The gathering

The starlings are gathering again.  They swoop over the park in a graceful curve and trickle into the branches of an old sycamore.  Not content to rest, they tumble from branch to branch, calling and chattering.  Something spooks them then, because they are off again, another arc of the park, back to the same tree.  Today they are in the sycamore, but on another day it will be an ash on the other side of the park.  The ash is bare but for clumps of seed and it’s hard to tell seed pod from bird, except that the tree is alive with their song.

Often, they take to the streets, settling on the peaks of roofs, chimneys, TV aerials.  They are here this morning, as we set out for our walk to the dene. There are too many of them to cluster in one spot, so they spread out – a chimney here, a telegraph pole there.  I wonder if each starling has her own favourite viewpoint, or if it’s merely a scramble to secure a spot.

Late afternoon and they often gather on a mast on the roof of one of the tallest buildings in town.  Starlings are fidgety birds.  It seems impossible for them to stay still.  They must always be taking off, moving position, and all the while giving off that tremendous noise.  I wonder where they go to roost, if they join up with hundreds of others for a huge murmuration before rest and quiet finally takes over them.

In the dene, other birds gather.  Black headed gulls crowd the jetty.  Mallards and moorhens forage among the fallen leaves or glide across the pond.  Occasionally a scrap breaks out and one chases another in a commotion of wings and water.  There is a messiness about this part of the season.  The boisterousness of birds gathering for winter.  The fallen leaves decoratively littering the ground.  Every path has a flaming border.  Every bench a cushion of leaves.

The sun blazes low, gilding the remaining leaves, but darkness will soon be falling.  A last golden spill of sunshine by three and then twilight begins.  The birds and the darkness gather but I’m gathering stories.  Harvesting tales from snippets of ideas written in notebooks and on scraps of paper.  A lost hour, a hymn of bees, a woman with wild-flowers between her toes and a visit to Santa’s library.  I have written four stories in a couple of weeks, each one with a touch of magic, befitting the dreamtime of the year.

We return from the dene and the starlings are still gathered on the rooftops, still filling the air with their cheerful noise.  Starlings are loud and disorderly and they always seem delighted to be alive.  I wonder what stories they tell as they gather in the winter darkness.

Withdrawing

Autumn rushes past and I’ve found myself retreating, the fallen leaves suggestive of a warm duvet to bury myself under.  I’ve retreated away from the computer and into times past.  I’ve been solving murders with Miss Marple in St. Mary Mead and visiting the Old Curiosity Shop.  I’ve been writing a short story about lost time.  Neil Gaiman said that books are the way we communicate with the dead.  They are that, but they are also a way to experience a time I was born too late for.  Although I know intellectually that I would have found the conventions and prejudices of earlier times restrictive, I often think I was meant for an earlier age, a time when there was less of everything and awe was more possible.

In the wake of storm Callum, I walk the old waggonway.  I walk under tarnished clouds scudding quickly across the sky.  The air is hollowed by wind, the hedgerows rustle like old paper.  Rain falls, augmenting the vibrant colours.  Not all of the trees have begun to turn.  On the edge of a dark copse, hooded by the canopy and overgrown with bracken, in a place where pink campion blooms in spring, there is a beech that is always spectacular in autumn.  It is a bright quilt of vivid colour in the gloom.  The horse chestnuts are already half-naked, clinging to crisped bronze leaves like curling fingers.  Here and there, the hedgerows are lit by a fiery maple or a golden hawthorn.

The hawthorns are strung with garnet beads.  Rosehips are like tiny crimson lanterns.  The track groans with seed: hogweed starbursts, knapweed pokers, spiky clocks of ragwort.  Rosebay Willowherb is also known as fireweed, because of its penchant for growing in the wake of destruction, but it might just as well be because of its autumn finery: columns of burning red, orange and brown with whiskers where its seeds have flown.  A few flowers remain – solitary thistles and clover, purple vetch and clusters of viper’s bugloss.  Monstrous butterbur leaves, some green, some rotted and black, cloak the banks.  The hawthorns sing with goldfinches – it must be a time of plenty for them.

