Before I go on, apologies for the density of the text below - blogger for some reason is not allowing line breaks – swear words at technology! Might try and tweak it later but right now dogwalking and supper cooking is calling...
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, 30 June 2011
Before I go on, apologies for the density of the text below - blogger for some reason is not allowing line breaks – swear words at technology! Might try and tweak it later but right now dogwalking and supper cooking is calling...
Tuesday, 28 June 2011
Monday, 27 June 2011
This morning I found a buzzard's feather in the lane, freshly shed (and smelling, as I said before, of old books and ancient libraries). It's one of a couple of dozen I've come across over the last decade or two. Last summer I went up through the orchard pulled by a sense of a freshly-dropped buzzard feather, and as I came to the brow of the hill, at exactly the spot I was making for, that happened – a buzzard lifting off from the tall ash tree dropped a primary down to me.
The world is a resonant place for a poet, or an artist. It's a resonant place for a human, generally. It's a symbolically resonant place, in that everything can be viewed both as itself and as a symbol of a quality of energy that lies behind the physically-manifest form. In a poem, what we're trying to achieve is the conveyance of that quality of energy, and the impact of experiencing it, through the use of concrete detail to create a sensory picture to communicate with the thinking, feeling and intuitive faculties in a reader or listener.
Everything, in other words, is also a metaphor.
Shamanic and druidic thinking operates in part at this poetic and symbolic level. Things are things-in-themselves and can also be signposts to other more subtle realities.
In some shamanic work I did in my early thirties, I had a significant visualisation experience where I 'felt' myself to be lifted from the ground by a strong wind, and as, in my inner world, I opened my eyes to see myself miles (well, a couple of hundred metres) above the ground, I noticed that I was 'wearing' buzzard's wings. Even now, twenty years on, I can feel as a physical sensation the updraught of air in my armpits, the pull to flight, my fingers primaries filtering the wind.
Since that time, the buzzard has become very important to me. There's a resurgence of buzzards in the UK, gratifyingly, given the drop-off in numbers of wild bird species generally, and there are a number of residents in our valley; frequently they soar just yards above the roof of my study, or above the courtyard. Buzzards prey on rodents and even small chicks, but mostly they feed on the ground, on slugs and worms and small reptiles. I never tire of watching them, and I have learned a lot from the way they deal with their pretty continual mobbing by the corvine family: they don't fight back, despite being predators; they simply flip and wheel and yield to the air to avoid the (sometimes vicious) attacks without any apparent impulse to retaliation. There's something I find very moving about this attitude, and the aerial Tai Chi. Good medicine.
And a quality that I choose to take notice of is their ability to pick out, from great height, what is significant to them in a landscape; by viewing the whole picture from a distance, they notice the truly important detail and focus on it.
So this morning's feather was a little reminder. Boy, could I do with some of that perspective sometimes, when the minutiaie of life detail threaten to eclipse my perspective of what really matters!
Sunday, 26 June 2011
grasses at their zenith
and the sky's blue
noisy with the ghost of pigment
intensity of photons
wind in the east
jostling the shrubs in the courtyard
tweaking the flowers' ears
jinking in my hair
ahead of us on the track
a couple of small hazy clouds
pretend to stand tall
on the horizon
at the edge of the clearing
our future and possible selves linger
waiting to see
what path we notice
and what would it take then
for us to crack and peel back
these ingrown carapaces
that we might stand whole
and bright before the Other
to recalibrate the curtilage
of the heart
that it might become a meadow
for us to trust that we might
enter that meadow, lie down
for as long as we need to
maybe even forever?
– Roselle Angwin
Saturday, 25 June 2011
you've started to sit in that chair
the one that becomes his
for those few days each year
and which we don't use –
mine, with its creaking wicker seat
and the Persian throw
of tribal kings on steeds
and the carmine and orange cushions.
It is morning, it's misty,
the courtyard hazed over
and the skylight above the chair
glazed with a thin skin of rain.
Outside, day starts;
the tits and chaffinches
come to the feeder,
and the plants' million mouths
open themselves to moisture
and the transformation of light,
unconcerned with ideas
about loss, or approaching dark.
– Roselle Angwin
Friday, 24 June 2011
I guess I start with where I am: and that is in thinking about relationship. And I'm thinking about being awake to the world; what that means.
