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

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

raised beaches and wild waters

I'm an island person, and I love wild places. It took me three days, though, to fall in love with Skye. The weather's been harsh, admittedly, and the land is still gripped by winter, but the view from our cottage of rusting cars, wind turbines, and conifer plantations or clear-felled low scrubby hillsides, with the head of the sealoch visible but not accessible, haven't helped. Elsewhere there is the drama of character-full peaks and crags – some of the wildest climbing in Europe, I'm told, including twenty munros – and the sea, but not here.

Then, yesterday, hooray – the Waternish peninsula. Above you can see the curve of bay and the little lagoon of Ardmore, or Aird Mhor; below, in front of the ruins, if you look closely, are a flock of Canada geese and some cream-white Highland cattle browsing on kelp. The famed cattle here were swum across to the mainland for selling as early as the 1500s; some were even driven (clearly, on foot; a journey of – what, 5-600 miles?) to Smithfield market in London.

An t-Eilean Sgitheanach or Eilean a' Cheò (the latter means the 'Isle of Mists') are the Gaelic names for Skye (there is still a strong Gaelic-speaking population, and some schools are taught all the subjects in Gaelic. The island has a School of Gaelic too.) There are settlements here that date back to the Neolithic, and then the later Bronze and Iron Ages, with a couple of Pictish brochs, the double-skinned towers, and some rare Pictish inscribed stones have been found here.

The island's later history, as in many parts of the Hebrides and northwest Scotland, includes a great deal of Norse settlement, seen clearly in names that end in 'nish', or 'ness', which means headland or peninsula. The traditional ruling clan of Skye and much more besides, Clan Macleod, is of Norse descent. Skye has been the scene of many battles and skirmishes; its bloody history played out too in the Highland clearances following on from the Jacobite rebellion.

What makes me feel at home here where I don't around the cottage, apart from the sea (at Waternish you look out to North Uist and Harris, over the Little Minch with its daunting currents and races), is the appearance of the headlands with their successive stepped spills of lava-flow, their clearly-basalt verticals and plateaux, familiar to me from Mull (and of course Staffa). (These fingers of land stretching west into the Atlantic also remind me of Morte Point and Baggy Point on the north Devon coast of my childhood.)

You can see the cut-off edges of the land here in the top photo, and below on the point on the left and perhaps in the little shelf-like islets:

The basalt seam in the Hebrides, that stretches to the Giant's Causeway in Ireland, includes raised beaches. Norman Newton's book Skye describes how these were formed: 'These are evidence of a time when sea-level was higher than it is today... they occur at different levels and date from different times, but all are the result of changes in sea-level caused by the last Ice Age. From 20,000 BCE when the ice began to melt seriously until soon after 8000 BCE when the first Mesolithic hunter-gatherers appeared on the scene there were several variations in sea-level. When the ice first melted, which was a fairly rapid process, sea-level rose, and waves crashed into the land at a higher level, forming cliffs and beaches. However, with the great weight of ice removed from the land – it was over a mile thick – the land actually began to rise. This process, known as "isostatic recovery", eventually had the result of leaving the post-glacial beaches high and dry.'

The geology here is diverse. Much of the rock is volcanic in origin; there are sedimentary layers, such as Torridonian sandstone and oolitic limestone, plus the igneous granite and gabbro amongst others.

One of the most famous stories out of Skye is of course the flight of Bonnie Prince Charlie 'over the sea to Skye'. Near here is a monument to Flora MacDonald, who, at his begging, helped him escape from Benbecula, the isthmus-causeway between North and South Uist, across the perilous Little Minch by dressing him up as her female companion, the supposed Irish housemaid Betty Burke. This was a mindblowingly dangerous thing to do in several ways.

While I understand the Jacobite Cause and the romance of it, returning the throne to a non-Hanoverian, further research suggests, disappointingly, that BPC was a bit of a privileged plonker, dissolute and philandering. What's more, Flora was imprisoned for a while in the Tower of London for her pains, while he escaped. He promised to reward her, but in 40 years he didn't contact her again. A quick google search suggests that Flora's life was a courageous and exciting series of adventures. If anyone knows of a book on her life, fictionalised or otherwise, I'd be glad to know.

