Lost and found

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

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

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

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

The garden of lost ideas by Andrea Stephenson

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Potential

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The breath of the earth

It is the month of winds; the month that begins with a roar.  The air keens with a single, high-pitched note.  I don’t know what it is, except that it is a note borne of the wind’s passage through structures of glass and steel.  A road sign rattles on its pole.  Streetlights wobble and chink.  One of last year’s leaves crackles across the path.  Hawthorn twigs hiss and trees creak.  The bass note is the boom and roar of the gale.

I am a child of the March winds, blown into the world with the rush of wind in my ears.  Perhaps this is why the wind-song comforts and exhilarates me.  Perhaps this is why the rush of the March winds feel like being born once more.

Wind is perhaps the most mysterious of weather.  It has no substance, yet it can raze towns and sculpt the hardest of landscapes.  It has the power to be a balm on a hot day and a misery on a cold one.  It appears from nowhere and drops just as quickly.  Some say that it is possible to capture the wind in a knot of yarn, or to conjure it with a whistle.  But such tricks require magical skills, because wind isn’t a thing that an ordinary person can hold.

I see the wind only by its actions and by what it gathers up.  Tall birches that jerk and sway.  Scots pine gently undulating.  A service tree waggles slender fingers tipped with grey-green buds.  Red-leaved shrubs move like a whip of flame.  Daffodils bob crazily and grass becomes flickering ripples of silver.  Catkins slant as one, like tiny wind socks.  Great hunks of clouds are moving.  A dozen wood pigeons sway in the highest branches of a sycamore.

How can the movement of air be so powerful?  When it is behind me, it urges me forwards.  Before me and I must fight to move.  It roars past my years and whips my hair.  But when I stand in the wind, when I let myself be still, the air gentles.  I see it still whipping up the trees.  I can hear its boom.  But if I offer no resistance, it befriends me.  I feel it like the breath of the earth, urging me on, blowing me out of my winter torpor towards the light of life and spring.


Blogger Book of the Month: Encourage a child to watch birds by Denzil Walton

Encourage A Child To Watch BirdsThis little gem of a book is designed to help adults encourage children to get away from their computer screens and outside to watch birds. The book gives some good, basic facts about the birds you and your child might see and provides questions you can ask to encourage the child to watch the birds and talk about what they’ve seen. I know a bit about birds and still learned new facts, but this book makes it easy to start even if you know nothing at all about birds. The activities and discussion points are open enough that they’re suitable to use with a child of any age and you don’t need to live in the countryside to use this book – it focuses on parks and gardens, even apartment buildings. It begins with the easiest of activities – watching ducks on a pond – and progresses to things like how to use binoculars and dissecting owl pellets! The book is well-written, easy to understand and there is a sense of great enthusiasm for the subject throughout the pages. Thoroughly recommended to share with a child.  You can find Denzil here and his book is available on Amazon.

Whispering

There is a whisper in the air on Candlemas eve.  It isn’t the whisper of spring, but of snow, swirling under the streetlights like communion wafers.  Light brims night’s darkness, softening brick and tarmac, swaddling pavements.  The infrequent crackle of tyres over crusty snow is the only sound.  There is nothing quite like watching the drowsy fall of snow at night, it makes me think of infinity.

Candlemas day is dusky blue.  We roll down the motorway to Winston’s hydrotherapy session, hissing over roads lined by snow-laden trees.  The landscape is a dance of white and blue: the bleached land widens the sky, while the sky washes the land pale blue.  The morning is as delicately rendered as Chinese porcelain.  In the evening, the clouds are peach puffs and snow-coated roofs blush pink.

But the whisper of spring is there, buried beneath the murmur of snow.  It is there in crocuses poking their yellow heads through the soil and in quivering clusters of snowdrops. Winter has been mild, and flowers have bloomed when no flowers should have done, but the crocus and the snowdrop are flowers in their time, heralds of the soft beginning to spring. This is still a time of repose and reflection before the energising surge of the wild March winds.  But some blooms have already heard the sigh of spring.

It isn’t yet time for spring cleaning.  Candlemas is a quiet welcome to the first fragile signs of the season.  But we are getting a new kitchen, so it is time to declutter after all.  We spend days clearing and boxing things up.  Throwing out food long past its sell by date, never-used gadgets, all the detritus that has accumulated over fifteen years of living in our house.  It is a relief to be free of things that you’ve forgotten.  They still whisper from those dusty corners, wanting to be used or put out of their misery.

A few days after Candlemas, I walk with Winston in the dene.  A congregation of songbirds greets us: two blue tits, a long-tailed tit, a chaffinch and a bullfinch flitter among an arc of bare branches.  The sun is glorious, but ice ripples the paths.  Chunks of snow crowd the stilled burn.  The pond is frozen milky grey.  The ducks and the gulls have abandoned it, leaving a couple of moorhens to strut over the ice.

The reeds are strands of gold with feathered ivory heads.  I watch their shadows sway and bounce on the path as Winston pauses to eat goose grass.  The daffodil shoots aren’t yet ready to bloom, but violets bathe in the sun.  Two purple crocuses have emerged, petals still tucked in around them like blankets.  The whisper of the snow has abated, to make way for the whisper of spring.  I can hear it like a sigh in the wind, growing stronger, until it becomes a roar.


