Grounding

A tree lies broken on the path.  The old poplar has been rent, a bough the size of a large tree torn away in the winds.  The splintered heartwood is shredded and the tree nurses a jagged ivory stump.  Its amputated limb blocks the path, causing passers-by to stop in wonder.  It isn’t the only casualty.  A bough of the shoe tree has fallen, a mossy pair of trainers tangled in its branches.  In the dene, a large bough of weeping willow is hanging by a thread of bark, like a besom broom sweeping the path.  Storms aren’t unusual before the equinoxes, as though the earth needs to expel its energy before it can come into a balance of sorts.   After the day of wind comes a night of rain, before the morning calm.

After the storms, I go in search of stone, a balance to the torrent of air and water.  I want to be grounded by the size and the steadiness of earth.  I start at the Pen Bal Crag, the tallest of all our cliffs, where the priory and castle sits atop limestone and sandstone.  I rarely come to this small bay – the steps are steep and many and dogs are banned for half of the year.  In fact I don’t recall the last time I stepped on its sand.  Alone on the beach, I’m dwarfed by the rocks rising above me.  Boulders are tumbled at the bottom of the cliffs, some from landslides, clad in bladderwrack and gutweed.  Water drips from vegetation in the cracks and behind it all, the sea roars.  These rocks are layered in time and faith and blood and the ancient lava flow that once poured through them.  I am as slight as a grain of sand in comparison.

Strange how the memory plays tricks.  I have a very strong recollection of a barbecue here many years ago.  It has the gilded patina of nostalgia, redolent with soft evening light and the taste of sausages.  I remember clearly exploring a cave under the cliffs – so clearly I used the memory of it in one of my novels.  This is why I’m here, to re-visit it.  Yet as I stand on the shore, gazing at the cliffs, I realise that this cave doesn’t exist.  It most likely never did.  All these years, the image of it has come to me and it seems that I invented it.  I puzzle over my trickster memory, willing the cave to come into being, but of course it doesn’t, except in imagination.  A crow, the trickster bird, squawks and lands on the rock beside me, as though laughing at my foolishness.  It has something that might be a crab in its beak, something spindly and long-fingered.  I watch as it pulls the creature apart and welcomes in its mate to partake in the feast.

The sand is virginal.  There is only the faint meandering imprint of a small bird’s passage.  The remnants of last night’s storm churns the sea into boisterous waves.  But that is out there.  Here on the beach, all is tranquil.  The sky is pale blue washed with wisps of buttermilk.  On mornings like this the dawn sky is insubstantial.  It holds a luminous translucence that makes my skin seem thinner than it is, as though I too am made of gossamer.  The clouded sun turns the breakers to liquid platinum.  I can see the lighthouse silhouetted at the end of the pier beyond the cliffs.  I came here for stone, but it is sky and sea that are the most precious gift this morning.

I walk to the other side of the bay, passing a few black headed gulls and an oystercatcher.  A young herring gull bleats for food as I pass.  Up a bank lined by valerian and the leaves of silver weed, past a rusting old bench.  My coastline stretches from the mouth of the river to the island where one county ends and the next begins.  In between is a chain of bays.   I head down to the next, down to the derelict open air swimming pool and onto the sand.  Here, I search for a memento of the light, a token to take with me into the dark season.  I spot it immediately, as the thought is taking shape, a pebble that is, in fact, neither light nor dark but blushed with both.  I take a strand of kelp and draw a circle in the sand by the tide line, and bisect it.  This represents the year, with both halves in equinoctial balance.  I step into the circle and cross the line, clutching my token, symbolically moving from light to dark.

This harvest I have a sense of completion. There is nothing that niggles, undone.  It hasn’t been an easy year and the strange weather seems to have reflected its challenge.  But I have two polished novels ready for submission, one of which was long-listed for the Lucy Cavendish fiction prize; two agents asked to review my full manuscript while another said it was the strongest submission she’d seen for some time; three new stories written and a story short-listed for a short story prize.  There are things I would like to have achieved – such as one of those agents agreeing to represent me – but perhaps that is for another year.

