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 21 December 2018

winter solstice poem 2018

The Longest Night

after Li Po

The birds, with the light,
have vanished over the edge
of the sky; last shadows dissolve.

The forest gives up its daytime
rustles and whispers; waits
for nocturnes of fox and owl.

We sit together, the forest
and me; we sit together quietly
until only the forest remains.

© Roselle Angwin 2018

See also here.


Monday 17 December 2018

not-your-average-nutroast (recipe), Christmas trees & Tongues in Trees

Some of you will know that I am almost entirely vegan (though not quite as 'pure', yet, as I'd like to be). You may also know that after the intense hard work of the 7th draft of my SPELL IN THE FOREST book, currently doing the rounds of the publishers, it was such a relief, as well as a surprise, to find myself writing a plant-based cookbook. Except, of course, it's not just a cookbook, but a wide approach to living with heart, and sustainably.

UPDATE in 2020: SPELL has found a home & will be published in June 2021; and the plant-based book is very much in progress.
Anyway, one way and another, mostly as a result of having an excess of produce in the garden this year and a stepson staying who was very enthusiastic about my culinary experiments, I've developed a number of new recipes.
I was really pleased with this fresh take on an old vegan favourite, so I offer it for those of you who are plant-based, going plant-based, or needing to cook for relatives or friends who are (the younger generation has done so much for compassionate eating – it was rather overwhelming to see just how many vegan cookbooks there are on the shelves in Waterstones at the moment. It's a prompt to make mine different.)

Nut, mushroom and sage roast

10 sundried tomatoes (buy dry ones; soak overnight or use hot water for 30 minutes; save soaking water)
2 mugs in total of a mix of brazils, hazelnuts, almonds &/or chestnuts (tin is fine), roughly chopped
1 mug oats
1 slice wholemeal bread, torn
1/4 cup sunflower seeds
good-sized bunch of fresh sage, chopped
2 small onions (preferably red) 
2/3 cloves garlic
500 gms mushrooms, sliced (a mix of types/dried wild mushrooms soaked overnight adds flavour)
1/2 can chopped plum tomatoes
2 heaped tbsps nutritional yeast flakes
oil (I use cold-pressed sunflower oil – Meridian – as I like the flavour)

Gently sauté the sliced onions, sliced mushrooms (rinsed and well-drained if soaked), until soft, in 2 tbsps of the oil. Add crushed garlic after 5 minutes.

Meantime chop the nuts roughly in a blender, then add the bread.

In a big bowl combine the above with oats, finely-chopped sage, chopped sundrieds (squeeze and reserve water) yeast flakes and sunflower seeds.

Add the soaking water from the sundrieds, the half-can of tomatoes and a good slosh of oil. Season to taste (freshly-ground black pepper is a must). The mix should be loose-ish and moist.

Pack into an oiled bread tin (2lb size) and cook at 175º (fan 160º) for an hour-plus.

I served this with an onion gravy (I cheated and bought the Essential one, which is organic, doesn’t contain palm oil, and is also gluten-free), roast cubed squash with smoked paprika, lemony greens and a fresh beetroot and red cabbage pickle.


My guess is that most of you who read this blog will already not support the purchase of cut Christmas trees. However, if it's not too late, I want to put in a plea if you are tempted.

I know it's a tradition. I know it makes all the difference to the midwinter drear (here in Britain). But.

It's said that our tradition of bringing evergreens into the house and lighting them to remind us of the cycle: that even in the darkest times the light is not far behind (you can't kill the spirit, as the old Greenham Common song goes) dates back to the druids, who would hang lights in the outdoor living evergreens at the midwinter solstice.

I'm very much in favour of this, but not of growing and logging conifers to do this. Conifers themselves as cash crops not only don't nourish the soil, but acidify it, so discouraging growth of other plants. Because they as a species are chosen to grow fast to reach a loggable height, there is no time for the mycelial network (which feeds the tree community, passes messages and is generally A Good Thing) to develop. Worse, any chance at such a network, crucial to soil and plant health, is utterly destroyed for a long period by the logging operation. And a conifer plantation will support far fewer mammal and especially bird species, as well as insects, than a broadleaf forest.

