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

Wednesday 22 December 2021

the last of the light: winter solstice 2021 (poem)


The Stillness of Trees
winter solstice 2021

After the owl has scratched white lines
on the gathering dusk
After the soup the mince pies
the warmth of companionship
after these dry months
After the lit tree

We carry our lanterns into the dark wood
in silence   each lighting the way
for the one behind
Make a circle round the fire
taste the lichen gin
make a libation

After this I lean into the stillness
of trees   think of the one yellow leaf
holding firm at the tip of the thirteenth
apple tree which I read as both promise
and symbol   think of how

persistence and resilience take a yielding shape
trusting in the dying and rebirth cycle
without question   think of how hard
this is as human   think how much
we still have to learn.

© Roselle Angwin

Monday 20 December 2021

November's mini-sagas

When I send out a Fire in the Head newsletter, I've taken recently to offering a mini-competition. The prize is a book, but the point of the competition is to keep the pens or cursors of the many lovely writers who've worked with me in the past moving, especially during a time when it's hard to attend courses in person. (I will be returning with some more online courses in 2022.)

The latest one in November was a prompt to write what I called a 'mini-saga' with beginning, middle and end all contained in no more than 200 words. My stipulation was that it should in some way, no matter how tangentially or briefly, refer to trees. The idea behind this prompt came from a competition I ran as part of a small Dartmoor literary festival I used to organise many years ago. I've never forgotten one of the winners: the whole of the Trojan wars retold in 200 words.

'Mini-saga' is a bit of a misnomer in this current competition, though I haven't found an alternative. Really, mini-saga should refer indeed to some epic story, like the Trojan wars. Never mind though: it did get some people writing.

As always, I struggled to pick a winner. Four stories rose to the surface in the end, and the truth is I could have chosen any one of them. All of them had something to commend them. Here they are, with the writers' names and my brief commentary:


Deep through the night of dark blackness when all slept, save for the sparkling stars illuminating a way, a mystery unfolded.  Someone spun such a complex pattern of intricacy and beauty across the cover of firs and berries, that it was impossible not to be awed.  A force had stolen in through that silent darkness, creating immense power and strength. And whatever were to fall against it resistance would be impossible.

Then the freezing air caught up each suspended strand of woven thread, all was engulfed as magical white tightened its hold, drawing taught all in its wake.  As a new day emerged, the sun rose to shine, and the mists drew away, leaving life to unfold in its usual daily habit!  And the hunter knew it was time to withdraw, no capture yet made… Eyes rushing looking down, all failed to witness the wonder of the night’s magic.

But suddenly marvelling, new eyes caught the sparkle dancing, they paid attention. Who had created such craft?  Alas, the gardeners already cutting, destroyed for ever those unseen magical threads.  And a larder was empty, no-one saw the destruction they’d caused.  Who knew what talent of weaving might ever again emerge?

© Thea Bailey November 2021

Thea Bailey wrote a beautiful and lyrical piece that drew together how easily the small but beautiful is overlooked and even trashed, and the ‘weaver’s magic’ destroyed. (The weaver being both spider and a metaphor.) Look at this great opening line: ‘Deep through the night of dark blackness when all slept, save for the sparkling stars illuminating a way, a mystery unfolded.’ Somehow Thea made a mere 200 words feel like a substantial story.



Once upon a time, in a shiny part of this lovely land, happily a-gyring and a-gimbling, lived the little locals. Music lulled their sleepy woodland groves –

BUT monsters were reputed to stalk the deepest forests - the Secretive Jubjub Bird, the Fiercely Frumious Bandersnatch, the Totally Terrifying Jabberwock!

Our princely hero, (listen well, my Beamish Boy!), grasped his fabled sword and, fully-armoured, bravely left the Palace, seeking to slay the fearsome, flame-eyed monster.

Princey entered the tulgiest part of the wood, hunting high and hunting low until, iffing and uffing slightly, he rested his weary body in the shade of the Tumtum tree.

"What's that I hear?!" He caught up his blade and snicker-snack! Off came the head of the unsuspecting Jabberwock, as it came a-whiffling between the trees...

Grasping the gory head, leaving the body dead, our hero hurtled lickety-spit through the wildest woods and galumphed-up to beat Callooh-Callay on the Palace gates!

