In the shadow of VUCA: A call for Soul and Sanctuary in Leadership

The sun has its story

That no curtain can stop. Mark Nepo

Many years ago, so the story tells us, an archaeologist hired some Inca tribesmen to carry his many discoveries from an archaeological site deep in the mountains to the sea where a boat was waiting to take him home. The tribesmen were happy to carry the load and set off covering many miles of mountain territory each day. This went on for several days; each day the archaeologist was up early wanting to get to the boat as soon as possible and the tribesmen were happy to walk. After they had been moving for a week in this way a morning came when the tribesmen stopped and insisted they would go no further. The archaeologist grew impatient and then angry. But no matter how much he cajoled the tribesmen would not go any further. Nothing happened for three days. The tribesmen would not move, nor would they speak. Then, strangely, on the fourth day the tribesmen changed their attitude. They picked up their burdens and set off once more. When the bewildered archaeologist asked why they had stopped and refused to move for so long, the tribesmen answered, “We had been moving too fast and had to wait for our souls to catch up.”

A short while ago during a small group coaching session in the US with senior executive leaders, one man literally fell to his knees on the floor sobbing. He was exhausted by the pressures of his job and had been unable to sleep for so long that he had almost passed out at the wheel of his car on the highway a few days earlier and crashed. He described himself as ‘utterly overwhelmed’. Over the afternoon each man had a story- a story behind the story I should say-of loss and bewilderment that would be hard to imagine had we met for a beer a few hours earlier. In the sanctuary of our shared space each man wept for something that afternoon; a child they hadn’t seen, an estranged wife, fear of failure, fear of an early death, an abusive Boss, a loss of meaning. The story behind the story was one of grief, loss, isolation and loneliness and there had been no time to share it, no one to share it with and nowhere to tell it until now.

Why is it I wonder, that so many of the men and women I work with are so exhausted and burnt out in their roles?  Why do I sit and witness again and again, top level executives, in the privacy of a coaching space both alone and in small groups, break down in tears as they reflect on the pressures of work, the cost of business life to their families, the sense of disorientation and loneliness in the face of so much international travel, the sense of a strange pervasive ‘loss’ of something essential and important in their lives, a kind of emptiness despite apparently ‘having it all.’

In a plenary session one would not know anything is wrong of course. We all learn as a consequence of modern life to hide certain things. We develop a public face in order to succeed and to get along and rightly so perhaps-it’s called socialisation and it has its proper place in the adaptation of the spirit to society and the culture in which the individual grows up. A central part of the work of leadership is to learn to manage the tension that inevitably exists between that public or ‘onstage’ self and what we could call our private truth- a view on things that is personal, the essence of who we are-what some call the souls voice. Sometimes we manage the tension well and sometimes not.

Typically in environments that are wary of emotional expression (the soul feels vividly) we learn to hide how we really feel and present a persona-call it the voice of the ego- that sends out a clear message that says ‘all is well’. High fives, joking around and an air of invulnerability shield and protect us from some other voice-the story behind the story- that is at once strangely distant and very close. If this condition persists we may become slowly closed to the quiet calling of our inner life or discover ways and means of numbing the inevitable suffering that comes when the gap gets too big for too long and we ignore the importuning of our innermost concerns. We can do that for years-perhaps until the children are estranged or we fall asleep at the wheel and the story changes and we wonder as the Talking Heads song goes-how did I get here?

As facilitators in the practice of leadership we talk about how it ‘feels’ to lead-such is the nature of any dialogue on the ‘inner work’ of leadership but in general what comes back from the circle, well intentioned as it is, is what people think about things. Feelings are uncomfortable; a problem in organisational life. The intelligence of feeling is valued less than the capacity for rational and objective thinking yet nothing is seen to be lost because of that, our perception is not thought to be diminished by an over reliance on logic. It’s easy enough to confuse a feeling for a thought of course but they are very different things. Perhaps it’s no surprise that what is denied in public spills out so frequently and with such force in private. Psychologically-given the level of denial- we could call it a shadow aspect of leadership. One wonders how and where else it spills out when unguarded. In the conversations I am involved in I know it comes out in the myriad forms of violence that the author Wayne Mueller describes in his reflections on the cost of a successful life;

A successful life has become a violent enterprise. We make war on our own bodies, pushing them beyond their limits; war on our children, because we cannot find time to be with them when they are hurt and afraid, and need our company; war on our spirit, because we are too preoccupied to listen to the quiet voices that seek to nourish and refresh us; war on our communities, because we are fearfully protecting what we have, and do not feel safe enough to be kind and generous; war on the earth, because we do not take the time to place our feet on the ground and allow it to feed us, to taste its blessings and give thanks.

The violence of modern life takes its toll in many ways it seems. Perhaps it was the recognition of a ‘safe space’, the chance to be honest for a moment, that provoked the sudden grief that poured out of the hearts of those men that afternoon, not broken open as a natural consequence of living fully but exhausted and shattered by years of ill treatment and neglect.

The shadow of VUCA

Those of us that work in the field of leadership development are familiar enough with the acronym VUCA. A great deal has been said and written about the term and its implications for organisations and leaders since it was imported into the world of business from its origins in the US Army Military College in the 1990s. VUCA was first used to describe the changing nature of military intervention in modern warfare; the degree of unpredictability and surprise that might be present in a field situation unfolding in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. VUCA offers a practical code for awareness and readiness and invites us to look at learning models that support preparedness, anticipation, evolution and intervention. It’s an exciting field and offers much opportunity for the development of the leadership mind in more complex ways.

Few would deny that organisational life today is indeed typically experienced as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous; VUCA, we are told, is the new normal and leaders and organisations need to shape themselves accordingly to thrive in conditions that are at once destabilising and rich with opportunity.  The sense of rapid change is addressed and underscored elsewhere in many emerging models and theories of organisational development

The term discontinuous has superseded turbulent as an adjective to describe the deepening nature of constant change that organisations face. The edge of chaos, drawn from the science of chaos theory tells us that the dynamically charged space between the known and the unknown, between entropy and chaos, is where innovation, creativity and new possibility emerge as new patterns of life. Leaders are encouraged to adopt ways of knowing that are experimental, curious and able to hold paradox, to be unafraid of failure. The ability to navigate effectively in that space offers any executive a competitive advantage and we might make the assumption that it will be a pre-requisite for organisational survival in coming years within the existing paradigm within which business is presently conducted.

Whilst I would not disagree with the assumptions about the business environment expressed in terms such as VUCA and would endorse the creative development of leadership capabilities towards the stage of development that Bob Kegan call self-transforming mind, I would say that the cost for the human soul of inhabiting VUCA environments over extended periods of time has been largely overlooked and represents a real concern for the future health of organisations and the leaders that serve them. Put simply, the time and space for the dignified and respectful development of the human person towards what CG Jung called individuation, is being ignored and this omission is leaving people trapped; privately incapable of holding the myriad tensions at play between their personal and professional commitments. Ignoring this truth, all theories of change fall short if they are not supported by practices that sustain both the spirit and the soul of the leader.

When the soul of a person (‘that which is essential’) is left behind, when we forego a language and appreciation for soul- when we no longer know or are able to stop long enough to let our souls ‘catch up’- the consequences are devastating. The fact that these consequences are largely hidden and denied makes the fact more dangerous and inhuman, not less so. The poet WB Yeats writes about the dialogue between self and soul.  The soul of a person, as every poet knows, needs to speak, to muse, to consider and reflect-if it is to be well, if it is to act as it should, as a guide for what is most important in our lives. It’s not a matter of indulgence it’s a matter of sanity.

A poem by Mark Nepo offers an example of this capacity and need for reflection and came to mind that afternoon in our coaching circle; it speaks to the story behind the story;

I’ve been watching stars

rely on the darkness they

resist. And fish struggle with

and against the current. And

hawks glide faster when their

wings don’t move.


Still I keep retelling what

happens till it comes out

the way I want.


We try so hard to be the

main character when it is

our point of view that

keeps us from the truth.


The sun has its story

that no curtain can stop.


It’s true. The only way beyond

the self is through it. The only

way to listen to what can never

be said is to quiet our need

to steer the plot.


When jarred by life, we might

unravel the story we tell ourselves

and discover the story we are in,

the one that keeps telling us.


I think there are times when we all think this way. In times of transition and rapid change it is especially true that we are called to face questions of meaning in our lives. Our capacity to sit creatively with such tensions is what allows us to grow more fully into our lives. To leave such concerns unmet, buried or hidden isn’t brave or tough; it can only diminish our experience and our capacity to meet the world more honestly and on our own terms-that is to say-authentically.

Perhaps it seems strange to conjure poetry in a discussion about leadership but I contest that it is precisely the lack of poetic sensibility that undermines the health of individual leaders, their teams and organisations. Poetry is the language of the soul and has much to teach us. The consequences of the omission of soul in the estimation of what amounts to organisational success is something that I see too regularly to count as an anomaly nor am I willing to discount it as ‘collateral damage’. In my estimation the people in the room with me a few weeks ago were committed, intelligent, courageous leaders actually marked out for advancement in the corporation they served-yet privately they were suffering; willing and able yes as any good soldier is, but ill equipped for the physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual cost of VUCA life.

Leadership and Addiction

Prior to beginning my practice with senior executive leaders a decade ago I spent over 15 years working in the field of addictions and criminal justice. In that time I worked with many hundreds of people whose lives had been shattered and broken in a thousand different ways and who had turned to substances like alcohol, heroin and crack cocaine and behaviours such as gambling, sex addiction and stealing to mitigate the pain and suffering caused by the many forms of abuse that a person or a society can inflict on another human being.  I learned that anyone could get caught in addiction and over the years have worked with people from every conceivable background.

The term addict is an interesting one, deriving from the Latin, addictus, it means ‘to be a slave to’ and refers to the multitude of ways that any person might become lost in patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that corrode choice and undermine their capacity to grow towards the noble and dignified state of human maturity that we call adulthood which is the gift of a lifetime where conditions allow.

It’s relatively easy to spot addiction to Crack cocaine and in some ways ‘easier’ to work with since its consequences can be so quickly and obviously destructive. Other addictions are sometimes more pernicious and hard to see. A pervasive form of addiction today is simply intensity-in its myriad forms- at work, in sport, in entertainment, on vacation, it seems we can never relax. A high flying adolescent can never get enough and our relentless need for intensity speaks of a curious lack of maturity in our society today. We don’t know how to be still.

