From the archive: The French Experts

Last weekend I went from my home in the foothills of the Pyrenees, into the high mountains of the neighbouring department of Ariege.

I had appointments with two expert animal trackers. I wanted to learn more about ‘wildness’ in order to go deeper into my work with ‘wild words’. My first meeting was with Serge, a wiry, self -effacing man in his fifties, sporting a moustache and 70’s shades. He’s spent twenty years tracking the Pyrenean brown bear. His job is to mediate, and to try and diffuse tensions, between the bears and the local shepherds, who regard the sheep as a threat to their flocks.

My romantic images of Serge the solitary tracker, running barefoot through the forests, were quickly dispelled when I discovered that the bears are tracked via a series of cameras.  ‘This is the only way to do it’, he told me. ‘Unless you want to stay up all night’ (they are nocturnal), ‘and unless you want to risk your life’.

It’s certainly true that most of the cultures where tracking was practiced extensively are dry earth, or desert-based, aboriginal Australians being an example. Animal prints are much easier to see in sand. In your average forest, strewn with leaf litter, sticks, and leaves, tracking not an easy task.

I then met Ernest. He’s an ichnologist. That is to say, he specialises in the science of animal traces. His house is an Alladin’s cave of casts and other art works that put into solid form the wanderings of animals over our earth.

This is a man who spent three months living on a frozen lake. This is also a man who is about to take his wife and five children to spend two months in the Brazilian rainforest. I was swept up into a brave new world by his stories.

Driving home I stopped by a man-made lake. It was deserted. The tourist season hasn’t begun here yet. Walking across the volleyball court to get to the café, I saw several clear sets of tracks in the sand. During the previous night deer had skipped through. Wild boar had lugged their heavy weight across too.

I might not be up to the facing the deserts of Australia yet, but the sand- based culture of the volleyball courts of Southern France, I can do that.

The Weekly Prompt

Find an area of sand, or fine soil. This might be loose sand on a building site, a children’s’ sandpit, the sediment left by a river, or a beach.

Go to this place in the early morning. Write about what you find. Who, or what has left its mark overnight?


This article was first published April 24th 2013

From the archive: Tracks

The workshop last Saturday went swimmingly. We based ourselves in a clearing in the woods, and there explored our yearning to connect with the wild, and to write wild words.

We looked also at the fears that sabotage this connection. For the last exercise of the day, we took this quote, by John Stokes, as a starting point for our writing.

‘The earth is a manuscript, being written and unwritten every day’.

The responses to this quote by the participants took my breath away. People wrote, among other things, about the tracks of tears down the face of an ageing woman, the tracks that human beings make on the earth, and the tracks that our words leave behind in the hearts of others.

What I remembered, what I re-learnt on Saturday, is that everything is a track. Everything around us displays the marks of the passage of time.  Every physical, psychological and emotional influence is recorded. The movement of wind and rain carves out patterns in the rock. The patterns of emotion in the human being, over time, bend and mould and shape the muscle and bone of our physical body. Even those things that we call ‘inanimate objects’ are museums of movement, energy fixed in time and space.

There are stories everywhere. We only have to learn to see them.  And from that melting pot of myth and fable, we create new stories, new tracks.

The Weekly Prompt

‘The earth is a manuscript, being written and unwritten every day’.

Write a non-fiction or fiction piece, in prose or poetry, using this quote as a prompt.

First published 29th March 2013

Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.

Ten Experiences of Wild

The Red Admiral butterfly flitting on to my hand, and settling a moment to dust his wings. Feeling touched by magic….

The sound of the Wild Boar cracking fallen walnuts and snorting, close to the house…

The necklace of Lapis Lazuli I was given by my boyfriend. It’s silver veins sparkling like sunlight on water. Feeling loved…

The warm wind from the tropics whipping round me, caressing my skin, and spinning golden autumn leaves into a whirlwind…

Standing in the Negev desert, when there was nothing but gently undulating sand in every direction. Nothing had ever seemed so vast…

Diving into a wide river, my whole body being gently pulled and pushed by its flow, and the duck gliding serenely past…

Lying down in a wildflower meadow in the mountains of the Pyrenees, and the shock of smelling strong wild garlic…

In France, hearing a high yelp from above me. My head snapping up to see a huge golden eagle circling in the limitless sky above, eyeing me up as prey…

The delight of the moment when they delivered the new coffee table to my first house. Running my hand along the grain of the wood, and smelling pine…

Standing, awestruck, in Devon, in the dark of the night, close to the roaring sea. The waves rearing up before me at twice my height. The moonlight catching the spray that flicks, cold into my face…

Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.

