Hissing Curve of Summer

A curve of summer hissing

A ripple in the eye

A bending line of space and time

A bluer kiss of sky

—-

A light that dances richly

A silken masquerade

So filled with longing long ago

So poignantly now fades

—-

In gaze that opened slowly

Upon creation’s art

Which only dies before our eyes

Remembered in the heart

—-

©Stephen Tanham 2020

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Divination – Art or Science? (2) : An Old Flame

(Above: image Pixabay – originated by Adesala)

The man, still distinguished though his hair and moustache were now silver, sat before the fire. Once more, he was alone in his home by the lake. Before him, the old kettle, as black with age as he was white, rattled on the small iron grate beneath it. The flames from the burning wood flickered up around its sides and the noise from within said the water was approaching the boil.

Carl Gustav Jung kept his retreat primitive. Here was where he came to be alone, not to entertain. Here was where he experienced life as it was before the modern world fabricated its layers of comfort and distraction. There were no wires, no heating, or lighting. Running water was taken from a mountain stream. Burning wood, like that in the fire, was the only comfort. Each morning and evening, he bathed in the icy waters of Lake Zürich.

He looked again at the kettle on the fire… and smiled. ‘Chi Chi’. It came to him quickly, bringing a smile.”No-one in their right mind would put water over fire, surely?” he mused to the morning’s sunlight, filtering in elongated patterns through the old window shutters.

His mind raced over the numbers and meanings of the I Ching Hexagrams to locate the one triggered by the kettle and the fire. ’63 – After Completion’. A very strange notion to the western mind… How could you have anything meaningful ‘after’ completion? “Live happily ever after,” he smiled into the cold morning air. “But life’s not like that, is it? It goes on, round and round. What rises falls, what falls rises.”

His memory took him deeper into the meaning of the hexagram. The water in the kettle was now boiling, rocking the vessel on its narrow base. He knew it would not fall; knew that he had designed the iron support well, allowing most of the heat from the surrounding burning wood to get to the kettle and heat the water. The Chi Chi hexagram told of the need for intelligence in the control of such potent forces – brought together in sophistication, even in this simple technology. Everything the mind of man was good at… if only the heart of man would catch up..

He probed deeper, letting his eyes gaze into the middle distance, a kind of trance state he found creative.

The luxury of something completed was dangerous – especially if the stakes were high, such as a societal upheaval, like a war, or a rift in the population. Healing that was long and hard, and required mediators who could bridge both sides. When people were exhausted with hatred and division, they turned to such wisdom… and the wholeness came back; allowing differences, seeing differences as an essential part of the whole. Then came the greatest danger – when the pot came to the boil and the tea was ready to make and drink. The potent forces of fire and boiling water had not gone away. The stewardship into the making of tea was filled with danger – something no-one would entrust to a child…

The wise one would extend their vision beyond the fire, beyond the tea, into the field of tranquility and know that only vigilance and the continued drinking from the fountains of wisdom would hold it that way… for a while, at least. For the universe knew no permanence. The universe was change.


The above is part fiction, yet wholly true. Carl Jung did have a ‘primitive’ dwelling on the shores of Lake Zürich. He was so influenced by his personal discovery of the I Ching (via his strong friendship with Richard Wilhelm, the scholar and renowned sinologist who carried out the classic translation of the Book of Changes) that he described it as ‘the end of my loneliness’. His idea of ‘synchronicity’ exactly mirrored the I Ching’s concept that the well-crafted oracle could become a ‘purse of the now’ (my phrase) into which we delve for help, comfort and advice.

In the previous post of this series, I promised to carry out a reading in preparation for this post. The question posed was: what is the relevance of the I Ching to the readers of this blog?

The method of the reading will be discussed in the next post. The answer I got was that quoted in the semi-fictional story, above: ’63 Chi Chi’. The content of the story is an attempt to give a first-level understanding of its implications.

