Last time, I shared a poem with you written in response to a day’s walking in Norfolk, close to Wild Ken Hill. More especially, it was about the birds we encountered. It was so uplifting to hear, and to see, so many creatures that were unknown to us, and most especially to hear songs we had never heard before. It’s an awe-inspiring, hopeful place. I’m not suprised that Springwatch chose it as their base this year. You can read the poem, and find links to interesting stuff, here.
That night, as I drifted off to sleep, I heard more. This is a falling-asleep snippet as I drifted off to the sound of more strange birds. I hear owls at home, from time to time, but a nightjar was beautiful and new to me. I’d found out about them while we were doing another walk, nearer home. The Sandlings walk takes the nightjar as its waymarker, and has artwork showing the nightjar – and its food the moth – to search for as you walk.
We never heard one – unsurprisingly, as we walked that route by day. One of the magical things of staying near the sanctuary of Wild Ken Hill is that we heard these night-creatures, at last. It seemed a fitting end to a day in which we had encountered so much richness, so much abundant life.
I was half wondering if a nightingale would join in. Not this time, but I have heard them near home before, and you can read about that here.
I lie awake, head full of the sound of daybirds, and slowly, slipping over these new songs now known by heart, come night cries – such life as lives in darkness.
First the owl, mottled and shadowed in leafing trees, and then the night-jar’s churning and rumbling down low, in rough ground
and as I drift into dreams with these strange guides, these gentle sounds and soft, there is a moment when I can wonder –
Where will they lead me, through unseen nightscapes, both strange and new, and strangely old – where will they take me – through what dreams of hope, both green and dark, will they carry me on their brown wings?
Last week, we decided to try to take a trip out. We haven’t been anywhere for months, with the lockdowns, and looked for somewhere to stay for a night so we could walk more coast path in Norfolk. Amazingly, we found a place very near Wild Ken Hill, where Springwatch is based this year – for non UK readers, that’s a glorious BBC live nature broadcast. Having read Isabella Tree’s Wilding, we’ve been chatting about rewilding and what we can do in our small patch to make space for the abundance of wild things. We were excited and curious to be so near a rewilding, regenerative project..
We might have expected to be immersed in wildlife, but that didn’t prepare us for the wonder of being so. Wherever we looked, there was more, and more – things we’ve never heard or seen before. Life was exuberant, everywhere, abundant in a way that was simply awe-inspiring. And then, as we were walking away from the wetland scrapes, there was another treasure. In the scub between the two banks, which strectched behind the caravan park, were turtle doves. I never thought I’d hear one.
These rare birds, all the creatures, seem happy to come if we make space for them, and refrain from harming the land. Life wants to live, it wants to return and thrive. Careful thought and work and research has gone in to providing this space, but it’s so good to know that there is hope, that the care is more than worthwhile. The joy and wonder we felt there reminded me that human flourishing is bound up with the flourishing of all things.
My husband took some pictures, and once we’ve uploaded them, I’ll share them with you here. I wanted to write my response, to share the joy and the beauty and the reverence of being surrounded by strange birds.
Strange birds, Wild Ken Hill
Walking along the bank, between scrub and scrape, insects rise in unaccustomed clouds, flying things unknown. A small orange butterfly rising and tumbling, keeps ahead, just before us until at last it settles on this wildflower bank, blowsy with cow parsley, and opens its wings to the sun
while another pair of wings, huge and white, make their wide arches and swoop and rise above and beside us, a great spoonbill unfolding awe about its feathers, lifted on air full of cries, and we walk softly among these flights of beauty with opening reverence.
And as we move on, under the warming sun, we turn to look to the other side where May froths with heady scent, and there, we hear a sound unheard before.
A soft low purring, rising and falling, one, then two, three, then many, the voice of the turtle doves, a tremor of joy, a long breath of wonder in this small space, near caravans and cars.
The yes of spring, the yes of hope, of awe and beauty and love, the yes of life, in abundance, these are borne to us on the wings of strange birds.
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”.
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.
This new lockdown, I am writing in my notebooks again, letting what emerges, emerge. You can read about the Lockdown Poems here – their immediacy, their rootedness in my place.
