Lost and found

In spring, time moves quickly.  Mornings have lightened then become darker once more with the winding forwards of the clocks.  The dawn chorus seeps through my open window each day and wakes me half an hour before my alarm.  The park at the end of the road has had its first mowing, and the scent of cut grass soaks the air.  A woodpecker has begun to frequent the trees.  I hear him drumming out his territory and sometimes glimpse red feathers glimmering in the sun.

In this most mercurial season, nature is a show-off, throwing everything at us to demonstrate what she can do.  One day, she paints the leaden sky with a thick, bright rainbow.  On the next, she sends snow.  Just when I’ve begun to forget the cold, I’m walking in soaking flakes, grass coated white, bushes laden.  Bulrush heads are like soggy sticks of candy floss dusted with icing.

The snow soon melts and days of mist follow, but it doesn’t stop the industry of the birds.  A great tit calls loudly from the maple, sparrows hop and chitter in the privet, starlings mewl and pigeons forage.  There is no sign of life from the smallest maple in the park, the harbinger of autumn that I had feared dead.  But a new tree has appeared from nowhere.  The label tells me it was planted officially, but with trees there is always the possibility of enchantment.  I feel responsible for it, such a small sapling among mature neighbours.  I fear vandalism.  But it seems strong, is already full of buds.  I hope it makes it.

In my last post, I wrote about giving up on a story.  My elderly protagonist is still enjoying an early retirement, but I found myself thinking about what happens to all those ideas when they don’t get used.  And as the spring snow was falling around me, I happened upon a curious place….

The garden of lost ideas by Andrea Stephenson

There is no path to the garden of lost ideas. You will never find your way here accidentally, except perhaps in dreams. It is cloistered by briars an eternity thick. Its walls are far too high to climb. If there is a gate, it is not a gate that can be seen.

There are no seasons in this garden, and there is every season at once. Its gardeners are enigmatic creatures, born of leaf and twig, fur and horn.

Seeds drift across the garden like pollen, an infinity of golden floss that gilds the foliage. The gardeners sieve and sift, capture seeds in spindly fingers. They plant them in rich dark loam, and tend each one with care and patience. An unfinished painting here, an untold story there, forgotten thoughts, abandoned sketches, lost notebooks and torn canvases. All find their way here eventually. This is a garden of second chances and its gardeners are the shepherds of lost ideas.

The flowers that bloom here are fragile. Stalks as thin as thread, petals as sheer as gossamer. No one flower like another. The garden overflows with delicate beauties that shimmer in the moonlight. The gardener never knows which will successfully bloom and which will wither; which will sprout and which will remain soil-bound, perhaps forever. So she tends each frail bloom, charming them with lilting whispers.

Sometimes, those fragile blooms will burst. Their colours will grow more vibrant, their petals more substantial. And then the gardener knows her work is done. Somewhere in the world outside the garden the idea has found its purpose once more. The flower grows not only in the garden, but in someone’s imagination. A tale has been told. A picture has been painted. The idea is no longer lost, but has been found.


Blogger book of the month: Britt Skrabanek – Nola Fran Evie

Britt Skrabanek is an enthusiastic, positive and energetic blogger, currently experimenting with creative memoir on her blog.  I’ve enjoyed all of her engaging and unique books: Everything is Not Bigger is a story of identify and self-discovery, Beneath the Satin Gloves is a time slip spy story.  But I think her third book Nola Fran Evie is the best she has written yet. The true story behind this book is as fascinating as the book itself – a vintage handbag, found by the author, containing baseball tickets from 1954, a voting receipt and a shopping list.  From these finds, Britt has woven a wonderful story of the lives of four women. Nola, Fran and Evie meet when they play baseball for the All American Girls Professional Baseball league during the 40s and 50s. When the league folds in 1954, their lives take them in different directions, until one fateful day they’re brought back together again. Their stories take in love, loss, disappointment, jazz and the civil rights movement. And interwoven with the stories of these women from the past is the present-day story of Jacks, who will also have a role to play in continuing their story. This book is a fantastic read. The characters come to life on the page and at turns, you root for each of them. It is funny, moving, nostalgic and fast-paced.  Britt’s books have just been published as paperbacks and are also available as ebooks.  You can visit Britt’s blog here, and her Amazon author page here.

