Water, Swans and Word-Flight

October 3rd was National Poetry Day here in the UK. I’ve been so busy, I didn’t manage to finish writing a Poetry Day celebration post in time (though, thankfully, the ever-enriching words of Seamus Heaney were holding the fort in my previous post, providing poetic sustenance to anyone who found their way here that day).

But, hey – every day is poetry day! So, let’s keep the celebrations rolling…

The theme this year was ‘Water, water’

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.

– From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Here’s a lovely film by Leo Crane, with sound by Andrew Hayes – a London Animation Studio production for Forward Arts Foundation – complete with Rachel Rooney’s mermaid, Roger McGough’s handfish, Jacob Polley’s Book of Water – as well as Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and other watery treasures…

(A download of the poems featured is available on the National Poetry Day resources section of the Forward Arts Foundation website).

Thinking my way towards a poem through which water glints and slips and brims, The Wild Swans at Coole by William Butler Yeats quickly surfaced.

My daughter loves it too. She first met it in The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems, stunningly illustrated by Jackie Morris.

The Wild Swans at Coole by W.B. Yeats - Illustrated by Jackie Morris, The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems

The Wild Swans at Coole by W.B. Yeats – Illustrated by Jackie Morris, The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems

Front cover - Barefoot Book of Classic Poems, Illustrated by Jackie Morris (Published by Barefoot Books)

Front cover – Barefoot Book of Classic Poems, Illustrated by Jackie Morris (Published by Barefoot Books)

My knowledge of Yeats is sketchy, but the lovely Coole Park and Gardens website provides an interesting taster of his relationship to Coole in Ireland; how he loved its lakes, woods, wildlife – and the healing calm it provided in the wake of deep exhaustion.

The swans Yeats saw at Coole were probably Whooper swans – but also may have been Bewick’s. Back in February this year, we made a visit to the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust’s centre at Slimbridge, to experience the winter magic both species bring to our shores. It was a stunning day – bright sun, blue sky, mistletoe draping the trees

– and a sunset that blazed the sky, and cast coloured silk on the water.

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The wild swans, shrugging the North through their wings, shook the winter rays deeper into their feathers as they landed in the Rushy Pen to feed. They became part of the water…

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…they became part of the sky:

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Flight

…keeping the Arctic in the turn of their head, in the shards of light in their eye, in the descending beat of their cry. Framed by the window of the Peng Observatory, they transformed the lake at Slimbridge into a Sir Peter Scott painting; the whole scene water-coloured by the light:

Wildfowl on Rushy Pen, Slimbridge WWT

Opposite, an iconic image of a Slimbridge observation tower glowed in a wash of ochre.

Old observatory, Slimbridge WWT

The Bewick’s arrive, they go, arrive and go – travelling with the seasons. Some return and return; some don’t make it. Others survive, but carry shotgun pellets embedded between flesh, bone and feathers. Living targets for those who, beneath the ancient, global turn of the swans’ journey, do not welcome them. Yeats was right to see an echo of mourning in the wild swans’ departure – to fear the doubt of return.

Winged layers and layers of significance take flight through time:

The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky:
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lakes edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

By William Butler Yeats.

Now, as I write this, the Bewick’s are, once more, on their way back to our shores – creating an epic shrug of earth-breath southwards; folding the thrill and cry of the North through the quiet, promised chill of our days. We wait, hopeful.

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My other choice of watery poem – this time one of my son’s favourites – is Duck Weather by Shirley Hughes, from her beautiful picture book, Rhymes for Annie Rose.

Rhymes for Annie Rose by Shirley Hughes - a Ted Smart Publication, originally published by Bodley Head Children's Books, Random House

Rhymes for Annie Rose by Shirley Hughes – a Ted Smart Publication, originally published by Bodley Head Children’s Books, Random House

It seems especially appropriate to choose something from Shirley Hughes, as her work appears on two of the National Poetry Day 2013 posters – each one a wonderful reach-out to a child’s natural readiness for poetry discovery.

