Yesterday was the Autumn Equinox, and now, today, there is more dark than light. Yesterday, too, in the UK, there were announcements from politicians about measures to slow the spread of the virus. We are still experiencing pandemic, and six months to the day the first lockdown began. Many will be feeling anxious about the thought of the winter ahead. It feels as if the world grows smaller again.
I’ve been exploring some aspects of our crisis in my meditations on Exodus. You can read the latest poem in that series here. In those reflections, I’ve had at the back of my mind how we hold on to hope in difficult times, and I’ve been thinking of hope as an act of defiance, a radical act. Today’s poem looks at joy in a similar way. As well as looking at the difficulties we face, I am seeking to cultivate joy too as an act of defiance, a radical posture that looks deeper than circumstance, real and pressing though that may be. Of course, it is not always possible. Sometimes, we sit with our sorrows, or our sorrows sit with us, and are reluctant to leave.
Often, though, we can take this stance. Maybe, we can receive both the gift and the grace of joy when it comes, and maybe we can also work to cultivate it as a habit, a practice, a spiritual discipline, a work.
Can we do that? Can we, at least some of the time, choose to take joy where we find it? And even cultivate it, and treasure it?
When that is too hard, perhaps even such beauty as this poem seeks to share will be some help.
The hot lane is full of wings, rising over the sand-blown tar, spiralling together with the urgency of life.
Dragonflies, dozens – red, blue-green, yellow, joined or unjoined, flying with rainbows caught in their light, clear wings – I have never seen so many.
And large white butterflies dancing, spiralling, looking like great white poppies caught in the breeze, seeking each other, dazzling in the dazzling light.
How it lifts you to see them, how it lifts you to feel the warmth of the sun on your skin as it turns on its balance point towards sleep, and coldness.
And then, down past the foot ferry and the wild swimmers it all opens up – the great windy marsh-weave of river and saltwater, island and marshland, blue of the sky rippling in water, shining mud, and the hiss of rushes in the north wind
Which carries other wings. Long skeins and lines of honking geese, endlessly joined by threads of sound – the loud echoing call, the beat of thousands of wings that bring dark with them on their dark flight feathers, racing with cold at their backs.
And we know how winter comes, we know the night lengthens with its endless stars, we know our days grow short
Even as this joy rises, even as it rises up, bears you up like wings that beat with such effort of heart, with effort of voice to cry out, cry out like this – look, look how good it is, how good.
Here we are, then, in this series of poems drawn from my meditations on the book of Exodus – we have reached the first plague. The first of ten terrible blows to strike at the stony heart of Egypt, when Pharaoh refused to release his slaves from their labour.
You can read this section of the story, and reflections on its meaning for us, now, in our time of crisis, in my previous blog post here. As I’ve said, I find the story of the plagues hard to read, hard to understand in the terms it is set out. What I do see is a picture of God who longed for this people to be free, who cared for their suffering, and who asked their oppressors, through Moses, to release them. I see that the slaves found it hard to hold on to hope, as did Moses. I see how Moses and Aaron persist at risk to themselves, and their people, in asking for freedom, and to warn of the consequences if freedom is not granted.
It seems to me, that in the Hebrew scriptures, plagues and national disaster are linked to injustice – especially towards the vulnerable, and even to the land itself. We see this in the book of Amos especially, but it runs through the words of many prophets. However we interpret these stories, the ancient wisdom gives us connections between not following the ways of justice, and mercy, and peace, and the unravelling of nations.
This poem, like others in the series, is uncertain. We are part way through a story, and if we are to honour the story, we can acknowledge the confusion, the fear, that must have been felt by those who lived it. We are used to reading stories in the pages of scripture, and they can become, in time, stories we know well. We can forget that these people’s stories were full of deep uncertainty, fear, and confusion, as we find our own lives to be. But if we remember, and enter into them compassionately and prayerfully, we may see where they found their hope, and how they lived even when hope was not to be found. Perhaps we can draw some encouragement from their ancient wisdom.
This poem echoes the first in the series, Pharaoh’s daughter, and the child. It draws out the parallels between the beginning of Moses’ story, and this moment when the plagues begin. That seems significant to me.
Thank you for joining me on this walk through this most foundational of the Hebrew Scriptures. I hope it helps as we navigate our way through difficult times.
Moses waits by the Nile for Pharaoh. Exodus poems 9
Here you stand, by the place where your mother left you in a basket, where your sister stood watch, all those long, restless years ago.
