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

Monday 24 April 2017

all our relations

I'm exhausted: two back-to-back intensive retreat weeks on the Isle of Iona, 630 miles' drive back home in a day, then hitting the ground at a gallop to try and scoop up all the undone and very overdue work immediately. In the last 12 days I've had little sleep. This means that the last thing I feel like on a Bank Holiday Monday, after just one day off, is another workshop.

But as soon as the 15 participants arrive and join the circle of chairs in our sunny and currently-unusually-neat courtyard, everything changes. I'm alert, excited, and delighted to be offering, once again, the work about which I'm so passionate: finding a way that words might help us explore, re-vision and express the experience of our connectedness with – well, All That Is.

And we begin with the silence of the singing bowl, and then a gentle attention to the many ways in which the world insinuates itself into our beings through the senses.

Immediately I drop into a calm, still, wakeful place from which I can give my best.

It's at this point that the tamest of the four local robins, who's been perching in the hydrangea immediately behind my head, skims my shoulder and lands on the boot of one of the participants. This seems to settle an extra grace on our work.

'All Our Relations' is an outdoor workshop; my favourite kind. I'm offering it to celebrate 10 years of Transition Town Totnes (the TT movement began here).

TM and I are fortunate enough as to be custodians to 2 acres of meadow, apple orchard, deciduous woodland and a big veg garden, plus some little herb and soft fruit beds (I say 'fortunate', but much of this is down to his building and planting before I arrived in his life).

Today, I'm guiding these people in a deepening of their felt and imaginal experience of the land and the rest of the natural world in this secluded spot, where buzzards tilt, hare leap, roe deer graze, a fox appears from time to time, and nuthatches and sometimes woodpeckers come to my call at the feeders.

When I originally conceived this workshop, I'd hoped that these creatures might also figure. It didn't take long, though, to realise that none of them was likely to remain still enough as to be observed and met at length. So – trees. Trees are very much in my consciousness; more particularly at the moment when the book I've been working on focuses on forest.

Trees love to be met, and encourage a kind of deep-time experience. And so, with various promptings from me, the participants meet and create relationship with one particular tree on 'our' land: the knobby oak shading the courtyard; the big holly intertwined with other species growing from an ancient Devon bank up by the holloway; a spindle; an ash; a sweet chestnut and a horse chestnut; bird cherries; and the apples, just now breaking into a foam of blossom. Then they write to and for 'their tree'.

It's beautiful for me to gently stroll around and see people in various positions: back against, bare feet upon, arms around the various trees who had, they felt, chosen them; to feel the deep repose and quiet. (Yes, OK, tree-huggers. There are worse things.)

An hour, it appeared, was far too short to be in silent conversation with a tree. A day would be better. That's good to know, as I'm planning my TONGUES IN TREES course in Brittany this autumn right now.

And then we made our contribution of words via an interwoven long poem created from everyone's lines to the 'Earth Stories' evening of Transition Town Totnes celebration on Friday last; a moving and rich time of spoken words, poetry and story, songs of wild geese and salmon, offerings made to the fire-candle altar of writings on leaves, and a final very beautiful round of 4-part chanting on Chief Seattle's 'the earth does not belong to us; we belong to the earth'.


The courtyard's thick with birdsong. Over across the brook, hillsides blaze with gorse. The lanes now are almost at their cusp of fullness. We've the deep mauve of dog violet, periwinkle and early purple orchid; the ultraviolet of bluebells; dark pink and pale pink campion; white wild strawberry flowers, the stitchworts, Queen Anne's lace, jack-by-the-hedge and wild garlic in abundance; and of course the gold embroiderers: dandelion and buttercup, against the buttermilk of primroses.

Since February wild garlic has loomed large in our cooking, accompanying the last of our leeks in various dishes, added to salads with our rocket, chopped into leek, potato and nettle soup.
So here's a vegan sort-of pesto sauce for you:

1 large handful of wild garlic leaves, washed well
Half that amount of rocket
1 handful of nettle tips, picked young, stripped from the stalk and wilted for 1-2 minutes in boiling water
Whizz up together with a generous gloop of olive oil and a couple of tablespoons of pine nuts.
I added the juice from one lemon; or to taste
If you can find it, 3 tbsps of Coyo – vegan yoghurt made from coconuts – completely transforms this.

Pour onto hot or cold vegetables, or stir into pasta; dip fresh warm bread into it. 

Friday 14 April 2017

word temple

Just back from the Isle of Iona and my two weeklong retreats, I find I have no words as yet for the profundity of the experience. Instead, I want to write a few words on poetry that I'd intended to post before I left.

I should say that I'm in a poetry-trough at the moment – not as in 'feeding like a pig' but as in the lull between two big waves. It's been two years since my own poetry-well was really brimming, and as long since I was deeply inspired, except once or twice, by new poetry that I've read.

I expect it mostly says something about me and my own processes: perhaps I'm simply worded-out for the moment, although my Forest book – when I get the time to work on it – is moving ahead well; just not so much poetry.

I also have a sneaking feeling, however, that after a lifelong immersion in poetry, and many years of teaching it, what I'm increasingly looking for is that left-field surprise: poems that set me aflame, that enliven and catapult or seduce me into new ways of seeing and being; and frankly there aren't that many of those. This of course doesn't mean that there isn't plenty of good poetry – there is; and it might simply suggest that the romance of discovering new poets and ways of making words sing together is, like romantic love, a phase, and that I'm well settled into the quotidian experience of co-habiting with poetry.

