Slow fade to black

10 01 2021

During this winter I’ve taken a walk most evenings at twilight. There’s a moment when the sun lowers behind the trees that makes me reach for my camera. As the cold laps across the fields and starts to freeze my fingers, I frame the last filaments of light. Scrolling through my photo collection, I notice dozens of images of trees at twilight, each tree with bare branches outstretched as if to ward off the oncoming night; holding it slippery, gleaming and alive in the sway of a dark net. This slow fade to black creates the kind of ending I would wish for all dying beings. There’s no agony in twilight, no fuss, no sense of loss: the light dims and merges into the lovely muted softness of the time we call dusk.

The year itself has now gone past its own twilight and is again in the ascendency. Already I notice the evenings drawing out, reaching further into the light and the rise is welcome after a dark year of loss with heavier loss to come. Driving home each day, I hear the bone weariness in the voices of the intensive care doctors and nurses interviewed on the radio. I hear the urgency in the reports of a crisis in the NHS overwhelmed by a virus ‘out of control.’ Driving through the twilight, I think about beginnings and endings. I wonder what is beginning for us as a community of beings dedicated to looking after the most frail and the most vulnerable. I feel hope that elderly people who have been housebound for months will live to experience another spring. At the same time, I know many will not.

In living and loving so fiercely, we so often forget that we must die. It’s hard to look death in the eye. Our instinct is to hold onto life at all costs and we have developed such intricate ways to prolong life, sometimes for good years, but in the end death outwits all our technology. Death endures our best attempts to slow it down. It comes whether we are looking or not.

None of us can know how we might meet death. The philosopher Socrates met his end with maddening good cheer, refusing to go into exile and stop his teaching, refusing to stop pointing out what was obvious to him and infuriating to his prosecutors: that he couldn’t die anyway. He would merely change from a mortal being to an immortal one. His soul was going somewhere better, thanks. Now hand over that cup of hemlock.

Socrates’ death began a revolution, a commitment to bring his ideas out of obscurity and into the light. Grief created an explosion of ideas and an outpouring of brilliant work by his most faithful student Plato. Without Plato’s commitment to honouring the ideas of his mentor, some fundamental principles of education, mathematics and the beginnings of the universe might never have been born. Grief is so often fertile soil for making things anew. At the same time, death takes away our illusion of control. It lets us know that we have limited time to live, and that, according to Plato, is a good thing. We should live our lives remembering that we will die. A good life is a life that has recognised death and made room for it. All living is a preparation for death.

Not many of us are like Socrates, boldly going to his final destination, as if he were merely hoping from one Greek island to another, but perhaps we could learn to open the fingers we habitually place over our eyes when considering death. Perhaps we could in the words of Joan Halifax, anthropologist and Zen priest, who spent years sitting with the dying, meeting them in their pain and suffering, find a ‘sane relationship to our sadness without being overwhelmed.’

This makes me think of the way animals grieve and die: sanely, simply, softly. At the start of this week, our resident elderly goat Bill died. Rickety, tired and prone to infections, Bill was in human years the equivalent of a centenarian. He spent nearly every morning seeking out a warm sunny patch in which to rest his old bones. Although often exhausted, he was always gracious to visitors and enjoyed a good scratch between his horns. His death came as no surprise. Last winter his grave was dug in preparation, but he lasted longer than anyone expected. Our Dartmoor pony Tinker tenderly nosed Bill’s lifeless body as he was lifted into the wheelbarrow to be wheeled off to his burial.

In Greece, people are buried the day after they die, which means there is little time for elaborate funeral preparations. One of my Philosophy students said there was no fuss around death in the Greek village where he grew up. One minute, you’re there, the next you’re not, and everyone just gets on with it. Nevertheless, no fuss doesn’t have to mean no care. Maybe caring means acknowledging the fact of death itself with full presence and gentleness, just as Tinker did for old Bill.

Some Christmases ago, I witnessed a pair of horses show a similar interest in the death of one of their herd members, an old thoroughbred mare who collapsed in the field where she was later that day buried. The remaining herd members, a pony gelding and another pony mare, remained present to the death of their herd member by standing near her grave, pawing at the earth, turning over the soil under which she lay. I witnessed vividly that day how animals are not afraid to get close to death. They are perhaps aware of death in ways that we are not.