It's hard not to notice the sheer scale of the dumped or lost plastic flotsam/jetsam here (jetsam mostly I rather fear). The tidelines are rainbowed with litter. I'm trying to see this as non-detracting; here at least it's broken down into plastic-'shell'sand, sort-of:

Returning to the head of the loch the foreshore offers natural colour:

... and in the little pub, the oldest on Skye, in the village of Stein I hear faintly, over the babble of voices, from Radio 2 that despite our ill-advised (I'm being polite) Minister of Environment's refusal to sign up to a ban, and despite the lobbying from the all-powerful pharmaceutical industry, neonicotinoids, pesticides linked to bee-decline, have now been banned from Europe for two years at least. HOORAY.

Monday, 29 April 2013

the wild western reaches

Driving west from Inverness lifts my heart. After Achnashellach the land becomes magical; less desolate, more treed, more rivery, and still ringed by the snow-capped mountains. I resist a strong urge to drive northwest to Shieldaig, Applecross, Torridon proper, and head for the pretty Strathcarron and the road to Skye.

Here, above, we're looking across to the straggle of cottages leading Lochcarron towards the sea where, 3 decades ago, my then-lover and I sat and watched otters playing in the dusk. 

Below we're looking back up to Strathcarron at the head of the Loch.

The name Kyle of Lochalsh has resonated in my imagination like a distant bell since I was 11 or younger. Now, here I am.

It was close by here that Gavin Maxwell lived, and wrote of his life intertwined with otters in Ring of Bright Water – a book that, with its prefacing poem by his one-time lover Kathleen Raine, was not only my favourite book but also the one that determined me to be a writer.

It was also to where my favourite – everyone's favourite – Great Uncle Arthur came, year on year, to stay and visit the islands (in the company of at least one and usually more women – he would have been in his 70s by then); they'd dubbed him locally 'MacAngwin'.

I get out of the car to look at the water and stretch my sore back; think about the road bridge to Skye which no doubt has made life easier for the islanders but of course destroys some of the romance of being on an island (rumour has it that my bridge-building father was a consultant on the works for a few weeks up here).

I go in search of takeaway coffee and something to eat. This herring gull insinuates that he'd be happy to share my lunch.


The noticeboard behind him (or her – how do you tell with herring gulls?) tells me how bottlenose dolphins have been filmed hereabouts playing 'football' with a jellyfish, and yields a few words on the marine ecosystem here:

And to my delight here on the noticeboard too is a poem by my friend and frequent co-tutor Ken Steven:

And then I'm over the bridge and away, driving up the coast of Skye 

and loving the colours in this often-bleak landscape; my fingers itch to create something; not sure what – a tapestry, a woven panel from veg-dyed wool that I stitch into the front of a jacket, as I would have done 30+ years ago; maybe a painting? And of course it's the landscape colours, and also the dyes yielded by lichen, bark and plants, that lie behind the wonderful subtle colours in such woven cloth as Harris tweed...

Here on Skye we find also, to our joy, many live music sessions; my daughter's first foray into an unpromising local pub yields one of the best British fiddlers, Ross Couper, who we went to hear in a sleepy Devon village last autumn, and who, like my daughter, is many many miles from his home of Shetland, and jamming here with several other top-class musicians, in the traditional Scottish way. Although many of them are now over at Knoydart playing a festival, the hills still send forth their musicians, and there's good craic to be had...

And since I still find myself voiceless in relation to the course I've just co-led with Sharon Blackie, 'Singing over the Bones', here's a link to one of the participants' blog about it:

Sunday, 28 April 2013

the Iona labyrinth

It's not just that I haven't had time to type up the extraordinary week's writing retreat 'Islands of the Heart' on Iona, let alone start to catch up with the amazingly rich and productive week following that where 11 women wrote under the title of 'Singing over the Bones' on a course at Moniack Mhor with Sharon Blackie and myself; it's also that each year part of me resists coming back from Iona, and that part can't move on to carry 'Islands of the Heart' forwards as an inner experience until I've recorded it in some way. (Equally, I find it impossible to write of later experiences here in Scotland until I start to assimilate them into my inner world.)
Those who with me walked the little stone labyrinth here at St Columba's Bay will understand what I mean when I say that in walking the labyrinth one meets oneself; the spiral journey of the soul is made manifest in labyrinths throughout the world. Winding inwards to the heart of the labyrinth can be a profound experience, if we let it; how we walk it, how we let our feet speak and receive, will say something of us, and how we unwind back to the 'outer' and carry the journey with us into the world has quite a potent symbolic charge if we can move beyond self-consciousness and rationality.

