The Air Sweet with Violets

This morning, I was walking along a wooded ridge when I spotted my first violets of the year, pale in the thin sun. As with the first sight of snowdrops, the discovery made me smile; spring flowers feel like a kept promise.

When I got home, I looked up the violet in The Language of Flowers; or, Flora Symbolica, by John Ingram, which lists the traditional meanings associated with plants.  I came across my copy, published in 1887, in a second-hand bookshop, and discovered that an earlier owner had pressed scores of dried flowers and leaves within its pages like fragile, antique bookmarks.

While there isn’t a pressed flower to mark it, the entry for the violet is much longer than for many of the others – somewhat ironic given that the violet is often associated with modesty, as well as faithfulness. Poets from Homer to Keats have celebrated it, and myths have been woven around it. According to The Language of Flowers, the Greek goddess Artemis transformed Ia, daughter of Midas, into a violet to conceal her from the amorous intentions of Apollo; while Jupiter caused the first sweet violets to appear as sustenance for poor, hapless Io, when she fled in the form of a white heifer from the wrath of Juno. So in this way the violet is linked to concealment, of beauty creeping beneath notice.

Yet with the arrival of spring, violets sometimes cluster in abundance on hedge banks and around the roots of trees in woodland; where one might be invisible, together they attract attention. They bloom all around the garden here – in paving cracks and flower pots, roots taking hold tenaciously; then, when the flowers are faded, their brittle pods scatter seeds far and wide. Small yet rich in colour and fragrance, they appear where it suits them; an unasked for gift.

 

Violet images (c) Sue Belfrage

Growing from What’s Buried

The autumn rain has awoken a lingering ghost in the garden. A tuft of honey fungus has sprouted where an apple tree once stood ten years ago. The common name given to three closely related species – A. mellea, A. bulbosa and A. ostoyae, honey fungus is feared by gardeners for its ability to kill a wide range of trees and shrubs. Yet, while it doesn’t taste of honey, the young caps with their white gills are edible when well cooked.

At this time of year, fungi spring up as if by magic, here one moment and collapsed in puddles of decay the next. While walking in the woods today, I came across peeling caps of fly agaric, the poisonous, red-and-white toadstool of fairy tales. Their appearance was another reminder of what lies hidden, ready to surface when conditions are right.

Neither animal nor plant, mushrooms and toadstools are the fruiting parts of mycelium, the fibrous white bodies of fungi buried in moist soil and rotting wood. Forest ecologist Suzanne Simard has discovered how trees use underground networks of fungi to communicate with each other and send each other nutrients, likening the systems to our own neural and social networks.

The reappearance of fungi at this time of year also fits with the traditional celebrations of Samhain or Halloween, when the veil between worlds of the dead and the living is believed to become less opaque, and the past returns to haunt us. In my own dreams in recent weeks, buried memories have been resurfacing and I have found myself waking in anger at perceived wrongs.

So, what to do about returning ghosts? Folklore advises us to treat them respectfully – and then, perhaps, they might just help us, rather than harm us. Now is the season to honour the past.

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…

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!

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!

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?

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.)