from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Monday, 24 April 2017

all our relations

I'm exhausted: two back-to-back intensive retreat weeks on the Isle of Iona, 630 miles' drive back home in a day, then hitting the ground at a gallop to try and scoop up all the undone and very overdue work immediately. In the last 12 days I've had little sleep. This means that the last thing I feel like on a Bank Holiday Monday, after just one day off, is another workshop.

But as soon as the 15 participants arrive and join the circle of chairs in our sunny and currently-unusually-neat courtyard, everything changes. I'm alert, excited, and delighted to be offering, once again, the work about which I'm so passionate: finding a way that words might help us explore, re-vision and express the experience of our connectedness with – well, All That Is.

And we begin with the silence of the singing bowl, and then a gentle attention to the many ways in which the world insinuates itself into our beings through the senses.

Immediately I drop into a calm, still, wakeful place from which I can give my best.

It's at this point that the tamest of the four local robins, who's been perching in the hydrangea immediately behind my head, skims my shoulder and lands on the boot of one of the participants. This seems to settle an extra grace on our work.

'All Our Relations' is an outdoor workshop; my favourite kind. I'm offering it to celebrate 10 years of Transition Town Totnes (the TT movement began here).

TM and I are fortunate enough as to be custodians to 2 acres of meadow, apple orchard, deciduous woodland and a big veg garden, plus some little herb and soft fruit beds (I say 'fortunate', but much of this is down to his building and planting before I arrived in his life).

Today, I'm guiding these people in a deepening of their felt and imaginal experience of the land and the rest of the natural world in this secluded spot, where buzzards tilt, hare leap, roe deer graze, a fox appears from time to time, and nuthatches and sometimes woodpeckers come to my call at the feeders.

When I originally conceived this workshop, I'd hoped that these creatures might also figure. It didn't take long, though, to realise that none of them was likely to remain still enough as to be observed and met at length. So – trees. Trees are very much in my consciousness; more particularly at the moment when the book I've been working on focuses on forest.

Trees love to be met, and encourage a kind of deep-time experience. And so, with various promptings from me, the participants meet and create relationship with one particular tree on 'our' land: the knobby oak shading the courtyard; the big holly intertwined with other species growing from an ancient Devon bank up by the holloway; a spindle; an ash; a sweet chestnut and a horse chestnut; bird cherries; and the apples, just now breaking into a foam of blossom. Then they write to and for 'their tree'.

It's beautiful for me to gently stroll around and see people in various positions: back against, bare feet upon, arms around the various trees who had, they felt, chosen them; to feel the deep repose and quiet. (Yes, OK, tree-huggers. There are worse things.)

An hour, it appeared, was far too short to be in silent conversation with a tree. A day would be better. That's good to know, as I'm planning my TONGUES IN TREES course in Brittany this autumn right now.

And then we made our contribution of words via an interwoven long poem created from everyone's lines to the 'Earth Stories' evening of Transition Town Totnes celebration on Friday last; a moving and rich time of spoken words, poetry and story, songs of wild geese and salmon, offerings made to the fire-candle altar of writings on leaves, and a final very beautiful round of 4-part chanting on Chief Seattle's 'the earth does not belong to us; we belong to the earth'.


The courtyard's thick with birdsong. Over across the brook, hillsides blaze with gorse. The lanes now are almost at their cusp of fullness. We've the deep mauve of dog violet, periwinkle and early purple orchid; the ultraviolet of bluebells; dark pink and pale pink campion; white wild strawberry flowers, the stitchworts, Queen Anne's lace, jack-by-the-hedge and wild garlic in abundance; and of course the gold embroiderers: dandelion and buttercup, against the buttermilk of primroses.

Since February wild garlic has loomed large in our cooking, accompanying the last of our leeks in various dishes, added to salads with our rocket, chopped into leek, potato and nettle soup.
So here's a vegan sort-of pesto sauce for you:

1 large handful of wild garlic leaves, washed well
Half that amount of rocket
1 handful of nettle tips, picked young, stripped from the stalk and wilted for 1-2 minutes in boiling water
Whizz up together with a generous gloop of olive oil and a couple of tablespoons of pine nuts.
I added the juice from one lemon; or to taste
If you can find it, 3 tbsps of Coyo – vegan yoghurt made from coconuts – completely transforms this.

Pour onto hot or cold vegetables, or stir into pasta; dip fresh warm bread into it. 

Friday, 14 April 2017

word temple

Just back from the Isle of Iona and my two weeklong retreats, I find I have no words as yet for the profundity of the experience. Instead, I want to write a few words on poetry that I'd intended to post before I left.

I should say that I'm in a poetry-trough at the moment – not as in 'feeding like a pig' but as in the lull between two big waves. It's been two years since my own poetry-well was really brimming, and as long since I was deeply inspired, except once or twice, by new poetry that I've read.

I expect it mostly says something about me and my own processes: perhaps I'm simply worded-out for the moment, although my Forest book – when I get the time to work on it – is moving ahead well; just not so much poetry.

I also have a sneaking feeling, however, that after a lifelong immersion in poetry, and many years of teaching it, what I'm increasingly looking for is that left-field surprise: poems that set me aflame, that enliven and catapult or seduce me into new ways of seeing and being; and frankly there aren't that many of those. This of course doesn't mean that there isn't plenty of good poetry – there is; and it might simply suggest that the romance of discovering new poets and ways of making words sing together is, like romantic love, a phase, and that I'm well settled into the quotidian experience of co-habiting with poetry.