The sun is at my back now as I walk.  That luminous sky behind me, as is the zenith of the year.  This bay is known as the ‘long sands’ and it is a mile long.  By the time I reach its end, my circle will probably have been washed away by the tide.  I walk at the water’s edge.  There isn’t much of a strand line here, just wisps of seaweed, a single maple leaf, a few pebbles, shells and feathers.  I follow it, such as it is, letting the tide seep over my feet when it chooses.  I’m always greedy for treasures from the strand line – one more pebble, one more shell – my house is full of jars and tubs of them.  I pocket a sliver of sea glass,  a chunk of sea-washed china, an intricate shell, a pebble honeycombed by piddock trails and a tiny white feather.

A group of four sanderlings scuttle in the tide in front of me.  I try to catch up with them, thinking that if I overtake they’ll see I’m no threat.  But they keep scuttling, back and forth, always the same distance away, until finally they take flight, sick of the game or never having noticed me in the first place.  A cormorant dives in the surf and I watch as three times it dives, three times it rises.  At the north end of the beach, curls of kelp litter the shore.  The tide has created an island out at sea, thronged by birds.

I came for caves and there is one bay where I know they aren’t imaginary.  I clamber down sandstone crags, feet sinking into slimy banks of bladderwrack until I reach smuggler’s cave.  A few pigeons take flight and a redshank sounds an alarm.  I walk under the arches, past limpid pools and clusters of pebbles and seaweed.  From above, these caves are sunny sandstone.  From beneath, they are grey, green and dark.  The caves are beyond the pier, cut off from the safety of the sands.  From under the arch, I see the same ship I’ve seen in my walk along the shore, the same sea, the same sky, but the view from inside the stone is a secretive one.  Here, there is no-one to know that I am a witness.  I am the watcher in the dark, looking out onto the light.

My harvest is completed and now I absorb inspiration, to take me into the creative dark.  I ground myself in the resonant stone.  Moving inwards, to the sheltered half-light of autumn.  I will take with me the brilliance of this, and other, watery dawns; the iridescence of a kingfisher’s wings; the stripes of a badger’s face.  The light is always there, running like a vein of crystal through the stone.

Leaving

I fear that the herald of autumn is dead.  The small maple in the park – the smallest of all the trees – always turns first.  Its leaves are bronze and gold while the others are still clothed in green.  It tells me – even if I hadn’t felt that nip in the air, that soaking of early morning dew – it tells me that autumn is here.  But this year its boughs are bare.  There was no unfurling of bud, no burst into green.  Its trunk is spattered with buttery lichen, its branches tipped with desiccated flowers, but there is nothing to suggest it lives.  The park is littered with boughs and branches.  They say that in drought, trees give up parts of themselves, making themselves smaller against the stress.  I wonder if the long winter and bruising summer were just too much for the little maple.  I wonder if somehow it has made itself dormant, and that it will sigh back into being next spring.

A crackle of geese honks in a corn field.  A twitter of swallows echoes over the cliffs.  As we move towards the earth’s gilding there is the sound of leaving in the air.  The winds sweep in, carrying the scent of far-flung shores.  The horizon yawns with promise and I wonder what a bird feels as it gazes on that expanse.  When does the leaving begin?  Perhaps its starts with a faint humming in the blood, a tremble of expectation.  Perhaps it begins with a twitch in the wing, a distance in the eye.  Until the urge can’t be contained any longer and the bird must stretch its wings.  So many birds feeling that longing, that pull of invisible threads across the planet, becoming ever tauter until they can’t be resisted.  Maybe these autumn wind storms aren’t wind at all, maybe they are the flutter of thousands of wings, churning the air with excitement.

I hear my first blackbird sing after the silence of August and I wonder what the blackbird feels.  Does it sense the urge to movement and feel loss that it is staying behind?  Does this vibration of leaving account for the expectancy I feel in autumn too?  Perhaps my body yearns for a journey while scarcely knowing it.  As a species we have wandered for so much longer than we have stayed still.  Following the herds, following the weather, following the tides.  When those early people settled in one place, they may have felt relief, but also sadness that they would no longer roam.  Maybe we have lost something in our safer, more stationary lives.

