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…

Skylarks over Flanders Fields

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

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

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

Poppies (in a field in the Goucestershire Cotswolds)

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

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

Dusk

Returning, We hear the Larks
By Isaac Rosenberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Time Travel with Thomas Hardy

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

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

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

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

I chose the year 1841…

Typed in the name…

The place…

Clicked the mouse, once, twice…

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

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

Higher Bockhampton, Parish of Stinsford (District 7)

Mary Hardy – Age 65

Thomas Hardy – Age 25 – Mason

Jemima Hardy – Age 25

Thomas Hardy – Age 1

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

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

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

The Self-Unseeing

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

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

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

- Thomas Hardy

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

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

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

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

Thomas Hardy's birthplace (June 2004)

Thomas Hardy’s birthplace (June 2004)

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

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

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

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

Mabey elaborates how the mythology of heathlands:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a poorer world it would have been without them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ode to a Fieldfare

(Composed during the snow-thaw of last month…)

As I sit here, goldfinches glance across the skies outside the window, their ‘charms’ like the bounce of iambic pentameter written with wings. They turn towards our garden, and immediately, their syntax becomes jumbled by a shift and gather of chaffinches - with an adjunct of sparrows tumbling in like a hurried conclusion.

The sparrows twitch their claim to the topmost branches of our damson trees, whilst the goldfinches jolt another stanza back to the skies – or trickle, with a falling cadence, through the branches to our seed feeders.

The chaffinches land halfway up the trees - ponder their way, like careful prose, towards the food in small, turn-taking manoeuvres. The sparrows wait, suss things out, goad each other forward, land on the seed feeders and attack the fat-cakes, all the time saying what they think – blunt performance poets, braving out the day in their bold, sparrow way.

The previous week’s heavy snowfall continues to melt, leaving green edges and a white interior to the garden. A collared dove balances like an erratic metronome, following the perplexity of bird-rhythms now spilling into improvised jazz.

On Friday January 18th, as the garden hunkered down under the weight of the snow’s first arrival, I turned from the window (and a similar bird-scene) to shuffle some new books amongst the old faithfuls on our shelves, when my daughter – at home due to school closures – called out from the landing, “Are those redwings or fieldfares?”

Her words shook me out of my dismay at the increasingly decrepit state of an old university text book I was holding in my hands. Battered even in its youth by unceremonious travels in my overstuffed, seam-ripped student bag – now it was gradually giving up a little more of the ghost, shedding small piles of age-desiccated glue all over the bookshelf. When opened, its paperback cover gaped to reveal a crumbling spine…

I’m very fond of that book – The Oxford Anthology of English Literature, Romantic Poetry and Prose, edited by the aptly named Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling. Just to read its title brings back happy days spent studying odes to skylarks and nightingales…

If there isn’t an ode to redwings and fieldfares, there should be – they deserve that celebration. Mist-revealed spirits of winter - the chance of experiencing their sudden, soft manifestation again, galvanised me into action.

“Are there some in the garden, then?” I called back.

By this time, my daughter had reached the dining room – and I had dashed to the window, grabbing the binoculars.

“There are millions of them!” she exclaimed, “All across the tops of the damson trees!”

We counted them, taking turns with the binoculars. Not quite millions. Nineteen.

“They’re fieldfares.” I declared

“Yep!” confirmed my daughter, taking another look through the bins, “Definitely fieldfares.”

There they were, spread across the tree-sky like a sudden flowering. A winter gift from Scandinavia.

The heavy, white cloud-sag seemed to plump up at the points they touched; each bird a downy planet orbiting into a sudden, glowing constellation strung out across the branches. Smudged with ash and a splash of sunset spillage, they puffed out their chests; all facing the same way to watch the north-east, like compass needles pointing home.