This article was first published on December 20th 2012

From the archive: Wild In The City (Part 2)

I went walking througris in search of the wild. I stopped on Pont Neuf, and let the tide of commuters flow past me.  As I recited my mantra of the day ‘wild, wild, wild’, the strangest thing happened. A small brown mouse came out from under the bulwark of the bridge and sat by my feet, cleaning his whiskers. Where I live, in rural Southern France, a wild animal is gone if your tread snaps a twig, or even before that. But this was a town mouse, used to noise and bustle, fearless.

But there was another place I found wild in the city, and that was in one of the homeless people I saw on the streets. It was a head scarfed young woman, and she was turning circles in the street, shouting words I didn’t understand. A dog on a lead followed her movements, yelping excitedly.

You can spot the quality of wild by how we react to it. We are scared of it, because it isn’t kept in check by the straightjacket of the rational mind. It is instinctual, emotional, energised. That makes us nervous.

I knew the quality of wildness was present because I saw Parisians look at her as if she wasn’t there, or walk in wide circles to avoid her. I had difficulty not doing the same. I noticed I immediately judged her to be ‘mad’ or similar. Because if she was mad, then I was sane. She was doing life wrong, and I was doing it right.

And I asked myself: what aspects of myself am I not acknowledging when I locate all the emotional unpredictability, or all the madness in someone else?  How can I take back the parts of myself I’ve disowned, so that I can write from the broadest emotional spectrum? I want my writing can be mad and unpredictable when required, instead of always sane and predictable.

This article was first published on December 14th 2012

From the archive: Wild In The City (Part 1)

I live in rural Southern France, on a mountain. Yesterday I got on a train going to Paris, heading into a throng of 2 million people.

My work is based around the natural environment. It’s about exploring the ‘wilds’ out there, in order to understand how to bring that quality into our words, to find freedom in writing. I’m interested in those parts of ourselves- the spontaneous, intuitive, instinctual- that we’re afraid of. Our fear is such, that instead of acknowledging these aspects within ourselves, we project them outwards, saying they’re out there ‘in the wilds’ , in the ‘wild animals’.

On my mountain it’s clear where ‘wild’ resides. In the badger, the deer, the wild boar. But where those disowned aspects go when we live in, or visit a city? Where do we see ‘wild’? I’ve been feeling excited by the challenge of tracking it down.

So, this morning I went walking beside the Seine in central Paris, that mission on my mind.  I was swept along the pavement by a river of people. The noise of feet and cars swirled in my ears. I found places where the city had replicated the wild. There were garden shops with fountains shaped like elephants.

When it hadn’t replicated wild, the city had tried to tame it, contain it, to take a moment of its beauty and fix it in time. There were posters of big cats, and plants in pots. But best of all, on sale for 90 euros in Centre Pompidou, I found green grass, neat as a lawn, growing in a frame, a living picture.

This was all fascinating, but I wasn’t seeking castrated nature. No, what I wanted to find was the places where wild was living free in the city. Then I wanted to see how people responded to it. The search continued…

First Published November 30th 2012

From the archive: The Fire

In the winter this house is heated solely by a wood-burning stove. It’s fairly labour intensive to chop logs.  

And it takes commitment to keep bringing them in, to keep the fire burning through the day. But I love it. We have something alive, something wild at the centre of our world. It hisses and cracks and roars just like any other wild thing. The Beech wood, with its silvery snakeskin bark, lights easily and sizzles. The Oak, its raised bark like the tyre of a four-wheel drive truck, is frustrating slow to catch. But once it does it smolders enduringly, with an intense heat.

Like anything wild, you have to create a relationship with it, rather than impose your hurried ways upon it.

In the mornings if I’m anxious, or impatient, it never catches. If I bring patience to the task it’s ablaze in an instant. There’s a real art to fire lighting. Logs need the friction with other logs to burn, but there has to be enough air between the wood for them to breathe.

At first glance the flames have the delicacy of silk, and it’s alluring. But I know better. Their licking tongue is always hungry. The memory of the terrible smell of burnt hair and skin pricks sharp in my mind.

During the day, whenever I take a break from writing, and come down from my cold office, the fire is waiting. The orange flames endlessly shape-shifting remind me of my potential for creativity.

