Giving up

Every time I have visited this forest I have climbed the path up the hill.  It is clearly a path – russet and spongy with fallen pine needles – but it is a path that doesn’t make itself easily known.  The trail winds upwards, flanked by bracken and bramble, surrounded by fallen trees.  There are small patches of colour depending on the season: a lone rhododendron, a clump of foxgloves, fruits of fly agaric.  At its peak, it opens out onto a marshy cleft strung with telegraph wires.  Then, the path moves on, straight ahead, deeper into the forest.

Sometimes the forest enfolds and comforts.  Sometimes the forest is everything you fear.  I have always feared the path ahead.  It looks no different to any other path, but when I set foot on it I find myself breathing quietly and moving with caution.  There is a low buzzing in my ears, as though swarms of wasps lie in wait.  Gnarled tree trunks hunch at the edge of the trail.  You might ask why I always seek out this path, when I never feel welcome here, and I can’t answer that.  But I never travel far along it before I turn back.

It has been a couple of years since I was here and on this visit something is different.  The path up the hill is now blocked by two fallen trees.  Yet it doesn’t feel like a barrier, it feels playful.  An invitation to climb over and under.  Telegraph hill is more overgrown than I remember it, but there is a lightness up here that is new.  I walk to the path ahead and suddenly a tan body stumbles onto the trail.  A roe deer.  She stops, sees me and bolts forward into the trees.  I don’t wander any further than the spot where her hooves have grazed the path, but not because I’m afraid.  There is no longer any sense of foreboding here.

The meadows are bursting with wildflowers: buttercups, ragged robin, marsh thistle and orchids, like jewels in the sun.  I see the deer again, grazing on the meadow flowers.  She lifts her head occasionally to look at me, then carries on feeding.  The season of metamorphosis is over.  Flowers are blooming, caterpillars have become butterflies, eggs have hatched.

Almost three months ago, I gave up smoking.  When you give up an addiction, you get through the physical withdrawal and work on breaking the habit of doing that thing when you would usually do it.  And that’s hard.  But you must also confront the reason you have the addiction in the first place.  That empty space that demands something to fill it.  Life becomes flat because you can’t do the thing you want to do; you become restless because that thing is gone; but you are also raw from not having the addiction to cover up what was hidden.

In the weeks since I gave up, I’ve felt positive and motivated, bored and depressed, despairing and emotional.  I could tell you about a hundred vivid dreams but not a single creative thought.  I could tell you about anger, disconnection and fits of uncontrollable crying in the middle of town.  At one particularly dark point, I decided to give up on the constant effort of writing and to destroy everything that I had ever created.  Spring passed into summer without my attention, because the world seemed lacklustre and I was too focused on wrestling with what is inside me.

I didn’t destroy everything I had created.  Instead, I stepped away to avoid doing something I couldn’t undo.   I stopped writing, but I didn’t give up on it.  The forest is a full stop to that withdrawal.  And the forbidden path somehow doesn’t feel forbidding anymore.  Next time I follow it I take a different turning on the trail.  Just beyond is an enormous fallen tree tangled with branches.  After a moment I notice that there is something there that isn’t quite right.  A juvenile owl.  Completely still.  She doesn’t move, not even as the path leads me closer to her.  She’s not a pretty creature.  Not yet.  She looks plucked and a little angry.  She’s still becoming what she’s meant to be.

The solstice dawn contains a breath of winter within it.  The chill clouds my breath.  A cock pheasant is curled like a cat on the edge of the meadow, sleeping.  Like many other midsummer dawns, this one is grey and unspectacular.  In the forest, a chorus of wood pigeons fills the trees, accompanied by a discordant chiff chaff solo.  I walk the trail, until I emerge from pines to the point where the stream begins to curve.  I’m familiar with this landscape, but it has changed irrevocably.  The plantation has been harvested, scythed into an apocalyptic vision, strewn with limbs and stumps as white as bones.  A pair of dead trees still stand in the distance, as though in a doomed embrace.  On my other side, a huge pine has toppled over the stream, needles still feathery and green.  In the pooling water, a staff sticks out of the silt.  It looks like a small figure, arms outstretched in despair or welcome.

