Monday, 29 December 2008

The Pied Wagtail - 'road-runner'

This little bird has been flitting in and out of my vision ever since I moved to the terraced street where I now live. I have never seen it in woods or parks and only ever see it running or hopping across roads or pavements near where I live (although I have seen it in other built up areas around the town). My street is home to crows and magpies - often spotted on tv aerials and chimney pots en route to other leafier places. There seems to be colony of pied wagtails along the next street which runs parallel to the route of the old canal so I imagine they are roosting in the eaves of these houses - and have done so for many generations.

The illustration above is a wood-carving by Agnes Miller Parker taken from The Old House at Coate by Richard Jefferies. Here is what Richard Jefferies writes about the wagtail in his autobiographical piece 'The Blue Doors':

The legs of the wagtail are so slender that they scarce seem capable of sustaining even its light weight; each appears a mere black line; the plumage is shaded with delicate precision and every tiny feather besides that side or tip that meets the eye is equally carefully marked underneath, and where it cannot be observed, so much "work" is there, so much thorough honesty in nature's art. Everything out of sight is as tenderly touched as that open to the passing view. The wagtails, like the ibis, were sacred; they were never shot or disturbed; wagtails, swallows, swifts, turtle-doves, yellow-hammers, robins, wrens, green plovers and even thrushes, if not semi-sacred were rarely fired at. (Richard Jefferies 1848-1887)

For more information on the pied wagtail go to:

Addendum: New Year's Eve, a hard frost over everything as I came out of the house this morning - by my gate were a pair of wagtails, pecking at the pavement. They hopped across the road and watched me from the kerb as I quietly closed the gate behind me. A drop of magic to start the day.

January 3rd: Still freezing (the coldest winter I can remember for quite some time). Some pied wagtails have moved into the eaves of the houses across the street so now I have the pleasure of looking at the rooftops and seeing them run-hop across the tiles, their long tail-feathers wagging all the while.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

A year and a day - Mistletoe

Mistletoe acts as a master-key as well as a lightning conductor; for it is said to open all locks. (From the Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer)

Jon Dathen author of OGHAM (Wisdom of the Trees) writes that Mistletoe rules the 23rd December which is the extra day set apart from the rest of the year due to its sacred and sacrificial nature. There are 13 Ogham months in the calendar year, the last being ruled by the Elder tree, ends on December 22nd. The first month, ruled by the Birch tree starts on the December 24th. Therefore, December 23rd belongs to neither the old or the new year - and gave rise to the old country saying "wait for a year and a day". Mistletoe represents health, return to health, fertility, success, good fortune, a reminder of our responsibilities to others, the need to respect all beings and see ourselves as part of a whole - an individual part of a vast universe encompassing both the spiritual and physical realities (acknowledgement to Jon Dathen).

The plant grows on various trees, particularly the oak and the apple. The ancient British Druids venerated it and traditionally the plant was cut with a golden sickle and used during rites accompanying the sacrifice of a white bull. In mythology mistletoe has a sexual symbolism as it usually grows two berries together - representing testicles. In the classical tradition Uranus was castrated by his son Cronus with a golden sickle. His testicles fell into the sea changing into blood and foam from which rose Aphrodite (Venus) the goddess of love. The twin berries and leaves are also symbolic of the celestial twins. In Scandinavian legend Balder, god of light and son of Odin and Frigga is said to have been slain with an arrow of mistletoe. The plant was dedicated to Frigga, goddess of love - many customs, such as kissing under the mistletoe, would seem to have originated from the belief in its phallic power. In feudal times mistletoe boughs were gathered on Christmas Eve to decorate homes though it was believed to be unlucky to cut the plant before Christmas Eve (acknowledgement to Josephine Addison's The Illustrated Plant Lore).

Mistletoe has come to represent the 'life-force' and life itself as it grows on leafless trees in the midst of winter. At Yuletide it is symbolic of the rebirth of the 'god of light', it is not uncommon for Yule Mistletoe to be saved until Imbolc on February 2nd (Candlemas) to be burned in the fire, thus completing the transition from the winter solstice.

This post is for anyone who finds the number 23 significant in their life (see Cosmic Trigger by Robert Anton Wilson)

