Autumn, hoarding and unlocking; the living, Wild Story…

Life has been so busy lately. And, every time I’ve tried to scoop blog-time into my fraying net of available hours, it has slipped away; swimming off into some shadowy, unreachable part of the stream. I wrote this post way back in the first week of October, and ever since then, it has been sitting amongst my hoard of drafts; tucked away until I could find time to mull it over, add photos and make final tweaks. But now, hurried by the days flowing ever faster towards Christmas, I’ve made another attempt at netting this blog post and (at last!) have released it from its sleepy, pondering corner:

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It was a poignant treat to catch Radio 4’s broadcasts of Seamus Heaney’s readings from his translation of the Anglo Saxon epic poem, Beowulf.

I didn’t get the chance to listen to every episode, but when I did manage to settle, be still and to tune into Heaney’s warm and mellifluous voice, I felt transported to the fireside of an ancient mead hall, listening to the storyteller as he ‘unlocked his word-hoard’ - the ancient tale of warriors clad in ‘the brightly forged work of goldsmiths,’ shadowed by the terrifying monster Grendel.

My paperback copy of Heaney’s translation of Beowulf wears an austere face

Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf, published by Faber and Faber

Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, published by Faber and Faber

but there is a tactile richness about it that makes it so satisfying to hold. Its paper is creamy – its cover peach-soft. The whole book feels pliable and smooth; like silken air made tangible and divided into opening breaths, releasing word patterns across the ages.

My first experience of Beowulf was when I read bits and pieces of it in the original Old English. How did I do that? Now, I just don’t know! I studied Old English for only a short time (when English Language was one of my first year subsidiary subjects) – and The Battle of Maldon was our main text of focus:

Page from the Old English poem, The Battle of Maldon

Page from the Old English poem, The Battle of Maldon

Today, well over twenty years later, I remember only a handful of Old English words, including the expressive chewiness of waelwulfas, meaning ‘wolves of slaughter,’ a reference to fierce warriors, often specifically the Vikings. Heaney’s wonderful translation sits on my shelves, forming a much needed and hugely welcome portal to fuller understanding…

Now, when I think of Beowulf, a section of Robert Macfarlane’s mesmerising book The Wild Places always comes to mind.

The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane, published by Granta

The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane, published by Granta

In the second chapter, Island, Macfarlane beautifully explores contrasting currents in humanity’s attitudes to the rest of nature:

‘Ideas, like waves, have fetches. They arrive with us having travelled vast distances, and their pasts are often invisible, or barely imaginable. ‘Wildness’ is such an idea: it has moved immensely through time. And in that time, two great and conflicting stories have been told about it. According to the first of these, wildness is a quality to be vanquished; according to the second, it is a quality to be cherished.’

He goes on to explore examples, including Beowulf, which is:

‘…filled with what the poet calls wildeor, or ‘savage creatures’. In the poem, these monstrous dragon-like beings inhabit a landscape of wolf-haunted forests, deep lakes, windswept cliffs and treacherous marshes. It is against these wild places and wildeor that the civilisation of Beowulf’s tribe, the Geats – with their warm and well-lit mead halls, their hierarchical warrior culture – sets itself.

Parallel to this hatred of the wild, however, has run an alternative history: one that tells of wildness as an energy both exemplary and exquisite, and of wild places as realms of miracle, diversity and abundance. At the same time that the Beowulf-poet was writing his parable of the conquest of the wild, the monks of Enlli, Rona, the Skelligs and elsewhere were praising its beauty and its riotous fecundity.’

Robert Macfarlane tells of how the Celtic monks, the peregrini, ‘sailed out across dangerous seas, in search of something we might now call wildness’ and that:

‘Their travels to these wild places reflected their longing to achieve correspondence between belief and place, between inner and outer landscapes. We can surmise that the monks moved outwards because they wished to leave behind inhabited land: land which in every feature was named. Almost all Celtic place-names are commemorative: the bardic schools, as late as the seventeenth century, taught the history of places through their names, so that landscape became a theatre of memory, continually reminding its inhabitants of attachment and belonging. To migrate away from the named places (territories whose topography was continuous with memory and community) to the coasts (the unmapped islands, the anonymous forests) was to reach land that did not bear the marks of occupation. It was to act out a movement from history to eternity.’

Macfarlane points to the ‘rich literature’ left behind by the peregrini, most of whose individual names, like that of the Beowulf poet, are lost to us through time. Their writings are scattered ‘gleanings’ we can gather and hoard to piece together glimpses of their thoughts. The monks’ poems, Macfarlane tells us:

‘speak eloquently of a passionate and precise relationship with nature, and the blend of receptivity and detachment which characterised their interactions with it. Some of their poems read like jotted lists, or field notes:- ‘Swarms of bees, beetles, soft music of the world, a gentle humming; brent geese, barnacle geese, shortly before All Hallows, music of the dark wild torrent.’

Reading Macfarlane’s descriptions of their delight-filled poems, it seems to me that, despite the monks’ efforts to leave behind the named and the known, belonging gathered round them. Connection reasserted itself in growing affinity with the character of each new place, and in the larger patterns of nature that overarched wherever they travelled. There’s a strong sense that those patterns, both inner and outer, adjusted and found old recognition in their fit, whether the precise details of the surroundings, or the living creatures that inhabited them, were new or familiar.

Alongside their feelings of exile from an otherworldly eternity, on which their sights were set – nature, for these monks, also seems to have been a deepening into Moment and This World. Awareness of the wind, of bird calls, of foxes at play, of sunlight spilling on the page, is accompanied by a nourishing and gladdening wonder. There is a sense that they are bearing gentle, reassured witness to not so much an over-spilling of edges - but a complete suffusion of the sacred in this world; a recognition of the epic, and a faith in the divine, as it passes over on the wings of barnacle geese, lives in the roar of the ‘dark wild torrent’ – or bides time in the small, focused movement of a beetle. ‘For these writers,’ Macfarlane tells us, ‘attention was a form of devotion and noticing continuous with worship.’

Through these ancient texts, both Celtic and Anglo Saxon, we see ideas of the wild travelling on complex currents of culture, environment and experience – and a strong undertow of older beliefs and traditions mixed with the new. All leave a tangled pattern of tide marks for us to try to interpret; as well as a great deal we can recognise in the workings of the world today, and in ourselves, as each of us adds to the pattern.

Recently, I’ve been reading and revelling in Miriam Darlington’s beautiful and gripping book, Otter Country.

Otter Country by Miriam Darlington, published by Granta

Otter Country by Miriam Darlington, published by Granta

I had already composed most of this post when I reached the section of the book, Marsh, in which Miriam tracks the elusive otter through the mysterious flatlands of the Somerset Levels, not far from where we live. She writes that the Avalon Marshes are: ‘living memory. A reading of the layered chapters in the peat reveals the story’- and I feel compelled by Miriam’s rich, illuminating observations to, otter-like, slide them in here as another layer to this post, building more seams into the ever-deepening story:

‘I can’t look at the marsh without the stories of its dark side creeping in. At night here it’s as black as a bag, and you can’t see or feel your way out. In the fog it feels as if the earth wants to eat you. Our ancestors used to throw votive offerings and trinkets into the mire to avoid being devoured. In Beowulf, Grendel comes out of the swamp to drag people off and feast on them. Bogs did and do still swallow people. The Grendel stories translate wetland into a dark, mapless world: ‘it is not far from here,’ the story suggests, inviting us to glance over our shoulders, ‘nor is it a pleasant place.’ The memory of devil-ridden mire, the unconquered swamp, has always been close-by. On the other hand, the American writer Aldo Leopold, in his Marshland Elegy, admired marshy landscape so much that he claimed he would have liked to be a musk-rat. Henry David Thoreau loved to stand up to his neck in a swamp. He said that when he was dead they would find bog oak written on his heart; and Seamus Heaney sanctifies the ottery bog as part of his national identity. He describes its fathomless texture as saturated with another sort of language ‘meaning soft,/ the fall of windless rain’. Does the shape of the watery landscape affect the way we feel and see? These writers at least seem to have been consciously nourished by wetlands.’

- From Otter Country, by Miriam Darlington (Published by Granta)

As I write this, it is raining. I look out of the window and see a grey pall of sky, wet roofs and running gutters. A magpie is croaking sullenly from a chimney across the street. But, back in September, glorious sunshine turned the close of that month into a glowing lamp to light up the last corner of summer.

My husband and I took our son out to test drive his new wheelchair – and were met by a blaze of berries. The blackberries had ripened – but were mostly still unyielding fists of fruit – not yet ready to fall from the stalk as we grasped them between finger and thumb.