Once again, I have begun writing what I see, and what is before me in this moment. Whereas the earlier poems, starting in March, are largely written outside, this one is about looking out. Beginning to write is a revealing thing. As I proceeded, I felt that what I was exploring was that sensation of being stuck inside – looking out, but not with longing. I am looking out at a world that is far from inviting. Cold, wet, and darkening as it is. Once again, that small moment, that everyday feeling of watching the rain, seemed to unfold and reveal a wider and deeper difficulty. Not so much of being stuck inside, but of not wanting to venture out into a world that seems alarming, potentially dangerous, as we face the terrible acceleration of the pandemic’s spread. It is truly terrible, the grief that is echoing around our closed rooms, the potential for harm in each interaction.
But venture out I will – the natural world still offers its hospitality and welcome, however cold and dark it seems. The garden and area around still see me tramping about for exercise and refreshment. I had a new waterproof coat for Christmas, which is making all the difference to how I feel about being outside just now – at least from the point of view of the weather. The pandemic is a different matter. My venturing is limited now, circumscribed and circumspect. I notice an increasing tendency to some anxiety at the thought of “out”. That anxiety is well founded. I am listening to it, and taking what precautions I can. As we all are.
It will not always be so, though. We will emerge. For now, the balance and relationship between inside and outside has shifted, profoundly connected to the natural world as we are. We can feel cut off from the winter, we are certainly cut off from each other. But even now, there are tiny wonders to be seen out there, small hopes and shifts, if we can raise our eyes and look.
Inside. Outside Lockdown III
Inside, looking out, through golden light to cold grey, through glass and warm air and stillness, to where the cold wind shudders the trees.
Outside, the curved seedpods of the tree peony drip with ice rain, glittering
While candlelight and lamplight are reflected in the glass, and glow orange in the darkening grey garden.
And a tumble of birds comes, and goes, comes, and goes, chattering endlessly on the feeders that sway in the sharp wind
And if I hold my nerve, and hold the gardener’s gaze, even from here I can see that fuzz of green on the ice-furzed soil – Herb Robert, violets, the tissue-paper yellow of wet primroses, and the soft spears of bulbs just beginning. Bluebells. Cerise gladioli.
Outside seems far away. A different air. A different light. But soon my boots will be on my feet, and my coat wrapped about me, and I will feel that frost, and the cold wind, and I will feel the ice rain again.
To keep our spirits up, a reminder of what is to come.
This is a strange New Year’s Eve. It’s disconcerting to think how little we anticipated what this year would bring at it’s beginning. It throws our attempts at planning and new resolutions into all kinds of disarray, if we try to look ahead. So I’m attempting to leave the future where it is today. I’m trying to look deeper, at some of the lessons this year of a long pause, a long hesition. I’m noticing that there are things I can take forward…. the things I miss and therefore know their worth, the things I don’t miss as much as I expected. Knowing the value of community, connection, kindness more keenly, I’ll look for ways to nurture them in these new days. Knowing how the natural world has sustained me this year, I’ll be looking to continue to deepen my appreciating, and active care.
The poem I’m sharing with you today was written at a previous New Year. We nearly missed the foot ferry between Southwold and Walberswick while out on a long winter’s walk with our family. It ran till sunset – and sunset was upon us. It speaks of a happier time, when family could stay, when the foot ferry was open, as well as The Bell Inn at Walberswick. Today, husband and I did a long bright blue walk along the River Deben’s bank downstream from the creek, as far as you can now before the breach. It was beautiful, full of birds and ice. Little flags of ice clung on to the reeds after high tide and flashed in the sun. But I did remember this Walberswick walk, and the strange feeling of being suspended between the two shores, the two closed gates, in the hands of the ferryman whose course was sure even though it seemed to slant so across the water.
It helped me thinking about today, where I feel suspended between two shores. This year, the new shore seems further away, and harder to know. We are not used to feeling quite this adrift, and uncertain. Trust, hope, faith, love – and action drawn from these – are important now. But so is sitting with the uncertainty, with the not knowing where we are going and what we are doing. Perhaps in this space we can dream of a shore with warm, welcoming lights, with togetherness, with hope. Perhaps we may find we can be such a shore for each other, and keep lights of hope and welcome burning in the long cold nights.
I’ve shared with you another poem about winter walking along this shore, and a murmuration of starlings. You can read that here.
Crossing the Blyth at sunset, at the turn of the year.
We walked fast towards the ferry – nearly too late – and saw the ferryman on the other side, the gate closed behind him. But we waved, and he came, his blue boat a long wide curve across the river.
