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 30 March 2020

this time, any time – poem by Jenna Plewes

In a fortnight's time, I should be getting ready to head off for the Hebrides to lead the first of two weeks of annual retreats, Islands of the Heart, on the sacred Isle of Iona. I'm heartbroken to have to cancel these.

One of our would-have-been participants, on the first, 'Core', group, Jenna, sent me this poem. I reproduce it here with her permission and my thanks to her.

Love will be our bedrock

We are separate, but we all stand
on the same patient, greening earth.

All around us life is busy, a song thrush
practises its three small phrases, a crow

balances on the crown of a Monterey pine,
rasps its black throat, a buzzard circles.

Hedges are white with blackthorn blossom,
celandine brighten the lanes, lambs grow strong.

The city sounds are muffled, streets deserted.
Fingers send messages, smile greets smile on screen.

Fear prowls the tunnels of our dreams,
casts giant shadows on the bedroom walls,

but morning comes, we watch another sunrise
lighten the day, make a list of friends to ring.

Jenna Plewes

Thursday 19 March 2020

The first act of The Great Turning?

'Of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to nuclear war, none is so great as the deadening of our response.' 
Joanna Macy

I have followed the work of Joanna Macy for decades now, so when my dear friend Simon emailed me this morning and included the idea, as in my title today, that this may be the first step towards a new era ('The Great Turning' is a concept of Macy's), I was reminded of two things.

One is that nothing is ever in vain. We live in a world where everything appears to be born, to live and flower, and to die, but that cycle is never finished. Everything is composted, everything renews.

The second thing is how easy it is to forget that we are part of this huge cycle and that in our smallness, from our smallness upwards, in our imagining, our thoughts, our words and our actions, we can help the process of renewal; we can be part of the Great Turning; we can also remember the vocabulary of active hope (the title of one of Macy's books). I have revisited her website to boost my own belief in her life-affirming model of The Work That Reconnects.

And how important that is right now. 


The white noise of the universe

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?
Wherever you go you can never totally disappear -
dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.
If you tune everything else out
the silence you hear is the white noise
        of the singing spheres: the voice of the universe.

© Roselle Angwin; in Bardo.


Three things might help us through this strange time (in addition to poetry which, as Adrienne Rich famously said, can save your life; see below).

One is consciously to challenge our own impulse to close down, and open up instead, emotionally speaking, to the pain and the beauty of it all, and the tiny things we have to offer that might make a difference to someone somewhere. I'm struck by the generosity of people right now. And I've been particularly grateful for acts of kindness in my own tricky situation. We are not alone in our small homes on this beautiful planet, even if we're practising social distancing or self-isolating and it feels like it.

Another is to celebrate, despite everything, the possibility that this time might also represent the dying gasps of the monstrous capitalism on which our consumer society with its many injustices and inequalities is founded; the myth of perpetual and infinite growth on a finite planet might at last be seen for the Trojan Horse it is. What that means, who knows; but that it is unsustainable is indisputable.

And the third, even in the midst of fear and illness, or anxiety about lost work and income, is to continue to bring our presence to each moment. Every second is very precious; and see how the rest of the natural world continues to do its thing – still, and mostly, despite all our destructiveness. This moment, and how we live it, is what counts, given that 'how we live our days is how we live our lives'.

Have you ever seen so many clustered primroses as in this early spring? Have you listened out, even in town, for the blackbirds first thing? Have you noticed the creeping quiet and absence of noise with fewer cars on the road? I'm noticing, too, how people are warm to strangers, even at the requisite six-foot distance. I'm always happy to interact with strangers, but somehow I particularly enjoy a conversation over a hedge with a young guy I haven't met before who is laying, carefully because it's a bit late in the year, said hedge, bending the hazel carefully and pegging it in place. Perhaps it's the fact that it's a small act of hope that uplifts me so.

I really recommend, if you can get out and walk, noticing what's out there, and foraging a little. It's very healing.

