Monday, 5 September 2016

Soliphilia: On the Seeing of Stars

My beloved honeysuckle staff

For Earth to survive, she needs your heart. The songbirds and the salmon need your heart too, no matter how weary, because even a broken heart is still made of love. They need your heart because they are disappearing, slipping into that longest night of extinction, and the resistance is nowhere in sight. We will have to build that resistance from whatever comes to hand: whispers and prayers, history and dreams, from our bravest words and braver actions. It will be hard, there will be a cost, and in too many implacable dawns it will seem impossible. But we will have to do it anyway. So gather your heart and join with every living being.”  (Deep Green Resistance)

Walking matters to me. There are days when I feel broken, when the sea monsters that move beneath the skin of my everyday rise with the tide and no number of pots of tea will soothe them. And, often, that is when I walk; to remind myself of what is solid, thriving, and bigger than just my own wobbly inner worlds, to feel the edge between me and the wild, and to know that that edge is nothing more than a width of a gossamer thread, to brush a nettle leaf to feel the sting, to drink in the vibrant green of moss in the frost-bright of winter. To breathe. And yet, just the other day, I went walking and returned with my heart broken. That matters too.

In recent days I have come to know and love the little wilding apple tree not far from my home. I always stop to say hello to her, touch her branches, marvel at the saffron and silver of her lichen, congratulate her on her crop of small apples, greet them as her children. On my last few walks I have plucked an apple with much reverence and gratitude, taken the sweet flesh into my body as a gift and a sacrament. And, in this way, I begin to build relationship. It is a blessing. When I stand with her I feel that there is no one but us in the world, such is our connection of heart. I don't see the road or the cars going by, the chainlink fence by her side. I barely notice if someone walks by, which they rarely do. I am caught up in ancient threads. I am in love. And yet when I drove by her for the first time since meeting of her I suddenly became aware of how small and vulnerable she is. How many would not see a wise, tenacious being with her golden apple children but, instead, an old, unimportant tree with 'blighted fruit' on a piece of waste ground that could be better used for something else. And part of me wanted to cut those ancient threads of connection before my heart gets broken. Only a few days later the wildly growing hawthorn hedge just around the curve of the road from her, and which had been laden with almost-ripe berries was cut back, made neat and tidy. The almost-ripe berries lost. I lamented their loss for their own sake and for the sake of the birds who have lost their autumn harvest, and for mine. And so, yes part of me wants to cut the ancient threads that have begun to bind me to the wilding tree, but I won't.

In his 'Duino Elegies', Rilke writes, “Yes, the springtime needed you. Often a star was waiting for you to notice it.”We cut the threads at a cost; to ourselves and to the 'stars' that are waiting for us to notice them. If we believe that we matter, that we are an integral part of this world, then we must notice and we must allow our hearts to be broken...often a star is waiting for us not just to notice it, but to cry over it.

Not long ago, in a little lane close by, I came across the body of a blackbird fledgling. I was in awe of her delicate beauty, I grieved softly for the loss of her life, I felt empathy for the mother and father who had hatched, protected, and fed her. I gave thanks that she might provide food for the babies of another mother. I imagined a fox taking her, being grateful for food without the hunt. I felt connected in that moment to the dreaming of life where threads weave and break and reweave in deep relationship, where one small death supports another life, where Life~Death~Life is all part of the same flow. Truly, there is such great beauty in that and I felt honoured to have become a small part of that tender happening which sang so deeply of the root of things. But I wanted Life to know that this almost-blackbird mattered to someone, and I wanted people who passed by to know that too. And so I picked some honeysuckle blossoms and placed them carefully on her small body, crooning softly to her spirit. The next day only a few honeysuckle flowers remained. I thought of the maybe-fox mother and was grateful.

Singing the small sacred in 

This reminded me of a time when I was on a retreat with a group of women. Our time was spent on a Somerset farm in a small valley and, whilst we were there, some of the cows were birthing their babies. It was Lammas, we were celebrating the Mother, and we were grateful for the new life coming into being all around us. But one young cow, pregnant with her first calf, could not give birth. Her baby became trapped and nothing could break him free. She died and her baby with her. The farmer took her up the track out of the valley and left her by the gate to be picked up by a van from the abattoir. And yet even in the midst of such tragedy there was magic. Without speaking to one another about it, without ceremony, over the next few hours and into the next morning, the women began to walk up the track in ones and twos, feeling deep connection to this mother who could not be. They began to sing to her, give blessings for her life and that of her baby, and to decorate her body with flowers. Someone who saw the men come for her with their van said that they could not have been gentler or more reverent. I believe that they saw and they felt that she had become holy. We might wish that her final journey had been a different one and yet it mattered that we didn't cut off from what was happening, that we sang the small sacred in in the only ways that we knew how. It mattered to us. It mattered to the spirit of the mother cow and her baby. And I like to believe that it mattered to the men who came to take her away. I do believe that it mattered to Life.

