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28 Mar


The Story

“The old castle, with its deep moat surrounding it, lay bathed in sunshine. Between the heavy walls and the edge of the moat there was a narrow strip of land covered by a whole forest of burdock plants. Their leaves were large and some of the stalks were so tall that a child could stand upright under them and imagine that he was in the middle of the wild and lonesome woods. Here a duck had built her nest. While she sat waiting for the eggs to hatch, she felt a little sorry for herself because it was taking so long and hardly anybody came to visit her. The other ducks preferred swimming in the moat to sitting under a dock leaf and gossiping.”

Interpretation of this part of the story

This passage humanizes the story, the old castle, the size of a child, all let us know that the story is about us, even the duck is humanized, therefore enabling us to understand that this is metaphor.  Ducks don’t feel sorry for themselves, they don’t gossip, humans do.  It is the start of a gorgeous story, which is full of detail and richly textured descriptions.

Resonance for us now

This story becomes a beautiful thing in it’s own right. It is also, quite a magical and mysterious phenomenon.  It contains hidden depths and meanings, which I hope to tease out over the next pages. It is a story for telling, re-telling, and especially for telling out loud.   The poetic rhythm of the words are suited to sitting round a fire, or being in a circle. It needs to be read and shared with others.

The content of the story is quite shocking on occasions, it is a dark tale, but it is relevant to everyone.  It is a story for grown ups as well as for children, it is about all of us. It is an ancient story and in those ancient stories they didn’t hold back from the truth. Those kinds of stories were told to everyone in the community and the children gained what they needed from hearing them. I believe there is no reason for us to protect children from stories of hardship and death. These stories have vital lessons built into them, and when we ‘artificially sweeten’ them they loose a huge amount of power and creativity.  Children intuitively don’t want such sweetened stories, they seek the real thing, and are very happy to be scared and impressed by stories.  They gain what they need at the relevant times during their lives.  Just like the rest of us.

Examples from near and far

There are too many to number here!

How can we use this?

On a personal level

Innate in us all is a storyteller.

Our genes are programmed to expect spending a large amount of the day being sociable and collaborating with others.  We are sociable beasts, seeking company and friendship.  However solitary we think we are, however self-reliant we believe ourselves to be, it is not intuitive.

*  We all need to practice telling stories, sharing them with others.

*  We all know stories that will fascinate and transfix other people by their telling.

They are our own stories.

*  We all need to tell our own stories, it is part of growing up, becoming mature.

The older you become the more important it is to share your story.  Not in an egotistic way, but as a service to others.

*  Not by believing that your experience is more important than anyone else’s, but knowing that the next generation needs to hear it, in order for them to be able transcend it, go beyond it.

*  When you are interested in becoming a storyteller, you also develop a love for language.  You expand and develop your vocabulary, and this helps to expand your mind.

*  All storytellers start by telling their stories to their peers.  Their peers are good barometers, they can detect bull shit, and they deal with the truth.

*  Once you have become a good peer storyteller, you can then become a good cross-generational storyteller.

If we are to become elders

You need to familiar with telling stories.  Practice makes perfect.

Tell stories to young children, they love wild and imaginative stuff.  You can do this anywhere and at anytime.

Tell stories to young adults and you have a very different challenge.  I tell stories on a regular basis to groups of teenagers, street wise, hardened, toughened individuals, and that is quite a challenge.  However, I tell those stories in the right circumstances, at night, round a campfire.  I tell them in a way which draws them in, makes them feel afraid, makes them laugh, makes them cry.  Something happens to a story when it is told at night in the open air.  I’ve told the Ugly Duckling many times round a fire, and it moves and shocks teenagers every time.

You need to have some good stories to tell in the first place, so read lots of stories.   Tell stories from different countries, from different traditions, they can come from so many different places.  You need to remember quite how powerful stories can be.  They can have an almost irresistible effect on people.  I once told a particularly powerful story to a group of teenage school children in Eastern Germany, just after the wall came down.  I told it to them so they could connect to the outside world, it came from South America, and to broaden their horizons.  At a certain point the story becomes so laden with emotion that everyone cries, this just is the way of that story, and I felt it would be useful for them to experience this communal grief.  I told the story, they cried, and then we moved through it.  I looked round the room at the end and checked that everyone was recovered, and suddenly realize that one of the teachers had been in the room with us, despite my requested for no teachers to be present.  I went to him and asked if he was alright, as I knew he must have cried, and this could have affected his relationship to the pupils.  He was at peace, he said it was the first time he had ever cried in front of his pupils, but he felt it had been important for them to see it affecting him as well.   Later, he said he came in because he wanted the challenge of sitting through the story and not crying, but he had failed!  Such is the power of storytelling.