Fieldfares in trees 2013

Here, in the anchorage of our own home, the presence of these shifting migrants prised open the lid of the day; made the transformation of snow complete. Last time the snow brought the fieldfares from the wider land into our garden, it tipped only one or two individuals onto our lawn. That was magic enough – but this snow-globe flurry of birds, shaken out into our winter space, seemed to tip us instead into the centre of a whirling calm.

My husband phoned a while after they had swooped away, grey billows gathered into the white folds of sky. Early that morning, the snow-bound state of our car, and the buses stuck on hills, had sent him walking the several miles into the city. Some ‘lovely, kindly people’ he said had given him a lift in their 4 X 4, thoughtfully stopping to offer transport to as many trudging pavement backpackers and hopeful bus waiters as they could fit into their vehicle. His day’s experience of community spirit shone in his voice. Now, he’d finished at work, and was going to walk home.

“And how was your day?”

“We’ve had nineteen fieldfares in the garden!” I excitedly announced.

“Yeah…right!” he laughed.

“No, we have! Honestly!”

“I want photographic evidence!” he joked.

“Already done!”

“Oh – why aren’t I at home?”

“I expect some will still be flying around here by the time you get back.” I consoled him.

And sure enough, a couple of fieldfares did oblige. And I was able to get a better photo – still from a distance and with an unsophisticated zoom on my camera and through a window – but at least it gives a glimpse of that gorgeous colouring – the russet blush on the bird’s chest, the grey dusk hovering at its back, its snowball underside – and its thinking eye.

Fieldfare, Turdus polaris - January 2013

Fieldfare, Turdus polaris – January 2013

Since then, I have checked in The Poetry of Birds to see if it contains a poem about this magical snow-bird…

Picture of The Poetry of Birds book

The Poetry of Birds, edited by Simon Armitage and Tim Dee. Published by Viking

There isn’t a section devoted to the species (the book is arranged according to taxonomy) but in the fragment included from The Parliament of Fowls, Chaucer tips his hat to ‘the frosty feldefare.’

Then I checked the ever reliable close-chronicler of birds and nature, John Clare

Picture of book, John Clare, Selected Poetry

John Clare, Selected Poetry, published by Penguin

- and sure enough, he mentions them (of course he does, I should have known – what in the natural shiftings of his Northamptonshire homeland did he ever miss?) but fieldfares are not the main focus of the poems in which they make an appearance.

In Emmonsails Heath in Winter, he writes:

Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig
Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread
The fieldfare chatter in the whistling thorn
And for the awe round fields and closen rove
And coy bumbarrels twenty in a drove
Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain
And hang on little twigs and start again

‘Bumbarrels’ is a lovely and earthy colloquial name for long-tailed tits – and here Clare deftly snags with words their busy, fidgety ways – and arrests us with that audio-visual image of ‘the whistling thorn’ and its close, orchestral collaboration with the fieldfares, for whose movements ‘rove’ is the perfect description. John Clare also mentions fieldfares in Schoolboys in Winter, when the boys on their ‘morning ramble’ pass by the hedgerows, ‘plucking haws on which their fieldfares feed.’ And also in The Shepherd’s Calendar – March:

And flocking field fares speckld like the thrush
Picking the red awe from the sweeing bush
That come and go on winters chilling wing
And seem to share no sympathy wi spring

Migrating around the internet, I alighted on a poem by Ada Cambridge which, though perched at the ‘mawkish not hawkish’ end of the scale (to approximate a phrase from Tim Dee’s Foreword to The Poetry of Birds) - overbalancing, for me, on its melodramatic symbolism and sentiment – does contain some caught essences - and provides a great handle for the birds in its title, The Winged Mariners. It begins:

Through the wild night, the silence and the dark,
    Through league on league of the unchartered sky,
Lonelier than dove of fable from its ark,
     The fieldfares fly

For a while, I paused beside Fieldfares by F.W. Moorman – in which the poem’s voice addresses the ‘Fieldfares, bonny fieldfares’ from a sick bed, finding melancholy reflection in their presence; a bittersweet reminder of the universally ever-turning (and personally ever-diminishing) cycles of time:

Noisy, chackin’ fieldfares, weel I ken your cry,
When i’ flocks you’re sweepin’ ower the hills sae high:
       Oft on trees you gethers,
       Preenin’ out your feathers,
An’ I’m fain to see your coats as blue as t’summer sky.