As we walked, the trees and shrubs flaunted their fruits – rowan, hawthorn, sloes, elder, rosehips…

But the most spectacular of all were the spindle trees. Exotic in fruitful display, the spindle is a shrub which seems to belie its credentials as a native to our ancient woodlands.

The spindle berries are like tiny Chinese lanterns. Luminous, and a startling shade of pink, they are shaped with an incredible delicacy and grace of form:

Spindle tree berries, close-up

Spindle berries and sky

Spindle berries and pink leaves

They hang from the trees like jewels waiting to be plucked. Embellishments fit for a Saxon sword.

Clusters of Spindle berries

Some of the leaves had turned the same shade of pink as the berries – and, against the blue sky, each one glowed like a mead hall flame.

Spindle tree pink leaves and sky

A few clusters amongst the abundant spindle berries had already burst their casing – revealing bright orange seed, ripe and sticky.

Spindle tree berry seeds

Look closely at a spindle tree’s branches, and you will see the beautiful, bulging precision of their squared edges – like a rounded dice, stretched and thinned into elongated form.

Richard Mabey’s botanically and culturally fascinating Flora Britannica (an epic work in its own right!) tells us that the spindle tree ‘shares its name with the weighted stick that was used for hand-spinning raw wool before the invention of the spinning wheel’ and that this name:

‘appears to have been imported by the sixteenth-century botanist William Turner: ‘I haue sene this tree oft tymes in England and in moste plentye betwene Ware and Barkwaye, yet for al that I coulde neuer learne an Englishe name for it: the Duche men call it in Netherlande Spilboome that is Spindel tree, because they vse to make Spindels of it in that contrey and me thynke it may be so wel named in English.’

It is curious that this specialised foreign name stuck, and replaced a host of popular names that more accurately reflected its uses here. Spindle’s hard, pale yellow wood made it ideal for skewers, toothpicks, pegs and knitting needles, and before Turner (and after him, in country districts) it was known, for instance, as prickwood, skewer-wood (or skiver) and pincushion shrub.’

As we looked and I photographed, a dragonfly darted through the spindle’s leaves, pausing to glisten darkly as it warmed its wings in the sun. A speckled wood butterfly, looking fresh and pristine – a flourishing of the year’s second or third brood – did likewise.

Speckled Wood butterfly on spindle tree, Sept. 2013

We walked home accompanied by the chatter of sparrows in garden hedges, and the soft rise of white butterflies from late flowers. In our garden, a single small white still haunted our ever-dwindling buddleia bush. The breeze batted its unresisting form between hedge and fence – and a fresh, emblazoned red admiral took centre stage, declaring itself with colours bolder even than the day.

In The Butterflies of Britain and Ireland (1991 edition), Jeremy Thomas writes:

‘After hibernation, the adult Red Admiral has a strong urge to fly northwards. This lasts throughout May, June, and July, and brings varying numbers to Britain every year…. From mid-August onwards, a change takes place, and the Red Admirals start to return south. By mid-September, the traffic becomes more or less one-way. Nobody knows whether this is triggered by the diminishing length of days, or whether it is simply an instinct of the final brood to emerge…. In general, the species is commonest after a long, warm summer, and is sometimes very abundant indeed.’

In our West Country garden, the red admiral fed for a while on the buddleia, tipping its way round and between the fermenting and shrivelled flowers, disappearing and reappearing as it folded and opened its patterned wings. And, in the mellow slide of light into the lengthening grass, autumn too seemed to be opening and closing a fitful dance towards the mead hall fireside. All around us, the day was gathering a summer-hoard; drawing to it time-translating tales. Ripening them like berries.

The red admiral felt the shift in the light. Tied to the sun, it was tugged towards the story’s centre. It landed, wings outspread, on our whirligig washing line – a display of contrasts.

The beautiful and the mundane, the caught and the uncontrollable, the named and the unnamed, the known and the unknown, ends and beginnings; each exists in the turned back edges of the other. Side by side, they find each other out – and, like poetry, unlock the epic in the everyday.

And in our garden now, in the rain, teasels waver – bronze, light-fringed – hoarding their confident waiting for goldfinches to set them on fire…

Seamus Heaney – Digging and Remembering…

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

- Extract from Digging, by Seamus Heaney, from Death of a Naturalist (Faber and Faber, 1966)

The leaves on our damson trees are turning yellow; many have fallen already. White butterflies, like wind-blown petals trying to re-attach themselves to the desiccated whiteness of our buddleia, gather to its heady scent, richer than ever on the weight of September air. Beneath the warm sunshine, there is a whisper of cold – small gusts around my feet in grass grown lush after summer’s thirst.

And Seamus Heaney now lives on in words. Immediate as the heady scent that beguiles the butterflies, the words he leaves behind reach my senses – and hit my synapses. They surprise with truth. Dig deep, like Seamus’s pen, to turn over and expose to the air peaty layers of being; layers formed by years – and by words and poems fermenting in the soil.

Get an old book down from the shelf…

A gathering of poetry on my bookshelves

Selection of Seamus Heaney poetry collections, published by Faber & Faber

…and I’m soon digging up old strata of self and memory – turning over Seamus’s poems, and the times to which they first belonged in my life. And now, I also find that new layers have silted over the old, mixing to make a richer, though sometimes sadder, loam in which to reveal the bog body of accumulated life.

Back in the 1980s, Neil Corcoran, author of another reopened book from my shelves:

Seamus Heaney by Neil Corcoran, Published by Faber and Faber, 1986

Seamus Heaney by Neil Corcoran, Published by Faber and Faber, 1986

was one of my lecturers at university. I remember sitting in the lecture theatre, elbow to elbow with a hundred or so other eager souls, listening to how he had met Seamus Heaney. I remember it striking me how, as an academic caught in the fascination of research into contemporary literature, you might have within your reach the intriguing possibility of meeting your subject of study; a possibility that could, perhaps, add very immediate open doors to insight – or maybe keep them guarded by the constraints of, as yet, unfolded time. I remember thinking, “He’s met Seamus Heaney. He’s actually met Seamus Heaney!” He has shared thoughts with the poet about the very poem on the page in front me, its lines now surrounded by a crazy halo of pencil-scrawl annotation, my handwriting agitated by language-love and discovery.

And Heaney’s poems are poems to love, to add to the layers of self – to fold into that peaty mix filled with half-buried scents which, when the digging times come, we unearth and release; gazing into the slow burn of accumulated experience and fathoming, illuminating where we are now.

The first poem of Seamus Heaney’s I ever read was Blackberry-Picking, from his collection, Death of a Naturalist. With the blackberries fattening on our hedge, and the season of Keats’s ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’ upon us, it seems apt to quote Blackberry-Picking here in remembrance of its author. I can recall that first reading, sitting in one of my earliest tutorials at university. Autumn sunlight, lazy in the slant of its highest hour, leant heavy and insistent against Victorian sash windows; squashing us into a shaded corner of the rug-softened room, pigeons tapping at the glass to be fed. Heaney’s words were passed around between us – and something ripened, like those ‘glossy’ blackberries, inside my head. I remember it as a discovery. A blackberry picking of words. A gathering of a new understanding into my life.

Blackberry-Picking

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

By Seamus Heaney, from Death of a Naturalist (Faber and Faber, 1966)

Also powerfully apt for this time of year and of remembering, is Heaney’s poem, Postscript. I heard the wonderful Edna O’Brien reciting this on Radio 4’s recent Front Row tribute to the Nobel laureate – she said it was her favourite Heaney poem. I think it has become one of my most favourites too:

Postscript

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

By Seamus Heaney, from The Spirit Level (Faber and Faber, 1996)

Seamus Heaney was one of those people whose death filled me with a sense of personal, as well as collective, loss. He was one of those greats whose contributions are like the propelling waves and clarifying sunlight on the literary ocean. On a personal level, those waves and sunlight feel like a connection to a never-ending voyage – compass points to follow, winds to capture in your sails, and glimpses of places where an anchor can reach down into depthless, and yet secure, moments of pause.

In his Nobel Lecture in 1995, Heaney spoke of how:

‘…poetry can make an order….where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew. An order which satisfies all that is appetitive in the intelligence and prehensile in the affections. I credit poetry, in other words, both for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference….I credit it because credit is due to it, in our time and in all time, for its truth to life, in every sense of that phrase.’

And he shone a light on:

‘….poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.’

When I heard the news of his death, I was already heavy with the sadness of life’s cruel turns for one of the people I love most dearly – and Seamus’s passing added another sad acceptance to the fold of what is, and what will be. I never met him in person – and yet I have met him many times in his poems. And those poems have touched my life – they have helped, and still are helping, me to ‘grow up to that which [ I ] stored up as [ I ] grew.’

