Bones

This is the season of bones.   The season of stark silhouettes against lowering skies.  It is a season in which you can see the structure of the earth, the skeleton.  The land is open.   Views are revealed that would normally be hidden by foliage and flower.  But all is not quite as transparent as it seems.  For this is nature’s most secretive season.  Life goes on, but it goes on in the dark places: beneath clotted soil, within thickened stems and in shaded burrows.

Wherever I go, I see bones.  Ossuaries of branch and twig.  Bleached bones of silver birch.  Gnarled bones of cherries.  Alders knobbly with catkins.  Sweeping bones of ash.  And I see the bones of the flowers that were.  The spiky teasel heads, the skeletons of hemlock.  The earth is at its most prickly.  Its most unfriendly, perhaps – barbs to brush against, ice and mulched leaves to slip on, mud to trap unwary feet.  As though it is telling us to stay away, stay indoors, there is nothing out here for you.

When I look at my local landscape, I see the bones of industry.  My landscape is changing, as it does.  Usually the transformation is in small, unnoticed steps.  But I see a skyline dominated by enormous cranes and the skeleton of new apartments.  The red lights of the cranes wink in the sky at night, disconnected dots.  I see a horizon spiked with clusters of yellow skeletons, foundations for wind turbines awaiting their journeys to sea.  Steel behemoths visible in the gaps between skeletons of wood.   Bones upon bones.

Paul Nash – The Menin Road

I see bones in the paintings of Paul Nash, as I wander his exhibition in a gallery nearby.  He is famous for scenes of World War One in which the skeletons and stumps of blasted trees scar the landscape.  But there are rows of cherry tree skeletons in The Cherry Orchard; scatters of the bones of trees in We are making a new world and The Menin Road.  The bones of scrapped war planes in Totes Meer.  But Paul Nash is also known for a mystical attachment to landscape and the genius loci; for painting the earth stained by equinox and moon; and for pursuing the creative sweet spot between dreams and waking.

In this season of bones we do all we can to keep ours hidden.  Layered under coats and scarves and hats, burrowed in our houses among blankets and fires.  We turn from the bones and heed nature’s call to stay away, or if not, then we shield ourselves against her bitterness.  But nature has a plan for us too.  This is our time for moving inwards.  As the trees dream within their armoured shells and the seeds dream beneath the darkened soil, so we dream too, whether we know it or not.    We dream of what we will do, of what we will be, of what we will create.  Sometimes the dreams will come easily, laid bare like nature’s skeleton.  Sometimes, they will be secretive and struggle to be born.  This is the season of bones, but already crocuses pierce the earth like golden spearheads and buds adorn the branches.  The earth is already waking and telling us her dreams.

The Eve of Magic

Cars choke the roads in metal ribbons, people rushing, doing last minute shopping and preparations.  In our house, we joke about Christmas being ‘the end of the world’.  The shops are only closed for a day, but it may as well be Armageddon, as the shelves are stripped bare in a strange kind of frenzy.  I allow myself a smile of relief, as Winston and I meander past the shoppers, trapped in their vehicles and some semblance of what they feel Christmas should be.  We turn off the road, away from it all into the Dene.  The Dene is empty when we arrive, and we see only two other people in the time we’re there.  It strikes me as sad that the roads are full, while the green space – the breathing space – is empty.

I find Christmas Eve the most magical day of the holidays.  It is a day steeped in possibilities.  A night filled with expectation.  Magical stories of shepherds following angels, kings journeying from far off lands, a family-to-be seeking shelter in the darkness.  Listening into the night for the tinkle of bells, bells that I am almost sure I can hear, as Father Christmas journeys high above the rooftops.  The leaving out of carrots for the reindeer, a little something for Santa, listening again for his elusive arrival down the chimney.