"Oh what is this, my Beamish Boy?! Have you triumphed over adversity and restored peace to our Kingdom! Come to my arms, come sing the frabjous news!"

And we all lived happily ever after, a-gyring and a-gimbling in the mimsiest of Borogroves...

© Janey Thompson November 2021

Janey Thompson made me smile with her ‘Channelling Lewis Carroll’ and her version of the Jabberwocky – a humorous and tight little piece. I loved the verbs – some created by LC but some I think by Janey herself. This was an original approach to my topic.



The battle was over; the Kings of the land were dead. Pyres of discarded corpses smouldered as the victorious took their riches downstream. Wind swept across the open space and found no answer, as only the emptiness of death lived here.

A young girl emerged from the surrounding trees. She had witnessed the battle and felt the pain of loss. She came to stand where the earth had been scoured during the fight and pushed her bare feet and hands into the earth. Her tears fell.

Years passed. Many seasons came and went until a warrior came upon the clearing. She struck her silvery sword fiercely into the earth. For she too had lost ancestors in this place and silently channelled her rage in the only way she knew. She gripped the soil, sensing a need in her to make this place her own.

More years passed. Others had followed the warrior here and life returned. One day an old woman walked within. She stood before the warrior who towered over her, cascading tendrils of hair flowing in the wind. She thanked this soul who had renewed the Earth. Her tears fell on the Silver Birch.

© Claire Brown November 2021

Claire Brown wrote a fierce and beautiful story about the brutal logging of the Kings of the Forest, in which the feminine principle, in the shape of the queenly Silver Birch (opening tree in my Wheel of the Year tree calendar), after the ravages of the logging companies, sets her footsteps towards the healing of the land (Birch is a 'pioneer species' colonising new land for other trees to follow). After the desolation comes new life and restored Wasteland via the women in the story. This one really speaks to me. Claire has some strong lines: 'Wind swept across the open space and found no answer, as only the emptiness of death lived here.’ This story too feels so much bigger than its length suggests; it’s also a bit archetypal.



“Mama,” she asked when she was small, “why is it called the Winding Wood?”
     And Mama told her it was for the path that winds through the trees, and that winding path is the one she must always take.
     Now that she’s grown the rule irks her. Her friends abide by it but she slips off, skips through the trees and then waits, laughing, as they take the longer way.
     She goes to the wood on her own – another rule carelessly laid aside – and the sound of the trees moving in the wind is like a voice calling Come and dance with us. And she dances, winding among oak, ash and beech until she remembers the time and dances back to the path, and home.
     She wakes to the tree-voices in the night and slips out in her nightdress, running into the woods, dancing – certain the trees are dancing too.
     Another tree-voice – a rowan, berry-bright – whispers, Come close, touch my skin, then, Let me feel your skin. She sheds her nightdress, leans naked against the trunk. The leaves caress her; the branches wind round her like a lover’s arms.
     She’s lost to Mama. But in the moonlight, she still dances…

© November 2021 Caro Johnson

In the end, I chose Caro Johnson’s ‘Winding Wood’. I think it’s because of the apparent simplicity. The story reads like a fairy tale that holds a key, as well as ‘everywoman’s tale’ - there’s an undercurrent that feels autobiographical, but also more universal and ambiguous. Central to it are two themes: leaving home and finding one’s own true path despite the various voices that try to hold you back, and finding home among the trees (in this case the Rowan). The journey of individuation. Read it again, though. The simplicity is deceptive: do you too feel the undercurrent? A somewhat Otherworldly undercurrent?

My thanks to all four of the writers above.



Wednesday 8 December 2021

Ragbag: cultivating the land inside


'What we need is existential creativity...'

'There is a time for hope and there is a time for realism. But what is needed now is beyond hope and realism. This is a time when we ought to dedicate ourselves to bringing about the greatest shift in human consciousness and the way we live... It is now time for us to be the most creative we have ever been, the most far-sighted, the most practical, the most conscious and selfless. The stakes have never been, and will never be, higher... For we are on the verge of losing this most precious and beautiful of worlds, a miracle in all the universe, a home for the evolution of souls, a little paradise here in the richness of space, where we are meant to live and grow and be happy, but which we are day by day turning into a barren stone in space.' Ben Okri, The Guardian, 13.11.21


'My real work is getting to know, inside out, my home ground.'

