From the archive: The Beech Tree

Yesterday, I went for a walk. I came across the Beech tree that pulls my attention every time I walk past it.

Warmed by the sun, the slippery grey bark of that thick trunk smelt sweet. An abundance of verdant leaves jostled for attention in the breeze. That tree is a stunning example of the determination of living things to survive, and flourish. It doesn’t have the symmetrical shape of a storybook tree, but I can see that that is the template it is trying to match. It knows what it was born to become. However, it has met obstacles along the way, and has had to adapt. 

At the beginning, it was planted too close to an old stone wall and had to force itself into the cracks between the squared stones, in order to get breath into its ever enlarging shape. Now several stones are suspended like Christmas baubles, carried ever upwards and outwards by the branches.

At some point also, the ground on which it stood gave way beneath it, and it found itself hanging precariously from a cliff edge. Since then it has grown almost horizontal, prevented from falling by clinging roots. But still, it keeps getting bigger, orientating towards the light that it needs, sucking in nutrients from the soil through its stretched and straining roots.

What I see when I look at it is its drive to express itself, its flexibility to meet the challenges of its environment, and its ability to come back to equilibrium after violent interruption.

Standing there beside it, the steadfastness of its trunk giving way to the quivering leaves, I know that the writing journey is about allowing my innate knowledge of who I am and what needs expression, to guide me. When there’s that knowing in the woody core of my being, then my fingers in contact with the computer keys, the pen, and the page, are as released and open to the light as those leaves.

A writing prompt

Observe a tree, bush or plant. How does it embody its history? What do you notice about its growth process?  What has threatened it? What obstacles have got in its way? Now, stop thinking. Pay attention to how you experience the rhythm of its movement (or lack of movement), in your body. You might, for example, notice feelings of contraction or expansion. Write about your experience, and relationship to this living thing.

This article was first published on July 25th 2013

From the archive: The Body In The Woods (Part 2)

That night, I didn’t sleep. A strange insect bit me. It itched like hell.

I scratched and scratched at it, obsessed by visions of poison seeping though my body. I reverted to biting my nails, an old childhood habit. I listened to the wild words rumbling in my head, like the variety of animal sounds outside the tent. I tried to differentiate between them. What was worth putting on the page?

I tried to write, but the fears were quite clearly restricting my words on the page.

I thought the wild words that night should be about my pained experience of being in the woods, but instead I found that I was writing an uninteresting summary. I was focusing on the more comfortable aspects of the story, like my preparation for the expedition, rather than risk getting too deep into descriptions of body sensations, or my fears. I wanted to sleep. I wanted to dream about those beautiful prowling wild words. Instead my mind always returned to its antithesis, the caged words, still trapped in his cage. In my half-awake, half-asleep state, I thought I heard the wild words, mewing plaintively, somewhere far away.

By daylight, my mind was worn out. My thoughts were tired, and seemed to be drifting into sleep, even if the rest of me wasn’t. I crawled out of the tent and stood in the cold. The fog had frosted around the trees, mummifying them overnight. I was a failure, I’d written nothing of worth.

I felt the reaction in my body, almost before I heard the sound that had caused it. It was like someone had put a large fist round my guts and squeezed them. The noise came from somewhere in the back of my mind, a scrubby, dark place, and it was, indeed, soft, mewing words. Words were coming, unbidden. Wild Words.

I moved towards them before I thought about it. I took my notepad out. But just as I began to write, the ideas evaporated away. Somewhere in my mind there was now a circular space where the vegetation had been flattened. It was a similar effect to when your pet cat lies in your Azaleas, but the imprint was much bigger. Steam was rising into the air. I felt the warmth. The words were no longer there, but had been there so recently that I thought I could still see their breath moving the grass of my thoughts.

I had almost got those wild words on to the page. It had been a near miss and I no longer felt like a failure. I realised that however hard it had been, I had stayed in that place, with my feelings and my notebook, all night. I hadn’t run away.  Despite the fact I hadn’t written wild words that night, I had got much closer. The next time, I felt sure, I would harness them on the page.

The Weekly Prompt: Taking Body Sensations Into Fiction

Take the body sensations on which you based your writing for last week (for Part 1 of The Body In The Woods) and write a fictional poem or story of up to 1000 words. None of the facts need to be the same as you experienced in that exercise, although they might be. Only the physical, bodily sensations must remain the same.