She is there when I emerge from the trees.  The roe deer.  Spirit of the woods.  This morning she is not expecting me.  It’s too early for humans to be up.  I walk on past, leaving her to her business.  And there is the pheasant, still sleeping, this time stretched out on his side.  I didn’t know pheasants slept like cats, but this one certainly does.  He startles as I pass and stalks grumpily into the grass.

Any butterfly will tell you that change isn’t easy. There’s a price to be paid for those wings.  And when they’re unfurled, you’re transformed, but you’re also the same creature you were before.  I’m trying to find out who I am without something I’ve done for more than twenty years.  I can feel a twitch at my shoulders where wings might grow.  After all these years, I’m still becoming what I’m meant to be.  Giving up shouldn’t fundamentally change me, but maybe it will reveal things that have been hidden all along.

 

Badgered

SAMSUNG CSC

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

SAMSUNG CSC

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

SAMSUNG CSC

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

SAMSUNG CSC

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

SAMSUNG CSC

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

SAMSUNG CSC

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

SAMSUNG CSC

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

SAMSUNG CSC

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

SAMSUNG CSC

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

Anchored

SAMSUNG CSC

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.

SAMSUNG CSC

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.

SAMSUNG CSC

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.

SAMSUNG CSC

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.

SAMSUNG CSC

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.

Return to Tocil Wood

SAMSUNG CSC

I arrive in a summer storm.  The landscape is blurred with rain; rain that is like a Flamenco, drumming away the sticky heat.  I came here a year ago for a work event and never expected to return.  A year ago, I found secrets here, in the shade of Tocil Wood.

SAMSUNG CSC

This is a place buffeted by trees and run through with water.  And it’s a place of fowl: a gaggle of Canada geese grazing on the grass, mallards, moorhens, coots and Greylags.  Geese honks are like clanging buckets in the distance.  I expect a colourful meadow of poppies, buttercups, ox-eye daisies and viper’s bugloss, in contrast to the greens and whites still dominant further north.  But the meadow is gone, replaced by the construction site for a new building.  I can see only a cluster of ox-eye daisies and buttercups fringing a muddy pool of water behind metal barriers.

SAMSUNG CSC

This meadow path was the track that led me to a small swing in an enchanted glade, but if the meadow is gone, perhaps the enchantment will be gone too.  I find another way around, into the watery landscape, through oaks dripping with rain.  There was a broken tree here last year.  It formed an arch that beckoned me on, but the arch too has vanished.

SAMSUNG CSC

I struggle to find the track to the glade.  There appears to be no way in, but it’s just a matter of easing the eye into the shapes of the undergrowth.  I push through and there is the swing, still hanging in the darkness of the dell.  Lying right beneath it is a single blackbird feather, like a welcome.  I take it with me.

SAMSUNG CSC

I walk further into the shaded glade.  It was always a dark spot, but today it is fogged with rain.  The ground is slippery: thick red mudstone that has been gathered for clay here since the 1st century.  Part of the steep slope has been roped off.  But a little further in, two more swings have appeared.  The first seems to have been made by the same hand as the original, fashioned from slatted wood and rope.  The second is bright blue plastic.  Both wait, empty, for small bottoms to fill them.

SAMSUNG CSC

And though my original arch through the trees has gone, there are others here, trees bent and twisted, beckoning me along the tracks.  One leads to a den that has been created in the trees.  A child’s toy lies forgotten, colourful plastic among its dead  branches.  There are ropes fixed into the hillside.  This unlikely spot has become a place to play.  A slightly wild place, the kind we might wish to have inhabited as children.  I follow the path further into the trees.  The ground is choked with young ivy and  campion, there are oaks and hazels and fallen trees.  I emerge damp but satisfied to have reclaimed a little of the magic.

