In my Green Garden…

…Life has pushed its hands through the roots of a tousled sleep, and teased out flower, feather, dandelion dreams, the scream of swifts combing through the blue.

Snake's head fritillary, daisies and dandelions in our garden mini-meadow

Snake’s head fritillary, daisies and dandelions in our garden mini-meadow, April 2015

Words have been trying to keep up with this new, wide-awake pace – but have trembled. They have needed a little longer in the sun to unfurl. They have followed a slower track of light than the leaves greening all around me.

This spring, sorely-needed Time has sat down beside me in the drowse of bees and the breeze on the page, turning the hours to look up and see a great spotted woodpecker, black, white and startle-red, amongst a snow-fall of blossom.

Folding into its pocket the soul-weary close of last summer, Time has worn the concern of  a healer. It has come forward, hesitantly at first, with small gifts: an autumn-gold leaf, loose on the air; spinning loss like a coin – and landing future-side up. A robin, its ages-old gaze – beadily wise – pinning my feet back into a steady place; singing me to rights, and moving me on with a bold push through the winter cold.

Then came the greening – the riotous blurting of voices in shades of yellow and purple; bucket-throws of blue, pillow-bursts of white. Time for sitting back on my heels, and just watching, absorbing; coming back to life. Time for blackbirds to slow-stitch the rents where heart’s ease has fallen through; their song glossy-black and morning-yellow – like sunlight on warm molasses.

And time for the Chiffchaff! Who could ignore the Chiffchaff? Shouting out the spring, like a space-hoppered child who wants to play – hitting you with a football-thump of joy.

It’s been a difficult, sad, sad year; fraught with many anxieties and emptied out by the loss of my dear, beautiful mum. But, each day brings new layers – a folding in – and opening out – reasserting the onward cycle which is a part of all endings. Old days, old times fold into the new; alive side by side – and above and beneath – building fertile soil. Butterfly wings open a hair’s breadth of spring into summer – and the Bookish Nature word-leaves are gradually, gradually unfurling…

This beautiful song, Green Garden, by Eivor Palsdottir has accompanied me through the winter and spring. It says so much:

It’s been a gift-filled – and, for me, more keenly felt than ever – life-affirming, green, green, healing spring. Time, I think, for this blog to catch up with the Earth’s orbit, and to ‘rise again, from the shadows…’

Thank you so much to all Bookish Nature’s followers and readers, old friends and new, for keeping faith with the blog.

Ox-eye daisies in our garden mini-meadow

Ox-eye daisies in our garden mini-meadow, May 2015

Winter Solstice – Sol invictus; Unconquered sun…

It’s that tipping point of the year again here in the northern hemisphere. The winter solstice. The shortest day – or longest night – whichever way you want to look at it…

From today, as our planet tilts and turns, we travel back towards the light…

Here are two wonderful midwinter songs. They seem the perfect way to bring a celebration of this magical time to Bookish Nature. Both are written and performed by Thea Gilmore, and are from her album Strange Communion. I love how these YouTube videos blend Thea’s sublimely beautiful voice with glorious winter scenes; immersing us in the stunning beauty of the season – and in that special quality of returning light…

First, the spine-tingling magic of Sol Invictus:

‘Come the dawn, come the call
Come, the beating air
Chill the night, soldier light
We’ll be dancing there
And rise up, rise up
Day stretching weary wings…..

…..Come the day, thief of the night
Lifts its voice to sing

Now rise up, rise up
Ever victorious
Know the time, know the light
Comes the sun again.’

(From the lyrics to Sol Invictus, written by Thea Gilmore)

(Video: Jez Horrox)

And, secondly, as we follow roads back to hearth and home, a song that acknowledges both the darkness and light of our days – and raises a toast to midwinter; to the lessons we keep in the folding of the old year; and the chances we can unwrap to make things better in the new. A time to thank our lucky stars for the people and places that sustain us…

Midwinter Toast: (film by terigower)

Skylarks over Flanders Fields

‘They wrote of skylarks – in letters, and some, in poems – those soldiers that lived and died in France during the Great War’ writes Jacqueline Winspear in her poignant essay, Skylarks above No Man’s Land, which chronicles her ‘pilgrimage to the battlefields of The Somme and Ypres.’