Just now I was going through a favourite book of poems, Robert Bly's translation of Antonio Machado's Times Alone. Flipping through I came across this little poem; I know it so well, but had forgotten it came from Machado; it seems so Zen in its compass that I'd kind of misremembered it as being from one of the Buddhist teachers:
Beyond living and dreaming
there is something more important:
How perfect is that for what preoccupies me, which is how we do our journey here, and how we do relationship. I don't just mean a primary love relationship, except in the widest possible sense – that everything is relationship; it's an inescapable fact of being alive; and our relationship to the world and all the other beings in it will be as good as our relationship to ourselves, and 'whatever I do, let there be love in it', as I think Jefferson Starship sang... (And how hard is that, hey??)
Tempting though it might be at times (certainly for me) to go off and be a recluse, I know that it's through our relationships that we grow, and what we learn of love is through doing the work of love. Love is an active verb, not a cosy state (it was a shock coming across that concept for the first time in my very early thirties, in Scott Peck's book The Road Less Travelled). I don't just mean relationship to humans, whether intimates, friends or the world at large; but certainly that's where most of the challenges to extend ourselves beyond old patterns of behaviour occur, isn't it? Someone in the psycho-spiritual world many years ago said (I paraphrase): 'It may well be that the path of conscious relationship is the most significant spiritual path for our current age.' Seems spot-on to me. I'd add that it's possibly also the most rewarding; and surely one of the hardest paths, being met face-to-face with, and owning, my blind spots, my weaknesses, my ignorance, my unskillful and even destructive habits, my 'delusions and evasions of the ego', as my Zen teacher Ken Jones puts it. But if we can reclaim that stuff, or even a little of that stuff, we must surely be adding to the sum of good in the world...
So as a human being, and a woman, and a friend, and lover, and daughter, and mother, and sister, and eco-organism, and gardener, and lover-of-the-wild, what do my relationships say about me? What are the impulses that express themselves through me? What is my understanding; who and what are my mirrors? How can I enlarge myself beyond the boundaries of egoic self-seeking? What gives my life purpose and meaning? Am I willing to challenge my patterns over and over and over? How might I be the best friend I can be, the best friend I'd like, to myself and to others? Ho yes – answers on the proverbial p/c please...!
Thinking about all this, writing about all this, I notice that the work of tending the garden is a metaphor that is around for me a great deal. I've spoken of this several times in this blog; and written about it in various of my books, in various forms, consistently over the years. The garden is such a potent image, isn't it, from Babylon to Eden, to the alchemical hortus conclusus within which magical and transformative work can occur. A contained space, safe and secluded. It's the work of the soul to make and tend this place. We're not doing such a good job of it, are we, collectively, in this early part of the C21st?
I wonder if you've come across that poignant little poem by Antonio Machado in Robert Bly's translation (and arrogantly I've tweaked some of the wording here):
The wind one brilliant day called
to my soul with the fragrance of jasmine.
"In return for this jasmine perfume
I'd like the fragrance of all your roses."
"I have no roses," I said. "All the flowers
in my garden are dead now."
"Then I'll take the waters of your fountains,
the yellow leaves, the dried-up petals."
The wind left. I wept. I said to my soul:
"What have you done with the garden entrusted to your care?"
There's a beautiful version of this on a Jackie Leven album ('the mysteries of love are greater than the mysteries of death'); and on this album Bly speaks poems over the music. And now, rereading Bly's translation of Machado in Times Alone, and his intro, I am so inspired all over again that I want to share it all with you!
But more on that, and all of this and that, another time. I'm not, by the way, miserable; just reflective (and tired! And wanting time out from being conscious, dammit!).
And by way of light relief for us all, I have some lovely books to tell you about (I mean by other writers, not by me). But that'll be the next post (probably – unless something else grabs my attention first).
Light relief now is the literal garden, where the squirrels are causing a certain amount of havoc (not such a relief). (Can't help but see them symbolically: aspects of the mind and its scamperings – little tricksters who need to be out-tricked! Am working on that.) That's three birdfeeders they've wrecked in as many – or fewer – months, between the five of them (two parents and three youngsters). One birdfeeder declared itself to be squirrel-proof: it foiled them for nearly a fortnight, then they worked out how to simply unravel the metal mesh, having already worked out how to get up the 'squirrel-proof' shepherd's crook-type pole, which incidentally was also greased. They have the guts to come in through the door of my study (in the 'shed' in the garden) if I leave it open, and even prise off the lid of the heavy-duty dustbin at the foot of the stairs where I store the birdfood. The (also trickster) magpies are just as bad (six of them now), swooping down to shoo off all the other birds, and they too have evolved to cling to the mesh feeders, which technically they're not supposed to be able to do, either.
