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.
Friday, 31 March 2017
It’s barely light, there’s a small squall in the Sound, and the wind rips the gulls’ keenings past my window as I lie in bed with the curtains open on the tin-sheen of the dawn, watching the way – so close – breaking daylight plays the fractured tips of the waves.
I’m in love already with it all, once again as every day, even the rain.
This is the best kind of day: watching Neil, next-generation islander still at school when I led my first retreat here, steer his little top-heavy one-man crabber with its mast-lights out to the stormy sea, knowing that I don’t have to.
Of course there is an edge to my pleasure: the sea is always more powerful than us, and young men have died, not so long ago, in this Sound. Plus he’s bringing in crab and lobster to be boiled alive before being eaten by humans – something in which I’ve chosen not to participate myself. But my ancestors were seafarers, fishermen (and lifeboatmen) among them, and there’s always a frisson that spells excitement and danger mixed in me at seeing this tradition continued, pleasure that there are still small family working boats, sometimes single-handed, in a time of factory farming and factory fishing. And it’s local, and fresh, food, harvested in the face of danger.
And I can lie here warm, safe, listening to the ocean’s restlessness, noting an island thrush proclaiming Iona home.
Then to get up and write. And how to write of the tenderness I feel towards these twelve people so willing to trust all they are to the work we do together, to feel their way back to belonging in their own boots, in their own hearts, with each other, in this whole vast web?
And I think again what a fine and delicate act we perform, highwire we tread, when we learn at last to give responsibility for our own life to nothing and no-one else, while remembering the most important lesson: we are made of all this; we are part of all that is; everything has a place; everything counts; everything matters, yes, including us.
Thursday, 30 March 2017
People have found the poems I’ve posted here both beautiful and moving, I think almost without exception, and I have also been accused of posting ‘safe’ poems, and it is true that there have been few poetic risk-takers among the fine poems contributed.
Truth is, I wasn’t looking for cleverness and postmodern fractured narratives – except inasmuch as the whole narrative is fractured now – or anything that would draw attention away from the subject matter; I wanted the poems to be crafted but not obtrusive; backgrounding the subject, if you like. Of course, that doesn’t mean the poems shouldn’t also wake us up, which was rather the point of my series.
This one breaks the mould, as they say, and upturns the usual take on extinction of species. I’ll leave it with you, except to say I’m glad to include something that you may have to read twice to catch the drift of its irony.
Thank you, Gerald McEachern, for shaking up a certain poetic complacency in me.
A long nap on the sea bed
We are Atlantis, eighty meters under the sea,
every tax return, every dish, every scribbled thought lost
for ever. We perish as we live, full of ourselves.
The methane is blooming and the coral reefs are dying.
The messenger tells me we’re off to Jurassic Park,
leaving all of this behind us at a rate of two hundred
species a day, but some say it’s less than one a day. OK…
So today, forty school teachers, nine doctors and nurses,
six law enforcement professionals, nine pastors and priests
and three foster parents were arrested—along with two
hundred and eighty-one others in a Canadian child
porn bust. And the cop who shot a woman in the head
eight times—for no good reason—just died of brain cancer.
There’s something for everyone under the sea.
© Gerald McEachern
Gerald McEachern is Canadian. His view is that 'truth, poetic or otherwise, is caught in peripheral vision, at the very edges of what we can see, not from that on which we're directly focussed. Specifically with respect to this poem, the problem, species loss, is not what it seems; the problem is us and what's lost within us as a species.'
Monday, 27 March 2017
How to add something new to the hundreds of thousands of rapturous words I've written about it, the hundreds of poems, the many many photographs?
How to place this in the world context of so much human-made pain, destruction, cruelty, despair and outrageous happenings, as if one small jewel of a place and the hearts it inspires is enough to offset it all? And – what else can we do other than celebrate these small moments and the people united by them?
How to speak of the pod of dolphins leaping and spinning in the Sound yesterday on the evening tide in a pearly dusk? How to write newly about the seal who tracked the strait in time with my footsteps on the strand?
