The power of 500 words

Happy new year! I’m getting this post out before February surprises me by arriving tomorrow 🙂 I’ve come out of blissful hibernation with a lot of grumbling and scratching and complaining because the days are getting brighter. I suspect I may be in the minority on that front. Thankfully, the weather is staying nice and cold, so there are some good things to look forward to.

This week’s top excitement was the announcement that BBC 500 Words has launched once more. For those not familiar with it, this is a competition for young authors aged between 5 and 13 to write a story of no more than 500 words. A few years ago, I had the great sense to register to be a judge. My friend, colleague and very fine academic librarian, Fiona, wrote a reference for me in support of my application.

Before long, an email will arrive telling me that the first batch of stories have landed in my inbox. They will be from authors based around the UK, full of excitement and sadness, grand adventure and everyday experiences, heroic characters and downright villains. And everything in between.

It is the most fun, letting your imagination soar in the hands of people who are learning their craft, who have a story to tell and the encouragement to do it. If you enjoy reading and want to be inspired, check out the website. You can read the top stories from previous years, you can watch famous names read the winning stories, and you can appreciate the role this competition plays in developing our understanding of how language is used and taught. If you know any young authors, direct them to the competition or ask them about it, as most schools in the UK are participating. The website also has a bank of resources to help you along. I’m planning on using those with colleagues to see if we can improve our abstract writing too!

And if you are really caught up in the adventure, you can join me as a judge. The judging portal is easy to use, the criteria are clear, and there is support if you need it. There were 134,790 entries last year, this year I’m sure there will be more. You can set the age-group you mark and the number of entries you get. And if, like me, you are hooked, you can always ask for more 🙂

Each story is a gift and I’m looking forward to curling up with a lot of good reads!

Time to think and to be

The first semester of each academic year tends to be busy and this year is no different. I can see the impact on colleagues and students as we try and catch each other for brief updates in corridors. Everyone is looking frazzled.

Reports on stress and “work-life balance” highlight the difficulty in higher education (Bothwell, 2018; UCU, 2018). I doubt this comes as a surprise to anyone and I believe it is the same in every profession, with reports on increased pressure and expectations at all levels.

I love the job that I do – not necessarily all aspects, but most of it. However, it can be hard to switch off, particularly when the boundaries blur through evening and weekend work-related activities. In a corridor catch-up recently, I spoke with colleagues about things we did outside work. We talked about the importance of maintaining boundaries, so that home life does not suffer. We acknowledged that the semester is a busy one, so we expected some creep over the lines. It then becomes increasingly difficult to recharge, to recover. Hence, the frazzled expressions on the faces of staff and students.

So what to do? Here are a collection of little things that help me.

I know I am not alone in looking at a list of tasks where each item is equally high priority. I remind myself often that I am only one person. I focus on the “small wins” as each task is completed (Mind, 2016). There is a wellbeing group that advertises activities and events on the campus. I would like to attend them all, but also recognise that these are optional. It is not great to work through lunch, but a short break might get me home on time in the evening. I don’t like the concept of “work-life balance”; it puts work and life on opposite sides. It is my life and the balance of energy that I have to distribute among all the activities in my day. That includes time to think and to be.

With conflicting priorities, it can be difficult to protect thinking time; getting outside always helps me, even if only for a few minutes. A couple of weeks ago, I chanced to leave the office just as members of the local rookery flew in for the evening roost. There was a brisk wind and they danced through the sky over the carpark, weaving in and out and over, calling to each other as they flew. I stood and watched them until they settled, I estimate for about ten minutes. It was a time of calm and joy, appreciating the moment. In the hustle of the last two weeks, I have thought back to that experience and smiled. When I hear the call of a crow on the breeze, I am back watching the dance again.

As the semester comes to a close, I feel as if we are that rookery. Soon, we’ll fly in and catch up with each other before settling down for the Yule-tide break.


Bothwell, E. (2018). Work-life balance survey 2018: long hours take their toll on academics. Times Higher Education February 8, 2018. [free registration may be required to access]

Mind (2016). How to improve your mental wellbeing. 