In many places, sitka spruce, the Christmas tree species, often displaces native heath- and moorland and deciduous tree-growth, and makes it increasingly inhospitable for the bird and animal species for which it is home and which are often themselves in decline: curlew, birds of prey, owls, snipe, small rodents among others, and insect species.

And then there are the insecticides which are sprayed on many of our cash crops, including some conifers, against insect damage. The insects which feed other species die, and the toxins are washed into soil and watercourses; any residues will come into our home with the tree. According to a letter from an ecologist in the Guardian on Saturday, often Christmas trees are sprayed with anti-freeze – anti-freeze! – it can kill a cat, and is a carcinogen – to help against needle-fall.

Convinced yet?

And of course a plastic one is just as bad: hardly a symbol of the evergreen nature of the life-death-life cycle, as we all know plastic is not only a fossil-fuel derivative but doesn't break down for literally 100s of years.

What to do to celebrate the turning year?

I can think of three options, all of which I use.

One is to rear a little conifer in a pot, as we have done. It's not so brilliant for any tree to be raised in solitary confinement where its roots can't intermingle, but conifers apparently are better at it than many species. 

Two is to bring in boughs of holly, trails of ivy, and/or some small conifer branches.

Three is to find a shed dead branch, and peel it. You can of course spray it silver, which is beautiful, but the paint will probably also be not right-on. (Driftwood?) Either way it does look amazing dressed with some white fairylights and some glass baubles.

My daughter and I have had a tradition for the last 20+ years of buying each other a beautiful Christmas tree ornament; we now each have a collection of handpainted wooden, straw, glass, paper and metal small tree-baubles, often handmade, sometimes simply gathered, like cones. This is sustainable tree decoration, and the tree really is a centrepiece.

If you already do anything like this, or are inspired to do so, I'd love to see your photos. though sometimes Blogger won't let people contact me through the Comments; I'm sorry, but you could find my contact details through the websites to the right.

And if you only read one book next year, and if you haven't yet read it, do find the most inspiring book I've been absorbed in in years: Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees (wonderful translation from the German by Jane Billinghurst).


On Thursday I'm sending out the first modules of my new yearlong moon-month tree course, Tongues in Trees. There is still time, just, to sign up for the self-study option, on which I have space (also one space for the tutored course).

Tuesday 11 December 2018

space, as in Mu and Ma

Sitting in the osteopath's waiting room leafing through a copy of BBC Gardeners' World magazine is not the most obvious place for a brief reminder (if such a thing were possible) of some of the fundamental teachings of Zen, even in an article by Monty Don. Don, who once upon a time, I learn, practised Zen, was writing in relation, of course, to planting; with a view to being aware of the space between things.

As a follower of a Celtic spiritual path who has also practised Zen meditation for more than 4 decades, I still meditate (most days). However, since my teacher Ken Jones died a few years ago, I've not been on retreat, and feel myself apart from the sangha – community – associated with Ken, the Network of Engaged Buddhists. (It is also true that my sangha is the whole world, human and other-than-human – this vast network in which I too have a tiny part to play. I remember this in my morning practice.)

An outcome, though, is that I have become lazy in my studying and discussion of Zen teachings (not the praxis, as I do genuinely bring, or try to bring, most of my presence, most of the time, to whatever I'm doing – the now-trendy practice of mindfulness, originally a Zen practice). But it's hard to stay inspired and committed to study without others who share that path.

So the article woke me up. Thank you, Mr Don.

Mu in Zen Buddhism ('Wu' in the Chinese Chan teachings, Chan being the forerunner of Zen) like most concepts in Zen, is not easily defined by what it is; not even by what it's not; more, somehow, by eliding the two. Paradox is central to Buddhism, and can often be a problem to the Western dualistic mode of thinking. Traditionally, Mu tends to be translated as 'nonbeing' which might best be explained by the analogy of non-attachment, another Buddhist concept, which is not the same as detachment. However, in English 'nonbeing' doesn't quite capture the fertile sense, as I see it, of 'the creative void'.

