Illumination

High battlements of thought, habits that had seemed durable as stone, went down like shadows at the touch of another mind and left a naked sky and fresh twinkling stars in it.

                                                                        Virginia Woolf – Orlando

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Coasting the Thermals

Common Buzzard - Andreas Trepte

Common Buzzard - Andreas Trepte

We had seen eight buzzards in five minutes! Nature so often speaks to us when we need guidance and She seemed pretty insistent that day with regard to the wisdom that those wonderful birds of prey can convey. Personally, when I see them they remind me to lighten up, to cost the thermals of my own life with a greater ease and skill; taking in that bigger picture but remaining joyful regardless of what that picture might reveal. Watching them circle high in the sun’s light or rising in a vast, clear sky is an inspiring sight, a message from life that its blessings surround and uphold us always; that life is about play and fun too.

 

We had just been turned away from the Garlic Farm Restaurant. Despite its relatively remote setting, the farm’s new café was doing extraordinarily well – not one spare table. The farm is situated in a beautiful valley at the foot of the downs, not far from Newchurch. It is so very sheltered and peaceful here. It looked and felt perfect in the spring sunshine. Driving up the narrow lane, the banks glowed with celandine and primroses; the leaves on the big willow at the farm’s entrance just starting to unfurl in the warmth.

 

Being turned away proved fruitful. Returning to the car I spotted a buzzard low above us, spiralling in that languid manner that is such a characteristic of their flight. It soon became apparent that the buzzard was not alone. To my absolute joy there were five, circling low above us; close enough for us to see the stunning patterns of their feathers; near enough to witness their beaks opening, their mewing cries filling the silence of the valley. They performed the most elegant of spiralling dances, at times weaving intimately between each other, then breaking free and rising on the currents, layered in successive circles, one above the other, drifting free in parting directions only to be irresistibly drawn back together. Each time we assumed they were leaving, they lazily spiralled down to fly over us yet again, the feathers of their wing tips spread like fingers, the grace and ease of their cruising so beautiful and moving.

 

I could have watched them forever but dragging ourselves away, we drove back along the downs to Ryde. Turning a corner we were greeted by yet more of these wonderful birds – a pair shooting out across the road just above the car, and then barely a minute later, the sight of a crow fending off a lone buzzard just above the tree line of the woods.

 

At one time you could not hope to see buzzards in this part of the country. They have a history of persecution but thankfully their numbers are now rapidly rising, so much so that the south has seen their return. I remember my first sighting in Cornwall, wondering what the hell this enormous bird was sat on a gate post looking at me. I fell in love then. Living on the Isle of Wight is such a joy because it is home to an abundant buzzard population; sightings are frequent and often at excitingly close quarters.

 

Falcons are like Spitfires – they have speed and energy; in comparison, buzzards are B52 Bombers, rumbling along at an unconcerned pace! They always appear so unfazed, completely laid back even when defending territory. I once had a ‘died and gone to heaven’ moment watching a peregrine hunting on Culver cliff, the impressive speed and agility of its stooping exhilarating to watch. It was eventually interrupted and forced to retreat by the subtle intimidation of three buzzards (I didn’t think the day could get any better!) who launched into view over the cliff edge. To me they appeared on a Sunday stroll, their wing spans stretched into cruise mode. However, the peregrine found them threatening enough to move on.

 

Buzzards hunt from perches. They can be quite lazy hunters and would just as willingly scavenge on carrion. It would seem then that their coasting of the thermals is not necessarily vital for their survival with regard to food; for me they look like they really enjoy it. It’s fun! It’s thrilling! I like to think of them up their gazing down upon all this beauty, feeling the strength and movement of the air carry them, loving every moment, relishing how great life is.