UCU (2018). It’s your time: UCU workload campaign.


The Otters’ Children

Earlier this year, there was a call about a story competition. I needed a break, having been caught up in reading some pretty dry academic texts, and this sounded like fun. I was working on a story about a worm whisperer (no surprises there!) telling the tale of a woman who was able to communicate with worms and helped improve composting. My brain was in story mode and I was thoroughly enjoying myself.

Then I had two dreams, one night after the other. The first night, I dreamt of a small, squat tower in a green land and watched as red rivers bubbled up from the four corners of the tower. The second night, I dreamt of otter women going out into the land and communicating in their varied ways. Both dreams were vivid and stayed with me through the days that followed. I’m not sure what these dreams say about my state of mind!

I stopped writing the story about the worm whisperer, sat down and the following story came out of my fingers. I can’t explain it any other way than that it nagged me until I wrote it down. It came out pretty much as it is on the page below, but once written down, it nagged me again – it needed to be read out loud. Gavin agreed and he asked me to read it to him.

As I told the story, there were a couple of words that didn’t quite sit right, like bumps in a smooth road. Hearing it out loud, I knew that the written words had got in the way when I typed it up at first, that I had put in too many words in one place and the wrong word in another. With minor changes, the story became as it now is.

I submitted it for the competition, but I knew already that the competition team were looking for something more like the worm whisperer story. Then I thought it would work well as a children’s book, so I looked up publishers. Like the difference between reading on the screen and reading out loud, none of the options felt right.

This story is not mine to own or sell, so I’m offering this under a Creative Commons licence so that other people can tell it. I have probably picked up these story ideas over my lifetime, so I’m sure someone will recognise them from somewhere and tell me where they come from. I have a plan to record an audio version with photos from my local area as a backdrop, but I know that will take me time to do.

In the meantime, I’m sharing this with you. I look forward to hearing where the otters journey to and who they meet along the way.

The Otters’ Children

Once upon a long ago, a tower stood at the heart of a green, green island. The tower was small, square and squat, made of large blocks of stone that were a dark, dark grey. The tower was old and had been there longer than memory.

One day the same as any other, as the sun rose, light glimmered on the earth around the tower. From each side of the small, square, squat tower, a thin trickle of water ran and seeped into the earth. The trickle became a steady flow, the water finding a path through the earth until four streams chuckled from the tower and travelled into the land. More water, and the streams became rivers, reaching from the tower to the sea. As the rivers touched the sea, the land sighed and the rivers from the island’s heart flowed red as blood.

All was quiet except for the sound of water gurgling and murmuring. Then a flash and a splash and a ripple in each river as something moved in the depths. Four she otters lifted their heads, one in each red river rising from the small, square, squat tower at the heart of the island. They scented the sky, looked to the land, and turned their noses to the sea. They dived and swam and played along their rivers until they reached the sea. They dived and swam and played in the sea until they reached land again, one to the east, one to the south, one to the west and one to the north.

Reaching new shores, they stepped out of the water. Gone was the silk fur, the claws and tails. Four women walked on the land, leaving otter prints in the sand and silt. The otter woman in the north spoke to the many creatures of the land, water and sky. The otter woman in the west spoke to the many faces of the land, water and sky. The otter woman in the south spoke to the many plants of earth and water. The otter woman in the east took clay from the river and a twig from the earth and started to draw on the walls of caves. She spoke through her drawings with the voices of the many creatures, the many plants and the many faces of land, water and sky.

The earth was filled with the sounds of many voices. Time passed, as it does, and other creatures walked upon the earth. The otter women laughed and loved and lived in harmony with all their companions. Their children were many and each child carried the gifts of the otter women into an uncertain future.

Like four red rivers, the children of the otter women travelled out into the lands. With time comes forgetting and some forgot that they could talk to the creatures, to the plants, to the land, water and sky. And yet, the children of the east continued to talk through pictures, some pictures became words, and the words spoke in many voices. Words and pictures spread across the earth and in the mesh of communication, a truth became clear. Some of the voices were falling silent, voices of the creatures, the plants, the earth, the water, voices of the descendants of the otter women and their kin. The waters ran red once more and the heart of the world wept for loss.