Our veg are all a bit behind this year, except the ones we over-wintered: the onions, which are massive; and the fat red-skinned garlic. I planted the latter on the winter solstice and harvested the first on the summer solstice. Our potatoes are finally flowering, so I guess we'll dig the first earlies soon. And at last the beans and sweetcorn are growing.
Today, in the neighbouring field where a roe deer lifted her head and stared at the dog and me, then dropped it and carried on grazing, I found some wild field mushrooms – very early. They'll go into the pot tonight. My current experiment is using barley instead of rice – for 'food miles' reasons, as it's grown here, and it also seems in keeping with holistic health ideas to eat as much as possible food that grows on the same soil as we do. I have to say though that barley is a rather poor rice substitute.
And meantime my heart medicine is to keep taking the strawberries (see previous post): in my case the hundreds of juicy little sweet wild ones on which I breakfast in the lanes.
Thursday, 23 June 2011
Finally you open your eyes. The meadow's tall grasses curtain you; beyond, the blue hills rise. Emergent sun hazes their summits. You sit up. There ahead of you is the little path, and at the stone wall a small wooden gate.
You stand. Below in the valley swallows and martins skim the mist from the morning river. You stretch. The conversations of birds; the song of the water. Your hand lifts the old wooden latch. You step through. You slip into the green of the woods as into a silk dress. There is no room for thought.
The path rises gently, sprinkled with light. It's May; the wood swims with the scent of bluebells; the air is lilac with it. A thousand wild bees drone. You're alone and it's the first day.
In the green glade pass the ruins of the hermit's chapel with its green dreams, the short walls grassed and blackbird-capped; the spring bubbles and chatters.
Follow the path in and out of sunlight. Oaks and ashes season the woodland; first bursts of honeysuckle; and look! – in the shade of this larch a host of goldcrests, a corona around your head.
Your feet firm on the good earth. Here there's no need for shoes, you can shake out the creases in which you hide; the truth is as it is, all around you, spread out.
The trees thin out, a little. In the undergrowth of campion, stitchwort, bramble there are rustles of lives going about their daily cycles. A wren skitters out; a bluetit. In the distance a woodpecker knocks.
Soon, you will arrive. The green glade in the green day; summer still to come; and you are young, you are now, you are always. The threshold waits; and its guardian; and question and response will spring and be answered simultaneously, with no words. You pass through. And there it is – waiting all your life for you, there before questions, before answers. You knew, and forgot that you knew.
Wednesday, 22 June 2011
My family converted when I was 11, after a year of huge family tragedies, one after the other. The parochial Roman Catholic Church of those days (the late sixties) was a very black and white institution: deeply patriarchal, of course, whilst still giving a place of honour to the feminine principle in the shape of the Virgin Mary (with emphasis on the 'virgin' bit). We learned a lot about mortal sin, and that we are all guilty without even knowing we are ('original sin'); we learned that if a man takes to the Church his wife and children had to too (I believe that has changed since); we learned that since men weren't able to control their urges at the sight of our loose hair we as women were duty-bound to wear mantillas in church to protect them from themselves (mantillas are lace head coverings; also abolished, thank goodness). It has taken me nearly 40 years to recognise that my inculcated sense of guilt and over-responsibility is in part in thrall to that early heritage, and the Confessional.
The priest who 'converted' us was a larger-than-life, funny, compassionate and intelligent Irishman. We all loved him. Nonetheless, I remember still the sense of deep shock when he answered my 11-year-old's question about whether animals have souls with a negative. My life had been steeped in animals, was and is deeply intertwined with the animal kingdom. Even then people brought me wild animals that had been injured to tend, as they did my sister, later. I aspired to the life of St Francis of Assisi, and could not swallow that animals were 'lesser', somehow inferior. (I have a lot to say about our notions of our 'right' to use the natural world as we desire to; this view being as I see it directly related to our sense of anthropocentricism, and the assumed superiority that goes with that, and therefore our related view that the rest of the planet is ours as a 'resource', but I'll resist that for now.)
At 16 I left the Church. It was not for me; plus I'd discovered Zen Buddhism, and the nature-based spiritualities that I learned later came under the loose titling of 'pagan', 'druidic' and 'shamanic'. I read up a lot on Celtic christianity, with its roots in the natural world, and its sense of interconnectedness. Later I came across the ex-Dominican monk Matthew Fox, erudite and inspiring champion of the natural world, the feminine principle, green creativity and the notion of 'original blessing'.