On a personal level, many more layers, I hope, will continue to form in my life – there are certainly many still to dig! To our collective cultural soil, other people, other generations, will add countless layers upon layers. And, within all that mix, Seamus’s poetry will live on, persuading ‘that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it,’ – releasing crucial scents into times and lives beyond personal memory; into that timeless sense of personal knowing that buffets us softly, leaves us ‘neither here nor there’ and blows the heart open.

Adam Bede – ‘Clear images before your gladden’d eyes’

I’ve been away; travelling the length and breadth of England – but not on holiday. It’s been an anxious and challenging time. We managed to squeeze in some moments of rest, recuperation and togetherness – some refuelling; a brief (much shortened) trip to Northumberland to pause, calm ourselves, spend a few days with my parents-in-law, breathe the consoling beauty of Alnmouth beach - and make a steadying, promised visit to Barter Books with my daughter. Then I was away to where I was needed most, whilst my husband returned westwards with the kids to hold the fort at home. I’m back now, though emotional distraction, tiredness and vital family priorities mean blogging will be difficult for a while. But, here’s a post I intended to put up on the blog a couple of weeks or so ago – before we received the news that altered our course and called me away. The post isn’t quite finished; not edited, polished or thought out as much as I’d like. But, I can’t muster up enough concentration to shape it into something better. Please accept it for what it is, an unsculpted piece of clay – but full of feeling:

I am currently reading Adam Bede – and this is how it is making me feel:

'Woman Reading' by Leon Kaufmann, 1892-1933

‘Woman Reading’ by Leon Kaufmann, 1892-1933

Reading George Eliot’s novel is like sunlight hovering at my fingertips – like April rays after rain, filling my vision. Eliot’s characters are populating my house. I know these people. We each draw up a chair on the rug – and swap our times of day, as familiar as if we were family. How does Eliot do it? How does she draw a character so surely, so deftly – in just a few introductory lines – sometimes just in a sentence – so that, instantly, we know them, recognise them – see the slant of their head, the lean of their shoulder against the doorframe, the foot they place on the ground; the small frown, the scratch of the head – the eyebrow knitted, the hand reaching out across the years? We can anticipate the demeanour of each of her character’s actions even before we see them leave their initial pose, or hear them speak; before first introductions are even complete.

And, strong affections are knit so swiftly into the weave of those introductions. How did Eliot make me love the Reverend Irwine almost as soon as I’d met him? The light in his face is not so much described, as felt in that sunlight of words that warms my own face as I read; illuminating too the instant, sure portrait of his mother, Mrs Irwine – our first glimpse of her resplendent, ring-laden, self-regarding mien, enough to catch the way in which ‘that stately old lady’ is a foil for herself; a two sided coin of smallness, and the impressiveness of seeming magnanimity.

From their life on the page, to the reality of our own days – each time, Eliot’s observations balance perfectly with experience. Like a well-judged, intuitive scoop of ingredients added to the recipe – they always correspond to every measurement of the truth. Her characters don’t exist in an idea, or a concept – or as a creation. They are living, breathing – solid flesh and blood. They are with you in the room. They walk beside you in the sunlight, in the rain – your feet splashing with theirs in the mud.

Eliot gives us detail, depth – and time. She gives us lots of time. Things unfold slowly, at real-time pace; with the beat of real hearts and of bodily gesture, with the natural pace of thought, emotion and conversation – with the daily movement of the sun.

I am standing beside Grandfather Poyser, leaning on the gate and dreaming the distance between the hedgerows and the retreating backs of his family as they cross the fields towards Hayslope church.

And I am wandering the village, its valley – and Fir-tree Grove:

‘…a wood of beeches and limes, with here and there a light, silver-stemmed birch – just the sort of wood most haunted by the nymphs; you see their white sun-lit limbs gleaming athwart the boughs, or peeping from behind the smooth-sweeping outline of a tall lime….….. Not a grove with measured grass or rolled gravel for you to tread upon, but with narrow, hollow-shaped, earthy paths, edged with faint dashes of delicate moss – paths which look as if they were made by the freewill of the trees and underwood, moving reverently aside to look at the tall queen of the white-footed nymphs.’

Paths made as if ‘by the freewill of the trees’ – isn’t that a wonderful phrase? I’m sure we have all followed such paths in our time…

And in this place, Fir-tree Grove, named – with beguiling idiosyncrasy – ‘not because the firs were many, but because they were few,’ we see Arthur Donnithorne caught, against his frail better judgement, by his fascination for Hetty Sorrel - waiting to meet her amongst ‘Those beeches and smooth limes’ which he comes to see as ‘surely…haunted by his evil genius.’ Here, at a remove from the more sobering effect of the Chase where ‘the strong knotted old oaks had no bending languor in them,’ Arthur’s fragile ‘self-mastery’ dissolves:

‘…It was a still afternoon – the golden light was lingering languidly among the upper boughs, only glancing down here and there on the purple pathway and its edge of faintly-sprinkled moss; an afternoon in which destiny disguises her cold awful face behind a hazy radiant veil, encloses us in warm downy wings, and poisons us with violet-scented breath.’

And then, I am shadowing another meeting, between Adam Bede and Hetty Sorrel in the Hall Farm garden, where flowers, fruit and vegetables grow ‘together in careless, half-neglected abundance’ and roses teem ‘all huddled together in bushy masses, now flaunting with wide open petals.’ An Eden place, where the mismatch of Hetty and Adam, in the collide of their very different dreams, has already set its seeds of heartbreak.

I glimpse that coming heartbreak as I walk the Hayslope lanes with Adam, for whom ‘It was summer morning in his heart, and he saw Hetty in the sunshine: a sunshine without glare – with slanting rays that tremble between the delicate shadows of the leaves.’

On the edge of Hayslope’s ‘rich undulating district’ - within sight, and always on the margins of awareness – lies ‘a grim outskirt of Stonyshire,’ a landscape of ‘barren hills’; the shadow of a more starkly declared possibility just a short step away.

On entering the region of Hayslope:

‘…the traveller might exchange a bleak treeless region, intersected by lines of cold grey stone, for one where his road wound under the shelter of woods, or up swelling hills, muffled with hedgerows and long meadow-grass and thick corn; and where at every turn he came upon some fine old country-seat nestled in the valley or crowning the slope, some homestead with its long length of barn and its cluster of golden ricks, some grey steeple looking out from a pretty confusion of trees and thatch and dark-red tiles. It was just such a picture as this that Hayslope church had made to the traveller as he began to mount the gentle slope leading to its pleasant uplands, and now from his station near the Green he had before him in one view nearly all the other typical features of this pleasant land. High up against the horizon were the huge conical masses of hill, like giant mounds intended to fortify this region of corn and grass against the keen and hungry winds of the north; not distant enough to be clothed in purple mystery, but with sombre greenish sides visibly specked with sheep, whose motion was only revealed by memory, not detected by sight; wooed from day to day by the changing hours, but responding with no change in themselves – left for ever grim and sullen after the flush of morning, the winged gleams of the April noonday, the parting crimson glory of the ripening summer sun.’

We too, as we read the novel, are ‘wooed from day to day’ with a gradual motion ‘revealed by memory.’ And, like a ghost invited through the locked gates of the Hall Farm, I see the old manor house and farmyard, the sheen of sunlight touching every surface; warming my skin.

Come with me there ‘…for imagination is a licensed trespasser: it has no fear of dogs, but may climb over walls and peep in at windows with impunity’:

‘…the life at the Hall has changed its focus, and no longer radiates from the parlour, but from the kitchen and the farmyard.

Plenty of life is there! though this is the drowsiest time of the year, just before hay-harvest; and it is the drowsiest time of the day too, for it is close upon three by the sun, and it is half-past three by Mrs Poyser’s handsome eight-day clock. But there is always a stronger sense of life when the sun is brilliant after rain; and now he is pouring down his beams, and making sparkles among the wet straw, and lighting up every patch of vivid green moss on the red tiles of the cow-shed, and turning even the muddy water that is hurrying along the channel to the drain into a mirror for the yellow-billed ducks, who are seizing the opportunity of getting a drink with as much body in it as possible.’

In the farm’s ‘house-place’:

‘Everything was looking at its brightest at this moment, for the sun shone right on the pewter dishes, and from their reflecting surfaces pleasant jets of light were thrown on mellow oak and bright brass; – and on a still pleasanter object than these; for some of the rays fell on Dinah’s finely-moulded cheek, and lit up her pale red hair to auburn, as she bent over the heavy household linen which she was mending for her aunt.’

I am reading Adam Bede, and it is lighting up my hours, my days, my mind. George Eliot loves people. For all their faults and frailties and failings, she loves them. Even when the sharper cuts of her perception and prodigious intellect fall critically upon a character, the understanding and compassion informing her words warm, deepen and clarify - like awakening light.