And then the children of the otter remembered. They remembered that they could speak to the creatures of the land, water and sky. They remembered that they could speak to the faces of the land, water and sky. They remembered they could speak to the plants of earth and water. They remembered that they could speak to each other with different words, words of hope and growth and change and future. Together, they worked to save the voices that were falling silent, the long work of restoring lands, waters, airs and kin across the earth. Together, they worked to find the way to live lightly and in harmony with all their companions.

One day, not so very long ago, a small group of the otters’ children had an idea. They could tell a different story, call out to the otters’ children across the earth and remind them of what could be achieved together. Tell a story, they called, tell a story of our future, a story of hope and growth and change. The stories spoke in many voices and each was a flash and a splash and a flicker of something deeper. A deep change was coming from the heart of the earth and the hearts of all the otters’ children.

A tower stands at the heart of a green, green island. The tower is small, square and squat, made of large blocks of stone that are a dark, dark grey. The tower is old and had been there longer than memory. From the four sides of the tower flow four red rivers. They flow from the tower to the sea and from the sea to the future. And the future is good because we remembered.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Image is: Fischotter, Lutra lutra by Bernard Landgraf {GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (} from Wikimedia Commons,_Lutra_Lutra.JPG

Riches of pepper

I’m in the depths of transcribing at the moment, which I’m really enjoying, but it doesn’t leave much time for reading. So this week, I’m heading off on a tangent.

I have a ritual when it comes to opening a new packet of black peppercorns.

I slowly snip open the packet while holding it close to my nose. I breathe the dark peppery smell deep into my lungs. And I always feel incredibly rich and privileged to have a packet of black peppercorns to enjoy. I have felt this way for as long as I can remember.

I was opening a packet of pepper earlier this week and I thought, hmmn, I wonder where that comes from, that association of wealth with pepper. I was thinking perhaps Tudor times. I was curious, so I did a quick search to find out more.

Sarah Philpott’s (2013) post on salt and pepper gives a good overview of the history. From that, I found that pepper, my “black gold”, has been shipped from India for the last 4000 years or thereabouts. I praised the wisdom of Alaric the Visigoth and Attila the Hun in demanding a pepper ransom from the Romans, and taking peppercorns to the Egyptian afterlife sounds like a very wise idea. It makes me think of Death’s comments on the lack of mustard in the afterlife, though if curry can make it, maybe there is hope for pepper.

Whether you love pepper, as I do, or see pepper as a commonplace addition to your food, it is important to be aware of the impact of purchasing cheap pepper. Johannisson & Bengsten’s (2011) news item for the Ecologist shows the hidden costs tallied in the lives of pepper farmers and their families in India and Indonesia.

Sarah Philpott talks about the scandal in Victorian times when ground pepper was found to have been mixed with other additives. Now, while the ingredients might state that the packet contains nothing but black peppercorns, the reality is that it may carry a far greater price. Opening my packet of pepper takes on a deeper meaning.

I now know that my pepper comes through the Fair Trade Alliance Kerala, where farmers are working to support each other and with other fair trade groups across the globe. The Fairtrade Premium is reinvested to help farmers switch to organic farming, protecting the farmers, their families and the land from the impact of pesticides and fertilizers. A disaster management fund is in place to support farmers in times of crisis. Small-scale farmers are no longer isolated.

Where possible, we purchase organic, fairtrade products because similar issues are commonplace for the majority of the products we purchase, with poor payment impacting all farmers locally and globally. We need to start paying the true price for our goods and services.

It’s a simple choice to make, if you can. See Katy O’Brien’s link below for information on fairtrade herb and spice options.


