Ashes to ashes

20170817_065708Today, mouldywarp came home with us: a real first, this. We found this perfect little velvety creature, plump but perished, upside-down on the path which leads down from the dunes this morning and – instead of leaving him to the crows – we brought him home to give him the burial he deserves. Around here – as in most country areas –  mouldywarp is considered a proper pest, and there are numerous specialists who have dedicated their lives to eradicating the little diggers from the farmers’ land. In all the grassland we visit, mole activity is extensive and persistent: there must be thousands of them round here. But we love them wholeheartedly, for their individuality, beauty and resilience and, of course, those seriously majestic hands.

20170817_065610 (2)This little chap was unmarked, so perhaps he had had a heart attack. We found him lying on his back, his strong feet outstretched, as though he had been knocked backwards by shock, but he may have had a fight with another, if their tunnel territories overlapped – if, in other words, he’d run into an unwelcome stranger. If so, it was a bloodless encounter but one from which he had come out worse. In his teeth was a blade of grass; was this his last mouthful on earth? If so, it was an ironic one for this ‘revisionist of all things green’, as Wyatt Prunty puts it in his wonderful poem.

20170817_100543We brought him home carefully carried in a fresh yellow pooh bag, then bedecked his own little grave with what flowers we could find: bright pink hydrangeas and the last of the cream roses by the pond, which illuminated him like a light bulb in the brilliant morning sun. With a prayer we placed him near the other special creatures at the bottom of the garden: the seagull youngster who fell from the roof and little Hammy Jo amongst them, Uncle Johnny overseeing everything in his benign, all-seeing way.

20170817_101242

These days, moleskin means either a kind of cotton fabric or an expensive type of notebook, but in the old days when it was fashionable Kemo Sabe’s forebears would sometimes have worked with the real thing. Thank heavens those days are past! We have returned our fossorial friend to the darkness he knows and prefers. We ask the Great Spirit to accept his tiny soul, which in its last day on earth gave us all such special joy. Wyatt Prunty’s poem, which we love, captures so well so much about this beautiful little mammal, and you can read it in full here:  https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/mole

 

 

 

 

 

‘What lovely behaviour . . . ‘

20170718_101406Overhead, as the afternoon comes to an end amidst a warm glow, the sky is full of  shrieking gulls cheering their children on their maiden flights. Gathering confidence, the tyros swoop and hover, embracing and enjoying their freedom more, encouraged by their relatives’ masterly manoevres. Our seagull family has this summer produced three healthy offspring – Teresa, May and Boris – whom they attended with customary attention to detail and aggressive protectiveness. This week, without much in the way of the attendant drama to which we’ve grown accustomed over the years, all three have quickly quit the chimney cradle and local rooftops and headed into the summer sky.

Adult herring gulls take their parental duties with Biblical seriousness, putting many human families to shame. Now that the tourist season is in full swing, some words from No Country for Old Men come to mind: ‘Who ARE these people?’  The piles of astonishing litter replicate daily: little ones’ hats, shoes, sandals, spades, kites, flags, plastic toys, are cast on to the sand, and lie there for days – of little worth and given less thought. Children run hundreds of yards ahead of their elders – focused on their phones or chatty friends – along perilous ground and into unanticipated dangers. Should they break an ankle in a rabbit hole, or gash themselves on another’s broken glass, their parents wouldn’t know until it was too late. Screaming as they run in panic towards doggy-kind of whatever size and shape, cut adrift from parental guiding hand, too frequently they seem more an encumbrance than an integral joy. We trundlers, on our afternoon and early morning routes, held on our leads lest we offend, simply by being there, stand to attention and patiently let them pass, sometimes for ages. No one is really thinking at all, or thinking of anyone else, come to that! Hey ho!

20170728_112659.jpgIn the black elder in front of the house, a collared dove sits quietly and utterly relaxed upon what looks like a really comfortable bowl of a nest. Yesterday while gardening with Barnaby for company, Kemo Sabe glimpsed the tufted baby peeking over the edge, its parent away temporarily to find a bite to eat for them both. Attentive and always alert, yet peaceful in its gloriously comfortable little home, we are thrilled by its presence and honour it silently.

