In the quiet of the woods

Silence 1

Although I am not yet strong enough to manage long walks with Tilly, we're going out to the woods on rainless days nonetheless, where I choose a spot to sit while she rambles in the undergrowth nearby. Sometimes I read, sometimes I write, and sometimes I do nothing at all but absorb the quiet, attentive to the woods, as the woods absorbs me in turn.

Silence 2

Tilly explores the terrain and then comes and sits close, ears cocked and alert, her nose twitching with every scent...and I love to watch her, to try to see as she sees and to hear as she hears. To remember that I am an animal too, made of water and wind and the dust of stars.

Silence 3

The life of a freelance writer and editor is measured in hours of productivity, and it takes some effort to slough off guilt when time spent silent among the trees results in no tangible accomplishment: no pages written or manuscript read or email answered or paycheck earned. And yet I'm convinced that it's on such moments that every other part of my creative life rests. The land is muse, teacher, and mentor; it is doctor, pastor, and therapist. It is the place where I return to myself when the jangle of life, the demands of work, and the ceaseless clamour of the Internet lead me astray. In the quiet of the greenwood it all fades away. I can hear my own softer voice once again.

Silence 4

But now I am justifying time spent outdoors by emphasizing the manner in which it supports my productivity back in the studio -- and while this is true, it is not the only truth. Quiet moments are worth much more than this. I will not measure their value in output, in books and paintings made and sold. I will not hang a price tag on my love for the natural world. I am not a consumer of the forest, obtaining my money's worth from the trees and grasses, the fungi and moss; I am just a woman sitting in the green arms of the Mother who made me. Just sitting. Just absorbing. Just being, for these precious moments, alive and present.

Silence 5

I am not dismissing the importance of productivity for those of us working in the arts, or of enagagement with the media and marketplace which places our work in the hands of others, for I believe that art is important, even sacred, and is capable of no less than changing the world.

But then, so is this: these quiet hours in the dappled light of the greenwood, with my good dog beside me. It changes my world. It changes me. And that's all the value it needs.

Silence 6

Silence 7

"I pin my hopes," said the Quaker writer Rufus Jones, "to quiet processes and small circles, in which vital and transforming events take place."

I pin my own hopes to the rustle of leaves, the murmur of water, the grace note of the birdsong overhead; to the ordinary, daily domestic act of rising in the morning and walking the dog. And to art, of course, but also to this. To the quiet of the woods.

Silence 8

Silence 9


The gift of stillness

Dunes, north Devon

In A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland explores the cultural history of silence and retreat while seeking to create more room for silence within her own life. It's a fascinating book, leading through myth, religion, philosophy, sociology, natural history and literature to a place of stillness at the center of them all. "In Silence there is eloquence," wrote the great Persian poet Jalāl ad-DīnRumi. "Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves."

Dog, waves, sand, north Devon

Early on in her quest for silence, Maitland arranged to spend forty days alone at Allt Dearg, a remote cottage on An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, Scotland's Isle of Skye, noting the changes in her psyche and imagination as the weeks went by and her silence and solitude deepened.

Describing the last days of her time on the island, she says: "Part of me had already moved on from Allt Dearg, and another part of me never wanted to leave. The weather became appalling so that I could not go out for a final walk or round off the time with any satisfying sense of closure. I had to clean the house and then drive a long way. I had felt quite depressed for about forty-eight hours...

Dog at play, north Devon

"...and then, the very final evening, I suddenly was seized with an overwhelming moment of jouissance. I wrote:

" 'They say it is not over till the fat lady sings. Well, she is singing now. She is singing in a wild fierce wind -- and I am in here, just. Now I am full of joy and thankfulness and a sort of solemn and bubbling hilarity. And gratitude. Exultant -- that is what I feel -- and excited, and that now, here, right at the very edge of the end, I have been given back my joy.'

Light, north Devon

"For several hours I enjoyed an extraordinary rhythmical sequence of emotions -- great waves of delight, gratitude, and peace; a realization of how much I had done in the last six weeks, how far I had traveled; a powerful surge of hope and possibility for myself and my future; and above all a sense of privilege. But also a nakedness or openness that needed to be honored somehow.

Beast on the prowl, north Devon

"I experienced a fierce joyful ... joyful what? ... neither pride nor triumph felt like the right word. Near the end of Ursula Le Guin's The Farthest Shore (the third part of The Earthsea Trilogy), Arren, the young prince-hero, who has with an intrepid courage born of love rescued the magician Sparrowhawk, and by implication the whole of society, from destruction, wakes along on the western shore of the island of Selidor. 'He smiled then, a smile both somber and joyous, knowing for the first time in his life, and alone, and unpraised and at the end of the world, victory.'

"That was what I felt like, alone on An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, The Winged Isle. I felt an enormous  victorious YES to the world and to myself. For a short while I was absorbed in joy. I was dancing my joy, dancing, and flowing with energy. At one point I grabbed my jacket, plunged out into the wind and the storm. It was physically impossible to stay out for more than about a minute because the wind and rain were so strong and I came back in soaked even from that brief moment; but I came back in energized and laughing and exulting as well. I was both excited and contented. This is a rare and precious pairing. I knew, and wrote in my journal, that this would not last, but it did not matter. It was NOW. At the moment that now, and the enormous wind, felt like enough. Felt more than enough.

Stillness, north Devon

"And once again," she concludes, "I am not alone. Repeatedly, in every historical period, from every imaginable terrain, in innumerable different languages and forms, people who go freely into silence come out with slightly garbled messages of intense jouissance, of some kind of encounter with nature, their self, their God, or some indescribable source of power."