To walk in nature is both to engage and to retreat.  I engage with the earth and its turning, but I retreat from the clamour of the world.  These waggonways are layered in time.  Haunted by the ghosts of horse drawn carts and the shades of steam locomotives carrying coal from the great northern coalfield to the river.  Listen closely and you might still hear the clatter of hooves or the wheeze of an engine.  Look closely and perhaps you’ll see a mirage of rails.  The past speaks, if we know how to hear it.  It speaks in the words of dead writers and in the song of the landscape.

A flock of long-tailed tits loops suddenly across the path ahead, to take refuge in a tall tree at the side of the track.  I listen to the commotion of their twitterings, watch the graceful dip of their tails.  In winter they group together for warmth and safety, and perhaps also for company, to share stories of their own ancestors.  My own journey for the moment is away from company; there is always an element of withdrawal at this time of year, preparation for the journey inwards.  But the time for company will come soon enough.  A time to set another space at the table or to pull another chair up to the fire.  To remember those who have come before and to know them through their stories.  The past speaks, if we only listen.

Grounding

A tree lies broken on the path.  The old poplar has been rent, a bough the size of a large tree torn away in the winds.  The splintered heartwood is shredded and the tree nurses a jagged ivory stump.  Its amputated limb blocks the path, causing passers-by to stop in wonder.  It isn’t the only casualty.  A bough of the shoe tree has fallen, a mossy pair of trainers tangled in its branches.  In the dene, a large bough of weeping willow is hanging by a thread of bark, like a besom broom sweeping the path.  Storms aren’t unusual before the equinoxes, as though the earth needs to expel its energy before it can come into a balance of sorts.   After the day of wind comes a night of rain, before the morning calm.

After the storms, I go in search of stone, a balance to the torrent of air and water.  I want to be grounded by the size and the steadiness of earth.  I start at the Pen Bal Crag, the tallest of all our cliffs, where the priory and castle sits atop limestone and sandstone.  I rarely come to this small bay – the steps are steep and many and dogs are banned for half of the year.  In fact I don’t recall the last time I stepped on its sand.  Alone on the beach, I’m dwarfed by the rocks rising above me.  Boulders are tumbled at the bottom of the cliffs, some from landslides, clad in bladderwrack and gutweed.  Water drips from vegetation in the cracks and behind it all, the sea roars.  These rocks are layered in time and faith and blood and the ancient lava flow that once poured through them.  I am as slight as a grain of sand in comparison.

Strange how the memory plays tricks.  I have a very strong recollection of a barbecue here many years ago.  It has the gilded patina of nostalgia, redolent with soft evening light and the taste of sausages.  I remember clearly exploring a cave under the cliffs – so clearly I used the memory of it in one of my novels.  This is why I’m here, to re-visit it.  Yet as I stand on the shore, gazing at the cliffs, I realise that this cave doesn’t exist.  It most likely never did.  All these years, the image of it has come to me and it seems that I invented it.  I puzzle over my trickster memory, willing the cave to come into being, but of course it doesn’t, except in imagination.  A crow, the trickster bird, squawks and lands on the rock beside me, as though laughing at my foolishness.  It has something that might be a crab in its beak, something spindly and long-fingered.  I watch as it pulls the creature apart and welcomes in its mate to partake in the feast.

The sand is virginal.  There is only the faint meandering imprint of a small bird’s passage.  The remnants of last night’s storm churns the sea into boisterous waves.  But that is out there.  Here on the beach, all is tranquil.  The sky is pale blue washed with wisps of buttermilk.  On mornings like this the dawn sky is insubstantial.  It holds a luminous translucence that makes my skin seem thinner than it is, as though I too am made of gossamer.  The clouded sun turns the breakers to liquid platinum.  I can see the lighthouse silhouetted at the end of the pier beyond the cliffs.  I came here for stone, but it is sky and sea that are the most precious gift this morning.

I walk to the other side of the bay, passing a few black headed gulls and an oystercatcher.  A young herring gull bleats for food as I pass.  Up a bank lined by valerian and the leaves of silver weed, past a rusting old bench.  My coastline stretches from the mouth of the river to the island where one county ends and the next begins.  In between is a chain of bays.   I head down to the next, down to the derelict open air swimming pool and onto the sand.  Here, I search for a memento of the light, a token to take with me into the dark season.  I spot it immediately, as the thought is taking shape, a pebble that is, in fact, neither light nor dark but blushed with both.  I take a strand of kelp and draw a circle in the sand by the tide line, and bisect it.  This represents the year, with both halves in equinoctial balance.  I step into the circle and cross the line, clutching my token, symbolically moving from light to dark.