And then I found enriching food along the way, courtesy of Fieldfare by Polish poet Julian Kornhauser, translated by Piotr Florczyk, which captures a mood of intrigued admiration heading into memory – and a freeze-frame beyond grasping – when ‘like a newcomer from the underworld’ a fieldfare arrives, and its identity is only discovered after it has flown away, not to return:

Its hollow name, a title to glory,
hung on a branch like a snowflake.’

Simon Armitage, in his Afterword to The Poetry of Birds, muses about why poets ‘have written about birds from the very beginning’:

‘Perhaps at some subconscious, secular level [birds] are also our souls. Or more likely, they are our poems. What we find in them we would hope for our work – that sense of soaring otherness. Maybe that’s how poets think of birds: as poems.’

In his Foreword, Tim Dee points to how, in our own time:

‘Close attention to the seen world and putting such looking into words remain as necessary as ever.’

He ponders the finest contemporary bird poetry written in English by the likes of Kathleen Jamie, Michael Longley and Peter Reading – and describes their work as:

‘Open-eyed meetings that are crammed with ornithological acuity and capture the direct experience of looking at birds today, giving us comparable quickening to that which leaps up around any encounter we have with the real things.’

If I were a poet, I would try to write an ode to fieldfares; to these birds of our nights and winter cloud. I would attempt to pay my own full dues to the poem-that-they-are. But, as it is, this post will have to be my offering…

- Not as a good as an ode; but, as far as my own words are able to stretch to evoke the spell the fieldfares cast over our winter garden, it will have to do…

‘A bird out of Merlin’s ear’

Since my children went back to school last week, there’s been a lot of catching up to do. Lots of gathering together of the self, much realigning – some careful stepping onto newly laid paths, pausing to wander and to really look. Lots of strengthening, preparing; allowing things to resurface and settle.

Some days, I’ve spent long slices of time sitting at the dinner table in our back room, working and thinking and shaping some kind of order and readiness into the previously swirling confusion of ideas and writing projects – and into the general ‘stuff that has to be done’ which often threatens to topple it all.

I’ve been working my way back to the heart of things. That quiet kernel of space so easily lost in the rush of demands and ‘things to be done.’ Over past months, I’ve been tripped up by too many instances of my mind jumping ahead of itself; not allowing itself to settle between leaps. Old, familiar footholds became all too easily muddied by that swirling mix, confusing my way across last year’s stepping stones.

But reading Witch Light through into the New Year definitely helped to recover my balance.

Witch Light by Susan Fletcher, published by Fourth Estate

Witch Light by Susan Fletcher, published by Fourth Estate

It is a book filled to the brim with the heart of things; with ‘the heart’s voice.’ Choose almost any page at random, and the prose overflows with it. During the hours in which I allowed myself to sink into Susan Fletcher’s beautiful, lyrical novel, I lived in its world completely – in Corrag’s world. Her first person narrative enchanted me with its beauty; kept me in clear water; slowed me down to watch the light play; helped me to regain calmer focus:

Still. There was magick in that place – I promise it.

I felt it everywhere. I felt it in each tiny thing I saw – each stone which shifted under my heels, or each raindrop. I had time, now. Time, until now, had been as thin and as scarce as a wind-blown web – fluttering by, very brief. My second life had been go! Go! And when had I had the time to lie on my belly and watch a snail make its way across a leaf, leaving its moonshine mark? Never. I was running too much. I was galloping over mud and wild land, with the mare snorting hard, and any slow times were spent with her – picking the nettles out of her tail. No snails. No hour upon hour in the rain, watching a leaf’s middle become a rain-bright pool.