Johannisson, F. & Bengtsen, P. (2011). Pepper: how our favourite spice is tainted by a deadly legacy. The Ecologist news article, 25 January 2011. Available at:

O’Brien, K. (2018). Did you know you can buy Fairtrade herbs and spices in the UK? Blogpost for The Fairtrade Foundation, 3 August 2018. Available at:

Philpott, S. (2013). Salt & pepper. The History Vault Features, Issue 1. Available at:

Face-to-place storytelling

I came across the concept of “face-to-place” storytelling in David Abram’s work. I liked this idea, so searched and came across a short piece on the Alliance for Wild Ethics website, where the term is credited to Marc Tognotti. In the discussion on oral culture, there is something that echoes my experience when I’m interviewing in the same location, face-to-face, or at least side-by-side – the memory of what is said in the interview is tied to the place where we walked.

the sensuous landscape itself was the necessary mnemonic (or memory-trigger) for remembering the oral tales (Alliance for Wild Ethics, 2018)

In my field notes, I have recorded observations like “the bee-walk is where Hugh spoke about helping students connect” and “from this spot in the sheep field, SFH has given me a line-of-sight to my house from the campus”. I recall watching the bees as we walked, my thoughts on Hugh’s approach to connecting with students. I know when I next walk in that place, I will remember the conversation about connecting with people from around the world. I now have a crow’s-flight-line between my home and workplace that I didn’t have before, tied as I was to the road network. In my mind, I have oriented myself towards home in a new way, which is simultaneously liberating and grounding. That knowledge came from walking the land and learning from the person who lives there.

My research also involves interviews at a distance, in real-time and asynchronously. In this, the digital and literate culture are intertwined with the oral, returning us once more to the Alliance for Wild Ethics (2018) piece. I like the idea that the oral knowledge of those who have kindly agreed to talk with me runs “underneath” and provides a foundation, as the digital and literate help us to connect across distances.

Even though we are not in the same place, these storytellers are face-to-place, with and in their own location, as I am with and in my place as I listen. I hope this provides a new way to tell their places’ tales. Through this story sharing, I am in the fortunate position to learn about new lands and to share my land in turn.

I like to think our lands are listening to each other through us.

It is to know, further, that each land, each watershed, each community of plants and animals and soils, has its particular style of intelligence, its unique mind or imagination evident in the particular patterns that play out there, in the living stories that unfold in that valley, and that are told and retold by the people of that place. (Abram, 2018)


Abram, D. (2018). Storytelling and wonder: On the rejuvenation of oral culture. Available at: [earlier versions printed in Taylor and Kaplan (2005). Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature and Resurgence, issue 222, January/February 2004.]

Alliance for Wild Ethics (2018). Why oral culture? Available at:

Talking with friends

My research group meets every few months to discuss our work, including draft versions of papers we are working on. I benefited from feedback at one of these sessions earlier in the year and got some excellent insight, great ideas and wonderful support. This was also one of those neat experiences that helped me to see my approach to writing from a different angle. A member of the team commented about how they liked my way of writing as if I was friends with the researchers I had cited in my work. I hadn’t really thought about it, I couldn’t see it in my own writing, and I’ve been thinking about it since.

Where does this come from? As you know, I’m Irish – maybe it is simply that everyone is my friend, at least until they tell me otherwise. A hundred thousand welcomes and would you like a cup of tea with your research discussion?

Reflecting on this and on my writing, I see it as a way of demonstrating how I appreciate and value the work that has been carried out previously. I might not necessarily agree with it, but that’s part of celebrating, or at least acknowledging, the joy of diversity. I’m also weaving my way into the research dance, finding my spot on the dance floor, trying to be creative while not falling over my feet or standing on anyone else’s. This is my way of linking hands with my research partners [end of dance metaphor!].

So who are my research partners? I must have picked up this way of writing in something I have been reading. I thought about who has that knack of writing relationships into their work. I came back to three people – Gregory Bateson, Mary Catherine Bateson and Shawn Wilson. I like the relational aspect of their writing, if that’s the best way to describe it; they each make active use of this writing style for slightly different reasons.

In Mind and Nature, Gregory Bateson (1980) structures some chapters as dialogues with his daughter. The daughter is unnamed in the book, with the dialogue structured as Father/Daughter question-and-answer sessions [metalogues]. This is useful in a book that is aimed at explaining key concepts that Bateson is puzzling through and wants to share with his audience.  I liked these sections, as I often found myself sharing the frustration of his “daughter” when he wandered off on tangents in the rest of the book.