In the place where a Princess’ attendant drew you out from the water, crying, out from the Nile-reeds, where crocodiles waited, out from the flood and the snakes and the hum of mosquitoes, out from the sentence of death – instead, adopting you, making you her own.
And now, all these long, restless years later, another from the royal house makes his way to the bathing place, just as she did, and will find you there
as you stand, with your brother by your side, as golden Nile-waters swirl and eddy and ripple outwards, outwards from the place where you stand, shining and fearful in the dawn light.
And, as there was no freedom to be granted that day, You raised high your staff, brought it down to strike that golden water which thickened and reddened and turned to blood.
And the Nile, which should be the life-blood of the land, became instead the blood of death. Death like that of newborns cast without help or mercy into these waters, long restless years ago, at the time when you were saved.
Judgement, could this be judgement, stretching out like darkness over a dark land?
Where is peace, and mercy, and life to be found now? Where a soft heart in this dry land? Where freedom?
I’m working on a poem based on the first of the ten plagues of Egypt, where the River Nile was turned to blood. It’s not easy, this whole business of plagues, as I’ve said before. It feels an ancient interpretation of events, and I’m seeking to be honest about the unease that interpretation stirs in me. At the same time, a series of catastrophies befalling a nation, even as great an empire as ancient Egypt, seems so current, so in line with our daily news broadcasts, that I’m sticking with it, and seeking to be open to the movement of the Spirit, to show us what wisdom, what help, there may be for us. One of my guiding principles when I find a passage difficult is to ponder – if all scripture is useful for teaching us goodness, then what use is this scripture? What goodness might be learned from it?
As I’ve been allowing my mind to inhabit the story, a number of things have come to mind, and won’t be shaken. The first is the symmetry of the story. The story most people remember about Moses – if they are familiar with the narrative at all – is how he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter in a basket concealed among the reeds in the Nile, found in the morning when she went to bathe. This new Pharaoh seems to keep to the same tradition, of visiting the river at dawn to bathe, accompanied by attendants. Moses therefore finds himself standing near the place where he was left by his mother, and found by the princess, waiting to challenge Pharaoh. The symmetry is so striking I’ll copy the retelling from my earlier post Retold : On the banks of the Nile.
“On the Banks of the Nile.
Jochebed and her daughter Miriam slipped out just before dawn. They walked silently, shapes blending into the darkness. At every sound they stopped, afraid the slave mastrs might hear them. They crept down to the green banks of the Nile, the great river that was the lifeblood of all Egypt. There, by the trembling papyrus, they stopped and set down their load. It was a tightly woven basket, a tiny boat, contaiing Jochebed’s three-month-old baby son. She lifted the lid and leaned down to kiss him, splashing him with her tears. Miriam said, “I’ll stay nearby and try to keep him safe….” Jocobed slid the little boat into the reeds, and ran back to her cramped mud-walled slave house. “May God protect and keep him!” she prayed. She knew Pharaoh wished her son dead, along with all the other Israelite baby boys. For the Egyptians hated the Israelites now. The Egyptians had forgotten how Joseph had saved them from starvation many generations ago. In Egypt, the Israelites had grown in number and strength, and the Egyptians looked at them with fear in their eyes. So they made them slaves, but they could not crush them. In his anger Pharaoh summoned the two midwives who delivered the Israelite babies, and gave them a terrible order: “When the babies are born, let the girls live, but kill the boys.” The midwives bowed as they left, but they would not do such a terrible thing! The baby boys continued to live, and grow strong. Then Pharaoh commaned everyone. Throw all the baby boys into the Nile!”
Miriam stayed by the Nile, hidden among the reeds near her tiny brother’s basket, and waited. Then she heard the sound of singing, and saw the princess, Pharaoh’s daughter, coming towards the river with her maids. Miriam hardly dared to breathe. Would the Egyptians find her brother? The princess and her attendants were so close now. Miriam watched the princess take off her jewels and glide into the water. It shimmered like gold in the early morning light. Then the princess stopped. She had seen the basket in the reeds, and sent one of the slave girls to fetch it. Peering inside, the princess saw the baby crying. Her heart melted. “This is one of the Israelite babies!” she said. Miriam seized her chance. She scrambled out of the reeds, and bowed down before the princess. Swallowing her fear, she spoke. “Your Highness, shall I find one of the Israelite women to nurse this baby for you?” “Why yes, go as quick as you can!” For the baby was crying very hungrily indeed. Miriam ran back home to get her mother. “Care for this child, and bring him back to me when he is weaned. I’ll pay you for your trouble!” said the princess, gently placing the baby in Jochebed’s arms. Jochebed’s heart nearly burst with joy. She had her son back! So she sang him Hebrew songs, the songs of the Israelites, and told him of thier God, and his promises, while he was a young child. She prayed for him, and cared for him tenderly until it was time to give him up to Pharaoh’s daughter. The princess called him Moses, and adopted him as her own son. He grew up as an Egyptian prince, educated by the best tutors and trained to rule.” From The Bible Story Retold
Within this symmetry is also a terrible symmetry of justice. This is the subject of the poem I’m still working on, so I’ll say more when I share that with you. But I’m sure you’ll note, if you read the story above, that the river at this time was a place of death for the baby boys born to the Hebrew slaves. The river that was the life-blood of Egypt had become for them a place of death. On doing a bit of research, it seems that some ancient commentators suggest that this first plague was a punishment of the Egyptians for that terrible act, and that ties in with description of the plagues as judgement. My previous poem, The space in between, also holds this possibility.
