Eclipsed

The solar eclipse of March 20th left us standing in a hybrid light. As if Space had closed in, to become more of itself – vast, absolute, the only act on stage; a conjuror steadily veiling the comfort of the apparent, better to reveal an alternative reality.

Moving with a twilight gait, the morning’s pulse beat towards pause. But this was no soft, twilight promise of leave-taking. For a moment, the illusion was stark, leaving us dislocated from what held us firm. A chilly pall plummeted, suspended on a weight of absence, and we were left enclosed in a box of mirrors; at the magician’s mercy – the spotlight that defined our world removed.

There was a dimming; a clammy, intimate drapery of air against my neck, seeping to the roots of my hair. Greyness stood silent and close – and yet, the rising morning still held high its bold, blue sky. Even with almost ninety per cent coverage here in South West England, the sun cast a steadfast light. When only a sliver of sun escaped the moon’s shadow, the gleam of its sword-edge – still assertive – sliced the day, and fitted it into an empty compartment of distant display.

We strained the solar eclipse through a colander for safe viewing of this cosmic event....

We strained the solar eclipse through a colander for safe viewing of this cosmic event….

In that moment, the immense power of the sun – juxtaposed with the dead, cold shadow of its absence – made standing on this planet a sudden, deep-down awareness of utter dependence.

The birds – our solid allies during this dark turn of the cards – drained from the sky, seeking footholds. A pair of jackdaws, clattering on the tiles like a heave of surprise, landed on our roof. Shuffling comfort-near, they closed in on their own curiosity. Bills tilted skyward, they watched the eclipse, their eyes filled with perplexity.

Jackdaws watching solar eclipse

Earlier that morning, I had watched the jackdaws rise with the sun from a tree etched in sleep against the sky. Then, in pairs, they had spread around our street – roof by roof, chimney by chimney. They had been busy, vocal – prospecting old nest sites. We too had been busy; human and bird routines in motion, our hours prepared ahead of us to be filled and mapped by a compass of activity. And, above us, on a scale beyond full comprehension, a shadow was on its way; the moon travelling, unstoppable, into this moment of strange, drifting rootedness.

For me, the jackdaws’ reaction said it all. Their whole demeanour was like an astonished blink at a trick pulled out of the hat. They gazed skyward, watched each other, I watched them.

Jackdaws still puzzling as the moon's shadow slips away, and the sky lightens...

Jackdaws still puzzling as the moon’s shadow slips away, and the sky lightens…

And, together, we witnessed the unfathomable unpacked from a seemingly finite space. The familiar transformed into something more itself – and disturbingly revealed as utterly alterable.

And then, the moment passed. The waxing sun nudged most of the birds from their consternation – and they were flung skyward again; a whirl of beginning the day, once more.

But, for a while, the jackdaws remained – puzzling the sky’s strange riddle across the silver of their eye.

More than meets the eye:

Jackdaws never cease to fascinate me. Here are a couple of links to articles outlining research into how Jackdaws use their striking silver eyes, and their gaze, to communicate – and to entwine their understanding and behaviour with ours….

What the Jackdaw Saw – study shows birds communicate with their eyes (University of Exeter website).

Human Eyes Speak Volumes to Birds (Science Blogs).

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Seasons’ Readings – and Returnings…

There’s something I’ve noticed about my reading in recent years. I seem to move through phases. Like the moon. Or the seasons. Quartering the year with rolling colours of moods; kaleidoscope changes that meld thoughts, like fragments of stained glass, into patterns – never exactly the same twice, but falling loosely into the same corner of the year; same time, same place.

I’ve noticed that around the autumn – September through to November – the excitement of the turning globe, the tightening drawstring of migration, the freefall of the trees – and the belt-loosening outbreath of the land as it settles down beneath its knee-blanket of frost – all turns me outward.  I want to be outside, or by the window – to be watching, noticing, swept up in the passing. I want to take records, to ponder, to be a naturalist, a citizen scientist; to look for the tiniest detail on a goldfinch’s wing; the last glint of a dragonfly on a leaf; the bloom of fungi in rotting wood.

For a short while, my reading turns almost wholly towards nature writing, natural history, landscape, sky. I immerse myself in it. Storing for the inner times. I pick up another book, and see the pages ahead as another portal into the grass, water, trees, mountains, clouds; the slippery cloak of the eel winding its way around me – delivering me into animal worlds.

And then, the season will turn. The kaleidoscope shifts. Nearing Christmas, maybe around solstice, the pattern gathers around light-gleaming colours of gold, green, red – firesides and indoor-coddled trees, laden with glittering reflection. Worlds within worlds; glimpsed, hidden.

