It’s very exciting to receive a parcel for a publisher – and today, this one arrived.
It contains BRF’s book to celebrate 100 years of publishing, and includes a huge depth and breadth of wisdom and insight. They asked a wide range of people to contribute, including me. I’m very honoured to be invited to be part of this important project, it’s so good! I’ve written for them for a while, in Quiet Spaces, and now New Daylight. They also published my most recent book, “Jesus said, I Am – finding life in the everyday”. I find myself in excellent company. Here’s one of the pages that list the contributors, and you can see the depth and breadth BRF have pulled together to make this book. You might find me somewhere in the middle.
I was asked to write a reflection on a passage from John’s gospel, where Jesus speaks to a woman at a well. It’s a passage I love, and have spoken and written about before. I included a reflection on its themes in my book on the I Am sayings, as some scholars regard it as the first. You can read more about that here. As the title below says, the well is deep, and I find more and more wisdom, compassion and hope in the passage the more I allow myself to sink down into this encounter.
I’ve been having a browse through, and it is a beautiful, thoughtful book. It would make a good gift for someone interested.
You can buy it from the publishers here, or from wherever you like to purchase your books. It can be ordered from any local bookshop.
This is another poem written a few weeks ago, so is slightly out of time. But only slightly. I have yet to cut back the lavenders that guard this bench where I often sit, as they still have a few stray flowers which draw the bees whenever the sun comes out. And it does, these last few days of strange warmth, and intermittent downpours. In some ways, then, this poem is an elegy to the extravagant blossoms that drew so many bees only a short time ago.
It is also something else. It is a poem where I tease out the feeling I often have while in my garden, that it isn’t “mine” at all. It belongs just as surely to all the living things who make their home here, or feed, or rest, here. It belongs to the newts who live at the bottom of the compost heap, and the bees, and the worms currently throwing up extravagant curlicues of casts all over the lawn, and the squirrel now hanging upside down and raiding the bird feeder. So, I seek to tend for the benefit of all these who live here too. It is a good feeling, to know you share the space with other beings. It seems to be bound up with belonging, and gentleness, and a delighted respect. It’s a subtle shift in feeling, but it feels an important shift in perspective. I am sure, for most humans, through most of human history, this knowledge was part of our shared culture. I’m sure it was held gladly in the spaces between people as they gathered and grew and hunted, and that they passed it on with delight. I am glad to be finding it again, to be included in that long and noble practice of humility and service and mutuality in this small space. It is a small part of rewilding myself, as well as my place.
The Realm of bees
I enter this humming space, roofed by a tracery of magnolia branches, looking up at light-lined leaves. By my side, simple white gladioli.
I feel a slight reserve, knowing myself guest in my own garden, having stepped into this place of bees between the bowing guards of lavender, the scent on my clothes, taking care not to disturb the crowds and flights of bees, so many the flowers turn black and the lavender falls back, half closed doors enclosing me.
And as I sit I breathe deep in the great mead-hall of the bees, full of feasting and the warm hum of wings. I watch the sedums where honeybees stuff their yellow pockets, and the soft butterflies drink deep.
The air is heady, thick even, and one by one large bumbles make their way to my flower-scattered shirt, and rest awhile, and at the feel of them I find a deep stillness.
I see their soft fur, their forelegs scratching an itch, wiping a large, complex eye that looks up, looks up and seems to meet my own, and I wonder what they see as they see me.
I rest now, quietly and strangely, in this realm of bees, I am warmed by the same warmth as them smell the same rich goodness as we breathe the same air, as I sit here, among the flowers, adorned in bees, I feel no longer a stranger, but welcomed into their rich world, seen by their complex eyes, content with them in the sweetness of this early autumn sun. For this moment I, too, live in the realm of bees.
As things grow and spread in the garden, I sometimes feel a plant is no longer thriving, or no longer fits the mood. The colours and textures change constantly, and sometimes something can seem stranded, suddenly out of place. I felt that way about these tall, pale asters last year. I moved some, and find they are thriving in their new homes, but the rest, I thought I’d dig up.
