An undistinguished little photo, I know, but this is quite an historic one, for us in Northumberland, at least. For there on the low branch of the young crab apple is our dear young Robin, one of the pair which live behind our shed and which, over this last winter, have become increasingly friendly and trusting, as well they might, considering how well we feed them. What is extraordinary is that little Robin is here seen guarding one of his fledglings – yes, fledglings – who appeared in the garden with the adult pair this morning, mirabile dictu, despite the recent very cold spell, indeed the snow with which their nest must have been touched only last week.
Wood anemone and frittiliary are still in flower; the sparrows are yet to pair and nest; the martins have not as yet arrived here in the frosty north: never mind – Robin Redbreast’s little family look remarkably well and happy. These pictures show only one of the blessed creatures, sensibly snuggling between the back rails of the bench and enjoying the blessed warmth of welcome afternoon sun. Under the crab apple, the other fledglings dart about – sometimes hopping on a branch, or balancing on the dead ferns by the pond, or popping out for a meal-worm feast, coached and encouraged by he robins whose trust is such an honour to have won. Spring, Summer and Winter: we will do everything we can to help you all to thrive!
Because Barnaby had recently been so ill, it looked unlikely that anyone would be going to Crufts this year. However, three weeks after his operation he had clearly made a complete recovery: the seaweed blockage and infection were happily just memories, his tummy wound was completely healed and his strength restored, so our dear vet told Barnaby that a well-earned change of scene was just what he needed. Instead of manning the golden retriever stand at Discover Dogs, as he usually does with Newman, he spent Gundog day enjoying the sights, most stunning among them the giant Frontline spaniel, which came as a great shock to most passing dogs, as he moved about encouraged by the presenter demonstrating the dangers posed both to dogs and our homes by fleas and their eggs. Inside the giant spaniel was an actor who could only stay there for short periods because it was so stifling and because of the strain on his legs and back from the tortuous pose he had to adopt in order to look so realistic. Designed and made by a specialist firm used by the BBC, the spaniel proved a popular draw, teaching and selling in equal measure.
Barnaby loved sharing himself with the people he met, behind and in front of all the stands, as well as being useful as an example of his breed. He patiently allowed a goldie breeder whose dogs were over on the show benches to use him as a model, so she could try on him various sizes of the special harness she was after. Who knew there was so much choice, and how precise one has to be to get exactly the right fit for a retriever’s muzzle. For what it’s worth, size 3L in the Dogmatic harness is perfect for the breed! We have never used such an item, always having been trained to heel with a slip lead – pulling isn’t a family trait, so to speak, though it’s obviously something far too many dogs do. Barnaby’s gentle nature was much praised, but it’s a pleasure to do a dog-owner a favour; Crufts is all about sharing one’s love of dogs, telling stories, and bonding over similar canine experiences. One meets so many visitors there who have lost their own beloved , and who long to reach down and feel the warmth and comfort of a gentle retriever once again.
Though we glanced at the scores of entries being judged in the golden retriever rings, it was hard to ignore the fact that most of these qualifiers (an achievement in itself) were completely wasting their time as there are so few top prizes and, as is the case with most breeds, the winning kennels seem increasingly familiar in every show one attends. This magnificent cocker spaniel came all the way from Sweden in order to compete but, despite wins throughout his home country and across the Baltic states, he met with no success at Crufts. One honestly does wonder how the majority of exhibitors maintain their enthusiasm for the contest when it is so difficult to supervene on such a stage. Meeting him after he’d left the show benches after 4pm was one of the highlights of this trip, however; though tired from his day on duty, he sat atop his wheeled crate, born proudly aloft by his well-dressed human family, who love and treasure him, no matter what – precious winners all, as someone famous once said.
Although a couple of years ago I learnt the hard way, our lovely vet made it quite clear yesterday that the terrible dangers posed by the seaweed we get along our Northumberland shore are not generally appreciated by those whose dogs habitually gleefully devour it. Not, that is, until there is a problem. And boy have we had another problem this week.