Intensity is of course both an appeal and a danger in the context of VUCA. VUCA if misunderstood will speak only to the classic hero myth; It’s easy enough for the psyche to repackage a thing and miss the point, as TS Eliot put it, ‘we had the experience but missed the meaning’. VUCA is a call to adventure which is fine in itself but if not grounded by a mature perspective that includes a capacity for stillness, it will appeal only to the adolescent in us, the young warrior, because it is derived from and works with the language and intensity of warfare. VUCA tells us that we need to be alert, prepared, anticipating, evolving, aware and ready-all the time. In a world addicted to better, bigger, faster, what better than this?

The issue with VUCA is that it takes real depth and wisdom to be able to embrace conditions of volatility, ambiguity and so on. It can be tough and demanding to live in a space of liminality and complexity whilst simultaneously navigating the numerous day to day business demands that take up so much time and energy. For many it’s too much. The addictions and states of de-stabilisation that I saw in my first career are mirrored often enough in different forms in my work today that I consider them to be a pervasive pattern related to a general incapacity to cope.

Addiction is always symptomatic of a life out of sorts concomitant with a loss of freedom. Addictive behaviours are an attempt, albeit misjudged to right the balance, to compensate for what seems to be lost, enslaved, missing; to numb the intolerable, to cope, and to survive. Ultimately however, insofar as such behaviours ignore the importuning of the inner life through the application of outer fixes, they are life denying and only increase the suffering to the one caught in the drama and to those they work with and care about.

The point is that real suffering (as distinct from neurotic suffering) which gives our life character, builds resilience and provides us with the strength to endure amongst other things is a matter not simply for the ego and it cannot be addressed through acts of bravado, denial or traditional ideas of power; Incorporating our suffering into the narrative of our lives is a matter for the soul. Conditions that are inhospitable to the work of ‘soul making’ as the poet John Keats put it divide and diminish us in every conceivable way and bring about a particular quality of suffering that is life denying rather than life giving; shattering and isolating, more closely related to hopelessness, a quality writ large in the ennui, despair and loneliness so prevalent in western society today.

It is in the nature of a life that we suffer and indeed it is through our suffering, our passion, well met that we might be moved towards the greatest gift of fellow feeling that we call compassion, again deriving from the Latin meaning to suffer with. Compassion has to do with the heart as addiction does, but where the addict protects and shields the ego from the wounds of life, the compassionate person admits it all and recognises that we grow and become fully human precisely out of our heartbrokenness.

Finding Sanctuary for the soul

Sanctuary has its roots in the word sanctus, to mean ‘holy place.’ Psychologically if we follow the same linguistic root we discover a place that is deliberately put aside for the development of wholeness, a place also of healing. Finding sanctuary, taking time for retreat from the push and pull of the daily round, is essential to life; essential to our capacity to hear the story behind the story. It is worth taking the time to consider where and with whom we find such space, what happens when we make space for sanctuary in our lives and what happens when we don’t.  It is my conjecture that no serious conversation about leadership in a VUCA world can take place divorced from a conversation about the human need for sanctuary; it is the place we go for shelter and refuge, refreshment and renewal, solitude and companionship, to make sense and meaning of our experience to find the courage to re-engage creatively with the things that matter to us. We know it in our lives both by its presence and its absence.

To deny the value and importance of sanctuary is to deny the depth of our experience and the conditions necessary for proper human formation. In times of change and transformation it is natural that our questions become more philosophical. We inquire of ourselves; about who we are, what are life is for, what matters, and in this way we create and re-create meaning. The work of becoming a mature human-there is no free pass to adulthood based on the number of years lived-includes this process of reflection and honours our need to make meaning of our experience as a central part of our development. It is a process that takes time and is connected to other practices of interiority such as contemplation and meditation, practices of being that balance the bias for action so prevalent in our society. To ask the ego created in earlier life to carry us through our total life experience in its entirety is naive and asks too much of a psychological system not designed for such work.

A divided life is always destructive and the consequences are felt both personally and organisationally. When an executive weeps in a coaching session, the clues or inner warnings that might have mitigated the ‘breakdown’ have been dismissed, ignored or in some other way, waived aside. I suspect that in nearly every case the act of dismissing is unconscious, encouraged by the environment in which the person ‘makes their living’ to use the term ironically. That it happens so often tells me how badly organisations fail to ensure the well-being of those that serve them. Perhaps it is too much to ask of any organisation that they should think of such things though it seems incredible to say so. Nonetheless, this being the case, it falls into the hands of the executive leaders themselves to ensure that they include access to times of sanctuary as an integral part of their leadership practice and it is, I submit, the work and responsibility of executive development facilitators and establishments to ensure that such spaces are available and such practices encouraged. At the moment it seems to be something that happens only rarely but it can be developed and must be.

Greater complexity and ambiguity require greater interiority. The rational and objective mind so highly favoured by leaders and organisations brings great advantages to a company but it is of little help when it comes to dealing with our hearts and souls. It is, as the poet Ted Hughes put it, ‘useless in the most vital activity of all; that of understanding ourselves’.

If we are to stand our ground with dignity in a VUCA world then it will demand a level of maturity not available to the rational ego alone. The path to adulthood, to becoming human is just that, a journey, a way, a discipline that is open to the live encounter with life itself and with other people. In the imaginative space between our inner life and the world around us we form, deform and reform meaning throughout life. This process of human development is soul work-James Hillman describes soul as ‘the imaginative capacity of our natures’- and it requires time and care including the time apart that I am referring to as sanctuary. Through this work we might if we are fortunate, develop, expand and enrich our lives, deepening our inner dialogue that is sensitive to times of transition that can navigate the VUCA world and act as our most faithful and  trustworthy guide. The sun does indeed have a story that no curtain can stop. It is the work of a lifetime to honour that story and let it speak.

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The feeling of walking: a poetic journey on foot

The feeling of walking: a poetic journey on foot

The following poem is an account of a journey on foot through a part of Wales that I took a week or so ago. It is that and, for me, much more. When I got back I sat down and wrote about the walk for almost a day. At the end of the day I was dissatisfied. I had spoken about the walk but had not touched the walk itself, the imaginative or creative spirit of the walk-the feeling of it. On the second day I wrote what I have chosen to share.

It was James Hillman that offered up a definition of soul as the ‘imaginative possibility of our natures’. In exploring soul this way, experienced through dream, image and fantasy, Hillman suggested that the idea of soul referred also to that component in each of us that makes meaning possible, deepens events into experiences and can be known whether through love or religious experience through its special relationship with death.

If we attend to Hillman’s words; love, depth, meaning, religious experience and death we come to see that the territory of the Imagination is indeed the territory of soul making, that it is intimately related to matters of the heart and represents the real work of a lifetime.

To live fully has to do I think with living closely to the forces that Hillman speaks of. I have come to experience poetry as a means by which it is possible to do just that, to move , to journey even, between the worlds that form and  inform (sometime deform) so much of our lives. Poetic work inhabits and navigates the world of meaning making, experience, death and so forth as no other medium of language can. In the space between my inner landscape and the outer world I meet a capacity for Imagination, the capacity that Coleridge called ‘the shaping spirit’, something that seems to be both personal and universal in nature.

William Blake declared that Man is ‘all imagination’, Yeats saw Imagination as the conduit through which each of us might seek to remake the world according to the impulses of the Great Mind, the Anima Mundi. It is through the Imagination that we shape the world, that we come to know it, that we come to change and to be changed by it.

An olive tree is what it is until we see what Van Gogh sees. The woods around Capel Y Fin where I was walking last week are ‘only woodlands’ until they come under the gaze of the artist David Jones, until he can show us as every artist and poet must-just what we are missing. The world numinous is none other than the world fully imagined.

In his essay on the founding of the Arvon Foundation, John Moat, a poet who I had the very good fortune to know, described imagination as ‘a formative force’ that he felt was ‘universally inclusive’. He wondered whether;

‘ the failure to grasp how this formative, determining mystery, properly reverenced, as the guide and unfolding force of the lives and venture of every individual and their society and above all their education, amounts to a serious missing of the mark. One that leave individuals and society…unfit for purpose’.

Were the Imagination to venture forth in each person, as a primary way of knowing the world, which in John Moats estimation it surely could, being the gift of us all, I would contend that much of what we allow today in the name of culture or society or education would become quickly intolerable.

In his essay on Ted Hughes and the mythic imagination, Keith Sagar reminds us of the performance of Aristophanes’ The frogs at the Great Dionysia in 405, at the point when Athenian civilisation was close to collapse. In the play Dionysus is sent to Hades to bring back the greatest of the dead poets. The ghost of Euripides asks him what he wants a poet for and Dionysus replies’ to save the city of course’. Sagar makes the point that what’s remarkable here is that Athenian society might imagine that a poet could indeed be the very person to save a city, something that would be little understood today in our own society.

And yet, is there not something essential in this observation, something that we should actually take seriously?  Who else, (what else in ourselves) should we turn to when our trouble, our crisis, is one of absolute exile from ourselves and the natural world around us? Is that not at the root of the malaise and ennui that we see all about us? To quote Ted Hughes;

The story of the mind exiled from Nature is the story of Western Man. It is the story of his progressively more desperate search for mechanical and rational and symbolic securities, which will substitute for the spirit-confidence of the Nature he has lost.

The spirit-confidence that Hughes speaks of is what has indeed been greatly lost. It is a lovely phrase because it lifts up the sense of confidence, not as hubris but as something closer to its original meaning of ‘with trust’ and in so doing it has something to do with faith.

To engage the Imagination is the pressing work of our time, it is nothing less than the work of soul making. It is everyone’s work and everyone’s privilege since Imagination and heart are not merely the province of the few but the greatest gift of us all. That we foster and encourage the gift matters because it enriches our lives and our shared world, connecting us to one another and the vital pulse of the earth itself.

As John Keats said, we do this work with the material of our lives; the hurt, the suffering the delight of our experience. This work is both heart breaking and healing.

How we imagine our life, the story we tell about it, is what makes us and it is through Imagination that our lives become our personal and collective healing fictions. In the poem I will share now the great split in the oak is both its wound and its gift. The Ravens dance out a dance for all time. The waters of the well of a murdered hermit can heal. What happened, happened.