I had never liked witch, and still don’t. But if ever I deserved the name at all, it was then, I reckon. It was having my hair fly in the wind as I stood on the tops, and how I crawled through the woods where the mushrooms grew. It was cloud-watching and stag-seeing, and spending long hours – full afternoons – by the waterfall that I’d bathed in, watching the autumn leaves fall down and make their way seaward. They bobbed and swirled. I said magick, one day. In the gully that led to my valley, I stopped. The wind was in the birches, and it felt they were speaking. If they were speaking, it was magick they said. Magick. Here.’

From Witch Light (previously published as Corrag) by Susan Fletcher – published by Fourth Estate.

I felt sad to break away from Corrag’s company when the last page was turned – but, she has lived on in my mind long since – and echoes of her voice curl around the days and the small and the luminous; in moments of starlight and moon shadows…

Christmas moon - dusk, 25th December 2012

Christmas moon – dusk, 25th December 2012

…in the times when our damson trees have been greenly on fire in the mid-day rise of winter sun…

…And in the birds who visit the garden continuously, and punctuate my hours as I sit here at the table. Goldfinches, blue and great tits, a song thrush; small fluid ripples of long-tailed tits taking the fat-balls hostage in a clasp of criss-crossed tails, before rushing off into insistent dusks; chaffinches, starlings, a handful of sparrows; our resident robin and dunnock; the chirring magpies; the blackbirds posing and hopping, staring down worms. They fill the edges of awareness with light and colour and movement, until there is nothing for it but to sit and gaze and absorb their rhythms to a slower heartbeat and a resettled frame of mind.

When I turn my eyes back to my task, the birds still fill spaces between thoughts like cushioned areas of dreaming, unconsciously wandering and enlivening the workings of the mind. Their calls and year-turning notes wake me up a little more – and a little more – to the new-beginning months and the strengthening light.

When 2013 was still in its very first days, my husband – putting out the milk bottles in the late afternoon – called me to the hallway. He flung open the front door; let the dusk declare itself a visitor. Invited in, it hovered tentatively on the threshold, clasping its traveller’s cloak of soft grey light – half in concealment, half ready to reveal; a gentle crumpling of birdsong shaken out through its folds.

“Listen…” my husband said, standing under the sky in last year’s broken down slippers, delight awake in his voice. “It’s five o’clock – and the birds are all singing. It’s five o’clock and it’s still light.”

I stepped outside and stood with him in the brim-full glimmer – a scooped cup of light not yet spilt from the evening.

And the birds floated its surface with their light-drunken notes, like Keatsian ‘beaded bubbles winking at the brim’ – a slow drift of mostly blackbird and robin song; birds who often tease out their territorial notes through the night – and through winter. But the tone was different to that robin song you hear in pre-solstice winter nights. It felt richer, more languid, more primed with a weight of promise – an outward-going rather than an enclosing intention; filled with the possibilities of light.

Last week, as I walked around our little bit of the city’s edge – once a village, still edged with woods and fields – this change in the birdsong was palpable, growing day by day. The trees seemed to flex with it. The woods, glimpsed between the houses, loomed closer, declaring themselves stirring from sleep, cradling the streets once more in a busy sense of living. The weather was mild, soft; spring with grey edges. But then it turned cold again. Fog shrouded the woods in a whispered plan of concealed waiting, and frost crunched under my feet as I re-filled the bird feeders. But, all around me, the birdsong persisted – and the next day, it seemed to raise the tree tops higher to the sky – the hidden buds tipped with fiery winter sun, simmering the cold, clear blue slowly towards spring. Gradually since, the air has drained of warmth, growing colder and deep chill (and, by the time I publish this post, deep snows will have blanketed most of Britain) – but the cup of light has kept filling and re-filling to a rising brim, steeping a new flavour into the days. And at night, Jupiter has sparked bright above our damson trees. Showing the way. To somewhere.

