Remembering

In the UK, lockdown is easing, the trees are blossoming and I know I should be celebrating. Yet instead I find myself remembering – a life without restrictions, events that didn’t happen and friends who are no longer with us. Amidst the optimism for what might lie ahead, there is grieving to be done.

Here is a poem that I shared with a friend who passed away recently. It might have been the steroids talking, but she liked it – so I hope you will too. Even when she was busy with the hard work of dying, she was full of joy and in love with the world. And with good reason. For all that this world is difficult and challenging, it is a thing of beauty. And that is worth remembering.

Our Apple Tree

In our garden is a space that holds

The memory of an apple tree. As ancient as the farm,

In spring, it pushed clematis to the sky,

Flowers tumbling pink into white blossom.

Nodding at the heavy, scrambling vine,

The old man warned,

‘See here, it’ll be the tree or that climber…’

Come summer, we swung a hammock in the shade

While little birds picked insects from scored bark.

Warmed by autumn’s ripening spell,

The tree turned magician,

Conjuring apples out of earth,

And a single speckled fieldfare visited

To feast drunkenly on fallen fruit;

Witnessed by our cat, too lazy to hunt the bird.

Our neighbour said, ‘Tie poison round the trunk

To stop the codling moth from climbing.’

In winter’s grey, the apple tree unfolded in stark fractals,

Each branch slick-silvered by the rain, and

Boughs bent, thick with sleeping energy;

The fellow next door said nothing,

Stayed at home by his hearth.

Then the day came when I returned to find it gone;

The shock stopped me in my tracks.

Toppled by the vine’s weight and,

Underground, white rot,

The tree had fallen silently

And rested, uprooted, against our garden wall.

We chopped it into firewood, as the old man suggested.

The following year, five thin shoots appeared –

With apple leaves unfurling.

Wild in the Woods

The Forest of Dean is one of the few surviving ancient woodlands in England, a place of winding mossy paths and dreaming ponds. Since the turn of the millennium, it has also been home to a thriving population of wild boar after a number of the animals escaped from a nearby farm.

When my husband and I were walking in the forest, we could see signs of wild boar all around us – uprooted plants and areas of soil ploughed with strong snouts. Our little dog knew they were there too, sniffing the ground with his tail in the air, keen to run up steep banks and off into the trees. We kept him close. Boar have been known to kill dogs if they feel threatened.

It was disconcerting yet somehow thrilling to know that boar were there, so close and perhaps even watching us – yet we couldn’t see them. There was something magical about too; folk magic always has an element of wonder and fear. At night, as we lay in bed in our rented cabin on the edge of the woods, we wondered if we would hear them, tiptoeing under the windows, snuffling, bringing with them the wild from the heart of the woods.

Later, at home in Somerset, I wrote the following poem.

 

Wild Boar

We heard wild boar had been sighted again

Deep in the heart of the forest,

Where mists drift over lily-specked ponds

And the ground is moist and black.

Of course, we showered them with curses:

Martha’s pigheadedness and glutton Thomas

And precisely why Morgan’s curtains are drawn…

Then we forgot all about them,

Left them to rootle, tusking up moss,

Cleaving the soil with their dainty toes,

Hoof prints sharp and pointed,

Approaching on the soft-turned mud.

Till we glimpsed the sun rise on the ridge of their backs;

Their moon-cradled bellies and skipping tails

Dancing too close;

Furrowing the turf by the back door,

Sending the dogs wild with rage –

You know that scent – ancient as roots.

At night, we hear wild boar outside,

Below the bedroom windows,

Trampling down marigolds, ripping up daisies,

Waking the dead in the churchyard;

Snuffling and squealing, carrying with them

A legion of sorrows, the sweet sins of the Earth.

The Voice is a Bridge

I’m used to silence – it’s virtually part of my job description – but even I have been struck by the quiet that has settled over the village where I live. No trains, no planes, little traffic; just the occasional boy racer flooring it and annoying the neighbours as he returns to a house-share up the lane.

It feels strange not to connect in person with the people I love and like, to keep my distance – as if we are all caught up in a weird social experiment. Which, in a way, we are… because of a virus that is casting a fearful shadow over human beings around the world.