But we still have cause to roam.  3% of the world’s people are migrants, moving not at the urging of the seasons, but for a better life, for escape, for survival.  We have roamed for centuries and there are those of us for whom the journey is not over.  Some of us are the blackbird, destined to stay in one place.  Some of us are the swallow, with no choice but to move.  September has always meant change.  For a third of my life it meant moving on – another year at school, college, university – with all the promise and apprehension that held.  Now I stay still but the urge to movement is still there, somewhere deep inside.

Of course September is not only a time of leaving, but also a time of arrival.  Just as those threads pull our summer visitors away, they reel in others who will accompany us into the depths of winter.  Each season brings its own gifts, and there is a sweetness in the inevitability of each wave of coming and going.  The herald of autumn may be dead, but the old poplar is strewing its leaves on the grass like offerings of gold.  Life is all arrivals and departures.  People move into our lives and are gone.  Things alter unexpectedly.  The world of my childhood is no longer the world I live in now.  We watch and feel the joy and sorrow of each change.  It gives us our sense of history, of having lived.  But even if we stay in one place, we are never really still.  We are coming and going too.  We are the bird soaring into the horizon and the bird arriving home.  And someone, somewhere, rejoices at our passage.

Bones

This is the season of bones.   The season of stark silhouettes against lowering skies.  It is a season in which you can see the structure of the earth, the skeleton.  The land is open.   Views are revealed that would normally be hidden by foliage and flower.  But all is not quite as transparent as it seems.  For this is nature’s most secretive season.  Life goes on, but it goes on in the dark places: beneath clotted soil, within thickened stems and in shaded burrows.

Wherever I go, I see bones.  Ossuaries of branch and twig.  Bleached bones of silver birch.  Gnarled bones of cherries.  Alders knobbly with catkins.  Sweeping bones of ash.  And I see the bones of the flowers that were.  The spiky teasel heads, the skeletons of hemlock.  The earth is at its most prickly.  Its most unfriendly, perhaps – barbs to brush against, ice and mulched leaves to slip on, mud to trap unwary feet.  As though it is telling us to stay away, stay indoors, there is nothing out here for you.

When I look at my local landscape, I see the bones of industry.  My landscape is changing, as it does.  Usually the transformation is in small, unnoticed steps.  But I see a skyline dominated by enormous cranes and the skeleton of new apartments.  The red lights of the cranes wink in the sky at night, disconnected dots.  I see a horizon spiked with clusters of yellow skeletons, foundations for wind turbines awaiting their journeys to sea.  Steel behemoths visible in the gaps between skeletons of wood.   Bones upon bones.

Paul Nash – The Menin Road

I see bones in the paintings of Paul Nash, as I wander his exhibition in a gallery nearby.  He is famous for scenes of World War One in which the skeletons and stumps of blasted trees scar the landscape.  But there are rows of cherry tree skeletons in The Cherry Orchard; scatters of the bones of trees in We are making a new world and The Menin Road.  The bones of scrapped war planes in Totes Meer.  But Paul Nash is also known for a mystical attachment to landscape and the genius loci; for painting the earth stained by equinox and moon; and for pursuing the creative sweet spot between dreams and waking.

In this season of bones we do all we can to keep ours hidden.  Layered under coats and scarves and hats, burrowed in our houses among blankets and fires.  We turn from the bones and heed nature’s call to stay away, or if not, then we shield ourselves against her bitterness.  But nature has a plan for us too.  This is our time for moving inwards.  As the trees dream within their armoured shells and the seeds dream beneath the darkened soil, so we dream too, whether we know it or not.    We dream of what we will do, of what we will be, of what we will create.  Sometimes the dreams will come easily, laid bare like nature’s skeleton.  Sometimes, they will be secretive and struggle to be born.  This is the season of bones, but already crocuses pierce the earth like golden spearheads and buds adorn the branches.  The earth is already waking and telling us her dreams.

The first day of winter

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The shift from autumn to winter is sometimes imperceptible.  I will suddenly notice that all the trees are bare.  The ground will become muddy with rotting leaves and the cold will creep up on me.  There is no consensus about when winter begins.  Meteorologists package the year up into neat quarters, with 1st December designated as the first day of winter.  For astronomers, it is the winter solstice.  But for me, this year, winter begins on the last Saturday in November in Manchester.  It is the day after my father-in-law’s funeral and I wake early to an unearthly landscape of white mist.  There is a surreal hush.  Trees are no more than shadows in the fog and ice crisps the foliage.