As I sit here at the table, a wren has crept and flitted across the patio immediately outside the glass doors. It has dashed and tail-tipped its way amongst the moss beneath the buddleia bush – like Time passed on in small, overlapping relays; a ticking pendulum of thought receiving a change of rhythm – a signal for the seeding of a new idea; creeping, as the wren in Ted Hughes’s poem, ‘out of Merlin’s ear.’

When the thicket’s drifted, a shrouded corpse,
He’s in under there, ticking,
Not as a last pulse, but a new life waiting.

Lonely keeper of the gold

In the tumbled cleave.
A bird out of Merlin’s ear.

(From Wren by Ted Hughes)

Detail from RSPB Christmas card - Design by Kate Green.

Detail from RSPB Christmas card – Design by Kate Green.

Fresh green shoots are adjusting their positions in our flowerbeds, following the light, feeling for familiar strung-out patterns of change, squeezing through corridors of the spectrum, skyward. My husband planted a whole host of bulbs in the autumn – scattering them in random fashion. “It’ll be a complete surprise where and what comes up,” he said.

Unknown, unguessed, waiting.

Like new days, new months, a new year.

We all know that along with the hope of a new year – like the hope flung ‘Upon the growing gloom,’ and amongst ‘Winter’s dregs made desolate,’ by the ‘ecstatic sound’ of Hardy’s ‘aged’ and ‘frail’ Darkling Thrush (and like the hope of bulbs flung on autumn soil) – shadows and darker realities still remain. But the darkling thrush also reminds us of something fundamental – deeper in our consciousness – as we too respond to the signals of a year’s propulsion towards the light, however slight, however overlaid with the sheen of cold – or a chilling surface of difficult odds:

So little cause for carolings
   Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
   Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
   His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
   And I was unaware.

(From The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy).

As my long-time hero Richard Mabey wrote in his monthly column A Brush with Nature back in the March 2010 issue of BBC Wildlife magazine, penning his words out of ‘the depths of the hardest winter for 30 years’ and in the wake of climate change talks in Copenhagen which ‘ended in abject, shameful failure’ – and in the face of all sorts of official apathy and disregard for natural habitat and wildlife protection:

‘I can’t do despair. I know intellectually the depths of the crisis we are in, but I’ve only to poke my head out of the door and emotionally I’m healed. Today, I can see the first hazel catkins, ready to hatch from their hoar-frost shells…’

He goes on to talk about George Orwell’s essay, Some Thoughts On The Common Toad, written in 1946 ‘in a Britain exhausted by war and racked by six hard winters in a row.’ He quotes this small section:

‘Persephone, like the toads, always rises from the dead at about the same moment. Suddenly, towards the end of March, the miracle happens, and the decaying slum in which I live is transfigured.’

Richard Mabey adds that, if Orwell were alive today, ‘I suspect he would insist that it’s down to us’ – that Orwell ‘…saw the enjoyment of nature as a kind of revolutionary act, a challenge to the political machine.’

He quotes Orwell’s essay again:

‘I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and – to return to my first instance – toads, makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable.’

Mabey goes on to write: ‘Now may be the moment to take the dictum ‘Think globally but act locally’ very literally………. Conservation works. Down in the parish, we can make a difference.’

‘Nearly 70 years ago,’ Mabey continues, ‘Orwell closed his piece with a tremendous call to arms that still resonates in every detail’:

‘So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the Earth is still going round the Sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply though they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.’

Today, I was reading the farewell article from the National Trust’s former Director-General, Dame Fiona Reynolds, in the charity’s magazine – and the words she cites from Octavia Hill, one of the Trust’s most inspiring founders, sprang out at me as another appropriate link in this New Year chain of thought:

‘What we care most to leave is not any tangible thing, however great; not any memory, however good; but the quick eye to see, the true soul to measure, the large hope to grasp the mighty issues of the new and better days to come – greater ideals, greater hope, and the patience to realise both.’