It is through and with Imagination that we address the facets of the soul for meaning making, depth of experience and work with the forces of love, of religious concern, of death. It is the gift to each of us who are given life and breath and it can be reclaimed. That done it is a work of discipline that requires us to hear and stay with the call, as Philip Larkin meant it, to be serious-to get to work with the gift we have been given. When we hear it with faith, with good heart, we might just be met.

The feeling of walking: a poetic journey on foot

The mountain is uttering

Blood and again blood. Ted Hughes

 An aperture

A Skylight

A window into the world

Awake now.

Outside the first sky is a patchwork of slow moving whales, blues and greys

In Wales, in a dream.

The treetops sloping left to right are hints of the valley that was hidden last night and the snow is gone and the day is bright.

The mountain looms larger then I recall but what is memory anyway in this place?

White topped peak, close and far away at once. My breath fogs the glass, the mountain disappears

The sun has returned from a long night crossing, shipped oars, he flushes the hillside unexpectedly with a gift of newly minted gold. The bushes and hedgerows, burst into life, the colours and lines pulled out of themselves while the northern hill casts a sullen look

The radiator ticks and the stairs creak. The old barn has a new face, I make my way downstairs to

A kitchen, a pic sits wrapped in a towel that kept it warm last night, a freshly baked freshly offered gift. Currants, eggs, mixed spice, caster sugar, flour-warm, slices thick, dripping butter. Tea never tasted better.

Boots sit by the door. Waterproofed and solid on the stone tiled floor, patient as a dog before the scent of a walk.

Wear clothing that knows the elements are gods that would kill you without any change of face. The terrain, the way things can turn on the mountain in a moment. Always fickle.

Such is the way with gods.


Sure footed, ankle deep, tough toed, strong gripped. Like a compass, they know themselves precisely. The feet find their way in, the laces pull up


The sound of buttons, the sound of zips,

Shucking the rucksack, the sound of clips,

Locking into place, the sound of our breath when the

Door shuts tight the warmth behind, out here

The air is cold.

Snow lies patchy, dripping gently under a cold sun and a breeze, not too much on the lee

But the clouds tell me that the mountain will give us the full force of the wind

Which is riding down from the north, what news from the north will it bring?

Lambs leap and daffodils doze in the quiet corners, water trickles everywhere, a million streams and rivulets are a prayer to the land both to and from itself.

First steps and the pattern of the boots begins, the track starts here, the traces of my being here, these footprints are barely markers for those that follow lasting only until the weather washes all away. The grass is greasy, slipping, sliding, giving no purchase, slowly climbing up into the valley where the mountain waits.

I am in a wood. The trees are as old as the hills. Oak and ash, beech, rowan, birch, cling to the side  with gnarled roots fingering out, the path of broken rocks falls indistinct .The track winds its way high into the foothills out of the valley which narrows and steepens down to the tumbling river runs lyrical, slight and full of song.

Her song finds me here, her rhythm of labour, glistening sun, easy and urgent, smelling the Usk, smelling the sea, she knows she must go on. She longs for home.

O I see a ship

Sailing on the sea

And her mast is made of

The Ferun tree.


Here is where I meet the fox. Here is where we exchange the look that’s ours for a lifetime of work

Down by the stream I am all fox.

I smell the flowers and the water, the first hint of ramsons and the scent of earth is strong. I see a man, up on the ridge; like looking through water, what kind of animal is this? He watches me curiously, he is still, I have no fear.

We exchange eyes. I see the fox and the fox regards me steadily. Engaged but what kind of marriage is this? I am not the first to be visited by fox, the strange housekeeper and friend of Macha, she of the horse;

Welcome to the great world she said

It’s a nothing, a nowhere I’ve walked into he said


Beware when the animals come

What kind of animal I am?

I hold my walking stick, cut hazel, forked end;

I took a knife to it to make a few marks of significance.

The fox and the river make their slow way down hill, following the scent and I too am following in another way. Is there a scent that the mountain gives? Am I called by bell, pelt, flower, church, the earth of old red sandstone? What am I longing for?

I am in a tree. Up above the treeline where the sheep graze, where the land was cleared, where the forest used to be, long stone walls and a ruin are today

What were you once? I was home, store, shelter. See how the rowan prospers here

I am in a tree, an ancient ash, split top to tail on its northerly side. From the south it stands sentinel. From the north it is entrance to another world.

Opened up, the tree invites me in to close again. There is barely room but I am in and down. Inside the tree I breathe and the breath makes sounds against the rain stained wood.

The red stained wound.

How so alive? How rooted still, how reaching still after all this time and trouble?

A temple here thinly disguised in which I

Sing softly, and call down a hollow branch- a didgeridoo to the world, to the river, to the fox. It could close up anytime and then what?

Downwards or upwards or simply standing still.

A shaman’s way out-to the animal beings to the spirit beings. Can you hear the sounds of the drum calling? What sounds do I recall?

The hut, the wheel of a cart, the razor, and the prickly beards of shepherds, the barren moon, the flies, the damp cupboards, the rubble, the lace-covered saints, the wounding lines of eaves and balconies……

That was always the sign of life. Here is a place for prayer sure enough.

The sky is blue. Clouds cut south in streams, the wind catches leafless branches, they bend and give, sag and sigh-I feel the giving-ness.

Forgivingness surrounds me from the tip of her crown to the deep down work world centre of the earth where the roots the filaments end.

I am much says the tree. I am much. There are wounds that never heal. Therein lies the strangeness, the inventiveness of the work.

Guardian and Threshold.

Wounded and healed at the same time and in the great crevice, out of the vulvic crevice, born again into the day. The tree is nothing but itself. A skylark and a kite sing out, cry out, death and life.

I feel the sweat on my back from the climb, I feel a sigh run through me river deep, filament deep, through my solid boots, into the thin grass and down. Sweat from my brow will dewdrop the earth.

We drink together.

Bog and heather.

How the name is recalled like a distant boat.

The way comes and goes the mountain grows the stream runs down between the thighs of the foothills and the path cuts away on contours that suit the climb. The fox follows the stream, traffics away from the path of men and the paths that they make through heather bells and bilberries, civilised.

Where the fox runs home is thistles and broken stones and the cold water that quenches thirst. Home as marginal as life. With fox there is neither map nor discipline. Remember this-

Snowline, the sun breaks out above the mountain and lights the world-emphasises the immensity in cold, biting wind that hits the face hard as stone. Buttons click, zips, water from the flask, red faced, heart surge out to the peaks that rise out surly to the west.

The snow settled here, deep and more to come, an ink blot sky bleeds out before the sun.

Ravens have found the wind; the wind and the Raven are dancing out the great duende. Fox watches on.

I remember  Jerez de la Frontera, how the old Spanish lady arrived last to the dance with the water waisted girls all raven haired and she raised her arms, threw back her head, a single stamp and won the day.

A country open to death. Sweeping the earth with its wings made of rusty knives.

The duende works on the dancer’s body like wind on sand. The ravens are wind and sand, whirling up, caught up in the blast of things.

Behind the great pillars of stone, the backbone of a dragon or so many dice scattered by giants playing for bones. Behind the great rocks there is only stillness.

In the foothills Blackthorns are gathered in a witch’s circle, washer women at night they tend the stream by day, feed it blossom in spring and dark berries when autumn comes. How old is the lichen that clings to the branches, how the wet roots finger these places how they ignore the dead one, plucked up in a storm, where decay worms slowly in.

The witches do their work. Magic is everywhere

We are the keepers of Samhain, when the veil is most thin. We are crone, we are strife. Mark us well

We are those that made a crown for the one below

Now there is smoke, smoke from lazy fires of peat and coal and wood. My feet have rhythm my voice is a song that the birds can understand.

Like a ghost, smoke wanders through quiet lanes unpeopled though the ghosts of the past are everywhere. The school bell is silent though the bell and the laughter are still gathered here in a dark recess of memory

Soft cherry blossoms of spring- not at the school gates but home in bed and sick while the sun danced outside, while the curtain lifted in the first warm wind of spring while the children were at play

A first exquisite solitude. I have never forgotten that day.

A poem springs to mind, a poet, the track near blind, wants the river, insists on bringing the sound nearer to my ear, by the bridge, houses huddle and take in the mountain, perpetually astonished by the view, backs to the gentler hill and ancient woodlands where a royal beech spreads itself wide as a king the silver birch on the march where deer work the land with sharp ears where merlin walked and a hermit found his way to a final resting place.

Here was the home of a hermit once. Perhaps he came the same way through these dense woods and found his god , resting by the stream a crown of thorns put to one side and water wetting that bristled beard. Still the eyes pierce deeper than any thorn. The man almost naked, naked as any poet should be, saving the cloth around his waist- all sinews, he was Baskins hanged man once, full sized, wood carved, each line cutting out a life knife sharp from the world of time.

The stream is called nant mair. Marys stream.

Mary the mother says the man of thorns under his own breath

The duende wounds,

We will have a straight fight beside the well.

The duende wounds and in the healing of the wound which never closes-is the prodigious, the original work of man.

Here says the naked man, kneeling, and never taking those blue eyes from the hermit, piercing, let me give you water. On this path, not for the muse or the angel, we are baptised in this dark water.

Issui built a home here a hermit’s cell and drank dark water from the dingle well.

A traveller came and in some dispute, was there a struggle- we cannot say-Isuui fell down dead.

Issui murdered.

Methur Issui.

Issui dead.

Where does death lead except to life it seems then back again slowly or suddenly it winds us in and on, serpentine.

In sudden death we find the footmarks of pilgrimage. Here, out of the blood, out of the suffering, out of the wound I put my fingers in, rises water, a well and a sharped eyed hawk. Here is a place of healing and poetry.

People have been healed here. On the other side of the mountain, the tree split from top to toe, her filaments reaching all the way to the dark well where we are baptised out of blood and into life. If we cannot smell death there can be no fight. No life. We will not come they said.

Mana breathes. Mana lives here by the dingle stream. The cross is only small but the goddess is another thing, she the source of everything, this terrible life, the substance of all substance born to die. Mana will come to you sufferer, as your own response to the deep hurts that you bear. She is healing and medicine. She is redemption. You pay for it here with your suffering.