SAMSUNG CSC

Later, I return to the woods.  I find the clearing of trees that I discovered a year ago.  Another secret space in the forest that spoke of enchantments and stories yet to be revealed.  I wonder if the heron at the edge of the pond is the same bird that guarded the threshold to the woods last year.  A place has many stories.  In one story it remains the same as the first time we met it.  In another, builders put up barriers and change its landscape.  In yet another, children take over and make it a place of play.  My story of Tocil Wood is all of these and none of them.  I was only here for a moment but I am part of the story too.

Secrets of Tocil Wood

SAMSUNG CSC

There’s a sense of comfort about the familiar walks that I take.  I know where each path will lead and what I can expect to see on the journey.  I know where I’m likely to find particular plants and animals and there is satisfaction in being able to mark their progress.  But the adventure of the path not yet taken is altogether different.  To know roughly where you are, but not quite.  To know that there are secrets yet to discover, which perhaps even those who live here are not aware of.

SAMSUNG CSC

I’m walking to Tocil Wood, a patch of ancient woodland in Warwickshire.  I have a rudimentary map in my head and a maze of buildings and footpaths to negotiate.  I could have asked for directions, but I prefer to see a path and wonder where it will lead, so I head off into the unknown, sure that I’ll find what I seek eventually, but with that slight disquiet of not knowing exactly where I am.  The path I take skirts a pond and is bordered by meadow: a profusion of ox-eye daisies, viper’s bugloss, speedwell and poppies.  Rabbits hop among the flowers and scores of waterfowl rummage around the pool.

SAMSUNG CSC

There’s a gap in the hedge ahead of me, so of course I go through it, finding a lush green path bordering a field of young crops.  At its end, a wounded tree forms an archway and what more invitation do I need?  Just as I’d suspected it would, this beckoning leads to a moment of magic.  A secret hollow.  An enchanted, perhaps even slightly sinister place that seems detached from the bright, open world beyond.  The hollow is shady, secluded, riddled with rabbit holes and surrounded by steep banks.  A baby rabbit grazes among the undergrowth.  There is a narrow path in the distance, blocked by trees.  But someone has discovered this place, because on the edge of the hollow a swing has been fashioned from wood and rope.  It hangs, empty, waiting for its maker to return.

SAMSUNG CSC

Later, I cross a small meadow of buttercups to reach a lake, fringed with reeds and littered with yellow water lilies.  A grey heron is hunched in the trees by the path that leads into the woods, like a grumpy guardian of the border to this arboreal world.  It’s a world of huge, gnarled oaks and papery hazel coppice: a four hundred year old wood with traces of more ancient earthworks beneath it.  A world of bracken and bluebells.  Of small, winding paths.  There is a brackish stream, straddled by an ivy-cloaked tree that has rooted on both sides of the water.

SAMSUNG CSC

I follow narrow paths, deeper into the forest, until I come across a clearing.  A glade sheltered by tall old trees that form a natural circle.  The ground is blanketed with bracken and bluebells, the sun slants in hazy beams.  It is a hushed place, steeped in atmosphere.  A space for magic or devotion.  The clearing has been enclosed by a thorny barricade, perhaps to conserve it, perhaps because if I was to step into it, it would transport me to a fairy realm from which I’d never return.  I long to cross into the clearing, to move between pools of sunlight and the shade of those ancient trees.  Instead, I’m stranded at the border, craving the enchantment that is just out of reach.

SAMSUNG CSC

I visit Tocil Wood twice, briefly, between the work commitments I’m here for.  I may never come here again.  But already I’ve found my secrets.  Those little pockets of enchantment that will endure in my memory of the place.  If I was to come again, they would be my pilgrimage places, those pauses that we return to again and again because they spark something inside us.  They’ll become part of my memory map of the places I’ve been, the paths I’ve walked, the things I’ve seen, enriching each recollection.

Re-balancing

???????????

When I leave the forest, part of me stays there: the part of me that is like the deer, slipping silently through the trees, glimpsed if you’re lucky.  The deer are usually elusive here, but when we arrive, a doe is nonchalantly grazing a few metres away in the early evening glow of the sunset.  For four days, deer grace us with their presence at dawn and dusk, their cotton fluff tails like beacons in the half-light.

