Articles written for The Hedge (a local publication in Herefordshire)
Autumn is a time of year I often find challenging and notice a lot of tired people around me. It is, I’m sure, partly due to the fact that all of nature is slowing down, gathering, harvesting and getting ready to rest, sleep and dream over winter whilst we human beings are doing more than being. We are often so absorbed by the new academic year that we speed up instead of slow down.
This year I resolved to see if I could pass through this transition more gently. For several years I have been hearing about The Art of Mentoring and drawn to the title. So, on the recommendation of a trusted friend, I decided to join an introduction to the above, camping out on Dartmoor.
As I arrived at the site I was transported back six months to when I last visited this stunning piece of land: home of majestic beech trees, fresh chiming streams and quiet, starlit nights. Then I was here in the role of leader or mentor. A small group of teenage girls from London, most of whom had spent their lives in and out of foster care were spending a few days on Dartmoor with their social workers, myself and my dog. Their unfathomable wisdom, depth of capacity for untold grief and resilience resonated with me for months after the event. Finding myself there again was a chance to acknowledge my own comparably insignificant grief and let go of what no longer serves me: letting go, as the trees let go of their leaves.
The weekend was also a rare opportunity for me to be a participant rather than a facilitator. To let myself be guided by the accomplished skills and naturalist knowledge of the Acorn team was nourishing and supportive. We played and sang and crept and ran and finally discussed, among many other things, the role of mentors in our own lives: human and other than human. I remembered, with a smile, eating pennywort from a damp patch below a mossy beech, back in April. One girl, mobile phone in hand desperately searching for some reception, stared at me incredulously, “You are NOT human!” she said. Later, in the early hours of the morning, another girl awoke with a panic attack, many comforting words eluded me in my half asleep state but Stella (the dog) nestled at her feet and they both slept peacefully for the rest of the night. It seems apparent to me that the other than human world has been as much my mentor, my minder, as the many inspiring humans I have been lucky enough to encounter. Now, in the times when I am in the role of mentor that world is there, at my back: encouraging, cajoling, teaching, nurturing and at times lovingly challenging. One of the treasures I brought away was a deeper understanding of the idea that we are all mentoring each other and that web extends down into the depths and up to the heights of life.
I believe our culture is in need of some cultural repair, the ‘Art of Mentoring ‘ offers a model to support this. Life cycles are marked and celebrated in more harmonious cultures around the world. Cycles of life support us and can be even more helpful if we recognise their importance. If we honour each stage of the cycle of our lives we can grow more freely and peacefully with more openness and more ability to support and mentor each other.
During both weekends on Dartmoor I brought the monthly cycle into the picture. Awareness of this cycle is part of what I try to bring to the beautiful young women I have the joy of working with.
Within every month, in the dark of the moon, we have our own personal winter. Traditionally, before electric light women would bleed on the new moon. The loss of blood through menstruation is cleansing and letting go, making space for the new. The new growth comes as we finish bleeding and enter Spring, the moon begins to shed her light once more, we have new ideas and gradually more energy (but gently with the transition, Spring is often a time when illness appears as we rush to do too much too soon). As we reach the most upbeat energy of the full moon and ovulation we are at our most outgoing, ready to take on new projects, many more of which are achievable if we have been able to truly, deeply rest and dream over the winter. As the moon wanes and our energy with it we begin to release once more, speak our truth that may have been quiet in our efforts to compromise ourselves for the good of social unity and peaceful relationships. We tell it how it is, clean the house, harvest, nest, prepare to rest….
Happy wintering one and all and remember to enjoy that inner quiet. See whether you can find five or ten minutes a day to sit and be still outside in nature and just listen…every day. This little practice could be the greatest mentor of our time.
Article for CARIADS
Education as a Journey
I have been thinking about the etymology of the word ‘education’ ( from ‘educare’ – to draw out) and my interpretation of it after a few years’ experience. I believe that the true meaning of education is to draw out each individual’s potential, strength, truth. This is no mean feat in a world that is seemingly trying to make us all want to be someone else.
Today we enjoy the benefits and challenges of increased technological connectivity, with faster and more efficient ways of keeping in touch over greater distances and with extensive knowledge and facts available at the touch of a button. Despite or perhaps because of this it seems to me that there is an increasing need for deeper, truer connection.
In my opinion, the way we really connect with each other is through relationships. One of our greatest areas of learning, of education, of growth, is through relationships. Relationships being such a big word and broad ranging I would add relationships based on respect. Relationships with ourselves, with each other, with other beings: animals, birds, insects, plants, elements, elementals, whatever you consider to be a ‘being’ or worthy of respect.