What triggered the thoughts below was a comment from someone about the heartfelt and 'true' but nonetheless safe and predictable poems I had tended towards posting in my LOST SPECIES series.

Well, the focus was on the subject matter, and I wasn't looking for tricksy self-important poems but ones that conveyed the urgency of the issues raised. 

To which, of course, an answer might be that a poem can do both: speak of important things and make us see anew through the art of its making.

Anyway, these are the scribbles I'd made a few weeks ago in seconds, just retrieved from the back of an envelope in the recycling box under my desk:

Chase Twichell said that poetry is not about cleaning the windows but about breaking the glass.

Poetry is arguably offering a threshold from feeling to meaning.

Poetry's job is to wake us up.

Poetry is perhaps the closest words get to profound silence.

Some say the Chinese word for poetry is made from the characters for 'word' and 'temple' (others say it's 'word' and, variously, pile/heap/ritual/feet/beat/aspiration/eunuch/song).

A poem needs to set up a fizz on the tongue like sherbet.

It needs to be a lightning bolt.

It needs to change us, no matter how slightly.

It needs to set up collisions and resonances that carry on ringing.

It needs to be the gap that is a lost filling that your tongue probes over and over.

It needs to be that thing you find under a stone that needs to be kissed before its truth can be revealed.

It needs to be one of those Chinese paper water flowers.

It needs to be that 7th sister of the Pleaides that you only see by looking away.

It needs to balance on the cliff of the heart.

A poem needs to set up in the mind a stormcloud of questions, then it needs to run away into the rain before you've quite grasped it.

A poem needs to be a new land.

Other than that, it's simple: 'the best words in the best order'...

Monday, 3 April 2017

storms, leaky tents and foraging in february

I’m in that cosy potentially-creative place between having waved off the first group of my ISLANDS OF THE HEART retreatants on the Isle of Iona (earlier than intended for some of them, as the ferry crossings from the mainland have been on amber alert for 48 hours), but (most of) the second have yet to arrive – weather and ferries permitting. I’ve had two whole days to write, and yesterday I carried on redrafting my Forest book, sadly neglected this year.

My room is snug from the hotel's air-source heatpump, there’s a new dressing table that serves as a writing desk, and rain and wind are whipping the Sound into a grey-green frenzy. The oystercatchers, gannets and gulls have all disappeared, apart from one lone gull cruising very close to shore below me. Rain is chucking itself at the window and I don’t feel much of my usual compulsion to get out into it, for once. All boats bar the small dinghies that are their tenders have been taken to the Bull Hole, behind the Island of Women, for safety.

In the lounge below me a child is picking out chopsticks on one finger on the piano.

Today was to be another writing day. A publisher has reminded me that she’d like to look at a(n) ms of my Iona poems, written over 18 years now but uncollected. You don’t get that kind of offer every day.

It’s actually turned out to be an eating day, so far. Lunchtime, and I have a double burden of guilt. (Triple, in fact, as I spent much of the morning both eating and drinking, and being distracted by emails, facebook, twitter in addition to not writing.)

I’m going to blame it on Dan Boothby’s book on Gavin Maxwell’s lighthouse island – you remember Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water? – Island of Dreams. It’s absorbing, and a very good method of procrastination. 

In it, Boothby speaks of his time hitching north into the wild places with no money, no food, no shops, and a shaky tent in precarious Scottish weather. Oh, I used to find that so exciting! (Not any more, though; the idea of starving in a leaky tent, or under a mere tarp, in a midgey place with no prospect of food or dryness and no money to find either is no longer romantic for me. I must be growing up. I’m enjoying my snug room here with the weather on the outside, not inside, of my sleeping place.)

It’s reminded me of a time when my then-boyfriend and I decided we were going to take a break from university and hitch to a forest in Scotland and live off the land for three weeks. In February. The plan was to forage and tickle trout, though neither of us knew anything about the habits of trout, and as it turned out of course there was very little of anything to forage that time of year other than pine needles.

I have a photo somewhere. S has long hair. Me too, and I’m wearing an Afghan coat (remember those?), green boots and a long skirt that was more patch than skirt (I actually wore it, along with barefeet and green hair – this is back in the  mid-70s – to my interview for Cambridge a year before in the hopes they’d turn me down as my previous boyfriend and I were embarked on a project to live à quatre on a Hebridean island being self-sufficient; to which end I’d been learning plant-dyeing, spinning, weaving, knitting, pottery and drystone wall building, as well as herbal lore and animal husbandry including milking and making butter and cheese. He’d said if I got in and went to Cambridge we’d split up. I did and we did.)

In the photo S and I both have small rucksacks and I’m carrying slung over my shoulder what turned out to be an extremely insufficient sleeping bag which I’d bought for a fiver in the local Army & Navy store. (The first thing I bought with my next grant – those were the days – was a very good sleeping bag as part of my running-away kit. It lasted, the sleeping bag, about 20 years.) Instead of a tent, we had a decorators' plastic sheet as a tarp. Practical, I was, as you can see.

We allowed ourselves to take along a bag of oatmeal and a few oranges and many books. I lasted about 3 days before cracking, and talked S into coming with me on a very long hike to find a shop, where the chocolate we bought with some of the few coins we had tasted so good.