I find it moving to stand quietly near the entrance to the labyrinth simply paying attention, as those who wish to let their feet follow the serpentine curves on this beach (where, as it happens, we also rather obsessively and competitively search for the semi-translucent green serpentine stones that co-occur here, and only here, with the marble and the older rocks).

There's a lot to say about labyrinths but I'm afraid my braincell's been seriously taxed in facilitating two very intense weeks back-to-back up here, so another time.

In some ways this walk, which we do in the spirit of pilgrimage in a shared silence, beats at the heart of the Iona week. (This time, sadly, one of the participants couldn't join us as she sprained her ankle badly on the first day.)

And now I'm unwinding this journey backwards in the photos I've chosen, back from the Bay of Green Stones (aka St Columba's Bay, where reputedly the saint arrived from Derry in Ireland in the C6th to bring Christianity to the pagan and maybe druidic culture here – more anon) across the little island, and across the Sound to Mull.

in the stoniest places... such transience hosted by such enduringness

Iona has some of the oldest rock in the world

the Bay at the Back of the Ocean

The eider duck gossip here at the Bay at the Back of the Ocean like old women at a jumble sale. 

At the far edge off to the right, not quite visible here, is a very tall steeple of rock, needle-narrow and very steeply sloping, many metres above ground-level and with a drop to the sea, on which a ewe had brought her two tiny lambs to graze. I almost couldn't bear to look.

These older lambs had an easier time of it.

A rain-pool on the sandy machair...

And then, crossing the bigger island of Mull back towards the mainland (which is itself of course an island, though we tend to forget that), the same little gathering of deer who were in this same place on the journey out.

Friday, 26 April 2013


More soon from the snow-covered Highlands and/or the Islands! But meantime, I have a suspicion that someone has hijacked or is spamming/trolling via this blog. Please let me know if you notice anything that doesn't seem like my writing, or redirects you somewhere strange... thanks.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

from the cailleach hills

As some of you lovely regular readers know, I'm currently leading two very intense courses back-to-back up here in Scotland: I closed the 'Islands of the Heart' retreat on the magical Isle of Iona on Saturday last, and drove up here to the hills near Inverness where, ringed by snowy mountains (two of which take the supine shapes of the Cailleach, the old wise hag-goddess of Celtic story), I'm co-leading with Sharon Blackie a women's retreat: 'Singing over the Bones: Women Writing the Wild'. How might we, as writers and as women, address the state of the natural world in our 'care' today? How might we respond to the destructions and extinctions?

Course participants and landscapes are very different; the groups are extremely intense in different ways, and the Iona course and group is particularly heartful each year – such a privilege to work with people who are willing to bring all of themselves to an experience, and share it.

I've led the Iona retreat for 13 years. Here at the Moniack Mhor Arvon centre though this is the first course of this nature for both Sharon and I, and we hadn't met before. We're not long in to the course so it's finding its way, as we are.
Here we're all women; it's good to have a range of ages from 30 to mid-60s. We're on the third day now, and there has been such an abundant cauldron of laughter, tears, joy, rage, despair, hopelessness and distress at our subject matter and what it stirs in us. We're interweaving a mix of the warp of land and its beings, our place in and responses to land (and of course sea and air), and the fabric of myth and story that is also the weft we as humans weave on place and inhabitant.

And then there's the writing. What we're exploring is how we might write in a way that reflects our relationship with the land, our place in the web of things, our dwelling in the natural world, and how to shape that; writing that in some way issues from the felt core of our experience, rather than writing in a remote and detached way 'about' nature.

Both Sharon and I as tutors bring backgrounds in psychology and psychotherapy. I think it's true to say that we both believe that, for lasting and positive change to occur in the outer world, we need to be willing continuously to challenge and change our inner worlds: the stories that keep us stuck, the unhealthy patterns, the distorted beliefs. Perhaps the one can't happen without the other?

Sharon is editor of EarthLines magazine, and as I say we'd never met; the course was Sharon's instigation, and we have communicated intensely over so many months that we were sure it would work. Looks like it is, though I had one of those moments driving up to the cottage of: this is like an extended blind date and people are paying us to make it work. Relief: we like and complement each other well. Just as well, for the course dynamics!

I find it hard to write about something like these courses at the time when they're actually unfolding; it's partly that the courses are so very rich and complex, and people bring so much of themselves, and partly that, to be honest, I have had little free time in which to do anything other than catch a keyhole of rest, and I'm utterly knackered – very short on sleep, and it's also intensely demanding, emotionally and mentally, to 'hold and contain' the processes of a number of people and retain in my head the vision that overlights the course. Plus I have very severe backache right now.