My thoughts turn to Magic, Imagination; to back-of-the-wardrobe doorways whose frosted hinges crack open into eerie, snow-covered enchantment; to the silence of the forest; witches on brooms; armoured bears; goblets of fire; signs of power; hobbits dodging dragons with trickster words.

The pattern also traces its way into dark, mud-splashed streets, to crumbling houses filled with mystery; their gables and chimneys jutting jaws of stubborn secrecy. Ghosts and memories haunt these places, hovering close to their traditional places by the winter hearth. Clustered in this corner jostle stories tinged with the Gothic, with explorations of rooms behind locked doors, the creaking stairway; the chilly breath that extinguishes the candle.

Or, conversely, the tales invited to the hearth will beam with congenial mirth, placing around my shoulders a blanket against the freezing winds outside. Or best of all, the cosy and the mysterious will take turns by the firelight, mixing their roles within the very same tale.

During Christmas 2013, with the clan gathered together, there was little opportunity for private reading – but we pocketed ourselves away in those safely muffled days, and watched in shared contentment the season’s offering of films, many of them the stuff of the stories above. At the cinema, my daughter and I travelled amongst dwarves and wizards to meet the Elven King (via The Hobbit, Part Two, The Desolation of Smaug); and at home, the whole family journeyed, via television, to Narnia and into the world of Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart.

A wonderful, spontaneous ‘Family Story-Gathering’ occurred one day when, happening to check the Radio Times, we saw that, in tribute to the late Joan Fontaine, Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was about to begin on TV. Instantly, we bunched up on the sofa, ready to dream of returning to Manderley again…

2013 had its ups as well as its downs, but was generally a very difficult year, filled with worry and strain. The ever changing reading-kaleidoscope was still pulling my thoughts in various directions – but, each pattern was no more than glimpsed before it had to be shaken loose. There wasn’t much time, or spare mind-space, for actually sitting down to pause, calm the mind and open a book.

On my bedside cabinet there is a tower of unfinished volumes, left suspended at moments when my attention was scattered and my energies were needed elsewhere. At the turn of the New Year, I needed to re-gather and to rest. I needed to read. I hadn’t realised how much I needed to read; how unwell in myself I’d begun to feel without that natural, meditative rhythm the turn of the page gives as the year and days go by. Back in November, reading Julian Hoffman’s beautiful book The Small Heart of Things had been a glorious re-aligning of an inner, homeward compass. And, for a while, I’d also been carrying with me a very timely reminder gifted by the pages of Valerie Davies’s wise and wonderful blog – and I knew I needed to slow down what hours I had available, and to seek some ‘Hestia moments’ of proper, deep solitude…

I selected a volume from the ‘tower’ – slipped into a book-enclosed space – and all the fragments of my scattered self began to return; each one fitting, piece by piece, into its home-place.

I’ve already read more books in the last couple of months than I managed to complete during the whole of 2013 – and it has done me So Much Good. Whole books finished! Not experienced in halted fragments, not stalled by the thought that I should be blogging about one before I move on to the next. My reading has returned to the natural undercurrent of thought-flow, and to the wayfarer tug of change. Some of that reading will float up towards the surface of this blog – soon, or eventually; whenever the time is right. Some may stay deep amongst the fish-haunted rocks and not need to blink in the light to make its presence felt.

I’ve also been spending some time just ‘Being amongst my Books,’ drinking them in, dipping in –

A Section of my bookshelves

 

‘There is also that kind of reading which is just looking at books. From time to time – I can’t say what dictates the impulse – I pull a chair up in front of a section of my library. An expectant tranquillity settles over me. I move my eyes slowly, reading the spines, or identifying the title by its colour and positioning. Just to see my books, to note their presence, their proximity to other books, fills me with a sense of futurity.’

Sven Birkerts, Notes from a confession (1987)

‘I am quite transported and comforted in the midst of my books: they give a zest to the happiest, and assuage the anguish of the bitterest, moments of existence! Therefore, whether distracted by the cares or the losses of my family, or my friends, I fly to my library as the only refuge in distress: here I learn to bear adversity with fortitude.’

Pliny the Elder (AD 23 – 79)

Oh, yes!

So, in between daily family stuff, I’ve been in a kind of metaphorical cave; in retreat. But, it’s been far from an idle time. It’s been a returning. A regaining of energy and focus, allowing me to be more useful to those around me – and more productive too! I’ve found my way back, through paper, pen and daydreaming to unearthing old rhythms; finding space to let the patterns form and shift towards new ideas and inspiration. I’ve swum my way (over and around various mind-blocks) back into concentrated and determined working on writing projects which I’ve been longing (for a lifetime!) to follow through to fruition.

‘There is renewal in retreat.
This is where you refill the cup.
This is how a writer comes home.’

‘Creativity is a voracious animal. It needs to be fed regularly. If you leave it untended for too long, you run the risk of starving your passion and diminishing your spirit.’

