they say

July 23, 2017 § 17 Comments

 

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I sleep deeply the night before I go to the wood. The final dream tantalizes, staying only for an instant as I wake before it vanishes like a slippery brown trout in the muddy depths of the river.

With the dreams staining my mood, I climb the padlocked gate into one of the oldest woodlands in England. I am now in another world. A place of ancient oaks, a vast thicket where animists and Druids still chant peacefully in celebration, and I am free to dream whatever I want. The wood feels alive with something I can’t quite articulate. Some may call it magic, a place where shape shifting happens, others will say they are simply unnerved to be walking in something so like the primeval forest that once covered our crowded island. The past is written on the bark of these trees like a pristine memory, and I feel as if I am being watched.

The trees are packed close together, their branches entangled. They say there are over four thousand oaks in this medieval deer park, and many are over four hundred years old. There are many legends of wrong doings and murders, but the one I like best I want to believe is true. Monks once owned the land, and when they were evicted in the sixteenth century they were allowed to plant one more crop: they chose acorns.

But the wood is more famous for its holly trees. They are the largest I have ever seen, and bear little resemblance to those grown in suburbia. It is the holly that takes away the light. It seems to suck it out of the air and swallow it. Thick, tangled bracken grows in these dark places underneath their evergreen canopy, and impenetrable bramble reaches out with its long, spiny tentacles to tear at my skin. But the wood is kinder underfoot, made soft and spongy from hundreds of years of leaf mould and so-called neglect. But I still have to watch where I put my feet, as the ground beneath the leaves hides wandering tree roots waiting to trip me up.

It’s hard to walk upright. I must crouch and creep as if I am in an unfamiliar cave. It would be easier if I were child-size as there is a distinct line above where the deer cannot reach to graze the leaves, the bark, and the young shoots. The holly and oak live close together. Some even appear to be growing out of the same root. I do not understand why this should be so, but I doubt human hands are responsible for this strange coupling.

There is death here, as well as life. Many of the oaks are hollow, their heartwood long dead. I choose one and wriggle inside. Full of cobwebs, it is pinpricked with hundreds of holes where insects have lived and will live again. It smells of damp and fungi. Each tree is an entire city, an ecosystem that I would have missed if I had not crawled inside.

staverton 2 018

The oaks are neglected pollards. The upper branches were removed every few years and harvested as a vital crop for house and barn building, for tools, for virtually anything. This makes the oaks grow into strange shapes, squat and wide, with thick curled limbs like mythical serpents for branches. They are giants with faces. I see the head and trunk of an elephant, a wolf howling at the moon, a creature, almost human with eyes and mouth, and one large ear of bracket fungus.

A fox calls, but there is no echo and no reply. Someone has draped a yellow glass necklace on a branch, pigeon and crow feathers have been sewn together in the shape of a cross and hooked over a low branch with a piece of red ribbon turning yellow with moss.

I am in a green cathedral, and somehow I expect to see a Green Man. Perhaps it is him watching me while his giants sleep. I flush a pheasant from beneath my feet and it flutters noisily away with the clacking noise that makes my heart race. The spell is broken. Something shifts in my head, so I turn and quickly retrace my steps.

~

They say

January 24, 2016 § 17 Comments

8a92190b0eea96521f34d637abb765bd

I sleep deeply the night before I go to the wood. The final dream tantalizes, staying only for an instant as I wake before it vanishes like a slippery brown trout in the muddy depths of a river.

With the dreams staining my mood, I climb the padlocked gate into one of the oldest woodlands in England. I am now in another world. A place of ancient oaks, a vast thicket where animists and Druids still chant peacefully in celebration, and I am free to dream whatever I want. The wood feels alive with something I cannot quite articulate. Some may call it magic, a place where shape shifting happens, others will say they are simply unnerved to be walking in something so like the primeval forest that once covered our crowded island. The past is written on the bark of these trees like a pristine memory, and I feel as if I am being watched.