As I write this, I notice two images: a tree at twilight in a beautiful winter scene painted by John Skinner, and the gentle smile of my friend who ended his own life. I also notice the new ticking life of my young hound, licking his paws on the sofa and I sense that here is life beginning and ending, beginning and ending. I don’t need to understand it. I just need to remain still and sane enough not to be overwhelmed. I think of Tinker taking the time to caress old Bill with her lips, and I secretly hope that wherever the old goat has gone he gets to hang out with Socrates.

Bill, right, never passed on the opportunity for a good scrap with Betty.

Look into my eyes

6 12 2020

You see me as I am and as I have always been. Clear, honest and full of love. I hold all of my life in my heart and if you ask me in the right way, I will give it in service to you.

You who know the ache of being separated from your own kind, the hours when you feel the heaviness of your own singular presence. No other to lighten your way. No other to enter your life and make it into something shared. No other at night when you lie with your heart open and awake. Waiting.

I feel you. I feel you want to come closer and I lower my neck to you. You ask permission to caress and I soften. I caress you in turn with my breath and I feel you open the space in you that was shuttered. Years, you say. You tell me you have not hugged anyone in years. Nor has anyone touched you. I feel your sadness like gravity.

I hold you here. Your hand rests on my neck. I am still for you. Quiet. I listen to your words of love. I hold your longing. I hold your kindness and willingness to share with me your secrets. I hold them sacred for you. I see you. I see how you have touched the place you do not speak of to those of your own.

Look into my eyes and tell me how you are and do not pretend. I will listen. I will see you.

Written for Maggie (not her real name) and for all those who are lonely for touch, love and deeper understanding. A recent survey shows more than 1.7 million people in Britain will be spending Christmas alone this year. This is twice the usual number.

Making Music

15 11 2020

I have always admired people who can make music. To be able to play a clarinet or piano fluently seems to me like the most gorgeous gift. My musical talent fits into a matchbox. At school I was in awe of those musical geniuses who had the facility I lacked. I remember once picking up a guitar with a fluttering feeling of finding my instrument and being told by the teacher that I was holding it back to front.

I resigned myself to becoming a listener rather than a player. I was an ardent onlooker and observer and remained in awe of those who had the secret knowledge. Last week, I realised the true point of music is to connect.

We set up in the barn with an array of hand pans, exquisitely crafted by Lyndon Forster, who offers music workshops through his community enterprise PanKind.

We had invited Lyndon to visit in the summer and we were all entranced by the reaction of the horses to the melodic sound of the pans. As soon as Lyndon started playing, the herd, who were some distance away grazing lifted their heads. Then, as if drawn by a magnet, they came to investigate. Dragonfly, our most sensitive Arabian, seemed to connect most intensely, exploring the pan with his whiskers as we experimented with different touches to lift the sound from the metal.

The barn which is a combination of tractor garage and night shelter to two Dartmoor ponies Evie and Rose became transformed into a music studio to which we had invited a group of patients from Langdon Hospital.

One of the patients, a talented musician, was instantly gripped by the guitar and provided background accompaniment to the ripples of sound from the rest of the group. Another patient gently moved his fingers down a dulcimer while Evie breathed over his hands. Someone else touch played a pan. At one moment I realised that all the beings in the barn were utterly absorbed in the process. No words were needed. We were connected as one.

No division between animal or human, patient or staff, teacher or farmer. Just us. Playing. In a big draughty barn. It felt completely natural and also humbling.

When we allow things to unfold with a harmony and rhythm all of their own, we make music. The spontaneous music of being as we are.

Doughnuts are the future

8 11 2020

We are poised for a new era in leadership with Joe Biden’s election as President of the United States. Among many there is hope that one of the world’s most influential super-powers will regain balance, perspective and return to a quieter, more dignified style of governance. In the words of one BBC commentator: ‘The wildness is over.’

Kamala Harris is preparing to step into her role as vice-president, the first time a woman has been elected to this position. She has said the election is about so much more than the candidates. ‘It is about the soul of America and our willingness to fight for it.’