Mana is the source of this and every well worth the name.

In the moment of unbearable pain, I begin to flow she says.

What is the total wound, the head to foot wound that you carry?

That is the question. The Agony rent for agony to be redeemed.

That is the work here where Issui fell and still falls with the light tumbling from his eyes.

I drink the water. Time here is written in blood. Whitewashed more than once as though time were some kind of heresy, still it pushes itself out again or so it is said, a man of work, a spade, a scythe, an hourglass. Beneath time a hollowed trunk of oak where the men of god would keep their valuables thrice locked.  Here the stones speak;

Menhir made me, in the time of Genillin.

A thousand years of incantation, Menhir and Genillin are joined forever in stone and time watches on.

Bread for the birds, welsh scone and butter, a gift passed on, never better, snow hints at the red earth, the water is sweet, the wound deep. The goddess ascents and the man of thorns returns his gaze to the stream and distant lands. Nant Mair. Carry me home.

Spiral up, above the hills, the red earth oozes,

A red kite seeks out death,

Eyes search out signs of weakness in the flock jostling earth.

The track divides and the cairn is a single footprint, an earthprint not in stone,

Here mud marks the way as the snow finds itself in a flurry of hoods and gloves.

A long march by mud pools and a group of boys rise up like young horses shy at the top of the second mountain. I ask them where they will sleep tonight and the mountain ascents to keep them here away from the petty worrying of home

The voices begin to break, and Adams apple swells. A new hair on the chin in the morning

The nick of a knife.

Here is a sense of the real Eden where the boys in huddled shelters dream of serpents, dream of Eve and here the cry that screams across the mountain side. Murther Issui, Murther. Innocence dies here where Pan walks even in times of desolation.

Here you will discover with Herrera that the snow does not kill though it bites.

The ache of Baskins legs are in me. Walhaz, or a dream or maybe both, the place where the world thins easily into silence, the mud here speaks, like stones.


Dragon’s home.

The greater sea moves here in that which is not seen, in what is in the deeps

Or by the well where we are baptized darkly from our suffering,

Where we travel from sleep to sleep




The fox follows the scent downstream as the river does.

Issui falls and in falling is redeemed.

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Marginal Land

Showing its back

And showing its front

A falling maple leaf

Ryokan (death poem)

 I met a roe deer this morning for the first time in ages. There is at least one small herd that lives around here but they appeared to have moved off to graze other land over the last couple of months, a noticeable absence. The roe is common in Somerset, preferring to live in woodland and feeding on grass, leaves, berries and the shoots of young plants. I wonder if their return now is connected to the first thick blush of grass that has shown in the fields hereabouts from last year’s autumn sowing.

The one I saw appeared out of a small thicket of hazel trees right at the bottom of the hill where the path I take on my daily walk turns right at an old wooden gate and leads down towards the river. I was struck by how quickly the deer moved. Startled by my footsteps, it bounded away along the line of trees and hedgerow that trace out the small brook as it heads down to feed the Alham. It was gone in a moment and by the time I reached the bend to look down across the field, it had vanished completely.

It’s always a wonder how one thing; one event will draw attention to another and set off a train of thought. I spent a while looking at the pencil line of trees and brush that follow the brook and was struck by the mixture of colours there; dark, brown, reddish, almost auburn in places. The deer, like the fox, is a marginal animal perfectly suited in colour for a life along the stream amongst the hedgerow scrub, hazel and alder groves. Its coat had that auburn look to it. Indeed I had not seen it at all until it crashed out of the thicket and ran. There is a symbiosis here between landscape and animal, a kind of mutual arising or cooperation that feeds, shelters and gives near invisibility to the deer which in turn eats the leaves, shoots and berries and distributes the latter on surrounding land.

The deer is only really exposed on the wide green pasture fields that patch work the landscape here. This is dairy farming land. Looking around its clear that this is a domesticated landscape, pastoral and beautiful in its own way but intensively farmed and greatly shaped by human activity since the Bronze Age peoples and then the Romans lived on the hill above our house thousands of years ago. The network of green fields here today are an example of biological simplification, the very art of the European agricultural system developed since the 18th century. The picture is civilised and neat but a closer look reveals another story.

It’s extraordinary how sodden the open fields have become after weeks of rain. Perhaps that seems obvious or perhaps odd to say but it’s not. Water lies in pools at the gate entrances and puddles out in all directions over the land. Parts of the fields are a liquid mud that makes walking hard. The freshly sown grass is hardy and coping and will recover with the spring but its striking how different things are in the margins and among the neglected copses that define the edges of the fields, the remaining pockets of wilderness.

Where the pasture fields really feel empty of life; strangely barren, bedraggled, exposed and defenceless, the pockets of copse are vibrant. Squirrels, pheasants, owls, woodpeckers and numerous other birds come and go constantly. Foxes and badgers move through the woodland terrain along with mice and voles. The natural mix of ground cover, trees and shrubs has prevented any saturation and the soil under the fallen leaf mould and ivy, smells sweet and is full of life. I noticed something similar when I took a walk through a Birchwood forest recently in Surrey. In any place I stopped I could put my hand down through leaf litter into deep, rich sweet smelling soil. The unmanaged forest was effortlessly abundant, filled with an extraordinary diversity of life.

The same is true on our own land. The 2 acres we bought last year as a smallholding is currently pasture grass having been most recently a pony paddock. The site is interspersed with a few newly planted fruit trees, fruit bushes and some older cider apples that recall its recent history as a productive orchard. In one corner of the field there is a small area of woodland; a mix of mature deciduous trees including oak and ash. This, I imagine, would have been the natural state of the land before it was claimed for agricultural development; it’s a mystery how that parcel survived when the orchard was first planted sometime around the Second World War. Today after the wettest winter on record, the field, which has a gently sloping southerly aspect is flooded in many places and terribly saturated in others. The wooded land is fine. It’s our hope to rehabilitate the field to its natural state in the coming years, to create something that is both productive and a pleasure to spend time in.

Thinking on our relationship with the land brought to mind a piece of writing I came across recently in a journal written for the Akwasasne first nation peoples-a review written some years ago on the life and work of a Japanese farmer and philosopher called Masanobu Fukuoka .

The article offers an interesting reflection on the traditional methods of agriculture employed by the Hau de no sau nee or Six Nations people of Eastern North America and the impact that European farming systems had both on productivity and the culture of these people. Culturally it was traditional that agricultural work was undertaken by women whilst men were responsible for hunting and fishing, both working together to provide for and sustain the community.

Typically gardens were laid out amongst trees some of which had been girdled to encourage leaf fall and provide firewood. Seeds were sown in groups on hillsides directly into the forest-enriched earth. Fertiliser was provided by fish scraps but beyond that, things were left to grow on their own; put simply, nature was entrusted to do the work of growing and providing for the people. The primary crops were inter-planted corn, beans and squash, a grouping today popularly known as the three sisters, a reference to their mutually beneficial relationship as plants.

Historical accounts of the agricultural practices, taken from military journals suggest that crops were typically bountiful, even extraordinary to European eyes. However, with the arrival of European methods in the late 18th century came a dramatic change in practice. Ploughing was introduced, using draft animals and the iron plough. What differentiated European methods from first nation practices was belief in the efficacy and importance of clearing the land in large swathes in an effort to produce biological simplification such that, in the end, only one life form remained on the land. This was thought to be the best method for plant control and the maximisation of crops.

As I see it now, it was the arrival of the plough borne on a philosophy that sought to subdue and commodify nature that began the divorce from the natural world that we now take for granted. In the 1790s, our relationship with the earth tilted irrevocably from a place of sanctuary to one of commodity. Here are the roots of the timber industry and the beef industry. The forest and the cow were objectified and that objectification made all manner of acts of mistreatment possible in the name of progress. The marriage between people and the earth which had been at the heart of life for millennia was broken.

The consequences of the broken agreement have been varied and many. For the six nation’s people the consequences were catastrophic. Early positive results with the plough proved to be unsustainable. Traditional farming methods were replaced by clear felling of land. Ploughing and monoculture began to reduce the fertility of the soil itself requiring the land to be fertilised more regularly with animal dung and later chemical fertilisers in a bid to sustain productivity.

As the land lost its vitality so the crops weakened and became vulnerable to disease and parasite infection. The inherent balance of natural pests had been broken by the plough and the single cropping system and the ground was laid for the introduction of artificial insecticides and pesticides to manage the apparent deficiencies in the soil. The cost of growing food escalated as the nutritional value (life force) of the crop itself diminished. Slowly the soil died.

Of course ploughing required animals and thus more land for hay and grain was needed to feed the animals. As the cycle of events unfolded, men increasingly became involved in the work, first supporting and then finally taking over from the women not because of a need for strength but simply because of the volume of hard work now required to grow the food. The archetypal balance of masculine and feminine itself began to shift as stewardship was replaced by land management. Centuries old patterns fell by the wayside and were lost forever.

It is important to recognize that the practice of farming introduced to the Akwesasne by the settlers rested on a philosophy born out of the enlightenment. Across the distant lands of civilized Western Europe, reason was replacing faith as the primary touchstone for society. The new civil order would be based on natural law and a science based on observation and experimentation. The plough and the single crop are reasonable extensions of a philosophy of separation and discrimination, a triumph of science and technology and the rational mind built on the profound belief in humankind’s capacity to both dominate and improve on nature. A space appeared definitely and finally in the western mind that could separate out the observer from what was observed.

The reflections I have shared by the Akwesasne come from a review of a book that had been published by a relatively unknown Japanese man, a farmer and philosopher called Masanobu Fukouka (1913-2008). The book, published in 1975, was called ‘The one straw revolution’ and it took fundamental issue with the precepts of European agriculture that he felt had blighted agriculture and life in general for over 200 years.

Fukuoka-san, who was born on the island of Shikoku, spent 60 years demonstrating by his own efforts, on his own farm that a wide variety of crops could be grown completely naturally to a quality, quantity and standard that could equal or better the crops being grown by neighbours using modern scientific methods. Over that time he developed a method of agricultural production that many would say has the potential to reverse the degenerative momentum of modern agriculture. It was simply called natural farming.