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There is a path on the edge of the Manchester ship canal that is a tiny oasis among housing estates.  Only a day before, the blazing sunset lit up the last golden leaves and I watched three ring-necked parakeets flutter across the canal, the first I have ever seen in the wild.  But this morning, winter has the canal in its grip.  Scores of Canada Geese huddle silently on the bank.  Mist moves in lazy coils along the water.  A flock of black headed gulls cavorts in a garland of steam.  Ice and sun have melted the landscape into vapour and echoes.

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As we drive back north, fog shrouds the motorway.  The sun has gone out, casting the world in grey shadow.  The road is lined by the rise of moors and the dip of valleys.  I know that there are towns and buildings in these valleys, but today there is no evidence of that.  They are nothing more than bowls of dense white mist, like eerie seascapes.  But we emerge from the mist to the afternoon sun, which kindles the remnants of autumn.  Beeches shimmer with copper leaves.  Apple trees droop with red and yellow fruit.

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Back home, most of the trees are bare.  The leafscape has turned from gold to burnt orange and umber.  Leaves now squelch rather than crackle beneath my feet.  But just as the autumn show is almost over, the last wild cherry blazes.  It has been slow to give up its gifts.  Usually I can pluck sweet cherries from its branches in summer, but this year they were sour, left to rot on the tree even by the birds.  Now it is a beacon among the skeletons.  The halo of fallen leaves around its base glows against the frosted grass.

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Today is National Tree Dressing day, an annual celebration of the importance of trees in our lives.  Communities are encouraged to tie ‘leaves’ with messages of thanks to a tree.  As the trees undress, we re-dress them.  The celebration draws on old traditions of adorning trees.  In my post The Shoe Tree I wrote about the ways we dress trees and down by the canal path last week, I discovered another: a memorial tree, dressed to commemorate the life of a man who had died there.

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But today I will leave the trees to their nakedness.  I’m dressing a different kind of tree, though it’s all part of the same tradition.    My Christmas tree is a symbol of life in the death of winter.  It is a reminder that when the earth seems to be little more than bones, life still stirs, waiting to be re-born.  Trees reflect the transience of life in their seasonal changes: the brief joy of spring blossoms, the plenty of summer fruits and the excitement of autumn finery.  Then they show us death, with their winter skeletons.  As I dress the tree, I recall the many times I have done this before.  I think of all the other people doing what I am doing now.  And I think of those communities re-dressing the trees that are important to them.  Winter has begun, but each tree is a flicker in the darkness, lacing the earth with threads of light.

Walking Through Autumn

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In the dark of the year, the landscape glows.  I struggle through mornings that seem deeper and darker than last year, into luminous dawns of pastel pink and baby blue.  The sun is low molten gold, infusing stones and leaves with honey.  The air is chill but the scenery warms my soul.  It is as though nature knows that we need the memory of autumn’s fiery patchwork to warm us through winter.

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The maples are autumn’s show-offs.  If my eye is caught by a particularly vibrant display I can be almost sure it is a maple, with its blazing sunset palette.  Horse chestnuts offer fat golden fingers edged with rust.  The lindens are wisps of tissue against dark branches, leaves becoming transparent as they turn.  And the beeches are a radiance of colours from delicate greens and yellows to glossy bronze.  Paths become tunnels of gold, carpeted in fallen leaves and overhung by burnished branches.  The ground disappears beneath a crust of copper.  To walk through autumn is to walk an uncertain path, hidden by drifts of kaleidoscopic leaves.

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In this season, the old cemetery is a gilded place.  Pools of gold against a canvas of fading green.  Shafts of sunlight striping the fallen leaves.  In the old part of the cemetery, eroded stones slant under saffron foliage.  Fallen markers lie broken among sprinkled leaves.  Some graves have become melded to ivy, its roots like foliate inscriptions accenting the words.  Those graves that lie within their own shallow enclosures brim with leafy coverlets, as though the occupant has drawn up a comforter.