Others see the plagues as a challenge to the Egyptian gods, and this one is a challenge to Hapi, often seen as a symbol of life and fertility brought by the river’s floods. As we’ve seen, the cruelty of the command to throw the babies into the Nile is in itself a serious undermining of that understanding of the river as a source of life and fertility, and perhaps an offence to those principles even under the Egyptian’s own belief system.
If there is some truth in these understandings, then this first plague might also be a foreshadowing, a forewarning of the last and most terrible – the death of the firstborn boys. We shall explore further.
For now, here is the fragment of story we are dealing with, taken, as they all are, from my book, The Bible Story Retold.
Moses and Aaron warned Pharaoh of the terrible things that would happen if he did not set the slaves free, but he would not listen. And so, it began.
First they spoke to Pharaoh by the Nile as he went down to bathe. Moses and Aaron stood by the banks of the river and said, “This is what our God says: you must free our people to go to the wilderness. If you won’t listen, the river will become blood red, undrinkable, stinking. Egypt will be thirsty.”
Pharaoh turned away and carried on toward the bathing place. Then Aaron raised his staff and brought it down on the water with a mighty splash. The water swirled, thickened, and reddened, like blood, and gave off a foul smell. Fish floated gasping to the surface and died. But Pharaoh’s magicians could change water too, so he simply went back to the palace, unimpressed. He would not let the people go.
From “The Bible Story Retold in Twelve Chapters”, published by Lion
The next thing I’ve been thinking about in the light of this passage, is our own waterways, and whether they bring life, or death. If this difficult passage is useful, and I believe it is, one of the things that it may be teaching us is that actions have consequences. We can live harmoniously with God, with each other, with creation, or not. And those choices have consequences.
Yesterday, it was revealed that not a single one of Britain’s rivers met water quality standards. This is terrible, a tragedy for all the life that depends on rivers. And all life does depend on water. As we reflect on the ancient story of the Nile, the lifeblood of the country, turning undrinkable, we can remember how important our own rivers are, and how the actions of people, and corporations, may make them instruments of harm, rather than good. If this passage is to train us in goodness, and perhaps rebuke us, this is one way we can permit it to do so.
We can seek to become aquainted with our own rivers, our own watershed, and seek to care for it – perhaps with a litter pick, or perhaps with simply our respect and affection. Maybe, as we explore, we may notice things that spoil – outlet pipes, plans for unsympathetic development – and then take action. We may notice things that help – conservation efforts, stands of trees, efforts to clean up rubbish – and wish to join in. We’ve been walking our river the Deben over the lockdown, and you can read a poem about that here. If we start with love, and respect, then our care may lead to different action.
Perhaps you can see why it’s taking me a while to write my poem about this first plague! There has been much for me to think about, to prayerfully mull over. I’ll share it when it’s ready, and I hope that’ll be soon. Thank you for joining me on this Exodus journey.
Welcome to this continuing series of poems drawn from the ancient account of Exodus. I’m finding some common ground with current events, and much wisdom, in that story. It’s an account, from the perspective of the slaves, of their journey to freedom from the Egyptians. Both Hebrew and Egyptian suffer on that journey.
It’s taking me a little time to come to meditating on the plagues that beset Egypt. In many ways, it seems to raw, too close in the time of pandemic and climate upheaval, as well as a challenge of interpretation. What does it mean, to speak of God acting in these ways?
If you’d like to read more about the story so far, you can do so here.
