Swipe, Harrow and Roll

5 07 2020

We choose not to use chemicals on our fields and manage the land as naturally as possible. Most of the time, it’s pretty low maintenance: we simply let the horses and ponies roam all over the five acres or so. We don’t section off areas with tape. We don’t have stables. We keep the hedges high on purpose. We want our small herd to have as much browsing and meandering space as possible.

Arabian horses and Dartmoor ponies are very compatible field companions. Both breeds evolved in harsh conditions; both travel long distances in search of food and water and both breeds have neat, tough feet that do well barefoot. As a herd, our group are, like their home, pretty low maintenance compared to many horses kept at traditional livery.

Dartmoor ponies are known as useful conservation grazers. They will eat bracken, gorse and scrubby dry grass. They will eat thistle heads, nettles and brambles. They will eat cars if you carelessly leave them in the field. The one thing – two things actually- our ponies will not eat are docks and burdock. The resident goats – who were taken in as live-in weeders – do not earn their keep. They do not want to eat docks or burdock; why should they when they have perfectly good goat muesli delivered to their bowls every morning.

So every year the docks and burdock have a wild coming out party in our fields and no one stops them. We watch them grow loud and unruly. Sometimes we chop their heads off when they get too big for their roots. Sometimes we dig them up (well, Jo does the digging with a ragwort fork and a lot of effort – I mean a lot) and the docks don’t care. They grow, they change colour and they create their own little ecosystem. They form a cunning camouflage corridor for our resident fox which uses them like a convenient alley.

The docks have gone! The fox’s cover has been exposed! These were my thoughts when I arrived at the fields this afternoon to see the whole space swiped clean. The rolling and harrowing added the finishing polish. It looked like less like a hunting hangout for wildlife with business to attend to and more like a empty village hall with a nice sign outside inviting people in for tea. ‘Recreational,’ was Lindsey’s word.

It sounds as if I miss the docks. I don’t. I know they will be back next year – probably sooner if we get more rain – I really like having them swiped, though. It is such a thrill to see the fields so clear and empty and filled with possibility. It feels like a fresh start. A new beginning.

The ponies came back to a new nude landscape. Tinker looked around and scanned the length of the field searching for something new to investigate. Eventually she settled on the tyre, which had been moved by the tractors and put her nose into it, knowing in that way that animals built for survival know, that the hole in the centre would be untouched. She glanced round for her companion who was already eyeing the haynet, knowing that the swiping meant not only less cover, but less to eat.

I watched them scan, settle and simply adapt to the new surroundings. I noticed how quickly they adjusted to change. How easy it is for them to know what to do in every moment.

As our landscape changes, how easy is it for us to adapt? How will we return to the new open space? With trepidation or with the knowledge that we will know what to do when we get there?





Regarding Beauty

21 06 2020

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At the far end of Teignmouth, the town where I live in Devon, there is a large park with three names. Eastcliff, the Rowdens and Mules Park combine to make up what is a magical space of grass meadow, woodland path, shady pond, walled garden, community orchard and flower border. Cherry, ancient oak and chestnut trees are in full leaf right now. Nonetheless, it was the poppies that stopped me in my tracks.

Abundant ruffles of pink, crimson, scarlet, violet and white sprawled across the bank. I whipped out my phone to capture them before they took wing in the wind. I wondered who had planted them so cleverly, knowing with a sure gardener’s eye that their dizzying display would one day stop people in their tracks. Who took the trouble to do this? And why?

Community gardens are one of the loveliest things I can imagine. No gardener myself (I make do with a few pots) I appreciate the work that goes into creating something so naturally beautiful it looks effortless. As I roamed my eye over the bank, and saw the little pathways woven through the display, I felt a surge of admiration for the mind that thought this through. No tribute was needed except my appreciation.

img_1464  Reading Annie Dillard’s slim volume: The Writing Life, I came across this quote from Plato, which asks the ultimate ‘what if’ question. What if we could see beauty without having to judge it? Without having to compare it to something else? Without metaphor or comparison or concept? What if, we could just stand before beauty, and allow it to show its true face. What then?