These things, these things were here and but the beholder/Wanting, as Gerard Manley Hopkins – whose birthday falls today – once said.

 

 

Just one of those days

20170710_064337This morning, trundling along the beach (so far, so routine), it felt different. It was just one of those days: magic, despite evidence being to the contrary. Rather grey and utterly still; the sea quiet, and almost indistinguishable from the sky. A tide drawing ever nearer (by the end of the week, we’ll be watching our step), but plenty of sand still stretched ahead of us, and the waters themselves touched the shore tentatively, gently. Looking about, you might expect it to be chilly, were it not 14 degrees and so a good five more than yesterday, when the sun was bright and clear. Obviously, the clouds were on our side. The unexpected nature of perfection can surprise us; it is true that – often – we get what we need.

20170710_064625.jpgIt seems months, and probably is, since we left the dark morning runs and Kemo Sabe’s vital head-torch behind. It will be several months until they resume. Meanwhile we sustain an ever-growing number of holiday-makers for whom a morning such as today’s, and the deterioration in conditions which followed it, is usually a disappointment, deterring all but the weather-hardened from the beach, and crowding the coastal castles, their galleries, gardens, grounds and tea-rooms instead.

20170510_074634On such a morning, there’s a kind of hush, as though a great juggernaut has just past by, as visitors sigh and rest a while longer on their pillows, gathering their thoughts and changing their plans in the face of the weather forecast, while the locals quietly look about them, the veil lifted in the peace.  Above the kitchen window, some resident sparrows  – who’ve already raised one brood (pictured here) in their house-martin box – decide to mate again, committing themselves to each other for more weeks of tireless work, placing their faith in something bigger, and another day. Part of the joy of this area of England is the changeability of the weather, sometimes from hour to hour. Only this Saturday, it was sweltering and the place was full of folk. But this morning was magic and then the rain came, and the birds took to the mere, bringing the bird-watchers joy. ‘The Poet sees!/ He can behold’, as Longfellow writes:

How beautiful is the rain!
After the dust and heat,
In the broad and fiery street,
In the narrow lane,
How beautiful is the rain!
How it clatters along the roofs,
Like the tramp of hoofs
How it gushes and struggles out
From the throat of the overflowing spout!
Across the window-pane
It pours and pours;
And swift and wide,
With a muddy tide,
Like a river down the gutter roars
The rain, the welcome rain!
The sick man from his chamber looks
At the twisted brooks;
He can feel the cool
Breath of each little pool;
His fevered brain
Grows calm again,
And he breathes a blessing on the rain.
From the neighboring school
Come the boys,
With more than their wonted noise
And commotion;
And down the wet streets
Sail their mimic fleets,
Till the treacherous pool
Engulfs them in its whirling
And turbulent ocean.
In the country, on every side,
Where far and wide,
Like a leopard’s tawny and spotted hide,
Stretches the plain,
To the dry grass and the drier grain
How welcome is the rain!
In the furrowed land
The toilsome and patient oxen stand;
Lifting the yoke encumbered head,
With their dilated nostrils spread,
They silently inhale
The clover-scented gale,
And the vapors that arise
From the well-watered and smoking soil.
For this rest in the furrow after toil
Their large and lustrous eyes
Seem to thank the Lord,
More than man’s spoken word.
Near at hand,
From under the sheltering trees,
The farmer sees
His pastures, and his fields of grain,
As they bend their tops
To the numberless beating drops
Of the incessant rain.
He counts it as no sin
That he sees therein
Only his own thrift and gain.
These, and far more than these,
The Poet sees!
He can behold
Aquarius old
Walking the fenceless fields of air;
And from each ample fold
Of the clouds about him rolled
Scattering everywhere
The showery rain,
As the farmer scatters his grain.
He can behold
Things manifold
That have not yet been wholly told,–
Have not been wholly sung nor said.
For his thought, that never stops,
Follows the water-drops
Down to the graves of the dead,
Down through chasms and gulfs profound,
To the dreary fountain-head
Of lakes and rivers under ground;
And sees them, when the rain is done,
On the bridge of colors seven
Climbing up once more to heaven,
Opposite the setting sun.
Thus the Seer,
With vision clear,
Sees forms appear and disappear,
In the perpetual round of strange,
Mysterious change
From birth to death, from death to birth,
From earth to heaven, from heaven to earth;
Till glimpses more sublime
Of things, unseen before,
Unto his wondering eyes reveal
The Universe, as an immeasurable wheel
Turning forevermore
In the rapid and rushing river of Time.

