In October I will be co-guiding a 4 day program in northern California with my dear colleague Ellen Grossman. We’ll be bringing together deep soulwork with wanders on 300 private acres and all drenched in poetry. Take a look at the information below and email me (email@example.com) or leave a comment if you’d like more information:
But it is hard to speak of these things
how the voices of light enter the body
and begin to recite their stories. . .*
In June at the solstice in Scotland the sun doesn’t even set until 10:30 at night and the twilight lingers well into the wee hours. It makes for long leisurely evenings, which we embraced after supper that day along the Coe River at the Clachaig Inn. The Clachaig with its popular pub, sits in a green valley below the hills and crags of Glen Coe one of the most beautiful and legendary glens of all the Highlands flowing as it does down from Rannach Moor to the south under the snowy bens of the Three Sisters and Buachaille Etive Mor to the west and the ridge today known as The Devil’s Staircase, part of the West Highland Way walking trail. At the north end of the Glen where the road crosses the river you turn right onto a one track road that follows the river as it rushes clear over the stones then bends to the right again to pass the Inn. On down the road past the wild purple rhododendrons and the blooming foxglove and the sloping pastures covered with small white daisies you enter a woodland and finally find a sign on the left to Signal Rock Cottage, our home for four days nestled under the pines where the Coe flashes and runs bright in the occasional sun. Behind you, up the road toward the Inn you have views of the surrounding peaks with their unpronounceable Gaelic names: Sgorr nam Fiannaidh, Meall Mor and Bidean nam Bian.
This is MacDonald country and the reason I’ve come. One of the many branches of this wide spread clan had its center in Glencoe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and family legend has it that my ancestors came from here. In this Glen the MacDonalds rustled cattle and fought with various other clans, the MacLeods, the MacKenzies among them, and the infamous Campbells. Up the Glen there’s a place called Lost Valley where its said the MacDonalds hid their stolen herds. In those days these Scottish uplands were cattle country and the Highland Clans were cattlemen. Only later, after the terrible time of the Clearances, did sheep take over the hills and the charming Highland Cattle with their shocks of red hair hanging under their broad horns nearly disappeared. In Glencoe they remember the massacre of a cold February morning in 1692 when the Campbells betrayed the MacDonald homestead and murdered 38 men, women and children, the rest escaping into the snow to live or die as they could. Around Glencoe the memory of this is kept robustly alive thru myth and song and monument, and even a sign on the door of the Clachaig Inn that reads “No hawkers or Campbells”.
The landscape of Glen Coe is as mythic as the history of the place with its mountains and deep blue lochs. The glacier-carved volcanic slopes rise steeply green up from the river valley covered in short grasses and heather and gorse. They become rockier and full of crevasses as they rise, folded and lifted full of caves. One called Ossian’s Cave is said to be the birth place of the great Celtic Bard. Place names make reference to ancient myths of the Fingalian race of giants and the pre-celtic hero Finn MacCool the Glen shares with Irish legend. The weathers move thru this place moody and changeable. The high peaks, snow-patched even in July, are often draped in cloud and seem to pull the rain down out of the sky until it lies heavy on the land. The cliffs spilling with silver ribbons of water falls. Wind whips thru the narrow glens and up the stony slopes and the mist can bite the skin as sharp as the midges down in the bogs. The only trees grow along the streams and in among the glacial boulders that litter the Glen. Once Scotland was mostly forested but no more, not in centuries. Now the rocky hills are covered with Oval Sedge and Early Hair-grass among other sorts making it look like a soft green velvet skin wrapped tight over the bony landscape. Of course the sheep. And in mid summer alpine daisies bloom everywhere.