Children know how to do this. Living closer to a state of wonder than jaded adults, who have seen too many extravagant bouquets to be moved, a child sees the universal in a delicious new buttercup or dandelion clock. As adults, we’re a bit more picky. We prefer peonies to poppies, roses to ragwort (those pesky weeds!) and congratulate ourselves on our discernment. We know what we like. We admire good taste. Whereas, Beauty Itself, Pure Beauty is nowhere to be found in our carefully cultivated consciousness.

I know formal gardens do not move my imagination in the way a bank of poppies tripping all over themselves with brightness makes me want to party with them, soak up their spirited splendour, their casual look-at-me I haven’t really bothered to dress up vibe. Perhaps it’s because stripped of all pretension, the poppy is a humble flower, which doesn’t need much looking after, which in its low-key way creates a sense of freedom and possibility.

The ephemeral beauty of the poppy is, of course, why we have turned them into symbols of hope. The poppy flings its seed into the hardest, saddest and most painful places on earth. The poppy flourishes on grit. Out of this dark grittiness, emerges the idea of Beauty Itself which does not care what has occurred or whether its presence is welcomed or even noticed.

After Warsaw was ground down to dust during the final acts of destruction from the occupying forces, the local women waited for silence before they emerged with tiny pots of plants or flowers, carefully nurtured during the darkest time in Polish history. The women arranged the plants on doorsteps of homes that were now piles of rubble. While the ruined city heaved under the onslaught, the flowers showed their faces to the sun. What this taught me was that Beauty does not acknowledge brutality. Beauty surpasses pain or grief or torture. Beauty endures and cannot be destroyed.

What if we could be as carelessly unconcerned as simple plants in offering to the world our own unalloyed beauty? What if we could turn our faces to the light without stopping to consider who might be admiring us? What if we could drop our vanity and know that our own moral beauty needs nothing except a few rocky places on which to sow its seed?





Walking to Work

18 06 2020

When I have something to work through, I walk. I’ve always done this. There’s something about the natural rhythm of walking that slows down my hectic thoughts and allows me some breathing space. In my experience, there’s no problem a walk won’t help.

Going on walks to work something out nearly always leads me to a different place. Today I thought about all the passing conversations I’ve had with other walkers over the past few weeks. People have spoken warmly and openly. I’ve learned honest, true things from these conversations which cannot be called consequential.

I don’t walk far. Indeed when my head is painfully pounding, I find long walks exhausting. Instead I wander. I slow down so that I can look up into the trees and I tune into the birds. Their pure music pierces through the muddle in my mind. Today I heard a woodpecker drumming his beat like a practice garage musician. It made me listen longer and for a moment as I became absorbed in the pattern of the sound, I forgot why I had come.

Some people I have met on my walks I have got to know by name and as we walk we share our stories. We share why we’re here, what we feel and what we dream of. These simple elements form the narrative of our encounters. I realise that everyone I meet is looking for a way to share something of their life with others. I see that shining from people now in a lovely untarnished innocence that was not so apparent to me before.

I know that people say they have more time for each other now. I have said the same. I do feel more curious and open. I wonder, though, if it truly is time that has shifted my perception of others, people I might have walked past before without acknowledgement? Does lack of time really make us rude?

It’s common to think so. It’s common to think along the lines of: if I had more time I might be less busy and stressed out and therefore nicer to be around. But time can’t change our inclinations towards one another. Time only acts as an influence when we decide we can’t be bothered to make the effort to be pleasant. We so often make lack of time the villain in our lives. Now it feels to me like a very worn-out excuse for mean mindedness.

My walks teach me the true value of time which is that time is created. As I walk, time is made up moment by moment. It is not a large stick with which I need to beat myself or others. it is not some abstract empty space into which I pour my life. Time is unfolding as I walk step by step. If I slow down enough, sometimes I can feel it pulsing through me like a cool stream.

My walks place me back in time. In true time. In walking rhythm time when I see that my fears about lack of time have no value in my life. I lure myself with promises of more time and see these promises for the falsehoods they truly are. The trees remind me to stop wasting time thinking I have the answers to the conundrum of time itself. They tell me to stop chasing my tail and look up to the leaf canopy instead.

They tell me to stay tall and true and rooted. This is all.