Personally, I find it describes well the nature of our slow emergence from the tragedy of the Covid-19 virus, and the folly of ‘rushing back to the beaches’. The wise ones will go inside their wisdom and wait until their inner senses tell them the time is right. Then the wheel will turn, again, and we will be on with the next set of challenges. There are many that await us. You may find your own, individual meanings in the readings of Chi Chi. I hope you do.

The I Ching comforts us that, no matter how horrific the face of the tyrant, they are not bigger than the Cosmos and its wheel. Their arrogance and power will be the seed of their own undoing. There are many parallels of undoing in the world at the moment.

Carl Jung was a sincere and dedicated investigator of the inner nature of mankind. His concepts of synchronicity, archetypes, and the nature of extroversion and introversion fitted well into the deep and parallel map of life on Earth as given in the I Ching. In his introduction to Richard Wilhelm’s classic translation he says many things. For me, the most profound is:

“The method of the I Ching does indeed take into account the hidden individual quality in things and men, and in one’s own unconscious self as well.”

In the next and final post in this series we will look at the method of taking a reading from the I Ching.

Previous posts in this series:

The Old One and the Gatekeeper: Part One, Part Two, Part Three

Divination – Art or Science?: Part One, This is Part Two

To be continued

27 May 2020

©Stephen Tanham 2020

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

#ShortWrytz : Fractal Loving

(Above: Blue skies near Sizergh – April 2020)

I confess, I’m in love with the sky…

A strange opening to a blog post, I know, but, when I came to think about my photographic relationship with the sky, it was simply one of love.

“Look up!” The admonition was from Sue Vincent, one of my fellow Directors of the Silent Eye, when talking about churches and what lies above the normal eye-level. It’s a good watchword… and the same can be said about the sky. Ever new, like life, it’s as fascinating in winter as it is in spring or summer.

In winter it’s dramatic and you get those huge vistas that seem to go on forever above the Earth’s surface. In spring, you get the softness of the deep blues and the candy-floss whiteness of the clouds that deliver a feeling of sheer excitement that the infinitely-recharging energy of the deep summer is just around the corner.

I was delighted to read, many years ago, that Benoit Mandelbrot – a father of one of the many sciences that led to Chaos Theory, had taken the inspiration for his idea of ‘Fractals’ from clouds. He was looking for a way to describe the 3D structures of those carriers of moisture in the air; a way to convey the constancy of their type whilst still recognising that they are all unique; a bit like human beings – different but essentially the same. Much like the idea of the Platonic form.

The science of Fractals gave us an understanding of why coastlines are infinitely longer than we can ever measure, of why our lungs have a true inner space bigger than trees, of how impossible volumes can be fitted into any small space with the right ‘organic’ structure.

It’s old science now. Except when I look up… then that fluffy white on blue grabs me by the follicles and I stop doing anything else except the act of fractal loving.

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Divination – Art or Science? (1)

(Above: The Yin Yang symbol depicting polar opposites united in their life)

For as long as there have been humans on Earth, we have sought to find answers. Wise women and wise men have been cherished throughout history for their ability to throw ‘light’ on complex problems and situations. In our modern age, more people than ever find at least comfort and, often, guidance in some kind of fortune telling.

My grandmother used to read tea leaves, using the pattern left when the (leaf) tea was swirled out of a cup at the end of a routine or ritualised consultation. Her advice was often sought.

I had a interesting childhood. I was raised in a mystically-active family, but felt the pull of a scientific career – ending up in computing. I never had any trouble reconciling the two, but was always hesitant to talk about it to other scientific types… There is a ‘religion’ of despising such things among the purists of science. Their prejudice is a strong as any of history’s zealous priests. Having said, that, the scientific method has brought immense benefits to mankind.

