Poem: The space in between – Exodus poems 8

Photos of the River Deben, dusk – an in-between time.

Welcome to this continuing series of poems drawn from the ancient account of Exodus. I’m finding some common ground with current events, and much wisdom, in that story. It’s an account, from the perspective of the slaves, of their journey to freedom from the Egyptians. Both Hebrew and Egyptian suffer on that journey.

It’s taking me a little time to come to meditating on the plagues that beset Egypt. In many ways, it seems to raw, too close in the time of pandemic and climate upheaval, as well as a challenge of interpretation. What does it mean, to speak of God acting in these ways?

If you’d like to read more about the story so far, you can do so here.

For now, I feel I am standing on the brink of the time of plagues. Still in the space in between, between the request Moses makes – Let my people go – and the beginnings of the consequences for Pharaoh of his stony and cruel response. But I’m nearly there. Watching the news yesterday evening, I felt like I was watching something like it beginning to unfold in real time. The pandemic is accelerating once more, beginning to break away from attempts to manage it, and many are now enduring the related sorrows of environmental destruction with Atlantic hurricanes, wildfires, and difficulties with harvest. In response, we have the understandable political upheavals that arise at a time of fear and uncertainty. On Sunday, in the UK, we watched David Attenborough’s remarkable programme on Extinction, which helped us see a little more clearly how these different elements are related, related to our lack of care for the Earth, and for each other. Even those of us who live in what we may regard as a developed country, with a tradition of plentiful resources, can see this does not protect us from the common fate. Being a great and long-lasting empire did not protect the Egyptians. We are all connected.

In some ways, this gives me hope, as we can work together on deep-level solutions to all of these, by seeking to love and tend the earth, and to act with justice and mercy towards all – all creatures, all humans. It gives me hope that we will not be stony-hearted in the face of all this difficulty, not turn to fear, but instead, to compassion, justice, mercy, and the pursuit of the welfare of all. And where we cannot work together, we can take small steps ourselves. Jesus offers abundant life, God’s call is to live with peace – shalom, justice and mercy.

For now, we are in a space in between, where there is time – but we too are faced with questions about where we will stand at this moment, and also, how we will respond to the call for justice and freedom, just as Pharaoh was.

May we, this day, seek to live within God’s shalom, within abundant life, and justice, and mercy, for ourselves and for all.

The space in between  – Exodus poems 8

You stood in the space
in between
palace and shanty,
power and poverty,
ease and despair,
slavery, and freedom.

Knowing the language
of both, being
of-them but
not-of-them both,
you stand, now,
and with such reluctance,
such unquenchable fear,
in this dark no-mans-land,
this swirling God-space

You make in
the court of Pharaoh
as you ask for mercy,
and freedom.
It is holy ground,
where you speak
with the voice
of the silenced,
speak with the very
voice of God, but
no-one takes off
their shoes.

You spoke to power,
and it paid no heed.

And so, YHWH,
breath, life, being,
I am that I am,
will stretch out a hand
in justice.
What follows will be
strange justice,
A steady unfolding of
consequence,
stretched out like darkness
over the dark land.

Poem: Butterfly Path

This next poem is another written following a walk by our river, the Deben, as we make our way down towards the sea.

You can read the first, Waldringfield Salt Marshes, Seal, by following the link.

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”

it ends..

“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.

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Comma

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Ringlet

 

 

Butterfly path

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
silvergreen
watery rippling,
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
flowered brambles
and tumbles of flowers
under the shade of thorns
and oaks and hornbeams,
and before us, and around us
on our bright sandy path,
are butterflies.

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,
was closed.
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
many wings,
eyes open,
wide open.

A Poem for a time of isolation – Rooted

Update: 3rd April 2020.
While out for our household proscribed exercise this evening, we saw a pair of water voles playing in the stream where I saw the one in the poem.  We stayed still for quite a while, and watched them in and out of holes in the bank, and back and forth across the stream.  It was such a joyous thing to see!  That, and the loud birdsong, and clear air, made a simple walk deeply satisfying.

