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 31 May 2013

save our species

The lanes are almost unbearably beautiful at the moment. What a privilege, to be in a position to go out and immerse myself in it all every day.

Yesterday the two little robin fledglings stopped my heart for a second as they dropped in freefall from the oak-tree above the courtyard down the cliff-face, the parent scolding all the time at TM's cat, sitting practically right beneath (luckily she's not much of a bird-catcher, though if temptation drops towards your mouth, what do you do?). After a couple of metres they both opened their stubby little wings and sculled to the ivy and the climbing rose stems, and I breathed out. 

10 million British songbirds sacrificed each year to domestic cats who don't actually need them for food is 10 million too many. Fond as I am of TM's little cat, I wouldn't personally keep one; but each to their own. The neighbour's fat ginger and white cat is a different matter from his/ours, though, and I know has dissuaded many birds from nesting here, and caught a load.

In the hedge the poor dead badger has nourished the new campions, bluebells, poor man's mustard. I turn my mind away, as I did when I saw her first, for what can I do other than drown in anxiety at the possibility that she was lactating and her cubs will therefore have died?


In Simon's field the newly-steeped hedges are greening:

and below them are these beautiful white flowers. Anyone know what they are? They're not in my wild flower book, and maybe they're garden escapees?

Mary Oliver has a wonderful poem, 'White Flowers', which ends like this:

Never in my life
had I felt myself so near
that porous line
where my own body was done with
and the roots and the stems and the flowers

13th Century Zen master Dogen tells us that everything has buddha-nature, exists in a perfect state of being, flowers and all: 'The body and mind of the buddha way is grass, trees, tiles and pebbles, as well as wind, rain, water and fire.'

Speaking of buddha-nature, I've had three close encounters this week, practically eye-to-eye. The first was a hedgehog; the second a young grass snake (if someone who studies snakes is a herpetologist, does that make the collective noun for, or rather the genus, herpes?); the third a yellowhammer, and then another. 

It was all I could do not to kidnap the hedgehog and bring him or her back for our slugs, but my better nature didn't want to remove it from its family and territory. Conservationists reckon there are fewer than 1m hedgehogs left in the UK; down from 2m in the 1990s and 36m in the 1950s. Roadkill and hedge-loss, it's guessed. The yellowhammer I initially hoped might be a cirl bunting; they're coming back from severe decline through a few introductions in selected places, of which our South Hams is one, but its rump too chestnut and its head not grey enough identified it as a yellowhammer. But a yellowhammer is joy enough, actually.

Every encounter with wildlife is a privilege, and a source of personal delight to me. These encounters shouldn't be quite as noteworthy as they were, however – it's just that all three species are endangered now. 

As a child, I'd often sleep out in the summer garden, under the apple tree. We'd put out food for the hedgehogs, and invariably at least two would arrive (they're unbelievably noisy eaters). It was common, almost daily, to see a hedgehog out in the country where we lived.

We're still living out in the country, and my daughter was brought up in it and lives right in the middle of the moor, about as wild as it gets in England, but she's seen one, or at most two, hedgehogs in her whole life.

And again, as a child, yellowhammers, along with linnets, were a familiar and common sight in the hedgerows. Not any more.  

The Guardian last week told us depressingly quite how fast the decline in wildlife is: 'Most species are struggling, and one in three have halved in number in the past 50 years... Blame is placed on the intensification of agriculture, with the consequent loss of meadows, hedgerows and ponds, and on the increased use of pesticides... Building developments, overfishing and climate change are adding to the factors... Three in five of the 3,148 species that were analysed for the report have declined in the past 50 years, and one in 10 are at risk of extinction.' 

The article doesn't mention herbicides, but they are also in the picture, removing the 'weeds' that some birds and many insects need; by the way, as if we didn't already know this, a new study shows the actual alarming toxicity of the herbicide 'Round-up', Monsanto's own, I believe, marketed as safe to wildlife: it's simply not so, and its effects on human health are pretty appalling too. PLEASE don't use it - buy a small flame-thrower instead, or, better, find a way to co-habit with flowering weeds. 

Down the lane, another barn was converted a couple of years ago; generations of many families of swallows have had nowhere to return to the last couple of years, and swallows too are noticeably few in the air this year; though the warmer weather, when it comes, might bring a few more.

Terrible news. And I guess you, like me, feel so helpless. What can we do? People-pressure: create and sign petitions to lean on governments. Speak of this when you can. Post it on social media. Grow organic food and set aside a small area of nettles etc for wildlife. Make little habitats friendly to eg hedgehogs (buy a hedgehog nestbox). Don't buy pesticides or herbicides (incidentally, ant-killer also kills bees, so avoid that too). 

Especially buy organic. I hate to advocate supermarkets – I don't shop in them bar for a carton or two of organic soya milk from the Co-op – but Tesco offers their organic range at the same price as their non-organic (and yet, astonishingly, most people, it appears, choose to buy the non-organic. WHY?).


And I won't even start on the imminent, misguided and barbaric badger cull, except to say what kind of people reckon they'll work out – in retrospect, mind – how 'humane' the cull methods are by the volume of the noise the dying badgers make, as a recent government statement reports?

Sorry if this has brought you down. 

One thing I'm doing is recording the little moments of encounters with the wild on a daily basis, to remind myself that they haven't yet all gone. How precious other species are; how impossible life without them would be, in so many ways.

And there's some good news: raptors are on the increase, especially buzzards, red kites and urban peregrines; and – hooray – so are otters.

Tuesday 28 May 2013

5 of the best: poems from the Slipstream competition

I have much to say, after a bit of a break, but right now for those of you who are interested in poetry I thought I'd post from the Slipstream poetry competition, of which I was judge, the poems and my report on the poems and the process.