Gazing out to sea, north Devon

Dune grass, north Devon

It was interesting reading Maitland's fine book during the weeks that I was confined to bed. I was not alone -- I had Tilly snuggled at my side, and my gentle husband nearby -- but the quiet and stillness of recovering from an illness can be another form of retreat from the rapid rhythms of the noisy modern world. There were long hours when the only sounds were Tilly's snores, the rustle of a book's turning page, rain or bird song outside the window glass. Like a spiritual retreat or pilgrimage, illness takes us deep inside ourselves, shaking away all other concerns except those of the body, those of the soul. Afterwards, I always return to life changed. The world is restored to me piece by piece, with each step noted and celebrated: the first hour out of bed; the first morning outdoors, tucked up in a blanket on the garden bench; the first slow climb to my studio on the hill; the first shaky walk in the woods with Tilly. There's a joy in all this that we rarely speak about, as if to admit that there's any pleasure or value in illness might be to dismiss its overwhelming difficulties. We'd all prefer, of course, to plan our times of retreat, not to have them forced upon us by physical collapse, not to have them come at the most disruptive of times, not to have them overshadowed by pain and fear. But there is a gift in the journey of illness: the gift of long hours of quiet and stillness. A gift that's increasingly precious and rare in our fast-paced society.

And, if we are prepared to except them, there are these further gifts as well: jouissance, wonder, and fresh gratitude for our fragile bodies, our fleeting lives, and the exquisite beauty of the world we return to.

SilencePhotographs: Tilly on the Devon coast, and at the window. This post is dedicated to my friend Amanda Peters.


What comes from silence

Stones 1

How to be a Poet (to remind myself)
by Wendell Berry

Make a place to sit down.
Drawing by Honor AppletonSit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill-more of each
than you have-inspiration
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity...

Stones 2

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
Drawing by Harrison Weira three-dimensional life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

Stones 3

Stone 4

Accept what comes from silence.
Drawing by HJ FordMake the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

Stones 5"How to Be a Poet" is from  Given: Poems by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 2006); all rights reserved by the author. The drawings above are by Honor Appleton, Harrison Weir, and H.J. Ford,


Growing native-born

Woodland spirit

"Until we understand what the land is, we are at odds with everything we touch. And to come to that understanding it is necessary, even now, to leave the regions of our conquest -- the cleared fields, the towns and cities, the highways -- and re-enter the woods. For only there can a man encounter the silence and the darkness of his own absence. Only in this silence and darkness can he recover the sense of the world's longevity, of its ability to thrive without him, of his inferiority to it and his dependence on it. Perhaps then, having heard that silence and seen that darkness, he will grow humble before the place and begin to take it in - to learn from it what it is. As its sounds come into his hearing, and its lights and colors come into his vision, and its odors come into his nostrils, then he may come into its presence as he never has before, and he will arrive in his place and will want to remain. His life will grow out of the ground like the other lives of the place, and take its place among them. He will be with them -- neither ignorant of them, nor indifferent to them, nor against them -- and so at last he will grow to be native-born. That is, he must reenter the silence and the darkness, and be born again."  - Wendell Berry (The Art of the Commonplace)

At the edge of the woods


Spring arrives in Chagford

Churchyard 1

From Beauty: The Invisible Embrace by the late Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donohue (whose books I turn to again and again):

"The beauty of the earth is the first beauty. Millions of years before us the earth lived in wild elegance. Landscape is the first-born of creation. Sculpted with huge patience over millenia, landscape has an enormous diversity of shape, presence, and memory. There is poignancy in beholding the beauty of landscape: it often feels as though it has been waiting for centuries for the recognition and witness of the human eye. In the ninth Duino Elgy, Rilke says:

Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window...
To say them more intensely than the Things themselves
Ever dreamed of existing.

Churchyard 2

Churchyard 3

"How can we ever know the difference we make to the soul of the earth? Where the infinite stillness of the earth meets the passion of the human eye, invisible depths strain towards the mirror of the name. In the word, the earth breaks silence. It has waited a long time for the word. Concealed beneath familiarity and silence, the earth holds back and it never occurs to us to wonder how the earth sees us. Is it not possible that a place could have huge affection for those who dwell there? Perhaps your place loves having you there. It misses you when you are away and in its secret way rejoices when you return. Could it be possible that a landscape might have a deep friendship with you? that it could sense your presence and feel the care you extend towards it? Perhaps your favourite place feels proud of you. We tend to think of death as a return to clay, a victory for nature. But maybe it is the converse: that when you die, your native place will fill with sorrow. It will miss your voice, your breath and the bright waves of your thought, how you walked through the light and brought news of other places. Perhaps each day our lives undertake unknown tasks on behalf of the silent mind and vast soul of nature. During its millions of years of presence perhaps it was also waiting for us, for our eyes and our words. Each of us is a secret envoi of the earth.

Churchyard 4

"We were once enwombed in the earth and the silence of the body remembers that dark, inner longing. Fashioned from clay, we carry the memory of the earth. Ancient, forgotten things stir within our hearts, memories from the time before the mind was born. Within us are depths that keep watch. These are depths that no words can trawl or light unriddle. Our neon times have neglected and evaded the depth-kingdoms of interiority in favour of the ghost realms of cyberspace. Our world becomes reduced to an intense but transient foreground. We have unlearned the patience and attention of lingering at the thresholds where the unknown awaits us. "

Churchyard 5

From Annie Dillard, contributing to an article on "The Meaning of Life" (Life Magazine, 1988):

“We are here to abet creation and to witness it, to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but we notice each other's beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.”

Tilly in the daffodilsPictures above:  Daffodils in the village churchyard, and Tilly among the wild daffodils in our woods.