How to write of the hundreds of wild geese who lift off from the meadows and circle our heads? And the way that one white-tailed sea eagle balanced on blue air blew a space in my chest I didn't recognise, stopped me in my mad flight at a most unholy speed to catch the last ferry to the island after a 600 mile drive last Friday?
And how to speak of the people who bring their laughter, tears, creativity and depth of humanness year after year to join me here, a temporary community creating a web of interwoven lives and the writing that springs from this, both of which remain as a felt experience for us all long after we've left the island and gone back to our habitual lives?
Answer: I can't. So here's the first poem – I think – I ever wrote about the island, maybe 18 years ago when I started this course, and some photos from this last weekend:
Iona: The Glass-Blue Day
The way sky inhabits the creases
smears colour that steals your breath
The sand so pale it might be grains of light
The big Hebridean night that opens its arms
and drops its creel of stars
towards our upturned faces
© Roselle Angwin
Tuesday, 14 March 2017
So I was delighted to receive this poem from Devon poet Sally Douglas:
I wanted to follow the paths of the Yellow Horse.
For he was born in the night
and in the morning was ready to run.
For with his father’s teeth at his tail
he could run forever.
So I placed a single fingertip
in the well-trodden furrows
that led from feeding ground to sleep,
and the bone grew wide and round.
I wanted to follow the paths of the Yellow Horse.
For his shadows are on the cave wall.
For he can hear the quiet stars.
So with my hard wide fingertip
I dug through ancient laminations of snow.
I wanted to follow the Yellow Horse.
With all that was left – my single fingertip –
I traced the map of his tracks.
But could not feel.
© Sally Douglas
(From Candling the Eggs, Cinnamon Press, 2011)
Sally says: Przewalski's horse, or the Dzungarian horse, is a rare and endangered wild horse native to the steppes of central Asia. It was, from the late 1960s, extinct in the wild, but after a captive breeding programme it has been re-introduced into its natural habitat. There is now believed to be a population of about three hundred horses in Mongolia. A group was also introduced into the Chernobyl exclusion zone in 1998, and is thought to be increasing in size.
Przewalski's horse has never been domesticated and remains the only true wild horse in the world today.
Tuesday, 7 March 2017
|Sancreed holy well – as you descend the steps you can see phosphorescence|
The sacred springs, the holy wells, of our land have long preoccupied me. (I see I’ve blogged about them several times during the years I’ve written this blog, too; you can see a post from January 2011 here.)
I suppose I’d have to come out and say wells have been a part of my inner life since my dad took us to see the ones in West Cornwall when we were young. (As a mother myself later, I passed this on by taking my young daughter to various of them, including our frequent visits to the red and white springs at Glastonbury at the heart of Albion, as a kind of pilgrimage.)
Of course, as a child I didn’t properly understand the significance of them; I knew they were places where people used to go to draw water, or ask to be healed. But even then, they set up a profound resonance in my psyche.
In my late teens, having learned to drive, my then-boyfriend and I plotted all the wells we could find on large scale maps of Exmoor, Dartmoor and Cornwall, and drove each weekend to visit some. I think it was about then that I also started to clear some of them, the deeply-neglected ones, out, physically, as personal inner practice.
I already knew it was a symbolic gesture as well as a physical one, but my thinking on it wasn’t clear.
It wasn’t until I read the various versions of what later became loosely grouped together as the Grail corpus in their original languages of Middle Welsh and Mediaeval French at Cambridge when I was 20 that I started to really understand the impetus. I already knew the stories, along with the Welsh Mabinogi which preserves older versions of some of these tales, from my childhood, growing up in a deeply Celtic family.
Ten years later, partway through my training in Transpersonal counselling, rooted in Jungian and archetypal psychology, I had a personal revelation – two, in fact – in relation to the Grail legends that turned my life around, and out of which all my further work would grow and continues to grow. Everything came into focus at that time for me.
I’ve written of this in my first book Riding the Dragon – myth & the inner journey, so won’t repeat it all here.