I wrote this poem some time ago, after the joy of seeing a water vole in meadows near our home.  It’s an experience I think about a lot.  I thought about it today…. I will get back to the poem later, I promise, but I can’t go there yet.  I can’t get to that place of stillness right away, I have to look at the things immediately before us as far as I can. Here is today, this morning, a very small beginning of a change in how we live…..

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It’s so sad, this keeping away from ones you love.  I, like many of you, have cried at the thought of keeping away from family and friends, and also cried when I have heard of doctors cancelling their weddings, and keeping separate from their own families, and working in such difficult conditions, to try to treat those suffering from the effects of coronavirus.

I thought about this on a small trip to the corner shop – not sure whether even this is a good idea, with the slightest of sore throats.  I put on some old leather gloves, thin, so you can still open a purse, and pick things up,  an old fashioned form of contactless.

There were hardly any cars, which was pleasant, and made it easier for us pedestrians to step into the road to avoid each other.  I am grateful to those who counterbalanced this distance with a smile, and a hello. Two items only, for everything, in the shop, and even so, there was little. I knelt on the floor to retrieve the second last loaf of bread from the back of the lowest shelf, and thought that tomorrow, I would start baking my own as I felt so bad taking it. There was someone I knew in the shop, and our distant conversation, and distant air kissing, seemed to start a ripple of laughter, as others avoiding contact found they could still smile and wave to counterbalance the dance of solitariness, of avoiding each other, we were all keeping up, without music.

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As an antidote, back home, I planted three rows of veggies – borlotti beans, butter lettuce, red chard – these gentle things help.  What also helped was doing something that might help someone else….Yesterday, I tended the Little Free Pantry .  It’s a perfect way for people still out, but who want to avoid crowded shops, to pick up or donate some food. I also added my name to the list of local volunteers happy to put things on the doorstep of others isolated inside.  A little of this can help with anxiety.  It can help us be reconciled to the distance we have to keep from loved ones.

If we have to slow down, if we have to disengage, then maybe, having felt the anxiety, we can see if we can find some gifts within it.

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Mary Oliver

Maybe, even as we acknowledge the weightiness and pain of the current crisis, we can begin to imagine how the world might emerge, how we might emerge, differently, from it.

Have you heard that dolphins have returned to Venice, and that those living in Wuhan report that the sky is blue, and full of birdsong now?   Maybe, if we live more quietly, we will live more rootedly, more connected to our place and its people.  Maybe, given time, a less frenetic, more sustaining way of being might be made.  Maybe, we have an opportunity now, for some kind of a beginning, if not anew, then perhaps differently.

What would you like it to be? What kind of world, what kind of way of living, do we want?

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HOW TO BE ROOTED

First, you must suspend
all effort, all purpose.

Simply crouch in the damp,
thick grass, and feel your
sense of self seep through
your skin, your feet, into the
air – the earth – the water.

And as the muscles
around your eyes slacken,
and you let in light,
you become aware
of a nuzzling in the
grass, an earth-dark
water vole sliding
into green water.

As your heart slows
a pheasant walks by,
bright among the grasses,
and three ducks fly low
under the oaks, the
beat of  wings
all about you.

Stay still, and you will
sense the scrape
of the crickets through
the back of your hand,
and the tiny spiders,
yellow with newness,
weaving through your hair.
So that, when the
strong green tendrils
of the earth begin to
creep about your feet,
you will know in wonder
that rare thing –
how the world is,

unseen.

 

May you be blessed, and well.  May you breathe deeply, and freely, may you know you are loved and connected to all, may you feel peace.

 

Poem – Poldhu Cove #EverybodyNow

I’m carrying on with this season of posting work which speaks of Earth’s beauty, and at times my sadness as that beauty, the very life of the Earth, is under threat.   As the Extinction Rebellion protests continue in London and elsewhere, I hope that some of these short pieces with help remind us of the astonishing loveliness, variety and vulnerability of the systems of earth and ocean, forest and animal that nurture us all.

We need to reconnect, to feel again a love and delight in the goodness of it all.  All the good earth.  I hope what I am sharing with you today, words and pictures, will help.