The dews of comfort

It has taken a very long time – and it’s been a tedious and painful haul, for everyone involved – but I am now almost completely over my horrible abscess. Lancing the enormous thing left a gaping hole at least two inches in diameter, through which my chest wall was clearly visible. Kemo Sabe winced as she ensured it was completely clean every day, checking for any signs of another infection taking hold. Since returning from my weekend at the vet’s weeks ago I’ve been wearing a veterinary t-shirt, which is tight and buttons right over my haunches, to keep the 20170301_103809dressing over the wound in place, but I’m glad to say that as of yesterday those two layers have now disappeared because the hole has miraculously mended and, moreover, my own furry suit is growing apace over the top.  All that is left is the distinctive doughnut, which provides comfort as well as protection, and I am hopeful that we’ll soon be doing away with that, too. The capacity of the spaniel body to heal itself is truly astonishing; in three weeks, not only has the skin regrown and knitted over the muscle but the lovely pigmentation of my blue roan ancestors is clearly back as well.

20170317_190519Last week I resumed the beach trundle with the others in the morning – such a pleasure to feel part of things again – though I’ve been keeping close to Kemo Sabe lest I pull anything and cause further bother. I’ve also began a love affair with the bed in the spare room, a goose down resource I must confess I have previously overlooked but which I am having troubling appropriating, despite its offering a superbly comforting nest. Disappointing to admit, I often find the door closed now, so I turn instead to the merino wool bed brought back from Crufts especially for me. This was a consolation prize: the abscess prevented my attending Crufts this year, so Nico kept me company back home.  Though I am still fighting infirmity a little, I am deeply struck by the love and care my family has provided throughout all this. I have seen and felt all sorts but couldn’t adequately communicate anything useful about it, when my temperature was so very high that all I could do was lie and lean upon the Lord, and the throbbing of the swelling across my elbow and chest was utterly unbearable. I have been there and back and, I think everyone agrees, it has in some ways changed me. But nothing of this is wasted, as that extraordinary seer, Thomas Hardy, explores in his poem, ‘A Wasted Illness’:

Through vaults of pain,

Enribbed and wrought with groins of ghastliness,

I passed, and garish spectres moved my brain

  To dire distress.

 

  And hammerings,

And quakes, and shoots, and stifling hotness, blent

With webby waxing things and waning things

  As on I went.

 

  “Where lies the end

To this foul way?” I asked with weakening breath.

Thereon ahead I saw a door extend –

  The door to death.

 

  It loomed more clear:

“At last!” I cried. “The all-delivering door!”

And then, I knew not how, it grew less near

  Than theretofore.

 

  And back slid I

Along the galleries by which I came,

And tediously the day returned, and sky,

  And life—the same.

 

  And all was well:

Old circumstance resumed its former show,

And on my head the dews of comfort fell

  As ere my woe.

 

  I roam anew,

Scarce conscious of my late distress . . . And yet

Those backward steps through pain I cannot view

  Without regret.

 

  For that dire train

Of waxing shapes and waning, passed before,

And those grim aisles, must be traversed again

  To reach that door.

