‘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!)

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The Swifts have ‘made it again’

They’re back! Tumbling through the blue sky above our garden…

My first sighting of swifts this year!

At about mid-day today, I was hanging out the washing in a dreamy, basking-in-the-sunshine sort of way – a speckled wood butterfly fluttering close to my feet – when I heard the swifts call. Not that full scream, spread out across the sky like a banner – but a faint, familiar, busy, bubble of sound tossed between them in the air far above.

Instantly, I snapped awake – and jerked my head back to see three, then five altogether, tumbling, turning, glimmering way up in that liquid, clear blue.

I thought I heard swifts overhead last Friday; just the briefest of calls. But it was raining and very overcast, and when I scanned the sky I could see no sign… so, either I’d made a mistake – or they were there, hidden above the low, white curtain of cloud…

But now, I’ve seen them for sure! They’ve definitely returned! And the uplift of that moment is incredible – as it is every year.  All the nature lovers I know start buzzing with it – passing on the mantra: “They’re back!” – a shorthand everyone instantly understands.

Ted Hughes captures that moment, that feeling – and the pure essence of swifts (in description, and in the very movement and rhythm of the words) – to utter perfection:

Fifteenth of May. Cherry blossom. The swifts
Materialise at the tip of a long scream
Of needle. ‘Look! They’re back! Look!’ And they’re gone
On a steep

Controlled scream of skid
Round the house-end and away under the cherries.
      Gone.
Suddenly flickering in sky summit, three or four together,
Gnat-whisp frail, and hover-searching, and listening

For air-chills – are they too early? With a bowing
Power-thrust to left, then to right, then a flicker they
Tilt into a slide, a tremble for balance,
Then a lashing down disappearance

Behind elms.
                                  They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed, our summer’s
Still all to come –

 – From Swifts by Ted Hughes.

… My much-read copy of the poem lives in this volume, published by Faber and Faber, and wonderfully illustrated by Raymond Briggs; a volume my daughter bought for me one birthday. A perfect book for the generations to share:

Picture of book: Collected Poems for Children by Ted Hughes

Picture of text of Swifts by Ted Hughes