Lack of energy or time or poor weather means that I often don’t carry out my plans, leave them for another season. But increasingly, I am not acting on an impulse to remove, I am giving myself another chance to look at things differently. I am so glad that I left these, for this year, the asters are the loveliest thing I see.
I thought about their transformation, or rather, the transformation I experienced in how I saw them. I realised that the plants that are around them, and the increased light now the old tree has died, have made them appear transformed, lit up. Seeing things in isolation, out of context, we can miss their beauty, their true qualities. Kindly companions change everything.
A change of heart/asters
I wanted to dig them up, these pale asters. They looked grey under clouds grey enough. Shaded and overshadowed, they spread, moved forward towards the light. In their advance, they bound cyclamen as tight as a vice. They are no good, I though.
But, it seems, they needed that light, and more than that, the right company – this new rich pink, the purple leaves turning deep red behind them, the pale chaos of ammi running to seed – all this has transformed them, or rather transformed my seeing, revealed their beauty – a delicacy of colour, a generous abundance.
In this new light, the bees and the butterflies crowd them for their late nectar as the sun shines on them, finding in them a sweetness I had missed.
I will not be so hasty. I will give myself time to look again. I will step back, take in the whole, and remember that kindly companions change everything. I will look to add, befriend, seeking the right company.
I will remember the value of light, and seeing each thing not for itself alone, but as part of a wider abundance. And so, I have had a change of heart and I see now, yes I see now, that none of this pale, unassuming flourishing is wasted.
It’s been a while since I’ve shared a poem with you, so thank you for finding me again! Sometimes, it’s good to simply be over the summer, to rest in warmer days, and fill up notebooks with things for later.
And so, this next poem comes to you a little out of season. There are still a few wild strawberries hanging on in there in sheltered spots, but now the autumn storms are upon us, and they don’t last long. So this is from a few weeks ago – it feels longer, like a different, sunnier world. The fruit ripening now is the apples – but I hope to write about them another time.
As I was harvesting wild strawberries, I was thinking how good it is, the way they just spread around the garden, making a home for frogs and newts and slugs, how good it is they choose their places to flourish and thrive. Much in the garden is self-willed, and it does seem to be thriving, if a little scruffy at this time of year.
I do tend them, by looking after the soil, and they tend me with their sweet goodness. As I was turning over this circle in my mind, this poem came, with a basket of fruit.
Wild strawberries – a gift
Each day now, I bend, send my hand through thick leaves, under undergrowth, searching for that flash of fruit.
Finding trove after trove, tiny, sweet-sharp, intense, lingering on the tongue.
They grow rapidly, self-willed, under my delighted gaze, spreading over rich soil thick with compost, nourishing the slugs and me.
And as I stretch and gather, gather and stretch, I feel a sudden wash of gratitude, precarious, and abundant, thankful for each tiny fruit.
For a moment, I feel part of a rich goodness beating steady and deep, a full base note under the sweetness – the endless life-circle of gift and gratitude, gratitude and gift,
and of mutual care – I care for the plants, and they care for me, gently, sweetly, with a taste never to be forgotten.
As we are beginning to venture out a little more, we thought we would pay a visit to Ely, and the vast indoor space of its ancient cathedral. They often have contemporary art there, which helps the old stones continue to sing, giving a new perspective on ancient truths. We knew that Gaia, an installation by Luke Jerram, was going to be there in July, and so we went and saw this beautiful, astonishing sight. The comparative emptiness of the cathedral space made it all the more powerful as it floated above us.
And as the space is vast, and it takes time to walk up to, around and beyond the piece, you do have time and space in which to allow the work to speak to you, to stir up responses, and to pray. I am sure that one of the intentions is to give us all an opportunity to experience something like “earthrise”, when the astronauts first saw the whole of the Earth from space, and how that shifted their perspective, and began to change the way all of us are able to see our home. The staggering, indescribable beauty of the whole called out my sense of awe, which sat uncomfortably alongside my awareness of the damage we are doing to our precious, unique home.
