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.

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.

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)