Do you feel it too – that glimmering illumination, with its insistent realness of shadow; that luminous, incisive light filling the edges of your vision?

Penguin Classics edition of 'Adam Bede' by George Eliot, edited by Stephen Gill

Penguin Classics edition of ‘Adam Bede’ by George Eliot, edited by Stephen Gill

“So that ye may have
Clear images before your gladden’d eyes
Of nature’s unambitious underwood
And flowers that prosper in the shade. And when
I speak of such among the flock as swerved
Or fell, those only shall be singled out
Upon whose lapse, or error, something more
Than brotherly forgiveness may attend.”

- William Wordsworth (from The Excursion)

(George Eliot’s chosen epigraph for Adam Bede – quoted on the title page of Volume 1).

Shakespeare’s Globe On Screen – Twelfth Night

The genesis of the original Globe Theatre is a story of intrigue, daring and initiative – an actor’s out-of-hours tale as dramatic as any portrayed on stage.

In his excellent book for children, Shakespeare – His Work and His World (beautifully illustrated by Robert Ingpen) Michael Rosen tells the tale like this:

‘It’s the middle of the night on the edge of London, a few days after Christmas Day, 1598. The River Thames is frozen over, snow is falling. The roofs of the timbered houses and the nearby fields are white with it. Four buildings stand higher than the nearby houses, shops, bowling-alleys, gambling houses and taverns – a windmill, a church and two theatres. One of the theatres is called the Curtain, and the other simply the Theatre….

.…tonight sixteen men are pulling down the Theatre. Two of them are brothers. They run a company of actors who put on plays, and with them there’s a builder and his workmen. As the men hurry about their work, it’s clear that what’s going on is secret and must be done as quickly as possible…. Two strangers arrive and start quizzing them. The workmen lie and say they are only taking down the parts of the building that are decaying…. But before long the men are taking the timbers across London Bridge to Southwark, where the theatre will be rebuilt and become known as one of the world’s most famous theatres: the Globe.’

'Shakespeare - His Work and His World' by Michael Rosen, Illustrated by Robert Ingpen

‘Shakespeare – His Work and His World’ by Michael Rosen, Illustrated by Robert Ingpen

Although James Burbage owned the Theatre, he leased the ground on which it stood – and the lease was due to expire at the end of 1597. The ground landlord, Giles Allen, seems to have seen this as his chance to make both money - and a manoeuvre that would satisfy his disapproval of theatrical productions. He raised the price of the lease to a sky-high level – and when negotiations failed, planned to pull down the Theatre and sell the materials. But, Burbage had discovered a clause in the original lease which allowed him to dismantle his theatre – and so he gathered his acting troupe to undertake the task under cover of a winter’s night…

Illustration by Robert Ingpen (dismantling the Theatre, 1598) - From 'Shakespeare - His Work and His World' by Michael Rosen

Illustration by Robert Ingpen (dismantling the Theatre, 1598) – From ‘Shakespeare – His Work and His World’ by Michael Rosen

As Michael Rosen points out, they were taking an enormous risk ‘…because if it can be proved that they are stealing, they will all be hanged and their severed heads put on show.’ These were people dedicated to their business, their livelihood, their autonomy – actors who claimed the world of the imagination, placed it in a Thames-side swamp and watched it grow…

Illustrations of The Globe Theatre by Robert Ingpen - From 'Shakespeare - His Work and His World' by Michael Rosen.

Illustrations of The Globe Theatre by Robert Ingpen – From ‘Shakespeare – His Work and His World’ by Michael Rosen.

…And all these centuries later, in 2013, on a sizzling Sunday at the beginning of July’s heat wave, it felt as if Burbage and Co. had been moving their theatre again – and had somehow cunningly contrived to set it up inside our local cinema…

Shakespeare’s Globe On Screen was like honey to a bee for my daughter and me. A strong enough lure for us to forsake one of the earliest sun-drenched afternoons of the summer, to sit in a darkened room – and happily travel to Illyria via the Globe’s 2012 production of Twelfth Night, directed by Tim Carroll.

Described as an ‘Original Practices production, exploring clothing, music, dance and settings possible in the Globe of around 1601,’ it was the first full all-male cast production of Shakespeare either of us had seen – and this experience, in itself, was like a direct, electric hook-up to the original presentations of his work. It highlighted all the more the complexities and emotional scope of all that cross dressing and gender disguise; the instances of a man falling in love with a woman disguised as a man, played by a man. And of a woman, played by a man, falling in love with a woman disguised as a man, played by a man. Situations that roll out like a series of magic carpets; layered with all the opportunities for both the fun and serious exploration of assumed and more latent aspects of sexuality and identity.

Mark Rylance was wonderful as Olivia - gliding demurely across the stage; stately, black-clad and - after her meeting with Cesario/ Viola - set simmering beneath corseted consonants, like verse ready to break free from the confines of its form.

Johnny Flynn as Viola/ Cesario was all at once innocent, knowing, bold, perplexed and heart-sore, lost in love. I was totally able to believe in the girl beneath the boy – even though the girl beneath the boy was – a man! The illusion and magic of the theatre – and Shakespeare’s manipulation of the power of the imagination – was brought to a pitch that fully referenced the play’s own relationship to the contemporary tools of its trade.

Paul Chahidi totally inhabited his role of Maria – catching every beat of comic timing (as well as glancing the darker undertones the audience’s way) on the delivery of each line, gesture and facial expression. He positively seethed as a woman biding the unleashing of her own powers.

Colin Hurley as Sir Toby Belch and Roger Lloyd Pack as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, were a double act made of that same cloth of comic timing and endearing humour – and of the casually draped darker and disturbing edges to their relationship, motivations and intentions. They were joined in this by my daughter’s favourite in the play – Peter Hamilton Dyer as Feste; wearing his part of Shakespearean Fool with that required demeanour of both familiar participant – and aloof, amoral onlooker; a kind of vessel for the looser, intangible, elusive, discordant, stranger aspects of the play’s atmosphere and pitch. In his wide eyes and melancholic, beautiful singing he underlined both the moral, philosophical questions, and the detachment of strings cut free from accountability.

Liam Brennan’s comic-petulant, earnest-shallow, affronted-romantic Orsino reminded me how every time I encounter his character I am worried by Viola’s choice – and see perfect sense in Olivia’s keeping her distance. The man is in love with love – and adrift in his own illusions. And, as this production suggests, perhaps he desires Cesario more than he desires Viola… But, of course (and as the play constantly reminds us) sexual attraction tends, for those involved, to lead to a complete bypassing of analytical scrutiny – and lights a mysterious touch paper that often burns out of kilter with surface awareness.

The comedy of the play was beautifully played by all - with both control and wonderful exuberance – and Stephen Fry came into his own as Malvolio. He wore the role with convincing comfort, and his both comic and hugely touching delivery of the scene in which he finds Olivia’s supposed letter, inspired an eruption of spontaneous applause from the onscreen audience – and heartfelt inner applause from us in the cinema. Fry’s portrayal of Malvolio’s very deep delight at the discovery that he is loved (‘I am happy!’) cut through the character’s pomposity, and formed a connection of heart-strung sympathy from the audience. And so, the most was made of Shakespeare’s revelation of the human beneath the character, intensifying the unease we feel in accepting any complicity in Sir Toby’s, Sir Andrew’s and Maria’s cruel schemes – though, the full impact of this unease did not come through until the end; reserved for then, and held back by the sheer force and beguilement of the comedy. We, as audience, are suddenly brought up short by our complicity – but, in this presentation of the play, not for too long. This was a production that emphasised the life-affirming pull of comedy – the subversive festivities of a Twelfth Night – and allowed the audience to run with it, to have our ‘cakes and ale,’ rather than tug us back with overly hard overtones of judgement. The unease and the darkness leave an aftertaste to mull over later…

And so, Theatre lives, breathes and finds its place, despite the ‘puritan’ negations of a Malvolio, or the likes of a theatre-demolishing Giles Allen. And, true to the traditions of Twelfth Night – the Feast of Fools – everything has been turned upside down. Through shadows and through light, through ‘the wind and the rain’ we have been led in a complex dance by the Lord of Misrule.

‘it raineth every day’ – and Life’s festive and mournful sides both have their need, their time – and their responsibilities.

‘…what is yours to bestow is not yours to reserve’ says Viola to Olivia.

Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?’ Sir Toby asks Malvolio.

What is love?’ Feste asks us…

Questions that, when we truly engage with them, can dismantle us – or at least challenge and dismantle our preconceptions – and can rebuild and rearrange and renew…

The experience of seeing a full Globe Theatre production at the cinema was definitely the next best thing to being there. The big screen brought us close to the actors and the action; the audience present at the recording seemed to draw us in as one of its own – and the vitality of sixteenth/seventeenth century music, colour, dance and spectacle typical of a Globe production, placed us under the magical illusion of actually being there. There was even a fifteen minute interval between Acts – for ice creams and loo breaks – just as if we were at the theatre.