As a storyteller you need to be flexible and adaptable.  You need to know when to not tell stories as well as when to change them, in order to keep people attentive. It’s a great skill, but it is one of the oldest and most innate of all our abilities.  The same applies to singing, or making music, or doing arts and crafts.  These are our basic tool kit for communication, they have been with us for thousands of years.  If you are a master of one or some of them, then you will always find friendship and a welcome even amongst total strangers.  Such is the power of being a storyteller.

Knowers of nature

27 Mar

The next blogs

In order for you to be able to follow the story easily, each of the next blogs are divided into the following sections:-

The Story  – a small section of the Ugly Duckling so far

Interpretation of this part of the story – my personal views

Resonance for us now – the bigger picture

Examples from near and far – the ways in which others have worked with these ideas

How can we use this? – ideas and thoughts on how to incorporate this into our lives and how to become ‘elders’



   Knowers of nature

The Story

“It was so beautiful out in the country. It was summer. The oats were still green, but the wheat was turning yellow. Down in the meadow the grass had been cut and made into haystacks; and there the storks walked on their long red legs talking Egyptian, because that was the language they had been taught by their mothers. The fields were enclosed by woods, and hidden among them were little lakes and pools. Yes, it certainly was lovely out there in the country!”


Interpretation of this part of the story

“Whatever being comes to be,

Be it motionless or moving,

Derives its being from the union

Of ‘field’ and ‘knower of field’ – this know.”

Bhagavad-gita, xiii, 26


Hans Christian Andersen shows a wonderful understanding of nature, the identification of the time of year not by its month, but by the colour of oats and wheat.  All you need to know is it is summer, a time of light, birth and vigour. Nature is the source of the story, it is about birds, and yet it is well within our human capabilities to read nature in the ways animals do.  Indeed, it can be through such a close connection to nature we start to unravel and understand our own lives.  The connected-ness of the author to nature and his appreciation of it, have given him the ability to tell the story in such a mystical and appropriate manner.  This awareness is sadly lacking in today’s Western culture, and it is just a little hint towards the depth and wisdom within a love of nature, which can only come from close observation and intimacy.  It is a hint about how old the story is, how ancient the roots of the words are.   We need to be a ‘knower of field’ and the only way to do that is to spend time in the field.


In the groups I have worked with, many comment on this opening passage as making them feel all warm inside, and on hearing it, being able to see the green and golden flow of the crops.   It is almost a collective memory imprinted in our minds, representing a peace and wholeness often lacking in our lives.


Resonance for us now

Many people feel they don’t live in nature, many people feel they have isolated themselves from the natural world, ‘you have to live in the country to understand nature’.  To be blunt, this is untrue.  Obviously, if you live in a rural idyll, and have the time to spend hours and days in it, you can be close to nature.  But, there are many people I know who live in the country who are incredibly out of touch with nature.  Equally, there are many people I know who live in large cities, who are fantastically in touch with nature.  To be in touch with nature, I believe, you need to see everything as part of it.  You don’t have to be in the wilderness to be in nature, you are equally surrounded by it in a tower block.  Nature is human, we are natural, there is no separation.  We are always in nature wherever we are.  Although I was brought up in London, my brother imbued me with a love of birds. He was forever seeking out birds and observing them, from a very young age.  My debt to my brother is the fact that I can be anywhere in Britain and know what birds are singing, what birds are passing glimpses in the bushes.  I know their names because of the hours and days spent as a boy observing, and when I try to explain how I know it is very difficult.  I just do.