Through the story-ways of Shirley Hughes’ picture books, so many children have taken their earliest steps into the magical rhythms, sounds and transports of language. Her words, and the enchantment of her illustrations, brim with the essence of daily childhood; filling both the child and adult reader with such a strong sense of recognition.

Duck Weather by Shirley Hughes, from Rhymes for Annie Rose

Duck Weather by Shirley Hughes, from Rhymes for Annie Rose

I love how this poem is, in itself, a constantly remade moment of sharing with my son. He loves its rhythms – and the sturdy and joyful declaration of its tone. I love it too because I remember so vividly that fascination for rainy days I felt as a small child. The rituals of arming ourselves with bright, shiny wellies and waterproofs. The fun of unfurling and twirling umbrellas (or in the case of those domed see-through ones fashionable in the 1970s, balancing them on our heads, hands-free as we splashed in the puddles). Rainy days brought blurred light, jagged and pooling on the pavement; reflections of colour caught in the tarmac; the somehow comforting swish of passing cars, and that happy feeling of escape as we splashed our gladness and felt faintly smug that we weren’t the people hunched inside those cars – but could taste freedom and the smell of grass rising, and could almost see the trees oozing their secret scent into the enticing dampness…

All things from which word-flight – and the flights of our dreams – are made:

Detail from 'Night Flight' by Shirley Hughes (Rhymes for Annie Rose)

Detail from ‘Night Flight’ by Shirley Hughes (Rhymes for Annie Rose)

Happy (across the Nations) Poetry (Every) Day, everyone!

And a very warm welcome to the many new Bookish Nature followers and readers who have found their way here since the blog was (unbelievably!) Freshly Pressed last month. My stats rocketed overnight (quite literally) – and the bar chart for that day unfolded like a Big Friendly Giant, leaving the previous days’ stats peeping, like tiny, nervous Sophies, from under a table loaded with snozzcumbers. My thanks to WordPress, and to everyone who has read/ liked/ followed/ commented. It’s been really rewarding to connect with so many interesting, talented and engaging bloggers and visitors. Please forgive me if it takes me a while to answer comments and to visit blogs etc… Life, always busy, has taken an extra time-filled turn lately. I’m doing my best to keep blog content coming (lots of posts in the pipeline) – though, often, it might be the case – as with National Poetry Day – that I’ll turn up just a bit late to the party!

You can catch up with the latest news about the Bewick’s swans’ migration at the Bewick’s Swan Diary on the WWT Slimbridge web pages.

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)

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.

Winter Green

Cold. Tipping-edge cold. Balanced on a pre-solstice day in early December, two winters ago; before the snows…

Tunnels of light hollow between the trees; deep wells of echo-light, fastening the horizon around us.

Winter trees and sky

Everything hushes near, closing moments in startled sound… A blackbird alarms; a crow, urgent, makes for sky-laden trees – a warning of the vagrancy of night.

And we look for the green – the winter bloom of life that even now, just before the ice, takes an in breath and keeps on breathing. The Holly and the Ivy. Wearing the crown of winter…

Holly berries

And more green reaches our eyes; luminous tree-cloaks of moss…

Holly and winter tree-cloaks of moss

Lichens – like undersea creatures surprised by halted water…

Moss and lichen

Lichen

And all the time, we are drawn closer – through woodland windows; the leaves a spent thought, already murmuring into the earth.

Mossy tree-window

A tree stump, its own world…

Winter tree stump

– connected to the hilt of a living branch, and sheathed in a ferment of flourishing and decay – invites us ever closer…

Fungi Fairytale world

…to more green, more breathing; the earth casting shapes like small totems of existence. A fairy world, a microcosm world…

Tree stump world

– where an oak leaf, dreaming its beauty like a work of art, cradles its future in droplets of decay, ready to give life…

Winter oak leaf

The lowering light cools to a seeping sheen, defying the clasp of ice.