"There is sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of overwhelming grief and unspeakable love" (Rumi)

And so, just the other day, I went walking and returned with my heart broken. I am grateful that I have a heart to break. As I walk on from the wilding tree, I take a path through a small wood which leads into a lane behind some sprawling old houses overlooking the sea. 

A tree with cooking apples high above the sea

In this lane I have found a tree laden with cooking apples, have gathered blackberries, elderberries, and nettle seeds, basked in the presence of plantain, green alkanet, cuckoopint, and pendulous sedge, have sung love songs to bees. When I walk there I feel that I am walking with my Grandmothers. I forget cars and televisions and shops and money and all the things that take us out of ourselves and I am happy. Just after the apple tree there is a curve in the road and there I found the most lush and magical patch of wild medicine, for the body and for the spirit; a small bank green and growing with nettles, hedge woundwort, wild basil, thistles and, most recently, the first flowering of mullein, which to my delight I discovered is also known as hag's taper, hare's beard, and beggar's blanket for the downy softness of its large leaves. What wistful acknowledgement of the vulnerability of those pushed to the edges of our society can be found in the folknames of our wildflowers who know those edges so well. It is there that those of us who reject the centre of things, and who often feel that we don't belong, can find good company. 

Green alkanet

Hedge woundwort

Nettle seeds

Mullein ~ hag's taper, hare's beard, beggar's blanket

 And so I have woven a deep relationship with this wildly growing bank, have spent time there almost every day, delighted in it for its own sake, for the abundant bees and butterflies that gathered sweet pollen and nectar, and for the wild medicines that I have harvested, taking pleasure in the thought of maintaining my connection with that land through those medicines as winter unfolds. It has been one of my greatest joys since I moved here. It made me feel that I was home. I have come to see foraging as the ultimate in mindfulness, for me at least. It is a responsibility to take the fruit and seeds of a mother plant, to feel worthy of claiming some of her children as my own. It is not something that I take lightly. Glenn Albrecht, an Australian Professor of Sustainability, has coined the phrase 'soliphilia', which he describes as 'love and responsibility for a place, bioregion, planet, and the unity of interrelated interests within it', 'soli' coming from 'solidarity'; fellowship of responsibilities and interests, from the French solidarité, from solidaire, interdependent, from Old French, in common, from Latin solidus, solid, whole.' So it was and is with me and this little bank; I walked to get out of myself. I walked and this little bank of wild magic brought me home.

And now the green beings of that little bank are gone. Two days ago I walked around that curve in the road and all that was green and growing had been hacked down, just a few leaves strewn across the brown and dying grass, confused bees still searching for pollen where they had found it so often before and where there was now none. My first reaction was disbelief, shock, then realisation, the feeling that I had been kicked in the stomach, anger, grief. It was just a little bank in a world where so much is changing and dying, where so much is brutalised, and yet it had been so very ALIVE.

Glenn Albrecht also has another phrase, 'solastaligia', the feelings of grief, dislocation, and loss we experience when the environment where we live is damaged, changed, or taken from us. This can apply to the planet that we live on, or it can apply to a little bank of wildly growing things and happily foraging bees.

And the temptation is to disconnect, to switch off, harden our hearts, because what can we do to save the planet, or even a patch of wild just outside our front door. Why dare to love when we know that our hearts will be broken. Better to lose ourselves in the television, possessions, and addictions. Better not to care. Sylvia Linsteadt has written that, “the line between self and the world is very thin. Perhaps it is almost non-existent. And yet we are taught to stay far from that edge –for isn't it insanity to consider yourself fluid with columbine flowers?”And yet, we have to be brave enough to risk that edge, to dare being thought of as 'insane', the 'stars' are waiting for us to notice, without us perhaps they will be a little less alive. Without keeping our hearts open, without allowing them to break, we can so easily become lost in disconnection, hopelessness, and depression, collapsing into ourselves. We will no longer see the stars.

I sought solace in the sea

And was gifted with a stone heart and the eyes of a bee
Ecopsychologist Mary Good has talked about 'earth grief', writing that these feelings are “intense, vast, and utterly overwhelming, The common response shut down, avoid, deny”. In attending to her own earth grief, in staying open, she writes that she has “tapped into a vast reservoir of my own resilience. I have learned to withstand and open to my own pain, no longer turning away from it in fear that it will destroy me. This enables me to allow for, and hold, my own painful feelings, while at the same time remaining open to the rest of life and the joy available in every moment”. This is so important for those of us who understand that we were made for these times, that we are the ones who are here to remember what 'home' truly means, and find it in banks of wild medicine, in wilding trees, in family and community, in the weeds that grow in the cracks in the pavement, in the tiptoe of night foxes, and the scream of badgers, in the sting of nettles and the comfort of nettle tea, in the bitterness of elderberries and the sweetness of syrup, in the eyes of our loved ones, and the clear waters of chalk streams, even when we know that they all might be taken from us. Even though we know that they might break our hearts.