But don't get me wrong – I SO love this work; it feels like what I am here (was born) to do. How many people can take such pleasure from their work? It makes me laugh, weep, smile, open up; and it feels like good work, work with soul.

And, apart from the people I work with, the depth of heart and vision that unfolds during the week, and the amazing places in which I work, there are the little-huge bonuses like the puffins on Staffa some of the Iona people take a boat out to see during the course (

And last night, in the dusk as the banshee wind, howling at us for the entire 72 hours I'd been here, quieted itself to a murmur, I took a break from the crucible of both process and kitchen where three participants were whipping up an imaginative and delicious vegan meal, to wander outside: marsh marigolds in a ditch, two curlews bubbling in the field, and overhead, one of the very few remaining hen harriers left in the UK.

Late, my daughter texts me from the Isle of Skye, where she's gone ahead (I shall join her and dogs on Saturday) to say she'd been watching a pair of otters playing on the shore for 2 hours... they are still here, these animals who accompany us through the journey of our lives, if we look, bring our silence.

More from Skye!

Thursday, 18 April 2013

on pilgrimage

This is the 13th writing retreat I've led on this island. When I co-tutored it with friend, fellow author and poet Ken Steven, we called it 'Into Blue Silence'. Since I've been leading it alone it has become 'Islands of the Heart', and I guess that title – both titles – flag/s up that it is more than a writing course.

I've always thought of this week as a pilgrimage. Iona is and has been a sacred place for millennia, but it's not just that – any place is sacred if you approach it in a certain, mindful, way (though it is true that there's a different quality, a heightened depth of something, to places where humans have brought their contemplations and prayers over time; it's as if the place itself carries an extra charge from all the human attention).

Coming to Iona involves, for most people on this course, at least two days' travel (and some people come from France and Switzerland, too), and several trains/buses/ferries, and, once you're north of Glasgow, through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, where human presence gradually thins out and the land has not been entirely subdued into submission.

How we do the journey is significant; the journey is also the destination, and changes us, if we let it. What's more, the destination of a pilgrimage, in this case the Isle of Iona, is a continuing journey.

The spirit of pilgrimage is to do with a change in consciousness. Somewhere like Iona, where 'the veil between worlds is thin', can lend itself to profound experience. We're led here, in shared solitude, to become aware of the possibilities for personal transformation; of peeling off layers of masks and personae, of leaving things behind. The process requires that we become more fully ourself. Imagination is given wings here; helps restore the heart, the vision.

The notion of ‘home’ and the idea of ‘pilgrimage’ are intimately linked. Certain places hold the ability to soothe, to uplift, to reorder a state of confusion: to bring us back to ourselves. If we choose to bring mindfulness to our travelling, our journey to such places is to a place where we might bring ourselves home, gather together the scattered fragments of ourselves, find a resting place out of the whirlwind of our habitual accelerated lives.

Albert Camus said: ‘We travel for years without much idea of what we are seeking. We wander in the tumult, entangled in desires and fears. Then suddenly we arrive at one of those two or three places that are waiting for us patiently in the world. We arrive there and the heart is at last at peace – we discover that we have arrived.’

And here's Daniel Taylor, in In Search of Sacred Places: ‘The tourist goes to see and collect memories and mementoes; the pilgrim goes to be changed. A pilgrimage is physical travel to a spiritual destination. The act of going is itself a vote for the possibility of meaning. It accepts risk – the risk of coming to harm, of being a fool, of wasting time and money and energy – for the mere possibility of a highly intangible reward. That reward, in part, is knowledge about how to live, together with the strength of will to transform right thought into right action.

‘Some people take away souvenirs and photographs from these islands. I take away some still small voices. These voices continue to whisper to me of increased possibilities for living. They whisper to me certain verbs – simplify, release, risk, commit, pray, bless, believe. They whisper certain nouns – peace, gratitude, contentment, solitude, discipline, friendship, reverence. Most of all they whisper that word which is both verb and noun, action and state of being – they whisper the word "love".’

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

from the island at the edge of the world

From the window, now the huge seas and wild winds of earlier today have subsided and a fitful sun is flickering on and off through scattered cloud, the gannets are out again, doing their freefall dives into Ocean. The ferry, halted by dangerous weather in the Sound this morning, is back, cautiously, under a relief skipper, making huge horseshoe traverses of the brief journey from the Ross of Mull to Iona.