The trees are packed close together, their branches entangled. They say there are over four thousand oaks in this medieval deer park, and many are over four hundred years old. There are many legends of wrong doings and murders, but the one I like best may well be true. Monks once owned the land, and when they were evicted in the sixteenth century they were allowed to plant one more crop: they chose acorns. But the wood is more famous for its holly trees. They are the largest I have ever seen, and bear little resemblance to those grown in suburbia.

It is the holly that takes away the light. It seems to suck it out of the air, then swallow it. Thick, tangled bracken grows in these dark places underneath their evergreen canopy, and impenetrable bramble reaches out with its long, spiny tentacles to tear at my skin. But the wood is kinder underfoot, made soft and spongy from hundreds of years of leaf mould and so-called neglect. But I still have to watch where I put my feet, as the ground beneath the leaves hides wandering tree roots waiting to trip me up.

 It’s hard to walk upright. I must crouch and creep as if I am in an unfamiliar cave. It would be easier if I were child-size as there is a distinct line above where the deer cannot reach to graze the leaves, the bark, and the young shoots. The holly and oak live close together. Some even appear to be growing out of the same root. I do not understand why this should be so, but I doubt human hands are responsible for this strange coupling.

There is death here, as well as life. Many of the oaks are hollow, their heartwood long dead. I choose one and wriggle inside. Full of cobwebs, it is pinpricked with hundreds of holes where insects have lived and will live again. It smells of damp and fungi. Each tree is an entire city, an ecosystem that I would have missed if I had not crawled inside.

staverton 2 018

The oaks are neglected pollards. The upper branches were removed every few years and harvested as a vital crop for house and barn building, for tools, for virtually anything. This makes the oaks grow into strange shapes, squat and wide, with thick curled limbs like mythical serpents for branches. They are giants with faces. I see the head and trunk of an elephant, a wolf howling at the moon, a creature, almost human with eyes and mouth, and one large ear of bracket fungus.

A fox calls, but there is no echo and no reply. Someone has draped a yellow glass necklace on a branch, pigeon and crow feathers have been sewn together in the shape of a cross and hooked over a low branch with a piece of red ribbon turning yellow with moss.

I am in a green cathedral, and somehow I expect to see a Green Man. Perhaps it is him watching me while his giants sleep. I flush a pheasant from beneath my feet and it flutters noisily away with the clacking noise that makes my heart race. The spell is broken. Something shifts in my head, I turn and quickly retrace my steps.

~

rook

November 11, 2015 § 19 Comments

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A soft thud. A muffled squawk. The riffling of frightened feathers. A bird has fallen three storeys down the chimney and cannot get out.

Anything that flies terrifies me. I have no idea why. It is something primal, a visceral response I have no control over. The longer I leave the bird in there the more likely I am to panic. I fetch gloves, an old towel. Lifting the cast iron inspection hatch of the old fireplace I feel my way in with one gloved hand. I touch tail feathers. Moving my fingers up the body I feel a backbone, wing joints. Keeping my hand still, I reach in with the other. Then suddenly I grab the bird, afraid it will flutter away, afraid I will injure it. I feel its lightness beneath my hands, feel its bones full of air. I remember the heron skeleton among the reeds on the marshes; each bone like a brittle sponge, full of air pockets, weighing nothing.

Now the bird is still. I cannot read it. It’s holding its breath. Perhaps defeated, perhaps waiting for its moment to escape. I bring it into the sunlight, and in a violent rush of energy it pecks me. My hands shake. I hear my heart. I put the bird firmly on the towel beside me and cover it. Wrapping it tight as if it’s a dangerous animal. It cannot escape.

It is one of this year’s rooks. Its plumage is not black but the darkest iridescent green or blue depending on how the light catches it. Its adolescent beak not much bigger than a blackbird’s. Rooks are clever birds; although this one, probably due to its youth, was not clever enough not to fall down my chimney. They are not aggressive – I know it will not mean to hurt me. I had a friend at university who kept one in his room, and it seemed utterly benign. But like jackdaws and humans, they are thieves. They will steal twigs from one another’s nests, but never put up much of a fight. There are always other twigs to be had. I like to call the male chivalrous at courting time. After choosing his mate, or reuniting with her from the previous spring, he will follow her around with a small gift in his beak.  If she accepts, she is his.