Ten Top Tips on Being Human

6 06 2020

Since adopting my young hound, I’ve dived into various schools of dog training. I thought I might find a few helpful hints on how to help your dog feel less anxious when you leave him on his own and how to get your dog to stop playfully chasing children – (Teio’s current work-in-progress) and while there has been much that has been useful, some of what I’ve found has been eye-opening.

Dog training is vicious! The various schools really like to bark and snarl at each other across the great divide of who knows best.

Now as a conscientious canine custodian, I find this alarming, but not really that surprising. In any area of training, whether it’s schooling horses, educating children or fitness routines for adults, there will be impassioned debates on the ‘best way.’ Internet marketing so often presents this holy grail of successful training as ‘five easy tips’ or ‘ten fool-proof ways’ to achieve perfect abs or a good night’s sleep or a trim waist. I wish I weren’t such a sucker for top tips, but something in my reptilian brain is secretly searching for the shortcut.  And it is the word ‘secret’ that usually does it for me. If I spot something like “Seven Secrets to Training Your Super Dog that only Special People in the Universe Know” then straight-away I’m signing up for the free masterclass and ignoring the common sense voice that warns: your inbox will be swamped with offers costing hundreds of dollars the minute you give your email address. DON’T DO IT!!!

But I want to believe in the hype. Sucker that I am, I want to find the holy grail of dog training even when I know perfectly well that there is no such thing. So in order to distract myself from the menace of marketing, I’m reading different kinds of books about dogs – books that help me to think clearly about what I need to consider for my young dog’s future and I’ve found John Bradshaw’s In Defence of Dogs to be scholarly, insightful and delightfully readable.

Bradshaw, a biologist who directs the Anthrozoology Institute, based at the University of Bristol, has studied the behaviour of domestic dogs and their owners for more than twenty-five years, and his work is helping to change the ways dogs are viewed and understood. He presents his arguments based on sound science in cool and friendly tones, a welcome contrast to some of the competitive high-pitch promotion from various dog trainers. Bradshaw’s approach is to demolish myths about dogs and their training by first inviting you to rigorously question your own ideas and assumptions. 

“Despite all the evidence indicating that dogs and wolves organize their social lives quite differently, many people still cling to their misguided and outdated comparisons between dogs and wolves. The question therefore has to be asked once again: does the behaviour of the wolf have anything useful to tell us about the behaviour of pet dogs?” 

Studies show that dogs may be genetically linked to wolves, but that does not mean they must be like wolves in their behaviour. Because dogs have evolved closely alongside mankind, they are far more inclined to form friendships with humans than they are with their own kind. Dogs have no inclination to form anything like a wolf pack and, most importantly, dogs are able to become friends with dogs they are not related to. Every morning during our runs in the park, I observe this strong affiliative behaviour with young Teio as he offers the play bow to dog after dog, extending greetings also to each new person he encounters. If he truly were a wolf inside a whippet skin, he would not show this confidence to strangers. But does it really matter that he is not a wolf in disguise? When it comes down to training him, the distinction is crucial, Bradshaw argues.

“The misconception that dogs behave like wolves might not matter if it did not seriously misconstrue the dog’s motivations for establishing social relationships. The most pervasive – and pernicious – idea informing modern dog-training techniques is that the dog is driven to set up a dominance hierarchy wherever it finds itself. This idea has led to massive misconceptions about their social relationships, both those between dogs within a household, and those between dogs and their owners.

“Every dog, conventional wisdom holds, feels an overwhelming need to dominate and control all its social partners. Indeed, the word ‘dominance’ is used widely in descriptions of dog behaviour. Dogs that attack people they know well are still universally referred to as suffering from ‘dominance aggression.’ The term is sometimes even used – incorrectly – to describe a dog’s personality.” John Bradshaw. In Defence of Dogs. (Penguin 2012)

From my outings to the park and casual conversations with dog owners, I see how prevalent is this idea of ‘dominance’ and along the way I have received some well-meaning warnings about not allowing young T to become ‘top dog’ in my own household. I am so grateful to Bradshaw’s illuminating work which has helped me to see that what is most important is a well-socialised dog and a dog who wants to build a real relationship with me because it is rewarding for him as a social animal. So I don’t yell at Teio when he makes a mistake, which because he is young and learning, is pretty much every day. I don’t expect him to be obedient and know what I want because – well, he is a dog who thinks very differently to me – and when he’s relaxing at home, I let him sleep where he is most comfortable. He has to move sometimes, but I always ask him politely and he always complies. I’m clear with him and kind. I treat him how I would like to be treated if I were a dog.