 

When life is challenging us – when we are tackling our own difficult or painful issues – it is easy to become a little stuck in one gear, our range of emotions stiffening and becoming less flexible. After years of feeling our defences up and ready for the fight, we can forget about the simple pleasure of having fun, of playing, of being silly and merely enjoying ourselves for no other reason than because it feels good. Our emotional lives can feel a little like being trapped in a Werner Herzog or Bergman movie: intense and introspective. Such moments of inner searching and confrontation can be tremendously productive and necessary and yet it’s important to let such periods go when life calls for us to do so. There can be a great comfort and familiarity in angst; sometimes it feels a whole lot easier to achieve than joy, and yet it is so vital to experience the balance and the contrast. Perpetual crisis does not reflect the flow of life; we can’t stay stuck in one emotion any more than we can stop breathing; if we try, we do damage to ourselves. Pain teaches us about compassion, depth and empathy; joy and happiness are all the more powerful when we have known the sting and cut of pain. Without contrast we become emotionally one dimensional, missing out upon the diversity of feeling and experience that life offers to us all, no matter what tragedy might befall us upon the way.

 

During the tough times of these last few years, I have been so guilty of getting stuck myself, letting the feeling tone of sadness or crisis become my default position. It feels good to have this challenged by the presence of others; it feels good to challenge it myself. It takes practice; it takes remembering and reclaiming the things that give us joy, throwing ourselves wholeheartedly into them until we stop thinking and just enjoy.

 

My beautiful buzzards know the wisdom of timing, their entrances always perfectly synchronous. And so with wing span fully and ecstatically stretched, the sun upon me, the currents beneath me…

 

 

The Returning

Luccombe Chine has had a mini landslip. The steep wooden steps are lurching; the board walk on the ledge has been dislodged and pushed aside by water and soil; the waterfall, always heard but obscured by the undergrowth, has now been exposed. The new deposit of soil has changed the water’s course and now it tumbles over the bottom ledge on to the beach in a different place, more visible, no longer hidden amongst the broken masonry of the ruined fishing cottages. The waterfall is terraced, the largest section falling onto the ledge. Here it has begun to carve a bowl in the sandstone. It is beautiful – this sudden exposure like the revealing of something mysterious and wonderful.

 

The water’s flow is incredible lively. I had got so used to hearing and sensing it, the steps and boardwalks built across its perpetual course. Until now I had caught only the smallest glimpses between brambles and ferns, something inaccessible but deeply felt, the dominate voice of the chine, urging on the descent down to the sea. I sit on the steps next to the bowl, watching the waters spiral and release. On the ledge above, the water flows from three channels into one, parting, merging and falling. The sound is the brightest song, deafening; rising and spilling over into my being.

 

I watch two grey herons hunt at the sea’s edge. One or the other occasionally launches out low across the water; the wide, arched length of their wings heavy and laboured in flight, tips skimming the surface. Returning to shore they are silent, frozen forms amongst the rocks, appearing to be unaware, yet never straying too far from each other.

 

I have been reading through bits of the wonderful book ‘Women Who Run with the Wolves’ by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. It is a book of amazing depth and beauty and I have returned to it many times for inspiration over the last few years. In the chapter entitled Homing: Returning to Oneself there is a quote from Jung:

 

When spirit becomes heavy, it turns to water…Therefore the way of soul…leads to the water.

 

Water, by its very nature, speaks of the journey of return. The Island is surrounded by ocean, its waters evaporating into clouds that rain down upon the earth filling the Island’s rivers and waterways, bubbling up from its springs and – in a perfect and poetic fulfilment of its cycle – returning to the ocean, shaping and reshaping the land through each journey it makes, time and again, perpetually flowing. This constant venturing and returning is the heart of the whole cycle, without which the land would perish, life shrivelling for lack of moisture.

 

The themes of journeying and return have been upper most in my mind of late. Some one recently told me that they thought I had come to explain away love as a series of psychological processes; that I had become blind to the extraordinary mystery at its core. Their words hit hard, as truth can often do. I feel a little dazed at the realisation.

 

Estes writes:

 

That feeling of being torn comes from hearing, consciously or unconsciously, something calling us, calling us back, something we cannot say no to without harming ourselves.

 

If we don’t go when it is time, the soul will come for us, as we see in these lines from a poem called ‘Woman Who Lives Under the Lake

 

…one night

there’s a heartbeat at the door.

Outside, a woman in the fog,

with hair of twigs and dress of weed,

dripping green lake water.

She says “I am you,

And I have travelled a long distance.

Come with me, there is something I must show you…”

She turns to go, her cloak falls open,

Suddenly, golden light…everywhere, golden light…

 

The sudden revealing of Luccombe’s secret waters seems to have worn down my defences, carving out in me a space for filling, a place to return to.

