Moving

Days are slow in a year that moves alarmingly fast.  June sizzles.  Days too hot to do much of anything.  Too hot to walk far.  Too humid to move around.  I long for the sea, but reports of crowded beaches keep us away.  Then the heatwave breaks at last.  Wind wicks away heat.  Showers drench and thunder rumbles.  Relief.  But relief doesn’t last long.  June tips over into July and the wind dies.  The air is close and still once more, only the grey-tinged clouds offer any hope of respite.

I walk to the river, down to the old docks, under a broiling sky.  Gulls soar and somersault on the air currents.  The river chatters past in grey-blue peaks.  The yellows and purples of summer wildflowers are in evidence, but the gabion baskets have been crisped.  A few hardy clumps of valerian, nipplewort and wild parsnip remain, but mostly the rusty baskets sprout shrivels of yellow and brown.

There are fewer people around than at the beginning of lockdown.  A purple-haired man wobbles towards the ferry singing a song.  Further along, a family is fishing.  There is a cruise ship docked upriver at the marina.  It has been here for weeks.  Usually cruise ships visit for a day or two, but this one has nowhere to go.  I walk to the ferry landing to check on the kittiwakes.  They have made the barest of nests from seaweed.  Now covered in guano, they are like dusty wigs shoved on a shelf.  I think I can see three chicks among the chaos on the sill.

In the passage of this virus, this feels like the strangest time of all.  Everything is changing and yet nothing seems to have changed.  Rules are being relaxed.  I have hugged my mother-in-law.  I have visited work.  Many people are behaving normally.  And yet the virus is still here.  We are moving – sometimes slowly, sometimes too fast – inevitably to some kind of new normal.  I wonder if I have imagined these last few months in which everything was different.

My creativity has flagged.  The painting and drawing has paused.  I still don’t feel like I have anything to say.  My novel has been waiting for review.  Early this year it was long-listed for the Mslexia Novel Competition.  Later,  it was identified as a ‘quality manuscript’ by a manuscript assessment agency.  They’ve asked to see it again once I make some changes, with a view to possibly recommending it to industry contacts.  And yet it sits there untouched, highlighters on top, ready to be looked at again.

I turn from the river and walk up the steep bank towards home.  The empty windows of the old school burst with vegetation.  Bindweed throngs the banks and brambles are in flower.  Halfway up, the rain comes: fat dollops of rain that soak me quickly.  It is the kind of rain that usually accompanies thunder, but there is no storm.  I revel in the reprieve from the heat and keep moving.

 

Walking

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
Audre Lorde

 

I walk through the park I walk in almost every day.  I have walked here so many times it must be layered with the imprint of my feet.  The grass has been shorn.  It had crisped and browned in the sun, but three days of showers has re-greened it.  I look out for the crows, tending their nest high up in the canopy.  I notice the clusters of wall barley that have sprouted against walls and around the base of trees.  I enjoy the scatters of daisies and buttercups that have survived the shearing.  I’m not paying attention to the fact that I’m walking, but to the signs of life all around me.

I take walking for granted.  Walking roots me into my landscape.  It keeps me in touch with what is happening from ground level.  It enables me to watch the progress of the seasons.  It confirms that I belong.  Exploring on foot allows me to find those spaces in which I can experience the magic of the natural world.

I take it for granted that I can walk where I want to walk without needing to have an explanation.  I take it for granted that I belong in this space, that I belong in nature and should have a relationship with it.  When I walk, I draw on memory, history, past and present to find my place in the world.  Very occasionally I’ve felt vulnerable, as a woman alone, but in general  I don’t think twice about my safety.  Somehow I feel no harm will come to me among nature.

If I were black – and particularly a black man –  it would be different.  It wouldn’t matter that I’d been born here and lived my whole life in this landscape – my history and my belonging would be in question.  I would have to think about where I was walking.  I would have to think about how to position myself so I couldn’t be mistaken for a criminal.  I would have to consider how I move and interact with other people so that they wouldn’t assume I’m a threat.  I would walk with the knowledge that I might be in danger from those who are supposed to protect me.  Walking could so easily be a matter of life and death.

