hotel window.)
I, like so many others, might be hit very hard if this virus takes hold. I've been making my way, and my living, in the arts for coming up for 40 years now, and often I haven't even made the minimum wage on an annual basis (though I have lived the life I want, following a star I believe in, that is hugely fulfilling). Cancelling my major income source for the year might be a death-knell to my work as course facilitator – but I also have to balance that, clearly, with awareness of the wellbeing of participants. So right now, like everyone else, I'm waiting to see what unfolds; knowing also that life takes us in unexpected directions which so often offer a new, exciting and fulfilling – if uncertain – way forward.
NEW BOOK: A Spell in the Forest
I'm so excited – or at least I was, until a glitch in the formatting meant I read 72,000 words about 20 times until I could no longer tell if those words in their particular combination were any good – that my new book, A Spell in the Forest – tongues in trees (rooted in the course of the same name) has been accepted for publication, and will emerge in about a year. The overall manager of the publishing house, and the managing director of the imprint, both said lovely things about it, which reassures me somewhat. The most amazing thing is that I had a positive response from them in just 3 days – very different from the 17 years that my first novel, Imago, took to find a home.
If you read this blog often, you will know that I'm 99% vegan (I do fall from grace on occasion). There is a good deal to say about a plant-based diet in relation to the environment, sustainable futures and minimising suffering, as well as feeding the world by freeing up land, but I'll desist for now (I'll be turning my attention to completing – or rather, properly starting – the cookbook I have been collating on all this soon).
For now, I just want to offer you a somewhat delicious vegan recipe of which I'm rather proud, but NB that it needs refining in terms of proportions, and I'll update this when I've had the chance to refine it.
If you are non-vegan and a fish-eater, you might want to consider cutting it down, or only buying line-caught or – better – catching your own. Here's an update on the plight of dolphins (no, not simply as a result of tuna-fishing, as most of us are already aware). I want to gently invite you to read this article.
Potato, leek and wild garlic non-dauphinoise
4 big or 5 medium potatoes, very finely sliced (you can use the slicer element on the side of a hand grater)
1 fat leek, finely sliced (or large courgette, or a good quantity of very finely chopped, or frozen, spinach)
1 handful of finely-chopped wild garlic (or two cloves)
a generous slosh of olive oil
2 heaped tablespoons of gram flour
3/4 - 1 mug of water
(possible) extra gram flour
smoked paprika (optional)
Greens to serve alongside.
Over a medium heat, soften the potatoes, lidded in a big frying pan.
After about 10 minutes, add the veg and the seasoning (be generous with the salt).
Keep cooking for about 20 minutes, depending on the potato variety. They need to be pretty well cooked through before the next stage.
Every so often, stir and turn over.
Put the grill on to a medium heat (I use about 170º C fan).
Very gradually stir the water into the gram flour until you have a mix that is roughly the consistency of thin school custard.
Gently pour it in. It needs to completely cover the veg mix (it will thicken). If it doesn't cover, make up more gram flour and water mix.
Sprinkle with yeast flakes.
When it's bubbling (be careful it doesn't burn; lower the heat if necessary), take off the stove top and put under the grill until golden-brown.
Tree of the Month
Many of you know about my Tongues in Trees work, and quite a few of you are walking alongside me in this Celtic-Tree-Calendar journey (link above, in the new-book section).
We are just about to move out of Ash ('Nion') month and into Alder ('Fearn'). Look out for these unassuming but quite powerful water-loving trees as they begin to leaf here in the northern hemisphere. (My last blog included a picture of their beautiful catkins, out now.)
Mythologically, they can represent the masculine spirit in its protector mode. Think how that would change the future of both humanity and the other-than-human, if we rallied the protective rather than destructive masculine in all our psyches, and 'out there' too.
Meantime, here's to the emergence, in the northern hemisphere, of spring, and the return of the light – and the astonishing annual regreening of the earth. Already here we have birds feeding their first broods; an owl sends us to sleep, and a blackbird wakes us.
Thursday, 13 February 2020
As we, the dogs and I, walk up the lane past the old lightning-blasted oak, wave after wave of redwings swim out of the neighbouring ashes, chattering to each other.
Each time I witness this I think of that beautiful passage in Annie Dillard’s classic mystical and scientific Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book I have read over and over since I first found it in the 1970s. ‘For a week last September migrating red-winged blackbirds were feeding heavily down by the creek at the back of the house. One day I went out to investigate the racket; I walked up to a tree, an Osage orange, and a hundred birds flew away. They simply materialised out of the tree. I saw a tree, then a whisk of color, then a tree again.I walked closer and another hundred blackbirds took flight. Not a branch, not a twig budged: the birds were apparently weightless as well as invisible. Or, it was as if the Osage orange had been freed from a spell in the form of red-winged blackbirds; they flew from the tree, caught my eye in the sky, and vanished. When I looked again at the tree the leaves had reassembled as if nothing had happened.’
