Glowing

We crunch and rustle along pavements of copper leaves. The sky is filled with diluted denim clouds, the sun a foggy disk slightly brighter than the sky. A strong breeze agitates the leaves. We walk past the war memorial, scattered with curled leaves, the shapes of old wreaths ingrained into the stone by dirt and lichen. Past the stone mason’s studio, where brand new tombstones await epitaphs. Through the iron gates and stone frontage of the cemetery.

Bindweed trumpets wind and bloom along the clipped privet. A few hogweed flowers have not yet withered. Clumps of grass finger out of the dead leaves. The base of a shattered tree hosts a massive crop of fungi. A squirrel, who may have been feeding on it, streaks past and up a neighbouring tree. But there is another squirrel in the grass who hasn’t yet spotted us. Her companion chitters a warning and soon both are beyond reach.

There is still a lot of green in the cemetery, but those trees that have turned are showpieces. Horse chestnuts and maples and lindens and beeches. Yellows and bronzes and coppers and reds. They are beacons of light nearby and in the distance as we walk.

A mischief of magpies crowds on top of one of the graves. There are at least ten of them and I wonder why. When we get closer I see it is planted with a fiery-leaved rowan, still laden with berries. The magpies are feasting on those that have fallen. They aren’t alone. A couple of jackdaws hop nearby and a mob of crows, one of whom nonchalantly grooms himself on top of a gravestone. There are gulls too. One of them eyes us from the top of a tall tombstone. Others squabble and squawk in a rowdy flock. Some of them have the traces of juvenile plumage and I wonder if these are teenagers looking for trouble.

There are points of communion in every special space. Here in the cemetery, there is the fallen tree where fungi grow. The graves that bloom with snakeshead fritillaries. The place behind the chapel where bluebells and cow parsley froth and hoverflies shimmer. In autumn, it is the place of the three maples. They stand in a row, in a slight clearing. Leaves like butterscotch and lemon and honey glow on their branches and form golden pools on the ground. Cow parsley leaves and tiny saplings poke through the leaves. There is a small, dead tree beneath the canopy, gnarled and bent, wrapped in a tendril of ivy. A broken tombstone, its stone cross laid gently against its base. Standing beneath the three maples, the sun gilds the leaves and takes you to another place.

We leave the gilded shelter of the three maples and walk up a narrow path. The sound of a bird singing makes me pause, because until now I have heard only the rough sounds of corvids and gulls. Listening carefully, I realise it is the full song of the blackbird, but sung so quietly that you would not hear it if you weren’t stood next to it. I look up, into a holly tree and immediately see a male blackbird perched there. For a few moments we look at each other and I hear the song again. It isn’t the bird I’m looking at that is singing, but another higher up in the tree. I wonder why it is so quiet. Perhaps I have stumbled on some secret thing. I listen for a few moments then leave them in peace.

There is a funeral about to begin at the crematorium. Two female vicars in billowing vestments stand at the door. A handful of masked guests wait outside. We pass quickly, to the shelter of a towering beech, its trunk like elephant skin, its boughs trailing petticoats of autumn hues. I think of our early morning dog walks, when the sun is just peeping above the houses, bathing the park in golden stripes of light. We wander out of the cemetery on a path of shining beech leaves. The sky is still grey. We are expecting storms this week. But the fire of autumn is glowing within me.

Fences

Halloween is the day when there is neither past, nor future, only between.  Before the year turns, I have a notion to re-visit the green places of my past.  I step out into a breezy day, leaves rustling in spirals on the pavements, rays of sunlight bursting through grey cloud.

My past has been fenced off, built over, locked away.  We were urban children, grown on a Council estate, but there were always patches of green, hints of the wild.  The ‘res’, the ‘cut’, the ‘back field’, these were the edge-lands on our doorsteps.  Our lives as children were lived along these tracks and in these spaces.  The walk to school and back, the trails between each others’ houses.  The green spaces for playing, exploring and hanging around.

The first of two reservoirs, at the top of the street where I used to live, is a trapezium of grass tangled with purple clover and dock.  The gate is locked.  Perhaps it always was, but we got in anyway.  I always found the reservoirs puzzling and slightly mysterious.  How could a field contain a reservoir of water?  I never quite believed they were what they were supposed to be.  There is an old stone building, stamped 1901, which must have been some kind of access or pump house.  It is boarded up, painted with graffiti, art deco railings rusting around its roof, rubbish and weeds littering its steps.  There is talk about building houses on top of the reservoir, squeezing yet more dwellings into one of the last green spaces.

There was a park once, where the newest houses on the estate have now been built, an open space with swings and climbing frames.  The ‘back field’ is still there.  It was once just a ragged patch of land behind houses, with waist high meadow.  Now it is a water-logged square of shorn, vivid grass.  I disturb a posse of blackbirds in the shrubs at its edges.  I wonder how much it is used, and for what.  It seems unlikely that it is ever allowed to become as overgrown as it once was.

But my sycamore is still as I recall it.  The only tree I remember as an individual from my childhood, it stands on the corner, arcing over the road.  When I first read To Kill a Mockingbird it was this sycamore that I pictured when I read about the gifts left in the tree.

The ‘cuts’ were narrow paths between.  Each was the length of a street.  A narrow lane beyond the back garden fences.  A pathway between houses and the reservoir.  Small slices of nature, bordered by trees and plants.   But no one will be travelling those paths again.  They are blocked at each end, locked behind spiked metal fencing.  I stand looking between the bars, yearning to walk the old path again.  But within the fencing, nature has taken advantage.  Brambles, grasses and small saplings have reclaimed the path.  They have become liminal places but not human places.  On this still autumn day, they are peaceful pockets of green behind the bars.  Who knows what happens within the fences while the people aren’t watching?

The bordering reservoir has been fenced off too, metal spikes above the wall.  Fences and fences.  Adjacent, my old school has been demolished and re-built with yet more of the ubiquitous railings.  There was a time when a farmer’s field lay opposite the school.  I still remember the feel of the ploughed furrows under my feet.  The old hawthorn hedgerow is still there, now backing onto houses.  It is a reminder of a past when there were spaces to explore and everything wasn’t locked up tight.  It is half-term and the children are on holiday from school, yet I haven’t seen or heard a single child during my walk, only the ghostly footsteps of those who have left childhood far behind.

I cross the busy road to get to the cemetery and leave the fences behind.  Here there are meandering paths scattered with leaves.  Tilting headstones rooted with ivy.  A laburnum like an umbrella sheltering graves.  The foliage is still mostly green, but maples appear like pools of light in the distance.  A large leafless hawthorn has berries like fairy lights.  A giant beech is a beacon beckoning me along the path.

My ritual tonight is all about stripping back and letting go.  I am letting go of the year just gone, and all the years that have gone before.  The past is a familiar place, but not always a comforting one.  I have witnessed again the way the world never stands still.  The fences represent a changed world – one in which it seems necessary to fence children in and fence others out.  But fences are no barrier to memory.  Once, small feet traversed this landscape without impediment, and the imprint of their passage is part of the landscape still.

Bursting

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.