Once by men and angels

20170801_061033Yesterday morning – and a damp and increasingly unpleasant morning it was –  we found a new best thing on the beach. There it lay, on the tide-line, no one about the see it and no one had been there before us, only the ancient castle walls which rose up in the distance behind it. We sniffed its well-proportioned body, noting its arrival, but otherwise respectfully moved on without disturbing it or making a fuss. Not since we found the squid some years ago has there been anything like our octopus, a perfect specimen thoughtfully blended into his sandy surroundings. These are the passings that we mourn whenever they are brought to our attention, through tiny windows into a bigger world of creation of  which we are only dimly aware: the great North Sea, with its chilly secrets and quiet deaths. Why this little fellow died and was cast ashore – so perfect and so peerless – remain a mystery, but we are grateful for the joy of coming upon him first and bearing witness to his life.

20170801_0611061.jpgWhereas zoologists celebrate the octopus’ ingenuity and unique intelligence, unfortunately in poetic terms they are more likely to be fodder for the infant, the matter of limericks about multiple legs and arms, seemingly lacking the gravitas of the giant squid, immortalised so powerfully in  Tennyson’s poem. Octopus  – of which of course there are numerous species, ranging from tiny to terrible – live for only a couple of years at most and as incarceration in an aquarium is stressful and life-shortening they aren’t readily found in them, though Brighton Aquarium once was graced by the presence of a lovely Giant Pacific Octopus of considerable distinction. Kemo Sabe will always recall the moment in the darkness when, eyes adjusting to the light, she became aware of the presence of this eminence grise in what had previously appeared to be empty tank. Like some alien balloon, adhering to the back wall of its glass home, it seemed reluctant to relax in its surroundings, pondering on the loss of the serendipity in the open sea. Lowering, yet endearing, in its kittenish vulnerability, it has stuck with us, as it were. Our Brighton friend’s time is long up by now, of course, as has that of the little one we chanced upon who, like the kraken, once by men and angels to be seen,/ In roaring . . . shall rise and on the surface die. Though there would have been no roaring at his demise, there did come the moment when mutability was insufficient and all else failed. And thus we found him, first along the shore.

‘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.

 

 

All nature has a feeling

20170716_101125[1]Everywhere we look are remarkable things. At the bottom of the front garden, in the black elder tree, right at Kemo Sabe’s eye-level, a perfectly pinkish-grey collared dove sits patiently on her nest, flattened against discovery. The hebe beneath the study window has burst into white spears in FB_IMG_1499806190300today’s full sun; the front sparrows – as we call them – use its protective labyrinth all year, to chat and shelter in. Solitary and honey bees search among its blooms, pondering where its scent is strongest. The tiny fir we moved to a sunnier spot beside the gooseberry; a specimen which once served as a Charlie Brown tree, one Christmas when we had little room for anything bigger – is sprouting nicely, now it has room to breathe and be itself at last, having emerged from the dark beneath the elder where only ferns and ground geraniums flourish. The rhubarb –  always a prodigious provider – is bold and brash, pulled regularly in order to keep the neighbours supplied with crumbles, puddings and pies. The blackcurrant bushes bend with fruit, bowl-fulls picked repeatedly but just as quickly replenished from Nature’s store. On the heath behind the FB_IMG_1499927845621castle, all kinds of wild flowers flourish: orchids and oxlips, cranesbill and such. Magical mushrooms burst into fluffy pompoms, perhaps teasingly concealing the danger which lurks within. We cannot name them, only admire. Across the mere, young herons gather as is their custom. They speak but little to each other, their silent stillness resonating with reflection on their solitary lives to come.  All around, the green life of change is visible. On days like today we can easily agree with Isaiah when he says:

the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

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.

‘Out of this wood do not desire to go . . . ‘

20170618_174941.jpgTiny achievements and homely happiness have done their best to counterbalance the awful uncertainty from which this country as a whole has suffered over the past several weeks.  When we learnt that young Frederick had won his class at the Border Union Championship Dog Show (beating his own breeder’s splendid young dachshund to boot); that the very next hannah rccday at the same show our dear Dalmatian friend, Hannah (Buffrey Hanky Panky by Dalleaf) had won her class, having only recently won the reserve Dalmatian Bitch CC and Best Puppy at the Scottish Kennel Club Championship Show; that our blue tits have, as we suspected from the silence surrounding their now-abandoned box, successfully fledged – a deep feathery mattress being all they’ve left behind; that Kemo Sabe has decorated the 20170401_105338circumference of our pond with fossil-encrusted swirls, and paved under the garden bench and made the composter more approachable as a result; that we are, as of now, all well and free from medication (a daily benison – good health – and we thank God for it); when we catch sight of the soaring martins chasing dreams across the whitewashed walls, gobbits of mud in their beaks, charged by the sun’s intense rays to build something and build it now, now that their tummies are full and the time is ripe; when we welcome friends and laugh with them, and choose 20170618_174857.jpgnew tiling and consider floors; close the new shutters against the beating afternoon sunshine, and cut the fragrant roses, pale and creamy, for beside the bed; feed Hammy spindly pea shoots and fresh basil, which he dips into day long. All these things and many, many more. Well then the strife, the discord, the amazement of recent events begin to diminish in intensity, becoming merely part of what there is, the ‘remote continents of pain’, as someone famous once said. So, you that way, we this way. Remember: I’ll give thee fairies to attend on thee.

