St Andrew's Well

St Andrew’s Well, Corton Denham, Somerset

What is left that can be said to hear?

I was tired and the error was mine, but I didn’t really check much about this site in advance. So, I was perturbed when I arrived to find that Saint Andrew’s well (refurbished by the Women’s Institute in 1988) consisted of a tap and a trough. There was no sign of the spring itself. Worse, it was on the main road through the village. Still, I was tired, it had a seat and so I sat on it.

I became entranced by the aquatic life forms in the trough in their spiralling dance with themselves. I must have stopped listening altogether because the next thing I knew I was immersed within a strange sound: something like a dog drinking. Hold on, it WAS a dog drinking. But in the moment between the hearing and the identification, the sound took hold of me as if there was no distance between it and me. It was a very odd and unexpected experience.

I looked up to see a black and white pointer and its owner. “Do you want any more to drink, Sasha?” the owner enquired. Sasha obliged with a few more gulps, during which I debated whether to mention the aquatic life forms to her owner. Then Sasha and owner trotted off.

But what had happened to me? Had I been actively listening at that point, instead of gazing mesmerised at the creatures in the trough, would Sasha’s drinking have had the same effect on me? I don’t think so. The nearest I can come to explain it comes from a book of Zen stories that I read once which talked about how an unexpected sound can trigger a breakthrough moment of kensho, or enlightenment. The sound could be a rooster, the creak of a floorboard, someone’s sneeze in the meditation hall, or even a dog drinking. Indeed, “any sound that finds little or nothing of you in the way and fills you completely can let you in directly to the shocking open secret: ‘what is left that can be said to hear?’”1

Accidentally enlightened by a Christianised well in a small village in Somerset? Let’s keep that one an open secret too.

1The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women, Edited by Florence Carlow and Susan Moon