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

Thursday, 31 October 2013

samhain + poem fragment

The tatters of the Old Year and the welcoming of the New, in the Celtic calendar. Tonight we can hold the past and the future in our hands, stand at the threshold ready for new life, and – since the veil is thinnest of all at this time – send out greetings and voice to the Ancestors: for their peace, for ours, for their gifts to us, for our memories of them. 

I toast the turning year; light candles at every door and window, for the Old Ones and for those who have gone from my life; speak to each of them of what they meant to me and what I learned from them.

All day I've been reflecting on this passing year: the losses, the shifts, the gifts, the lessons, the hardships, the things I let go of, the things I welcome in.

And – once again – I post for you this Samhain poem, or part of it, from my collection Looking For Icarus:

October morning
The redwings are back, crooning over berries or skirring in flocks over the water meadows
By the wall, dead montbretia heads stream like prayer flags
We see ourselves more clearly
when we’re not looking
Calling somewhere home
October dusk
These nights of the quick and the dead. The earth turns away from the sun. Something of ancient fire flickers within us still; we flower like candles in grinning pumpkin faces in someone else’s window
Now, tonight, under this shifting coloured sky all this falls away. You are walking, walking, staff of quickbeam, oiled boots – the long view, the green note that calls you away over these hills, where you will be
another indigo handprint on the hem
of night.
© Roselle Angwin 2005

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

autumn rain, dusk

Heron trawls the valley, time in its wings.
Barn owl draws night across the quartered field.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

wherever you go... being awake

Of the couple of thousand on my shelves, my 'desert island' book, I think, would have to be Wherever You Go, There You Are. In its simplicity, it unpacks the core teachings of Zen mindfulness practice (Kabat-Zinn was responsible for the upsurge of interest in mindfulness the last 20-odd years). Jon K-Z woke me up, and I never tire of the teachings in this book, which lives by my bed.

In my exile on my desert island (and sometimes the notion is not unappealing!), I think I'd need the reminder that my peace of mind would do best if I remember that it's not what happens (or, indeed, doesn't) that matters, but how I deal with it.

The book brings me back to what is – just this present moment, as it is, clear of my assumptions, opinions, desires and aversions – the key to happiness, really. Happiness is not, after all, something we 'get' from the outer world, but a state of presence – a mind that is clear and accepting and fully present with how things are, non-judgementally. 

I think I used to believe that was a rather crap and inferior state of mere contentment, and who would want that when they could have real passion, extreme experience, knowing they were really alive by the dramatic edge on which they could choose to live?

I write that and chuckle, recognising the girl in me who continued being that girl for way past girlhood. And, of course, she is still also there. But I no longer make the mistake, I see, of identifying happiness with drama and excitement. (Must be getting old, or growing up at last, then...)

So these days I can differentiate my fear of falling into a life of 'quiet desperation' (it wasn't actually Pink Floyd who wrote that, but Thoreau, of Walden Pond fame) that I used to think was the dull mud of 'contentment', from the very deep joy that can come from knowing I am exactly where I should be right here right now, that I can determine my own future with my response to how things are right now, and that there is nowhere to get to, nothing to achieve, except to learn  – and it's a continuous practice, moment-by-moment – to be awake and aware in this moment, the only one I'll ever have...

Thank you, J K-Z – your book, sent to the 35-year-old me, as a gift from America by someone I only met once, really has turned my life around.

Monday, 28 October 2013

reindeer's piss & fly agaric

On autumn & on risk (a bit)
I love this time of year – its transitional aspects, its elemental qualities, the shifts of light and colour and foliage. And I love the storms that come too, though I don't in any way mean to belittle the damage and devastation they can bring.

It all reminds me of transience – things move and change more swiftly than seems to happen in summer.

The Dart is swollen, and the water meadows down below Dartington Hall are now water rather than meadow, and host to 100s of waterfowl. The Dart higher up, coming down off the moor, is in serious spate, and each weekend flotillas of brightly-coloured kayaks will switchback down it, their paddlers chancing death (often a death occurs in these Dart River-races).

Risk interests me, the dyad of risk versus security being a significant dynamic that shapes all our lives in relation to which way we step, the choices we make. In fact, I'm here at Dartington today broadcasting with the presenter of an arts programme who is interviewing me about my new novel, The Burning Ground, and the part risk plays in it: for me as an author, but also themes of risk within the book: legal, ethical, emotional, physical. More on that in another blog.

Right now, in relation to what I'm writing here, Dog and I are strolling round the 4km circuit within Dartington Estate grounds. Little blue flowers of alkanet bloom still, like eyes in the bank – alkanet's a member of the borage family, and roots of one of its cousins produce henna – the Arabic name, similar to our English translation (but I can't remember its spelling) means just that. Swathes of autumn cyclamen splash the banks in South Devon exuberantly at the moment. Wild clematis ('old man's beard', 'traveller's joy') drapes wild roses in feathery sheets.

On fungus
It's fungus time, of course, too:

Once upon a time, as a lifelong forager, wild mushrooms formed a serious part of my autumn diet. One autumn when my daughter was 18 months or so, parked up in the campervan in the forests of Les Landes on the Southwest Atlantic coast of France, my husband and I and Eloïse lived for weeks on nuts and berries and mushrooms collected close by (and the other two included shellfish in their diet). We strung rings of the wonderful parasol mushrooms around the interior of the van to dry.