SAMSUNG CSC

Before the equinox, it’s not uncommon for life to seem chaotic as nature fights for balance.  And for me, events conspired to enforce an unexpected pause from blogging: a virus that gave me blurred vision, dizziness, nausea and fatigue; a bereavement and family illness.  There were stories to be written, pictures to be painted, blogs to be read, but I found I couldn’t act.  I followed the spiral down, deep into the doubt doldrums and I began to think about giving up, almost to spite myself.

SAMSUNG CSC

But before doubt overwhelms me, I retreat to the forest to find that it is re-balancing too.  Spring is definitely on its way.  The dawn chorus is deafening.  The forest dances with movement: the flutter of chaffinches and tits; pairs of blackbirds, jays and woodpeckers.  A single squirrel multiplies into three, sinuously moving along the forest floor and leaping through the trees.  On our first day, a tiny death.  I cry for the waste of a colourful life, as I carry the soft, still-warm body of a blue tit into the trees.  Later, a crow circles curiously, before carrying the corpse away in its beak, as if to remind me that no death is wasted here.

SAMSUNG CSC

Then early one morning, winter appears.  I’ve longed for snow but had to wait until I came to the woods for it to find me.  And this was serious snow: fat flakes falling heavily and quickly, transforming the forest into a wonderland.  We walk through the snowy hush while others are still sleeping, following tracks of deer and hare.  But by afternoon, the snow is gone and the forest glows with sunshine once more, as though this magical interlude had never happened.

SAMSUNG CSC

I leave the forest channelling acceptance, realising that unconsciously I’ve been fighting against the season.  I was trying to force action in the season of incubation.  Action comes later, at Ostara, the spring equinox, when the spring energy sweeps in and calls us to movement.  I didn’t follow my own lesson and that’s where I went wrong.

SAMSUNG CSC

I haven’t quite left doubt behind me.  I’m ready to get back into the world, if only tentatively.  I’ll accept the doubt and accept the troubled feeling of my emotions fighting for balance, ready to take action when action is ready to be taken.  And this spring equinox felt particularly auspicious.  Not only were the hours of darkness and light balanced, but so too were the sun and moon, moving into alignment to form a solar eclipse at the new moon.  The crocuses that tentatively appeared a few weeks ago are in luscious bloom.  The first daffodils have blossomed to herald the equinox and, if I’m lucky, an end to doubt too.

I’m looking forward to catching up with you all soon and reading your latest posts.

The call of the Nightjar

SAMSUNG CSC

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.

Nightjar

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?

SAMSUNG CSC

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.

JohnRNeill_Peter&ThePrincess_100

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.

SAMSUNG CSC

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.

Clearing the decks

SAMSUNG CSC

Quite unexpectedly, spring has given birth to winter.  Through the trees, a milky mist appears to cling to the land.  In fact, it is an illusion.  The meadow, sloping upwards from the river, is sheathed in frost.  We slip out, keen to see the effects of this wintry dawn up close.  Frost covers roofs, fields, fenceposts, trees.  It is a washed out, pearly landscape.  We can’t see the sun that is rising behind the hills, but we see its light, casting a bronze reflection on the trees.  As nature fights for balance, approaching the spring equinox, winter and spring wrestle for dominion.

SAMSUNG CSC

By the time the sun has fully risen, spring once again rules.  The forest is filled with life.  The robin that greeted us on our arrival is trilling loudly at the peak of a spruce.  Like a liminal messenger, the bird of winter announcing spring.  Bold and fierce, the sight of a robin always makes me hopeful.  Songbirds are plentiful in the woods: blue tit, coal tit, great tit, blackbird, chaffinch.  The tits and the robin come singly, the blackbirds in a pair.  But the chaffinches arrive as a gang – unruly, squabbling acrobats accompanied by the soft whirring of wings.

