Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Patchwork pastures

Behind the shifting, steel-grey sea
Beyond the cliff-top fringe of golden-flowered gorse
Between the twisted, wind-sculptured thorns...

I saw a tapestry of little green pastures
Stitched together by a thick thread of hedges:
Like a quilt of soft turf draped over
The old bones of a sleeping giant.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Crow-King and Red-Bead Woman

After hearing the story of  the Crow-King and the Red-Bead Woman told by Martin Shaw, I walked around Allington Hill and found images of the story everywhere I looked...

By the edge of the hill, beyond the edge of the town, through the old gate, is a patch of waste ground – thickly covered with brambles and burdock, but recently cut to carve out a rugged meadow; revealing, and releasing, five suckering elms. Back to life from beetle-borne demise, the trees, in the first flush of restored youth, already carry within themselves their own seeds of destruction: as soon as they grow bigger, and their sap-wood thickens, the deadly disease will return. Re-birth and re-death re-cycling in a single surviving species…

I follow a trail of fallen golden leaves, hawthorn and hazel, gleaming in the dull mud, until the tantalising track leads me to the scurrilous scarlet hues of a sweet chestnut; its russet, serrated leaves quivering like nervous creatures. Without lowering my eyes, I hurry on in case a cold wind should shake the leaves from the branches and strip the beauty from the tree. 

A black springer spaniel suddenly appears on the path in front of me, materialising from the autumnal mist. It stands and stares, sniffing the air between us, as we contemplate each other’s existence with natural neutrality. A high-pitched whistle breaks the spell and the dog is recalled to its owner, leaving me to recall on my own. The shift of focus discloses the last mouldering remains of blackberries on a big bramble bush beside me. Amongst clumps of stalk-stumps, picked clean by the birds, there is one last intact drupelet. I pluck the soft piece of fruit-flesh and pop it on my tongue; its fragrant, fertile fidelity finds a haven of warm, soft sensitivity in my mouth. 

At a fork in the path I pause to listen to the blue-tits singing in the trees – the longer I stand still, they bolder they become, eventually just a few feet from my face. Then they scatter and scold as I make a move to choose my route: not the wide, grassy, uphill path, but the narrow, winding, downhill one, through the beech woods. Descending is difficult, harder than going up, the sloping terrain pushes me faster than I want to go, whilst my resistance and recalcitrance makes my legs stiffen and my feet slide uncontrolled; hard angles against the soft contours of the land. 

In the deep woods, the harts-tongues, the spirits of the place, speak in leafy green words - their own fern-acular - but I cannot comprehend their wild whisperings, nor do I heed their warnings. Suddenly my coat catches on the inch-long spines of a blackthorn bush sprawling across the path. After unhitching myself, I look closer at my barbed assailant: the dark-purple limbs have twisted together, rubbing against each other, to cause cankers and callouses in the bark. The rotting, suppurating lesions are being steadily eaten by a slowly writhing mass of glistening grey-brown slugs – feeding on the trees own wounds, its weakest, most intimate parts. Or perhaps these are the vegetation’s medicinal leeches…

From the threshold of the forest I can see and hear the village across the valley, but its vision and sounds are disturbed, disconnected, by the distant, incessant roar of the road cutting through the landscape. As I walk out from the thinly-leaved canopy of the trees, cold rain falls on my head – intentionally un-hooded I let the icy drops sting my skin, drench my hair and refresh my thoughts. At the top of the escarpment, on the oddly angular branch of a blue-green pine, is a raven: the king of the crows. His call, harsh and heavy, rolls down onto lush leafy slopes below. There, in the green court of the king, stands a holly queen: her crown of thorns threaded with strings of coruscant red beads. As I walk back to the beginning, through the meadow of broken brambles, on the edge of the hill, I notice that amongst the re/de-generating elms is an adventitious oak sapling, born from a single seed, aspiring to be old.

A link to Martin Shaw's re-telling of the tale: http://greatmotherconference.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/CROW-KING-2014.pdf

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The White Stag

A self-penned song inspired by the colours of autumn, a white stag seen roaming Dorset recently and a plucky girl I know called Annie...

Annie went walking out one day
Where she was going - none could say
The rain did fall and the wind did blow
But it didn’t bother Annie as off she did go.

She walked for a mile and she walked for more
‘Til her legs were tired and her feet were sore
She came to a forest both deep and old
Where the leaves there were turning green to gold.

Underneath the canopy of trees she did tread
Her boots were brown and her clothes all red
She came to a glade with light all around
There she saw a white stag - sleeping on the ground.

Annie crept closer to the deer
She stroked his head and whispered in his ear
The stag then he sturted, and away he ran
With Annie chasing after; as fast as she can.

The path was steep and the way was narrow
The white stag was flying as fast as an arrow
Annie she followed but Annie she fell
She twisted her leg and hit her head as well.

She slept through the day and all through the night
Into her dreams a young man came, all dressed in white
He kissed her and he held her in his arms
And said: “Annie, will  you ride with me? You won’t come to harm.”

Through the green and golden forest those two did ride
The white stag beneath and the red girl astride
They rode ‘til they came to the edge of the trees
And now Annie’s crying as she watches him leave.

Annie went walking out one day
Where she went - she never would say
The rain did fall and the wind did blow
But it didn’t bother Annie where she did go. 

