Returning

I hadn’t meant to walk to the sundial today.  Fog hangs heavy over the reserve so I know the dial will not be giving away any of its secrets.  I walk past the misted pond, past drowned alders laden with cones and catkins.  A trio of mallards lurk among the roots as a black Labrador cuts a scythe through the water.  Drenched paths are mudded with puddles.  Deep into April and most of the trees are still bare.  A smattering of cowslips try to bloom.  I’d wanted to wait until I could watch the sun cast shadows from the sundial, but I find myself wandering towards it anyway, a dark hyphen in the mist.  Meandering up a path lined by gorse and stunted alders.  A horse has passed this way, leaving shoeprints and garish manure.  Goldfinches and great tits dart across the path.  Woodpigeons are solemn sentinels in the trees.

I reach the top of the hill without effort.  The dial is laid on the ground in iron and stone.  The gnomon towers useless in the fog, twice my height.  A single bunch of daffodils bloom at the edge of the path.  All below me is obscured, trees peep out of the mist, the pylons are hidden as though modern time has faded into the grey.  I stand near the edge and close my eyes, picking out a trill of blackbird song, the vibrato of a robin and a chorus of twittering.  When I open my eyes and turn, a large bee bumbles past.  It takes me a second to realise what it is, it seems so incongrouous here in this place made lonely by the fog.

Every time I think spring is here, another season takes its place.  April has been rain and mist, with the briefest hours of sunshine to fool us that winter is really over.  Nevertheless, there are dandelions like pinpricks in the embankment, daffodils and blackthorn have begun to blossom, lesser celandine trying to open in the grass.  The loud songs of great tit and chiff chaff grace the air and the heron has returned to the pond.  A starling visits my yard collecting dried weeds from the cracks in the wall for her nest.

It’s tempting to say this has been an unusual spring.  It has been very slow to come.  I’ve been slow to return too.  But I’ve learned through observing myself in the seasons that spring can never be predicted.  It isn’t the pretty, predictable blooming of flowers, creativity and action I would expect.  There is always something wrenching, something off about it.  It is like the moment of panic when I write a story – a moment when I know how the story will end but don’t know how I’ll get there, or how the story begins but not how it ends.  A very real stab of panic that I won’t be able to find the words to tell the tale that wants to be told.  There is always a moment when the story settles and it is written.  There is too, a moment when spring settles – or when I settle into spring – but it hasn’t happened yet.

It hasn’t been a period without creativity.  My unpublished novel The Wintering Place was longlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize.  I have a story short-listed for another competition.  I have written new stories, tales of wind and blood.  But this period of withdrawal has also been a time of seeking comfort.  Of re-reading favourite books and walking well-worn paths.

On May Day morning the grass is silvered with frost.  I return to the sundial anyway, as the rising sun is strong behind me.  But it is cold.  I’m beginning to feel as though I haven’t been warm for months.  The alders have sprung into leaf since my last visit, and the cowslips are scattered banks of yellow.  Hawthorn blossom rarely blooms here in time for its festival, but the cherry blossom is out, if a little more muted this year.  The reserve is full of birdsong including the piping call of a particularly loud great tit.

At the top of the hill, the sundial does its work, shadowing the correct hour.  Last time I was here there was no world beyond the hill; today the landscape is set out before me in a haze of sunlight.  To the east, sea and horizon; to the south the river and the huge ship waiting to carry wind turbine foundations to sea; to the west, the shadow of the Pennine hills.  Stretched out below me are all the places I have travelled as spring struggled to be born, all those well-worn paths deepened by the pad of my feet.

It might have been the moment spring settled, that morning on top of the hill.  But as Beltane fades, winter doesn’t turn to spring, but to summer.  The air thickens and the sun bakes.  And it is the dandelions that put on a show, vivid raffia splodges in the grass.  I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such an abundance of them.  Soon daisies and cherry blossom petals sprinkle the spaces in between so that the grass is a quilt of yellow and white.  I see my first butterflies and myriad tiny creatures cloud the air.  A crow calls from a nest at the top of the still-leafless poplar.  I don’t know what this season is anymore, or what I should expect it to be.  Perhaps there won’t be any settling this year after all, only a messy, jubilant return to light and life.

 

Beast

I wake just before midnight and peep through a crack in the blind to find the night-world altered by snow.  We have been expecting a ‘beast from the east’ but this is too tame, too silent to suggest that ferocity will follow.  I watch a confetti of snow flutter and twirl gently beneath the glow of the street lights.  Snow contains a world of silence within it.  I know that come morning, it will have muffled the sounds of the landscape, but for now, there is something magical about the quiet of its falling.

Snow covers but it also reveals.  Reflecting the promise of dawn, the park in the early hours is much lighter than it should be and I wonder how a sky still dark can appear light.  Snow reveals where we have been.   There are tracks in the park, tracks of a dog and her human companion.  I know who they belong to and the snow shows me that they have been here before us.  The snow reveals the visits of those we might not normally see.  Another snow-clad morning in another place, there is only one set of human footprints visible, but the rabbits have been busy and the snow allows me to follow their path.

On the beast’s first morning, the sunrise slants across the square, stretching the tree shadows and gilding the white.  Poking through the snow, crocuses are a brave yellow stream and purple puddles.  But it isn’t long before the beast reveals its teeth.  Snow reveals but it also covers.  The blizzards sweep in and obscure the landscape in a whorl of ivory.  The fog horn is humming in the distance, a ship slowly honks its horn as it moves out of the river.  Drifts of powder billow from the roof tops.  I don’t recall the last time I saw an icicle here, but scores of them drip from scaffolding in the street.