This harvest I have a sense of completion. There is nothing that niggles, undone.  It hasn’t been an easy year and the strange weather seems to have reflected its challenge.  But I have two polished novels ready for submission, one of which was long-listed for the Lucy Cavendish fiction prize; two agents asked to review my full manuscript while another said it was the strongest submission she’d seen for some time; three new stories written and a story short-listed for a short story prize.  There are things I would like to have achieved – such as one of those agents agreeing to represent me – but perhaps that is for another year.

The sun is at my back now as I walk.  That luminous sky behind me, as is the zenith of the year.  This bay is known as the ‘long sands’ and it is a mile long.  By the time I reach its end, my circle will probably have been washed away by the tide.  I walk at the water’s edge.  There isn’t much of a strand line here, just wisps of seaweed, a single maple leaf, a few pebbles, shells and feathers.  I follow it, such as it is, letting the tide seep over my feet when it chooses.  I’m always greedy for treasures from the strand line – one more pebble, one more shell – my house is full of jars and tubs of them.  I pocket a sliver of sea glass,  a chunk of sea-washed china, an intricate shell, a pebble honeycombed by piddock trails and a tiny white feather.

A group of four sanderlings scuttle in the tide in front of me.  I try to catch up with them, thinking that if I overtake they’ll see I’m no threat.  But they keep scuttling, back and forth, always the same distance away, until finally they take flight, sick of the game or never having noticed me in the first place.  A cormorant dives in the surf and I watch as three times it dives, three times it rises.  At the north end of the beach, curls of kelp litter the shore.  The tide has created an island out at sea, thronged by birds.

I came for caves and there is one bay where I know they aren’t imaginary.  I clamber down sandstone crags, feet sinking into slimy banks of bladderwrack until I reach smuggler’s cave.  A few pigeons take flight and a redshank sounds an alarm.  I walk under the arches, past limpid pools and clusters of pebbles and seaweed.  From above, these caves are sunny sandstone.  From beneath, they are grey, green and dark.  The caves are beyond the pier, cut off from the safety of the sands.  From under the arch, I see the same ship I’ve seen in my walk along the shore, the same sea, the same sky, but the view from inside the stone is a secretive one.  Here, there is no-one to know that I am a witness.  I am the watcher in the dark, looking out onto the light.

My harvest is completed and now I absorb inspiration, to take me into the creative dark.  I ground myself in the resonant stone.  Moving inwards, to the sheltered half-light of autumn.  I will take with me the brilliance of this, and other, watery dawns; the iridescence of a kingfisher’s wings; the stripes of a badger’s face.  The light is always there, running like a vein of crystal through the stone.

Leaving

I fear that the herald of autumn is dead.  The small maple in the park – the smallest of all the trees – always turns first.  Its leaves are bronze and gold while the others are still clothed in green.  It tells me – even if I hadn’t felt that nip in the air, that soaking of early morning dew – it tells me that autumn is here.  But this year its boughs are bare.  There was no unfurling of bud, no burst into green.  Its trunk is spattered with buttery lichen, its branches tipped with desiccated flowers, but there is nothing to suggest it lives.  The park is littered with boughs and branches.  They say that in drought, trees give up parts of themselves, making themselves smaller against the stress.  I wonder if the long winter and bruising summer were just too much for the little maple.  I wonder if somehow it has made itself dormant, and that it will sigh back into being next spring.

A crackle of geese honks in a corn field.  A twitter of swallows echoes over the cliffs.  As we move towards the earth’s gilding there is the sound of leaving in the air.  The winds sweep in, carrying the scent of far-flung shores.  The horizon yawns with promise and I wonder what a bird feels as it gazes on that expanse.  When does the leaving begin?  Perhaps its starts with a faint humming in the blood, a tremble of expectation.  Perhaps it begins with a twitch in the wing, a distance in the eye.  Until the urge can’t be contained any longer and the bird must stretch its wings.  So many birds feeling that longing, that pull of invisible threads across the planet, becoming ever tauter until they can’t be resisted.  Maybe these autumn wind storms aren’t wind at all, maybe they are the flutter of thousands of wings, churning the air with excitement.