Today, I am sharing with you a poem wrote on a Cornish beach just over a week ago, some of the time sheltering under a towel from the rain, all of the time completely in awe of the vast waves.  While we were in Cornwall, we discovered the work of the extraordinary photographer Mike Lacey, whose work captures the beauty and the power of the sea.  His work is well worth exploring, and supporting.  All the pictures on this post are his.  His work shows you what, in the words of my poem, I wish I could show you.

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Poldhu Cove

I wish I could show you
the turquoise water,
rolling and rising high above,
rolling from the wide sea
into the dark arms of this cove,

With its little stream crossing the beach,
sandy, dune-grassy,
with piles of grey shingle, lined with quartz,
and the crosswaves that meet there
at the stream bed as the water rolls
back from the rocks that welcome it.

I wish you could feel how warm the water is, here,
where it’s shallow, and the longing,
and the fear, to go out deeper.
And I wish I could show you the light folded into
those great waves, like glass as they rise above you,
above the line of the horizon,
as you feel, with a strange joy,
your smallness, your body’s softness,
how easy it would be to be tumbled in this light
overturned in this water,
upended –

And the cold wind prickling the skin of your
outstretched arms,
open to welcome this Atlantic, nonetheless,
as your damp hair whips,
as you are part of all this,
knowing your place,
feeling your place.

 

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This is one of the poems I have uploaded onto the lovely Places of Poetry map. If you are in the UK, why not see what’s been added where you are?

A lament – I hear the song of the Earth #EverybodyNow

I’m posting a series of pieces as my small way of joining Extinction Rebellion’s protests this week and next.

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This is something I wrote for myself, in the summer.  I was thinking about what I wanted to say in what may become my next book, I was thinking of what was on my heart, and I gave my heart some space to speak.  What came was this – I’ve tweaked it a tiny bit, and it may well turn into something else in time – this, though, was a felt rather than thought expression of my growing sadness as I attempt to follow those words from Job –

But ask the beasts, and they will teach you,
the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you:
or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.

Job 12:7,8

I have called it a lament for now.  I am not sure what to call it.  I have tried to resist my natural urge to say something soothing, and, as in the parable I shared on Monday, let the piece be what it is.  Lament is powerful, and important.  We need to give space to it, and then in time we may find we can move through it, knowing what we love, what we risk losing, empowered by it to act, to cherish, to tend our beautiful Earth.

 

I hear the song of the Earth

I hear the song of the Earth –
so good and green,
in June, when the whole world sings,
and the fledgling birds walk fearlessly,
and the young badger sits on the grass.
I hear the song so poignantly
so ebbingly,
at the great green flood tide of the year.
For I hear within the bassnote of loss
of grief of absence,
of all the creatures
that are not,
are no more.
I hear the clatter
of plastic as it
rattles through
the web of life.

I hear the whales
that have thrown themselves
ashore as I wonder
what would they sing
if they still could.

I hear the forests burning
and splintered, the roar of
the orang-utan
fighting the gripper that
tears down the tree.

I hear silence, absence,
the butterflies I do not see
and the hedges that are gone.

The Earth cries out
and these are not birthpangs

Or if they are they are pangs
for our waking, awakening,
coming to our senses
and listening to the teaching
of the plants and the animals,
The water and the air.

It may or may not be too late.
we may or may not be able
to turn away from destruction.

That is no longer the point for me.
The point is that my voice must join
with the cry of the beached whale,
and the turtle laying her eggs
in trash,
and the hare chased by dogs,
and the young albatross
with a belly full of plastic.

That is my task, as a
being on the Earth.
my task is to feel the Earth’s pain,
and speak, and speak,
And cry out in a tongue we understand.

And so, I sing a song of the Earth,
in winter, when life ebbs.
I remember the good, and the green,
the fledgling birds and the young badger,
the butterflies and the hedgerows full of blossom.
I will sing of them still.

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Poem – The wings of Gabriel’s Wood #EverybodyNow

Today I’m sharing another poem to mark Extinction Rebellion’s actions in London and elsewhere.
There’s a long tradition of poetry helping us to see both more clearly and more deeply – it can help us linger on those moments of beauty and connection with the natural world that remind us of our proper place, and inspire us to love and to act.