And by then I had become very inspired by so-called heresies, amongst them the Cathar path (I've written several blogs about the Cathars, who underpin my first novel, earlier this year, maybe February or March – can't get out of this post to check).
Common to many of these paths, including the Cathar, is the notion of transmigration; which is another way of speaking of interconnectedness. Crudely put, this is connected with the Platonic idea that the soul migrates from mineral to plant to animal to human. Some teachings suggest that the migration continues through ever more subtle realms of being (some name these the 'angelic' realms).
Where this post is going is that my daughter and I went to Dartington to see a film last night. One of the great things about living here is the arts scene and the beautiful gardens at Dartington (and the White Hart, where we had a small and delicious supper afterwards).
(Blogger's not allowing me to upload photos. I'll try again later.)
The film was Le Quattro Volte. Without spoiling the content for you (if you haven't seen it), the film by Michelangelo Frammartino explores the idea of transmigration (or at least that's how it's billed). It explores with no sentimentality the utter simplicity of the fact of our living, the fact of our dying; and our place in the cycles of things.
Frammartino has taken some cinematic risks with this film. It's a concept film; there's no dialogue, no plot, no exploration of inter-human relationships; little characterisation. The film's an exquisite example of 'showing not telling' ('mimetic not diegetic', as my daughter-the-researcher-into-learning insists is the correct phrasing for that). It's a visual long meditation on synthesis, on conjunction, on the continuity of life and our place as one more living species in this cycle. Nothing 'happens' – and yet within it everything happens, as long as one is not looking purely through the usual lens of human expectations.
To my delight, a great deal of the film includes goats, a favourite animal of mine (when I was 19 I spent a blissful week or two in the Pyrenees taking goats with their bells to the top of the mountain in the morning, bringing them back down at night. My daughter and I both are also 'goat' people in the Chinese calendar.).
Set in a rural mountainous hamlet in Calabria – which might equally have been Pyrenean – it opens and closes with a charcoal-burning structure – a beautiful sculptural piece. The film cycles always between beginnings and endings, births and deaths. There are recurrent visual and sonic motifs to mark the four 'turnings' of the title. The elision of scenes mirrors the smokiness of the charcoal-burning which, we find, is the link. There are moments that are metaphysical, moments that are magical, moments that are gently very funny – including the village Easter procession dogged (literally) by the goatherd's mutt, with the charcoal-burners elaborate get-ups as Centurions, recurrent moments with the goats' antics.
And somehow the film is very moving: despite the emotional distancing risked by zero portrayal of human emotional interaction, the visual impact of the film without the distraction of dialogue means that we are immersed in the experience of being a sick old man at the end of his life, being a young goat kid from birth (which we see) to a solo acceptance of the possibility of death, even into being a fir tree in the wind and snow, and carried seamlessly through the ways in which those lives intertwine, and are ultimately inextricably interdependent.
Monday, 20 June 2011
|moor 3 - acrylic, © Roselle Angwin 2006|
Soon the beacons will be lit in the old lands' high places.
|Merrivale stone row (Robbie Breadon)|
This threshold to the temple’s ancient heart
And then the reminder that the raven too needs to be present at the feast: this dying lamb; my distress, my helplessness
having again to meet full-on this intense need to save everything from suffering
and I can't
this the Wicked Stepmother, the Bad Fairy, the Loathly Lady: uninvited one
shadows of grass blades
legging it across the land
one more summer grass
in this flower meadow of the present moment
(for more on the megalithic site of Merrivale, see my post from December 19th: Merrivale & the moor's white winter grasses)
Friday, 17 June 2011
Last night we recorded the first one, where members of ExCite, the Exeter Poetry Society Stanza group, were the pioneers/guinea pigs. Lawrence Sail was co-hosting this one, and I was one of the four Westcountry poets to have a poem workshopped by Padel, Sail and an invited audience of about a dozen poets.
Our session had as its focus landscape poetry (and we aptly met in the C14th White Hart hotel, where W G Hoskins, he of the landscapes of the English countryside fame, used to drink); and opened with a poem by Alice Oswald, who lives near Totnes, which we all discussed.
