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Archive for the ‘existential’ Category

Jepsons stone

Standing stone – Western Pennines – Nikon D5600 f5.6 1/650 Sec 125 ASA

There are no standing stones on Standing Stones Hill any more. We don’t know what happened to them, nor how many there were. There’s a story told by an old rambler of finding one fallen and half sunk in the peat of the moor – this would have been in the 1950’s – but I’ve spent a long time searching ever since and found nothing. Another story has one of the stones re-purposed as a lintel in a barn. But the nearest farms hereabouts were all dynamited in the 1920’s by Liverpool Corporation, then further bombarded as target practice by mortar and tank shells in the Second World War. You might say the hill has lost its original story then, is now mute and purposeless, except as a vantage point on waste and corruption, that while these more recent stories of the hill are not without local interest, it seems all stories, even the big ones come with a sell by date and, without adequate renewal, they lose their meaning and their purpose.

There are other stones on the moors, but none officially of Neolithic origin. You sometimes find them lurking in long runs of drystone walling. This way they escaped the rampage of pious vandals pedaling their own mendacious tales in more recent centuries. But the walls are hundreds of years old now and falling away to reveal these curious artefacts, and though their original stories have long since timed out, fresh ones begin leaking, all be it hesitantly, into consciousness. Are they not Neolithic? More medieval perhaps? Are they boundary markers? Hard to say, yet potential stories circle them like bees around a hive – it’s just that no one’s there to listen to them.

Your genuine Neolithic standing stone tends to show a lot of weathering, and not much by way of tooling. They tell us someone was here before us in this remoteness, that they had a purpose, now lost, yet perhaps these people knew something we do not. Lacking explanation though, we invent stories to fill the void, but they need a certain spark to truly catch fire, to make a difference and actually,… mean something.

The upright stone in the picture, above, is a fascinating one. It’s a few miles away from Standing Stones Hill, on the edge of the Western Pennines, yet has a good view of it. It  has more of a pillar-like shape than I’d expect of a truly ancient megalith and, though there is considerable weathering and little evidence of tooling, I’m not confident in stating its pedigree. However, its location on this outlying ridge, and its stunning sweep of the horizon, does grant it an impressive presence, all be it mute to its own past. But whether it’s truly Neolithic doesn’t matter for my personal purposes, which are those of paying homage to something immutable and notable, a thing to set ones bearings by, and of course from which to spin this, my own story. Stories are our life’s blood. They regulate the heart, they grant structure and bring calm to the stormy mind. But we need to be careful, because stories can also do immense damage.

The grand, overarching story of human history is that of suffering, of decay and renewal: a new king, a new idea, a new  myth arrives amid hopefulness at the banishing of the old, corrupt order. There is a fanfare and celebration, ushering in a renewed period of peace and plenty. But then the king dies in his turn, and his dynasty becomes corrupt, so a new challenger arises, a new king, a new story,… and so the cycle repeats.

We are living towards the end of one such story-cycle. The time of peace and plenty is over, and corruption dominates. The king is dead, his dynasty rendered ineffective by a mixture of inept and craven officials whose own paltry tales, void of hope, of imagination, are singularly evasive of necessary change, and they ring hollow in people’s ears. So the people turn away in despair, huddle into splintered groups, each inventing its own story in order to see them through, as one might light a candle against the immensity of endless night. And they hold to this guttering light against all reason, because a story, even if it’s a pleasing lie, will always trump the truth, if truth itself does not come with a more convincing story of its own.

This standing stone is an immutable reminder of the abiding reality of human existence, it being marked largely by suffering of one sort or another, and without a story to tell, that suffering has no meaning and human life is pointless. But individual stories are all well and good. I could invent a myth for my standing stone and it might entertain me for a while, get me from breakfast to bedtime, but it’s hardly likely to provide sufficient nourishment for anyone else. To sustain the coming generations we need a much bigger story to rescue the abiding fact of our existence from barbarism, and worse, from oblivion. We need an epic story, one that restores hope and meaning for everyone who calls these islands home, a story that rises above the mere venting of these old white-mens’ foetid spleens, a grim fact of the end-game that is such a feature and a stain upon our times.

Ideas anyone?

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the night sky
Night sky, Panasonic Lumix LX100 F1.7, 1 sec, 1600 ASA

It was probably winter when my father first showed me the bear. I would have been about nine, confused already, dazed by the world and feeling secure only in his company. I remember a winter sky, cold and black, the stars iced-white and my breath fogging the eyepieces of the Russian 8×24’s that were his pride and joy – though cheap as chips back then, the poor old Soviets already selling their souls for dollars amid a collapsing economy.