This poem was a scrap in my notebook for some time.  It describes the experience of entering Gabriel’s Wood on the Golden Cap (Dorset) estate in the path of the remains of a hurricane.  The living things that gathered there seemed less disturbed by my presence while seeking shelter from the coming storm.  We had a commonality of purpose, and a connection.

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The Wings of Gabriel’s Wood

Far above the wood fly buzzards –
I can see four,
or five –
young who have grown
and ready to fly,
their thin cries
carry on the wind.

They are harried by crows,
dark, gyring to keep moving
as the wind booms in the trees,
as their feathers twist.

Entering under the dome of trees,
into a loud stillness, I join
pheasants who are sheltering,
and a tiny wren who skirts
the ground like a mouse,
and fat pigeons picking up acorns
that clatter like hail,
and warblers who snatch notes,
not risking a song.

The wood is full of wings,
folded, sheltering.
And I too take my shelter here,
a creature, too, before the storm,
in this loud wood,
among the falling leaves.

Poem – The Cave and the Quarry #EverybodyNow

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Gibsons Cave and Summerhill Force by David Allen

Here is a poem, part of a series of posts that mark the Extinction Rebellion protests which are drawing our attention to the damage we are doing to the world around us.

It’s about a walk in Teesdale, in the North East of England, which I did with my husband.  We followed rivers upstream, past waterfalls.  This one, with its legends of runaways hiding behind the water, caught my imagination.  In the North East, you don’t go far without stumbling across remnants of past industries, and here it was a quarry.  These places can be desolate, they can remind us of the costs of changing the way we live for those whose livelihoods, whose families, depend on the way things are.  They remind us of the importance of imagining new ways of living, that promote dignity and independence, as well as creativity and sustainability.

What struck me here, though, and elsewhere, was the power of nature to return and to thrive even in places that seem wrecked and spoiled.  Whatever political and social difficulties we may face in times of transition, living things will come back to desolate places, given half a chance.

“For there is hope for a tree,
if it is cut down, that it will sprout again,
and that its shoots will not cease.
Though its root grows old in the earth,
and its stump dies in the ground,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put forth branches like a young plant”
Job 14:7-9

May it be so.  May the trees that we have cut down sprout again, may the scars we have cut into the earth be healed, may the land sustain us, and all living things.

And so, this poem is one of hope, of the return of life, of seeing things anew.

 

The Cave and the Quarry

We followed the valley down –
Down from Gibson’s cave,
where the river poured over
a high lip of rock,
undercutting a dark, hidden place.

It stayed in my mind, that place –
What would it be like to stand there,
behind the falls,
to look at the world
through that fast, cold, brown, water?
Would it wash your eyes to
see things you hadn’t seen?
Was it an enchanted place?

It seemed so, for, walking back,
we saw an old quarry
we had not seen before,
dark, and hidden –
and now we walked by
strange hillocks –
spoil-heaps sprouting trees
like ancient burial mounds,
where crowds of small birds
bounced through the air,
landing on ledges of rock
that once were sharp, fractured.
Now, moss dripped off everything,
and there was a sign
that promised flowers,
for it asked us not to pick them,
and we wondered – what flowers would come?

And I thought as we walked down the
path that carts carrying stone had made –
how long did this take?
How long before the green
and the birds and the
trees crept back into their place?

How strong, how eager, life is.
Water, and greenness,
flowers, and small birds,
moss and grass,
they soothe our scars,
they make the dead come back to life,
we need only step back,
step back and say “yes”.

Poem – Three Days #EverybodyNow

I’m reposting this poem as part of #EverybodyNow, as Extinction Rebellion are focusing our minds on our bonds with the rest of the Earth, and the life of all creatures

Andrea Skevington

blackbird2 Photo from Flickr, photographer unknown

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I have been transplanting buttercups into the verge at the front of our house, where there is no pavement, and have been thinking about boundaries – in particular the contrast between the rather wild garden, full of life, and the fast road outside.  This poem, written a few years ago, came about as I watched a female blackbird mourn the death of her mate.  She kept vigil for three days, and then she went.  I did not see her again.  It made me think about not only the intensity, the reality of each creature’s experience, but how often we live in our own enclosed worlds, isolated from each other, and how hard it can be to cross those boundaries.   How hard to credit and acknowledge the fullness of the lives around us. To begin to do so, to begin to see and understand another,  seems…

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Everybody Now – a parable to mark the beginning of Extinction Rebellion’s week of action

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All around the world, people are taking to the streets to draw our attention to the terrible destruction spreading over our home, the Earth.