As a young man Fukouka-san, then a microbiologist specializing in plant diseases, had a realization which changed his understanding of life completely. He describes the experience which occurred at the end of a long sleepless night during a bout of depression;

As the breeze blew up from the bluff, the morning mist suddenly disappeared. Just at that moment a night hero appeared, gave a sharp cry, and flew away into the distance. I could hear the flapping of its wings. In an instant all my doubts and the gloomy mist of my confusion vanished. Everything I had held in firm conviction, everything upon which I had ordinarily relied was swept away with the wind. I felt that I understood just one thing. Without my thinking about them, words came from my mouth, “in this world there is nothing at all”….I felt I understood nothing….I could see that all the concepts to which I had been clinging, the very notion of existence itself, were empty fabrications….everything that had possessed me, all the agonies, disappeared like dreams and illusions and something one might call ‘true nature’ stood revealed.

From this realisation a simple philosophy was born. At its heart Fukuoka-san recognised as fallacy the belief that we can improve on nature at all. His observations in the fields he worked every day suggested that all attempts to improve on nature lead to consequences that require further effort to address. Thus a vicious cycle is born that is never ending, detrimental to all living systems and leads the great majority of people into an endless life of largely pointless toil.

The more people do, the more society develops, the more problems arise. The increasing desolation of nature, the exhaustion of resources, the uneasiness and disintegration of the human spirit, all have been brought about by humanity’s trying to accomplish things’

As Fukuoka-san saw it, nature is already ideally arranged and abundant without any interference. Each effort at improvement creates adverse reactions that require measures to counteract those side effects. It was his view that, in the modern world, pretty much everything people are doing today aims to mitigate problems caused by previous misguided actions. It would be better, suggested Fukuoka-san if people did nothing at all. This philosophy underpinned his method of natural farming. No ploughing, no digging, no fossil fuels, no pesticides or compost. A simple life lived in harmony with nature-very practical and indeed, a considerable act of service.

The philosophy expanded beyond agriculture to life in more general terms. Fukuoka-san was convinced that the demoralization of society had much to do with the separation of the human being from nature.

Sickness comes when people draw away from nature. The severity of the disease is directly proportional to the degree of separation”

There are echoes here of Freud’s observation when he said that

the consequence of civilization is our neuroses.

Fukouka-san felt that beyond agriculture, the effects of our disenchantment with the natural world were seen in a growing dependency on doctors and medicine that were only necessary when

‘people create a sickly environment’.

Formal schooling he said,

has no intrinsic value, but becomes necessary when humanity creates a condition in which one must become ‘educated’ to get along’.

His thinking was indeed revolutionary and yet, radically simple.

When Fukuoka –san talked about ‘doing nothing’ he was not commending a life of laziness in the western sense, but was really reflecting a cultural philosophy seeped in a Buddhist and Taoist understanding of the universe. He and his students worked long hard days but always within the limits of a natural life. He lived simply, ate simply, made few demands on the earth or his fellow man. The key to the practice of natural farming was to live humbly. His understanding rested in the Asian experience of the universe described by David Hinton as;

‘existence burgeoning forth, an ongoing generative present in which things appear and disappear in the process of change…clouds drift, wind rustles wildflowers and trees, day fades into night and night into day. Seasons come and go, one after the other. You die. Other people are born. On and on it goes…everything is moving all the time without pause, without beginning or end’

We can find many descriptions of the philosophy underpinning his work in writings such as the Tao Te Ching;

‘In the pursuit of learning one knows more every day. In the pursuit of the way one does less every day. One does less and less until one does nothing at all, and when one does nothing at all, there is nothing that is undone’

What is interesting in this case is that the philosophical insight followed on from activity in the world-it unfolded out of direct experience. Conceptually, ‘doing nothing’ is perhaps best understood through such principles as we find in the Buddhist eightfold which speaks of such things as ‘right effort’ and right livelihood’-really a pragmatic guide rather than a moralistic set of rules that describe a way of being present to the world in harmony; not resisting the nature of things to change, appear and disappear.

Practice is the path’ said the Zen Master Dogen. No doubt Fukuoka-san would agree. Perhaps this is another way of saying that actions speak louder than words but that actions themselves may be in harmony or antagonistic to the natural or ‘great way’ and therefore more or less useful from a universal perspective. Sometimes inaction is the best way.

The real goal of farming is not the growing of food but the cultivation and perfection of the human-being.

It is not hard to imagine the kindred spirit felt between the Akwasesne peoples of North America and Fukuoka-san in Japan. They share a deep and profound philosophy about the nature of human life on earth that places our relationship with all life and the practice of growing food at the very heart of the experience.

Turning to another first nation tribe, the Yurok Indians have the word mrwrsrgerh which means beauty. The word is a verb; to be beautiful in this context is to be unpolluted and pure or natural. It speaks also to the capacity to make medicine and be part of rituals. It was understood by elders of the tradition that ‘Creation’ was ‘everything’ but that it was impossible to name. The Yurok could not conceive of a personalised god so they used a variety of words to describe the Creation itself including nahwok, which translates as ‘you see how it is but there are no words to say it’. Though it could not be spoken it could be understood through the study of beauty. This seems to very closely mirror the experience of the universe as described in Taoism-when it is said that ‘the Tao that is talked about is not the real Tao.’

It is a powerful thing to the educated western mind to imagine what Creation might really mean to the Yurok peoples-what it might mean in the formation of a human being. Describing that relationship Harry Roberts said;

When a man made communion with Creation so that he could walk with beauty he stood forth on a mountain top and opened his hands and held his arms wide and looked full into the breaking dawn and let the Spirit of Creation flow into him. He didn’t even wear moccasins or a necklace lest some portion of him should be shielded from the light of creation…these were real men. I don’t mean big bruisers stomping around, but complete people. We say man, but some were women. These people became complete by studying very hard, training hard from their early life.

Here again we see that to ‘do nothing’ does not mean doing nothing but to act in accordance with natural principles, that are beyond naming. There is a symbiosis here. The Yurok human being feels to me like a marginal being, kindred to the copses and woodland that still remain around my home as outposts, edging the grassland where the slow cattle move and eat.

It’s funny how thoughts run into each other. Turning towards home after seeing the deer, I walked along the path beside another stream. Here where the land is more neglected you can see the tendency of the earth to stretch back and reclaim the pasture. A generation or two of neglect and things would look very different here. The hazel and alder, the brambles, the ivy, want to establish themselves, want to claim the earth back. Much effort is put into land a management here, much effort to keep it civilized.

As I walked down the hill towards home I recalled a radio interview I had listened to a few days ago with the Irish philosopher John Moriarty. In it he describes a time when he felt compelled to leave his post as a professor at a Canadian university to return to a more simple life in his native Connemara. He describes walking across a bog and coming across a hare, hidden among tussocks of grass. The startled hare ran for its life just as the deer had run this morning, but left an indent in the grass where it had been lying. Moriarty immediately lay down and rested his head where the hare had been and asked that the soft bowl of earth there might work to suck his western knowledge out of his head; that the warmth of the earth where the hare had been might act as a kind of poultice for his European mind, as aching full as it was with academic knowledge and intellectual facts. It’s a powerful thought. After becoming civilized, perhaps the only thing left for us is to become de-civilized again, to let nature run over us, guide us home. We need, said Moriarty, to be inhumed-a wonderful term-to dig our way back down into the soil. Perhaps he meant it literally -Moriarty himself returned to Connemara and exchanged his academic life for one as a gardener, writer and in my view something of a mystic-shaman. He meant it psychologically, spiritually and philosophically too-surely it is true that to be alive in our nature we must be alive in the nature into which we are born. To say we have lived a life, that we were here on the earth albeit briefly, mustn’t we reconnect with the soil of our inner lives, to meet the serious life we lead, the archetypal longings we feel, seriously?

Moriarty, in his finest writings, reminds us of what the psalmists knew; that we are indeed;

fearfully and wonderfully made.

He reminds us of what William James knew-

The further limits of our being plunge, it seems to me, into an altogether other dimension of existence from the sensible and the merely understandable.

 What Nietzsche knew

 I have discovered for myself that the old human and animal life, indeed the entire prehistory and past of all sentient being, works on, loves on, hates on, thinks on in me.

And Wordsworth knew

Not chaos, not

The darkest pit of lowest Erebus,

Nor aught of blinder vacancy scooped out

By help of dreams – can breed such fear and awe

As fall upon us often when we look

Into our Minds, into the Mind of Man

 I think had he been with me in the Birch wood, Moriarty might have encouraged me to keep digging into the soil that morning, to let my fingers, my hand, my arm and whole body be drawn down into the soil-to trust the poultice of the earth to heal my own European mind, to help me loosen up around my own incessant need to know. He would say, and I would agree, that we can learn a lot from the margins of our civilized lives, from the trees, plants and animals we find there in the quiet and overlooked places. I was grateful for the deer this morning, for reminding me, for what it had to tell me as it ran away.

Larry Korn, an American student who spent many years in the company of Masanobu Fukuoka recalls the day when he was given some helpful advice by the sensei-

‘There is no need to understand the world, he said, just enjoy it’

It’s a serious point, lightly put.

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The Grace of Darkness

I’m just back in from a lovely walk. It’s still early but winter is now closing in on us here. There is just the hint of a waxing half-moon behind low, scudding clouds-the whole sky has been bruised by a day of heavy rain and gales, the leaves are stripped from the trees and fill the tracks and gullies with their beautiful yellow-brown patterns-decay never looks better than it does in the mess of  fallen leaves . Out across the woodland as the light fails you can hear the strange urgent, rusty calls of the pheasants as they settle up in the trees for the night. It’s a lovely time, the half-light of dusk. There is a quietening after the urgent matters of the day that I feel in myself and that I sense reflected in the land around me.

This is a time of year that brings me closer than any other to the strange patterning of life and death that is woven into the landscape here so clearly. It feels wholly appropriate since it seems that this pattern is what I am being called to name at the moment in my writing.

Out on the land the apples have all fallen and the trees will become dormant for several months, their buds tight packed against the cold, the essence of waiting and patience. Much of the apple crop has become compost but we have enough cider, cider vinegar, and apple juice to mark the year as a good one.

The vegetable garden has changed so much. The dried beans are in jars and the rest is already earth. We have good stores of vegetables and as I look out in the dim light I can see the winter greens sitting solidly in neat rows beside the wheat and winter oats ready for whatever the weather can throw at them.