Along the Coe River between our cottage and the Clachaig Inn lies a protected wood called An Torr and deep in An Torr rises Signal Rock on top of what is locally known as Tom a’ Ghrianain, Hill of the Sun. Tradition has it that this is where the MacDonalds would signal the clan and where they would gather for important news. It may even be the very place the traitorous Campbells signaled the start of the massacre. After supper our last night in Glencoe we decided to take the woodland trail back to our cottage. It was a lovely evening, warm and sunny with billowing white clouds blowing east. Out of the Inn you enter An Torr thru a metal gate where a sign shows a map with a jagged line giving directions to Signal Rock and the depths of the wood. Given the late sunset we knew we had plenty of time to find our way not knowing exactly how long it might take nor how to get to the cottage on the far side of the wood. As we came in under the old trees, a rare thing now in Scotland to find trees hundreds of years old, the slanting sun dappled down thru the canopy onto the soft grasses of the forest floor. The trail was well worn, rocky and full of roots. You watch your going. The gentle evening silence of the place began to reach me and I had to stop again and again to soak it in, to pull the beauty of the dense old forest into my heart’s memory. The trail grew steeper as we rose up the Torr and down again going deeper and deeper into the woods. I felt some anxiety rising as it somehow seemed wilder and deeper than I expected, and more hilly than was indicated by the sign or any view of it from the outside. A place to get lost in. And with no idea how long this might actually take us I was torn with the desire to linger and the felt need to keep moving. Was there a little breeze? I don’t recall. Or evening birds chattering? I think so. Mostly what I was aware of was the drape of boughs of the Scotch Pine, the green limbs of oak and ash trees we recognized and others we didn’t, the welcoming open understory and the floor of grass. The dappling light.
All across the Highlands now you pass vast stretches of clear cuts along the road. Bulldozed forests leveled and left to look like a battlefield, scattered roots and boles and dying trees still standing. I felt the same sick horror each time we passed one. It seems that after the wars of the last century Great Britain looked around and realized they were out of trees. They had no forests left to harvest for timber. They’d been used up in the centuries of ship-building and never replanted. Or cleared out for the grazing of sheep. Then the wars came and they were cut off from where ever they got their lumber. So after the Second World War they planted vast “plantations” of Sitka Spruce, not native but a fast growing tree good for things. Now, seventy years later, the trees are mature enough to harvest. My hostess at the cottage who has won awards for her “green” maintenance of her place told me, “You have to realize it’s a crop.” These mono-crop plantations were not meant to become a forest in the sense we may think. They were planted like corn, for human consumption. Only now, she said, is the country beginning to realize they need a new forestry policy and are beginning to plant woodlands with a mix of trees, forests that can survive in bio diversity for their own sake. And for ours. It will be a long time coming.
So walking in this mixed forest of An Torr is a rare thing in the Highlands where here and there you’ll find tracks of the old Caledonian Forest that are now protected. An Torr is not one of these but old enough to hold the earth and the stories that still whisper thru the boughs. Old enough to remember the MacDonalds, to give me the sense I walked the paths of my ancestors and to hold a bit of the story along with the stones and the trees. Once along the rooted trail, I turned my foot on a stone and fell hard on a log banging my ribs. It hurt for a week. I wonder now if maybe the land was claiming me with this wounding, as if to give me a hard smack and a gift. “Not so fast, woman. Linger. Listen”. I too have a story here now.
In time we reached the turn where the sign pointed toward Signal Rock and we climbed the last steep stones, set as steps up to the great rock now overgrown with small trees and shrubs, ferns and small vining flowers. On the far side more steps let us climb up onto the rock itself. The surrounding forest now gave no view beyond small glimpses thru the branches. Clearly these trees weren’t here when the clan built their signal fires here. Time and wild nature has reclaimed the place. Gladly, I think. This earth has a way of metabolizing our human tragedies and rooting something alive in their place. If Signal Rock signals anything now, it is this.
As we found the trail and our way down the back side of the Torr toward our cottage we passed thru a lovely open hazel wood, one of the sacred trees of Celtic mythology, and it was there we passed the Stag alone and quietly browsing the green grasses. A handsome Red Deer, a mythic breed, with his rack still dressed in the early summer velvet. He turned to observe us, cautious but without alarm. We paused and gazed at each other for a long moment. I didn’t want to startle him off so we turned slowly and moved on down the path where it bent to the left, and from there I looked back at the deer. He was looking back watching us, standing his ground there in the hazel grove full of the gloaming light glimmering against the dark forested rise of An Torr.