My daughter and I relished the experience – and were both feeling on a “theatre-high” all evening afterwards. We’re now looking forward to seeing The Taming of the Shrew this month, when the Burbage brothers and Co. get up to their metaphorical dismantling tricks again – and move Shakespeare’s Globe back to our local cinema once more…

You can find details of the productions and check out cinema venues and times at the Shakespeare’s Globe On Screen website.

All the Globe 2012 season of plays – Twelfth Night, Henry V and The Taming of the Shrew will be available on DVD from the autumn.

Here’s a clip from Twelfth Night (Act II, Scene 2) with Stephen Fry as Malvolio and Johnny Flynn as Viola/ Cesario:

Time Travel with Thomas Hardy

Occasionally, we get the chance to travel in time. Days flip back, like the ruffled pages of a book, to a moment when the players in a scene are suspended in their own present – and we, like Dick Dewy emerging from the whispering woods in Under the Greenwood Tree, step from the shadows, and into the beginning of a story…

'Under the Greenwood Tree' by Thomas Hardy - Penguin Classics and Folio Society editions.

‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ by Thomas Hardy – Penguin Classics and Folio Society editions.

A few years ago, whilst researching my family history online, I decided on a whim to wander the census in search of records of a favourite writer.

I chose the year 1841…

Typed in the name…

The place…

Clicked the mouse, once, twice…

Came face to face with the image of an aged document…

And, following its faded words into a long past moment:

Higher Bockhampton, Parish of Stinsford (District 7)

Mary Hardy – Age 65

Thomas Hardy – Age 25 – Mason

Jemima Hardy – Age 25

Thomas Hardy – Age 1

…found myself falling into step beside Dick Dewy along Mellstock Lane.

Together, we approached Tranter’s Cottage, our footfalls hollowing to silence on the root-crumpled soil…

Apple boughs draped the cool weight of dusk around our shoulders. Honeysuckle loosed moths from around the window’s edges. We stepped closer, peered in – grasped the ghost of a long past moment:

The Self-Unseeing

Here is the ancient floor,
Footworn and hollowed and thin,
Here was the former door
Where the dead feet walked in.

She sat here in her chair,
Smiling into the fire;
He who played stood there,
Bowing it higher and higher.

Childlike, I danced in a dream;
Blessings emblazoned that day;
Everything glowed with a gleam;
Yet we were looking away!

- Thomas Hardy

…And like Hardy, time-travelling through layers of place and perspective in this poem, we feel a sharpened appreciation of the past moment we witness; a newly heightened awareness of its significance and value. But, for us, the candlelit scene in the cottage is not one of hindsight-revealed loss, but of hindsight-revealed promise.

As we focus closer, our census-night scene remains hazy – malleable according to which way the imagination wavers. Is little Thomas sitting contentedly on his grandmother’s knee, ‘smiling into the fire?’ Or is Thomas Senior shaking free from his long day’s tracery of stone-dust, boots keeping time to a tune from his fiddle, ‘bowing it higher and higher’? Or is little Thomas asleep in his cradle? Or does he distract his mother from her work with his cries? If so, as Jemima lifts him to her shoulder, does she catch even a glimmer of what her son will become? Or what he will mean to people like me, over a hundred and seventy years into the future – and beyond?

Tranter’s is the fictional echo of the small thatched cottage built by Hardy’s grandfather in 1800; the real-world birthplace of Thomas, and the home of the Dewy family in Under the Greenwood Tree – which, in true Chinese box style, was written within its walls.

I have visited the cottage in my mind many a time, but in reality only once, in 2004:

Thomas Hardy's birthplace (June 2004)

Thomas Hardy’s birthplace (June 2004)

Even then, I didn’t go inside. We had sought out Thorncombe Woods for a homeward picnic after a holiday near Charmouth – and, with two small children in tow, it felt like a better bet to just enjoy the adventure of a ramble amongst the trees (those whispering woods Dick Dewy walked through) to find the magical, hidden cottage and watch butterflies in the garden.

I spent some sobering moments gazing out across what was left of Hardy’s Egdon Heath behind his birthplace, trying to superimpose his descriptions on what now filled my vision (dark, dense conifer plantation cloaked large areas of the land). Thankfully, a heathland restoration project was underway to bring back more of the wildlife-rich landscape he would have known and loved. When we visited back in 2004, information boards dotted Thorncombe Woods to announce the launch of an attempt to unlock time and a lost landscape; to turn back the page, and once more suspend the land in that long moment of halted natural succession Hardy would have experienced in his own lifetime – and which had existed in the collective memory of many previous generations.

As Richard Mabey points out in his 1993 essay Landscape: The Real Stuff (from Selected Writings 1974 – 1999) - heathland is:

‘…a kind of community that the strict hierarchies of landscape mythology don’t care to admit – a symbiosis, a partnership between humans and nature…created by the clearance of woodland on poor soils…it can only be maintained as heath if the cutting, burning or grazing, be it natural or deliberate, is continued. Otherwise it will eventually revert to woodland, as is happening at the moment to many of the unmanaged heaths of southern England.’

Mabey elaborates how the mythology of heathlands:

‘…is of a primeval, naturally formed wilderness, which because it hasn’t apparently been ‘reclaimed’ by human work is ‘wasteland’. Even Thomas Hardy, whose landscape history was usually impeccable, took this view. His description of Egdon Heath in the opening chapter of The Return of the Native – ‘A Face on Which Time Makes But Little Impression’- is one of the most evocative passages of landscape writing in the language, yet it still paints Egdon as literally, as well as emotionally, primordial.’

Title page, 'The Return of the Native' Folio Society edition. Wood engraving illustration by Peter Reddick

Title page, ‘The Return of the Native’ Folio Society edition. Wood engraving illustration by Peter Reddick

But, the illusion of the literally primordial aside, the foremost impression made upon me by those amazing opening chapters of The Return of the Native (and the point they most strongly convey) is of the continuity shared by successive generations in their relationship to that particular landscape. Centre stage are the signs and shaping of lives lived on that ‘vast tract of unenclosed wild’; the prehistoric burial barrows, the inherited customs, the livelihoods - and the basic concerns of life and death that connect the ages past and present. It is like Lear’s heath – where we are stripped of all trappings, to be in direct contact with the elemental of the land, the universe, the human:

‘It seemed as if the bonfire-makers were standing in some radiant upper storey of the world, detached from and independent of the dark stretches below…

…It was as if these men and boys had suddenly dived into past ages, and fetched therefrom an hour and deed which had before been familiar with this spot. The ashes of the original British pyre which blazed from that summit lay fresh and undisturbed in the barrow beneath their tread. The flames from funeral piles long ago kindled there had shone down upon the lowlands as these were shining now. Festival fires to Thor and Woden had followed on the same ground and duly had their day. Indeed, it is pretty well known that such blazes as this the heathmen were now enjoying are rather the lineal descendants from jumbled Druidical rites and Saxon ceremonies than the invention of popular feeling about Gunpowder plot.

Moreover to light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against the fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, Let there be light.’

- From The Return of the Native, Chapter 3 – ‘The Custom of the Country.’

All around that unbiddable “wasteland” is Change, a world ‘harassed by the irrepressible New’. We feel the Modern Age very much at work as a character - a state of mind, a reflective observer – through the narrative voice of the novel. But, Egdon remains the unchanging, the intractable core.

Wood engraving illustration of 'Egdon Heath' by Peter Reddick - from the Folio Society edition of 'The Return of the Native'

Wood engraving illustration of ‘Egdon Heath’ by Peter Reddick – from the Folio Society edition of ‘The Return of the Native’

Sadly, Egdon’s apparent immutability belied its actual fragility. As Mabey goes on to say:

The south Dorset heaths that Hardy immortalised as Egdon have been largely destroyed by enclosure and ploughing.’

Hopes for some of that heathland now pin on a time-travelling landscape, brought into being by a return to human customs which link us, past to past to future…

Change, and its consequences, was gathering pace during Hardy’s lifetime, and for him, Under the Greenwood Tree was a form of time travel in itself. He set the novel in the past, around the year of his birth: ‘to preserve for my own satisfaction a fairly true record of a vanishing life.’

On that census night in 1841, the quirks and concerns of that ‘vanishing life’ were yet to time travel on the turn of a young man’s thoughts and memories. Amongst the Hardy family and their neighbours, who could have foreseen that, out from the melting pot of their influence and the imagination of that one-year-old baby, would spring Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge – a whole cast of unforgettable characters – and the glorious descriptions of a Wessex that, because Hardy loved it, has been preserved spellbindingly on the page?