'The soil is dark, the wind is red, and my dreams are snake green with long white roots. At the back of my mouth, way behind memory and longing, is the taste of the ground I garden every day, grit that lingers on my tongue and tells me who I am.

'Every particle of soil, every atom of earth, is alive with mystery and potential... 

'Every soil is a long winding story told in the voices of water and inhaled and exhaled air; of the stone-slow cycles of rock itself becoming soil; and in the voices of the swarming masses of micro-organisms feeding, breeding and dying on fertile dust, creating new life out of their own bodies made from exploded stone.

'After all these years of working the land, I am made of the soil and water of my home place. I have become these elements and they have become me.

'The best gardeners I know continue to find time both to sit still and to walk the margins of their land... When I slow down sufficiently to actually arrive in the garden, I see that everything around me is constantly changing... And when I really slow down, I see that garden and gardener are changing too, ripening and decaying with every breath.' Wendy Johnson, Zen Buddhist gardener


Cultivating the ground of metta

I have a Buddhist practice on which I sometimes focus during meditation. In true Buddhist spirit, it is both extremely hard and extremely simple.

'Metta' is loving-kindness meditation. Before you stick your fingers down your throat, it is neither New-Agey nor simplistic, though it seems both.

Allied to the Tibetan practice of tonglen, in which you breathe in another's suffering, it is a breathing out of love and kindness towards someone else.

You may incorporate phrases into the meditation, all the while holding that person in mind/heart. Currently, I say:

'May you [name], be free of suffering and sorrow.
May you be free of fear and anxiety.
May you be well. May you be safe. May you be happy.'

Of course it's not a magic cure-all. However, it can't hurt to wish goodwill towards others; and who knows how far such a vibe will travel. Its real benefit, though, is the softening of the heart of the meditator, and goodness knows we need that these days.

That's the easy bit. Now try turning that on yourself! This is my current practice:

'May I be free of opinions and judgement.
May I be free of suffering and sorrow.
May I be free of fear and anxiety.
May I be well. May I be safe. May I be happy.'

For many of us, especially those of us who were brought up Catholics, the first sentence is easy (we know how to flagellate ourselves: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa). And I am full of opinions and judgements, so I can admit/say that fairly readily (I'm not the only one in our family, but let's leave that on one side, at least in the moment of vowing to try to be less judgemental!).

But to receive our own love and care? To be happy? How hard we in the West find that, especially if we let the world in to break our hearts.

And it's oft-quoted in therapeutic circles: how can we truly love another if we don't know how to love ourselves?

Monday 6 December 2021

Ragbag: The land outside (to be followed by the land inside)



October has come; autumn storms
sweep winds over the island. On the fence
by Oran’s Chapel – he of the Song –
two new swallows, so young they barely
have tails, crouch determinedly, ignoring
their parents’ harsh chivvying to fly, fly,

be ready to migrate. Late brood; the last
of the flock to leave. So many things these days
break my heart. Weeks’-old bodies
against an ocean, a continent; and I here
witnessing, knowing they may not make it –
and there is nothing, nothing, I can do.

© Roselle Angwin

No surprise that the Guardian has reported so many more birds entering the red list. Astonishingly, swallows are not yet on it, though I've seen the migrant population here in Devon diminish year on year on year. Swifts and house martins, heartbreakingly, have found their way on to that list; each time I've seen a barn conversion in the area I've known that a few more martin and swallow families have lost their ancestral homes; and a barn owl or two, probably, as well.

I have to remind myself that it's not all bad news, all of the time: the white-tailed sea eagle population in Scotland is rising a little; and indeed I saw one a couple of times this autumn on Iona.

Here in the courtyard the winter birds gather in the dawn, appearing as we come downstairs before daybreak, shadowy forms hopping onto the doorstep awaiting seed. Here are the dunnocks, one of whom is exceptionally tame; the two robins, one of which chases every other bird away, though the two bullfinches hold their own. Here are the various tits. The adult male blackbird is followed still by his now-mature son, as he has been for two full years. I can only imagine that since his mate, the son's mother, and the son's two just-fledged sisters, all of whom were taken by a sparrowhawk (the mother) and a buzzard (the siblings) in the same week and right by their cliffside nest outside the kitchen French windows, some kind of maturation and development has been arrested. Perhaps there is a comfort now in numbers for both of them, even if that number is only two.

