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

Sunday 29 May 2022

A ragbag: May in Devon; other-than-human kin; Iona in April; our big move

In this post, I include parts of my recent Fire in the Head newsletter, so if you are on my mailing list you already know some of this.

In the merry month of May
May and in the deluge I walk out where the bright spring rain ignites the hillside into the ultraviolet flame of bluebells, incandescent against the new sharp greens of the valley. May, and in the deluge something hidden, almost lost, shyly steps forth and in a moment has taken wings. May, and in the rain I’m stripped naked then clothed by rain. May, and high above me the buzzard’s quiet jubilation encircles the day, the way a priest or a magician passes hands over the bread, the chalice, the water to be blessed; casts a spell that changes us all into what we were always meant to be.


If April is the cruellest month, May must surely be the kindest; the land here in Devon is awash now with the last of the bluebells and wild garlic, and the bridal blooms of Hawthorn, the May flower, in whose month, in the Celtic Tree Calendar which underpins my own life and work, and my most recent book, A Spell in the Forest – tongues in trees, we find ourselves currently. There is much to say about the mythology surrounding Hawthorn, and her dark sister, the Blackthorn, but that's not for here.


Our other-than-human kin

Where are the swallows and martins? I wonder if ‘yours’ have come back? Weather, chemical farming methods, conversion of barns and lack of nesting sites have all played their part in the decline of the hirundines. A permanent absence of these migrants in our skies is a prospect too heartbreaking to contemplate. There is a hole in the fabric of things when a species declines; a snag in the web of life.

Some time between 4 am and 4.30 am each morning for several weeks I’ve been woken by various iterations of young ravenous jackdaw squawks, in triplicate, deepening and increasing in volume by the morning. The ‘nest’ – the shambolic heap of twigs balanced precariously in the ivy growing up the stone wall and literally a metre from our heads in bed, albeit the other side of the roof – is coming apart at the seams. This morning something is different, though. The squawk is higher-pitched, I’d say panicky; even louder, and higher up the roof, accompanied by noisy mad flapping and the distinct sound of a small body sliding down the slates. And repeated. (Last year one fledgling fell off the roof, narrowly avoiding the neighbour’s cat’s jaws by dint of abseiling back up said ivy.) 

I lie wide awake now, and listen to the two thrushes, one each side of the valley. ‘Our’ thrush, in the field, has a fairly sophisticated repertoire, with a number of regular recognisable phrases: caerphilly caerphilly caerphilly, chew chew chew, peewit peewit peewit, teeeoooh. The valley one is a learner with a less distinct song – perhaps last year’s youngster. If I get up and go downstairs now, the pair of dunnock that lives in the courtyard and who currently have a brood in the goat willow tree that decorates my car so prolifically with fluffy mouse-like catkins, will, I know, appear at my feet, looking hopeful. Dunnock are shy birds, but these now know me so well that I can rustle a bag just above their heads and they won’t move.

In just over a week’s time, a new family, one with two cats, will move into this house with its one-and-a-half acres of spectacular land – meadow, woodland, bee and herb beds, extensive veg plot and wild twisty-pathed gardens. They will love and tend the place, and their plans will fit. But their cats will not respect my friendship with the other-than-human here. And I am heartbroken at leaving the wildlife I know so well, and who trust me: woodpeckers, owls, nuthatches, bullfinches, robins, blackbirds, five species of tit, and many others, and who know I will help when the winter is hard on this north-facing slope.


Then there are the hares, voles, and roe deer; the few badgers left from culling, illegally gassing or sett-blocking; the few foxes that the illegal hunt hasn’t killed. Nesting in our field are also buzzards and sparrowhawks; they too have their place, and I’ve learned a lot from buzzards.

The secret valley
There is, too, this secret valley. Having lived, with my daughter, most of my adult life on Dartmoor, and spending regular time in wildish places: the Hebrides, West Cornwall and, before that, the Pyrenees and then Brittany, this soft valley in the affluent South Hams didn’t at first speak to me. But I have come to love its quiet tranquillity, its out-of-the-wayness (one expects the compass to spin here, and in fact it is a bit of a Bermuda triangle), its lack of farming activity; its brook, its spindle and gorse, the little egrets that come up the Dart in winter to roost in the old oak and keep an eye on the fishy tiddlers in the brook, the owls who call from our great oak tree. Nowadays, within a radius of a couple of miles, there is also a small population of youngish people who have moved in to tend and cultivate the land in sustainable ways, some living off-grid.

And there is the land, and the beautiful stone wood and glass house built by TM 20+ years ago. And we are leaving it. The next blog I will write will not be from here. NB It seems that my browser and blogger are no longer easily compatible. I may start a new blog, perhaps connected to my websites, soon.


Loving it all

We learn to love the general, and humanity/other species/the world/cosmos, by loving the particular, the personal, the specific. I believe this is the meaning of Robert Hass’ complicated and wonderful poem 'Meditation at Lagunitas'. See how he begins with the distancing large and abstract, and brings it down to the close-up material detail of the personal? Almost everyone who reads this poem (it figures on my poetry correspondence course) feels the fire of it coming alive, beginning with the 'clown-faced woodpecker' but really leaping into three dimensions when he writes 'There was a woman /'. This is how, I believe, we make sense of, or learn to love, the vast existential and metaphysical questions: by seeing the enormous and extraordinary in the small and ordinary detail of those beings and things to whom we give our hearts.