RECIPE (for 2-4)
I've been collecting the wild garlic and nettle tops to make a healthy immune-boosting soup. Even in this 'hungry gap' time of late winter/early spring in the UK, there is food out there. We still have leeks, that mainstay of English winter veg, and frozzen pea beans from our crop last year, and to my delight at last a patch of wild garlic in our woodland edges, so all of those things, with a potato or two, get sautéed together.

Two potatoes
One fat leek
A can of butter beans, or haricot beans, or whatever you have
A handful of young nettle tops (pick with a plastic bag over your hands, or gardening gloves, and you might want to use scissors so as not to rip the whole plant out, and wash them well)
A handful of wild garlic, washed (or you can use cloves)
Salt and pepper to taste
Yogurt (optional) – I use Coyo from coconuts

Wash, slice, dice, tear as necessary. Sauté potatoes and leeks until soft. Add the rest and stir. Add enough stock (or water + yeast extract, or water + soy sauce) to cover well. Bring to the boil then simmer for 30 minutes or so. Whizz if you like; serve with a dollop of yogurt (I use non-dairy) and crusty bread.


My friend Dan is a medic and poet. He sent me these words this morning:

I work in the NHS.  I also read poetry to make sense of my life. Poetry will change nothing, yet I am reading poetry daily. 

We are going to lose a lot of people. Quarter of a million of us. Quarter of a million. Each one storied and unique.

Death happens everyday. That is one of the gifts of being a doctor. Daily, we receive that unfathomable reality. But this is death rampant, death with his war-time face. 

Most of us will be lucky. It will mainly take the older, those for whom, perhaps, their ending has been imagined already.

In the NHS, we are putting on our uniforms and we are going out there. Society is putting on a serious face and quietening before what will happen. Our hands are raw from washing. 

I sit in a GP Surgery, one of our outposts amongst the well. We are the dividing line between the land of the sick and the land of the well. I am preparing myself to be redeployed, to walk towards those who are dying, to care where care is needed.

Every morning, I am listening to the scientists. Everyday I am listening closely. This is the time for science. We are all working as a team. We make sure that we are  calm, attentive, kind, responsible and we listen to the scientists.  If we want to save as many of us as we can, we need to listen closely to science.  This is no time for poetry. We need to use brave scientific words. They are pretty stark.

Self isolate

Socially distance.

Limit infection.
But when I come home from work, as I unwind in the rest of the evening, on my own, my family away, I need poetry to make any sense of this all. To find the lessons that others have won hard. Or to delight… Or to laugh… To get on with living.

Saturday 14 March 2020

from the ragbag: fear, islands of the heart, my new book, a recipe, & alder trees

I think almost all of us would rather have a certain outcome, even a challenging one, in most situations than live with uncertainty. Of course, being alive guarantees that the only thing that is certain, after mortality, is uncertainty. Various meditation practices, especially Zen, require that we face that, in order to free ourselves.

We live always in uncertain times. At the moment, it seems even more uncertain than ever on so many fronts, doesn't it? Our future might in part depend on our not being driven by fear: acting wisely, but without panic. We may not have much choice in what happens, but we can choose how we relate to it. Strength resides in that freedom.

And given the unknown aspects of the coronavirus situation, we've plenty of opportunities to practise. It's helpful to remember that fear has physiological and psychological impacts on us, and that protecting ourselves from these may be of benefit not only to ourselves and our wellbeing, but also to our community, panic being as contagious as it is (and having an impact on our immune system).

Isle of Iona
And so I raise the fact that a place has come up on my Iona retreats (due to the happy occurrence of an unexpected pregnancy in a participant from the States) knowing that, because of sensible fear, or panicky fear, or wisdom – who can know at the moment? – that place may not fill; indeed, there's a slim chance that the course may not happen. As things stand, I'm very much intending to be there – this will be my 20th year of leading retreats on this sacred island, and for me as well as for many of the participants this is the highlight of the year. (The photo above is dawn from the hotel window.)