From The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children by Nancy Lamb.

Seasons-of-the-mind always seem to lay trails to follow – pearls made of serendipity and the gritty rub of the subconscious, gleaming their way from book to book, thought to thought.  Tales of selkie folk seem to be tugging me towards a certain roll of the waves. From Berlie Doherty’s beautiful Daughter of the Sea, to the enchantment of Heather Dale singing The Maiden and the Selkie, via a reading (many years ago now) of Susan Cooper’s Seaward, I see ripples behind me that have helped drive me back into the water and towards productive creativity.

One of the books I’ve been dipping into since starting to write this post is Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, published by Rider (Random House Group)

Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, published by Rider (Random House Group)

With the current kaleidoscope turn of my mind already on the lookout, my eye was drawn to Chapter 9 – Homing: Returning to OneSelf. There, Pinkola Estes explores the selkie/ sea maiden stories – and tells Sealskin, Soulskin, her version of these ancient tales ‘told among the Celts, the Scots, the tribes of northwest America, Siberian and Icelandic peoples.’ From Pinkola Estes’ explorations, I could pick out dozens of quotes that chimed for me – and which I’m sure, though the book focuses on women, are true for men’s experiences too. Here’s a handful:

‘The psyches and souls of women also have their own cycles and seasons of doing and solitude, running and staying, being involved and being removed, questing and resting, creating and incubating, being of the world and returning to the soul-place. When we are children…the instinctive nature notices all these phases and cycles. It hovers quite near us and we are aware and active at various intervals as we see fit.’ (p.255/6)

‘Home is the pristine instinctual life that works as easily as a joint sliding upon its greased bearing, where all is as it should be, where all the noises sound right, and the light is good, and the smells make us feel calm rather than alarmed. How one spends one’s time in the return is not important. Whatever revivifies balance is what is essential. That is home.

There is not only time to contemplate, but also to learn, and uncover the forgotten, the disused, and the buried. There we can imagine the future and also pore over the scar maps of the psyche, learning what led to what, and where we will go next…..

…..The most important thing I can tell you about the timing of this home cycle is this: When it’s time, it’s time. Even if you’re not ready, even if things are undone, even if today your ship is coming in. When it’s time, it’s time. The seal woman returns to the sea, not because she just feels like it, not because today is a good day to go, not because her life is all nice and tidy – there is no nice and tidy time for anyone. She goes because it is time, and therefore she must.’ (p. 284)

‘In the story, the seal woman dries out as she stays too long…… When a woman is gone too long from home, her ability to perceive how she’s truly feeling and thinking about herself and all other matters begins to dry and crack. She is on “lemming status.” Because she is not perceiving what is too much, what is not enough, she runs right over her own edges.’ (p.278).

‘Long ago the word ‘alone’ was treated as two words, ‘all one.’ To be ‘all one’ meant to be wholly one, to be in oneness, either essentially or temporarily. That is precisely the goal of solitude, to be all one. It is a cure for the frazzled state so common to modern women, the one that makes her, as the old saying goes, “leap onto her horse and ride off in all directions.” (p.292)

– From Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

Circumstances, and various mindsets, have kept me on the rocks for far, far too long (years and years!) The recent arrival of another birthday made me even more conscious of how Time and Chance need to be grabbed before the tide carries them away. And, having donned my sealskin/ soulskin (at last!), I feel quite shocked (in a liberating way!) how very covetous I am right now about keeping it wrapped around me. I’m back, riding the wave of the storyteller impulse, which has been rooted in a kind of ‘home season-of-the-mind’ for as long as I can remember. And, during this intense simmering-stage of creating longer pieces of writing, I feel a huge urge to hide away with my notebooks, to put an impenetrable tangle of seaweed around my section of sea, and to immerse myself there completely every precious moment I can. To write, write, write.

Opportunities to do that, and to research, read and to think – and to keep this blog going – all have to share the same very limited pot of time. I’ve already been away too long from my undersea “cave” (struggling over this ‘first-hurdle-post’ back into blogging/internet-mode has taken me an unbelievable number of days – leaving me feeling less like I’m running with the wolves, and more like I’m howling at the moon…) It’s been so, so hard to drag myself away from my notebooks, and I must get back. The Muse (always a tricky character) is drumming her fingertips impatiently – and I’m anxious to keep her by my side. But staying in touch with you, the lovely and inspirational blogging community, is so important to me too, and I want to keep on surfacing in the blogosphere whenever I can. As well as all the unfinished books, there are lots of half-written blog posts left over from last year; lots of fragments waiting to complete their full patterns…

I’ll do my best to keep Bookish Nature rolling along, but the shape of the blog may have to become a bit more quick-moving and streamlined for a while; a good adaptation, I hope, for darting in and out of different waters – and for making sure that blogging remains part of the sealskin/ soulskin adventure…

Thanks so much for sticking with Bookish Nature during my long silence.

