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