Potential

I am on a path so overgrown with trees that it is pooled with darkness.  On this equinox, I plan to walk from darkness into light.  For many reasons it has been a challenging winter.  I’m finding it impossible to slough off a melancholy mood.  The move towards spring has been a sluggish one. I find myself wearied by routine, by effort, by restless sleep.  The winds have blown but they haven’t blown my mood away.  I need a symbolic change.  I start my walk on the twilit path with hope ahead of me.  There is a robin singing.  It is always beyond me, distant and mournful, leading me on.

I emerge onto the wide waggonway.  My eyes squint as they take in light.  Not only the light of day, but also the froth of blossom.  Delicate spindly stems and a cornucopia of clotted branches.  It is blackthorn time once more, dark stalks with fierce thorns surging into bloom to herald the true beginning of spring.  Its companion, hawthorn, will not blossom yet for weeks, but the hawthorn is the first tree to burst its pearly green buds into leaf.  They soften the landscape, these sister trees, letting us know that soon the bones of the earth will be clothed.

Spring is a time of hope, yet it is also a time of sorrow.  There is a dark undercurrent to this season of potential.  Only a tiny proportion of seeds ever grow into the plants they were meant to be.  Only a small proportion of birds live beyond their first year.  Many of those seeds will remain in the darkness of the soil, perhaps to bloom years from now, perhaps never to bloom at all.  Many birds will never hatch; many will never have the chance to fulfil their potential and fly.  The conditions must be just right for life to take hold, and for some, those conditions will never be right.  This is the sorrow of spring: all the lives that will not be lived.

The landscape is slowly beginning to yellow with dandelions and coltsfoot.  I saw my first bee last week, a buff-tailed bumblebee on lemon mahonia flowers.  A cloud of pollen beetles swarm my mustard poncho, attracted to the colour because they think it offers nectar.  The goat willows droop with yellow-green catkins like hairy caterpillars.

Someone has hung suet balls from the trees and a flutter of tits crowds them, while a dunnock sweeps up the crumbs beneath.  Ducks fly overhead, already coupled.  The ponds are empty; the water birds have retreated to the undergrowth.  There is a small meadow of butterbur flowers, like miniature purple fir trees.  Later in the year this space will be choked with their monstrous leaves and giant stalks of hogweed.

Spring is chaos.  Spring is joy.  Spring is messy and exuberant, dangerous and thrilling.  To us it is bird song and blossom, light and warmth; to our neighbours it is life and death.

I’m considering giving up on a story.  It’s an idea I’ve had for a long time, after a chance encounter with the elderly man who would be its protagonist.  I rarely give up on a story once I begin.  If I take up an idea and begin to tell the tale, it usually comes to a conclusion, satisfactory or not.  My seeds are ideas and vignettes written in notebooks.  They too wait for the right time and conditions to bloom.  But it seems the time for this story has passed.  It has begun, but I can’t find a way for it to end.  I wonder how many seeds of stories are out there, stories that will never be told for want of the right conditions.  Maybe they will wither and never be born.  Maybe sometime and somewhere they will find their way to creation.

In nature nothing is wasted.  Seeds can live, ungerminated, for hundreds of years, until the time is right.  Those lives lost in the wreckage of eggshells and fledging will help other creatures to reach their potential.  There are two ponies grazing in the country park.  Exmoor ponies that visit to clear the tough vegetation so that the conditions are right for wild flowers to grow.  The ponies clear the way for those flowers to reach their potential, so that they, in turn, can help scores of tiny creatures to reach theirs.

A few days after the equinox, I see my first butterfly, a gaudy peacock fluttering along a path in the dene.  Marsh marigolds light up the burn with luscious yellow and scores of daffodils brighten the grass.  A pair of long-tailed tits flit back and forth across the cascades, digging for insects in the rim of a grimy streetlamp.  Cherry blossom adds its opulent blooms to the blackthorn.  These are the lucky ones, that have become what they were meant to be.  I am still melancholy, but I feel the call to action nevertheless.  This season of potential in nature coincides with a profusion of submission opportunities, so my stories are dispersing once more, perhaps to fulfil their potential, if only the conditions are right.   Where one life ends, another will always blossom.  Where one tale halts, unwritten, there will be another, ready to take its place.

 

The breath of the earth

It is the month of winds; the month that begins with a roar.  The air keens with a single, high-pitched note.  I don’t know what it is, except that it is a note borne of the wind’s passage through structures of glass and steel.  A road sign rattles on its pole.  Streetlights wobble and chink.  One of last year’s leaves crackles across the path.  Hawthorn twigs hiss and trees creak.  The bass note is the boom and roar of the gale.