Being in nature is one thing, knowing nature is another.  The observation and interpretation of natural phenomenon is innate in all of us.  We are fascinated by our surroundings and we are always observing and interpreting them.  Watching your favourite soap on television is an observation of nature. When we are absorbed, we are observing ‘what does she mean by that?  Will he really go out with her?’  When we ask ourselves these questions, it’s an indication we are observing nature.  The internal answers ‘I’m sure he really fancies her’, are the conclusions of a knower of nature.  ‘It’s in the way he talks to her, it’s in the way that he is always looking for her in the crowd.’



If you want to understand and interact with the whole of nature, not just humans, it is easier to be in wilder, less populated, areas.  By spending time in wilderness and the more rural areas, we feed our souls more easily.  Being amongst wild things, be they animals, plants or places, there is a natural absorption of harmony, well-being, and a sense of correctness. That’s why we all enjoy going on holiday and lying in the sun.  When we do this, we need to start from a point of observing it, not making judgments.  To be an observer is an intuitive skill, children are very good at observing, indeed, that is their primary means of learning.  As we grow older we become more judgmental and we seek to interpret our surroundings.  I believe we need to passively observe more often.  Non-judgmental observation is a very absorbing and delightful state to be in.  It links us into a state of mind which is the same as all those eastern practices of meditation and physical activities – yoga, tai chi, etc -. Being in nature and being an observer is simple and yet very profound. To be with yourself, rather than distracting yourself through other things, is the ideal. The more we do this, the easier it will become.  If you do it often or deeply enough, you will observe mysterious events, different to the expected, which take you by surprise and cause unexpected reactions.  These may be the quality of light on clouds near the sunset, the dancing shapes of starlings in the winter as they settling to roost, the waving celebration of summer that is a field of barley, twinkling and shimmering in the sun.  These experiences create wonder in us.  At that moment, we may cry unexpectedly, or smile, shout out loud just for the sake of it. All of us can benefit hugely from such mystical experiences in our lives.  When we have them, they lead us to question our reality, they stretch us and paradoxically make us feel more complete.  


When confronted by things we don’t know or understand it is also intuitive to want to interpret them.  This is fine, it is a natural progression.  We need to use our accumulated knowledge and wisdom to interpret these occurrences or phenomenon.   But, don’t be in too much of a hurry. Spend time just looking. The combination of observation and the interpretation of nature nurtures wisdom, but it takes time, experience and knowledge, something only a few us of have achieved.  Hans Christian Andersen knew about all this, he was a very good observer of nature, and he used his skills to then create images and wonderfully imaginative interpretations. “…the storks walking on their long red legs talking Egyptian, because that was the language they had been taught by their mothers.”  Is just such a beautifully poetic description of storks.  It imbues them so correctly with mystery and awe, as anyone who has seen storks will identify.  Storks are exotic, they seem so out of place in lowland Denmark, it is no wonder they speak Egyptian, as they are so different.  Their language is the language of their winter retreat, where they fly, and is a little reminder of the journeys that most of the characters are due to make.


Examples from near and far

His description of the landscape also reflects an innate love of that particular land, and this comes from a sense of belonging to his place, Denmark.  This was intuitive in so many people before the industrial revolution.  We all knew where we were in the world, and how good that place felt.  


“The Crow country is a good country.  The Great Spirit put it exactly in the right place; while you are in it you fare well; whenever you are out of it, whichever way you travel, you fare worse…The Crow country is exactly in the right place.  Everything good is to be found there.  There is no place like Crow country.”


This is a quote from Arapooish, a leader of the Crow Indians of Montana in 1837, just 7 years before Hans Christian Andersen wrote the Ugly Duckling.  They both reflect genuine love of their land, and within that love lies the history of the land, respect for the nature of the land, and the knowledge this relationship is thousands of years old. When I took a little time to think about these statements, I realized in 1844 the great majority of people on the planet felt this way about their land.  They were intimately connected to their place and they knew how to be in harmony with the seasons and the land.  Only a tiny percentage of people had been infected by the contagious disease of materialism and greed.  How times have changed in less than two hundred years!


How can we use this?

On a personal level

We are natural, as an individual you are part of nature, you are carrying around inside you natural elements.

As a knower of nature, you need to know yourself.

This can start with not putting so many poisons into your body, stopping the pollution of your body.

Take time to breath, learn how to breath correctly. 