Daphne, Teddy and The Red Shoes

Just recently I met a wonderful women at a friend’s 50th. Her name is Daphne and she is a Jungian analyst. She is now 82 and originally worked as an art teacher but after a major life crisis went into analysis and eventually trained as a therapist herself. She then worked as an art therapist and still considers this her great love.

 

Daphne had made for Fran’s fiftieth a beautiful ‘life’ folder. She had decorated it with an extraordinary collage of the most beautiful images; the images were all relevant to Fran’s life and personality. I was struck how these seemingly disconnected pictures came together to make such a perfect whole; of how our lives are just such a coming together of fragments, the joins seamlessly sealed together by meaning and memory. I was incredibly moved by this wonderful gift, made with such love and care. Daphne is an extraordinary lady.

 

Daphne and I talked about our experiences of keeping a dream journal. I shared with her my discovery that in keeping a dream journal over a long period of time, individual dreams appear only to be one stage in an ongoing dialogue; the more we engage, the dialogue widens out to include a series of dreams, all connected like chapters in a book, over time revealing more of the story. As an artist, Daphne told me that she recorded her dreams not in writing but in images. She would condense the themes of the dream into a sketch, each subsequent dream sketch allowing the growing sequence of images to tell a wider story. She drew me a demonstration and it immediately brought to mind the story boards that are used in film making. These are constructed like the pictures from a comic book, frame by frame, each shot carefully planned, separate until laid out in sequence upon the page, the story unfolding visually.

 

Many years ago when Laurie was researching his PhD, he was lucky enough to have several interviews with the art director Edward Carrick. Teddy Carrick – the grandson of the actress Ellen Terry – was a wonderful artist and a man of great soul. He had been the supervising Art Director at Pinewood Studios, also a writer and critic. He lent Laurie the storyboards of the Powell and Pressburger film The Red Shoes. Having once been a little girl who had dreamed of being a ballet dancer – gazing longingly at Moira Shearer while she danced herself to death in her red ballet shoes – to actually hold the original storyboards of this film was quite a moment for me. There were the images I knew well, sketched out frame by frame just like Daphne’s dreams.

 

Fran is currently making a quilt to honour her father who recently died. She is collecting cloth from things connected to him, clothes and items that were his or had meaning for him. She is painstakingly stitching together her own storyboard in fabric. I find it incredible moving that it is a quilt –something that Fran can wrap around her, a layer of warmth and comfort; a beautiful way to remember and connect to her father.

 

There is something that draws me in this placing together of seemingly disparate images, events, objects or people; in their coming together is the discovery of deeper meaning. Our lives are storyboards. The juxtaposition of each moment can change the feeling, the tone, the narrative thread; our lives are a montage, a complex and rich layering of experience and feeling placed frame by frame, image by image. Daphne’s beautiful collage was so moving because it articulated a life lived, connections made, the love we feel and the people we meet, encapsulated in the immediacy of the image. Those images – like the countless moments that follow one after the other – find poignant meaning in their relationship to each other. So often the joins can not be seen, so expertly do we align them, and yet they are felt when we gently move a finger across the surface of our lives.

Black Mud and Rising Waters

The heart formed around a broken branch in Borthwood Copse

The heart formed around a broken branch in Borthwood Copse

I sat at the base of the big oak in our little spot in the woods, listening to the rush of water in the valley below me, the Yar’s banks swollen and fast flowing after the rains. Our beautiful grove has oaks, birches, a giant holly and a crab apple – all feel like old friends now. The ground has sprung to life with bluebell shoots and foxglove leaves and the honeysuckle leaf buds have opened upon their dry tendrils. Beyond the crab apple is a badger set; Laurie and I have sat here in the dark listening to the satisfying sound of their sharp claws stripping bark and the amble of their stout bodies through the undergrowth in the steep gully below. Trish was actually visited by one at dusk during a solo meditation, wrapped silent and still in her blanket whilst the badger rooted around her. They feel like guardians of the grove and it’s comforting to think of their set stretching out deep beneath the woodland floor; their well trodden paths networking the valley. During ritual we have been visited by a massive dog fox, red squirrels and woodpeckers; in warmer months bats fly between the widely spaced pines. In the neighbouring field I have seen both barn owl and kestrel hunt; buzzards often fly low over the trees, the colouring of their beautiful chest and wing feathers clearly visible; mewling cries signalling their arrival.