 

‘Mr Dick sets us all right’

20170524_124526Today is the tenth birthday of our dear friend and biggest brother, Newman Noggs, so just this once – instead of speaking about him – I shall let him speak for himself, on this most auspicious day:

I am not sure why I have been asked to talk to camera but I am always happy to meet new friends and reach out in the hope of recognition. I am named, so I’m told, after a Dickensian character; a gentleman who, down on his luck and against his better judgement, makes terrible mistakes and finds himself drawn into dreadful deeds which play appallingly on his conscience. Sounds awfully like me! Ever since I was a boy, and there were only Uncle Johnny and me in the gang, I’ve got it wrong. Chewing the bathroom carpet, chewing the mat in the back of the car, leaping and bounding after any- and everybody – all in the best possible taste, though, you understand; an irrepressible spirit as sunny as that sunny August day I came Newman and Jackhome with Johnny from my Loughborough kennels and began the life I love. Johnny would look serious, indeed worried, in case anyone might think he’d done the wrongs which were down to me, but his worry turned to dismay and, eventually, acceptance and then real understanding. He was a true friend and I loved him so dearly. I miss him, every day, but see him regularly in my own way.   It’s part of the special way my mind works. Everyone knows I see dead people, like the Vikings drawing their long-ship up the beach at Bamburgh, and the weary departed souls in Nunhead cemetery.  We so loved our daily walk with Kemo Sabe around its perimeter, for the demands of a day at school would often upset my tummy, after bringing a teddy to comfort the tearful and those as prone to getting it wrong as me. It was a stressful world but I made my contribution to calming it, so I have done good in my time. One of my friends even painted a portrait of us together: that was something special. I remember you still, Jonathan.  That was all before we came on this long, long holiday to the seaside and stayed, and stayed . . .

 20170525_064546I know I sometimes leave people dazed and confused but, believe me, no-one is as dazed and confused as me. I wonder sometimes why Uncle Johnny left us, but he only did that after Mr Pip had joined Barnaby in our gang. Perhaps he couldn’t stand any more mess, or silliness. I wonder what he would have made of Nicholas. He’s such a sweet affectionate little soul, particularly to me, so I let him chew my fur as he needs me just as I needed Johnny, to love and guide. It reminds me of my school work and the comfort that I gave.  But now I follow Barnaby, as he is a bear of greater brain, and is cleverer at getting his muzzle off, whereas I’m better at eating seaweed through it! Seaweed and swimming are my best things!

20170525_070027Today, for some reason, there were hot steak pies from the Bamburgh butcher with our dinners and then there was a walk over the dunes beyond the castle, under the darting, chuckling birds that share our lives. And there is something new for me to chew on, too. Everything fits together –  just about – and I am happy to go along with the gang, cheerful and straightforward in my own eccentric way. I do think, though, that I am even more like Mr Dick than Mr Noggs. But I’ll leave you to check that out.

 

 

 

Solomon in all his glory

IMG_20170507_150455Yesterday, as we put on our winter woollies for another outing, we heard that the west of England was bathed in sumptuous sunshine. Well, we weren’t up here! Winter, or at least a kind of winter, had returned, with strong northerly winds and persistently grey skies.  Days and days of relentlessly depressing cold beset us and our dogged avian friends – all smiles and nestlings one minute; brooding in the east wind the next. What, we wondered, do they make of it, the magnificent little blue tits (‘I was born in that box!’), dutifully prising individual strands from clumps of Barnaby’s discarded pelt? Undeterred by the vicissitudes of the weather, they hunker down and warm each other in the shelters our demesne affords them, in sure and certain hope that all things will eventually change and that they’ll soon find comfort again, even if only in a rare bit of watery sun. On the beach the sand martins that arrived a few weeks ago had already developed additional nest holes in the dunes, suggesting that their numbers will be even  greater this year. Every morning we try to count them; an idle but compulsive activity to which we look forward, wondering what difference the awful weather would make to their plans to replenish themselves after a three-week flight. We saw nothing of them at all when the wind was at its worst, terribly cold and fierce. Such resilient creatures must have shrugged at such little local difficulties after the dangerous journey they’d made successfully from the south. Huddled safely within their shelters, they must have laughed at our concern, for their spirit – and their faith – are stronger than ours.

And they were right to lean hard, and hold on; for, by this morning, the wind had dropped and, by lunchtime, was coming from the south-east. As if by magic, the first local house martins appeared in the sky above our lane, chuckling with pleasure at the insect life awakening all around them. The nest from which ‘our’ family of martins moved on last June has been commandeered by sparrows, the chirping of whose babes within can be clearly heard from the study window. Yes, we hold the ones who stay very close to us indeed. Other sparrow families have moved in to the man-made martin nests installed last autumn, and a loquacious starling brood is living on a ledge under the guttering above a bay window; rattling calls alert us to the delivery of a new worm, every so often, as the parent tucks itself under and in to the nursery.

Last Sunday, BBC Radio 4 celebrated International Dawn Chorus day with a unique broadcast in which radio stations across Europe joined forces to track the rising sun across the continent from Moscow to Dublin, relaying the aural landscape of birdsong as the creatures woke and staked their claim on the day. This ambitious project resulted in a moving and humbling symphony of sound, to which the wild birds of Europe freely contributed out of sheer joy.  You will find access to the broadcast and episodes from it here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08pdfyw