This is not how many dog trainers say it should be. But I’m not training him. I’m not interested in a dog who obeys me as his pack leader. I’m interested in developing a supportive and rewarding relationship with him in which we both feel happy and secure. 

As social animals, we instinctively understand deep down how important secure relationships are to our own well-being, perhaps never more true than now as we emerge into a new social landscape. Nevertheless, the idea of ‘dominance’ of seeing others as a ‘threat’ to our well-being is just as pernicious in the human world. Listen to any conversation and there will be some version of ‘us’ and ‘them’ being thrown around in the air like an old bone; some political division or sense of separateness being gnawed at. Just tune into any live news online and this is what we will hear and what many of us will believe: there are people out there who are trying to take over and they need to be muzzled.

The language of dominance is everywhere; it’s another type of reptilian shortcut. It’s far easier to condemn, to snap at someone who gets in your way, to snarl and show your teeth than to try to understand them. This language of dominance belongs to a very, very tired human story. Times of change call for new narratives, new ideas of defining ourselves. If dogs may be defended against an out-moded hierarchy of aggression and be seen as the social beings they really are, then why not humans? Is it not time to stop portraying humans as competitive chimps, fighting over whatever entitlements we think are important? Is now not the time to truly question our old and worn-out confrontational ways of being and find other answers?

It can start with the very next conversation, the very next person who crosses your path. Ask yourself: am I wagging my tail or curling my lip?

 

 





In praise of play

31 05 2020

One of the joys of bringing up young animals is watching them play. Every morning Teio greets me with an affectionate nuzzle and within a few minutes he is searching for someone or something to play with. If Max, the senior collie who lives downstairs, is up and about, Teio will run down to engage in play, chasing the older dog around the small square of parched grass in our shared garden.

Witnessing the old collie grunting with pleasure and rolling about on his back and the bright-eyed young whippet delicately pointing his paw to keep the game going, I forget that I’m up an hour earlier than usual. I forget I haven’t had coffee yet. I’m awakened by the energy of their play and for a moment nothing else matters.

When dogs play they are truly in the moment. They aren’t wondering if they should be doing something else more important or getting on with the serious business of their life. In a young dog’s world, play is his life.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been wondering about the place of play in my own life. I know that I feel happiest when I’ve spent time sharing a simple walk with family and friends with the dogs running through sunlit trees up ahead.

Even though I’m enjoying the moment, there’s also a part of me, though, that whispers: this can’t last, take it while you can. When I tune into the warning, my happiness continues, but as if through a perspex screen. I can see it, but I can’t touch it.

My young dog knows nothing of these conflicted feelings. He can’t feel two different feelings at once the way we can. Why are dogs happier than humans? Possibly because their lives are less complicated, but also because dogs are more generally affable then we are. Put it simply: they are friendlier.

The friendliness of dogs is, of course, one of the reasons we love them so much. The sight of a shining eye looking up into our face and pink healthy tongue lolling from a happy dog’s mouth is enough to melt the most miserable of souls.

I was touched by the comment of a young man on one of our outings to a local park this week. The young man looked to be in some sort of difficult or chaotic place, disheveled and anxious, but he stopped for a moment when Teio bounced up to him. Hearing that the young whippet was friendly, he crouched down and offered his fist for Teio to sniff. After a minute of friendly greeting the young man looked up. ‘He’s a nice dog – a good dog,’

The young man’s body language softened. ‘I’m trying to attract more good things in my life.’

‘Well, this morning you certainly have.’

We smiled at each other and I saw through the chaos to the place of worry and fear that I recognised like a familiar friend. We went our separate ways, but the young man’s words stayed with me.

We all want to attract more good in our lives. But so often when we find the good, we are afraid to fully take it. We are suspicious of goodness because it requires us to open our hearts and be grateful or glad or uplifted. When you’re used to being afraid or insecure, your own happiness can startle you as much as a threat.

