Thursday, 5 July 2018

Summer Time

A morning walk; along an old, familiar route on a brand new summer’s day. The way was flanked with fluttering wings - speckled woods spiralling through the holloway, merry mobs of meadow browns fussing over the verges and marbled whites dancing over bracken-top ballrooms. Here and there a basking gatekeeper guards the gaps between fields.

After an hour or so I stopped to sip and savour a flask-cup of coffee, finding shade in the westerly lee of hawthorn hedge. There I’m captured by another butterfly. In a buzzing blur of orange a large skipper lands on an extended stem of grass just a few inches from where I’m sitting. I smile. They’re such inherently happy creatures - skippy by nature. Maintaining my stillness I watch as it curls the tip of its teddy-bear abdomen and gently dabs the inner curve of the leaf-blade with a single white dot - an egg. I’m filled with pleasure at the privilege of seeing such a thing, unlooked for and unexpected. What’s more, there’s mercurial magic in that image-ful moment: a glimpse of the wistful mystery of summer. For me, more than any other, summer is the season that resonates with its own poignant reason: a febrile focal point of peak passion.

Spring is all about beginnings. We eagerly search for signs of incipience with no thought of its middle or end - it simply swells and blossoms into early summer.  At the other end of the seasonal spectrum autumn is open ended, more process than period, with its slow and mellow fading. Winter, of course, holds its own sense of stasis, when the earth is dark, cold and still. But despite the low-point of light the experience of winter is more fluid, mediated by the whims of weather that conspire, now and then, to cast a winter’s spell.

In contrast to these, summer’s time-induced tenderness can feel almost painful. In the build-up before mid-summer there’s a flurry and fluster, a sense that we need to be ready and in the right place, physically and mentally, to take advantage of the apogee that’s been accumulating and anticipated for weeks. Afterwards, there’s a sense of sadness, that summer's zenith has slipped through our fingers before we ever had chance to hold it. One moment there’s greenery and flowers, the next its seed-heads and browning. From then on it seems like a gaping chasm of time, spanning over a year, before we tread once more the hopeful slopes of summer’s summit.

Writer and storyteller Hugh Lupton speaks of two types of time: time that travels in straight lines and time that moves in circles. I like the imagery and its heuristic possibilities. It suggests a refraction of time, bending around us in a double-helix so that our inevitable forward trajectory is accompanied by the reassuring repetition of the seasons. It allows us somehow to feel rooted in movement. Each year I seem to notice something new about each recurring season that I haven’t perceived before; a distinctive expression of colour, or texture or sound. Such seasonal experiences annually accrete around us like growth rings of a tree - itself is a powerful, natural symbol of straight and circular time combined.

For us, as sentient seasonal beings, what better way to bring those two types of time together than through annual celebrations at important positions around the calendar? In doing so we share our sense of seasonality with others, and intentionally mark the intersections of people, place and points in time. In my own place, within my own community, I’ve regularly celebrated the merriness of May by raising a glass of ale to the rising sun from the top of a hill, at Apple Day by gathering together as we gather in the harvest and feast from the fat of the land and in deepest winter by wassailing the trees with mulled cider and sitting around the fire, dispelling the darkness with story and song.

But this is the first year I’ve had opportunity to meaningfully mark the peak of summer. I was invited, along with a few musicians, to help organise and facilitate a celebration – a brand-new ancient ceremony – to mark two times: the final completion of a new stone sculpture and the summer solstice sunrise, to which the sculpture was intentionally aligned. I arrived with two friends the evening before, better than setting an early morning alarm at home and an opportunity to see both sunset and sunrise at summer solstice. We were lucky with the weather - clear enough to see the slowly sinking sun on the Western horizon, but enough cloud to then scatter the sky with iridescent colours of crimson and vermillion. We stood and stared in awe for an hour or more, a dram of whisky moistening our mouths and minds. As the gloaming grew around us the air was strained with strange sounds. From the stand of trees below nightjars began calling – churring – in a continuous whirring and warbling; unearthly and unnerving but as much a blessing on the occasion as the blushes of the sunset. I laid out a mat and sleeping bag besides the stones but soon the weaselly wind moved to the north and sneaked its way alongside me. I didn’t sleep, surrounded by nightjars and night breezes, and illuminated by a week-old half-moon bright enough to bridge the night between sunset and sunrise.