Blogger book of the month: The Storyteller Speaks by Annika Perry

TSS_Kindl_300dpiI felt as though I immediately ‘clicked’ with Annika when I started reading her blog.  She shares warm, eclectic posts on writing, reading and life.  Her first book, The Storyteller Speaks is a wonderful collection of short stories, flash fiction and poems that depict a wide range of events, characters and viewpoints. At the centre of each is human relationships and the effect that a single event can often have on the course of a life. A full gamut of emotions is here, including love, grief, anger and redemption. The stories are moving, uplifting, sometimes dark, sometimes amusing. My favourites include: The Whiteout Years which is a heart-breaking and touching depiction of grief and hope; and Loss of a Patriarch, a moving story about saying goodbye to Annika’s grandfather. I also enjoyed the influences of the author’s Swedish heritage. This is a collection to savour and a book that fulfils its promise to win your heart.  You can find Annika here and her book is available on Amazon.

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.

Returning

I hadn’t meant to walk to the sundial today.  Fog hangs heavy over the reserve so I know the dial will not be giving away any of its secrets.  I walk past the misted pond, past drowned alders laden with cones and catkins.  A trio of mallards lurk among the roots as a black Labrador cuts a scythe through the water.  Drenched paths are mudded with puddles.  Deep into April and most of the trees are still bare.  A smattering of cowslips try to bloom.  I’d wanted to wait until I could watch the sun cast shadows from the sundial, but I find myself wandering towards it anyway, a dark hyphen in the mist.  Meandering up a path lined by gorse and stunted alders.  A horse has passed this way, leaving shoeprints and garish manure.  Goldfinches and great tits dart across the path.  Woodpigeons are solemn sentinels in the trees.

I reach the top of the hill without effort.  The dial is laid on the ground in iron and stone.  The gnomon towers useless in the fog, twice my height.  A single bunch of daffodils bloom at the edge of the path.  All below me is obscured, trees peep out of the mist, the pylons are hidden as though modern time has faded into the grey.  I stand near the edge and close my eyes, picking out a trill of blackbird song, the vibrato of a robin and a chorus of twittering.  When I open my eyes and turn, a large bee bumbles past.  It takes me a second to realise what it is, it seems so incongrouous here in this place made lonely by the fog.

Every time I think spring is here, another season takes its place.  April has been rain and mist, with the briefest hours of sunshine to fool us that winter is really over.  Nevertheless, there are dandelions like pinpricks in the embankment, daffodils and blackthorn have begun to blossom, lesser celandine trying to open in the grass.  The loud songs of great tit and chiff chaff grace the air and the heron has returned to the pond.  A starling visits my yard collecting dried weeds from the cracks in the wall for her nest.

It’s tempting to say this has been an unusual spring.  It has been very slow to come.  I’ve been slow to return too.  But I’ve learned through observing myself in the seasons that spring can never be predicted.  It isn’t the pretty, predictable blooming of flowers, creativity and action I would expect.  There is always something wrenching, something off about it.  It is like the moment of panic when I write a story – a moment when I know how the story will end but don’t know how I’ll get there, or how the story begins but not how it ends.  A very real stab of panic that I won’t be able to find the words to tell the tale that wants to be told.  There is always a moment when the story settles and it is written.  There is too, a moment when spring settles – or when I settle into spring – but it hasn’t happened yet.

It hasn’t been a period without creativity.  My unpublished novel The Wintering Place was longlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize.  I have a story short-listed for another competition.  I have written new stories, tales of wind and blood.  But this period of withdrawal has also been a time of seeking comfort.  Of re-reading favourite books and walking well-worn paths.

On May Day morning the grass is silvered with frost.  I return to the sundial anyway, as the rising sun is strong behind me.  But it is cold.  I’m beginning to feel as though I haven’t been warm for months.  The alders have sprung into leaf since my last visit, and the cowslips are scattered banks of yellow.  Hawthorn blossom rarely blooms here in time for its festival, but the cherry blossom is out, if a little more muted this year.  The reserve is full of birdsong including the piping call of a particularly loud great tit.

At the top of the hill, the sundial does its work, shadowing the correct hour.  Last time I was here there was no world beyond the hill; today the landscape is set out before me in a haze of sunlight.  To the east, sea and horizon; to the south the river and the huge ship waiting to carry wind turbine foundations to sea; to the west, the shadow of the Pennine hills.  Stretched out below me are all the places I have travelled as spring struggled to be born, all those well-worn paths deepened by the pad of my feet.

It might have been the moment spring settled, that morning on top of the hill.  But as Beltane fades, winter doesn’t turn to spring, but to summer.  The air thickens and the sun bakes.  And it is the dandelions that put on a show, vivid raffia splodges in the grass.  I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such an abundance of them.  Soon daisies and cherry blossom petals sprinkle the spaces in between so that the grass is a quilt of yellow and white.  I see my first butterflies and myriad tiny creatures cloud the air.  A crow calls from a nest at the top of the still-leafless poplar.  I don’t know what this season is anymore, or what I should expect it to be.  Perhaps there won’t be any settling this year after all, only a messy, jubilant return to light and life.

 

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.