Island Blog – The Still People

I walk today, the same route, the ever-changing route, the route that is a right fidget. It never settles, even over a mere 24 hours. The story of this landscape can never, could never be captured in a photograph, a still, for it is never thus. Every leaf changes, every blade of grass. Blue beetles march the track one day and are gone the next. Moss rises emerald and fades dry the next. Water courses overflow, lifting the water plants high enough to drown and then, the next day lower them gently back into the mud. Even natural springs (my absolute passion) falter if rain is cut off for days. I call them sassy. Yesterday we were a torrent. Today we trickle. it just shows how adaptable we are, don’t you think, you moving person? And the otter doesn’t mind, being as flexible as we. Yes, I acknowledge. I agree. It thinks me.

At this point, and at many other points, I am the moving person. I walk through the trees, wander deep into the woods to follow the tracks of night deer, as they stand still. Watching me. I know they are, just as I knew when I passed by a group of humans who drop silent. You just know they are watching your ass and it isn’t always comfortable knowing suchlike. I don’t feel the same way about the trees. They are older, kinder, wiser after all. Even as they are the still people and cannot walk with me, they do inside my mind. This huge beech tree, this spindly sycamore with no room to spread her arms, this alder, this willow. I notice and pause to connect with a fallen larch. You were so rooted and for so long my friend and then you fell. Did you decide that for yourself? I see others who are coming to their end of days with their bark peeling, or that suffocation of ivy determined on strangulation grasping at their bodies, and I wonder when they will simply and perfectly and politely decide to lay down their burden of care. All that growing, that big fight for light, those nesting birds and the endless production of buds and nuts and cones as food for those who, in turn, perpetuate the very you-ness of a tree. This fallen pine is still breathing. Something of the roots remain buried deep inside the nourishing soil, still offering food to flight life, insect life and to creature sanctuary. Wild honeysuckle snakes across the limbs, the flowers not yet beckoning me to a sudden catch of fragrance. Brambles entwine the trunk, snaking like a hug, the promise of blackberries for the autumn birds. I move on.

There are dead trees, stand-ups, arrested in flight. They stopped. Just like that, or so I think. But I know enough to know that this old tree that now looks like a home for a Hobbit, knew fine it was dying. I just didn’t notice. The woodpeckered holes tell me that this old, dead, tree is still offering life, even in death. The mosses that have grown from ground to about breast height, agree with me. Fingering the moss I can see macro-life. Tiny creatures that need this moss on this dead tree in order to survive their own little species. A bumble bee comes in. I hear it and know it is coming to check on me. After all, I am in the natural world now and a visitor. It rounds me once, twice, thrice, nearing at every swoop. I pause, stop my feet. Hallo, I say, Friend. And it is gone. It smalls me. I see how much of nothing I am in this world and how, if I was a bumble bee, I would so need to check out this stomper yomper who has just invaded my space.

On the return flank of this wander I stop beneath an almost fairy circle of beeches. They are hundreds of years old and, so the story goes, planted as a hedge. To be honest, this makes little sense to me, but wait. I am in my this century thinking that every poor planted soul will be trained and clipped and felled and carved into shapes. Back then this would never have been in anybody’s mind. It is, I believe, a sickness. We have forgotten how important natural nature is to our own future. These trees are millions high now, fat bellied and with outlimbs that defy gravity. Crisp cool barked and solid with deeply strong roots, these big boys are, quite simply, magnificent. I see them daily. I say hallo but they, I notice, are a bit distant, not like the chatty hazels, the moody silver birch dancers, the scholarly alders. The willows too, are friendly. But these beeches hold something, a wisdom. They have seen generations pass this way. They have watched fire and flood, death and life, beginnings and endings. They are silent.

I respect that.

Island Blog – Standing, The Silent Tree

The trees are still today as I wander through them, beneath their arms, limbs and twigs. They appear to be waiting for something, or someone. Perhaps it is me. Here I am, I say, you know me for I am here every single day. Not every day, they say in a stilled silence. Not every day. Okay, maybe not every day. Some days are too cold, too wet, too dark, or have been thus for some months. But where are your voices now? I trunch through a boggy bit on the track, my eyes down, focussing on not getting my sauncy boots coated beyond the plumb line. They are still still. The trees. Not a murmur, not a whisper beyond that reproach at the bend where the track moves with the bedrock. Nothing. Rhododendrons giggle each side of me, stupid infiltrators who never did understand their beginnings, their birth home, who think nothing of claiming all the available space and the space not available too. The Tapselteerie estate manager can spend hours, days, chain-sawing these bullies down to their tippytoes only to watch them rise again the following Spring. They push even now through the others, the residents of this wood, between the oaks and the plane trees, the hazels, hawthorns, beech, larch, pines, birches and the jinks trees, those twisting ballerinas of the woods, the hornbeam, who find space that isn’t enough and bend and twist and lift to the light like some women I know.

The light is held this day, caught in the cold grip of loud cloud, penetrating like a voice, holding the room all the day long. I pull on leggings for my walk, boots, fur lined, a scarf, jacket and woolly hat. I notice how I pick the right colours for this walk, blending to match my current frock. How ridiculous. I meet nobody, nowhere, never, or, rarely and if any of the rarelies bother with my kit, they never say. I plan to walk further but my small wee dog stops at the cut off for a short one. I know she isn’t behind me as I push on through the silent trees so I turn. She cocks her head. This walk, she says without a word, is boring today. There are no dapples of sunlight, no word from the trees, no sway of the grasses and. even the tidal flow is being politely quiet. Let’s go home to the fire. And, so, we do.

Back home and still with a million steps left to step, I decide we will clear out more of my dead husband’s stuff. I cannot and will not chuck a lot of it. I want to wait for this flipping virus to die off so that his children can come calm, wander, reflect and choose. I could be waiting another year, I know this. However, I do plan to have his office repainted and carpeted as a child’s room for the familial visiting I hope will come. I sort, clean, lift, drag and box. In this afterworld of death and responsibility, I have been confounded, silent like the trees this day, standing, waiting. In one moment I just know what this son would want, this daughter, how each individual child might, might have connected with their dad, but what do I know? What I do know is that not one of them is easy around this thing, this waiting, this silent stillness. As in this room now. His office, one he demanded and one he never used. Very ‘man’ in my experience. I get it now, now that I remember and understand how impossibly impossible it is for any man to remain himself in the face of birthing his own children. What appeared a dream became a nightmare. I get it. It still pisses me off, nonetheless.

The room is all but cleared for the painter. It is a silly, pointy room with one small window and not enough air flow. It will only ever be good for a child sleepover, a child, or children who do not yet bother with air flow, lack of sleep, confined quarters. At least it is there for them when they come and I am glad of it, even if it is going to take Henry a while to suck up the ancient cobwebs. I touch the grease mark on the wall, once made by my lovely father-in-law for he slept here towards the end of his life. Hallo, I say. Old Tree. Old Silent one. I did love you and you knew that. We winked at each other over bossy controlling heads, didn’t we? You saw me a friend. Didn’t you?

Yes I did, he whispers. The silent tree moves.

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.’