Basking Lizards and the Gentle Arts of Kipping and Pondering

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I love sleeping. Once asleep, I can stay curled – half woman/half dormouse – for far more hours than I actually need. I am the undisputed queen of the sleep marathon but am woefully inadequate when it comes to the art of a good, short kip. In this Laurie excels; not only can he drift off for a perfectly timed half hour, rising refreshed and renewed, but his body cooperates by adapting to all manner of (to me) impossible sleep scenarios – trains, bumpy buses – even the unyielding challenge of a park bench poses only a minimal obstacle to a Laurie power snooze. I have tried but once asleep I am in for the long haul. To prematurely wake me risks, at best, my feeling lobotomised, at worst, my seething and festering in a post nap fog; breezy and recharged I am not. 

Sleep is so vital in our body’s ability to re-energise itself, central to the processing of daily events and challenges; it enables us to contact deep inner resources via our dream life, bridging the verbal and symbolic in potentially empowering ways. Having time to think is also a much neglected necessity.  Modern living is hostile to the benefits of sitting and being; a glorious hour or two lost in thought might sadly be considered wasteful or lazy. In rest, or in gentle pondering, we give ourselves the opportunity to connect to all that is marginalised within us by the goal oriented demands of our day; we slow down, unclench; psychologically speaking, our minds kick off their shoes and sink their toes into cool sand (if we are lucky, our bodies do this too!). With many suffering from stress related illness, working longer hours to sustain the unsustainable, I suspect that our culture might benefit from an ample dose of lizard medicine.  

I love lizard spotting. The Undercliff is a vast, ancient landslip positioned along the south-eastern coast of the Isle of Wight. A south facing ledge, it possesses its own micro climate. Nestled between the ocean and an imposing rock face, this lush and sheltered strip of land is energized by the sun. Exotic and tender plants thrive here, as does the heat loving wall lizard. These beautiful, iridescent creatures adore the sun, fuelling themselves with its warmth and light. They unashamedly idle away an afternoon, occasionally reading the air with their tiny forked tongues; motionless but for the barely perceptible movement of their breathing, scaly bellies pulsing to the rhythm of sun and hot rock. It is always a surprise to witness the speed of their movement after such blissful inactivity, yet in their stillness they are acutely aware of the world around them, primed to respond. When vulnerable, they know a thing or two about boundaries, slipping into the dark slits and cracks, the cool resting places. 

I am infinitely better at pondering than knapping, although this winter has found me slipping off for a quiet snooze and awakening in a sweeter mood. Perhaps it is age teaching me a lesson in surrender; perhaps it’s the cat in me letting go (just a little) of skittish, kittenish ways. Perhaps the lizards have worked their magic.

A friend and I talked this week about the regret we felt that successful lives are measured more by what is seen than unseen. ‘Progress’ is assessed by the material achievements and career advancements so lauded in our society. There are lists of ‘things we should have done by now’, age signalling not just maturity but progressive stages with accompanying achievements to master or status to acquire: job and mortgage in your twenties; kids in your thirties; significant promotion in your chosen area of work in your forties etc. My aunt once chastised me that, as a woman in my forties, I was not advanced upon any career ladder; she implied that I had wasted my life. I did wonder; it’s hard not to succumb to the pressure of expectation.

The quiet victories of having overcome or transcended difficulties; the ongoing challenges of surviving and thriving are less obvious markers of achievement and as such, honoured and appreciated far less. To possess an ambition to grow spiritually might actually be seen as a supremely self-indulgent act not a valued life choice. In such a climate it is clear to see why  having space to think – to take time out and simply be – is so low a priority for so many.

 A friend, who works very hard, mercilessly pushes herself. She longs to take it easy but feels immense guilt when she stops. The work ethic is strong and unquestioned in our culture. There have been some tiny breakthroughs, the Science of Happiness revealing that when we engage more with the intangibles, our quality of life improves. Taking time to smell the roses really is better for our health.

