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: Sorrows II

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.

Sorrows II

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.

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. 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.

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: 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 tenth plague – Exodus poems 11

I feel this is the ending of this sequence of poems, on how the Hebrew people escaped their slavery in Egypt. This poem is a dark sister to the opening one of the sequence, which you can read here. If you have been following this blog, you may see that this last has been a long time coming. It’s been hard, thinking of this last and terrible plague, when the oldest sons of the Egyptians died overnight. I’ll write a post telling the story, with links to the passages, another day.

We normally explore this story from the point of view of the Hebrew slaves, and how they shared the first passover meal, and escaped their slavery. For now, I felt drawn to continue my exploration of these ancient stories from a slightly different place – the place of the Egyptians. As we are beginning to wake up to the ways in which we have exploited the good Earth, and its good people, I have wondered whether we are more like the Egyptians in this story than we would care to admit. I wonder if, as climate disruption and pandemic unfold, we can find some resonance in this story of disasters rolling over the land, one after another.

And of course, this is the worst -the death of the children. It is hard to face up to the possibility that we are leaving a hard future for those who are young now, but that is what we are doing. And we have seen our young people rise up in school strikes, and action to protect their places, seeing that they will pay the price for much of the seemingly endless growth we have attempted. This taking and holding, building and amassing wealth now, seems to rob the future. These thoughts troubled me as I considered the death of the children in this final plague. Of course, there are other meanings, deep and true, but find that I need to consider this one.

There is also a clash of world views – the view of the Egyptians, of empire, wealth, might, and the view of the slaves, who seek freedom, community, worship of God, a different way. In the end, the slaves find their freedom, and the opportunity for living out a different way. As the story of Exodus shows us, there is much hard learning on that road. But, for those who despair of our current difficulties, thinking power and might are bound to win, they may find that power and might carry the seeds of their own destruction, and that hardness of heart will not triumph.

There is no triumph in the Exodus, but there is an exodus. There is an escape from a system that seemed invincible for 430 years. It was not. The world shifted for those slaves at least, and they had the chance of something better. When we, from our place at the beginning of the twenty first century, look back at the systems of thought, and money and power that have dominated for a similar length of time, it’s hard to imagine that they might shift. But I think they are. The shifting is painful, and, as we tend to resist, more painful than it might be. But, perhaps an exodus into a different type of common life is possible. Many of the books of law in the Hebrew scriptures explore what that may be, and they include some radical ideas, for example relating to debt, and land, and these seem radical even now. But that is for another day. For now, we have this hard story, and a costly freedom.

In traditional hedge-laying, the stems are cut and bent to the side, and then they grow vigourously.

The tenth plague – Exodus poems 11

Is this what it takes
for your hand to unclasp?
Your dearest thing,
your dearest one,
taken, even as you
chill your heart
to the warning?

The cold hand
of your son
now lies still.
Do you hold it,
and weep over it?

Your way ahead barred,
flooded by grief,
the future stolen
as the young lie
lifeless.

Lie still, bound by
your hardness of heart,
a fearful echo of
those slave-babes
cast in the Nile – lost
into bloodied waters.

Yet now, in this darkness,
when each hard drawn
breath is a shock,
even now, you cannot
let go,
you chase them still in
fear and rage and grief
with chariots and swords,
as if more death would
fill the chasm broken open
in your land.

And as the sea of reeds
rolls back,
rolls back and floods
over all your might,
your chariots and swords,
as those who were slaves
turn back and watch
from higher ground,
all your grandeur runs
through your clenched
hands like water.

For they stand now, on the
other side, out of your grasp
at last,
with a wild dance,
with song and tambourine,
in this hard and desperate
aftermath of horror,
life pulled up from the
swirling waters,
standing at last
in a new and
strange freedom.

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.