These days I notice a caution in me. Apart from two or three species, I'm less confident in my ability to identify safe or otherwise mushrooms.

This one, for instance (it wasn't me who broke it off):

– tasty blusher, fatal panther cap, other? I suspect it's a panther cap, to which there is no antidote once eaten.

This one, amanita pantherina, is from the same family as that fairy tale classic amanita muscaria, or fly agaric: startling scarlet, with white dots: you know the one: the toadstool elves etc squat on.

Me & the counter-culture & drugs n stuff

I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, the daughter of rural Cornish people. My father's family comes from the very far west, forever. On my mother's side were women farmers/village midwifes/local wise women/trawlermen; on my father's, a Mayor of St Ives, a skipper of the last tea-clipper out of Falmouth, farmers, miners and dowsers. Both my parents were musicians and artists, and my father always rather unconventional (in fact he was quite deliberately anti most Establishment values going). In my family, such things as a certain psychic ability, second sight, telepathy, deep knowledge of flora and fauna and the ways of the land, and various other bohemian ways were rather taken for granted. 

Since sleepy little North Devon in the late 60s and early 70s had an astonishingly vibrant arts/music scene and counterculture, with ashrams and yoga centres, places to learn meditation, wholefood shops, free festivals and the Whole Earth Fair up on Exmoor, it wasn't surprising of course, that I identified with the hippy culture more than the mainstream one. In my mid-teens, I came across Zen Buddhism, turned vegetarian and, not surprisingly, I guess, also discovered drugs.

My first boyfriend's parents, early disciples of John Seymour, of self-sufficiency fame, ran an organic smallholding on Exmoor (they were considered somewhat pioneering back then). There I learned to spin and weave and dye, milk cows and goats and make butter, watch for deer, encourage badgers to visit with peanut butter and raisins, grow and use herbs and veg. P and I also tracked leylines and holy wells, as one does as a teenager(!); and experimented with soft drugs, grown by ourselves, and later I started collecting and drying the gently hallucinogenic psylocybin (liberty cap) mushrooms. (I had friends in Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire who, when we visited, had bowls of dried liberty cap mushrooms out on the tables as others might offer peanuts or crisps. This time of year down here on Dartmoor you still see intent folk, bottoms up, trawling the moor scrutinising every tiny creamy-white mushroom...)

In my day – didn't we always swear we'd never say that? – any recreational drugs we took were natural, not synthetic. I personally believe that, while clearly some are seriously toxic, there are also natural, herbal, drugs such as cannabis that are not only a great deal less dangerous than alcohol – and don't tend to induce violence, either – but are also excellent pain-relievers. Yes, I do think cannabis should be declassified. No, it is not in itself addictive (and I'm also aware that some cannabis, eg skunk, can be acutely dangerous for mentally unstable people). 

However, I don't intend to make the case for natural drugs here, and I do set them apart from manufactured street-drugs and the whole scene that goes with them; just to say that I had experiences with natural psychotropic drugs that changed forever my view on the world, and set my feet firmly on a spiritual and creative path at odds with a materialistic culture (TM would say similarly). 

I also remember less-than-fortunate teenage experiments with eg inner banana-skin, dried and smoked (disgusting, and all it did was make my cheeks numb; ditto nutmeg, which made me sick, too); lobelia flowers infused in hot water – insipid; valerian root when I was over-anxious about exams (I took the wrong valerian and was laid up with headaches and nausea for 36 hours).

And on drugs & going berserk
But one drug I personally never touched was fly agaric. I have friends who did: don't try this at home, but some say you can eat simply the little white raised dots on the caps without any ill effects (the whole mushroom can in some cases be very seriously toxic). However, the effects of fly agaric are serious (see below), and occasionally fatal.

I'm telling you this to lead up to something: the word 'berserk' and its connections with fly agaric. Apparently, so legend has it, the Norsemen – Vikings – went 'berserking' after they'd stoked up with a little fly agaric. On their berserking raids they, as we know, massacred, raped and pillaged their way round the British Isles (though they didn't get westwards beyond the Tamar with any great success!).

And the way they stoked up with fly agaric? Drinking reindeer piss. Yes...

On recycling urine
Roger Phillips is the author of some of the best books on wild plants, trees and mushrooms in Britain. Here's what he says about fly agaric: 'It is a strong hallucinogen and intoxicant and is used as such by the Lapps. In such cases the cap is dried and swallowed without chewing... The central nervous system is affected and the muscles of the intoxicated person start to pull and twitch convulsively, followed by dizziness and a death-like sleep. During this state the mushrooms are often vomited but nevertheless the drunkenness and stupor continue. While in this state of stupor, the person experiences vivid visions, and on waking is usually filled with elation and is physically very active. This is due to the nerves being highly stimulated, the slightest effort of will producing exaggerated physical effects, e.g. the intoxicated person will make a gigantic leap to clear the smallest obstacle. The Lapps may have picked up the habit of eating the fly agaric through observing the effects of the fungus on reindeer, which are similarly affected. Indeed, they [the reindeer] like it so much that all one has to do to round up a wandering herd is to scatter pieces of fly agaric on the ground. Another observation the Lapps made from the reindeer was that the intoxicating compounds in the fungus can be recycled by consuming the urine of an intoxicated person.'

Or, so it goes, the urine of a reindeer.

Bet you didn't know that; nor that it was the origins of 'going berserk'...