I am a child of the March winds, blown into the world with the rush of wind in my ears.  Perhaps this is why the wind-song comforts and exhilarates me.  Perhaps this is why the rush of the March winds feel like being born once more.

Wind is perhaps the most mysterious of weather.  It has no substance, yet it can raze towns and sculpt the hardest of landscapes.  It has the power to be a balm on a hot day and a misery on a cold one.  It appears from nowhere and drops just as quickly.  Some say that it is possible to capture the wind in a knot of yarn, or to conjure it with a whistle.  But such tricks require magical skills, because wind isn’t a thing that an ordinary person can hold.

I see the wind only by its actions and by what it gathers up.  Tall birches that jerk and sway.  Scots pine gently undulating.  A service tree waggles slender fingers tipped with grey-green buds.  Red-leaved shrubs move like a whip of flame.  Daffodils bob crazily and grass becomes flickering ripples of silver.  Catkins slant as one, like tiny wind socks.  Great hunks of clouds are moving.  A dozen wood pigeons sway in the highest branches of a sycamore.

How can the movement of air be so powerful?  When it is behind me, it urges me forwards.  Before me and I must fight to move.  It roars past my years and whips my hair.  But when I stand in the wind, when I let myself be still, the air gentles.  I see it still whipping up the trees.  I can hear its boom.  But if I offer no resistance, it befriends me.  I feel it like the breath of the earth, urging me on, blowing me out of my winter torpor towards the light of life and spring.


Blogger Book of the Month: Encourage a child to watch birds by Denzil Walton

Encourage A Child To Watch BirdsThis little gem of a book is designed to help adults encourage children to get away from their computer screens and outside to watch birds. The book gives some good, basic facts about the birds you and your child might see and provides questions you can ask to encourage the child to watch the birds and talk about what they’ve seen. I know a bit about birds and still learned new facts, but this book makes it easy to start even if you know nothing at all about birds. The activities and discussion points are open enough that they’re suitable to use with a child of any age and you don’t need to live in the countryside to use this book – it focuses on parks and gardens, even apartment buildings. It begins with the easiest of activities – watching ducks on a pond – and progresses to things like how to use binoculars and dissecting owl pellets! The book is well-written, easy to understand and there is a sense of great enthusiasm for the subject throughout the pages. Thoroughly recommended to share with a child.  You can find Denzil here and his book is available on Amazon.

Magic and Monsters

The darkness is glutinous but I have a sense of things moving around me. And suddenly, I want to leave. It doesn’t matter that my things are still in my room, or that water covers the causeway. I need to leave now and I understand that I’ve wanted to leave since the moment I crossed the causeway.

The Siren Flower – Andrea Stephenson

The moon is waning in a baby blue sky.  The sea is dimpled glass and the sun an exploded tangerine.  A path of pink wanders across the sea from sunrise to land.  There is a sense of calm, of balance.  Gulls lounge in groups on the rocks.  Cormorants dry their wings, always at the very edge of land and sea.  I watch an oystercatcher stumble as it forages among the rocks and it amuses me that even a bird so adapted to this environment can have a clumsy moment.

Seals repose on the rocks.  Grey seals use this as a haul-out point, to rest between forays into the water.  They breed further up the coast at the Farne Islands.  A bundle of grey fluff is probably one of this year’s pups.  A huge bull – a rare sight here – flops across the rocks with great effort.  His moans and grumbles fill the air.  Winter has retreated.  It feels warm and it seems every creature is sunning itself.  On days like today, the island is luminous.  Suspended in a bubble of stillness as the tide slowly flows out.

This island is my soul place.  A place of sun-kissed sand and wrack-wrapped rocks; of childhood play and adult solace.  It is the magic of wave and wing, of liquid and light.  In my novel The Skin of a Selkie, selkies dance here on moonlit nights and three generations of women fall under their spell.   But every place has a darker story to tell.  There are stories here of shipwrecks and cholera victims, buried bones and murder.  From the headland overlooking the island, the body of a murderer once swung from a gibbet.

Beneath the waves there may be monsters.  And sometimes, monsters also walk on land.  Both appear in my own dark story of this island The Siren Flower, the tale of a troubled woman who visits a remote inn looking for the start of a new life.  But there is something very wrong on this island and she will soon discover that more than her happiness is at stake.  Last year Fresher Publishing ran a short story competition on the theme of monsters, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  I’m pleased to report that my story was shortlisted and appears in the anthology, available now from the publishers.