‘Every morning when I was in the front-line trenches I used to hear the larks singing soon after we stood-to about dawn. But those wretched larks made me more sad than almost anything else out here…. Their songs are so closely associated in my mind with peaceful summer days in gardens in pleasant landscapes in Blighty. Here one knows the larks sing at seven and the guns begin at nine or ten…’

Letter home, 1916 – Sergeant-Major F.H. Keeling.

Poppies (in a field in the Goucestershire Cotswolds)

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below

– From In Flanders Fields, by John McCrae, May 1915.

Dusk

Returning, We hear the Larks
By Isaac Rosenberg

Sombre the night is
And though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lies there.

Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp –
On a little safe sleep.

But hark! joy – joy – strange joy.
Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks.
Music showering our upturned list’ning faces.

Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song –
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man’s dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides,
Like a girl’s dark hair for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.

I found on YouTube, this Decca Argo recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending (surely one of the most beautiful and moving pieces of music ever written) conducted by Sir Neville Marriner, the Academy of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields.The violinist is Iona Brown and, alongside her deeply soulful and wonderful performance, the video’s creator, AntPDC, has skilfully blended evocative and peaceful scenes of the Derbyshire Peak District in May.

The longing for such scenes as these, the ways in which lark-song evoked their memory, and a complexity of response – the sadness, the loss, the pain in sharpened contrasts: the beauty beside the horror, the balm mixed with helpless dread; the tearing schisms between the carnage of the battlefield and the ever-onward rhythms of nature – we hear all this, and more, in the soldiers’ voices. Vaughan Williams’ sublime music seems so fitting for remembrance. It carries upon its wings the depth of value in all that those soldiers, caught in the hell of war, longed for and lost.

In honour of the sacrifices of previous generations, and in memory of the countless victims of war throughout time, worldwide… In a reaching towards life and peace and towards a world in which we value and nurture all that most sustains – and for the hope that such a world could become our reality… For the wish not to squander the opportunities and lessons passed on to us, but to come together to build a better present and a better future… We remember.

‘…the darling buds of May…’

On Tuesday 23rd April I wandered the garden, scooping up fragments of light.

I eyed them above me, where they were whole again – a wash of dazzling blue cast across the day. And found them pooled on holly leaves like offerings; shining coins quietly placed.

Sunlight on holly leaves

Some were scattered through trees, or had fallen amongst wood piles. One shimmered on a magpie’s wing – whilst others were caught by scant threads of damson blossom, each flower an open purse fraying at the seams.

April Damson blossom

Damson blossom and blue sky

As I watched, a queen bumble bee nudged bright edges out from the shadows, testing their resilience against the infant teeth of fresh, green nettles – and I willed her to found a nest in our small patch of earth. Manoeuvring her heavy body close to the open soil, she seemed, for a moment, ready to give up wandering and grant her approval to a spot not far from my feet. As I leaned in to watch her, the holly trees tipped their leaf-light amongst the primroses; let it fragment further in the dew.

Garden primroses, April 2013

Those holly trees are wanderers too; incomers cast adrift from a parent tree that keeps watch from our neighbour’s garden. They have a sturdy, reckless air – like someone who has found their place. Feeling comfortable, they sink into belonging – and give us a sense that we’ve been chosen. They adorn our place and make it more our home too.

Our damsons also arrived this way. Over the wall. They are the unfurling of fruits dropped by trees long since cut down by a neighbour; last chance investments deposited in our garden the year my husband and I were also newly transplanted to this soil. Now, these refugee, house-warming trees are over twenty feet tall, full of birds, blossom – more fruit – and a green-fire glow at sunset. They are gifts – beginnings and endings indistinguishable from each other.

