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.

 

The start of a journey

 

SAMSUNG CSC

It seems that I’m often on motorways at this time of year, in the weeks leading up to Lammas, when the fields are golden with wheat and yellow with rape, and cylinders of gathered hay scatter the land.  There is something rich and hopeful about this part of the season and something calming about viewing it at speed from a long straight road that cuts through the landscape.

SAMSUNG CSC

But there is nothing serene about this journey.  We are travelling to a specialist veterinary hospital, where our dog, Winston, will be checked over by a neurologist and receive an MRI scan, after developing a sudden weakness in his back legs.  I watch the fields unfold, attempting to dampen the anxiety of this unexpected journey.  Suddenly, I glimpse something strange at the side of the road, something I know shouldn’t be there.  For a moment, I don’t know what I’ve seen, but then I realise it is a deer, walking on the verge.  We hold our breath – she’s too close to the motorway –  but in a moment, she turns and melts safely into the trees.  I’ve often thought that the deer is the spirit of the woods, a gentle, airy spirit, barely glimpsed.  Seeing her now is a good omen, I think.

SAMSUNG CSC

At the hospital there is talk of slipped discs and surgery, meningitis or stroke.  There is definitely a neurological problem, but it seems to be at the low end of the scale.  We leave Winston for assessment and drive home silently.  As we do, the month’s heat gathers into ominous clouds, hinting at a storm that doesn’t come.  To a house that is silent and strange without him.

SAMSUNG CSC

The clouds finally break the next day.  A light drizzle sets in that won’t do much for the withered plants, but brings the temperature down to more comfortable levels.  We’re bringing Winston home today.  He has two calcified discs, that have caused inflammation of his spine, but they’re hopeful that it will settle with medication and physiotherapy.  He is confused and crying after the anaesthetic, panting beside me on the journey home with wide eyes.

SAMSUNG CSC

We settle into a week of worry and waiting.  Winston has been my walking companion for almost six years.  It is because of him that I re-discovered nature.  It is on our walks that I see what I see.  But he is forced to rest, only short visits to the park at the end of the road.  Yet there are still glimpses to be had on short walks, or on no walks at all: gilded clouds above our back yard, swifts screaming high in the sky near sunset, goldfinches chattering on the telegraph wires, my only ladybird of the summer on our gate post.

SAMSUNG CSC

A week later and we return to the hospital for a check up and to see the physio.  Dark clouds mass over the motorway once more.  Winston’s neurologist wants to watch him walk, so we take him outside to find that rain has finally come.  More than drizzle this time.  Strong, soaking rain.  We don’t care that it’s falling as we walk, we’re all refreshed by it.  And with the balm of the rain comes good news.  He is stronger, the inflammation must be settling.  We come away, for now, with instructions for massage and gentle exercises.  This is not something that will go away.  We will have to manage it, there may be things he can no longer do, it could become worse.  We don’t know how long the journey will be or where it will take us.  Back at home, I stand in the yard as the rain falls, tilting my face into it.  I’ve waited weeks for this, for the benediction of rain.  The scent of it in the air is like hope.

Parched

SAMSUNG CSC

In the heart of the heatwave, our usual walks are too exposed to the glare of the sun.  My dog doesn’t like the heat and neither do I.  Seeking relief, we visit one of our less frequent haunts.  The path was once a railway line, hauling coal to the coast.  Here there is shade and shadow under bridges and trees.  The hedgerows burst with bramble and bindweed blossoms.  Stinging nettles as high as my waist and wild roses like vintage china.  Speckled wood butterflies and hoverflies like lozenges of amber.  Though the sun is blazing, the fog horn signals a sea fret in the distance.  It is still too hot, even in the shade.  A blackbird sunbathes at the edge of the path. He’s a beauty, with glossy feathers and a bright orange bill. He spreads out his wings and lies with his back to the sun, in a posture thought to get rid of parasites and spread the preening oil in his feathers.

SAMSUNG CSC

We are used to a more temperate heat.  Not this dry glare that continues for weeks with no forecast for rain.  The grass parches and begins to yellow.  Leaves droop and curl.  On the moors in the north west of the country, a fire rages.  I find spiders drowned in my dog’s water bowl in their search for refreshment.  Amid nights of disturbed sleep, there are strange, vivid dreams: I watch volcanic ash tumble down like snow; I climb precarious wooden structures to escape grizzly bears circling below.  And I dream of rain: heavy, drenching rain that washes away the heat.  I fill the watering can and water spilled on stone gives off the soothing petrichor smell of rain like a false prophet.  Morning sea frets bring some relief.  But there is no hope of rain for a while yet.
SAMSUNG CSC
I struggle to find poetry in the glare of the sun, when it is too hot to breathe or to think.  I walk with eyes scrunched against the dazzle.  The landscapes this sun reveals are too harsh, too flat.  Fire is the element I’m least drawn to, and when I am, it’s the flame of a fire on a cold day or the dance of candlelight, not the unrelenting heat.  Time seems to pass more slowly in this heat – particularly when I don’t want it to.  It saps energy and inspiration.  This hottest part of summer isn’t conducive to creating.  It seems designed for lethargy.

SAMSUNG CSC

But there is a poetry to the sun, and to me, its poetry is in its nuances of light.  It is not in the noon brilliance, but at the book ends of the day when the air is golden or gauzy blue.  It is in the deep pooling of darkness within the light, the relief of shade, the shape of shadows.  The falling of light on a leaf, making it translucent, the way it gilds a buttercup.  The dappling of light and the way it shafts through the canopy to highlight the undergrowth.  Dandelion clocks become spheres of quartz in the morning sun.  Gold washes the underside of seagulls’ wings near sunset.  Stone becomes honey and the sky blushes.

SAMSUNG CSC

Without these patterns of the sun, the world would have only one note.  It is in the contrasts and the wavering spectrum of light that the landscape finds its character.  It is easy to forget the life-giving properties of the sun when it seems only to desiccate and deplete, but in the depths of December, when my bones are chilled, I will appreciate that my skin was touched by its warmth.  When the nights grow long and I feel that I have always woken to darkness, I will remember waking to the shimmer of dawn.

 

Badgered

SAMSUNG CSC

The forest is an emerald, accented by blushes of pink. Trailing larches, tottering pines, glossy-leaved rhododendrons. Flowers of campion and herb Robert. Luscious rhododendron blooms now past their best. And spears of foxglove, like torches in the shade.

SAMSUNG CSC

It shouldn’t be the summer solstice.  In this strange year in which the seasons haven’t unfolded in the way they should, it doesn’t feel like midsummer. Already, after today, the sunlight will slowly begin to contract, but I’m not yet ready for the fade into autumn and winter – winter has only just left.

SAMSUNG CSC

It isn’t the first time I’ve spent midsummer’s eve in the woods, but this is a different forest. An opportunity to wander different paths and feel as though I’m losing myself on them. A chance for solace among the trees.

SAMSUNG CSC

I haven’t yet discovered the places of magic: the enchanted glades and secret groves in which the spirit of the woods dwells. Perhaps this will be one of them: this avenue of oaks, buffered by pinewoods, one end of the avenue leading into wide open fields, the other to a leafy tunnel and a shimmer of light. Perhaps it will be this old ash tree, with its eccentrically holey trunk. Perhaps one of these bowed wooden bridges, perhaps the patch of foxgloves that spears the gloom or the pine garlanded by honeysuckle. There are paths upon paths here, or so it seems. Paths spongy and red with fallen pine needles. Paths of mown grass lush with clover. Paths overgrown with hogweed parasols.

SAMSUNG CSC

The sound of the forest: the trill and whistle of bird song; the clatter of wood pigeon wings; the creak of trees; the susurration of wind through leaves. In the morning, the birds are busy and bloated with song. None of them wants to be silent – they all compete, singing over one another. In the afternoon, a veil of sleepiness descends. The blackbird still trills occasionally, the chiff chaff still calls, the tits still chitter, but in the afternoon the birds sound faint and far away. There is the laziness of sun slanting through trees, of small birds leisurely feeding. Even the wood pigeon’s coo is gone. In the afternoon, the birds allow one another to be heard.

SAMSUNG CSC

The air is filled with the whirr of small wings: blue tits, great tits, coal tits, chaffinch, robin. A tree creeper shimmies up a pine and a long-tailed tit balances in a nearby birch. Two woodpeckers scale the thinnest of trees, woodpigeons clatter up in the gods. A blue tit is mobbed by its young. They flit from branch to branch as it collects food, then chitter and spin their wings until their mouths are full. Squirrels and rabbits graze on the grass beside a tiny mouse. And in the evenings the big birds swoop in – jays, crows and wood pigeons.

SAMSUNG CSC

Perhaps the spirit of the woods is here, in the small glade just beyond my cabin. A gathering of pines and a young beech stand in a circle. What might be a faint path leads to the clearing, lined with bracken on one side, rhododendron on the other. The centre of the glade is carpeted in still-green pine needles and young brambles. This is the place where the sunlight streams in through the trees. Entering via a row of three birches, painting them lime, before drippling into the clearing. This is a place where you might dance sky clad on midsummer’s eve.

SAMSUNG CSC

But perhaps the magic here isn’t a place at all. Perhaps it is a time. At dusk, when the rabbits and birds have gone and old brock appears. Half an hour before sunset, I see him come, my first badger, nosing along the path from the enchanted glade as though it gave birth to him. He is unexpectedly soft in appearance – I know that he has sharp teeth and big claws, but he has the air of a soft toy. He ambles, there is no other word for it. Picks up a piece of food and stumbles into the bushes to eat it. Soon, I’ll see the bush move and that familiar monochrome triangle of a head will appear, checking the coast is clear, then he ambles out for another piece. The same thing is repeated a dozen times. Then he scrapes in the dirt for worms, leaving untidy clods of soil. He knows I am here. Has looked up at me and sniffed. But he wants a closer look. He walks to the deck and stands on hind paws, lifting his head to sniff again through the fence. Every night, a badger appears, sometimes two. On my last night there is a family with a cub.

SAMSUNG CSC

Away from the forest, the sunlight is harsh, without trees to shield me from the sun’s glare.  The heat is close and fierce.  It is easier here to recognise that it is summer after all, with weeks left of sunlight before the descent into winter.  I have never enjoyed the heat.  When it gets too much, I will find a shady spot and recall the enchanted shade of the woods and the creatures who visited me there.

Bursting

SAMSUNG CSC

The cemetery is at its most luminous in late spring and autumn, the key hinges of the year.  In autumn, the cemetery hums with the colours of turning leaves.  But now, in late May, it brims with the lace of cow parsley and a tide of bluebells.  Spring has not come quietly.  It has burst, all of a sudden.  The cow parsley is so tall that the graves hide amongst it, or only peek over the blooms.  The vegetation has the untidy lushness of late summer.  The energy is playful and busy.  A robin strikes something, a snail perhaps, on the edge of a grave, crows caw and rattle, blackbirds sing.

SAMSUNG CSC

Hawthorn is in full blossom, leafy tresses daubed in clotted cream.  Horse chestnut flowers thrust upwards like snowy Christmas trees.  Sunlight plays between the trees, pooling in clearings and shafting through the canopy.  Light pours through the windows of the chapel, so that, seen from the outside, it is a transparent arch of illumination.  Scores of tiny flies dance in the air and hoverflies hover under the trees, seemingly motionless, like tiny baubles catching the light.  Most of the abundant dandelions have finished flowering, and there are waves of clocks like grey lollipops.  So much potential, the seeds of next year already on the wing.

SAMSUNG CSC

My creativity has followed the pattern of the spring.  Low key at first, it has now burst open.  Like the landscape, I’m enjoying a creative spurt.  My novel and stories are out for submission, dispersed like dandelion seeds,  in that sweet moment of possibility when something good might happen to them.   I have revisited the first novel I wrote, revising it to correct those niggles I have never been quite happy with.  There is another story on the go and I have joined a writer’s circle.  At times like these writing feels easy.  Words fall into place and stories present no barriers to being told.  Fallow periods and the panic of creation is forgotten.

SAMSUNG CSC

On a rare rainy day, I see my first swallows, two of them, darting and swooping over a roof top, switch-backing from one direction to another.  I can’t see any insects but they have obviously found something to hunt.  In the dene, the burn chatters and gurgles past miniature forests of yellow flag, thistles, cow parsley and purple comfrey.  The avenue of lindens is so lush it has become a tunnel of leaves.  There are swallows here too, but only a couple.  And more flies.  A particularly delicate creature flutters up into the trees before me, slowly, on spectral lacy wings.

SAMSUNG CSC

There is so much to see that I don’t know where to look, so much born and being born, so much potential.  And yet life is fragile too.  In the park, early one morning, I witness a vicious scrap between crows.  The two resident sentries of the park noisily mob another close to the tree where they are nesting.  They fight, beak to feather, then resort to dive-bombing the stranger, swooping so close I hear the crack of wings across its back.  But it is too late, the interloper has stolen an egg and proceeds to devour it, one small life that won’t be born.

SAMSUNG CSC

Among so much growth, it is hard to imagine this fragility, yet there are concerns that this year there have been fewer insects, fewer migrating birds.  When the rain falls, the tiny creatures disappear; when the sun comes out, there they are again in their hundreds.  I wonder where they go when the sun hides its face.  Perhaps they are poised, just like inspiration, waiting for the conditions to burst into life.

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.

Comments are closed