Now is my chance to take this deep love and open it out to all I newly encounter in our new adventure; in wildlife terms, red squirrels, deer, pine martens and wild boar, besides the usual host of smaller creatures. Oh, and the humans.


Islands of the Heart

My ‘Islands of the Heart’ retreats on the Isle of Iona happened again this year. I always feel so privileged to be able to work with these fine people, some of whom have joined me every year, or nearly, since 2000 on the sacred Isle of Iona. I believe I say this every time, but I think this was the best yet. The weather was (mostly) fabulous, the people were just lovely, and some very fine writing was writ. (Some of the nutters among us, what’s more, also dipped into the sea, daily. Yes, in April, up north.)

I also climbed up to the Well of Eternal Youth with the long-suffering M, who didn’t complain about our taking the steep slippery route up Dun I – the 'Hill of the Island' – at speed, lured by promises of a gentle easy descent which never materialised: ‘I marched her up to the top of the hill / and I marched her down again’.

This well, dedicated to Bride who gives her name to the Hebrides, Bridport, Bridlington and possibly the whole of Britain (Brighid, or Brigid, christianised as St Bridget), the ancient Great Goddess whose cauldron (or in this case well) occurs in various guises in Celtic myths, is supposed to restore the aged to youth and also the dead to life. Sadly, I came back just as old and wrinkly as I went up. (Oh wait, I think we were supposed to take our clothes off and immerse ourselves?) Here for you, above, are photos of the well and its view, as a change from the eternal white sands and blue seas I normally post.

The Old Nunnery on Iona

Always the chatter from these
streamers of geese, ravelling the sky.

Above the hill, two rooks
bring their shadows along for the ride.

What else can I say for this nunnery
that I haven’t said twenty times before?

Beyond, the primary school is flying the blue
and yellow flag we all now know so well.

Roselle Angwin


And so to the big adventure.

Walking into the Unknown
I imagine I'm not alone with the strength of ideas of belonging in my psyche – to a place, to its inhabitants, to its culture. Experience of place and belonging are fundamental to how we humans find our way in the world. I'm also concerned as well with how we walk through this world, and relate to our other-than-human kin.
 I know many of you are too. And what does it mean to attempt to live truly sustainably, minimising our footprint?

As regards 'home', comfortable in most places at the edges of the Western Atlantic, I still have a strong sense of my own roots. We can trace the family’s roots back hundreds of years to the tiny magical triangle that is the far west of Britain, West Penwith in Cornwall. Having said that, I’ve spent most of my life in Devon, having been brought up on the North Devon coast and then, as I said earlier, on or very close to Dartmoor. I belong here in the Westcountry. But 'home' is perhaps more to do with a sense of being comfortable with a chosen life and its path as much as a geographical location. How do we DO this life? How do we walk lightly on the earth? How do we create a life that is congruent with our values?

We are now about to cross the Channel and make our home in Brittany: the far northwest department, Finistère (think Asterix), so similar to Cornwall (and Wales) in language and culture, as well as land, trees and wildlife. There is a long story behind this, but I will remain geographically very close to my beloved forest, the one that figures in Spell, and which I know well.

We have just bought 17 acres of beautiful meadows and woodland, along with a shambolic farmhouse whose heart dates back, supposedly, to the 1700s, where we are, in a matter of weeks, going to unroll our vision of guardianship of the land via permaculture, forest gardening or at least orcharding, and letting the land do its own rewilding as it sees fit.

One important aspect of this is a vision of how little one needs to create a healthy life. How can we shake our dependence on fossil fuel, and consumerism? How might we consider sharing this land? How much can we let it be, to be what it needs? What might we grow in how small a space that could help the wider community without damaging the land? All these questions are in our minds as we make this transition.

My work
For the best part of a year I will be concentrating on my own writing only (that is, if our land projects in Brittany allow any time or energy at all). I have my vegan cookbook to be finished, and hundreds of scrappy notes towards Book Two of A Spell in the Forest.

The next full course I’ll offer will be Iona next year.

However, this autumn I hope to offer 3 weeklong virtual courses. (I've finally added the prose version of 'Writing the Bright Moment' that I've been promising so long, as a nature memoir course.) Dates for these have to be arranged, but they are likely to take place in October, November & December. Please keep an eye on this link for info; and do let me know if you are interested (numbers will be limited). The first two courses garnered very complimentary feedback each time I offered them, and some of the groups have continued to meet, with one producing an anthology.

I don't know how it is for you, but I notice that my deep joy in the turning year, especially manifest in spring, is tinged often with something like guilt for experiencing bliss when so many are suffering severe pain, trauma, loss in other parts of the world. Then I remember the words of Kahlil Gibran: ‘It doesn't help to limp before the lame’ (this is a paraphrase). 

So I wonder whether, to offset somehow the horrors, we almost have a responsibility to live deeply, love abundantly, and feel profound joy to the extent that we can, in this very beautiful, albeit torn, world of ours?

With this in mind, till next time, my friends, may the summer shower inspiration and love on you all; and I find I want to wish you the music of the eternally-turning spheres. May you find your true home in the universe, whether outside or inside; or, best of all, both.


Blog Archive