Monday, 28 October 2013

Stormy Thoughts

They said there's a storm brewing - a big one.
But last night instead of battening down the hatches and hunkering down inside, I sought out higher ground - Colmer's Hill where the pine trees always bend in the wind - to face the storm, to look it in the eye; literally. 

So into the gloaming I went roaming: across the clear-felled field of maize, up the grassy slope, following the green faerie track, to the temple of the winds. A few strides from the pinnacle and the breeze duly picked up, the wind whipped around me like flying fingers picking at my clothes. From the peak I could see the dark, brooding storm clouds mustering with menace, malevolence perhaps. But also awesome and inspiring - a flexing of elemental muscle, a gathering of the sky clans. On the hill there was an invisible wall of wind, so strong I could lean back against it with my arms outstretched, supported, until a temporary dip in vented velocity sent me reeling backwards.

I strode over to one of the Scots pines and stood leaning back against the trunk, facing the blowing gale - pinned between wind and wood. I felt like Odysseus, strapped to his ship's mast, sailing through the Sirens' seas. The voices I heard weren't singing, but howling with rage. Stirred by some primitive instinct, I shouted back into the storm: roaring like a rutting stag, filled with potent energy. The words that found themselves on my lips were: "I am here!" As if I could assert myself against all that primeval power. Instead I felt small and insignificant, a mote amidst the might. But I was happy with that - a relief, a dissolution of the ego. It was good to be up there, exposed, naked, with all my trimmings and trappings blown away. 

I took a sip of malt whisky from my hip-flask: a liquid storm; a taste of wind and waves, soil and smoke. For a moment I was transported to the west coast of Scotland - in a cosy cottage, by a peat fire with a beckoning bottle of Lagavulin... And then suddenly the little squares of orange lights in the village below seemed warm and inviting. Maybe it would be good to hunker down after all, weather the storm inside.

Sleep that night was febrile and fitul, it came in fits and starts. Outside the storm, not relentlessly wild, nevertheless cried out in crescendo and climax, punctuated by calm. To be honest the thing that most kept me wakeful was waiting for a text from a friend, a fellow storm-chaser, who'd promised an early morning trip to see the stormy sea. It came just as I was falling into deep sleep, but I jolted awake, excited. By seven we were standing by the salty alter at West Bay, as the wild waves crashed and foamed. It was hard to escape the well-worn metaphor of white horses: seeing the stream of flowing, flecked manes, listening to the thundering of a thousand hooves. It was low tide now, high tide at midnight must have been a truly wild spectacle. But even so there was still enough venom and vigour in the storm to push the white waves against the rocky boulders and send spume soaring over the sea wall as we darted to semi-avoid a salty soaking.

Then the morning sun broke through the dark clouds from behind the red cliffs, and we witnessed a moment of elemental alchemy. Grey turned to gold, the wind and the waves and the sun and the sea in perfect poise.

The brew wasn't quite as strong as they'd promised. But it was good to be out in the thick of it, at the beginning and at the end, on hillside and seaside, riding the storm.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Stormy woods

a quick flurry of breezy words....

The woods today
Have been transformed
To stormy seas:
The crashing roar
Of bent branches,
Swelling and surfing
With each gust of wind;
Followed by long, sighing hisses
As the inter-tidal breeze
Caresses the shingle-leaves.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Apple Daze

There’s a wonderful richness of folklore, legends and stories about apples in England, especially in the West Country where apple growing is a deep-rooted tradition. This is my version of an Apple Day tale, Lazy Lawrence, based on an oral story collected by the celebrated folklorist Ruth L. Tongue. Allegedly the name ‘Lazy’ Lawrence derives from the inability to walk after drinking too much cider, as in: ‘Lazy Lawrence has got your legs!’

A story! A story! Listen to its flavour!
There’s a name that everyone in Devon, Dorset or Somerset used to know: Lazy Lawrence - the pixie pony, the faerie horse, the spritely stallion that gallops around the West Country orchards guarding the apple trees and protecting their juicy treasures. And some old folk still remember that picking other people’s apples risks a perilous encounter with Lazy Lawrence, for if roused to action he could give a nasty nip with his teeth or a cracking kick with his hooves. Worse still, if he caught you in the glare of his glowing green eyes you’d be transfixed, rooted to the spot, unable to move a muscle except your lips to cry: “Lazy Lawrence let me go, don’t hold me winter and summer too!”

