Lockdown

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This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

Toni Morrison

The gabion baskets burst with wildflowers.  I don’t know if seeds were dropped into the baskets deliberately, or if they have taken the opportunity to root in the cracks.  As yet, they are mostly green.  But there are highlights of yellow,  pink and a touch of red.  So many varieties of flower, some in quantity, some no more than a sprig: coltsfoot, sow thistle and nipplewort, valerian, hairy violet and scarlet pimpernel; ribwort plantain, ragwort and bladder campion.  A handful of poppies has bloomed and soon the wall will be crimson with them.  I see my first ladybird of the year crawling along the wire.  My first butterfly, a red admiral, flutters onto a dandelion.

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It’s taken time to be comfortable at home again, without feeling the rooms were too small and that I had to escape.  When lockdown was just a whisper, I worried whether my panic attacks would allow me to cope with confinement.  Fortunately, they were more under control by the time lockdown became a reality.  I work from home now.  The days are often frantic.  I’m classed as a key worker, helping to provide access to critical services through our libraries.  Things change quickly, requiring a response.  I’m on my phone so often it burns my ear.

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Doggy lockdown is exhausting

But lockdown is also an opportunity.  An extra hour in bed, being at home for Winston, pottering around the house as a break.  Usually when I’m out at work, lunches are taken up with walking home and back to check on Winston.  Now I have the luxury of a half hour walk.  Each day I walk to the river, past the new houses on the bank shored up by the gabion baskets, past the former dry docks and on to the ferry landing.  There’s a steep hill to climb on the way back, so it’s a decent effort for a short walk.  I hear my first kittiwakes of the season.  Most nest further upriver on the Tyne Bridge, but for as long as I can remember there have been kittiwakes nesting on the two tall buildings at Ferry Mews.

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Rainbows painted by children appear in windows.  Every lunch time the clip clop of hooves announces the passing of a horse and gig taking advantage of quiet roads.  In lockdown, every day is Sunday.  Almost – though not quite – the Sundays of childhood, when shops were closed and the day was filled with family duty gatherings and school the next day.  I hated Sundays as a child, but I welcome the enforced Sundays of lockdown.   My days aren’t so different to those before.  Normal had already changed.  As yet, I don’t know anyone who has the virus.  It still seems far away.

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Winter returns for a few bitterly cold days, as it usually does in spring, but then it is gone once more.  In the park, the crows have begun re-building an old nest in a sycamore alongside the railway line.  He brings her twigs as she caws and settles into the nest.  They have become more territorial, chasing away gulls and wood pigeons, but they still swoop down for peanuts.  The celandine and the daisies are flowering.

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Once, I would have debated whether my writing had value in such times as these.  I would have worried that others had more important things to say, that my soft words were irrelevant.  But it’s in these times that we’re compelled to make sense of what is happening to us.  If you’re a writer,  you write.  If I don’t write now, in these strange times, then why write at all?  It doesn’t matter what I write about, it matters that I put one word in front of another.

Moulting

Walking through town, my attention is drawn by the song of a starling.  He perches on a shop sign, singing a passionate song.  I’m astonished at how beautiful he looks.  The cream tips of his feathers glow.  He seems vibrant and brand new.  He has obviously been through his moult.   Throughout the year, the cream feather tips wear away, leaving the starlings in their breeding plumage.  But he has replenished his feathers.  And now, it seems, he is singing for the joy of how beautiful he is.  (The photo above is not this starling.)

Recently, my muse has become as elusive as the songbirds.  I’ve focused instead on re-visiting old stories.  Stories that were finished a couple of years ago.  That have been sent out into the world a number of times without success.  I enjoy the revision process.  Most of the revisions are slight – on re-reading them, I still have confidence that they are good stories.  I tighten a couple of endings which I always knew in my heart weren’t strong.  Distance has given me the inspiration to find the endings that they deserve.  I make changes to all but one of the stories, and each one, I think, is better for the attention.

They say that you should never write for a market; that you should write the stories you’d like to read.  There was a time, years ago, when I tried to write things that might be popular, or to emulate things I had loved.  There was a time I thought I was a horror writer.  I wrote a whole novel – my first – before deciding that although I loved to read horror, it wasn’t who I was as a writer after all.  Re-reading my stories affirms that these are the stories that I should be writing.

The hedgerows have new plumage too.  Rowans are fiery with berries.  A posse of starlings, many of them still in their juvenile feathers, chitter away as they eat them.  Thistles and willowherbs shed flowers to give way to thistledown.  Hogweed heads have become bronze wheels of seed.

In the last week my seagull chicks have fledged.  They are still living on the roof top.  Their parents are still watching over and feeding them.  The two siblings still follow each other around.  I didn’t witness the moment of first flight, but I have seen them take to the air.  Landing is still tentative.  They hover for moments until they finally commit to it, and it often appears that it isn’t quite where they’d aimed.  It will take them a few years of moults to lose their youthful feathers, but by then they will be adepts of the air like their parents.