I write nature.  I didn’t set out to do that, but I found that when I came to write about my experience, it was my place in the landscape that emerged.  I’m not a typical nature writer.  My voice is a different voice, but it isn’t the only voice.  People of colour spend less time in nature than white people.  There are complex reasons for this, but they include experiences of racism and not feeling safe or a sense of belonging in nature.  Ask Christian Cooper, the bird watcher in Central Park who only last month was threatened with the police by a white woman when he asked her to put her dog on a lead.  An organisation was recently set up here in the UK called Wild in the City to encourage more people of colour to enjoy nature.

Nature is where I feel most at home.  The streets and the beaches and the green spaces of this town and its surroundings are where I find belonging.  But it isn’t a safe space for everyone.  Race hate crimes in the wider north east region have tripled in the last 5 years.  There are layers and levels to racism and privilege.  I learned about this by studying the history and experiences of women.  I kept good company: Alice Walker, bell hooks, Maya Angelou, Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey and Audre Lorde were some of my teachers.  On occasion, when tanned, I have been called racist names, but I’ll never know how it is to walk through the world as a black woman.  I think I am self aware, but I know that I will have biases and prejudices I’m not even aware of.

There are moments in time that feel like tipping points.  Brexit.  Me Too.  The most recent focus on Climate Change.  Covid-19.  All of these have felt, at times, like  momentous changes (for better or worse).  George Floyd’s death brings a rising up of grief and outrage that – it seems – can’t be ignored.  And yet we’ve ignored so many other deaths.  I wonder how history will judge these moments.  I hope they’re enough to change us for the better.

Some further reading on people of colour, nature and walking:

https://www.discoverwildlife.com/people/diverse-nature/

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jul/13/hiking-african-american-racism-nature

Meet the group helping black people reconnect with the natural world

Walking While Black

Line and colour

I watched the cherry blossom bloom and fall.  Then came the May blossom, until it too faded.  Dandelion petals shrivelled and became clocks.  The grass, uncut, flowered into lilac ripples.  Clumps of cow parsley unfurled and frothed.  It has rained only once in weeks of hot, dry days.  Plants yellow and crisp.  Leaves are seared from the trees.  Nature shows that time is passing, but there is little else to mark the passage of the season.  A sprained knee has kept me close to home and each day feels much the same.  Days blend into weeks.  The solstice is only a month away.  I’ve found I haven’t much to say.

I have moved from words to vision.  From letter to line.  I painted the songbirds that were my jewels of hope among the thorns of winter.  I drew life models along with thousands of other people through the BBC and had my sketch of a woman with a cello mentioned on the programme!  I imagined a version of ‘home’ in response to a theme on Grayson Perry’s Art Club.  I painted a portrait of Rankin with scores of others through Sky TV.  Now, I am painting illustrations for poems.  I have had nothing to say in words, but my creativity has flowed out in pencil and paint.

When I draw I try not to pursue perfection.  Too often when I want something to be good, it strips away the enjoyment, or stops me from doing it at all.  But there has been no higher purpose to my painting.  There has been just me, sat at the table with a drawing board, overlooking the yard, following lines and colours.   It doesn’t matter if they’re good pictures.  They weren’t made to hang on a wall.  Nor do they have any great meaning.  They are just shapes on paper or canvas that record, if anything, a slice of contentment in my day.

There is a movement towards recovery.  Lockdown is shifting.  We are allowed to go outside all we wish now.  There are dates for the re-opening of schools, shops and, eventually, libraries.  There are more cars on the road.  The grass has been mown in the park.  But mostly, movement is elsewhere.  It is not here, at my dining table, where I work and I paint.  It isn’t out there, where the washing sways in the sun and the plants could do with some water.  The children’s playground is still padlocked and tangled with weeds.  There are still queues to get in the supermarkets.  I’m not ready yet to leave this bubble.  I’ll stay here for as long as I can, in this place where creativity can flourish at its own pace.  