Overnight, the rhetoric of power has shifted, from angry defence and threats, to calls for patience, hope and healing as the knotty details are worked through. There is a change in the atmosphere. At a time when the world needs it most, there is at last some breathing space.

In parallel to following the US election, I have been reading Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth, which makes a case for radically changing the way countries are financed. Her Doughnut model, which has been welcomed as a new vision for humanity by academics, business leaders and entrepreneurs is also a reason to hope.

I never knew economics could be so gripping until I started the Doughnut and what I have learned is that current financial models are clunky, crude and misaligned with how most people want to live. They are straight pipelines that facilitate basic input and output of money without considering the well-being of the community which both supplies and needs the money. I recommend reading the book to get a sense of the scope of the Doughnut, which if adopted by governments as the way to move beyond the obsessively narrow focus on growth as the measure of economic success, could sweetly change the world.

The Doughnut is a series of circles that considers critical planetary degradation; the safe and just space for humanity and critical human deprivation. The model places the safe and just space for humanity between two rings: one of ecology, the other social. We can most comfortably thrive in this buffered zone where we are no longer pushing the earth’s resources past its capacity to keep us in the manner to which we have become accustomed.

“The last two hundred years of industrial activity have been based on a linear industrial system whose design is inherently degenerative. the essence of that industrial system is the cradle-to-grave manufacturing supply chain of take, make, use, lose: extract Earth’s minerals, metals, biomass and fossil fuels; manufacture them into products; sell those on to consumers who -probably sooner rather than later – will throw them ‘away,’ When drawn in its simplest from, it looks something like an industrial caterpillar, ingesting food at one end, chewing it through, and excreting the waste out of the other end.”

Kate Raworth Doughnut Economics 2017 (p212)

These ideas pose challenges to business leaders of the 21st century in the form of the corporate to do list. There are five options to choose from and working through them requires overcoming a tendency to stick with what we can do, rather than what we could do to not only boost our businesses and enterprises, but to add benevolent value to the world in which we do business. I love Kate Raworth’s breadth of vision, her clarity and her belief that making a difference in the broadest sense is possible no matter how small your enterprise.

Top of the list is generosity. A generous mindset looks to nature as a model. Nature gives bountifully, she takes usefully and she wastes nothing; she’s also a creative genius. She makes works of staggering complexity and beauty from a handful of dust. Poppy seeds flung into hard ground by winds need disturbance, light and air to germinate and bloom. Blobs of jelly become fish, elephants and human beings. Caterpillars emerge from silk duvets transformed into winged jewels.

It is hard for some companies to be generous because stuck at number two – do what pays – means viewing your business through the narrowest of lens. There are plenty of examples of number two: some universities charging exorbitantly high prices for food parcels delivered to students in quarantine or ill with Corona Virus springs to mind. Universities, such as Reading, are right at the top with their home-grown boxes of wholesome food. It may cost more to feed young people well, but the benefits of doing so are worth so much more than the savings gained by offering value packets of pasta or cereal, or in some cases, no food at all.

Regenerative design invites us to learn from nature’s 3.8 billion years of experimentation. It invites us to think of nature as our source of inspiration and our teacher. Generous designers such as Janine Benyus, whose innovative work is featured in the book as an example of thinking beyond the usual boundaries, creates cities that act like ecosystems. Imagine ‘rooftops that grow food, gather the sun’s energy, and welcome wildlife.’ Imagine ‘pavements that absorb storm water then slowly release it into aquifers. Buildings that sequester carbon dioxide, cleanse the air, treat their own wastewater, and turn sewage back into rich soil nutrients.’ Cities as generous as forests.

The world feels new today. There’s talk of new possibility, of unity, of ecology not as a political issue, but a universal one. Nature holds the key to solving the problem of her own destruction, if only we would pay proper attention to those who want to show us. Raworth says that ‘today’s most innovative enterprises are inspired by the idea that the business of business is to contribute to a thriving world.’ These ideas shine a light on a new way of waking up in the world, a way to feed our organisations and enterprises so that we all might thrive. Nature lead the way!