Meanwhile, the queen bee is still taking her turn in the cycle of beginnings. She tests the territory, inches back and forth in a mid-air-drone, finds wanting the patch of earth below the damsons; gives herself up to a gust of air – and disappears over the fence and out of sight…

She leaves me scratching about in my own equally wanting soil – seeking words. Elusive things, like the peacock butterfly suddenly blown high over my head; a shadow extinguished from sight too fast to reveal its colours or pattern.

The significance of the day is uppermost in my mind; 23rd April – Shakespeare’s birthday, and death-day. An end swallowed by a beginning.

And Shakespeare – consummate spinner of words – can always catch what I ask for…

He throws it back to me like something plucked from a sunlit web – and I seize it, gratefully:

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet:  Words, words, words

(Hamlet Act II, Scene II – William Shakespeare)

Words. They can say so much and contain such power.They can capture and convey beauty – and be, in themselves, beautiful. They can be cruel, kind, magnanimous, insightful, inspiring, blunt, elegant, sinuous, glorious, hypnotic, ugly, obtuse. They are the conveyors of ideas and intention. They can sting, they can soothe. They are mighty.

And yet they are just – words.

‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.’

(Hamlet, Act III, scene II – William Shakespeare)

Words sometimes fail. Words can be bricks in a wall, obscuring what lies behind. They can disconnect from meaning – and truth.

For some people, words are not biddable at all. They live without them, their senses aligned to other frequencies; tuning in to listen, but answering – and maybe hearing – in different ways.

My son doesn’t have words. He cannot speak. I’ve often heard it said that language is what makes our species somehow “special” – that the ability to speak defines what makes us human. But is my son not human? And are our words the only language at work in the world?

Language is all around us – in the birdsong; in the chemical signals passed between the trees; in the wind as it describes the mood of the day; in the pungency of fox scent reaching my nostrils as I listen to the robin claim his territory. The whole day is full of wordless voice.

‘Perhaps there is a language that is not made of words and everything in the world understands it. Perhaps there is a soul hidden in everything and it can always speak, without even making a sound, to another soul.’

(From A Little Princess – Frances Hodgson Burnett)

‘And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones…’

(As You Like It, Act II, scene I – William Shakespeare)

During our long weeks in hospital with our son, we often felt keenly the lack of words. Doctors and nurses would look to my husband and I to interpret our son’s feelings, his reactions, his thoughts. We were often lost in a blank of not knowing – in a pit of bewilderment and distress; his and ours. We could guess, but could not be sure we were being accurate. We were in a new situation for all of us. Our usual parameters were gone. And even with words, we could not know our son’s mind. He could not know ours. Can any human being know another human being’s mind, intentions, feelings fully?

But without words, we can sometimes listen more closely – and keenly – to that other language which is heard more loudly by intuition – and which is so often dismissed or obscured behind a tangle of surface communication. Language is in my son’s eyes, his expression, his demeanour, his wordless singing. It is in a connection built in ways I can’t describe or explain with words. When asked how my son communicates with me, I can’t tell someone else how it happens. It just does. We feel and respond. And when, during his long ordeal in hospital, I found words that might work, I fed them to him like manna of reassurance. I laid each coin of words on the palm of his hand, so that he could feel the weight of the thought behind them. I saw his eyes listening to the intentions and the whys the words carried, if not to the precision of their particular meaning. I saw him understand.

‘Where words are scarce they are seldom spent in vain.’

(Richard II, Act II, scene I – William Shakespeare)

During 23rd April – the day that was both Shakespeare’s birth-and-death-day, my thoughts were already beginning to turn towards this week and to May Day; Beltane; time of renewal, new beginnings; the death of winter from which the summer is born; festival of fire; the phoenix from the ashes; Persephone travelling from the underworld to rise again.

And now it is the second of May – and in the passing of the days between Shakespeare’s birthday and today, the green firing of spring has ignited from tree to tree, bush to bush – the leaves opening more and more in front of our very eyes.