I’m so fortunate: I live in a little hidden valley where we have plenty of woodland and scrub to support a diversity of wildlife. It’s the sort of lost valley in the deep twisting Devon lanes where compasses are scrambled and little conventional agriculture happens. Although we only have one immediate neighbour, all sorts of tiny off-grid low-impact steadings have sprung up in the locality: forest gardens, permaculture, someone growing mushrooms, others like ourselves growing enough veg for themselves only, and like ourselves planting broadleaf trees. We tend a small orchard as well, and pruning time of year is a ritual that makes me feel deeply connected to each tree.
All of us are organic and care about the land. The woodland near the brook is privately owned and not managed: the valley is home to a healthy deer population as well as foxes, hare, some badgers (those who haven’t been culled or gassed), any number of rodents, woodpeckers, owls, sparrowhawks, buzzards, jays. I can count six species of tit that come to the feeders. This time of year little egrets come up from their colonies on the Dart and perch in the big oak.
I walk out and notice the apical helispheres of the local ash trees, some twigs blown down in these gales, announcing the soon-advent of spring. Yes, some ashes are diseased; others aren’t.
I notice the new beauty of the alder trees with their almost-luminous greenygold catkins alongside their cones (top of page). If we can’t see these as signs of hope and renewal, a reminder of the eternal cycling of it all, we are lost.
In the garden, at last some purple sprouting broccoli is – well, sprouting. I’ve already had a couple of harvests of wild garlic, and made pesto with it; now that new young nettles are beginning it’s time for leek, potato, bean, wild garlic and nettle soup – a nourishing bloodcleanser that is full of nutritious minerals.
This is my refuge. I’ve known since I was a teenager that the way to restore personal equilibrium is to get out into the surrounding land. When I was a student locked into (as I saw it) an urban flatland university, I starved for the hills, woods, moors and coasts of my native Westcountry and the kind of freedom I’d had to wander on foot or bike or horseback (we weren’t a wealthy family but I’d used my Post Office Savings – all £25 of it – to buy a wild colt straight off Dartmoor, with whom I had many adventures, some of them downright dangerous), and later by kayak or surfboard alone in the relative wild.
Now, I take refuge in this land and its many shapes of consciousness to offset the terrible dumbness, grief and despair I feel, as many of you reading this undoubtedly do, too, at what is happening in our world. It’s a way of restoring some kind of belief, some kind of hope to keep on being an activist for positive change. If we give up believing we can make any changes, any difference, all is truly lost.
So now, all my work is directed to our relationship with soul and with the other-than-human, hoping that if we can find new ways of sustainable living as a result of relating differently and more profoundly to Other, remembering that they too have rights, as we do, they too are sentient and conscious beings, we can also find new ways of being truly human.
Wednesday, 1 January 2020
Egrets ('I've had a few', as Simon Drew said), and berries. Squashes. Plus possibly the best thing you can do for the planet. Go on, try it
I had the last tiny wild strawberry at the beginning of December – the sweetest of the lot. And I’ve already seen a single small leaf of wild garlic. Climate change, of course, though it has always been mild here in the southwest.
Here in the valley the spindle and holly trees and berry bushes have been ablaze with fruit that the local and migrant thrushes, blackbirds, redwings and fieldfares have been appreciating – not necessarily a sign of a coming hard winter, as the old folk tales have it, but more the result of a lush and productive spring and summer (or maybe those two things are interconnected?).
Speaking of productive summers, we still have about twenty of our little tennis-ball-sized pomme d’or squashes to use up, along with a few potimarrons not-quite-deliquescing on the pew in the lobby – normally just the right size for two or three of us, but this last summer double that*. So I’ve been thinking up ways to use excess squash in addition to the usual roast squash or squash, lentil and coconut soup. My daughter tells me that the to-date-rather-tasteless pommes d’or are nice baked and eaten with butter, cinnamon and salt (I imagine lime and chilli would be good additions); as a vegan, I haven’t discovered any way of making them anything other than merely palatable (and barely that). *Neither is in the photo, btw.
But the dogs (non-vegans) love them. So I’ve invented some vegan dog treats, having found the idea of incorporating squash online – healthy, and our dogs are nuts about them. Like me, the dogs don’t have gluteny grains, but do well with gram (chickpea) flour and some pulses.