Fungi

Fungi, ferns, moss, lichen, evergreens…

Winter ferns and moss

Arboreal ferns

…these are the keepers of winter, taking their turn to fold the year‘s attention their way. All is quiet, all vibrantly alive – humming in connection to something turning even in the stillness; the spin of the planet constantly revealed…

Homeward, caught in ice light before the snow, we travel a margin of shadow…

Homeward - December sunset

…the sun melting towards the year’s waking-dreaming; tipping us nearer the solstice – and towards new memories of green…

(Photos taken at Westonbirt Arboretum, Gloucestershire Cotswolds, December 2010)

Wells and Ways

Sorry, everyone, to be trailing my feet so very slowly into September. There were some challenging, and very tiring, obstacles to overcome before I got to this point – and concentration has been scattered to the winds for a while. But I have with me a huge sack-full of stories to unpack and to tell. Memories to fashion into words. Places and books jumbled and jostling. So much gleaned and gathered along the way…

So… which shall I pull out first?

A Memory of May elbows its way to the surface, insisting on chronological order (more recent tales pile up behind, babbling randomly – they’ll spill out of the bag as and when…)

In focus for now is that freedom-moment in May, when my daughter and I followed the low sweep of a buzzard’s wing through a Mendip forest, and discovered a secret path – fox-narrow, moss deep and scattered with late, shy violets.

With an almost ridiculous sense of release, we let its meander draw us in – not caring if it went anywhere, knowing that here, amongst star-green moss, and the hush of badger old-ways, we’d reached the pulse of the place. Along that springy soil, we could follow our thoughts, free from the well-trodden trails where the woodland withdrew, as if wincing.

Root-edged, now spongy, now muddy – my feet found the earth’s ups and downs and squelched through soggy stream-crossings with dizzy delight. But a shadow of guilt fell across my way too. We’d left behind two members of our family. My husband and son were waiting for us at a woodland bench – bound to the hard-surfaced path by a wheelchair.

We’re so used to that feeling of limits, of difficulty of movement around the landscape, of stuck wheels, muscles straining – determined to open up the great outdoors to our son – that when my husband or I get the chance to free-wander, we tend to let rip – deliberately choosing routes up steps, down high kerbs, along uneven cobbles, deep ruts – just for the feeling of light-bodied freedom. Because we can.

But guilt soon follows, because we can only have those moments when our boy is not with us – and without him, it seems a hollow joy. This Forestry Commission Mendip wood is a favourite picnic destination due to its access-for-all wheelchair route; a valued and reliable opportunity for our whole family to share a way into the wild…

Stockhill Wood is mostly conifer plantation, but its edges and corners wear a patina of ancient land-magic – polished by the wing-glance of buzzards, the darting gleams of dragonflies, and by the time-shivered remnants of pioneer plant life. Old lead workings heave the land into strange contortions, and there is something in the wood’s shadows that is like a ghost of past identities; the remains of an old, well-worn garment crumpled at the bottom of the wardrobe. Now, the land wears a cloak which, though lacking the rich weave of ancient broadleaf woodland, provides habitat for nightjars, long-eared owls – and a host of goldcrests, whose pin thin calls are a constant charm above us…

And this was a wood categorised as ‘commercial value only’ during the government’s infamous public forest sell-off proposals last year! Says it all really!

As I told our MP in my letter of protest at the time, such places are becoming ever more important to us now that our son is getting bigger. He’s almost outgrown his all-terrain buggy. Battered and just a little bit mangled, it’s been along cliff paths (some of which, it’s heartening to learn, are becoming more accessible now due to replacement of stiles with gates), across Northumbrian moors, along otherwise inaccessible beaches, in the sea, through woodlands, bouncing over the deep, chalky ruts of Wiltshire’s ancient track-ways, pushed to the top of hills by concerted, family effort, lugged up steps and over stiles (with son carried separately, I hasten to add!) But there’s a limit to our strength – and little ‘un is not so comfy in the buggy’s seat, now that he’s heading towards twelve and his legs are sprouting further than the foot rests. So, until (if) we can manage to find a suitable all-terrain alternative it’s back to the wheelchair for most of the time – and back to the main paths.

