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.

 

*******

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.

****

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.

Red Sun

Yesterday, I was sitting at my desk, tapping away at computer, when the world appeared to end. The sky turned a singed orangey-yellow colour, and, when I peered outside, the sun was blood red. It was 10.20 in the morning, and birds took to the sky as though getting ready to roost for the night. In the distance, dogs began to bark.

After two or three hours, the last remnants of Hurricane Ophelia whirled past like the skirts of a dancer. The sun lost some of its crimson glow. Yet the shadows it cast remained tinged with orange. The atmosphere was eerie and a friend driving across the country said she thought a meteor was about to strike.

Of course, every day somebody’s world somewhere ends in one sense or another – perhaps through loss, happenstance, accident or simple chance. At some of those times it can seem impossible to make sense of it all.

Yesterday’s spectacular red sun was quickly explained by the media: Saharan sand kicked up by Ophelia’s heels apparently, along with debris from forest fires in Portugal and Spain.

Nevertheless, despite knowing the facts, that sense of initial disquiet stayed with me for a while. I imagined how strange the rust-coloured sky would have appeared to somebody a couple of hundred years ago: perhaps a worrying omen or a divine sign. Yesterday’s red sun shone light on a deep-rooted human instinct – on our comfort in the familiar, and on the uncertainty and anxiety we feel in the face of change.

Harvest

It’s a dull day but I’m biting into a pear that tastes of summer. Keeping cool outside are freshly picked apples, firm and red against a grey stone slab, while indoors the freezer is crammed with bags of blackcurrants. It’s time to enjoy this year’s fruit and prepare for winter.

Soon the time for gathering fruit and nuts will be over: according to folklore, the devil was thrown out of heaven on 29 September, Michaelmas Day, and landed on a prickly blackberry bush. He promptly peed on the berries in revenge, which is why it’s thought best to pick them before October (unless you’re partial to devil wee).

As well as being free to forage and gather from hedgerows, I’m lucky to have friends and neighbours who are more than happy to share their harvests at this time of year. Sometimes this is in a sort of exchange – like the other day, when a friend gave me a jar of homemade jam as thanks for a lift to the garage – but mostly it’s a simple act of kindness, with bundles of vegetables and fruit turning up unannounced on the doorstep.

Today, I discovered that even one of the local squirrels has been unexpectedly generous, dropping off a couple of walnuts by our front door (having already raided our hazel tree). While I doubt he meant much by it, I put the walnuts in my pocket – and felt grateful.

A friend of mine, Lois Blyth, has written a lovely book about gratitude. Dipping into it recently reminded me how important it can be to focus on the good stuff, especially as the days grow shorter and cold nips at the air. On my way home earlier today, I stopped by a field of flowers. The sunflowers had drooped, necks bent, petals crumpled; but the dahlias were still a riot of colour, blasting out an orchestra of pinks, russets and golds. It started to rain, yet as I stood there I was reminded again about the power of small pleasures – and how a harvest like this can help carry us through the dark winter days.

Vine leaf

In other news, on Saturday 28 October, I’ll be taking part in Yeovil Literary Festival, talking about my book Down to the River and Up to the Trees. Please come along – it’d be lovely to see you there!