On Vulnerability

Everything is stripped away. In the garden, robins and blackbirds perch on bare branches, while wrens hop in leaf litter among scrawny tangles of shrub. In the fields, the low sun picks out the horizon. There is a starkness to the land.

I find myself facing this new year cautiously. Little feels certain or secure, worries abound, things over which I can exercise little control. But with this vulnerability there has come a subtle shifting, of gratitude and appreciation, of letting go and acceptance, learning to look outwards rather than in.

Now the solstice has passed, the days are growing longer; light is returning. Primula are already brightening up the bank side by the wall. They might yet be covered by snow, but the seasons will carry on turning.

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…

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.

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.

****

The paperback edition of Down to the River and Up to the Trees will be available this summer. Watch this space!

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.

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.

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)