Prior to that his night-sky explorations had been aided by a pair of British-army cast-offs, circa 1912. I still have them, the stout leather case still smelling like new, but they were only marginally better than the naked eye. I don’t know what happened to those Russian bins. I think they got dropped, the prisms dislodged to produce a disconcerting double vision, and then my father died, and the night-sky didn’t seem important any more, not for a long time.

“You see that star there,” he said. “That’s Mizar. It forms a double with another star called Alcor. Do you see them both?”

Yes, I could indeed see both in those days, but that was half a century ago, fresh eyes, fresh mind, fresh soul.

“The Arabs used to say if you can see both,” he said, “if you can separate them, you have the gift of perfect eyesight.”

Really? That cheered me. I don’t think he realised how much. In father-son relationships, the smallest things can mean the most.

Nowadays, even with spectacles, and the optician assuring me I’m 20-20 when I’m wearing them, I can’t separate Alcor and Mizar any more. Eyesight is more than perfect lenses. It has to do with the mind as much as matter, and there’s something about that old Blakean thing about seeing through, not with the eye as well. But I do remember their names: Alcor and Mizar.

Now I’m sitting out in the back garden of my home in the rural north west of England, on a crazily warm, late September night. It must be twenty degrees still, and the sky is a soft midnight-blue, the air infinitely more inviting than those freezing stargazing nights with my father, back in the sixties. I am resting on a bench in shirt-sleeves, after a long day in the sun, and as the stars come out, I am thinking about him.

There’s a bright star directly overhead. I wonder what it is, point my phone at it and, via the Star Walk app, I learn it is Vega. Just like that! Marvellous isn’t it? I’ve heard of Vega, but try as I might it does not fit into the patterns I have fixed in my mind, patterns like the Bear and Cassiopea, and the Square of Pegasus and from Pegasus that simple route-map to Andromeda which still astonishes – that softly defined spiral that grows as the eye adjusts to darkness until it seems to fill half the sky and you wonder how on earth did I miss that: another whole galaxy, so many stars it blows the mind, and surely also so many lives,… out there.

No, try as I might I cannot separate Alcor from Mizar any more, except through binoculars – not those 1912 vintage things, though I suppose they would do, but a pair of cheap Chinese 10×42’s off Ebay, product of another era, another quirk of the global economy. Such a long time since the British made binoculars. Such a long time since we actually made anything.

The Rider, that’s what he called Alcor,… the Rider. One star riding upon another, as a man rides upon a horse,…

My father was an autodidact, self taught to a prodigious degree and in many disciplines, a collector of disparate technical knowledge, everything from electronics to geology to archaeology and ancient astronomy. His energy and enthusiasm had carried him from the coal face of the NCB to colliery deputy, about as far as a working man could aspire in those days, and much further than it would carry him now. But more than that, it always impressed me that other boy’s fathers did not know the names of stars, indeed barely ever glanced upwards on a clear night and wondered. But when my father saw the stars, he did not see them as an astronomer, aching to have the next comet named after him, but more as an early human might at the dawn of our most fundamental awakening, and simply wondering at his place in the world.

Betelgeuse – that’s the reddish star in the shoulder of Orion. Orion isn’t up tonight – he’s a winter constellation in western Europe, frosty nights and all that, and the deeper into winter you go he’s trailing the bright sparkly dog-star, Sirius – more names my father gave me, names with vivid pictures; the magic of myth. How neatly, how perfectly it all fits the contours of the mind. I still look for those names in the night sky, gain my bearings from them, my place in time.

Vega, was it? That star up there. So the app said, but it comes without a story, slips free from memory. I could look for it tomorrow but I’ve already forgotten its place in the sky. Technology advances, grants such a narrow window on the marvellous, but without the human element, the imagination, the story, these are dead things.

My garden is a wonderful place at night, spacious, lush green lawn, and unlike the place where I grew up, not overlooked, no neighbours wondering what the hell we were up to,  lurking about in the dark with binoculars. He would have loved it here, my father. He would have built a shed in it with an articulating roof to house a reflecting telescope. I smile when I imagine it. In its place I have a cabin where I sometimes write and explore the stars another way. But not tonight. Tonight I have lanterns hung out on hooks to stretch out this last gasp of summer, an Indian summer’s night, and since I am otherwise alone, I have the company of my father.