Behind him the setting sun, the treeshapes black against the orange sky, How beautiful it is. He helps us on board, offering me his hand with nautical courtesy, and then shuts the gate firmly behind us.
So we thank him, and our blue boat begins to churn those golden waters rippling with a fast tide, as we seem to hang for a time between those two closed gates, between those two jetties, in neither one space, nor the other. We are somewhere else instead, where all is gold, where darkness lies behind, where the lights of the houses and the wide-open pub are ahead of us, lights that warm with the hope of welcome.
We are suspended for a while in this Adnams-blue boat with the diesel and the saltsmell and the cry of the birds, bathed in light, trailing an ice hand in water the same colour as the light. Here we are. This moment. Between two moments. How beautiful it is.
I wrote this when it was darkening fast – by the end I could not see the marks my pencil was making in my notebook. Darkness comes so early now, but that change into night is beautiful, and, if we can take a moment to notice it, has things to teach us too.
So I have no photo of this moment, but am offering you others from autumn, and hope that you will have a chance to look out of the window, or walk through darkening paths, and see the trees as they settle for the winter, and the birds as they settle for the night.
November trees – twilight
It grows dark. The trees are black lines against a yellow sky which shines, illuminating through a net of ink, and the last birds drift overhead to their roosts by the river, and the last birds murmur and settle in those darkening trees,
And quiet sadness creeps like frost across the grass, as the last flowers bow their rimy heads.
And suddenly, the question – What are we to do? seems a different kind of puzzle. Not one to solve, but one to lay down, in its many pieces, on the cold grass, slowly, in wonder.
All this before me knows what to do, and does it. Rooted, patient, receiving the weather like weather – whatever comes, comes.
From this place, it will act when action stirs it with the unsettling brightness of spring. When the ink stirs once more with green sap.
Until then, the cold trees will net the light, and wait, and deepen, the darkness will spread as I am learning to be grateful for this breath, to watch this red leaf spin on a thread of spiders web, to feel the cold sting me alive.
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 loud geese, endlessly joined by threads of sound – the strong 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.
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.
This poem is about a diversion. We could not pick up the walk where we left off, by the seal, on the other side of the water. The footpath was closed, there were diggers and warning signs as the flood defences were being shored up. We took another route, and were rewarded by butterflies. I am seeking to learn the names of the many wondrous plants and animals I see, to name them and honour their names.
Some of you may have come across the beautiful book, The Lost Words, written and painted in response to the Oxford English Dictionary’s decision to lose nature words from its children’s edition. It’s a beautiful, elegaic work – incantations of the names that are nearly, but not quite, lost. Musicians too have responded, and I have been listening to The Lost Words Blessing, as I seek to do the work of honouring the natural world, and learning its names. It’s a fine piece of music, from Folk by the Oak. I find the lyrics very moving, and resonant. They express what I hope to do in many of these poems, so coming across the piece was like finding someone who shares a way of seeing the world. Each verse begins with a variation on this refrain:
“Enter the wild with care, my love
And speak the things you see
Let new names take and root and thrive and grow”
“Even as the hour grows bleaker, be the singer and the speaker
And in city and in forest, let the larks become your chorus
And when every hope is gone, let the raven call you home”
You can read them all under the video, reached through the link above.
I didn’t take any pictures of the butterflies, unfortunately, but here are some from the Butterfly Conservation website.
Evening. High summer.
To our right the open grass
ripples in the breeze.
And a kestrel hovers,
tail splayed, intent on
what is beneath
the surface of this
while we walk
down the path
by its side.
Less a path, more a strip of
wildness, of wood and scrub.
Rich with nettles and pink
and tumbles of flowers
under the shade of thorns
and oaks and hornbeams,
and before us, and around us
on our bright sandy path,
Ringlet and meadow brown,
the showier admirals,
tortoiseshells and commas,
gatekeeper, small copper –
I am learning these names,
saying these names
for a beauty
I hardly ever see.
Years ago, they say,
butterflies rose in clouds
about you as you walked.
We did not intend to take this path.
Our planned way,
by the river,
And so, I receive this shimmer
of beauty as a gift,
in a harmony
of grassland and field edge,
and scrub and wood –
We walk amongst plenty,
amongst what could yet be,
again, cradled in lightness,
and sadness for
what we have lost.
We walk quietly among
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