SLIPSTREAM Open Competition Results

1st Prize £250: John Gallas 'Driving behind the chaff tractor'
2nd Prize £100: Valerie Bridge 'Trespassing in the Secret Wood'
3rd Prize £75: Al McGivens - 'The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholas Tulp'
Highly Commended £10: Mark Totterdell - 'Ice Cream'
Highly Commended £10: Charles Evans - 'The Other Eden'

Please forgive the anomalies of formatting – it's been a bit challenging copying and pasting from the Slipstream website!


Judge’s General Report
Roselle Angwin

This was so difficult! The first phase of elimination is relatively easy. Many poems are heartfelt; few are both heartful and skilfully crafted. (As I say to my students: ‘Raw emotion poured upon the page / does not a poem make.’) The second phase consisted of separating the possible ‘yesses’ from the ‘maybes’. This was tough; and I ended up with about 25 yesses.

What I was looking for throughout were poems that spoke to both my heart and my head; that were carefully but unobtrusively drafted and shaped so that form and content worked together, in synergy; that spoke to something of what might be called ‘the human dilemma’ – by which I mean poems that in some way crossed the threshold between the solely personal and the more truly collective or transpersonal. I like a poem to open out towards the universal in some way at the end, and avoiding tight closure or the ‘punchline’ ending. I like to know a poet knows his or her craft, so I notice things like line breaks, assonance and consonance, imagery, use of sound, and so forth. I want a poem to be intelligent but not in-your-face clever.

I noticed how many poems there were written about specific painters or paintings (from a workshop, perhaps?). Many were good; one in particular broke ‘out of the box’. I also noticed how many used formal metre and rhyme. Although I myself am not terribly keen on formal verse (apart from the sonnet), I enjoy it when it’s well-handled and not archaic in ‘feel’. It certainly adds a dimension to a poem, and requires an extra level of skill.

From the very beginning, I thought I had my winner. At the last minute, though, another quiet little poem slipped in as an outsider challenger. This latter has stayed with me in a way that none of the others has.


Ist Place – John Gallas
          Driving behind the chaff tractor

          Content thus slow, my quiet mouth agape
          with minor awe, I feel my dusty lens
          receive the pattered storm of useless chaff,
          and blink. The sun-splash weaves
          along the falling leaves.

         And in this guttering, spermatic light
         it seems the seed of some unfruitful Adam
         swims in barren show against the glass,
         golden and unblessed :
         how sweet is second best.

        You coupled children, couched in beds of wheat,
        where generations thrive and dreamt-of summers
        lie in store – enjoy your harvest. I
        will rattle home behind
        this tractor, and not mind.


A confession: it is hard for me to articulate why this poem so spoke to me. All I know is that it quietly wormed its way to the top of the ‘yes’ pile. One night, I went to bed thinking about the longlist I’d been rereading, and fairly sure of my first-prize winner, and the second. This poem wasn’t either of those two. When I woke up the next morning I knew for certain, however, that this one was, in fact, the winner.

It’s rooted in the sensory world. It speaks directly to my heart without being sentimental, overblown, or clumsy. It doesn’t push itself at me. Its intelligence gives it a quality of inner light (in fact the whole poem has a sort of dusky glow to it). It’s quirky; original in its subject matter and metaphor (chaff of course being what’s left after the fertile grain has been winnowed off). It’s handled with quiet insight, restraint, subtlety. The poem’s (author’s) intelligence is never thrust at us, and yet it reveals a great deal of sensitive insight.  It’s beautiful to read aloud. I notice the chiming sounds throughout, and the non-intrusive end-rhymes on lines 4 and 5.  The diction is careful and lovely (and even though the beginning has a formality to it, it avoids being stilted). I notice the choice of line-breaks.  I enjoy very much ‘minor awe’, and the ‘pattered storm of useless chaff’ with the careful quiet line-break there leading to ‘and blink’. (I don’t know why this should be but that ‘blink’ conveys a kind of vulnerability alongside the more obvious connotations.)

The poem is both deeply sad, and yet not at all. There is a lot of resonance in this poem; many layers of possible meaning. I’d say there is an awareness throughout of how harvest and fallow times, past and future, joy and sorrow can and have to co-exist. There’s an awareness of what has been lost, both personal and collective; of what might be and what can never be; of feeling grateful for what you have even while others have what you might perhaps have liked for yourself – a great span to this poem.

While I find the poem very moving, it never descends into self-pity, and the ending exhibits an emotional generosity and serenity, or at least acceptance, that makes it the more intense and moving, for me.


2nd place – Valerie Bridge

Trespassing in the Secret Wood

in a flutter of giggles, like ancient schoolgirls
wearing tatty uniform: Barbours, walking shoes, clip-boards,
we half hurdle the wall, where it’s almost fallen down.

Now inside, outside voices mutter into mobile phones. We overhear,
hush up, our shoes slithering over roots, brambles, hands grasping
at nettles, fallen branches: ash, oak, hazel, beech, and eavesdrop.

They’ve rung off. On the far side, under the myopic gaze of the big house,
a trail of earth pockets, badger scrapes, fresh latrines, solid footprints, indentations like
a set of clues waiting to be read on a board game.

We are black on white, striped by tree shadow and sunlight.
You take  a photograph later. I wonder if we will come out,
or be swallowed as camouflaged entrepreneurs, up for a jaunt

on badger territory. Will a boar emerge like a steam-rollered stripe,
almost a Tom and Jerry disaster, in a wave of  old humbug, whiffling
at smells? Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are in with this mob.