I, like so many others, might be hit very hard if this virus takes hold. I've been making my way, and my living, in the arts for coming up for 40 years now, and often I haven't even made the minimum wage on an annual basis (though I have lived the life I want, following a star I believe in, that is hugely fulfilling). Cancelling my major income source for the year might be a death-knell to my work as course facilitator – but I also have to balance that, clearly, with awareness of the wellbeing of participants. So right now, like everyone else, I'm waiting to see what unfolds; knowing also that life takes us in unexpected directions which so often offer a new, exciting and fulfilling – if uncertain – way forward.

NEW BOOK: A Spell in the Forest
I'm so excited – or at least I was, until a glitch in the formatting meant I read 72,000 words about 20 times until I could no longer tell if those words in their particular combination were any good – that my new book, A Spell in the Forest – tongues in trees (rooted in the course of the same name) has been accepted for publication, and will emerge in about a year. The overall manager of the publishing house, and the managing director of the imprint, both said lovely things about it, which reassures me somewhat. The most amazing thing is that I had a positive response from them in just 3 days – very different from the 17 years that my first novel, Imago, took to find a home.

Vegan recipe
If you read this blog often, you will know that I'm 99% vegan (I do fall from grace on occasion). There is a good deal to say about a plant-based diet in relation to the environment, sustainable futures and minimising suffering, as well as feeding the world by freeing up land, but I'll desist for now (I'll be turning my attention to completing – or rather, properly starting – the cookbook I have been collating on all this soon).

For now, I just want to offer you a somewhat delicious vegan recipe of which I'm rather proud, but NB that it needs refining in terms of proportions, and I'll update this when I've had the chance to refine it.

If you are non-vegan and a fish-eater, you might want to consider cutting it down, or only buying line-caught or – better – catching your own. Here's an update on the plight of dolphins (no, not simply as a result of tuna-fishing, as most of us are already aware). I want to gently invite you to read this article.

Potato, leek and wild garlic non-dauphinoise

For 2
4 big or 5 medium potatoes, very finely sliced (you can use the slicer element on the side of a hand grater)
1 fat leek, finely sliced (or large courgette, or a good quantity of very finely chopped, or frozen, spinach)
1 handful of finely-chopped wild garlic (or two cloves)
a generous slosh of olive oil
2 heaped tablespoons of gram flour
3/4 - 1 mug of water
(possible) extra gram flour
salt, pepper
smoked paprika (optional)
yeast flakes 

Greens to serve alongside.

Over a medium heat, soften the potatoes, lidded in a big frying pan.
After about 10 minutes, add the veg and the seasoning (be generous with the salt).

Keep cooking for about 20 minutes, depending on the potato variety. They need to be pretty well cooked through before the next stage. 
Every so often, stir and turn over.
Put the grill on to a medium heat (I use about 170º C fan).
Very gradually stir the water into the gram flour until you have a mix that is roughly the consistency of thin school custard.
Gently pour it in. It needs to completely cover the veg mix (it will thicken). If it doesn't cover, make up more gram flour and water mix.
Sprinkle with yeast flakes.
When it's bubbling (be careful it doesn't burn; lower the heat if necessary), take off the stove top and put under the grill until golden-brown.

Tree of the Month
Many of you know about my Tongues in Trees work, and quite a few of you are walking alongside me in this Celtic-Tree-Calendar journey (link above, in the new-book section).

We are just about to move out of Ash ('Nion') month and into Alder ('Fearn'). Look out for these unassuming but quite powerful water-loving trees as they begin to leaf here in the northern hemisphere.  (My last blog included a picture of their beautiful catkins, out now.)

Mythologically, they can represent the masculine spirit in its protector mode. Think how that would change the future of both humanity and the other-than-human, if we rallied the protective rather than destructive masculine in all our psyches, and 'out there' too.

Meantime, here's to the emergence, in the northern hemisphere, of spring, and the return of the light – and the astonishing annual regreening of the earth. Already here we have birds feeding their first broods; an owl sends us to sleep, and a blackbird wakes us.

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