I hear my first blackbird sing after the silence of August and I wonder what the blackbird feels.  Does it sense the urge to movement and feel loss that it is staying behind?  Does this vibration of leaving account for the expectancy I feel in autumn too?  Perhaps my body yearns for a journey while scarcely knowing it.  As a species we have wandered for so much longer than we have stayed still.  Following the herds, following the weather, following the tides.  When those early people settled in one place, they may have felt relief, but also sadness that they would no longer roam.  Maybe we have lost something in our safer, more stationary lives.

But we still have cause to roam.  3% of the world’s people are migrants, moving not at the urging of the seasons, but for a better life, for escape, for survival.  We have roamed for centuries and there are those of us for whom the journey is not over.  Some of us are the blackbird, destined to stay in one place.  Some of us are the swallow, with no choice but to move.  September has always meant change.  For a third of my life it meant moving on – another year at school, college, university – with all the promise and apprehension that held.  Now I stay still but the urge to movement is still there, somewhere deep inside.

Of course September is not only a time of leaving, but also a time of arrival.  Just as those threads pull our summer visitors away, they reel in others who will accompany us into the depths of winter.  Each season brings its own gifts, and there is a sweetness in the inevitability of each wave of coming and going.  The herald of autumn may be dead, but the old poplar is strewing its leaves on the grass like offerings of gold.  Life is all arrivals and departures.  People move into our lives and are gone.  Things alter unexpectedly.  The world of my childhood is no longer the world I live in now.  We watch and feel the joy and sorrow of each change.  It gives us our sense of history, of having lived.  But even if we stay in one place, we are never really still.  We are coming and going too.  We are the bird soaring into the horizon and the bird arriving home.  And someone, somewhere, rejoices at our passage.

A joyful interlude

 

I don’t normally take part in challenges, my muse is too slippery for that, but when Alethea Kehas over at Not Tomatoes challenged me to write about the word joy it seemed serendipitous, because it is a word that I’ve noticed myself using increasingly often.  Thank you to Alethea for inviting me to take part in the #3.2.1 Me challenge, which involves writing about the chosen word and including two quotes, before nominating three others to take part.  You can visit Alethea here to find out what she made of the word inspiration, but for now, here is a brief joyful interlude.

The ridge’s bosses and hummocks sprout bulging from its side; the whole mountain looms miles closer; the light warms and reddens; the bare forest folds and pleats itself like living protoplasm before my eyes, like a running chart, a wildly scrawling oscillograph on the present moment. The air cools; the puppy’s skin is hot. I am more alive than all the world. (Annie Dillard – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

Joy has always seemed to me an extravagant word.  Beyond contentment, beyond happiness.  A word for unbridled feeling, for ecstasy.  It seems fit only for big spectacles and life-changing events.  It is not an everyday word.  Strangely, it’s a word I often come across in the negative: ‘no joy’ or a sarcastic ‘deep joy’ to describe someone’s negative feelings about something.  The positive phrases that include the word, such as ‘jump for joy’, ‘pride and joy’ or ‘full of the joys of spring’ are so diluted that they no longer have any real meaning.  Joy in its truest sense seems a word mainly used for Christmas.  And yet I find myself noticing the word more often than I ever have and I wonder why I didn’t feel it was appropriate before.

For me, joy isn’t confined to spectacle or achievement.  It is something I most often experience in those small moment of life that we come to realise are the big moments.  It isn’t about the satisfaction of something gained or done well.  It isn’t about an item checked off a bucket list or an ambition finally reached.  Yes, there is delight in those moments, but for me, joy is something both smaller and deeper than that.

Joy is the delight I feel when I hear my dog dreaming and watch the twitch of his nose and paws.  It is the tilt of his head and the wag of his tail.  Joy is in the wild whip of the wind and the teem of rain.  It is the exuberance of blossom and the shimmer of autumn leaves; the scent of the sea and the crash of a wave on the shore.  Joy is the stab of excitement when I witness the wanderings of a badger or the dart of a kingfisher.