I was comfortable with divination because I could always see a bigger picture… Let me try to describe the basis of this:

What happens ‘inside me’, in terms of consciousness, is not really separated from the ‘out there’ of the world and its constant changes. I felt this long before I could offer any explanation for it. I knew that if I changed how I felt about someone, their behaviour to me would miraculously change, too. This doesn’t mean that I always did this, far from it…. our emotions are very strong with those we dislike and often override the still small voice of inner guidance.

We began this consideration of ancient Chinese wisdom by looking at the work of Lao Tzu (The Book of the Way – Dao Je Jing); (see The Old One and the Gatekeeper series).

The other great ‘book’, older than the Dao Je Jing, is the Book of Changes, otherwise known as the I Ching. Adopted by pop culture in the 1960s, the Yin Yang symbol was seen on everything from notebooks to tee-shirt. The I Ching came first. The Yin-Yang symbol is a later development, and has been associated with I Ching because its elements representing Yin – black, and Yang – White, are found in the broken and unbroken lines of the Hexagrams that form the basis of what is to be ‘read’. We will examine this process in the next post.

The Yin Yang symbol illustrates an idea from ancient times that the ‘whole’ is in constant motion – change. And that change, itself, is the real nature of the world. Things can be opposite yet still exist harmoniously. Each thing contains its opposite. Each thing becomes its opposite when it has reached its fullness and begins to decline.

We must learn to ride that constant change and be at peace with this. This is quite a statement. We are used to reality being the solidity of what is – and endures. Within the I Ching, the reality is shifted ‘upstairs’ to that process of change from which we take snapshots of our reality, much like, in quantum physics, how an electron in an atom obligingly reveals itself under quantum measurement, but is otherwise indeterminate in velocity and position.

Evolved and educated to seek stability as a basis for survival and prosperity, human nature finds this idea of harmony through change a difficult concept to embrace. Without stability, we reason, ‘fortune’ may be a fickle companion.

This idea has its parallel in Newton’s older and simpler non-quantum physics. Objects that move seldom do so with constant speed (velocity) – unless they are spacecraft. Newton showed, through a maths process called differentiation, that the derivative of a formula for velocity (speed) would produce a formula for acceleration. The latter is far more revealing, since it is linked to the real world of force.

To slow an object requires force – imagine the sting of catching a well-struck cricket ball! Equally, to make an object move away from you with a throw requires the force of an uncurling arm. The ‘speeding up’ – acceleration, is equal to the force divided by its mass: the amount of substance it possesses.

Driving a car is, for example, a continuous process of acceleration and deceleration; controlled through exploding petrol in an engine moderated by the right foot. No wonder driving takes a while to grasp…

Perhaps the difference between a driver and a watcher of fortune is that the driver is following a short-term goal of getting somewhere, whereas the ‘fortune hunter’ just wants to feel secure.

It’s a dramatic conclusion, but the universal Sea of Being does not offer security. Instead, it offers a science of personal change and an opportunity to learn how to sail.

All this may seem academic. However, in order to see that there is a ‘higher science’ of existence that lives happily in a dimension of ‘change’, we need to have these proven models to align us, correctly, with the potential to see differently.

This is the I Ching…

If we see the ‘out there’ as divided, we are not in harmony with the inevitable currents of change. If we see it as a fluid medium which must change, we begin to bring our consciousness into the ‘now’, taking new nourishment from the fact that its sparkling presence is the result of that constant ‘replenishment’. The present state cannot do anything put ‘perish’ to make way for the next packet of the new…

Science has shown us that both matter and energy cannot be destroyed. We can only change the form – the organisation – of its substance. Nor can we know that substance as something separate from our own consciousness.

The I Ching is a ‘book’ of collective wisdom, drawn from truly ancient times, and refined over the centuries. One of the most insightful teachers I know refers to it as a ‘Solar Work’ and uses it, herself, to describe the inner detail of a pattern of events. She has done this for many decades and views the I Ching as a constant and reliable companion.