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.

Cracks

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

(Leonard Cohen)

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Spring seeps in through the cracks of the season.  Light creeps in illuminating a changed world.  A world of empty shelves, empty buildings, an empty diary.  The world is different and yet it is the same.  The seagulls are still on the roof opposite, probably the same pair that nest there each year.  The daffodils and crocuses follow the bloom paths of previous springs.  Blackthorn blossom has come, the hawthorns are clothed in green.  And the birds sing for the lives soon to be born.  For the past three months I have been obsessively checking sunrise and sunset times, desperate for the darkness to recede.  Finally light pushes it back.

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Christmas is hardly over when the cracks begin to show.  It is in the early hours of Boxing Day when my panic attacks begin in earnest.  A wave of fear and panic that propels me out of bed, downstairs, turning on every light in the house, then, paradoxically, out into the dark air of the yard.  A desperate need to escape, but there is no escape from the dark until dawn, so the fear remains.   Cold sweat, tingling in my body, pacing and fidgeting, quick breathing, utter dread and despair.  Panic has arrived and come to stay.

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I had an inkling the darkness would be hard for me this year. I tried to accept it.  It worked for a while, but then it came rushing in until I was at its mercy.  The fear isn’t fear of the dark.  I know this. The fear is about being trapped, out of control.  I know that nothing will happen to me. I don’t fear death or disaster.   I fear the feeling of fear and not being able to escape it.  I cry and wail at the  worry that this could be my life now.  I can no longer sleep without a night light.  I go to bed late because I dread waking in the early hours when fear might strike.  The hours between my alarm and dawn are excruciating.

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My fear expands.  From darkness into light.  First the evening, then coming home, then in the heart of the day.  I can’t sit still long enough to eat a meal (my appetite is gone anyway) or to watch a TV programme, before I have to rush outside in panic.  I cling to my partner, afraid to be in the house alone now.  There is a weight in my stomach that twists and burns. I’ve had bouts of depression before over the years and I would trade it in a moment for this panic.  Being outside is the only thing that brings a fleeting modicum of relief.

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I don’t know why this panic has suddenly arrived but I suspect it has grown in the lull after a very challenging couple of years.  A challenging decade.  Now that life has finally let up, there is a vacuum, and the vacuum has cracked.  I try all I can to get relief: meditation, yoga, chamomile and lavender, counselling.  I become worn down by trying to keep the panic at bay.  I am weary and depressed.  I don’t write.  I walk only as far as I have to.  I still go out to work but I am not myself.  Medication helps.  I’ve always avoided medication before, but I will do anything to get rid of the panic.  The anxiety recedes to night times again and is not as sharp.  During the day there is sadness and indifference.

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My dreams are vivid.  In them, I am often being hunted.  I flee from assassination or revenge.  I cross Europe, trying to find a place in which I can settle and be safe.  Unusually, I dream often of my late parents.  In my dreams I am sometimes me, sometimes someone else.  Part of me longs for change, an end to this period of my life, but I’m not ready.  I haven’t found joy yet.  After a few weeks of relief, the anxiety gets worse again.  I start a new medication.

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I don’t panic about the appearance of a new virus.  My internal fear is far worse than a fear of an external disease.  It is only when all our libraries are closed and I see the queues and empty shelves in the supermarkets that I think perhaps this might be serious.  We are told to stay at home as much as we can, but I have agreed with my counsellor to take a longer walk this week, to try to recapture something of the life I had before.  So Winston and I head to the dene.

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The streets are quiet but not empty.  It feels like a Sunday.  I give anyone I see a wide berth.  There will be no doggy greetings today.  Dandelions, daisies and daffodils bloom.  Dog violets peer between the undergrowth.  The blackthorns are just beginning to fade and the cherry blossom is just beginning to flower.  A wood pigeon sits in a hollow in an ivy-covered tree.  Its pecking makes a soft ticking.  A lone coot complains on the pond.  Delicate new fronds of willow catch the light.