I guess it is all about contrast. After much frenetic doing and chasing, the soft receptivity of sitting and absorbing the world, or ambling around our own thoughts, can be a powerfully restorative thing. If it was all we did, perhaps the benefit would be lost. And yet, in the expanding and contracting of our daily lives – the relentless breathing in and out – we might miss that at the peak of each in and exhalation is a point of perfect stillness. When we just let ourselves be, without expectation, without judgement, we come to realise that in that stillness a spiralling universe resides. Those lizards are not just basking, they are star surfing…

Laurie basking at Blackgang beach

Laurie basking at Blackgang beach

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

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The Heart Knows the Wisdom of Flow

For whatever you lose like a you or me, it’s always yourself you find by the sea –  E.E. Cummings

 

Luccombe Chine - beneath the wooden steps the ruins of cottages.

Luccombe Chine - beneath the wooden steps the ruins of cottages.

 

 

As you take the coastal road from Shanklin westward, you find yourself winding steeply through the undulating hills of Luccombe. Behind you, the protective white chalk of Culver holds the broad sweep of Sandown Bay in place on the eastern horizon. As the road climbs, below, the curves of the land draw the eye down towards the tree- hidden Chine; above, the imposing height of Luccombe Down makes its presence felt. In spring the woodland floors are white with ramsons, their pungency dominates your ascent; in summer the purple heather seeps over the ridge of the downs. Buzzards coast the deep valley and often the clouds cling to the heights, mists sliding down its steepness. At the road’s summit, at the base of Nansen Hill, you pass the Parish boundary sign of Bonchurch, Ventnor and St Lawrence. It displays an image of the Greek Goddess Hygeia. This lesser known daughter of the God of healing and medicine, Asclepius – herself a Goddess of health and well-being – has become the Patron of this beautiful area of the Island.

 

In my efforts to build a relationship with the Divine at the local level, I am coming to understand just how important this reasonably obscure Greek goddess is, with regard to making sense of just what it is I feel the Island’s qualities are. I feel sure that when the Victorians chose her as an emblem for the emerging health resort of Ventnor, they were picking up on exactly the same aspects perceived in the landscape that I too have felt so drawn to explore. Hygeia may well have travelled far from her original home but I think that she speaks of something that is already here, rooted in the nature of the Wight; she communicates something of the essence of this island.

 

Hygeia is traditionally portrayed with a serpent wrapped around her body or arm. She holds a Patera, a sacred offering dish, from which the snake drinks. Whatever the original symbolism meant for ancient Greek culture, as a modern Pagan, the dish and the snake hold deep significance for me. The Patera suggests the Chalice, the over-flowing and inexhaustible source of divine feminine inspiration and healing, sought deep within us; in our relationship with nature and in the mystery that underpins these. The serpent powerfully speaks of the chthonic energies of earth and of the life force that flows through all things; its ability to slough puts us in touch with the regenerating forces within and around us, and this process seems vital in our ability to find well-being. When we psychologically or physically shed that which no longer serves us, we clear a channel for life to move through us; when we hold on long beyond usefulness, we risk painful stagnation that can often lead to the crisis of illness or enforced change in our lives. The serpent spirals the Goddess’s body, she is its forces of release and regeneration. When we drink of her deep well of wisdom, when we open to these powerful currents within and around us, we are given an opportunity to deeply reconnect, to feel intensely our place within this extraordinary existence, to ride the movement of it with less resistance and, in doing so, find a greater well-being.

 

The Isle of Wight sheds constantly; its coastline notoriously unstable and shifting, releasing itself to the perpetually heaving ocean, as if the sedimentary earth yearns for its old home the sea. The Wight knows deep in it chalk bones the wisdom of Hygeia, and the south coast embodies it in its most dramatic form.

