From the archive: Urban Green

I left London when I was 30 because I was desperate for my eyes to be able to swivel their whole arc, to see wide and distant views, to smell clean air, and to rest in silence.

The other week, almost exactly ten years since I left, I went back. I spent two days walking the streets in search of a wild green space in the heart of the city. I was on a quest for a location for the ‘Wild In The City’ weekend workshops that are starting in the spring.

Twenty-five percent of the capital is made up of public green space, and the variety is tremendous. I saw the most regal royal parks, the most ragged parts of Hampstead Heath. I went into community gardens smelling of lavender and tomatoes, and locked myself into the seclusion of a private square in Bloomsbury.

Each one of those green spaces had a very different feeling, but all of them held a certain power. Their power derived from their juxtaposition with the concrete, metal, and glass that loomed over them, and from their ability to keep human progress at bay.

Suddenly there seemed to be so much space and silence in the city. And so many stories.

In Nunhead Cemetery, ghosts rose from the overgrown graves. In St James Park, the pomp and ceremony of monarchs came alive. In Greenwich Peninsular Ecology Park, tales of working in the gasworks in the 1880’s, and roars of victorious Olympians, seemed to hang in the air, even as butterflies, newts, moorhens and reed warblers went about their everyday business.

Not everything in cities is controlled by human beings. Not everything plays by our rules. There is room for the unpredictable, for those who live by intuition. There are quiet, inspiring places for the writers who seek to create a space into which magic might come.

The Weekly Prompt

This week, instead of working at your desk indoors, write something outside. If you live in an urban area, take a walk into the unknown to seek out a quiet, green space. Learn something about the history of the place you are in. See what inspiration you find. 

This article was first published on 20th September 2013

Why Do We Tell Stories?

So, why is it that we are ‘natural storytellers’? Recent scientific evidence backs up what we, as writers, know in our guts. Telling stories is not a luxury for human beings, it is vital to our survival and flourishing. If the wild animal has senses, bodily sensation, emotion, action and most probably some powers of imagining and ‘thinking’, to keep it alive, we have all this plus a more developed rational mind, and the ability to tell stories. 

There are stories everywhere around us, in films, on TV, and in books. Adverts tell us stories to persuade us to buy their products. Televised sports are also stories. Our heroes face the opponents, with a clear aim, and battle it out to the bitter end. Stories rescue human beings when life is too harsh, too fast, too heavy. We default into daydreaming whenever we are not involved in an immediate, absorbing task.  Stories provide rest and relief. They calm our body and mind.

I see the extreme of storytelling as a life-saving strategy in my work as a psychotherapist. Many people who experience traumatic or abusive situations, use storytelling to survive emotionally, when contact with ‘reality’ would be overwhelming for body and mind. Indeed, the state of ‘dissociation’, of feeling detached from a situation that would otherwise be unbearable, often involves elements of storytelling. Below is the account of an abuse survivor.

I could see the window from where I lay. When it was happening, I would look out of the window at the birds flying. I would imagine I too was flying, and that I could go anywhere, do anything. I would visit beautiful places and talk to kind people who reassured me that I would survive. I believe this is what stopped me from going crazy, or from killing myself.

In recent studies of dreams it has been found that 80 percent are about ‘a problem that needs to be solved’. So, it may be that the primary evolutionary role of stories is as, psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley puts it, to be...

…the flight simulators of human social life.

Writing, telling, reading, or listening to stories, activates the same biological process as living out the actions would do. The same neurons fire, and neural pathways are strengthened when we think about performing an action, as when we perform it for real. That’s the reason that professional sports people use visualisation as a key part of their training. Stories allow us to encounter various life obstacles in symbolic guise and to practice ways of solving them, without endangering ourselves. Stories train us for life.

Certainly, stories also play other crucial roles in our lives: They allow us to process emotions. They allow us to feel in control of, and gain perspective on our lives. They can lead to public recognition and (sometimes) money. Autobiographical work can pass information on to future generations, and provide closure to our lives. Stories entertain. They inspire and they motivate.

As I wrote as part of the content for a University of Exeter creative writing course,

When we tell our stories details unfold like flowers, clues become moments of epiphany, feelings are processed, and stuck energy is discharged. We begin to notice the patterns that repeat through our lives, called ‘Repetition Compulsion’ by Sigmund Freud. We see which of those serve us, and which don’t. We can bring closure to the unfinished aspects of our lives. We can grieve and move on. We can find or create our self in the writing.

Storytelling, on the very physical level of our nervous systems, discharges energy. This energy, if it remains trapped, can disable our effective functioning in the world, as well as lead to ill health.

Above all, writing is a fabulous thing to do, because, as poet John Keats so clearly elucidated, the great beauty of the art and craft of it is that ‘it makes everything interesting’.

What I’d like you to take away this month, is the following:

Your job- that of being a wordsmith- is sacred, because without it, the human species cannot survive.

What we need to do as storytellers is to rest in the knowledge that not everything has to come from the rational mind. If we can trust our innate ability to tell stories, to allow our organic movement towards health, then we have truly set out on the trail to re-finding our wild words. So, as the unanswered emails pile up, and as your partner, parents, and children tug relentlessly on your sleeve, remember this: you’re doing war-work. Writing saves lives.

