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

Friday 28 September 2012

pushing the river

(from early September)
Photo by Francis Jones 2011
We've had a week of extraordinarily hot sun here in Quercy, in the Lot area of France. Mornings have been spent reading, writing (in my case) and drinking tea on the terrace, wreathed in wisteria, overlooking the castle, and meditating there too. The village is high above the river and the lush valley with its maize, sunflower and fruit crops, and the little garden here is very private considering how the mediaeval houses perched on the hilltop tumble over each other. In the afternoons, we've walked in the hills, visited the wonderful prehistoric painted caves of Pech Merle (which I'm sure I've written about here before) with their 25,000-year-old painted horses and handprints and their stalactite-chandeliered deeps, or found somewhere to swim.

Little natural details accompany every moment: the dreaming face of the river; the waterfall sound of wind in the poplars back of one of the swimming spots in the river; the many notes of the weir; huge wild hollyhocks dressed in carmine and white; a little bird, robin-sized, with a sooty-blue-black head, silver-grey body, rufous tail – whose song of tweets incorporates in the middle a staccato burst of dry-leaf crackles. It launches itself out of the chimney like a diver into water.

Last year, with my much-loved friends Francis and Hanneke, and my daughter, I had one of those out-of-time days when we took kayaks down the lazy Lot. I'd have to call it a peak experience – even 'normal reality' had a transcendent quality to it. It's hard to pinpoint the exact components – a combination of course of gliding on water, of sun, the company of loved ones, slipping between ancient limestone scarps with their prehistoric secrets, the mediaeval hilltop villages, the way the river-light flickered off the white and ochre cliffs, the kingfishers, and the dog who swam alongside us for a kilometre or two...

So all week this year here I've been obsessed with the state of flow of the Lot. After the (first) heatwave here they opened up the dams higher upriver for the hydroelectric plants, and each time I speak to the guys at the kayak hire centre they tell me there's still 'trop d'eau', although it still looks pretty lazy to me – it's hardly racing along in white water spasms. I can't see beyond my desire to repeat last year's magic; and, more, to convince TM who, a sailor himself, seems to me to have an irrational aversion to kayaking, that it is indeed A Very Good Thing. Plus he's never seen a kingfisher, and I can practically guarantee at least one.

The Lot is enticingly wide and slow in its loops through the gorges, deep and dreamy. I'm so fixed on this that I cannot hear the guys telling me that we could kayak on the Célé, a 'lesser' river that merges with the Lot.

The truth is, of course, we can't repeat these extraordinary experiences. They are 'of their time', and necessarily one-offs.

I reflect, here, on that saying about the truth coming knocking at your door. 'Go away,' you say. 'I'm looking for the truth.' The truth goes away, puzzled. (Actually, I reflect on that a great deal at the moment; seems apposite in many areas.)

So it's not till the last possible day – same answer from the guys – that I consider, at last, the possibility of the Célé being a better option than not kayaking at all. And when we commit to that journey it turns out to be, in a different way, equally magical.

And the Célé is, to my delight, a wilder gorge, albeit a lot narrower and currently shallower – less agriculture, more woodland, more loops and variety, more wildlife. The best river swimming TM has ever had, he says – which converts him. (For a sailor, he's not a bad paddler, either, and shows off with a 'handbrake turn' or two.)

Families of mallard duck paddle past cheeping comfortably to each other. A young grass snake swims in the shallows close to my feet where I stop at a shingly beach for a snack and a pee. Hundreds of trout in the clear water (the Lot was looking pretty muddy, so this is a bonus).

And there, flashing low over the water round the bend like an arrow of thought, is a kingfisher.

Tuesday 25 September 2012

the book of beauty

Thinking as I do from time to time about Keats' profoundly simple statement that 'Truth is beauty and beauty truth' (I'm reminded in part because it's one of the few ideas couched in poetry that TM rates), it occurs to me that truth is to the mind what beauty is to the heart; and how we need both. It's exciting coming across an idea or concept that seems to have traction, to be of another plane, to convey what we sense but may not always be able to articulate. It's also exciting, and inspiring – and essential to the life of the heart – to experience beauty, through, as we usually do, the senses of the physical body (in this I include, say, meeting the eyes of another with love for example, as well as the more obvious access to the manifest beauty of the physical world).