Maybe we could all do with a creative moult, a time of quiet away from the pressure of producing something new or sending things out into the world.  A time to peck apart those old languishing stories and give them sparkling new plumage.  A time for our muses to preen their feathers before returning to us with replenished wings.


Blogger book of the month: Jennifer Kelland Perry – Calmer Girls

In her blog, Jennifer Kelland Perry – and sometimes her cats – share wonderful sights and stories from their beautiful home in Newfoundland.  Jennifer’s series of YA novels that explore the lives and loves of the cross sisters is also set in Newfoundland.

The course of true love certainly doesn’t run smoothly for the Cross sisters. Uprooted from their home in the small town of Calmer Cove, sixteen year old Samantha and her older sister Veronica are trying to make their way in the city. With divorcing parents, a mother who is drinking too much and the challenges of fitting into a new home comes the added complication of Ben Swift. Attractive, confident Veronica is soon going out with Ben, but Samantha is falling for him too. This YA novel is fast-paced, full of intrigue, enjoyable to read and deals sensitively with a number of issues that young adults might face. The characters are well drawn and the story is engaging. Though the story comes to a satisfying conclusion, there are a number of threads that Jennifer goes on to explore in the exciting sequel: Calmer Secrets.

You can find Jennifer here, and the Calmer Girls series is available on Amazon.

Lost and found

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

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

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

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

The garden of lost ideas by Andrea Stephenson

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Potential

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Teetering

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

The call of the Nightjar

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On this still, windless night the forest is silent.  The trees watch, like inscrutable sentries.  Moths flutter past silently, gossamer scraps pale against the darkness.  Bats swoop soundlessly, dusky shadows whose voices are beyond our hearing.  It seems that the creatures that stalk the night woods are mostly unseen and unheard.  But the forest isn’t quite silent.  There is a whirring in the air, something that you wouldn’t really notice unless your attention is drawn to it.  Something that sounds alien and a little eerie.  It seems to be coming from the trees – all of the trees, as though the air itself is singing.  Listen, and you’ll hear it too…

This is the sound of the dreaded goatsucker, the corpse fowl.  It is said that this creature steals milk from the udders of goats.  That it sheathes the souls of unbaptized children, haunting eternity.  And kills calves by giving them puckeridge disease.  It flies only by night, resting on the ground in daylight, protected by its camouflage.  Each year, it makes the long journey from Africa to sojourn here, a nocturnal shadow to the day-time swallow.  It is a creature of myth and witchery, yet in reality it is only a bird: the enigmatic Nightjar.

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A European Nightjar flying. A lithograph of a painting by John Gerrard Keulemans. It is captioned with its old names.

The Nightjar’s reputation is beguiling but untrue.  It feeds on moths and insects and it is thought that its notoriety as a milk snatcher originates from its habit of nesting on the ground around livestock.  Puckeridge disease is caused, not by the Nightjar, but by an insect.  But the Nightjar is rarely seen, due to its nocturnal nature and don’t all creatures of the night deserve their own myths?

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On this night, we walk darkened paths, the pines looming in front of us darker still.  We have night vision telescopes, which illuminate the darkness in a square of sickly yellow light.  So much light soaking the eyes makes it difficult to see once you look away from the telescope and my vision is blurred by the end of the walk.  We can see in the dark, but we don’t see the Nightjar.  Despite all our technology, perhaps we aren’t meant to see what lurks in the night.

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John R. Neill: Peter and the Princess, Lighted by glow worms, the fairies were dancing, 1920 link

But there, in the hedgerow, is another kind of light.  Cold, green pinpricks, so bright they shouldn’t be natural.  As bright as fairy lights and indeed, these are the creatures that the fey carried as lanterns, so that they could dance through the night.  But the light of the glow worm isn’t meant for the fairies or for us.  It is the lure of the female, who will glow for just a week or two until she has attracted a mate and laid her eggs.  Once this is done, she will put out her light and die.

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Perhaps some things aren’t meant to be witnessed by human eyes.  We conjure myths from half-seen things and unexplained sounds in the darkness.  And this is part of the magic of the world.  That they exist, but we can know only a fraction of their mystery.  That we can create stories to comfort us in our lack of knowing.  I’m glad I heard the call of the Nightjar, but in a way, I’m happy I didn’t see it.  Instead, the mystery is intact, sailing on into the darkness.

The small, wild things

Cow parsley on wasteground

When I was a child, I was given a book about becoming a nature detective.  By today’s standards for children’s books it was uninspiring: filled with dense text and black and white photos.  Still, it captured my imagination and I longed to be able to track and investigate the natural world in the way the book described.  But I was an urban child and I thought the experiences the book presented were out of my reach.  I’ve always lived in towns and cities, while longing to inhabit the wilder places.  I wish I could look out of my window and see open spaces instead of my neighbours’ houses.  The sea has always been my local untamed place, while I believed that the town had little to offer in the way of nature.  But years after I dreamed of being a nature detective, I’ve learned that even among brick and concrete, it’s possible to live the change of the seasons and to find the wild in the everyday.