Both of our retrievers are obsessed by eating the thick kelp we get on the beach here (and which the stupid tourists also keep bringing up into the field). On our morning beach trundle, Barnaby is constantly trying to get his muzzle off and eat it, succeeding from time to time just by determination when the fancy takes him. On Monday’s morning run, Kemo Sabe couldn’t get over to him quickly enough when she realised what he had done and prevent him from swallowing what was in his mouth. Usually there are no consequences but . . .
The first signs that something was wrong came on Tuesday morning, when he had sudden onset vomiting, though he had nothing in his stomach to being up other than saliva, though the reflex was very dramatic and he declined visibly, not wanting to eat anything. After consulting the vet and being reassured over the phone early on, Kemo Sabe soon rang again as poor Barney continued to try to be sick and because he was just not himself. A hundred pounds’ worth of treatment later she brought him home, reassured that little seemed wrong that would not soon be rectified but the following day, he was worse and by then hadn’t eaten for two days. He looked and seemed so despondent, so before the vet was even open, off they went to seek further investigation.
Although X-rays didn’t indicate the presence of a foreign body in Barnaby’s gut, the vet thought it prudent to investigate surgically because she could see gas in the ileum; inside they found the two chunks of seaweed in the picture above, and the damage already inflicted by the spiky root. Peritonitis. As you may recall, a few years ago I also had seaweed removed from my tummy, but by comparison that was a fairly straightforward (and much cheaper) procedure. Barnaby’s operation was much more complex, involving flushing the gut and removal of some damaged bowel. He spent two whole days on intravenous medication and liquids and is now on six different types of pills but, thank God, he is happily hungry again, enjoying easy walks on the lead and seems to be making a good recovery. The only thing that matters is that he has returned to us – with a relatively small scar, considering that his digestive system has had to be rearranged – when, for an anxious post-operative time, we all thought we might lose him. Dearest Barnaby, welcome home. I can’t tell you how worried we all were.
Before dawn on Monday, we emerged on to a Bamburgh beach cloaked in darkness. Despite the lengthening days, and an encroaching dawn, it might as well have been midnight that morning; the night had been so overcast. Only a little sliver of the moon was initially visible. Almost immediately, though, a great glowing red disc burnt through and presented itself. The wondrous blood moon – the supermoon; the harvest moon; the wolf moon – call it what you like. Standing proud at last, in contrast with the cloud cover, the moon intruded and illuminated all at once. Without hesitation, we spoke aloud Nick Bottom’s innocent words, ‘Sweet moon, I thank thee for thy sunny beams. / I thank thee, Moon, for shining now so bright.’ Though we didn’t see the eclipse up our way, we were delighted to witness the enlarged and unexpected presence of our earth’s special friend, the secret life of which does so much to make our trundles possible at all, lighting those darkest moments before the dawn.
The Elizabethans thought of the moon as a planet in its own right and, though they were misled about that, the fact is that our moon has a profound effect on the life of both the earth and us upon it. The moon is the ruling influence and measure of all things in Shakespeare’s magical masterpiece, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and just as the Mechanicals employed it as a torch by which to rehearse in secret, we boys rely upon it to negotiate the icy rocks, check out distant strangers – canine or human, steer clear of pools left by the moon’s own tides and find our way to safety up the dunes when the waves are pressed by tidal surges. Whether blood-red, cold or watery, whether we enjoy revels beneath its gaze, whether moonshine blesses our endeavours or casts us into despair or madness, the moon’s transformative power is always affecting us. We both listen to it, and thank it for what Bottom calls its ‘gracious, golden, glittering gleams’.
By the time we reached Seahouses, the clouds had cleared completely and the most beautiful dawn had completely chased that sunniest of moons into oblivion. This hand in hand the instruments of illumination work upon us, bringing us hope and life, and making a ‘good grace’ of what might otherwise seem an unknown fear – what the new day might bring.