My beliefs have changed since I was brought up on those stories, but Christmas is very much an eclectic festival for me.  The birth of sun and earth at the solstice is woven inextricably with the story of the nativity, the story of Santa, the magic of song and story, memory and tradition.  And Christmas Eve is not a time for rushing, it is a time for revelling in the waiting and the magic.  So before the evening comes and I gather with my little family in a darkness warmed by fairy lights, I return to the earth, to imbibe the silence of nature.

There will be no white Christmas this year.  Instead, autumn seems to have returned for a last fling.  Warm golden light and the hint of pink in the clouds.  A rising wind that doesn’t howl, but hums tunefully.  The pond was a sheet of ice only a week ago, scores of ducks skating towards me looking for food.  Now it is liquid light.  The black headed gulls that usually rest on the jetty are elsewhere.  Moorhens graze on the grass, mallards repose on the banks of the pond.  I hear the chirrup of tits in the trees, the occasional bugle of a moorhen.  The rushes are always beautiful at this time of year, tall golden stalks with seedheads of siena and fluff.  They bow in unison in the gentling wind.  A rustle of leaves whirls slowly on the grass, echoing autumn’s jig.  The burn trickles, rippling, with slices of ochre where the sun catches it.

There is usually a hush, a kind of stillness in the dene.  Not far away, those same cars stream over the bridge, but you don’t notice them here.  It nestles in a bowl of tranquillity.  There is often a sense that something unexpected might happen.  And this is the kind of feeling I get from Christmas Eve.  I know what I have planned.  I know, roughly, what tomorrow will bring.  But still, there are mysteries waiting in the darkness.  Out there, in the land of magic, the land that we only catch glimpses of.   Somewhere there is a magical land of elves and a man in a crimson coat.  Somewhere there is a desert land in which a star guides kings.  Somewhere, there is an underworld where a goddess lies resting after birthing the sun.  You might say that none of these things exist, that they are myth, imagination, stories we tell to make ourselves feel better in the bleak midwinter.  But to me, the truth of it doesn’t really matter.  What matters is that, for one night, I can believe in every one of them and glimpse just a shimmer of their magic.

Waiting

At this time of year, day seems to last but a moment.  Mornings are inked skies pricked with stars and the bloom of ghostly streetlights.  Evenings fall without warning: look out of a window and the light has gone, before you can prepare yourself for it.  Inside, there is always a sepia tone to the daylight and never quite enough of it.  The darkness seems somehow thicker, as though I could taste it.  In the lighter half of the year, I revel in morning’s expectancy, but in this season, my body shrinks from stirring before dawn.

The first snow rides the coat-tails of a blazing sunrise in the last week of November.  Fat flakes tumble and melt into nothing.  A few days later it returns, a jumble of soft wafers, stinging hail and rain, leaving a crisp coating in its wake.  It lasts a night then is gone and later in the week the sun is bright, the light almost spring-like.  Now paths are rimed with ice, but some of the leaves are still hanging on.  One of the three wild cherries in the park always blazes last, vibrant against heavy frost or first snow, and this year is no exception.

November passed in a flash of spectacular sunrises and sunsets.  The sky bled colour: crimsons, lavenders, oranges and yellows at either end of short, grey days.  I remember little else.    Between obligations at work and home there hasn’t been much time for walking or dreaming.  I haven’t connected with that deep, fertile vein of darkness.  My box of dreams is woefully empty.

But some days seem to contain magic from the start.  Waking to a shiver of frost, I stumble out into a Sunday morning that freezes the bones.  I’m walking with my dog to my mother in law’s new bungalow and there, on a scrub of grass next to the Metro station a shape catches my attention.  A fox, ruddy against frosted grass.  It is 11.30 in the morning and he sits, unconcerned, as the trains trundle by above and we watch him.  He meanders along the grass, then sits again.  Reluctantly, I turn away, thrilled at the encounter.