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Night and Day

Image courtesy of
Today, this Midwinter Day (winter solstice) it is a time to spend a while meditating upon light and dark - day and night.
There was a time when people carried the lunar rhythm of the moon close to their hearts and often collected healing herbs by the light of the moon. They told variations of a legend when Night was dominant over Day. I recently came across this myth from 'The Prose Edda', Tales from Norse Mythology by Snorri Sturluson (thought to have been written in 1220). It told of a woman called Night, daughter of one of the original giants. Night was dark-skinned and dusky-haired like the family she came from. Then she married a god called Shining One, the Sun ...... and they had a son called Day who took after his father's side being bright and beautiful. So Night was conceived as the original state of the cosmos.
The story goes on to tell that Night and her son Day were given two horses and two chariots and they were put in the sky, so they could ride round the world every twenty four hours. Night rides first on a horse called Frosty-mane and every morning he bedews the earth with foam from his bit. Day's horse is called Shining-mane and the whole earth and sky are illuminated by his mane. Thus Night is regarded as ushering in day - the nocturnal came first.
There was a time when people lived in harmony with nature and, as with Night and Day, the year was divided into Winter and Summer with winter being the dark side of the year when nature sleeps. Today marks the longest hours of darkness - gradually, imperceptibly at first, the light will now creep back and by Imbolc on February 2nd the first stirrings of green shoots start to appear in the soil.
Acknowledgement of source of material to: Professor Brian Bates author of The Real Middle Earth - Magic and Mystery in the Dark Ages

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Woody and the Goldcrests

Walking back from my lunchtime forage along the nearby cycle track today, two tiny birds appeared right beside me in the leafless hawthorn hedge. I stopped very still and listened and watched - they were about the size of a wren, though with a gentler song, completely new to me. I hurried back to work to see if I could identify them. At first I thought they were siskins and mentioned them to someone I work with who is a fellow bird lover - she told me straight away that they were goldcrests. I had only ever seen goldfinches before and I'm not sure I had even heard of goldcrests . These tiny little songbirds are quite rare and apparently the UK's smallest bird, along with the flamecrest which is very similar. Somehow they seemed to be the highlight of an otherwise ordinary working day.
Also today, our old friend Woody made a reappearance at the bird feeder hanging from the old apple tree in the neighbouring garden (the window of my office faces it). Last winter the Great Spotted Woodpecker delighted myself and my colleagues as we caught glimpses of it pecking the bark of the tree. Although brightly coloured, it only stays for a matter of seconds before taking off into the nearby copse. No sightings at all during the summer - it was good to see this illusive bird back.

Observing garden birds is one of the joys of winter, something I never tire of - here is a strange little poem called The Woodpecker:
I once a King and chief
Now am the tree bark's thief
Ever 'twixt trunk and leaf
Chasing the prey
William Morris (1891)

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

The Real Middle Earth

Morning sunlight - reflecting on a crow
The Road goes ever on
Down from the door where it began
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
I must follow if I can.
Pursuing it with eager feet
Until it joins some larger way
And whither then ? I cannot say
(Professor Tolkien - from Lord of the Rings)

The sun rising on a frosty winter morning - in an old hillside cemetery
I have recently started reading a fascinating book called The Real Middle Earth - Magic and Mystery of the Dark Ages, by Brian Bates. Though I have still much of it left to read, Professor Bates has started me on a journey of discovery with which I felt an instant affinity. He talks about how the Anglo-Saxons and Norse peoples settled our islands after the Romans left - apparently avoiding the deserted villas and towns built by the Romans. It seems the people of the historical Middle-earth preferred to live closely to trees, streams and wild animals - their lives were rural and their homes built of wood. Perhaps there is an element of shamanism in Professor Bates book and it is all the more enjoyable for that.
Some time ago I started my blog Hidden Swindon (linked to this blog) and The Real Middle Earth is quite close to 'the spirit of the land' I was trying to capture. The morning sunlight in winter casting long shadows across the frost covered grass. Today, on my way to work, I took a detour through a the small hillside cemetery behind my house. Now a designated local nature reserve, it is a haven of quiet tranquility, astonishingly close to the town centre. It is the place I watch the seasons change, today autumn leaves still lay crisply frozen along the path. In January the first snowdrops can be seen there, heralding the spring, followed by wild primroses, celandines, daffodils and bluebells. The birds are always present, from crow, woodpecker, bluetit, wren; along with squirrels, badgers, foxes - and probably a few rats in the undergrowth, they have their place too. In summer the swallows and bats come back.
The words from Tolkien at the start of this post "The road goes ever on ..... " were sent to me in a card by the first man I ever fell in love with; he posted them from the other side of the planet. Back then, I didn't know where the words had come from, or how prophetic they would turn out to be - here I am contemplating them once more, so many years later. The young man, striding out into the world without looking back, is gone - and can never return. The girl left behind to stare wistfully at the moon is still here (in spirit anyway) very much older, hopefully wiser and still gazing at the moon - no longer wistfully but in ever increasing wonder at our beautiful fragile Middle Earth.
"And whither then? I cannot say."