SAMSUNG CSC

The birds jewel the trees, one on each branch, a feathered heavy-mob trying to intimidate us into giving them food.  There is movement everywhere: birds fluttering down to the veranda, hopping and flitting across the forest floor.  A treecreeper shuttles up the tree outside the window and then spirals down to begin the ascent once more.  Large crows shadow the smaller birds, keeping to the heights.  The jay, a colourful assassin, is a distant visitor.  We hear the woodpecker before we see its monochrome plumage through the trees.

SAMSUNG CSC

There are pheasant living nearby, fat colourful characters with their long tail feathers.  Strutting across the ground, perching on piles of wood chips, or scuttling across fields.  Their harsh, barking alarm call is a regular sound.  And the grey squirrel, who seems to have forgotten he can climb trees, sinuously stalking the forest floor in search of seeds.  The roe deer, with his fledgling antlers who wanders past each morning, given away by his white, fleecy tail.  In daylight, we wander along damp and muddy paths, dappled with sunlight, overlooking sunlit fields, our thoughts turning to picnics.

SAMSUNG CSC

But at night, spring sleeps.  The sky darkens into a crisp, cold night with plunging temperatures.  The moon is a bright, waxing sliver and the stars are clearly visible, Jupiter shining brightly beyond Orion.  I walk out onto the veranda one evening, just at the right time to see a shooting star sear across the sky between them.SAMSUNG CSC

This visit to the forest is a last tranquil week before spring truly unfolds and brings with it the call to action.  My thoughts turn to clearing the decks, preparing the way for new projects to grow.  I’ve spent hours de-cluttering my creative work – unearthing old drawings and writing.  Surprised to find stories dating back to when I was 17 or 18 and at college, as well as the beginnings of at least three novels.  Novels I’ll never finish – too immature in theme and style.  But it’s interesting to read these old stories and note how they are permeated by the interests I had at the time – vampires, new age travellers, saving whales, cities in the sand.  Interesting too to see the places I spent my time used as locations for the stories.  Life weaves itself into fiction without us even meaning it to.

SAMSUNG CSC

What is also clear is the lack of importance I gave to this work – piled haphazardly into a box, scrawled in old exercise books and on pieces of paper, drawings rolled up and torn at the edges.  No wonder it took me some time to work out what was what.  That I’d started three novels, when I could only remember one.  That the character I clearly remembered from one story was from another altogether.  And while this work isn’t important for what it is, it has value for the pedigree it gives to my work now.  This is my writing before I took it seriously, but it’s also the writing that made me the writer I am now.  And so I’ve begun the process of organising and preserving it.

SAMSUNG CSC

The equinox is about balance, before the sun comes into its own and works its magic.  For me, this week of repose and all the creative spring cleaning leading up to it, is about creating a balanced space out of which action can come.  I’ll be taking the ideas that have germinated into stories and sending them out into the world, hoping that they will bloom.

Renewal

SAMSUNG CSCSummer is slowly fading in the forest.  Though the foliage appears as lush as it was at midsummer, everywhere there are small signs of transformation.  The meadow is no longer dense with summer flowers and the sumptuous blossoms of the rhododendrons are gone.  Instead, there are dried seed heads where blooms would have been.  The birds are muted and difficult to see.  The bats are invisible.  The opulent red berries of the rowan punctuate the greenery, while lilac heather blooms in clumps beneath the trees.  A squirrel that inhabits the trees above our cabin obsessively gathers beech nuts, showering the verandah with shells like hailstones.  Sun still washes the forest and during the day the sky is baby blue and cloudless.  But the clear, star-speckled nights are chilled and silent.

SAMSUNG CSC

Flowers have a flighty, exaggerated beauty: lavish, unruly and destined to be short-lived.  But there is a different kind of allure to the burnt browns and pearly silvers of the seed heads.  They are slender and skeletal, or brittle and gnarled, poised to crumble to dust in your fingers.  Behind the visible transformations, there is a sense that there are hidden labours taking place within the forest, secret preparations for the autumn and winter to come.