The beast doesn’t stop.  Sometimes gentle and wispy, sometimes heavy like ticker tape.  It continues until the landscape is marshmallow.  The brave crocuses are now buried, the daffodil shoots wilting.  I see a dead house spider in the snow and I wonder how it got there.  The whine of the wind is often a lonely sound but it seems even more so as it hums across the snow-covered void.  It howls and moans like a cartoon ghost, scattering the park with limbs of trees.  A platinum flash of lightning and a crack of thunder – just one.  I’m on the phone to someone 3 miles away and we both see and hear it at the same time.  According to meteorologists it is now the first day of spring, but the beast doesn’t care about that.

Snow covers.  For a while it cloaks the world in fleecy beauty.  It empties the streets and deadens harsh sounds.  The ugliest sights are given a pleasing blanket of diamonds.  It clothes the bones of trees and the mud-soaked ground.

Snow makes us children again.  My dog bounds like a puppy.  Snowmen appear on every corner.  Families appear with sledges.  A group of young people play snowballs.  This is an unusual snowfall and there is a sense of lightness, of happiness, that it has changed the world for a while.

I don’t want to let go of the snow.  I walk down to the dene on the last day that it covers the ground.  Dogwood reds and golden reeds are vivid against the pale landscape.  The ponds are frozen in milky patches and fractured reflections.  I take seed for the ducks and gulls stranded on the ice.  There is sadness in the slow melt, as the soft white becomes hard and translucent at the edges and the snow becomes grey slush.  Rain will come tonight and wash away every last trace.  I don’t want to let go and yet at the same time I long now for lighter mornings and kinder weather.  I’m glad that the beast visited but happy to bid her a fond farewell.

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Drenched

We walk out into a drenched landscape.  I can’t see the rain except in a blurring of the air.  I can’t feel it, except in a drenching of fabric and fur.  But the trees display it like sparkling finery: in crystal drops like precious fruits lobed on the end of twigs and gleaming bubbles surrounding withered rosehips.  The world isn’t silent, but it seems that way.  The song of a robin and the trumpet of moorhens shatter the air.  This kind of rain obscures the landscape, but also brings it clarity.  It draws me to reflections, fingers of rain-drenched branches reflected in rippling waters.

Winter hasn’t let go of its grip on the land.  Wild winds and hail that pricks my skin. Puddles shattered by ice.  But winter has relented today.  No more ice.  No more cold.  The air isn’t quite warm, but it’s gentle.  A crow perches on a rubbish bin, head feathers wetted into soft spikes.  It allows me to approach, then follows us, hopping along the grass.  When we pass, I feel the breath of its wings as it swoops to a tree just ahead.  This doesn’t seem like a mobbing, more a gesture of connection.

I need this gentle melancholy.  At night I’m plagued by anxious dreams associated with work.  When I wake, it’s often with a work problem in my thoughts.  I crave comfort: the comfort of familiar books, already-written stories, well-trodden paths.  I crave withdrawal.  Perhaps this is no more than the turmoil of approaching spring and when the bluebells bloom I’ll return.

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The earth, dancing

In the stillness of a half-lit house it is easy to believe that the world is at rest.   There is no movement that I can perceive.  No sound to crack the silence.  But stillness is an illusion.  My body is a commotion of movement.  I breathe in and out, my heart beats, eyes blink, cells vibrate, synapses fire.  When I am still, I am never motionless.  And neither is the house around me.  Floorboards creak and settle, radiators sigh, tiny creatures scuttle, dust motes twirl.  I barely notice it, but there is motion within and around me, a ballet that never stops.

We are no more than mayflies to the earth.  Like the blink of an eye against its billions of years.  To us, it seems slow and solid.  The ground is steadfast beneath our feet.  Immovable rock, sturdy hills, venerable trees.  We are confident of walking on solid ground.  Confident that, barring natural disaster, the routes we take will scarcely alter.  But the earth is ancient and moves at a speed we can’t always perceive.  We see the evidence of movement in the measure of days and years, yet it is hard to believe that the ground on which we walk is spinning beneath us and in a constant waltz with the sun.

We may not see it, especially in the naked midwinter, but the earth is always dancing.  Anyone who has ever watched a time lapse film of the landscape knows that it is not still.    The plants that seem static are growing as we pass, gracefully extending shoots and unfurling flowers.  Trees are pushing out buds and growing branches.  Rotting vegetation is transforming into soil, rock becoming sand.  The dance is taking place all around us, but it is a slow dance, one imperceptible to our vision.  I have never watched a flower being born or a shoot caught in the act of piercing the soil.  The shift appears to take place when we aren’t watching.

Sometimes the dance of the earth is obvious.  It is there in the rhythm of the waves and the sparkle of the stars.  It is visible in the phasing of the moon and the flicker of shadows.  It is in the glide of a wing, the prance of hooves and the tap of feet.   Weather is the earth putting on a show: the flamenco of rain, the waltz of snow.  The wind is a masterful choreographer, setting leaves jigging, grasses swaying, clouds scudding the sky.  It has many moods, many styles, from the subtle minuet of a breeze to the jitterbug of a gale.

At Candlemas, I look for the first signs of spring stirring in the earth and I see dancing.  I see it in the burbling of the burn and the ripples on the pond.  I see it in the shoots of the daffodils and the first purple crocuses rising to meet the sun.  I see it in the flicker of teal and orange that is the kingfisher I first glimpsed last March.  And in the snow that falls like ticker tape the next day.  So when February seems dismal and bare, don’t forget that the earth is dancing.  And though you may not feel like dancing – you already are.

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.