‘A bird out of Merlin’s ear’

Since my children went back to school last week, there’s been a lot of catching up to do. Lots of gathering together of the self, much realigning – some careful stepping onto newly laid paths, pausing to wander and to really look. Lots of strengthening, preparing; allowing things to resurface and settle.

Some days, I’ve spent long slices of time sitting at the dinner table in our back room, working and thinking and shaping some kind of order and readiness into the previously swirling confusion of ideas and writing projects – and into the general ‘stuff that has to be done’ which often threatens to topple it all.

I’ve been working my way back to the heart of things. That quiet kernel of space so easily lost in the rush of demands and ‘things to be done.’ Over past months, I’ve been tripped up by too many instances of my mind jumping ahead of itself; not allowing itself to settle between leaps. Old, familiar footholds became all too easily muddied by that swirling mix, confusing my way across last year’s stepping stones.

But reading Witch Light through into the New Year definitely helped to recover my balance.

Witch Light by Susan Fletcher, published by Fourth Estate

Witch Light by Susan Fletcher, published by Fourth Estate

It is a book filled to the brim with the heart of things; with ‘the heart’s voice.’ Choose almost any page at random, and the prose overflows with it. During the hours in which I allowed myself to sink into Susan Fletcher’s beautiful, lyrical novel, I lived in its world completely – in Corrag’s world. Her first person narrative enchanted me with its beauty; kept me in clear water; slowed me down to watch the light play; helped me to regain calmer focus:

Still. There was magick in that place – I promise it.

I felt it everywhere. I felt it in each tiny thing I saw – each stone which shifted under my heels, or each raindrop. I had time, now. Time, until now, had been as thin and as scarce as a wind-blown web – fluttering by, very brief. My second life had been go! Go! And when had I had the time to lie on my belly and watch a snail make its way across a leaf, leaving its moonshine mark? Never. I was running too much. I was galloping over mud and wild land, with the mare snorting hard, and any slow times were spent with her – picking the nettles out of her tail. No snails. No hour upon hour in the rain, watching a leaf’s middle become a rain-bright pool.

I had never liked witch, and still don’t. But if ever I deserved the name at all, it was then, I reckon. It was having my hair fly in the wind as I stood on the tops, and how I crawled through the woods where the mushrooms grew. It was cloud-watching and stag-seeing, and spending long hours – full afternoons – by the waterfall that I’d bathed in, watching the autumn leaves fall down and make their way seaward. They bobbed and swirled. I said magick, one day. In the gully that led to my valley, I stopped. The wind was in the birches, and it felt they were speaking. If they were speaking, it was magick they said. Magick. Here.’

From Witch Light (previously published as Corrag) by Susan Fletcher – published by Fourth Estate.

I felt sad to break away from Corrag’s company when the last page was turned – but, she has lived on in my mind long since – and echoes of her voice curl around the days and the small and the luminous; in moments of starlight and moon shadows…

Christmas moon - dusk, 25th December 2012

Christmas moon – dusk, 25th December 2012

…in the times when our damson trees have been greenly on fire in the mid-day rise of winter sun…

…And in the birds who visit the garden continuously, and punctuate my hours as I sit here at the table. Goldfinches, blue and great tits, a song thrush; small fluid ripples of long-tailed tits taking the fat-balls hostage in a clasp of criss-crossed tails, before rushing off into insistent dusks; chaffinches, starlings, a handful of sparrows; our resident robin and dunnock; the chirring magpies; the blackbirds posing and hopping, staring down worms. They fill the edges of awareness with light and colour and movement, until there is nothing for it but to sit and gaze and absorb their rhythms to a slower heartbeat and a resettled frame of mind.

When I turn my eyes back to my task, the birds still fill spaces between thoughts like cushioned areas of dreaming, unconsciously wandering and enlivening the workings of the mind. Their calls and year-turning notes wake me up a little more – and a little more – to the new-beginning months and the strengthening light.

When 2013 was still in its very first days, my husband – putting out the milk bottles in the late afternoon – called me to the hallway. He flung open the front door; let the dusk declare itself a visitor. Invited in, it hovered tentatively on the threshold, clasping its traveller’s cloak of soft grey light – half in concealment, half ready to reveal; a gentle crumpling of birdsong shaken out through its folds.

“Listen…” my husband said, standing under the sky in last year’s broken down slippers, delight awake in his voice. “It’s five o’clock – and the birds are all singing. It’s five o’clock and it’s still light.”

I stepped outside and stood with him in the brim-full glimmer – a scooped cup of light not yet spilt from the evening.

And the birds floated its surface with their light-drunken notes, like Keatsian ‘beaded bubbles winking at the brim’ – a slow drift of mostly blackbird and robin song; birds who often tease out their territorial notes through the night – and through winter. But the tone was different to that robin song you hear in pre-solstice winter nights. It felt richer, more languid, more primed with a weight of promise – an outward-going rather than an enclosing intention; filled with the possibilities of light.