By doing this you will be appreciating the innate beauty of your own nature.

These things will make you happier, healthier, and prolonging your life.

When you breath correctly you will start to be able to let go of thoughts, quieten the voices in your head. 

Take time to just observe things, don’t judge them, just let them happen.

Let thoughts come, don’t beat yourself for having them, just let them come and go. 

You aren’t going to become an enlightened guru overnight.

Try to learn the names of plants, trees, birds, those things in nature that interest you, don’t force yourself, if it is not of interest to you.

Once you know the name of something, observe it’s character.  For instance, once you know what a chaffinch looks like, observe what it does, where it sits in the trees, how it cocks it’s head, how it flies.

Admire the innate sense of chaffinch-ness that all chaffinches have!


If we are to become elders

We need to share this knowledge and enthusiasm with children and teenagers.  When someone is keen and enthusiastic about nature and really enjoys beings in nature, they can inspire others to do the same.  When we role model our enthusiasm we become attractive, especially to children and younger people.   Don’t keep your enthusiasm to yourself.  Share it with your children and with other children.  


Take the children out into the park and try to identify the different species of birds, plants, trees you find, try to find more each trip, it needs to be fun, but also a challenge.  Men are particularly good at this, observing and collating – that’s why the vast majority of train spotters and bird watchers are male. Taking this to another stage, men are good at trips out, going on adventures.   They take children fishing, out on boats, surfing, camping, hiking in the woods, making dens, cooking over an open fire.  Such activities are hugely important for children, and they develop their understanding of maleness.  This is equally important for girls as well as boys.  They need to see men being enthusiastic and challenged, don’t we all!

If you don’t think you can do this, then seek training and experience. Try out the activities for yourself first, see what happens, or go on some training courses. Outdoor and wilderness pursuits are now very popular, and there are courses, training and development programmes in a wide range of skills.    Wilderness survival, climbing, orienteering, the list is endless.  By receiving such training you will be learning about yourself, increasing your confidence, and you will be able to share this with the next generations.  This is vital work.


The Farmyard (childhood at home)

26 Mar


by Hans Christian Andersen

I’ve divided the story into three sections:

The farmyard (childhood at home)

He tries to conform (school and his peers)

The wilderness years (the rite of passage)

This is the first section.

It was so beautiful out in the country. It was summer. The oats were still green, but the wheat was turning yellow. Down in the meadow the grass had been cut and made into haystacks; and there the storks walked on their long red legs talking Egyptian, because that was the language they had been taught by their mothers. The fields were enclosed by woods, and hidden among them were little lakes and pools. Yes, it certainly was lovely out there in the country!

The old castle, with its deep moat surrounding it, lay bathed in sunshine. Between the heavy walls and the edge of the moat there was a narrow strip of land covered by a whole forest of burdock plants. Their leaves were large and some of the stalks were so tall that a child could stand upright under them and imagine that he was in the middle of the wild and lonesome woods. Here a duck had built her nest. While she sat waiting for the eggs to hatch, she felt a little sorry for herself because it was taking so long and hardly anybody came to visit her. The other ducks preferred swimming in the moat to sitting under a dock leaf and gossiping.

Finally the eggs began to crack. “Peep …Peep” they said one after another. The egg yolks had become alive and were sticking out their heads.

“Quack…Quack..” said their mother. “Look around you.”

And the ducklings did; they glanced at the green world about them, and that was what their mother wanted them to do, for green was good for their eyes.

“How big the world is!” piped the little ones, for they had much more space to move around in now than they had had inside the egg.

“Do you think that this is the whole world?” quacked their mother. “The world is much larger than this. It stretches as far as the minister’s wheat fields, though I have not been there … Are you all here?”  The duck got up and turned around to look at her nest. “Oh no, the biggest egg hasn’t hatched yet; and I’m so tired of sitting here! I wonder how long it will take?” she wailed, and sat down again.

“What’s new?” asked an old duck who had come visiting.

“One of the eggs is taking so long” complained the mother duck. “It won’t crack. But take a look at the others. They are the sweetest little ducklings you have ever seen; and every one of them looks exactly like their father. That scoundrel hasn’t come to visit me once.”