I walked past a bench that neighbours have planted by a little stream the other day, close to the lane. I saw they'd installed a beautiful new sculpture attached to the end of the bench: a heron, lifelike and detailed to the extent I could practically feel the velvet delicacy of its engraved feathery coverts. Then it flew away.

Each winter little egrets make their way upstream and inland from the Dart where there is now a small permanent population, to perch in the big oak near 'our' brook. There was a winter when TM and I were walking beside the brook below our house, in the valley. I had just said to TM 'I haven't seen the little egrets here at all this winter'; and one flew up literally two metres ahead of our footsteps. Today, I was thinking the same thing as I walked the dogs, and then saw three of them stalking across the wet meadow.

Oak by the Brook

When the great oak fell in the woods
the valley shuddered and we felt
the aftershock in our feet for weeks.
When the great oak fell, fifty families
of mice fled, and the pairs of woodpeckers.

Nuthatches went into exile, and a hundred
thousand insects. The heron and winter’s
white egrets no longer have a lookout
over the minnow brook; no perch
for summer’s turtle doves. Last week

a thousand bees hummed in its canopy;
this winter, the jays will scavenge for
five thousand fewer acorns. The valley
is a wound. The valley is a mouth with
a missing front tooth. The valley is Munch’s

mouth, open and forever a silent scream.
When we walk where the oak was we too
are now silent. The great oak fell; the valley
shuddered; we feel its echoes still.

© Roselle Angwin
(from A Spell in the Forest)

Speaking of jays (as the poem was), they can gather up to 5000 acorns each year, burying them for overwintering, and noting, apparently, landmarks to find them again. The garden has been deprived lately of that enormous and smile-making coarse racket they make; I'm wondering whether they've had to go a lot further afield for their winter stock. This year has been whatever the opposite of a 'mast year' is: last year was a mast year, at least in the UK, where a huge abundance of nuts, beech mast and acorns was produced. This is often followed by a year when the pickings for jays and squirrels are more slender, although this year they've been exceptionally slender.

What we have had an abundance of in the courtyard though are these: tiny pale green discs, like sequins, in their hundreds of thousands. They are 'spangles', created by oak gall wasps, and each spangle contains a larva. Not sure they're the choice foodstuff of jays and squirrels, however.

It's been an odd growing year. The early part was cold and wet, and the 'season' was late starting. Our beans, courgettes and squashes all failed: a shock, as our borlotti, cobra and pea beans are normally easy and prolific, and, frozen, provide much of our winter protein. I say all the beans failed, but actually the three successive sowings of broad beans (one over-wintering) were all productive, including the new red-podded variety. I've been trialling a no-dig bed (rather against TM's sense that only a bed that's been properly dug over is a suitable bed), and felt a bit smug, as where all the many greenhouse-sown beans, later planted out into the dig beds, failed, my very late sowing of borlotti beans in the no-dig went from bean sown direct into soil to fruiting bean in just five weeks.

After last year's apple harvest, enough to keep TM, who eats at least six apples a day, in fruit until March 2021, this yautumn, despite plenty of blossom and young fruits in early spring, we had not a single one. Not one. I guess, as with nutting trees, a mast year costs the tree, and it hasn't the same energy the following season. In this case, spring gales didn't help.

An unexpected success, though, were my sweet potatoes. Here's the first one I dug, a 'beauregard', a perfectly decent size, and very tasty indeed:

There were a few other big ones, but most of the rest were small. Still, the dogs loved them.

On the other hand, I'm delighted at just how many dishes we had from one butternut squash: butternut, lentil and coconut soup for 12 people; butternut hummus; roasted butternut rings; and a topping of squash again for the dogs' dinner. (And yes, my plant-based cookbook is nearly ready to go off and seek its fortune. I just need to double-check all the research into animal welfare, environmental benefits, land use benefits, health benefits and so on.)

Now it's dusk: chilly, clear, periwinkle blue turning cobalt then Quink. In the lanes, there are still a few campion hanging on, and yes periwinkles: almost all of those left the palest starriest large white-lilac ones, escapees.

Over the stone wall edging my bee-garden my prostrate rosemary, one of my very favourite plants and quite an amazing medicinal herb, tumbles its new lavender blue flowers, taking over from where my enormous bush rosemary has left off.

Soon, the witch hazel catkins will light the little tree golden; till then, spindle berries garland the dusk.

© Roselle Angwin 2021

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