And my mind returns to more bright beads to add to this chain of hope – to more quotes from Susan Fletcher’s Witch Light; to Corrag’s voice again:

‘What was dark will always be dark, I know that……

……But also, there is light. It is everywhere. It floods this world – the world brims with it. Once I sat by the Coe and watched a shaft of light come down through the trees, through leaves, and I wondered if there was a greater beauty, or a simpler one. There are many great beauties. But all of them – from the snow, to his fern-red hair, to my mare’s eye reflecting the sky as she smelt the air of Rannoch Moor – have light in them, and are worth it. They are worth the darker parts.’

And to Corrag’s faith that:

‘It is the small moments, sir, which change a world.’

A belated Happy New Year everyone! Here’s to a 2013 in which all our hope and creativity – all our contributions to the heart of things (however small or overwhelmed they might sometimes seem) - can add up to something bigger – reaching for, and growing stronger in, the brim-filled light.

Sunset, New Year's Day 2013, Bristol Harbour

Sunset, New Year’s Day 2013, Bristol Harbour

Wishing you all much fulfilment and flourishing in the year ahead!

(With thanks to the excellent Cornflower Books blog, for the inspiring introductions to Witch Light / Corrag and to Susan Fletcher’s writing which prompted me to seek it out - and also to Karen at her magical Moonlight and Hares blog for a special moment of Witch Light serendipity!)

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 Day and an Eternity in Samuel Palmer’s ‘Valley of Vision’ – Part Two

…Continued from: A Day and an Eternity in Samuel Palmer’s ‘Valley of Vision’ – Part One.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

- From Auguries of Innocence, by William Blake.

In his biography of William Blake, Peter Ackroyd describes two events that happened in 1825, when Blake stayed in a cottage in Shoreham during a visit to The Ancients. One involved a trip to ‘a half-ruined mansion’ in search of ghosts, during which the party of friends were both scared and riveted by ‘a curious rattling sound’ – which, on further investigation by Palmer and Calvert, turned out to be the manifestation of nothing more than a humble snail climbing an oriel window. Ackroyd goes on to relate that:

Powers of another sort were more in evidence later, however, when Blake sat at a table in the cottage. He put his hand to his forehead.

BLAKE: Palmer is coming. He is walking up the road.

CALVERT: Oh, Mr Blake, he’s gone to London; we saw him off in the coach.

BLAKE: He is coming through the wicket.

Then, sure enough, ‘Samuel Palmer raised the latch and came in amongst them. It so turned out that the coach had broken down near to the gate of Lullingstone Park.’

- From Blake by Peter Ackroyd (Published by Vintage) – Chapter 28.

Almost two centuries later in June 2010, our second trip of the day was to the very same Lullingstone Park – or what is now the council run country park, part of the old estate adjacent to Lullingstone Castle. Here, after lunch in the café garden, we plunge out of the fiery heat of the afternoon into a cool winding out of trees along the River Darent. Some of the trees we meet along the way are venerable ancients.

They have seen some of our group before at various stages of our lives – me, during my childhood and young adulthood, my parents during theirs, my husband during our early years together. This is the first occasion these old-time trees have seen my children pass this way. Did they once watch Samuel Palmer and William Blake tread this path too? Did these oaks perhaps even make it into the artworks of Palmer and his friends?

Oak Trees, Lullingstone Park, 1828, Samuel Palmer

Oak Trees and Beech, 1828, Samuel Palmer

According to the British Museum catalogue, Samuel Palmer Vision and Landscape (from which the above illustrations are taken) the very name Darent ‘…derives from the Celtic word derw meaning the river surrounded by oaks.’

These ancient trees have a heritage and legacy in this valley that stretches all ways in time…

My mum tells us stories of how she and her best friend often cycled out here from their nearby home town, in the early years after the Second World War. She squints at the trees and ruminates – “Yes, I remember this. We sat here and ate lunch, I think…” The trees are reference points to her memories, overlapping the past and present in her mind – like transparent photographic negatives – snapshots of ‘here’ and ‘then’ – one on top of the other. She tells us of how, back in those days in the 1940s, she remembers seeing the early excavations of the villa, still open to the elements.