The weather is a continuous companion here, and the seas determine whether this little island, all three miles by mile-and-a-half of her, can be connected to the much larger (and incidentally much younger, Iona consisting mostly of Lewisian gneiss, one of the world's oldest rocks) Isle of Mull; and also whether Mull, in turn, can be connected to the mainland. One's orientation shifts subtly but significantly on an island, especially such a small one; the elements play a huge part in everyday life, even to a passer-through.

The sea that surrounds us here, like the unconscious in relation to the ego, both separates and connects the small islands of us. Which we emphasise, of course, says more about us than it does about the sea, which simply goes about the cycles of renewing itself, permanent and transitory both, as it always has.

Here, working with poets' eyes, we pay attention to the world, inner and outer; and we know that if we want to communicate effectively we also pay attention to the words we use – their potential for creation and destruction is enormous.

‘We are not as near each other as we would like to imagine. Words create the bridges between us. Without them we would be lost islands. Affection, recognition and understanding travel across these fragile bridges and enable us to discover each other and awaken friendship and intimacy. Words are never just words. The range and depth of a person’s soul is inevitably revealed in the quality of the words she uses. When chosen with reverence and care, words not only describe what they say but also suggest what can never be said.’ (John O'Donohue)

Iona is one of those places where, as the Celts describe it, the veil is thin and the Otherworld seems close. It has probably been a place of pilgrimage for 1000s of years; it was a Druidic teaching centre before the arrival of Celtic Christianity, and the (now partial) row of standing stones marching 37 miles across Mull from Grass Point below Duart Castle, just beneath where the ferry comes in from Oban, right down to Fionnphort where the Iona ferry carries the traveller to Iona, testifies to an ancient, probably sacred, route dating back to the late Neolithic or the early Bronze Age.

An island is both a physical point in space and metaphorically a place where we might bring ourselves home.

It's almost impossible to come to such a place as this small island without bringing our questions in relation to who we are and how we might live, and a course such as this writing retreat that I facilitate year after year here invites those questions sooner rather than later; and if I don't raise them, the island will.

The writing is a part of the process; it is itself, in fact, process and product; and yet also in some ways is only a medium for bringing other, deeper, truths to the surface for examination and expression; for integration.

These few days offer the possibility for transformation. For many, simply stopping, simply being silent, sharing solitude with others, is in itself a big experience, and gives us an opportunity to slip the leash of habitual patterns of thought and action.

'It is essential sometimes,’ Krishnamurti said, ‘to go to retreat, to stop everything that you have been doing, to stop your beliefs and experiences completely, and look at them anew… You would then let fresh air into your minds… Perhaps you may come upon that mystery which nobody can reveal to you and nothing can destroy.'

Sunday, 14 April 2013

north by northwest, 600 miles and a few ferries later

Loch Lomond, early morning 13th April

St Mary's Chapel, one of the oldest surviving ruins on Iona.
All the weathers in one day today.

And my favourite place ever:
Traigh ban nam Manach ('White Strand of the Monks'), on Iona

Friday, 12 April 2013

in the hills

Off one of the Lake District's highest steepest fells visible from the M6 north, there's a little splinter of human hanging from a small fingernail of rainbow nylon kite-stuff – a hang-glider launching him- or herself from the summit, and being slowly carried by the vectors* round the edge of the hill and out of sight.

It's interesting, isn't it, how we need to test and court death, temper (or test) ourselves by challenging it. When I was in my teens an older friend was killed hang-gliding in Alaska (as you do); and yet I see the attraction. I'm noticing though that, as someone who likes edges – they're full of creative ferment – mine are more often internal these days.

A handful of hardy black-face sheep and their lambs, and a small flock of Swaledales, grey enough to look like they've been used as chimney-brushes, crane their necks up at the man-machine, only mildly interested. Or are they Herdwicks? I've forgotten. (Once upon a time I spun, vegetable-dyed and knitted or wove wool into garments – blissful days out on the Devon coasts and moors with my baby daughter slung off my chest collecting gorse and lichen and blackthorn bark for dyeing [me, collecting, not my baby daughter]. Sometimes I used the naturally-coloured fleece of native pied, grey, brown or black sheep, too.)