Last week, as I walked around our little bit of the city’s edge – once a village, still edged with woods and fields – this change in the birdsong was palpable, growing day by day. The trees seemed to flex with it. The woods, glimpsed between the houses, loomed closer, declaring themselves stirring from sleep, cradling the streets once more in a busy sense of living. The weather was mild, soft; spring with grey edges. But then it turned cold again. Fog shrouded the woods in a whispered plan of concealed waiting, and frost crunched under my feet as I re-filled the bird feeders. But, all around me, the birdsong persisted – and the next day, it seemed to raise the tree tops higher to the sky – the hidden buds tipped with fiery winter sun, simmering the cold, clear blue slowly towards spring. Gradually since, the air has drained of warmth, growing colder and deep chill (and, by the time I publish this post, deep snows will have blanketed most of Britain) – but the cup of light has kept filling and re-filling to a rising brim, steeping a new flavour into the days. And at night, Jupiter has sparked bright above our damson trees. Showing the way. To somewhere.

As I sit here at the table, a wren has crept and flitted across the patio immediately outside the glass doors. It has dashed and tail-tipped its way amongst the moss beneath the buddleia bush – like Time passed on in small, overlapping relays; a ticking pendulum of thought receiving a change of rhythm – a signal for the seeding of a new idea; creeping, as the wren in Ted Hughes’s poem, ‘out of Merlin’s ear.’

When the thicket’s drifted, a shrouded corpse,
He’s in under there, ticking,
Not as a last pulse, but a new life waiting.

Lonely keeper of the gold

In the tumbled cleave.
A bird out of Merlin’s ear.

(From Wren by Ted Hughes)

Detail from RSPB Christmas card - Design by Kate Green.

Detail from RSPB Christmas card – Design by Kate Green.

Fresh green shoots are adjusting their positions in our flowerbeds, following the light, feeling for familiar strung-out patterns of change, squeezing through corridors of the spectrum, skyward. My husband planted a whole host of bulbs in the autumn – scattering them in random fashion. “It’ll be a complete surprise where and what comes up,” he said.

Unknown, unguessed, waiting.

Like new days, new months, a new year.

We all know that along with the hope of a new year – like the hope flung ‘Upon the growing gloom,’ and amongst ‘Winter’s dregs made desolate,’ by the ‘ecstatic sound’ of Hardy’s ‘aged’ and ‘frail’ Darkling Thrush (and like the hope of bulbs flung on autumn soil) – shadows and darker realities still remain. But the darkling thrush also reminds us of something fundamental – deeper in our consciousness – as we too respond to the signals of a year’s propulsion towards the light, however slight, however overlaid with the sheen of cold – or a chilling surface of difficult odds:

So little cause for carolings
   Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
   Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
   His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
   And I was unaware.

(From The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy).

As my long-time hero Richard Mabey wrote in his monthly column A Brush with Nature back in the March 2010 issue of BBC Wildlife magazine, penning his words out of ‘the depths of the hardest winter for 30 years’ and in the wake of climate change talks in Copenhagen which ‘ended in abject, shameful failure’ – and in the face of all sorts of official apathy and disregard for natural habitat and wildlife protection:

‘I can’t do despair. I know intellectually the depths of the crisis we are in, but I’ve only to poke my head out of the door and emotionally I’m healed. Today, I can see the first hazel catkins, ready to hatch from their hoar-frost shells…’

He goes on to talk about George Orwell’s essay, Some Thoughts On The Common Toad, written in 1946 ‘in a Britain exhausted by war and racked by six hard winters in a row.’ He quotes this small section:

‘Persephone, like the toads, always rises from the dead at about the same moment. Suddenly, towards the end of March, the miracle happens, and the decaying slum in which I live is transfigured.’

Richard Mabey adds that, if Orwell were alive today, ‘I suspect he would insist that it’s down to us’ – that Orwell ‘…saw the enjoyment of nature as a kind of revolutionary act, a challenge to the political machine.’

He quotes Orwell’s essay again:

‘I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and – to return to my first instance – toads, makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable.’

Mabey goes on to write: ‘Now may be the moment to take the dictum ‘Think globally but act locally’ very literally………. Conservation works. Down in the parish, we can make a difference.’

‘Nearly 70 years ago,’ Mabey continues, ‘Orwell closed his piece with a tremendous call to arms that still resonates in every detail’:

‘So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the Earth is still going round the Sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply though they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.’