In the setting of the cathedral, as Gaia hangs in the nave under the painted ceiling which tells the long stretch of the Bible’s story, I found the language of repentance surprisingly, and helpfully, came to mind. Repentance both in our more familiar understanding of sorrow for wrongdoing, and desire to amend, and in the possibly more ancient meanings carried in the old texts, of returning home, and of undergoing a profound change of mind – a paradigm shift in the way you see.
Much of my writing celebrates the beauty of the natural world, how lovely, precious, and vulnerable it is. But sometimes, that love spills over into grief. So the old stones, and the old story, seemed illuminated by our current crisis, and, in turn, those ancient words seemed to express something necessary, and powerful, and, in the end, with the potential for hope.
Gaia at Ely Cathedral
She seems to float, lit up with her own light, slowly turning, blue and blooming with clouds as we walk up, look up, small before her.
While above our steps, the familiar painted roof rolls on, telling its painted story, from the tree, and the garden, on towards this
fathomless shining beauty, the ‘all’ that was so very good in that beginning. Now as she turns we see how she hangs below the story’s last scenes – the gift of a beloved child held on his mother’s lap, held forward towards us, loved and given and giving, and the wounded golden king, who gives still.
And below, below hangs the whole shining Earth, dazzling, vast with sea, turning and flowering with clouds from the southern ice-shine, melting although we do not see her weep,
And the land, those small green swathes and swags, are dressed in white too, a veil of vapour, while the deserts spread brown and red above our eyes.
The lands are small, countries seem tales we tell. What is certain is this one great flow – ocean and ice and cloud – and the unseen winds that bear them through our blue, breathing air.
And the people stand beneath her, lit by ice, and hold up their hands as if to carry her, or hold her, or save her from falling.
How beautiful it is. How strange and wondrous that we should be creatures who live within so much living perfection.
And as she turns slowly under the child and the king, I wonder, what do those familiar words mean now, ‘the sins of the world’, as the stain of our reckless harm seeps through the blue and green, through all this living glory,
And is there any hope in our waking up to beauty with grief and loss, even as dust and ashes float across the sky, across us all, late as we are in our repenting?
And is there hope, hope that we might be granted this grace – time for amendment of life, to tend the garden with its leaves and fruit, shining and greening, to take part in the work of loving and healing, of restoration, of making all things new.
A few years ago now, I wrote a poem called Sorrows. You can read it here, it might be a good place to start. In it, I describe the endless task of attempting to lay sorrows down, to look for what is good, to notice the beauty even in dark times.
That task does seem to be endless. It can get you through when things seem too heavy, it can help minute by minute, but, before you know, you find there they are, back in your arms, needing to be carried still. I have not found it helps as much as it used to. I have been learning a different way, a way of welcoming, of caring for each apparently unwelcome guest as if it were a child, or an elder with wisdom to offer, or both. I am seeking to learn to be gentle, and tender, with myself, as I would be to another. In this I have been influenced by, among other things, the beautiful and challenging Rumi poem, The Guest House, and Mary Oliver’s small treasure of a poem, The Uses of Sorrow. I include it here.
The Uses of Sorrow, by Mary Oliver. (In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.
And so I have written a sister poem to the first, one which expresses more roundedly what I seek to attempt now. I hope it speaks to you, too. I leave it up to you to wonder who is speaking the words of the final stanza.
I carry sorrows in my arms. They are heavy, and my arms grow heavy with them. I ache with the weight of both.
When I look up, away, they seem lifeless, and grey, but this day I choose to look down.
I find, to my surprise, a weeping child in my arms, a child who has known no consolation.
What if I cradle her gently? What if I ask her to tell me her sorrows, and stroke her hair, while the blue sky and the clouds and the trees bend softly to listen?
What if the high buzzard joins in with her cry, and the flower bends too, even while watered by her tears? I rock from side to side, the sway of a mother strong with love,
And in time, in time, I say “hush, I am holding you, I have heard you, rest now, sweet child.”
And she raises her bright head, full of wisdom, quiet with beauty, and looks at the darkening sky, and the golden trees where a white owl wakes.
Look, there are stars in the darkness, a whole Milky Way of them, there is the softness of dawn light coming, coming. Take courage. I am carrying you. We go together.