Friday, 5 December 2008

Mirrors within mirrors

Yesterday, while doing some local research the historical Town Hall (which these days is used as for dance) I was allowed access to the studio. Standing at one end of the high-ceilinged airy room looking at mirrors reflecting in mirrors I mused on how they can sometimes be used to create illusions. Something that has intrigued me all my life - though I can fully understand why some people choose to live without mirrors. Today I found this poem by Sylvia Plath which, until now I had been unfamiliar with. Perhaps because she took her own life while her children slept in the room next door affected my maternal instincts that sought to protect my own children from harm's way - I turned away. Here is her much studied poem - Mirror.
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful-
The eye of the little god, four cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
Sylvia Plath 1932-1963
The following fascinating myth was taken from "The book of imaginary beings" by Jorge Luis Borges with Margarita Guerrero. Revised, enlarged, and translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni. Published by E.P. Dutton & Co., 1970.
"In those days [legendary times of the Yellow Emperor] the world of mirrors and the world of men were not, as they are now, cut off from each other. They were, besides, quite different; neither beings nor colors nor shapes were the same. Both kingdoms, the specular and the human, lived in harmony; you could come and go through mirrors. One night the mirror people invaded the earth. Their power was great, but at the end of the bloody warfare the magic arts of the Yellow Emperor prevailed. He repulsed the invaders, imprisoned them in their mirrors, and forced on them the task of repeating, as though in a kind of dream, all the actions of men. He stripped them of their power and of their forms and reduced them to mere slavish reflections. Nonetheless, a day will come when the magic spell will be shaken off.The first to awaken will be the Fish. Deep in the mirror we will perceive a very faint line and the color of this line will be like no other color. Later on, other shapes will begin to stir. Little by little they will differ from us; little by little they will not imitate us. They will break through the barriers of glass or metal and this time will not be defeated. Side by side with these mirror creatures, the creatures of water will join the battle."

And a bit of background about this legend :
"In one of the volumes of the 'Lettres edifiantes et curieuses' that appeared in Paris during the first half of the eighteenth century, Father Fontecchio of the Society of Jesus planned a study of the superstitions and misinformation of the common people of Canton; in the preliminary outline he noted that the Fish was a shifting and shining creature that nobody had ever caught but that many said they had glimpsed in the depths of mirrors."
(Poem and legend taken from the Sylvia Plath Forum)
(Mirror photo by June Jackson)

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Clear blue sky and blackbirds

Escaping from work at lunch-time, it is a winter's day of the best sort. Clear blue sky, cold and invigorating - there are many places I would like to walk today but it is a working day for me so I head for my hedgerow cycle-track to make the most of this precious window of daylight time.
The first thing I notice along the way is a blackbird, only this one has a companion which is not it's mate as the female blackbird is a brownish colour. Blackbirds then seem to appear intermittently on the bare branches of the hedgerow and shrubbery for the rest of the walk - either singly or in pairs. The blackbird is probably the most quintessentially English garden bird, loved for its singular song.
According to Ted Andrews author of Animal Speak, the blackbird represents "understanding the energies of Mother Nature" - the sighting of two male blackbirds together is a good omen as, like the robin, they fiercely stake out their own territory. An old legend associates the blackbird with St Kevin, one of the early Christian monks in Ireland. St Kevin was known as a person of tremendous gentleness and love so much so that a blackbird nested in his outstretched hand as he prayed.

'Blackbird' is also my favourite song by Paul McCartney:
Blackbird singing in the dead of night,
take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life,
you were only waiting for this moment to arise.
Blackbird singing in the dead of night,
take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life,
you were only waiting for this moment to be free.
Blackbird fly
Blackbird fly,
into the light of the dark black night.

I dedicate this post to Kevin - of all my friends, he is possibly the most cherished . Kevin is a die-hard Marxist and would not like to be compared to a saint. He is, however, the gentlest of men - albeit he does have a broken wing.
Image copyright Gerd Rosen from

Saturday, 29 November 2008

The Power of Light

A Victorian postcard showing a floral clock - a specially planted collection of flowers which open and close at different times of the day. The viewer could tell the approximate time by looking to see which flowers were open.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack, a crack in everthing
That's how the light gets in.
Anthem (Leonard Cohen)
As November closes and we enter the darkest time of the year in the northern hemisphere, some of us hibernate and some of us head south like migrating birds to the sun. I thought, therefore it would be fitting to use this time to reflect on the power of light.
In every religion, however old or recent, light is considered spiritual, sacred and healing. The most ancient mythology has light at its source: Apollo "the Shining One" was the ancient Greeks sun-god, and Re (in its many manifestations) was the same for ancient Egypt. In the prehistoric British Isles, temples of stone were built to the sun, marking the shortest day at winter solstice - the most famous being Stonehenge in Wiltshire.
December is a time to to light candles in our homes and in these dark times (never more metaphorically true that at present). Perhaps this year is the year we step back from the consumerism of our modern way of life and show kindness, friendship and yes, love, to our families, friends and neighbours. A good time to let old grievances slip away and start by forgiving ourselves for any perceived shortfalls ... this act of self acceptance somehow effortlessly radiates outwards to those we care about.
I found this little website about 'festivals of light' at
It closes with the words:
"To remind us that darkness must yield to light. The sun does come back and spring will follow winter"
This post is for Carl, one of my sons, who lives in Brighton and hasn't had the best of weeks. And for Miles, my other son - who is moving home with his little family next week. Love and light to you both.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Light and shadows