To overlap time, and to “witness” the very young Thomas’s as yet un-guessed potential was a powerful moment; like stumbling across a page torn from a story – a chapter left snagged on a branch and sought by the wind. There he was; a vulnerable child, poised to meet the vagaries of Fate – that fickle force he would go on to explore, with intensifying bitter-tenderness, in his writing. So many possibilities were held within that life just beginning – the paths he might have taken; the opportunities waiting upon Chance; the novels and poems he might never have written had other choices been made…

What a poorer world it would have been without them.

I, for one, am so grateful for the literary fruits of that life’s journey. I know that, for some, Hardy is a problematic figure (all the better to meet us halfway with our own problematical traits maybe?) And, for others, he is nothing less than Pessimism Personified, to be avoided at all costs. But I don’t hear in Hardy’s voice a simple one-note beat of misery – but complexity, complexity – all complexity. Hardy’s unique vision is sewn tight into that varied and precious pattern of our literature – and I wouldn’t want the weave of his contribution to be one stitch different. Hardy’s tragedies contain necessary – even beautiful – space in which to stretch realities, and to confront an uncomfortable, and yet liberating, recognition of difficult truths. He is a very human writer – a catcher of the flipsides, and an explorer and enquirer into the vivid clatter of life’s dropped plates, spillages and wastes.

Ironically, maybe it’s the upbeat tendency of my nature that focusses on the positives of Hardy’s pessimism. It is all so much a part of that trajectory that took him to further heights of creativity; all so much a part of that voyage on which great literature takes us.

Under the Greenwood Tree is amongst his earliest and happiest novels – it is like a ballad to a fondly remembered time (and its title, of course, is taken from the pastoral song in Shakespeare’s As You Like It).

Wood engraving by Peter Reddick (illustration from Folio Society edition of 'Under the Greenwood Tree')

Wood engraving by Peter Reddick (illustration from Folio Society edition of ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’)

I love the novel and its tone and its characters and its green world of hedgerow and forest; the sleepy drone of the village band from the church balcony (counterbalanced by the altogether more enthusiastic musical glee at the boozy Christmas party at Tranter’s!) And I’m moved in my affection for the players, as they reach a befuddling divide of Time, confronted by the advent of a new age.

Wood engraving by Peter Reddick from 'Under the Greenwood Tree' Folio Society edition

Wood engraving by Peter Reddick from ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ Folio Society edition

But I love Hardy’s later work even more. As he grew further into his own creative skills, Hardy’s life experience and his anger at injustice (societal and the natural cruelties of chance) tinged the edges of his vision with darker and darker hues. Harsh realities bit hard into his consciousness, and he responded truthfully according to his own thought processes and reactions. Readers may or may not find their own personal perspective reflected in that vision, the assertions in his work may or may not be to their taste. And that’s fine. But too often, I see this kind of personal reaction presented as an objective benchmark; a final word on the worth of a writer and his/her work.

Beyond the genuinely searching questions about his writing and the carefully considered analysis, Hardy seems to attract a lot of unthinking ire and unfair accusation. Maybe I should stay away from the more foggy edges of the internet, but my heart plummets faster than Gabriel Oak’s sheep when I see a fine literary work pushed over a cliff of swift, single-focus contempt. So much of worth spirals away from the grasp in that act of dismissal, not least the chance to get to know what makes that literary work so interesting, both as an individual piece of writing – and as a part of literature’s vital, gloriously diverse exploration of what it is to be human.

I’m slipping into a rant here – and I’m sure that, on this blog, I’m preaching to the converted. But, I just love this stuff so much… I want to tear down those blocks that prevent people experiencing the fullest possible engagement with a text. Because, when that deep-down communion happens, it’s just so mind-blowingly AMAZING; so massively life-enhancing – I just want to SHOUT IT from the very zenith of the Wessex Heights!

These great, sometimes messy, always complex, frayed-at-the-edges masterpieces are not written by machines. No writer, artist, human being is without flaws – and flaws Hardy may have had – but they are a part of the fabric – and humanity – of art. Maybe I’m peculiar, but I want to celebrate what that displays. “Flaws” can be a valuable ingredient in a wonderful, unpredictable concoction; bound up in the complex gift of personal vision and individuality of expression – and in a writer’s reaching to develop as they learn their craft. Can we imagine the work of Dickens or D. H. Lawrence without the complete package of their unique voice and traits and journeys of development? It would be like a tiger with its teeth removed. Jagged lightning channelled through a taming conductor. Colour drained to inoffensive beige.

Often, the “flaws” are the inextricable other side of the strengths; traits without which those strengths – and a whole recipe of qualities – would never exist. And of course, sometimes, what is condemned as a flaw by one person is heralded as an asset by another.

Either way, caught air bubbles in a glass can make the light refract in interesting ways, render that glass unique – give it realness and recognisability, and another facet of perspective. If we were to hold that glass to the light, to look at the world through those quirks in its surface, maybe we would discover something new – and learn more, always more, outside the limits of our own way of seeing.

But wider than this, there is in Hardy’s work a breathing in of some essential scent of life; a whiff of something hardwired, universal and utterly human. It is like that line from Donne when we hear the knell of the bell – and know that it tolls for us too – and that it is time to stretch our sympathy across the whole of humanity, because we are each a part of it; none of us exempt from Wordsworth’s ‘sad perplexity.’

I love Hardy’s early-rooted ambition to chase Shakespeare’s faceted shades, and to build grand, Bardic tragedy in novel form; to explore the high drama of ordinary folk, aided by a Greek Chorus of rustics, whose voices underline the comic and tragic spins of life’s coin. There, in entwined, elemental relationship with the land, his characters wear the two sided mask of the actor on an ancient stage…

And I love his poet’s deep vision, his awareness of the layering of time, and the interplay of ghosts of past and present. I love his naturalist’s knowledge, and the vitality and earthy reality of nature at the heart of his life, his imagination – and the lyricism of his language…

A humane writer with a philosopher’s heart, his work is, for me, infinitely rewarding to discover and revisit. His words invoke challenge, reflection, inspiration, confrontation. Beautiful and transporting, his prose and poetry resonate over and again – cast anew in different ways throughout a reading life.

And besides all that, he could tell a story that could rivet you to a moment, knock your socks off – and keep you turning the pages quicker than you could inadvisably order up another bowl of furmity…

That is a skill too often underestimated in its importance. When a great storyteller is born, something very special begins to prise open the petals of every experience that meets that growing mind, releasing fragrances which, through eventual skill, will reach us – like prayer in George Herbert’s poem – as a grasped pact; ‘a bird of paradise… something understood.’

Hardy’s novels are, for us all, a form of time travel. They take us to a different and lost world of the past. And yet, at the same time, their world is an ever unchanging one. Hardy’s writing pulses with the eternal rhythms to which we all move; whichever era our names are entered on the census…

I wonder what future great writers lay asleep in their cots right now, cooking their talents amid infant dreams – preparing to amaze/ surprise/ overturn or more than fulfil parental or societal expectations – and to enthral and influence the minds and lives of generations yet to come…

Who can tell from what corners of society these voices will emerge; from what hidden, or seemingly unlikely places they will gather their material, their strengths, their edges and, yes – their flaws. Perhaps a teenage single-parent, an immigrant care-home assistant, a call-centre worker - somewhere in a dark and unsure night – is holding such a baby right now. If we give each child the chance, who knows what she or he might be or do…

Time passes. Moments overlap. And perhaps we are always ‘looking away’.

Rough Winds, Ramblings & Badgers – (and Prometheans bound and unbound)

Well, after such balmy beginnings, ‘rough winds’ soon made their presence felt to ‘shake the darling buds of May.’

A few days after I wrote my earlier post, rain-wielding gusts swept in like a temper tantrum. Petulant winds gripped the inside of our chimney with fist-like twists, the upstairs window boomed occasional surprise, and we were glad to stay indoors and lose ourselves in a double bill of Alec Guinness films – Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Man in the White Suit.

These classic Ealing comedies are worlds of brittle-gleaming. Big, satisfying doses of pure storyteller care for the imagination. Character – in more senses than one – asserts itself fully. Ours – and that of the people on the screen. What they, and we, think and do mixes in a dark-delicious concoction of humour, drama, pathos, farce, satire – and rumbustious chasings through and over and around a situation. We play catch with the touchstones that scuff our boots, as we tread the soil of the story.