We’re not far from the equinox, he reminds me. That’s where the ecliptic plane intersects the horizon due east and west, spring and autumn, the line on which the Sun and the Moon and now the planets are strung out one by one and sink west, into tomorrow. Due west for me is an old oak tree, across the meadow that backs onto the garden. It was probably just a sapling when Newton was a lad. So much learning since then. It was his laws of motions that navigated men to the moon, and by that time the tree was old. I don’t know what it means, if anything.

There’s a star or something, just about to dip behind the tree.

“Neptune,” says my father.

Well, I don’t know. It might be. It’s a planet, that’s all I can say for sure, and I know that because he taught me you can resolve planets to a disk through binoculars, while stars are so far away – at least they were back in the sixties – that you could only make twinkly points of light of them even through the most powerful optics known to man.

I point my phone at it. “Yea, Neptune.”

“That’s amazing,” he says.

“Not really,” I tell him. “You used to explain it a lot better, tell it as a story, then it actually meant something.”

Tonight I’m no longer much, much older than he was when he told me these things. I’m not a man with a house and grown children, and forty years of work behind me, years of my life he never knew about. I’m just a kid, staring up at the night sky as it deepens and the stars twinkle softly, and I am looking at the Bear once more, with my father.

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coirelagan

Corrie Lagan – Isle of Skye

In the summer of ’86, I took a long drive to the Isle of Skye. I was 25 and my life had not turned out as I’d expected. I’d followed a clearly mapped course from the age of 16: a long technical education, and indentureship to a profession that paid reasonably well. On the surface of things then, give or take a near nervous breakdown or two, I’d nothing to complain about: my car was just a few years old, and paid for, and I had saved enough money for a deposit on a house. It looked as if I was on my way, but something vital was missing and it haunted me.

My life’s course had led me to the edge of the map, and when I turned it over I found the page blank. The map seemed to be saying, this is it, what more do you expect? But the world at 25 was featureless and boring, and the future looked equally uninspiring, empty of mental stimulation, and everything I’d learned seemed of no use to me any more.

It didn’t help I was between girlfriends, pining for the one I’d lost, and not yet daring to anticipate the next. She was supposed to be with me on that trip, but we’d broken up just before, so I was in a state of mind that guaranteed the world would appear superficial, oblivious to my existence and entirely meaningless. But, for anyone craving hedonistic distraction from a serious romantic breakup, the emptiness of the Western Highlands and Islands isn’t the best choice of trip, better by far if it’s a kind of oblivion and rebirth we’re seeking, which I suppose I was. Indeed, as the ever more stunning landscape of the Western Highlands swallowed me up, I felt my loneliness deepen all the more. But there was a kind of adventure in it, too and a freedom of movement and a spontaneity I might not otherwise have enjoyed. I had not arranged a string of accommodation for my tour, but trusted entirely to fate, navigating from one hotel to the next, looking them up each morning after breakfast in my quaint yellow Automobile Association handbook, and ringing from little red call boxes in the most exquisitely picturesque locations. The first hotel to have vacancies would determine my course for the day. Thus it was, by a somewhat circuitous route, and after several days’ motoring I wound up in Mallaig. From there an old Calmac ferry brought me across the water to the Isle of Skye.

Skye is always a revelation, no matter how many times you see it, and though I have not seen it for a long time now, it remains fresh in memory, and for good reasons. Skye cradled my loneliness, not exactly comforting me, but inviting me instead to analyse what it was I felt. Its mountains had something of fairyland about them, something remote and beguiling, yes, but they were also brutal and I knew I was not up to exploring much beyond the foothills. This is where generations of British have trained for high adventure, and is not a place for the faint of heart. Even the rock of which Skye’s mountains are made will  flay the skin from your fingers, and tear your boots to rags.

All journeys have a trajectory to them and we can feel the turning point, the moment the outward leg finds its conclusion and turns for home. Mine came on the climb from Glenbrittle to the mountain tarn of Corrie Lagan. It’s a walk that brings you to the heart of the Cuillin, and from there a choice of more daring adventures. But instead of pressing on up the great stone chute to Sgurr Alisdair, I sat by the corrie in the sun, arrested by the view, and the air, and an indefinable strangeness.