I would like to invite them to a Wind in the Willows party.
To say thank you to them for an appearance of avuncular generosity,
suspect they’d prefer the haunting of solid oaks under their badger skies.

You have to wear wellies if you go feeding peanuts by a finger nail moon,
keep on balancing on branches. They’ll whicker at footfall, slip cut-out
shadows, hunker back into their sett, but keeping track.

I expect they think we’re cartoon characters, making so much noise,
flattening things as if they won’t make a come back and be there,
solid as oaks, long after we’ve gone. Perhaps they’ll send out an invite,

and we will have to wear masks and full length costumes, and if we grow
a stubby tail and whiskers, we’ll shave later, climb out like pantomime
school girls waiting behind the set, cardboard scenery, for the first act to start.

We’re unaware of the thirty foot well, a police search, the missing lad,
found hours later, hosts of stars fixed as spotlights in his staring eyes.
Our feet suspect snares badgers manage in blackout, nothing else.


This was the poem that I imagined would be the final winner. It caught me immediately, and stayed with me as I read the rest. What I particularly like about it (apart from my own personal engagement, as a pro-vaccinator, with the proposed badger cull) was its ability to take me right into the scene, alongside the women. (I’m intrigued by what they’re actually doing, presumably illicitly, in the woodland with clipboards: I like to think they’re sett-surveying for the anti-cull National Trust, or something similar, in the badgers’ cause.)

The use of sensory detail is exemplary and sustained, and the sense of movement, too.  The three-line stanza form drew me on through the poem. I particularly enjoyed ‘an appearance of avuncular generosity’, and the specificity of all the detail.

What makes it, of course, is the shock in the last stanza, handled without sensationalism.  If there’s one thing I wasn’t so sure about it was a slightly whimsical anthropomorphism; in the end, I think it was this that demoted it to second. But a fine poem, nonetheless.


3rd place – Al McGivens
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholas Tulp

In 'The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp' by the painter
Rembrandt we see the body laid out by the examiner.
The trade-mark light illuminates the chamber
And the very candle seems to flicker
As the students make their observations and gather
In a group around the cadaver.
Now here, observe 'The Dead Christ', by Holbein the Younger,

Or again, this time by Mantegna.
The similarities are striking, no? The dead guerrilla
And the body as examination site, simulacra
Of Christ, the body as propaganda…
All courtesy of the Leica
Lens. Look where the bullets went in, see the stigmata?

Even here the likeness continues to blend
Fact and iconography, it merely moves from the visual end
Of the spectrum to judicial execution. When condemned
To death by official sanction the modern trend
To martyrdom requires the executioner to send                  

Proof.   After the photographs they cut his hands
Off and flew him out on a helicopter to Vallegrande
Where they put him in a shallow grave. As the chopper  lands
Officers from the CIA  confirm the kill. Nobody really understands

Revolutions anymore, except maybe in the tourist shops
Where the slogan and  the picture appear on cigars, T-shirts,  bikini tops…..
Korda didn’t copyright the image so it never stops.

You say you want a revolution well, now you know it’s fine
To transpose the fight to soft furnishings and poster design.

Hasta La Revolucion Siempre!

This poem is a truly extraordinary achievement, and someone else might well have placed this first. It deserves it, in many ways; but ultimately a choice is subjective, no matter how well we recognise exemplary poetic qualities.

The poem is laid out in 7 stanzas of diminishing line-count (7,6,5,4,3,2,1) with each stanza closing each line with its own set rhyme and yet managing to avoid the rhyme taking taking over, and all this leads to a) a cohesion throughout the disparate aspects of this poem, and b) the final inevitable isolated closing line. I am amazed at how the poet handles the breathtaking elision, via a shared experience of mutilation, of a Rembrandt painting of an autopsy with a Holbein painting of Christ and then the death of Che Guevara.

I also admire poems titled to take us in a particular direction that draw us off the scent, so to speak, and then lay out for us the real matter. I also think poetry has a useful role in political and/or philosophical commentary, especially if it manages to avoid polemic.

The one thing that didn’t convince me (though necessary perhaps to the form and message) was ‘Hasta La Revolucion Siempre’. I realise it couldn’t easily have been placed elsewhere, but it seemed too obvious an ending.



   1 Ice Cream (Mark Totterdell)

   We’re walking towards Land’s End,
   fields to our left, a vast sea to our right.
   Ahead of us, an ice cream van like a shiny spaceship.
   I turn to you and say

   Can I have an ice cream, Daddy?
   It’s my little nod to childhood.
   I’m 47. You smile. Moments later
   you turn to me and say

   Can I have an ice cream, Daddy?
   You’ve stolen my line without even knowing.

   We walk on with our cones.
   I’m bearing mine like a flaming torch.
   The sea is such a long way down.


For its simplicity. For its lack of sentimentality. For squeezing my heart, and then doing it again.


2 The Other Eden (Charles Evans)

By the banks of a foam-filled river an embedded
razor fence protects children from the pollution
of outdoor swimming, while high above in a Duplex
apartment Nigel and Fiona micro-wave a de luxe gourmet
supper and prepare themselves for Crisis Counselling..
They're a lovely couple. Nigel drives a Porsche and Fiona
has bulimia in a village where a dreary Norman ruin has
made way for a six-lane bypass through experimental crops,
and two-headed lambs frolic near the tarmacked public path
by a huge plastic billboard which reads Eden Development.

People walk by, not talking but listening on headphones
to piped music which sounds tinnily, not disturbing
the call of geese and swans amplified within the pasteboard
shapes which drift lazily on the processed currents
of sleek smooth water which no-one enters.
Further out of town an empty church crumbles gently
into mossed bricks among ferns and briar, while rooks caw
on derelict walls and foxes slink by forgotten graves. No
hymns sound, the organ long since silent. Only the broken
stones remember music and voices, joy, the other Eden.


