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.