The Ethic of Belonging

We cannot step outside life’s songs. This music made us; it is our nature.

Our ethic must therefore be one of belonging, an imperative made all the more urgent by the many ways that human actions are fraying, rewiring, and severing biological networks worldwide. To listen to trees, nature’s great connectors, is therefore to learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance, and beauty. “(David George Haskell,  The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors)

I’ve always loved the majesty of trees. I think I inherited it from my great aunt Ida, who was disabled and lived alone in an upstairs flat. Few people visited, despite her coming from a huge family. As a child she was locked away in her bedroom if any visitors called and she never got to go to parties, church, or anywhere else outside the house, such was the shame of having a disabled member of the family in those days. She had no sticks, no wheelchair, and to get around inside the house she swivelled on a ‘crackit’ (stool). And in the rare event anyone did call, she had to bump up and downstairs on her bum to open the door. In her eyes, the outside world was a frightening alien environment. Until my dad bought a car.

He was the only son of one of her sisters and the only member of the family that I know of who visited regularly. The car was bought in 1956 and Dad used to bring Aunt Ida to our house for Sunday dinner then take us all out for a ‘run’ in the car afterwards. She was terrified of the traffic and yelled at cars, ‘Get away home!’ but the things that really blew her away were the trees.

We lived in a mining community of back-to-backs, cobbled stone streets, back yards and outhouses, so trees were a luxury only seen in parks, or further afield in the countryside. In the car Ida used to repeat, over and over, ‘Oh, the trees. The trees!’ lost in her own little world of reverence. Trees connected her to a nature that was not part of her home environment nor seen from any of her windows. And in these living networks of trees, birds, insects, squirrels and sky she melted into a relationship with the divine.

It is no coincidence that I live in a forest park, that I walk in the woods for inspiration for my writing or that I feel a spiritual connection to the life evolving around me. There is harshness in predatory killings, in sudden frosts and flash floods, but there is also gentleness in whispering breezes, the unfurling of ferns, the song of a blackbird. The cycles of life and death are unsentimental dances, their beauty cast in webs of environmental responsibility. And we each have our part to play in the music and the dance.

 

 

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Song of the Rolling Earth

In October, during this year’s Wigtown Book Festival,  I volunteered to look after the Open Book bookshop for a morning. The sun was shining and the town was busy with visitors attending the literary events, but it was still quite early for them to venture out into the bookshops. I  busied myself at first, familiarising myself with the stock and finding where things were kept, in case I was asked by a customer. It was then I came across a little gem of a book called Song of the Rolling Earth: A Highland Odyssey by John Lister Kaye, naturalist and conservationist, published in 2004 by Abacus.

The book is an autobiographical account of the setting up of the first field studies centre in Scotland, the world-famous Aigas Field Centre, but it is so much more than this. It draws on the turbulent human events that historically took place in the Highlands and evokes the land and her people, her diversity and wildlife. And it is couched in the most beautifully poetic language that made me never want the book to  end.

It opens on a summer’s day with the author “slumped in a small green boat on a Highland loch.”… I am supposed to be fishing, but it’s too warm. Anyway, I’m a lousy fisherman. The rod lies idly across my knees. My dry fly is out on the frowning water, miming.”

He has gone to the loch to think but has taken the rod as an excuse so that he will be left alone. He watches the wildlife teeming around him and reflects on times when he was younger, exploring nature’s treasures, where he discovers for himself the complexity of life and death. Then, content he has been able to marshal his thoughts, he moves on.

” The fishing has served its purpose. It’s going to rain. I may as well pack in. I begin to reel in. The eared willows rimming the loch come alive. A troop of long-tailed tits weaves a tapestry into each thicket. Their thin cries are barely audible as a simpering wind flutters into the silver-green weft. I watch them shuttling from bough to brush, seeming to lead each other forward so they progress in a jerky, undulating stream as though pulled on threads. I take up the oars and follow them. Rain spots stipple the water and ricochet from the waxen lily leaves. Clouds are thronging now, dark nimbostatuses bowed with mood, stumbling forward as if forced by a snowplough. Darkness spreads over the water like a plague.”

Thus begins a journey of self-discovery, deeply personal and perceptive, that celebrates the sheer joy of nature in lyrical prose. As soon as I’d finished the book I started again because I can’t get enough of his intimate descriptions of the wondrous wildlife and landscapes we are privileged to have here in Scotland. Whether you’re a writer or not you can’t fail to be impressed with his storytelling and the power of his words.

A song of the rolling earth, and of words according,

Were you thinking that those were the words, those

                upright lines? those curves, angles, dots?

No, those are not the words, the substantial words are

                in the ground and sea,

They are in the air, they are in you.