 

Saturday afternoon, Laurie and I walked down through the Landslip into Luccombe Bay. Starting at the base of Nansen Hill – next to the sign of Hygeia – we descended the Devil’s Chimney, a deep, narrow cutting in the rock face, right-angled at its base, and at that point, wide enough only to squeeze through. The undulating woodland of the Landslip is negotiated via steep wooden steps and rocky paths. This place has magical beauty: its fern rich lushness in summer hides the turbulence of the soil here; in winter the leafless trees betray the constantly shifting terrain, trunks precariously frozen at odd angles, slices of earth cut free, collapsing into uneven terraces.

 

The climb down into Luccombe Bay comes via Luccombe Chine, a steep, wooded, ravine, carved by the constant tumble of a stream in its irresistible dance with gravity. The wooden steps and boardwalks follow the route of the water down, at times perched above it, at moments merging with it. Eventually the meander of water and wood leads down to the beach. Saturday afternoon the tide was fully in and so we settled down on the sloping steps above the boulders, the sandy stretch beneath the cliffs invisible.

 

Laurie at Luccombe

Laurie at Luccombe

 

We sat in silence listening to the sea breaking just beneath us. There was the most peculiar light: the setting sun finding only a hazy slit in the rain-heavy mass of cloud moving down from the high ground. This strange golden light, darkening the grey of sky and sea, ignited the yellows in the vast sandstone cliffs, more blackened on bright days, now warm and alive in the setting sun. A Peregrine briefly skimmed the ledge of the cliff. I spotted a Robin hopping amongst the crumbled masonry on the beach below my suspended feet. These large chunks are the worn remains of houses lost in the big landslip of 1912. Before then, families lived here on the sunken ledge that runs along the cliff base, their cottages and chapel long gone but their names resonating still within my continued fascination for this place: Kingswells, Casses, Buttons, Kemps and Tom Hardy too. In the White Lion pub at Arreton, I discovered an old photo of ‘Poundhammer’ Kingswell and wife, their faces worn by sea, wind and poverty.

 

These people who once lived upon the bay’s precarious line of crumbling land and relentless sea – between mean survival and destitution – still seem to be resident here in some way. Luccombe bay has tremendous presence, both inherent in the landscape itself and in the residue of lives that once managed its unpredictable currents. I feel such awe and admiration for these folks and wonder if, amidst the hard struggles of their daily living, they too paused to sit here – like Laurie and I – absolutely entranced by the magic and strange peace of this place. Life can be relentless in its demands for us to keep growing, moving, releasing… and yet when we ride this current with trust there is a strange peace also. In examining the recent losses in my life – in learning to embrace the shedding – Luccombe touches me deeply.

 

After the violent storms at the beginning of 2008, the bay became littered with vast boulders, tightly packed, the southerly gales helping to obscure the open sands almost completely – it was a changed landscape. Amongst the rocks I found a large stone, the perfect shape of a heart. I thought of my friend Nick’s triple by-pass, the blockage of his arteries potentially deadly. The heart demands the constant flow of life renewing blood; the heart knows the wisdom of flow. There is wellbeing in movement although we often fight it. It is not the change that breaks us – it is the holding back.

 

Maria in a Luccombe reverie

Maria in a Luccombe reverie

 

 

The Love of Self Can Be Such an Elusive Quest

The love of self can be such an elusive quest.  We are not taught it well in our culture. Many of us may still confuse the love of self with an act of selfishness. This can lead us into being very poor emotional care takers of ourselves. Self-negation can feel a whole lot easier than self-love to those ill practiced at it – practice being a very apt word, for the development of self-care takes commitment and diligence. It is a skill that is learnt. There will be moments when we slip back into old habits but this is part of the process; persistence is key.

