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.

 

*******

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!

 

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.

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!

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.)

Arrivals and Departures

This morning our postman, Phil, handed me a small, white package through the downstairs window, and I put it immediately to one side. I already knew what was in it and held off opening it for a little while. I can’t quite explain why.

In the package was an advance copy of my first book, Down to the River and Up to the Trees, which will officially be published in a couple of weeks’ time. The arrival of this advance copy in the post marked a year to the day since I’d left my old job to embark on a freelance career. Quite the anniversary present!

A year ago, I had no idea what the future held. All I knew was that I needed to make some changes and couldn’t delay them any longer. I was lucky to have some savings put aside and the support of my other half, so I took the plunge – and resigned.

It was a good summer and I spent a lot of time outdoors, painting landscapes and in the beautiful surroundings of a friend’s garden. It was, in a way, a deeply healing experience – simply standing there, looking at the shapes and colours of the plants, feeling the breeze and hearing the birdsong. There is something very restorative and mindful about painting landscapes, whatever the elements throw at you or your canvas (though I can definitely say that oil paints and rain aren’t such a good mix).

At the end of the summer, a seed had been sown. And that seed has grown into the new book.

There is a famous piece from Goethe, ‘On Being Bold’. Now, I’ve had that piece stuck to my wall for more years than I care to remember – but the truth of it struck me again today:

‘The moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur that would never otherwise have occurred.’

A year ago, as I sat on a train home, feeling a little bit wistful and cradling a bunch of farewell flowers, I had no idea that a small, white package would arrive in the post today. Who knows what the next twelve months will bring?

freelance artist, oils, illustration, illustrator, freelance illustrator

Summer’s Here!

Last night we had the most spectacular storm. Woken by thunder, I climbed out of bed to watch the sky light up. After such a hot day, the heavy rain was welcome and in the morning the garden seemed a shade greener, the roses opening.

This is a glorious time of year, when everything’s growing. We have bumble bees nesting in the eaves, and the bird feeder is busy with fledglings. (I guess the feeder is the welcome equivalent of a takeaway for their frazzled parents.) One particular starling fledgling is so cocky he’s already tried to see off the resident woodpecker – who’s having none of it and jabbed him a lesson in waiting his turn.

Various projects of my own are fledging too: this new website and my book, Down to the River and Up to the Trees. Having recorded the audio version and corrected the proofs, I’m expecting printed copies of the book to arrive any day. It’ll feel a little unreal to hold it in my hands at last. But exciting!

In other news, I recently had a small exhibition of paintings and am now about to help my other half exhibit his handmade furniture at various country shows. So it’s a busy time of year, but a rewarding one… Time to take flight now summer’s here.