There were men on the opposite bank, soldiers, though not wearing any semblance of uniform. They had just completed a traverse of the Cuillin ridge – a monumental feat of courage, steadiness and skill – and were cooling off. One of them plunged into the clear waters and swam across to me. We chatted amiably for a while, which was kind of him as we were clearly different species; I was a skinny, milk-white office-drone, far from home, and he a bronzed, muscled warrior for whom the whole world was home, and though we looked of a similar age he had already done and seen more than I ever would if I lived to be a hundred.

I realised too the island, and Corrie Lagan in particular had begun transforming my loneliness into a deeper longing, but not for company, at least not of the mortal kind. Nor was it the stimulation of material things I craved, nor the excitement of high adventure, nor even the arcane machinations of career progression. There was, it seemed at once, a deeper and more subtle dimension to the world. I first glimpsed it reflected in the clear scrying waters of Corrie  Lagan that day, and I heard it in the voices, half imagined, echoing from the Cuillin’s savage rim.

True, I would never be a warrior, they said, likely never cross the Cuillin ridge blithely, with my hands on top of my head and I would probably never be a millionaire. My chosen profession already bored the pants off me and I had no girlfriend. But so what? Such vexations might seem important at the time, but in the great scheme of things they are at the very least subordinate to this awakening to a sublime sense of the inner world, a thing not unlike falling in love, a phenomenon whose existence the genus loci of Corrie Lagan acquainted me with, then sent me home with a mind to exploring it for the rest of my days.

You don’t need to climb to Corrie Lagan to find it, though its openings in places like that are more obvious than elsewhere and easier for the neophyte to discern. But awareness of its presence cuts in two directions. Yes, it grants a higher perspective on life’s experience, and it renders much of what we do, and the things that vex us, banal, when compared with the potential we all have for a much deeper connection with the inspirational power of our natural surroundings. But when we see the despoliation of the earth, and the detritus of our messy civilisations spilling endlessly into the sea, we feel also those vital portals closing, shrinking back from our crass presence. We realise then with a sense of panic and grief, the few who have awakened fully to that greater reality, and might guide us more surely towards it, may well be the last of us. And what use is that?

It’s thirty five years now since that trip to the Isle of Skye, and after all this time I would not want this latter point to be the sole lesson of a life’s journey, a kind of too-late warning to mind how you go when the avalanche is all but on top of us. The next few decades will tell whether the map of our collective future leads to better things, or to extinction, but there is no mistaking the fact that right now the world stands on the cusp of great change, materially, socially, politically and ecologically. It could go either way but while pessimism is always tempting, especially given the things I have seen, in spite of myself, I am holding on for something infinitely more hopeful.

 

 

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bomber memorial

The Bomber Memorial, Anglezarke, August 2019

The dog days are upon us, bringing with them a stultifying heat, humidity, and thunderstorms. The Western Pennines have escaped the worst of it, unlike Derbyshire, Cheshire and North Yorkshire, all of which have suffered an apocalyptic pounding this week. We’ve had one flood warning, fortunately short lived as the storms broke elsewhere. Anglezarke meanwhile was steamy, the reservoirs as yet not full, but filling fast, the becks running high and the air enlivened by the sound of water as a week’s rains poured from the moors.

I had in mind a brief walk to check out a possible megalith, over in the meadows towards Jepson’s farm, but was defeated by cowardice, or the better part of valour, whichever you prefer. From the Yarrow reservoir there’s a network of footpaths taking you north through lush pastures which rise steeply to the edge of the moor. It’s just a short hop from the car and far enough in such a fierce heat. As I set out I saw a peregrine which gave me pause. When birds of prey are aloft the song birds go into stealth mode, and the atmosphere of a place changes. I’m also superstitious about birds and this one had the look of an omen about it.

Then there were sheep. Suddenly. Thousands of sheep, running, panicking, wave upon wave of them undulating across the green and all heading towards me. Sheep moving like that are generally being driven by something – a dog, or a farmer’s quad-bike – but all I could hear was the beating of hooves on a heavy earth. It was puzzling. Then came another sound, deeper, and distinctly bovine. The thing driving them was a crazed bullock.

The countryphile has no fear of sheep – I know some townies do, but trust me, they’re harmless creatures, even in large numbers, though easily spooked. I’ve read they’re more intelligent than a dog and I had it in my head they’d clocked me as a human being, therefore a useful idiot, and were making a beeline, expecting me to sort this stupid and possibly heat-addled bullock out, give it a stern ticking off for tormenting them. I’m afraid they overestimated my pluck.