Anyway, here I am snug, well fed – too well fed today – and er honestly about to start collating all those many poems. And ‘they’ tell me the weather is due to improve in time for the second group to arrive tomorrow.

Friday, 31 March 2017

IONA: even the rain

It’s barely light, there’s a small squall in the Sound, and the wind rips the gulls’ keenings past my window as I lie in bed with the curtains open on the tin-sheen of the dawn, watching the way – so close – breaking daylight plays the fractured tips of the waves.

I’m in love already with it all, once again as every day, even the rain.

This is the best kind of day: watching Neil, next-generation islander still at school when I led my first retreat here, steer his little top-heavy one-man crabber with its mast-lights out to the stormy sea, knowing that I don’t have to.

Of course there is an edge to my pleasure: the sea is always more powerful than us, and young men have died, not so long ago, in this Sound. Plus he’s bringing in crab and lobster to be boiled alive before being eaten by humans – something in which I’ve chosen not to participate myself. But my ancestors were seafarers, fishermen (and lifeboatmen) among them, and there’s always a frisson that spells excitement and danger mixed in me at seeing this tradition continued, pleasure that there are still small family working boats, sometimes single-handed, in a time of factory farming and factory fishing. And it’s local, and fresh, food, harvested in the face of danger.

And I can lie here warm, safe, listening to the ocean’s restlessness, noting an island thrush proclaiming Iona home.

Then to get up and write. And how to write of the tenderness I feel towards these twelve people so willing to trust all they are to the work we do together, to feel their way back to belonging in their own boots, in their own hearts, with each other, in this whole vast web?

And I think again what a fine and delicate act we perform, highwire we tread, when we learn at last to give responsibility for our own life to nothing and no-one else, while remembering the most important lesson: we are made of all this; we are part of all that is; everything has a place; everything counts; everything matters, yes, including us.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Lost Species 27: Gerald McEachern

At last, and from my time away on a little Atlantic speck-of-dust sacred island, here’s another post in my Lost Species series.

People have found the poems I’ve posted here both beautiful and moving, I think almost without exception, and I have also been accused of posting ‘safe’ poems, and it is true that there have been few poetic risk-takers among the fine poems contributed.

Truth is, I wasn’t looking for cleverness and postmodern fractured narratives – except inasmuch as the whole narrative is fractured now – or anything that would draw attention away from the subject matter; I wanted the poems to be crafted but not obtrusive; backgrounding the subject, if you like. Of course, that doesn’t mean the poems shouldn’t also wake us up, which was rather the point of my series.

This one breaks the mould, as they say, and upturns the usual take on extinction of species. I’ll leave it with you, except to say I’m glad to include something that you may have to read twice to catch the drift of its irony.

Thank you, Gerald McEachern, for shaking up a certain poetic complacency in me.

A long nap on the sea bed

We are Atlantis, eighty meters under the sea,
every tax return, every dish, every scribbled thought lost
for ever. We perish as we live, full of ourselves.
The methane is blooming and the coral reefs are dying.
The messenger tells me we’re off to Jurassic Park,
leaving all of this behind us at a rate of two hundred
species a day, but some say it’s less than one a day. OK…

So today, forty school teachers, nine doctors and nurses,
six law enforcement professionals, nine pastors and priests
and three foster parents were arrested—along with two
hundred and eighty-one others in a Canadian child
porn bust. And the cop who shot a woman in the head
eight times—for no good reason—just died of brain cancer.
There’s something for everyone under the sea.

© Gerald McEachern

Gerald McEachern is Canadian. His view is that 'truth, poetic or otherwise, is caught in peripheral vision, at the very edges of what we can see, not from that on which we're directly focussed. Specifically with respect to this poem, the problem, species loss, is not what it seems; the problem is us and what's lost within us as a species.'

Monday, 27 March 2017

into blue silence on this little Atlantic island

... how to write about this place which has lit my life for so many years? How to speak of the clear blue days, the silkiness of the sea, the white shellsand beaches where it's warm enough to lie (fully-clothed), the inspiration of this ancient sacred Isle of Iona made of some of the oldest rock in the world (Lewissian gneiss is, I believe I'm right in saying, 29 billion years old)?

How to add something new to the hundreds of thousands of rapturous words I've written about it, the hundreds of poems, the many many photographs?

How to place this in the world context of so much human-made pain, destruction, cruelty, despair and outrageous happenings, as if one small jewel of a place and the hearts it inspires is enough to offset it all? And – what else can we do other than celebrate these small moments and the people united by them?

How to speak of the pod of dolphins leaping and spinning in the Sound yesterday on the evening tide in a pearly dusk? How to write newly about the seal who tracked the strait in time with my footsteps on the strand?

How to write of the hundreds of wild geese who lift off from the meadows and circle our heads? And the way that one white-tailed sea eagle balanced on blue air blew a space in my chest I didn't recognise, stopped me in my mad flight at a most unholy speed to catch the last ferry to the island after a 600 mile drive last Friday?

And how to speak of the people who bring their laughter, tears, creativity and depth of humanness year after year to join me here, a temporary community creating a web of interwoven lives and the writing that springs from this, both of which remain as a felt experience for us all long after we've left the island and gone back to our habitual lives?