I'm partly saying this because the students on my poetry course have recently been looking in some depth at Robert Hass' wonderful and difficult poem 'Meditation at Lagunitas', where, amongst many other things, he seems to be suggesting that profound human experience, akin to beauty, is found in the particular, the unique, the individual, the specific – and in his poem it's the recording of this rather than the abstract generalised conceptual truths that we feel moving our hearts. And yet it's against the backdrop of the abstract and eternal that the particular and transient reveals itself.

So I'm suggesting that 'truth' is an equivalent to the abstract 'backdrop', where 'beauty' is the matter of the world of the senses.

And I'm partly saying this too because in the last two weeks I've had occasion three times to remember the ever-presence of the nearness of death. In the last few years I've experienced a number of deaths of people, animals, ways of life that were dear to me; and of course we experience a perpetual cycle of births and deaths in smaller ways all the time. These three times, though, were more directly personal reminders. I've found myself this morning, after a night's sleep, utterly ecstatic to be outside in all the beauty of our world when walking the dog this morning. It's always a source of joy to me being outdoors, no matter what the weather (interior or external), but it's heightened by the reminders of our transience, isn't it?

Once again this morning I picked up a book that has lived by my bedside since I bought it at Glastonbury Festival in 1994. It's a modern book of hours: Soul of the Earth, by Phil Cousineau. Each page contains a passage or excerpt from a poem, accompanied by a stunning photo by Eric Lawton, and each day of the week is given a number of pages according to the old monastic tradition of praise-singing at set times of the day.

Here's a paragraph from the introduction: 'Contemplation of beauty is the consolation of the world. The soul needs the slow absorbing of beauty just as plants long for the sun and the sea craves the moon. Deep contemplation of beauty in the scudding clouds over an ancient Mayan temple, the shimmering blue-white of Vermeer's portrait A Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, the deep black god-tracks of Old English in the hoary pages of Beowulf is still our most creative human response to the shuddering of the soul.' He continues: 'And always after every encounter with the wonders of the world came a further wonder: How can I keep alive the astounding moments of my life so that I might withstand the turbulence, the soul-breaking moments?'

Make a book of beauty. Choose a big hardback notebook – one that you like the look and feel of – and dedicate it entirely to the collecting of poems, quotes, phrases, images that move your heart. Keep it by your bed. Bathe in it often. Allow it to remind you that in all the distress and suffering in the world the moments of beauty are right here, right now, too.

Monday 24 September 2012

Autumn Equinox poem

On Hameldown’s shoulders
the mist rises and falls like breath
and here where we tramp through bog
is a palette of mauve and carmine seeding heads
of scabious, red sedge, miniature yellow pimpernel
and bog cotton. Later we discover that we have
simply made lagging circles, but it doesn’t matter –
nor does the rain or fog or the fact that we’re lost.

You lift a spray of bloodred rowanberries to your hat
and the dogs leap and tear in exuberant muddy circles
and on this my birthday, this stillpoint of the turning year
I’m soaked to the bone in full waterproofs even before
I find myself prone in the boggy mud
and I’m laughing to be here with you my daughter
to be here another year and the earth still turning

and the sun still rising each day – and life
oh life is good.

~ Roselle Angwin

Friday 21 September 2012

in Morbihan

Drops of rain. After the Vendée the land starts to rise and woods refresh our eyes.

I hated the Vendée. Wide open, flat, agribusiness (aggrobusiness). Made me think of the Fens and the madness of the fenlanders*, and I was angry at the many pious statues of La Vierge, and the calvaries and crosses, all juxtaposed with the acres and acres of intensively-farmed pigs, hens, geese with their poor force-fed over-stuffed livers for paté de foie gras – and, worse, the veal-calf units where the young things spend their entire short lives in darkness.

There's something in the sky I can make no sense of – a huge flying machine thing with what looks like a number of geese streaming alongside. We're in megalith country where there's traditionally a high number of UFOs. On the other hand I think of that excellent French (or French Canadian?) film 'Winged Migration' – a big favourite of mine – where they lead young geese on migration by microlite... (or is it 'light'?). Perhaps this is actually happening, in the sky, right now, over my head, in southern Brittany?

A red squirrel leaps across the road. Where we pull up for coffee a fur coat on the back seat of someone's car, like a huge rumpled dog. Very dead.

Scents of autumn. Then Carnac – once not long after dawn my daughter and I hired white horses and cantered down the long megalithic stone avenues. Twenty years ago? More? She was 8 or 9 I guess. Winds of change, waters onflowing, etc. Now the avenues are fenced in and you have to view the alignments from boxed-in platforms, as if they were wild animals.

And here in their long dreaming the stones point at something 6000 years beyond our sight and understanding.