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A group of strange mounds on the grass reveal themselves as sleeping mallards, as four small heads pop up to watch us.  We walk through bunches of summer snowflake and fallen poplar catkins.  Marsh marigolds illuminate the burn and a cluster of celandine peeps through ivy.  Suddenly, the voice of Vera Lynn at full volume washes over the park.  She sings about meeting again – of course.  A couple of verses and the last swells with a chorus of voices.  I wonder if this is on the recording, or if these are real people, having a last gathering before saying au revoir.

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I find it hard not to think there is a pattern to existence as there is to the seasons.  In these months in which climate change has been at the top of the news, when we have had some of our worst floods and fires, a virus comes which compels us to act in a way that reduces our impact on the planet.  This is an opportunity for the earth to sigh in relief.  Without wishing to downplay the fear and death the virus brings, I wonder if this should be a hopeful moment for our future.  I wonder if we will come out of it changed.

For now the world seems both different and the same.  My life had already altered before the virus happened and I can’t yet see what I will be when I emerge.  But there is light.  I have picked up a paintbrush again.  I have had good news about some of my writing.  My anxiety is much less than it was three months ago.  I am here, writing words down.  The cracks in our existence have widened this year, but there is always light waiting to pour in

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.

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.

The Eve of Magic

Cars choke the roads in metal ribbons, people rushing, doing last minute shopping and preparations.  In our house, we joke about Christmas being ‘the end of the world’.  The shops are only closed for a day, but it may as well be Armageddon, as the shelves are stripped bare in a strange kind of frenzy.  I allow myself a smile of relief, as Winston and I meander past the shoppers, trapped in their vehicles and some semblance of what they feel Christmas should be.  We turn off the road, away from it all into the Dene.  The Dene is empty when we arrive, and we see only two other people in the time we’re there.  It strikes me as sad that the roads are full, while the green space – the breathing space – is empty.

I find Christmas Eve the most magical day of the holidays.  It is a day steeped in possibilities.  A night filled with expectation.  Magical stories of shepherds following angels, kings journeying from far off lands, a family-to-be seeking shelter in the darkness.  Listening into the night for the tinkle of bells, bells that I am almost sure I can hear, as Father Christmas journeys high above the rooftops.  The leaving out of carrots for the reindeer, a little something for Santa, listening again for his elusive arrival down the chimney.

My beliefs have changed since I was brought up on those stories, but Christmas is very much an eclectic festival for me.  The birth of sun and earth at the solstice is woven inextricably with the story of the nativity, the story of Santa, the magic of song and story, memory and tradition.  And Christmas Eve is not a time for rushing, it is a time for revelling in the waiting and the magic.  So before the evening comes and I gather with my little family in a darkness warmed by fairy lights, I return to the earth, to imbibe the silence of nature.

There will be no white Christmas this year.  Instead, autumn seems to have returned for a last fling.  Warm golden light and the hint of pink in the clouds.  A rising wind that doesn’t howl, but hums tunefully.  The pond was a sheet of ice only a week ago, scores of ducks skating towards me looking for food.  Now it is liquid light.  The black headed gulls that usually rest on the jetty are elsewhere.  Moorhens graze on the grass, mallards repose on the banks of the pond.  I hear the chirrup of tits in the trees, the occasional bugle of a moorhen.  The rushes are always beautiful at this time of year, tall golden stalks with seedheads of siena and fluff.  They bow in unison in the gentling wind.  A rustle of leaves whirls slowly on the grass, echoing autumn’s jig.  The burn trickles, rippling, with slices of ochre where the sun catches it.