Answer: I can't. So here's the first poem – I think – I ever wrote about the island, maybe 18 years ago when I started this course, and some photos from this last weekend:

Iona: The Glass-Blue Day

The way sky inhabits the creases
smears colour that steals your breath

The sand so pale it might be grains of light

The big Hebridean night that opens its arms
and drops its creel of stars

towards our upturned faces

© Roselle Angwin

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Lost Species poem 26: Sally Douglas

When I was a child, Przewalski's horse, the successor or even continuation, I think, of the prehistoric horse, in my Observer book of horse breeds used to fascinate me. (What I didn't know then was that not long after I first saw its pictures it became extinct in the wild.)

So I was delighted to receive this poem from Devon poet Sally Douglas:


(Przewalski's Horse)

I wanted to follow the paths of the Yellow Horse.
For he was born in the night
and in the morning was ready to run.
For with his father’s teeth at his tail
he could run forever.
So I placed a single fingertip
in the well-trodden furrows
that led from feeding ground to sleep,
and the bone grew wide and round. 

I wanted to follow the paths of the Yellow Horse.
For his shadows are on the cave wall.
For he can hear the quiet stars.
So with my hard wide fingertip
I dug through ancient laminations of snow.

I wanted to follow the Yellow Horse.
With all that was left – my single fingertip –
I traced the map of his tracks.
But could not feel.

© Sally Douglas

(From Candling the Eggs, Cinnamon Press, 2011)

Sally says: Przewalski's horse, or the Dzungarian horse, is a rare and endangered wild horse native to the steppes of central Asia. It was, from the late 1960s, extinct in the wild, but after a captive breeding programme it has been re-introduced into its natural habitat. There is now believed to be a population of about three hundred horses in Mongolia. A group was also introduced into the Chernobyl exclusion zone in 1998, and is thought to be increasing in size.

Przewalski's horse has never been domesticated and remains the only true wild horse in the world today. 

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

restoring soul to the wasteland: the holy wells

Sancreed holy well – as you descend the steps you can see phosphorescence
Tomorrow is the next session of my year-long WELLKEEPERS course in Cornwall.

The sacred springs, the holy wells, of our land have long preoccupied me. (I see I’ve blogged about them several times during the years I’ve written this blog, too; you can see a post from January 2011 here.)

I suppose I’d have to come out and say wells have been a part of my inner life since my dad took us to see the ones in West Cornwall when we were young. (
As a mother myself later, I passed this on by taking my young daughter to various of them, including our frequent visits to the red and white springs at Glastonbury at the heart of Albion, as a kind of pilgrimage.)

Of course, as a child I didn’t properly understand the significance of them; I knew they were places where people used to go to draw water, or ask to be healed. But even then, they set up a profound resonance in my psyche.

In my late teens, having learned to drive, my then-boyfriend and I plotted all the wells we could find on large scale maps of Exmoor, Dartmoor and Cornwall, and drove each weekend to visit some. I think it was about then that I also started to clear some of them, the deeply-neglected ones, out, physically, as personal inner practice.

I already knew it was a symbolic gesture as well as a physical one, but my thinking on it wasn’t clear.

It wasn’t until I read the various versions of what later became known as the Grail corpus in their original languages of Middle Welsh and Mediaeval French at Cambridge when I was 20 that I started to really understand the impetus. I already knew the stories, along with the Welsh Mabinogion which preserves older versions of some of these tales, from my childhood, growing up in a deeply Celtic family.

Ten years later, partway through my training in Transpersonal counselling, rooted in Jungian and archetypal psychology, I had a personal revelation – two, in fact – in relation to the Grail legends that turned my life around, and out of which all my further work would grow and continues to grow. Everything came into focus at that time for me.

I’ve written of this in my first book Riding the Dragon – myth & the inner journey, so won’t repeat it all here.

That book was commissioned by the then leading mind body spirit publishing house, Element Books, in 1993. 

The book came out of some workshops I began leading in 1991 on ‘Myth as Metaphor’. I’ve never known quite what umbrella term to use for them; I used to refer to them as Personal Mythology workshops (this was a label used by some people working in a similar field, though in a different way, in the States), or the Psychology of Myth. Later on, it seemed they would almost fit the title of ‘narrative therapy’, also from the States (but in my case with a psychospiritual element and with a wider brief than the health of the individual alone; although of course a healthy individual will be contributing that health to the whole).*

The model I was using in those days was Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’. I retitled it ‘The Heroic Quest’ and adapted it for an equal focus on the differing needs of the feminine principle, so incorporating other myths and also ideas drawn from symbolic systems such as the Tarot, and Jungian-based astrological psychology, both of which I’d studied.

 In the intervening years, I've revisioned it a few times.

I’ve led many workshops in the decades since on different aspects of myth and the psyche, and how it informs the way we live, but they all had the same theme at core. 

Basically, I was and am still trying to draw attention to the fact that, in my belief, the planetary state of our land and waters was – is – at least in the Western world a direct result and reflection of a gross neglect, violation of, the needs of the ‘lost feminine’ in our culture, and therefore of course in our collective psyche/s (for they are so utterly interwoven). 

Some, including Jung and various Jungians, and myself, too, call this principle ‘soul’, or anima, which has long been associated with the feminine principle in the psyche (whichever outward gender we identify with, each of us has that psychological transsexual component; this is really important to understand).