As a young teenager I was involved in an abusive relationship with someone older than myself. It came about in the devastating wake of my mother’s death. Nobody told my deeply hurting young self that bereaved children can look for love in the most inappropriate of places. Cajoled into a sexual relationship by the flattering attention of this troubled man, my introduction to the world of desire and sex was a dark, painful, and violent one. Despite my innocence, I had a hunch that sex might express itself as a deeply spiritual physical connection between two people. I was to be disappointed. My first lesson was that sex could be a weapon; a tool to wield power and control; a means for another to vent pain and anger.  For two years I was repeatedly told that I was ugly, while paradoxically remaining the object of this person’s need and desire. It left me very confused about my own physical and sexual attractiveness but absolutely clear about my worthlessness, painful enough for any adult but crippling for a young girl experiencing the turbulence of puberty.

I came to utterly believe in my own apparent ugliness. My body found refuge in dancing. In ballet my body sensed its own strength and beauty; it was a moment of loving fusion where I could express appreciation for myself. With a secret emotional life dominated by fear and powerlessness, in dancing I clutched at the ragged edge of a self-esteem prematurely ripped from its roots. But even here in this sanctuary I feared my ugliness; my dance teachers constantly requesting that I hold up my head, that I smile, both of which terrified me because in doing so I felt the risk of yet more ridicule and rejection. Needless to say, I grew into an adult who struggled with the way she looked.

To practice the precious art of loving oneself can be a tremendously healing experience. When it occurred to me that I could go back and be a source of nurturance to that young, damaged girl inside me, my entire life changed. Feeling compassion for the little me who had suffered so much, was powerful and moving; it also prepared the ground for that child inside to trust that I could at last be an adequate carer: up until then I had been guilty of colluding with my abusers – re-inflicting the original hurt over and over by continuing to tell myself how ugly and unlovable I was.

I eventually came to view myself as both mother and daughter. When feeling those old, negative judgements rising and spilling out of me, I would quickly ask myself ‘Would a loving mother tell her daughter she was ugly and unlovable?’ Of course she would not. So why would I do that to myself? Slowly and with much initial doubt and frustration, I became the mother I had lost; in learning to create a loving space of self-nurturance and self-acceptance inside myself, I discovered the courage to be the young girl I once was before she became so distressingly submerged.

My early attempts at self-love felt unreal, fake, as if I were mouthing the lines of a bad script. I learned these words and phrases that felt alien to my mouth and gradually, with perseverance and practice – as if my tongue were connecting to my heart- they began to come of their own accord. With gentle, persistent acts of kindness to myself, I began to reclaim a sense of self-worth, tentatively discovering for the first time my own unique beauty.

This all sounds easy; in actuality it has taken years and is still a work in progress. However, now when I look back at photos of the thirty year old me – remembering how neurotic and unhappy I felt about my body and face – the forty two year old me now sees how beautiful I actually was. I feel immense sadness that I wasted so much time feeling unhappy, not able to enjoy the woman I was; I feel an equally immense joy that I recognised that the time had come to heal; grateful in finding a method by which I could eventually come to take pleasure in the woman I am.

Now of course, aging brings its own challenges to my self-esteem and yet, despite the changes, I feel more at home in my body and face than I have ever done. They are me and my being and soul feel settled and comfortably contained.  To embrace a healthy and loving relationship with ourselves is never selfish and the first battleground most of us start this fight upon- particularly for women – is the territory of our bodies and faces. Looking around me at the images of supposed womanhood that leave most of us feeling unacceptable; at young girls starving themselves to fit an impossible ideal, it seems there is much healing to be done for us all.

It still shocks me to discover the cruelty we can inflict upon another, but it shocks me further still the cruelty we can inflict upon ourselves. We are potentially all our own mothers (regardless of gender), capable of instilling the deepest self-love and worth in our daughter/son-selves. Whatever age we are, whatever major damage we wrestle with, that seemingly elusive quest is ours to make.

 

 

 

Yoga, Ritual and the Art of Change

As Pagans, when we perform ritual, we are using the magic of action and movement; our bodies expressing and re-enforcing the intention of our being to embrace and honour change. In Pagan spiritual practice the body is perceived as sacred, and we try to challenge those cultural preconceptions that the mind and intellect are superior. With an understanding that we have all been influenced by the body/spirit split that still dominates much of our culture, we attempt to perceive of these parts of ourselves as more holistically interwoven, as extensions of each other, and in doing so, open ourselves to a deeper understanding of self and other.