And we feel and respond to the wordless language of the season…

But words fail me again. This post hasn’t said what I wanted it to say; hasn’t conveyed exactly the thoughts I wanted to convey. But then words never do. When describing the true nature of the tree, words never (unless you’re Shakespeare!) reach to contain every far flung leaf adrift on the wind.

I’m very aware too that quotes from Shakespeare, placed out of context as I’ve placed them here, never really represent their true reach. Sometimes they transmute, taking on a significance that tips the scales a particular way. But, put them back into context and that apparent significance becomes problematic. We then have to follow a different trail of light-clues; ask ourselves what Shakespeare built around those words in terms of form and structure. How it all interacts. And whether the character who voiced the words is perhaps fooling himself, or lacking belief in what he professes, or maybe deliberately deceiving others…

When words dis-locate from their original surroundings, they become chameleons – both liberated and limited by the colours of their new environment – though, in Shakespeare’s case, ever retaining their magical, delicious ambiguity. But, behind the words is their intuitive touch on our mind – which, through and around those clusters of letters and shifting locations, reaches us direct. And if, in our response, we have heard the poetry behind the poem, felt that connection, we experience a deeper, wordless something begin to piece together – another fragment of light illuminating a little more of the whole.

Time is impatient with my own inadequate attempts to capture thoughts, so I shall have to be content with the fraying threads of this blog post and let my words fall where they will. So this is me, scooping up the fragments of light, trying to piece them together – and moving on into new Bookish Nature beginnings…

Thank you again to everyone who left such wonderful messages of support and encouragement during the darker times. They meant a lot to me.

So far, here in the South West of England, ‘the darling buds of May’ have not opened to ‘Rough winds’ but to balmy and glorious sunshine. These early May days have been filled with a wordless voice of awakening and shimmering exuberance.

My words fail again in attempting to transmit the true spirit of that voice – but, thanks to Sonya Chasey (who pointed me towards the Loreena McKennitt page on Grooveshark – many thanks, Sonya!) I discovered a while back the beautiful Huron ‘Beltane’ Fire Dance (from Loreena’s album Parallel Dreams) – which brims with that spirit of this time of year – and which pieces together for us those sparkling facets of intuitive, illuminating light via music; another wordless language that speaks so profoundly.

Whether you were out and about enjoying May Day revels yesterday, or are planning some for the Holiday Weekend – or are simply revelling in the spring – (or, indeed, are enjoying whatever seasonal fragments of light illuminate your own particular part of the world right now) – a very Merry May-time to you all!

Huron ‘Beltane’ Fire Dance, Loreena Mckennitt, performed live in Spain (part of a concert recorded on the DVD/CD set Nights from the Alhambra):

Dickens, Christmas – and a merry festive season to all!

As a further Christmas nugget to toast by the fireside of winter-dreaming, I love the touching story of the barrow-girl overheard by Theodore Watts-Dunton as he walked down Drury lane in 1870. “Dickens dead?” the barrow-girl exclaimed. “Then will Father Christmas die too?”

For so many people, Dickens is synonymous with the festive season; Mr Christmas himself…

Of course, what springs to mind first is his wonderful seasonal fairy tale A Christmas Carol.

A Christmas Carol Folio Society edition. Cover illustration by Michael Foreman.

A Christmas Carol Folio Society edition. Cover illustration by Michael Foreman.

For me, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without it; both the book – and the various sparkles of its magic conveyed through film (from The Muppets’ wonderfully rumbustious but lovingly nuanced version, to Albert Finney’s musical) or occasionally through theatre – as in the year we saw a stage production at the Bristol Hippodrome, complete with spellbinding special effects and illusions. Or the time we experienced the arresting, pared down immediacy of a Tobacco Factory Theatre production, filled with inspiration, invention and ingenuity. I see from the Radio Times listings that the version starring Patrick Stewart as Scrooge will be on TV again this weekend. Our family will gather round and watch it together for the umpteenth time, never tiring of the magic and significance of Dickens’s fable; loving the ritual of its well-known journey through Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come…

A Christmas Carol Folio Society edition - frontis illustration by Michael Foreman - 'The people who were shovelling away on the house-tops were jovial and full of glee.'