Feeling truant, I return from my indulgent wander, and follow the sound of our boy singing (he cannot speak, but his happy spirit bubbles intermittently through song, wordless but note perfect). He’s alongside his dad, surrounded by the flicker of goldcrests, and when his gaze turns towards our approach, we’re greeted by a dazzle of smiles, a song of delight at our return, and hugs all round.

And, falling into step beside his wheelchair, we’re more than happy to hold his hand and walk the wide paths with him… but sometimes those narrow, winding, freedom-ways seem like they’re a million miles away. Sometimes it’s hard to acknowledge that they are there. Not for us. Taunting us with the wishes we have for our boy. It can only take a stile or a too-narrow gateway to lock us out, leaving us looking at the horizon with hungry eyes.

But… small gifts can go towards healing thwarted wishes. Stealing close, they can tap us on the shoulder and remind us that we don’t have to follow far horizons to find magic. It can be right by our feet, right here…

…In an enchanted May corner of this forest where wood-sorrel grows each year, snuggled up against tree roots, pink blushed, heads inclined in elegant humility…

Wood-sorrel, Oxalis acetosella

Or in ancient elders draped in cloaks of moss, creating mystery and story…

And then it’s on into Wells – and tea and cake on the sunny street, the bells of the cathedral stirring the air into glorious, cacophonous collide. We discover that the Mendip vintage car rally is on today and my husband’s eyes light up at the sight of car upon classic car (don’t ask me which types!) lined up in front of the cathedral.

Whilst our daughter wilts in mystification at this spectacle of four-wheel devotion, a member of the clergy has taken an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude, giving up on manning a tourist-abandoned cathedral to chat happily with the throngs of car-gazers (and sun-seekers) on the green.

This rare day of May sunshine has cast smiles on everyone’s lips. People wander and linger, stretch their wings in the inviting open air. There is something adrift in the atmosphere which seems to have settled the cathedral into a different role today; people seek it out – not so much as an enfolding sanctuary, but as a glorying backdrop – an embrace – to the ebullience of the day.

I’m all eyes and ears for that wondrous building, which sits rooted like an organic thing, grown and worn in to its space, corners slumped like scraped butter, crumbling into the earthy vibrations which heave and release magnificently through its walls. Nesting birds come and go in the gaps between the medieval statue figures, intent wings brushing stony faces. A flurry of feathers prompts imaginings of dignified mirth – or irritation – concealed beneath serene, unruffled beards.

But all those rather weary and philosophical eyes remain unblinking as they watch us walk through time…

…clockwise around the cathedral…

…where we pause to admire melting statues…

and griffins poised for flight…

…before we wander on, past the cosy-gothic of Vicars’ Close…

…to the Bishop’s Palace.

“Why would a bishop need a palace?” our daughter puzzles.

You might well ask…

We sit on a bench overlooking the moat and discuss a little history – the interplay of power, the contradictions…

And are ignored by pigeons, sleepy above our heads.

Then it’s out across the Palace Fields, along the surfaced path which is such a godsend. All the way – (a good long stretch without any barring obstacle – hooray!) through accessible gates to the village of Dulcote,* spreading our wings in unison with the buzzard high above us

as we revel in the enchanting views of Park Wood, the cathedral and mystical Glastonbury Tor…

Which is so beautiful, so affecting, it’s worth digging out an old photo of an April moment from 2007 to show you another view – across the watery world of the Somerset Levels, from the RSPB Ham Wall reserve…

A wonderful place with wheelchair access to this magical land of Avalon, where our son can watch Great Crested Grebes dance…

…and where (if he can pause in his singing for long enough!) he may just spot an otter one day…

* Note – at the end of the surfaced footpath across Palace Fields (after the final gate) there is a short but steep slope down to the lane leading to Dulcote village. Strong muscles are required for wheelchair access at this point if intending to go beyond the fields (we retraced our steps here, so I’m not sure how easy wheelchair access would be along the road to the village. There was a pavement opposite, though we didn’t see how far along the road it continued. We did, however, manage to push our (slightly-built) 11 year old son down, and back up, the slope after the last gate – but it took a burst of effort!)