In these days of social distancing, family, friends and colleagues have been in touch more often than usual – reaching out over the phone and on screen. Through modern technology and fibre optics, the voice creates a bridge from the heart. In the midst of so much fear, disease and devastation, many of us, myself included, are rediscovering the power of connection, speaking and listening to each other again instead of texting or typing.

So here is my voice to you, in a slightly tinny recording, reading a poem by a writer who was used to solitude and to keeping her own company, and who wrote when she  didn’t necessarily expect anyone to read her words: ‘Hope is a Feathered Thing’ by Emily Dickinson.

Healing Words

Last week, I headed out on a blustery, rainy night to listen to poetry being shared in a warehouse. This spoken word event grew out of an initiative set up by Take Art, an organisation that promotes the arts here in the county of Somerset. Their philosophy is that we need to ‘keep believing in the power of the Arts to transform individuals and communities for the better’ – and that November evening was as good an example as any. The Rainbow Fish Speak Easy began life as a project designed to help adults with mental health challenges find new ways to talk about their lives, and now the events welcome everyone.

Besides readings by three professional poets, there were open mic slots in which members of the audience were invited to share their work. While the rain drummed down on the metal roof, ordinary men and women, young and old, overcame their nerves and got up to read their pieces. The themes were as varied as the people there – from searching for ancestors, learning to drive, dealing with depression and the joy of owning a key to your own front door. It was moving, entertaining, funny and thought-provoking, with lots of applause and loud cheers.

It struck me again how poetry not only creates opportunities to share and be heard, but builds windows that allow us to see beyond our own lives and understand the world as others experience it. Which is, of course, what the arts are all about, and just one reason why they are so important.

In an age of austerity and stretched resources, the funding for projects like this one is under threat as rarely before – although it is precisely in these difficult times that we need the arts and all that they offer. I wonder if one day, the Government will be puzzled why there are no world-class British artists, musicians or poets – unless perhaps Eton educated. But the arts should never be just a pursuit of the wealthy: as the events like the Rainbow Fish Speak Easy show, they are a vital expression of the lives and souls of us all.

 

Flakes of Gold

Last night’s half moon was a haze and today the woods seem singed, as though burnt by an exhausted, sinking sun, with faded greens and exposed boughs. Summer is passing – it’s back to work. Yet these past few months have felt like so much hard work, with juggling jobs and balancing the books. These are not comfortable times.

It sometimes seems like the easy option would be to say, Enough! Despite knowing this isn’t an option. Not really.

Instead, I’ve fallen back on looking for flakes of gold; finding the little glimmer that can light a whole day. For me, this has often meant searching for a familiar wonder: glimpses of glow worms burning like alien lights in the hedgerows. I’ve written about these beautiful bugs before, tiny neon lanterns, but this year they’ve taken on even more importance for me.

Last thing each evening after dark, I walk up the lane in the hopes of spotting a tiny green dot of light, almost talismanic. With each passing night, their numbers dwindle, like the lights going out along the front of a seaside town at the end of the season. Still I smile to see them so late on, now into September, my birthday month – a time of personal new beginnings.

I remember, many years ago, panning for gold in a water way – and the wonder at discovering tiny glints of yellow in the mud.

It comes down to feeding the heart with these scatterings. These splinters of beauty. Flakes of gold.

Spring Slow

‘April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of dead land’

T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

 

The arrival of spring brings with it a certain exhaustion.

Days of sun followed by frost and snowfall; an hour vanishes as the clocks change. Gardens, fields and hedgerows are flecked with brilliant greens, yellows and purples; yet there’s a lingering weariness in the bones, tired from winter, not quite rested, newly unsettled by the changing season.

The contrast between all this fresh growth and life steadily progressing, one day at a time, can feel almost overwhelming.

I found myself sat in a kitchen chair, gazing at nothing, when there was a rumble of thunder and the sky broke open. Hail bounced off the road and rooftops. The kitchen skylight was pelted with pellets of ice, covering it in a layer of white. Then, as quickly as it had come, the storm passed over and the hail began to melt in the returning sunshine. Within a minute or two, only a scattering of glittering crystals remained. I watched them disappear.

When I went outside, I knew what I might find – the remnants of a rainbow, where the sun struck the dark clouds as they rolled eastwards. With all this spring busyness, an invitation to pause, look up, slow down.

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…

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.

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.

 

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.