The rules regarding potentially aggressive farm animals and public footpaths are strict, but not all farmers obey them, and it’s for the walker to make their own judgement when encountering these large ruminants, which can also come in armed varieties with pointy things on their heads. Cows are generally okay, require caution if they’re with calves but might attack on instinct if you’ve a dog with you, so always let the dog go. Cows are easily identifiable of course: they have udders. Bulls are a different matter, and opinions vary. Some are aggressive, some aren’t. A bull for beef isn’t, I’m told, while a bull for dairy is, but neither kind have udders and I wouldn’t know the difference, nor in what context each might be encountered because they do not come with labels attached.

A bull in a field of cows generally has other things to think about than chasing walkers. A field of bullocks is also considered safe and, though they can sometimes be curious, can easily be discouraged by a wave and a shout. However, while we’re invited to take it on trust the farmer wouldn’t deliberately endanger life, there’s no point lying on a morgue slab crushed under a ton of beef claiming you had lawful right of passage across his meadow.

Now perhaps a charging bullock isn’t as dangerous as it looks, but I decided discretion was the better part of valour and backtracked hastily, left the sheep to their torment, and scrambled to safety over the gate. Peculiar thing – I’ve never seen sheep and cattle grazing together before. Still, it seems sheep do at least keep the bullocks entertained, and vice versa.

So, I abandoned my search for the megalith and am still a bit ticked off about it. Instead I walked a little way up Lead Mine’s Clough, climbed the valley-side to the bomber memorial, then sat down. This is a fine, tranquil viewpoint – no sheep and no bullocks.

The memorial remembers the loss of a Wellington bomber – Zulu 8799 – on Hurst Hill, in the November of 1943. Out on a navigational exercise from its base in Leicestershire, it  struck the moor in the small hours of the morning with an impact that was felt for miles around. It had a crew of six, and all were lost. The pilot, Timperon, just 24, came from Alice Springs in Australia, came half way round the world to die on Anglezarke moor, about as far from hearth and home as it’s possible to imagine.

It’s a sobering thought, imagining those war years and the young being called up, and sent to places they’ve most likely never heard of. From reading war diaries of fighting men, you get a feeling for the mixture of fear and the sense of wanting to do one’s duty, but I have to close my thoughts off from imagining what it was like for those six lads in those last moments before the crash. There are no physical traces on the moor now, though the debris field was still there well into the sixties when I went up with my dad and had a pick through the various bits of twisted metal.

More often true valour does not have the luxury of discretion; it just has to button down, and get on with it.

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corncrakeThe searing heat abated somewhat today, though the stupefying humidity remained. I decided on just a short outing then, not too far nor too strenuous but still found myself dripping in minutes.

Where was I? Well, see if you can guess: the forest floor was ferny thick and the canopy abuzz with a torment of flies. There were plastic bottles a plenty in the undergrowth, ditto crisp packets, also a wealth of spent nitrous oxide cartridges. Higher up the hill, among the painstakingly restored terraced walkways there were the usual bags of dog turds hanging from trees like bizarre offerings to the ever salivating demons of barbarism, oh,… and there was an adult diaper oozing mess. We could only be in the Rivington Terraced Gardens then, or just about anywhere else in the countryside these days.

But on a lighter note I had recently discovered this thing called Google Lens. If you have a data signal, you can point your Android device’s camera at anything, and it will tell you what it is. So, whilst out and about in the green and with quite a perky signal, I decided to try it out – in the field so to speak. However, it swore blind the oak leaf was from a different tree entirely, a more exotic and entirely unpronounceable Amazonian species. It struggled to find any sort of name for a sycamore leaf at all, was confused by a humble bramble, but did identify, in the corner of that particular frame a corncrake, which would have been sensational had it not actually been my foot.

All of which got me thinking, if Google really is intent on displacing superfluous human activities like driving cars and reading maps, and telling us what things are, there must come a point when we’re no longer capable of knowing about these things for ourselves. It is at that point our entire frame of reference will be dictated by a kind of iron-brained deity we have in fact constructed, placed our trust in, and quite probably sacrificed our own long term survival on planet earth so this unconscious entity can thrive while missing the point entirely, that without us humble thinking beings, this artificial creature has no purpose at all.

It might well be an oak tree we are looking at, but we shall be forced to call it whatever the machine says it is, whether it is or not. And if the machine has no name for a thing, we shall stare at that nameless thing in horror, as we might at a demon come to threaten our entire world view.