For now, I feel I am standing on the brink of the time of plagues. Still in the space in between, between the request Moses makes – Let my people go – and the beginnings of the consequences for Pharaoh of his stony and cruel response. But I’m nearly there. Watching the news yesterday evening, I felt like I was watching something like it beginning to unfold in real time. The pandemic is accelerating once more, beginning to break away from attempts to manage it, and many are now enduring the related sorrows of environmental destruction with Atlantic hurricanes, wildfires, and difficulties with harvest. In response, we have the understandable political upheavals that arise at a time of fear and uncertainty. On Sunday, in the UK, we watched David Attenborough’s remarkable programme on Extinction, which helped us see a little more clearly how these different elements are related, related to our lack of care for the Earth, and for each other. Even those of us who live in what we may regard as a developed country, with a tradition of plentiful resources, can see this does not protect us from the common fate. Being a great and long-lasting empire did not protect the Egyptians. We are all connected.
In some ways, this gives me hope, as we can work together on deep-level solutions to all of these, by seeking to love and tend the earth, and to act with justice and mercy towards all – all creatures, all humans. It gives me hope that we will not be stony-hearted in the face of all this difficulty, not turn to fear, but instead, to compassion, justice, mercy, and the pursuit of the welfare of all. And where we cannot work together, we can take small steps ourselves. Jesus offers abundant life, God’s call is to live with peace – shalom, justice and mercy.
For now, we are in a space in between, where there is time – but we too are faced with questions about where we will stand at this moment, and also, how we will respond to the call for justice and freedom, just as Pharaoh was.
May we, this day, seek to live within God’s shalom, within abundant life, and justice, and mercy, for ourselves and for all.
The space in between – Exodus poems 8
You stood in the space in between palace and shanty, power and poverty, ease and despair, slavery, and freedom.
Knowing the language of both, being of-them but not-of-them both, you stand, now, and with such reluctance, such unquenchable fear, in this dark no-mans-land, this swirling God-space
You make in the court of Pharaoh as you ask for mercy, and freedom. It is holy ground, where you speak with the voice of the silenced, speak with the very voice of God, but no-one takes off their shoes.
You spoke to power, and it paid no heed.
And so, YHWH, breath, life, being, I am that I am, will stretch out a hand in justice. What follows will be strange justice, A steady unfolding of consequence, stretched out like darkness over the dark land.
This is the next poem in the series, continuing to stand in that difficult moment after Moses and Aaron had asked Pharaoh to let the people go, and before they reached their freedom.
At this point, as the slaves began to stand tall, and to hope, and to make their presence felt as fully human rather than cogs in the power machine of empire, things grew worse for them. Their labour was made harder. The first poem of this pair explores the moment more, and you can read it here.
Here in the UK, our steps towards returning to more normal patterns of work and school, of re-invigorating the bonds of family and community, are faltering, as we see that the virus is on the rise once more. Hope deferred is hard. Steps towards “building back better” seem to be faint and hard to find. Once again, we see those calling for a better world, for respect for all people and all living things, opposed.
But, but…… we know the right dwelling place for hope is in these dark and difficult times. Hope does not belong with blind and sunny optimism, but with the courage to walk along hard and stony ways, and to act from the faith that there is a movement towards goodness and justice and flourishing in the world. What is more, by acting, we can help bring such things about. We can know that Spirit broods over the face of chaos, seeking to nurture something new, and calls forth balance, harmony, and the flourishing of life.
So, as we reflect on how hard it must have been for the slaves, to see their hopes seemingly dashed, perhaps we can draw courage for our own situations, and know that this is part of the process, and that vision, and persistence, are powerful even in the face of those who seem to hold all the power.
If you would like to read more of the story, you can do so here.
Bricks without straw II Exodus Poems
Hope. The people hoped when they knew that God had heeded their pain
Spoken through fire and thorn, Spoken to Moses – the one placed between palace and slave, of-them, but not of-them.
Shown Signs – The staff-snake, the whitened skin, and its healing.
So long, so long looked for – through four long centuries of silence and slavery.
But see now how this hope has shattered. Their deliverers, Moses and Aaron have roused Pharaoh’s wrath put a sword into his hand.
Now, the people scour the fields bent double, gathering straw to make bricks out of mud. A cruel reversal of their old story, when God moulded the first human, in God’s own image, out of the very earth.
Instead of hope’s promise – liberation, a new land, they were crushed, broken breathed. They could no more hear the consolation of the prophet.
They dared not hope. Their state was worse than before.