That book was commissioned by the then leading mind body spirit publishing house, Element Books, in 1993. The book came out of some workshops I began leading in 1991 on ‘Myth as Metaphor’. I’ve never known quite what umbrella term to use for them; I used to refer to them as Personal Mythology workshops (this was a label used by some people working in a similar field, though in a different way, in the States), or the Psychology of Myth. Later on, it seemed they would almost fit the title of ‘narrative therapy’, also from the States (but in my case with a psychospiritual element and with a wider brief than the health of the individual alone; although of course a healthy individual will be contributing that health to the whole).*
The model I was using in those days was Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’. I retitled it ‘The Heroic Quest’ and adapted it for an equal focus on the differing needs of the feminine principle, so incorporating other myths and also ideas drawn from symbolic systems such as the Tarot, and Jungian-based astrological psychology, both of which I’d studied. In the intervening years, I've revisioned it a few times.
I’ve led many workshops in the decades since on different aspects of myth and the psyche, and how it informs the way we live, but they all had the same theme at core.
Basically, I was and am still trying to draw attention to the fact that, in my belief, the planetary state of our land and waters was – is – at least in the Western world a direct result and reflection of a gross neglect, violation of, the needs of the ‘lost feminine’ in our culture, and therefore of course in our collective psyche/s (for they are so utterly interwoven). Some, including Jung and various Jungians, and myself, too, call this principle ‘soul’, or anima, which has long been associated with the feminine principle in the psyche (whichever outward gender we identify with, each of us has that psychological transsexual component; this is really important to understand).
Simplistically speaking, the characteristics of ‘soul’, as opposed to what has long been identified with ‘spirit’/the masculine principle, are the complementary ones to the latter’s valuing of the qualities of the rational mind, logic, goals and objectives, achievements, light, height, the macro and abstract, ‘straight line thinking’ etc (remember I’m not talking about men but about a mode of being in the world).
The feminine principle demonstrates rather navigating by intuition, imagination, feelings, the subconscious realm, darkness, moistness, depth, circuitousness, the micro and particular, being rather than doing. The irrational, in this way of being, is not something to be avoided or feared.
While I’m speaking in stereotypes here, this is a hugely important concept that lies beneath, I think, much binary thinking as well as suppression, shadow projection, and hate. For me, a key question to changing the future, even the world, is can we move forward through thinking in terms of ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’?
Those early workshops of mine were rooted in the myths, the ‘big’ myths, that have shaped significant aspects of European and our collective psyche/s.
For a little while, around the time that the collection of stories now known in their more sophisticated forms as the Grail legends were being carried by troubadours, minnesingers and bards around the courts of Europe, the feminine principle was brought up from its long oppression back into the light. (Remember that the place of women, from the warrior-cult Bronze Age onwards at the least, until the early centuries of the last millennium, and afterwards, too, was only and firmly in the home, and that they – we – were basically tools to be bartered for land, status, goods, etcetera. We’re still not out of the Dark Ages in many parts of the world, including the so-called developed world, in relation to this.)
We have Eleanor of Aquitaine and her Courts of Love to thank for this (I explore this in part of my novel Imago, written in 1994 but not published till 2011). There’s an enormous amount to say about this; some of which I’ve written about in both books mentioned and in essays, and also, I see, several times in the nearly 7 years I’ve been writing this blog.
These stories are a remarkable collection, for their time, of wisdom about the need for a synthesis, an equality, a co-rulership, of King and Queen, masculine and feminine principles, both. For a little while in the early part of the last millennium, the divine feminine as well as Woman was restored to her rightful place in the psyche and our Western culture; though in two or so short centuries after that the European witch hunts would make sure that was stamped on. At the Enlightenment, this persecution continued; albeit in a very different and generally more subtle – and insidious – form.
Anyway, there is a passage in some of the Grail myths that leaped out at me, and of which I wrote at length in the books above.
In it, the Grail maidens, the guardians of the wells – which of course provide the waters utterly necessary for life – have been raped and the wells dry up. Not unconnected with that fact is the incurable wound of the Fisher King, which means that he has no generative powers.
Without water, there is wasteland (it is this motif from the Grail legends that inspired T S Eliot’s poem of that name). Water has always been seen as sacred, for as long as we can fathom; remember there’d have been no piped water in those days – quite apart from its more subtle connections. Wells were where we might meet the Otherworld, as well as drinking our fill. Many wells were considered to be healing wells; many still are. In West Cornwall, several wells are still tended. One of them, Sancreed, very close to the origins of my family, I’ve now been visiting for over 40 years on a regular basis and in all that time it's always been tended, with its attendant 'cloutie-tree', a hawthorn, bearing offerings.
