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.

 

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.

Along the tracks

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There’s something exuberant about the blooms of August.  As though summer, knowing it is on its last legs, throws all its efforts into a medley of colour before its time is over.  It is the season of vivid purples and zesty yellows: great tangles of willowherbs, thistles and buddleia bordering knots of ragwort, great mullein and weld.  And the lush white bindweed trumpets creeping nefariously over them all.

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Nowhere is this more obvious than along the tracks.  This is railway country, the place where the ‘father of the railways’ was born.  George Stephenson built his first locomotive to transport coal down these tracks.  The county is scored with the remains of the old lines, waggon-ways that ferried coal from the Great Northern Coalfield to the river Tyne.  It was first carried on wooden tracks in horse-drawn carts, then on metal rails by stationary steam engines hauled by ropes and finally by steam locomotive.

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In this topsy turvy and unsettled year, my creativity hasn’t followed its usual path.  I struggled to feel the celebration of summer and bring my box of dreams to fruition.  Yet something strange has happened in the last few weeks.  When I venture out, all I see is potential.  Fat, glossy rosehips, scores of blackberries, elderberries and haws.  Most still green, some beginning to turn, but only the potential of what they will become.   And my creative energy has suddenly revived: I find myself fervently writing, reading and submitting before the final harvest comes.  Like summer, I am giving the season my best efforts before the autumn tide takes over.

The colour of summer

Summer is a purple season: willowherbs, thistles and buddleia bloom in vibrant profusion, self-heal punctuates the grass, vetch curls its tendrils in the undergrowth, small clusters of viper’s bugloss and foxglove bloom in hidden spots.  The fresh whites and yellows of spring and early summer have given way to deeper colours in preparation for autumn.

Summer is a rainbow season.    A time for donning rainbow flags and fancy dress and taking part in colourful parades.  A season for  merry go rounds, bandstands in the park, celebration and frivolity.

Summer is a growing season.  Blackberries and rosehips are appearing in the hedgerows, green turning to orange, to red and deep purple.  Rowan berries are already ripe on the trees, while others are still green, waiting to burst.  But summer is also a dying season.  Many of the flowers that bloomed just a few weeks ago have already lost their blossoms.  Seed heads in browns, reds and ochres preview the autumn colours to come.

It has been a summer of searing temperatures, the sixth hottest July on record.  Humid, dry, too hot to do anything comfortably.  Coinciding with something of a fallow period for me.  An occasional sea mist in the evening the only respite.  The grain harvest has arrived early in the UK, with rape and barley harvests beginning weeks earlier than normal.  Wheat harvests are predicted to be bountiful.  Before autumn arrives we’ve been doing our last outside work, those final jobs in the yard to see us through the coming winter.  And despite that fallow spell, I have done some creative work: finished one painting and started another, drafted some short stories.

Lammas falls on the first day of August and begins the season of transformation, when, as the wheat is turned into bread and sweet treats, our projects begin to bear fruit.  This is the last tide to focus on what I want to achieve this year, before the reckoning of the final harvest on the equinox.  I spent Lammas thinking about what I have created so far this year and what I still want to do before the harvest.  I think about and give thanks for the work I’ve put in, but also consider what I might have to sacrifice over the coming weeks to achieve my goals.  The day after Lammas, a hint of autumn crept in: mist over the sea, rain, thunder and wind.  The first day in many that I’ve wanted to cosy up indoors.  But the seals are still on our island, a sign that the responses I’m waiting for on my novel might still come.

Summer is a season for recognition, for sharing your gifts with the wider world.  Inese, over at Inesemjphotography recently nominated me for the Very Inspiring Blogger award.  Inese shares some wonderful photos on her site and I particularly love her nature photography.  Pat over at Plain talk and ordinary wisdom has nominated me for the Butterfly Light award.  Pat shares inspiring stories that might be told around her kitchen table.  Pat and I took part in a blog hop recently, so you can learn more about her here.  Though I no longer take part in awards, I’d like to thank Pat and Inese for thinking of me and, instead of following the rules, I’m sharing links to three bloggers I’ve recently discovered, all of whom have a strong focus on nature and connecting with the earth.  At this time of the first harvest, I hope you’ll pay them a visit:

My wild life is about the adventures of a zoologist working in the Inner Hebrides.

Maia of the birds writes about shamanism, poetry and nature.

Partridge, Pine and Peavey is about the outdoors and the people who live in it.

The small, wild things

Cow parsley on wasteground

When I was a child, I was given a book about becoming a nature detective.  By today’s standards for children’s books it was uninspiring: filled with dense text and black and white photos.  Still, it captured my imagination and I longed to be able to track and investigate the natural world in the way the book described.  But I was an urban child and I thought the experiences the book presented were out of my reach.  I’ve always lived in towns and cities, while longing to inhabit the wilder places.  I wish I could look out of my window and see open spaces instead of my neighbours’ houses.  The sea has always been my local untamed place, while I believed that the town had little to offer in the way of nature.  But years after I dreamed of being a nature detective, I’ve learned that even among brick and concrete, it’s possible to live the change of the seasons and to find the wild in the everyday.