There is usually a hush, a kind of stillness in the dene.  Not far away, those same cars stream over the bridge, but you don’t notice them here.  It nestles in a bowl of tranquillity.  There is often a sense that something unexpected might happen.  And this is the kind of feeling I get from Christmas Eve.  I know what I have planned.  I know, roughly, what tomorrow will bring.  But still, there are mysteries waiting in the darkness.  Out there, in the land of magic, the land that we only catch glimpses of.   Somewhere there is a magical land of elves and a man in a crimson coat.  Somewhere there is a desert land in which a star guides kings.  Somewhere, there is an underworld where a goddess lies resting after birthing the sun.  You might say that none of these things exist, that they are myth, imagination, stories we tell to make ourselves feel better in the bleak midwinter.  But to me, the truth of it doesn’t really matter.  What matters is that, for one night, I can believe in every one of them and glimpse just a shimmer of their magic.

The jig of the leaves

The end of October is wind and half-light and a carnival of leaves.  The gale roars in and fallen leaves come to life once more.   They gambol over the grass, leaping and swirling like spring lambs.  When the wind gusts, they are swept into a rowdy gang, sprinting across the ground.  Lone leaves float against the sky, bobbing and flickering as they twirl.  Those caught up in the leaf-mass try to rise too but can’t.  Instead, scores of grounded leaves wave from their mulching places.  Meanwhile the trees that released them creak and rustle, undulating on the side-lines of the park, as though cheering on the final jig of their offspring.

There are fewer leaves on the ground this autumn.  October’s dry weather has left many crumbling to dust.  There have been few of the mists and storms I would associate with the season.  The colours have been muted and brittle.  If anything, it has been a grey month.  I have noticed the brutish beauty of sow thistle and the delicate star-burst seed-heads of groundsel.  Indigo mornings studded by Orion and Pegasus.  Garish orange dawns splodged with dark grey clouds.  A grey squirrel tries twice to scale the surrounding wall in the park and twice falls off, before shimmying up the poplar to the tallest branches to re-assert his street cred.  Starlings gather on the same TV aerial in town each morning and the wings of the seagulls are gilded by the sunrise.

This is the close down of the year.  The hatches are battened down, the unfinished chores are as complete as they will ever be.  The hearth is swept and a fire lit to welcome the ancestors.  Halloween itself is still.  The wind has vanished.  There is not a breath of it, not a sway of branch or a drop of leaf.  Fallen leaves are wet after a rare rainfall in the night, making them particularly vibrant.  Only the birds are restless, a flock of songbirds chittering at the tips of the poplars, crows swooping and barking.  I think about the ending cycle, the disrobing of the landscape, and all the industry that will carry on but won’t be seen, as leaves are broken down and nature renews herself.

Halloween night is fluid.  The year is neither old nor new, but in-between.  So the dead might visit and we can meet those who have not yet been born.  A feast is prepared with a place set for the ancestors.  The previous year is released in a flash of flame and a curl of candle smoke, the new year welcomed with the shuffle of Tarot cards.  I have entered the world of the dark, that delicious time of dreaming.  Easel and paints are calling me.  New stories call from the darkness.  My box of dreams is ready, waiting to receive the seeds of the things that are soon to be born.

 

Settling – part II

Part of feeling at home is finding familiarity in a place.  Recognising the way the sunrise blazes over the brow of a hill, or the path the setting sun takes as it gilds the land.  Knowing that when the sky turns a certain colour and there is a taste of rain in the air, the rainbows will appear like spotlights on the hills.  Hearing the excited bray of Wilbur and Eddie in the morning because it is time for breakfast.  And it is knowing that you are recognised as part of the landscape.  When the songbirds in the garden no longer mind your presence and fly around regardless.   When the song of the wind moans a familiar tune.

But it isn’t only familiarity that makes me feel part of a landscape.  To find my place I have to travel into the heart of it.  To follow an uncertain path to see where it will take me.  To study a map to find its layers of history.  To feel the lay of the land beneath my feet and breathe its scent into my nostrils.  The land requires effort and in that effort I find some of its secrets.