Elsewhere, the bees are running out of days and daylight to get in provision for the winter. They are working hard now, compromising a lot on their usual love for warmth and sun to get the stores filled. They can travel up to 2 kilometres to find the yellow pollen that is stacked up on their hind quarters. Though lazy and languid in the summer, they are more irritable now and need to be met with respect, care and attention. Theirs is a selfless society I suppose; many will die soon, preserving the queen and a central colony that will live out the winter on the honey they have made in readiness for the coming of spring and a new cycle of life.

Ritual and Pheasants

Each season here is marked by its own rituals that connect people with the natural world around us-the traffic between domesticity and wilderness. This is pheasant country. As game birds, it’s a tough time for them. Pheasant shooting begins here on November 1st and already I can tell that the numbers of birds has dwindled significantly in the two shoots we have already had nearby. In this part of the country, pheasant shooting is without doubt a ritual of the season but also an important part of the local economy. People travel hundreds of miles to shoot pheasants.

It’s not something I’ve ever done and I can’t say it sits easy with me as I favour neither guns nor killing beyond necessity. I see the pheasants up close in the garden and they are large, very beautiful birds. Nonetheless, things are never that simple. The local shoot supports,  among other things, the survival of the dwindling art of game keeping, now quite a rare occupation in this part of England and going the way of most traditional  skills like hedge laying, charcoal burning and basket weaving that have been central to life here for hundreds of years.

Our local gamekeeper is a young man following in a family tradition. We spoke recently, after I had been admiring some of the birds gathered near an ash tree on the walk I take most days. He told me that he works fifty weeks a year, for a meagre income. His margins are tight. His biggest trouble is with the buzzards-there are many here, beautiful to watch when they circle in groups high up on summers days- but, being predators,  they love to eat the young birds. It’s a tough life he assured me though with the grace of freedom and an intimacy with the landscape that, if not romantic, is something he loves. He told me that gamekeepers have the highest suicide rate in the UK. Perhaps it’s the pressure, the poor income or the loneliness of the work.

I see him often in the fields and he works hard. Like so much of my experience the pheasant shoot throws up near impossible tensions. I have wondered how to disentangle my love of life, the quiet of the land, and the beauty I see in the pheasants, from the dwindling of ritual, the idea of ‘sport’, the volleys of gunfire, the gamekeepers  future and the future of game keeping. These are such complex tensions; at best I try to hold them openly and honestly.

Quaker meeting

I went to a Quaker meeting last Sunday. There were perhaps a dozen or so people there. There is no service as such in the Quaker tradition. Silence is the foundation of the hour of worship but any person may stand up and speak if they feel called to ministry. I went because I needed some silence.

Recently, I heard Quaker meeting described rather beautifully as ‘the peaceable inquiry after truth.’  Truth can mean a lot of things of course and I like this path because it doesn’t lay claims on what the truth might be-hence its welcome of inquiry. The only guidance offered comes in a thin book of ‘advices and queries’; a series of short passages that offer guidance and consolation but not more than that. They sit rather like meditations, encouraging consideration and reflection. The advices finish with a short passage written by George Fox in 1656

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.

What I hear Fox saying is twofold; first that it is my life rather than my words, beliefs or assumed authority that can most usefully speak to the world. I am wary of words like ‘preach’ but I think Fox is naming something quite specific here that is not about dogma and ritualism but something far deeper. Second Fox suggests that each of us bears within us something infinitely precious that can be met, spoken to, honoured and experienced. It’s an invitation, as I read it, to celebrate the ‘other ‘-it is an invitation to hospitality.

Jung described the religious attitude as ‘the careful consideration of superior powers’. I think that’s what is going on here-the art of consideration as it speaks to our work in the world.

I often sit with my eyes closed for the hour of silence that we hold together and enjoy the feeling both of solitude and shared community. I remember on Sunday however, sitting with eyes open watching the sycamore tree outside blow in the wind, listening to the bird call in the trees that surround the old red brick building, listening to the steady deep sound of the clock marking each passing second.

We were sitting together in the aftermath of the Paris bombings. I remember listening to the slow, solid ticking of the clock, wondering what event might cause the clock itself to stop. How painful, how terrible, must it be to stop time, to have time itself, or the tree itself or perhaps the birds stop their movement or their song and acknowledge what had passed.

The first person to stand up to speak was a woman. She shared with us, through tears, a few words from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians

 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Events in Paris have shaken us all to the roots here and the scenes of death and devastation were the cause of my friend’s tears, and indeed of her ministry-perhaps we might say prayer. I had been sitting; thinking a lot about love and suffering and it was very moving to be reminded of this powerful and perhaps definitive passage on the subject of this most important of principles. I sat digesting the words, feeling them shape the vessel of love itself and another reflection from Jung came to mind;

You cannot change what you cannot accept.

I wonder in some ways if that is what Paul was getting at. Acceptance not as resignation; well that’s just how it is, but a radical acceptance that says yes-this too. For such an acceptance we must turn to love as the only power sufficient to it. Love and justice are conjoined forces, not opposites and are only separated at great price to everyone. As Martin Luther King said;

‘Power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

In the face of such immense and terrible power, in the face of violence, force or the outraged cry for justice that exploded on the streets of Paris, my friends voice offered a gentle and powerful corrective, she sought in her own way to right the wrong done-everything returning again and again to harmony, justice balanced by a love that ‘rejoices’. Harmony maybe sounds weak in the face of this trouble but it’s not. In the Greek myths Harmonia was the child of Mars and Ares-the fruit of war and love.

It was both a strange and somehow comforting feeling, sitting with Paul’s words, listening to the clock marking out each moment faithfully and unfalteringly-maybe like love itself-giving me the feeling of  a river flowing onwards of which this whole thing must be a part though I cannot understand it. ‘Panta Rei,’ said Heraclitus, describing his philosophy in two words; everything flows.


I have been thinking about someone whose friend died recently. When we talked about it the first words that came to me of course were ’I’m sorry’. That’s the first thing a lot of people say I suppose and I have wondered about it and frankly disliked it as a response- thinking it vacuous and timid, the kind of thing you say when you accidently tread on someone’s toes in a supermarket queue but too weak for death. It was what I thought until now. Today I have gained a new appreciation for the rightness of the word itself.  ‘Sorry’ is in fact a very precise and particular word.  I’m sorry, or I am in sorrow, comes from the Middle English word sorg; it means to grieve, or to suffer keenly. It turns out to be just the right kind of word for death.

To sorrow is really a verb, something active, something we do-it speaks to companionship-to be in grief with you who have not died but suffer in the face of death. Sorrow is mindful of the dead not as ‘lost’ but as fully present-to sorrow is to enter that landscape of keen loss that cannot make sense of a friend’s death or the family he has left behind but is simply with the immensity of it all. To sorrow is to meet the grief as a real task of a life-it says life is so much bigger than we are and this is an honest response to what cannot be measured.

It was Wendell Berry who asked us to consider what it means to live and die fully within the limits of human grief and joy. I think to be in sorrow together is part of our native response to that concern since it acknowledges so fully the very edges of the limits of our experience bound as they are by our grieving’s and our joys. This is our common land, our common acerage, our common heritage. I think the act of sorrowing can companion the dead too- I’d like to think so. In this way our grief and despair becomes part of the fabric of the canoe that bears the dead one onwards-homewards perhaps-the Odyssey continuing out of our sight but not out of mind.


It’s dark here now. I have heard that the first snow is on its way after weeks of mild days and rain. Winter is all about the play of darkness and light. We are a month away from the winter solstice here, the shortest day, the death of the old year and the birth of the new. On that day the light is diminished to its weakest point, the candle flickers, the weight and balance of the world is held for a time, it seems, precariously. The festival of winter solstice is still powerfully written into the land here. I live about half an hour from Stonehenge, perhaps the most well -known of the megalithic stone circles oriented towards sunrise on the shortest day. I’m not sure if there is a more powerful symbol of the eternal dance of life and death than is felt at midwinter. It is symbol made literal, felt and experienced and sensed. No beginning and no ending. I love this poem by George Mackay Brown, celebrating the winter solstice at Maeshowe, the ancient Viking Cairn oriented precisely to midwinters day on the Scottish Island of Orkney where he lived;


Circle of light and darkness, be our sign
We move in the shadows.
Brodgar has burned on the moor a dance of sun

Ring of quern and plough, contain
Our tumults of blood.
The stars’ chaos is caught in a strict rein.

Wheel of life and death, remove
The sweet warm breath.
Ingibiorg flowers in stone, all beauty and love.

Round of sun and snow and seed,
Out of those skulls
Breaks the first green shoot, the full ear, then the bread.

In the pilgrimage towards the solstice itself we must endure darker, shorter days. Endurance is part of the dark trial as, I think, is faith. There is a farmer’s faith that I know well, borne out of years of seasonal work. What appears dead is always intimately connected with what is alive; the apple tree sits, silently holding its vigil for spring. The blossoms will wait, I know, for the right moment-an uncorrupted and universal wisdom that speaks of some intelligence beyond my comprehension. The prunings and dead wood from the years growth will make kindling for a living fire. The blossom waits and its patience and faith will be rewarded we trust, by the warmth of days to come. I am always moved by the ways in which the trees here offer real guidance for my own life. Maybe that is what this season is about, what love is about-being patient and kind. There is I think a real grace in darkness.

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A fall of poems in early autumn



By the stream in the mountains

There we found words

To nullify the hurt we’d done with words,

Bridging the space they made between us

Inching our way back by slow steps of instinct and reason

There are words hewn out from the origins of stones

Broken on the valley floor,

Ages old the gods still listen for

Consolation, lamentation, lacrimae


Between an abyss and the blue sky

Fine as lightning, a crack opens up

Where the man of thoughts

Always hesitates, the dreamer always moves

We see only what we can admit

In the eternal discourse of Man and Myth

Here I scratch old words out of hard stone

With broken fingernails while another stands

Beside me and puts a feather in his hair

A simple act can bridge the worlds

Where eyes burning black

Distinguish darkness

From the deeper dark


Below us the stream is not dumb

Speaking only the language of eternity

It is we who do not understand unless

Deep in the memory, something stirs

A solitary harebell is wide eyed,

Breathing in the world on the flood tide

Words were forged here out of fire

Long after imagination found dark caves

To ship the dead across the sea

And back again, returning endlessly

Reincarnation is only what the world offers us

Year by year by way of explanation

Making love between snow and snow


Still the words with every utterance seem to

Separate us always by a hairsbreadth

From the ones we truly know

The things we really want to say like

Currents flow between us

As between coastlines where

Salt water floods the eyes

We pick out truth from lies

Words clothe the world

But always shroud the instinct

And still we work our passage home

The only way back, the only way in

As Adam named the beasts so they became,

It’s the naming makes things real-

A gift for angels

What the angels want?

