Into the Gloaming

Nightfall turned me into a ghost. It had been so hot, I’d dressed in white and hadn’t thought to change into more suitable clothing for a late evening walk. Now my husband was a little unnerved as I appeared to be floating across the field towards him.

With the twilight came the dusk chorus, dark’s answer to the dawn; in the woods, owls hooted and screeched. There was rustling close by, perhaps deer or a badger stirring, as the night woke up.

I’d hoped the day’s heat would be enough to light up the hedgerows, and I wasn’t disappointed. As we started down the track, we spotted the first tiny flicker: a glow worm suspended from a blade of grass. Further along, we found another and another deep within the hedge, fragile greenish-white dots of light.

It’s no wonder folktales abound about faeries. Midsummer Eve, a painting by the English artist Edward Robert Hughes (1851-1914), captures and transforms the charm of these dabs of hedgerow brightness, which cast their own faint shadows.

Of course, in traditional tales, fairy folk or, as they are also known, the Sidhe (‘The Good People’), are much more ambiguous beings than the merry crowd depicted in Hughes’s picture, and best not crossed…

Although neither fairy folk nor indeed worms, glow worms are similarly best left undisturbed in their natural habitats. Their bioluminescence is mainly generated by the female beetle (Lampyris noctiluca) with the aim of attracting a mate. In England, the best time to see them is between June and August – and  those up the lane certainly seem to be more active on balmy nights.

All the same, while they might be firmly of this world, glow worms nevertheless seem to suggest that, on warm summer nights at least, a little magic might just be possible…

Bees in the Eaves

With dawn, the wall begins to wake and I lie listening to the sounds of stirring. Bumble bees have made a nest under the cottage eaves. In the quiet, you can hear them as they start to go about their working day.

These bees are less intrusive than our previous summer guests – a colony of hornets. While  the hornets were placid creatures, we soon learnt to shut the windows when dark fell. The insects were attracted to artificial light, and would parade outside the glass near lit lamps. Similarly, whenever I mowed the lawn, I was aware they might be disturbed by the vibrations, so kept my distance from the site of their nest above our back door. Although the hornets would occasionally emerge to take a look while I was pottering around outdoors, we left each other respectfully alone. All the same, I admit I was relieved when they moved on.

The buildings we live in are home to many more lives than our own, from solitary masonry bees who crawl into cracks between bricks and beetles under the floorboards, to summer’s swifts swooping over the roofs of rural towns. While instinct can incite us to treat some of these cohabitants as ‘pests’, the rewards to be had from controlling our impulses towards them are manifold – from pollinating gardens to caring for the planet.

The buzz of the bumble bees in the wall and the way we react to insects generally inspired me to write the following short piece; I hope you enjoy it:

 

Inside The Wall

 

The woman and the man watch the wall

A-creep with beetles, bees and ants.

When, at last, the returning queen

Docks with the insect grace of an airship,

The woman points and the man nods.

In white suit and alien helmet

He cautiously climbs a ladder,

Puffs poison into cracks

And seals the entrance with dead white:

No hornets here this year.

 

Next summer, she lets a waking queen

Out of an upstairs window,

Then stops to listen.

The bedroom wall humming like a blocked tap.

Outside she spots them circling:

Small bumblebees, black blobs of velvet,

Nesting under the eaves.

Their song is strangely comforting –

As if the stones were alive and

Nothing quite destroyed.

 

(© Sue Belfrage, 2018)

 

In other news, Bull Mill Arts near Warminster,  Wiltshire are hosting an open studio event on 7 to 8 July, where copies of the new paperback edition of my book, Down to the River and Up to the Trees, will be available as part of the event’s celebration of trees and nature.

Of Nightingales and Sparrowhawks

Yesterday, at sunset, I heard a nightingale sing. Its voice trilled, dipped and soared from the shadowy boughs of a sycamore tree. My companions and I stood enthralled, hardly daring to breathe lest the spell be broken. It seemed impossible that a small brown bird, hidden from view, could weave such sounds.

Nearby, another nightingale answered, and in the distance another, while all around blackbirds chattered goodnights and blackcaps joined in the melody. With the fading of the light, the birdsong ebbed away till at last even the nightingale fell silent, perhaps to strike up its song once we had gone.

In folklore and myth, the nightingale has long been linked to love and loss. Yet listening to the birds at dusk was soothing as balm –  a contrast to an avian encounter two weeks earlier.

Then I had been sat outside reading in the sun, when a starling and her fledglings started to screech alarm calls from the garden next door. A blackbird joined in, as did other birds, and suddenly a squadron of starlings swooped in overhead.

I peered over the wall and still could see nothing. ‘What’s going on?’ I asked; I didn’t expect a reply.

As if summoned, a sparrowhawk hopped out from a tangle of plants onto the lawn, wings dropped like a magician’s cape. If it had been mantling prey, it had abandoned this and now looked at me, head cocked, eye yellow, assessing; for all the world as outraged as a pantomime villain. In a blink, it took off and scimitared across the grass, then disappeared over a far wall.

