Underneath the old oak

Old oak 1

Daily life is always quiet in a Dartmoor village where the residents are outnumbered by the sheep, but ever since the UK lock-down started the quality of the silence has deepened, and the greening hills seem to ring with it. No cars pass by. No planes fly overhead. Life moves at a stately walker's pace. Bird song, wind, and water running in the stream behind my studio, have long been the soundtrack of my days, but now their music is crisp and clear, like the unpolluted air itself, and I can feel it entering my writing. I hear it in the words forming on the page.

What stories does silence want to tell? In the days ahead, I'll find out....

Old oak 2

"Since childhood," says Scott Russell Sanders, "I’ve been attracted by the musical quality of language, the sound of individual words and the rhythm of lines and sentences. To this day I write very slowly because a sentence has to sound right to me before I’m willing to type it onto a screen. My revising process involves going over and over the prose, listening to it, seeking a vigor and precision and rhythmic pleasure. Attention to sound is bound up, for me, with a regard for silence. The pauses between words or sentences or paragraphs, the white space surrounding the inky trail of letters, these are what give shape to the music. Sound is married to silence. And one shouldn’t interrupt silence unless one has something beautiful or meaningful to say.

Meldon Hill

Wild Dartmoor ponies

Chagford from Nattadon Hill

"A sense of awe also runs through all of my writing," he adds, "from the feverish poems I wrote in college to the fiction and essays of recent years. This word names a complex emotional response to what is both wonderful and terrifying in our existence. I’ve adapted the Quaker notion of spiritual openings to describe those moments of awe. Often in my writing I’m seeking to make a home for such openings."

Oak and pony

Surprise pony encounter

And so am I.

Hound and oak

Writing in silence

Words: The quotes are from an interview with Scott Russell Sanders in Superstition Review, Issue 5. I highly recommend his books, particularly Writing From the Center -- but they're all good. The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry Magazine, February 2006. All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: A coffee break underneath our favourite old oak. One of the local Dartmoor pony herds comes thundering by...and just when we think they've all gone past, Tilly has a surprising encounter.


Morning on Nattadon Hill

Queen of the Hill

I set off on a walk with Tilly, my head crowded with thoughts and worries about all of the things I must get done today. I carry two notebooks, a thermos of coffee, a pen, reading glasses, a research book. I intend to be productive,  to "use my time wisely" by taking my work with me up the hill. By the time we have reached the summit, however, my thoughts have slowed, my words are drifting away like the clouds over the fields. I sit with my coffee, notebooks untouched. This, too, is part of the work process, I'm reminded. Sitting in silence, receptive, eyes wide, heart open. Imbibing the world.

"The whole culture is telling you to hurry," says novelist Juan Díaz, "while the art tells you to take your time."

The tension between these two different modes is a constant part of a writer's working life.

"Always listen to the art,"  he advises.

The wind rises. I'm listening.

From Irish Fairy Tales illustrated by Arthur RackhamIllustration by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).


Under the old oak

Tilly and the oak elder 1

It's one more week until the U.S. election. For this and too many other reasons the Internet feels like one giant howl of anxiety, anguish, and rage....

And what I've been thinking about lately is silence. There is not enough silence in modern life. I don't mean the complete absence of sound, but those quiet moments when the human world recedes: the haranguing voices of the daily news, the ads that follow us shouting Look at me!, the commercial and cultural sound and fury that makes it hard to hear our own inner voice, our own inner music, or our own heart beating, much less the beating heart of the natural world that we share with our nonhuman neighbors.

I have begun the practice of beginning my days in silence (no Internet, no music on the stereo, not even a book to read) while I drink my first morning cup of coffee...often outdoors, if the weather permits, underneath the old oak pictured here, or in the woods, or another favorite spot close to the studio. Or else indoors, by a window looking out at the birds, the weather, the land. Watching and listening. It slows me down; sets the tone for the day ahead; roots me in the actual world and not the fickle, transitory realm of cyberspace. It prepares me for the deep work of creating by honing the sharp instrument my attention.

If I could gift you with one thing in the anxious week ahead, it would be this. Silence. Blessed silence.

Tilly and the oak elder 2

"Why is silence important to writers?" Lorraine Berry asked Utah-based writer Terry Tempest Williams in an interview in 2013. "Is silence something that we all, regardless of whether we’re writers or not, need access to? And how do we find that in our increasingly tuned-in, turned-on world?"

"Silence is where we locate our voice," Williams answered, "both as writers and as human beings. In silence, the noises outside cease so the dialogue inside can begin. Silence takes us to an unknown place. It’s not necessarily a place of comfort. For me, the desert holds this space of quiet reflection; it’s erosional, like the landscape itself.

