Island Blog – Wind Rock and Stories

A huge bag of wood arrived today, just as it began to rain – again. I love the sight of all those split logs, fine and red and full of stories. I had heard the chainsaws for a few days way out across the sea-loch inside the forestry depths just knowing that my huge bag would be craned over the fence in a couple of days. I drew my trusty and rusty barrow out from the garage and began the transfer from bag to wood store, feeling each log and enjoying the way I simply know how to stack, which log to place where with barely a second’s thought. The pile rose as I considered the stories held within that precious wood. The importance of trees, that’s what I was thinking as my hands held each log, each log of stories. These pines will have only lived for 50 years, t’is true, prior to felling for the warmthly needs of the likes of me, but it reminded me of the huge beech tree I saw at the weekend. It had fallen across the track, all the many tons of it, and politely, as big trees always seem to fall, thus making sure nobody is squashed. The victim of wind rock.

The lines on this big soldier spanned hundreds of years and the bleeding sap made me sad. In death there is a bleeding, even if you are a tree. I touched the newly hewn bare face of the trunk and could feel the stories run up my arm. Even if I am too stupid to actually hear the details of these silent stories, I know they are there held within the warm mother trunk and protected by her coat of bark. What had this tree seen in its time? The estate was formed in early 1800 so, chances are she observed many things. Grand people coming and going, carriages, horses, escapes and arrivals; farm workers on carts with ribald in their mouths and a flask of something stiffening. Children off to school, beautiful sons and daughters off to grand parties, old women out to tea and a gossip and sturdy clan chiefs kitted up for a skirmish. All of that, for this tree stood at the gate to the big house and would have been the envy of the other trees, relegated to a yearning life in the bleachers.

Aside the track, bracken stands tall, copper filigree on burnished stalks. It looks beautiful in death, unlike in life when it suffocates the ground and harbours myriad blood-sucking pests. Few birds today in the bare trees, beyond a few long-tailed tits whipping off doomed buds and a pair of jays, screeching horribly at each other from one side of the wood to the other. Jays always surprise me; a dreadful scratchy call, like fingers on a blackboard and then they fly out, a rainbow of fabulous colour. A line comes to mind. ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’. It takes me back to my youth; beautiful men and women, all sparkles and smiles and convincing words, and without a story. I met a few of those. At the time I was so embroiled in the minutiae of young life, I didn’t pull back to see the bigger picture. I do now. As I watch a female sparrow hawk take a blackbird right outside my window, I see her beauty, her colours and the ebony black of her eyes. I hear the cries from her prey. I am not cold to this. It physically hurts me, but I know the story. She is as hungry as the blackbird. Her life is all about precision and focus, unrelenting focus, day after day for life. Now that is a story.

Back to the tree. I think about it. Some will look at this mighty giant, now sawn rudely in half and bleeding, as firewood in a couple of years. Others will feel great sadness at the loss of yet another tree. And I? I will keep walking by to hear the stories it holds, even as it dies; even if I cannot tell them out, I can hold them within and, somehow I know that this matters.

Island Blog 134 Reality Check

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This morning the air is still on the island.  Nobody is about, except for the birds playing out their dramas.  The doves, including Dave,  whose mate was nabbed by a sparrowhawk a couple of years back, and who will always be a gooseberry, turn up to feed, their beaks tapping out a syncopated rythm on the wooden base of the bird table.  We found the remains of the kill on the track outside the house, and Dave stumbling about lopsided and scared. Not a lucky dove, we said.  After a week or so inside a box, fed and watered each day, he managed a wonky lift from the ground, straightened up and flew right onto the telephone wire.  We hadn’t fixed anything, weren’t sure how to, but perhaps the combination of love and his own will to survive did their work.  Now, however many pairs line the wire, sometimes up to 15 in the winter months, he is the uneven number, but always faithful, staying close to home, when the others loop away across the hills to build nests, raise young, complete the yearly circle once again.

