Living in Harmony with (our artistic) Nature

As Barry Mill enjoys a busy summer season, my thoughts are turning to my personal writing goals, and how I can integrate my creative needs with the busy, commercial life of the mill. Barry Mill’s tagline is ‘Living in Harmony With Nature’, and there’s a balance to be achieved between the wildness and serenity of the landscape and the summertime buzz of visitors and activity. So, in many ways, the property reflects this conflict between our outer, materialistic life and the inner, otherworld of the mind.

My challenge is to achieve this same sort of balance- interacting with visitors and workshop participants on site, while still responding to the mill as a source of  inspiration and discovery for the purposes of my own writing.

My workshops to date have been an important personal learning opportunity for me. With writing exercises and creative prompts based around the senses, I’ve been aiming to open up a conversation about our perception of the environment. I’ve observed first-hand the way in which children can fuse their imaginative and day-to-day experiences, while adults struggle to lay down their cares and responsibilities long enough to attain that necessary ‘creative headspace’. There is a point where we must clear the mind of clutter, to create a vacuum where ideas, images and direction can take root.

Concentration is the keyword here, but it must be concentration of a certain quality which, in a roundabout way, brings me to monks. I suspect that monks (and nuns) knew a thing or two about the practice of creative concentration.

This week, I’ve been looking at the link between the monks at Balmerino Abbey and Barry Mill. The Abbey was founded in the early 13th century, and the site of the present mill formed part of the Balmerino estate. Corn mills would have been established wherever there was a settlement, so although official documents date Barry Mill from 1539, we can assume that there’s been a mill here for almost 800 years. Of course, historically, and realistically, it is doubtful whether the monks would have visited the mill for any practical purpose (perhaps they looked in on their way to Arbroath) but I can’t shake off the feeling that there’s a timeless, meditative quality to be experienced in the mill den.

Poet Jane Hirshman, in her essay collection Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1997) describes the ‘wholeheartedness of concentration’ as a place where ‘world and self begin to cohere’, a ‘grace state’, where ‘time slows and extends’. Total absorption, then, in the creative task. I’m keen to explore this link between the landscape and its impact on creative concentration, but for now, I’ll finish with a timely and evocative quote from Robin Wall Kimmerer. This is from her book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.

‘It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness… I snapped them off where they hung in slender twosomes, bit into one, and tasted nothing but August, distilled into pure, crisp beaniness.’ pangur

Illustration from The White Cat and the Monk, a retelling of the 9th century ode ‘Pangur Ban’ by Jo Ellen Bogart and Sydney Smith

A Long Way Down…

Another community workshop, and another chance to observe how people react to Barry Mill! This time the session was aimed at families, and the challenge was to collaborate on a poem or short story inspired by the five senses, although colour and memory could just about be allowed to sneak in there as a means to an end.

Lots of (very enjoyable) planning went into this one. Not only did we have the sounds and textures of the mill to play around with, but I’d smuggled in some outside help. Can you describe the piquant aroma of nutmeg or the fresh burst of mint and rosemary? We had art materials too…and the children soon got busy ‘chalk-rubbing’ (similar to brass rubbing but messier) the various surfaces to be found in the mill: the iron mesh of the kiln floor, the ridges and whorls of the slate flagstones, the pitted grittiness of the millstones. Very soon the kids resembled our legendary miller in last week’s poem, pale little chalk dust and flour ghosts!

But words came too! Lots of exciting poems, haiku and amazingly inventive stories. If I’d learned anything from that first ‘Weir-d Walk’, it was to expect the unexpected. Children have a very different take on their surroundings at times. I’d brought along magnifying glasses and torches, intending them to get ‘up close and personal’ with the mill; the silvery pencil inscriptions to be found on every bit of timber; the glittering cobwebs at the kiln window. They did enjoy that, but what interested me the most was their enjoyment of danger! Their conversation revolved around the big vistas- the sheer drop from our fairytale bridge (there ARE trolls underneath, in case you were wondering), the sensation of being pushed by the wind at the top of the outside staircase…and what if you fell down through the kiln floor into the fire pit?

What if…? Isn’t that the question that provokes the very best writing?

Until next time…watch out for trolls…



get creative workshop kids up tree

Walking with rabbits and butterflies…

Week two of my residency, and a few thoughts about my first community event: The Weir-d Walk. It was to be a long and winding road- literally!

Since part of my remit in organising these workshops is to  evaluate how we react to, and interact with, the landscape, I’d carefully planned an ‘itinerary of inspiration’, with various writing prompts and a tale or two to tell at each stop along the way. An impressive number of keen ‘story-gatherers’ were able to join me on the day.

The purpose of the walk was to explore how our ancestors mapped out the land around them in terms of stories and poems, and to find out if we could, individually, create some new work from these traditional forms and ideas. The den at Barry Mill has something for everyone; running water, woodland, steep banks and the beautiful mill pond. Untamed yet strangely alluring, it’s easy to see how that hill, or this particular tree could provoke a response in our forebears. Taking a fleeting impression (an image, a scent, an awareness) and turning it into a piece of art- as humans, that’s surely what we’re about.

My head was full of questions. Have we lost our ability to be scared by certain features of the landscape – the man-shaped tree, the unfathomable pond, the misshapen rock? Do we still fine-tune our senses to deal with what we might encounter out in nature, or has our overuse of screen technology finally managed to separate us from our habitat?

So, what did I learn? My first challenge was how to tailor my content to suit 20 participants, ranging in age from 3, up to…well, I couldn’t possibly say. Oh, and we had a dog too. The adult/child divide very quickly became apparent. Grown-ups and kids are just not on the same wavelength, but this insight proved to be the most valuable lesson of all.

When it comes to creativity, here are my thoughts:

Adults are rabbits. All eyes, ears and twitching whiskers; we grown-ups are constantly and cautiously scanning our surroundings. We’re intuitive, sensitive, picking up on  strange atmospheres and nuanced body language. Amazingly, a faint scent, or a vague memory can send us hurtling back in time.

Most people never feel the need to process this data. However, to write/paint/compose music effectively, this is the information we need to begin.

Children are butterflies  Their minds  are constantly flitting from impression to impression. They’re conduits for every tale they’ve ever been told, a bank of words and images. Ask them to describe a witch, or a fairy, or a giant and the words are already there- uncensored! As adults, we learn to think before we speak. We are constantly editing our responses, shaping them into a society-friendly format.

It’s obvious, and very interesting, that children are informed by the books they have access to, and in many ways this is the essence of how the oral folkloric tradition works: old stories in…new stories out. Kids are proper little story mills, adding ‘feet and legs’ to the narratives they know and love, and this is  exactly the way our ancestors transmitted cultural information.

It’s exciting to think that our Weir-d Walk children might go on to develop their own versions of some of our mill-related folk tales, and I’ll discuss these in more detail in my next post. I’m sure our Weir-d Walk adults found their own inspiration in the den, and at the very least were infected by the kids’ enthusiasm! Children, after all, are our best teachers.

And the dog? He just came along for the walk!

weir-d walk fairies
The Weir-d Walk, Barry Mill, June 4th, 2016