At the end of my road, there is a small park.  It’s little more than an expanse of grass and a children’s playground, a space that has been cultivated and tamed.  But I’ve walked this park nearly every day for two years and I’ve noticed its secrets.  There are five species of trees here, most of them old, including three wild cherries that burst into blossom each spring.  There is privet and hawthorn, offering cover to songbirds.  You’d be forgiven for thinking the only wild plants that grow here are daisy and dandelion.  But look closer: ragwort and ivy leaved toadflax cling to walls.  Hart’s tongue and maidenhair spleenwort grow in the shady spot under the trees.  There is a small clutch of bluebells, red dead nettle, thistle and cleavers.  Field mushrooms, glistening inkcap and King Alfred’s Cakes fungi fruit in the darker, damp patches.  The obvious birds are the seagulls and the crows, but listen to the dawn chorus and you’ll know there are many others – great tits squabbling in the trees, blackbirds, thrushes, starlings and woodpigeons.  A dunnock has been singing an audabe from the privet each morning and, just once, I saw a greater spotted woodpecker high in a sycamore.

Just a little farther from home and here is the Dene, one of many deep valleys cut by streams that flow into the North sea.  This park too has been tamed, but not altogether.  Cowslips, marsh marigolds, yellow flag, water avens and shaggy inkcap all grow in the damp ground.  The pond, fringed with weeping willow, is home to mallards, tufted ducks, moorhens and the occasional heron.  I glimpsed a fox once, at the side of the road, but I’ve been told scores of them visit the Dene at night.  This week, I watched a pair of mute swans mating – he balancing precariously on her back, followed by a brief dance, where they raised their bodies and necks high out of the water and pressed them together.  Then it was over, off she swam into the rushes and left him circling the pond alone.

 

And then there is the business park where I sometimes work.  Dominated by office blocks, traffic and scores of people.  But look past the buildings and the tidy, cultivated plants and there is a host of nature here.  Follow one of the paths and you’ll come to areas tangled with trees and wildflowers.  Ponds with resident moorhens, coots, tufted duck and geese.  You may see a hare, a grey heron, or even a deer.  I’ve sat in meetings and watched rabbits at play outside the windows.  A weasel once crossed my path.

But nature always clings to the edges.  The smallest patch of waste ground is rich with possibilities.  The horsetail colony, like a strange clutch of aliens at the edge of a crane hire yard.  In their fertile form, they appear like burnt stalks, later, they turn green and feathery  The froth of cow parsley on the side of a main road.  The gull, minding her nest on a chimney opposite my office.  The bulrushes beneath the pylons.  Herb Robert poking through a fence.  Mayweed, Green Alkanet and Shepherd’s purse by the roadside.  There is a small path nearby, no more than five metres long, a narrow short cut to a housing estate, flanked by a school on one side and a tangle of waste ground on the other.  Along this short path I’ve seen a whole clutch of wildflowers that I haven’t found elsewhere.  Now, alas, it has been ‘tidied up’ and all the wildflowers poking through the fence cut down.  But they’ll be back.  Sometimes, there is a particular kind of beauty to the nature at the edges, in the contrast between the ugly and the beautiful.  And no matter how we try to tame it, it always returns.

Towns and cities distract us.  They urge movement, rarely inviting us to be still.  Their attractions draw us away from noticing the small, wild things that are with us every day.  Nature is less obvious, but it’s there.  Even a weekly, regular walk to the same location will make a nature detective of you.  You may also have to change your view of what is interesting.  The commonest flowers are no less beautiful because they’re common.  When did you last look closely at a daisy?  Have you ever noticed the tiny lilac paws of the ivy leaved toadflax or the miniature heart-shaped seed pods that give the Shepherd’s Purse its name?

Only a year ago, I was blind to what lay around me.  Now, I’m building a mental nature map of my neighbourhood.  As each season passes, I add things to the map.  I know where to go to find a particular wildflower or fungus, the best place to see a hare or a heron.  I know where to watch the seasons change.  And I’ve barely scratched the surface.  I learn by experiencing nature at first hand.  There is nobody to tell me what I’m seeing.  Instead, I look carefully, noting colours, shapes, habitats, until I can put a name to what I’ve discovered.   There’s always something new to notice.  This week on my trip to the Dene, the buttercups have taken over.  The clover and yellow flag are beginning to bloom.  Hoverflies are everywhere and the spittlebugs have been hard at work creating their foamy dens.  I still long to live in a greener place than this, but I’ve learned that wherever I am, I can always find a little wildness.

The sun stands still

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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