In The Man in the White Suit, Alec Guinness’s face is a picture – a story and a code. My daughter loves what it tells her; wants to hug Sidney Stratton (the brilliant, inspiration-driven scientist Guinness plays) for his irrepressible curiosity and his naivety, but is also shown the harm single-focused pursuit of an idea might do. We watch too as outside forces gather round that idea, and less savoury motivations seek to take hold of the information gained; to manipulate it for their own ends and to bury inconvenient facts. The initial intention of an idea becomes warped, or is met head-on by all the complexities and flipsides of progress. The fears, pitfalls and connotations are revealed. The monsters we might unleash run like shadows through the mill town streets.

Whenever we switch channels to these old films, we travel to another age. I glimpse scenes similar to those I remember from the 1970s. Streets with only a smattering of parked cars; shop fronts piled high with practical wares; a community busily lingering in purposeful dance through the day. Are these the scenes I remember? Or are they constructs I recreate from film reels coiling between screen and mind? I’m with Wordsworth on this one; that we both ‘perceive’ and ‘half create’.

Here in the West Country, May was a month book-ended by sunshine; the weather between the two bank holidays an assortment of seasons, tumbling after each other in Ealing comedy chase. On a gloriously sunny day in early May, we followed an astonishing wayside blaze of dandelions along the route to Westonbirt Arboretum – and found a dandelion riot there as well.

Dandelions, Westonbirt Arboretum, May 2013

The day before, I had grabbed some moments to sit in the garden and read H.E. Bates.

Folio Society edition of The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates. Illustration by Alice Tait.

Folio Society edition of The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates. Illustration by Alice Tait.

As the early evening descended around me, our garden’s own crowds of dandelions began to close. Miniscule black flies appeared – like flecks of dusk – and darkened the ragged yellow flowers, settling there for a last-chance feed. Above me, swifts – the first back above our garden this spring – circled as if winding down the day. Their screams sliced the blue sky and served out a new section of the year…

By the end of the month, lingering crumbs of spring still flavoured the days - bluebells shaken out through the unfolding summer. Back on that early May visit to Westonbirt, we found them crowding the ragged feet of coppiced trees

Bluebells, Silk Wood, May 2013

– and were greeted by blossom as it was coaxed – slowly, slowly – by the sun.

Blossom, Westonbirt Arboretum, May 2013

Early purple orchids and lady’s smock scattered their usual haunts

Lady's smock - or Cuckooflower, Cardamine pratensis

Lady’s smock – or Cuckooflower, Cardamine pratensis

– and sculptures captured light and shadow…

Sculpture, Westonbirt Arboretum

and reminded us of the words of an artist whose eyes saw all the colours of the world

'If you love Nature you will see beauty everywhere' - Vincent van Gogh

‘If you love Nature you will see beauty everywhere’ – Vincent van Gogh

On a dazzling Sunday 26th May, blue dashed its own reminder, like spilt paint, amongst the trees above the town of Wells. As we descended the hill towards its outskirts, we gloried in the blur of bluebells, still fresh and seeking the sky. Blue was spread there above us too – and the green of the trees was a startling April-new. Strange juxtapositions were threaded through the month. We were jumbled into boxes of being, opening lids and finding the unexpected amongst the familiar old folds of the year’s pattern.

Wells Cathedral and cedar tree

Wells Cathedral and cedar tree

Adopting the slow pace of the tiny and ancient city, we sat outside Wells cathedral’s north transept and watched Time – waiting for the old clock to strike Four.

Wells Cathedral Clock

Our daughter, escaping into these precious moments away from GCSE revision, sat beside us, free-roaming the pages of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Folio Society edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Illustration by Harry Brockway

Folio Society edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Illustration by Harry Brockway

On the sun-warmed bench, she clung to the glacier alongside the Creature – and, as we got up to leave, was unable to tear herself away from his drama. Bowing to the demands of a good book’s ancient-mariner-grasp, we sat down again, listened to the cathedral walls hum with organ music – an apt and atmospheric accompaniment to the Promethean struggles that were riveting our daughter to the spot. That night, back home, she came downstairs for tea sniffing back tears – and we knew which scenes she’d been reading. We’d been there too.

High on the Mendips, there had been new beginnings and a long, resounding wave of birdsong – like sound caught inside a drum; the blue sky taut and seamless. A falcon (we think a peregrine, though we weren’t sure) smoothed it tighter with the silent sweep of arrowed wings. Countless tadpoles filled the pool on the Priddy Mineries reserve…

Tadpoles in pool on Priddy Mineries Nature Reserve

Priddy Mineries Nature Reserve, Somerset

Priddy Mineries Nature Reserve, Somerset

…an adder darted across the car park to evade a passing dog, and the butterfly theme of the day was White – green-veined, small white, orange-tip – with the occasional peacock colouring the edges. The reserve felt like it was sleep-walking the spring, trailing the previous seasons behind it and tangling them up in its dreams. The new, dominating green was languid with a shut-eyed tardiness; van Gogh’s colours hidden deep beneath in slow waking. The landscape stretched thinly a sense of teeming – gradually, gradually – into resurrected life. A Frankenstein landscape-in-time, pieced together by mismatched elements of happening and expectation.

And, as we drove back across the Mendips and down into hedge-lined valleys, past stone cottages patched into being with mined-out parts of the hills – we were saddened by the lifeless bodies of badgers on the roadsides. We counted four during our circuitous journey through Somerset and back towards Bristol. Our thoughts turned to the senseless badger cull about to begin in Somerset and Gloucestershire on the 1st of June – an unjustifiable measure undertaken against the scientific evidence, against the parliamentary vote and against the wishes of the majority of the public. It is a step that will serve no purpose – except to further justify the sadness and consternation Frankenstein’s Creature felt, as he began to learn the contradictory nature of humanity. All the time, something tugs against the heights of our achievements and our better side, and proves the destructiveness of mind sets that drag us down. Prometheus bound and unbound – in a constant round.

Earlier this year, in April, I was putting milk bottles out late at night, when a movement by our front gate caught my eye. I glanced round as a small, squat animal passed by our car. Thinking it was our neighbour’s grey cat – and stupidly wondering why it had suddenly morphed into a strange shape, with such short legs and a stubby tail – I suddenly realised I was watching a badger. As I clinked the milk bottles in surprise, the badger startled into action, lolloping away across the road – its wide, low-slung body rocking in very un-catlike motion. Just at that moment “our” local fox appeared from further down the road, catching up with the badger with a playful, questioning leap as they both fell into step like old pals, and disappeared down the alley behind the houses and back towards the woods.

I knew that badgers had long been visiting our suburban garden – the evidence was everywhere – and our neighbours had seen them several times. Last year, we were excited to see them ourselves, when we were called to the window by an almighty disagreement over a slug between two badgers on our garden patio. “Our” fox too had been very much in evidence. During his nightly travels, he - and possibly the very habit-following badgers too - have worn away the grass, creating a narrow trail alongside our hedge, making our garden part of the local wild mammal map. At dusk, we often see the fox trot along the trail towards our compost heap and round through the gap in the hedge. Sometimes he will linger on our lawn, and sit gazing around him – or absently scratch an ear, totally relaxed, listening to the twilight murmurs. If he sees us watching, he will dart beneath our damson trees, but if we remain still, he will emerge again, stand on his hind paws to drink from the bird bath – his wary, black-backed ears pricked our way.

Once, years ago, I inadvertently disturbed a fox asleep in a hollow in our flower bed. It was late morning on a sunny day in early spring, I was hanging out the washing; the fox woke and stared at me in alarm. We both stood transfixed, each in our own space; Creatures of nature – near and far apart – and it was too much for the fox. I wanted it to stay; for me not to be the thing it feared. I felt in that moment that I was the Frankenstein’s “monster” – un-belonging and set apart. But so often, when it comes to a meeting between humans and wild creatures, that’s how it has to be. Some lines in the sand are made out of respect for the differences, and to ensure flourishing and protection.

But others are made out of the complete opposite – out of a profound disrespect for what should make us feel kin.

In the face of the terrible badger cull that has now been unleashed, I ask myself – is humanity doomed to always pin its own lack – its own ills – to some scapegoat; to make a Frankenstein’s Creature out of “progress,” to tangle the truth in a net of power play, politics and vying motivations – and to reject the chances we have to truly learn, move forward and grow?

Sometimes, I just want to put my head in my hands and despair. But, I’m still hanging on to the belief that the better side of human nature can win.

Many voices have joined together to speak out against the cull. And a few days ago, a song was released that brings together the voice of the legendary Sir David Attenborough - with a guitar solo courtesy of the also legendary Slash! Here they are as part of the Artful Badger and Friends, joining forces along with Brian May, Shara Nelson, Sonny Green, Kerry Ellis and Sam & The Womp, to protest via the Badger Swagger:

‘…scientists reject the idea of scientific support for the cull, which could wipe out 100,000 badgers, a third of the national population. The cull policy is “mindless”, according to Lord John Krebs, one of the UK’s most eminent scientists and the architect of the landmark 10-year culling trials that ended in 2007. “The scientific case is as clear as it can be: this cull is not the answer to TB in cattle. The government is cherry-picking bits of data to support its case.”