My own poem was a 13-line sonnet (I call it the fibonacci sonnet form). The chosen poet wasn't allowed to speak about their own poem until after the feedback. It was an interesting process, and the poets were quick to see the areas in the poem that I was hesitant about myself, which confirmed the accuracy of my hesitation. I wasn't sure how many people realised it was a sonnet form I was using; but since hardly anyone (anyone?) writes in a 13-line sonnet form that wasn't all surprising.
As I've assigned rights on that poem to R4, I can't reproduce it here yet, but I want to mention two brilliant essays on the sonnet by Don Paterson (including his thoughts on the 13-line sonnet, which I find very inspiring given my seduction by the Fibonacci sequence ['phi' in terms of its mathematical formula], and the sense that it underpins as a harmonious pattern so much more than we already know that it does, as in eg music, art, architecture, natural forms like pine cones, sunflower seed patterns, nautilus and snail shell spirals and so on and so on). One essay prefaces his 101 Sonnets, and the other is an afterword in his versions of Rilke's Orpheus. If you are interested in poetry and the relevance, at least in terms of knowing about it, the sonnet form, I can't recommend those erudite essays highly enough.
I'm not generally very keen on formal poetry, but there is something unique about the sonnet form, and something very dynamic and pleasing in the 13-line one with the usual volta after 8 lines, and the 5 rather than 6 lines in the second stanza corresponding so beautifully to the sequence.
Anyway, more about all that another time.
Thursday, 16 June 2011
With the warming global waters you expect to see more marine life coming into inshore waters off Britain, and Cornwall has long been a spot for basking shark, killer whales, porpoise and dolphins, with regular sightings in the far West. It seems there've been fewer sightings of these creatures this year, although no one quite seems to know why. However the Western Morning News reports sightings of a serious predator a mile off St Ives: the whitetip shark, apparently one of the most vicious sharks in the world. There are frequent hoax shark sightings, but this was reported by two separate trawler crews (thank you R for this info). That'll panic us, then... The Wild always does.
Let's get this into perspective. I took a group of Swiss students into the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth one year for an environmental writing session. I learned that a shark is killed I believe every three seconds, day and night, somewhere in the world, whereas humans killed by shark each year only amount to a dozen, and many of these killings are apparently either in self-defence (struggling on the floor of a fishing boat having been landed) or by accident – mistaking a human for a seal (they usually let go once they realise). And I was touched (hard to imagine, isn't it, being engaged by a shark with anything other than trepidation or fear, or at most curiosity) by young Enzo – a little shark (can't remember what type) who was so 'scared' of the dark that if they switched the tank lights off at night he invariably threw himself out of the water into the 'deck'.
At Gwythian, above, I spent a truly blissful afternoon. A little flock of (I think) sanderling was scurrying as one, as they do, back and forth at the tideline, and two seals were lazing parallel to the beach in the shallows, just metres away from me, clearly visible.
One of the things I love on the coasts of the Cornish landscape is the miniaturisation of everything. The thorn trees are small and windskewed. The blue scabious is just a few cms tall. Wild thyme is tiny; the milkworts almost so small you barely see them.
And the micro-worlds on rocks and stone-walls are magical (as you can see I've replaced my bottomest-of-range mobile with one with a camera).
Tuesday, 14 June 2011
Saturday, 11 June 2011
– Roselle Angwin
Friday, 10 June 2011
I also believe as strongly as I ever did that we need to resist control by money-driven corporate identities (multinationals, oil and pharmaceutical companies, centralised governmental bodies working against the good of people and planet in service to their god, Money). And now, as I'm still idealistic but older, I'm looking too at smaller-scale quieter ways of addressing these issues in our own backyard. (Not instead of, note, but as well as. 'In here' as well as 'out there'.)
You will perhaps know, and certainly if you live in England, of the transition town movement pioneered by Rob Hopkins here in Totnes. There's a great deal to say about this movement, and a great deal already written on it. For now what's relevant here is the delivery of power back into the hands of a small community.
And on the back of this – don't laugh – I want to mention gardening. If it makes you think of something dull and worthy carried out by your ageing grandparents – well, I understand. But it occurs to me that although the organic movement is growing hugely, as is the 'local food' movement in GB, the power of this is still largely untrumpeted and overlooked in the mainstream. The growing of your own food, and the personal health benefits plus the low-carbon-impact aspect, plus the omission of the use of pesticides and herbicides is an exponentially big move towards taking power away from the supermarkets and multinationals (and makes a difference to the planet). Determining what you put in your own mouth – and not exploiting others to do it – is an empowered and empowering act.