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

poetry: tracking a wild animal

Poetry is a deep current that flows beneath my whole life, enriching and informing all that I do. And it also surfaces in cycles. Poetry is transience, arriving in moments and often unexpectedly, to wake us up – tapping us on the shoulder, tearing through our chests, leaving a taste of – what? A presence? An absence?

I've been thinking and writing a lot lately, as some of you will know, about the cultural aspects of the transition from foraging to farming in the late Neolithic, so it's not surprising, I guess, that metaphors spring from that for me.

I wrote yesterday to a student that poetry, for me, is like tracking a wild animal, whereas my writing of prose is much more straightforward, more like herding a cow: I find her where I left her, and with a bit of encouragement I can move her to where I want her to be, and on the whole she's still there when I come back. Once I know how, I can milk her.

Poetry isn't at all like that.

Working as I do so much with other writers, often more newly-come to the work than I am, I realise I've come to an acceptance of How It Is with poetry: sometimes it's there, sometimes it's not.  (Must be growing up, at last; maybe I'll soon be an Elder?)

Although I miss it when it goes back into the deeper places, as it invariably does, I no longer panic that it will never surface again, that it has deserted me (though it is true that during these phases I feel perpetually thirsty, on a subtle level but in a pronounced way). 

For me, I know that there will always be times when the tide is out, or the well has been emptied, or the torrent is a trickle; but that it will refill. It always does. For me, and I tell my students this, it seems to arrive in roughly three-month cycles. When it dives under again – what is there to do but wait for the next flow-tide, tend the wells, keep life watered anyway? I can also help the process along by waiting but not turning away: by taking time out to walk, to dream; by listening to my nocturnal dreams; by reading others' poetry.

And each end-of-month I dedicate a week to the poets I work with through my online courses. I notice the way I behave with this: initially I procrastinate. I now know why I do this: it's because I tend to invest 110% of myself in everything I do, and especially in poetry, and the last year I have been burnt out from doing that. I've addressed that in other aspects of my life; but poetry, like spiritual practice, needs that whole commitment from me. On a practical level, I usually dedicate much more time to the process than I've allocated or have to spare, and it all involves all my energy.

But I also know that the process of working with other poets is, too, like tracking a wild animal: looking for spoor, sniffing the wind, not moving fast, and when I do move it needs to be accurate. Much of how I respond comes from an intuitive and emotional level, and I need to translate that into clear and rational responses that are perceptive and helpful. It's a big ask; and I completely love it.

Another bonus is that along the way I can 'justify' time out to seek out poems new and old; this in itself is exciting, and also it can kickstart my own creative process again. 

So I love the work I do with poets. Working with the assignments for the poetry course I feel immersed in the rich and hidden world of language, the way it makes silence speak. 

Searching out stuff, I have met and remet these little fragments. I hope you like them too:

Reality is there where the silence...

Reality is there where the silence
means the birth of language. 
Because before something is heard, there is noise
and before something is seen, it's created
and before there are words, there are things.
Be quiet, so you can see, hear and speak
in a slow flowering of forgetfulness.

from The Lilies Break Open Over the Dark Water

...And there you are
      on the shore,

fitful and thoughtful, trying
  to attach them to an idea –
    some news of your own life.
      But the lilies

are slippery and wild – they are
  devoid of meaning, they are
    simply doing,
      from the deepest

spurs of their being,
  what they are impelled to do
    every summer...

Mary Oliver

The flame is out, but scent and smoke remain.
Is absence presence by another name?

Robert Wilkinson 

from A Song at the Beginning of Autumn

Proust who collected time within
A child's cake would understand
The ambiguity of this  –
Summer still raging while a thin
Column of smoke stirs from the land
Proving that autumn gropes for us.

Elizabeth Jennings 

And for me, it's back to tracking the wild animals now; this time literally first, on a belated walk with She Who Wears Her Grey Matter on the Outside... 

Oh, but not before mentioning to fellow writers that you might enjoy Natalie Goldberg's new book: The True Secret of Writing. It's still hot in my hands; it arrived 30 minutes ago.

Monday, 21 October 2013

hunter-gatherer & settler part 2: the emergence of warfare

'From an ecological point of view, our downfall began when our ancestors first became pastoralists, for it was then that they began to have greater control over nature.'  (Peter Marshall)
The Neolithic era was a major revolution which enabled a mass expansion of population. Until then, humans were hunter-gatherers.

'Land needed for living is appropriated not by fences and boundaries, in the way of farmers, but by moving through it along paths. Thus a forager's territory is something to be related to and associated with, not owned, and tracks and pathways are symbolic of the process of life itself.' (G Barker, The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory, quoted by Totton.)

I can't emphasise the distinction enough.

Agriculture began first in the Fertile Crescent, in the Egyptian Nile delta and riverbanks, and along the Tigris and Euphrates in what was Mesopotamia and is now Iraq. Now food could be produced in one place, as required (given the seasons and weather), as opposed to our dependence on unreliable sources for which we might have to trek, and keep trekking, miles.

I was gobsmacked when I first learned that the forest of Dartmoor was cleared almost entirely during the Late Neolithic era (roughly 4000 to 2400 BCE in Britain), and using only hand tools such as stone axes.

Nonetheless, the first farmers doing the clearing to grow crops and raise animals continued a relationship with the animals they herded and domesticated, the land they worked, and the seasons, based on respect, and the transition was gradual, with farmers still also hunting and gathering, and the nomadic hunter-gatherers living alongside.