The ground is littered with leaves, still green, that have shivered from the trees in the cold.  I can hear them crackle, like teeth chattering.  Six geese glide silently against a moody sky with a spit of snow in it.  Later, we visit the Christmas market in the old Victorian square and on the way, the snow begins again.  We wander around the carol-filled square as the light fades and snow falls and by the time we get home, the ground is covered in white.

December brings a level of peace.  Fewer obligations, more space for visiting with the earth.  The snow has melted away and left a frozen landscape in its wake.  A landscape that is still.  A landscape that waits.  On the winter solstice, there will be a birthday celebration.  Not for me, but for the sun itself.   For the earth that is reborn after the longest night.  It will be many weeks before the spring light comes, and that is just as well, I’m not ready to emerge from the darkness yet.  I have dreaming to catch up on.

What we leave behind

When you frequent the green places and the edge-lands, you notice the things that people leave behind.  I am fascinated by those leavings that jar the senses because they don’t seem to belong.  Not the thoughtless litter that blights the landscape, but those objects that once had purpose but have now been forgotten.

Walking through the dene, I have a sense of something that shouldn’t be there.  Something dangles within the branches of a small tree.  I look closer and find a golden duck swinging among the leaves.  Not the kind of duck I usually see here, but a tiny cartoon duck with huge eyes and a wide smile.  Lost property?  A whimsical decoration?  Or an offering?  I smile at the incongruous duck and walk on.  Further in, on a rock by the pond, someone has propped a pair of flip flops.  There is no sign of their owner, as though he or she waded into the pond and was swallowed up, though the water is far too shallow for that.  How is it possible to leave a pair of shoes behind?  Was their owner abducted by water sprites, or did they simply want to feel the rustle of autumn leaves between their toes?

Some things are lost and unlikely ever to be reclaimed.  The upended umbrella on the railway embankment, the woollen glove ground into mud, the rubber glove with cracked fingers on the beach.  These lost things become part of the landscape.  I have watched the umbrella brim with leaves in autumn and gather snow in winter for two years now.  It has become so deeply buried into the land that only its curved handle remains visible.  It is no longer an umbrella, it is an extension of the earth.  I have watched the offerings made to the shoe tree in the park reproduce over the years, until they are hued green and crusted with lichen, like strange fruit born of the tree itself.

Some objects have uncertain provenance.  The child’s dinosaur in a rock pool that may have been dropped on the beach or may have arrived with the tide from some far off land.  Some speak of mischief or malice, like the shopping trolley in the burn or the empty bottles displayed on the rocks like the flutes of a church organ.  Some speak of helpful strangers – odd gloves propped on the spikes of the railings in the square in the hope that their owners will find them.  Some are left with purpose, like the dozens of knitted angels that appeared like magic all over town one Christmas, so unexpectedly that we smiled and talked of nothing else for hours.

If ever there was an object that seems destined to be left behind, it is the hapless glove.  I have seen so many lost gloves that I have begun to feel sorry for them.  I wonder how many are left in unexpected places.  How many are left to rot in the earth, or to be pulled apart by tiny beaks and teeth to add warmth to dens and nests.  And how many of their partners languish in drawers, never to be reunited.  How many gloves lie in landfill, little woollen hands waving among the rubbish, perhaps finding their way to other lost gloves to form a mismatched pair.  If animals wore clothes, I expect there would be tiny, paw-shaped gloves discarded all over the landscape.

The things we leave behind us always tell a story.   It may be as simple as a glove dropped carelessly while walking.  It may be that the glove was dropped because that person had something very specific on their mind.  There is the real story of why the item was lost and then there is the story imagined by its finder.  No matter how lightly we tread upon the earth, we can’t help but leave things behind.  We are part of the landscape as much as the trees and the birds, and while they leave feathers and twigs and tracks in the mud, we leave parts of ourselves too, in the objects that once had use or meaning for us.  There are things we leave behind deliberately – the heirlooms and trinkets that fill attics and cabinets – but I wonder if it is the things we give up without meaning to that tell our most intriguing stories.