Daughter: All right, So where would you attach the phenomena of beauty and ugliness and consciousness?

Father: And don’t forget the sacred. That’s another matter that was not dealt with in this book.

Daughter: Please Daddy. Don’t do that. When we get near to asking a question, you jump away from it. There’s always another question it seems. If you could answer one question. Just one. (Bateson, 1980; p.228)

Angels Fear (2005) is the second book, the book that deals with the sacred as Gregory mentioned in the quote above. He died before finishing it, so Mary Catherine Bateson took over, working from his notes. They had always planned to work on it together, but in the end, she worked from his notes. Reading it, I discovered she was the “daughter” in the first book and she berates Gregory for giving her all the uninteresting questions.

Mary Catherine uses this dialogic writing approach in a way that is similar and different to her father. Gregory used this process of dialogue to question himself, to explore his own thoughts and uncertainties; he was daughter and father. She uses the same structure to question him: no longer with her, she uses it as a way of teasing out his meaning, holding on to his voice through the same process of father:daughter dialogues. Through it, I find she was often genuinely as frustrated with him as I was and as her representation in the first book seemed to be.

Daughter: You… I wish you wouldn’t keep letting the ideas spread out. (Bateson & Bateson, 2005; p.132)

In both cases, these dialogues are helpful for me to get to grips with the concepts. Like that sense of sitting down together to chat it all through, or think about it while you listen to other people discussing it. Probably over a cup of tea.

It is also poignant, as Gregory has died when Mary Catherine is writing this text. As I read her dialogues, I thought about what it would be like to have a similar dialogue with my own Dad and towards the end, I found it heart-breaking reading a section where they talk late at night.

Father: Still awake and working?

Daughter: How about you? You’re a remarkably persistent shade, you know. (Bateson & Bateson, 2005; p.201)

This reminded me of a piece in Mind and Nature where Gregory talks about people reading his book long after he is gone, where it felt as if he was speaking to me. Somehow, though I never met them, this way of writing has linked me to them; as Gregory might say, there is a “pattern that connects”, a karmic transfer, a relationship between author and reader.

When I wipe the blackboard, where does the difference [chalk mark to board] go? In one sense, the difference is randomized and irreversibly gone, as “I” shall be gone when I die. In another sense, the difference will endure as an idea – as part of my karma – as long as this book is read, perhaps as long as the ideas in this book go on to form other ideas, reincorporated into other minds. (Bateson, 1980, pp.109-110)

A relationship is exactly what Shawn Wilson is building in Research is Ceremony (2008). He explicitly sets out to help the reader to connect with him, to know better who he is, as we would do if we were to sit down and chat with him about his research. Which is exactly what he’d really rather we were doing. Since it’s on paper, he’s doing the next best thing.

First, he writes some letters to his sons, to help us get to know him as a father, husband, storyteller, researcher. As the book progresses, and he figures we’ve got to a point of knowing him as well as we can, he switches from writing to his sons to writing to us, his readers. He explains this approach at the start and he makes good use of changes in font to give us a hint that the tone is about to switch, from the more traditional “academic” to a warm conversation between friends and family.

It is my intention to build a relationship between the readers of this story, myself as the storyteller and the ideas I present. This relationship needs to be formed in order for an understanding of an Indigenous research paradigm to develop. This paradigm must hold true to its principles of relationality and relational accountability. As I cannot know beforehand who will read this book, I cannot be sure of the relationships that readers might hold with me or the ideas I share. So, I will start from scratch just to make sure that we begin this book from a common ground. (Wilson, 2008; p.6)

Shawn wants to meet his readers through the words, to share a space and his research. The result is an engaging, informative and elegant book that explains the Indigenous research paradigm while living it. In an example of the circular style he mentions at the outset, he closes the book with a letter to his sons, reflecting on how he changed over the course of writing the book. I feel like I know him, I appreciate his teachings, he succeeded in building a relationship with me.