Walt Whitman 1819 -92

A Suggestion of Bones

Last week saw the launch of my new poetry pamphlet A Suggestion of Bones. It mainly comprises of individual poems published in small press magazines, anthologies or online and the over-riding theme is of things hidden, not being what they seem or lurking just beneath the surface.

The title comes from the last line of one of the poems At Birdoswald, a ruined Roman fort three miles from where I used to live in Gilsland, Northumberland, which is a village on the Roman Wall that stretches from Wallsend in Tyne and Wear across Northumberland and ends at the other side of the country in Carlisle in Cumbria. When I lived there I used to walk a great deal in the surrounding countryside with its spectacular views, craggy hills, deep valleys where clear ice-cold water gurgled and splashed, and Roman ruins hunkered down in the grass. At those times, I used to imagine what it would be like being an Italian soldier banished to these outposts in Britain, living in inhospitable weather and keeping the marauding hordes of Picts and Scots at bay.

A few years later I went back to visit my old stopming grounds. I needed to touch something familiar in my soul, to resolve some of my indecisions, and this poem came out of the visit.

At Birdoswald

There’s iron on the wind.

Sunset gasps from the horizon,

dusk circles like a cloak of feathers,

light flees the amassing darkness

and each breath hangs

like a ghostly membrane

 

promising a night of stars and stories.

 

After days of disquiet

I feel surrounded by tinder, fear

the burst of a match on shavings

of my soul and embers fanned

by the darkling wind. But here,

amongst the squatting ruins,

 

my crowded mind stills its chatter,

 

descends deeper into the landscape,

transcends time. I feel the scratch

of memory, smell the woodsmoke

of regret, touch the bruise of fear caught

between cracks of then and now,

hidden in the hillocks around me

 

like the suggestion of bones beneath skin.

A Suggestion of Bones is available from Amazon ttps://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_c_2_13?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=a+suggestion+of+bones&sprefix=A+suggestion+%2Caps%2C268&crid=2CW

 

Scorched Earth

Every once in a while you suddenly discover in your search through secondhand books an absolute gem, a book that stands out from the rest with its sparkling prose and hidden depths. Scorched Earth by David L Robins (Orion 2002) is one such gem.

The basic storyline is of a white woman, Clare, and her black husband, Elijah, whose mixed race baby, Nora Carol, dies shortly after birth. The white woman’s grandmother, Rosy Epps,  arranges with Pastor Thomas Derby for the child to be buried in her family plot in the graveyard of Victory Baptist Church where Epps is a deacon. The burial takes place, but when the other deacons find out they hold a meeting and refuse permission for the burial on the grounds of the child being mixed race. The child is then disinterred the following morning and transferred to the black cemetery up the road. That night the white church is burnt down and the man arrested for the arson is the baby’s father, Elijah, who declares his innocence.  What follows  is an intricately plotted, insightful and moving story, a legal case that reveals hosts of hidden prejudices and secrets that ignite rage and hatred.

What I love about the novel is that it spoke to me about identity and classification, about where and to whom people belong. I am a white grandmother of a blended family with a mixed race grandson so the issue is quite close to my heart, particularly in these troubling times. The novel raises issues about what it is to be ‘family’ or ‘community’, what part history, tradition and inheritance play in our psyche, and gets us to question, who are ‘our people’? And all this it does  in exquisite prose that delights me, captivating me right from  the opening chapter:

The place where they lie making the child is beautiful. They lie on a bed of ferns, which like a cushion of feathers, tickles them. Only a few strides off the old dirt road, they are beneath a tall red oak, thick as a chimney, bearded with gray bark: the tree is a gentle old presence.

If they were to stand on that spot they could see the fields. South lie forty acres of beans, leafy and ripe for harvest machinery resting now after church this Sunday afternoon. High pines and turning sugar maples make this field a green leafy loch where every breeze riffles. North of the road, beyond barbed wire and honeysuckle, is a cleared pasture for the cows, which are out of sight behind hills that rise and roll down, suggesting by their smooth undulation the couple lying under the oak.

He is a black man, blacker than everything, blacker than the soil of the road, everything but the crows. His name is Elijah, named by his mother for the loudest of the Hebrew prophets, though he has not grown into a loud man. He is silent as his skin, as the dark of a well.

Beneath him, wrapping him like roots seeking water, is his wife, Clare. Her green eyes closed behind white, blue-veined lids. Waist-length blond hair spreads over ferns and under her back. She kisses him and their tongues twine.

A band of starlings crisscrosses the field. The ebon birds strike something invisible at the center of the field and disperse, to clot again and circle some more, somewhat aimlessly. Clare and Elijah, tangled together, white and black, are absolutes, the presence and absence of all colors at once, sharing a smooth, perfect motion.