Downs walking on a bright, very cold Saturday in mid November
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare? -
No time to stand beneath the boughs,
And stare as long as sheep and cows:
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:
No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
William Henry Davies (1871-1940)
Walking with friends on Saturday, we climbed the hill and stood and stared at the shadows and light drifting across the downs. It was cold but the afternoon turned out to be most magical - the ever exuberant Pippa with her ordinance survey map tucked under her coat; Hilary who is fast becoming one of my dearest friends; and Steve ..... who joined us spontaneously at the last moment and who wove a silver thread through the afternoon by leading us to the green-sand spring at Alton Priors, by demonstrating with his voice the the amazing acoustics inside the little Saxon church and then spurring us to climb up the steep incline to Adam's Grave longbarrow - one of the highest points in the landscape where the views are breathtaking. He seemed to know there would be enormous wild mushrooms growing on the side of the the hill ....... there were, which he picked for his evening meal. That's magic!
Thank you to all three (and Betty and Ruby, the stoical black Labradors who walked with us) for a memorable and enjoyable day that somehow completely transcended the bitter cold.
(Note of caution: unless you really know your wild mushrooms, it is wise to err on the side of caution - if in any doubt don't eat them.).

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Rooks - in the Wiltshire landscape

Rooks - field foraging

Rooks in a field out near Tan Hill in Wiltshire today - just before a shower of freezing rain blew over.
Although part of the crow family, they are distinguishable from them by their bare greyish-white face and thinner pale beak. Rooks are rarely spotted alone, they roost in flocks in the winter (see link). Mainly seen in open fields, they largely keep clear of towns and cities.

Rooks on a telegraph wire near the village of East Kennet (taken in September this year)
There where the rusty iron lies,
The rooks are cawing all the day.
Perhaps no man, until he dies,
Will understand them, what they say.
The evening makes the sky like clay,
The slow wind waits for night to rise
The world is half content. But they
Still trouble all the trees with cries,
That know, and cannot put away,
The yearning to the soul that flies
From day to night, from night to day.
Charles Sorley (1895-1915)
Charles Sorley wrote much of his poetry while attending Marlborough College. He was killed in WWI at the age of 20 and is also highly regarded as a war poet. The above poem was published in 1916 a year after Charles Sorley's death, I do not know if it was written from a quiet Wiltshire landscape or a bleak war zone. Where ever it was written, it has the still-quiet quality of melancholy and reflection.

Friday, 21 November 2008

As the crow flies .....

Yesterday I was in London and as I walked from Highgate Underground Station to the bus-stop on the final part of my journey to Muswell Hill, two crows glided overhead into nearby Highgate Wood. I wondered about the hundreds of different reasons why people to come to the capital city and here I was crossing a familiar road in a part of London used to look on as home - I am thinking only of crows, a bird I usually associate with Avebury and Wiltshire downland. Crows also habituate the hillside Victorian cemetery at the back of my small house in Swindon, where I listen out for their caw all the time, I open the bathroom window and I hear crows. Along with jackdaws and magpies, they treat the chimney pots and tv aerials of the terraced street as an extension to their treetop perching and nesting places. I am watching them all the time - there is something mysterious about this 'other bird world' that thrives above us and regardless of our activities. Our cars cannot touch them, they are the true survivors.
Crows are social in nature and interaction with their own kind is important. They mate for life and live in family groups which they protect vigorously. They have been know to chase off predators such as hawks and owls.
Ted Andrews who compiled Animal Speak (The Spiritual and Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small) writes that the Keynote for the Crow is: The Secret Magic of Creation is Calling, with the Cycle of Power being All day - All Year.
Part of the Corvidae family the crow belongs to the same family of birds as the raven though whilst the crow thrives of the detritus and leftovers of humans, the raven has retreated to secluded clifftop places. However, some of the raven's mysticism and mythology is shared by the crow.
In Roman mythology the raven and crows used to be as white as swans. In fact the white crow watched over Apollo's pregnant lover at Delphos. One day the crow brought bad news to Apollo and was turned black. The connection with watchfulness remains today as they are messengers calling to us about the creation and magic that exists in our everyday world.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

He was a friend of mine

Michael and me - around 1997, not long after he had moved into his new flat
I had known Michael since around 1987. I was working for a London Borough when Michael came into he room on his way to an interview for the post of manager of a day centre for people with learning difficulties. Michael was from San Diego, he wore a long ear-ring in one ear and his prematurely greying, long hair was braided over one shoulder - he seemed rather exotic to my every-day world. He got the the job and in the course of my own position we often spoke on the phone - when he went back to America on holiday he was kind enough to bring an San Diego American Football cap back for my son who at that time was an avid fan.