 

Today the Canada geese fly in twos and small V shapes, ducks with stretched necks and rapid wing beats coming up from the swollen waters below. The sun is a deep orange globe sinking into the ridge behind me, the first quarter moon above. I feel the oak’s strength grounding and calming me, and I feel that familiar peace descend.

 

I am grateful for the feeling. All week I have felt more like the rising waters of the Yar, full to the brim with a strange uneasiness which I can’t quite fathom. Something is surfacing and in the peace I try to articulate it, seeking out its true shape. So much of us remains hidden to our conscious selves, that small ‘me’ that fools itself that it ‘sees’, ‘knows’ and ‘understands’. We are in a constant state of uncovering, a little more of our being surfacing into daylight, hopefully making itself known at a pace that our psyches can cope with. Sometimes we do our utmost to ignore what presents itself but denial can never be a good long-term strategy. My own psyche feels fidgety and anxious, perhaps more aware of the surging currents of the valley waters, the barely contained building of waxing energy that will explode into life over these coming weeks.

 

The allergic swelling returned last week. One night I awoke alarmed to feel the tightening spreading down my legs and up across my chest. I could feel irritation in my windpipe, a sudden panic that my throat might close. I calmed myself as best I could and in my half-waking, half sleeping state, focused on the swelling in my pelvis, reaching for an answer. I got the sudden, vivid image of a wolf, black with patches of red fur – a beautiful creature. I have often seen wolves at times of extreme stress; vivid, spontaneous moving images that have brought with them feelings of being powerfully protected. My black wolf started to howl, and I knew immediately that he was crying for his pack, a sound of such painful longing that I actually started to cry. He sung my hurt.

 

How strange is grief? Just when you think that those feelings have passed from your life, a little more surfaces, just enough for you to cope with and process; no set time, no set pattern. The image then changed…

 

Just recently we had visited Blackgang beach. The path down through the landslip was stable until we reached the bottom, where the loose, black soil had erupted with a new shift. In the heavy rains it had become waterlogged, although looked deceptively solid. In my urgency to reach the beach, I had sunk into the mud up to my knees. The more I struggled to free myself, the more the grip of the mud held me, sucking me down deeper. Now, in my inner vision, I was back at Blackgang, only this time I was utterly naked, covered in mud, stuck once again up to my knees. The wolf stretched out upon his belly next to me, and I knew with a startling clarity that I had only to fall backwards; stop fighting to free myself. I surrendered to the soft, wet soil. I was not sucked under but felt the warmth of the mud holding me. I felt such extraordinary relief that I was not required to fight, to struggle; all that was required of me was to be present in this place. We can try to defend ourselves against our own pain but it is a tiring and unproductive process. Sometimes we really do have to just sit and be with our own grief, not trying to fix it or change it, merely opening up enough to accept its presence within. Ultimately we come to understand this process as a healing force.

 

Sat against the steady trunk of the oak, my current uneasiness settles into quiet; I realise that I am still processing much; that black mud still present in the creases and pores of my skin, the stain of it still visible if I look closely enough. This thought brings to mind some lines from a poem by Vicki Feaver:

 

…and the nights

when I lay on the roof – my emptiness

like the emptiness of a temple

with the doors kicked in; and the mornings

when I rolled in the ash of the fire

just to be touched and dirtied

by something.

 

I know that I am far past that point of numbness that Vicki’s poem speaks of; life bursts in on me daily and in nature I feel it vividly. When we suffer loss, the act of loving and trusting again can feel painfully hard. It is not that love and connection are not desired, on the contrary; the emptiness that Vicki’s poem writes of echoes with both the yearning and the fear. If I am totally honest, intimacy scares me and draws me in equal measure. I think that I have found a closeness to nature far less threatening to achieve than closeness to other human beings, but as my wolf clearly understands, we all need our soul tribe; the mud and ash on our naked skin is also about allowing the world outside to touch us, to impact upon us – as dangerous as this might feel, without it the emptiness remains.