“Let me look at the egg that won’t hatch,” demanded the old duck. “I am sure that it’s a turkey egg! I was fooled that way once. You can’t imagine what it’s like. Turkeys are afraid of the water. I couldn’t get them to go into it. I quacked and I nipped them, but nothing helped. Let me see that egg! … Yes, it’s a turkey egg. Just let it lie there. You go and teach your young ones how to swim, that’s my advice.”

“I have sat on it so long that I guess I can sit a little longer, at least until they get the hay in.” replied the mother duck.

“Suit yourself.” said the older duck, and went on.

At last the big egg cracked too. “Peep … Peep” said the young one, and tumbled out. He was big and very ugly.

The mother duck looked at him. “He’s awfully big for his age,” she said. “He doesn’t look like any of the others. I wonder if he could be a turkey? Well, we shall soon see. Into the water he will go, even if I have to kick him to make him do it.”

The next day the weather was gloriously beautiful. The sun shone on the forest of burdock plants. The mother duck took her whole brood to the moat. “Quack … Quack..” she ordered.

One after the other, the little ducklings plunged into the water. For a moment their heads disappeared, but then they popped up again and the little ones floated like so many corks. Their legs knew what to do without being told. All of the new brood swam very nicely, even the ugly one.

“He is no turkey” mumbled the mother. “See how beautifully he uses his legs and how straight he holds his neck. He is my own child and, when you look closely at him, he’s quite handsome… Quack! Quack! Follow me and I’ll take you to the henyard and introduce you to everyone. But stay close to me, so that no one steps on you, and look out for the cat.”

They heard an awful noise when they arrived at the henyard. Two families of ducks had got into a fight over the head of an eel. Neither of them got it, for it was swiped by the cat.

“That is the way of the world,” said the mother duck, and licked her bill. She would have liked to have the eel’s head herself. “Walk nicely” she admonished them. “And remember to bow to the old duck over there. She has Spanish blood in her veins and is the most aristocratic fowl here. That is why she is so fat and has a red rag tied around one of her legs. That is the highest mark of distinction a duck can be given. It means so much that she will never be done away with; and all the other fowl and the human beings know who she is. Quack! Quack!… Don’t walk, waddle like well-brought-up ducklings. Keep your legs far apart, just as your mother and father have always done. Bow your heads and say, Quack!” And that was what the little ducklings did.

Other ducks gathered about them and said loudly, “What do we want that gang here for? Aren’t there enough of us already? Pooh! Look how ugly one of them is! He’s the last straw!” And one of the ducks flew over and bit the ugly duckling on the neck.

“Leave him alone!” shouted the mother. “He hasn’t done anyone any harm.”

“He’s big and he doesn’t look like everybody else!” replied the duck who had bitten him. “And that’s reason enough to beat him.”

“Very good-looking children you have,” remarked the duck with the red rag around one of her legs. “All of them are beautiful except one. He didn’t turn out very well. I wish you could make him over again.”

“That’s not possible, Your Grace,” answered the mother duck. “He may not be handsome, but he has a good character and swims as well as the others, if not a little better. Perhaps he will grow handsomer as he grows older and becomes a bit smaller. He was in the egg too long, and that is why he doesn’t have the right shape.” She smoothed his neck for a moment and then added, “Besides, he’s a drake; and it doesn’t matter so much what he looks like. He is strong and I am sure he will be able to take care of himself.”

“Well, the others are nice,” said the old duck. “Make yourself at home, and if you should find an eel’s head, you may bring it to me.”

And they were “at home.”

The poor little duckling, who had been the last to hatch and was so ugly, was bitten and pushed and made fun of both by the hens and by the other ducks. The turkey cock (who had been born with spurs on, and therefore thought he was an emperor) rustled his feathers as if he were a full-rigged ship under sail, and strutted up to the duckling. He gobbled so loudly at him that his own face got all red.

The poor little duckling did not know where to turn. How he grieved over his ugliness, and how sad he was! The poor creature was mocked and laughed at by the whole henyard.

That was the first day; and each day that followed was worse than the one before. The poor duckling was chased and mistreated by everyone, even his own sisters and brothers, who quacked again and again, “If only the cat would get you, you ugly thing!”