Earlier, as we drove to the villa, we passed the river near Eynsford ford, and I was reassured to see groups of children, ankle deep in the water, colourful seaside nets and buckets or jam jars in hand, fishing for tiddlers – a scene that has replayed over and over, generation after generation in that spot. It’s almost a local tradition, family after family bringing kids to experience hand-me-down memories, as my parents brought me here to paddle and chase the shadows darting at my feet.

Back in Lullingstone Country Park, we enjoy the cool respite of the trees. The river is deeper, slower, more opaque and secretive here than back at the ford and the villa.

Shadow-winged groups of banded demoiselles flash like green-blue jewels over the water, landing on the flowering yellow flag irises to bask in the sun…

Banded Agrion (demoiselle), Agrion splendens - male. (Photo taken on banks of the River Avon, near Keynsham, 2010)

Banded Agrion (demoiselle), Agrion splendens - male. (Photo taken June 2010 in Victoria Park Botanical Gardens, Bath)

Blue sky, butterflies, light-gleams flicker through the leaves…

– and this year’s emerging generation of may flies bounce up and down like little yo-yos on strings, grasping their brief moment of airborne existence on this spinning planet.

Suddenly, the trees give way, and we are out into a driveway and at the gate of Lullingstone Castle. The blue sky bursts open – wide and limitless, and is written all over with the calligraphy of house martins, flashing white and black in curls and flourishes, eagerly read by our eyes. It is a joy just to stand and watch their exuberance, listen to their calls.

More flint, grown out of the landscape, rises up before us in the shape of the wall that surrounds the castle.

Like Eynsford Castle and the villa, it is the work of yet another generation shaping this landscape and the very stones of its soil. I remember that moment when, back on my 1970s school trip, we stood looking in at Lullingstone Castle, and were told the story of the silk worms here turning their mulberry-leaf-fuelled energy into the silk destined for Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding dress and coronation robes.

Amongst all this peace, and surrounded by the ebullient flight of house martins, it is sobering to think of a time when flights of a very different kind crossed these skies. Many World War Two pilots lost their lives in combat over this valley and the surrounding area. There is an Aircraft Museum in Shoreham, the work of which relates to this time – and I remember that often, when we drove past the memorial cross on Shoreham’s Downs, my parents would be prompted by its associations to weave an oral remembrance to the pilots who had fallen in our now peaceful corner of Kentish countryside. My parents once knew a very different Kent – of air raids and bombs.

A few years ago, in response to the oral history project my daughter was doing at school, my dad told us of the time when, as an awed and terrified small boy, he ran for cover as an aeroplane, machine guns firing, hurtled out of control over the high street of his hometown, just a few miles away from the Darent Valley. The pilot, on an air raid mission into British skies, had been shot by a defending Spitfire from Biggin Hill, and he had fallen across the button that fired his plane’s guns. Miraculously, no-one on the ground was shot and the plane fell clear of the town.

Another time, when my dad was about twelve, spending time alone digging the family allotment, he was left clinging to a tree as he heard the sickeningly familiar sound of a V2 rocket overhead, followed by its explosive landing about a mile away. Moments later, a six foot long piece of rocket debris landed in the lane close to the tree he was hugging for dear life. What a world of madness whirled around my parents’ childhoods. This Valley of Vision, and its quiet surroundings, brims over with stories. Life – and death – echo through its layers.

