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!

On Sadness

The leaves on the horse chestnut trees are turning crisp and brown, curling at the edges like pieces of paper held too close to the fire. Apples weigh down the orchard boughs, the remaining plums are beginning to speckle with rot; and there is an expectation in the air, a slight chill in the morning. We are entering autumn, perhaps the most melancholy season.

For these past two weeks, I have sensed it coming. I’ve not felt like doing anything much creative, writing or painting. That isn’t to say I haven’t been busy with work and life generally – only that I’ve been slow to make headway with projects of my own.

Ordinarily, I’d be tempted to give myself a hard time about my lack of get-go, but this year I’m inclined to be a little kinder than usual. So far, 2017 has been a bumpy ride for many people I know, and sometimes it’s important, I think, to acknowledge the fact that life can feel hard; and, actually, there is no need to march on regardless, with some sort of rictus grin stuck to your face… It’s fine to slow down a little. It’s ok to be sad.

By sadness, I’m not referring to the sort of incapacitating depression that requires professional help, but to an emotion that I suspect we all too often try to brush aside in pursuit of would-be action-packed, colourful,  seemingly perfect lives. Sadness means recognising loss and failure, grief and upset, distress and longing; and realising that things could perhaps be better – but they are, sadly, what they are.

Yet, like any season, with time sadness too will pass. As Julian of Norwich put it over six hundred years ago: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

The leaves are turning, and soon the trees will be gold.

The Secret Life of Cows

Over the years, I have been licked in the face by a cow (gloopy), wrestled a newspaper off one (stubborn) and once found myself on the wrong side of a fence with a bull and his maidens (dangerous and quite frankly terrifying). However, I’ve never really thought of cows as close neighbours, even though they can be found in many of the fields around where I live. Most days I only have to cross the lane and lean over a five-bar gate to say hello to a herd of Friesians. But I think my attitude is set to change, now I’ve read The Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young.

 

The Secret Life of Cows is a completely charming and very thought-provoking book, first published in 2003 and reissued by Faber in October this year. In it, Rosamund Young shares stories from Kite’s Nest Farm, which she runs with her brother, Richard, and partner, Gareth. Her stories don’t focus on humans at all, but on dynasties of cattle and other animals at the farm, which sounds like a very special place.

 

Without particularly anthropomorphising them, Rosamund Young sketches the different personalities of cows, bulls, calves, pigs, sheep and even hens. I’ve often been intrigued by the ways in which cows interact with each other; and their sheer joy when they are let out into their spring pastures is something to behold. The sorts of behaviours that Rosamund Young describes are funny, intelligent, fascinating, moving and entertaining – and make a convincing case for animal sentience.

 

The Secret Life of Cows also shows the benefits of a different way of farming: about working with the needs of animals and allowing them a measure of freedom, rather than corralling their instincts without compassion. In addition to a score of animal anecdotes, it seems to me that The Secret Life of Cows is very much about the importance of kindness and the value of treating all other living beings with dignity.

Get Lost

Today, I did something unusual. At least, it’s pretty unusual in this day and age: I got lost.

I’d gone for a walk in the woods with our elderly lurcher-lab cross. Both she and I know these woods fairly well; they once formed part of the ancient Selwood forest and cover over 650 hectares, with trails and footpaths. A sign said there was an event ahead (probably mountain biking or horse riding), so I decided to turn down an unfamiliar track.

It was rutted but manageable at first, and soft under the dog’s paws. However, some time later, having carried the dog over tangles of bramble and rotting logs, it dawned on me that the track had in fact petered out a while ago. Here I was, lost, with a half-blind, elderly diabetic dog for company.

There was a drop of rain, then another. My hands tingled.

For me, tingling in the hands is a sign of adrenaline – like the feeling you get after a near miss in traffic. Standing there, knowing I was lost, felt odd both physically and mentally. Besides the unease, I was suddenly hyper aware of my surroundings.

I could, of course, pull out my phone and get my bearings (if there was a signal, which there often isn’t in this part of the world). Now, though, checking my phone felt like cheating.

I caught a glimpse of bright green through the trees, and thought I recognised a field where there’s a path nearby; but it was too far away to reach through thick undergrowth, down a steep slope. The only sensible thing to do was to turn round and pick our way along the route we came, so back we went – me carrying the dog when the going got tricky, she gamely following where she could. At a couple of points I had to decide which ‘path’ to follow, and was hugely relieved to recognise signs – a tree stump, a spill of puddle, a fallen branch – showing we were on the right track.

The experience of being lost made me think about all those stories in fairy tales, folklore and literature of straying off the path – from ‘Hansel and Gretel’, William Blake’s ‘Little Boy Lost’, to fantasy and horror. More than this, I made me realise how hard it is to get truly lost today, what with all our modern gadgetry.

Yet, without getting too Zen koan about it, if you never allow yourself to get a little bit lost at times, then how will you ever know what it feels like to be found?

For the Love of Pets

Perhaps one of the most delightfully eccentric works in the English language, Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart (1722–1771) pays tribute to the poet’s ‘Cat Jeoffrey’:

For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.

For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.

For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadrupede.

For he can tread to all the measures upon the musick

For he can swim for life.