 

 

Farewell

On the day I say a final farewell to Manchester, I discover a little of its magic.  There is a place I have a mind to visit before I leave for the last time, but I don’t quite know what I will find there.  I cross the old swing bridge that curves over the canal.  It is battered, busy with traffic and with only a stripe of path for pedestrians the journey feels precarious, but when I make it to the other side, I travel into a forgotten world.

A footpath curves left and upwards, lined by trees, sagging railings and dusted by fallen leaves.  I can already see a large house at the head of it, flanked by a black lamp-post whose lamp has long since gone.  The house is long abandoned.  Boarded, rubbish-strewn, daubed in graffiti.  Someone has scrawled ‘dead inside’ on a rusted door.  But the gilded autumn light softens it, so that the house seems to say, I may be derelict, but I have some magic left for those who care to look.

I crunch through the leaves, past the dereliction, and my eyes are shocked when I turn the corner.  A red gazebo, with elegant fretwork, crowned in a black pointed roof.  It stands vivid against the abandonment, the graffiti visible through its arches.  Gazebo and house are guarded by a large tree, leafless and crawling with ivy.  Behind, the canal is wide and still, reflecting the russets of autumn.  The autumn leaves dust the area around house and gazebo like precious scraps of litter.

I walk up a cobbled path to the viewing point and the reason I am here.  The Barton Swing Acqueduct is the first and only one of its kind in the world.  This battered iron structure carries one canal above another and swings open to allow bigger vessels to traverse the ship canal below.  It’s uniqueness is that it does this while full of water, with gates at either side of canal and bridge, to dam the flow.  This rusting structure, with flaking paint and rotting wood doesn’t look anything special, but it is.  I squeeze through chains coated in oil to gaze along the acqueduct, the reflection of its girders a filigree on the water.  This place is a patchwork of magic: the arcane structures of human engineering against a blaze of autumn trees, the enchantment of dereliction and forgetting.  It has a down-at-heel magic, but magic all the same.

I have had cause this year to reflect on place and belonging.  To re-visit places I once lived, places I spent time.  And to visit new landscapes that I found less welcoming than I had hoped.  I have had cause to reflect on the settling process – what causes us to uproot and move somewhere else – and what it means to settle into a landscape.  I lived in this city twenty years ago.   I grew into myself here, met my wife here, but I never enjoyed living here.  Now our last connection is being broken.  My mother in law is moving north, to be closer to us.  Now it is she who will be settling, with all the excitement and trepidation that brings.  For us, there will no longer be any need to return, no emotional tie.  And so we say farewell.

Later, I walk the path on the lower canal.  A small stretch of land lit up by autumn colours and thronged by Canada Geese.  The last time I was here, for my father-in-law’s funeral, this path heralded the first day of winter, steaming and vaporous.  The last time I was here, I saw my first wild parakeets.  Today the atmosphere is muted.  The geese honk softly and a robin trills from a hidden spot in the trees.  Black headed gulls perch where they can and a cormorant takes off on its low flight above the water.  The memorial tree I found on my last visit is still here, its adornments a little frayed, but still the most vibrant tree on the path.

There is something meditative about hurtling along a motorway, as a passenger, as the sun sets and you move into darkness.  The light is already fading as we set off, though it is only early afternoon.  The hills are misty violet in the distance, the moors shades of sand and russet, green and grey.  Wild and open, leading to rugged hills and broad sky.  This part of the journey is always poignant and a little sinister, because it is on these moors that the Moors Murderers killed and buried their victims.  I can’t look at them without remembering that, yet there are passages where the hills cradle the roadside in a sturdy embrace and bridges soar between them.  As the light seeps away, the colours of the landscape become more vivid, before fading to grey and black.  Strings of gold and silver lights stream towards us as we follow a trail of rubies home.

This little piece of serendipity is just for Teagan, who writes a magical serial by the same name.