For a time there’ll still be grey-haired die-hards who like to read books and maps, Luddites who insist on driving their own cars, but we won’t last much longer and then, well, you kids are on your own, and you’ve only yourselves to blame. The real world is still out there, though looking a little sorry for itself now, quite literally shat upon, and suffering ever more frequent paroxisms of climatic excess that we’re probably too late to fix. And I suppose the thing is we’ve never respected it, trusted instead in our own superiority, in our technologies, so now we find ourselves with gormless expressions, tongues hanging out, noses pressed against the glass of our latest device, peering in to a world that doesn’t exist, while the one that does, the one that sustains us and gives us air to breathe, we have allowed to catch fire.

We are adept at adaptation, so much so there can never be an example of dystopia outside of science fiction, for no matter how weird or absurd, oppressive or dangerous our world becomes, we have already accepted it as the new normal, even before it’s claimed its first victims.

Corncrake? Yea right.

 

 

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Joan of Arc, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I was about to spend my first night in an idyllic holiday cottage by the sea. I had arrived weary after two hundred miles of roaring roads, with broken air-con and in a steam-heat that had sucked the energy from my bones. But as I took a brief stroll around my new home for the week I knew I was in for a treat: a quaint old harbour, a clean sea, a good weather forecast and porpoises leaping in the bay. What more could one ask?

I went to bed early, looking forward to a refreshing night’s sleep, but I found it hard to drift off. This sometimes happens after a long journey and a strange bed, but when I did finally eventually slip away, I was assailed by horrific dreams of violence, torture and mutilation. This was not normal, my dreams being for the most part benign and enigmatic. I wondered then where such powerfully gruesome imagery might have come from. Dreams borrow from waking life, but I don’t watch that type of movie or play the computer games that might contain it, and my actual waking life is as tame as it gets.

It was a mystery, then.

According to one theory I was sleeping in a psychical space still contaminated by the previous guest, that I had literally laid my head upon the same pillow and immersed myself in a persisting cloud of fear and knife-slashing violence. The more rational modes of thinking will not allow such ideas of course, and mostly I resist them, but the more mystical forms will and since I was desperate for sleep, I was prepared to entertain them. For help in such situations, we do no better than turn to Tibetan Buddhism, and the yoga of dreams and sleep.

These teachings are concerned with cultivating a lucid awareness during the dream; effectively waking up in the dream, and becoming consciously aware of ourselves within it. This is not something I’m capable of, but the subject interests me as do all studies on dreams and dreaming. Lucidity has been verified by experiment in sleep laboratories, and it seems many of us are indeed capable of it spontaneously. What we do with it varies. In Western culture, according to the books I’ve read by self styled oneironauts, it boils down to wanting to fly, or having sex with strangers and other fantastical, escapist adventures, in other words to use the dream-space as a kind of narcissistic playground. In Tibetan Buddhism however, the goal is to achieve a state of meditation, in the dream. Also, if we are able to become fully aware of ourselves in the dream space, the Buddhists say we are more likely to become fully awake in the awakened state as well. This is something that takes a great deal of discipline and training, but other aspects of the technique are more accessible to the lay person, such as how we prepare the ground for lucid awareness in the first place.

Obviously if we are to meditate in the dream, we need a clean psychical space, untroubled by demons and their drama. So, as we seek sleep, the yogis teach the cultivation of personal, protective archetypes. For a man these are most easily imagined as female warriors of extraordinary beauty and prowess. We conjure them up by a process of active imagination as we seek sleep, then deploy them around our sleep-space to watch over us. We station them in doorways, around the bed or patrolling the garden, wherever we feel a vulnerability. They are infinitely patient and devoted to our protection and by their mere presence they chase away the troublesome demons as sunlight dissolves shadows, or as the presence of a cat will deter mice.

Fanciful as all this sounds, I do find the technique effective and have deployed my personal “Amazons” on many an occasion when unsettled and struggling for sleep. Sure enough, on this occasion too, my later dreams found a more even keel; the gore dissolved to something more wholesome as I sailed through into a placid space and woke refreshed, ready to begin my holiday.

I was not troubled again.

Sweet dreams.