Joy is the feeling of awe at being alive and able to experience this one moment just for you.  When the earth seems to shimmer, to lay our her wares and say, here, this is what it is all about.  It is the moment described by Annie Dillard of being so clearly in the present that no matter whether you are at a gas station (in her case) or in the most astounding wilderness, you feel completely alive and completely connected.

In September dawns I hardly breathe – I am an image in a ball of glass. The world is suspended there, and I in it.  (Nan Shepherd – The Living Mountain)

I can feel joy even when I am sad, because, for me,  it isn’t about happiness.  It’s about awe and it’s about connection to the earth.  When I feel that I am a part of this earth, when my skin seems to tremble from being in the world, then I feel joy.  Then I know that my daily worries don’t matter, that what does matter is being a part of this.  I am coming to grips with joy.  Coming to know that it is a word that does fit into my world after all.  It isn’t too extravagant, because there is nothing more extravagant than this world.  It is not a word only to be sung out in carols or written on cards at just one time of year, it is a word for every season and the quiet wonders that each one contains.


I’ll pass on the challenge to: Jeanne at, StilladreamerLuda at PlantsandBeyond and Pat at Equipsblog but you are under absolutely no obligation to accept.  If you do, the word is ‘vision’.  Write about the word, including two quotes and pass on the challenge to three other bloggers.

 

 

 

Back to the land

August is a long, languorous month.  It’s a month in which nothing much seems to happen; a month that usually lasts far too long as I wait impatiently for the delights of September.  But this August was ushered in by a relief of storms: extravagant downpours and gentling drizzles.  Grey skies and showers have tempered the heatwave at last.  Whereas often August seems stuck, this year, it is moving quickly.  I’m losing weeks, convinced there should be more before September is here.

The month ticks by in weekly trips down the motorway for Winston’s hydrotherapy.  I watch golden fields become stubble as the wheat is harvested.  I see fields scattered with cylinders of hay and bale towers.  Barns fill as the hay is gathered, until they bulge with gold.  Then the ploughing begins and the fields turn umber.  I see the season changing in the cycle of the crops and you would think that would bring me closer to the land, but instead, I feel a detachment from it.  It is all behind glass, without the smells, the air, the sensation of my feet on the earth.

How easy it is to become detached from the environment.  Our usual walks are out of bounds, too far for Winston to manage at the moment, so we make do with the small park at the end of the road.  But I fight against the restriction and that pulls me away from the earth.  It’s been more than two months since we last visited the dene.  I see it from the bus, watch a rabbit, two crows and a young  gull grazing on the grass.  I gaze into the landscape through glass and see blackberry jewels and the flame of rowan berries.  I watch baby gulls on the roof opposite my office fledge from balls of fluff to fat, hunched chicks.  Place is something I often come back to: the way we meet it, the way we settle into it, the way it welcomes us – or not.  I’m still here, still passing through the same landscape, yet I’m outside of it.

When I feel the first chill of autumn I know that it’s time to find that connection again.  I go to the sundial because it offers a panorama of my world.  The morning broods.  Deep grey sky in the north, charcoal clouds over the distant Penshaw monument.  Storm-light.  Up here the sky is big and the land small.  The sea is a stripe of watercolour along the horizon.  Pylons are tiny cages scarring the sky.  There are five ships at anchor in the distance and wind turbines turn slowly.  I see a cloud of rooks skimming stubbly corn fields in the east.  Watch the metro weave across the landscape like a toy train.  It is a world in miniature.  I distance myself from the land below to find my way back into it, to feel myself cradled by something timeless.

I listen to the faded cry of gulls, the croak of a crow, the twitter and chitter of goldfinches and tits.  I watch two magpies scale a pine and follow the looping flight of a single goldfinch.  Dried nests of wild carrot are abundant among mahogany heads of desiccated knapweed.  Vetches salt the grass with yellow and meadow cranesbill offers a splash of lilac.  Up here the sky glowers and my skin breaks out in goosepimples.  But there is a moment when the sun, obscured by cloud, transforms a patch of sea into molten gold.  It is just visible between the pylons, this precious echo.   I watch until it fades to silver and I decide it’s time to go.  But the walk has done its trick, I feel calm, connected again to this place in which I belong.