It’s tragic that we are like this, and I wish it weren’t so. I wish we could be more like affable dogs, bounding across the social distance restrictions to playfully reunite. Of course, after months of social isolation many people will be pleased to see one another and there will be parties and barbecues and gatherings again.

But in those very social occasions there will be mixed feelings. There will be laughter and banter and there will be fear; there will be insecurity; there will be wondering what comes next; there will be questions: how to pick up the pieces, how to repair the damage, build the business, mend and start afresh.

This is how we are as human beings. We survive crisis, we come through disaster and chaos. We emerge shaken and changed and more vulnerable than we are perhaps aware. May we remember, too, that we also know what we need to help us on our way. A good dose of the good is good for us. And enough time to put our worries away for a while and remember how to play.





When we aren’t looking

25 05 2020

Good things come to us all by themselves and with a sense of rightness for the moment we’re in. This is the gift of the unexpected. Some call it serendipity.

I wasn’t looking for a dog to take on right now. There were tons of practical reasons not to, especially in a period of such fragility and uncertainty. But the heart doesn’t listen to reason. Intuition doesn’t respond to cold logic. All I know is that my heart leapt when I heard he needed a home. Then, when a saw a picture of young Teio – pronounced TeeeOh – it set something in motion that I needed to follow.

The yearling whippet is living with me now and we’re getting used to sharing a space. He’s getting to know my rhythms and routines. We’re learning each other. His energy is most undoglike. Soft, curious, very alive. He can stretch out his limbs and take up the whole length of sofa. He’s tall and lithe with almond-shaped melting brown eyes. It’s like having a lovely young gazelle to stay.

Except he has surprising outbursts of puppy behaviour. My work room appears as if a crowd of three-year-olds have just finished a rip-roaring birthday party. Shredded bits of paper, plastic and twigs everywhere. Furniture askew. Rugs rumpled and a disorderly play bed bang in the middle. I look at the mess and my heart heaves with happiness.

In his first hours, Teio followed me everywhere, moving from room to room, checking, checking, checking, his jittery claws clipping the wood floor. I wondered what I had done. Would he ever settle? Would I ever get any work done?

I put his soft bed on the floor next to mine. He jumped into it and looked up at me. I wished him goodnight and turned to my book. The next moment he leapt in one smooth movement to the space at the foot of my bed. There he now sleeps soundly, dreaming, a mushroom coloured velvet bolster, slender white legs twitching as he remembers – what does he recall in his sleep, I wonder as I watch him, thinking how strange it is that he should leap into my life almost when I wasn’t looking.

This gift of new young life is both messenger and metaphor. I think this young hound has come to show me how to be happy. How to trust. How to hope. How to love no matter what is happening in the uncertain world. How to remember to dream.





Magic in the Moment

3 05 2020

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Some mornings we arrive and the horses are busy grazing and barely acknowledge us. Other mornings, they are waiting by the gate. And on rare, magical mornings, they are both lying down and allow us to spend moments of wonder and stillness in their presence.

I arrived at the meadow yesterday to find Jo settled between the two horses. Returning with my camera, I captured this special moment on film. As you will see, the horses have very different styles of interaction. Dragonfly is calm, relaxed and grounded throughout. Even when Sheranni goes through his attention-seeking comedy routine, Dragonfly remains unruffled. They are aware of each other, but not drawn into the other. Each horse makes space for the other horse to be as he is in the moment. This doesn’t seem like much, but making space for another, especially someone you know very well, is an art.

As humans, we find this extraordinarily difficult. Imagine that you’re having a quiet morning sleep-in and your companion suddenly decides to get up and put on some loud music and start dancing around the bedroom or practising their juggling moves. How would you react? Would you allow your companion some space to do their thing, or would you tell them to ‘get lost’ as you burrow under the duvet in a clenched bundle of righteous annoyance?

As humans, we are very adept at being still and serene when things are going our way, when our companions are tiptoeing around us, holding our space and keeping our peace, but what happens when they are not? What happens when they do their thing at full volume? The tendency then is to accuse them of being selfish, of having no consideration, of being insensitive. Who hasn’t thought this when confronted with noisy neighbours?

