Poem: Gaia at Ely Cathedral

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.

You can listen to the poem here.

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.

Looking at Gaia from behind the communion table brought to mind the words of repentance from that service, and I was aware of my sense of what “the sins of the world” might mean was creaking open a little wider.

Poem: The apple tree, having grown in shadow

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. Even when 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.

Poem: Strange Birds II

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.

Photo from the Woodland Trust

Strange Birds II

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?

Poem: Strange Birds, Wild Ken Hill

Rounding the path on the bank that holds the freshwater scrapes, with the wildest bit of Wild Ken Hill visible behind. Norfolk, UK

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.

Photo from the Bird Guide website. If you’d like to listen to turtle doves, here’s a link.
You can listen to me reading the poem here.

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.

From the Wild Ken Hill website, link above.

The flowers appear on the earth;

    the time of singing has come,

and the voice of the turtle-dove

    is heard in our land.

 The fig tree puts forth its figs,

    and the vines are in blossom;

    they give forth fragrance.

Arise, my love, my fair one,

    and come away.

 O my dove, in the clefts of the rock,

    in the covert of the cliff,

let me see your face,

    let me hear your voice;

for your voice is sweet,

    and your face is lovely.

Song of Solomon, 2:12-14

Poem: A good place

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.


Poem: Enough

Sitting in one of my sitting-and-thinking spots in the garden, sometimes something catches my eye which brings me joy. In my last post, One hundred and ten years, I talked about the primroses in the garden, and why it mattered to me that they spread. We could have lost them with the blitz of herbicides in the previous century, and their modest presence is still not guaranteed.

Here is a poem then, that draws on their growing brightness in my spring days. Now, we’ve had some warmth, and they are beginning to retreat under the cover of later plants, but here is how I love to see them. Soon, their fine seed will begin to fall again, down over the sleeper into the waiting lawn. I thought about that experience of falling, and how so many things that feel like an end may not be such an ending, after all.

We’ll mow around them, and let them make their way across, amongst the speedwell and the forget me nots that are also growing there.

Enough

Some days, something
as simple as the way
the primroses tumble
over the wooden sleeper
to the grass below
is enough.

It’s enough to see
they fall
and are caught,
nestled between strong
grasses, resting on good earth.

Enough that once there,
they soften and grow.
Enough that they
unclench their
green fists
into open hands
as they spread slowly,
and ever wider,
across the grass
like cold, yellow butter.

They fall. They are caught.
They find a welcome,
a green place, all they need.

May our fallings
be so caught.
May we, after all,
come to rest in some new,
surprising place
where we flourish.

May we find that what
feels like a falling
is, after all, a running
over, an overflowing,
down, to some place
we had not known
before.
And may that
running over
be enough.

Poem: One hundred and ten years

I am delighted to see how even the tiniest glimmer of sun brings out clouds of insects in the garden. I love the way the spring flowers are hungrily visited by bees. I do what I can to encourage butterflies. It cheers me when they come, but sometimes, I remember reading in novels, and poems, of an abundance that I can hardly imagine. It fills me for a kind of nostalgia for something I didn’t know, but nonetheless miss. I feel its lack. I remember as a child hearing older people talk about primroses and cowslips as flowers that were abundant in their youth, but had all but vanished from the countryside. No doubt, these memories are what is behind my cherishing them, and watching them spread through the garden.

So, although it warms my heart to see the growing abundance in our lightly disordered patch of nature, I’m aware of shifting baselines – I know the natural world I experience is diminished compared to that which our ancestors saw and knew. I sometimes feel the presence of a ghost landscape behind what I see – a landscape of what had been. To the best of my knowledge, my place was once an orchard, and my mind’s eye can almost see it, alive in a way I can only dream of.

I was reminded of a book I loved as a child, Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, where the garden, as it was, becomes visible, even though it had been destroyed and built over. At least here, in this place, there is hope that some of the abundance there was can return, as much as it is within my power.

One hundred and ten years

Despite this cold
there is a shimmer
of life in the air above
the beds, where bluebells
begin their opening.

Tiny flies, and larger,
and bees, and the
occasional, beautiful,
butterfly – look, just there!

I watch them in awe,
all these tiny specks of life.
Each small thing part of
The garden’s constant dance,
each with their own
irreplaceable steps.