The transition, millennia in the coming, from nomadic hunting and gathering to agriculture, was slow.

These early megalith builders still shared certain beliefs and ideals, and also principles of co-operation with each other and nature, and community values in relation to human, other-than-human and the seasons and cycles of nature, with their nomadic predecessors. Place still held a profound quality for them, often sacred, and when they settled it was in places made special by memory and tradition, ritual and celebratory times. Astronomy was significant in orientating their megalithic ceremonial monuments. At this stage, early humans would have still had a sense of living within a complex web of inter-relationships, which also exhibited interdependence.

The Neolithic peoples, it seems, had an awareness of the sacred, and lived within its circles. 'Their thinking was fundamentally cosmological,' says Marshall. The evidence is that their worship was of the Great Goddess who, as the giver and taker of life, was basically Mother Earth. Harmony was important to them, as a study of the alignments and proportions as well as cosmic orientations of their great stone structures shows. As far as we can tell from early cave art in megalithic times, men and women were both considered important. Celestial monotheism, in the form of a Sky or Solar God, aka Yahweh, Jesus Christ or Mohammed, was as yet not established in Western Europe and Britain.

Things changed, of course. In Britain, by the Bronze Age, there was an invasion of warlike people from the East, some say the Indo-European tribes from the Eurasian Steppes.

Yesterday I spoke of my own view of capitalism as growing out of an appropriation of land and its 'assets' or 'resources', defending it, and making it produce yet more. If we put Marxist theory, or Engels' ideas, into the equation (don't worry, I'm not going to), then we have to include the idea of employing labour to do the work we're not going to do, while we take a cut of it.

But that's not where I'm going. There's another aspect of land settlement. The invaders, with their bronze weapons (as opposed to tools for working stone and hunting), and their building of new defensive structures, brought warfare.

In the palaeolithic era, up until about 10,000 BCE (around the end of the last Ice Age), a sustainable forager population of the earth was perhaps around one person per square mile (Nick Totton). (There would have been around a million people on earth at the beginning of the last Ice Age, 20,000 years ago.) I don't know the figures for the Late Neolithic, but today it's more like 130 per square mile. A settled people, with a greater population density and higher levels of human fertility (records show), need more land and need to defend what they have.

It's easy to believe that war is an integral part of human nature. The evidence shows otherwise. Jacob Bronowski says '...war, organized war, is not a human instinct. It is simply a highly planned and co-operative form of theft.' Interestingly, there is no firm evidence, from any source, to suggest that humans engaged in any form of inter-group conflict or violence before at the earliest 10,000 BCE, says Tim Wallace Murphy. In fact, 'the first recorded war of which we have any historical certainty took place between Upper and Lower Egypt about 3200 BCE. This conflict, like so many others since, was about the acquisition of land. In the hunter-gatherer societies that have survived until the twentieth century, violent and aggressive behaviour is ritualized and rarely results in serious injury. It is so-called civilized man, not the primitives, who invented and engaged in war, later refining it... to the point where the entire planet could be destroyed and all forms of life extinguished forever...'

Part of Wallace Murphy's evidence comes from the Anatolian archaeological site of Çatalhöyük. From detailed analysis of this site, which has been excavated back to the 7th millennium BCE, says W M, we see that in all the hundreds of years of its occupation that have been studied to date 'there is no evidence of any act of war; no sign of any sack or massacre; no single skeleton that discloses any indication that death was caused by an act of violence.'

And then we had the beginnings of the modern era. Peter Marshall says of the Bronze Age in Britain: '...a period of conflict and uncertainty developed. As an emblem of the age, the bronze dagger, symbol of war, replaced the stone axe, symbol of peace... During the Bronze Age, the new threat of war probably encouraged men to search for ore and to spend more time in making weapons and artefacts and in organizing defence and attack. During a long period of adjustment, a hierarchical and patriarchal society with chiefs and a warrior class began to emerge, eventually replacing the earlier nurturing, egalitarian, female-orientated community. (Alasdair W R Whittle's research.) At first prestige was no doubt invested in the mother's brothers; but when the role of the father became clearer in more monogamous relationships, the line of descent was traced through the father. By the time the Bronze Age slid into the warring Iron Age around 650 BCE, patriarchy was firmly established throughout Europe. Increased trade and material wealth encouraged a sense of private property and the right of inheritance was established: the richer and more powerful warriors passed on their wealth, prestige and power to their sons. And so it remains.
    'These changes in social organization saw a radical shift in religious ritual from the worship of the Great Goddess, associated with the moon, to male gods associated with the sun... The older 'lunar' way of thinking was an intuitive knowledge which grasped things as a whole. It was replaced by what might be called 'solar' thinking – the way of modern civilization – which operates primarily with words and concepts and breaks down the objects of knowledge. One is holistic and organic, the other is analytical and mechanical.'

So there you have it. We all thought agriculture was a good thing? And here we have capitalism, warfare, patriarchal values, monotheism, and an ever-expanding population on a planet that can't support it, all in the last three or four millennia, since the first pastoralists. And it's not too much to suggest that the roots of wholesale destruction of ecosystems and a worldview that is anthropocentric can be traced back to early farming initiatives. (And I won't even start on intensive farming methods, which might be said to be an inevitable consequence of all those things I just mentioned.)