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I’ve come to the cemetery on the Eve of the Dead.  Halloween is when our ancestors are honoured and invited to visit.  I have always loved cemeteries.  I find them neither sad nor scary.  They are places of peace, of undisturbed nature.  This is the place where my parents’ ashes were scattered and where I have said goodbye to others I have known.  I’m struck, suddenly, by just how many people lie here.  In a way, they are all my ancestors: not of blood but of place.  A community of people that shaped the town that shaped me and birthed the people I have known and will know.  The parts of them that remain are only imprints, but their breath is in the breath that stirs the trees, their essence is in the earth on which I walk.

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I wander the old paths to the gentle caw of crows.  A magpie scolds me from the branches of a sycamore and follows me to the next.  A robin flutters in and out of a hedge.  I have a pebble in my pocket that I took from the beach at spring equinox as a symbol of the light half of the year.  I had no plans what I would do with it, but I’m drawn to a small moss covered gravestone that tilts towards the ground, forgotten in a dark part of the cemetery.  I place the stone on top, leaving a little of its light behind.

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Halloween has always been my favourite festival.  Its symbolism has all the complexity of autumn.  The old year is gone, all its hopes and dreams stripped away.  But the new year hasn’t yet begun.  This night has a fluidity, a sense of what was and what might be.  It is the start of the dreaming darkness, full of possibilities that haven’t yet been imagined.  As I walk the old paths, I am walking through layers of history.  This is a place that has seen the turn of many years, the turn of countless leaves.   It is a place where the stories that have ended endow those that are to come.

 

Secrets of Tocil Wood

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Fledging

Sometimes, the earth conspires in gracious serendipity so that you think it’s sending a message just for you.  On the week that I begin writing again I witness so many tiny wonders that it seems like a sign, dovetailing with my newly awakened inspiration.

The day after inspiration strikes, I am greeted by the first goslings of the year.  A pair of Canada Geese stand guard as their brood peck nonchalantly at the grass.  Later, they slip into the water to pirouette around the pond, the parents heads bobbing, as though pointing the right direction, a gentle honk calling back any stragglers.  On another pond, the punk orange heads of baby Coots and Moorhen chicks peeking through the reeds.  The smaller birds are harder to see at this time of year, but I can hear their ardent songs and glimpse them high in the trees.  And at the end of this enchanted week, the first of the swallow family appear: sand martins flitting around the cliffs at the coast.

Overnight, new life has appeared.  The pinks have begun to join the yellows, with an abundance of campion lining the paths.  A handful of delicate cuckoo flowers contrast with monstrous butterbur leaves.  I see my first orange-tipped butterflies and a comma feeding on the dandelions and watch cabbage whites dance together in delicate spirals.  It is blossom season, but this year I’ve been more attentive to the subtler flowers of the trees.  The flowers that we don’t always notice: the broccoli like florets of the ash and the tiny green sprays of the sycamore.  I saw my first hawthorn blossom at the rubbish dump, of all places, brightening up the wait to get rid of our clutter.

This year I’ve struggled to re-balance after the winter.  I began the season with a box of dreams sown in the dark months and an impatience to bring them to life.  Instead, I fell into a fallow period that persisted for the first quarter of the year.  Spring has been slow to come, not in the earth but in my spirit.  My creativity has gone, not into my craft, but into my home.  An extended period of nesting: weeks of wallpaper, paint, carpets and curtains.  Bags and bags of clutter divested, clearing a space for other things to come in.  But now I’m fledging the nest.  Beltane is the start of summer, the first big festival of the light half of the year.  It came and went without much ceremony.  But I was waiting, I think, for the earth to let me know it was time to give birth to my plans.

In another moment of serendipity, after writing about ruins, I have cause to visit the 7th century priory that broods over the mouth of the river.  I wander ruins overgrown by Alexander flowers, unconsciously absorbing history and landscape.  And it is the ruins that wake my creativity, insinuating themselves into the half-written second novel that has waited for attention since last year, taking it into a more satisfying direction.  So as the signs of new life flourish, I find myself in that magical space at the beginning of a creative adventure, at the point where ideas might take flight or never leave the ground.  I hope they soar.