While the garden birds settled back into their comings and goings, the surprise of the episode momentarily shook me. No wonder the ancients believed in augury – in divining the future from the behaviour of birds.

And no wonder, when we hear them sing, we’re touched by untamed magic.

 

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Just to confirm that the publication date for the paperback edition of Down the River and Up to the Trees is nearly here: 14 June!

 

Spring Fever

‘The city mouse lives in a house;

The garden mouse lives in a bower’

Christina Rossetti, ‘The City Mouse and the Garden Mouse’

 

A dash of brown caught my eye, up and over the garden wall. I watched and waited: a rodent of some description was on the move, building a nest among the masonry and scurrying back and forth to collect bedding. It was too far away to be sure and I’m no expert, but based on previous sightings, I’m guessing it was a vole.

During the winter, I found the entrances to one or two burrows in the lawn after snowmelt. (In fact, a neighbour became so fascinated by these holes that she suggested installing a camera to capture the occupants.) Now the weather’s warm enough for mowing and the grass is short again, perhaps the tunnels have been abandoned – after all, who wants to live rattled by lawnmowers – and the voles have opted for high-rise living instead?

Mouse or vole, I was impressed by the little creature’s industry as it dragged rose leaves the length of its body back to its hidey-hole. I was also secretly impressed by its lack of respect for boundaries: although it had made its home on my side of the stone wall, it kept nipping over into another neighbour’s garden to collect building materials. This particular neighbour has a very beautiful and ordered garden – and a notable aversion to rodents.

Try as we might, perhaps it’s impossible to prevent a little chaos creeping in; and maybe that’s no bad thing? The end of April and beginning of May are traditionally a time of celebration, of dancing and rebellion, fertility and Beltane fires, of waking energies and creativity on the loose…

When I inspected the wall where the beastie had built its nest, I found hazelnut shells crammed into the crevices, fragments of brown amidst grey. Evidence of life hidden in the heart of rock.

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The paperback edition of Down to the River and Up to the Trees will be available this summer. Watch this space!

Time to Wake

The last couple of weeks have made me think about time and the ways in which we relate to it. It started with a trip to New York, the city that famously never sleeps (quite a contrast to rural Somerset). The day after I arrived, Daylight Saving Time began and the clocks went forward; having gained five hours by crossing the Atlantic, I now had to hand one of them straight back… so where did it go?

I arrived back in Britain a week later to unseasonal heavy snowfall, the emerging spring shrouded in grey and white. Having flown 3,465 miles in just over 6 hours, it took us another 4 hours to drive the remaining 120 miles home. The word ‘journey’ has its origins in the Old French journée, relating to the distance travelled in one day, and it struck me how the relationship between time and distance is far less predictable in our twenty-first century than it once used to be.

Then, a week after my return, the clocks went forward here too. By now everybody has just about adapted to the effect this has had on our internal body rhythms. In his fascinating book Why We Sleep, neuroscientist Matthew Walker explains the workings of the human body’s 24-hour clock or circadian rhythm (and, incidentally, provides a great defence of the lie-a-bed ways of owls like me who happen to live with chirpy larks). Regardless of where the hands might be pointing on a clock face, our bodies are naturally tuned to the wider environment and the rising and setting of the sun.

As well as possessing inner body clocks, it seems to me that we are each of us flesh-and-blood calendars or diaries, shaped by our individual relationship to time, how it feels to us and how we use it (and are used by it). The longer days are summer’s invitation to us to stay awake, get out and engage with the world.

Fieldfares

This week, the snow came, carried in by a storm. And a day ahead of it, the fieldfares arrived.

A flock of about thirty birds took over a crab apple tree in our neighbour’s garden, crowding out the local blackbirds. Every now and then, a few would visit us next door. They kept their distance from the other garden birds busy on the feeders, yet their hunger made them brave, and a couple of them (along with a song thrush) would hop right up to the jasmine by the front door to pluck the berries.

One of the visitors took to guarding some fruit I’d put out at the foot of the garden, reminding me of a single fieldfare who used to visit us years ago, when we had an ancient apple tree. The bird was a plump, waddling creature, seemingly unfazed by anything – and I was pretty sure it was getting tipsy on the fermenting fallen apples.

Anyway, here’s a short poem-in-progress inspired by these latest visitors:

 

Fieldfares

They settle before the snow

On the black boughs of the crab apple tree

Like the notes of a half-remembered song

Sung in fluttering harmonies

Quavered by bright red fruit,

Of movement and feeding and hunger.

 

When the storm breaks and the snow falls

Over two clipped, sky-white days

The birds strip the tree;

With dusk, they disappear

To roost in the heart of the woods.

 

Twice they return;

Then vanish for good,

Suddenly, silently,

Snow borne on the tips of their wings.

 

The Edge of Spring

Drenched fields hold pools of sky and, in the surrounding farms, the cattle are restless in their byres. There is a tension in the air. One day the sun is out; the next it vanishes behind banks of cloud. Yet the birds are beginning to sing of spring, with the great tit’s two-syllable ‘It’s com-ing, com-ing, com-ing’; and pairs of jackdaws have started to make their nests in the outbuildings.