 

For a few years now I have practiced Yoga, more or less daily. I was first introduced to it when I was sixteen. I was training to be a dancer and so liked the physical challenge of its poses. Through it I first encountered meditation and with these techniques brought myself out of a particularly awful three years, post my mother’s death. I didn’t fully grasp what Yoga was but was acutely aware of the benefits.

 

Over the years I have left and come back to it as a practice, something in me remembering the feelings of that initial encounter. Through it, I gained my first real understanding that change and transformation were possible and that I could play a central part in its unfolding in my own life.

 

Now that I am much older, my understanding of it, and my relationship to it, has deepened. Some people mistakenly assume that Yoga is a way of the mind controlling the body, forcing it into unnatural positions, to tame its unpredictable nature. But I have found that, on the contrary, it is a dance between body, emotion, mind and spirit, a coming together of these in movement and breath, focus and stillness. It reaches for the flow within us.

 

Our bodies are an extraordinary miracle. Through them we access the material world around us via our senses; it is both the boundary that separates us from others and our environment but also our gateway to sensuous and intimate interaction with these. Our bodies are deeply responsive to our emotional lives and over time, our emotions can sculpt the shape of our physical selves, displaying our wounds and struggles to the world around us. If we leave our bodies out of our spiritual practice, the chances are we are cutting ourselves off from a valuable source of knowledge and potential for change.

 

After a session of Yoga, I am often surprised by the emotions that surface within me as I relax on my mat. Unresolved emotions are often stored in our bodies. When we involve the body in spiritual practice, we enable many of these to be released and processed. Barely acknowledged emotional stuff can block the conscious efforts we make towards change; they can sabotage the conscious plans we have for ourselves. When the body speaks, when our emotional truths are fully heard, we stand a better chance of embracing healthy change in our lives.

 

Loving to write, I am aware of how much my mind enjoys playing over ideas. I often become caught up in the chatter of that internal dialogue, entranced by the construction of systems, the placing together of language in order to explain my world to myself. Both Yoga and ritual has enabled me to coax out of myself the often ignored voice of body and feeling. At these moments of connection and communication, I am given the opportunity to open to a greater personal authenticity in the relationship I have with myself. It is not always a comfortable moment – the mind is adept in finding distractions from anything it might find unpalatable, boxing off anything that contradicts an ideal. However, the intense relief in allowing the truth of our beings to emerge (warts and all) is a powerful thing; it is the trigger point of our most important, life-changing transformations.

 

We hide so much of ourselves (or is that just me?), fearing that to express ourselves as we truly are might lead to rejection. I think there is a great healing in letting the body speak; in allowing it to articulate our deepest, most profound needs. Without doing so, we cut ourselves off from true intimacy with others and our environment; we become severed from our core.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Yaverland Ravens

The vast crescent of Sandown Bay starts at the eastern tip of the Island. Here the chalk spine that runs through the Wight’s centre – emerging at the far western point at the Needles- starts its journey in the distinctive white shape of Culver Cliff. This huge bay sweeps round, across from Culver, along the southern coast until it reaches the dark shape of Dunnose Head. It is edged with sand along the full sweep of its arch, and, with the right tide, it is possible to walk its seemingly endless length on the beach (with small diversions onto sea walls at points) passing the seaside town of Sandown; the cliffs at Lake and Shanklin esplanade, onwards beneath the ominous Knock Cliff and round the headland into the wildness of Luccombe Bay.

Red Cliff, Culver and Yaverland Beach

Red Cliff, Culver and Yaverland Beach

 

Up on top of Culver cliff, the views across the Bay are stunningly beautiful. From here, turning towards the mainland it is possible to see the ridge of the South Downs, the eye taking in Sussex to the east and Dorset to the West. Portsmouth appears a magical city, and the Yar valley channels its way through to the centre of the Island, the ridge of the downs in the south and the chalk spine in the north, containing and shaping it, adding their own impromptu undulations, waves in the landscape that still seem to emanate movement and energy.