The upshot of all this is that though I’ve been writing about this, and leading workshops for 26 whole years now in (amongst other things) how we might restore the ‘lost feminine’ so that the waters may flow, and flow clean, again (symbolically/psychologically, but there is of course a physical correlate that is an urgent and ongoing danger), this is the first time I’ve offered a year-long course in what it might mean to do just this: restore the lost feminine, through the notion of, once more, tending the wells ‘out there’, and tending the wells ‘in here’ too. So it’s exciting to be immersed in this so thoroughly.
It seems to me that at a time when there is so much darkness around, sometimes the best and maybe only thing one can do is to keep on cleaning up, tending the waters, in the individual psyche as well as in the outer world, knowing that it may only be a drop but is still a drop in the Ocean of all Being.
* The Joseph Campbell Foundation in the USA, who contacted me, let me know that in those days they knew of no one else offering such work in GB. Now variations of such work are more prevalent (and some people have kindly credited me with being an influence, either through my books or through workshops of mine on this theme they’ve attended over the decades). The ripples spread, and the capillaries of the land, metaphorically speaking, are beginning to fill again. The collective psyche is soaking it all up. Let’s hope we can give it back in time.
THE WELLKEEPERS course will happen again next year.
|the cloutie-tree at Sancreed|
© Roselle Angwin 2017
Monday, 6 March 2017
And I need to create a flow again – a dynamic, surprising flow. I've been writing poetry continuously since I was a teenager – until two years ago. My father's and then ex-husbands deaths seem to have dammed the flow, for the minute, though I am still writing prose. Since then, when I have written poetry, it's seemed mediocre. (Guess you'll relate to this stop-start nature of poetry, if you're also a poet?)
So I'm not posting this, below, because I think it's 'good'; just to try to wake something up in me; invite the gods and goddesses back. To make a small shrine.
Rain storming down from the orchard with its turbulence of leaves and wind battering till all thought’s gone out
© Roselle Angwin
Saturday, 4 March 2017
They have gone.
Suddenly there is only absence:the wires stretch blank.
The air filled yesterday with play,
with playtime, shrieks,
a joy-filled rush with wings outstretched
is only air, an aching blank.
We anticipated it.
How could we not?
The wires bird-laden, quiet at first
a silent communion, it seemed,
then chatter; conversation:
building, perhaps, collective bravery
for the long transcontinental leap.
Now the chattering sky’s
Never mind, we say:
they’ll be back.
Next year, next spring
when the long dark silent days are over,
they’ll be back:
the swooping stride
They’ll nest again,
swerve and chatter through the deep
as if they’d never been away.
Then the wondering:
will we be here?
© Jeff Hancock
Thursday, 2 March 2017
In a rare sunny daybreak, I’m out walking just after 7.30am. I’m feeling a bit smug that I’ve already made sandwiches for TM (this is not unreconstructed housewifery, I hasten to tell you, but a choice to do something nice for him each morning!), meditated, read Instructive Texts a bit, and thought.
Yet to come: the stroll a couple of hundred yards along the valley, by the brook, which is all that Dog can manage at the moment. Then a full day’s work signing off a recent poetry distance-learning-course participant – always a poignant experience, and especially so when the person concerned has been so fully immersed – and putting together a mailshot.
Nonetheless, to be out walking early gives me a sense of spaciousness lacking so far mostly this year, which has felt crammed and cramped. (I did make space yesterday, though, in drizzle, to check the old stone and soil banks of our field/woodland margin/orchard/vegetable plot for signs of activity in the fox earths and badger setts, though I greatly fear the latter have gone, due to the Government’s insane cull, against which I’ve protested so loudly and fruitlessly the last few years. However, I did set up a couple of roe deer grazing close by, under one of the bird cherry trees.)