This past week, where others catch colds, I’ve found myself infected by anxiety. A couple of delayed projects meant my work temporarily dried up. Such are the joys of life as a freelancer: one day you’re drowning and the next you find yourself in a desert. Rather than stay fretting at my desk – or doing the sensible thing and phoning around for jobs – I went in search of water.

Over the course of the next couple of days, I walked for hours along the footpaths that crisscross the River Stour in the heart of the Blackmore Vale, a landscape immortalised in Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles. It’s flat and lush pastureland. The farms are large and ancient, and the river ribbons its way between them.

Along the way, I saw herons and egrets, skirted an ox-bow lake and was befriended at one point by a perky white terrier (whose owner I had to phone to come and fetch her, so keen was she on accompanying me across the fields).

And it struck me how hard it is to feel like a failure when you are walking: when you are simply moving one step at a time across the land and engaging with what you see, rather than worrying about what you should be doing or what you think you ought to have achieved. Equipped only with a map and a sense of direction, it can be easy at times to lose sight of the way markers – especially when you are trying to tiptoe your way round farmyards – yet somehow you always find the right track, even if it’s not the one you intended.

Of Rainbows and Burning Branches

When I realised I’d just spent the last 10 minutes by the window, staring at a rodent that was fine-dining on the fat crumbs from the bird feeder, I decided I probably needed to get out more. To be fair, the rodent was a bank vole – that round-eared, snub-nosed cousin of the mouse – and it was a lot more interesting than your average hamster. But even so.

I’d finished work that afternoon on the first draft of a text, and my brain and eyes were aching from pushing words around. In fact, I was beginning to feel a little like the Jack Nicholson character in the Shining typewriter scene – ‘All work and no play…’

Fortunately, while being a freelancer can be a risky, feast-or-famine and occasionally lonely business, one of the perks is that you are, after all, your own boss. If you need to take a few moments out, there’s no one to tell you that you can’t. I pulled on my parka and headed through the door.

It started to rain – but no matter. The light was a curious cast of brilliance against dark rolling clouds, and the horizon was smudged by the tail of a rainbow. By the time I reached my destination, the drizzle had cleared and the sky had cleared to blue. The trees were bare, but out on the lake a pair of willows burned like two torches, their reflections catching fire in the water.

As I walked, I let go of the day’s trivia. And for a moment I experienced that sense of freedom which carries with it an echo of childhood – of just being. It didn’t last long, but it was enough.

Today, I made a point of going for a quick stroll at lunchtime. Just down the lane and into the fields, squelching through mud. And, yes, it rained and, yes, I got soaked. But again it didn’t much matter. I returned to my desk feeling alive and awake – and promising to give myself permission to get out more. To live a little.

The Heart of Winter

Yesterday, a male bullfinch landed on the bare branches of the rose by my window. A ball of crimson, puffed up against the cold that had enticed him into the garden, he was a handsome and cheering sight.

For some reason, I always associate bullfinches with my late father-in-law, Mib; maybe it’s because, for such inherently shy birds, they appear plucky and defiant (or maybe it’s just because their colourful plumage reminds me of his trousers). Likewise, the wrens that hop along the wall remind me of my mother, who died nearly 18 years ago. One of my nicknames for her was Jenny Wren.

With the cold days and the long nights, the garden has become a hive of avian activity. The starlings that fledged in the summer are now bossy adolescents, pushing to the front of the feeder, the jackdaws stand sentinel and even the woodpecker has made a return appearance. I admire them for the ways in which they survive against the odds through the grey months of winter.

I’m writing this at the Winter Solstice, the shortest day – a time to muster up resilience and positivity for whatever lies ahead. This time last year, I had no idea that the next 12 months would see me write and publish Down to the River and Up to the Trees, or record an audio book, or give talks to strangers who would actually pay to listen to me.

Nor did I know of the heartbreak that 2017 would bring, with terrible loss experienced by dear friends.

While we can consult the stars and read the omens, who can predict exactly what 2018 will hold? Like little birds, it’s time to show resilience, to puff up our feathers and seek out whatever nourishes us – and to be prepared for whatever comes.

Light

When I was a child, living in the south of Sweden, my family learned to live with the dark – with mornings slow and red to rise, hours settled in the silence of snow, and days over before they seemed to begin. One of the local traditions that we embraced was the lighting of a thin, white Advent candle, marked with the days of December. I remember watching the date burn down almost greedily, the flame twinned with its reflection in the black of the window.

Those flickering slivers of light, how important they are, as we brace ourselves against the cold. At this time of year, light becomes infused with a particular religiousness. It becomes an essential, a tilting lantern on a small boat rocked by the passing of the seasons. How can it come as any surprise that light is such a powerful symbol?

In love with light, we ward off the threat of overwhelm, of being swallowed by immensity. In our good cheer, with hearths lit and sparkling strings of fairy lights strung around our homes, we acknowledge, in a way, how fragile we are.

Such little sparks. Beautiful against the vastness of the dark.