A handful of hazel nuts

Or the feeling of wet berries after rain that stain

Inky fingers, a nettles sting

All more potent than a prayer, these being precious things

A messenger calls, a dream unfolds

And we return with all

We have contrived to be of worth

Simple gifts, clay, corn, earth and

A brief song forged in work

Between our deaths we come to make

Our own annunciation

Black Sun  For Paul Celan


 Black sun rise, black water,

Dawns cold light

I knew Celan had died

By his own hand

Before I’d read a word

Of Margarete or Sulamith


Oh Poor Celan,

Scrape music from your violin,

Play up!

Even as death walks in and all about you laugh

We are too late for the gods

And too soon for being



Such strangeness,

How the artist holds us

His face haunted

Hard against the fire

Of our small anxieties,

Traversing worlds, he dances

Sees all things mythically;


Outside Eden men will always fight

Out among the third day mountains

Tight between Picasso

And the Tomb of Holbein’s Christ-

Christ if he were right

And we are all forsaken?

To make us aware of our destitution

Is that what the artist does?



Fintan Mac Bochra,

Sits alone in his chair

Where the paint chipped door remains

Forever unlatched

To welcome those who find him there

A stranger in their dreams


A slow, low embered fire

Lives in ash in the hearth

Where a small flame tongues

Words in ancient Gaelic, borne

Out of the double mystery

That comes with the incantation

Of fire and burning roots

The mystery of root

The mystery of fire

Entwined forever

Travelling way down…..


Motionless in the smoky downdraught

He asks those that enter for a feather

They do not possess

But never the matter

The body is warmed,

The psyche hovers peregrine

The man was a salmon once

When his wife and children died

Became an eagle

And a white hawk too

Changing the way light will

In a blowy autumn wood


Beyond the stream on the lake that was a mist

A swan glides into the form of a girl

With auburn hair curling to her hips

She has eyes that will turn a man to stone

He cannot name her,

Banbha, Fodhla, Eire.

No incantation would save him from her kiss

You have made me cold with neglect She said

Leaving him stone dead, departing with a hiss

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A Gift of Plums and Other Things

Way and weighing

Stile and saying

On a single walk are found.

Go bear without halt

Question and default

On your single pathway bound.        Martin Heidegger

Since moving here some three years ago, I have come to know the local countryside well and there is a particular walk that is especially important to me. There are detours I take sometimes, but the basic pattern is the same and the small tracks and fields are very familiar to me now.

As I look back through my notes, I notice how the walk has been such a steady and true companion over the years, how it has at times comforted me through great difficulty, given me space to think, to reflect, to take on things and let go of things, how it has lifted me up in moments of grace, gifted me real insights and despite its familiarity, frequently surprised me. It was Rilke who advised that we should each have a favourite tree to company us through dark times and this walk has been that tree like companion for me over the years.

A few days ago whilst wandering the familiar pathway I discovered a lone cherry plum tree hidden away in a hedgerow mainly of hazel and field maple. The wild plum tree had naturalised in the hedge from a pip that had fallen there somehow many years previously. The fruits of the wild cherry plum are smaller than commercial varieties, larger than the blackthorn sloes that were ripening nearby but with a similar velvety blue, black colouring-though they can appear sometimes as yellow. The discovery of the tree, laden as it was with its cargo of ripe fruit was both a surprise and gift-the fruit is delicious and it was all the better for being wild.

Picking the fruit reminded me of another discovery-this time of a quite unusual Mirabelle plum tree- which we came across beside an old and little used track several weeks previously at the edge of the Wiltshire downs. We had hoped to break our walk with lunch at a pub only to find that the pub had closed down-something that seems to have been the fate of several pubs in the local area in recent times as habits and ideas of community have shifted and changed. The Mirabelle had shed the majority of its fruit all over the track-a galaxy of small, bright yellow suns that were the best plums I have ever eaten and were our free and unexpected lunch. The Mirabelle is rare in England; I had never come across one before that day. A few are grown commercially in Essex and Suffolk  but their true home in Europe is France, the Mirabelle de Lorraine accounts for most of the commercial Mirabelle plums in the world and they are harvested primarily for jam and Eau-de-Vie.

We discovered the Mirabelle as we were making our way back towards the village of Codford St Peter which had been our start point for the day. The Parish Church is the home of a remarkable Saxon stone which we had gone to visit. The carved stone was discovered in the chancel of the church in 1864 and now resides in the sanctuary there. It is thought to date back at least to the 9th century and quite possibly much earlier. The carving is in Bath stone, the piece is slender and around 2 or 3 feet in height and shows what appears to be a dancing man looking up at the sky. In his left hand he is holding a rattle and in his right, a branch of alder. The images on the edges of the stone are less easy to distinguish but there is a small Saxon cross, a pair of eels, an otter and a pair of fish to the east whilst willows, honeysuckle buds and comfrey leaves decorate the western face.

It is a wonderful, almost mythic stone and it evokes a relationship with the surrounding landscape that is of such intimacy and vigour that it made me think more about the ideas of gift, celebration, feast, season and blessing. There are no comparable stones in England to offer us guidance about the meaning of the work. It does seem surely that he is performing some kind of dance; we might imagine a ritual or ceremony closely linked to fertility and harvest. Dance, song and celebration were key means by which the year and its tasks were marked in ancient times. William Anderson in his book, The Green Man writes;

‘Actions ritually performed become memorable, the ritual sets a pattern in the memory for the timing and due sequence of tasks and actions….they impressed essential knowledge of the phases of the moon, of gauging when to plough, when to sow, when to cut the hay, when to scythe the corn and how long to let it stand in stooks and when to kill the cattle before the winter set in’

The dancer dances the relationship between earth, land and people. It is part propitiation, part celebration and part practical action, feeding the communal memory, marking the key points of the yearly cycle. There is a sense of celebration in the dance, in the uplifted face. Perhaps we can recall the May Day celebrations-the exuberance of Beltaine as it was once known; the May Queen and the May Lord dancing about the hawthorn amidst uproarious dancing or the wassail, common still in Somerset.

Wassail, being a derivation of the Saxon word Haile, meaning health-may have been a celebration that our dancer would have been familiar with. Wassailing the apple orchard was an act of thanks, of blessing and reinvigoration, thanking the earth for the cider to come, thanking the tree in expectation of a healthy harvest. Three gunshots over the apple tree served to wake the orchard to the labour of another year. It was of course a time of feast and celebration too;

Wassail and wassail all over the town

The cup it is white and the ale it is brown

The cup it is made of the good ashen tree

And so is the malt of the best barley


Our Saxon holds a drum, lending the scene an almost shamanic quality and the alder is not in hand by chance. Alongside the willow, the alder is the tree of the waterways and rivers both of which like blood, give life to the land, so we might imagine an honouring here of the River Wylye itself that runs its course  close to the village. Indeed the willow and alder were considered King and Queen of the waterways; the alder was held in considerable esteem by ancient peoples because it appears to bleed when cut, its sap quickly turning red when exposed to the air. This quality meant the alder was considered sacred, a tree that represented both the generosity of the gods and the health of the land.

I like to imagine that we see gathered here in the multitude of symbols surrounding the man a cosmology of reciprocity. Reciprocity is about balance and the harmony of relationships, about reflexive action and correspondence. Harmony is assured through acts of renewal that recognise the principle of fair exchange. The dance is an act then, not merely born out of an age of ignorance and superstition, but rather a physics of renewal and sustainability in time and space, and it is an act of humility. The seasons and cycles are set more or less in their mighty ways  but there is always surprise in store in weather, in the favour of the spirits and the gods and the balance must be kept where it can through respectful and sometimes raucous intervention. We cannot expect fair weather and a good harvest without first preparing the way for it through the rituals we make and keep. A society without rituals is poorer for the loss. The act of the dance is so important here that craftsmen memorialised it in stone; an act of commemoration that bridges centuries of time and aeons of thought.

It is simply too easy to write off the dancer as a superstitious image borne out of pre-scientific magical thinking. There can be no feast without gods so there is a cultic element to the stone that speaks of an animate world, an enchanted place. Feasting and festival are divine acts always; they have a transcendent quality that speaks to us of the possibility of transformation. In a world marked out mostly for acts of survival the dancer points beyond the mundane world to something else. Such actions, imbued with meaning-the work of affective presence, are the hallmark of a society and a culture that is still in touch with the hidden, the very essence of reality.

The community must have been very familiar with the vagaries and uncertainties of rural life. Hunger would have been familiar, alongside sickness and death.  Hard work marked the days in the labours of ploughing, sowing, reaping and storing and the management of livestock. The community would have been skilled in managing every aspect of the farming year that was in their power to control. What we imagine here is a wider interpretation of what power is, where its sources are, what we see is the non-ordinary expression of a radical acceptance of the conditions of living, of the harmony and unity apparent in the world between man and a land still only partially tamed.

In the dancer we see how the community recognised the hidden or unseen aspect of the work, the spirit of the land and the relationship between land and community that must be kept healthy through acts of renewal, through voice and dance. In this way the absolute servitude of labour-work characterised by its usefulness for something else- is offset by the dancing which is an action that is simply meaningful in itself. As such it is a contemplative action as well as sacred, holy and divine- allowing the dancer and the community to be in relationship with the core of all things, ‘the hidden, ultimate reason of the living universe’.