Useful Links:

Stockhill Wood, Mendip Hills

RSPB Ham Wall Reserve (with details of RADAR key disabled access)

Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve (close to Ham Wall reserve, also with some disabled access)

Accessible Countryside for Everyone (ACE) website – South West England page (lots of information regarding disabled access to various countryside sites and details of easy access trails)

Wells Cathedral

Tourist Information for Wells and North Somerset

The ‘blue-buzzed haze’ and passing days…

Amidst all the rain this May Bank Holiday weekend, Sunday 6th opened a window of sunshine – so we grabbed our chance, headed out to Westonbirt Arboretum

And stepped through into this…

It’s so difficult, via a photo or words, to convey the sheer sensuousness of being amongst bluebells. Almost impossible to convey the intensity of colour, the subtle layers of scent; the stunning effect as you turn a corner and see them there, spread at the feet of moss-rimed oaks – or splashed across the grass, gleaming in the light…

‘And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes’

– Gerard Manley Hopkins

In the serenely beautiful video clip below, Robert Macfarlane sits in a Billericay bluebell wood and responds to these lines from The May Magnificat. He reflects on how he came to fully understand Manley Hopkins’ words, and to appreciate the accuracy of their imagery; how they capture that effect of ‘aqueous shimmer’ and ‘marine wash’ (Macfarlane’s own description) when you walk and sit amongst bluebells.

Reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places (one of the most deeply mesmerising books I’ve ever encountered) is like experiencing a kind of meditation – an underworld of deep thought. This clip is from The Wild Places of Essex – a televisual accompaniment to Macfarlane’s book, and part of the BBC’s Natural World series back in 2010. It gives a flavour of that mesmerising quality of Macfarlane’s nature writing, and provides a visual feast of ‘blue-buzzed haze’ (Gerard Manley Hopkins again):

Bluebells are one of the specialities of the British Isles, our (blue) icing on the biodiversity cake. More sparsely present in continental Europe and absent elsewhere, they are a national – a world – treasure. We are guardians of around half the world’s population of Hyacinthoides non-scripta. It’s so easy to take things for granted. Even within the very essence of the bluebells’ transience, we feel a trust in their never-ending return.

Trust, familiarity, noticing. Do they always go together? Today, in flower all around us, there’s a very common plant indeed – one hardly ever heeded – which is also putting on a fine display.

The bright yellow shaggy manes of dandelions are spread out in the sun, with the occasional seed clock counting its time until the breeze breaks up its perfect globe.

For me, it is a plant so bound up with my childhood; with handstands on scruffy lawns; with tree-camps on the wild edges of playing fields; with searching out its jagged, pungent leaves so beloved by pet guinea pigs; and with gently blowing the time away on the wind… There’s so much, even the most commonplace, that we would miss if it were gone.

Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney-sweepers come to dust’

…writes Shakespeare in Cymbeline. Those ‘chimney sweepers’ (dandelion clocks) are an image of passing time embedded, from our earliest days, in our consciousness and culture…

Here in Silk Wood (the arboretum’s ancient woodland) – this April/May window of emerging leaf canopy, and tree-scattered light, not only belongs to the bluebells – but is also the moment when the early purple orchids step forward and come into bloom. After carefully keeping a lookout for them in likely places, the first one we see creeps up on us from behind, jumping into my vision as I idly glance up from admiring an “elven doorway” amidst the moss.

When we follow the path round to the woodland edge, we find, as we did last year, that hosts of early purples are thriving in the grassy clearing maintained for their benefit.

