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