This article was first published on 29th June 2013

 

 

From the archive: The Body In The Woods

 I was spending the night in a tent in the woods. My notebook was on my lap; my pen was tucked into my hair for safekeeping.

My intention was to listen to the noises around me, and to focus on becoming aware of the most subtle reactions of my body to external stimuli. I hoped this training would help me to convey my experiences vividly on the page.

I was putting into practice what I already knew theoretically, that describing the body sensations of the main character/narrator in our writing allows the reader to feel into their experience, to live in their shoes. And that more broadly speaking, being in touch with our bodily experience can free something up in our writing, and help to release wild words.

In the small canvas space, I tried to stay with my bodily experience. Initially there didn’t seem to be much feeling there anyway, or not much of interest.  Then, as I tuned in, what I felt was only unpleasant. I was stiff and aching from sleeping on the hard ground, and the damp seemed to have got into my bones. My flat mate had primed me for exploration with homemade stew, made of God-knows-what. It was not digesting well, and my stomach began to ache.

Because, or perhaps despite of the physical discomfort, my mind kicked in. I don’t want to stop thinking. If I do, how will I keep my fear under control? Perhaps if I first make a plan to deal with the wild words if they attack me, then I’ll be able to focus on just being here. I realised how nervous I was, waiting for the wild words to emerge. What repressed stuff would come up from the powerhouse of imagination and memory? I was scared those words might tear at the tent and devour me.

I was becoming very aware of not only my physical, but also my emotional fragility. I was sure now that just one scratch from a wild word would be enough to finish me. Anxious thoughts snowballed. Would I even survive this night, let alone be able to write about it? Well, at least I was getting in touch with my present moment experience. That was what I wanted, wasn’t it? Yes. No. I had no idea anymore.

To be continued…

The Weekly Prompt

Create an intense bodily experience for yourself. If possible go into nature to do this. You could, for example: eat apples from a tree, swim in the sea, roll naked in sand, jump into a muddy puddle. Don’t worry if you don’t have access to a natural environment, there are plenty of opportunities in the town, even inside your house! You could: have a hot shower, record the experience of coming into a cool house from the heat of the day, feel delicious food go down your throat, or have a massage.

Spend 15 minutes describing in prose, or poetry, how the experience feels in your body. Pay careful attention to all the different parts of your body, the various textures, movements, and rhythms.

This article was first published on 21st June 2013

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: Sharpham House

On Friday we went in search of our Wild Words at the magnificent Sharpham House, two miles upstream from the town of Totnes, in Devon.

The famous architect Robert Taylor designed the house and the great landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown is thought to have landscaped the extensive grounds.

We moved fluidly between our base camp, a room where the log fire warmed our bones, and explorations of those grounds. We dodged the raindrops, and luxuriated in the moments when the sun peeped through the clouds.

We gazed down on what is, I believe, one of the most wonderful views in the country. The fields and wooded slopes fall effortlessly to the banks of the River Dart.  We felt the slow passage of time in the way that, since the ice age, the river has pushed its way through the landscape. That river became the main artery for goods going to the thriving market town. Now it enjoys a lazy role as the ambassador of fleets of summer pleasure boats.

We tapped into the rich history of the inhabitants of the house, and found a wellspring of stories. There was the ‘mad hermit’ Willelmus in the 14thcentury.  There were wealthy merchants, politicians, and due to its proximity to Plymouth and Dartmouth, naval heroes too. Captain Pownoll was a high seas adventurer who made his name in 1762 by capturing a Spanish treasure Galleon.

We explored our fears of the wild, and were inspired by it too.

The cat dissecting the bird. The snake-like river. Exploring those qualities of ‘wild’ led us to think about how what we considered ‘natural’ had mostly been cultivated, planted, tamed, as well as exploited and abused, by the human hand. Except perhaps for that river…

Some hours after the workshop had ended, those wild words were still reverberating through me. A friend phoned, and told me that he’d found a dead peasant that had been hit by a car. ‘A road-kill bird will lie there by the side of the road all day, and no one will stop for it. What a waste’. He’d picked it up and cooked it. So we enjoyed peasant casserole that evening. A taste of the wild? Or just another victim of the human species? Both, I suppose.

Weekly Writing Prompt

What do you know about the inhabitants of the building that you are in at this moment? What are their stories? Write about one person who has lived there, or the procession of dwellers through time. If you don’t know the facts, use your imagination. 

