Grounding

A tree lies broken on the path.  The old poplar has been rent, a bough the size of a large tree torn away in the winds.  The splintered heartwood is shredded and the tree nurses a jagged ivory stump.  Its amputated limb blocks the path, causing passers-by to stop in wonder.  It isn’t the only casualty.  A bough of the shoe tree has fallen, a mossy pair of trainers tangled in its branches.  In the dene, a large bough of weeping willow is hanging by a thread of bark, like a besom broom sweeping the path.  Storms aren’t unusual before the equinoxes, as though the earth needs to expel its energy before it can come into a balance of sorts.   After the day of wind comes a night of rain, before the morning calm.

After the storms, I go in search of stone, a balance to the torrent of air and water.  I want to be grounded by the size and the steadiness of earth.  I start at the Pen Bal Crag, the tallest of all our cliffs, where the priory and castle sits atop limestone and sandstone.  I rarely come to this small bay – the steps are steep and many and dogs are banned for half of the year.  In fact I don’t recall the last time I stepped on its sand.  Alone on the beach, I’m dwarfed by the rocks rising above me.  Boulders are tumbled at the bottom of the cliffs, some from landslides, clad in bladderwrack and gutweed.  Water drips from vegetation in the cracks and behind it all, the sea roars.  These rocks are layered in time and faith and blood and the ancient lava flow that once poured through them.  I am as slight as a grain of sand in comparison.

Strange how the memory plays tricks.  I have a very strong recollection of a barbecue here many years ago.  It has the gilded patina of nostalgia, redolent with soft evening light and the taste of sausages.  I remember clearly exploring a cave under the cliffs – so clearly I used the memory of it in one of my novels.  This is why I’m here, to re-visit it.  Yet as I stand on the shore, gazing at the cliffs, I realise that this cave doesn’t exist.  It most likely never did.  All these years, the image of it has come to me and it seems that I invented it.  I puzzle over my trickster memory, willing the cave to come into being, but of course it doesn’t, except in imagination.  A crow, the trickster bird, squawks and lands on the rock beside me, as though laughing at my foolishness.  It has something that might be a crab in its beak, something spindly and long-fingered.  I watch as it pulls the creature apart and welcomes in its mate to partake in the feast.

The sand is virginal.  There is only the faint meandering imprint of a small bird’s passage.  The remnants of last night’s storm churns the sea into boisterous waves.  But that is out there.  Here on the beach, all is tranquil.  The sky is pale blue washed with wisps of buttermilk.  On mornings like this the dawn sky is insubstantial.  It holds a luminous translucence that makes my skin seem thinner than it is, as though I too am made of gossamer.  The clouded sun turns the breakers to liquid platinum.  I can see the lighthouse silhouetted at the end of the pier beyond the cliffs.  I came here for stone, but it is sky and sea that are the most precious gift this morning.

I walk to the other side of the bay, passing a few black headed gulls and an oystercatcher.  A young herring gull bleats for food as I pass.  Up a bank lined by valerian and the leaves of silver weed, past a rusting old bench.  My coastline stretches from the mouth of the river to the island where one county ends and the next begins.  In between is a chain of bays.   I head down to the next, down to the derelict open air swimming pool and onto the sand.  Here, I search for a memento of the light, a token to take with me into the dark season.  I spot it immediately, as the thought is taking shape, a pebble that is, in fact, neither light nor dark but blushed with both.  I take a strand of kelp and draw a circle in the sand by the tide line, and bisect it.  This represents the year, with both halves in equinoctial balance.  I step into the circle and cross the line, clutching my token, symbolically moving from light to dark.

This harvest I have a sense of completion. There is nothing that niggles, undone.  It hasn’t been an easy year and the strange weather seems to have reflected its challenge.  But I have two polished novels ready for submission, one of which was long-listed for the Lucy Cavendish fiction prize; two agents asked to review my full manuscript while another said it was the strongest submission she’d seen for some time; three new stories written and a story short-listed for a short story prize.  There are things I would like to have achieved – such as one of those agents agreeing to represent me – but perhaps that is for another year.

The sun is at my back now as I walk.  That luminous sky behind me, as is the zenith of the year.  This bay is known as the ‘long sands’ and it is a mile long.  By the time I reach its end, my circle will probably have been washed away by the tide.  I walk at the water’s edge.  There isn’t much of a strand line here, just wisps of seaweed, a single maple leaf, a few pebbles, shells and feathers.  I follow it, such as it is, letting the tide seep over my feet when it chooses.  I’m always greedy for treasures from the strand line – one more pebble, one more shell – my house is full of jars and tubs of them.  I pocket a sliver of sea glass,  a chunk of sea-washed china, an intricate shell, a pebble honeycombed by piddock trails and a tiny white feather.

A group of four sanderlings scuttle in the tide in front of me.  I try to catch up with them, thinking that if I overtake they’ll see I’m no threat.  But they keep scuttling, back and forth, always the same distance away, until finally they take flight, sick of the game or never having noticed me in the first place.  A cormorant dives in the surf and I watch as three times it dives, three times it rises.  At the north end of the beach, curls of kelp litter the shore.  The tide has created an island out at sea, thronged by birds.