Because this needs saying, and poetry too can speak out – and is often very effective at challenging the ‘established order’. Because it’s impassioned but not (just) a rant.

Tuesday 21 May 2013

a notion

The line between sea, shore and sky is so thin, so silver; how it pulls me. I could almost walk on it and on through and on through and not know myself. 

The elements are not so very different: sky become earth become sea become sky and back again. Here they're barely a notion, a token that happens and I watch and by my watching also participate.

And here in bluebells and campion is the rock where I watched the cuckoo so many years ago, before all the losing started; gorse, bluebells, cuckoo, self, even rock – the same and not the same. The cycles of love and loss and love again amplified by spring – how, in spring, can we not believe? – and I think how my mum used to say this was the hardest season: perhaps it's how we feel we don't measure up to all this growth and exuberance, stuck as we are in our regrets and our hopes, the past and the future, resisting growth and bloom if it means changing, giving up on what we know. How we atrophy and harden by not letting go, by not rolling with how it all is.

I've been watching that gull nesting in her trance tucked up against the chimney stack facing out to water, to the horizon, unmoving save to turn the eggs and turn herself on occasion; how hard it is to be that inward, that still, that unresisting to wind and weather. That's faith. That's belief in the future while doing what needs doing in the now.

Saturday 18 May 2013

horse medicine

May 2013

Meandering alongside the Exe up onto Exmoor through lush wooded river valleys luminous with bluebells and suddenly I'm home – the moor and coasts of my childhood, though a bit further east and north as I'm about to head into West Somerset; and I can feel wings beating in my chest.

Exmoor is the softest most 'feminine' of the three moors of the Westcountry: not scrubby and bleak like Bodmin, not dramatic tor-crested little peaks like Dartmoor but altogether more flowing, if a little featureless, lines, stitched with beech. My dad had his little wooden cabin, the highest inhabited point of Exmoor, not far from where I'm heading. I feel a huge wash of emotion for my father: the wild man knocked down by a stroke, now in his soft care home instead of on his wild moor.

I'm coming up for a consultation with Cait, a horsewoman and coach who draws on her NLP and Tibetan Buddhist practices in her work with humans and horses.

I don't quite know why I'm here. When I booked, in February, I was clear about what I was looking for: a birthday present in the shape of an afternoon with Cait in the realms of natural, 'conscious' horse practice for my daughter; something we could share as two people who've spent their lives around horses who already use this approach but would like some extra input from a professional; and if there was time a consultation for myself, as I want to move towards horse-mediated work in my outdoor Ground of Being eco-soul courses.

At the time, a magical little piece of land next door had presented itself to me, and I was thinking of using my small inheritance from my mum to set up a small secluded place for retreat groups to work with me in the fields of eco-awareness and creativity, including a pony or two in the mix, and thinking to bring a pack-pony along on pilgrimage-type walks/camps and in counselling-mentoring outdoor sessions.

That fell through. (Part of me is still following that thread as if it's current: I was so sure that was 'my' land, to be under my guardianship.) E had different horse-related ideas about her birthday present, too. And yet something was pulling me up here to Exmoor.

I've had a bad week. I had a migrainous headache that lasted for 60 hours, I've had too little sleep, and my heart has been over-excitable again, erratically drawing attention to itself. It seemed a bit crazy to do a two-hour drive feeling like that; but I decided to anyway. I needed that gift to myself.

my daughter's Spanish horse
The horse. Horses have accompanied humans for so many 1000s of years; somehow our lives are tied up at a psychic level with theirs. Think of the centaur. Horses are other-kin; they 'know' us in a deep way, evolving as they have alongside us; quite apart from the gifts they offer us for physical transportation, for carrying, they can also help transport us to different kinds of reality; they can heal our fractured instinctual natures; they are something of the spirit.

In the Celtic tradition horses can be associated with feminine power and wisdom: think Epona, the Horse Goddess.

It's only the last hundred-years odd that horses have stopped being natural companions to humans, their lives intimately entwined with ours. The Industrial Revolution took us further and further away from the interconnectedness of living alongside animals. Horses now are luxuries for rich people to enjoy for 'leisure and sport', right?

That doesn't have to be the case. They're partly about the soul. For me personally, they're a crucial part of my life, and largely absent the last five years. I breathe dry air at the moment, and I need spirit-horse wisdom to moisten it, to add fire. Many people have said to me that I resemble a little moorland pony; I smile inwardly, as they're closer than they might realise to recognising my deep bond with horses, my own spirit-medicine-animal.

Horses are benign and healing presences. Jamie Sams' and David Carsons' book on the first nation/native American Medicine Cards says of Horse: 'Horse is physical power and unearthly power. In shamanic practices throughout the world, Horse enables shamans to fly through the air' (and bring back healing). 'Humanity made a great leap forward when Horse was domesticated, a discovery akin to that of fire. Before Horse, humans were earthbound, heavy-laden, and slow creatures indeed. Once humans climbed on Horse's back, they were as free and fleet as the wind... Through their special relationship with Horse, humans altered their self-concept beyond measure. Horse was the first animal medicine of civilization. Humanity owes an incalculable debt to Horse and to the new medicine it brought.'

Horse medicine, say the authors, is to do with power, wisdom and responsibility. In brief, Horse medicine is about balance, and suggests the bringing of light out of darkness, the gifts of teaching and illuminating others, the importance of balancing work and play, the wisdom that is true power. 'True power is wisdom found in remembering your total journey. Wisdom comes from remembering pathways you have walked in another person's moccasins. Compassion, caring, teaching, loving, and sharing your gifts, talents and abilities are the gateways to power.'