And we discover more in other clearings and on the wildflower meadow rides, where we have also found them in previous years:

Early purple orchid, Orchis mascula

Earlier today, we noticed the leaves of other orchids emerging from the soil – common spotted:

…and twayblades:

We sit on a bench for a while, jumping to our feet when we hear the yaffling call of a green woodpecker immediately behind us. We don’t manage to get a glimpse of the “Yaffle,” but moments later a great spotted woodpecker lands in the tree above our bench. It’s very far up, but I point the camera towards it on maximum zoom, and hope for the best:

With the naked eye, and through binoculars, we get wonderful views of its black, white and red plumage as it fidgets and shifts along the branches.

Deeper in the ancient woodland, among tree stumps transforming into fantastic, fairy tale sculptures…

…we come across a single white bluebell

and a male orange tip butterfly is busy feeding nearby:

Orange tip butterfly (male), Anthocharis cardamines

On April Fools’ Day, on the same path – almost on the same spot – I managed to get this picture of a comma butterfly:

Comma butterfly, Polygonia c-album

And just around the corner, almost a year ago to the day, I photographed this rather ragged red admiral basking in the late April sun:

Red admiral butterfly, Vanessa atalanta

…whilst nearby, this beautiful peacock butterfly was feeding on those wonderful, nectar providing dandelions:

Peacock butterfly, Inachis io

Today, we are accompanied by the call of a chiffchaff, whilst all around, the birdsong is swollen by other recently arrived summer migrants, adding their voices to those of the resident birds. All along the edge of a plantation, there are clumps of stitchwort – and also water avens, bowing its meekly folded petals:

Water avens, Geum rivale

Lots of bugle is in flower everywhere and we find some red campion flowering too. And out in the damper, grassy areas of Silk Wood, lady’s smock – food plant for orange tip butterfly caterpillars – is also in flower. We pause to admire it, whilst two orange tips, a male and a female, flutter in courtship above the windmill whirls of pink flowers:

Lady’s smock (cuckoo flower), Cardamine pratensis

Tiny, fresh green hazel leaves are brewing energy for their future fruits, and the cherry blossom is still blousy against the blue sky. Last year, the blossom burst into spectacular, candyfloss profusion after the previous harsh winter – and gave a display that made the very earth seem to hum with bees:

On a high bank, a false oxlip is in flower, though now past its best… But, again, by the magic of time travel, a photo taken on this bank in May 2009 can whisk you back to when we managed to catch a previous year’s incarnation in a moment of full glory:

On the same bank, and on the arboretum’s downs, cowslips are in flower:

Cowslip, Primula veris

Beside some beech trees at the woodland edge, more twayblades are scattered profusely through the dog’s mercury, their flowers still bunched low, tight and closed, waiting their time.

And on the path where ramsons rule, their deep, damp wild garlic aroma fills the air. They are just beginning to unwrap their starry flowers:

– but soon they will fully reveal, in turn, their moment of stunning glory, when this path will be an avenue of billowing white.

Now, as the day – and our window of sunshine – begins to close, we watch swallows and house martins dash and twist in the sky. And a whole succession of moments lingers around us, blowing through the passing of the years – like the seed from those dandelion clocks, so perfect and waiting; playing their part in the cycle of things…

A Peace of Nature

Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees…. while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.’    John Muir

I am a little piece of nature.’   Albert Einstein

 

Utter calm. Often, it appears unexpectedly and by chances, stealing in when you think it’s somewhere else. It’s not easy to come by. But it was there that day – not in a deep, remote landscape, but in Bath’s Botanical Gardens, with the sound of the Easter holiday fun fair thumping persistently from Victoria Park.

That elusive peace enfolded us – my husband, daughter and me – as we sat on a bench, watching the spring sunlight pulse its reflection amongst the leaves over the pool, just letting the life of the gardens come to us…

In the early afternoon, with the morning cloud dissolved, and the blue skies of the preceding days restored, we weren’t the only ones enjoying the warmth and awakening earth in that hidden corner. Above us, by the ‘Temple of Minerva,’ where a natural spring glints the spare-coin offerings of passing wish-makers, a woodpigeon cooled itself in the cascade – and a dunnock splashed amongst the lower tiers of rock.