For a few moments there's brilliant sun, but north, eclipsing the mountain ranges that are beginning to push up into consciousness in brief glimpses, there's that kind of wild stormy sky that presages Weather of the dramatic variety, and throws whatever is in front of it – in this case full-bellied conical hills with their necklaces of Cumbrian stonewalls and the odd brooch pin of tree – into transient brilliant relief. The occasional willow tree is flame-red, extravagant and showy.

Last leg of the first day's journey to the Hebrides. 400 miles today feels challenging, especially since I only had 3 hours' sleep last night and a stressful lead-up to the drive, culminating in being so unmindful I took my wing-mirror off again late last night clipping a Highways temporary sign by squeezing through a gap that was simply too small – for the third time in a year. I'm quite spatially aware, and in all my many years of driving vans, left-hand drive cars, wider vehicles generally, etc, I've never done this before this car. My garage mechanic looks at me in disbelief. Good man – 8am I call by, en route for my epic journey to the Hebrides, and by 8.30 someone's delivered a new mirror and he's fitted it.

I muse on this. What has it been about the last year that has me squeezing through gaps that are simply too small for me/my vehicle?And why when I have so little money and like looking after things have I smashed a mirror three times? For years, my various cars seemed to reflect my life-problems around brakes; and two cars I've owned have spontaneously burst into flames. But this is a new one.

I'm not sure I like the implications of this, so instead I fall to musing on place-names a la Douglas Adams and John Lloyd's The Meaning of Liff. In their book, which ascribes imagined definitions to place-names, Kirby Lonsdale that I'm just passing meant something like finding, under a table under which you've been running your hand, someone else's cast-off chewing gum. Ecclefechan, I decide, means the curses of someone who arrives too late at a feast to find anything other than crumbs.

And then I'm over the Scottish border - in fact I was already – and there ahead suddenly behind the lowland mountains of Dumfries and Galloway are the snow-capped higher peaks of the Highlands, and in this moment, after the temporary home of the road I know so well and which passes through such stunning scenery (after Lancaster), the sun flames on the lambs in the field ahead of me, the sky releases a little burst of hail, and I'm about to make landfall in the home of a B&B in the little Scottish border town of Moffat.

More from the Isle of Iona, soon...

* Do I mean vectors? You know how, when you're tired, words slip their leashes? - Like that.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

walking, again

(Speech bubble: 'SIGH! I thought we were on a WALK!')

The little wild daffs are so much prettier, because more subtle, than the cultivars (though I love those too). The lanes in Devon are glorious with them now, side-by-side with tall snowdrops – an unusual juxtaposition – and constellations of celandines and periwinkles. And at long last – three months or more since I planted them – I can count ten little broad bean shoots poking up through the soil since I watered the rows last week – strange to have to water in late March.

Simon's field is usually incorporated into one of my daily walks. Simon's a backwoodsman, really, and his field, which includes a little orchard, lots of nut trees and a good-sized soft-fruit cage and veg garden all made out of reclaimed materials, including two pretty little iron gates, is wildlife-friendly, with bird-boxes and dormouse-nests and a little pond, complete right now with a marsh marigold or two in flower (or maybe they're kingcups?) and flag irises coming through.

Simon's passion is hedge-laying (or 'steeping', as we say in Devon). This is a way of keeping the hedges trim without the brutal mechanical flail, and because the young supple branches are still attached, and split only partway through lengthwise so they can be bent but continue to live, they carry on growing and send runners upwards to form a new hedge. Here's a freshly-laid hedge of hazel, ash and thorn; in the close-up you can see the Vs Simon cuts from hazel to use as pegs.

Every year Simon prunes or coppices out the excess and cuts the thicker branches into lengths to be stored in cords, labelled by month and year (a cord of wood is 4 feet high, 4 feet wide, and 8 feet long, stacked tightly; 128 cubic feet). There's a good crop of fungus on some of them:

I love the way that when you know someone in one context, other often very different aspects of their lives only seep out bit by bit. It's only very recently I've found out that Simon's other big passion is Shakespeare, on whom/which he's extremely knowledgeable.

Further on, where the red sandstone belt makes a little incursion into the parish, pink sheep with new lambs are munching their way through a slew of mangolds. Mangold. Man gold. Isn't that a great name? It's Old German, from Mangold Werzel,'beet root'. Down in the birch copse, where the crowns are tipped with magenta prior to leafing, I'm pleased to see the very white buzzard. She always stands out against the woods and fields. There's a huge variation in buzzard colour, but the family that inhabits this stretch of streambank is noticeably white; white as the barn owl quartering the hillside opposite under the rising moon at half-light the other day, and almost as white as the little egret that lands most days in the tall dead oak by the stream.