"You also ask why is it important that writers write and not embrace a life of silence. In many ways, we do embrace a lifestyle of silence, inward silence, a howling silence that brings us to our knees and desk each day. All a writer really has is time. Time to think. Time to read. Time to write.

"Time for a writer translates into solitude. In solitude, we create. In solitude, we are read. If we’re lucky, our books create community having been written out of solitude. It’s a lovely paradox. It’s the creative tension that I live with: I write to create community, but in order to do so, I am pulled out of community. Solitude is a writer’s communion."

Tilly and the oak elder 3


"Into the Woods" series, 50: Old stones, old gods, and silence

Tintern Abbey, eastern columns

 From Keeping the Faith Without a Religion by Roger Housden:

"It seems to me that a materialist view of the universe is reductionist. It makes every kind of experience subservient to the laws of matter. It applies the tenets of the known to the mystery of why we are here at all.  It chases away not only the old gods and spirits and half heard whispers in the night; it chases away the mystery of life and being itself. For a materialist, there can be no mystery that will not eventually be made clear in the light of reason and critical intelligence.

"Ultimately, what is in danger of being excluded from the cultural conversation is not the old gods, but the quality of imagination that gave birth to them; an imagination that sees and feels humanity to be part of a living, breathing world with an intelligence that we will never fathom; full of Tintern Abbey by Chriss Gunnspresences and qualities that our ancestors gave names to, but that live on as always even as their names have fallen away. William Wordsworth gives voice to this imaginative faculty in this excerpt from his poem, 'Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey':

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of the setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of thought,
And rolls through all things."

 

Tintern Abbey by Marion Haworth

Tintern Abbey by Wici Rhuthun

The beautiful bones of Tintern Abbey (pictured here) rise from the banks of the River Wye on Welsh side of the English-Welsh border. The abbey was founded in 1131 for the White Monks of the Cistercian Order, followers of the Rule of St. Benedict, whose silent and austere way of life was devoted to prayer, scholarship, agricultural labor and self-sufficiency.

"Why does the soul love silence?" asks Parker J. Palmer in A Hidden Wholeness. Palmer is a Quaker, a group for whom silence is also an important part of communal prayer. "The deepest answer I know invokes the mystery of where we came from and where we are headed. At birth, we emerged from the Great Silence into a world that constrains the soul; at death we return to the Great Silence where the soul is once again free.

Inside Tintern Abbey by Pam Brophy

"Our culture is so fearful of the silence of death," writes Parker, "that it worships noise nonstop. In the midst of all that noise, small silences can help us become more comfortable with the Great Silence toward which we are all headed. Small silences bring us 'little deaths,' which, to our surprise, turn out to be deeply fulfilling. For example, as we settle into silence, where our posturing and pushing must cease, we may experience a temporary death of the ego, of that separate sense of self we spend so much time cultivating. But this 'little death,' instead of frightening us, makes us feel more at peace and more at home.

Tintern Abbey by Saffron Blaze2

"The Rule of St. Benedict, that ancient guide to the monastic life, includes the admonition to 'keep death before one's eyes daily.' As a young man I found this advice a bit morbid. But the older I get, the more I understand how life-giving this practice can be. As I settle into silence, I draw closer to my own soul, touching a place within me that knows no fear of dying. And the little deaths I experience in silence deepen my appreciation for life -- for the light suffusing the room as I write, for the breeze coming in through the window.

Tintern Abbey by Pam Brophy

"So silence brings not only little deaths but also little births -- small awakenings to beauty, to vitality, to hope, to life. In silence we may start to intuit that birth and death have much in common. We came from the Great Silence without fear into this world of noise. Perhaps we can return without fear as well, crossing back over knowing that the Great Silence is our first and final home."


"Into the Woods" series, 49: Wanderers & Wilderness

Soay, St Kilda, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Seal

Like Robert Macfarlane (in Monday's post), Sara Maitland is fascinated by the peregrini: the early Celtic Christian monks and mystics who set out alone in small, flimsy boats, seeking solitude, nature, and God on the most remote islands of Britain.

"On island after island," she writes in A Book of Silence, "the more isolated and far-flung the better -- on St. Kilda, on the Farnes, on the Shiants, throughout the Hebrides and the northern islands, off the coast of Ireland, around Iceland and possibly even North America -- the traces of hermits can be found. This history is confused and uncertain, but originating in Ireland in the fifth century, there was a well-developed form of Christian spirituality which valued the silent eremitical vocation extremely highly.