This ‘book’ has been condensed into 64 ‘cores’ of wisdom, rendered as hexagrams, as in the image, below. The process of consulting the I Ching is one of ‘drawing’ a randomised reference to these hexagrams and reading the wisdom it offers, at various levels of detail.

(Above: A hexagram as used by the I Ching)

You can even buy I Ching Apps for your mobile phone…. good ones, too. The best give you a choice of having random numbers generated for you or letting you throw three coins and entering the results to get the reading.

We will look at this, the consulting process, in the next post. For now, it is important to consider the idea of divination, itself…

The elements of effective divination are:

  1. To have a repeatable process of consultation – ‘looking up’ a guiding text or picture in response to a question, a feeling, or just to set a reflective theme for the day.
  2. To actively feel a connection to the external actions. In the sense of my explanation, above, to know that there is no real separation from in-here and out-there, other than what we are taught about the pre-eminence of reason over everything else.
  3. To loosen the faculty of reason and let something else speak, by way of inspiration.
  4. To open and close the process with respect… and a certain feeling of love for something that is letting us ‘touch’ another reality.

Next week, I will consult the I Ching before writing the Thursday blog. We shall see what it has to offer us in terms of describing itself!

To be continued

21 May 2020

©Stephen Tanham 2020

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Painted Pebbles in the valley of the Moon

(Above: the Lune Valley from Ruskin’s View, behind St Mary’s church, Kirkby Lonsdale)

John Ruskin was the leading English art critic of the Victorian era. He was also an art patron, watercolourist, prominent social thinker and philanthropist. He wrote on subjects as varied as geology, architecture, myth, education and political economy. For the last quarter-century of his life, he lived at Brantwood – a house he designed on the shores of Lake Coniston.

(Above: John Ruskin, painted in 1863)

Despite this, one of his favourite places was outside the Lake District on what is now the Cumbria-Yorkshire border, some thirty miles east of Coniston. Kirkby Lonsdale is the most picturesque of the small towns that lie on the River Lune, which flows through this beautiful, limestone scenery, to emerge into the Irish Sea near Lancaster.

In 1875, Ruskin, standing on the escarpment above the River Lune by Kirkby Lonsdale’s St Mary’s church, described it as ‘one of the loveliest views in England, and therefore the world’. Ruskin was fulfilling a long-held ambition; to see the view that the English artist, Turner, had painted in 1822, about which the critic had said ‘I do not know in all my country, still less in France or Italy, a place more naturally divine.’

The modern guidebook says the scene ‘presents a gentle panorama of river, meadow, woods, and hills.’

The valley inspiring this praise was that of the River Lune, which flows through the gentle valleys carved over millions of years in the native limestone – once the bed of a tropical sea, and flows out into the Irish Sea beyond Lancaster.

(Above: the limestone foundations of the River Lune are evident)

Kirby Lonsdale is famous for both its beauty and its history. Devil’s Bridge, which used to be the place of the primary road between Westmorland and the West Riding of Yorkshire, is the most photographed (and painted) part of the river.

(Above: Devils Bridge seen from the banks of the River Lune)

From St Mary’s Church and nearby Ruskin’s View, we can take the eighty-sxi (uneven) ‘Radical Steps’ down to join the river path, and there we will find a surprise…

After a short distance, we encounter a band of colour on the side of the path.

(Above: The mysterious line of colour on the side of the path opposite the River Lune)

On closer inspection, the band of colour turns out to be painted pebbles, done by the local children and their families to say thank you to the NHS and others who have been providing the vital care during the Covid-19 epidemic.

(Above: the sense of caring and the sense of the spring)

The stones are themed in different ways. One set even portrays a train – an ingenious use of pebbles!

(Above: a full train rendered in painted pebbles)

The artistic line continues for a way along the riverbank.

The hand of both adult and child is reflected in the lovely painted stones. Left purely for our enjoyment….and, possibly, reflection.