 

 

The Quickening

There are fulmars nesting in red cliff. Along its upper reaches, the sandstone is pocked with holes just large enough for two snuggling fulmars and a bed of twigs. Each cavity houses a pair, five or six in all, maybe more to come. In recent years fulmars have visited Sandown to breed in the cliffs, their numbers increasing annually. This is the first time I have seen them at Yaverland, their chattering and spiralling patrols of the nesting area a joyful thing to witness.

 

Love, lust, genetic necessity (call it what you will) is in the air. On the wet edges of Alverstone Mead, amongst flimsy willow branches, two grey herons sway in their newly constructed nest; paired hares nibble shoots of wheat in the fields at Arreton; ducks on the Yar, no longer in huddles, are now spread out along its banks in twos, only disturbed by the agitated quacks of squabbling males, keen to claim a female of their own. As the snowdrops blossom and the growing light signals the subtle shifts of early spring, the quickening expresses itself in the tender, and not so tender, pairings of nature.

 

The red squirrels are active too. Although they do not actually hibernate, throughout the cold weeks only the odd solitary visitor was seen on my visits to the hide. Now they come to feed barely inches from me. Peanuts in shells are the obvious favourites, the papery casings light work for frantic teeth. Upon freeing the two peanuts inside, one is eaten, the other buried. Spreading their back legs for a steadier grip, they busily work their near meatless shoulders with comical vigour, digging energetically, burying, then neatly patting down the soil. They have the breathless urgency of Alice’s white rabbit. They still wear their winter coats, the rich red of summer dulled to greyish red/brown, the tufts of their winter ears still visible. Like us, they clearly have the urge to move straight to pudding, peanuts and sunflowers seeds eaten first, dried sweetcorn pushed around the feeding ledge like unwelcome peas upon a child’s plate.

 

The hazel catkins are abundant, the pussy willow whitening with furry paws, but most impressive are the alder of which there are many along the river, their bare silhouettes now taking on a fuzziness, the thick mass of purplish cones and catkins blurring their edges. Alder, willow and poplar dominate the wetland landscape and hold a special fascination for me. I sense a great peace amongst these moisture loving trees; the willow and alder performing the vital task of maintaining the integrity of the river bank, limiting the erosion caused by the constant flow and the rising and falling flood waters. When our own emotional forces threaten to overwhelm us, willow and alder serve as reminders to reach for those steadying roots, encouraging us to become stable channels for our more powerful and difficult emotions. In the summer when the reeds are abundant beneath poplar groves and white willows, the soothing whisper of their leaves is one of the most healing sounds. Reed’s ability to cleanse water can inspire the cleansing of our emotional selves too; the reeds drew me when I was coping with the turmoil of grief – when I found myself tightly circling the stagnant object of my pain – as if to teach that we too need to process any emotionally toxic residue we might be holding onto.

 

For now the reeds are brown and broken down by the floods of winter, their new green shoots poised to emerge. Near the old mill, silt shifted by the high waters has piled itself against the edges of the weir. Across its damp, sandy surface is a network of moorhens’ footprints, tiny tridents crisscrossing and meandering, looking like ancient, unfathomable hieroglyphs; the codes of spring waiting to be cracked. 

 

In our regular ritual spot – the woods above the Yar – I notice bluebell shoots and know that soon the ground will be yellow with primroses. Our beautiful little woods marks the seasons with flowers: bluebells in April; the elegant spikes of foxgloves in June; honeysuckle sweetening the woody scents of mulch and leaf mould in summer…

 

The irresistible sense of anticipation felt as the year gradually accelerates can lead to many a false start when we realise that the chill still nips at us; that our energy still curls in upon itself, not yet fully awake to its own imminent renewal. It is the time of snowdrops, their delicate blossoms deceptively resilient and hardy; they are the tenderness of all new beginnings; the toughness underlying life’s desire to experience itself. I can feel the quickening strongly and yet I also feel my own slowness; my own winter pace, heavy as upon waking from a long sleep. The year breaks us in gently, Brighid’s palms cupped tenderly around the spark that will soon ignite our inner resurgence.