OK, not everyone is lucky enough as to have a garden – I know that. But even a windowsill can produce salad leaves much of the year. I have read that you only need a square metre to grow a significant amount of your own annual requirement of veg at least. Grow in boxes. Grow in old containers. Grow in buckets or cut-down old bins or cast-off 5L tins of eg food oil (ask at a restaurant what they do with their old containers) – check they haven't contained toxic chemicals, clearly! You can grow upwards in 'stacks' – old planks and bricks. Grow against walls. You can intercrop (eg salad between beans; beans among sweetcorn). Companion-plant and save space too: intercrop carrots with leeks and the leeks will put off carrot fly, carrots will be harvested first and the leeks will have room to grow on. You can grow continually-cropping things like spinach or chard or salad leaves in windowboxes. You can grow tomatoes and runner beans in pots, and soft fruit too. You can plant potatoes in used plastic bags on your own doorstep. Learn about wild food if you have access to the countryside. Queues for allotment spaces? Group together and demand more food growing space from your local council. You can post an ad to use some garden space owned by someone who can't manage it and share some of the produce in exchange. You can save the seed (and swap it). (One of the worst things I think done by Monsanto was to monopolise the African market and sell them only F1 hybrid seed – this doesn't produce fertile seed, so the small growers have to buy seed each year instead of saving their own. I'd be interested to know if anyone knows whether this is still happening? Comments box below.)
And of course the deeper quieter revolution is tending the garden of your own thoughts. Don't let anyone sell you the used-up collateral of our hybrid F1 collective (corporate) thought-police.
Wednesday, 8 June 2011
And I hear from the editor of MsLexia that some of you have also written to her bewailing, as she put it, the loss of my regular column from the magazine. Whoever you are, thank you so much for that too. Not that I think it will change her redesigning-the-mag mind! – but still.
And a third round of thanks to Beatrice Grundbacher, who sent me this scallop from France, a photo she took while staying last year near the French camino.
I think a lot, and have for many years now, about the kinds of places and people with whom we each resonate. It also seems to me that we each have our own geology, too – I suspect, for instance, that my natural resonance is with granite, coming as my family does seemingly forever from the far west of the UK, the granite tip of Land's End, and having lived on or near the granite mass of Dartmoor for almost all my adult life. The places I'm deeply drawn to are usually granite places. Granite is durable, micaceous, hard to cut and work, formed in fire I believe (is it metamorphic or igneous? Can't remember; but both involve fire, and one involves intense pressure.). It's not porous. It's also radioactive in the fissures.
How different would it be to be a limestone person – all that erosion, the drip of water, the underground caverns; or a millstone grit, or clay, person? We may disbelieve it in these scientifically rigorous days but it seems to me that as well as the psychic resonance with a particular place or places that we each have there is also a psychic correlate with the bedrock of that landscape (are you reading this, sis, oh you of the rocks and erratics?? – runs in my family, this obsession with rock! My father used to speak of it too, and another sister married a geologist/mineralogist. I wonder if it's the Cornish mining heritage in our history? Did you know that all the Cornish mines in the far West were located by dowsing? And a great grandfather of ours was dowser for Cornwall County Council.).
So different bedrocks... I have to say that the sand- and clay-type soil of East Sussex, where for many years I led poetry workshops at Emerson College at Forest Row in the summer, offered me a depth of relaxation and soothing that I don't find on granite. I slept so well there; slowed right down. But at the end of a week I couldn't write. My naturally granite-sympathetic nature needs the uplift and charge (for of course there is an electrical current conducted in granite, through the crystals which both receive and transmit – she says as a non-scientist: the piezo effect) of this rock and its landscape for inspiration, even though it also keeps me slightly edgy.
And my compass is definitely west (or maybe westsouwest). The joy of travelling by train as a student down from the flatlands of Cambridgeshire to where the land around Reading started to push up into thoughts of hills; the delight when somewhere around the Wiltshire border if I was hitching a lift, or later driving, homewards on the M4 the sign 'The West' first appeared. I still feel that bubble of delight.
And for me west was pretty much always southwest, whether here in the UK (mainland and Eire) or Europe: the Atlantic coast of Brittany, France and Spain has always drawn me, and indeed before and in the early days of my marriage, and after the birth of my daughter, my (now ex-) husband and I and later Eloise too with us travelled in our camper van along these coasts in the winter, living simply, often off the land (nuts, berries, mushrooms, shellfish for husband and daughter), picking fruit or taking other casual labour for income as needed, following the surf and the pull of the compass.