Today, I was reading the farewell article from the National Trust’s former Director-General, Dame Fiona Reynolds, in the charity’s magazine – and the words she cites from Octavia Hill, one of the Trust’s most inspiring founders, sprang out at me as another appropriate link in this New Year chain of thought:

‘What we care most to leave is not any tangible thing, however great; not any memory, however good; but the quick eye to see, the true soul to measure, the large hope to grasp the mighty issues of the new and better days to come – greater ideals, greater hope, and the patience to realise both.’

And my mind returns to more bright beads to add to this chain of hope – to more quotes from Susan Fletcher’s Witch Light; to Corrag’s voice again:

‘What was dark will always be dark, I know that……

……But also, there is light. It is everywhere. It floods this world – the world brims with it. Once I sat by the Coe and watched a shaft of light come down through the trees, through leaves, and I wondered if there was a greater beauty, or a simpler one. There are many great beauties. But all of them – from the snow, to his fern-red hair, to my mare’s eye reflecting the sky as she smelt the air of Rannoch Moor – have light in them, and are worth it. They are worth the darker parts.’

And to Corrag’s faith that:

‘It is the small moments, sir, which change a world.’

A belated Happy New Year everyone! Here’s to a 2013 in which all our hope and creativity – all our contributions to the heart of things (however small or overwhelmed they might sometimes seem) – can add up to something bigger – reaching for, and growing stronger in, the brim-filled light.

Sunset, New Year's Day 2013, Bristol Harbour

Sunset, New Year’s Day 2013, Bristol Harbour

Wishing you all much fulfilment and flourishing in the year ahead!

(With thanks to the excellent Cornflower Books blog, for the inspiring introductions to Witch Light / Corrag and to Susan Fletcher’s writing which prompted me to seek it out – and also to Karen at her magical Moonlight and Hares blog for a special moment of Witch Light serendipity!)


15 thoughts on “‘A bird out of Merlin’s ear’

  1. Thank you so much…that has enriched and inspired me. Richard Mabey is, as ever, right – whatever disastrous things we do or don’t do as human beings, we just poke our heads out of the door, and nature carries on regardless. I was going to say making a mockery of our self-interested concerns, but nature doesn’t mock – it just *is*, and that’s why it has that healing effect he mentions, I think.

    • Hi Evie – great to see you. So glad this inspired you. Yes, so much of nature is under threat, the environmental crisis is very real and, as Richard Mabey says elsewhere in his essay, he is not in denial – the threat of loss is so real, so big – but ‘up close’ he ‘can’t see the natural world as a passive victim.’ In the face of it all, it’s so easy for all of us to feel overwhelmed, to become passive victims of our own despair – but hope and the things we can do/ have done to make a difference can be such a spur to keep on doing them, and for each of us to keep on adding our contributions to the sum that makes that difference – and to keep sight of our hope and motivation as a very real and effective force. As you say, nature itself shows us the way; demonstrates to us that determination to keep on following, as Richard Mabey puts it, ‘the pulse of spring’ which ‘won’t be stopped.’

  2. You know, I’ve been mulling over January while washing up, filling the coal bunker, lugging furniture, the thrill of picking up a water bill for £4500 from dad’s empty house (‘the meter has a problem’ thankfully), etc, now and again marvelling at sparrows (?) going uncannily wild every mid-afternoon in a particular tree, or seeing the bluebell leaves leaping out of any gap they can find that’s completely wrong for them… and then an ever-reliable post to chime with everything – just like the August version last year.

    I love the title – inspired. And such beautiful, perfect references. Another salute! (Shorthand for too much here to contemplate and do justice to when blueberry pancakes are in the air…)

    Will sort out my brewings and get them bottled shortly.

    • Mmmm! Blueberry pancakes; you’re making me hungry! Getting that bill must have been an “Eeeek!” moment; I remember a similar situation with a MASSIVE phone bill my housemates and I received back when I was a student. Only by phoning the moon several times a day could we have clocked up such a bill! Fortunately, we got it sorted out, the bill was revised to the correct amount and we didn’t have to part with our entire student grants to pay for it!

      Thank you for your lovely words (love the unruly sparrows and bluebells!) It’s so heart-warming, especially on this snow-melt day, to know that this post chimed with your own January mullings. Really glad too that you like the title. When I read that line from Ted Hughes’s poem, it instantly seemed to hold the themes of this post in a nutshell… That’s poets for you – able to say in one line what ramblers like me take over a thousand words to try to express!

      Great to hear there’s been lots of brewing. I’ve got quite a bit more bottling to do too!

      • Haven’t spent three days eating pancakes, returning to say how Orwell’s thoughts are great: just searched shelves for book of his essays and must be in loft, have to read a few at last.

