Sitting in the garden in the late afternoon today – the Summer Solstice – I watched the daisies in the sun and the breeze. Here they are.
Midsummer – and the tall daisies are full of light, nodding and glowing, glowing and nodding, saying yes, it seems, to all that is.
Simplicity – to receive the light and shine out in turn. To have roots in the dark earth, in the damp earth and to shine like this – with a purity of brightness, and such depth of yellow, while swaying, like this, in the breeze.
Perhaps it is so – simply to be is holy, to receive and to give is enough, this longest of days.
Alchemy – for surely it is a glory, and a wonder, to turn earth and damp and light into this brightness, this daily beauty, shining like the distant sun here, in this shady place, beneath my apple tree.
But this poem, a little later than I’d intended due to a bout of covid, came about only a few weeks ago, on a wild and unpredictable day. The way the crows stayed together as they flew was remarkable – they held a bond, they held their distance, tumbling together, despite the unpredictable blustering of the wind. It brought to mind all the things that we find hard to measure in our systems of measuring – the bonds between us, the gifts of attention and intent, the power of belonging. In this poem, the question of hope came to mind. I have not resolved it. I was thinking about hope in the face of all the pains of the living earth, including ourselves – the disruption and destruction of networks of life that have been in place for aeons.
Perhaps the question is one I can let go, learn to live with. And another, perhaps more useful question is can I continue to turn my attention to these strange, immesurable qualities of love, belonging, gratitude, which can shift our attention, and therefore our action.
In any case, here are some pictures from the garden, and a poem for you.
Two crows in an April gale
And as the wind blows slant across the patched and mottled sky, I watch two crows tumbling and twisting sideways through the cold air, keeping together
As if each is the other’s fixed point, their north star, dark as they are against the darkening clouds, in this sudden, unfamiliar cold, as the wind veers north, then south, then north while the day’s unease lengthens.
And these two birds floating through so much turmoil, an upended sky, remain, strangely, together – paired, equidistant, invisibly tangled, gyring like lost kites with sinuous strings.
Is there any hope? I know not. Facts singe and darken with fire. Even Spring seems provisional as the wind shifts strangely.
Do I hope? I know not. And yet this bond between the birds speaks of much that is not counted in our counting of facts. Our reckoning speaks not of the loves between us, the urgency of our turning, the efforts we bear to remain close, all things holding together in strange union.
Now, a lull, the crows are gone, and the blackbird sings still, and yet, and
Oh I cannot bear that he should sing in vain. So sing into being a new, ancient world, brother bird, dear one, sing on, calling to another, calling to life, and who knows where this bleak wind will carry our songs.
Who knows the power of these loves, of that sweet melody, of the tumbling together of crows.
The lino cuts at the top of this post were done to go with some poems which I posted before. If you would like to read them, you can begin here.
As I was thinking about all that binds us together, these words from the New Testament came to mind. They help me. Colossians 1:15-17
I was so delighted to be asked to be involved in this local event. Our town council has a thoughtful and dedicated Climate Emergency Committee, who invited a range of speakers and exhibitors who could talk about what they are doing, and what we could do, to work more harmoniously with nature to tackle the double and linked emergencies of biodiversity loss and climate change.
If you’ve been reading this blog, you may recall that last autumn I gathered a community poem, November Leaves, and read it out at a council meeting. You can find out more about that here and here. It was following on from reading that poem at a council meeting that I was invited to begin each of the two days with a poem. As I looked through the programme, and wondered what to share, I was struck by the breadth and depth of the experience covered by the speakers.
I’d just like to briefly share with you the poems I read.
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 being knowing 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 dense bright clouds as you walked through the long grass? Could you lie down softly and hear the loud hum of bees in the speckled blossom above?
Perhaps, like Tom’s Midnight Garden, that rich place is still here, in the shadows. And perhaps, I hope, it is becoming less ghostly, more embodied, more visible, humming in this shimmer of life in the air. Growing stronger after so many years, as if seen with eyes as clear and sure as a dreaming child’s.