And it took meeting my friend fellow poet and author and Celt Ken Steven to teach me the possibility of northwest being as important. As a Scot, Ken's compass is north, and he spends quite a lot of each year in Scandinavia. For nine years he and I co-led a retreat on the northwesterly Isle of Iona, another partly-granite place (and also made of some of the oldest stone on the planet, Lewisian gneiss), and we used to banter about our differing compasses ('Why on earth would anyone want to go southwest when they might go further north?' 'Well why would anyone want those long dark cold winters when they might go southwest?')
These days, though, I have to say I know for certain (and it did start actually way back in my twenties) that the northwest places of Scotland (and I'm sure Ireland, should I make it) offer a heart home for me as much as the southwest.
Uhoh once again not a short post. Hope you're still with me. That was all intended to introduce the book I'm reading at the moment: WEST – a journey through the landscape of loss by Jim Perrin. So far it's a beautiful, moving and erudite account of Perrin's coming to terms, partly through landscape, with the death of his wife and his son. It's also erudite, literary and eclectic in its range. Perrin has a depth of knowledge about the natural world, and appears still to live, as far as the book shows, as close to wildness as is possible in the UK; an exemplar of the non-insulated kind of simplicity I was speaking of yesterday. It's also about love; because even the loss of love is still of course about love. And he's very wise.
And what's more in reading him I'm reintroduced to some words of Thoreau's:
'...There is a subtle magnetism is nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright. It is not indifferent to us which way we walk. There is a right way... which is perfectly symbolical of the path which we love to travel in the interior and ideal world... My needle is slow to settle, varies a few degrees... but it always settles between west and southwest.'
Tuesday, 7 June 2011
When I first started this blog, I didn't know really what I'd be writing about, simply that I'd be writing. I guess I thought I'd be speaking about the writing life. And of course I am – because of course 'the writing life' is no different from any other life, or any other aspect of my own life. I also knew that it was partly about writing practice, for me – on days when, for instance, my time, as it so often is, is taken up with admin for courses or attention to others' writing, at least a blog would ensure I did some writing. Nonetheless, I see themes emerging; I'm not surprised, but I am interested to see what my magnetic field is pulled towards.
One of the main things that draws me, in my own life and in terms of the courses I lead and books I write, is around how we keep from being seduced and insulated by and lost in the passing attractions of the overwhelm of entertainments that threaten to keep us too busy, too stimulated by the trivial, too distracted; too comfortable and insulated, I suppose I mean, in the affluent West.
I don't mean to sound like a ranting puritan; it's just that one has to go against the current to remember the significance of core stuff, the simple fundamentals, whatever that means for each of us: something to do with the fact of our living, the fact of our dying, the meaning of what comes between birth and death, and how we 'do' that in a way that doesn't feel like squandering this precious life. 'Meaning transfigures all,' wrote Laurens van der Post. And, for me, there's the importance of how we step lightly on this earth we've been lent as a home.
I'm talking about the life of the soul – a really hard word to use, with all its overtones of faith and belief and the Christian heritage. But what I mean here is that part of us that is not just material; not just a collision of atoms; not just brain consciousness; that is aware at a deep level of our connectedness, and that seeks meaning. It's also connected with imagination and empathy, and is bigger than the analysing intellect.
Yep, you're right: this is going somewhere. Or rather, it's not – because the journey, one could say, is the point.
I came across the phrase 'El Camino' as a teenager. I knew nothing about it except that it meant 'way' or 'path' or 'road' ('chemin' of course in French) and I also knew that the phrase in the way I came across it used (and I have no idea where I did come across it so young) meant more than a generic path; there was something about it that made the hairs on my neck prickle in a good way, like reading an inspiring novel or poem for the first time, or having a bareback gallop along the sands near my childhood home at dusk (no it wasn't that I had a privileged childhood in terms of wealth: we weren't affluent. But in terms of lifestyle, yes – brought up in the country, close to sea and hills and woods, allowed to run free; and at 11 I bought a young colt off the moor for £25, my Post Office savings of all my pocket money, and supported his keep with a job in cat breeding kennels and as a newspapergirl after school and at weekends. But that's a digression.).