Mind you, I haven't the faintest idea what we do about it. Even if we wished to return to nomadic ways and hunter-gathering, collectively, we no longer have the means to support ourselves in that way.

So – in my small corner, I'm focusing on restoring our relationship with each other and with the other-than-human, and the land, as a matter of extreme urgency. It's less than a drop in the ocean, but what else can we do?


Peter Marshall: Europe's Lost Civilization
Tim Wallace Murphy: Hidden Wisdom
Nick Totton: Wild Therapy

Sunday, 20 October 2013

the nomad & the settler: foraging & harvesting; the emergence of capitalism

I have this hobby-horse theory that capitalism began in the Neolithic (some of you may recognise this little gallop of mine), with the transition from the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a settled life that required annexing of land, fencing it off, calling it 'mine' and defending it. As I see it, this began our current capitalist-materialist worldview predicated on infinite growth: the multiplication of our accumulation to an ever-expanding degree.

Clearly, the flaw in that equation is that we live on a small planet with only finite reserves. More, the 'me and mine and multiplying it' bit doesn't easily lend itself to co-operation and equitable distribution, and it also leads us to separate ourselves from the 'non-us' other, whether Other is human or not. It also leads us to see the other-than-human as a 'resource', which in my view has disastrous consequences directly related to our current environmental crises.

I've long recognised in myself the twin and sometimes conflicting pulls of the nomadic and unsettled, and the thread that wants to know one place, one person, one path to its fullest extent in all its colours and seasons. My creativity ferments at the borderlands between the two, and in my life I walk that blade. It's not always easy for significant others, especially when they are naturally more settled than I usually need to be.

The shadow-side of these polarities can manifest in me as a restlessness, a resistance to thoroughgoing commitment to one thing/place/person, a 'grass-is-greener' complex on the one hand, and a kind of inertia, a staying-beyond-its-fruitful-lifespan, on the other, and has caused me not a little difficulty in my life with a rooted commitment (that is, beyond my commitment to following Soul, which, as distinct from Spirit, twists and turns and is not concerned with the linear, the spelt-out, the clearly discernible so much as the lateral, the penumbral, the imaginal; and what's more, often loses the track, to sniff it out and pick it up somewhere else, later, animal-like).

So how to honour those twin pulls is a preoccupation of mine; and in my work with others, how to aid them to recognise and value each; for each has its time, its phase, its season, its value, its gifts, in the development of the human psyche as much as in the world at large.

But right now is harvest-time, and the hunter-gatherer (well, being veggie, the gatherer rather than the hunter) in me is foraging happily at the same time as the agriculturalist in me is harvesting. The two threads come together and I am happy.

Yesterday we spent the whole day with friends and neighbours Simon (he of the steeped hedges, the field and footpath through which Dog and I often meander) and Barbara, pressing our collective and very abundant harvest of apples, which has furnished us with enough juice for the freezer to see us through several months. (By the time it occurred to me to take a photo we'd chopped, crushed and pressed about 4 hours' worth of apples, hence their absence in the photo. Note Dog, taking a keen interest.)

I loved a day of such sensual and physical work. Since I stopped being a shoemaker, by which I earned my living and supported my daughter for 14 years, my work has been largely sedentary, though I do also garden, walk, dance and do yoga. There's something extremely satisfying about growing, harvesting and preserving food that makes you feel really good all through.

And I have loved the gathering and saving of veg, and the gifting or swapping of our excess greens and beans and receiving others' excess tomatoes, squashes and courgettes. I love the settled but scattered community within which we live with its focus on the natural, the organic, the homegrown.

And the forager in me was delighted to go out today between thunder and lightning and showers with Dog and bring back pockets of sweet chestnuts big as any from mainland Europe, and handfuls of sheep sorrel leaves to add to our supper.

There are bigger, darker, questions, of course, in relation to the agriculturalist lifestyle vs the nomad, socio-politically, these days, in terms of what both mean now: agriculturally, it means intensive land use with, on the whole, massive doses of toxic chemicals, much less habitat, and poor animal welfare standards on the one hand, and on the other, to be nomadic nowadays in a time of cheap (to the pocket) global travel involves a consumption-heavy reliance on eg fossil-fuels and their polluting effects, and a fast-food-type approach to place: seen it today, off somewhere else tomorrow. These issues are beyond the scope of this blogpost, but it's important to recognise them and their effects on the planet, each other and soul.

For me, personally, on the whole the choices are easier and on the whole I feel I can meet both aspects of myself without too much contribution to the ravages of the intensive-farming industry. The settler in me works the garden, grows veg (with TM of course) and herbs for us, and flowers for bees. I work largely from home, so can restrict car use to once or twice a week (there's no public transport in our immediate area, however). I don't eat meat, dairy or fish and we live simply. I buy little that involves food miles and almost nothing that involves supermarkets: living as close to Totnes and Riverford as I do, organic local produce is plentiful when we run out. I live in a beautiful place where much that I need for body and soul is close at hand. There's little noise or light pollution, we've a huge fertile garden-field with woodland margins, and in which wildlife – badgers, foxes, rabbits, hares, deer, buzzards, owls – come and go.

