The earth, dancing

In the stillness of a half-lit house it is easy to believe that the world is at rest.   There is no movement that I can perceive.  No sound to crack the silence.  But stillness is an illusion.  My body is a commotion of movement.  I breathe in and out, my heart beats, eyes blink, cells vibrate, synapses fire.  When I am still, I am never motionless.  And neither is the house around me.  Floorboards creak and settle, radiators sigh, tiny creatures scuttle, dust motes twirl.  I barely notice it, but there is motion within and around me, a ballet that never stops.

We are no more than mayflies to the earth.  Like the blink of an eye against its billions of years.  To us, it seems slow and solid.  The ground is steadfast beneath our feet.  Immovable rock, sturdy hills, venerable trees.  We are confident of walking on solid ground.  Confident that, barring natural disaster, the routes we take will scarcely alter.  But the earth is ancient and moves at a speed we can’t always perceive.  We see the evidence of movement in the measure of days and years, yet it is hard to believe that the ground on which we walk is spinning beneath us and in a constant waltz with the sun.

We may not see it, especially in the naked midwinter, but the earth is always dancing.  Anyone who has ever watched a time lapse film of the landscape knows that it is not still.    The plants that seem static are growing as we pass, gracefully extending shoots and unfurling flowers.  Trees are pushing out buds and growing branches.  Rotting vegetation is transforming into soil, rock becoming sand.  The dance is taking place all around us, but it is a slow dance, one imperceptible to our vision.  I have never watched a flower being born or a shoot caught in the act of piercing the soil.  The shift appears to take place when we aren’t watching.

Sometimes the dance of the earth is obvious.  It is there in the rhythm of the waves and the sparkle of the stars.  It is visible in the phasing of the moon and the flicker of shadows.  It is in the glide of a wing, the prance of hooves and the tap of feet.   Weather is the earth putting on a show: the flamenco of rain, the waltz of snow.  The wind is a masterful choreographer, setting leaves jigging, grasses swaying, clouds scudding the sky.  It has many moods, many styles, from the subtle minuet of a breeze to the jitterbug of a gale.

At Candlemas, I look for the first signs of spring stirring in the earth and I see dancing.  I see it in the burbling of the burn and the ripples on the pond.  I see it in the shoots of the daffodils and the first purple crocuses rising to meet the sun.  I see it in the flicker of teal and orange that is the kingfisher I first glimpsed last March.  And in the snow that falls like ticker tape the next day.  So when February seems dismal and bare, don’t forget that the earth is dancing.  And though you may not feel like dancing – you already are.

Song of the blackbird

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The blackbird has a song that is made for rain.  Perhaps it is the mournful tone of its tune, or the way it pierces the stillness before a storm.  Perhaps it is the way the song haunts me, so sadly beautiful it makes my heart ache.  You’ll usually find the blackbird at the highest point in a landscape, trilling its lament.  For as long as I remember, I’ve associated the bird with rain.  Its song is loud and lonely in the quiet before the rain comes and in the blurred aftermath among the soft drip of raindrops from the leaves.  When the landscape is quiet and expectant and I hear the blackbird sing, I know  it’s about to rain.

Copyright: Mandy Bland

My first memory of writing takes place in the rain.  I must be about ten and I’ve been to Brownies on a Friday night.  I’m with my father and we’re waiting for the bus home.  Dad stands watch outside while I sit in a bus shelter, dark and rain-washed, writing my version of a Nancy Drew mystery in a black, hard-backed exercise book with red corners.  I must have written stories and essays before for school, but this is the first time I remember writing for fun.  The story wasn’t my own, but something in it made me pick up a pen and try to write it in my own words.

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Since then, I have always associated rain with creativity.  Perhaps it’s my watery soul, but there’s something about rain that never fails to inspire me.  When the sky darkens, my body responds.  There’s a tingle, an expectation, a melancholy, that makes me want to write.  I prefer to be tucked up behind glass, preferably with nowhere to go and nothing to do.  With rain that is heavy enough to patter on the windows, drum on the roof and blur the landscape beyond the glass, like melting wax oozing down the pane.  Or to be walking among trees, where I can hear the thrum of the rain on the leaves and smell the wet vegetation.

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I appreciate rain in all its guises.  The glowering sky of a downpour or the bright eerie light heralding a thunderstorm.  A rising wind bringing rain on its tails.  The fat, heavy droplets that stain the ground with splodges, or the drench of fine summer rain.  I love the gurgle of rain in the gutters and rushing down drainpipes.  The swirl of water on tarmac and the dance of ripples in puddles.  Rain has its own discordant melody: a humming, stuttering, hissing song .  It isn’t always easy when you’re in it, particularly the needles of rain that have the promise of winter in them.  But rain soaks the senses, so it’s no surprise that it stimulates creativity.

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Rain wakes up the land.  Deep beneath the earth, seeds that lie dormant sigh in exhilaration as the rain drenches them.   Shoots unfold, desiccated plants expand and fungi fruit.  Rain wreaths the earth with its own scent: the brassy petrichor of soil, stone and parched vegetation.   The scent of rain is a hint on the air, just like the blackbird’s song, telling me that the storm is coming.  And my creative instinct stretches and flexes its muscles, waiting for the deluge.