I wonder what it was like,
over a hundred years ago now,
before the house was built,
when all this was orchard.
Did butterflies rise in clouds
as you walked through
the long grass?
Could you lie down and hear
the hum of many bees
in the blossom above?
Could you doze in the scent
of wildflowers, the hum
and scratch of insects?

Perhaps, like
Tom’s Midnight Garden,
that place is still here,
in the shadows.
Sometimes, I can
almost glipse it,
as transient as
dawn mist.

And perhaps, I hope,
it is becoming
less ghostly, more embodied,
humming in this shimmer
of life in the air.
Growing stronger,
growing more certain,
after so many years.

A Poem for Earth Day: What might it mean, to live well on a dying Earth?

Yesterday was Earth Day, and, as I have before, I wanted to mark it. I’m a little late, but here is a poem that has been circling my mind, and troubling me, for a couple of weeks now. I heard this question – or something like it – on a podcast, and it rather took my breath away. I do spend time attempting to answer questions such as – What can I do to limit the harm I am doing? or, Is there anything regenerative that I could attempt?, or What can I do about all this plastic in my life?.

The more philosophical question, of what makes a good life, in this time when we are waking up to the way ecosystems are fraying and dying, is harder to attempt. Yet these phrases came to me, and I think there is power in the question. There is some liberation, too. It doesn’t focus on all the things I’m not doing, or are unable to do. Neither does it reassure me by looking at what everyone else isn’t doing either. So the poem is not a list of tasks, but something closer to a way of being, which will, naturally, lead to tasks, and to action.

In some ways the question is offensive. And in the places it rubs against you, there is something to be explored. And perhaps, in finding our own answers to the question, we may find the dying receeds, and the living has more hope and space. But that is not the point just for the moment, just as we approach this question. The point is, to face up to what we are doing, and then find a way of living within that knowledge. It’s quite a task. But I feel there is some merit in the attempt.

I was encouraged that yesterday the virtual Climate Conference that President Biden convened made some positive announcements. As we seek to move from goals to a change in the way we live, maybe this question helps.

The question arose on a Nomad podcast which centred around an interview with Gail Bradbrook, of Extinction Rebellion. It is well worth listening to. You can find a link to it here.

May we live well. May that wellness include all living things.

Consider the lilies of the field, Jesus said.

What might it mean, to live well on a dying Earth?

Who knows?
The worst kind of foolishness,
of absurdity
to even try.
And yet, something sparks,
something kindles,
at the question.
And so, knowing the absurdity,
these words come….

To be tenderhearted,
though afraid.

To know that each
small thing matters.
That even though
it is not enough,
such calculation
is not your task.

To tend the tender plants,
and see their flourishing.
To feed birds.
To stop on your way
and talk to friends,
and those you barely know,
to stand with them
in their griefs,
to laugh within their joys.

To be compassionate
to all, beginning with
yourself.

To do those things
you have found within
your power to do.
To also do those things
your heart whispers.
And both, without
measuring outcomes.

To act as if you have
hope,
even if you do not.

To act boldly when you feel
the call to do so, but
with gentleness and grace.

To look for beauty, and joy,
and love.
To travel through despair
and let its darkness
dissolve about you,
having held you.

To grow food
for yourself, and for
all those you share
your place with.

To stand in awe under
the song of the songbird.
To be merciful to the
worms and the beetles
and the spiders,

To – again and again –
say yes to life, and to joy.

Say yes to all that is good,
while there is so much that
grieves you, and leaves
you despairing.

To know a more beautiful world
is already here,
and yet coming,
and still beyond our grasp,

And to live in it anyway.

Poem: The flailing of the hazel hedge

Walking, as we do, along paths and lanes, we pass many hedgerows, and the remains of many hedgerows. It grieves me deeply when I see one that has been shredded and flailed by harsh machines, so full of open wounds. This year, we walked past one such act of destruction on the very last day of February, the last legal day. Birds were scattering at the sound of the machines. It grieves me that this seems the best way, perhaps the only way, many landowners can manage their hedges. I expect it grieves them too. I expect they would rather live more harmoniously and gently with their land.

Having been deeply unsettled by the sight so many times, I thought I’d listen to that sadness and unease. I find it is reminding me of our deep connection to our places, and that what we do to them, we are doing to ourselves also. There is one particular remnant of a beautiful hedge I pass often. I have a practice now of turning aside towards it, and, absurd as it may sound and often feels, I give it my attention. I ask forgiveness, I bless the hedge. I often do this within my own heart, but sometimes, when the lane is quiet, I speak out. The result of this purtubation, and practice, is the poem below.