The nomad in me isn't quite so well-indulged currently, but it certainly was when I was younger. I walk. To some extent I forage in the hedgerows and woods. It's true that I also travel, mainly in Britain, and/but I very rarely fly and am mindful of fossil fuels so use the train when I can for work, and hold back on going too far too often in my campervan. But also I have feet, a pushbike, a rucksack, a tent – such riches!; and my mind, of course, is not restricted to one small patch of fertile and fenced ground, no matter how beautiful and seductive... and neither are my imagination or my dreams.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

seals at Sennen

Yesterday, my grin became a permanent fixture. We spotted a whole family of seals here at Sennen, maybe ten of them, plus a truly massive bull seal, playing around in the shallows for hours. However, that was just after my camera batteries ran out. So, rather like the beaver/otter at Huelgoat, you won't see them. Sorry. (Though actually somewhere above those rocks underwater in the shallows is one mega male seal.)

And, just in case it seems like I've done nothing for the past few weeks except swan around in stunningly beautiful places, I'd like to say – that's right. Though there has occasionally been a little work thrown in; and today Jenny and I are really truly going to be starting that poetry-and-printmaking project we've been speaking of for three or four years, down at Marazion Marshes, by the causeway to St Michael's Mount.

Oh, it's a hard life...

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

what am I meditating for?

I subscribe to daily quotes from 'Tricycle Daily Dharma'. This helps open up a small space in my day, especially since they arrive first thing, and I read one therefore before getting involved in my work emails.

Today's is: 'You may read that meditation enables you to tame your mind and bring it to a state of stability and peace. Despite meditating as a Buddhist for more than 40 years, I have not achieved even a glimpse of this, nor have I ever seen anyone else achieve it. Admittedly, I am not much of a practitioner, but there may also be a more general reason why this is so.' (Douglas Penick, 'What Are You Meditating For?')

This bold statement made me smile, for its honesty, its courage, its straightforwardness. And – oh yes – I recognised it. Hooray! Phew. And there was I thinking I was the only failed meditator in the world – or at least, I might do if I didn't recognise three things.

One is that 'failure' and 'success' are ultimately delusions of the ego (and/or the culture), and relatively meaningless evaluations on a spiritual path.

Two, that the only way I could 'fail', if I wanted to use that word to beat myself up and judge myself, is by not showing up to meditate, had I made it my committed practice to do so.

And three, there is nowhere to get to, nothing to achieve – the practice, the process, itself is what I'm showing up for.

To look again at Penick's statement gave me a sense of relief. And yes, I'd echo to a large extent what he says. And right now I've barely meditated for nearly six weeks – by the standards of my commitment to myself, I'm not doing too well.

I've been thinking about why we meditate again lately, as a dear friend is undergoing training in Zazen, that most difficult of meditation trainings, and she writes to me of four sitting sessions of thirty minutes each, broken by five minutes' walking meditation, with eyes (I imagine from my own training) only half-closed and a whitewashed wall in front of her. (I'm afraid that too is the point, B, the white wall – one's eyes resting on green leafery outside would be considered too distracting for the naturally-wandering mind – that is, all of our naturally wandering minds.)

Forty years on from my own Zazen training, I have some hesitations about its usefulness to the Western mind, and its harsh 'masculine' emphasis (though in my sangha they didn't actually hit us on the shoulders if we dozed, unlike the usual depiction of Zen meditation).

Nonetheless, as a method of training the mind to cut through distraction to the clear bell-like heart of everything, I think it's unsurpassed; and although a gentler way in to meditation is to focus on something else, like a candle or flower, an image or mantram, I can see the usefulness of not substituting another, albeit 'higher' and single-pointed, focus to distract monkey-mind from itself, but instead cutting through to beyond the point where thought arises altogether.

Does one ever manage that? Yes, in moments. What, stability and peace? – Well, the latter for a little while – by which I mean moments, but better than nothing, surely? – anyway. Does one manage to inhabit that place as a steady state? Of course not. The world always crowds in.

So why do I meditate?

For the discipline.

For the effort and concentration.

For keeping my crazy erratic mind – I think we all suffer from ADHD in the Western world, with its continual media/communication bombardment – and its over-fertile imagination in one place, single-mindedly, for a short while (or attempting to).

For watching and learning about the many ways I delude myself, distract myself, desire what I can't have, dislike what I do have, judge myself, want to be 'there' when actually I'm 'here'. In other words, noting the many ways in which I cause myself to suffer needlessly – and obviously noticing, too, the ways in which I cause suffering to others.

For opening up moments as broad, as infinite, as the sky, or the sea.

For allowing what's really important to rise to the surface.

For seeing into the still and flaming heart of it all.

For moving beyond the ridiculous inner monologue and its trivia, even if only for moments.

For slipping the grip of ego and its insistence on 'I', 'me' and 'mine'.

For the fact that I can at least drop more easily into 'that place' of calmness, even if only for a few moments, in my general daily life, when I'm in the habit of meditating.

For psychological health.

For noticing the insubstantial values and patterns our materialistic culture embeds in us, and for challenging those.

For the sake of noticing transience, and that one day I won't be here. How precious that makes it all, in every moment.

And, actually, because it makes me a slightly kinder person – one who can, at times, stop the unkind word at its arising; can look into the heart of anger rather than simply acting it out; resist hitting out blindly (not least because I'm hitting out at self when hitting out at other).

For finding a stillpoint from which to dance.

Because I can remember more readily that we really are all one.