Circular Thinking

1 11 2020

It feels as if we’ve come full circle. Back to days of uncertainty within a pandemic that doesn’t seem to be blowing over like the storm we hoped it would be. The pandemic won’t go away. It circles around us, whipping up fear and panic. It forces us to confront the most pressing questions of what it means to live in the unknown. We are not good at living with the unknown. We like things to go from from A to B, from awful to better, not B to W, bad to worse. We expect things to improve. When they don’t, we’re affronted.

There are so many advantages to thinking in straight lines. We can predict things, count things, order things, make everything fit into neat rectangular boxes that we can then file away on top of other neat rectangular boxes. We like things orderly because it helps us to feel safe. One ripped open box with all the contents strewn over the floor is disconcerting and damn right inconvenient.

We will all need to review our plans now. We will adjust because we have become quite flexible if we stop to think about last November when we were still meeting for cosy pub lunches, organising bonfire parties, work gatherings, family celebrations and thinking ahead to Christmas. Only a year ago, our lives were constellated around social events.

Now our lives are constellated around not contracting a virulent disease that we will spread to others, causing harm and social dysfunction. We are not prepared for the harm we might cause because we are still stuck in last November when all seemed to be well in the world. Then, we were ready to move onto the next thing.

Now, we have no idea what the next thing is. It could be a month at home reading and decorating the front room or redesigning the garden. It could be a month working in an intensive care unit, shielded against infection, working harder than ever to keep people alive. It could be a month of total isolation, locked up in a prison cell for 23 hours of the day.

It’s impossible to make plans. We’re all going with the flow. This goes against our grain as straight line thinkers. We’re having to enter the circle and it’s freaking us out. It’s stopping us in our tracks. It’s making us pause and consider whether we might have other options.

When I teach in circles, people are often worried about allowing who they are to be seen. They feel anxious and exposed. Facing inwards, they wonder what they might find. What pain and suffering might leap out from the darkness and grab them, leaving them vulnerable. The circle is inviting, but also repelling. If entered correctly, there is nowhere to hide.

The circle is also a safe container for feelings. I recorded some words shared in a circle with the group who visited the horses for a connection day on the farm last week. The question: what would living life with joy feel like for you?

The response: Carefree; Energising; Happy; Full; Being Real; Heaven; More Colour, More Clarity; Simplicity; Lightness; At Peace; Fun; Free, Musical; Harmonious.

I love this list. It gives me hope that feelings of joy remain within our reach. I also love the character of the compassion circle. It has come to inspire my teaching in a much deeper way than I thought possible. Sitting and sharing circle space with a group of curious and courageous people who have never met before has been the gift of the most challenging year. I’ve met people differently this year.

I’m noticing, too, how the circle spirals into my everyday awareness. I see circles in places I had not looked at before; in the forms of trees, the shape of water, the flight of birds. The world, as I see it, arcs and bends and curves, honouring the earth itself. I realised today most fully that all life is circular. There is no going, no returning and what we think of as straight lines will eventually warp and roll. It impossible to keep going straight, without looking, truly looking at those we meet.

When we connect

30 08 2020

Last summer I led a course for an amazing group of women. We were taking a break and sharing stories of connection. Spontaneously I started talking about my connection with Sheranni and as I finished I felt a rush of gratitude for all that he had taught me. The participants were on the edge of their seats and not because of my storytelling. Unbeknownst to me, Sheranni had during the telling of it walked from the far end of the field to greet me. Someone captured my look of surprise on their phone camera.

Horses understand connection. They read the feeling that is the basis of true connection and often they are moved to act and deepen their connection to us in moving and powerful ways. I’m still in awe of how they do this. What subtle minds they must have to distinguish between nuances of feeling when we ourselves, supposedly the clever species, cannot read each other at times.

Someone once observed in a session that ‘horses know everything there is to know,’ and the phrase struck home. Over many years I’ve studied horses and wondered what it is they know. The horses who serve our community at Horsemanship for Health know health and ease of living. Our team of six horses live without stress and not one of them has been traumatised or neglected. Our small herd of four have spent the past six years living in close connection with each other and that connection has created horses who are balanced and open to new experiences with humans.

The more I observe the flow of connection, the more I realise how important it is for vital health. Without connection, we become withdrawn, isolated and eventually ill. Loneliness is one of the biggest epidemics of our time and may eventually kill even more people than the current pandemic.