Simplistically speaking, the characteristics of ‘soul’, as opposed to what has long been identified with ‘spirit’/the masculine principle, are the complementary ones to the latter’s valuing of the qualities of the rational mind, logic, goals and objectives, achievements, light, height, the macro and abstract, ‘straight line thinking’ etc (remember I’m not talking about men but about a mode of being in the world).

The feminine principle demonstrates rather navigating by intuition, imagination, feelings, the subconscious realm, darkness, moistness, depth, circuitousness, the micro and particular, being rather than doing. The irrational, in this way of being, is not something to be avoided or feared. 

While I’m speaking in stereotypes here, this is a hugely important concept that lies beneath, I think, much binary thinking as well as suppression, shadow projection, and hate. 

For me, a key question to changing the future, even the world, is can we move forward through thinking in terms of ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’?

Those early workshops of mine were rooted in the myths, the ‘big’ myths, that have shaped significant aspects of European and our collective psyche/s.

For a little while, around the time that the collection of stories now known in their more sophisticated forms as the Grail legends were being carried by troubadours, minnesingers and bards around the courts of Europe, the feminine principle was brought up from its long oppression back into the light. (Remember that the place of women, from the warrior-cult Bronze Age onwards at the least, until the early centuries of the last millennium, and afterwards, too, was only and firmly in the home, and that they – we – were basically tools to be bartered for land, status, goods, etcetera. We’re still not out of the Dark Ages in many parts of the world, including the so-called developed world, in relation to this.) 

We have Eleanor of Aquitaine and her Courts of Love to thank for this (I explore this in part of my novel Imago, written in 1994 but not published till 2011). There’s an enormous amount to say about this; some of which I’ve written about in both books mentioned and in essays, and also, I see, several times in the nearly 7 years I’ve been writing this blog.

These stories are a remarkable collection, for their time, of wisdom about the need for a synthesis, an equality, a co-rulership, of King and Queen, masculine and feminine principles, both. For a little while in the early part of the last millennium, the divine feminine as well as Woman was restored to her rightful place in the psyche and our Western culture; though in two or so short centuries after that the European witch hunts would make sure that was stamped on. At the Enlightenment, this persecution continued; albeit in a very different and generally more subtle – and insidious – form.

Anyway, there is a passage in some of the Grail myths that leaped out at me, and of which I wrote at length in the books above.

In it, the Grail maidens, the guardians of the wells – which of course provide the waters utterly necessary for life – have been raped and the wells dry up. Not unconnected with that fact is the incurable wound of the Fisher King, which means that he has no generative powers.

Without water, there is wasteland (it is this motif from the Grail legends that inspired T S Eliot’s poem of that name). Water has always been seen as sacred, for as long as we can fathom; remember there’d have been no piped water in those days – quite apart from its more subtle connections. 

Wells were where we might meet the Otherworld, as well as drinking our fill. Many wells were considered to be healing wells; many still are. In West Cornwall, several wells are still tended. One of them, Sancreed, very close to the origins of my family, I’ve now been visiting for over 40 years on a regular basis and in all that time it's always been tended, with its attendant 'cloutie-tree', a hawthorn, bearing offerings.

The upshot of all this is that though I’ve been writing about this, and leading workshops for 26 whole years now in (amongst other things) how we might restore the ‘lost feminine’ so that the waters may flow, and flow clean, again (symbolically/psychologically, but there is of course a physical correlate that is an urgent and ongoing danger), this is the first time I’ve offered a year-long course in what it might mean to do just this: restore the lost feminine, through the notion of, once more, tending the wells ‘out there’, and tending the wells ‘in here’ too. So it’s exciting to be immersed in this so thoroughly.

It seems to me that at a time when there is so much darkness around, sometimes the best and maybe only thing one can do is to keep on cleaning up, tending the waters, in the individual psyche as well as in the outer world, knowing that it may only be a drop but is still a drop in the Ocean of all Being.

* The Joseph Campbell Foundation in the USA, who contacted me, let me know that in those days they knew of no one else offering such work in GB. Now variations of such work are more prevalent (and some people have kindly credited me with being an influence, either through my books or through workshops of mine on this theme they’ve attended over the decades). The ripples spread, and the capillaries of the land, metaphorically speaking, are beginning to fill again. The collective psyche is soaking it all up. Let’s hope we can give it back in time. 

THE WELLKEEPERS course will happen again next year.

the cloutie-tree at Sancreed

© Roselle Angwin 2017

Monday, 6 March 2017


This is a repost of an old prose-poem of mine – years ago, 2011, just before my mum died, in the days when I was still writing poetry I didn't mind reading back – because I just came across it.

And I need to create a flow again – a dynamic, surprising flow. I've been writing poetry continuously since I was a teenager – until two years ago. My father's and then ex-husbands deaths seem to have dammed the flow, for the minute, though I am still writing prose. Since then, when I have written poetry, it's seemed mediocre. (Guess you'll relate to this stop-start nature of poetry, if you're also a poet?)

So I'm not posting this, below, because I think it's 'good'; just to try to wake something up in me; invite the gods and goddesses back. To make a small shrine.