I've noticed how crucial my daily walks have become. On the odd occasion when my dog has been at my daughter's, I've felt completely lost without the need for a walk – until I remember that I don't have to have the dog to have a walk.

Walking's where much of my poetry arises. It's also a way of unkinking psychospiritual knots, for me; and has become as essential as silence. This has been a surprising and rather lovely side-effect of ageing: I love dancing, but walking has become even more crucial to my wellbeing; I love music, but long periods of silence have become nourishment I can't live without on a daily basis. (Stillness I'm still working on.)

It's in these times, the walking, the silence, that the things that are really important, the things that I truly want to devote my life to, that I want to allow to direct my life, are at last given space to emerge unsqueezed and uncluttered.

I have my heart, that faltered to the point where I had to change my life, last autumn, to thank for this. Now I'm listening.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

River Suite (2) - section 1



you find yourself here again

as if in dream

this bleak bog

black and ochre home to cotton grass and kestrels

shaped flints, a sheep's skull

in the absences where small deaths press

(scatter of fleece like dirty snow

a spike of bone, a tangled wreath of feather and sinew)

where the winds prowl

where the buzzard's cry falls through space

and there's no ear but your own to catch it                

easy to believe you're at the edges of the earth

that you might forget your name

and no-one to call it

here darkness waits close at hand

shadowing the day

the way a nightmare tracks you

just a tangle of voices

(you shiver)

maybe the long dead criss-crossing the heavy air

tinners hunters tribesmen

whose lives have littered this land

for thousands of years

flesh become bog cotton, mouse and mud

or a wild baying like the hounds of hell

your own fear following you

like a grey wolf

ghosting your footsteps


here where the heart of Devon clenches tight

and squeezes out its rivers

like arteries clotted with granite

Dart and Tavy

Teign and Taw and Ockment

opening from the earth's dark magma

like creases in the palm of a hand

we are made of all this

peat-bog and granite

slate and the soft red sandstone that yields to the sea's caress


you're unwinding these stories

down from the iron-black night of the moor

© Roselle Angwin & Vikky Minette, 2010/13 

Friday, 5 April 2013

river suite

You know how it is when you have masses you want to write but the demands of the world are pressing in on you? – Like that. My fingers have been itching to come back here and blog, but my conscience tells me there's too much other stuff to do first.

Gearing up for a workshop on the moor on Sunday, then at the end of the week a long long drive up north to lead courses in the Highlands and the Islands. Logistical problems to sort before that, and far far too much correspondence to get through first!

But I'm completely delighted to tell you that finally, three or four years after we first started talking about it, my long poem sequence, River Suite, has finally come out as a beautiful limited edition book (300 copies) with the water photos of Vikky Minette – and they are truly stunning. I'm so pleased with it.

River Suite was originally commissioned in 1999 as a long poem sequence by Devon Arts in Schools Initiative. I was selected from many applicants (sorry for the boast) to be the poet on the project working with nine schools to focus on the unique aspects of the Devon landscape.

My brief was to write a long poem that five-year-olds and A-level students alike might relate to, and which also had to appeal to adults. The pupils took aspects of the poem and worked on versions of them with three musicians – a contemporary classical composer, a folk-rock guy, and a jazz musician. The schools then performed their pieces to music they'd helped compose to three adult audiences throughout Devon.

Since then I've spoken the poem over harp, cello and keyboards in public performances.

And now here it is. I can't work out how to upload a sample pdf to blogger, but if you email me via my website contact I can email you one (email problems, though, have also been the order of the day for a couple of weeks now, dammit).

Should you wish to order a copy, you can do so on the Paypal button on the right (and anyone coming north for the courses in Scotland, yes I'll have some with me).

NB I'm away from 12th April to 5th May, so any copies ordered then won't arrive till after I'm back.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Easter poem

the first day

at nightfall
glower and glimmer of the stars
falling down and
going out

the second day

in the chamber
behind the stone
the dark
speaks in its own tongues
syllables of silence of

in the garden the women
sit all day all night all day
as women do keeping
vigil keening
to the chill wind's

the third day

the earth turns
brings back the hush
of dawn –
and birdsong the
olive trees' whispers
sweet low voices of women

the first prayer a tongue
of light the utterance
of the one

© Roselle Angwin

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