We are always called to contend with the tension between what we know, what we can account for, what we can achieve with our own hands and our own knowledge, and the eternally mysterious aspect of life. Our Saxon points to a different kind of relationship to these tensions than is familiar to us today, and we might too easily dismiss it as foolish. Nonetheless, any time spent immersed in the countryside will make us think again about the mystery in which we find ourselves. We encounter the small mysteries as surprise in a hedgerow- and receive the gift of plums for which we give thanks-it is a simple enough kind of gift or grace. We meet mystery in the glimpse of a fox or a deer whose eyes startle us still in the deeper recesses of our ancient brains, or the sudden  eruption of birds that were stone still as we approached but lost their nerve at the last moment. In wild places we feel the way a stream moves in eternity;

We never have pure space in front of us,

Not for a single day, such as flowers open

Endlessly into…


So lamented Rilke; in the natural world we are still called to reconcile our different ways of knowing the world and we feel the distance that intellect alone cannot bridge. It is in the dancing that we come closer to the flowers’ experience,  through the rituals we create that embed us in the land, bless its many forms, mark time and space with movement and voices;

Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter

Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes

Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth


The favour granted by the spirit of the land for a good harvest is a thing bestowed, not calculated. The good will of the spirits cannot be guaranteed but it can be propitiated and blessed. We forget in times of abundance the very tight margins that allow our lives to be led in comfort.

I want to imagine our dancing Saxon as a man fully alive, inhabiting the world between the poles of feast and famine, life and death, the explicit and the hidden. dancing in ecstasy, beside himself even-as one touched by the gift of enthusiasm-the being filled by the gods, marking the season, sealing the memory of the community, propitiating and celebrating the New Year and the possibility of fertility, bridging the land, the community, the mystery in word and movement and a carefree abandon.

We cannot say when or in which moments the world will offer itself up to us more fully. The gift is always, must always, be a surprise, be it a harvest of plums, a field of mushrooms, the flash of a fox or a landscape that quivers out of the mundane for a moment into some extraordinariness that leaves us awed. We can walk out, we can pray for insight, we can and should give thanks for the wonder of the natural world but we should remember with good faith and humility that no matter how smart we are the gift is always withheld until it is given.

Still, I think we can walk with the possibility of such gifts in the way we live out our days in nature and know that our lives, that our souls will be the better for being touched by the small moments of sweetness that the natural world can give us. That we take ourselves out into the world in good faith, matters, since it makes the wonderful and the marvellous possible. That we carry with us on the single pathway bound a questioning and enquiring mind, matters too. That we mark seasons, transitions, the vegetative year with song, ale and dance matters, that we carry the drum and the alder, the world of otter, eel, fish and honeysuckle-carry them inside us, matters, not as mere sentiment, but as a holy task.

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Lessons From Hare

I love this land. The season here is turning. I love the way that the mist clings to the hills on the far side of the valley, there is a faint wind from the west and to me the trees, though still green, seem somehow relieved that the intensity of the summer is coming to an end. I am the same, the low cloud and gentle drizzle suits my mood.  It is the end of August. In modern times we still think of August in England as the summer, but our forebears, the Celts marked August as the first month of Autumn which feels more accurate when I am out wandering  or working  on the land and when I am in the weather. Everywhere the fruits of summer’s efforts are ripening. This year the valley-alongside the usual cattle pasture- is full of wheat-it gives the landscape a beautiful golden hue. The first blackberries are ready, rosehips too and with a closer look the still green leaves on the oak trees and in the hedgerows are showing the first signs of decay.

Chlorophyll is a word derived from the Greek; chloros and phyylon, meaning ‘green leaf’. It’s a quirk of nature and science that the leaf itself cannot absorb light from the green part of the electromagnetic spectrum, preferring blue and red, hence the reason that it is, or appears to us at least, as green.The leaf performs the alchemical labour of conversion;  sunlight into new growth and life and its brief greenness hides temporarily at least, the imperfections, markings and bruising’s, the yellow, brown blotches of the true leaf, that are always there, though lost to sight briefly in the exuberance of our spring and summer months. There is something revelatory about autumn, even-maybe especially, in its first utterings. Not that, but this, she says, neti, neti; not that, not that. Reminders of the Upanishads, the world forever changing.

This morning I took my familiar walk down the hill and then back up the combe, following the stream to its source below Creech Hill. The land that borders the stream has been divided into several fields, wide strips of pasture and meadow divided by pollarded hedgerows of mature hazel, beech and oak. The footpath meanders out of Spargrove and really peters out these days at the combe’s head but it is still joined- field by field for half a mile or so, by a series of stiles. There is a particular stile that I like to sit on for a while most days and this morning as I sat there I was greeted by a hare.

The hare is a wonderful animal and truly a wild-as well as mythical- creature. The hare is very shy-except in springtime-the mad march hare. In the real world it can run up to 35 mph. In the mythic world, the Irish consider the hare to be sidh-one of the fairy folk. This particular hare didn’t see me sitting still on the stile so today I was really gifted some considerable time in its company and in the feeling for the world it inhabits. Noting its physicality first- this adult hare is a strikingly big animal, about the size of a small dog. Its ears were long, oversized, and stuck up like a pair of brown, black feathers, always moving, always sensing the environment. Its markings were quite beautiful; thick, coarse fur that had in it every imaginable quality of brown, and patches of black about the legs and face. It moved gracefully enough, a kind of lolloping gait, nonchalant not knowing I was there, stopping, sensing, nibbling the grass, moving on, both deeply relaxed and exceptionally alert all at once.

What came to me as I watched the hare was the Celtic word ‘neart’. Neart really describes the ancient Celtic understanding of the creative life force that is understood to pervade the universe, to be found in all things. Neart as a cosmological principle recognises ours as an animate universe, one that is alive in every sense and form, constantly changing and shifting but forever present.

The Celts had a particular love of trees and woodland and these were places where neart could be closely felt and directly experienced.  In writing about the spirit of the American Redwoods, Stanley Coblentz wrote;

‘I think that could the weary world but know

Communion with these spirits breathing peace

Strangely a veil would lift, a light would glow

And the dark tumult of our lives would cease’

Trees reside within the flow of neart-they are vivid expressions of it, and I read in Coblentz’ words the elucidation of the relationship between neart and trees and the power of trees to heal; to speak to the dark tumult in our own lives. Trees, and more generally, nature as healer and guide would be typical in the Celtic understanding of the world and I love very much the image of the tree as a spirit breathing peace.

The Celtic Christians respected and embraced the concept of neart and re-homed it in their own understanding, speaking of the immanence or nearness of God in all things. In the Vita Tripartia, St Patrick said;

Our God is the God of all things, the God of sky and earth, the God of sea and stream, the God of sun and moon, the God of the great high mountains and the deep glens, the God above heaven, in heaven and under heaven.’

As the Irish monk and writer Sean O Duinn puts it;

‘Advancement in holiness, according to the Celtic way, involves an effort to develop an awareness of the presence of God in everything and everybody, above us, below us and all around us at the four points of the compass.’

The Celtic tradition share’s much in common with many indigenous traditions. Here we see O Duinn’s reference to the four directions and the invocation of a whole world of cyclical or seasonal thinking. The Celtic language, with its cyclical rhythm  is participative and inclusive and encompasses paradox; this and that not either/or, for them God is here and there.  It is, for me, a language which gives me place, an axis mundi from which to make sense and meaning of the world.

The Celtic people were called muintir na tuithe: People of the land. The land and its creatures were teachers as well as providers, protectors as well as food- forming and informing the world through constant movement  and flow. The hare as teacher?

Here in the valley I can hear the simple words of the Irish mythological text, Cath Maige Tuired

Spring for ploughing and sowing, and the beginning of summer for maturing the strength of the grain and the beginning of autumn for the full ripeness of the grain and for reaping it. Winter for consuming it.

These are the words of a culture, whose ears, over large like feathers, sense the landscape, the weather, the signs for what will give and renew life, honouring the cycles of life and death and the proper place for both.

The hare’s presence is what connected me to the principle of neart. I watched the way in which its ears constantly moved, absorbed in the world around it, every sense alert in every moment, absolutely awake to every sound and smell, noting the familiar, seeking out or perhaps better put-absolutely receptive to-the unfamiliar. Receptivity seems keen when life itself depends on it.

There was a quality in the animal that made it both distinct but at the same time indistinct-It was indeed hare-in the world and yet, it was so profoundly connected and immersed in the world around it that it seemed in another way-not separate or at least ephemeral. It was both hare-in-form- and yet also it was the unexpected expression of an eternal principle-it was like witnessing a single thread of an immense, inter-connected web, pulsing with brown black, hare-shaped life. In this space, the animate quality of the trees, the wind, the bird, the call of a buzzard, the cows moving like slow clouds in the distance-became at once apparent to me. Where does the hare end and the rest of the world begin?

When I finally moved, the hare showed its other neart quality-its capacity to shape shift. Neart, is the creative force of life; on- out, back and forth, forming, re-forming, melting and freezing.

We listen here in this place and what comes are echoes of the soul. Once a hare, now in a moment, a clump of grass, a bushel of wheat, an old rock-absolutely still, no longer itself and yet entirely itself but with dark black eyes that see everything. The hare is a fine exemplar of the universal principle of change.

I am reminded of the Welsh poet, RS Thomas’ Taliesin, which expresses the deep Celtic understanding of neart so beautifully;

 King, beggar and fool, I have been all by turns,

Knowing the body’s sweetness, the mind’s treason;

Taliesin still, I show you a new world, risen,

Stubborn with beauty, out of the heart’s need.

 Sitting on the stile, watching the hare, I saw the old world well today, ‘stubborn with beauty’. Perhaps we see such beauty in the times of greatest flux, the space between the seasons, the uncertain times. Here it is no longer summer. The days are shortening, the nights are cooler, the leaves are tinged, the corn full and waiting, old John Barleycorn. Yet it is not entirely Autumn-the leaf fall is still to come, not yet the rituals of smouldering fires and burnings, Samhain is still far off.

We are feeling the shifting of the season only gently but its certainty and the rhythm it evokes gives me a sense of calm and assurance. The green leaves of summer are only a brief mask, a brief monotony in the shape shifting of the leaf through the seasons, from bud unfurling, through the green months and then showing themselves in their ‘true colours, their blotched and decaying maturity, before the fall and return to earth. I look at my hands and see the slow decay there, the season gently shifting-inevitable. I welcome it.

The hare hunkered low as I walked very slowly past it and away along the track. Its huge feather ears were pinned back against its head, its unmoving eyes, watched me intensely, it was stone made animate. At some moment, it deemed me far enough away and ran for it, fast and low; it set off bounding for the hedgerow and having made it, stopped and considered me. I waved my thanks –the breeze made a slow sound like sidh in the trees and the hare was gone.

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