This next in a series of poems drawn from the story of Exodus circles again around the mystery of the burning bush. Like all these poems, it draws on my meditations on the Hebrew scripture held in one hand, and an awareness of our current situation in the other. I am exploring what this ancient story may have to tell us at this critical and bewildering time.
This poem takes the delightful idea that maybe there are burning bushes all around us, and moves us to a consideration of what the voice from the burning bush said to Moses, and what that may mean for us if we are on the look out for revelation, and hope, as we go about our daily business. It follows on from Holy ground, barefoot – an earlier poem in the series.
This poem touches on an episode from the gospels, where Jesus is revealed in brightness on a mountain in the presence of Moses, and Elijah. The two stories are deeply connected. You can read about the Transfiguration here, if you would like to. It is the time of year when some churches celebrate the Festival of the Transfiguration, and my link will lead you to a beautiful blog from the Iona Community, “This new light”.
If you would like to read the story of the burning bush, you can do so in my earlier post, here. If you do, you will also find some fragments of writing by others which helped inspire this meditation.
On fire, but not burned Exodus poems 5
Do angels speak
from every bush?
Whispering in the
rustle of leaves,
the low hum of insects –
or louder, clearer,
Was that holy fire
for one place,
or might it
could it happen –
The bush on the hill
of Horeb was aflame,
we read of it –
worth turning aside
from the work of tending
sheep, or finding water,
turning aside to see.
But I glimpse, too, a deeper
peeling back an ordinary
moment to reveal
depth, and warmth,
I catch a glimpse,
a hope, of
each living thing
with a heart of life-fire,
not of burning,
not of perishing,
but of God-fire growing,
giving, sustaining, all.
Maybe, angels still speak,
to take off our shoes,
for the very earth is holy.
of a God who has talked
with our ancestors,
those who walk behind us
speaking old wisdom
we tend to forget.
But most of all
these living flames
speak of affliction,
they spark forth
the pain of all things,
of a suffering people,
they call to the work of
the body of one
who will listen to
who will turn aside
to gaze on
The main crop strawberries are over now, but these little alpines continue – first one part of the garden, then another, is the place to hunt. It depends on light, and shade, and water, and when the robins and blackbirds discover them. We – people in our neighbourhood – are sharing plants, and produce, when we have surplus. It’s part of the deeper connections we’re working to make, to give and to share. It’s a kind of abundance and connection that gives me hope. The Transition Woodbridge movement have been doing a marvellous job of facilitating sharing surplus plants and produce, especially during lockdown, and are continuing to plan harvesting from the community fruit trees as the seasons begin to turn.
I wrote this poem when the space under the rosebushes was full of big juicy strawberries – and I took photos, too, but my memory card was playing up, and they were lost. So the pictures are of the smaller ones, which seem to keep going most of the warmer weather. Whenever I eat the big maincrop strawberries, I think of the friend who gave me the parent plants to all I now have. She lives further away now, but is still growing beautiful things. She taught me a lot about gardening, especially about listening – to the land, and the things that grow there – and learning from your place. I miss her, and, when harvesting strawberries one day, I thought of the good fruits of friendship, and its spread and reach, and how it enriches our communities and lives so much, along with the plants and the produce. We see the goodness of the fruits.
Strawberries for Kay
Today I am thankful
growing under the rose bushes,
festooned with casual netting
like a green scarf.
Some rest on the old
stone path, ripening fast,
others are hidden among
leaves of ladies mantle,
sheltered from sun and beaks,
And most of all, I am
thankful for the friend
I watched as she gently
dug the parent plants
from her own rich patch,
who held them out to me
with a reminder to
plant at dusk,
in the cool.
How they have spread
sends out long runners,
who knows where,
small plants that root
as the moment arises,
and how, years later,
these too give
sweet red fruit,
again, and again.
We’ve been leaving more of the lawn long this year, especially at the end pictured, where the grass has been unsuccessful, and other plants want to grow. It’s been so good to see butterflies and bees above the flowers, and, in close inspection, to see so many small creeping things below.
We have various heights of hawkweed growing prolifically now, and I particularly love their seedheads – like dandelion clocks.
There is something very special about these windborne seeds – their profligacy, abandon, opportunism – which I find good to think about right now. When our movements and interactions are reduced as we seek to keep one another safe from the virus, I find it helps to think of these seeds blowing freely. You never know where they will go, and what their impact will be. The task of the plant is to produce the seeds, and to release them to the wind.
It reminds me of the extravagance of the parable of the Sower, and of the many times Jesus talks of seeds falling to the ground. These things help remind me to be less attached to outcome, to just do the task before me, and to trust the blowing of the wind.
