Wounded

This is the way it will be now: walking in the darkness before dawn.  The world rain-washed, figures no more than shadows.  This is the way it will be: darkness falling before I leave work, walking home in the dark.  Summer officially ended with the winding back of the clock and that extra hour gave darkness a space to seep in.

Three times recently I have woken from an unsettling dream and into a panic attack.  The darkness has seemed too thick, too close.  The dawn has seemed much too far away.  I have had to get up and turn on every light, go out into the yard to breathe in thinner air.  I have had to open my curtains wide so the glow of the streetlamp settles me back to sleep.

I have always appreciated the power of the dark and the things that are revealed there.  Darkness is fertile ground, a place for dreaming.  But this season I have dreaded it.  I have dreaded that long spread of days when the only daylight is diffused through my office window.  And yet in dreading it, I have embraced it.  At the year’s turn, I stood in darkness and welcomed it and it hasn’t been something to fear after all.

There is loss in the darkness.  Something wrong in the park in the gloom of early November.  A disjointedness.  A commotion of songbirds fluttering aimlessly.  On the edge of the park where we walk every day there is a bungalow.  It is surrounded by a long privet hedge, at least fifteen years old, maybe a metre deep and taller than I am.  You can see it in the photo above, a backdrop to the cherry tree.  It is thronged by birds all year round and buzzing with insects in summer.  And it is gone.  Chopped down and ripped out.  Over the coming days the garden is paved over and a wooden fence erected where the privet once lived.

The privet belonged to the owners of the bungalow, and yet it didn’t.  It became part of the park and belonged to all the creatures that used it for food and shelter.  I’m finding it hard to get over its loss.  Without it, the landscape is wrong.  The whitebeam sapling that was planted in the spring and has lasted all through the summer has also been lost in the last few weeks  – broken off at the trunk.  The whitebeam was an infant compared to the privet, but I still feel its ending.  I wonder if the landscape feels these wounds the way I do.  Does it recognise that some key part of itself is missing?  There is loss in the darkness.  Perhaps that is the price of the dreaming.

But there are gifts too.  Autumn has been kind to those organisms that live in the dark, waiting for their moment.  Fungi have revelled in the rain and released bloom after strange bloom.  I have revelled in hammering rain and bellowing wind.  The air births a rainbow against a glowering denim sky.  A skein of geese squawks overhead and a puppy pounces joyfully on a leaf.  The crow guardians in the park swoop a greeting as I arrive with a handful of peanuts.  These are the lights in the season’s darkness.   I breathe in as many as I can for the days when the darkness is too much.

And I have a talisman for the season.  Owls have been shadowing me since I came across an owlet in the forest in midsummer.  Now I have a little friend to take me into the darkness.  Frivolous, fun, but with eyes to drown in all the same.  She was blessed and charged at the year’s turn and now she will travel with me, helping me to remember the light in the year’s dark.


Blogger book of the month: William Holland – Shadows Kill

Bill Holland is passionate about life and passionate about writing.  He shares observations and questions about both on his blog Artistry with Words.  Bill is also a prolific writer.  Shadows Kill is the first in a series of (so far) four unusual thrillers.  It is a gritty, intelligent and fast-paced book that will have you hooked until the final chapter. The author has a knack of making you care about the characters very quickly, which means that you’re both rooting for them to win through and fearful about what might befall them. The book starts from an unusual viewpoint, not that of a straightforwardly ‘good’ cop or investigator, but of a character who is a vigilante of sorts and therefore poses questions about morality. But despite this, I came to care for Eli very quickly and couldn’t wait to turn the page to find out how it ended. A well-written exciting read and a great introduction to a series.  You can buy Bill’s books on Amazon and you can find his blog here.

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.

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.

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.

Blue

I’m waiting for the words to come.  I’ve waited since the turn of the season, for my mind to follow the industrious tide of spring.  Waited for dreams nurtured by the winter dark to emerge into the light.

Spring passes in waves.  Daffodils blaze and wither.  Cherry blossom unfurls and melts, polka-dotting the grass.  Dandelions turn to clocks.  Hawthorn blossom and cow parsley flourish.  After each, I sense a pause, when the days hold their breath and things are hidden from view, until the next wave arrives.

Spring delivers its gifts.  It passes quickly, as inevitable as the tides, but I wait in vain for the words to describe it.

I watch the two carrion crows resident in the park build their nest.  I see them pick fur from the grass and peck strands from an old hessian sack in the middle of the road.  I witness them mating on the field.  Their nest is visible in trees that are only now bursting buds, but is too high for me to see what is inside.  I hear a regular caw from the nest and watch one crow forage and chase seagulls from the park, beak only centimetres from wing.

I observe the spring rituals, feeling the season pass me by.  And still the words don’t come.

I find a tiny goldfinch nest in a small maple in the square; a soft, furry cup almost part of the tree itself.  I watch blackbirds collect worms for their young.  Listen to the chitter of blue tits and the harsh call of the chiff chaff.  I watch an oystercatcher, foraging among a posse of magpies and wonder if he has mistaken himself for one of them.  A blackbird and a magpie perch in the same tree trying to out-sing one another.  I find a dead rat, tiny pink paws curled tenderly.  A minute later a magpie swoops down and begins to feed from its corpse.  Spring is bursting but my words are fallow.  It is one of those seasons when the mundane world takes over and there is no energy left for creation.

In the hedgerows it is the white season, but in some places, it is the season of blue.  Beneath the shady trees of the cemetery, the froth of cow parsley tangles with the azure of bluebells.  It is another gift of spring, this treasure of blue.  Blue has always been a precious pigment.  It took time, effort and expense to source it.  It is a colour of joy and harmony, yet also describes sadness.  I suspect the words this season will continue to be elusive, as precious as that pigment used to be.  But I will seek them where and when I can, and though the fallow period isn’t over, I finally find some words to describe it.

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.