Now how are your mind and body feeling? Would you know how to put the strength of your embodied experience into words?

Onward and upward!

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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.

Winter Solstice Competition Winner: Fox

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This is Sarah Wheeler's Competition Winning Story. Her inspiration was the prompt 'Be a good animal. True to your animal instinct.'

The first time he struck, we made our excuses.

Like the apologists, who take to Facebook and the letters page of the Western Daily Press, we tried to see it from his point of view.

He’s only doing what comes naturally, I reasoned.

Boy, eyes red, his voice choked with tears and snot, was less convinced. 

We’ll have to bury her, he insisted, in between sobs.

So, reverently, together, we collected the shards of Beaky. There wasn’t much left, a few strands of tail, a white wing feather bearing her distinctive dark, non-breed-standard, patch. A trial of soft breast down was already rapidly blowing away in the late afternoon sunlight, like a cloud of dandelion seeds, but we gathered what we could, put the pieces in a shoebox, and saved her, for internment later.  

As a parent, part of the rationale for getting a pet is this, I told myself; the small losses that foreshadow others, the gradual familiarisation with our own mortality, death in bite-sized pieces, if you’ll forgive the pun. However, confronted by the immediacy of Boy’s tears, and the shrieks of the traumatised survivors, who were still perched precariously on the shed guttering, refusing to come down, I was not so sure.

I don’t much care for anthropomorphism. Pictures of miniature pugs wearing polka dot bandanas, kittens in pink tutus, and the internet craze for pet shaming, leave me cold, and slightly uncomfortable. Mostly, I want to shake the owners, and tell them their Lasha Apso trashed the Phillipe Stark sofa, and gorged itself on toilet roll, because they left it alone all day, that, if it’s staring at the camera with those doleful puppy dog eyes, it’s because it’s bored and hungry, not out of some sense of Judaic-Christian guilt.

But, in the wake of Fox, I discovered that, if funny animal stories didn’t exist, like God, we’d have to invent them.

No longer in thrall to his wildness, in my retelling, Fox became more than the sum of his hunger, his lust to survive, to outrun hounds and spread his progeny. Instead, he was a lesson in parenting skills, extrajudicially killing, only because it was necessary, to feed his cubs.

The second-time Fox came, he took a Pekin pullet. At least, we thought it was Fox.  We never saw him, just his calling card of feathers, a slither of bone, and fear.

Over the following days, and weeks, we lost more birds. As Boy grew more sanguine, I turned into an aproned vigilante. I kept the birds shut in if I was not around, and, when I was working from home, I took my morning coffee or lunch outside, sat in an old deckchair in the barn, and watched them through a gap in the wall timbers.

I never caught a glimpse of fox. Like a film noir serial killer, he regularly left behind a grisly totem, a curl of fur, or a strip of turf, incised by a frenzy of claw.

I couldn’t see Fox, but he was always there, like a thunder cloud, the threat of violence hung heavy in the air.

On All Souls’ Day, he took a broody hen, and left her clutch of eggs, cold and useless as stones.

That night, I lay awake, listening for the bark of dog fox, but all I could hear was the lashing rain, the distant hum of tyres on the wet road, and the isolated chime of the clock in the hall. I looked out of the bedroom window, but the night was moonless, the security light hadn’t clicked on, and I couldn’t even make out the barn, or the edge of the box hedge. The outline of all that was familiar was lost in the dark, our cottage adrift in the darkness.

Somewhere, in the blackness, a screech owl called. Ethereal, and insistent. I stood listening to her cries, my feet cold on the bare floor boards, my mind chilled with the recollection of myth and an old wives’ tale, the owl as harbinger of death.

Unsettled, I crawled back to bed, where I tossed and turned, and, in a semi-deranged, insomniac state, listened for the shrieks of chicken in her plaintive song. When I finally fell asleep, the owl had long stopped, a robin was cheerily cheeping, and sky was broken by a delicate pink band of morning sun, but still the spectre of fox crept through my dreams.

Opening the hen house up that morning, I held my breath as I, literally, counted my chickens. Despite the previous night’s portentous cawing, there were no casualties.

Later, at my desk, I checked the morning’s email. There was a message from Jared, our nearest neighbour and one-time gamekeeper.

Good morning, he wrote, I think I may have solved your fox problem.

I clicked on the attachment, and watched the JPEG unfurl. Slowly, it revealed the sleek outline of fox, caught in a shaky flashlight, her pelt warm against the earth, like a swath of ripped velvet, eyes luminous, unreal as glass, all-knowing in the darkness, perfect and still, frozen in death.

When I told Boy, he air punched the sky. Yay, he shouted, before running off to spread the good news to the chickens.

I felt relief, but something else too. Not sadness, or sorrow, exactly, but an absence, the loss of something, which challenged and vexed me, like the sting of salt on winter dry skin, or the creak of an old church door.  

A few days later, hoeing under the reach of our beech hedge, I found a fan of grey feathers, not chicken, but a remnant of wood pigeon, its ribcage ripped and flattened, like some macabre dream-catcher. I pushed the remains back under a blanket of leaves, and kicked some soil over them, so Boy wouldn’t see.

I held the secret of Fox close to myself, where it chilled me, and warmed me, in equal measure.