* I am not being fenist – not really. There's something called 'fen sickness', a kind of inertia and depression I believe, which is perhaps akin to 'cabin fever' but the opposite, sort of. When I lived as a student in Cambridge I found a fen depression easy to understand – all that flat land and oppressive white-grey unchanging skies – so alien to me, brought up as I had been by the Atlantic, between two moors, in hills and woodland where the skies changed every few minutes...  And I know too that the fens have their own mysteries.

addendum to badger cull; export of live animals; and drugs

It would seem that it's landowners of significant arable acreage, and conglomerates, in Gloucestershire and Somerset who are pushing in particular for the cull. I repeat that this is primarily a political exercise on behalf of the Government in response to huge pressure from the NFU (National Farmers' Union). I thought Lucy's response to my last posting (in Comments) was a good idea – boycotting the UK dairy industry, which allows each of us to 'vote with our feet', as they say – but am now thinking that actually we need to pressurise the 'big boys' and the NFU direct (the British dairy farmers are already having a bad time). I'd suggest a google to track down the names of people high up in the NFU, followed by a direct email or letter.

The Humane Society, along with the League Against Cruel Sports and the RSPCA, has said that it won't stop here but will take this matter to the Bern Convention's next meeting in November.

It seems it's not too late to sign this e-petition (despite the date on the form). As mm says in the Comments below the last post, Brian May's petition needs to reach 100,000 signatures if we hope for further debate; currently there are three-quarters of that (ish). PLEASE sign and let your friends know:

Sorry to bring you more bad news; but meantime, horrifyingly, the inhumane trade in the transport of live food animals from the UK across vast distances of Europe (no food, no water, much fear) has resumed after a successful campaign by animal groups that has lasted several years, with the first shipment from Ipswich today after a successful ban on live transport from Ramsgate. This practice is, of course, it doesn't need saying, both cruel and regressive. There's a petition here (and online petitions do carry a lot of weight, given the huge numbers of people who receive this info in cyberspace):

OK. Enough of that from me for the moment – more on other subjects soon...


Oh except I'm interested in how the Government canvases opinion from its chosen expert advisors on scientific practice, and then completely ignores the advice, as they did in relation to the badger cull. It happened too with Prof David Nutt, who was sacked – do you remember? – in 2009 from the governmental advisory committee on drugs for saying that he didn't think  cannabis should be reclassified as a 'hard drug' (which the Government went ahead and did anyway). There are more illnesses and deaths per capita, he says, related to alcohol and tobacco (and horse-riding) than to cannabis (and other studies have shown that there are many people who find that the latter is the only pain reliever that works when in the later stages of illnesses such as cancer, or even for arthritis). OK we know that there are varieties of skunk that are not good news; and we also know certain individuals will be more susceptible than others, too – but that presumably goes for any dangerous drugs, including prescription ones – and alcohol?

There was an interesting interview with Professor Nutt on R4 the other day: he's investigating the beneficial uses of MDMA (ecstasy) and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) in the treatment of depression (MDMA used to be available on prescription for that in the States) and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

And I can't say that my own experiences with cannabis and magic mushrooms in the 70s and 80s seem to have done me much harm (though there again maybe that explains certain things!). The tobacco usually inhaled with the hash was more problematic...

Wednesday 19 September 2012

badger cull

It was devastating to wake up to 'Farming Today' on Radio 4 early on Sunday morning and hear the news that the Government is going ahead with a pilot badger cull in Somerset and Gloucester, despite the fact that their own expert advisor concluded, after many years of research to compile the report on which their decision is based, that it can be at most 16% effective. 'Crazy,' is how Lord Krebs described their decision.

I can't help being reminded of the dreadful – excuse me, balls-up (the only way I can describe it) that was the Government's response to the foot and mouth crisis last decade.

The badger, last remaining relative of the bear in the UK, is iconic in the English countryside, and is widely reviled by farmers (as well as being so often a road victim; and also trapped and baited with dogs for 'sport' by small gangs of men who see this as a good use of their time and their poor dogs).

I don't wish to villify farmers – I have farming friends and my uncle farmed, plus I know how very hard it is to make a living as a farmer, especially a dairy farmer, and to lose a whole herd, perhaps built up over generations, must be heartbreaking. I also know how the supermarkets are forcing down the price of milk to farmers until the production is utterly unsustainable, and farmer after farmer is selling selling the herd. Nonetheless, I can't help feeling there is a deal of scapegoating going on here. I feel so distressed at our willingness to destroy other creatures if they get in the way of profit – or even if they don't, just in case; and, more, at the Government's willingness to back this as a sop to the farmers despite the fact that the science simply doesn't stack up.