Now, there’s the fresh stink of fox, and a parliament of rooks is cleaning up spilt feed behind the in-lamb sheep at the top of the lane. Looking up at the buzzard who often occupies the telegraph pole at the junction, I also see in a tree nearby what I’ve assumed for years was probably a yellowhammer – we’ve one or two resident here. Having read the recent RSPB mag, though, I’m now thinking it may actually be a cirl bunting. These little birds, commoner in the south of France, were plentiful in the southwest (and I think only the southwest) of GB until last century, when loss of habitat and food supply, due to intensive farming methods, brought their numbers down to fewer than 100 breeding pairs. Now, though, they’re back up to over 1000 breeding pairs in a few isolated spots in South Devon and Cornwall.
En route, I collect some wild sorrel, some wild garlic (ramsons), and clock where the freshest pollution-free heads of young nettles are rising above the dog’s mercury. I’m using wild garlic in everything I can at the moment, and when that, the sorrel and the nettle-tips are combined with our leeks and some potatoes, there’ll be a nourishing, mineral-full and tasty cleansing soup for us and my poetry group on Saturday if I can get it together in time.
If you would like some fresh ideas for winter veg, you can see some here: scroll down to the bottom of the page to the beetroot and potato patties (based on a Riverford recipe. If you don’t know the Riverford cookbooks, you’ve a treat in store. Apart from glorious food from simple ingredients, they’re worth reading for the many little essays by the author and founder of Riverford Organics, Guy Watson.)
The Devon lanes are of course aflush with snowdrops, and the little wild daffs are in bloom. A few fat violet patches are lighting the lower verges. I remember as a kid that the Devon violet and rose sweets really were sugared petals; I imagine now they’re entirely synthetic.
In a parallel life I’d be an apothecary, plant alchemist. I would love to distill the oil from rose petals; spend my life collecting and blending herbal remedies and oils; make incenses.
In fact, for a great deal of my life I have worked with plants. My family, including the animals, has almost without fail been treated by me with herbs (my 38-year-old daughter has never had antibiotics), with professional herbalist input when needed*.
My first small business involved dyeing my own handspun wool with locally-collected plants – my daughter spent her first few months of life slung from my chest out on the coasts and moors of North Devon, where I’d collect gorse flowers, tree bark, lichens, ivy berries and so on.
On and off through my life I’ve made ceremonial incenses, usually to commission, frequently incorporating locally-collected plant material, carefully blending the ingredients for their subtle consciousness-altering qualities and the properties therefore of their scents.
And I make face creams for myself and friends blended with essential oils. So in fact I do still practise weedwifery; just not as much as I’d like.
Actually, once I start to think about it, I realise quite how big a part plants have always played in my life; how closely our lives have intertwined, from the preschool days when I'd mix 'potions' to put out for the fairies in acorn cups.
It's rather a consolation in a life in which I see myself as spending most of my time on the computer.
My Cornish maternal great-grandmother was the village midwife and wisewoman (my paternal great-grandfather, also Cornish, was the official dowser for Cornwall County Council!), and both sides of my family taught me about plants. I've remembered that when I was at Cambridge (reading Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic – nothing to do with plants!) I was commissioned (long story – but as much for my proximity to major and significant library collections as for my interest and knowledge) to write a section on ancient and/or traditional British herbal remedies for a French encyclopaedia on natural medicines.
In my twenties, I co-led some residential workshops on plants as foods and medicines, doing the kind of foraging walks that are trendy now but no one did back then.
Later, I studied plant spirit medicine, and did a transatlantic interview for a mind, body, spirit magazine with plant shaman Elliot Cowan, out of which came, for me, some dramatic and left-field personal experiences with plants, especially trees (I don't mean via ingestion of psychotropics, though I've been there too).
And then, of course, I offer my Tongues in Trees workshops, with a new residential one coming up in a Brittany forest in October. (If you visit the blogpost, you'll see a later post, sister to this linked one, too, in November 2014.)
You know, I hadn't added all that up till just now. That's quite a lot of plant and tree stuff in my life. That makes me feel better.
White blossom adorns the prunus family trees now. Many of these flower before they leaf, and it’s a lush sight, snowdrifting the hedges, after drab winter. The blackthorn blossom is out, if later than usual, though already now the hawthorn bushes are in leaf – several weeks early (their leaves arrive before the blossom).