I'm loosely mulling all this over in my mind (not that I remembered all the Sams and Carson teachings; once I knew the medicine cards intimately, but they've slipped from my conscious attention the last few years) as I wind up into the Exmoor hills.

And here, now, are the two horses I've come to work with: beautiful Arabians, one creamy-gold, the other fiery copper. I fall in love instantly with the latter; my previous and much-loved horse was also a chestnut Arab gelding, and enhanced my life beyond measure.

Right now, I'm exhausted, a bit scattered, lacking focus. I say something along these lines when Cait asks me what I want from the session. I don't really know. I think it's about my working life. I love the work I do; I know it's what I am here for. But there is too much of it – I mean I am putting my energy into too many different aspects without reasonable enough returns, and I need to bring the scattered bits together.

Perhaps I want some form of consolidation? I start to try and explain this to Cait; I'm looking for a theme that we can focus on with the horses, who faithfully reflect our 'issues', if we know to read the language they speak in (for anyone interested in following this up, see Linda Kohanov's books, starting with The Tao of Equus).

Hmmm. Maybe it's around confidence, slightly shaken recently by an encounter with my daughter's huge young stallion who goes through phases of being very bite-ful, something common in stallions but something I'm not used to, and didn't know how to handle with someone else's horse, especially my daughter's. Truth is, though, I doubt very much whether it's affected my confidence with horses; I'm with them as I have been since riding the milkman's horse age 2 in Wales (yes, milk really was still delivered by horse and cart) – as I am with the air I breathe, the water I drink. And confidence generally: well, life has shaken me around a bit the last few years but I still know what my path is, and that I can walk it, and walk it well.

Finally I say to Cait hesitantly 'I'm burnt out'. And that's the truth – my fire wavers; not the passion or vision, but the fire in my belly, the ability to stay strong and centred and sure and healthy and focused.

'Hey,' I say lamely. 'Kind of an exploration and a sort of consultation.' I've been around horses all my life; we both work with the natural compassionate co-operative approach with horses; we both use mindfulness practice. But. Beginner's mind. 'Forget what I already know; let's start right in and see what happens. Treat me as a beginner. I don't know why I'm here. I've no expectations.'

'OK,' she responds. 'The horses will let us know. Let's go and see.'

And they do. We sit down in the yard near them. Rowan, the chestnut, comes over and stands very close, soaks up the affection. He has a gentle eye. I stroke his face, his neck. Already, I'm feeling better.

Twenty minutes later, with mutual attention between Rowan and me, we decide to work with Rowan 'at liberty'. That is, we'll work in an area that's fenced, but we'll not use anything other than words and body-language to ask him what we want: no headcollar, lead-ropes or any means of physical contact, let alone coercion; it'll be the psychic relationship between him and me that creates what happens.

I put myself in the centre of the fenced area and bring my attention to being firmly in that place and in my centre, fully present and grounded. Cait notices that my energy is 'upwards' when it needs to be stiller, so I focus on my feet in contact with the ground.

And the connection happens. This beautiful fiery chestnut horse walks and trots and canters around me in a circle, whichever way I wish, as I ask, keeping my attention on him, with words, encouragement and movements to explain what I want of him. I slow him with gestures, I bring him to a halt similarly, I bring him towards me, I start him off again. I notice how important it is to keep my body-language messages clear and simple and direct – how much we must muddle horses with all the unconscious mixed messages we give, we who are so rarely really aware of inhabiting a body.

He's beautiful, a dream of a horse. All the time he's clearly enjoying himself and enjoying our praise. And I am completely in the moment, all my attention (bar a fraction for Cait as I'm aware he's not 'my' horse and this does add a different dynamic) focused on the exchange between horse and myself.

An hour later, leading him back to his field, I suddenly realise my headache has gone, and there's a lightness in my chest. Something has happened to me.

'What word would you use to describe the experience?' Cait asks afterwards. I hesitate. I want to say 'reconnection', but that's such a cliché, so obvious. 'Re-established,' I say. 'That's not quite right but there's something about re-establishing my ground.'

It's not till I get out of the car at home, a manoeuvre which has recently been excruciatingly painful due to very severe to the point of incapacitating backache for the last 4 weeks, that I realise I have no pain at all in the lumbar area.

And some fire has rekindled, although I don't really realise that till the next morning. 'You look different,' said M, meeting me in the lane. 'You look wild and bright.'

Yes. Ah yes – 'rekindled'. That is exactly what I needed.

I belong to myself and the world again, and this wonderful wild tribe of animals and humans, horses and humans, together.

So – that's what I was there for: Horse medicine, healing.


Cait is here:

Friday 17 May 2013

Jinny's poem in response to 'not writing about spring'

All winter
Geese pulling the night
Across the sky
Shoals of starlings
Telling their stories of the day
Silenced now, these songs
By swallows return.

Jinny Peberday

Jinny, thank you. Lovely poem. Really like the strong image of geese 'pulling the night / Across the sky'. Am pleased to reacquaint myself with your work. x

Wednesday 15 May 2013

'writing the bright moment' - writing retreat in France

Fancy catching the last of the summer sun on an inspiring and gentle writing retreat? This is my last residential week in 2013, and I'm so looking forward to working at Gardoussel in France; it also happens to be in the Languedoc, where my novel Imago is partly set... 

We are offering a single place as a prize in the Poetry Society draw; Sharon, see below, has details, or visit the Poetry Society website.

Writing the Bright Moment in the Cevennes, France
Sat 31 August - Sat 7 September 2013


Could you do with a tonic for body, heart, mind, imagination and, of course, your writing? If so, this is the week for you – one to both quicken and quieten the heart, fire the imagination and enliven the senses.