Things change, yet leave their mark. I was thinking about this as I looked at one of our apple trees, grown curved in its search for light. You can see the shape of the trunk most clearly in the shadow it leaves on the fence. It grew like this to adapt to the dense shade of a neighbouring shrub which grew faster than it, and cast it in shadow. That shrub died, it is gone now. Yet even as light returns, the curve remains. Grown like this, the tree has given us apples in autumn, and beauty all year. I thought about how the tree found a way of flourishing despite the shade, and admired its resilience. So, the poem is mainly about the tree, but also, murmuring away underneath, was an awareness of the tree as teacher, making visible something that is often hidden within us.
The tree adapted to its setting, and as the setting changed, the adaptation remains even though there is more light. We all do this, whether it’s growing accustomed to living quietly and distantly during a pandemic, or learning from a young age how to live in difficult emotional or physical circumstances. Even when things are better, lighter, more friendly, we can find ourselves living as if they are not. Patterns of mind can be changed, new growth can happen, but it takes noticing, with compassion, and stretching ourselves a little into the new, more open space.
As lockdown eases, we can go gently with ourselves as we try to asses what is safe, and what has become a habit that is no longer needed – and those assesments are far from easy. We can be gentle with each other, too, as we all navigate our way into more open living. The changes in how we respond may be, in part, due to patterns of being which were laid down long ago. These, too, can be nurtured into more helpful shapes that keep us safe and help us flourish, both. I believe we can become free from patterns that no longer serve us, and grow with full vigour.
All these things I thought about, as I looked at the apple tree. But mainly, I though how beautiful it was, and how much blossom it bore this year.
The apple tree, having grown in shadow
I follow the curve with my eyes, the way the thin trunk arches back, seeking light. On that side, the branches grow thicker, surer.
It bends away from the dense shade that was there, only weeks ago, a dark shrub that outgrew it, then died. Now, the blossomy branches lean back, away, from open light-filled space.
Cast in shadow, it grew thus, leafing and flowering, supple, adapting to shade, and seeking light.
I wonder, what will happen now? Now we have cut down that dense, dry growth? The thin branches on this side will fill out, strengthen, divide, reaching into the place that was once too dark, heavy, in time, with fruit.
But what of the trunk? Will it bear, one hundred years from now, that curve, lessened, perhaps, by years of thickening growth? The adaptation no longer serves it, yet the tree may still bear it, And the tree’s beauty is held in the grace of this curve.
Such shapes of growth and thought persist, gently, strangely, known or unknown. We make allowance for the ghost of a shadow no longer seen.
Last time, I shared a poem with you written in response to a day’s walking in Norfolk, close to Wild Ken Hill. More especially, it was about the birds we encountered. It was so uplifting to hear, and to see, so many creatures that were unknown to us, and most especially to hear songs we had never heard before. It’s an awe-inspiring, hopeful place. I’m not suprised that Springwatch chose it as their base this year. You can read the poem, and find links to interesting stuff, here.
That night, as I drifted off to sleep, I heard more. This is a falling-asleep snippet as I drifted off to the sound of more strange birds. I hear owls at home, from time to time, but a nightjar was beautiful and new to me. I’d found out about them while we were doing another walk, nearer home. The Sandlings walk takes the nightjar as its waymarker, and has artwork showing the nightjar – and its food the moth – to search for as you walk.
We never heard one – unsurprisingly, as we walked that route by day. One of the magical things of staying near the sanctuary of Wild Ken Hill is that we heard these night-creatures, at last. It seemed a fitting end to a day in which we had encountered so much richness, so much abundant life.
I was half wondering if a nightingale would join in. Not this time, but I have heard them near home before, and you can read about that here.
I lie awake, head full of the sound of daybirds, and slowly, slipping over these new songs now known by heart, come night cries – such life as lives in darkness.
First the owl, mottled and shadowed in leafing trees, and then the night-jar’s churning and rumbling down low, in rough ground
and as I drift into dreams with these strange guides, these gentle sounds and soft, there is a moment when I can wonder –
Where will they lead me, through unseen nightscapes, both strange and new, and strangely old – where will they take me – through what dreams of hope, both green and dark, will they carry me on their brown wings?