As the emphasis of the weekend was on action, and in particular localism, I came away feeling greatly encouraged to keep doing the apparently small things I am doing. To shop locally and seasonally, to allow the garden to grow with the aim of increasing its abundance of life, to buy less and what I buy to be as thoughtful as I can, to connect to others who are seeking to support nature and create networks where life can flourish.
The news about the climate emergency is pretty dire, but I’m trying to look at what I can do, and what we can do, and seeking to add my voice to those who are calling for change.
Out in the cold, damp garden, I have been holding my nerve and not cutting things back. Just this week, I’ve snipped a few old stems above the primroses getting ready to flower – and indeed flowering already. I am seeing how long I can sit on my hands and wait as things flop under frost and rain, thinking of the life held in piles of leaves, and the hollow stems of perennials.
Where I have cut back, I have left things in piles near where they grew, giving time for the things that live there to move before I compost them.
As I have left this old growth, and quietened the voice in my head reproving me for untidiness, I’ve noticed real beauty in these seedheads, and fading leaves and flowers, and an increase in the hum of aliveness I’m noticing in the garden.
Even moving a few leaves to clear space for primroses has revealed fat caterpillars, and many tiny creatures unknown to me. There is beauty here, too. All this decay from last year is full of life, full of what will be needed by the bluetits investigating the nest box, the blackbirds turning over leaves.
I’ve left it wild – left seedheads and leaves – and the leaves lie piled up in heaps in borders, against fences, swept from paths.
And I find I love the colours of the fading aster leaves, colours I have not seen before, new to my eyes, uncut as they are. And the pale seedheads – like stars – of the alliums, and the dark eyes of rudbeckia, how they sway together as the wind whips round, mingling, full, and darkly shimmering.
I watch the birds as they eat red berries – dark holly, the vivid bright cotoneaster, as the squirrels lope inquiringly over the lawn, looking for what they buried.
There is so much life in the few brief hours of daylight, while the night lingers in the sharp musk of fox, the delicate deer paths deepening in the soft earth. And I feel how precious this space is,
How, now it is cold, the garden is sanctuary to many more than me. And I love to be host to such guests. There is much joy in noticing their need, and in opening my hand to offer what they lack, quietly, invisibly.
Even now, in the darkest days life stirs, life comes through the slick dripping trees, through frost and fog, and finds shelter here, and makes a home.
This is another poem written a few weeks ago, so is slightly out of time. But only slightly. I have yet to cut back the lavenders that guard this bench where I often sit, as they still have a few stray flowers which draw the bees whenever the sun comes out. And it does, these last few days of strange warmth, and intermittent downpours. In some ways, then, this poem is an elegy to the extravagant blossoms that drew so many bees only a short time ago.
It is also something else. It is a poem where I tease out the feeling I often have while in my garden, that it isn’t “mine” at all. It belongs just as surely to all the living things who make their home here, or feed, or rest, here. It belongs to the newts who live at the bottom of the compost heap, and the bees, and the worms currently throwing up extravagant curlicues of casts all over the lawn, and the squirrel now hanging upside down and raiding the bird feeder. So, I seek to tend for the benefit of all these who live here too. It is a good feeling, to know you share the space with other beings. It seems to be bound up with belonging, and gentleness, and a delighted respect. It’s a subtle shift in feeling, but it feels an important shift in perspective. I am sure, for most humans, through most of human history, this knowledge was part of our shared culture. I’m sure it was held gladly in the spaces between people as they gathered and grew and hunted, and that they passed it on with delight. I am glad to be finding it again, to be included in that long and noble practice of humility and service and mutuality in this small space. It is a small part of rewilding myself, as well as my place.
The Realm of bees
I enter this humming space, roofed by a tracery of magnolia branches, looking up at light-lined leaves. By my side, simple white gladioli.
I feel a slight reserve, knowing myself guest in my own garden, having stepped into this place of bees between the bowing guards of lavender, the scent on my clothes, taking care not to disturb the crowds and flights of bees, so many the flowers turn black and the lavender falls back, half closed doors enclosing me.
And as I sit I breathe deep in the great mead-hall of the bees, full of feasting and the warm hum of wings. I watch the sedums where honeybees stuff their yellow pockets, and the soft butterflies drink deep.