SQUASH G-F DOG BISCUITS
Mash half a cup of cooked squash, pumpkin or carrot with half a cup of peanut butter (being not true nuts, peanuts are fine for dogs) and a tablespoon of grated apple. (You could also ad a few frozen peas.)
Stir in half a teaspoon of turmeric (optional), one tablespoon desiccated coconut, and one cup gram flour added tablespoon by tablespoon and mix by hand until you have a dough.
Knead it a bit then tear it into about six balls, roll each on a gram-floured board into a sausage and put half in the freezer for another day and half in the fridge for an hour or more.
Slice the sausages into little rounds, place close together on a couple of lightly-oiled baking sheets, and cook at about 160º (fan oven) for around 20 minutes. Once cooled, keep in the fridge after baking.
It's Veganuary. In the years since 2014, more than half a million people have signed up for this Vegan January initiative, and I’m bumping into a number of ‘ordinary’ people now who, for one reason or another, have decided to cut meat and dairy from their diet. Why not try it?
One great thing to come out of all the disasters we’re inflicting on the world is an awareness that we simply cannot, in the West, keep eating the quantities of meat and dairy we do. It’s not just a luxury we can’t afford, but it also seems a barbaric way to relate to animals, to me.
- It takes between ten and fourteen times more land to feed people animal protein than it would if humans ate the primary protein grown in the form of grains and pulses, so there are clearly implications for world hunger, let alone the associated climate change, involving unreliable weather systems, deforestation, soil erosion, resultant flooding, and habitat loss (the supposedly unproductive upland areas could reforest)
- It also involves an utterly unthinkable and unjustifiable amount of suffering in our animal kin (‘in Britain alone, Veganuary 2019 saved over 3.6 million animals in just 6 months’)
- And then there’s the health issue – there’s much evidence to suggest that a vegan diet is better for you, and there are quite a number of vegan professional athletes, so you don’t have to be pale, wan and weedy
- Try growing your own: there is nothing like harvesting your own veg to bring to the table, nor the time outdoors in all weathers and the general sense of fitness and wellbeing.
George Monbiot has said the same thing, more publicly.
And when an ex-DEFRA employee, scientist Professor Sir Ian Boyd, goes veggie himself and then publicly advocates a diet that is much lower in animal products, you know that the mainstream is really coming aboard.
‘Boyd said the public were subsidising the livestock industry to produce huge environmental damage. The professor spent seven years at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs before stepping down in August. Half of farmland, mostly uplands and pasture, produces just 20% of the UK’s food and would be better for used other public goods, he said.
‘Boyd, who became vegetarian during his time in Defra, said farmers were potentially “sitting on a goldmine” in terms of the payments they could receive for growing trees and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere...’ We have to make different choices. It’s our only hope now. If we as a species get wiped out, that’s one thing. Taking other species down with us is unforgivable.
We need to mend this broken planet that we have so blithely taken for granted and wantonly destroyed. So I don’t apologise for starting this new year with an injunction to at least try veganism, maybe a day a week, or try the whole month with Veganuary and then see where you’re at. There are so many tasty dishes (and some of you will know that ‘in the queue’ of my own writing projects is a book on veganism and an associated green life).
I maintain an embryonic vegan website. 57billion.org exists to inform and educate, so if you are interested and need more info on the nutritional aspects, do visit.
Meantime, here’s a recipe for humans, for North African flatbreads. It’s gluten-free, and I’m very pleased with it. Try the version with squash – delicious.
It’s soft, rather like naan bread. You can eat it in the way you’d eat any bread; it’s also very good with combinations of sautéed veg like tomatoes, onions, aubergines and mushrooms; also with bean or lentil patés. In European avocado season I mash those up with lemon juice, salt and pepper, and a little smoked paprika.
Mix together in a large bowl:
150 gms of gram or buckwheat flour (I use half and half)
1 heaped tsp of baking powder
1/2 tsp seasalt
1 tsp cumin seed
pinch mustard seed
1/2 tsp smoked paprika (optional)
130 gms vegan yogurt (I use yogurt made from coconuts as I avoid soya, but soya tastes good in this) OR you can use 65 gms cooked squash and 65 gms yogurt
When it’s holding together, knead briefly (a minute or two). You may need to add more flour. Make a ball and put in fridge for an hour. Tear into 6 or so small balls, flatten and roll out on a floured board, and cook gently in a little hottish oil for 2 or 3 minutes each side, until they brown but don’t char.
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