 Volume 4 - Monsters

There is no evidence of monsters here this morning.  The island’s inhabitants go about their business unconcerned by what may lie below the surface.  But when the sun sets and the rocks are clothed in darkness, perhaps the monsters will have their time…

 

Whispering

There is a whisper in the air on Candlemas eve.  It isn’t the whisper of spring, but of snow, swirling under the streetlights like communion wafers.  Light brims night’s darkness, softening brick and tarmac, swaddling pavements.  The infrequent crackle of tyres over crusty snow is the only sound.  There is nothing quite like watching the drowsy fall of snow at night, it makes me think of infinity.

Candlemas day is dusky blue.  We roll down the motorway to Winston’s hydrotherapy session, hissing over roads lined by snow-laden trees.  The landscape is a dance of white and blue: the bleached land widens the sky, while the sky washes the land pale blue.  The morning is as delicately rendered as Chinese porcelain.  In the evening, the clouds are peach puffs and snow-coated roofs blush pink.

But the whisper of spring is there, buried beneath the murmur of snow.  It is there in crocuses poking their yellow heads through the soil and in quivering clusters of snowdrops. Winter has been mild, and flowers have bloomed when no flowers should have done, but the crocus and the snowdrop are flowers in their time, heralds of the soft beginning to spring. This is still a time of repose and reflection before the energising surge of the wild March winds.  But some blooms have already heard the sigh of spring.

It isn’t yet time for spring cleaning.  Candlemas is a quiet welcome to the first fragile signs of the season.  But we are getting a new kitchen, so it is time to declutter after all.  We spend days clearing and boxing things up.  Throwing out food long past its sell by date, never-used gadgets, all the detritus that has accumulated over fifteen years of living in our house.  It is a relief to be free of things that you’ve forgotten.  They still whisper from those dusty corners, wanting to be used or put out of their misery.

A few days after Candlemas, I walk with Winston in the dene.  A congregation of songbirds greets us: two blue tits, a long-tailed tit, a chaffinch and a bullfinch flitter among an arc of bare branches.  The sun is glorious, but ice ripples the paths.  Chunks of snow crowd the stilled burn.  The pond is frozen milky grey.  The ducks and the gulls have abandoned it, leaving a couple of moorhens to strut over the ice.

The reeds are strands of gold with feathered ivory heads.  I watch their shadows sway and bounce on the path as Winston pauses to eat goose grass.  The daffodil shoots aren’t yet ready to bloom, but violets bathe in the sun.  Two purple crocuses have emerged, petals still tucked in around them like blankets.  The whisper of the snow has abated, to make way for the whisper of spring.  I can hear it like a sigh in the wind, growing stronger, until it becomes a roar.


Blogger book of the month: The Storyteller Speaks by Annika Perry

TSS_Kindl_300dpiI felt as though I immediately ‘clicked’ with Annika when I started reading her blog.  She shares warm, eclectic posts on writing, reading and life.  Her first book, The Storyteller Speaks is a wonderful collection of short stories, flash fiction and poems that depict a wide range of events, characters and viewpoints. At the centre of each is human relationships and the effect that a single event can often have on the course of a life. A full gamut of emotions is here, including love, grief, anger and redemption. The stories are moving, uplifting, sometimes dark, sometimes amusing. My favourites include: The Whiteout Years which is a heart-breaking and touching depiction of grief and hope; and Loss of a Patriarch, a moving story about saying goodbye to Annika’s grandfather. I also enjoyed the influences of the author’s Swedish heritage. This is a collection to savour and a book that fulfils its promise to win your heart.  You can find Annika here and her book is available on Amazon.

Wintering

Winter sweeps in with a blizzard of snow, bleaching from the sky in large flakes.  It has turned colder quickly, but winter is still ambiguous.  It isn’t long before the sun is blazing, melting most of the snow dust away.  The next morning, I walk in the country park.  Up here, paths still crunch with a thin layer of day-old snow.  The pond is frozen.  Mallards congregate at the liquid edge but waddle over the ice when a man offers bread.  The blush of the sunrise is trapped in the ice.

Corvids perch high in the trees, dark silhouettes against a sky striped pink and blue.  I crunch to the sundial, where an orange sunrise gilds the gnomon.  A magpie perches at its peak but flies off at my approach.  Silver birch trunks glint around the park.  A charm of goldfinches flutters by.  Bird song is muted but for the chuckle of a magpie, perhaps the same one that has just flown away.  Winter always seems to be the season of corvids and it is as though the other creatures are sensibly tucked away while they sit and survey their fiefdom.