Let there be light

barnaby-watching-attenboroughMid-winter is here, the days are depressingly brief and daylight itself is definitely rationed. Though it’s exciting, checking out the daily change in temperature and wind speed before we begin our trundle, some days it looks as though the sun will never rise but usually  – at least by the time we get to St Aidan’s Dunes at Seahouses – there is a glimmer across the horizon, and illuminating hope returns, if only for a few, unimpressive hours. This is the time of year when our routine days begin with a run entirely in darkness and, depending on the cloud cover, this darkness that can feel quite unyielding. Getting ready takes a good bit longer: quite apart from the various layers to keep her warm and dry, Kemo Sabe now must wear a head-torch over her beanie hat so we can see her, whereas we four are decked out in dashing, high-vis jackets so she can spot us running round. Strangely though, she complains because we tend to stick beside her, threatening to trip her up, transfixed by the shadowy, flickering something in the beam of light which shines before her – our lighthouse in more ways than one. This is not a time to be especially adventurous.

Despite the defining darkness, every morning is slightly different. Some are eerily still and misty; some are windier and more hostile, initially at least; so far, few have been perishingly cold. But, whatever the prevailing atmospheric conditions, once in our stride (which means with Newman back on the lead and, indeed, back on task), it’s all rather familiar and, in its own way, unremarkable.  These dark, December days are undistinguished and, for that, we are most grateful. We like these days of waiting; these ordinary days. In a world blighted by more than one kind of darkness, where all around worry and suffering supervene, we are lucky that our fireside calls us and we creatures wait for the day we can light our first candle and celebrate the turning of the year – in joy, and not because we lack warmth. How out of sorts this earthly state must be, that change is so eagerly anticipated when what is needed more, to calm and comfort so very many, is the ordinariness of which it is so easy to tire. In which regard, let us ponder the complexity of this poem by Thomas Hardy, ‘A Commonplace Day’:

The day is turning ghost,
And scuttles from the kalendar in fits and furtively,
   To join the anonymous host
Of those that throng oblivion; ceding his place, maybe,
   To one of like degree.

   I part the fire-gnawed logs,
Rake forth the embers, spoil the busy flames, and lay the ends
   Upon the shining dogs;
Further and further from the nooks the twilight’s stride extends,
   And beamless black impends.

   Nothing of tiniest worth
Have I wrought, pondered, planned; no one thing asking blame or praise,
   Since the pale corpse-like birth
Of this diurnal unit, bearing blanks in all its rays –
   Dullest of dull-hued Days!

   Wanly upon the panes
The rain slides as have slid since morn my colourless thoughts; and yet
   Here, while Day’s presence wanes,
And over him the sepulchre-lid is slowly lowered and set,
   He wakens my regret.

   Regret–though nothing dear
That I wot of, was toward in the wide world at his prime,
   Or bloomed elsewhere than here,
To die with his decease, and leave a memory sweet, sublime,
   Or mark him out in Time . . .

   –Yet, maybe, in some soul,
In some spot undiscerned on sea or land, some impulse rose,
   Or some intent upstole
Of that enkindling ardency from whose maturer glows
   The world’s amendment flows;

   But which, benumbed at birth
By momentary chance or wile, has missed its hope to be
   Embodied on the earth;
And undervoicings of this loss to man’s futurity
   May wake regret in me.

 

More precious for their rarity

Pip 6.5.16Today we celebrate the tiny yellow flowers which have sprung up here and there upon the heathland where we walk come afternoon.  To some, ordinary and unremarkable because so commonplace in our literature; to others, precious because so rarely seen.  John Clare, that poet of nature, referred to them in this sonnet:
The dancing Cowslips come in pleasant hours;
Though seldom sung, they’re everybody’s flowers:
They hurry from the world, and leave the cold;
And all the meadows turn from green to gold:
The shepherd finds them where he went to play,
And wears a nosegay in his mouth all day:
The maiden finds them in the pleasant grove,
And puts them in her bosom with her love;
She loves the ladysmocks: and just beyond
The water blobs close to the meadow-pond.
I’ve often gone — about where blackthorns stood —
And got the Bedlam-Cowslips in the wood;
Then found the blackbird’s nest, and noisy jay
And up and threw the Cowslips all away!