        Loved “the birds still fill spaces between thoughts like cushioned areas of dreaming, unconsciously wandering and enlivening the workings of the mind” – beautiful image…

        There’s a tendency to write off post Christmas months as without light, a waiting time: but the signs of new light and growth are so immediate it seems, and how the birdsong changes. Tuning into nature really buoys the spirit. I just stopped for five minutes while walking the dog on the moor (she wasn’t impressed) and how suddenly the sky and light and the landscape flooded in, as if returning to colour in a mind preoccupied with lists…

        Have just finished Penelope Lively’s Whispering Knights. Though more well-known it’s not as well-developed as the books that followed I think (Hagworthy’s my favourite), and I sense more consciousness of writing for children. The tension and descriptive landscape passages more than compensate and it’s really enjoyable. I like writing about stones too!

        Have looked into Corrag but got caught in needing the proper hardback for something I’d probably want to keep and floundered in a growing ‘add to basket’ list so had to close screen to avoid dent in bank account. Will return and sensibly get the £2.76 version!

        • Thanks so much for more lovely, post-blueberry-pancake words and thoughts! (wouldn’t blame you if you had spent three days in pancake heaven!) That return to light is so immediate isn’t it… The world turns and, after the winter solstice, you start to notice the change in the light, the air, in the response of the birds and plants and trees – spring already starting to simmer… Love your description of the walk with your dog; the landscape flooding in…

          The George Orwell thoughts really are heart-of-things stuff aren’t they. I must search out his essays too – I’ve not read the whole of The Common Toad essay yet. It has joined all the other things clamouring as important stuff to catch up on…

          I need to catch up with more Penelope Lively reading too. I’ve not read the books you mention (more for the list!) – you’ve inspired me with your responses here. Really hope you enjoy Corrag. I’m the same with tending to search out hardbacks for special keepers – and am coming up against the head and heart battle over costs too lately. I’ve got some Christmas money to spend, and am finding that it just won’t stretch in so many book list directions!

          Funny that you should mention liking writing about stones… Guess what my next post is about?!! I wrote it a couple of days ago. Just got to check some quotes and upload a few photos and then it’ll be bottled and ready!

          Love your wonderful recent post… Will be re-visiting as soon as I get the chance to fully absorb, and to add my penny’s worth!

    • Thanks so much again for the introduction to Susan Fletcher’s writing, and for dropping by! I was so delighted when, a few days after reading your lovely posts, I stumbled across a copy of Witch Light in our little local library. I pounced on it instantly, and have since bought myself a copy, as it was so hard to part with the book when the library copy had to go back! I’m now looking forward to reading The Silver Dark Sea as soon as I get the chance!


  3. Hi Melanie
    I am soothed by your words… I must admit I read them in too fast way as there is much ahead of me today, but they managed to slow my pace a little with their magic!
    As promised, here is a link to Louise Hastings’s wonderful site Wings over Waters – http://louisehastings.net/home/ – I am using some of her words in the dance piece also. I think you will like her!

    • Hi Amanda – so glad you found a little space here to draw breath during your busy schedule! Thank you so much for the link to Louise’s site. You’re right – I love her writing! It’s wonderful to discover Louise’s poetry – and a lovely honour to be part of the creative mix for the dance piece with you both! A big thank you again!


  4. Such a marvellous, ecstatic post, Melanie. What I love so much about your writing is its knack for drawing connections, for stitching glimpses into a whole that we can touch and feel and see. And it’s all there, in “the small and the luminous; in moments of starlight and moon shadow” which you so deftly weave together.

    Thanks for this bright morning hymn – and best wishes from here!


    • Julian, you have added such a brilliant shine to my day! Thanks so much for your generous and wonderful message. I so admire your writing – and your encouragement means such a lot to me.

      To say that I feel so pleased about what you’ve seen in my word-wanderings would be a huge understatement! I’m always so fascinated by how ideas and experiences connect up; all those links in thought processes, and between small moments, that can lead us to discoveries of wider significance and glimpses of truths; how those small moments, and their artistic expression, get to the heart of things and increase our care for what really matters; create ripples in the pond. And that’s really what’s so central to my motivation for this blog.

      You know, after I’d published this post, the title of your forthcoming book, The Small Heart of Things came leaping into my mind as a further ‘bright bead’ in the chain of significant connection. Another instance of all those ‘glimpses in passing’ constantly at work and unfolding!

      Many thanks again – and best wishes in return from here!


  5. Beautiful thoughts and words Melanie – so much to try and digest! I really appreciate the connectedness of your posts, the almost dizzying crossing of ideas leave me feeling so enriched and inspired. I particularly loved the image of the ‘scooped cup of light’ – just gorgeous. I’ll be back I’m sure to revisit these lovely writings.

    • Selina, thank you so much! It’s so heartening to read your lovely and generous words – and to know that you’ve enjoyed these wanderings and have found them inspiring! Especially as your own blog never fails to open up for me journeys of such perception and a beautiful clarity of noticing and expression. I really appreciate you taking the time to visit and read my offerings…


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