Even vets – and I have spoken with more than one who say this – conclude that it is at least as likely that cattle pass TB to the wildlife as vice versa. But even if the latter were to be found to be true, culling is not the answer. It simply doesn't solve the problem – for it to be even 16% effective, Lord Krebs says, a guaranteed 70% of badgers would need to be shot, and that figure proven – very difficult, since most farmers will not be able to say with any certainty how many badgers are on their land. Badgers are territorial, and once a family group has been removed from an area others will soon move in to their setts; and these too will need to be culled, until finally will there be no badgers left in England?

I still don't understand why we are not vaccinating cattle (and if needs be badgers too). I imagine it's to do with economics – perhaps beef and milk will not be saleable for x weeks after vaccination?

And the real issue is around current intensive farming practices: we so need an overhaul of the way we farm (aka exploit, prey on and use) animals.

Sir David Attenborough features in a video condeming the cull. Brian May, rock star, astrophysicist and animal advocate, spoke intelligently, eloquently and without condemning farmers on behalf of the Badger Trust about the lunacy of this cull on the 'Farming Today' programme.

Shame about the young Gloucestershire farmer that Radio 4 wheeled out later in the day on the news in support of the cull: I imagine he'd been briefed not to say anything too controversial, but what he actually trotted out was not that he wished the badger cull to happen above all to protect the family herd and family income (which would be natural and understandable), but that he wanted to protect all wildlife on the farm from contamination from badgers: unfortunately when he started talking about protecting bumblebees and birds (the inference was from badger-conveyed TB) one realised the widespread depth of prejudice and ignorance about the disease: amongst animals, only cloven-hoofed animals can carry and succumb to TB, so what he was saying made no sense at all and simply fudged the issue. Come on Radio 4 – we need to hear more convincing advocates of the cull, since it is to happen, than that.

I'm not sure what hope there is now. It seems important not to give up, though.

There is more info on the Badger Trust site: and Labour have a campaign to stop the cull (I hope this link works):

Sunday 16 September 2012

a stream that comes through you

Back home after a rewarding and exhausting day guiding a group of Swiss students through the wildish mind of the land and the wildish land of the (creative) mind, via a voluble little stream, a wild pony herd, a stone row, a stone circle, a menhir and a prehistoric track through ancient dwarf oak woodland as inspiration.

For you today a quote from Roger Housden in his book ten poems to change your life (thank you RB!).

'Your soul, after all, is not yours: it is not a property to be owned but a stream that comes through you, that flows and is never less. This is perhaps why the Buddha was silent when asked if the human being had a soul. He did not want to quantify or locate that which no word or arrow can find. It is the life and soul of the world that wants to make itself known through your particular song, deeply personal and universal all at the same time.'

Saturday 15 September 2012

wet feet and no megalith

Back. Late – ferry strikes at Roscoff announced on Thursday just as we were about to embark, having queued for some time. Lots of disgruntled English people shouting at Brittany Ferries on their mobiles. Hot hot hot – so instead of stressing about Things To Do we thought we'd view it as an unexpected extension of our holiday. We went off to find a beach on the Finisterre coast, plus a B&B and a meal. Found the latter two then it went cold and grey and rainy. So on Friday morning we walked around a wonderful sandy peninsula barefoot anyway looking for a megalithic passage grave ('allée couverte') which is now partly immersed in the tide – despite a very low spring tide we didn't find it, but enjoyed the shore and the seabirds and the wind. We queued again at said ferry terminal 24 hours later (no one was able to give us advance info). 3.30 embarkation time came and went. 4.30 departure time came and went. Lots of disgruntled English people, etc... Then suddenly at 5.30 the gates opened and we sailed out at 6.30 last night.

Bit of a hitch this end – TM had lost the house key; our neighbours, who have the spare, are away. We had to break in to our own house; it is very dark here in the early hours to see to find a long ladder and extend it to an upstairs window. Got to bed at 2 am.

And now, 350 emails later, a mass of post and laundry, and three days of intensive workshops out on the moor and coasts of Devon and Cornwall (beginning tomorrow morning) to prepare I'm all done in.

The holiday was great, by the way. No doubt I'll bore you silly with ecstasies about the Lot later next week.

And due to a cancellation there is one place left on my Islands of the Heart writing retreat next year on Iona; and Sharon's and my course in Scotland, Singing over the Bones, is full but we have a waiting list...

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