- From an article in The Guardian – Badger cull ‘mindless’ say scientists

Head over to Daniel Greenwood’s blog to see his great photos of the Stop the Badger Cull march, which took place in London on Saturday 1st June.

Another fellow blogger, Louise Hastings, has timed the release of her new children’s novel, Beatha - A Badger’s Story, to raise awareness of the issue. From the sales of her book, Louise will be raising funds to donate to The Badger Trust.

The petition against the badger cull can be signed at: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/38257

Badger (picture taken at Wildwood Trust, near Canterbury, Kent in 2005)

Badger (picture taken at Wildwood Trust, near Canterbury, Kent in 2005)

Berlie Doherty’s newsletter, a glacier & some ghosts!

It was a really lovely surprise to see Bookish Nature mentioned in Berlie Doherty’s latest (Feb. 2013) newsletter this week! Many thanks, Berlie – your kind words are much appreciated!

It was also exciting to learn that Berlie’s new novel, The Company of Ghosts (due out in September) is now available for pre-order. She describes it as being set on a Scottish island – and as ‘very spooky.’ Having loved Daughter of the Sea, I’m looking forward to exploring more of her writing – and this new addition sounds so enticing…

You can read the whole newsletter at Berlie’s lovely website, which is a fantastic port of call for anyone who loves voyages of discovery through the vitality and depths of truly good literature for children…

Lately, Fate seems to keep stepping in and causing all sorts of serendipitous events – and Friday evening was no exception. After tea, I was scrolling through the options on the BBC Radio iPlayer, looking for some distraction to lighten the task of washing the dishes, when amongst the programme listings, Berlie Doherty’s name caught my eye. Clicking the link through to Radio 4 Extra, I discovered it was a reading of one of Berlie’s short stories – a perfect invitation to catch up with more of her work! Minutes later, and I was transfixed, hands suspended in soap suds, caught by the fascination of the story’s setting - and so moved by the perceptive clarity and truth of its telling.

No longer scouring saucepans, but clinging to the raw majesty of a mountain glacier, I was there with the story’s characters; two women - strangers to each other – each, and together, confronting their own frozen dams of emotion. I won’t say any more. When entering a short story, you need to be in the moment; to arrive where it begins – its invitation glittering in the distance - and your expectations of where it will take you completely open…

If you have access to BBC iPlayer, you can listen to Crossing the Glacier here (now just a few days left to listen).

The Tree House

Signs of spring are already burgeoning…

Lords and Ladies (Cuckoo Pint) - January 2013

Lords and Ladies (Cuckoo Pint) – January 2013

…and it’s quite a while now since this “dragon-tree” filtered the fire of the sun through branch and shadow, to melt the snowman….

"Dragon Tree" Jan. 2013

…which had become its companion, very briefly, during this most recent and unfolding phase of its long life:

"Dragon-Tree" dates

Nearby, new buds are reaching out to the light…

Buds - Jan 2013

And over the past few weeks, I’ve been so inspired by a fantastic new venture which, very appropriately for this time of year, has also been coming into bud…

The Tree House is a proposed new community bookshop which, as I write this, is unfurling ever more towards bursting into leaf. Victoria (aka Evie) – the inspiring force behind the project – is an online friend (and fellow bookish tree hugger) from the earliest days of my first venturing onto the internet.

To explain the project a bit before you head over there to take a look for yourself, I can do no better than quote Victoria’s own impassioned words:

‘Books are not just a means of passing the time, they are lifechanging experiences – the good ones, anyway! They tell us more about what it is to be human, they feed our inner lives and our imaginations (another aspect of humanity that often seems a little underrated!), and make us more creative in our engagement with the world.

The tree is therefore a wonderful image for me of the heart of a reading community – deeply rooted, creating a sheltering and nurturing space, pushing us out into a richer existence as individuals and as a community. Reading can do this! And coming together around books and literary adventures is like planting a forest.

The government wants to sell off our forests. Our libraries are under threat. I see these two things as related – the very things that give life to our planet and our community are seen as superfluous when what is needed, supposedly, is to generate more wealth and get rid of spaces that do not do this. We need trees; we need a sense of community. We can all sit in our homes ordering books over the internet, or downloading them to our Kindles and Kobos and iPads, or we can protect our libraries and bookshops and share this fabulous experience of enjoying books and learning from each other.’

- From The Tree House blog

Please do take a visit over to The Tree House site; there are inspiring posts about the project and about books and reading; fabulous links to some amazing bibliophile-heaven bookshops - all of which sprang from the same soil of passionate motivation that Victoria is now cultivating - and there are also trees!

The Domesday Oak (thought to be 700 years old) Ashton Court Estate, Bristol

The Domesday Oak (thought to be 700 years old) Ashton Court Estate, Bristol

It’s a fabulous project, growing in all the right directions – and with a vision that is exactly the sort of seed our society needs to plant and nurture. It’s like the old saying goes… ‘mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow…’ - a cliche phrase maybe… but, like most cliches, loaded with truth!

Between a Rock and a Red Squirrel

Something made me stop, look and take a picture of this rock:

Rock, Thrunton Wood, Northumberland

Undoubtedly the oldest thing within sight; the most ancient and venerable presence gracing this particular patch of Thrunton Wood in Northumberland, it emanated a strong sense of look-at-me… be aware. Its solidity was a grounding of Time. An anchor, of sorts, for the ephemeral.

That was back in the summer of 2006. Now - gradually, gradually through more recent days - I’ve been treading my way through David Abrams’ visceral and deeply grounding book Becoming Animal - An Earthly Cosmology.

Becoming Animal - An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram (hardback edition - published by Pantheon Books)

Becoming Animal – An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram (hardback edition – published by Pantheon Books)

Reading it is like placing your feet on the earth, following the tracery of the words through the landscape, tracking the signs and signals of the senses.

In Wood and Stone, the third chapter of Becoming Animal, David Abram describes the feeling ancient rock evokes. Of how cleaved folds of stone speak to something primal in ourselves:

‘A solitary rock or a clear-cut stump is utterly inanimate only as long as “being” itself is taken to be static and inert. Our animal senses, however, know no such passive reality………. To my animal body, the rock is first and foremost another body engaged in the world: as I turn my gaze toward it, I encounter not a defined and inanimate chunk of matter but an upturned surface basking in the sun’s warmth, or a pink and sharp-edged structure protruding from the ground like the shattered bone of the hillside, or an old and watchful guardian of this land – a resolute and sheltering presence inviting me now to crouch and lean my spine against it.

Each thing organizes the space around it, rebuffing or sidling up against other things; each thing calls, gestures, beckons to other beings or battles them for our attentions; things expose themselves to the sun or retreat among the shadows, shouting with their loud colors or whispering with their seeds; rocks snag lichen spores from the air and shelter spiders under their flanks; clouds converse with the fathomless blue and metamorphose into one another; they spill rain upon the land, which gathers in rivulets and carves out canyons………. Things “catch our eye” and sometimes refuse to let go; they “grab our focus” and “capture our attention,” and finally release us from their grasp only to dissolve back into the overabundant world. Whether ecstatic or morose, exuberant or exhausted, everything swerves and trembles; anguish, equanimity, and pleasure are not first internal moods but passions granted to us by the capricious terrain.’

…And look who “grabbed our focus,” emerging from the knotty, silent moment when the rock made us stand still:

Roe doe - out from the undergrowth... Thrunton Wood, Northumberland, 2006

Roe doe – out from the undergrowth… Thrunton Wood, Northumberland, 2006

A glimpse of red – and of wary tolerance. A recognition and appreciation of stillness. Rock-steady watching; a pact of grace:

Roe doe - "capturing attention"

Roe doe – “capturing attention”

And, beyond that; another still, cautious moment of red – a blur of red squirrel. The first any of us had ever seen in the wild:

Red squirrel, Thrunton Wood, Northumberland, 2006

Red squirrel, Thrunton Wood, Northumberland, 2006

My daughter was nine years old at the time. Standing beneath that tree - delight and concentration rooted in her small, slight frame - she thought of all the times she’d seen red squirrels in books or on TV. All the wishes she had made. All those “what-ifs” that had seeded in her mind.

“Oooh!” she exclaimed moments later, as the woods released us from our still, silent encounters. “Dreams do sometimes come true!”

And quietly, quietly, her pleased astonishment at this small, red, earthy revelation - a gift from the ‘capricious terrain’ - sealed the moment rock solid in her memory.

‘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!)