Not a diary …

This is definitively not a diary. I’m not going to be telling you what I’m doing all the time. That doesn’t mean to say that the things I do don’t have the greatest possible influence on what I write here. And what I have been doing lately feels as though it is rather important to my future. To my understanding that it’s not over until it’s over. We all know that getting out and about, learning new things, meeting people is important to even an introverted person. The trouble is, when things have been dull for a number of years, somehow it is hard to generate the necessary enthusiasm to make such opportunities.

Now, it seems to me, is an important time for me to look within and around, and see what I can salvage of my heartfelt values and make into something new, which may change my little world for the time that remains to me. Maybe I have been collecting and collating experiences, but I have not been making much of them, due to lack of time, commitment, skills. I also feel more evangelical than I have for a long time. The world needs saving! And what am I going to contribute to that effort? I am also more aware of my own capacities so I think I will not set my sights so high. So if not the world, my corner of it. And if word should get out, so much the better.

This process starts here, with a book, as so often. I have been reading Michael McCarthy’s ‘The Moth Snowstorm’ and I have found it inspirational. He starts by studying the variously failed models of  conservation, concluding with a measured despair that the most recent flourishes of sustainability  (Rio) and the market (in the form of, for example, eco-tourism and use value of habitats or species) are as unlikely to succeed as earlier gestures to protect the environment from rapacious greed and exploitation. We don’t have a long-term plan, and seem unable even to consider the well-being of our children. McCarthy speaks of an almost spiritual value which he sees as the slenderest of hopes, but the one remaining to us. He believes (I don’t happen to believe this, but I’ll go along with it) that humans feel a special connection to Nature, by virtue of place within it and our past evolution of exquisite attunement for survival’s sake, which is manifest in our joy and wonder at the huge, the tiny, the rare and the prolific, the colourful and the strange. To this list of the marvellous, I would add, from my own experience, the ordinary, since all life (and indeed, non-life) on the planet and off it is marvellous to me. I am filled with joy and wonder every day.

butterfly in our meadow

Following rapidly on the heels of my discovery of this book have been serendipitous events: finding a secondhand copy of Ronald Blythe’s ‘Divine Landscapes’; meeting a German woman imbued with the essential values of the emergent Green politics of the 1970s and 80s, sadly now rather in eclipse; encountering a wonderful dress designer and maker in Glastonbury while in search of something special to wear at my son’s coming wedding;  meeting a friend in search of an ancient yew tree; and  talking with another friend about her studies in the art or craft of kintsugi. From this last discussion, which turned on issues of ‘right-livelihood’ and the need for authenticity and coherence, ideas of self and occupation emerged – a firming of the resolution to explore what all this means to the essential ‘me’. The word which comes to mind may sound pretentious, but what do I care now about that? It is ‘integrity’. I will make my future with integrity, or I will make nothing.

I’ve been talking about writing, but I know that it is ‘good for a person’ to make things with her hands as well. I do make things, but not in a particularly sustained or practiced way. No 10,000 hours for me. The production of a material object seems valid if it is of use or beauty, but as for imposing my own creations on others, or making a living from them, well, that has always seemed unlikely, out of reach somehow. Too much of a contribution to the mass of stuff burdening the earth. I always knew that my other physical contribution to the world, gardening, was more of a process, considerably reliant on a sensitive working with nature. A garden for me is a cooperative effort. I know what Nature is capable of, and after minimal slashing, burning and digging, a garden will make itself. I’m not much of one for pergolas and decking, walls and paving, so I have never been inclined to supply my clients with what you might call ‘television’ or ‘Chelsea’ gardens. But my gardens look good and are full of life, and most importantly do no harm. They are peaceful places to be.

I am, at least today, full of hope that something true will emerge from this bud of intention, and that what I have sometimes felt lost may be found, or at least re-created. In this hope I am much consoled that this very piece of writing, which I thought had fallen through the cracks of carelessness and new technology, has been found in the archive. Hurrah.