For me, and for most of us I think, being outdoors in woodland, by the sea, in a field, on a mountain offers a chance to cultivate our lifelong learning in this field. Especially if we can spend some time, however short, alone or even just quietly in our own space (an experience I try and give the children in all my work), we learn something of ourselves (it may be simply that we don’t like sitting on damp ground). We begin on the paramount and much underrated journey of acknowledging our own uniqueness and the awesome simplicity and complexity of the natural world around us. Hopefully this journey leads us, slowly but surely to a place of security and settled self-confidence combined with respectful humility. These are qualities I understand our for-parents, the world over, would have been endowed with at a very young age.
I am in the privileged position of being able to witness tiny steps towards this sort of education. The other day I saw a two year old crossing a tiny stream on her own and pausing, mid-challenge, water in welly (later acknowledged, with some discontent!) to notice a floating leaf; I saw a seven year old learning to climb a particular tree, a consideration of his weight matched against the tree’s growth and strength allowed for a pause in his busy pace; I watched in awe as a troubled fourteen year old stoked a fire then sat mesmerised for longer than I had seen her sit still and quiet in the twenty four hours I’d been with her.
The reason some of my work focusses on girls connection with the natural world is partly because I see how this connection (if it has been allowed to remain intact until that point), can easily be lost at puberty. This is ironic because with the onset of menstruation girls become physically aware of their undeniably cyclical nature which should bring a joyous affirmation of their place in the natural order of things. At a time when boys are more likely to be drawn to the appeal of bush craft and survival skills which carry a high ‘coolness’ rating, girls are more likely to shy away from such skills and divert their attention towards accentuated concern for their looks and body shape. They can get lost in the complexities and lose sight of the contentment of simplicity. In my experience this stage is often too late to draw them back into an acknowledgement and understanding of the strength of their natural connectivity. The ground work needs to have been done a little earlier and a conscious awareness maintained and celebrated.
The journey continues for all of us….I hope to meet many of you and your precious children along the way….
HANDS ON HEARTS Winter 2017/18
The role our hands play in replenishing our ability to feel heartfelt joy has been a conversation I have been engaged with most of my life. During my early years I was lucky enough to have regular visits to a kind, old lady called Eve, who supported my desire to create with paper, fabric and colour. Later, my lonely weekends at boarding school were transformed by the discovery of making things out of wood with the support of Mr Candor, the Craft, Design and Technology teacher. When I began my professional life as a teacher I was mentored by Bernard Graves from Pyrites: Living and Learning with Nature. The enquiry became deeper on a recent visit to the Jut/Hoansi-San of the Kalahari Desert, Namibia.
In my twenties I spent several years travelling. A large part of what inspired me to explore was a deep need to understand some of the injustices of the world. I often came home more confused than when I had left. This trip was different.
This time I had the luxury of spending days watching dextrous hands. Whilst the men focused on working alongside us and showing us how to make bows and arrows and other hunting equipment the women took us foraging and demonstrated how to make jewellery from ostrich egg shells. We joined in enthusiastically with our less dextrous movements. Struggling to train my muscle memory, the peace of the tribe and their steady contented busy-ness eased any lingering frustration I had brought with me from our ‘quick fix’, ‘must learn faster’ world.
I persevered to master the San Bushmen way of whittling a root we dug up that we used for making arrows. I felt held by the ‘container’ of the community: the presence of the elders of the tribe, the gentle murmur of women chatting, singing or dancing, the men asking each other for advice in technique, the lack of judgement or expectation, the timelessness, the hum of insects, the warmth, the peace and the nurturing buzz of ever present awareness.
Although they have lost a great deal of the way of life that has supported them for tens of thousands of years, they are still some of the last hunter-gatherers left on the planet. The modern world of plastic and technology is encroaching on their lives too, particularly amongst the teenagers. Despite the many reasons they have to feel anger or frustration over these facts one of the keys to the effortless contentment, in my opinion, lies in their busy hands which engender quiet minds.
Maybe because I am looking for it, but I see an expansion in people using their hands here, back in the UK. On a train journey I see cross stitch, knitting, and crochet. Travelling around by car I see craft shops selling hand made goods: ceramics, iron work, leather and wood. These little moments fill me with hope.
The combination of my own slow mastery of some basic craft skills alongside steadily increasing the amount of time I spend outdoors in nature have given me greater access to my own peace of mind. My visit to Namibia and my encounter with these joyful, contented people allowed the striving of many years to settle. I feel like I received a priceless gift from the older sisters and brothers of the world.
So I tuck away my guilt from the ‘developed world’ (with the irony I feel as I write those two words) as it is no longer helpful and get on with the heartfelt task in hand….
Firelight inspires school, home educated and private groups of children by fostering a living connection with nature. Based in Herefordshire, United Kingdom