SAMSUNG CSC

To me, September has always been a time of transformation.  Perhaps there is something instinctual about this, a sense memory of the change of the season and the transition to winter.  But more prosaically, it’s a recollection of the return to school after the long summer holidays, when there was always an opportunity to return transformed, a different person to the one that left in July.  Classmates would grow and change during the summer and we would all go back with new clothes, new supplies, new hope for the school year to come.  And though I no longer get those luxuriously long holidays, September still seems like the time when change arrives.  It’s an end to the blowsy exhibitionism of summer and a turning inwards to the snug serenity of autumn.  I feel the shift within, a murmur of relief after the immodesty of summer.

SAMSUNG CSC

I’ve always been attracted to the concept of transformation.  Transformation is the thing I love about stories.  Whatever the genre, the one thing that makes a story satisfying for me is to watch the metamorphosis of the characters within it.  I’ll never enjoy a purely plot-driven narrative in the same way as a more intricate character-based tale.  This is the joy of reading.  To read about other people so that we can learn about other ways of being.  And it’s the joy of creation.  To witness the ways in which we transform our characters on the page.

SAMSUNG CSC

Nature offers us spectacular transformations.  The brutal annihilation of the caterpillar, turned to pulp in its chrysalis to emerge as a butterfly.  The glorious eruption of the autumn leaves, before they wither and crumble beneath our feet.  But for us, the transformation is often quieter.  We may not realise we’re going through the process of change until it’s over and then we’re amazed at how different our lives have become.  When we’re younger, we can’t wait for transformation: to become older, to grow more independent.  When we’re older, we often resist it.  We may say we want to change, but don’t want to experience the discomfort of discarding the parts of us we no longer need and forging new ones.

SAMSUNG CSC

But change is inevitable and reading or writing about it allows us to experience it with only temporary discomfort.  We can try out different lives, different adventures and immerse ourselves in all of the diverse things that are possible (or impossible, depending on the genre) within the safety of our imaginations.  So that when we do decide to transform ourselves, or when transformation comes unbidden, we know that there is a path to follow, or we have the confidence to create our own.

The sun stands still

SAMSUNG CSC

The meadow is the essence of summer.  Sun-drenched, delicate grasses swaying gently in a light breeze; spindly bobbing buttercups; squat purple clover and pale pink ragged robin with their windmill-shaped petals.  Swallows are lightning acrobats, diving low over the meadow to eat their fill of insects.  Butterflies and bees meander from flower to flower.  A procession of three male pheasants clucks through the grass, their bright plumage just visible among the vegetation.  A brook, glutted after days of rain, gurgles in the background.  The surrounding forest wears its summer plumage with abandon, oak and ash and pine lush with leaf and entwined with the hedonism of rhododendrons in luminous pink flower.

SAMSUNG CSC

Solstice is one of my favourite words.  I find the sound of it soothing and mysterious.  It conjures magic and anticipation.  Literally, its meaning is simple: ‘the standing still of the sun’.  And this idea too, I find evocative – a tipping point, when all in the heavens is unmoving, before the next phase in the cycle begins.  Solstice marks both the longest day, at midsummer and the longest night, in the dark of December.  The midsummer solstice signifies both plenty – the longest day when the sun is at the height of its power – but also heralds the lean winter to come.

SAMSUNG CSC

If you pay quiet attention, you can already sense the loss in the air.  It isn’t quite tangible, but from this day, the daylight will become shorter as the summer inevitably ends.  And yet this is a paradox, since it is following the solstice that summer for us in the UK really begins.  The hottest months are still to come, the summer holidays, the season of being outdoors.  Summer solstice is a celebration of all those carefree events that happen when there is an abundance of light.  The transition to shortening days is a reminder that everything moves in a cycle, but for now, we should celebrate what we have and enjoy the things that are bearing fruit for us.