We gradually got to know each other as friends - though once, on a warm summer's evening, we sort of had a date. One Saturday, we met in Highgate, north London (where I lived) and walked across Hampstead Heath. By the time we walked back it was dark and there was a full moon hanging like a lantern in the sky. When we reached the Kenwood part of the heath there were dozens of people sitting around in groups with little camping stoves and lanterns, enjoying the warm night after an open air classical concert - there was definitely something magical about that evening.

Michael was something of a loner, he always wore black and gradually his long hair became shorter and whiter until he wore it completely cropped. Although he was a very handsome man, he had a complex about his looks and spent quite a bit of his savings on cosmetic surgery. On one occasion, he asked me to meet him from a clinic in Knightsbridge after he had had his face 'dermablasted'. He left the clinic swathed in bandages and the taxi-driver asked me if he had been in a house fire. Why Michael did it I never quite understood and thought it must be a Californian 'thing'.

Quite remarkably, when I left London to live in Wiltshire, Michael and I remained friends. A few times a year, I would meet up with him in London for the day and we would go to art galleries. Then he got the culture bug and started going to classical and world music concerts at least once or twice a week - Sunday mornings we would check in with each other by phone and I would get to hear about his trips to concerts or the theatre. In turn, I drove him to exasperation with the angst I experiencing over a 'great love affair gone wrong' - but he was always patient.

Then, early summer, a couple of years ago Michael sounded scared on the phone. He had found lumps on his body and had an extreme pain in his shoulder - the thing that had haunted him for nearly twenty years finally caught up with him. Michael was a gay man and had lived with the HIV virus from the mid-eighties onwards. A dreadful few months followed while test after test was delayed and his pain increased - eventually he was hospitalised where, this most fastidious of people, managed to retain his dignity to the end. Michael died mid-November two years ago.

At his funeral, Michael had asked people to wear black (as he always did) and to carry one white lily. He chose his own music and the first piece was the theme to the film Dracula - very dramatic. Unfortunately, on that wet, dismal, November afternoon, the celebrant at the service had been caught up in a traffic jam, so the Dracula music was played over and over again while the gothic Golders Green chapel got chillier and gloomier. It was sort of funny, in a dark way.

Michael taught me the meaning of integrity in which he excelled. He also advised me not to wear grey and I try not to. I guess he must have been lonely a lot of the time but he chose that life rather than compromise anyone else by his medical condition.

Out of sight but not out of mind. Michael, the quiet American - he was a friend of mine.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

The old oak

The oaktree:
not interested
in cherry blossoms
(Matsuo Basho)
This particular tree is probably my favourite tree - an old oak, it stands not in a meadow, or wood, or forest but on an open space outside a large upmarket hotel and near a roundabout on a busy road that is a main route in and out of a busy town. It is still magnificent and holds the history of a much older landscape in its bark and branches. A landscape that existed on the outskirts of a once small Wiltshire market town now long faded, like an old photograph, into the pages of local history.

Since time began the Oak was revered by many cultures. Due to its enormous size and low electrical resistance it has been struck by lightning more than any other species of tree. It is therefore associated with the gods of thunder and lightning - Zeus and Jupiter in ancient Greek/Roman mythology and Thor the Norse god of thunder and the sky. Thor was widely worshipped by Norse warriors, farmers and peasants alike. The Oak is also associated with protection, strength, stability and comfort and still stands as the 'King of the Forest'.

In the Ogham year, the Oak represents the midsummer period between 10th June - 7th July but when I came upon my oak today, whilst walking in the rain, I felt great affection for it. Just standing there being itself, still holding onto its burnished leaves - while the world rushed by - I knew I must pay a tribute to my late autumn, ancient oak.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

The wren and the barrow

West Kennet Long Barrow
Today I took a spontaneous day off work due to a head cold and, as I didn't feel ill enough to stay indoors all day, I took myself off out to Avebury in the hope of clearing my head. Once there, I did one of my favourite walks across to Waden Hill and West Kennet Long Barrow. Walking towards the barrow, all I could hear was the song of the skylarks that always seem to be rise from the fields over there. However, as I drew close to the entrance of the barrow I was enchanted to see a wren, flitting from stone to stone with its familiar 'chit-chat'. The wren is one of my favourite birds as anyone reading might guess from the name of this Blog; whenever I see one it feels like a good sign - that all will be well and that 'I do not walk alone'. The wren stayed for a few seconds before flitting off into the grass and for a few minutes there was complete silence - I could no longer even hear the skylarks. This evening while doing some research on the wren I read that they roost together in little colonies in the cold weather and I wondered whether they had been roosting inside the barrow.
There is much folk-lore associated with the wren relating to winter solstice time. I would just say here, however, that in my previous post 'Birds on Bare Branches' I said that the robin is symbolic of winter and for many of us it is. However, in folk-lore the reverse is true, the robin is associated with summer and the Oak-king while the wren represents winter and the Holly-king. Ancient folk-lore has it that the robin kills the wren at mid-winter (hence the red breast) and it is true that the wren was hunted on St Stephen's day (though revered for the rest of the year) and killed, presumably as a sacrifice.
The inside if West Kennet Long Barrow - where wrens have possibly been roosting. The scientific name for the wren is Troglodytes troglogdytes - which means cave dweller, after the wren's preference for cave like places.
For information about skylarks who now have endangered status see:

Monday, 10 November 2008

Birds on bare branches

A bird does not sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song. (Chinese proverb)

A wet, windy Monday morning:
When I looked out of my office window at the rain today the old coppiced poplar which stands alone on the other side of the fence appeared to be a place of great activity. Now almost completely denuded of its leaves there seemed to be a multitude of birds showing a great interest in the bird feeder that hangs on an old apple tree in the residential garden - also on the other side of the fence.

The first to appear on the fence this morning was a robin - the very symbol of our winter. I then realised yet again, that this is one of the blessings of the dark months, birds reveal themselves to us. From my office I have the most wonderful view of an amazing variety of garden birds as they go about the serious business finding food as the berries disappear from the hedgerows.

Although, I will always have affection for the pair of collared doves that have been appearing on the fence regularly throughout the summer, today on the bare branches of the poplar tree I was thrilled to see tree sparrows, bluetits, coletits, a beautiful goldfinch, chaffinches (male and female), blackbirds, an odd crow and one or two common old pigeons. Not to mention a few grey squirrels almost joining them in aerobatic flight. No lesser spotted woodpecker as yet (a frequent visitor last winter).

I dedicate this short post to the Robin, who was the first bird to appear today - with the message that there are small joys all around us if we look - whatever the weather.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

November - "Nothing Gold Can Stay"

An avenue of beech trees - a deserted park on an early November day
The stillness of Samhain seeps into the month of November. Late afternoon all too soon gives way to darkness and some days there doesn't seem to be much light at all. Not quite winter, more a sense of everything in abeyance, waiting - for the gales that will inevitably arrive later in the month to strip the trees bare. Nature continually reminds us of the transience of all things.
Nothing Gold Can Stay
Nature's first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay
Robert Frost (1916)

No sun - no moon !
No morn - no noon -
No dawn - no dusk - no proper time of day
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthy ease,
No comfortable feel to any member -
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees
No fruit, no flowers, no leaves, no birds !
Thomas Hood (1789 - 1845)

For a friend out there who suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and doesn't do well at this time of year - you know who you are, thanks for the poem and I wish you light.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

The Parting Glass

This evening I had the immense enjoyment of seeing Cara Dillon, Sam Lakeman and James O'Grady in concert at the Swindon Arts Centre. Whatever heaviness of heart you may be feeling, for whatever reason, music lifts and heals the spirit.

Cara Dillon's pure renditions of traditional songs, Sam Lakeman's amazing talent as a pianist and guitarist and James O'Grady brilliance on the uilleann pipes and fiddle, were a joy. Their 'encore' song was taken from Cara Dillon's new CD 'Hill of Thieves' (not yet released).

The Parting Glass
Of all the money that ere I had, I've spent it all in good company,
And all the harm that ere I've done.
alas it was done to none but me
And all I've done for the want of wit, to memory now I can't recall
So fill to me the parting glass, goodnight and joy be with you all.
Of all the comrades the ere I've had,
they are sorry for my going away,
And all the sweethearts the ere I had,
they would wish me one more day to stay,
But since it falls unto my lot that I should rise
and you should not.
I'll gently rise and I'll softy call, goodnight
and joy be with you all.
A man may drink and not be drunk,
a man may fight and not be slain
A man may court a pretty girl
and perhaps be welcome back again.
But since it has so ordered been by a time to rise
and a time to fall
Come fill to me the Parting glass, goodnight
and joy be with you all.
Come fill to me the Parting glass, goodnight
and joy be with you all.
Traditional arrangement: Cara Dillon and Sam Lakeman
Cara Dillon and Sam Lakeman performing together - Garden Valley

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Quietude - the dying of the year

Thistles - ephemeral in the October sunlight

Fungi growing on a tree stump
Stillness settles over the land.
Dead wood and foliage return to the earth to fertilise the soil for next year's growth.
Nothing is wasted, all is renewed.
Back to the earth
The end of October brings the the cycle of the year to a close - with the dying of the old year it is a time to reflect on loved ones that have passed through the door of life into the misty realms of memory.
"I know the year is dying,
Soon the summer will be dead.
I can trace it in the flying
Of the black crows overhead;
I can hear it in the rustle
Of the dead leaves as I pass,
And the south wind's plaintive sighing
Through the dry and withered grass.
Ah, 'tis then I love to wander,
Wander idly and alone,
Listening to the solemn music
Of sweet nature's undertone;
Wrapt in thoughts I cannot utter,
Dreams my tongue cannot express,
Dreams that match the autumn's sadness
In their longing tenderness."