A Christmas Carol Folio Society edition – frontis illustration by Michael Foreman – ‘The people who were shovelling away on the house-tops were jovial and full of glee.’

…But perhaps less well known, hidden away in Dickens’s last and unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, gleams this beautiful bauble of words, catching both the light and the shadows of the season – and, indeed, of life:

Christmas Eve in Cloisterham. A few strange faces in the streets; a few other faces, half strange and half familiar, once the faces of Cloisterham children, now the faces of men and women who come back from the outer world at long intervals to find the city wonderfully shrunken in size, as if it had not washed by any means well in the meanwhile. To these, the striking of the Cathedral clock, and the cawing of the rooks from the Cathedral tower, are like voices of their nursery time. To such as these, it has happened in their dying hours afar off, that they have imagined their chamber-floor to be strewn with the autumnal leaves fallen from the elm-trees in the Close: so have the rustling sounds and fresh scents of their earliest impressions revived when the circle of their lives was very nearly traced, and the beginning and the end were drawing close together.

Seasonable tokens are about. Red berries shine here and there in the lattices of Minor Canon Corner; Mr. and Mrs. Tope are daintily sticking sprigs of holly into the carvings and sconces of the Cathedral stalls, as if they were sticking them into the coat-button-holes of the Dean and Chapter. Lavish profusion is in the shops: particularly in the articles of currants, raisins, spices, candied peel, and moist sugar. An unusual air of gallantry and dissipation is abroad; evinced in an immense bunch of mistletoe hanging in the greengrocer’s shop doorway, and a poor little Twelfth Cake, culminating in the figure of a Harlequin – such a very poor little Twelfth Cake, that one would rather called it a Twenty-fourth Cake or a Forty-eighth Cake – to be raffled for at the pastrycook’s, terms one shilling per member. Public amusements are not wanting. The Wax-Work which made so deep an impression on the reflective mind of the Emperor of China is to be seen by particular desire during Christmas Week only, on the premises of the bankrupt livery-stable-keeper up the lane; and a new grand comic Christmas pantomime is to be produced at the Theatre: the latter heralded by the portrait of Signor Jacksonini the clown, saying ‘How do you do to-morrow?’ quite as large as life, and almost as miserably. In short, Cloisterham is up and doing: though from this description the High School and Miss Twinkleton’s are to be excluded. From the former establishment the scholars have gone home, every one of them in love with one of Miss Twinkleton’s young ladies (who knows nothing about it); and only the handmaidens flutter occasionally in the windows of the latter. It is noticed, by the bye, that these damsels become, within the limits of decorum, more skittish when thus intrusted with the concrete representation of their sex, than when dividing the representation with Miss Twinkleton’s young ladies.’

From The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Chapter XIV – When shall these Three meet again?) by Charles Dickens.

Endpaper illustration by Michael Foreman, Folio Society edition of A Christmas Carol

Endpaper illustration by Michael Foreman, Folio Society edition of A Christmas Carol

Wherever you will be during this festive season – have a happy, peaceful, magical time. A big thank you to all Bookish Nature readers for your support; for visiting/ commenting/ following this blog during the past year – and for helping to inspire my poor old brain to toast more nuggets of thought over imagination’s fire, during the coming New Year…

Season’s greetings to all! May all good things come your way in 2013…

See you back here in January…

…And in the meantime, I leave you with some words from A Christmas Carol – and a beautiful (and haunting – in a Susanna Clarke’s gentleman with the thistle-down hair,’ tingly, silvery, fairy-tale kind of way) – performance of Carol of the Bells by Libera (from their 2011 Christmas Album) – which, to continue the Dickens connection, also happens to be the music the BBC chose to play during the trailers for their TV adaptation of Great Expectations last Christmas…

He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer, ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!

Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious! Glorious!

“What’s today?” cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.

“EH?” returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.

“What’s today, my fine fellow?” said Scrooge.

“Today!” replied the boy. “Why, CHRISTMAS DAY.”

– From A Christmas Carol (Stave V – The End of It) by Charles Dickens

Selkies and ‘the eternal present of song-time’

Chasing a thought as it darts amongst the ripples left by Berlie Doherty’s Daughter of the Sea, here’s another telling of a selkie tale; this time in song form – not told through the ‘lilts and hissings’ of Eilean o da Freya’s strange ‘language of…singing’ – but via, once more, the beautiful voice of Heather Dale

This is her version of The Maiden and the Selkie, written by Emily Holbert-Kellam (from Heather Dale’s album The Green Knight):

I must, must get myself a copy of David Thomson’s The People of the Sea. It’s been on my wish list for too long now; ever since I first heard a piece on the radio about Thomson’s vital work, undertaken during the middle of the last century, to collect and record the old selkie stories before the tellers and traditions passed from memory.

I can’t remember when or what radio programme it was… just that what I heard was magical and earthy and connected to deep pasts. David Thomson was a writer and producer of radio documentaries for the BBC from 1943 to 1969 – and the warp and weft of the voices with which he made such empathic connection during his folklore-gathering travels, reached out beyond his radio work to become bound into the pages of his book. The poet, Seamus Heaney, was a friend of Thomson and has written the introduction to Canongate’s reissue of the The People of the Sea. (You can read The heart of a vanished world, taken from Heaney’s introduction, on the Guardian website).

In it he writes that:

‘David Thomson’s book is luminously its own thing; it had its origins in one man’s rambles round the highlands and islands of Scotland and the west coast of Ireland, in search of stories and folklore surrounding the “selchie” or grey Atlantic seal. It was written at a great moment in the history of radio, during the 1940s and 1950s, when the BBC employed poets and writers to record and collect oral material and – most important – gave them permission to re-create it in a new artistic form.’

Heaney relates how, as he re-read the book, Wordsworth’s poem The Solitary Reaper kept coming to mind. Also written after a tour of Scotland, the poem was inspired by an incident recorded in the notes of Wordsworth’s friend Thomas Wilkinson – and is, writes Heaney, ‘…about the experience of listening to one of the local people express herself unforgettably in her native Gaelic’ :

‘Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work,
And o’er the sickle bending;
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.’

This final stanza of The Solitary Reaper, Heaney goes on to say, ‘…manages to shift into the eternal present of song-time an incident that might otherwise have remained part of the accidental record.’ Heaney likens the ‘poetic achievement’ that is The People of the Sea to this Wordsworthian fixing in ‘song-time.’ What he describes as Thomson’s ‘Total respect, intuitive understanding, perfect grace and perfect pitch’ create a similar surety that ‘what was heard in the “chaunt” of the storyteller gets fixed on the page, only to rise in all its formality and down-to-earthness at each re-reading.’

As I read Seamus Heaney’s evocation of the character and effect of the man and his work; how Thomson’s The People of the Sea ‘…makes the reader a kind of dual citizen, at once the inhabitant of a poetically beguiling world of pure story and of a realistically documented world of fishermen and crofters’; of how Thomson’s ‘…writing combines a feel for the “this-worldness” of his characters’ lives with an understanding of the “otherworldness” they keep a place for in their consciousness,’ I felt again those ripples of deep story-time I experienced in Berlie Doherty’s Daughter of the Sea – and in the musical cadences of The Maiden and the Selkie.

