At 1am on 4th February, after a full 90 minute cycle of good deep sleep, I was awoken by the image of a vast bog or marsh, stretching between two conical mountains, such as found in the water-lands of Sutherland, in the far north of Scotland. But my mind was in the sphagnum moss and bog myrtle, not on the heathered high mountain sides.
Over the next minutes a response flooded out of me to a question I have been asking myself for a few months now, about the predicament we find ourselves in, here in the Hubriscene Age. Threads left enticingly dangling on the edges of the latest essays fromand were woven into a fabric, as I wrote yesterday morning, but it is not yet ready to be cut off the loom and neatly unfolded for you here. I’ll be travelling with Dougald Hine this week to introduce him to Iain McGilchrist on Skye, and record a conversation between them. Luckily, I have two very long train journeys during which to write, as there’s no chance I will leave any conversations with these two.
So this week, here is most of a letter I wrote to a dear friend which touches on some of what will be expanded further, hopefully next week. To make sense of the heightened tone, it was written 3 weeks after I lost half my possessions in a huge fire where I lived. (Thankfully no one was injured or lost their life). I had been forced from my home, community, livelihood and lifeway, mid-pandemic, and was living alone in an almost empty flat back in my hometown. I had just spent a few days in the woods of Wiltshire on a craft course which had been delayed time and time again due to lockdowns, and was finally able to run. To be back amongst trees (and a few people) I knew well, was great medicine.
In the letter below I write about how I set one foot in front of the other when almost everything had (in this case literally) burned to the ground. Rereading it now, I see it is all still here in the heartwood of something that has grown much larger and healthier, since I unexpectedly put down roots back here in Wessex.
Dear D, there’s so much I could write, about the embrace of the trees, the hand-made sanity which I have to craft each morning, but with every basket, stitch and pen stroke gets a little more settled. Or to speak of the birdsong, the woodpeckers, wild garlic and sea kale. The unstinting flexibility of my foraging gaze constantly snapping me back into the present moment from unnecessary sad reverie, not like a dog leash being pulled, but like the beloved tugging at my hand, saying, ‘Here love, this way, that way gets muddy pretty quickly.’
And how last night I dreamed a sour old man in a flat cap said to me, ‘Only God is the way, everything else is false and from the Devil,‘ gesturing at my hands full of sticks and stones in the process of becoming. I replied, ‘Nothing of the Earth is evil,’ and woke knowing this to be utterly true.
Someone I like to read said, ‘Prayer is anything you say while on your knees.’ Right now, I say a lot, to whatever it is that listens, - ‘Unknowable beloved, extend me the love I extend you!’
I am under-slept and over-train-journeyed and none of that will change until two days from now but it is ok. These familiar fields and trees are beautiful, and the music and your kind words bring some tears / relief. This train line has carried me in so many states of heart and mind that there is some real comfort knowing that each time I think, ‘this cannot be borne,’ that indeed it can, and already has been. The stretching of heart that each loss, hard task, or unwieldy love requires is the training which our current times require. I miss my river community so much. I miss the Hinkleponklesand all my river kin. I miss walking without discomfort, like any ageing person… But when I was under the ash trees all weekend and yesterday, seeing so many trees I know personally and have loved, of whom I have picked up the dropped sticks, have pressed the leaves into my books, like keeping a lock of a loved one’s hair, well, they are dying, and it’s awful. But I still love them, and I am going to have to love them until they are all gone, and afterwards too. To look up and see that ferny green brightness, to see the earth express itself so delicately, and also to express itself in the grey spores which kill the tree, well, it’s a lot to hold, but we must, or at least, I must.
The human stuff is no more pressing than the arboreal, here, and can I even separate them, as one who spends so much time making things out of bits of tree?
If I can get through this current slough-striped terrain, then I know I can navigate my way further into freedom and uncertainty, which are the twin gifts of a life like mine. There is a love which I have been stalking all my life, a fathering love perhaps, like the forest is currently showing me. I have looked for it in actual men, I think, and though that is not wrong, it is certainly unwise. The river and the woods over the last 8 years have widened my sense of what is kin, where my body begins and ends, and where the source of life really is. This incredible love is identified with Christ by many. While I was a Christian I felt it as Grace. But as a young child, and as a woman this last 6-7 years or so, I experience it as ‘the Friend’, and Rumi writes so well of it.