Winter remains on the morning of the lunar eclipse, though now the landscape is rimed with the glitter of frost, not snow.  On the last eclipse a thunderstorm rode in and obscured the sky.  After tonight, there won’t be another for two years.  But as I wake at 4am, the night is crisp and clear.  The moon is there, high in the west.  It will be totality in half an hour or so.  For the moment, the full moon has shrunk to a crescent.  As the earth’s shadow covers it, the crescent becomes a sphere again but it is no longer the brightest thing in the sky.  A rosy hue creeps over its base while its top is luminous.

Soon, the red glow appears.  It is a soft red, through which the darkened craters are still visible.  For an hour the moon is garnet, rather than diamond.  Half way through, a blackbird begins to sing, serenading the blood moon with his mournful song.  As it comes to an end, the blackbird pauses his singing.  The top of the moon becomes brighter and brighter still, as though it is wearing a trilby of light.  It is beginning to sink now, moving northwards.  The trilby becomes a crescent and the earth’s shadow begins to retreat, slowly uncovering the full moon once more.  The blackbird is singing again and the human world is waking.  A plane flies over, a Metro rumbles past, I hear the intermittent sound of cars.  For me, it is time to go back to bed, and the moon, having given its display, will soon slumber too.

 

Teetering

As one year teeters into another, my body is all at sea.  A stray bug or perhaps the sigh of inactivity after the busyness of December.  Flu sweeps in on Boxing Day and the lead up to the year end is fever, aches and pains, a chest infection.  It leaves me with labyrinthitis, an ear condition I get sometimes that feels like constant motion sickness.  So there is no optimistic, energetic start to the year.  I can’t walk far, I can’t use a screen, I can only read for short bursts.  Confined to the house, I hardly notice the passing days, or what is happening outside.

So far winter has been short and kind.  There has been almost no rain and little frost.  It has been mild, often grey but often sunny.  The weeks leading up to the end of the year blinked by and I wonder if the rest of winter will be so quick.

It’s the second week of January when I’m well again and I walk to the sundial.  It is just after dawn but you would hardly know it.  The morning is grey with little colour.  Subdued greens and browns with only a handful of gorse flowers offering anything brighter.  Drizzle seeps from the sky.  A gaggle of mallards follow me hopefully around the edge of the pond, clucking quietly.  Otherwise there are few obvious signs of life.  A male blackbird clatters out of a ditch and across the path, glaring at me from a fence post.

Raindrops cling to the alders on the path to the sundial.  Up top there is little evidence that the sun has just risen.  The hills are a misty grey smudge with a hint of pastel orange in the west.  The sky brims with dirty grey cloud.  Only a small patch of illuminated pink shows where the sun might be.  The horizon is blurred, the sea nondescript, turbines foggy shapes in the distance.  I hear the two note call of a great tit.  Another joins it at the other side of the park.  It is icy cold up here, my limbs already feel chilled.

Two woodpigeons fly from the path as I descend.  A thrush sings a song full of climbing whistles.  A lone herring gull charms worms with his feet.  The sky lightens in patches until a wisp of cloud forms miniature inverted tornado in the distance, trailing upwards.  Later, the first snow of the year falls.  It is hardly recognisable as snow, only a hint of white and the way the tiny flakes drift distinguishes it from the morning’s drizzle.  It seems that winter hasn’t made up its mind whether to be fair or foul.  It teeters between the two.  But my enforced absence has meant that I’ve already noticed a change in the air.  Already the days don’t seem quite so dark.  There may well be storms to come, but the scent of spring is there, on the misty horizon.


Blogger Book of the Month: Teagan Geneviene – Atonement in Bloom

Blogging has introduced me to many talented authors, some of whom have featured on this blog.  This year I’ll be highlighting a few of the great books I’ve been reading by fellow bloggers.

I’m always delighted by the unique and magical stories that Teagan Geneviene creates, many of which are written spontaneously, week by week, on her blog.  Her new book, Atonement in Bloom is the second in a series of books set in the magical town of Atonement, Tennessee.  This book has all the whimsy, wonder and enchantment of the first.  Ralda Lawton lives in an old house in a small southern town that has more than its share of magic. A woman created from flowers, a mischievous calico cat, a herd of glowing pigs and the Queen of Winter herself all appear in this novel. I would love to live in the enchanted town Teagan has created and to meet the characters that are so lovingly and inventively depicted. This is a hugely original book that weaves myth and imagination into a compelling story. The ending suggests that there may be more to come in future and, until then, I’ll be homesick to return to Atonement.  You can find Teagan’s blog here and her books are available on Amazon.