The song-time of the selkie tales, echoing from somewhere between (to re-apply Heaney’s words) the ‘here-and-nowness’ and the ‘there-and-thennness’ seems, to me, to abide most powerfully in a concept Seamus Heaney beautifully apprehends when he writes that The People of the Sea ‘…at the mythic level presents us with an image of ourselves in those amphibians we have evolved from, all of us (to quote Wordsworth again) “inmates of this active universe”…’

Inmates of this active universe’. It says so much. It is the kind of phrase in which Wordsworth’s worth to the world most shines – a stepping stone phrase, helping to pave the pathways of poetry with gold.

And Heaney’s poet’s heart cannot resist scattering extra shimmer by layering alongside it the words of another poet, emphasising how the ‘fundamental understanding’ of the characters within The People of the Sea ‘…is shaped by what the poet Edwin Muir once termed “that long lost, archaic companionship” between human beings and the creatures.’

And, building on his own golden stepping stones of insight and expression within the book’s introduction, Heaney adds: ‘Plainly, memorably, repeatedly, instances of this old eye-to-eye and breath-to-breath closeness between living things appear in the narrative.’ He describes the selkie stories as possessing an ‘irresistible holistic beauty.’ They are not, he says: ‘…escapist fantasies but a form of poetry, especially if we think of poetry in terms of its definition as a dream dreamt in the presence of reason.’

In song, in story, the figure of the selkie reminds us of relationship: vital, life-and-death interrelationship between human and all other animal life – and between land and sea.

They sing of interdependence, these selkie tales; of the give and take, the not knowingness of beginnings and endings, the impossibility of defining where land and sea retreat or extend. They sing of the blending of past, future, present in cycles of belonging and leaving; and of how each of us exists in our own moment of shifting nows, thens and tomorrows; living as part of nature’s fathomless shaping of her own mysterious tale.

And – to bring us, appropriately, darting back along those cyclical ripples – just such an instance and endlessness of relationship shifts into ‘the eternal present of song-time’ in Seamus Heaney’s own poem Lovers on Aran (another shimmering offering to grace the golden pathway…):

Lovers on Aran

The timeless waves, bright, sifting, broken glass,
Came dazzling around, into the rocks,
Came glinting, sifting from the Americas

To possess Aran. Or did Aran rush
to throw wide arms of rock around a tide
That yielded with an ebb, with a soft crash?

Did sea define the land or land the sea?
Each drew new meaning from the waves’ collision.
Sea broke on land to full identity.

– Seamus Heaney

Story, Legend and Mordred’s Lullaby

The power of story – and its importance in our lives and endeavours – is an abiding theme here on Bookish Nature. Myth and legend are at the beating heart of a deep human need; the storyteller by the fire an essential part of any culture.

The Arthurian legends linger in Britain’s mists like memories rising from the land. They are an essence of something felt, but not articulated directly – something that is released in language only in the form of poem, symbol and tale; darting through an alchemy of words, lithe as a fox.

Susan Cooper says of the fourth in her The Dark is Rising sequence of children’s novels, so steeped in ‘the mythic history of the land’ and the legends of King Arthur:

‘….Above all, I owe ‘The Grey King’ to the power that’s been singing for centuries out of the land itself; the ancient, haunted mountains and valleys of Cymru, Wales.’

Both timeless and mutable, myths are passed on and inherited; blended, shaped and reshaped by many tellings, many hands. Time past, present and future, they address our deepest concerns about human nature and contain the elemental moods of the land, the spirit of place; who we feel we are in relationship to it, and how it shapes us…

My daughter and I stumbled upon Heather Dale’s music on the internet, and instantly felt we had found something wonderful. Many of Heather’s songs are inspired by myth and folklore, and are infused with storytelling and explorations of Arthurian legend.

In her album The Trial of Lancelot, Heather Dale crafts her telling of the tale through various voices. This song, Mordred’s Lullaby, is from the first person perspective of Morgan le Fay. Haunting and dark, it tangles its fingers in the themes of betrayal, hatred and corruption, the toxic nature of vengeance, the turning from the light – and keeps sight of the complexities inherent to the ways in which light and darkness glimmer…