It shows up in the glade, when, basket in hand, I find chalk left by the badgers, and I don’t know I am smiling until my cheeks hurt and I find myself whispering ‘thank you’ - to whom? It hides itself in parcels and emails, texts and calls from dear ones, strangers, students, family. It is huge and is land-based, like your friend intuits. But it can also make itself tiny, absolutely minute, so can be both hazel kernel and spreading tree simultaneously. As such, it is teaching me what I need to carry, to be able to do the work I need to do. We have to train uncanny musculature and hone a subtle vessel to carry this singular, eternal speck.
The constant losses of things that can be pointed to, whether belongings, or named modes of relationship, are not what lasts. What is encoded, and can be carried, weightless, by hand, heart or a word, is some kind of radical generative friendship - something I get the feeling St Francis and St Clare knew, that Shams-e Tabrizi and Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī knew, but that is not for pairs of friends only. One of my Son (Korean Zen) teachers Martine Bachelor said she had experienced it when she lived as a nun in Korea for a while - this exquisite reciprocity of care between all five nuns in the little house. So I am gathering much of this feeling up, planting it and cultivating it, but also sometimes just secreting it about my person, like sewing blessings into the inside of garments that no one will see, but which the maker knows is there in the hem’s lee. It’s archaic, yet once-essential, as a dew pond on the Ridgeway, (now only seen as a subtle indent, and rarely understood as the only way travellers once found water on that high path.)
All these words. The child in me just wishes to be held, of course, to be held and to cry for an hour or two. And I will see my brother, sister and mum tonight, so hugs shall certainly happen, and like you at the found trestle table, I shall probably be euphoric.We each spontaneously arrive at the Upper Room, or The Wedding at Cana, never knowing to which table we will be beckoned each time - a wedding or a wake. But eventually, the arms that will unfold us all, and to which I orient my steps, are on the left - death, and on the right - life. They are like that rough but loving embrace I seek, which gives more than I could ever ask, which I have never yet experienced from a human person, only from the land, here in Wessex.
I have been writing a while, my friend, and now will rest my two fingers, I really must learn to touch-type one day. Love to you. Thanks for being here for my ramblings.
A family of mute swans who were neighbours for 8 years, whose clan was very large and full of unique characters, until bird flu killed many of them last year, including the whole clutch of 2022’s cygnets. I now know of two remaining Hinkleponkles: females from consecutive years that we called Naughty the Elder, and Naughty the Younger, they both have excellent mates and live near my old mooring. I receive news on them regularly from a close friend, which is a true source of delight.
I had just been diagnosed with severe osteo-arthritic damage to the hips, a slap in the face to my ego, which was still very attached to being that middle aged woman who could leap gracefully through the air with a sword and land quietly. No more leaping was allowed. Boo hoo.
Ash die-back disease: Hymenoscyphus fraxineus
After the fire, over 30 packages arrived unbidden at my door, mainly from strangers all over the world, who had heard from my ink maker friend that I had lost all my natural art materials, pigments, sketchbooks and tools. People sent me parcels of ochres, galls, mullers and gums, notes of thanks and encouragement, stories of their own losses and recovery. To say these packages deeply moved me and helped me heal is an understatement. They restored my faith in the centrality of reciprocity, generosity and care. They fundamentally changed what I put back at the centre of my life, (what I placed on the altar, if you like), when I recovered from PTSD later that year, and came fully back to my senses.
To be touched and to be amongst family, after months of lockdown… We had been remembering how wonderful and almost overwhelming that felt.
This week’s good thing. Few things in life are as good as having 4 nieces. But Tuesday night watching ‘Knives Out’ on the sofa with two of them was a high point of a tiring but rewarding week. Yes, shock horror, I actually enjoyed some mainstream culture. What ever next, singing along to Coldplay while doing the cleaning? I would never admit to that…
This is beautiful Caroline x
I, too, very much look forward to the encounter between Iain McGilchrist and Dougald. A video, even from your phone, would be great as well.