A pair of swallows have taken the nest we fixed at the back of the garage years ago.  Each spring, they check it out, and each spring, they reject it.  Perhaps this is because we are constantly in and out of the garage, for it offers the only access to the hill garden at the back, where the bee hives nestle in the wild grass, their faces towards the sun.  Every day each community, numbering thousands apiece, fly out to find pollen. The scouts communicate directions to the others in waggle dances, performed on the front step and taken seriously by the other worker bees, all women of course, who might be dithering about which way to go.  The hive mind is an extraordinary thing and one that never sleeps, for even when the bees don’t fly, we know that if we lifted the lid (which is not for the faint-hearted) we would not see one single bee loafing about with a vacant look in her eye.  Every single one is busily employed, going about her business mindfully, intelligently, continuously.  Any loafers would be thrown out.

Trouble is, the swallows number three.  I don’t suppose this works, a menage a trois, in the swallow world, but the three of them dive in and out of the garage each early morning and evening.  On the wire, they have words.  No violence is employed, but you can tell, from the tone, that it’s not friendly.  Perhaps, like doves, and swans, swallows mate for life.  Perhaps this lone one lost its mate on that huge journey back from Africa.  We watched them gathering on wires, rooftops, swirling like a dark cloud over Capetown, when we were there in March, preparing for their flight across the globe, and we marvelled.  How they manage to find their old nest sites year after year beggars belief.  We would need maps, charts, radar, provisions, a transport vehicle, confidence, determination and periodic rests in soft beds with cotton sheets and a spacious en suite.  They just fly.

In honour of their unusual tryst, together with the excitement at their final acceptance of the Garden Centre nest, (buy one, get a House Martin one free) I have fixed signs, one on the inside of the door, so we remember not to dive out and head butt a swallow, and one for anyone coming through the little gate who needs guiding to the other door.  If we need to access the hill garden, we must open the garage door slowly, peeking gingerly out, to see if our new friends are around.  Sometimes they wobble on the inside washing line.  We need an inside washing line on the island, as the outside one is often long-term unemployed.  The concrete floor is already guano-ed up and this situation won’t change, as long as they decide, finally, to lay their eggs, which they still may not, given the human comings and goings.

As I walked Miss Poppy around Tapselteerie yesterday, she made me laugh at some antic and, in response to my voice breaking the silence of the afternoon, a well-hidden nest of young tits leapt into action, their collective cheeping floating out from one of the dark holes in the old dry stone wall.  The mother, behind me on a branch, yelled at them to shutup, but they were having none of it.  I didn’t stay around to worry her, but the experience lifted my heart, just to have been allowed to witness that moment, and to fix the knowledge of it into my ordinary day.  I call that an ‘internal shunt’, for It changes me, even though nothing has changed.  My usual list of miniature disasters is still there; the demands on my time, my patience, my purse, stay in place; nothing is certain, nothing really safe and nothing I can do to make it any different.  I could lose a loved one in a nanosecond and there is little I can do to stop it happening.  I can fall ill, a silent enemy moving in to establish victory whilst I dash through my daily list, unaware until too late.  But it does me no good to focus on what may or may not happen, in fact, it will falter my step, weaken me, make me dull at parties.  What I need to do, mindfully and intelligently, is to learn from the birds, from the natural world, of which I am a part.  I am at the top of the food chain, yes.  I can think and reason, yes.  And these gifts are not given to be wasted.  They are gifts of sight, gifts of power, not over others as we seem to believe, but over myself, the choice to get real, like the birds.

How does that song go………oh yes…..

‘Hey, you know what paradise is? It’s a lie
A fantasy we create about people and places as we’d like them to be
But you know what truth is?
It’s that little baby you’re holding, and it’s that man you fought with this morning
The same one you’re going to make love with tonight. That’s truth, that’s love.

I’ve been to paradise, but I’ve never been to me.’