The retreat will focus on developing our writing at the same time as deepening our sense of relationship to the world around us, in this moment – the only one we ever have.

There’ll be lively discussion, stimulating writing tasks for the imagination, shared silence and slow walking as well as words and readings, and time to simply be in the natural world, and, if you’d like, to immerse yourself in the waterfall pool. All the time there will be gentle prompts to relax into the present moment and its joys and gifts.

The spirit of the retreat will echo the essays in my book of the same title; if you know my style from this or others of my courses, you'll know to expect a deepening of your sense of connectedness, a great deal of sometimes surprising writing (poetry & prose), a slowing down, some play, a lot of laughter, and an opening of your imagination and your heart.

Cost: 595 Euros
Price includes all course tuition, accommodation and meals. Single rooms will be provided to all participants depending on availability unless otherwise requested.

Sharon may be able to help with transport from Nimes up to Gardoussel (shuttle buses run from the airport to the train station). (Places limited, otherwise we can help you to organise a shared taxi or advise on public transport.) For travel options see below:

TGV fast trains Paris (Gare de Lyon) – Nimes approx every hour, journey takes less than 3 hours (can link up with Eurostar London St Pancras to Paris, or flights into Paris Charles de Gaulle). For the chance of a free pickup, aim to arrive in Nimes around 2.30pm.

Ryanair: Luton – Nimes
Ryanair: Liverpool – Nimes
Easyjet: Gatwick – Montpellier

For more information about this retreat and other events at Abri Creative Writing and Gardoussel, visit the websites and

 Sharon will give you full details:

email: sharonblack1969[at]yahoo[dot]com
tel: + 33 466 60 16 78

Tuesday 14 May 2013

the stories we reside in when we let ego be king

I should start by saying that the situation I write of below is a) no longer active in terms of negativity, and b) wasn't a big deal anyway. I'm teasing it out here as this stuff happens all the time in any relationship, and I'm recording my experience for myself, as if observing; and for anyone else who might be interested in this whole journey we make with others, and how we might make it wisely, or attempt to.

So picking up a thread from yesterday: of course it's not actually retribution, retaliation and revenge I want. But what I really want to do is to react; it would be temporarily rewarding to righteously demand that I am understood, that I am heard, that justice be done (in my favour, of course); that my friend's misinterpretation, criticism and/or unjust accusations (as I see it) are retracted. I want to explain and justify. In short, I want to be right.

I also know after so many years of practice that actually wisdom lies in remembering to respond rather than react. Of course, this is easy to notice after the event!

I've written of this before, in and also here Anger is simply part of the human condition: it often points to something that needs addressing, and the need to react to it is also a necessary part of survival, self-esteem and self-belief – from one point of view. (It's also useful to fuel our sense of injustice in the socio-political arena: to make steps towards change in the wider world – provided we use it skilfully.)

But personal anger arises from the ego's fearfulness. When we are hurt it can reach to our core. What we fear is that we mean nothing in the greater cosmic order, or even in relation to another. We fear dissolution and loss of control; the ego is insecure to the point of taking everything personally all the time. These are the stories we reside in when we let ego be king. Buddhist teacher David Loy says that the ego is more like a process or a function; that's a useful insight. It isn't fixed, unchanging, 'what we are'; its motivations can be winkled out and seen for what they are: self-serving and controlling.

And it's true too that of course we need ego. Knowing what's OK for us and what is not is useful, not to say crucial, for navigation. Not taking on another's anger but responding to it skilfully is an important tool; at least as important is not believing in our own anger as reality.

What I notice on the rare but thankfully increasing number of occasions when I can stare this in the face and let things be until some spaciousness arises is that once the immediacy of being seen to be right dissolves, my response is altogether more kind – of course. I come back to balance.

We live in the stories we make about ourselves, others and the world, and the ego likes to reinforce them because otherwise – what? Nothing? No-self? No-one to blame? Then what?

No-one else can make me feel angry, betrayed, accused unless the stories I live in tell me that; which of course they will, unless challenged, as we filter all our perceptions, experiences, feelings, thoughts through our own mind and believe them as truth.

So this morning on my meditation stool I am facing as usual the three habits most of us fall into as a way of attempting to shore up ego: analyzing, blaming and fixing. Ezra Bayda says: '... we spend most of our time lost in the mental world. We are literally addicted to our thoughts, whether we are planning, fantasizing, worrying, dramatizing, conversing, or whatever. If we are honest, isn't it true that most of our time is spent spinning in thoughts?' Guilty, m'lud. 'There are three habitual grooves where most of us get caught spinning in the mental world: analyzing, blaming, and fixing.' Yep, yep and yep. 'These conditioned patterns are detours from being present to reality, and taking any one of them guarantees that we will perpetuate the story line of "me".'*

How does this change when I remind myself that 'I' am not a little pinprick spinning in isolation, but part of a 'we', and everything I do and think affects, however minutely, the whole?


* From Detours from Reality, excerpted in The Best Buddhist Writing 2009, ed Melvin McLeod.

Monday 13 May 2013

bones & blossom

This is a vertebra from a dolphin's spinal column. Dominic found it, with many of its fellow vertebrae, washed up on the shore on our Iona week: the dolphin clearly no longer needed it and yet, D said, he almost felt like a grave-robber.

We humans seem to have a special bond with dolphins (though that doesn't seem to stop the brutal massacres). Holding the bone in my hands I am in awe; I experience what some may feel holding a saint's relics.

Now this bone is empty of the transmissions from the brain via the spinal cord that spell the fluidity of every part of dolphin. The hollow in the bone no longer pulses with that quicksilver consciousness.