Mortimer Crane Brown, 'Autumn Dreams'

Friday, 24 October 2008

The Thirteenth Fairy

Sleeping Beauty by Sir Edward Burne-Jones
(died 1898) from the 'Briar Rose' series
The story of Sleeping Beauty "La belle au Bois dormant" The Beauty asleep in the woods. First published by Charles Perrault in 1697.

This story has always fascinated me - there are many versions so I have decided to use the one from my memory of childhood stories: Once upon a time .........

There was a king and queen who, overjoyed at the birth a long awaited baby daughter, held a feast to celebrate the baby's christening. They invited twelve good fairies to the banquet but forgot to invite the oldest thirteenth fairy. The thirteenth fairy arrived as an uninvited guest and burst in on the banquet in great agitation and anger at being overlooked; for she had once been the wisest and fairest of all. Eleven of the fairies had already bestowed their gifts to the baby girl - beauty, grace, wisdom, sweetness of nature - when the thirteenth fairy cast her malevolent spell, that at the age of fifteen the princess would prick her figure on a poisoned spindle and die. The twelfth fairy had not yet given her gift and though did not have the power to undo this dreadful prophecy she changed it so the baby princess would not die but sleep behind a forest of briars for a 100 years until she was woken by the kiss of a prince.

I'm not really intrigued by the prince's kiss - far more interesting is where the idea of the wicked thirteenth fairy came from and why 13 is considered unlucky. Is it a metaphor for the thirteenth ogham (or lunar) month which is represented by the magical elder tree and is symbolic of the dying of the old year? This would of course also be symbolic of the old pagan ways that preceded the coming of Christianity. To this day wiccans meet in covens of thirteen. Superstition has always been used as a weapon against old wisdoms.
The ancient Egyptians considered 13 to bring good luck. They believed there were 12 steps on the ladder of eternal life. To take the 13th step meant going through death into immortality or everlasting life.
Rather than being unlucky therefore - consider 13 a beneficial and significant number, perhaps the reason why in times gone by the 'baker's dozen' was always thirteen loaves.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Woody nightshade - bittersweet

Woody nightshade (Solanum dulcamara)
Dulcamara means bittersweet which is another name for the plant. When first taken the stems are bitter followed by a sensation of sweetness. Also known as felonwort, originating in the plant's effectiveness in curing abscesses, which were at one time commonly known as felons; the bright red berries are reputed to remove warts and in herbalism today they are used to treat skin conditions.
According to 'Herbal Magick' by Paul Beyerl - Woody nightshade is associated with balancing energies, is harmless and its benevolent properties remain known today - as opposed to its cousin Atropa belladonna (Deadly nightshade) which is poisonous. Having done some further research, however, I do not think this is the case. Other reliable sources clearly state that Woody nightshade is poisonous to humans and livestock though not to birds.
As well as bittersweet and felonwart, other country names for the Woody nightshade are poison flower, shady night, snakeflower, scarlet berry, blue bindweed, trailing nightshade and witch flower.
In the language of flowers Woody nightshade bears the sentiment Truth.

Maud Heath's Causeway

One of the unheralded wonders of rural Wiltshire, the path known as Maud Heath's Causeway rises above the Avon flood plain on sixty-four arches.
Maud Heath was a widow who carried eggs to market in Chippenham. On her death in 1474, she bequeathed, in land and property, the sum of eight pounds a year to be laid out as a causeway leading from Wick Hill to Chippenham Clift, which was the path along which she tramped to market everyday.
500 years later the charity still maintains the path out of her bequest.
Reference source:

The flood plain by the river Avon showing a section of Maud Heath's Causeway and the tiny lichen covered, little church of St Giles at Tytherton-Kellaways.

A section of the elevated footpath on the Causeway - from the road

One of the two memorials to Maud Heath
This one by the actual causeway is a Dial Post with a sun dial at the top. Not all the words can be made out as it is heavily covered with lichen. Words that can be clearly seen say "Injure me not".
See for the walk that starts from Wick Hill. Thank you to my dear friend Ruth who lives in Chippenham for showing me this place and for taking me to Sutton Benger. It was a lovely afteroon.

The river Avon

Saturday, 18 October 2008

'The Lord of the Greenwood' at Sutton Benger Church

A detail from the Green Man carving - birds eating hawthorn berries.

The Green Man Carving at Sutton Benger Church - today I saw it for myself, it is every bit as intricate and beautiful as I imagined.