(Above: houses straight out of a Bronte novel)

After a while, the line of stones ends, but we are tipped off by passing walkers that it continues in small sections in the streets of the town… Fortunately there is an alternative to the Radical Steps; one that will bring us directly into the Main Street.

(Above: Kirkby Lonsdale’s Main street)

Turning back towards the river, we pick up the trail of the painted pebbles, again.

(Above: in the hidden alleyways and side street, the trail continues…)

I can’t help thinking that both Turner and Ruskin would have been proud of the good people of Kirkby Lonsdale for this lovely gesture…about which I can find no official announcement!

(Above: The cultural and artistic inclinations of Kirkby Lonsdale are evident in the town’s style)
(Above: a final glimpse of the ‘pebble trail’

©️Stephen Tanham 2020

Where the wildflowers grow

From Sue…

The Silent Eye

bluebell mayday magic 035

Locus iste a Deo factus est,
Inaestimabile sacramentum,
irreprehensibilis est.

This place was made by God.
A priceless mystery,
it is without reproach.

Anton Bruckner.

I was talking this morning with a friend about the different directions that the spiritual journey may lead us and the effects that can have on a life… your life or mine. There is no way of knowing or predicting when, or indeed if, that journey will change gear and lead you to a place unknown, changing your expected destination for another as you enter a new phase of a life suddenly unfamiliar. It is like stepping through a doorway to another world, one where the demands are unknown, different and beyond the norm.

There are degrees, of course, from the ‘turning point’ we speak of in the Silent Eye, that point where the world dims and the eyes of the heart seek another Light…

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The Old One and the Gatekeeper (3): non-action

37

The Dao abides in non-action but there is nothing it does not do.
When the leaders abide,
The myriad of things transform by itself;
Transformed yet desire to act,
I lead the community by not naming the simplicity of things;
Without naming the simplicity of things, thus lead to no desire;
Without desire, with tranquility,
The world correct by itself.

——-

The above is chapter 37 of Lao Tzu’s Book of the Way (Dao Je Jing) quoted from the Wikipedia Opensource project Wikisource.org. Further extracts are quoted below from the same source.

In Part One and Part Two we set the scene for the Lao Tzu’s approach to life and how to live it using the Dao (The Way). It’s a method which seems alien to the west in our so-called modern age. Perhaps the great thoughts of the world simply cycle round from age to age? One of Lao Tzu’s principle tenets is the noble art of ‘not-doing’, a concept very difficult for the western mind to grasp.

It could be said that technology’s advancement merely gives us the idea of progress. Perhaps in the heart and mind of mankind there remains the same hunger for a different truth as when the New Testament quoted Jesus as saying people should ‘turn the other cheek’.

Resistance is something we live with daily. Something happens – arises in our lives, for it has no meaning unless it affects us – and we either like or dislike it. If I like something I will want more of it; I will want to be closer to the source of it.

If I dislike something, I will want to oppose it – to arrest its motion or progress. The spectrum of my response will vary all the way to outright hatred; something currently felt by millions of people with respect to the polarised state of world politics. Such polarisation is fed by a new generation of vastly wealthy ‘disruptors’, who have seen how easily the intelligence of the public can be misfed and misled, particularly with complex economic and social topics. Fear is a reliable ally for those who have the power to manipulate…

The Book of the Way does not advocate us being passive for its own sake. Nor does it really advocate doing nothing. But it does propose a response that seems utterly radical and revolutionary: It says we should be conscious of the whole and protect the whole, while not taking a side and injecting our energies; energies that may disrupt the whole, which knows how to change its shape with the changes – no matter how powerful the villains.

(Above: Figure 2 – The wholeness of the Dao and its origination and place in the perceived world of mankind)

Consider Figure 2, above. It shows the origin of our world – really the origin of the consciousness of our world. If ‘I’ am not here then this world is not here, either. ‘A world’ may be present, but it is not the world I know, nor would I be part of it… The greater question might be: would there be an I without the world to externalise?