It’s much harder to treat loneliness, of course, or even to measure its impact although university researchers are now taking it seriously as a social concern. The pandemic has increased loneliness among many who have been unable to connect with loved ones during weeks of isolation. We have come to a new appreciation of the simple joy of putting your arms around someone you deeply care for and giving them a hug.

Because we are social beings who thrive on connection, we all know loneliness. We know how small and afraid it makes us feel inside. We know the field of belonging is our true home. We know we have lives that offer little opportunity for belonging. Lonely people are told to make connections, but when you feel desolate inside, you believe no one will want you. No one will want to connect with your abiding need for acceptance.

How this makes us forlorn. A child without friends is the saddest of little creatures. I can remember times from my own childhood when all I wanted was for the pretty girls with the neat homes and clothes – the ones who seemed to have it all sorted – to accept me for who I was and to adore me as I adored them. They were too preoccupied with their perfect appearance to care.

And so I turned to boys who didn’t care how I looked and to animals who cared even less and through these friendships I learned how to get along with most people. We find our style of connection through those who accept us in all our wonkiness and wobblyness and I suspect now that I was too unconventional for those prettily perfect girls who introduced me to loneliness. In a way, I am grateful. If I had been let into their world, that would have been even worse because I would have modelled myself on the wrong kind of people for my character.

Finding the right kind of people for our character is the work of a lifetime. In a balanced and varied life, a life which includes other species, there are endless opportunities for connection. In educating my young hound, I’m noticing just how affected he is by my moods and my energy levels. In the past couple of days I was unwell and he lay across my legs until I felt better. Today I am recovered and he is bouncy and filled with life.

Animals are an emotional barometer for me. They remind me to check in with my internal weather and understand how my feelings create a charge that ripples out into the world I inhabit. When I’m tuned into my feeling for the moment and not too focused on the other, I am balanced and when in balance I can truly connect.

Many women, particularly, have led lives driven by the needs of the other. We suspend our feeling for the moment to be sensitive to someone else. This is such a habit we don’t even notice it. We think we are being kind and caring. We don’t question this form of subtle conditioning. Horses are master teachers of emotional intelligence because they do not live socially conditioned lives. They live with feeling that is unfiltered.

It makes me smile to think of how our world might be if we stopped filtering our feelings. If we just walked off in the middle of a conversation without apology to go and have a snack or take a pee. If we just lay down when someone was talking at us for too long and simply closed our eyes. If we licked someone when we had merely shredded a waste paper basket.

Social convention is useful and culturally part of our human communication style. We stifle our yawns in a boring meeting. We don’t interrupt when someone talks for too long. We eat food that tastes awful and say nothing. We look away when we see a minor act of aggression in the street. We keep the peace.

Horses have taught me that social harmony sometimes means giving someone a nudge when they are being annoying. It means being faithful to the group and never letting your own needs take precedence over the needs of the whole. It means never bearing a grudge. It means being open, affectionate and curious every single day.

Just when I think I understand about connection, the horses show me there is so much more.

Early bird

16 08 2020


Looking after horses means getting up early. Over the eighteen years I’ve cared for my horses, the mornings have become the best part of my day. This morning when I arrived at the meadow, the herd were grouped together nose to tail on top of the hill. My arrival created a ripple of interest and each horse came forward to acknowledge me. Once greetings had been exchanged, the horses calmly returned to their huddle, swishing flies from each other’s noses. Before they did so, each one stood apart in absolute stillness for a moment, as if soaking in the quiet.

How simple it is to live like a horse. How freeing to get up from your bed of grass and greet your family members with interest and curiosity. How wonderful to greet the morning with nothing on your mind except grass and company. For a horse, each morning is a new terrain to explore, a new enquiry through the senses, a fresh unfolding landscape.

The horses are my first thought when I wake. In the very early days of teaching full-time and looking after horses, I would leave home before five am, drive through the dark lanes, lit only by the brilliance of the stars, a flask of hot tea sloshing about in the car. After turning the horses out to their field and mucking out their barn, I’d eat a bar of chocolate for breakfast, dunked into hot tea. On those mornings, in those moments before I reached work and all its numerous demands, I was utterly content. I realised that motivating myself to do something physically demanding every day was creating an inner change in me, although at the time I didn’t quite know what that inner change was. I just knew that I liked pushing wheelbarrows up a muck-heap in the dark and filling haynets in a barn while the owls called outside.