How can we learn to love through it all, to keep our hearts open, to be willing to cry tears that others refuse, our have forgotten how, to cry? Mary Good writes that, “whilst earth grief can be excruciating, it can also be can soften our hearts to the preciousness of life.” In staying connected, breathing through the pain, we gain so much, so much more than we lose. Lierre Keith in her challenging and thought-provoking book, 'The Vegetarian Myth' writes about the Mayan concept of kas-limaal, 'mutual indebtedness, mutual insparkedness', the knowledge that everything is connected to everything else. And I believe that that is how we can continue to love; not by disconnecting, by distancing ourselves from what pains us, but by going deeper, coming closer, becoming a part of; truly we are 'fluid with columbine flowers'.

I hope to write more about my own understanding of kas-limaal as the weeks go on, about how we are in deep co-operation with the dreamlines of bees and the memory of reindeer tracks, how we are in true relationship with the apple tree and the nettle people, not as a concept but as a reality. For now, it is enough to take in that we are in relationship. We are not alone, or separate. Recent studies have shown that if we can connect to that which gives us a sense of awe, be that almost too large or too small to contemplate; the birth of a star, the slow movement of a water bear, or a million other things both unusual and everyday, that it can lead us to be more generous towards others, be that human, plant, or animal community, towards all of life. We can begin to mend the disconnections and have the resilience and the courage to challenge the disconnection in others with respect and with love. These studies have found that our sense of awe, of feeling connected to something larger than ourselves, effects our behaviour more positively than even compassion or love (although we could argue that they are all so intimately connected that they cannot be separated). It is disconnection that breaks us and it is disconnection that is breaking the planet that is our home. It is disconnection that has brought us austerity, the badger cull, suspicion towards refugees, bee decline, deforestation. And it is disconnection that allowed someone to hack down the wildly growing beings on my beloved little bank. They will grow again and, in the meantime, I will hold the possibility and knowing of their return in my heart through the winter, do all that I can to stop it happening again, spread seeds, write letters, attend to the 'hedgetemple' in the inner and the outer worlds, grieve. What those who are disconnected perhaps don't know is that hearts that are broken only become bigger and wilder and they notice far, far more stars.

Further reading and links:

From Glenn Albrecht ~

Sylvia Lindsteadt: The Gleewoman's Notes ~

From Mary Good ~

How Awe Makes Us Generous ~

From Lierre Keith ~


  1. Deeply thought and wonderfully worded ... thank you.

  2. So profoundly beautiful, and I read it at exactly the right time. Thank you. <3

    1. Thank you too, Sarah. You so often inspire my days xxx

  3. Such a beautiful and needed post. I shed some tears for that blackbird and the cow mother, and all the green beings on your little wild bank. Such senseless destruction, in that case.

    I love how you have said that we need to allow our hearts to break, for a breaking/bursting heart was one of the images that came to me a few years back, when I was first exploring shamanism, and it took me a while to realise that it was showing me what was happening to me. Yet maintaining that openness and connection is not easy. Certainly, my life is better and happier because I have opened myself to the beauty of the world, and I try to seek out wonder and magic, but it takes courage to be able to hold the pain and grief at the same time. But this is why I read blogs like yours. You have reminded me of what is important, and inspired me all over again, and so I keep going, keep trying, keep learning, keep reconnecting …

    And mullein is also known as Blanket Herb, Velvet Plant, Woollen, Feltwort and Fluffweed, and quite a long list of other names, according to Maud Grieve's 'A Modern Herbal'. I think Fluffweed sounds adorable. ;-)

    1. Thank you so much again for the affirmation, Therese.

      What a powerful image you were shown of a heart breaking. This is more and more my path I feel, not in a self-sacrificial way, because I think that that can be a dangerous edge, but in a way which calls in wildness and connection. It comes to me again and again as I walk this path that our hearts want to be wild, they want to be allowed to break and to expand. I am in awe of the ability of my heart to do that over and over again and grateful that Life offers me the opportunities for that to happen. It is all such a gift. I am so glad that you understand and yes, it does take courage and what a blessing for those of us who try to have it to be able to connect with one another.

      Oh, I love those other names for mullein; such a soft and stunning plant. I love Fluffweed too!! Thank you xx


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