The horses show us how we might hold space regardless of what is happening around us. We might not enjoy the intrusion – and let’s face it most of us would prefer to lie-in undisturbed – but when disturbances come, as they will and do, we might choose to remain in a state of presence, as Dragonfly is demonstrating here; we might choose to stay in our space and breathe more deeply into it, knowing that the present contains everything we need, expanding our awareness to include the annoying little clown in the background. It won’t make him go away, but it might make it easier for us to live with him.

Something to start practising anyway…





The Space Between

24 04 2020

Having more time at the moment means more time to wander, and to wonder. On a walk a few days ago, I wondered who first thought of the idea of putting book shelves into an old phone box? And then furnishing the shelves with a range of books – what was it about the phone box that said: let’s make a little lending library right here? 

I don’t know, but drawn to one delightful little time capsule on my walk, I opened the heavy door and was immediately transported to my teenage years. How many hours had I spent hunched up in boxes exactly like this one with the heavy black phone, mouth piece infused with some strong cheap perfume like Tweed, cradled on my shoulder? How long had I stood chattering in the cold, sometimes with a newspaper parcel of fish and chips to keep my fingers warm, waiting for the phone to ring at the magical chosen hour? The box opened the door onto my younger self and there I was, lying on my bed reading a novel instead of studying for my A Levels, counting down the hours until I could put on my warmest coat and head out to telephone a boy who had most likely spent the afternoon in his own desperate place of procrastination.

Inside this miniature library, there was no polite sign asking for payment or primly inviting people to take books to read and enjoy. No indication of who might have previously owned the books. Captivated, I chose one: a travel book by Rory Stewart (no, I didn’t know he was a writer either…) an account of his walk through remote and dangerous parts of Afghanistan, entirely on his own, for no reason other than wanting to go there and see what the crazy place was up to. The title: The Places In Between seemed to resonate with the new identity of this individual telephone box, divested of its phone.

We’re all in a between place right now. A place that feels familiar and strange. Aside from open access books, I’m interested in all the other small offerings that are springing up. Take me home flowers for key workers, phone calls and well-being check-ins, group gatherings, including a book group who are composing haiku as a diary of this time. I’m heartened by View from My Window, a facebook group which has gone viral, and simply shares pictures of people’s views from their windows. From my front room, I’ve visited places I will probably never see: a stunning sunset over West Palm Beach in Florida; a herd of inquisitive nyala in Plettenberg Bay, South Africa; olive trees at a mountain retreat in Umbria, Italy. Some of the posts come with stories, and it’s intriguing to read how many people are reconnecting to their pasts through objects they have lived with for years such as an old rocking chair, but have never really properly looked at it before.

Post teenage years, I overlooked red telephone boxes. They were obsolete, pointless in a digital age, smelly, ugly and slightly embarrassing like an elderly relative who forgets to wash and farts all the way through a smart family birthday dinner. They were awkward: I mean what do you do with a phone box, too small for anything useful like low-cost housing, too big and iconic to simply trash. So the boxes remain in our country lanes, sore relics of the past, that is until someone rescues a box on its last legs, spruces it up and breathes new life into its musty interior.

Within this small act of generosity lies the grit of all creativity. Being creative doesn’t have to mean doing anything grand or special or perfect. Being creative in its purest essence means to slip something into the world that was not there before, something that will delight, provoke or stimulate similar acts. Essentially, being creative is the art of looking at something with fresh eyes. Of course, the less romantically inclined might scoff that the unsecured phone box is bound to be vandalised. It is bound to have all its books ripped to shreds or stolen and never returned. It is bound to be used as a toilet or get a kicking or two.

Of course, to the person who found this box and bothered to keep it clean and furnished with books, none of this matters. They ignored the cynical voice that said: why? It’s just a smelly old phone box for goodness sake?

People all over the world are creating something small right now. They are filling the spaces between with tiny art-works: drawings, quizzes, films, choirs, photographs, poems, loaves of bread, friendships, heroic walks, pots of tea, walks, long rambling talks, silences, a beautiful lace fence (can you believe?)

Let’s be collectively delighted. Let’s make more. 

 





Wise oaks

19 04 2020

 

 

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As part of my recovery to health after a long bout of viral exhaustion, I’m taking slow walks in the quiet lanes. Often I take my camera, and for some reason whenever I see an oak tree, I have to stop and look at it. I find it difficult to pass by a particularly splendid specimen without stopping to pay my respects. I probably have hundreds, if not thousands of photographs of oak trees. Many images of the same tree.