For he can creep.

 

Jeoffrey was clearly a very special cat indeed, and Christopher Smart’s tribute to him shows the place he held in the poet’s affections. While Smart was in fact locked up in a lunatic asylum for some of the time during which he wrote Jubilate Agno, I think many of us can probably empathise with this particular form of madness: if you have a pet in your life, the chances are you love that animal to distraction.

Which means it is heart-breaking when anything happens to them.

A couple of weeks ago, my other half and I discovered that our beloved cat Bramble had been killed by a train. It came as a huge shock – we also have an aged lurcher-lab cross who has various health issues, and have been preparing ourselves for what lies ahead for her; so the loss of Mr B – a characterful cat in his prime – came like a bolt from the blue. Terrible as it sounds, I’ve been to a few funerals in recent months, and losing my little cat has affected me as much as any of them.

It also made me think that, for all that cats are maligned for the damage they undoubtedly can do to wildlife, nothing really compares to the destruction that humankind can commit pretty much absentmindedly while going about our business on this planet.

I suppose all we can do is to carry on doing our bit individually and collectively, however small, loving and caring for the domestic animals in our lives as best we can – as well as the animals on the fringes, visiting our gardens, hiding in the woods, brightening our world.

 

Colour Vision

A recent visit to Falmouth Art Gallery has set me thinking about colour.

The work of two artists was on display: that of Rose Hilton, a member of the St Ives group of post- war Modernist artists, and Winifred Nicholson (1893–1981). In the gallery showing Hilton’s paintings, the bright oranges and reds of her canvases zinged around the room like improvised jazz, whereas Winifred Nicholson’s work seemed altogether gentler, a melody of muted interiors and landscapes. Yet both artists explore the relationship between colour and form.

For Winifred Nicholson, a shade of magenta pink proved key, which when combined with yellows adds luminosity. She particularly enjoyed painting flowers as, to her, they were a consistent source of colour, ‘turning light into rainbows’ and offering ‘the secret of the cosmos’.

In an age of pickled sharks and unmade beds, Winifred Nicholson’s work might perhaps appear a bit twee at first sight. But when I looked closely at her paintings, I would see each petal was a whorl of energy.

I’m drawn to the idea that a subject doesn’t have to be deep and meaningful on the surface to be saying something quite profound beneath it. And that – to paraphrase something I’m sure I read in one of Winifred’s letters on display – there is a creative freedom that comes from focusing on those colours we wish to work with, while disregarding the rest. There’s no need to cram everything in, whatever we’re making; whether it’s a novel or a painting, simplicity brings with it a certain lightness.

 

(Freesias by Sue Belfrage)

Midsummer Magic

A few miles away, there is a hillfort reputed to be the last resting place of King Arthur and his knights. Legend has that every seven years, on St John’s Eve (23rd June), the king and his knights wake from their slumber and ride out from their hollow towards Glastonbury. The jingle of bridles rings through the night air and if you bathe your eyes in Arthur’s Well on the fourth trench – and are true of heart – you can see the men go on their way.

I have neither heard nor seen the King and his entourage (perhaps I need to work on my true heartedness),  yet I’ve long known this hillfort to be a magical place. Rising up like an island, it offers long views over the land, and a cloutie tree used to grow on its banks. Churned-up mud can sometimes make the lower path tricky to navigate, but the upper slopes circle in a ridge like a dragon’s back.

It’s a place I sometimes visit when I’ve a bit of thinking to do – about things that have gone badly or well. By the time I walk back down, I’ve often regained a sense of perspective. It’s amazing how a short walk can do that for you – and there are few times of year as glorious to be out walking as midsummer, when the trees are in full leaf and the grass is long. No wonder King Arthur chooses this time of year to hit the road.

Most recently I’ve been thinking about my book, Down to the River and Up to the Trees, which was published last Thursday. While it’s been a boost to see it in the high street shops at last and to hear the audio version (a taster of which you’ll find here), I’ve already got that niggling sense of … and now what?

Most likely, I suspect, the answer will come to me when I’m out walking.

 

(The photo shows the view south, to the neighbouring hill.)

Sharing the Secret

Today, I watched competitive scything, bought a handmade hat and watched a craftsman create beautiful objects out of copper. I was at the Green Scythe Fair, a one-day environmental festival tucked away in the Somerset Levels.

Over the years, I’ve seen the Scythe Fair grow from a single row of stalls on the edge of a field (full of people scything, very competitively) to a larger event; yet so far it has managed to keep true to its green roots and ethos. The Fair remains small, friendly, green – and special.

Which brings me to a dilemma: that feeling of having discovered something very special and wanting to tell everybody about it, while at the same time sensing it is precious – and wanting to keep it a safe secret. I have that feeling sometimes when I read an amazing book or go somewhere that touches my heart in a particular way. The sense that everybody has a right and indeed ought to experience something this magical… but if they do, might there be a danger that the magic will be worn away?

While I’ve every confidence that the Green Scythe Fair is in safe hands, this sense of wishing to share yet not wanting to spoil is, I’m guessing, experienced by many of us. I suppose we all have to learn to navigate our own way; to listen to our intuition and share those things that stir us most, while keeping them safe from harm.