Some days my body has rigidified into the question mark shape of the anguished writer too long at her desk. Then, those flames laugh at the inflexibility of my body, and my words. They tickle and taunt me. It shifts me from my petty concerns.

On the worst writing days I’m thickheaded and wobbly-limbed. Then they seduce me back to life, stroking my face and my back. Painfully wonderful. They know that I’ll never write well with that tension in my mind and body. After these encounters, I go back to my desk with their enchanting laughter ringing in my ears.

Back in my cold office, I ask myself: how can I lay my words side by side so that they have space to breathe, but are close enough for their friction to make my stories blaze? How can my words form shapes as endlessly varied as flames? How can I release the energy contained in those words, but not be burnt in the process, or smother them for fear of the heat?

The Weekly Prompt

Observe a fire. Write about the shapes you see flickering in the flames. First, describe it using as wide a variety of verbs as possible. Then, relax your eyes a little. Now, what do you see? Let your imagination blaze.

First Published March 18th 2013

Writing Effortlessly

There are two things in my life, particularly, that have always invigorated me, and that I’ve instinctually known how to do without strain. Writing is not one of them (unfortunately).

However, through them, I’ve understood how to write with maximum ease, and enjoyment. 

This morning I did one of them. I went jogging. Surprised by the sudden chill of autumn, and lit by autumn’s soft light, I made it up to the ruined Cathar castle, and looked out over the Pyrenean mountains. Layered one in front of the other, the furthest silhouettes were still tipped by snow, recording last winter. The jagged sides of the nearest were carpeted with trees, their leaves just on the turn towards the completion of the seasons.  

On the winding track down, I met an older woman, in shades and slippers (really). She was struggling to keep up with her Cocker Spaniel.  She caught her breath and exhaled her question. ‘Did you go right up to the top?’ I nodded. Looking exhausted at the very thought, she replied, ‘my husband says I should do that. But it’s such an effort, isn’t it?’ I assumed the most sympathetic face that I could muster whilst jogging on the spot, and with a bon journee, we both went on our way.

But the thing is, it isn’t an effort. Not at all.

Firstly I don’t consider myself a ‘jogger’. It’s just that sometimes I put on trainers, and loosen my body up a bit by moving it on down the road.

I start very slowly. I go absolutely with the level of energy that is present for me that day. I ease into that, whether it’s a fast pace, or a slow pace. I stay with my bodily experience, and don’t aim to go any particular distance, or move at any particular speed. I watch the change of energy. Usually, the act of moving releases more, so I naturally speed up. But sometimes it doesn’t, so I don’t. Sometimes I feel I could push just a tad further into that store of energy. I do that, and watch what happens.

I see that thinking speeds me up. If I get lost in trains of thought, and lose connection with my body, I find that I am racing, disconnected from my physical experience of flow. Effort and resistance move in, and it’s no longer enjoyable. I am duller in body and mind, rather than more alive. 

If I jog in the right way, I arrive back on my doorstep invigorated. If I don’t, I’m exhausted.

The same is true of dancing. It’s about feeling the rhythm of the music, and allowing my body to respond. Not expecting.  Not hoping or fearing. Just waiting patiently for the responses, the messages, and answering.

I’ve taken these principles and applied them to my writing process:

1. I am someone who writes, rather than ‘a writer’ per se.
2. I never count words. Instead I put myself in my writing environment for a certain length of time, stay there whatever, and see what emerges.
3. I move my hand on the pen, or fingers on the keyboard, in response to the energy that arises. Sometimes I edge into it a little. Sometimes, I stop myself from moving away from a task, kindly. But my golden rule is never to force anything. (That risks plots, characters and phrasing being born as lifeless as forced flowers).
4. I have an outline of the section of story I’m going to write next beside me as a signpost, but otherwise I set up as few expectations for myself as possible. I do not berate myself for what my body/mind cannot do on any given day.  It’s my whole self that has a need to tell the story. I have to allow that to be what it wants to be. That’s the whole point of being someone who writes.

This is how I’ve learnt to write in a way that sustains through the months and years of long projects. This body-based learning has done more for me than any techniques offered to my rational mind. 


The Monthly Prompt

What small, physical activities do you do, without effort? E.g. are you an expert chef, lover, cyclist, make-up artist, singer or swimmer?

How could you apply what you know in other body-based arenas to your writing?