But it is hard to speak of these things
how the voices of light enter the body
and begin to recite their stories
how the earth holds us painfully against
its breast made of humus and brambles
how we who will soon be gone regard
the entities that continue to return
greener than ever, spring water flowing
through a meadow and the shadows of clouds
passing over the hills and the ground
where we stand in the tremble of thought
taking the vast outside into ourselves.*
The Scottish Highlands are stunningly beautiful, wild and rugged, elemental, looming, broody with weather and time. But its hard to take something that big into yourself. There are places that capture you sometimes along the many roads you may travel, that enter the imagination and make a place there for good. I think Glen Coe with its little forest of An Torr is one of these for me. Sometimes its better not even to try “to speak of these things” or make too much of them for they are like wisps, like mythic deer, easily startled, too easily vanishing if you stare too long. So you turn and go, aching from your fall on that beauty, trembling from the spark of patient wildness in a deer’s dark eye. Utterly glad.
-wrensong, Wendy Sarno
*from Directions, by Billy Collins
May 30 Saturday Rain
wetness on the
Slept late, lying abed listening, birdsong and rain, the slur of the ceiling fan, the quiet light. Past eight before rising. Feeling slow, liquid, quiet as this rain, a little watery sun breaking thru thick cloud, heavy branches dripping…this cave of green, glistening.
The end of May. Season passing. I haven’t written a post here since early March. Suddenly its summer here in Missouri, school out, trees laden with green, gardens flourishing, snow-peas filling out in the vegetable beds, fledglings flown.
Noticing clouds. Remarking on clouds. Noticing my last post from March was a photo of clouds at sunrise. I’d forgotten that. Today again, noticing clouds, these attendant beings that move thru our world carrying our weathers.
In Annie Dillard’s wonderful little book For the Time Being she remarks about clouds, notices how artists and writers of centuries past have documented clouds. We can know what the sky looked like the day Constable painted that picture or the day in California John Muir wandered over the wild Sierras where the cumuli were “rising eastward. How beautiful their pearly bosses”. For some time now as I begin my journal page for the day I make note of the weather and the sky which I actually can’t see much of most of the year surrounded as I am by large leafy trees. The branches form a kind of window on the passing winds moving the sky eastward. The weathers come and move thru. Today for instance I write:
May 29 Friday…
Rain may be
Green upon green
Clouds like cotton-balls lit by rising sun against a baby-blue, a blue-bell blue sky. To the south fields of gray layered over paleness whisped, rising.”
Clouds have names my father tried to teach me. Cumulus, Cumulonimbus, Cirrocumulus, Stratus , Altostratus, etc. I never learned them well. Would it be better if I said Altocumulus than “cotton-balls”. Would you know what I mean?
The weathers of a day, the passing sky formations may or may not inform the way my day will go or the way I rise out of rainy dreams. Years to come if any of my descendents ever glance over these fading pages I’ve scribbled in for decades will know what the sky looked like at sunrise, that the air was still and the trees were lit with gold or roses or the pungent clouds in the east leaped up the sky like salmon in their homeward river. This will tell them it was a real day, a day on planet earth in a certain year in a season now shifting into the next. Wind blew or didn’t, the clouds brought weather or went their way dissolving into deeper sky. The way they have this morning, just now vanished.
Sometimes clouds build into wild violent, water filled beings, full of terrible winds bearing destruction in their passage, as in Texas this week. Clouds full of story that will be remembered for years. Sometimes clouds pass over thirsting landscapes full of needed water refusing to open, a tease from a stingy god.
I received a postcard poem from a woman in my writing group yesterday. Its about the swift passing of time. The last line says “How long have we got left?” That’s the thing about clouds, they move and change. We know that before Constable put down his paintbrush those clouds were changed or gone, as were Muir’s when he looked up from his diary, as are mine this morning. For the time being we have this day, this sky and then it and we will be changed, gone, dissolved into something else.