The edges of my world

It’s quite fashionable to talk about the edge. If you’re in an academic world, you probably refer to it as ‘the liminal’. I seem to remember the word from my long ago degree – or was that ‘littoral’? I’d be rather self-conscious writing about ‘the littoral and the liminal’ as American Bonnie McCay has done, though both ideas are enthralling and well worth exploring. Sometimes I think I might drop my sensitivity around apparently pretentious language and just use it. The threshold-ness of the idea also brings the word ‘portal’ to mind, another one I much overused in the recent past, and now feel is due for a revival, just because it can be so apt.

Edges are rich in life and meaning. Elements meet and mix – warm and cold water, darkness and light, rock and air, sea and land. Around the margins of medieval manuscripts mythical beasts roam; between the known and the unknown, mysteries drift and half-form. On the edge of sleep, we dream. Twilight forms and hides the limit of conventional belief. In the penumbra are an infinitude of degrees of greyness. Where do the boundaries of the seven named colours of the rainbow lie? Why seven?

You might think that a person who claims to have a low threshold of risk would shun marginal experience, but this one is rather drawn to it. My awareness of the beauty of the edge has fostered a fascination with beaches, ponds and rivers, horizons, clouds, hedges (two edges there!). Maybe the most significant edge of all, where rock and air meet in the erosive band of the soil has been of prime importance to me as I delve in my garden, and pull vegetables seemingly out of nowhere. My garden is a small world of soil compared with the stripped rainforest where it has taken millenia for a film of life to accumulate, only to be washed away to the sea in a few short years of exploitative logging and soybean cultivation or beef grazing. My garden is of small importance compared with the rice terraces of Ifugao or the parched farms of the Eastern Nile watershed in Sudan and Ethiopia, but it makes the message. It takes so little for this fragile and essential resource to be poisoned or swept away. In short, earth, air and water meet differently in every place and time, and in every different kind of weather.

the soil and its denizens

Maybe my comfortable feeling at the edge comes from my suburban childhood, between city and countryside. A child believes that nothing will ever change in their miniature landscape. But not only does the point of perspective rise as the child grows, and understanding of the processes of change develop with both education and observation, but the focus on detail weakens and now admits how small and grubby a scene could be which had once encompassed such adventures. Certainly the suburbs have seen changes in time, an ebb and flow of people and substance as rapid as in the countryside proper. They are at risk as places to raise children, encounter nature, notice the spaces in between, become oneself. The walls which medieval city dwellers built to keep out the wild and the incursions of the Other are now needed to prevent the reverse encroachment of the urban on the rural. Dismay at the failure by nibbling attrition of green belt planning policy is my generation’s equivalent to the sad regret of John Clare or Richard Jefferies for Enclosure and the intensification of agriculture. There is a thinning of life, and not just a narrowing of the edge between us and the Wasteland.

foreshore low tide
city edge

The mind has edges too, imposing limits on the narrow-minded, encouraging curiosity in the broad-minded, and demanding acceptance, tolerance, patience and compassion towards both children and those whose minds are otherwise to our own, through culture and belief or even mental aberrations. How many times have I almost not seen something important at the edge of vision? Catching such a glimpse, cannot humankind turn aside from its headlong rush over the edge to the Fall?

They say that change is inevitable, and one cannot avoid edges either. There is a frontier to life and experience as one ages. Most of us have an edge to our acceptance. Even the largest desert or ocean has a place where sand accumulates or dwindles as erosion or deposition takes place. it may be an infinitely sharp line or an imperceptible merging, but the Edge will always be somewhere, and on the other side, things will be different.

grass sky horizon

Ups and downs

Sometimes of a morning I feel that things are going well. This is an unusual state for me. Often I feel neutral, and often things can seem pretty dark. As the day goes by, the mood inevitably changes for better or worse. Sometimes I think it is the Welsh weather in me. So what conjunctions in my sky?

I often wonder whether I ‘should’ read accounts of madness, but they are of absorbing interest to me, and often uplifting, even when tragic. Thus such reading reflects life itself. Hastening to choose something at the library for my weekly London visit (this needs to be engaging but not demanding) I set upon ‘An unquiet mind: a memoir of moods and madness’ written by Kay Redfield Jamison, of whom I have long been aware. It was first published nearly twenty years ago by this American clinical psychologist with first-hand experience of manic-depressive illness. Well, it was a dramatic book. I could hardly conceive of how she came through and gained acceptance for herself in practice, and happiness in her life. She also writes from the U.S. psychiatric perspective, which is strongly ‘medical’ in tendency, though she does also allow that talking therapy gave her courage and a way to integrate the powerful experience of mental illness into her life. She demonstrates the most destructive end of a spectrum which in a milder way affects us all, yet it is necessary for me to continue to hold in mind the different ways to understand human nature and nurture, generate meaning, demonstrate acceptance of and empathy with others and seek my own meaning – something I have found singularly hard to do.