Thursday, 9 October 2014

The Wild Hunt

The thunder of hooves
The lightening crack of a whip
The baying breath of dogs
Misting the autumn air

The haunting sound of hunting horn
The inciting scent of unseen prey
The flash of wild, white eyes
The straining of unbridled steeds

Pulled by the moon’s momentum
Swirling in vertices of velocity
Drumming the taught earth
Then piercing the night sky…

The broken branch
The indented earth
Flying leaves and scattered seeds
Fleeing feet and clattering wings
Racing heartbeats slowly receding

Monday, 6 October 2014

Autumn tuning

Outside it's wild and wet
And windswept
Brown leaves blown
In clusters of blusters
Whilst the moist, mouldering earth
Slowly sucks back
Springtime promises
And summer profligacy.

Indoors it's dark in the daytime
As I withdraw within, mulling:
Underneath the mush of this year's leaves
Next year's seeds are already sown.

Friday, 26 September 2014

The Legend of the White Hare

Retold by Martin Maudsley

Not that long ago, many country folk in rural Dorset had to supplement their poorly-paid income from labouring on farms by foraging for food and hunting wild game in woodlands and common land: birds and deer, rabbits and hares; whatever fare was there for the taking; always seasonal, not always legal. In the village of Littlebredy there was a group of four men, four farmworkers, who in the evenings hunted together – not with guns, they couldn’t afford them, nor with nets that needed constant repairs – but with with hounds. Each man had his own dog – a Longdog (an old Dorset breed) – and in that ancient alliance, between human-kind and canine, the hunting was a success; more often than not there was something to take home for the pot.

On days earmarked for hunting, after toiling in the fields from dawn and before setting out with their dogs at dusk, the men were in the habit of leaving some their own farm-working tools and agricultural equipment at the cottage of an old woman who lived by herself in the Valley of Stones. Her house, and indeed the woman herself, were so old and mysterious they seemed to have been there as long as the ridgeway’s ancient stones and monuments. Well, there were some in the local villages, suspicious and small-minded, who called the old woman a witch - blamed her for all manner of malaises and mishaps. But there were others, too, who beat a path to her door; who came to her for help in the secrecy of night. And to all who came she listened with gentle wisdom, before offering herbal remedies or healing words. The hunters themselves rarely saw the old woman, she was often out at dusk, but they respected her and always made sure they left her a little loaf of freshly-baked bread by way of thanks for looking after their tools.

One evening, when the men were out hunting, just after harvest-time, they caught a glimpse of a mysterious and magical creature – a pure white hare – racing over an open field and before darting down the valley then disappearing into a copse of trees. Well, they never got close to catching that hare; she was too cunning for the hunters and too fast for their dogs. But men, sometimes, can be proud and arrogant, and these men wanted to prove themselves as the best hunters. Over the following days and weeks the hunters talked more and more of the elusive white hare, and their burning ambition to catch it. They bided their time, and laid their plans, like a spider weaving a web to catch a fly…

Soon the pieces of their plan fell into place. On a moist and misty evening in September, with a Harvest Moon rising huge and orange above the ridgeway, the white hare was spotted nimbling along the edge of the copse. Some of the men sent their dogs running through the trees to flush the hare out into the open. When the hare saw the dogs she sturted  and then ran like lightening, zig-zagging across the adjacent field - ears flat against her body, spine arching and stretching, back legs reaching beyond the front legs as she pushed forward - her pace quickening all the time. Soon she’d outdistanced the chasing dogs. But with the hounds behind her, she headed towards the only remaining escape from the field – an open gateway in a thick hedgerow of hawthorn and holly. The hare reached the gap ahead of the hounds. But there, hiding, on the other side of the hedge, were two more men with two more dogs. As the white hare ran past the dogs were leased from their leashes…

…The still evening air was suddenly pierced with the sound of snapping teeth, frenzied snarling and then a high-pitched, spine-tingling squeal. The dogs ripped and wrenched, they bit and broke. Eventually the hare was tossed into the air like a ragged doll; white fur flecked with red. She landed. Not back on the ground, nor in the jaws of the dogs, but atop of the hedge. And although badly hurt, and severely weakened, she summoned her remaining strength to scamper painfully along the vicious vegetation of spikes and spines, until she reached the safety of the woods and disappeared into the darkness of the trees.

Men and dogs searched and sniffed for an hour, without sight or scent of the hare, until the hunters finally admitted defeat. The dogs were taken back to their tethers, and the men made their way to the old woman’s cottage to retrieve their tools. When they arrived the door of the cottage was ajar, unusual, and as they peered inside their faces drained of colour. There, lying on the floor in a mangled heap, with torn clothes and broken, bleeding body, was the old woman.

Filled with horror, the men grabbed their tools and ran from the cottage, pursued by fear and guilt. All of them left. All except one, the youngest of the hunters. The young man stepped inside the door. He bent down to the old woman and realised that she was still breathing. Wrapping her in a woollen blanket, he lifted her body, as light as bird, onto the bed and then held her head as he gave her sips of water from a clay cup. All night long he stayed by her bedside. Eventually, in the pale morning light, she opened her bruised eyes and was able to speak in short breaths. She told the young man how to make a medicinal tea from hot water and dried herbs in jars on the shelves around the room. He followed her instructions, carefully and correctly, and in between brewing healing potions, he went to fetch fresh food from the village. He stayed in the cottage for two weeks, tending the old woman until she’d regained some of her strength and her wounds were beginning to heal. Then she sat up, looked at him with smiling eyes, and released him from his duties…

From that day on the hunters of Littlebredy vowed never to hunt the white hare again. Even today, long after the old woman’s death and her cottage long since crumbled into broken rocks amongst the Valley of Stones, the story is still remembered. And there are some Dorset folk that still gather each year, at dusk on a mild September’s evening, in the hope of catching a glimpse of long ears and flashing fur - the white hare, racing across the ancient fields around the ridgeway. If you’re lucky, you might see her too…