I came for caves and there is one bay where I know they aren’t imaginary.  I clamber down sandstone crags, feet sinking into slimy banks of bladderwrack until I reach smuggler’s cave.  A few pigeons take flight and a redshank sounds an alarm.  I walk under the arches, past limpid pools and clusters of pebbles and seaweed.  From above, these caves are sunny sandstone.  From beneath, they are grey, green and dark.  The caves are beyond the pier, cut off from the safety of the sands.  From under the arch, I see the same ship I’ve seen in my walk along the shore, the same sea, the same sky, but the view from inside the stone is a secretive one.  Here, there is no-one to know that I am a witness.  I am the watcher in the dark, looking out onto the light.

My harvest is completed and now I absorb inspiration, to take me into the creative dark.  I ground myself in the resonant stone.  Moving inwards, to the sheltered half-light of autumn.  I will take with me the brilliance of this, and other, watery dawns; the iridescence of a kingfisher’s wings; the stripes of a badger’s face.  The light is always there, running like a vein of crystal through the stone.

Arvon magic

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Old stone and vicious drops, cossetted by mist-clad hills.  A robin’s song vibrating the trees and the moon peeking over the hill.  Watching.  Scarred wood and cosy crannies, walls seeping words.  Blowsy blooms, secret doorways and the drift of seeds on the wind.  This is Lumb Bank, an 18th Century mill owner’s house that once belonged to Ted Hughes.  I’m here for a ‘work in progress’ Arvon writing course.

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It is a house burrowed into the hillside, the valley plunging to the river beneath.  There is a sense of isolation, because to get anywhere, there are steep hills to climb.  At night, an orange glow suffuses the nick of the valley.  In the mornings, mist cloaks the hills.  The song of the river soars up the valley.  Here, the trees are just beginning to turn, hinting at the gilding to come.  Often, the days are balmy; rabbits, pheasants and deer gambol in the fields below.  At times, the rain moves in, soaking the valley.  Everywhere I go, I catch the sharp scent of coriander.

This is a place, if not made for writing, then tempered over nearly fifty years into a space for creativity to flourish.  On every wall, there are words by and portraits of writers who have been here before us.  There are alluring places to write or ponder, homely rooms and quirky, secluded spots:  the bedraggled summerhouse tucked below the house, arched stone nooks and weathered benches.   There is no internet, no television to distract us.  And there is the sense that many stories have been written here, many ideas born.

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Our tutors are Patrick Neate and Emylia Hall.  They create an atmosphere of trust, inspiration, laughter and passion.  Our morning workshops harvest the words and wisdom of writers, provoke discussion and stimulate new writing.  Afternoons are free for writing, pondering and procrastinating.  And in the evenings, readings from Patrick and Emylia, from guest author Tash Aw, letting off steam at the White Lion pub quiz and the nerve-wracking finale of reading something of our own at the Friday evening celebration.

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We came here as 15 individuals, to live, learn and write together.  One of the great pleasures of this experience is to hear other peoples’ stories, not only those they are writing but also those they are living.  One night a week, we cook with a small group of fellow writers.  That few hours in the kitchen pulling together food for everyone is a bonding experience in itself.  But there is something special about sharing meals that everyone has taken a turn to cook, around the huge old dining table that has hosted so many writers before us.  It seems appropriate that my turn comes on the day of the harvest, the autumn equinox.

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This may be a writing retreat, but I find that I don’t write much.  Those spare hours are filled with forest walks, watching wildlife, thinking, listening to music.  This is not an easy week.  The equinox is a time to seek balance and my week cycles rapidly between self-doubt, optimism, inspiration and back again.  I’m left not with a body of work, but with questions and a sense that I need to return to the essence of my writing.  The last exercises we complete are concerned with just this and take us back to the nub of it all.  This is my final harvest.

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Coming back, it is hard to disengage.  They call the effect of this experience the ‘Arvon Magic’ but I suspect that it is only once it ends that you realise how magical the process is.  Part of me is still standing there, looking over the valley in the dark with the moon peeping over the hills.  My journey home was only a few hours, but the real journey will be much longer.

A harvest festival

In the forest, the earth has succumbed to a peculiar alchemy. Far below the canopy, in twisted root and shady hollow, the fruits of the wood have bloomed. These flowers of autumn are strange blossoms: bruised purples, sickly yellows, blood reds, viscous whites. Waxy, slimy, gnarled blooms with names that hint at death and decay: fly agaric, sickener, shaggy inkcap, brittlegill. Some are delicate sprinkles as though a character from a fairy tale has carelessly scattered a trail of crumbs. Some are enormous, meaty things, the size of dinner plates, crawling with insects and already rotting inside.   They are the stuff of fairy tales, stools waiting for their toads.