 

Sandown is a traditional seaside holiday place, its sandy beaches bringing coaches of holiday makers throughout the year, mainly older folks in the quiet seasons. The beach in this part of the bay can get very crowded in the summer, but the further east you wander, the lonelier it becomes, with mainly locals and the odd intrepid visitor venturing on to Yaverland, the fossil infested stretch that finds its destination beneath the white chalk of Culver.

 

Walking east, with Culver marking the furthest edge of the bay ahead, the cliffs are small, dark, crumbling sandstone, abundant with dinosaur bones. Beyond these is the Yaverland landslip, a large area of sunken cliff that has become an enclosed bowl, uneven and cracked, its lower slopes covered in gorse. It is a sheltered space from the south-westerly winds that cut across the bay, hitting the exposed headland with force.

 

From here Red Cliff rises up suddenly, it rich colour the product of oxidised sandstone. In places, the patterns of erosion on its soft surface look like giant pleats in the skirt of the Earth Mother. Wind often causes fine particles of dust to dance off its face, as if any moment its vast presence might crumble. The deep warmth of Red Cliff eventually merges into the starkness of Culver. When the tide is out the beach is massive, open and sandy with a line of heaped pebbles at the cliff edge and larger rocks – tossed and rearranged regularly by the sea – beneath the chalk. When the tide finds its way back to the land, the beach disappears; it is wise to know your tide times or be stranded on the lower slopes of the chalk, or at the unnerving base of Red Cliff.

 

It was here on this beautiful beach that I first encountered the ravens. I had previously only seen them in Wales, on the peak of Cader Idris, and had assumed that their presence this far south in the country would be highly unlikely. It turns out that my assumption was wrong, and the Island is home to a growing presence. It was startling to hear the deep, distinctive croak, so different from crows and rooks. I couldn’t quite believe that I was seeing that dark feathery form perched on a tiny ledge of chalk above me.

 

There are actually two at Yaverland; a couple. They fly the length of the cliffs, never that far away from each other, swooping out over the edges, parting the acrobatic clouds of jackdaws that play on the margins of earth and air. I have since seen others further along the bay and down the southern coastline; I have seen them flying high over my house, circling and coasting in the sunlight like buzzards, and have heard their calls over the wetlands. It seems that the Island suits them well; its cliff faces serving as perfect homes for such private creatures.

 

Ravens have suffered a bad press, as indeed have all the Corvus family. Persecuted for many years, it is heartening to see such a healthy presence of crows, rooks, jackdaws, magpies, jays and now ravens here on the Island. All of these birds possess a wonderful intelligence and playfulness and extraordinary skills in flight. There is a humour about all of them – I find it hard not to be cheered by them.

 

As carrion eaters, perhaps they remind us a little too much of our mortality, but I find a great healing power in their symbolism. A few years ago, during meditation, I saw a vision of a crow in my skull, pecking away at my brain. On the surface, this rather gruesome image might have appeared quite disturbing; however, at the time, it felt very comforting. I was at a point in my life when I was carrying so much personal dead wood; events, attitudes and relationships that no longer served me – the corpses of a life dead, dying or passed were weighing heavily, rigidly holding me in a tight circle of repeated patterns and frustrations. The crow seem to speak of the psychological and physical transformations needed to keep life flowing onward; the not necessarily pleasant but absolutely crucial task of processing the rot and shit into fertile ground. Any amount of wreckage that our own psychological battlefields might produce have at least the potential to be stripped clean, laid bare and put to rest.