I think back to the time when the building of the M26 was imminent. Our inspirational drama teacher at school commissioned us with the task of creating our own play from our responses to the losses that would soon follow. She took our minds back to the cultural heritage of the Darent Valley, the people’s lives bound up with its landscape across the centuries. Samuel Palmer featured in our play – taking his place in the layers of our telling of the valley’s story, culminating with our own stories – and our fears and visions for the future. I think it was then, when the Valley of Vision, full of childhood memories, legacy and experience, suddenly presented itself as a vision of potential loss, that an awareness of the very real threats to our natural world first really hit home. It was another prompt to my ever growing restlessness to do something; another step towards rolling up my sleeves and getting involved in practical nature conservation…

In June 2010, we leave the Valley of Vision via the lanes that dip and weave through the huddled cottages of Shoreham where Palmer once lived.

Coming from Evening Church, 1830, Samuel Palmer

There’s a kind of ‘eternity in an hour’ to the passing of generations and the successive bonds we share to the landscapes around us; the cultural shaping of our lives in relation to the ancient hills and stones, the water and trees. Such places are vital for their own sake, for the natural life they support and contain. Their survival is also important to that core of the self, which for each person, in different ways, is bound up in the magic of those wild spaces; those places that remain a refuge both for the soul – and for vision.

In a Shoreham Garden, c.1829, Samuel Palmer

As the ancient tombs behind Lullingstone Roman Villa remind us, we may be – in terms of the huge workings of the universe – as ephemeral as the mayflies by the river, but the connections between us all; the layers we leave behind and build, memory by memory, foundation by foundation one on top of the other, the on-going traditions and relationship to place – forge a kind of eternity in each hand-me-down moment. In the Darent Valley, those memories have been laid down in flint and water – and in the mosaic of a villa floor, in the sweep of a fishing net, the glint of a damselfly, in the vision of an artist’s mind working through paint and brush – and in his poem, echoing down the ages from a page of his 1824 sketchbook to a 21st century blog:

Thee night shall hide, sweet visionary gleam
That softly lookest through the rising dew;
Till all like silver bright,
The faithful Witness, pure and white
Shall look o’er yonder grassy hill,
At this village, safe and still,
All is safe and all is still,
Save what noise the watch-dog makes
Or the shrill cock the silence breaks
Now and then -
And now and then -
Hark! – once again
The wether’s bell
To us doth tell
Some little stirring in the fold.
Methinks the ling’ring, dying ray
Of twilight time, doth seem more fair,
And lights the soul up more than day 

- From Twilight Time (Shoreham) by Samuel Palmer.

Late Twilight, 1825, Samuel Palmer.

- All art illustrations in this post are from Samuel Palmer Vision and Landscape (British Museum publication)

Ms Nature, Hollie McNish

I love Radio 4… Every morning, I tune in and wonder what gems it will serve up; what new perspectives, insights or nuggets of knowledge will gleam out at me across the airwaves that day.

One such gem was a piece I heard on Woman’s Hour towards the end of last year. It was an interview with performance poet Hollie McNish. From the moment Hollie began to perform her poetry, I was stopped in my tracks, arrested by what I was hearing. I loved the sit-up-and-take-notice, spin-round-on-perspective style of her work. And I loved what she had to say, her desire to speak out against the trends; to open up a clearer picture of what matters beyond the rush and madness and surface.

In Fruit and Veg (the first poem Hollie performed on Woman’s Hour) and in Beautiful: Victoria Beckham or a Flower (which I’ve since heard on Hollie’s website), she confronts the sheer waste and emotional carnage of an appearance obsessed, media-led world where so many young women feel they need to wreck their own beautiful individuality to conform to an homogenised ‘ideal’ – and where celebrity and surface-focused culture blurs vision, thwarts potential and obscures so many riches and possibilities

Ms Nature, which Hollie McNish also performed on Woman’s Hour, is a poem about such riches – and, for me, to hear it was one of those diamond of the day moments.

If you’ve ever sat in a wood and felt its magic, or just had to escape to where nature reconnects you – to yourself and to life’s heart – this poem will speak to you…

You can hear Hollie McNish perform Ms Nature and other poems (including Fruit and Veg and Beautiful: Victoria Beckham or a Flower) here.