A stile bathed in sunlight leads me into the woods.  There is meant to be a footpath here, but there is no evidence of it.  No groove of earth worn bare by feet, no disturbed vegetation where others have passed.  This place is overgrown by brambles and bracken, the trees moss-crusted and damp.  A rudimentary wooden bench is rotting in the midst of the trees.  If there is a path, it is well hidden, so I make my own, downhill through the undergrowth, steadying myself on the trees.  I hear the burn before I see the peaty brown rush.  And there, in the middle of this forgotten wood, on this forgotten stream, a waterfall spills its secrets to the trees.

Walking back uphill, crackling twigs and rustling vegetation, I disturb a hare.  It gazes at me for a moment before tearing away through the bracken.  I don’t really feel comfortable here.  I’m too noisy, too obtrusive.  I return to the wooden bench.  Too far gone to sit on, but I lean against it to rest.  The rush of the waterfall persists.  Sunlight spears the canopy.  And perhaps because I’m now still and no longer being a disturbance the wood seems to come to life around me.  A veil lifts and suddenly there are clouds of insects dancing in the sunlight.  The wood shimmers with the movement of tiny beings.  When I leave it behind and rejoin the more trodden path, I feel like some small thing has been given to me.

I begin again at a crossroads, those most magical of places, protected by Hecate herself.  Here is a more well-trodden path.  Grooves of worn stone where vehicles have passed, a stripe of grass in the centre.  Drystone walls on each flank.  Past fields of cattle and sheep that regard me with eyes full of challenge, until I reach a gate, held shut by turquoise twine.  An unremarkable threshold of metal and frayed string.  But snaking downwards the path beckons, guarded by hawthorns laden with haws and rowans beginning to turn.  Wizened and windswept, encrusted by lichens, trees that must have guarded this hedgerow for generations.  I ask for safe passage as I descend the steep path.

At the bottom, the path branches left and darkens.  A tangled wood and the faint sound of the river.  A track of uneven cobbles.  The scent of damp stone and rotting vegetation.  Unexpectedly there is a cottage here.  The crossing cottage.  A remnant of an old railway line that once passed through.  It is tucked in a fork in the track, shielded by trees.  A lonely home, inhabited but with little sign of life.  A home not easy to reach or to leave.  A home on the edge of things, or perhaps in the heart of them.

And then I am at the bridge I have been steering towards.  There is no fanfare.  Only a small wooden marker pointed the way.  I walk onto it without knowing, at first, that I have done so because it seems almost to grow out of the land.  A hump-backed bridge that has been enfolded by nature.  The grey stone is whitened by lichens, the floor of the bridge carpeted in grass.  Trees grow out of its cracks.  Another forgotten place.  A gate with a rusted chain bars entry to the track on the other side.  A stile leading down to the river has collapsed.  The bridge is the end of the line.  Below, the river is majestic, a giant sibling to the forgotten burn, but today, I can’t reach it.

It is difficult not to think of layers of time, layers of place.  Does anyone ever cross the bridge anymore except the farmer who works the land?  Does anyone ever stand here and gaze the length of the river?  Once, trains passed nearby daily and the adjacent fields were quarry lands.  Once, this might have been a well-travelled route.  And I wonder if this is why this landscape feels like a challenging place.  The hills are crossed with many paths a person could take and relatively few people to take them.  No wonder many of them seem forgotten.  But if this bridge is forgotten, it is not unwelcoming.  The moment I passed through the gate, the path willed me down towards it.  Rather than feeling like an end point, it feels like a destination, where you are welcome to pass some time.

Now the hills are behind me.  I have returned to the landscape I call home.  A place where the skies aren’t so wide, the land not so open.  I will remember the comfortable face of the hills: rainbows, donkeys, the song of the wind.  But I’ll also remember the forgotten places.  They don’t need my attention to exist.  My absence means nothing to them.  But the memory of them will persist, because in its hidden spaces, a landscape is truly itself.