How few today can take these gorgeous blooms for granted, treating them so wantonly. The faery has more respect, knowing the worth of every living thing. We of the upper world – humans and dogs alike – gamble and gawp, tumbling over tussocks as our concentration falters (yes, Puck is still out there, playing tricks!). We look for pearls in everything we see but, as yet, have found none in those little florets. Here are one Fairy’s words, taken from that most jewel-like of plays:

cowslips 6.5.16Over hill, over dale,
    Thorough bush, thorough briar,
 Over park, over pale,
 Thorough flood, thorough fire.
 I do wander everywhere
 Swifter than the moon’s sphere.
 And I serve the fairy queen
 To dew her orbs upon the green.
 The cowslips tall her pensioners be.
 In their gold coats spots you see.
 Those be rubies, fairy favors.
 In those freckles live their savors.
 I must go seek some dewdrops here
 And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.

Metamorphosis or Spring is in the air

20160217_114955 Things are looking up! After a couple of weeks of really ghastly wet and windy weather, everything has settled down wonderfully and, for the last ten days or so, up here in the north east we have seen calm and peace at last; clear, crisp mornings and delicious morning runs. Also, the recent storms have brought whelk shells a-plenty into shore for us to gather on the afternoon walk and, thanks to Kemo Sabe’s efforts, new trees have been planted in the front garden and wood chippings spread around everything. After a particularly traumatic seagull season last summer, steps have also been taken to prevent another nest being built (much squawking from the disgruntled parents who are already scouting about for a nursery), in the hope that our neighbourhood  jackdaws will resume habitation of the rear chimney. This familiar pair is already up there balancing on the chimney pots, scouting around, daring the gulls to come down. Down near the ground, behind the oil tank, Christopher and Jenny Wren are tripping about in and out of the wild rose stems, checking the air temperature, and possible homes for this year’s family.  We have often thought about the wrens during this long and dismal 20160217_092425winter: notoriously bad-tempered and feisty little birds, who will fight for their territory without any hesitation, in cold weather they cast all animosity aside and cling to each other closely, huddling in big groups throughout the night so as to keep toasty within the shrubbery. As I watch the ordinary creatures of the air  respond to the smell of Spring – however faint as yet – I am reminded of the words of someone, once humble and overlooked but now justly famous, whose love of creation imbues everything he wrote. Though we only have the jackdaws, John Clare was lucky enough each Spring to see ravens, those giants of the corvid world (like our dear Berry downstairs) mark out the routines of the year, and thus giving the passing time a special meaning. Year by year, Clare saw

Two_jackdaws_on_an_old_chimney_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1375599. . .  two ancient birds at their old task
Repairing the huge nest–where still they live
Through changes winds and storms and are secure
And like a landmark in the chronicles
Of village memories.

Spaniels like me are currently abounding in the vicinity – it being the half term holiday –  and on the BBC, I think I saw myself carried in Pierre Bezukhov’s arms, an image so endearing it was reproduced several times in various newspapers, as War and Peace drew to its conclusion and we could all at last say hurrah for happiness. The simple devotion shown by fluffy, floppy little Greycoat to the prisoner of war Platon Karataev –  frozen paws, empty stomach notwithstanding – helps Pierre to begin to see the world differently at last and, for someone like him, who has looked under so many philosophical stones over the course of so very many pages, this epiphany is long deserved and all the more welcome for that. I feel proud to resemble the creature whose loyalty and love could 20151225_105617inspire Pierre’s resurrection of spirit; I only wish that my own heartfelt devotion could be as well understood. I love my family and, in truth, ask very little of them – though I admit I ask it far too noisily sometimes. I am grateful for the joy they give to us Dickens Dogs – the comfort of our beds, the delicious and regular bowls of dinner, the security of loving arms.  I know that if Kemo Sabe had to trudge through freezing snow, like Pierre or Platon, and all we had to share was a single potato, I’d be there alongside, with Barnaby, Newman and Nico. There is nothing else for us boys except the present moment – the here and now – with all its joys and liveliness, and we feel it in the routines which gently unfold, surprising in their regularity, new every morning, with more light every day.