When Clare falls for Elijah, colour is no longer an issue:

She will remember this moment when Elijah’s blackness became not something missing from what she was but a remarkable presence not bound or described by color. She opens her mouth in a moment of shame, fleeting like a pinprick, fast and sharp, for ever having felt whatever ugliness it was she had just said goodbye to.

The couple are asked to sit on a Diversity committee at the paper mill where they both work but as Elijah says ‘This is y’all’s problem’ and Clare refuses to be used – ‘I’m sorry, but we’re not your damn role models’. However, in the aftermath of the tragedy of Nora Carol tensions escalate and soon both Clare and Elijah feel the effects of the problems others have with their relationship.

At the meeting of church deacons the Pastor is urging them to exercise compassion and leave the dead child where she is, but the response he gets is:

I like Elijah, by God I do, and I feel awful for what’s happened to him. But that don’t mean I want to buried with him or his kin. That poor baby ought to be laid to rest in a place surrounded by her own people, and that place isn’t here, it’s up the road.

And so begins a course of actions that divide a community, entrench latent prejudices where nothing and no-one will ever be the same, not even the reader.

As it says in the epigram for the novel:

The line separating good and evil 

passes not through states,

nor between classes,

nor between parties either,

But right through the human heart.

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

Who Knows Where The Time Goes

It’s the last day of the month. It snowed yesterday, large, fat flakes covering dying snowdrops and new shoots of crocuses and daffodils, death and birth co-existing just as we sit on the cusp of a new month, the old one falling away from us. In six weeks I will celebrate my sixty-seventh birthday.

Last week I looked after my grandson here during the school holidays as I have done since he was small. He’ll be twelve soon and old enough to stay at home on his own, so my time with him is so precious. I doubt I’ll be able to compete with the pull of spending time with his friends, with him wanting to be on his own, independent, able to do what he wants in his own time. But a new generation are growing up and hopefully my twin grandsons will be comfortable enough to spend the school holidays with me. For a while at least. Until they, too, grow up.

Life is an ever-constant state of forward motion and sometimes as we get older we want to hang onto things the way they are, not give in to changes, keep things exactly the same. So when changes do occur we are filled with nostalgia, howl at the moon and want the old ways back. Our bodies age, we’re less able to bend physically (and also metaphorically) to the different circumstances in our lives. And if we’re not careful, if we don’t learn how to accommodate the changes in our bodies, to sit and breathe quietly, to accept that we’re just small pieces in Nature’s jigsaw, then our last days will be filled with anger and not lived to the full.

I have been so angry for a long time. At my weakening body , at politics and the world I knew that seems to be disintegrating around me, at world leaders who cause immeasurable suffering to people and the planet, at my own ineffectiveness. But looking at the snow this morning as it melts, revealing the new growth of spring flowers and the remains of the snowdrops, I feel more at peace, more reflective. That’s not to say I don’t still feel concerned or intend to stop campaigning against those things that are happening. It just means that I’m seeing it in a wider perspective and know that this too will pass.

I came across Nina Simone’s recording of Who Knows Where The Time Goes on YouTube yesterday. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OXeh742_jak. Her introduction and the song has resonated with me since then.

Sometime in your life, you will have occasion to say, “What is this thing called time?” What is that, the clock? You go to work by the clock, you get your martini in the afternoon by the clock and your coffee by the clock, and you have to get on the plane at a certain time, and arrive at a certain time. It goes on and on and on and on.

And time is a dictator, as we know it. Where does it go? What does it do? Most of all, is it alive? Is it a thing that we cannot touch and is it alive? And then, one day, you look in the mirror — you’re old — and you say, “Where does the time go?”

I’ll leave you with the lyrics but please check the recording out and enjoy the beauty of Nina Simone, 21 February  1933–21 April  2003.

Across the morning sky, all the birds are leaving
How can they know that it’s time to go?
Before the winter fire, I’ll still be dreaming
I do not count the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

Sad, deserted shore, your fickle friends are leaving
Ah, but then you know that it’s time for them to go
But I will still be here, I have no thought of leaving
For I do not count the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

But I am not alone as long as my love is near me
And I know it will be so till it’s time to go
All through the winter, until the birds return in spring again
I do not fear the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

All The Light We Cannot See

I’m getting overwhelm from all the political news and my disappointment in the human race. So coming across a book that transports and delights me enough to block all that out is a rare, and fortuitous, find indeed. It sat on my bookcase for a while, borrowed from a friend, until I picked it up last weekend. Usually I can devour a book in a few days but I haven’t got very far with this one, about a quarter of the way through the story, because I’m savouring the words so much. I want to spend time with them, read them aloud, then read them again.

Written by Anthony Doerr the novel is set in France and Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. Its main characters are a blind French girl who learns to navigate her town with the help of a miniature replica made by her father, and a German orphan who is destined for work in the mines until it’s discovered he can mend broken radios. As the novel, and the war, progress, their paths draw ever closer together. But it is the radiancy of  prose that grips me as much as the plot.