Ref The Tibetan Yogas of Dreams and Sleep

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jefferies[1]

My most treasured book by Richard Jeffries is not this one but a fragile early edition of The Amateur Poacher, (1879). The Amateur Poacher is a collection of essays detailing bucolic life around Jeffries’ native Coates, in Wiltshire and is cherished for its evocation of a rural England now lost. But there’s something else in it, not so much written as alluded to through the intensity and the beauty of Jeffries’ prose. What that is exactly is hard to describe but many have felt it, and wondered,…

Let us get out of these indoor, narrow modern days, whose twelve hours somehow have become shortened, into the sunlight and the pure wind. A something that the ancients called divine can be found and felt there still.

Traditional ideas of spirituality and religion are but the ossified remains of this ineffable thing the ancients called “divine”, but it’s still present in the world and can be felt anywhere where the last sleepy cottage slips from view, where we can immerse ourselves once more in nature and intensify our experience of it through the lens of the psyche as well as the senses.  Jeffries allows that nature can be cultivated – meadows, coppices, fields of wheat – it does not have to be wilderness. It’s the life-energy in it that’s important to the soul, while the built world – the towns, the cities – are dead places more associated with the soul’s decay.

The nature of this ineffable “something” haunted Jeffries. While it’s hinted at throughout his writings, it’s here in “The Story of my heart” he attempts a more direct understanding of it. It’s not an easy book to summarise and must really be experienced, so there’s little I can do here but grant a flavour of it.

Written in the intense and emotional language of a prose poem, the book treats mankind as a being both of and keenly attuned to beauty, also as something apart from the world and capable of great perfection on our own terms, both physically and mentally. Nature, on the other hand, though at times ravishing to the senses, is more reflective of something within us, while being of itself blind to our existence. Though not intentionally cruel, nature can easily harm us. Also when we see the low creeping forms of life, it can be ugly, even offensive to the soul. Only superficially then can we describe Jeffries as a nature mystic. He does not deify nature, more something in man that’s higher than anything we can imagine.

“The sea does not make boats for us,” he says, “nor the earth of her own will build us hospitals.”

But for all our efforts with boats and hospitals in the last twelve thousand years, we’ve done nothing more than struggle for subsistence. Yet if we put our minds to it we might harvest in a single year enough to feed the entire world for decades. That we don’t suggests a deep failing, that we allow ourselves to be perversely distracted by everything that is bad for us, deliberately avoiding the need for cultivating the soul-life. Instead, we eulogise enslavement to largely meaningless and unproductive work.

He describes observing traffic in London, the crowds the carriages, the mad, rushing crush of it, everyone driven by an insatiable craving for motion and direction. Yet for all of that, he says, we are going nowhere, and shall continue to do so: while money, furniture, affected show and the pageantry of wealth are the ambitions of the multitude.

He sees the general human condition as one of perpetual ignorance and suffering,… so great, so endless, so awful that I can hardly write of it. He dismisses religion in all its forms, also the idea of deity entirely on the basis of the evidence,… that there is not the least trace of directing intelligence in human affairs.

Our miseries are our own doing, he insists, and we must own them: because you have mind and thought, and could have prevented them. You can prevent them in future. You do not even try.

For us to progress, he urges us to reconnect with the higher mind, what he calls the “mind of the mind” – this being the soul, or the psyche because:

The mind is infinite and able to understand everything that is brought before it. The limit is the littleness of the things and the narrowness of the ideas put for it to consider.

Neither religion nor the physical sciences can offer us anything in this regard, those modes of thinking being completely wide of the mark. But as one who has felt the full blistering force of his own higher nature, Jeffries cannot be wholly pessimistic about our lot either, only lamenting that we need a quantum leap in understanding if we are not to spend another twelve thousand years going around in circles.

But while he tries his eloquent best to tell us the story of his heart, the abiding impression of this book is of an exquisitely sensitive man beset all his life by visions and feelings of such sublime loveliness they left him virtually speechless.

I was sensitive to all things, the earth under, and the star-hollow round about; to the last blade of grass, to the largest oak. They seemed like exterior nerves and veins for the conveyance of feeling to me.

Branded heretical in his time, pilloried by the Church for his paganism, and by urbanites for his unflattering views of London, the book did not sell well and many critics dismissed it as unintelligible. But for others, including me, Jeffries’ prose describes most powerfully those things all sensitive countryphiles have felt, and which we know point to a greater understanding of our place in the Cosmos – if only, like him, we could open our hearts to it properly, and find the words.

*[Richard Jeffries, English nature-writer, novelist, natural historian. 1848-1887]

For more information about Richard Jeffries you can do no better than to click here.

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