A notice on the wall by the Green Man says the following:

Although the Green Man is often associated with the hawthorn, or May Tree, if you look more closely at the carvings you will see that it is an emblem of autumn, not of spring. The hawthorn leaves are never accompanied by flowers, but often by fruit. At the church of Sutton Benger, Wiltshire, the generous Green Man provides hawthorn berries for the birds. The crudest carver could usually manage to surround him with some acorns or grapes.
To continue:
Old Churches can seem very stark and plain today but in the Middle Ages they would have been bright with green and gold, the colours of growth. Medieval people love bright colours which were so difficult for them to make artificially and yet so abundant in nature. The mystic, Hildegarde of Bingen, spoke of viriditas, 'the greening of the soul'. The Green Man would have conjured up thoughts like this. He himself was always human colour, not tinted green, although there were other outlandish figures in popular tradition who were this colour. In the twelfth century, two Green Children were found at Woolpit, in Suffolk. They said they came from a fairy underworld and they stayed green by living on beans.

Green leaves were a delight. Learned clerks wrote ominously about them signifying the sins of the flesh, and preachers warned against the temptations of springtime, but not everyone listened. In May, people carried home the branches of the hawthorn, with its sweet blossoms. Young couples strolled in the woods, their heads crowned with garlands of ivy. Green Men shared in this symbolism, and in a set of carvings at Weston Longville church in Norfolk, they surround a young man carrying branches of May. In fact many Green Men resemble well-dressed youngsters of the period; they are certainly not wild spirits. Their hairstyles, when they can be recognised, are those of fashionable young men of the time. (taken from text in the church)
See also the post made on 25th September 'Enchantment - in nature'. Apologies for any duplication.

All Saints' Church at Sutton Benger - near Chippenham
Formerly called St Leonard, there has been a church on this site since the 13th century. Many of the statues were defaced or destroyed by the Puritans and the church was restored between 1836 -1862. Although the Green Man has been dated back to the 13th century, it may have been refashioned in 1851.

Friday, 17 October 2008

The Hill

Martinsell Hill on a warm afternoon in early October
The Hill
Breathless, we flung us on the windy hill,
Laughed in the sun, and kissed the lovely grass.
You said, 'Through glory and ecstasy we pass;
Wind, sun and earth remain, the birds still sing,
When we are old, are old ....' 'And when we die
All's over that is ours; and life burns on
Through other lovers, other lips,' said I
'Heart of my heart, our heaven is now, is won!'

'We are the Earth's best, that learnt her lesson here.
Life is our cry. We kept the faith!' we said;
'We shall go down with unreluctant tread
Rose-crowned into the darkness!'..... Proud we were,
And laughed, that had such brave true things to say.
- And then you suddenly cried, and turned away.
Rupert Brooke (1887 - 1915)

Rupert Brooke is known as a war poet though he did fact die in 1915 of blood poisoning from a small wound which, had it been treated, would not have killed him. He came from an academic family and was handsome, athletic and gifted thus later becoming symbolic as the 'golden haired, young apollo - fallen warrior.'

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Oak Magic

I was shown this Green Man today by the leader of the walking group I was out with in the Martinsell area of Wiltshire.
I have talked about the Green Man in a previous post under 'Enchantment in Nature' and this is the carving which inspired my interest. It was carved by a good friend of musician and writer Steve Marshall who posted a photo on the Avebury Forum at see 'The Green Man'. Steve protects the privacy of his friends vigorously - so the woodcarver's identity continues to remain a mystery.

This oak tree stands alone on an exposed hilltop field boundary, it seemed stark and stunted compared to the oak-wood trees which were tall and still green (I believe the oak is one of the last trees to shed its leaves in the autumn).

William Blake wrote:
The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see in Nature all ridicule and deformity, and others scarce see Nature at all. But to the eyes of a man of imagination, Nature is Imagination itself.
(Taken from Letters 1799)

There is so much to write about the oak that I am not going to attempt to cover it in this post. The oak is sacred in many cultures and certainly to pre-Christian pagans, particularly the Druids. In more recent history, oaks have been considered a royal tree - many pubs are called the Royal Oak, indeed I saw one today. The oak has always been a symbol of wisdom and strength

There is no crown to mark the forest's King, for in his leaves shines full the summer's bliss, as Sun, storm, rain and dew to him their tribute bring. (Anon)

Willows and Bridges

A stream by the path
With clear clear waters.
"In the willow's shade
I'll stay just for a while," I thought
But for long couldn't move away.
Saigyo, poet and monk (1118-1190)
The Kennet and Avon Canal near Wootton Rivers today - the most beautiful of early October days, sunnier and warmer than most of our wet summer. This was the last part of a wonderful walk through and oak wood and across Martinsell Hill in Wiltshire.

Autumn reflections from under one of the many canal bridges along the peaceful Kennet and Avon Canal