If ‘I’ have power to do, then I can push the pendulum towards what I consider to be evil or good. Usually, people believe they are doing good despite the opposite opinions of others. The creation is the whole cone within the diagram.

When I push the pendulum, part of the creation with a sense of ‘I’ (separateness) is altering the internal balance of the creation, but not altering the container of the whole creation. The part of the creation with a sense of ‘I’ may think it knows better than the whole of the creation, but its real duty is to be a fully conscious part of the whole – the Dao – the ‘flowing way of rightness’.

34

Implications of the Tao are broad and extensive. Ubiquitous!
Capable of contravening and swaying anything left or right.
The myriad things depend on it yet it never turns its back away,
Fulfilling without recognitions.
Submitting to the myriad things without assuming ownership,
Always undesirable,
Thus be called modest;
Submerged by the myriad things without accepting ownership,
Thus be called great.
Hence the master foregoes greatness,
Therefore is capable of accomplishing great deeds.

(source)


Lao Tzu says that there is a loving intelligence flowing in the world – in creation. This loving intelligence is always in contact with the whole of the creation. It is like saying that there is a flowing medium that is the substance of the world – a very alchemical notion – and our ‘right’ relationship to it will only be shown us when we learn to SEE it as it IS, not as an abstract and habitual picture to react to.

In the Wilhelm translation, the person who achieves that seeing is named ‘The Man/Woman of Calling”, who ‘never makes himself look great’ and thus achieves a noble goal by being in harmony with the Dao.

This philosophy has caused great confusion over the ages since it was written (six hundred years BCE). Comprehension of it is based upon an understanding that ‘not-doing’ is not doing nothing. Not-doing might be re-termed not-reacting; or waiting to see what the world does with it without our intervention – yet remaining fully aware and empathetic to what is happening.

As though we were an (as yet unconscious) intrinsic part of this intelligent and loving energy. Which just might be the truth…

There are no definitive opinions, here. We are all free to decide that the Book of the Way means for us. These are my personal views. Like the I Ching, the Book of the Way (Dao Je Jing) makes for a wonderful daily dose of radical wisdom in what seems to be a tired world… or is it?

In the next post, we will consider the nature of the I Ching and its remarkable powers of divination.

To be continued

13 May 2020

©Stephen Tanham 2020

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

The masked man in the forest

(Above: Gareth, masked man of the forest…)

I’m writing this on Sunday. The unexpected gale-force wind is battering the house. Temperatures have dropped thirteen degrees in the middle of the night – I know, because I woke up at four, fought wakefulness for half an hour (it may have been the bright moon), then gave in and let the collie out for a wee, to find I was too cold to photograph the startling moon without dashing back in to don a coat…

This in a spring so warm you could have gone out in beach shorts for most of the days and nights of the previous two weeks. Not the norm for Cumbria!

(Above: The May 04:30moon. It would have been churlish to talk about it and not show the photo…)

The beautiful spring moon is unrelated to the rest of this post, but why waste it!. There weren’t too many people out in their gardens at 04:30 pointing a camera at the night sky.

(Above: ‘Trevor’ the tractor – Low Sizergh Barn forest walk)

Our C-19 ‘lockdown’ has been made more tolerable by the weather and the proximity of some lovely walks. Living on the edge of the English Lake District, we are fortunate, indeed, to have so many of them. We try to use the car as little as possible, though it’s the only way to do weekly food shopping, as we live in a tiny village four miles from the nearest supermarket.

(Above: the village of Sedgwick photographed from the nearest main road)

To keep car usage to a minimum, we regularly use four local walks. One of these winds up from the river Kent’s valley into Sizergh forest. It is part of a well-managed estate, which includes the ruins of the old gunpowder works. I am currently researching the history in order to complete a series of posts on the subject.

