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

Friday, 10 October 2008

The Spindle Tree

I had not been aware of this wayside tree until yesterday when I was walking the Uffington stretch of the Ridgeway. This part of the Ridgeway differs from the Wiltshire section, which has rolling open views of the downs, in having quite dense hedgerows along it - yesterday they seemed to be laden with berries. I saw some the most opulent of hawthorns, buckthorn, elder, blackberries (now gone over) with lots of woody nightshade intertwined in the foliage.

The Spindle Tree seems to have very little written about it and, until it comes into berry, it is often mistaken for the buckthorn. The unusual pinkish-red of its berries mark it out from our more familiar autumn berries. It is also known as the Euonymus europaeus, said to derive from Euonyme, the mother of Furies - because of the harmful toxic properties of its berries, bark and leaves.
The berries do, however, yield a yellow dye and the burnt wood produces artists' charcoal. Formerly the wood was used for making spindles and looms - and later for skewers and musical instruments.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

October Gold

Gloria Mundi
Who needs words in autumn woods
When colour concludes decay?
There old stories are told in glories
For winds to scatter away

Wisdom narrows where downland barrows
Image the world's endeavour.
There time's tales, are as light that fails
On faces fading forever.
Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)
Gloria Mundi translated from Latin means "thus passes the glory of the world" or "world's things are fleeting".
The transitory beauty of autumn sunlight on maple leaves.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Etchings of nature

August in Wiltshire (1976) by Robin Tanner
Below is an extract from the writings of Robin Tanner's wife, Heather:-
"Wiltshire has the best of three worlds - Downs, Cotswolds and level pastureland. It is the first of these that is best known outside the county. For one thing, it is the most spectacular: everyone loves a 'view'. From the heights above Bratton or Cherhill stretches the squared pattern of field and farm till the generous hedgerows merge into the distance of forest. A Wiltshire landscape must have downs somewhere in the picture - if not in the foreground, then on the horizon, with their beech coppices and their white horses. Theirs is a beauty of curves - folds of velvety olive hills spilling over into the plain; the sweep of plough furrows; the windings of the ancient trackway following the ridge. Here there is perpetual wind, whistling through the twisted thorns and the dried kexes, bringing uncannily near the sound of bleating from pastures far below. Isolated from contemporary mankind one is nearer to early man, who, if he came back, would find comparatively little change in the immediate surroundings of chalk and flint, barrow and dyke and treeless open fields."
Extract taken from An Exceptional Woman -the writings of Heather Tanner (published by The Hobnob Press)

Wicket Gate (1978) by Robin Tanner

Autumn (1934) by Robin Tanner
Robin Tanner (1904-1988) was a Wiltshire artist and teacher. He was as interested in teaching as he was in creating his own art. He married his teenage love Heather Spackman (1903-1993) in 1931 and they enjoyed a partnership rooted in shared philosophy and love of art, craft and the natural world. They lived their lives together in Kington Langley, near Chippenham - where Robin Tanner taught at the Ivy Lane School.
Much of his work now forms part of the Tanner Archive in the Crafts Study Centre at the University College for Creative Arts at Farnham. I understand there is also work held at the Devizes Museum in Wiltshire which can be accessed by special request.
I first saw, and fell in love with, Robin Tanner's etchings in a small exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Because the work is susceptible to fading it was displayed is cabinets which were light had to be activated to view.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

The Farmer Poet

Following the Plough
a wood engraving by CF Tunnicliffe OBE (1901-1979)
Twisted Furrows
She walked with me yesterday
Guiding my plough
Straight from headland to headland ...
Lament with me now.
My furrow twists like falsehood
The field's length and breadth
O straight truth I cry out
But my cry is death -
She will not come again
My furrow to guide,
For I have sinned against Guidance
And my plough has lied.
She will not come again
Till my field is ploughed -
I have not gone humbly cheerful
With shoulders bowed.
Patrick Kavanagh (1904 -1967)
To A Blackbird
O pagan poet you
And I are one
In this - we lose our god
At set of sun.
And we are kindred when
The hill wind shakes
Sweet song like blossoms on
The calm green lakes.
We dream while Earth's sad children
Go slowly by
Pleading for our conversation
With the Most High.
Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967)
Patrick Kavanagh (1904 -1967) was born in the village of Inniskeen in Co Monaghan, Ireland. After spending twenty years as a young man working on the family farm, he went to Dublin in 1939. The Dublin Literary Society looked down on him as a country farmer and referred to him as "that Monaghan boy".
His first published volume of poems was The Ploughman and other poems (1936) though his best known work was perhaps The Great Hunger which was published in the early 1940s.
This post is dedicated to my good neighbour and friend Pat - and to her sister (and anam cara) Phyllis, who lives in Derry. I remember well the summer evening a few months back when we shared a bottle of wine, a few stories and laughter.
Nor must I forget to mention my mother Eileen, who grew up on an isolated farm and who knew a different Ireland.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

The sparrow and sparrowhawk

The first of October, the beginning of the end of the natural cycle of the year. Today was a working day for me, one that turned out to be particularly busy. I could see it was a bright windy day outside - my office overlooks a nearby garden where an apple tree is heavy with what looks like delicious cooking apples. A pair of collared doves mooch about and there is a colony of sparrows in the ivy covered poplar the other side of the fence.

I managed to get out at lunch time for my walk along a nearby cycle track - glad today of my old leather coat. It was sunny and blustery in the best autumnal way. I love this section of the cycle track - it is one of those tucked away little enclaves of nature that thankfully has not yet been destroyed. The track partly takes the route of an old canal that used to run through the town centre and is also where a small river re-surfaces from its underground culvert. There are willows in abundance - today their slender leaves turning gold and swirling around in the wind. There are elders dotted along the way, still in berry; blackberries - a few left (though in folk-lore, today the devil spits on them and they turn); hawthorns in profusion with their dark red berries and, occasionally, a few bright rose hips. Apart from the willows, there are some old and lovely trees interspersed along the way - a mighty ash and a few hidden horse chestnuts that belong more to an abandoned sports ground that is concealed on the other side of the old hedgerow.

It was wonderfully fresh and elemental - the air energising as I walk facing the sun. I go as far as the old elder, ivy and crab-apple tree, a cluster of ancient hedge. At this point I am approaching a busy road which cuts across the track so I turn here to retrace my steps.
Then I see the sparrowhawk, slate grey and brown, I think it must be a female. She lands on top of a nearby lamp-post and it feels as if she is watching me. Had I been an inattentive sparrow or other small bird, at that moment I would have been in grave danger. The sparrowhawk takes off, weaving low, I can see she is scouting the hedgerow for small prey ...... unsuccessful this time, she flies away across into a deeper wooded area on the other side of the river.
Just a short walk, snatched from a busy working day. Enough though to remind me of my true reality.