Belonging to a place is important to me.  Belonging in the sense of seeing the layers in the landscape and the sense of time passing.  And even in those places where I don’t belong, I seek out touch-points: spaces that speak to me as if they were for me alone.  We all experience places differently.  Our past, our present and our hopes for the future tell us how to speak to a place and how to leave it.  I leave this city with the memory of brooding moors and reflections in still water, the rustle of trodden leaves and the call of geese.  I have re-visited those touch-points already discovered and found the possibility of one that was simply waiting to be found.

 

The jig of the leaves

The end of October is wind and half-light and a carnival of leaves.  The gale roars in and fallen leaves come to life once more.   They gambol over the grass, leaping and swirling like spring lambs.  When the wind gusts, they are swept into a rowdy gang, sprinting across the ground.  Lone leaves float against the sky, bobbing and flickering as they twirl.  Those caught up in the leaf-mass try to rise too but can’t.  Instead, scores of grounded leaves wave from their mulching places.  Meanwhile the trees that released them creak and rustle, undulating on the side-lines of the park, as though cheering on the final jig of their offspring.

There are fewer leaves on the ground this autumn.  October’s dry weather has left many crumbling to dust.  There have been few of the mists and storms I would associate with the season.  The colours have been muted and brittle.  If anything, it has been a grey month.  I have noticed the brutish beauty of sow thistle and the delicate star-burst seed-heads of groundsel.  Indigo mornings studded by Orion and Pegasus.  Garish orange dawns splodged with dark grey clouds.  A grey squirrel tries twice to scale the surrounding wall in the park and twice falls off, before shimmying up the poplar to the tallest branches to re-assert his street cred.  Starlings gather on the same TV aerial in town each morning and the wings of the seagulls are gilded by the sunrise.

This is the close down of the year.  The hatches are battened down, the unfinished chores are as complete as they will ever be.  The hearth is swept and a fire lit to welcome the ancestors.  Halloween itself is still.  The wind has vanished.  There is not a breath of it, not a sway of branch or a drop of leaf.  Fallen leaves are wet after a rare rainfall in the night, making them particularly vibrant.  Only the birds are restless, a flock of songbirds chittering at the tips of the poplars, crows swooping and barking.  I think about the ending cycle, the disrobing of the landscape, and all the industry that will carry on but won’t be seen, as leaves are broken down and nature renews herself.

Halloween night is fluid.  The year is neither old nor new, but in-between.  So the dead might visit and we can meet those who have not yet been born.  A feast is prepared with a place set for the ancestors.  The previous year is released in a flash of flame and a curl of candle smoke, the new year welcomed with the shuffle of Tarot cards.  I have entered the world of the dark, that delicious time of dreaming.  Easel and paints are calling me.  New stories call from the darkness.  My box of dreams is ready, waiting to receive the seeds of the things that are soon to be born.

 

Finding My Balance – a guest post by K.C. Tansley

This week I’m very pleased to welcome author K.C. Tansley whose book, The Girl Who Saved Ghosts has just been released.  The book is the second in ‘the unbelievables’ series and I was very excited to read it after greatly enjoying the first book.  I wasn’t disappointed.  Kat is a very unusual and likeable heroine who has a special gift that means she is surrounded by ghosts begging for her help.  The book is a break-neck adventure about ghosts and time travel, but it is also a warm story of love, family and a girl growing up into the young woman she was meant to be.  A perfect adventure for the dark, cosy nights of autumn. 

And while Kat’s journey is fraught with challenge, author K.C. has also faced a challenging journey leading up to the launch of the book.  Here, she talks about a year spent finding her balance:

The past year of my life has been all about finding my balance, between teaching and writing, between writing and promoting, between working and having fun, between exercising and eating right. But it hasn’t just been about finding these figurative balances in my life.

I’ve spent most of the year relearning how to balance in the physical world. In the fall of 2016, I had severe vertigo that left me unable to stand and made it ten times harder to perform daily tasks. Doing my laundry took more focus than a calculus problem. When the world is moving beneath you (imagine being on a rocky boat at sea with your stomach somersaulting from the motion sickness), it becomes much harder to button a shirt.  Forget about bending over to tie my shoes, I’d be flat on the floor.