I think of the self, and how we see it, or want – need – to see it, as solid, unchanging, permanent, as this bone appears to be; and yet we can't point at 'self', at anything enduring, to which we can append a name that will not slip, eventually, into everything and nothing. What made dolphin dolphin was not the skeletal system but that which animated it, consciousness itself, though of course the DNA was present, is present, in flesh, in muscle, in bone.

Walking the long loop today I notice in the hedge an old and wizened apple tree I hadn't seen before. The blossoms are vigorous, vibrant. If you look closely, though, they're almost evenly matched by a proliferation of ivy. Which will win out in the end?

Ivy is not actually a parasite in that it doesn't feed off its host but simply climbs it; nonetheless it can choke and eventually pull down a tree.

Some of the way round the loop I have been mulling over a situation: some upset and minor anger at a friend; unable simply to let it dissolve, my first preference, I had to voice my upset in the end for fear it would choke our friendship if I let it stew. 

No matter how skilfully one voices upset, it's hard. All we can do is take responsibility for our own stuff, checking in with ourselves over and over, facing what we do and how we too are unskilful at times, reclaiming projections, acknowledging what is ours to own, and try to be kind in facing the difficult stuff in love, in work situations, in friendship. 

What's my intention? What's my motivation? Am I clearing the air, or taking an opportunity to hit out? Which will bring the greatest good? Am I going to focus on the blossom or darkly bring down the friendship because my ego demands retaliation, retribution, revenge – or at least an acknowledgement, and apology? Am I going to turn towards the sun and flower, anyway, without indulging the first three and even if I don't receive the latter two?

This is simply how it is, whether or not we like it: life is frail and tenuous, even as it's persistent and strong. Parts of it are tender; parts are made of tougher impenetrable stuff. Sometimes the blossom falls on stone. Stone is part of our reality too, and has its own contribution to make – where would we be if not for bedrock?

In the end, beauty is beauty not despite its fragility, its transience, but because of it. The cherry blossom makes me smile. The cherry blossom falls. The blossom will decay. The gravel is also our reality. 

Creatures of light and dark both, we are.

Life is, as T C McLuhan (I think) has it, 'the little shadow that runs across the field and loses itself in the sunset.'

Sunday 12 May 2013

not writing about spring, again - with request

I set this for my much-loved poetry group yesterday. It proved exciting and stimulating; inspired some wonderfully creative new work.

It occurred to me that those of you who write creatively might enjoy this mild left-field approach to (not) writing about spring, too. Here's the challenge: follow the suggestions below, and I'll publish a few of the most original short pieces on here if you'd like to send them in.

1: make a list of all the nouns, adjectives and verbs you can think of that you might use to describe spring

2: write a first draft of a short piece, poem or creative prose, nominally about spring – that does not include any of those words :-) (think instead perhaps about a different metaphor/symbol/image you could use for spring; or maybe write up from your own history: a personal memory of an event one spring, or something that happened more globally in a spring time)

3: copy out this first draft onto a sheet of A4 leaving a line-space between each line

4: intervene with this in a way that makes you think more laterally. What I asked the poets to do yesterday was either to write between the lines, literally; or to tear the page in half vertically and re-match phrases horizontally by lining up the halves in a different place, and allowing your imagination to take flight with new ways of combining words; or to cut up the lines and rearrange them (or a combination of these suggestions). The idea is to look for happy and surprising conjunctions. Subverting our habitual thinking patterns and channels allows fresh insight and new synergies to appear

5: redraft, looking as always for tightening.

If you would like to send these in to me, please keep them brief! I don't know how much wordage the Comment box will allow. Guidelines are no more than 10-14 lines for a poem and 100-150 words for prose; if poetry, please use the single slash / for line breaks and the double // for stanza breaks. 

Friday 10 May 2013

how to write about spring?

How can we write about spring? There's no way to speak of it without cliché – or maybe there is and I'm being lazy. But I also can't not speak of this miraculous uplifting green tide sweeping the land, clearing the moulder and debris and decay of the winter and recolonising the land and our psyches, here in the Northern hemisphere, almost, it seems to me, against all odds.

We with the widescale destruction caused by our ignorance and greed, our commodification of nature, make continuing renewal so hard, so seemingly almost impossible – and yet year after year spring does her thing in the cycles of seasonal change, in the swallows' and cuckoos' return, in the new nuthatch chicks and the tiny lambs, the badger cubs, the bluebells and orchids; in the floods of green and blossom, reminding us that nothing remains forever – not last summer's promise, not last autumn's harvest, not last winter's grief and darkness – but all is in a constant state of flux, renewal and transformation.

Spring reminds us that nothing in the psyche remains stuck forever, either – sorrow passes, personal joys pass; both will return.

What Brian Clarke calls 'the law of continuing' is where we can take refuge, the hope that's possible from knowing how to surf transience, find a more lasting promise of peace and a deeper sense of joy that is not determined by outer circumstances or personal temporary emotional instabilities...

Thursday 9 May 2013

brochs, motorways & a few anxieties

near Dunvegan
Last day on Skye. The day before had been rainy and windy but not too cold. We'd had to take my daughter's car to the garage, out in the sticks near Dunvegan, and I was delighted to see that the garage served also as a charity bookshop: a happy half-hour collecting an armful of secondhand books, from a Prehistoric Sites atlas to some interesting lit-fic. 