Monday, 14 October 2013


It's surprising how fast you get used to something. All summer I've been aware of two young tawny owls hooting to each other across the valley just before dusk. It's lifted my heart, without fail. I didn't notice, though, that it was just one recently; I did notice, however, when the valley was silent for two late afternoons running; and then, beneath the ash trees in Simon's avenue, I found a dead tawny the second evening. I've no idea how he or she died: no mark; healthy-looking; fully-grown, I think, but young.

There had been shooting in a field above, but I doubt whether the guy concerned would have shot an owl and I couldn't in any case see a wound. 'Flew into a tree?' suggested TM; and I guess that's as good an explanation as any.

TM then told me about a real-life video clip he was shown on a course recently: a wide African plain, nothing as far as the eye could see in any direction, except one tree beneath which two lions were dozing. Into the frame bounded some kind of antelope. There were so many opportunities to avoid it – in fact it would have been hard not to avoid it – but the antelope bounded right into the tree trunk, and rebounded off it. ?? (The clip didn't show whether the antelope got away with it, by the way.)

I think there's a metaphor here. 

Anyway, I feel a small grief every single evening at the absence of owl-call. Another rip in the fabric of things.

On a brighter note, here is part of our bean harvest:

Our field beans – or are they pea beans? – have been a success the last 2 or 3 years running. Like the French beans that we grew this year, Cobra, they're hardy and prolific (unlike the cannellini, borlotti all bar one plant, flageolet and Neckarkonig, none of which survived). So last night we picked, podded and froze some winter supplies. They're full of protein, substantial mealy additions to casseroles and soups, and generally A Good Thing for vegans.

I opened up Matthew's polytunnel for him in the morning, and my reward was a big bag of huge tomatoes, which without a greenhouse or polytunnel we can't grow here without their rotting. I peeled and roasted them in olive oil, garlic and herbs, and then added them to a casserole of our garden produce – very satisfying.

The herb garden is still flowering – the odd bumblebee appreciating the blue borage flowers, the snapdragons and marigolds.

And I've succumbed to the robin visiting the courtyard again and put out the birdfeeders as of yesterday. Because you have to clean them to help avoid bird disease, I washed them in pure soap and hot water, with drops of essential oils of rosemary and lemon myrtle as anti-bacterials instead of a chemical one (if like me you use one of the green laundry liquids or powders, and are as frustrated as I get by the lack of 'clean' smell on a 30-degree wash, a few drops of lemon myrtle in the fabric conditioner drawer make a difference).

It takes roughly an hour before the tits and finches find the feeders each autumn. The woodpeckers take a day or two.

And I notice that a wren has made her home right next to the plaster Green Man mask above my garden-study barn door. More on this magical creature another time.

The winter wood's in. We'll be pressing the apples next weekend and freezing the juice. The pumpkins and sweetcorn are nearly ready. Samhain is coming – excuse for a harvest party, perhaps.

Oh and yes, we do definitely have badgers in the field. Joy. And over my dead body, as they say, will 'they' do anything to them.

Sunday, 13 October 2013


Under the vaulted ash trees the rain's
bare drizzle now beads in the cold
feathers of the valley's chorister
and how I miss your evensong, owl

Friday, 11 October 2013

back on the badger trail

OK back on the badger trail. 
Natural England is responsible for issuing licences to those who are shooting badgers. They are considering extending the just-finishing pilot cull, since it has not been deemed to have achieved its targets. 
If you live in England (or even if you don't, I guess) PLEASE PLEASE take a moment to email NE; address below – do use bits of my letter, below, for speed should you wish to (but obviously edit out the personal-to-me bits).
The below is self-explanatory.

Like most of the English population, I’m very distressed at the mishandling of the bTB issue. I fear another fiasco like the foot and mouth crisis (which incidentally I documented, and it has come out in book form), but this time perpetrated on a wild species which is not the proven source of bTB in any case.

We also know – you must know this – that the science doesn’t stack up (I read the preliminary report by Lord Krebs after the 9-year research programme). You will of course be familiar with the guidelines which the cull currently hasn’t met and does not meet, as detailed in the Badger Trust’s recent letter to you.

DEFRA/NFU appear to continue to move the goalposts to achieve a target which will not, in any case, fulfill any purpose, since the badger carcases are not being tested for bTB, and the situation is breaking down with predictably horrible consequences.

In addition to the ‘legal’ shooting (which has broken its boundaries and its initial stated intentions in that free-shooting has become cage-trapping and shooting, and it is clear that it is neither a) humane, nor b) being used to test the initial premise anyway – that is, that badgers are infecting cattle with bTB, which would only be assessable by testing the badger carcases), the whole thing has unleashed an ‘open season’ on badgers generally with reports of gassing, poisoning, slurry-filling of setts, and badger bodies being dumped in rivers etc.

What are you doing, other than alienating such a high percentage of the population and killing an iconic species, in issuing licences with a view to an extension?

There are volunteers trained to vaccinate badgers; it won’t cost the tax-payer anything like the bodged cull, and is likely to prove more effective in the long run – along, of course, with measures like the currently unjustifiably high levels of cull costs (£3000 PER BADGER, including police costs??) being diverted to animal husbandry issues.

PLEASE reconsider your position, which simply doesn’t appear to hold water, quite apart from the issues of blind cruelty and bigotry this seems to be sponsoring.