Last week, we decided to try to take a trip out. We haven’t been anywhere for months, with the lockdowns, and looked for somewhere to stay for a night so we could walk more coast path in Norfolk. Amazingly, we found a place very near Wild Ken Hill, where Springwatch is based this year – for non UK readers, that’s a glorious BBC live nature broadcast. Having read Isabella Tree’s Wilding, we’ve been chatting about rewilding and what we can do in our small patch to make space for the abundance of wild things. We were excited and curious to be so near a rewilding, regenerative project..
We might have expected to be immersed in wildlife, but that didn’t prepare us for the wonder of being so. Wherever we looked, there was more, and more – things we’ve never heard or seen before. Life was exuberant, everywhere, abundant in a way that was simply awe-inspiring. And then, as we were walking away from the wetland scrapes, there was another treasure. In the scub between the two banks, which strectched behind the caravan park, were turtle doves. I never thought I’d hear one.
These rare birds, all the creatures, seem happy to come if we make space for them, and refrain from harming the land. Life wants to live, it wants to return and thrive. Careful thought and work and research has gone in to providing this space, but it’s so good to know that there is hope, that the care is more than worthwhile. The joy and wonder we felt there reminded me that human flourishing is bound up with the flourishing of all things.
My husband took some pictures, and once we’ve uploaded them, I’ll share them with you here. I wanted to write my response, to share the joy and the beauty and the reverence of being surrounded by strange birds.
Strange birds, Wild Ken Hill
Walking along the bank, between scrub and scrape, insects rise in unaccustomed clouds, flying things unknown. A small orange butterfly rising and tumbling, keeps ahead, just before us until at last it settles on this wildflower bank, blowsy with cow parsley, and opens its wings to the sun
while another pair of wings, huge and white, make their wide arches and swoop and rise above and beside us, a great spoonbill unfolding awe about its feathers, lifted on air full of cries, and we walk softly among these flights of beauty with opening reverence.
And as we move on, under the warming sun, we turn to look to the other side where May froths with heady scent, and there, we hear a sound unheard before.
A soft low purring, rising and falling, one, then two, three, then many, the voice of the turtle doves, a tremor of joy, a long breath of wonder in this small space, near caravans and cars.
The yes of spring, the yes of hope, of awe and beauty and love, the yes of life, in abundance, these are borne to us on the wings of strange birds.
I am sure that all people who have ever tried to tend a garden, or grow crops from the land, are deeply aware of the changeablility of weather, and the vulnerability of their work. This year, I have pretty much given up growing veggies from seed, as the cold and dry has thwarted too many of my efforts.
I’m aware that the work and care I give to my garden can be undone so quickly by the weather. Increasingly, I’m aware how the increased instability of the climate is making it harder than ever to grow things. I seek to work in harmony with the rest of nature, but the rest of nature is capricious.
I am feeling the loss of a tree, that died a few years ago when the Beast from the East was followed by relentlesly hot and dry weather. I know I could not save it, and cannot save all the plants. Even though I know new things are growing, there is an unease in my tending. I have planted an apple tree in its place, which is flourishing, full of blossom. But this contrast between my nurturing of the place, and the wildness and unpredicatability of the weather has been on my mind.
Elsewhere, I have written about the tree. You can read it here.
And yet, the garden is full of life, it florishes, and changes, and we adapt. Things want to grow, and live, and they do.
A good place
Just now, a buzzard drifted overhead, slowly, consideredly. ‘This is a good place’ I whisper, looking up, as mice quake the lengthening grass. It flies on, slowly, its head turns back
as a blackcap sounds its golden, limpid song. This is a good place. Yet the tree died even so.
The weather blows in weird. Too hot, too cold, too much, then not enough, rain. Things begin their opening, and close and blacken.
This is a good place. I tend and nurture. I make homes for many creatures. And the tree died even so, even so the earth shifts as the ice melts, the winds veer and change, I cannot hold them back – that endless dry north wind that burns the soft green growth.
But I stand with my trowel in my hand, with dirt under my nails, and I tend, and I nurture, even as I look up and watch the sky change, as high birds drift across, and I live tenderly, tending, For it is a good place even so.