I’ve been getting up early for so many years now that it has become a habit. Even when I don’t need to be up by 6am, I find I get restless staying in bed. The other weekend I went to visit friends in Somerset, and my young whippet, unused to sleeping in a strange house, got me up at just before 5am. We went out the field with my friend’s dog and because I had forgotten to bring my wellies and didn’t want to soak my sandals, I walked barefoot across the wet grass. This is how we used to live and there was some ancient part of me that relished the tingle of drenching dew. 

Since the pandemic, many people have chosen to rise earlier and in the reports of their experiences, I’ve noticed a near universal sense of gentle euphoria. Fellow early birds say they feel more alive, more focused and calm and ready to face the challenges of the day. They are able to get more done. For me, the early part of the day is when I feel most connected to the world itself and less caught up in my own mundane thoughts. I love the easiness of the mornings when each moment feels charged with meaning and all I need to do is pay attention and listen. 

Sometimes when I’m up especially early, I’ve thought about all the other people in the world who are looking after sick children or elderly relatives or working a night shift and feel connected to the world in a particularly poignant way. A lot of caring goes on unseen throughout the night. Also an abundance of creativity. Well-known early risers include Charles Darwin, who was certainly a man who had a lot going on in his day with his meticulous research observations and the Origin of Species to design and write. Contemporary creatives who get up at dawn include Oprah Winfrey, who walks her dogs first thing, and Tim Cook, the Chief Executive officer of Apple, who is up at 3.45am to check email, exercise and drink coffee.

It’s tempting to think that a super early start means a punishing push through each day, but I’ve noticed how animals regulate their days with plenty of short rests when they aren’t doing much at all. When I’m bent over my laptop, working at a stretch for hours at a time, it’s easy to forget to look up and breathe, to remember that there is more space in each day than my narrow perception allows. The pandemic has reminded me to do what I must do and to let go of what is not important. Early mornings are a time to check-in when my mind is quiet and uncluttered. Later in the day, when there is much more activity: meetings, messages, meals to prepare, the morning calm and clarity often fades and I find myself searching for it. The horses remind me every day  where it can be found. 

A vocabulary of smiles

26 07 2020

Like many people this week, I have struggled to get my head around wearing a mask when I go out shopping. For a start, there are so many small considerations, such as when to actually pull the mask up to the mouth and when to lower it. A whole new social etiquette is emerging which I’m finding in some ways amusing and in other ways confusing.

Yesterday, an encounter in a coffee shop amused when the manager offered a plastic visor to an elderly couple, who had forgotten their masks, to try on for size. Even though I was masked, I was also offered a turn so that I could agree that the plastic shield bearing the breath droplets of strangers was far superior to my own cloth model.

The confusing part involves how to speak to people when they can’t see your mouth. Rather than offer a muffled ‘morning’ which seems superfluous now that my accompanying smile cannot be read is it perhaps better to offer a nod instead?

In Born to be Good, a fascinating study on human behaviour, social psychologist Dacher Keltner, devotes an entire chapter to the significance of the smile His research dissects the different types of smile human animals offer to each other. One classic example is the ‘service industry smile’ ‘the one that signals the customer is always right’ and masks the frustration of workers who must never show their feelings no matter how unreasonable the demands made by the one being served. This smile creates such strain Keltner observes as to ‘produce a form of schizophrenia.’

“We may experience feelings of emptiness and quiet frustration, or a deep ennui, but we display to the world the smile of satisfaction.”

Dacher Keltner Born to be Good (2009)


There are many different occasions when people smile and Keltner’s research has shown that people smile while exposed to the most unlikely situations, for example, after losing and when watching a film of an amputation. But the emotion behind the smile differs according to which muscles are activated. Smiles which activate the delightfully named ‘happiness muscle’ or the orbicularis oculi tend to last longer and communicate genuinely positive states. These smiles have been named Duchenne or D smiles after the French neuroanatomist Guillaume Benjamin Amand Duchenne (1806-1875). If the happiness muscle does not fire, smiling still happens, but does not last as long and often masks a negative state. These non-Duchenne or non-D smiles might be anxious or nervous smiles or smiles to cover up the true emotion.

