Paying attention

This time next month I will be on Whidbey Island, just north of Seattle, with my great friend and Dark Angels colleague, Richard Pelletier. We’ll be running a residential course for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

We’ve facilitated together on Zoom since, but the last time we worked together in the flesh was in 2019 when we took to the Seattle waterways for three days in a 65-foot motor launch. The cost of insurance prevents us from repeating that particular adventure (luckily no one fell overboard). This time we’re going to a retreat centre called Aldermarsh, five acres of woodland bordered by marshes at the southern end of Whidbey Island.

They say: ‘… our grounds include a cordwood sauna, an outdoor heated Japanese soaking tub, beautiful gardens, an outdoor fire pit, and maintained pathways through acres of natural wetlands.’ It’s only a short distance from Richard’s home on the island and my inbox has been buzzing with updates from him these last few months.

It’s nearly twenty years now since we started Dark Angels. We would have been amazed to know then that we’d still be running courses in 2023. They’ve changed over time – what began as a response to the sheer awfulness of corporate jargon and management speak has now evolved into something focused more on making creative connections and discovering the personal benefits of a writing practice for whatever purpose, in whatever genre; though the value for anyone who wants to communicate better at work remains.

Place has always been important to us – I’ve written about it here before. And it seems now, as we return to working face-to-face, that it’s more important than ever. We’ve been starved both of the stimulus of new places, and the calming effect of being removed from the pressures of routine life. Coincidentally (or not) my recent reading has included work by the celebrated American nature writer, essayist and novelist, Barry Lopez. I finished last month Of Wolves and Men, his extraordinary exploration of our relationship with wolves, their place in our imagination, and their savage treatment at our hands. I have now just started his Arctic Dreams, which promises a dazzling literary journey to the Far North.

In his introduction to a 2014 edition of Arctic Deams, the English nature writer Robert MacFarlane says: ‘The other lesson Lopez taught me – though it would take me longer to understand it – was that while writing about landscape often begins in the aesthetic, it must always tend to the ethical. Lopez’s intense attentiveness … was a form of moral gaze, born of his belief that if we attend more closely to something then we are less likely to act selfishly towards it. To exercise a care of attention towards a place – as towards a person – is to achieve a sympathetic intimacy with it.’

That care, that attention will be a running theme throughout our five days at Aldermarsh. I believe that the sympathetic intimacy of which Macfarlane speaks is in itself a kind of creativity, a connection with something deep and important within us that can find expression in any number of ways including the written word. Be yourself, we will ask our participants, but be it here in nature. Pay attention to what that means and see if it changes the way you see the world.

Don Roberto: the Adventure of Being Cunninghame Graham is now available to order from Scotland Street Press. There’s a 20% discount for online orders throughout the month of May. Quote the code DONROBERTO20 at checkout.

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