Years later I found out what the Camino was actually about. It's a pilgrim route; in fact there are many Caminos, all over Europe, all converging on St James' Basilica at Santiago de Compostella, which sits at the hub of these radials like a heart. (The scallop, or Coquille Saint Jacques, is St James' symbol and the symbol of the pilgrim.) The route with which we're most familiar in the UK, anyway, is the one leading from France over the Pyrenees: the Camino Frances, which most people pick up at St Jean Pied de Port, near Biarritz in southwest France. There are starting points all over Europe, though, including a tiny riverside chapel on the Tamar near where I used to live, on the Devon/Cornwall border.
Another digression: the verb 'to saunter', which I love, didn't originally have its current overtones of lazy swaggering; its roots are from the old phrase for a journey 'a la sante terre', or journey to the sacred place.
We know that the Camino has been travelled by Christians for at least 1000 years. I have read that in fact it's a much more ancient processional way or pilgrim route, and no doubt simply crossing-the-landmass route, from pagan times, as so many of these routes are (eg the road to Iona, and the Ridgeway in the south of England, though this latter is not a Christian pilgrim's route). This is not these days necessarily a 'religious' experience in the normal sense; but it is very much an experience of depth, of heart, of significance, and it will usually be spiritual in content, depending on one's take on all that.
The point of the journey is the journey. A pilgrimage, in distinction from a holiday, is a trip taken with intention, with mindfulness; and although one doesn't have to wear a hairshirt to do it, or whip oneself with nettles, it's not gratuitously hedonistic (and there's a place for that – I don't mean to sound judgemental) in the way that holiday can be, but rather about simplicity. It often involves some hardship. Walking this kind of journey (and the Camino is hundreds of kilometres to be covered on foot, though some do it with a pushbike, donkey or on horseback) is not about escape and distraction; on the contrary, it brings you face-to-face with yourself; and, not being without risks, also face-to-face with with the possibility of accident or death. The fact of your living; the fact of your dying. On the Camino it also brings you face-to-face with the many other assorted humans making this journey, and a kind of often transient but always significant companionship that strips away outer more superficial stuff that seems to be absent from many contemporary lives becomes possible. (Another digression here: 'companion' = 'com pane': those 'with whom one breaks bread'.) People of course are often drawn to this kind of journey at a time of change or tumult in their lives: to make, or mark, a transition. Participants on my writing retreats on the Isle of Iona each year seem to experience something of this, too, in a small way.
Phil Cousineau, in the book on pilgrimage I mentioned yesterday, says this:
'To be touched, we must, in turn, touch. When life has lost its meaning, a pilgrim will risk everything to get back in touch with life... the risk is for the confirmation that the mystery exists at all in a modern world seemingly determined to undermine the sacred as mere superstition. Every day, we can read articles "exposing" ancient mysteries – the soul is "nothing but the electrical firing of synapses in the brain", dreams are the result only of "chemical combustion in the mind", love is simply the blind attraction of two incompetent personalities... the miracle of life itself but a chance occurrence, a universal hiccup... The idea that redwood groves, an eagle's eyesight, the formation of coral, the grip of a baby's hand, the Bach suites, the echo of God in the poetry of Sappho or Pablo Neruda are all but a burp of evolution makes the soul recoil and long for a journey to reconfirm the presence behind sacred mysteries.'
We are humans, and humans seek to understand, and to explain, and perhaps grow as a result of that. And there are other ways of growing. For me, give me also mystery, and presence, and companions on the way; and give me the experience of it.
There is a great deal more I could say about this (including the long trek my sister made), and might at a later stage. But I wanted to speak of all this for two reasons: one is that I wrote in my blog yesterday about pilgrimage; and the other is that I have just seen the film starring Martin Sheen: 'The Way'. See it if you get the chance.
It's not an action film as 'Apocalypse Now' is, in which I think Sheen also starred, didn't he? It's about walking the Camino. The theme behind it is simple: loss, and the numbness and absence that comes from that; and the transformation of that. It's about humanity and the best in humanity. It's about love and disconnection and reconnection (which is the true meaning of the word 'religion' if we look to its Latin root 'religio': 'to tie back', to 'bind' or 'rebind', to reconnect). It's beautiful, and moving, and it feels true. If I were a critic, I might say that in places it verges on sentimentality; but I'm not, so I shan't. It's simple. And, as in good Zen fashion (though it isn't about Zen): once they get to the end of the route they keep walking.
For more on the Camino there are a great many books. You might also see
And if you are a compulsive picture-straightener I'm sorry about the skew of the scallop shell! It's one I picked up at the crossing to Iona; and it insists on sliding down the screen of my scanner, despite all my best efforts.
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