What triggered the thoughts below was a comment from someone about the heartfelt and 'true' but nonetheless safe and predictable poems I had tended towards posting in my LOST SPECIES series.

Well, the focus was on the subject matter, and I wasn't looking for tricksy self-important poems but ones that conveyed the urgency of the issues raised. 

To which, of course, an answer might be that a poem can do both: speak of important things and make us see anew through the art of its making.

Anyway, these are the scribbles I'd made a few weeks ago in seconds, just retrieved from the back of an envelope in the recycling box under my desk:

Chase Twichell said that poetry is not about cleaning the windows but about breaking the glass.

Poetry is arguably offering a threshold from feeling to meaning.

Poetry's job is to wake us up.

Poetry is perhaps the closest words get to profound silence.

Some say the Chinese word for poetry is made from the characters for 'word' and 'temple' (others say it's 'word' and, variously, pile/heap/ritual/feet/beat/aspiration/eunuch/song).

A poem needs to set up a fizz on the tongue like sherbet.

It needs to be a lightning bolt.

It needs to change us, no matter how slightly.

It needs to set up collisions and resonances that carry on ringing.

It needs to be the gap that is a lost filling that your tongue probes over and over.

It needs to be that thing you find under a stone that needs to be kissed before its truth can be revealed.

It needs to be one of those Chinese paper water flowers.

It needs to be that 7th sister of the Pleaides that you only see by looking away.

It needs to balance on the cliff of the heart.

A poem needs to set up in the mind a stormcloud of questions, then it needs to run away into the rain before you've quite grasped it.

A poem needs to be a new land.

Other than that, it's simple: 'the best words in the best order'...

Monday 3 April 2017

storms, leaky tents and foraging in february

I’m in that cosy potentially-creative place between having waved off the first group of my ISLANDS OF THE HEART retreatants on the Isle of Iona (earlier than intended for some of them, as the ferry crossings from the mainland have been on amber alert for 48 hours), but (most of) the second have yet to arrive – weather and ferries permitting. I’ve had two whole days to write, and yesterday I carried on redrafting my Forest book, sadly neglected this year.

My room is snug from the hotel's air-source heatpump, there’s a new dressing table that serves as a writing desk, and rain and wind are whipping the Sound into a grey-green frenzy. The oystercatchers, gannets and gulls have all disappeared, apart from one lone gull cruising very close to shore below me. Rain is chucking itself at the window and I don’t feel much of my usual compulsion to get out into it, for once. All boats bar the small dinghies that are their tenders have been taken to the Bull Hole, behind the Island of Women, for safety.

In the lounge below me a child is picking out chopsticks on one finger on the piano.

Today was to be another writing day. A publisher has reminded me that she’d like to look at a(n) ms of my Iona poems, written over 18 years now but uncollected. You don’t get that kind of offer every day.

It’s actually turned out to be an eating day, so far. Lunchtime, and I have a double burden of guilt. (Triple, in fact, as I spent much of the morning both eating and drinking, and being distracted by emails, facebook, twitter in addition to not writing.)

I’m going to blame it on Dan Boothby’s book on Gavin Maxwell’s lighthouse island – you remember Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water? – Island of Dreams. It’s absorbing, and a very good method of procrastination. 

In it, Boothby speaks of his time hitching north into the wild places with no money, no food, no shops, and a shaky tent in precarious Scottish weather. Oh, I used to find that so exciting! (Not any more, though; the idea of starving in a leaky tent, or under a mere tarp, in a midgey place with no prospect of food or dryness and no money to find either is no longer romantic for me. I must be growing up. I’m enjoying my snug room here with the weather on the outside, not inside, of my sleeping place.)

It’s reminded me of a time when my then-boyfriend and I decided we were going to take a break from university and hitch to a forest in Scotland and live off the land for three weeks. In February. The plan was to forage and tickle trout, though neither of us knew anything about the habits of trout, and as it turned out of course there was very little of anything to forage that time of year other than pine needles.

I have a photo somewhere. S has long hair. Me too, and I’m wearing an Afghan coat (remember those?), green boots and a long skirt that was more patch than skirt (I actually wore it, along with barefeet and green hair – this is back in the  mid-70s – to my interview for Cambridge a year before in the hopes they’d turn me down as my previous boyfriend and I were embarked on a project to live à quatre on a Hebridean island being self-sufficient; to which end I’d been learning plant-dyeing, spinning, weaving, knitting, pottery and drystone wall building, as well as herbal lore and animal husbandry including milking and making butter and cheese. He’d said if I got in and went to Cambridge we’d split up. I did and we did.)

In the photo S and I both have small rucksacks and I’m carrying slung over my shoulder what turned out to be an extremely insufficient sleeping bag which I’d bought for a fiver in the local Army & Navy store. (The first thing I bought with my next grant – those were the days – was a very good sleeping bag as part of my running-away kit. It lasted, the sleeping bag, about 20 years.) Instead of a tent, we had a decorators' plastic sheet as a tarp. Practical, I was, as you can see.

We allowed ourselves to take along a bag of oatmeal and a few oranges and many books. I lasted about 3 days before cracking, and talked S into coming with me on a very long hike to find a shop, where the chocolate we bought with some of the few coins we had tasted so good.

Anyway, here I am snug, well fed – too well fed today – and er honestly about to start collating all those many poems. And ‘they’ tell me the weather is due to improve in time for the second group to arrive tomorrow.

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