A ''cleit'' (stone hut) on St Kilda

"In Britain, the most famous such voluntary exile was Columba, who left Ireland in the mid sixth century and crossed the Irish Sea to become first a hermit and later a missionary and founding father based on the tiny island of Iona, which is just to the west of Mull. His community later spread across Scotland and converted north-east England as well, but he was by no means unique: over the next several centuries hermits settled alone or in tiny communities all over western Scotland and further afield too....These adventures were known in Ireland as 'green martydoms' -- to distinguish them from the 'red martyrdom' of being slain, shedding blood for the faith. To leave home and travel out beyond civilization was a martyrdom (the word means 'witness'), death of the ego, a self-giving that seems absolute."

Iona by Torsten Henning

Shetland ponies on the Isle of Foula

"We do not know very much about the spiritual theology of these early hermits," Maitland continues. "Their lives are lost in legend and story, their physical markers faded or wiped out by the wildness of the places where they dwelt."

One of these hermits was St. Cuthbert, bishop of the monastery on Lindisfarne, a center of Celtic Christianity in the Farne Islands off the Northumbrian coast. A great lover of nature, he issued regulations to his monks for the special protection of Eider Ducks, which are called Cuddy Ducks ("Cuthbert's Ducks") to this day. He retired to live an austere and solitary life on Inner Farne Island in 676, and died there in 687.

Lindisfarne Abbey and St Marys by Russ Hamer

Cuddy Ducks

Sara Maitland explains that we know more about St. Cuthbert than most other Christian hermits because he was personally known and loved by Bede, author of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. "But what interested Bede is somewhat different than what interests me," writes Maitland. "So, for example, Bede records that Cuthbert would pray all night standing up to his neck in the frigid waters of the North Sea and, indeed, when he emerged otters would come and warm him with their tongues and fur. This combination of the ferociously ascetic and the miraculous engages Bede, for what he is writing about is the ultimate form of something so obvious to him that he never says anything about what Cuthbert thought he was trying to achieve, nor about the content of those prayers.

Otter, Farne Islands

Grey seal & newborn calf, The Farne Islands, Northumberland

"It is not until rather later, from the tenth to twelfth centuries, that we begin to get accounts that attempt to explain what the island hermits were seeking, in the beguiling poetry of the Irish monks:

"Delightful I think it to be in the bosom of an isle, on the peak of a rock, that I might often see there the calm of the sea. That I might see its heavy waves over the glittering ocean, as they chant a melody to their Father on their eternal course. That I might see its smooth strand of clear headlands, no gloomy thing; that I might hear the voice of its wondrous birds, a joyful tune. That I might hear the sound of the shallow waves against the rocks; that I might hear the cry by the graveyard, the noise of the sea. That I might see its splendid flocks of birds over the full-watered ocean; that I might see its mighty wales, greatest of wonders. That I might see its ebb and its flood-tide in their flow; that this might be my name, a secret I tell, "He who turned his back on Ireland." That contrition of heart should come upon me as I watch it; that I might bewail my many sins, difficult to declare. That I might bless the Lord who has power over all, heaven with its pure host of angels, earth, ebb, flood-tide."

Birds on the Farne Islands by Bob Jones

Puffins on The Farne Islands by Joe Cornish

Unlike Maitland and the hermit monks she admires, I am not a Christian, and I certainly don't live an isolated life, yet my morning prayers on Nattadon Hill aren't so different from those of the nature-loving peregrini:

Delightful I think it to be in the green hills of Devon, climbing through bracken and blackberries to the granite peaks above, that I might often see the sheep-dotted fields, and the grey tors of Dartmoor beyond. That I might hear the wind singing in the trees, a choir of oak, ash, rowan, and beech; and the bells of the village church; and the bleating lambs; and the hooting of owls in the woods. That I might see this hillside covered in bluebells, stitchwort, and foxgloves, no gloomy thing; and that I might hear the voice of its rooks and its robins, a joyful tune. That I might see the badgers live undisturbed; and the small red deer, shyest of wonders; and watch wild ponies graze in the tall grass as they flow between valley and moor. That I come nameless to this hill, no more, no less than others creatures here, living quietly, gently upon its slopes. That I walk these paths with respect, attentiveness, open eyes, open ears, open heart. That I might bless Mystery within all of us; and my good neighbors, human and nonhuman alike; and the air, the water, the fire, the earth, ebb and flood-tide. Mitakuye oyasin.

Meldon Hill viewed from Nattdon Hill

Wildflowers in spring, Nattadon Hill

Young Dartmoor ponyWords: The quotes by Sara Maitland are from A Book of Silence (Granta, 2009), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The last three photographs above are mine, taken here in Chagford: Meldon Hill viewed from Nattadon Hill, a pathway on lower Nattadon, and a very young Dartmoor pony on the village Commons. The photographs of islands in Scottland and north-east England (and their birds and animals) are Creative Commons images. They are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)