It opens on 7 August 1944 with:

At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.

The tide climbs. The moon hangs small and yellow and gibbous. On the rooftops of beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars.”

Then:

“They cross the Channel at midnight. There are twelve and they are named for songs: Stardust and Stormy Weather and In the Mood and Pistol-Packin’ Mama. The sea glides far below, spattered by the countless chevrons of whitecaps. Soon enough, the navigators can discern the low moonlit lumps of islands ranged along the horizon.

France.

Intercoms crackle. Deliberately, almost lazily, the bombers shed altitude. Threads of light ascend from anti-air emplacements up and down the coast. Dark, ruined ships appear, scuttled or destroyed, one with its bow shorn away, a second flickering as it burns. On an outermost island, panicked sheep run zig-zagging between rocks.

Inside each airplane, a bombardier peers through an aiming window and counts to twenty. Four five six seven. To the bombardiers, the walled city on its granite headland, drawing ever closer, looks like an unholy tooth, something black and dangerous, a final abscess to be lanced away.”

Each short chapter alternates between French  and German perspectives and sections alternate between the past and the present of the tale. Neither the girl nor the boy fit in with their people or surroundings, and the war, as beautifully written as it is,  is still war and its stark realities don’t escape us.

If you love exquisite writing that transforms the ephemera of daily existence in a story much more than a conventional war tale, you’ll love this novel. It was the Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2015 and is well deserved of that title.

“This jewel of a story is put together like a vintage timepiece…Doerr’s writing and imagery are stunning. It’s been a while since a novel had me under its spell in this fashion” Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone.

I second that.

 

 

 

Between Birth and Death

These are troubled days and as it is St Valentine’s Day this week I thought a little escapism into love would do me good. However, for those of us without a significant other, this time of year with the roses and cards can be painful, or seem crass. For me it’s the latter. So I decided to look for the positives.

Trying to establish the facts about St Valentine proved to be more difficult that I thought. Apparently there have been up to five Valentine’s accredited with being the saint but the Roman Martyrology, the Catholic Church’s official list of recognised saints, for February 14 gives only one Saint Valentine; a martyr who died on the Via Flaminia.

So why has Valentine’s feast day has been celebrated as a lovers’ holiday and a day of romance since the 14th century? Some say the date was thought to be the beginning of the mating season for birds. Others say it is because the church wanted to Christianise an ancient Roman pagan festival called Lupercalia, which centred around fertility and purification.Whatever the explanation and whoever is the real Valentine, we have in the western world an annual celebration of romantic love on February 14th.

Some people look to the Bible for inspiration about Love. I look to Khalil Gibran, Paolo Cuelho and Don Miguel Ruiz who each in The Prophet, The Alchemist and The Mastery of Love respectively, use a master talking to and teaching a crowd of people about Love. My favourite is The Prophet, possibly because I discovered it first at a time when I needed it and we always hold our first loves a little more tightly.

Almustafa, the Prophet,  is about to leave the city of Orphalese. He has waited twelve years for a ship and when one arrives the people gather round, desperate for last words of wisdom before he leaves, to tell him “all that has been shown you of that which is between birth and death.”

He is asked to speak about Love and exhorts the people assembled before him:

“When love beckons to you, follow him, Though his ways are hard and steep. And when his wings enfold you yield to him, Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you. And when he speaks to you believe in him, Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning. Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, So shall he descend to you roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.”

Not for him the slushy, chocolate box fiction of romantic love. He portrays love’s stark reality of light and shade, pleasure and pain, its catharticism.

When asked about Marriage he says:

Love one another, but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from the same cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

So many elderly couples I know do everything together and take great pride in this, in never having had a cross word, of thinking and breathing the same way. It may work for them, and each to their own, but for me that kind of relationship seems claustrophobic, lifeless. The merging of two people into one is often written to describe finding one’s ‘soul mate’ but to me a soul mate is one who helps your soul sing its own tune in harmony with theirs, not get it to sing the same notes.

Someone recently commented that none of my characters in fiction are happily married or in successful relationships. I hadn’t noticed it before, but she’s right. I suppose as a writer I’ve brought my own experiences to my work and haven’t seen many examples of what I would say were ‘successful’ relationships. The couples involved might describe their relationships as successful, but seen by me, the outsider, they are too full of compromise, to the point where the individual has vanished. But I guess it’s all down to perceptions and the choices we make.

So whatever your status and views on love this Valentine’s Day, I wish you peace and joy.

“This day has ended. It is closing upon us even as the water-lily upon its own tomorrow. What was given us here we shall keep, And if it suffices not, then again must we come together and together stretch our hands unto the giver”