The other day, as though by magic, and for the first time ever, suddenly, out of nowhere, Johnny Heron appeared by the pond. It was a Sunday morning, bleak and cold, and the young bird was obviously hungry and a bit desperate, for there are only a couple of tiny frogs who call our pond their home – and there have never been any fish, and they have now taken shelter under their china cloche beneath the rhododendron. When Kemo Sabe glanced unthinkingly out the kitchen window, to keep tabs on the bird food situation, she did a double take: how big and bold and beautiful the lovely bird looked; what a striking presence, cast against the uninspiring winter ferns, the twigs and empty trees, a hundred dull greys, the backdrop to the heron’s living plumage. It returned early in the afternoon but hasn’t been seen here since. It has obviously read the runes intelligently as we can offer little of interest for it, unlike the tits, sparrows, wood pigeons, starlings and goldfinches who cling close to us through thick and thin. Another interruption came the other afternoon when a sparrowhawk swooped across the front garden bird-feeder, but the sparrows were too quick for it and there was no harm done.
As we look out at the sleeping garden, where the birds have now mostly finished their breakfast, we see reflected John Clare’s thoughts in ‘Emmonsail’s Heath in Winter’; his picture of the natural world at rest beautifully complements the still, midwinter scene which – in a world in turmoil – besets us this meteorologically-quiet Christmas Eve:
I love to see the old heath’s withered brake Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling, While the old heron from the lonely lake Starts slow and flaps its melancholy wing, An oddling crow in idle motion swing On the half-rotten ash-tree’s topmost twig, Beside whose trunk the gypsy makes his bed. Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread; The fieldfares chatter in the whistling thorn And for the haw round fields and closen rove, And coy bumbarrels*, twenty in a drove, Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain And hang on little twigs and start again.
You can hear it beautifully read by Sam West here:
Inside two of this year’s Christmas cards came awful news one dreads: of the death of two individuals with whom one has only yearly contact but whose continued existence reinforces one’s sense of identity. From season to season we trust that life will somehow simply continue on its way, onwards and maybe even upwards, as we confront the chaos and confusion that beset us all from time to time. We unthinkingly assume those we knew along our way are striving manfully alongside us, albeit at a distance, from year to year; a gracious presence, imperceptible yet strong; a network of shared experiences and memories holding us all, far and near, together. But alas it isn’t so and, as we grow older and the losses increase, people we took for granted leave the stage in the personal theatres of our lives. Reading of the deaths of those we recall fondly – some once very close to us, before time, space and circumstance intervened – is especially sad within the context of receiving a Christmas card, but in another way so to do is actually quite in keeping.
For this, the shortest day of the year comes, in liturgical terms, at the close of a mournful period of waiting – to the secular world, the overlooked season of Advent – which, like Lent in the Orthodox Church, is marked by weeks of fasting and prayer in preparation for the celebration to come. This period of waiting – longing even – is pointedly evoked in depictions of St John the Baptist , slumped upon a rock, the birds going about their business oblivious to his quiet distraction, even boredom, waiting for the end of the beginning. His expression is a picture in itself.
In Bosch’s painting above, as in this by one of our very favourite artists – Geergen tot Sint Jans – natural images abound – birds and trees, flowers and shrubs, even hills and water. The life that endures, even if only underground. We here at the darkest and most depressing time of year, also desperately search for light of all kinds, especially when those we know and love are far away, some now beyond worldly reach. On Christmas Eve it will be exactly six months since the celebration of the birth of John the Forerunner and Baptist, a Saint so central to the Orthodox faith that he has no less than six feast days. His miraculous birth, to aged parents, comes at the summer solstice when the sun is high and strong but since then it has decreased and nature has lost its confidence. Only now, when so much seems sad, in this season of contrasting joy and sadness, when divided friends and families lean towards each other, does the hidden glory begin to increase. The Forerunner knew this: whatever our struggle, we would do well to emulate his quiet patience, indeed his fervent hope. For beside him lies the little lamb, waiting just as patiently for him to gather his thoughts and get on with his purpose in life.