Roselle Angwin

Thursday, 10 October 2013


So if you look carefully, you won't see an otter. Nor a beaver. That's because even as I lifted my camera to take this scene in beautiful Brittany, I completely missed the fact that what I had assumed was a branch, motionless, a yard or two from my feet, was in fact a furry thing, relaxed and laidback. Just after I took the photo, TM said 'That's a beaver!' – and so astonished was I to see said furry thing paddle lazily away from us and into a little backwater that I didn't even manage to raise the camera to my eyes. 'It can't be,' I said; 'it must be an otter – do you get beavers in France?' – even as I registered my own confusion at what did indeed look chunkier and thicker-set than an otter. Well, so maybe it was a beaver.

What I love about this place is that it's like a larger wilder Dartmoor: less populated, enchanted, foresty, a little bit further south, and granite: forged in fire, conductive of electricity – piezo-electric in its quartziness, radioactive in its fissures, enduring. That matters – I'm a granite person, coming from the far West of Cornwall as my family has forever, living myself on or near granite Dartmoor for the last 30 years. And the culture in Brittany is my own culture; the Brythonic language one I can sort-of pick my way through, at least in terms of place-names (Cornish, Welsh and Breton are all Brythonic Celtic tongues and very similar; quite different from the Scots and Irish Gaelic/Goedelic languages, though we do have words in common with Goedelic). And I love that this bit, above, where we're based in the campervan, is called the Gorge du Chaos.

What TM likes is the beech woods:

Luckily, beechwoods (and oak- and chestnut-) and granite coincide here.

And having the van is a dream. Mostly.

Friday night/Saturday morning were a little stressy: I got home late on Friday with my next-day all-day workshop not completely prepped, and bits of house (the visible bits) to clean for the group.

Something made me decide to see if the van would start. I'd never had a problem with it, but – well, call it an instinct. I put the key in the ignition and – nothing. Not even a small dashboard light. New battery two weeks ago. Nothing left on in the van. Battery charger given away to my daughter a few years ago, once I'd been lucky enough as to acquire a reliable car. Nothing I could do that late at night.

But we were due to catch the night ferry to Brittany an hour or two after the workshop had finished the next day. We're a distance from a garage, and anyway my garage only has skeleton staff on a Saturday morning.

All that meant that a box on the doorstep, which turned out to be my author copies of my new book, out early, and a cause for celebration, I passed by in a haze of anxiety.

Anyway, problem solved: my wonderful Co-op bank account comes with built-in car breakdown cover (as well as for European travel), and at 7.30 the next morning the RAC man got the van going, though since we didn't know why the battery'd gone flat I didn't feel confident that it would start on the ferry, off the ferry, in the woods or anywhere else. But it did; and we parked up here in the woods, and then, later, back near Aber Wrac'h, 'Witches' River' or 'Witches' Waters', in Finisterre, on the beautiful peninsula of Les Dunes de Ste Marguerite, we were able to sleep to the sound of the sea on three sides.

And I was able to exorcise some poignant memories of a different life: a story in which I was about to be married for a second time, to someone I was very much in love with, and the house we found here, almost in dream, almost magically, in Brittany, and the yellow periwinkles my nine-year-old daughter and her friend collected here on this beach for a necklace for me, and how suddenly all that came to an end. But all that's a long, and different, story.

And I haven't been back in 25 years; and I'm so glad I now have. And see how some beauty doesn't ever fade with time...

Thursday, 3 October 2013

national poetry day

Today is National Poetry day in the UK.

I'm posting here a little quatrain. It's cheating on at least one count, and maybe two: it's not really about water, the theme of this year's NPD; and those of you with sharp eyes or a bigger font on your computer might also notice that I posted it yesterday in a different form and context. Bit short on time today: got to water the dog, walk the plants, clean the house ready for a workshop (the only time I do), prepare said workshop, attend a meeting, prepare the next Fire in the Head newsletter, fix dates for the latter first, make some bread and a thousand excuses for why I'm not writing a longer newer poem (this one's at least two days' old and aspiring to grow up).

But anyway, here it is:

Here at the ocean’s edge where all our stories meet
And day and night dissolve, and sea and sky
Are breath condensed on breath
And opposites are resolved.

 © Roselle Angwin

 My prescription for you today: read at least one poem (in addition to my fragment). You can find some wonderful poets on the American Poetry Foundation website: 

Watery greetings to you all.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

images of the soul: the branscombe day

With my friend sculptor and artist Michael Fairfax I've done many collaborations out in the landscape over the last 13 years, notably as part of the Genius Loci group for the Year of the Artist at Hestercombe Gardens in Somerset, and then at the Cotswold Water Park in Wiltshire. A couple of years ago we led a workshop together on the coast at Branscombe Mouth in East Devon – I led the morning writing session and Michael the afternoon land art workshop. It was very creative and a lot of fun.

We're offering it again this month, for any of you who are local-ish. This time we're focusing on the idea of the medicine wheel and the mandala as symbols of the soul. 

I'm looking forward to it – Michael and I work well together and it's a very beautiful place. 

Here are some details for you:

with writer Roselle Angwin and artist Michael Fairfax
Sunday 20 October 2013, 10am – 4pm

A day for exploring the edges where we meet with self and other, inner and outer, at the beautiful Branscombe Mouth, in the spirit of creativity, mindfulness and play. 

Cost £40 in advance

We'll meet at 9.45am at the village hall car park (NB NOT at Branscombe Mouth itself).  Numbers are limited. 
Please contact me, Roselle, by email (you can find that on my blog here or on my website) for how to pay and please also give me contact details, including mobile, when you do.

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