Even his mother said, “I wish you were far away.” The other ducks bit him and the hens pecked at him. The little girl who came to feed the fowls kicked him.

At last the duckling ran away. He flew over the tops of the bushes, frightening all the little birds so that they flew up into the air. “They, too, think I am ugly.” Thought the duckling, and closed his eyes – but he kept on running.

The Ugly Duckling

25 Mar

The wastelands

I am a man who spent the last thirty years working directly with the disenfranchised, vulnerable, and desperate people who inhabit the dark underbelly avoided and ignored by mainstream Western culture.  I have worked in some of the most deprived and devastated communities. In the South Wales Valleys during the Thatcherite clearances. The desperate communities of Eastern Germany, following the fall of communism.  With the cardboard families of the Bronx, New York, burnt out by their landlords greed and avarice.

Over thirty years on the incomprehensible council estates of big cities. The forgotten wastelands of concrete, broken glass, ignorance, abuse and boarded windows.  Working with the effects of neglect – violence, criminality, addiction, depression, mental illness, loss of hope, lack of connection to grief, and the cruelty of being deprived from birth.  We witness the disasters in Africa with righteous despair, but there are similar and more invidious ones happening right here in the heartlands of the richest and most conspicuously affluent societies ever created.  We are so familiar with these disasters we don’t even recognize them as such.

In my opinion it is a disaster when the majority of people in your country are unhappy;

it is a disaster when the majority of people are addicted to destructive patterns of behaviour;

it is a disaster when we refuse to take responsibility for our lives and blame others;

it is a disaster when we willfully neglect and ignore our children.

When people believe their lives depend on money, artifacts and material goods, you are in trouble. When those people loose their connection to community, love, mutual indebtedness and reciprocity, it really is dangerous for the world.  We are breeding bullies, dealing in unhappiness, greed and selfishness- indeed we encourage and support such attitudes.  Our culture depends on our fear and frustration for its perpetuation.   We see the world in a very peculiar and skewed way, not considering the whole or bigger picture.  This way of viewing the world is, in my opinion, immature. The immature boy is selfish, spoilt, he stamps his feet when he doesn’t receive what he feels he is due.  In that sense, we are an uninitiated people – we have for many years chosen to ignoring the obvious, and only focus on our personal needs.  With the increased awareness of the interconnected nature of the world, our concerns for our African brothers and sisters, our environmental and ecological concerns, our recognition of the value of nutrition, we are starting to show some maturity.  For me, it is a sign of our seeking initiation, the seeking of longer-term solutions.  Those are the first steps towards our initiation into becoming mature human beings.

How do we become mature?

One way is through appreciating the fantastically revelatory work of Robert Bly and others.  His starting points are the ancient stories, the stories of the land. The interpretation of myths, nursery rhymes, and legends as archetypes and personal stories.   I sought to examine my own cultural background and see what lay there as resources.  I looked at ancient texts – the Mabinogion, the Norse legends – but found them too removed.  Too many long and confusing names to remember.  I looked at more modern tales, and was drawn to ‘The Ugly Duckling’ by Hans Christian Andersen. I thought it was a story about the artist, the misfit in society, and identified strongly with it.   I wanted to use it as a teaching tool with groups, but it has been mis-translated, abused, and distorted for many years.  Then I was able to gain access to a recent translation of the story- as close to the original as you can get. I gained the story through Rosie Beech, and would like to thank her for sending it to me.   When I read it I cried – at the beauty of his words, his ability to describe poetically anguish and despair.  I cried for the pain carried in the story, the depth of the emotional trauma, his stand against bullies, and his understanding of loneliness.  I realized the story is not just about the misfit artist, it is about a boy with an absent father.  It is a story so pertinent and relevant to our times, it needs to be examined, and re-read in this modern context.

I share The Ugly Duckling story with fathers, men and boys, and mixed groups as well.  We take turns telling it, we discussed the relevance it has to each of us.  Every time I read it I appreciate another aspect of the story. Every time, my perception shifts, I become more aware of myself, the relevance of the story to modern life, and it’s bearing on the work I am involved in.  I wanted to write down the interpretations and views that have arisen from it in the hope that others will find them of value.  I know this process has been very transformative, cathartic for me, and many other people. So, I pass this on with love and blessings to you all.