Earlier, the dunnock had sprung from the ground to the top of the bush close beside me, threading the air with its clear, piercing notes, marking its territory. Now, a male blackbird torpedoed the underside of the leaves overhanging the pool, picking off an insect as it made contact. As he landed, another male blackbird collided into his space, assessed his dilemma, twitched in an uneasy stand-off, stood his ground for a second and then startled away.

Blackbird photographed at the same spot by the pool in Bath Botanical Gardens, June 2010.

In the tree tops, blue tits swung and hopped from branch to branch, busy in constant conversation with each other. A couple of long-tailed tits emerged from a bush, like little pendulums balanced on the ends of branches. And then, above us in the vegetation by the cascade, we caught sight of our first orange tip butterfly of the year. It tumbled downwards, circled and then rose, like a visual representation of thought-patterns; playing out a dance of forgetting then remembering. And, all this time, the trees resounded with birdsong – enough to fill the mind’s focus, and to dismiss the thudding vibrations from the fun fair music and rides.

All around the gardens, the magnolia trees were in full bloom, their old branches twisting in a controlled, contorted dance. Holding up their flowers like cups offered to the sky, their petals spilled to the ground – and everywhere tree blossom buzzed with bees and drifted around us like pink snow. Earlier, we had lingered in the wildflower area – loving the chance to see snake’s head fritillaries. They were almost over with their flowering – reminding me that another year’s opportunity for a visit to Cricklade Meadow, to see them in the wild, would soon be slipping away…

But, for now, no matter; these park cousins are beautiful.

Snake's Head Fritillary, Fritillaria meleagris

Within the metal railings that encircle these gardens, nature is packed in, brimming with colour and variety, like the concentrated contents of a tin of assorted sweets. Sitting by the pool, the usual nagging inner voices and thoughts, for once, have shut up – for a brief time. It feels so good to sit here, in this little piece of nature, unwinding through the pulse of the day – and to unfurl, like the leaf buds around us, from the winter.

From our bench, we can glimpse the head and arms of Lee Dickson’s tree sculpture, Mankind’s Hand in Nature, similarly unfurling towards the sky through the vegetation.

Around seven metres tall, it rises from the ground, keeping alive the spirit of the sequoia from which it is carved.

The tree, one of the original twelve giant redwoods to be brought to Britain in the 1850s, sadly succumbed to honey fungus in recent years, and Lee Dickson, a local chainsaw sculptor from Radstock, was commissioned in 2001 to create the sculpture as a celebration of the tree’s life and place in the gardens.

And these gardens certainly are a place to celebrate life; to come to for peace and repose, and to fit back into nature’s cycles. We were here the week before too, with our son. Pushing his wheelchair as close to the railings as we could get, we watched the huge koi carp glide silently in the pool…

…and greeted a moorhen rushing through the light…

…before wandering through the gardens and Victoria Park, past the daffodils and blossom…

…past the flowering lesser celandine and violets…

…to Bath Abbey Churchyard to listen to the buskers.

On the Abbey’s face, the angels were engaged in their endless climb…

– and fall…

…on the ladder to heaven.

But it wasn’t a day for falling angels.

…Too much earthy life emerging – too much of the turn of the planet – all around and in our selves.

 

…And that seems an appropriate cue for a song that’s been our son’s favourite since he was tiny; his ‘magic song’ with the power to soothe like none other:

Follow the Heron by Karine Polwart

‘The back of the winter is broken
And light lingers long by the door
And the seeds of the summer have spoken
In gowans that bloom on the shore…’

It’s a beautiful celebration of both an outer and inner transition into spring. That cusp and co-existence of ‘ice’ (or in the case of today’s weather here, lots of rain!) and growing light… Enjoy!