I love the winter view out this little window…the bare branches filling the sky, the sky lower on the eastern horizon where I can see the sun come up, see the colors flare and shift. It was Annie Dillard, I think, who said “God imbues the world like color”. If this is anywhere nearly accurate, The Divine forgot the Divine Self this morning and thoroughly drenched us in Being. The trees, whitewashed with yesterday’s snow, were flushed with it.
Sometimes, in the dark of the season, I am up in time to see a new crescent moon rising, or the morning star like a slow rising beacon behind the dark trees in that hour when the dawn twilight seems to rise out of the ground filling the air giving shape to the world.
Mostly its sky the winter brings. The clouds that are hidden in the lush summer months when the world is full of leaves. And the colors of the sunrise. In the winter I can follow the track of the sun as it rises…how it moves way south, then turns north again. I begin to know the period of it…from down there to the right of the big oak at the winter solstice, to up there behind the rooftops of the neighbor’s houses by mid summer. Today it is nearing the center point it will reach later this month.
This morning the brilliant flare didn’t last but a moment before the light paled again and turned silver over the snowy world, the sky overcast with broken cloud. The sun continues its arc that seems to lean slightly south as it moves up the eastern sky and the day begins.
I want you to meet another friend, Pat Tuholske, a magical, wise and courageous woman who owns 500 acres of land in central Missouri. Steeped in the traditions of both Celtic and Native American myth and medicine, Pat wildcrafts and makes wreaths and salves of native plants thru Willow Rain Herbal Goods, and she opens the hills and fields of her land to others for mystical encounters with the beautiful wild world. She calls her place Elemental Earthcamp. This is a recent post on her Nature Chronicle page:
As I bundle layers about me and go out for a late winter hike, I feel a magic in the crisp cold. There is a sharpness where things seem clearer. I am struck by the deep silence.
As I wonder the snowy hills and trails, the quiet is bone deep. My footfall crunching the frozen snow seems too loud. I stand, then sit to feel the silence as it penetrates all things. In silence you can perceive the whisperings of all possibilities. I listen a long long time.
A silent movement approaches. A bobcat soundlessly slinks along the edge of the woodland. Fifty feet away, he catches my scent. He raises his head, flicks his tail, touches his nose to my footprints, aware that something is different in his territory. Then he looks at me…. knowing I am not a tree, not a boulder, not a deer but a thing not usually in his domain. I slowly breathe once, twice, ten times.
The spell is broken and he backs away. I continue to silently watch as he navigates away taking a circuitous way through thick grass and brush. He breaks cover at the far end of the trail and continues on his way.
I am filled and blessed by encountering this amazing creature. This is a good omen. The best of signs for my current life challenge. I accept the gift of bobcat’s strength, awareness, and security in knowing my place.
Being born in winter, I feel the strength of my own inner fire burning most brightly when ice grips nature. The bobcat has stoked it to full flame. Winter and her creatures are a source of wisdom and inspiration. A world of snow and ice makes me feel grateful to be alive to witness this beauty and glory.
Winter’s splendor is embracing us for a few more weeks. On snowy days you can move more deeply into your soul and renew your spiritual journey. Wend your way through this last blast of winter and you will be blessed with an encounter that will thrill, awaken and guide you.
I long for that deep quiet. I love hiking in winter. Thanks for reminding me I need to prioritize that among all the busy-ness~~ Elizabeth
Beautiful experience. ~~ Kim
That’s awesome! Thanks for sharing. You’re so brave! I am feeling inspired by this story. I love the connections between human and animal. ~~ Carrie
I want to share with you a magical collector and speaker of poems who is also a fine poet herself. Jan is sharing some of the poems that have been real medicine for her and her personal response to the poems. Give yourself the gift of a look.
Originally posted on Heart Poems:
The Journey by Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
to view the whole poem click here
This is from one of the earliest poems that helped give me courage to be more of myself, to save the only life I could save, as the final line tells us. Mary Oliver has continued to be such an important teacher for me.
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