Industrial history can be far more complex than you envisaged…

(Above: part of one of the old gunpowder works next to the river Kent)

The walk through the forest climbs up from the river before levelling off at a crossroads of paths. One of the way-markers (without which many walkers would be lost) is a large charcoal-kiln. I photographed it in April, just as the forest was ‘greening’.

(Above: the charcoal kiln. Well stacked, but we had never seen it in action. Photo taken in April)

On Saturday, we got to the crossroads to find a masked man in a green T-shirt working the kiln. I asked if I could take some photos, and he kindly stopped to chat to us, raising his mask. His name is Gareth (see the photo of his board), and he has the licence to carry out forest maintenance on behalf of the owners – The National Trust – as well as running his own charcoal production business and other forest-related activities.

(Above: Gareth’s charcoal site in the centre of Sizergh forest)

Gareth reassured us that the process of charcoal production was a simple matter, but, in the manner of skills handed down through the generations, what he described seemed anything but simple.

He was standing in the middle of his kiln, blackened with the messy work; the mask now pulled up over his forehead in what looked like a rhino’s horn. For all the visual drama, he turned out to be a wonderfully friendly man.

Later, I realised that his demeanour and openness had a lot to do with his life in the open forest, and his closeness to its nature. Clearly, he loved his work, and its many faces.

Charcoal is prized because it burns at high temperatures without making smoke; hence its popularity with domestic summer barbecues. It is the ‘residue’ of a method of burning (typically) small logs of wood – ideally hardwood, such as oak or cherry. The production method is a slow pyrolysis: the heating of wood and, possibly, other organic materials, without allowing oxygen to enter the chemical reaction. The whole process is known as charcoal burning. The finished charcoal consists largely of carbon. It is a very pure substance, produced by an ancient recipe.

Seeing charcoal made so close to the old gunpowder works was ironic, because charcoal is an important ingredient of gunpowder – produced in large quantities a century ago in the nearby works. The Sizergh forest is no stranger to the production of charcoal…

(Above: A century ago, charcoal was made here on a large scale, as a vital component of the manufacture of gunpowder)

Gareth paused his work and described the process of making charcoal for us. It takes four days to complete and begins where he stood, in the centre of the kiln. The relatively thin logs – recycled from his coppicing work – are laid out radially from the centre. They are set and ventilated so the fire in the lowest part of the kiln begins with a great intensity, sacrificing the lower level of wood but infusing the steel vessel with intense heat, but only burning the lower levels of the wood.

The kiln is ‘over-stuffed’ to begin the process, but, in the secondary stage of the burning, the heat and the weight of the lid seals the cylinder, itself, allowing only enough oxygen to enter to ensure the charcoal effect, rather than burning the wood to ash. All the timing is controlled by the initial stacking of the wood within the kiln, which, to me, sounded like a very skilled process, indeed.

Four days later, the charcoal has cooled and Gareth once again steps into his kiln to extract the charcoal by hand, dropping it into a metal and plastic ramp from which it is loaded into large carriers for subsequent domestic bagging in his workshop, near the river.

(Above: the charcoal is extracted by hand from the kiln, then passed onto a metal mesh for first stage grading)

His busy time is usually the summer months, when people have barbecues. But the warm spring weather is enabling him to bring forward more charcoal production. During the winter, demand is minimal, so he supplements his income with forestry work, and also runs outdoor courses in making furniture from ‘green’ wood.

(Above: Gareth’s information board. His website is here – a tenner buys you a big bag. He also runs forestry-related courses, including furniture making from ‘green wood’)

He took about twenty minutes from his busy schedule to explain things to us. We thanked him and moved on through the forest, only to meet him, later, loading his truck, when we returned from our walk to Low Sizergh Barn.

I have no commercial connection with Gareth. The above was our first meeting. I am keen to support these native crafts and small industries of our local woodlands. Gareth and Ro’s website is a mine of information.

If the above links don’t work, paste this into your browser and help support our native forest crafts: http://www.garethandro@woodmatters.org.uk

©Stephen Tanham 2020

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.