Beneath the poem, I am posting some pictures of a contrasting hedge, which makes my heart sing. Transition Woodbridge are doing wonderful work in our town, planting and tending. Something better is possible.

The flailing of the hazel hedge

In years past, walking
this lane now, in that time
of late-winter-early-spring,
this hedge was hedgerow,
all yellow swinging catkins
and small birds,
all leaves ready to burst,
crinkled like the corners of smiles.

This year, at each passing,
I stop now, and turn aside
the ninety degrees to face it,
to face what we have done.
It is a body-blow,
it is desecration.

Flailed and fractured,
long open wounds
split down through
the grey wood towards
the shocked, gasping root.

It is my practice now
to cross towards it,
lay my open palms
on its open splinters,
and speak –

I ask forgiveness,
we have brought
destruction on you,
beautiful hedge,
home of so much life.
I am sorry that in our world
this violence seemed prudent,
necessary, economic.
Can you forgive us?
For we have abandoned our place
of life-nurture, of life-tending.

I hope for better,
I look at the small buds.
Will they burst this year?
Will this be the year
when the flailing is final,
finally enough,
and this rill of beauty
and cheerfulness dies?

I go on my way,
head bowed, chastened,
we do not know what we do.

In beautiful contrast, we have this…..

In writing this poem, I was drawn to imagery from the Bible, and I have kept the imagery where it grew, as it seem appropriate to the immensity of what we are doing to the natural world. The poem speaks of a kind of anti-burning-bush, where Moses turned aside to the holy. I was reminded of the words of the incomparible Wendell Berry – “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places”.

You can read more about the burning bush here: Poem: On fire, but not burned. Exodus poems 5

There is also a gentle allusion to the words Jesus spoke from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It seems that most of the time, we do not understand the wrong we are doing, and need such forgiveness. As I am writing this in Holy Week, these words are very present to me. There is a poem on that theme among those in this post: Poems – Seven Sentences from the Cross. You can read a retelling of Good Friday here.

Poem: Hospitality – Lockdown III

Next week, all being well, the rules will change here in England. We’ll be able to have someone local in the garden again. Having all this time with no human visitors has made me thing about who I’m tending this garden for. It’s been rather nice to leave aside my imaginary visitor who might critisize my rather haphazard and untidy methods, and just go with what I want, and what the garden seems to do. I hasten to say that my dear friends who came and sat with me last year, when inside was out of bounds, are always delighted to be here, and say no such thing! The critic is internal, and I am seeking to encourage her or him not to worry, to look at what is beautiful instead.

I’ve changed my emphasis this year. Previously, I was being quite purist about going for british native plants, wildflowers, and I still do try for those first. However, that did leave a long gap in the latter half of the year when there wasn’t much for the insects, so now I’m going for abundant life – plants and a style of gardening that encourage insects, birds, any other wild creatures that are happy to be here. I am protecting tender things from the muntjac, but the deer is welcome just the same. You can read about my planning for later in the year in my poem, Dreaming of Flowers.

Hospitality, then, in my garden, is the largely hidden from human eyes at the moment. It is fairly unconcerned about what other people might think. It is simply what I, and the wildlife, like. This winter, I’ve done other things to shelter nature. I’ve put up a couple of bird boxes, and made a bee hotel, and had piles of cuttings where ladybirds overwinter. I might write about those later. For now, I’m just rejoicing in a few of the flowers.

An edge of the lawn, left unmown, where the primroses have settled. I planted the crocuses in the autumn lockdown.

Hospitality  Lockdown III

Alone in the garden. Mild.
The early insects stir, hum,
fly slowly towards the flowers
I have planted –
startling yellow aconites,
the shrub honeysuckle,
primroses, crocus –
oh, those two together,
the purple and the yellow,
how they shine,
how they bend their
impossibly thin pale stems
as they follow the sun,
as they accept the
weight of bees.

This garden is still
a welcoming place.
Cut off from friends,
from human hospitality,
from tea and laughter,
from human notice of
these opening buds,
even now
the garden hosts
such a banquet.

It sustains and rejoices
so many –
the hoverflies,
like this one,
resting in the yellow aconite
all this time
as I write.

I have spread a table here,
welcoming all this life,
and together with
all these,
I receive the early warmth,
I rest in the fragrance of flowers.


Just to add – today, I saw the first male brimstone butterfly visiting the primroses. So exciting!