Mu is often translated as meaning 'emptiness', but that's not the entire picture. We could also call it 'not fullness', in the sense of an absence of the clutter of things, actions, thoughts that constitute much of our daily lives in the West. But it's also being and not-being; form and formlessness in a continual interplay, like the dance between particle and wave in quantum physics.

For myself, I tend to think of Mu as 'the creative void': not a 'dead' emptiness, but more where everything is held in potentia, yet to emerge into form; a container for the not-yet-manifest, from which things emerge and into which they dissolve, if you like simultaneously; in a continuum. The teaching in which we first find written (I believe) the concept of Mu is called 'The Gateless Gate', which conveys well the 'both/and' path of Zen.

Ma is related, but is more to do with the space between things once they have taken form. When I attended a painting retreat in the Brecon Beacons many years ago, we spent much of the week practising what is known in the art world as 'negative space': noticing, and painting, the gaps between the struts and seat and back of a chair; the space between leaves; the shapes between people –

... that twig quivering
where the bird

Ma is all about relationship: the interval between notes; the line-breaks and stanza-breaks in a poem; the relationship between robin and twig, between me and you. The pauses, the silences, the moments-between-moments, the breathing-places where things that are in form, or events that have happened, or the brief hiatus between systole and diastole are what contain and, significantly, shape our experience of them.

In poetry, I encourage people to look at the shape of a poem on the page: to use consciously the white space of a page, to make careful decisions about where they break a line, or a stanza, to choose how they use punctuation (or to choose not to) with an awareness of the impact of these choices on the imagination and experience of the reader (or audience). Contained within Ma, as I understand it, is also the idea of 'less is more' (viz the haiku): so often more is delivered to a reader by what is not said than by what is.

And then there are relationships between people: you will remember what Kahlil Gibran famously says about marriage (my paraphrase, from memory): 'And let there be spaces in your togetherness / Let the winds of the heavens dance between you... For the oak tree and the cypress dwell not in each other's shade / And the pillars of the temple stand together / But not too close together'. 

And Rilke, too: 'Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest humans infinite distances exist, a wonderful growing side-by-side can occur, if they succeed in loving the distance between them that allows each to see the other whole and against a wide sky.'

Here, in West Cornwall on the Atlantic, I'm loving listening to the wild wind, and am gazing out at the dusky sea below me. The ocean seems a good metaphor for formless form – shape and no-shape, ceaselessly moving, impossible to capture in words, bounded by land and yet utterly uncontainable too.

To margins

and nameless places

to that twig quivering
where the bird

to the tilt of our lives
and away from
each other

to words
and to
speaking without them

©Roselle Angwin

Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.
Read more at:
Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.
Read more at:

Tuesday 4 December 2018

let it be enough some mornings (poem)

Is it time for a poem? This one's old now, but I still like it:

Let it be enough some mornings

High tide, a wild morning, wild and stormy,
and you take the leaf-deep stony path
above seal-grey waters
        where the geese are dragged
through the sodden air like ripped-away prayer flags
in a crazy disordered dance, and the waves
slap hard on the mudflats’ flanks,

and for once questions like
what use is poetry, if you’re starving, or a refugee
squeezed between torture and war, or bleeding alone
in some dark alley
have momentarily flown, though left you unguarded;

but bent low over the creek the damson tree
drops unremarked a cargo of fruit
on the waters --

mornings like this
grey and green with straggled leaves
and the rain storming the opaque sky

let it be enough now to hear this one curlew keen,
to have one last bedraggled swallow skim the thick air
over your head, see the inkcaps’ effortless
overnight arrival,
            to witness one small flower --
samphire, or a late marsh marigold --
struggling through black mud on its journey upwards

against gravity, pointing the way --
let each day be a small triumph, let it be
two fingers to death.

© Roselle Angwin, in Looking for Icarus

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