More posts are on their way…

Spring is here – and a whole new season of reading is shifting into pattern…

Book Selection

Lesser celandine

More book treasures!

Wood anemone

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Page from the Old English poem, The Battle of Maldon

Page from the Old English poem, The Battle of Maldon

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

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

The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane, published by Granta

The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane, published by Granta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Otter Country by Miriam Darlington, published by Granta

Otter Country by Miriam Darlington, published by Granta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spindle tree berries, close-up

Spindle berries and sky

Spindle berries and pink leaves

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

Clusters of Spindle berries

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

Spindle tree pink leaves and sky

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

Spindle tree berry seeds

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

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

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

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

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

Speckled Wood butterfly on spindle tree, Sept. 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Small Heart of Things’ by Julian Hoffman

It’s been, I think, just a year and a few months since I first discovered Julian Hoffman’s beautiful writing via his blog, Notes from Near and Far. But already, it feels as if the places, scenes and wildlife he writes about are old, old friends – familiar from afar; because Julian imbues his descriptions with such close and detailed attention – and fills them with his own sense of belonging and finding home.

It is a sense which, as we read Julian’s words, is infectious. When I first discovered Notes from Near and Far, I knew absolutely nothing about the Prespa Lakes area of Greece, where Julian lives and gathers much of the rich material woven through the beauty of his words and photographs. I arrived at his blog, like a stranger in a new country – my eyes gradually opening to an intriguing discovery of unfamiliar terrain, unfamiliar wildlife, and the special, inherent ways of cultural experience woven into the fabric of that land. Now, when I revisit Julian’s blog, it is like returning to a kind of home – a home I’ve never been to. I know those places Julian describes, because that home-finding is knit so strongly in his observations, and in his understanding of what he observes.

And it is this sense of finding home, that forms a thread of exploration I’m so looking forward to following in Julian’s newly published book, The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World. My copy is on order – and I know that it will be a journey deep into that ‘small heart of things’ Julian is so adept at noticing and revealing. He is the kind of guide you want when you are stepping out to explore – knowledgeable, profoundly enmeshed in a sense of place and its stories, gifted with a listening ear and a deeply seeing eye.

Via my virtual journeys alongside Julian through the Prespa Lakes area (described on Julian’s blog as “the first transboundary park in the Balkans, shared by Greece, Albania, and the former Yogoslav Republic of Macedonia”) – I feel as if I’ve made close, personal discoveries of those unfamiliar species I’ve never seen first-hand in the wild – pelicans, swallowtail butterflies, hen harriers, bee-eaters, black woodpeckers, salamanders, bears – and an extremely rare, strange and mysterious flower. And I have witnessed familiar species – goldcrests, swifts, swallows, monkey and lizard orchids – in new surroundings and wider contexts; bringing home (that word again) the immediacy of the interconnectedness of global turns, migratory patterns and the places where we live – and from which we all communicate and share our stories. From home to home. And in our wider home.

Over the past year or so, it’s been wonderful to see Julian’s stories unfold – and to share with him the delight of his book coming into print.

The Small Heart of Things, published last week by University of Georgia Press, is the Winner of the 2012 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award Series for Creative Nonfiction, chosen by Terry Tempest Williams – which, in itself, is a huge recommendation. Terry Tempest Williams describes Julian as a “seeker and seer among those who work the land within the cycles of time” and she goes on to say that “At a time when we wonder where hope resides, this is a book of faith in the natural histories of community, broken and sustained.”

Julian has been a good friend to Bookish Nature – and it is a great pleasure, via the very much sustained community created by bloggers and blogging, to have this opportunity, and Julian’s kind permission, to share his book’s trailer here with you all. I know that some of you are already fans of Julian’s work – and are already very much at home over on his blog – but for those of you yet to step into that new territory – I’m so glad to be able to offer this introductory portal to further discovery.

So now, here is Julian himself to tell you more about The Small Heart of Things in the mesmerisingly beautiful trailer for the book – with post-production by Miki Ambrozy, original music by Janis Strapcans, and photographs by Julian Hoffman:

Further details about The Small Heart of Things, where it is available to buy etc. – and the chance to explore more of Julian’s beautiful writing and photography – can be found on his blog, Notes from Near and Far – and on his website, Julian Hoffman – Words, Images.

Seamus Heaney – Digging and Remembering…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get an old book down from the shelf…

A gathering of poetry on my bookshelves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blackberry-Picking

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

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

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

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

Postscript

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

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

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

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

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

And he shone a light on:

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

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

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

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)

‘…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):