The air is heady, thick even, and one by one large bumbles make their way to my flower-scattered shirt, and rest awhile, and at the feel of them I find a deep stillness.
I see their soft fur, their forelegs scratching an itch, wiping a large, complex eye that looks up, looks up and seems to meet my own, and I wonder what they see as they see me.
I rest now, quietly and strangely, in this realm of bees, I am warmed by the same warmth as them smell the same rich goodness as we breathe the same air, as I sit here, among the flowers, adorned in bees, I feel no longer a stranger, but welcomed into their rich world, seen by their complex eyes, content with them in the sweetness of this early autumn sun. For this moment I, too, live in the realm of bees.
As things grow and spread in the garden, I sometimes feel a plant is no longer thriving, or no longer fits the mood. The colours and textures change constantly, and sometimes something can seem stranded, suddenly out of place. I felt that way about these tall, pale asters last year. I moved some, and find they are thriving in their new homes, but the rest, I thought I’d dig up.
Lack of energy or time or poor weather means that I often don’t carry out my plans, leave them for another season. But increasingly, I am not acting on an impulse to remove, I am giving myself another chance to look at things differently. I am so glad that I left these, for this year, the asters are the loveliest thing I see.
I thought about their transformation, or rather, the transformation I experienced in how I saw them. I realised that the plants that are around them, and the increased light now the old tree has died, have made them appear transformed, lit up. Seeing things in isolation, out of context, we can miss their beauty, their true qualities. Kindly companions change everything.
A change of heart/asters
I wanted to dig them up, these pale asters. They looked grey under clouds grey enough. Shaded and overshadowed, they spread, moved forward towards the light. In their advance, they bound cyclamen as tight as a vice. They are no good, I though.
But, it seems, they needed that light, and more than that, the right company – this new rich pink, the purple leaves turning deep red behind them, the pale chaos of ammi running to seed – all this has transformed them, or rather transformed my seeing, revealed their beauty – a delicacy of colour, a generous abundance.
In this new light, the bees and the butterflies crowd them for their late nectar as the sun shines on them, finding in them a sweetness I had missed.
I will not be so hasty. I will give myself time to look again. I will step back, take in the whole, and remember that kindly companions change everything. I will look to add, befriend, seeking the right company.
I will remember the value of light, and seeing each thing not for itself alone, but as part of a wider abundance. And so, I have had a change of heart and I see now, yes I see now, that none of this pale, unassuming flourishing is wasted.
It’s been a while since I’ve shared a poem with you, so thank you for finding me again! Sometimes, it’s good to simply be over the summer, to rest in warmer days, and fill up notebooks with things for later.
And so, this next poem comes to you a little out of season. There are still a few wild strawberries hanging on in there in sheltered spots, but now the autumn storms are upon us, and they don’t last long. So this is from a few weeks ago – it feels longer, like a different, sunnier world. The fruit ripening now is the apples – but I hope to write about them another time.
As I was harvesting wild strawberries, I was thinking how good it is, the way they just spread around the garden, making a home for frogs and newts and slugs, how good it is they choose their places to flourish and thrive. Much in the garden is self-willed, and it does seem to be thriving, if a little scruffy at this time of year.
I do tend them, by looking after the soil, and they tend me with their sweet goodness. As I was turning over this circle in my mind, this poem came, with a basket of fruit.
Wild strawberries – a gift
Each day now, I bend, send my hand through thick leaves, under undergrowth, searching for that flash of fruit.
Finding trove after trove, tiny, sweet-sharp, intense, lingering on the tongue.
They grow rapidly, self-willed, under my delighted gaze, spreading over rich soil thick with compost, nourishing the slugs and me.
And as I stretch and gather, gather and stretch, I feel a sudden wash of gratitude, precarious, and abundant, thankful for each tiny fruit.
For a moment, I feel part of a rich goodness beating steady and deep, a full base note under the sweetness – the endless life-circle of gift and gratitude, gratitude and gift,
and of mutual care – I care for the plants, and they care for me, gently, sweetly, with a taste never to be forgotten.
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.
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.
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.