I love the softness of this path
mown through the long grass,
the many yellow flowers.
How it curves to here, where
the old gate is bound by ivy,
where the silver birches,
planted as chance seedlings,
are growing tall and graceful
above wild strawberries.
I love the round seedheads,
that dip their opaque globes
in the breeze,
and the self-heal,
and the speedwell,
The seeds shake in the breeze,
and blow free.
The lightest fragments of life.
Who knows where they will
Who knows, the smallest of
things – a thought,
a hope, a prayer,
can be borne up
by many breezes,
and tumble and travel
through many airs,
and find a place to catch,
to break open, to root,
and to grow.
I have been trying to share with you poems soon after they appear in my notebook, keeping a kind of record of the times. Going back a few pages, I came across some jottings I’d overlooked while working up some other pieces. So, although we are a little past midsummer, the world still has that midsummer feel, of short nights, and abundant life, and I thought I’d share it with you now.
There are a few East Anglian dialect words for some of the large flying insects we have at this time of year in the poem, I do love those words.
I don’t have garden evening photos for you, but here are a few from the footpaths nearby, taken by my husband, Peter Skevington, which are full of the beauty of a summer evening.
Ten o’clock, there is
a glow of light in the sky.
The honeysuckle is sweet,
and the lawn, a pale round
glade in the darkness.
Around that glade, bats
fly, rapid, light, and silent –
at least to me,
around and around,
threading back, and forth,
through the feast of gnats.
Against the deep turquoise
of the low sky, smaller
dark shapes drone
heavily, slowly, on,
over the old barn.
Night is short,
and full of life.
Night turns slowly
on this pale circle,
Earth turns slowly,
too, a moment
of almost stillness,
before it begins again,
when the deer comes,
and the night birds
start their callings,
as I turn my back,
turn away to sleep.
Hush, hush now,
these are creatures
not of the human world.
Creatures of their own
quiet, and their own time.
I leave them the gathering night.
These beautiful photos are by Pete Skevington, with thanks.
We haven’t been far from home, since Lockdown started. It’s been astonishing how that restraint has made us more inventive, seeking out places we haven’t been to, or haven’t been to for years.
We have a very loose walking project of seeing how far along our local river, the Deben, we can go. How much of it is walkable, and accessible by footpath. The river is an estury downstream from us, an unstable and changing and hazardous landscape. At times, the public right of way marked on the map crosses open water.
We hadn’t attempted to walk this particular route for a very long time ideed. My memory of it, my first experience of this kind of landscape, was nearly losing my boot in sinking, sucking mud, and being unable to pull myself free. Now, being more accustomed to the great outdoors, we tried again, knowing the route would be completely different. How far could we get?
Having got as far as we could, we paused where the marsh-creek joined the river, surrounded by mud and flowing water. I ate some of the salty samphire that was growing there. And then, we saw the head of a large seal in the creek, very close by. The whole experience of being out on those marshes was full of awe, transcendent and earthy at the same time – a deep, lively peace, a beauty and a rightness. Being met by a seal at the furthest reach of our footsteps was such a gift.
I’ve tried to catch some of that in the words of this poem. I hope you enjoy an excursion over saltmarsh.
Waldringfield saltmarshes – seal
This thin strip of solid ground
turns away from the shore,
snaking through saltmash –
sea lavender, sea purslane,
in the fading light,
the saltsmell of algae –
until we are far from
far out on this wide,
Pools of infinite grey mud,
the hiss of water receding,
we walk just as the tide
turns to ebb,
this winding path our
thin line of safety,
draped with a strand-
crust of drying weed,
studded with hundreds
of tiny white crab-shells,
How fragile I feel myself
to be. How quick to be lost.
After many turns further,
and further out,
we come to the place
the path stops.
On the other bank,
we can see the woods
where great white egrets nest.
At my feet, the red of a
spent cartridge hurts
as I hear oystercatchers,
and sweet skylarks,
and wind scuffing the water.
There, at the end,
the limit of where we could go,
we saw, in the water,
the seal –
a low flat head,
sleek and fat,
as grey and rounded
as the mudbanks –
We crouched, concealing
our profiles from the
we held our breath,
and watched its dive,
and breath, dive,
And as it swam upstream,
we turned to go back,
retracing our steps exactly,
watching its joy,
as we grew closer to solid
ground, the smell of ripe
barley after rain,
and sweet chamomile
carried on the breeze,
But the taste of the saltmash
the peace of the seal
stayed with us,
stays with us.
And the cry of the curlew