There’s a sense of real abundance with this blossom. I’m reminded of the Pablo Neruda love poem: ‘I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees’.
Such generosity, flowering with the whole of oneself, in full glory, like that; nothing held back but pouring towards the world as if towards a lover.
Here’s a thing: how would it be if we could do that each day, without counting the cost, or looking for return – simply giving?
And – often harder – how would it be if we could give like that to ourselves, without wondering if we ‘should’, if we’re worthy, if it’s selfish? (As Erich Fromm says, if we can only love others but not ourselves then we can barely love at all.) If we could let the radiance and generosity of our blossoming selves not only feed others, but also pour down our trunks to nourish our own roots to keep blossoming?
The way the natural world simply leafs, flowers, fruits, keeps giving.
The way too the natural world offers such an inexhaustible supply of metaphors, as Jules Casteen, editor of Paris Review, once said.
We worked with such metaphors in a workshop I led for young people on Sunday last for Teignmouth Poetry Festival. Some of the best metaphors came from the under-11s: one girl spoke of jealousy as being like a tree with no leaves. Hmm. Excellent.
I think it’s World Book Day. I should know, but didn’t till I was tagged on Twitter as one of 5 poets nominated by Awen Books for World Book Day. Am honoured.
So, to pass it on, here are three books I’ve really enjoyed reading very recently (I'm not going to do an Amazon link as my internet, as usual, is on the cusp of simply not delivering at all).
The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben: a barrowful of both whacky and completely reasonable assertions about trees, raising questions about such things as the fact that if trees have a memory (and they do), where do they keep it? He also makes use of the TED talk by Suzanne Simard that advanced our understanding of how trees communicate, and the fact that they feed each other.
I’ve just finished my friend Su Bristow’s* enchanting and captivating novel Sealskin. Based on the many Scottish and Irish selkie legends, she brings the old story to life in a way that has me harking back to the atmospheric telling. These stories have influenced so many writers and books; one I remember is Alice Thomas Ellis’ novel (though I can’t remember its name); and in fact I myself wrote a prizewinning short story based on this theme many years ago. Bristow’s achievement, apart from writing a beautiful and compelling story, is that she resists giving us a consoling ending.
I’m densely immersed in a great deal of n-f research for my current book, so most of what I read is fairly heavy duty stuff. As light relief, I ripped through Joanne Harris’ most recent follow-up to Chocolat last week. Peaches for Monsieur le Curé, set like Chocolat in a small town in Southwest France, explores the cultural clashes between the locals and the Muslim incomers. Because it’s Harris, there’s humour and a light touch, but she’s also an intelligent and subtle writer.
I need some good new poetry. It’s been a while since a new collection really woke me up and engaged my passion as well as my intellect. Ideas, anyone?
And finally, a little extra: a few years ago I was rather knocked out by a novel called Diggers and Dreamers, by Keith Walton. Set in the year of 1976 – that hot summer in GB – in the French Languedoc, it described the area, the blow-ins, the ideology and the lifestyle I recognised myself from that same year in almost exactly that same place – and so, in some ways, it is also my story as a student about to bail out.
If you, like me, were an intellectual hippy dropout at that time, rebelling against mainstream values – or lack of them, it seemed – and determined to live in a simpler, closer-to-the-soil, handcrafted, non-consumerist way with a guiding philosophy that rejected the Establishment and all it stood for, and had an engagement with more esoteric ideas about consciousness and all it means, you might relate to this book. (As you might even if you weren’t, but remember well the spirit of that time; the sense that we could change the world.)
It’s an assured, idealistic, deeply intelligent and erudite read that conjures so well its raison d’être: ‘there is another world but it is in this one’, which if I remember correctly is a quote from poet Paul Eluard. Something about it reminds me of John Fowles, and also John Crowley (Aegypt).
The reason I mention it now is because I recently reread it, and it has something of the vision of Beat poets like Gary Snyder. It deserves to be better-known.
And I think that’s more than enough. Back to the fireside for me.
* Su Bristow is a medical herbalist and writer – see also the bottom of this page, the book section.
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