The previous week we visited Chichester, to escape flag-waving of the Queen’s tea-party. At the Pallant House art gallery was the annual ‘Outside In’ exhibition of ‘extraordinary’ work produced by artists excluded by the conventional art world. Nowadays it must be admitted that they get a lot of wallspace, one way and another. Angus MacPhee was a Hebridean islander who was admitted to residential care in Craig Dunain Hospital in Inverness during WW2. After his day’s work on the hospital farm, he used his native skills to weave ropes and clothing from grasses and wildflowers; objects such as he remembered holding together the precarious life on the harsh islands of his birth. His sister spoke of him very touchingly in her soft voice – he was invalided out of the army, he wasn’t ‘coping’ and they ‘though it was for the best’. He spent maybe 50 years in hospital, without speaking, before coming home a year before his death. He didn’t show any sign that he knew he was a person of interest to art therapist Joyce Laing but he did once make her a hat, which was saved from the bonfires which consumed most of Angus’s work, left hanging in trees in the hospital grounds.

extraordinary art

The artists in the Pallant House exhibition fell into three groups, it seemed to me. They demonstrated intersections of degrees of disability and talent, which challenge the definition of ‘Art’. The broadest definition of disability would include poverty, poor education and naivete, exclusion by belonging to a minority community, learning disability and physical and mental handicap. There’s a political correctness to ‘inclusion’ which can become problematic. But some of the individuals exhibited great ability on a technical and aesthetic level, whereas others were purely and simply compulsive makers of …  stuff of varying interest and appeal. Making has many purposes in life; the activity is rightly considered therapeutic, an expression of humanity. A 2013 exhibition of ‘outsider art’ at the Wellcome Collection used the word ‘Souzou’ of such a generative force. There is no direct translation to English, but it can indicate both creation and imagination in Japanese. New ideas are born and take shape in the world.

My first encounter with ‘outsider art’ was while living in Switzerland. The main body of the collections of Jean Dubuffet reside in the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne. This place became a destination for many outings, and maybe influenced my decision to train as a psychiatric nurse. Sadly, art doesn’t have that much to do with 21st century mental health care, with honourable exception of institutions such as the SLaM Bethlem/Maudsley Hospital who run excellent projects, a gallery and museum. Funding, staffing, time seem not to permit.


Attending a bank annual meeting may not sound like an inspirational activity, but among other customers of Triodos UK is Age Exchange, founded in 1983 to bring ‘reminiscence and intergenerational arts’ to people suffering from dementia and other difficulties. Their cafe, library and education space is right on the high street in Blackheath, and I’m planning a visit soon. (Triodos supports enterprises which share the bank’s unusual (for banking) values of building on social, environmental and cultural capital.)

While we’re on the subject of cafes, this morning saw the second ‘Transition Coffee’, a new daytime meeting for members of our town’s struggling environmental group. We run a bookstall at the Farmer’s market to raise funds and meet up for drinks one evening  a month. The group has been quiet for some time, after several key members moved away from the area, and these social events allow the remaining members to gather their resources and decide what next. Last month a new friend mentioned the work of environmental campaigner and therapist Sophy Banks who founded the Totnes Transition Heart and Soul group, and has worked on the idea of ‘inner transition’ as a way of avoiding the condition so common among activists and vocational workers, undervalued as they are, yet completely dedicated to one or many deeply humanitarian causes. Our insights into the future are frightening, and do not seem to be appreciated by society at large. Each minuscule element of progress is so dearly bought. It’s not a wonder many cannot face the commitment of this work, and bury themselves in other (it must be said, equally valid and more enjoyable) priorities. We ‘burn out’. So gathering all these strands together, I again forge the intention to affirm my long-held values, to foster my community, to enjoy myself in ways which are deeply meaningful to me, and once again pick up the banner of activism.