It grieves me to learn of so many living things, plants and animals, that are on the brink of being lost from creation for ever.  It grieves me to read of the native European trees, like the ash, and the chestnut, that are now getting closer to dying, of British native mammals whose numbers are diminishing rapidly.

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But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
    the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
 ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
    and the fish of the sea will declare to you.

Job 12: 7,8
It is time to listen.  What will we learn?

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Peaceful, imaginative and creative protest can help us wake up.  It can be a revelation, a prophetic voice showing the impact of human greed, and the poverty of our love for our neighbours.  We are not free from the consequences of our actions.

Much of my work draws on a depth of love for the natural world, and so this week I hope to post, and re-post, some pieces which speak into our current crisis, in my own small act of protest.  And so, I begin by reposting this parable.

 

The parable of the good craftsman

Once there was a craftsman who had two children. As you might expect, he had built a beautiful house out of seasoned wood, with wide windows that looked out over his lush green fields, his flocks and herds.  He had made fine, carved furniture for his house, and he had smiled when he made it, and said, “That’s good!”  He had made beautiful plates and cups and jugs out the red clay near his house, he had smiled when he made those, too, and said, “That’s good!”  He had made a sheepfold to keep his flocks safe, and smiled, then, too.  In fact, all that was around him was good and flourishing and abundant, and as he looked at it all, he laughed out loud and said, “That is all so good!”

The day came when he needed to go on a journey, as the people in these stories often do.  He thought, “My children are old enough to be left in charge now.  They have watched what I did, some of the time, and I have told them how good it is.”  And so he left, and the children looked around, and they, too, saw that it was good.  So good, in fact, that they started to think how much it was all worth.  So they sold the furniture, and the plates and cups and jugs, for a fortune.  They were made by a master craftsman, after all.  The plastic ones they bought to replace them were good enough. They looked at the lush green fields and thought, “We could rear more animals in pens.”  So they did: twice as many, three and four times even, the poor creatures.  They sold the pasture they no longer needed, and a factory and a car park grew there, large and grey and ugly.  The water from the well their father had dug became bitter, but they bought water in bottles with all the money that they had made.

Then, the time came for the father to return.  As he drew near the house, he noticed the trees along the road were withered and dying, and his smile left him.  He came across a bird trapped in plastic that blew across the fields, and he set it free.  Then, near the house, he found a thin child sitting by the side of the road.
“What is the matter?” he asked.
“I drank water from the stream that flows from over there, by that factory.  It tasted bad. Now I’m sick.”  The father gave the child water from his own flask, and picked up the child to take home. He had herbs for medicine there.

But when he got even nearer, he could see that the factory was on his own land, and that where his own fields should be was all noise and smoke.  He could see the plastic rubbish spilling over from his own front garden, from where the flowers and the vegetables and the herbs had been.  He saw his own children, with grey, indoor faces, and said, “what have you done?”
“Father, we are so pleased to see you!  Come inside, we will bring you the accounts and you will see what we have made!”
“That is not the kind of making I intended you for!” replied the father. “And see, see this child, poisoned! How will you enter that in these books of yours?  What have you done with all that I have made – do you not know that I love it all?”

Some prayers from the first chapter of Prayers and Verses

Lord, purge our eyes to see
Within the seed a tree,
Within the glowing egg a bird,
Within the shroud a butterfly.
Till, taught by such we see
Beyond all creatures, thee
And harken to thy tender word
And hear its “Fear not; it is I”.
Christina Rosetti 1830-94

O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom thou gavest the earth as their home in common with us.
Basil the Great c330-379

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1772–1834

 

#EverybodyNow