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And when the storm is over, rain brings the world into focus.  The world is softer, but more pronounced.  There is a stillness after rain, just as there is a stillness before it.  Spent raindrops create their own drowsy percussion.  The voices of birds, quieted by the storm, re-appear jubilantly.  Colours are more vibrant and the musky scent of the earth simmers in the air.  The end of the storm feels celebratory, perhaps only because the rain is over or perhaps because it has revived the landscape.  And for the length of a storm, my creativity has been revived too.

On the turn

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The sycamore knows what the other trees still only sense.  It has already turned, leaves ablaze against the green of its elders.  Already, its leaves are scattered on the grass, a fiery mat like a magic circle inside which autumn reigns.  Outside this world between the worlds, summer clings on.

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The insects know.  The last of them are greedy for nectar before the cold season begins.  A painted lady, suckling on the remnants of the knapweed.  A bee guzzling clover on the last meadow.   Wasps at their most clingy hovering over food and drink.  The garden spider squats in her impressive orb in my yard.  She will die with the coming season leaving a clutch of silk-wrapped eggs to hatch in spring.   The last of the swallows still swoops for insects to sustain her on her African odyssey.  Mobs of sparrows and starlings, born earlier this year, squabble in hedgerows and on pavements.   Yet though spring is long over, the piercing call of baby seagulls wanting to be fed is still a common sound.

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The flowers know.  Those few still in blossom are starkly bright, like star performers under spotlights.  Goldenrod and toadflax are reminders of the sun.  The willowherbs offer up a last glimpse of the colour purple.  But the plant life is now overgrown and messy.  It’s the season of seeds and fruit.  The seed heads are dry skeletons and furry tufts – the flowers doing all they can to reproduce before the dying season begins.  Berries take on the mantle of colour now, waxy spheres of crimson, black and orange.

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The weather knows.  Summer is wrestling with autumn for dominion.  It’s difficult to know what to wear for the best.  Put on something warm and the sun will be blazing by the time you come home.  Don’t wear a coat and it will rain.  The mornings are chilly and often misty.  The wind has howled a taste of what is to come.  The days are mostly still bright, but you can feel the change in the dark of early morning.

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And I know.  I can feel the turn in my soul.  I know it when I wake to the dark, cold morning and my body wants to continue sleeping.  I know it when I sense the mist in the air.  I feel it in the craving to wear woollens and to sit before the fire, even though the sun is shining outside.  I feel myself slowing down.  My creative cycle for the year is coming to an end.  There are fewer new ideas sparking.  I don’t have the same urge to fling my work out into the world.  Instead, I’m finishing projects where I can before the harvest.  My thoughts are turning towards reflection and renewal.  Most of all, I’m looking forward to the long, dark dreaming months, during which I can conjure new dreams for the year to come.

Through the fog

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We need a voice to call across the water, to warn ships…a voice like all of time and all of the fog that ever was:…a voice  that is like an empty bed beside you all night long, and like an empty house when you open the door, and like trees in autumn with no leaves.   A sound like the birds flying south, crying, and a sound like November wind and the sea on the hard, cold shore.  I’ll make a sound that’s so alone that no one can miss it, that whoever hears it will weep in their souls…’ The Fog Horn – Ray Bradbury

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At the end of the north pier, where the river transforms into the sea, the fog horn dwells.  Housed in a squat, brown lighthouse on the pier that took more than fifty years to build because the waves kept breaking it down, beyond the Black Midden rocks where so many ships saw their end; there the fog horn dwells.  At night, I can hear its moan, seeping in the windows. That deep, melancholy howl is one of my favourite sounds in the world.  Sometimes, I hear it in daylight, if the air is quiet, often accompanied by the honk of ships’ horns.  But it’s a sound that really belongs to the night, when it speaks to the loneliness within us all.

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The world is a softer, more mysterious place when it is wreathed in fog.  Fog blurs the landscape round the edges.  It makes the air feel hushed.  The world around us is altered or no longer there.  In the park, as others sleep, we walk mist-blurred paths, lit by fog shrouded lamps.  The river is gone, everything south of it lost in a foggy haze.  Before work, I’m alone in another park.  To the pond, where the trees are damp and laden with dewy spiders webs.  Canada Geese and mallards float lazily, as though the fog makes them slower.  Beyond, the distant trees blend into the horizon, the buildings behind them invisible.  Fog is not unusual here, where it rolls straight off the north sea.  A drenching, gossamer fret that leaves droplets on the skin and a freshness in the air.  The week before last, the fog barely lifted.

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Fog is perfect for tales of mystery and suspense.  It distorts and bewilders.  It cloaks dastardly deeds or monstrous creatures.  Its mystery lies in what it might conceal.  Until recently, my favourite fog fiction was the 1980 movie The Fog, in which a town’s history comes back to haunt it.  I love the movie probably more for its atmosphere than its story.  But then I discovered Ray Bradbury’s short story, The Fog Horn, with its conjuring of the ancient mysteries of the deep and the aching loneliness of the horn that calls to it.

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Fog is really nothing more than droplets of water suspended in the air.  Yet the science does no justice to the wonder of experiencing it and the emotions it evokes in us.  Where I feel delight, others feel fear.  The word ‘fog’ is synonymous with confusion and gloom and murky evocations of Victorian London would not be the same without descriptions of the smog caused by a lethal mixture of soot and fog.  But usually, fog is transient.  Just like that, the fog is gone and the world is no longer enchanted.  We’ve come through the fog and everything is clear once more.