The next morning I follow the pool of gold to the sea.  A flight of swallows surprises me as I reach the edge of the cliffs.  They swoop upwards, curling towards the terrace of houses behind me, then back towards the beach.  I wonder if this group has been gathered here all summer or if they are preparing to leave.  A small murmuration of starlings seeps across the rooftops before splitting up and vanishing.

The colours are intense in the early light.  The sand is flat and rippled, punctured by the casts of lugworms.  The sea is hushed.  The pool of gold is a river from horizon to land.  A curlew and a redshank forage on the rocks, oystercatchers saunter on the shore.  A roost of pigeons has commandeered one of the caves on the beach.  They flutter from its mouth as I approach.  A lone bird remains in a crevice above the entrance, watching me.  I retreat slowly and leave her in peace.

I sit on the rocks beside the pier, watching and letting the landscape soak back into my bones.  This is me: earth and sea and sky.  This is my land and my place.  The trick is to walk in it, to engage with it, otherwise it is just background.  When I feel the sand shift beneath my feet or hear the pipe of a redshank echo across the rocks I know that I’ve returned.

 

Storming

I wait all day for the moon to bleed.  I’m ready to set off, to head for a point high on the banks of the river where I’ll be able to see the horizon.  I’ve watched the sky all day and listened to gentle grumbles of thunder, with growing disappointment, but have never quite given up hope.  Our first rain in weeks is forecast, and though I long for the rain, I hope it will hold off, just for a few hours.  But soon, the sky blooms dirty grey and I know that the moon is lost.

Lightning comes first: flash after flash with barely a pause in between.  It fractures the sky in hot white slashes.  Thunder booms and crashes.  And the rain comes heavy.  We stand outside in it.  After a day so humid it was hard to breathe, this is welcome refreshment.  The sky becomes darker and darker.  It’s difficult to tell where storm ends and twilight begins.  A street light winks on and we stare up, up into the grey, revelling in getting wet.  The air smells like burning.  Celebratory voices waft over the storm.  We marvel at the lightning, and as the thunder vibrates off stone and brick, echoing in the spaces in between, I feel my body vibrating too.  The storm is bombardment: there is violence in it, and abandon, and the joy of long-needed rain.  I don’t remember a storm like it.

The day after the thunderstorm, the air breeds noise.  I hear the distant roar of planes at the air show thirteen miles down the coast, like an echo of last night’s thunder.  The wind flaps and rattles.  The fog horn hums.  The air remains alive: moaning and roaring and singing.

There is talk of climate change on the news, of the heatwaves and wild-fires across the world, of how this could be our new normal.  Nobody says it’s already too late.  They talk in measured tones of getting greenhouse gases under control, but I suspect we’re the proverbial frogs already slowly boiling as the water heats around us.

I love the British seasons.  I love the predictability of the transformation from one to another, but I love the way the weather is never predictable within each one.  I love the way that an obsession with the weather is part of the British psyche.  I fret at the thought of hot, dry summers to come.  But a week after the eclipse, and it seems that the British summer as we know it is here.  The heat hasn’t abated, but it’s punctuated by showers and cooler intervals.

I walk in the country park in the rain.  I don’t mind getting soaked.  It’s still warm and the rain is still a relief after such a long absence.  It patters and drips from the trees.  Drops are cupped in the flowers of wild roses.  The hedgerows aren’t yet in their full August colours of yellow and purple.  The purples of greater willowherb and knapweed have arrived, but the yellows are mostly absent.  I hear the coo of a wood-pigeon hidden in the canopy as I walk the overgrown paths, and the occasional cluck of a moorhen, but otherwise the birds are silently moulting, not even a blackbird serenading the rain.  At the pond, I watch a moorhen guiding her chick on the grass with soft clicks.  A mallard shepherds a brood of teens – I can’t tell which is the adult.  I watch a crow bathe in a gutter.  Rain must be a relief to all of them.

Lammas has come and gone with its promise of transformation.  It is the first in my favourite cycle of festivals and heralds the harvest to come.  There have been warnings this week about food stocks for animals being dangerously low, and while I think about the harvest of my own achievements, I also wonder what this year of strange weather will mean for the other gatherings to come.   But the final harvest isn’t here yet, there is still time to make a difference to the reckoning, and for now, the storms are the only help I need.