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It is the sunset of the year, when the seasons once more inch towards balance. At the autumn equinox, the hours of darkness and daylight will be the same, but the year then tips into darkness. If we’re lucky, this is a time of plenty, when we gather in our final harvest to see us through the winter. This is when the year suddenly makes sense. The work of growing and nurturing pauses and the shape of the past year can be seen. And just as the fruits of the fungi emerge from the earth, so our dreams are ripe for foraging too.

At Candlemas, I took a handful of seeds and swaddled them in darkness. These were the dreams that emerged during the dark months, the ideas and the projects I wanted to work on this year. At harvest, I will unwrap them and consider whether they have been fulfilled. I’ll look back and wonder whether I did all I could to nurture them. I’ll celebrate those that have reached their potential. And then I’ll let them go. For this is a transition time, when we must leave behind what no longer serves us and begin to seek the seeds of new dreams.

My dreams this year were dreams of creation. I wanted to write and I wanted to paint. In fact, words took precedence over images. A dozen short stories written, my novel readied for submission to agents, an outline of a non-fiction book produced. This year writing has been about work: completing projects and submitting them. There has been a modicum of external recognition – a short story publication coming soon, another publication that almost came off before the magazine stalled, invitations to guest blog. I haven’t achieved all my writing goals for the year (the biggest being to find an agent), but I’m happy with the fruits of my harvest.

My painting has been about pure enjoyment.  I’ve resisted the temptation to see them as something that I might one day sell.  The paintings have been personal.  Some of you may remember that I have a vision of myself as a landscape painter  but haven’t been able to stop painting portraits.  Some of you suggested that I could combine the two. So landscapes have begun to creep into my portraits. And unexpectedly I’ve had my first offer of a sale.

Have you ever been to a harvest festival, where the best of the harvest is gathered, displayed and celebrated? Well, I’d like invite you to a harvest festival of creativity in which we’ll celebrate what we’ve created this year. In the comments, please share your greatest creative achievement of the year (big or small, whatever means the most to you) and insert a link to your favourite post that you’ve written in the last twelve months.  (For those of you in parts of the world where harvest is still months away, we’ll call it a celebration of spring!) My contribution to the festival is a coming magazine publication that I’m particularly pleased with (of which more soon) and a link to my favourite post I’ve written this year: The small wild things  And now, over to you. Don’t be shy about your achievements, this is a celebration!

Completion

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As we approach the autumn equinox, which is a point of perfect balance within the year, wind and rain have heralded a palpable change in the season.  Though the vegetation is still green and the trees are clinging to their foliage, the first few leaves litter the park.  I notice berries everywhere: fat clusters of rowan, glossy rosehips, fiery sea buckthorn and white snowberries.  Fungi still fruits and disappears overnight.  Seeds latch on to clothing and drift through windows.  The heating is on once more and I often wrap a blanket around me to keep me warm.  The nights have darkened rapidly and it won’t be long before we put the clocks back.

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Night and day are equal on the equinox, as they are in spring, but this time, the hours of darkness will take over, with the nights lengthening until the solstice in December.  This is the time for turning inwards, both physically, when we don’t feel so much like leaving the house, but also mentally.  It’s the season of the mind and of the soul, when we can rest, be still and concentrate on intellectual and spiritual concerns.  If we’re willing to embrace the darkness, this can be a time of deep creativity.

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But before the stillness arrives, the turbulent energies of this transition must come into equilibrium.  It’s a season of storms in the physical world and just as in the spring, it can be a challenging time mentally, as we let go of the light and expansion of summer and accept the coming darkness and repose.  For me, it brings a return to a challenging time of year in my day job after a couple of weeks of holiday, when I once again feel constrained by the routine stresses that suck energy from family life and creativity.  In her excellent post, Unpeeled, Helen White captures many of the things I am feeling at this time of year.

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At Lammas, we celebrated the grain harvest, but at the equinox, we celebrate the completion of the harvest, when the final fruits and vegetables are brought in.  It’s a time of reckoning, when our ancestors would discover whether or not the harvest was enough to see them though the winter.  In the UK, this is a crucial harvest for many farmers, after the wet summer last year and this year’s long winter and slow spring.  If you’re like me, you buy your groceries without giving too much thought to the effort involved in bringing them to harvest – I hardly noticed the bad harvest last year, because I could still buy the fruit and vegetables I wanted.  This year, I’ve been learning more about what it takes to produce the food I eat and it’s given me a great respect for all the attention paid to each crop.

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But this is a time of reckoning for all of us, when we identify and celebrate our more personal achievements.  The goals we set in spring with hopefulness have either come to fruition or not.  This is a good time to gather together symbols of what you have achieved this year – completed work, plaudits, awards, complimentary words, new ideas, new connections – and display them in your own ‘harvest festival’.

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But the cycle always continues, so just as the farmers will be planting new seeds into the stubble of the current harvest, it’s also time to begin thinking of the seeds you will nurture next spring.  Consider what went well this year and what you could do differently to have a more bountiful harvest next year.  And begin to think about the ideas you can contemplate and refine during the long winter slumber, ready to be sown in spring.

If you’re in the southern hemisphere, you will be experiencing the spring equinox, so you may find this post of interest.