Rain storming down from the orchard with its turbulence of leaves and wind battering till all thought’s gone out

spent as matches and it’s a relief and then here I am again with the wet dog with books and poems as friends and a million different ways of greeting the world

                                                and there outside at last a single thin blade of sun insinuates itself like a bookmark between cloud

and something new pours down onto the hillside and I’m out there flying

            and it doesn’t matter whether sun rain wind or even sleet at the moment suddenly again what matters is simply being alive
                                    and how poetry can remind me of this even at times when I’m dense as peat-soil sodden and soaking it all up

                                                ready to transform it like worms compost      into something I can work with    something good    in bare hands    in the mouth                   something to slip between me and eternity and the terrible dread-filled joy of it all

© Roselle Angwin

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Lost Species poem 25: Jeff Hancock

I requested this poem from Jeff Hancock: I remember first hearing it on Iona during my annual retreat week. Although the swallows often return to Devon in late March, frequently I see my first swallow of the year on Iona (also in late March, despite the fact that we're 600 miles further north) swooping past us to net the air for flies. This is a moment of intense joy and jubilation, one I await all year, even as I clock the fact that each year there seem fewer swallows – down here, anyway. But there will be some. Soon. Dispelling that late-winter drab despondency.

Jeff's lines 'Now the chattering sky’s / untenanted' break my heart.


They have gone.
Suddenly there is only absence:the wires stretch blank.
The air filled yesterday with play,
with playtime, shrieks,
a joy-filled rush with wings outstretched
is only air, an aching blank.

We anticipated it.
How could we not?
The wires bird-laden, quiet at first
a silent communion, it seemed,
then chatter; conversation:
building, perhaps, collective bravery
for the long transcontinental leap.

Now the chattering sky’s

Never mind, we say:
they’ll be back.
Next year, next spring
after winter,
when the long dark silent days are over,
they’ll be back:
the swooping stride
from Africa.

They’ll nest again,
their fledglings
swerve and chatter through the deep
as if they’d never been away.

Then the wondering:
will we be here?

© Jeff Hancock 

Thursday, 2 March 2017

From the ragbag: buntings, roe deer & weedwifery; thorn blossom, abundance & generosity; books

In a rare sunny daybreak, I’m out walking just after 7.30am. I’m feeling a bit smug that I’ve already made sandwiches for TM (this is not unreconstructed housewifery, I hasten to tell you, but a choice to do something nice for him each morning!), meditated, read Instructive Texts a bit, and thought.

Yet to come: the stroll a couple of hundred yards along the valley, by the brook, which is all that Dog can manage at the moment. Then a full day’s work signing off a recent poetry distance-learning-course participant – always a poignant experience, and especially so when the person concerned has been so fully immersed – and putting together a mailshot.

Nonetheless, to be out walking early gives me a sense of spaciousness lacking so far mostly this year, which has felt crammed and cramped. (I did make space yesterday, though, in drizzle, to check the old stone and soil banks of our field/woodland margin/orchard/vegetable plot for signs of activity in the fox earths and badger setts, though I greatly fear the latter have gone, due to the Government’s insane cull, against which I’ve protested so loudly and fruitlessly the last few years. However, I did set up a couple of roe deer grazing close by, under one of the bird cherry trees.)

Now, there’s the fresh stink of fox, and a parliament of rooks is cleaning up spilt feed behind the in-lamb sheep at the top of the lane. Looking up at the buzzard who often occupies the telegraph pole at the junction, I also see in a tree nearby what I’ve assumed for years was probably a yellowhammer – we’ve one or two resident here. Having read the recent RSPB mag, though, I’m now thinking it may actually be a cirl bunting. These little birds, commoner in the south of France, were plentiful in the southwest (and I think only the southwest) of GB until last century, when loss of habitat and food supply, due to intensive farming methods, brought their numbers down to fewer than 100 breeding pairs. Now, though, they’re back up to over 1000 breeding pairs in a few isolated spots in South Devon and Cornwall.


En route, I collect some wild sorrel, some wild garlic (ramsons), and clock where the freshest pollution-free heads of young nettles are rising above the dog’s mercury. I’m using wild garlic in everything I can at the moment, and when that, the sorrel and the nettle-tips are combined with our leeks and some potatoes, there’ll be a nourishing, mineral-full and tasty cleansing soup for us and my poetry group on Saturday if I can get it together in time.

If you would like some fresh ideas for winter veg, you can see some here: scroll down to the bottom of the page to the beetroot and potato patties (based on a Riverford recipe. If you don’t know the Riverford cookbooks, you’ve a treat in store. Apart from glorious food from simple ingredients, they’re worth reading for the many little essays by the author and founder of Riverford Organics, Guy Watson.)

The Devon lanes are of course aflush with snowdrops, and the little wild daffs are in bloom. A few fat violet patches are lighting the lower verges. I remember as a kid that the Devon violet and rose sweets really were sugared petals; I imagine now they’re entirely synthetic.

In a parallel life I’d be an apothecary, plant alchemist. I would love to distill the oil from rose petals; spend my life collecting and blending herbal remedies and oils; make incenses. 

In fact, for a great deal of my life I have worked with plants. My family, including the animals, has almost without fail been treated by me with herbs (my 38-year-old daughter has never had antibiotics), with professional herbalist input when needed*.

My first small business involved dyeing my own handspun wool with locally-collected plants – my daughter spent her first few months of life slung from my chest out on the coasts and moors of North Devon, where I’d collect gorse flowers, tree bark, lichens, ivy berries and so on.