In the down-to-earth and unpretentious village itself (where one of the most beautiful car parks in the world exists) – remember this is a Gaelic-speaking sparsely-populated northern edge of a sparsely-populated northern island at the edge of the earth – we discovered the incongruous-seeming Jann's Organic Cake and Chocolate shop: some of the most heavenly hand-made chocolates ever, plus Jann, a soft-voiced big Caribbean woman, makes a mean veggie curry. She's partnered by a man who seemed straight out of Easy Rider got-a-bit-older. I couldn't imagine how they made a living here in this remote and pragmatic farming community (or chose it in the first place) until I realised quite how many tourists, British and international, come by. 

We explored the Duirinish peninsula (the 'nish', or 'ness', suffixes in Scotland come from the Norse from the time of the Viking invasions and mean 'headland; am I repeating myself?). This one, on the west coast, is different from the other two: softer, lush even, wooded in parts, and colonised by lots of artists and craftspeople and small-scale crofters. Yes, I can imagine living there.

And now we're leaving Skye. The Cuillins have taken a thick fresh coat of snow, and the mountains of Harris and Uist ditto. As we leave, I catch sight of a white-tailed sea-eagle – a treat for the journey (later, in the borders, I'll come literally face-to-face with a rare red squirrel at very close quarters – it drops onto a fence just in front of me and the dogs whom it clearly hadn't seen – skitters off in a great flurry and panic, nearly missing its footing).

It's bitterly cold, horizontal rain and sleet or hail on the gale-force winds; the wee new lambs are taking a real battering and some are bound, distressingly, to give up to hypothermia. We've piled on the layers and we're still chilled – and we're hardy countryfolk who live in cold houses.

Having been going on for days about wanting to see Dun Beag ('Little Fort') broch, which is the best-preserved of all the Skye brochs, hardly any of which I've managed to see except at a distance, the weather is such that I'm tempted not to mention it and to slope on by even though it's directly en route; but of course my daughter calls me on it and we stop. 

The photos make it look calm, but believe me I was perching precariously in a very high wind on the tumbledown slippery walls in rain, barely able to see for my hair whipped over my face, with the dog (who is a wimp) whining and pulling to get out of the rain and threatening with the wind to drag me over the edge. I could just about see enough to realise what an amazingly strategic position the broch took with, on a good day, spectacular views.

Archaeologists are still disagreeing over the purpose and function of the many Scottish brochs. The word itself means 'fort', as does 'dun', but it's not certain that they were actually defensive structures, though they may have been in addition to perhaps domestic usage. Many have what has been named a 'guard cell' by the entrance:

Their building is generally agreed upon as being Iron Age, either side of the transition between BCE and AD; and they're still on the whole thought of as having been built by the intriguing and enigmatic Picts, as I said before (of whom we know little, except what we can glean from the treasure hoard found on St Ninian's Isle in the C20th, and the kinglist from which we can conclude that they were matrilineal; and the beautiful and unique scribed stones – or at least that was the state of play when I studied them at university a while back).

They're classified as 'complex Atlantic roundhouses'. The work is exquisite drystone walling, creating a double-skinned tall tower, threaded by a spiral internal staircase and probably wooden galleried floors. Some say that they were topped by a conical roof, which of course would make sense. Below is the artist's impression from the info panel:

I find myself enthused all over again with Pictish history.

Meanwhile, the nearly-700-mile journey down from Skye for self and daughter was – interesting. For complex reasons to do with my being up there for a couple of weeks longer than she could be, plus lack of public transport (should she be able anyway to take care of the needs of two big dogs on such a long distance trip by bus/train while carrying camping stuff, dog-bedding etc) to the wilder reaches of the Hebrides, meant that my daughter came to Skye separately in her sturdy and usually reasonably reliable 28-year-old car. (OK, I know that's dodgy environmentally, but we're so careful so much of the time and she so needed a holiday.) She'd had a rough start in Devon; being environmentally-conscious and also skint she'd taken onboard a load of recycled veg oil, on which she always used to travel instead of diesel, donated by TM. She'd driven about 25 miles when the engine packed up; turned out to be a dodgy load of oil, as TM had suspected from trouble with his own car, but she'd felt her own older car with a simpler Mercedes engine would cope. A few hours later, fuel system cleaned out and a little bit more skint, she set off again and the car behaved impeccably.

Now on Skye, as we set off, her car, despite having been serviced and MOTd before departure, had started a very ominous banging and clanking (nothing to do with the fuel system). The garage at Dunvegan couldn't find anything structurally wrong and felt it was probably safe to drive; this didn't seem entirely probable when I could hear the racket with my own car windows closed, travelling behind her. It seemed less and less probable as it seemed to worsen as we drove through spectacular but now slightly foreboding snowy landscape – the Five Sisters of Kintail, Glencoe, Rannoch Moor, the Great Glen – in blizzard conditions with the mountains looming and a few mountain search-and-rescue vehicles passing us (though that could have been reassuring).

By the time we arrived in the lush borders (very late at night having stopped quite a lot to check undercarriage, ring mechanic, etc, and otherwise crawling along), having decided we were going to treat ourselves to a B&B (the wonderful owners waited up for us) rather than sleeping in the car or camping, the only other options, we were so frazzled with anxiety that sleep was pretty much out the window. (We've always lived lightly on a very small income; it's times like this when the lack of emergency/contingency resources takes its toll, and one realises what a difference not having money makes.) 

The only advantage that I could see to travelling on a motorway at snail's pace – besides not actually being in transit at speed when, my imagination suggested, a wheel flew off – was that I actually got to experience all the changing landscape through which I normally travel too fast, and confronted my prejudices about that patch of England after Cumbria and before Somerset. How beautiful it all was in the lushness, even the service stations. All of it. In between worrying about the noise and my daughter's safety, and reminding myself that worry doesn't change anything and is a waste of energy, I remembered to pick the strawberries of the present moment (all what, 22 driving hours of it?), and enjoyed it, too...

Blog Archive