 

Since then I have had many inner and outer experiences with these birds – especially ravens. Through them I have learned that like the line between land and ocean, the place between life and death – psychological or actual – is a powerful one, rich in the potential for change. The ocean and the land impact upon one another and this is most intensely perceived where sea and shore meet; similarly, life and death impact upon each other too. The trick is to surrender our stone-like resistance to the rising waters of release. When the time has come, resistance really is futile.

 

In this place of merging edges the Raven dwells, but in its exhilarating acrobatics; in the soft ruffles of its shaggy throat, stretched to call out its comical song, we might come to realise that there is also a joy in the process. I have learned to trust the flurry of black feathers and sharp beaks. At Yaverland, the ravens are often most visible at sunset, that in-between place between day and night. Watching them effortlessly glide the cliff edges in the dying light, it is easy to grasp just how magical and mysterious these wonderful birds are, and just how vital their gift of transformation.

 

Sandown Bay from Culver Cliff at Sunset (the dark speck is a raven!)

Sandown Bay from Culver Cliff at Sunset (the dark speck is a raven!)

 

 

 

 

 

The Christmas Blue Tits and the New Year Thrush

On Christmas day afternoon, Laurie, Dad and I took a walk across the Wetlands adjacent to my home. The Yar River springs to the surface in Niton to the south, winding down through the valley, the wetlands spreading out from its course, until it meets the sea at Bembridge Haven in the east. The Yar river valley was once home to the Sandown to Newport railway line. The line has long closed but the track is now a cycle path, passing through the beautiful water meadows, flanked by the downs to the north and south. Many of the old railway lines that networked the Island have found a second life as cycle and foot paths. They are wonderful places for wildlife and humans alike.

 

Between Sandown and the small hamlet of Alverstone – just off the old railway path- is the nature reserve of Alverstone Mead. Here, at the edge of the woods – overlooking the water meadows and the downs – is a large wooden hide on stilts. This wonderful place is run by volunteers. I have spent many happy moments here, witness not only to the many small birds and red squirrels that regularly feed here (it is one of the best places on the Island to view these elusive creatures), but also to woodpeckers (green and great spotted), grey herons, jays, kestrels, barn owls, foxes, water rats, my beloved buzzards and an assortment of other wetland and woodland residents.

 

On Christmas day, the place was alive with small birds – mainly tits and finches – one hungry, nervous squirrel; an equally nervous jay; a couple of female pheasants and a water rat, repeatedly exiting from his hole in the muddy bank, swimming across the narrow channel at the base of the hide, and then scampering back across the little wooden bridge, returning to his home.

 

What delighted me the most was the sheer number of blue tits. These tiny, agile little birds were covering a small bush beneath one of the hanging feeders. Plumped up with the cold, they were positioned like blue, feathery baubles on a Christmas tree. They each seemed to politely wait their turn, accessing the feeder one by one, until suddenly, with much chattering and impressive aerial control, they swarmed the feeder all at once.

 

I don’t think I am ever as happy as when I am witnessing such moments as these. I find that the more I look at the natural world around me, the more deeply I feel engaged with life and myself. However, I am also reminded that these creatures exist not only to please me, that they too have their purpose and their struggles.

 

At New Year, a song thrush entered our garden. This was a startling happening as our garden is notoriously absent of birds. Although I have planted and worked hard to attrack wildlife, it is a small space, surrounded by high fences and another house wall, other than our own; sadly, few people on the estate garden, and so the green highways for the movement of wild life are lacking. There are many cats, some of which use our garden as a through way. Much as I adore them, they make it difficult for birds to feel confident to enter.

 

The thrush arrived like a New Year’s message, and I was thrilled to see it. It landed on our washing line, our neighbour’s cat, rather ineffectively crawling along on its belly in ambush beneath. The bird easily outwitted him and I merely assumed that this unexpected visit was a wonderful aberration.

 

The next day, at the same time, the thrush returned. My initial delight quickly turned to anxiety; there I was feeling blessed to watch this beautiful, and increasingly rare, bird from my window, forgetting that this creature exists in its own right. It then began to dawn on me that its visits might have been triggered by desperation: the extreme cold often leads many birds to starve, their food sources in short supply. If such were true, then the joy I felt at seeing this bird in my garden would be an extremely hollow one.