On and off through my life I’ve made ceremonial incenses, usually to commission, frequently incorporating locally-collected plant material, carefully blending the ingredients for their subtle consciousness-altering qualities and the properties therefore of their scents.

And I make face creams for myself and friends blended with essential oils. So in fact I do still practise weedwifery; just not as much as I’d like.

Actually, once I start to think about it, I realise quite how big a part plants have always played in my life; how closely our lives have intertwined, from the preschool days when I'd mix 'potions' to put out for the fairies in acorn cups.

It's rather a consolation in a life in which I see myself as spending most of my time on the computer.

My Cornish maternal great-grandmother was the village midwife and wisewoman (my paternal great-grandfather, also Cornish, was the official dowser for Cornwall County Council!), and both sides of my family taught me about plants. I've remembered that when I was at Cambridge (reading Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic – nothing to do with plants!) I was commissioned (long story – but as much for my proximity to major and significant library collections as for my interest and knowledge) to write a section on ancient and/or traditional British herbal remedies for a French encyclopaedia on natural medicines.

In my twenties, I co-led some residential workshops on plants as foods and medicines, doing the kind of foraging walks that are trendy now but no one did back then.

Later, I studied plant spirit medicine, and did a transatlantic interview for a mind, body, spirit magazine with plant shaman Elliot Cowan, out of which came, for me, some dramatic and left-field personal experiences with plants, especially trees (I don't mean via ingestion of psychotropics, though I've been there too).

And then, of course, I offer my Tongues in Trees workshops, with a new residential one coming up in a Brittany forest in October. (If you visit the blogpost, you'll see a later post, sister to this linked one, too, in November 2014.)

You know, I hadn't added all that up till just now. That's quite a lot of plant and tree stuff in my life. That makes me feel better.


White blossom adorns the prunus family trees now. Many of these flower before they leaf, and it’s a lush sight, snowdrifting the hedges, after drab winter. The blackthorn blossom is out, if later than usual, though already now the hawthorn bushes are in leaf – several weeks early (their leaves arrive before the blossom).

There’s a sense of real abundance with this blossom. I’m reminded of the Pablo Neruda love poem: ‘I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees’.

Such generosity, flowering with the whole of oneself, in full glory, like that; nothing held back but pouring towards the world as if towards a lover.

Here’s a thing: how would it be if we could do that each day, without counting the cost, or looking for return – simply giving?

And – often harder – how would it be if we could give like that to ourselves, without wondering if we ‘should’, if we’re worthy, if it’s selfish? (As Erich Fromm says, if we can only love others but not ourselves then we can barely love at all.) If we could let the radiance and generosity of our blossoming selves not only feed others, but also pour down our trunks to nourish our own roots to keep blossoming?


The way the natural world simply leafs, flowers, fruits, keeps giving.

The way too the natural world offers such an inexhaustible supply of metaphors, as Jules Casteen, editor of Paris Review, once said.

We worked with such metaphors in a workshop I led for young people on Sunday last for Teignmouth Poetry Festival. Some of the best metaphors came from the under-11s: one girl spoke of jealousy as being like a tree with no leaves. Hmm. Excellent.


I think it’s World Book Day. I should know, but didn’t till I was tagged on Twitter as one of 5 poets nominated by Awen Books for World Book Day. Am honoured.

So, to pass it on, here are three books I’ve really enjoyed reading very recently (I'm not going to do an Amazon link as my internet, as usual, is on the cusp of simply not delivering at all).

The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben: a barrowful of both whacky and completely reasonable assertions about trees, raising questions about such things as the fact that if trees have a memory (and they do), where do they keep it? He also makes use of the TED talk by Suzanne Simard that advanced our understanding of how trees communicate, and the fact that they feed each other.

I’ve just finished my friend Su Bristow’s* enchanting and captivating novel Sealskin. Based on the many Scottish and Irish selkie legends, she brings the old story to life in a way that has me harking back to the atmospheric telling. These stories have influenced so many writers and books; one I remember is Alice Thomas Ellis’ novel (though I can’t remember its name); and in fact I myself wrote a prizewinning short story based on this theme many years ago. Bristow’s achievement, apart from writing a beautiful and compelling story, is that she resists giving us a consoling ending.

I’m densely immersed in a great deal of n-f research for my current book, so most of what I read is fairly heavy duty stuff. As light relief, I ripped through Joanne Harris’ most recent follow-up to Chocolat last week. Peaches for Monsieur le Curé, set like Chocolat in a small town in Southwest France, explores the cultural clashes between the locals and the Muslim incomers. Because it’s Harris, there’s humour and a light touch, but she’s also an intelligent and subtle writer.

I need some good new poetry. It’s been a while since a new collection really woke me up and engaged my passion as well as my intellect. Ideas, anyone?

And finally, a little extra: a few years ago I was rather knocked out by a novel called Diggers and Dreamers, by Keith Walton. 

Set in the year of 1976 – that hot summer in GB – in the French Languedoc, it described the area, the blow-ins, the ideology and the lifestyle I recognised myself from that same year in almost exactly that same place – and so, in some ways, it is also my story as a student about to bail out. 

If you, like me, were an intellectual hippy dropout at that time, rebelling against mainstream values – or lack of them, it seemed – and determined to live in a simpler, closer-to-the-soil, handcrafted, non-consumerist way with a guiding philosophy that rejected the Establishment and all it stood for, and had an engagement with more esoteric ideas about consciousness and all it means, you might relate to this book. (As you might even if you weren’t, but remember well the spirit of that time; the sense that we could change the world.) 

