The Celtic festival of Samhain, which has come to us as Halloween or All Hallows e’en, marks the end of summer and autumn. It’s the beginning of a time of darkness that we’ve now entered. But things grow in the dark. Seeds become roots and new life is germinating.
I’m coming to the end of a period of writing and reflection in a forest in Brittany. I firmly believe that periods of retreat are valuable for writers, or for anyone who values creativity and a deliberate life.
It’s been a time in which seeds have been sewn and I know the roots will eventually push through and become new projects, shifts in life. I’ve done a lot of reading about anatomy and plants while I’ve been here, as I’m doing courses in aromatherapy and herbalism. And I have a first full draft of my new novel, which has seemed to write itself in this quiet, inspirational place.
A time to pause
Stream in the Val Sans Retour
But the time among the trees has been much more than finding the space to complete projects, however important these are to me. More fundamentally it’s been a time for reflecting
- on how deeply connected all of life is
- on how much there is to be grateful for
- on how abundant and mysterious life is
‘Wonder’ can be hard to come by in modern life. This struck me a couple of months ago when I watched my grandson opening gifts on his second birthday. He opened each item and exclaimed ‘Wow!’ and then named the thing and took time with it rather than racing to the next present. His wonder was genuine and over simple things. Children are great teachers of wonder and so is nature. A night sky or a shaft of sunlight through a forest can stop us, change our perspective, make us go back to that childhood ‘Wow!’ with no jaded sense of irony.
A time for vision
Waterfall at the beginning of the Val sans Retour
These epiphanies, whether of the vastness of it all or the intricacy of it all, as we pick our way along streambeds or notice fungi or the most livid green caterpillar on the forest floor, change us. They slow us down, they make us pay attention, they demonstrate the deepest of connections. Such visions are not artificial highs or a means of sating our hunger for meaning with displacement activities like shopping or over-consumption. Rather they are experiences of depth, however simple, or perhaps precisely because they are so simple.
They confirm what Whitman says so lyrically:
Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
And what Ella Frances Sanders says at more length in Eating the Sun: small musings on a vast universe:
Depending on where you look, what you touch, you are changing all the time. The carbon inside you, accounting for about 18 percent of your being, could have existed in any number of creatures or natural disasters before finding you. That particular atom residing somewhere above your left eyebrow? It could well have been a smooth, riverbed pebble before deciding to call you home.
You see, you are not so soft after all; you are rock and wave and the peeling bark of trees, you are ladybirds and the smell of a garden after the rain. When you put your best foot forward, you are taking the north side of a mountain with you.
A time of clarity
The forest floor
Retreating to the forest for a period to write and reflect has provided extraordinary moments of vision. Each of these is a spiritual or emotional nourishment to see me through the winter and each of them has the potential to shake up habits that seem harder to work on when I’m in the thick of work-life.
For me, this has involved becoming clearer about being more physically active and connected. It has also made me re-appraise goals along my quest, particularly around how I integrate new directions in working with plant-healing and new ways of prioritising teaching and mentoring work.
And, as always, it pulls me back to a different perspective on time and how I use it. Being away from home and work has reminded me of how bad I am at setting and keeping boundaries. At the beginning of the time away, despite having only sporadic and slow internet access, I felt compelled to answer every email. This despite out of office messages giving a full explanation of how long I’d be away and what would continue to tick over in my absence. This despite sending advance emails to let people know I’d be out of touch.
We all do it. We’re so used to always being available through technology. But thinking that we have to respond yesterday, even on retreat, is actually a bit of shadow leaping out. It’s a bit of egoism to think we’re indispensable and that the world will unravel without our input for a few weeks. The longer I’ve been in the forest, the less I’ve responded to emails, though I do have a file of those that need answering as soon as I’m home.
Forests have many kinds of trees, shrubs and undergrowth. Both the forests of Paimpont and Huelgoat have plenty of thorn trees and brambles. These are plants that are not only resilient and grounded, with strong roots, but also good at protecting their boundaries. As humans, we also need openness and flexibility, but many of us could also do with a dose of bramble wisdom. We need to know when not to give away our time or selves, to know what needs protecting for the sake of our spiritual and emotional health.
A time for courage
Streambed, Val sans Retour
Travel and being in an unfamiliar environment always changes me, however imperceptibly. Being in a new city comes with lots of challenges of language, custom and expectations. But being in a remote hamlet among the trees has a quieter though arguably deeper effect. The sense of wonder that I get in a natural environment gives me the courage to make changes that effect my work and all of my life.
One of the plants that is lush and abundant in the forest here, as it is around my home in Snowdonia, is the nettle. It’s vibrant green is a beacon of confidence. Grasp it and you are likely to be stung, yet every tiny needle is injecting you with goodness. As a herb, nettle has benefits across the body.
When we step back from life and let our perspectives shift, we often realise that some things need to change, not only for a month, but for the story we want to go on living. We realise that there are nettles to grasp if we are to make those changes and keep on transforming who we are and want to become.
We go into the forest, or any beautiful natural environment, to restore our sense of wonder and in so doing we find ourselves changed. We emerge from the time of pause with enriched vision, a renewed sense of clarity and respect for healthy boundaries and the courage to make changes. Sometimes retreat is vital. It’s purpose is not to isolate us, but to reconnect us to ourselves, our passions, those we love and to the earth that is our matrix.
Becoming a different story
Thank you for reading — sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. While you’re on the site, take a look at the free courses available and at my forthcoming book, Writing Down Deep. I’ll be using the book as the core text for a community of writers next year and I’d love you to get involved — either through the highly accessible community track, or a mentoring track which will also involve one-to-one sessions and feedback on a writing project plus a residential.