And they like to play with the wind. Reminding me of aerobatic pilots in biplanes, they take pleasure is barrel rolls, flicks, tight turns, and dive bombing – pulling up at the last minute and stalling above their nest, tail feathers splayed like air brakes.

I wriggle through the broken fence into the wood. It is not my wood, but no one ever goes there except the odd muntjac. It has not been managed for many years. Dead trees have been left where they fell, the coppiced hazel gone wild and spindly. There is much debris underfoot – a soft and nutritious mulch from years of leaf fall. The few dead elms still standing are home to many insects, but the rooks, usually preferring this species to nest in, will not make their homes in the brittle, leafless branches.

I head towards the rookery. There are maybe twenty nests. Some say rooks sing, but I would not call this music. They chatter, they squeal, taunt and complain. They remind me of the end of a children’s birthday party when too many games and e-numbers have got the better of them. My rook squirms inside the towel. I hold it tighter and walk into the glade beneath the rookery. All that remains of the bluebells are spiky withered leaves. There is plenty of dog’s mercury and red dead nettle. The birds raise the alarm and cackle, scattering into the sky in all directions as if I were a predator.

I unwrap the bird. It seems to be half asleep. Its eyes stare blankly and it doesn’t move. Setting it on the ground, I walk backwards and sit, leaning against a tree. Minutes later the birds return to their nests, making sounds that seem to signal the danger is past. My rook makes a small noise. Like a chirrup, it’s a baby sound. It’s saying, I am back, come and get me.

It calls for what seems like a long time. Venus is shining through the thick canopy, and the sky is turning to ink. The youngsters request becomes more insistent. A rook glides silently down and hops from side to side. There is more talk, and the baby half hops, half limps towards it. The adult splays its tail feathers. Something has been decided. There is yet more conversation and the rookery joins in. Then both birds flap noisily, and the adult leads the way back home.

The rookery is quieter now. It’s nearly dark, and still they talk. But their sounds are becoming quieter, more hesitant, as if they know the others are trying to sleep. A tawny owl hoots, another replies, and I pick up a stray feather and put it in my pocket.

~

Image courtesy Nat Morley

This piece is a revised version blogged spring 2014

faith

November 6, 2014 § 16 Comments

 

 

all

day

it

rains…

yet

golden

leaves

still

fall –

from my poetry book

~

Nature’s ordinary artistry

April 28, 2014 § 25 Comments

It’s nothing special within the grand scheme of things: an old path sandwiched between two large fields. Gaudy, scentless commercial roses grow in long, straight rows to the north, acres of insipid yellow rape that makes a poor honey, to the south. Probably ancient, although there are no obvious signs of this – the path was shrouded in tarmac maybe a hundred years ago and turned into a single track road. It links the small market town with a tiny hamlet two miles away where there was once a railway station. After the Beeching axe fell on the rail network in the mid sixties, the station was closed and the lane became largely redundant. Eventually it was blocked off at either end and became a pathway again.

Each year more and more wild flowers push like small miracles through the cracks in the bleached tarmac, and the rich verges become thicker and deeper, overflowing onto what becomes an increasingly narrower track. Nature is silently and gracefully taking back what is hers.

The current hedgerow is not so old if one goes by the rule of one species for every hundred years. Most of it is hawthorn; the remainder blackthorn, the berries of which produce a heady drink when steeped in gin. There are a few specimen oaks, which may be up to two hundred years old. They are beautiful and healthy, and grow in stature and presence each year, in the way that trees do. Today I found remnants of an older hedge the other side of the northerly ditch – the only evidence I have found so far that the path could be much older than it seems.

I cycle here nearly every day, except when the snow is too thick:

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But today it is not:

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The verges are full of rustling creatures, of yarrow, stitchwort, garlic mustard, dead and stinging nettle,

dock, and masses of frothing cow parsley. Nothing rare or unusual, but enough

to give anyone pleasure who can still their mind for an hour or so in this haven that has escaped the brutality of monoculture.