SAMSUNG CSC

Here, the slow spring has finally blossomed into summer.  The days have been humid, flowers are blooming and you can hear the song of the summer birds.  While I would always choose the delights of autumn and winter over those of summer, my soul responds to the season’s energies almost despite itself.  I feel lighter and more open.  I want to be outside in the long days and evenings.  My body craves the fresh fruits and vegetables of the season.  I like to feel the heat on my skin.  I want to go down to the sea and plunge in to the cool water.  Perhaps the reason summer is my least favourite season is because I’m much more comfortable turning inwards to the succour of darkness and solitude, but we all need a pause from introversion to replenish the lightness of our being.

SAMSUNG CSC

Summer solstice is a time for empowerment.  As the crops are ripening in the fields and the fruits on the trees, so the creative projects we germinated and nurtured in spring begin to bloom.  If we chose our projects wisely and invested the time, energy and resources they needed during the growing season, we should now be feeling pleased with what is emerging.  Midsummer is the time for success and material wellbeing and is a good time to put energy into making outward success happen.  But at the personal level, it is about renewing your energy and healing.  The long days and warmth should make us feel more vital.  They should also make us more outward looking.  Creatively, we could use this lighter aspect to be looser, more experimental, liberating ourselves from looking inward in the way we would in the darker seasons.  To be most effective creatively, we need to attend both to our physical health, by taking advantage of fresh produce and opportunities to be active, but also our mental health, by absorbing light, warmth and the rejuvenating effect of green spaces.

SAMSUNG CSC

How can you empower yourself around the solstice to renew your creativity?  How can you build up and store the season’s energy to get you through the winter to come?  It’s traditional on the summer solstice to stay awake all night, holding vigil until dawn comes and we can greet the sun, particularly at those ancient sites that are aligned to it at this time of year.  Why not devise a vigil that uses the images and energies of midsummer to help boost your creativity for the remaining year?  You don’t need to hold vigil on the solstice itself for this to have a benefit to you – any time around midsummer will do and it will be more practical to choose a time when you don’t have commitments the next day.

SAMSUNG CSC

You could spend the darkest hours of the night meditating on your creative work this past year and which aspects of your creative energies need to be replenished.  Lighting a fire or a candle can remind you that creativity, like the sun, is cyclical and will come and go.  Do you fly through your creative projects when your energy is high without really noticing it and become despondent when it seems to ebb, or do you recognise and accept that you have your own cycles of creative energy?  Greeting the dawn, in whichever way makes sense to you, represents the return of creativity, whenever it comes.  At noon, when the sun is at its strongest, you could consider how best to recognise, use and harvest your creativity when it is at its peak.  Then, at sunset, as the sun wanes, think about how you can accept the ebbs in creative energy and use what you have harvested to get you through the barren periods.

SAMSUNG CSC

This solstice, the forest is my creative vigil.  I have come here to replenish my energy, take in the sun through long walks and revel in the flower-studded meadows.  At dawn, I notice the moon still bright through the trees and the cacophony of birdsong in the silence.  Our longer walks take place in the morning, before the sun peaks, so noon is spent bathing in the dappled heat on the tree-shaded deck, losing myself in art magazines and an absorbing book.  Sunset is for bat-hunting, listening to the guttural sound of pipistrelles on the bat detector as they flit through the trees around the cabin.  Just like summer, this is a fleeting point in the year that I can hold onto to get me through the winter.  Knowing that when it’s over, it won’t be too long before I come again, to feel that same sigh of relief as my spirit relaxes.  Already, I want to paint again and invent new stories.

SAMSUNG CSC

But there is death too in the forest, reminding us that the sun has reached its zenith and can now only wane until the winter solstice.  A thrush, taking its dying breaths on our veranda, seemingly untouched, but fading each minute, until we lay it to rest with a prayer under a bower of rhododendron, returning it to the forest.  Three tiny moles, only feet apart on the woodland path, their soft pink noses upturned in death.  The bee that strayed too close to the hot tub and ended its life in a bubbling dance of legs and wings.  Death, reminding me that I need to seize the energy the forest has given me.  I must use this energy, not waste it, when I return home, because it, like the season, is all too fleeting.