 

I became like a women possessed, and with the help of Laurie and Dad, spent the afternoon purchasing and constructing a cat proof bird feeding station. Thrushes are ground feeders – nervous about making the bird vulnerable to local cats, I had chosen a feeder with a flat tray attached, hoping that the thrush might take advantage, safely positioned high above any sharp, furry paws.

 

After my dad and I finally got the feeder positioned and all the food hung and ready, we left it to its own devices and visited the hide at Alverstone to leave some food for the squirrels and the birds there, feeding the ducks on the way back too.

 

Today I awoke to the sound of flapping wings. To my great excitement, the tray of sunflower hearts has evidence of someone having feasted, and I sighted not one but two thrushes and a pied wagtail this afternoon on our fences. I hope that the food can help in some way to them surviving this bitter cold. Being a witness to the world about us is a joyful and sometimes painful thing, but life is all the more enriched when we can in some way interact with it too, giving a little of ourselves in the process. The rewards feel great indeed!

 

 

 

 

Hope and the Maiden Moon

Early evening, as the light began to fade, I stood in Borthwood Copse at Queen’s Bower on the Isle of Wight. This ancient woodland is home to sturdy old oaks with deep rutted bark and branches that curl and twist into the distinctive, crimped appearance of long-lived trees.   At the heart of the Copse is also a beautiful beech cathedral: a spacious grove of elegant trees whose aging trunks have not so much thickened as soared. There is a noticeable abundance of holly, the green conspicuous amongst so much winter bareness.

Standing upon a deep drift of leaves, the antlered mesh of oaks above me, I watched the crescent moon brighten as the darkness deepened. The evening star, Venus, kept close company, its white brilliance framed by the forest canopy.

Walking back along the green lane, down towards the wetlands in the valley, the golden layer of light in the west was tightly pressed against the horizon, weighed down by a bank of cloud; the world took on an otherworldly light, sung into being by a blackbird.

Crossing the boardwalk across the water meadows, I entered the steep woodland enclosure of Alverstone Mead, a haven for red squirrel. By now the darkness had fallen. I love being in the woods as night comes. I feel safe; enclosed and contained in a world that – despite my inadequate senses – feels welcoming and known. Walking along the ledge of the path – aware of the ground falling sharply away on one side and rising on the other – I felt, just briefly, that I could navigate anything life sent me.

Walking down from the Mead towards the old railway path that cuts through the Yar River valley, I noticed the watery channels that meander through the fields, catching the last dim light of day. I was drawn back in my mind to the night before New Year’s Eve, the first time I had caught a glimpse of this month’s new moon. It was another breathtaking evening, the sky clear and coloured in pastilles; the slender curve of the moon and Venus set low above the downs, greying with mist. Each month, whenever I catch sight of the Maiden Moon for the first time, I say a prayer of thankfulness for her gift of courage and freedom, for her reminder that all things can begin again. That fragile crescent never fails to fill me with joy and hope.

As the Middle East rages, and upheaval and suffering are played out all around our planet -inexorably it seems- it felt apt for the New Moon to fall around the New Year. As arbitrary as these markings of time might be, there is still some power in them, and there seems to me to be a great poignancy in the new moons of winter. When life appears caught in stasis, the tender light of a maiden moon never lets us forget that the possibilities of change present themselves to us all. We have to be vigilant, looking in all the right places, paying some attention to timing also. So often I miss her first appearance because I forget to look for her, or cloud might obscure her presence.  In our forgetfulness, in the sometimes overwhelming demands of living, it is easy to lose sight of faith and hope.

Stood in the magical half light of Borthwood, brought sharply into the present – into my body and being- by the bitter cold, and with the moon grinning down upon me, I said a prayer of hope for this bright, sliver of a new born year.