Before sunrise a pale easterly light was washed across the hilltop heath; I wondered if we’d somehow missed the moment. But it was still only 4am, an hour before daybreak. The pre-dawning morning was suddenly punctuated with a thud of car door, and then more. People slowly arrived, shuffling around the stones in shadowy silence. We began with a tale of the dark, the Wild Hunt chasing the dawn in the form of a hare. Then merry music led us in procession to dance three times around the stones, clockwise with the sun. Together in a circle we declaimed words in praise of summer, invoking our peak passions both personal and communal. Someone shouted their affection for swifts, prized symbols of summer, and in response a drift of them swooped down from hidden heights and screamed a salutation. We pointed and smiled at such magic made manifest from the sky.

At the expected moment of dawn, pre-ordained but not presumed, the sun kept its appointment and crowned the crest of the hill with gold. Its bright beams poured through the stone-framed window created in its honour. Gasps of delight from all around were mingled with the sound of three gongs, in a shimmering melody of beaten-metal. To my side the sculptural creators, astronomer and stonemason, looked at each other anxiously then fist-punched the air. We finished with a tune and a tale. I told an Estonian myth, from the north lands where winter is night and summer is light. It tells of the sky god once calling two humans, a young man called Dusk and a young woman called Dawn, to become his celestial assistants in exchange for everlasting youth. Each evening Dusk cradles the sun in a blanket of night, each morning Dawn rekindles its flames and send it soaring into the sky. Eventually those two keepers of the sun fell in love, and begged the sky god to allow them to be together. To fulfil their desires he proposed a choice: either become mortal once more and live together, day and night, but only for the span of human life; or remain immortal in the heavens and come together, fully and freely, for just one night of the year – on summer’s solstice. They chose the latter, and in gratitude the sky god made summer solstice - when dawn and dusk are closest, the time of their peak passion - to be perfect as possible: the stars twinkle gently, the air is warm and soft, and the sweet scent of flowers rises up from the earth as they walk together across the sky.

On my own morning walk there’s the image of an egg-laying butterfly. It holds me spell-bound and still, until eventually I can appreciate and enjoy the sweetness of summer without holding too tight or fear its fading by looking too closely. Like the skipper I’m flying forward through the year, straight through and beyond peak passion, but the egg of next year’s summer is already laid and waiting to hatch, in its own circle of time.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

#BirdWords #6 Rook

I awoke
beneath a raucous rookery
a cacophony of caws
as if the ash tree, near me,
had sprouted black feathers
instead of leaves
and was complaining loudly
at such an outrageous indignation.

The rooks eventually took to the air
flapping away from the tumescent ash
like tattered shreds
of plastic silage wrappers.
In twos and threes
they sailed off across the valley
like black knights dispatched on a quest
to accomplish dark deeds
in a kingdom of green.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018


Meandering along the river: three friends
Through the woods in its growing verdure,
At the edge of April
The water ripples and riffles
Catching the last light of evening
Filtered through luminous lime-green leaves.
Cow parsley and hawthorn line the way
Buds newly bursting to gild the green
With frothy white flowers.

An orange glow in the gloaming
Guides us into the open Arms of the Royal Oak
Leaning against the grain of the wooden bar
To toast the season, fizzing
With fresh watercress ale brewed by a giant
We savour the moment and the company
By raising our glasses
To chink and drink accordingly.
Outside: a full moon, Egg Moon,
Breaks through the thinly clouded sky, until
It’s caught in the branches of a still bare ash
Where we stand and stare with wide-eyed wonder.

It’s still dark and starry as we stir
(Not quite) the next day
Dawn dreaming itself into being
As we stand innocently awake
Drinking tea and tasting the time between times
Others, from other places, assemble around us
Moving as strange shadows, but with common purpose
Silently stepping from the sleeping woodside
Towards a long-appointed meeting-place.
Now, there, then:
A blackbird, breaking the stillness
Then all around and all at once
The sound of more birds singing
A chorus of approval for the dawn.

A barrel of beer, Beltane-brewed,
Has been brought to the summit
At the peak of its powers
For this golden crowning moment
Relished and then instantly refreshed.
Behind us, in April: the pale full moon
Fading but flirting with its consorting star
Sublimely shifting from Evening to Morning.
But now the golden chariot of the sun has gathered speed
And inexorably climbs up the green hill
To kiss the white giant
Rudely defiant and holding us together with his presence.
A song and a dance
A dalliance between ancient and new
Until merry with May, and smiling,
We slowly roll down the hill
Following an empty barrel of beer.