It’s an assured, idealistic, deeply intelligent and erudite read that conjures so well its raison d’être: ‘there is another world but it is in this one’, which if I remember correctly is a quote from poet Paul Eluard. Something about it reminds me of John Fowles, and also John Crowley (Aegypt).

The reason I mention it now is because I recently reread it, and it has something of the vision of Beat poets like Gary Snyder. It deserves to be better-known.

And I think that’s more than enough. Back to the fireside for me.

* Su Bristow is a medical herbalist and writer – see also the bottom of this page, the book section.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Lost Species poem 24: Graham Burchell

On an Island at Night Waiting for Fairies

Wary in daylight   they’re at sea  
what’s left of them  twenty six this year  
a few remember fifteen hundred  more

coming ashore on this their Granite Island
before the long causeway was built
to give a way for cats  for pet diseases

and white light hurts them too  too bright
for salty little eyes  so it’s a red torch beam 
a red oval  that looks for a muted Tinkerbell

while pressed against railings  sheltered
from ocean bluster you don’t believe in fairies
until one is there   nailed  and your breath is stilled 

wings twitch for balance  it falters
walks with a pirate’s gait  sea legs on land 
first fairy   tiniest of penguin kind  

© Graham Burchell
(According to yearly surveys, the colony of Fairy Penguins on Granite Island, Victor Harbor, South Australia, has crashed from 1548 in 2001 to just 26 in 2015).

Graham Burchell is the author of four collections: Vermeer's Corner, The Chongololo Club, Kate, and Cottage Pi . He lives in South Devon, and is very active both with Moor Poets and the Teignmouth Poetry Festival.

Monday, 20 February 2017

'meditation begins when you get off the cushion'

– was the reminder that my Zen teacher Ken Jones used to bring to our attention from time to time.

Truth is, it's hard enough to sit, simply sit, doing nothing, on the cushion. In Zen meditation, unlike many other forms, we're not even substituting affirmations/positive thoughts/creative visualisations for the kind of fragmentary chatter of so-called thoughts and emotions, the white noise of 'monkey mind' that is our habitual mode; we're simply sitting, being with how it is right now. 

We're also watching the breath, and the mind, until, perhaps, a little oasis of tranquility arises beyond that. 

The practice is sometimes described as 'big sky mind', where thoughts and emotions arising are simply noticed and left to drift on past, like clouds, and we return our attention to 'sky mind'.

To do this day after day can sometimes nearly drive you nuts. Other times it's so crucial to wellbeing that if I haven't sat first thing, even if only for ten minutes, I feel something akin to what people describe as 'having got out of bed the wrong side', I imagine.

Even after forty-plus somewhat erratic years of this practice, which brings me firstly face-to-face with myself, and then, after that, perhaps, with the vast emptiness beyond thought, beyond self, beyond ego, it's still hard to dissolve the 'me' that wants to see results (to be a better person, to live a calmer more ordered life, to not get stressed etc), that needs something measurable from the practice.

Instead, I have to let go – keep letting go – and simply let spaciousness take me; trust it to gently displace the thoughts and emotions that keep me small, keep me selfish, or mean, or unkind; in fact keep me experiencing the separative 'me' altogether.

This is what 'waking up' means; the Buddha's most concise injunction. Being aware how much of our lives we live sleepwalking. Waking up to the reality that resides, if it resides anywhere, in this whole amazing invisible but deeply interconnected web of being. Waking up, too, to the great beyond: the nameless Mystery. Waking up to the fact that we are indivisible from What Is: that our egoic separateness is an illusion, the greatest of all of them.

The Zen quote in my inbox yesterday from Shambala Publications which was from Natalie Goldberg's The Great Spring: Writing, Zen, and the Zigzag Life*, spoke to me of such things. It was a relief to hear her say that no she didn't manage to sit every day; and yes it still made her knees ache, and yes she still found that turbulent thoughts and emotions arose after all her time meditating (40 years in her case too).

So that's already hard enough, to sit in a dedicated period of stillness in a dedicated place on our zafu, meditation cushion. Every single day.

Nonetheless, it's what happens off the cushion that's the test: can we maintain that practice of mindfulness, of calm clarity (because of course there are moments, even minutes, even long minutes, in each meditation session when we do and can float beyond individual mind into something like clarity and shunyatta [great emptiness – a 'good' thing, by the way!]) when the phone goes as we're in the middle of something, when we're late, when the baby won't stop crying or the dog won't stop barking, when someone needs something from us and we have no resources left, or someone speaks sharply to us, before we open our mouth to say something less than skillful, less than kind?

Can we bring ourself truly present to this moment, this one and only moment, which is all we have both of past and future?

Can we watch our mind, the tricks and illusions it offers us as 'truths', in the middle of the speediness in which most of us non-monastics live?

Can we be sufficiently aware as to remember to stop and breathe when one of our habitual habits or unconscious patterns threatens to ride us?

Can we carve out just a few moments' space to really experience spaciousness when everything about our lives is screaming that we need to do everything but that right now before the world falls apart?

Can we afford not at least to try? – The darkness around us is deep.

* PS: I see Goldberg's official publication date is today for the book mentioned.

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