The doctors told me I had a virus that attacked the nerve in my inner ear, inflaming the oh so important nerve that controlled my physical balance. My inner ear kept sending my brain false information: “We’re on a boat and it’s rocking!” I, however, would be standing in the middle of my kitchen, holding onto the counter for dear life.

People told me to just ignore it. Because you know when you perceive something is happening if you can just say, “This isn’t real,” then bibbitty babbitty boo, it all goes back to normal. Nope.

Instead, I spent six months in vestibular rehabilitation, relearning how to move with my ears malfunctioning. I had to rely on my leg muscles and my eyes to give my brain the right information on what was and wasn’t in motion.

I had to learn when to push myself and when to rest. I couldn’t avoid what made me sick. Because if I did, I’d never regain my abilities to work on a computer, walk a straight line, or think clearly. I had to keep exposing myself to what made me sick until my brain learned to compensate.

I’ve regained my ability to work on the computer. To stand and teach my classes. To drive short distances. Lots of noise and movement, however, cause my vertigo to return. My ears ache, feel full, ring, and click. They don’t work right anymore. My mind gets fatigued more easily that it used to. And I lose my balance a few times a day.

But I do my physical therapy exercises and I dance and I walk and I use my computer. I challenge myself to stay vertical. I’ve learned to accept my limits. I’ve learned that there will be good days and bad days and all I can do is appreciate the balance I have. Savor the moments when I can walk without feeling like I’m on the moon. Enjoy when my stomach is settled and the ground is staying still below me.

Balance is a tricky thing and I’m constantly re-finding mine.

Book Summary

She tried to ignore them. Now she might risk everything to save them.

After a summer spent in a haunted castle—a summer in which she traveled through time to solve a murder mystery—Kat is looking forward to a totally normal senior year at McTernan Academy. Then the ghost of a little girl appears and begs Kat for help, and more unquiet apparitions follow. All of them are terrified by the Dark One, and it soon becomes clear that that this evil force wants Kat dead.

Searching for help, Kat leaves school for the ancestral home she’s only just discovered. Her friend Evan, whose family is joined to her own by an arcane history, accompanies her. With the assistance of her eccentric great aunts and a loyal family ghost, Kat soon learns that she and Evan can only fix the present by traveling into the past.

As Kat and Evan make their way through nineteenth-century Vienna, the Dark One stalks them, and Kat must decide what she’s willing to sacrifice to save a ghost.

***

1 sentence summary:

When an ancestor’s ghost begs her for help, Kat risks herself—and the friend who’s sworn to protect her—by traveling in time to nineteenth-century Vienna.

Bio

K.C Tansley lives with her warrior lapdog, Emerson, and two quirky golden retrievers on a hill somewhere in Connecticut. She tends to believe in the unbelievables—spells, ghosts, time travel—and writes about them.

Never one to say no to a road trip, she’s climbed the Great Wall twice, hopped on the Sound of Music tour in Salzburg, and danced the night away in the dunes of Cape Hatteras. She loves the ocean and hates the sun, which makes for interesting beach days. The Girl Who Ignored Ghosts is her award-winning and bestselling first novel in The Unbelievables series.

As Kourtney Heintz, she also writes award winning cross-genre fiction for adults.

You can find out more about her at: http://kctansley.com

Links

Amazon: http://amzn.to/2iPDlcf

Ibooks: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/the-girl-who-saved-ghosts/id9781943024056

Nook: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-girl-who-saved-ghosts-kc-tansley/1126604900?ean=2940154417829

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/the-girl-who-saved-ghosts

Author Website: http://kctansley.com

Thanks to K.C. for visiting.  Please visit the links above to find out more and get your copy of The Girl Who Saved Ghosts!