At the end of my road, there is a small park.  It’s little more than an expanse of grass and a children’s playground, a space that has been cultivated and tamed.  But I’ve walked this park nearly every day for two years and I’ve noticed its secrets.  There are five species of trees here, most of them old, including three wild cherries that burst into blossom each spring.  There is privet and hawthorn, offering cover to songbirds.  You’d be forgiven for thinking the only wild plants that grow here are daisy and dandelion.  But look closer: ragwort and ivy leaved toadflax cling to walls.  Hart’s tongue and maidenhair spleenwort grow in the shady spot under the trees.  There is a small clutch of bluebells, red dead nettle, thistle and cleavers.  Field mushrooms, glistening inkcap and King Alfred’s Cakes fungi fruit in the darker, damp patches.  The obvious birds are the seagulls and the crows, but listen to the dawn chorus and you’ll know there are many others – great tits squabbling in the trees, blackbirds, thrushes, starlings and woodpigeons.  A dunnock has been singing an audabe from the privet each morning and, just once, I saw a greater spotted woodpecker high in a sycamore.

Just a little farther from home and here is the Dene, one of many deep valleys cut by streams that flow into the North sea.  This park too has been tamed, but not altogether.  Cowslips, marsh marigolds, yellow flag, water avens and shaggy inkcap all grow in the damp ground.  The pond, fringed with weeping willow, is home to mallards, tufted ducks, moorhens and the occasional heron.  I glimpsed a fox once, at the side of the road, but I’ve been told scores of them visit the Dene at night.  This week, I watched a pair of mute swans mating – he balancing precariously on her back, followed by a brief dance, where they raised their bodies and necks high out of the water and pressed them together.  Then it was over, off she swam into the rushes and left him circling the pond alone.

 

And then there is the business park where I sometimes work.  Dominated by office blocks, traffic and scores of people.  But look past the buildings and the tidy, cultivated plants and there is a host of nature here.  Follow one of the paths and you’ll come to areas tangled with trees and wildflowers.  Ponds with resident moorhens, coots, tufted duck and geese.  You may see a hare, a grey heron, or even a deer.  I’ve sat in meetings and watched rabbits at play outside the windows.  A weasel once crossed my path.

But nature always clings to the edges.  The smallest patch of waste ground is rich with possibilities.  The horsetail colony, like a strange clutch of aliens at the edge of a crane hire yard.  In their fertile form, they appear like burnt stalks, later, they turn green and feathery  The froth of cow parsley on the side of a main road.  The gull, minding her nest on a chimney opposite my office.  The bulrushes beneath the pylons.  Herb Robert poking through a fence.  Mayweed, Green Alkanet and Shepherd’s purse by the roadside.  There is a small path nearby, no more than five metres long, a narrow short cut to a housing estate, flanked by a school on one side and a tangle of waste ground on the other.  Along this short path I’ve seen a whole clutch of wildflowers that I haven’t found elsewhere.  Now, alas, it has been ‘tidied up’ and all the wildflowers poking through the fence cut down.  But they’ll be back.  Sometimes, there is a particular kind of beauty to the nature at the edges, in the contrast between the ugly and the beautiful.  And no matter how we try to tame it, it always returns.

Towns and cities distract us.  They urge movement, rarely inviting us to be still.  Their attractions draw us away from noticing the small, wild things that are with us every day.  Nature is less obvious, but it’s there.  Even a weekly, regular walk to the same location will make a nature detective of you.  You may also have to change your view of what is interesting.  The commonest flowers are no less beautiful because they’re common.  When did you last look closely at a daisy?  Have you ever noticed the tiny lilac paws of the ivy leaved toadflax or the miniature heart-shaped seed pods that give the Shepherd’s Purse its name?

Only a year ago, I was blind to what lay around me.  Now, I’m building a mental nature map of my neighbourhood.  As each season passes, I add things to the map.  I know where to go to find a particular wildflower or fungus, the best place to see a hare or a heron.  I know where to watch the seasons change.  And I’ve barely scratched the surface.  I learn by experiencing nature at first hand.  There is nobody to tell me what I’m seeing.  Instead, I look carefully, noting colours, shapes, habitats, until I can put a name to what I’ve discovered.   There’s always something new to notice.  This week on my trip to the Dene, the buttercups have taken over.  The clover and yellow flag are beginning to bloom.  Hoverflies are everywhere and the spittlebugs have been hard at work creating their foamy dens.  I still long to live in a greener place than this, but I’ve learned that wherever I am, I can always find a little wildness.