This article was first published in April 14th 2013

From the archive: Writer's Block and The Beetle

As he was crawling round the kitchen this week, my eleven month-old nephew found a beetle.

With its scarab shape, hooked legs and black casing, it looked like a relic from Egyptian times. He poked it once with a podgy hand, and then steered a straight course directly over it, one knee steam-rollering the poor thing into the lino. It lay there motionless, legs splayed flat under the shell. I was about to sweep the corpse outside, when, in miraculous fashion, it hoiked itself back on to its legs and began plodding away, as if nothing had happened. I remembered that, of course, if a wild creature cannot flee, and cannot fight, its last ditch effort to save its own life is to play dead, in the hope that the attacker will eventually give up and go away. This immobility response is always time- limited in animals, and does not result in any lasting damage.  This is not the case with human beings.

When something comes into our writing environment and threatens our creative process- for example the telephone ringing interrupts us mid-flow- what happens?

Ideally, we freeze momentarily in the shock of the interruption, before taking one of two equally good, pro-active measures. Either, we move to answer it, inform the caller that we’re busy, and go back to work, or, we choose not to answer it and keep working.

But instead, something else often happens- our complex rational mind kicks in and tries to second-guess our way out of danger. Should I answer it? I wonder who it is? If I answer it I might be stuck on the phone with my mother, but if I don’t answer it, Sheila next door might think I’m rude… Repetitive, anxious thoughts cause our fear levels to rise and the flexible, appropriate immobility response becomes a semi-permanent paralysis. Our writing ceases up, sabotaged by our mind. This is the infamous ‘writers’ block’.

The way out of writers’ block is to reconnect with a way of being that is more instinctual, to act more often from an embodied place than from the rational mind. Our body knows what to do. It knows the story we are trying to tell, and how to tell it. We need to trust it.  We need to get out of our own way, to stop tripping over our own feet. This is wild writing.

A Writing Prompt

Look out for examples of animals coming in and out of the immobility response- a cat freezing in headlights, a fly staying still on a wall as the shadow of your hand passes over it…

Then when you’re next writing, notice any times that your body tenses or freezes, and try and ease it back into flow. Visualise the wild animals in your mind- how easily they enter and exit immobility.

This article was first published on August 9th 2013

From the archive: Snowed In

 On Monday this week, I awoke and looked out of the window. There was nothing but white. I saw only the inconvenience. I would never get a car down the mountain track with that much snow. S***! That was the end of the meeting that I had booked with an animal-tracking expert for later that day. Now I would never know his secrets.

On my second look out of the window, I saw the beauty. The fresh snowfall was casting a silent spell over the land. There might be no formal tracking lesson that day, but conditions were ripe for exploration.

The snow was still falling fast, presenting me with a time capsule- a record of the few animals that had dared to leave their sheltered places in the previous half-hour. One brave deer had taken a route down the edge of the track, where the snow was lightest. There was also the hopping pencil-line print of a robin, searching for food. And cutting purposefully straight across the track- the crawling, claw-toed prints of the badger, his stomach dragging on the ground. The entrance to his sett was just there, cut into the clay soil of the mountain.

And it wasn’t only animals. At the bottom of the hill, engraved on the blank canvas of the builders’ yard car park, the swirling tracks of a van. Evidence of the driver’s difficulty, with sleep still in his eyes, of fitting himself into a narrow parking space. And the valiant post-woman had been there too, her determined prints weaving in and out of every domain.

Turning, I re-traced my own solitary path, my autobiography printed on the snow. At the places where the distance between my tracks closed sharply, I read the history of my excitement. Arriving back at the house, I saw where I’d dragged my heavy feet away from its shelter at dawn, disappointment weighing on me. Now, an hour later, I was forward on my toes, a lighter touch on the ground. I wouldn’t swap anyone else’s secrets for those I discovered myself that day. 

The Weekly Prompt : Tracks

Go for a walk. Look for the tracks of animals, birds and people. When you find a set of prints, make an educated guess as to the owner. Then, observe:

-How light, or heavy are the prints? Are there any changes in weight?

-How evenly or irregularly spaced are the prints? Are there any changes in spacing?

Use this information to write a short piece about how the bird/animal/human being is feeling. Also talk about where they are going, and why. The piece will necessarily be fictional, but will be based on your real-life observations.

First published February 8th 2013

Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.