Soon the lane will look like this:

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And this:

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Why is this ordinary place so special to me? Partly because I regard it as a benign familiar. A wren may flitter on the edge of my vision like a ghost of a moth as it hunts for insects, a weasel may cross my path intent on some business I would prefer not to witness: all appear mindless of my spinning wheels. The trees, hedges and the fecundity of the place, silences the movement of traffic less than a mile away.

I know the spots where the garlic mustard will soon be ready to pick for salads, where the cow parsley gets the most sun from the gaps in the hedges and grows bigger than the rest, and I know where I can reach the best blackberries without getting scratched.

It is a place I trust, and it is always generous in its giving. As I cycle along this small insignificant track, I immediately feel a sense of belonging. I feel calmed and cleansed and cradled. And it is here when the ideas often come for the day’s writing; and if my mind still races, I’ll find a gap in the hedge and sit in the meadow until I can breathe deep and long.

~

Flood

February 21, 2014 § 8 Comments

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On the shortest day the rain came – flinging itself at her valley, blackening the earth. Water seeped up the brick path into her garden – last year’s grasses waving aimless as old paddy fields. She watched: her breathing too quick, too thin. Worms drifted, torpid, white, suspended; bees floated on their backs, spinning dizzy like coracles. The violence mocked and hid the stars, numbing her senses like a mantra. Then her spirit quietened, and giving in, she turned in on herself and ceased to see.

Her energy stripped bare, her body slowed. She grew the thick fur of a dormouse. Taking blankets, she made a nest and surrounded herself with books and warming soup. Lighting a fire in the hearth, she began to dream. Taking a pen, she wrote of things that no longer mattered – remembered events that could not possibly have taken place. Her consciousness became continuous: day and night fusing seamless. Nothing stopped, and no thing remembered to begin.

There was no brightness to touch or gather on those short grey days. Clouds hung heavy and full, pressing down on her like an unwanted lover. The river meadows became bogs that would swallow her, her trees poking out like sentinels, roots holding their breath for a sun almost forgotten. Rats swam mindless of the farmer’s gun, and swans gathered in loose clumps, wondering. There were no streets, no paths to roam. Only silence.

There was no one to explain, so she used her ears. Climbing the stairs to open the long thin window that faced the river, she cocked her head, holding her breath tight in her chest. No birdsong to justify, no swish of wind to condone, no sense of coming or going. Sounds that had always been there – telling all yet demanding nothing – were gone.

And as the waters stirred, she became indifferent, and her being grew light.

Inspired by ‘The Being Of Nothing’. Samuel Beckett. Blogged  17th January 2014.

The Day The Rains Came

February 17, 2014 § 9 Comments

First the seagulls arrived. Mewling and shrieking, tracing steep turns around my chimney pots – their wings stiff and wide as if they were aerobatic planes. They seemed to be arguing, undecided. In the late afternoon as the clouds scudded thick and grey from the north west, the sunset hidden, they glided into the meadow close to the house, spreading out to sleep in loose circles like fairy rings.

The barn owl stayed silent that night, and the blackbird that had been waking me for a week with her hopeful song, was gone. Before the rains came, the wind grasped the few leaves still on the trees and hurled them to the ground, and the gusts rattled the old casement windows so violently I stuffed bits of cardboard in the cracks to quieten them.

In the morning I went to the old mill. I always go there when I’m disturbed. The river was rising. Water heaved itself under the bridge making whirlpools in the mill pond, it’s character suddenly vigorous, aggressive, uncompromising. The branching tips of the leaning willows swirled above the broken surface of the water in the river’s turbulent wind.

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Later the wood upriver of the mill would flood, and the top heavy willows

would lean as their roots lost their grasp in the sodden ground.

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But the snowdrops would survive.

Emerging from their submersion, muddy, no less worse for wear…

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After four weeks of rain, the stretch of river where the otters live slipped over into the glacial valley.

It became a lake. Fences hidden, swans everywhere.

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And for now it remains, in all its beauty.

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But today the sky brightens. The animals know,  and the blackbird returns to sing.

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