It’s a bit of a strange obsession, I know, but I can’t stop, and whenever I’ve been ill the urge to be with oak trees is a siren call. So I go. When I find a tree I like, I hang out with it for a while and then I take its photograph. I don’t know why, but I always feel better after I’ve done this. The trees seem to be part of my recovery to strength, to sanity, to wholeness. Oaks are stoic and grounded. They have deep roots and the really ancient ones have weathered more storms than I will ever know. The trees cheer me on when I’m low in spirits. And there’s nothing like an oak for a power blast of motivation when you’re stuck on something.

Oaks work their magic on me. For others, it might be beech trees or holly or sweet chestnut that offer a sense of safety, softness or ease. Trees let us know that all is well with the world, that life has a shape and mysterious rhythm all of its own, and if you stand with a tree for long enough you will sometimes feel part of the flow of life that lies beyond thought. Trees are zen masters at living. They get to gracefully observe everything and remain deliciously detached from it all. They get to live and die in the world without ever causing harm. They are the wisest of living beings.

So I admit I’m a bit infatuated with oaks, which means of course in my eyes they are utterly blameless and perfect. I know someone is probably thinking: harmless? Oak trees are poisonous aren’t they? Especially to horses? It is my guess, however, that an oak tree can’t stop itself from producing tannin which may kill a very hungry horse or pony snaffling for acorns. The lethal tannin is natural and sometimes indeed useful in curing leather, deepening the favour of wine or sherry and smoking cheese and fish. The oak does not maliciously harm. It gets on with its big old life by spreading its branches, dropping its seed, producing a new family, then over time parts of it seize up and become diseased and gradually, piece by piece, it falls into decay. One great grandfather tree I’ve been visiting for a number of years, is starting to look a bit battered now. It was the first oak I called on this week, half-nervous that it might have keeled over and died, but it was still standing, jagged and tough, all whiskered and carbuncular. I have an entire album of pictures of this one tree. He is my tree great grandfather and I love him.

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Such is my obsession, I have thought about writing a book about oaks just to have an excuse to spend more time with them. I remember reading a beautiful piece about a woman’s recovery from depression and how the sound of wood pigeons soothed her back to health. Oaks are medicine for my soul. I love the way they seem to mysteriously inhabit my mind when I most need support. They arrive on call like a magic tree medic, all huge arms, deep beating hearts, full of compassion. We’re here, they say, you can relax. Whatever it is, we’ve got this. We’ve seen this. We know you can get through this.

And I do.

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Sharing Space

11 04 2020

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The pony breathes softly through her nostrils as she relaxes in the early morning sun. Skylarks, great tits and black birds sing their first songs into a sky clear and blue. There is a sense of stillness as the day warms into being.

Sharing quiet space with a horse completely at rest is a private joy, a privilege of looking after horses in a way that meets their needs for companionship, freedom and love.

We always take care to share space with our horses and ponies in a way that respects their feelings. We never expect them to simply accept us settling down in the grass next to them. We wait until they are ready for us to join them. Often they breathe a little more deeply and sigh when we meet them in this quiet space. Their acceptance is truly wondrous. It makes an ordinary morning in the meadow become something magical.

It might look as if we arrived to find the horses serenely waiting for us, but the reality of making a film with curious and intelligent animals means we had to work through their need to explore and examine every bit of kit we took into their home.

Creating this piece took longer than you would think because the ponies weren’t going to settle to order. They were going to sniff, paw, brush their faces up against anything they hadn’t seen before.

They weren’t going to pose or stay in one place until they had knocked over the tripod holding the camera. Twice.

They were going to exasperate my attempts to film them and test my patience. Just as I was about to give up and pack everything away, they moved off. The next thing I knew they folded their legs and slipped in slow motion to the ground. By the time I gathered up the scattered kit to start filming again, they were almost snoring.

I learned so much from this morning in the meadow. I learned to observe what was happening and to let go of my timeline. I learned to listen to the sounds of the morning and to forget about the pony trying to eat my coat. I learned to let the beauty of the unfolding moment arrive in its own sweet time.

Magic often happens when we least expect it.








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