My story begins a few years ago in deepest Dorset where there lived an old farmer and his wife, who between them owned a big and bountiful apple orchard. It was a wild and wonderful place, filled with rows of twisted trees that each autumn produced an abundance of ripe, rosy fruit of sundry varieties: there were apples for eating, apples for keeping, apples for cooking and apples for turning into cider. The old couple looked after the orchard with tender care, and neither did they neglect the orchard denizen, Lazy Lawrence. Every evening they left him a bucket of cool, clear water and a dish of thick, fresh cream. Sure enough every morning both bucket and bowl were empty.

But the fruit farmers had a nasty neighbour: a mean, malicious man; as bitter and twisted as sour cider. Living alone at the edge of the village he spent all his time studying dark magic from ancient books until he became a powerful conjurer, using his sorcery to serve his own selfish desires and harm others. That year, in October, he looked upon the old orchard of ripening fruit with jealous eyes and determined to use his magic steal the apples from the branches – partly from greed, partly from spite. But he was well aware of Lazy Lawrence, the supernatural guardian amongst the trees, so, like a spider spinning a web, the cunning conjuror carefully laid his plans… 

First of all the sorcerer bought a huge wicker basket, as big as a farm cart, onto which he wove magical spells of protection and levitation. Then one clear autumnal evening, as the Hunter’s Moon rose, he climbed into the basket and began to sail it across the night sky. He landed the flying basket right in the middle of the orchard, then using more sorcery began to remove the apples from the trees and into the basket beneath him.

Pretty soon he’d nearly stolen every last apple from every last tree. Every apple, that is, except one: a big Bramley that still clung stubbornly to its branch. But the sorcerer was so selfish and spiteful that he couldn’t bear to leave even one single apple in the farmer’s orchard. Multiplying his magical enchantments he strained with outstretched fingers… until with a sudden crack the apple finally snapped from its stalk. With great force it flew through the air and hit the sorcerer full square in his left eye. Falling backwards out of the basket, he hit the ground with a loud cry of pain – which was immediately answered by a horse’s whinny. There was Lazy Lawrence with flashing eyes and bared teeth, and before he could scramble back into the basket the conjurer was soundly nipped and kicked round and around the orchard. Eventually, turning to face his foe he, was caught in the full glare of Lazy Lawrence’s green eyes and was suddenly transfixed, rooted to the spot, unable to move a muscle except his lips to cry: “Lazy Lawrence let me go, don’t hold me winter and summer too!”

But Lazy Lawrence didn’t let him go and the sticky-fingered sorcerer stayed there all night long, as stiff as a scarecrow, until eventually as the morning sun crept into the orchard the spell was broken. As soon as he was free the mean magician ran as fast as he could - out of the orchard, out of the village, right out of Dorset and into Somerset. Perhaps he’s still running today, only he can’t go as fast as he’d like on account of only having the sight in one eye!

When the farmer and his wife came to the orchard later that morning they found all their apples already picked and packed in a big wicker basket: apples for eating, apples for keeping, apples for cooking and apples for turning into cider. They also noticed dozens of horse’s hoof-prints underneath the apple trees and knew that Lazy Lawrence, sentinel of the orchard, had done his job.


Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Sometimes it's the little things that catch the eye...

Despite a few lingering bouts of deliciously late sunshine the temperature has been getting decidedly cooler lately; peppered with blustery breezes. For a few days last week the autumnal air was suddenly filled with tiny flying seeds – emanating from the pair of elegant birch trees on the little pocket green in front of our house. On one occasion the birch mast was falling so profusely that for a moment it seemed to be snowing. The delicate, pale brown seed-flakes soon drifted into piles on doorstep and windows, finding its way inside the house through available gaps -  there was even a little light dusting between the sheets of our bed as we climbed in that night. They're so prolific, and perfectly aeriform, it's a wonder that the whole wild world isn't populated by birch trees. When the wind died down, the winged seeds seemed to float and flutter like midges or miniature moths. In fact: the cobwebs painstakingly spun across every window frame are now filled with winged birch seeds - much to the chagrin, I imagine, of the resident spiders at having their dining-rooms cluttered by inedible vegetable debris.

I wonder how many of these abandoned, carefree seeds will ever reach fertile ground to put down roots of their own? A handful, at best, out of thousands, millions... Apparently one birch tree can produce up to 15 million each autumn, which could lead to 2.25 billion over its lifetime. Such fabulous fecundity: admirable abundance.

Autumn seems a particularly good time for the sowing of seeds, especially this year, for us, of moving to a new place. But it also feels good not to hold, or hope, too tightly: to let go, let fly and see what happens. Like those blithe little birch-babies which yield to the imponderable stochasticity of nature that eventually leads to something new popping up, somewhere, in spring when you least expect it...