That reflexivity and relationship-building is what I aim to foster in my writing. I’m reaching out to link up with you, share what I’ve been thinking about and who has inspired my reading. With any luck, I’ll hear from you about what you’re thinking about. Better yet, over a cup of tea and a slice of cake 🙂


Bateson, G. (1980). Mind and nature: A necessary unity. UK: Fontana.–A-Necessary-Unity/17664148 

Bateson, G., & Bateson, M. C. (2005). Angels fear: Towards an epistemology of the sacred. New Jersey: Hampton Press, Inc.–Towards-an-Epistemology-of-the-Sacred/17664261 

Wilson, S. (2008). Research is ceremony: Indigenous research methods. Nova Scotia, CA: Fernwood Publishing.



Land tweeting

I’ve been time-travelling back to my undergrad years and re-reading Basso’s (1996) Wisdom Sits in Places. In his reflection on the Apache view of the landscape, he states that it is seen as:

a repository of distilled wisdom, a stern but benevolent keeper of tradition, an ever-vigilant ally… features of the landscape have become symbols of and for this way of living, the symbols of a culture and the enduring moral character of its people. (Basso, 1996; p.63)

Basso proceeds to discuss how the role of landscape in shaping social activity, and the way in which the Apache “constitute their surroundings and invest them with value and significance” (p.66). He proposes that this “moral relationship”, the cultural ecology, is often ignored in research.

Reading this brought to mind The Irish Border (@BorderIrish) Twitter account. With the current unease and uncertainty about the Brexit outcome, someone has set up an account to give the Border a voice in the negotiations.

In its own way, this account provides a symbolic, cultural representation of the land. It is a way of acknowledging the myriad difficulties woven into the negotiations. The person who set up the account tweeted recently that they sometimes think they are the Border. It is done so well that others who follows the account may also get a stronger sense of the impact of the negotiations through the voice of the border. I’m sure @BorderIrish would be quite happy to be viewed as an ever-vigilant keeper of wisdom!

This caused me to wonder if there were similar Twitter accounts, other ways in which Landscape or Place was being voiced, albeit by a human (as far as I know!). I could see @BorderIrish has a friend in @Malin_Head. This brought a smile to my face. Notwithstanding that it may be the same author masterminding the two accounts, having two Irish Places building an online relationship is really a very Irish thing to do. Which I believe I can safely say as an Irish person myself 🙂

I searched for other examples; all of the national parks that I came across in the US and UK had the same event-style timeline. Come to this event on this date, here’s a photo of a view, what temperature is it today, don’t forget to take your litter home. No sense of the places themselves communicating except perhaps through the captured image or video. The moderators of these accounts have taken the view, and rightly so, that people should visit the locations to develop their personal relationships with those places. All good. Still, it feels impersonal, hollow and a bit absent. Maybe it’s just me.

Widening my search to a broader sense of location, I realised that the libraries are particularly good at this. Granted, libraries are all marvelous at everything they do, but they have really captured the spirit of this approach. I’ve embedded a couple of classics from @ShetlandLibrary and @natlibscot below as examples. Scottish examples, so maybe this is a Celtic thing, to acknowledge that there is no reason why Places can’t have and be friends. I love the ongoing banter between @ShetlandLibrary and @OrkneyLibrary. Again, there is something more meaningful for me in having a sense of the libraries talking to each other, developing their friendship in an online space. And yes, I have read their tweets; I know that, deep down, they really love each other 🙂

The significance and presence of landscape that Basso (1996) outlines is the personhood of places which is finally being legally recognised, as for the Whanganui River. I am not suggesting Twitter accounts carry the same value. They are not Places speaking, but people speaking for Places. Maybe more Places need us to speak for them or reflect on what they might say if we could hear them. Either way, I am curious if these types of accounts are an indication that this is something we are reaching out for, a need that has been denied for too long in my culture, and that we are seeking a way to articulate.

If you know of any other accounts, let me know!


Basso, K. H. (1996). Wisdom sits in places: Landscape and language among the Western Apache. University of New Mexico Press.