This research shows that it really is true that we smile most fully with our eyes, which is good news for those who feel that the full range of emotions has been muted by the necessity of wearing a mask. Interestingly, because only the eyes can be seen it might make it easier to read the genuineness of a smile.

Here’s Keltner on how you tell if it’s D or non-D: when contracted, the muscle around the eyes, raises the cheek, pouches the lower eyelid and wrinkles the skin into crow’s feet – the most visible sign of happiness. ‘People may think they look prettier following Botox injections, but their partners will receive fewer clues to their joy, love and devotion.’

So, the next time I’m shopping along with my fellow mask wearers and we’re all eyeing each other as we try to navigate this strange new social landscape, I must remember to look for the crow’s feet.

In the example above, taken from Born to be Good, which is probably one of the funniest works of psychology I’ve ever read, the D smile for the first gentleman, is on the right; for the second, it is on the left. Of course, you all got that, didn’t you?


Losing Control

19 07 2020


One of the things I love about the woodland where I walk most weekends, is the lack of management. When trees fall, they are allowed to regenerate and sprout new saplings as they wish. No foresters come in with trucks and ropes or chainsaws to tidy things up. There is a large tree lying across the main track, with just enough space to allow people to pass thoughtfully on their way. I’m sure it annoys many people that the track is no longer completely clear, but this compromise pleases me deeply. So much of modern life is controlled, micro-managed and ordered to the point where the natural flow of life feels tightly squeezed.

Emerging from a pandemic, inevitably there are control issues everywhere. Questions of controlling the disease dominate our headlines still. We are no closer to controlling Corona Virus, and possibly we will have to learn to live with it and cope with local outbreaks as they emerge. Some of us will adapt, and take a different path, and some of us will find it hard to live with a virus that continues to control our daily lives. Many people have already had enough of its tight grip on our social lives. All over the country, illegal music raves are flaring up in defiance of lockdown, like wild fires out of control, and instead of ordering the noise to be cooled off, police are allowing the raves to burn on through the night. This is sensible – I mean, how do you get 3,000 people out of a muddy field in complete darkness – yet utterly annoying for the people of Bath, for example, who have had to endure thumping music for the past 24 hours.

As someone who is regularly woken by a noisy neighbour, the residents of Bath have my sympathy. Despite a letter signed by 13 residents, requesting that my neighbour respect the need for peace in our close community, he still ramps up the volume. We cannot control his need to play loud music at antisocial hours. We want to do something and we often joke about all the antisocial measures we would like to take against our asbo neighbour. Nevertheless, we don’t throw bricks though his window. When we remember, we write down the times our sleep is disturbed and then we get on with our days.

I’m able to be relaxed about the noise intrusion now. In the past it has made me very uptight indeed and I reached the point where I considered moving. Working from home means there are distractions enough to tempt me away from my laptop – I mean just how many times is it really necessary to go and stand in my kitchen and stare out of the window to see if the tide is coming in or going out? – dealing with loud music while trying to have a zoom meeting with messages announcing unstable internet connection, was almost guaranteed to send me to the kitchen for another long look out of the window.

This strange new life I have been living since March with all its uncontrollable unknowns has curiously helped me to become less uptight about stuff that used to really bug me. I think it was because I thought I could properly manage the various elements of my life. I could structure my days and prune out anything that felt like an obstruction. Six months ago, I was powering through a diary that had no space in it at all, and I must admit I enjoyed it, although not being able to sleep because my mind was still working on some of the problems I hadn’t managed to solve in the day was not conducive to working creatively.

Since the pandemic, I’m less interested in control and much more interested in elegant solutions. The saplings growing from the fallen tree are such a perfect example of nature’s way of sorting out a collapse. One thing falls and dies, another thing regenerates. Many of my ideas and plans have crash landed, fallen to the forest floor. After getting over my shock, I see that there is more air and space around those toppled ideas, and they have started to make their own way into the light, seeking space of their own. I’m less in control, now, and more open to watching the new growth take on a life of its own. Nature never makes a mistake. I’m grateful to be in a place to take notice.

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?

%d bloggers like this: