A harvest from the deep

  

We gather on the Sunday following the autumn equinox, that moment of balance between light and dark when we celebrate the completion of the harvest.  Our efforts are over for another year; whatever we sowed in spring and nurtured through summer has already borne its fruit and soon we must begin the cycle again.  The sun spreads a silver skirt on the river and a light mist softens the landscape.  The tide is low, laying bare the rocks that have wrecked many ships and a kaleidoscope of pebbles and empty shells.  Gulls mewl from the breakwater and a cormorant sweeps upriver.

This town is built on river, rock and sea.  Its motto messis ab altis means ‘harvest from the deep’.  Emerging from a handful of fishermen’s huts in the 13th century, it went on to harvest not only fish, but coal and salt.  That there is a town here at all is a result of what has been harvested from deep within earth and ocean.  But in this time of gathering, we come together as a town to remember those fishermen who lost their lives to bring in the harvest.  Today, a statue will be unveiled as a memorial to all those fishermen who never returned from the sea.

The air vibrates with local songs of sea and river and the statue is unveiled to a fanfare of ship’s horns.  His name is Fiddler’s Green.  Fiddler’s Green is an old fisherman’s legend, a version of heaven where the fiddle never stops playing and the rum never stops flowing.  He is positioned so that he will always gaze out to sea, recollecting those that are still out there.  And greeting those that return safely.  We absorb his grave features and the stories they represent, as a sweet voice conjures a rendition of the old Fiddler’s Green folk song, before the blessing of the memorial with the seafarer’s version of psalm 23.

The Lord is my pilot; I shall not drift.
He lights me across the dark waters. He steers me through the deep channels.
He keeps my log. He guides me by the Star of Holiness for His Name’s sake.
As I sail through the storms and tempests of life I will d:read no danger; for You are near me; Your love and care shelter me.
You prepare a haven before me in the Homeland of Eternity;
You quieten the waves with oil; my ship rides calmly.
Surely sunlight and starlight shall be with me wherever I sail,
and at the end of my voyaging I shall rest in the port of my God. 

It’s easy to forget how important the harvest is and what it costs to bring it in.  Fishing is the most dangerous peace-time occupation in the UK.  After the unveiling, we wander back along the fish quay, thronged with people enjoying a lunch of fish and chips.  Perhaps today more than any other they will understand the price of the harvest and give thanks for it.

This year in my small back yard we have grown some vegetables in pots.  The broccoli did well, but in late August, I rounded the corner to a couple of Brussels sprouts plants in pots, to find them no more than skeletons.  Crawling on every remaining stalk and leaf were caterpillars.  Because I don’t rely on these for food, I was excited by seeing so many caterpillars and that a butterfly had chosen to lay her eggs in our yard.  But at this time of year, it was also a reminder of how easily the harvest can fail.  What would my ancestors have felt if their food was wiped out by insects?  And what hardships would they have faced to feed their communities?

But the harvest isn’t only about remembrance and acknowledging hard work.  It is also a celebration.  There are many kinds of harvest.  While I always give thanks for the food harvest at this time of year, my personal harvest is a creative and personal one.  I look back over a year in which I struggled with my creativity and expect to find little worth harvesting.  Yet there were moments worth celebrating: an invitation to the first Write Now event in London, a story published in an anthology and being an editor’s pick on Discover.  And then there were those experiences that fed my creativity: a glimpse of a kingfisher, the hush of Christmas day, the birth of spiderlings, a walk to an overgrown bridge, the discovery of a rare flower…

We all have a personal harvest to celebrate.  Three years ago, I held a harvest festival on Harvesting Hecate in a shared celebration of creativity.  Since then, I’ve also gathered a whole host of new blogging friends, some very recently.   So, please join me in a harvest celebration.  In the comments, share the creative achievement you are most proud of since the last autumn equinox, big or small.  For those of you in the southern hemisphere, who are just moving into spring, what do you hope to achieve?  Most importantly, leave a link to your favourite of all the posts you’ve written this year.  The harvest isn’t about celebrating alone, it’s about celebrating as a community.  So as well as leaving a link, please also follow at least one, to a blogger you’ve never met before and perhaps a fruitful new relationship will begin.

The slow work of the soul

August is a month of waiting.   Not the desperate waiting of winter, when you can no longer stand the darkness, but the sweet longing for something anticipated to come.  I look at the calendar and am always surprised that the month isn’t yet over.  There are days in August that seem poised on the edge of time.  Perfect days, like this one, when the sun is hazy and still low in the sky, giving a blurred luminosity to the light.  A day when the earth seems to be holding its breath.  When I feel myself expand out into the silence and every step is like a sigh.

The dene belongs to the birds: gulls, magpies and wood pigeons.  Mallards are motionless on the pond and a blackbird takes a leisurely bath.  A rat dodges two moorhens to reach the undergrowth and a grey wagtail bobs on a rock.  At the marina, the river reflects the hazy light so the world doesn’t feel quite solid.  Swallows chitter and swoop above my head while arctic terns scream.  I watch a gull pluck a crab from the water and devour it as a youngster looks on, crying for its share of the feast.

These are the dog days of summer.  When the hedgerows are lit by the purple and yellow beacons of wild parsnips, melilot, willowherbs and thistles and it seems that autumn may never come.  It is the month when the birds turn silent while they moult, adding to its sense of stillness.  I remind myself to listen for the exact day that their songs cease, but of course it is only afterwards that I notice I haven’t heard the chatter of the sparrows and the goldfinches for days.

Autumn is breathing on the neck of summer.  Already the festival of the first harvest has taken place and the spirit of the sun is captured safely within the corn.  The goldfinches have re-appeared and starlings gather on the chimney pots.  But August lingers and I yearn for autumn’s respite.

Lately I have been feeling the speed of the world.  I’m young enough to have used computers for two thirds of my life; old enough to remember when shops closed on Sundays, when letters were written by hand to far-flung penfriends, when, if you needed information, you had no choice but to visit a library.  Lately, the world often seems ‘too much’ and I long to return to what I remember as a slower time.

British artist Chris Ofili recently unveiled a tapestry The Caged Bird’s Song at the National Gallery.  I watch a documentary about its construction.  Four weavers laboured by hand for nearly three years to create it, unable to see whether they had captured the final image accurately until they had finished and the tapestry was unrolled.  The artist commented that he thought there was something about the slowness of the work that meant the soul of the weavers was woven into it.  I marvelled at their monumental patience and faith.  No wonder that over that period of time, so immersed in colour, line and thread, the soul would seep in.

I lack the kind of patience displayed by those weavers.    And yet, my writing has always taken its time.  Sometimes a story arrives fully formed, but more often it needs to gestate.  The words need to be chosen carefully and woven in the same way as a tapestry, with infinite patience and without knowing what it will look like at the end.  If you live with a story for a long time, your life is woven through it.  The story is who you are now and who you were then.   Some stories are those of an instant, completely of their time.  Others have lingered and breathed with you, absorbing experience and memory and more than a little of your soul along the way.  Creativity may be sparked in a moment, but to birth it is the slow work of the soul.

Life’s little dramas

Outside the library, a drama is unfolding.  A crow perches on an aerial, complaining loudly.  Two jackdaws watch from the roof and  a herring gull peers down from a chimney.  At intervals, the crow flies towards the building and back again, still calling; a posse of more jackdaws and gulls appear.  The sky churns with black and white bodies, circling the top of the building.  I don’t know whose drama this is.  Perhaps the crow has a nest nearby that is being threatened, perhaps the threat is from the crow himself.  I know something is going on, but I don’t understand it.

In the park, I walk into another drama.  A blackbird cries alarm relentlessly from the hedge.  On the grass, a trail of grey feathers leads to the bloody carcass of a pigeon, abandoned on the ground.  I don’t know what has had the pigeon.  I don’t know if the predator is still around and this is why the blackbird calls, or if there is another, unseen threat.

Outside the supermarket, I sit in the sun eating a sandwich on my lunch break.  Beside me on the bench, a pair of hoverflies entwine.  They stay there, seemingly motionless, until my sandwich is gone.  Suddenly, the male moves off, flying drunkenly to another part of the bench.  He lurches twice into the air and back down again, before he is able to fly away.  The female, meanwhile, calmly grooms herself.  After a while, she rises up, hovers in my face for a few seconds as if to scold me for my voyeurism, then she too is gone.

In the garden, my laundry births spiders.  On the duvet cover hung on the line this morning, a patch of spiderlings, each one a few millimetres long, huddles in a circle.  They begin to scatter as soon as they feel my touch on the fabric.  Their mother will have died in the autumn, leaving an egg sac.  I don’t know whether the sac was attached to the washing line or blew onto the duvet cover from elsewhere, but they have hatched there in the few hours the laundry was outside.  I gently transfer those that haven’t already escaped onto a garden table.  Within seconds, a thread has been launched from table to chair to the nearest plant and I watch a procession of tiny funambulists beginning their journeys into the world.

Sometimes I think that despite all our distractions humans are the loneliest species on the planet.  Lonely because we stand outside of nature.  Because we don’t know our place in the world.  A spider knows what it is born for.  It instinctively knows what to do with its life.  Whereas we, with all our choices, find it difficult to grasp the meaning of them.  Spring takes place all around us.  The trees know that they must clothe themselves in leaves.  The flowers know that they must sprout.  The birds know that they must nest.  And when spring comes, we feel the call to action too, but we don’t know what to do with it.

I can’t grasp the dramas that are taking place because I’ve lost the language for it.  I can observe, try to understand, but I can’t feel that imperative of life and death that the rest of the earth surely feels.  I will always be outside the drama because my human mind wants to label and compartmentalise.  My human mind says that laundry is no place for the birth of spiders, but to the spiders is it just a part of their world.  Yet I feel joy when I witness some of nature’s tiny dramas.  I feel lucky to have been given a glimpse of them.  I feel part of the world, not apart from it.  And I make sense of them by writing them down.  Perhaps to understand them, perhaps to feel closer to them – not as a scientist, but as someone affected by the emotion of that moment.

Writing is my connection to the earth.  Paradoxical maybe, because describing things with language can distance us from them.  But I always feel most connected when the writing is flowing – whether from the pen or brewing in my mind.  Perhaps because this creativity comes from something in the earth.  Our first stories were ways of making sense of our place in the world.  Creation myths that explained how we got here.  Stories that helped us to understand the weather and the workings of the natural world.  And who is to say the song of a bird isn’t his story, or the dance of a bee isn’t hers?  A story is more than words, it is a connection.  The best stories remind me that my life has never been lived outside the world, but always as just another little drama within the whole.

Rebirth

The transition from winter to spring is always, it seems, the most capricious.  The slow dream of winter unravels into instability as the season is about to change, and if there is a time when my life is likely to be unbalanced, it is often around the spring equinox.  Spring never arrives straightforwardly.  The weather swings between sun, gales, rain and fog, with occasional freezing temperatures to remind us that winter won’t leave quietly.  It is as though the energy of the season can’t be contained and wants to spiral through all four seasons before settling on one.

And perhaps this is necessary.  It is, after all, a rebirth.  Bare branches burst violently into bud, hard ground is pierced by shoots.  Spring has to be forceful because it holds the promise of the year within it.  Spring is abandoned, unruly, visceral.  From the dazzle of colour to the crescendo of song, the world is no longer quiet and contained.  It’s no accident that gales sweep in, chasing away doubt, indecision and lethargy, because for us too it is rebirth.  We slough off our winter skins, opening up after the introspection of winter, vulnerable at being out in the light again.  It can be a painful birth.  I find myself scoured and broken wide open, just like the earth.

But if the season drags me kicking and screaming, it is within it that I find comfort.  When I can hardly bear a moment more of winter, suddenly spring is here.  The world changes, our lives change, but there is re-assurance in the re-appearance of the coltsfoot flowers in the same patch by the side of the burn; in the luscious crocuses scattered across the square.  There is joy in the abundance of daffodils and marsh marigolds, in blackthorn blossom and fresh hawthorn leaves, in alder catkins garlanding the trees.

Spring is a sensory cornucopia, too much perhaps after the monochrome of February.  But perhaps spring, unlike any other season, is meant to be a shock to the system.  No matter how many springs I have witnessed, it always lifts my spirits when it arrives.  How could it not, when my eyes are suddenly flooded with colour, my ears with song?  I revel in sweeping spring energy through the house, bestowing blessings on every room; in taking down the decorations of the dark year and placing new ones above the hearth.

The struggle into spring has been a lengthy one this year.  I’m still struggling to find that balance.  There is optimism in putting winter dreams into spring practice.  This is the best time to begin because this is when we are flooded by light and colour and activity.  I’ve been slow to start and a winter heaviness lingers.  But there is always a moment of beginning.  Each spring I seek a tiny treasure, a token to remind me of the year’s possibilities.  Today I find it, almost hidden in the cemetery’s undergrowth.  The snake’s head fritillary is a flower I’ve always wanted to see but never expected to find because of its rarity.  Amid the daffodil dazzle, I might easily have missed this solitary blossom.  But as soon as I see it, I know this is my spring treasure.  Because in this moment of rebirth, what could be more appropriate than to see, for the first time, the flower once known as the Lazarus bell?  This isn’t a treasure I’ll be taking home with me, but the memory of it will be enough to light my imagination in the months to come.

Song of the blackbird

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The blackbird has a song that is made for rain.  Perhaps it is the mournful tone of its tune, or the way it pierces the stillness before a storm.  Perhaps it is the way the song haunts me, so sadly beautiful it makes my heart ache.  You’ll usually find the blackbird at the highest point in a landscape, trilling its lament.  For as long as I remember, I’ve associated the bird with rain.  Its song is loud and lonely in the quiet before the rain comes and in the blurred aftermath among the soft drip of raindrops from the leaves.  When the landscape is quiet and expectant and I hear the blackbird sing, I know  it’s about to rain.

Copyright: Mandy Bland

My first memory of writing takes place in the rain.  I must be about ten and I’ve been to Brownies on a Friday night.  I’m with my father and we’re waiting for the bus home.  Dad stands watch outside while I sit in a bus shelter, dark and rain-washed, writing my version of a Nancy Drew mystery in a black, hard-backed exercise book with red corners.  I must have written stories and essays before for school, but this is the first time I remember writing for fun.  The story wasn’t my own, but something in it made me pick up a pen and try to write it in my own words.

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Since then, I have always associated rain with creativity.  Perhaps it’s my watery soul, but there’s something about rain that never fails to inspire me.  When the sky darkens, my body responds.  There’s a tingle, an expectation, a melancholy, that makes me want to write.  I prefer to be tucked up behind glass, preferably with nowhere to go and nothing to do.  With rain that is heavy enough to patter on the windows, drum on the roof and blur the landscape beyond the glass, like melting wax oozing down the pane.  Or to be walking among trees, where I can hear the thrum of the rain on the leaves and smell the wet vegetation.

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I appreciate rain in all its guises.  The glowering sky of a downpour or the bright eerie light heralding a thunderstorm.  A rising wind bringing rain on its tails.  The fat, heavy droplets that stain the ground with splodges, or the drench of fine summer rain.  I love the gurgle of rain in the gutters and rushing down drainpipes.  The swirl of water on tarmac and the dance of ripples in puddles.  Rain has its own discordant melody: a humming, stuttering, hissing song .  It isn’t always easy when you’re in it, particularly the needles of rain that have the promise of winter in them.  But rain soaks the senses, so it’s no surprise that it stimulates creativity.

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Rain wakes up the land.  Deep beneath the earth, seeds that lie dormant sigh in exhilaration as the rain drenches them.   Shoots unfold, desiccated plants expand and fungi fruit.  Rain wreaths the earth with its own scent: the brassy petrichor of soil, stone and parched vegetation.   The scent of rain is a hint on the air, just like the blackbird’s song, telling me that the storm is coming.  And my creative instinct stretches and flexes its muscles, waiting for the deluge.

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And when the storm is over, rain brings the world into focus.  The world is softer, but more pronounced.  There is a stillness after rain, just as there is a stillness before it.  Spent raindrops create their own drowsy percussion.  The voices of birds, quieted by the storm, re-appear jubilantly.  Colours are more vibrant and the musky scent of the earth simmers in the air.  The end of the storm feels celebratory, perhaps only because the rain is over or perhaps because it has revived the landscape.  And for the length of a storm, my creativity has been revived too.

Anchored

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It has been a summer of drifting.  One day into another, sun into rain and back again.  There has been no definition to the season.  No meadow season.  No season of tiny flying things.  Not even the dreaded dog days of August.  Even now, as the season turns, we drift from the hottest September day for over sixty years into impenetrable fog.  And I have drifted too.  There has been my job and the times in between; there has been little writing.  I have no clear sense of what I’ve done with my summer.  Writing is so often about trying: trying to find a story; trying to write that story in the way you have imagined it; trying to find someone to publish it.  Sometimes what’s necessary is to stop trying and drift for a while.

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But summer has begun to drift into autumn.  The days shorten imperceptibly.  It is always a surprise how early darkness comes.  Mist festoons the dawn.  The spiders are at work building their webs.  And I’ve come back to the earth to find an anchor, something to root me to the creativity of autumn.  Walking into the forest is always a liminal thing.  There is the moment before, when you are in open landscape, and the moment after, when the trees enfold you.  This is my threshold: the drifting summer before I entered the trees, the rooted autumn afterwards.

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For me, autumn is all about earth.  It is about the call of the land.  Magically, autumn is associated with water, but the creativity that finds me in this season is from the deep darkness of the earth.  It rises from below and from within.  So I’ve come back to the woods, to walk earthen paths and to be cossetted in a claustrophobia of trees.  I’ve left the airiness of the sea and the wide horizon, for a horizon cloaked by green.

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And here, I also find stones.  On the North Yorkshire moors the Bridestones are sandstone formations shaped 150 million years ago.  To reach them, the track is steep and strenuous, through old oak forest.  I can’t imagine that the trees will ever open up into moorland.  But soon there is a gate, leading through a bracken-choked field.  And then there is a track, purpled with heather, and there is the first stone, drawing us on.

The stones are giants.  Gnarled, pocked and ridged, crevices inhabited by wild flowers.  They stand on either side of a deep valley, a semi circle of watchers.  It is said that their name is from the old Norse for ‘edge stones’, but the edge of what?  Some say they are the petrified remains of bridal parties lost in the mist on the moors.  Others say they are sacred to the goddess Bride, she ‘of the high places’.  But there is more than one goddess here.  The stones have the shades of old crones within them – a face here, a silhouette there.  These are hoary old goddesses.  Fierce, watchful, demanding.

This is a wide open place.  I stand on an outcrop and despite the fierce humidity of the day, I feel the whip of the wind across the valley.  This is an unforgiving landscape and if you were lost here, I suspect you would get no quarter from these stones.  But still, they sing of what is beneath and within the landscape.  There is more to the Crone than ferocity.

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Back in the woods, I watch two sexton beetles battle over the corpse of a shrew.  The loser crawls away in defeat, while the victor scurries to the body to begin work.  The beetle will excavate the earth beneath it, drawing the body under the soil, where it will be food for its larvae.  Look closely and you can see the tiny mites that live in co-operation on the beetle, eating the eggs of other flesh-easting rivals.  It can take eight hours for the beetle to finish its work.   The next day I return and on the surface there is no trace, but beneath the earth, who knows what transformation is taking place?

This is the season of beneath.  When the fungi whose roots bide their time for miles under the earth suddenly fruit.  A shaggy inkcap, a foot tall, beckons to a fence.  Beyond the fence, forgotten steps sprouting bracken lead down to an old makeshift bridge spanning the beck.  This is the season when hidden things become visible.  I sit on the verandah and a roe deer appears, no more than a metre away.  It stops and looks at me for one perfect moment, before bounding into the forest.  The spirit of the woods has visited.

Harvest is almost upon us; when the fruits of our labours make themselves known and we reckon up what we have achieved.  I have anchored myself back to the earth, ready for the coming season of fruitfulness.  I do my best creative work in the dark half of the year, delving beneath and within the darkness to shape the year’s dreams.

Transition

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It is the dawn of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.  This midsummer dawn is a time of transitions.  For a moment the sun stands still, before the year turns into another season.  Later today, the moon will become full, the first time in half a century that it has done so on a summer solstice.  It is the fourth full moon in a season, something that happens seven times within a 19 year cycle.  High tide coincides with dawn, reaching its own zenith before ebbing.  At spring equinox, I was at the other end of the causeway, marooned on the island with the seals.  Today the tide resists me, barring entry.

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In the west, last night’s moon is setting.  It hangs suspended, an amber globe, almost at its potential.   In the east, the horizon hints at sunrise.  A slash of yellow silhouettes gloomy clouds.  Pinprick lights glow from ships far out at sea.  Clouds dwarf the ships as though pressing them downwards.  They look small and lonely out there.

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As the light grows, sand martins flicker across the water and back to their burrows in the cliffs.  There are some ducks that might be eiders in the distance.  But there are no bird calls, only the relentless growl of the sea.  A flock of geese flies silently overhead, in the midst of changing positions in their V.  The sky is all luminous pastels and foreboding greys.  A yellow stripe daubs the horizon.   The clouds play at masquerade: brush-strokes, wire wool, snow-clad peaks and blotched fur adorning the sky.

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This is a time for empowerment and some would say the combination of a fourth full moon with the solstice emphasises that power.  It’s a time to renew energy, to inhale the lightness of the season, because after today we’re already heading towards darkness.   But there has been little in the way of sun recently and much of drizzly rain and grey skies.  This morning, I don’t feel empowered, I feel tired.  And yet, there is a simmering power in the silence, if not of the sun, then of sea and sky.

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Our world has both expanded and contracted this week.  We shared home, food, lives and experiences with a visitor from America, reminding us that we are different but much the same.  But our world has suddenly grown smaller.  We’ve chosen to withdraw from Europe and become an island again.   In this season of looking outwards, many of us have chosen to look the other way.   This is a country enclosed by sea and sky.  It would be easy to view it as a barrier and this island as a fortress.  But when I stand at the sea’s edge, I see only an expanse of possibility.  It’s what allows me to breathe.

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Summer is a time of plenty, when we enjoy the bounty of what is around us.  But not for everyone and there’s a fear that there isn’t enough to go around.  The divisions are showing, between young and old, between those with and without.  It seems that we are in chaos and uncertainty as we confront the descent into winter.   In town, I’m surprised that people are going about their business as though nothing has happened.  This is another transition – we stood still as the votes came in with another dawn.  Now the sun recedes, even as summer comes, and we as a people are withdrawing too.

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It’s time to collect what we can from the summer to empower and sustain us into the winter.  To gather our sustenance from the light, the heat, the bounty of the land and the swelling of our imaginations.  I can’t help but feel sad today at what we may have given up, but I take my sustenance from the quiet power of the solstice dawn.  From the wide open sky and the potential of the horizon.  Transition always comes and in itself, it’s neither good nor bad, only a change from one way of being to another.