Sunday, August 28, 2016

It's the Simple Things in Life you Treasure

There are pine nuts on the ground this week.

There are other signs of summer's waning, of course. There is a freshness to the morning, a coolness to the afternoon breeze – sweet after the heat of the last few weeks - and the subtle, telltale, rain-patter sound of dropping pine needles. But it was the tawny-golden, paper-winged pine nuts that stopped me in my tracks and made me thrill for the coming autumn. 

Because there were no pine nuts last year. Autumn of last year was a long, dry season, coming hard at the end of a long, dry summer, and a year that had no real winter to speak of. There was no ground water. Lawns withered. Wildflowers bloom briefly and faded in the heat. The shallow edge of the Lake turned desolate, drying out with a faint put persistant smell of rotting plants and stagnant water. There were little pockets of sickening pines, turning brown on the hillsides. By the end of the summer, all growing things had the aspect of refugees from a disaster, clinging to life on the edges of a dried-out world. Or perhaps that was just me, projecting my thirst for wet and cold onto the landscape around me...

And there were no pine nuts.

I cannot remember a single other autumn in which this happened. I’m sure that there have been others – perhaps even within my own lifetime – but I do not recall them. That lovely margin season between full summer, and the red-gold, life-scented autumn has always been marked by pine nuts. They come spinning down out of the sky, and land with the faintest little pat of a sound. By the middle of September, the ground is covered with them – neat, brown beads, plumb in their whirligig wings. We used to gather them as children, pulling the papers off gently, keeping the oval bit that grew around them intact; cracking them gently open between our teeth. They taste very little like the pine nuts one gets in the store. These are softer, sweeter – the pine taste both sharper and more subtle. They gleam pearl-white under their delicate aged-gold seed coats. 

Old habits die hard. I still feel the childish enthusiasm for gathering the nuts and eating them as I go for walks, or sit out in my yard. They are a fundamental part of Indian Summer for me – as vital to it as the chilled-red-wine quality of air. The lack of them last year saddened more than the brown dust and brittle clover that had been my yard all the long summer. 

But this year, there are pine nuts. Only a few so far. Summer has not quite let go its grip on us. Yet they are there, with their lovely little wood-bead and gold-paper casings. They still taste as sweetly of pine and the waning year as ever they did – sweeter, perhaps, for the year worth of wanting them. And perhaps for the sense of hope they engender. The drought is not over. Indeed, we may be fated to suffer it for some time more. But there is a promise of greener days in that embryonic life, a promise that with soft sun and gentle rain, they will become trees, and stand in the place of those that died of thirst. A promise that carries with it the sublimity of a Covenant - between Nature and God, and between God and Man: that if we just hold to our course, and be not afraid, He will bring joy and life to us again. 

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Field Notes from Life

I solved a mystery! See these things?

When I was growing up, we called them "wishing stars".  During the late summer and early fall, they can be seen flying delicately past on the slightest breeze. We used to catch them, make wishes on them, and let them carry the wish away with them. Occasionally, some of the younger people would make "pets" of them, naming them and keeping them around for while.

None of us knew what they were. Common sense pointed to the seeds of some multi-petalled plant that turns to fluff when it is finished flowering - something like a dandelion, but bigger. The mostly likely candidate was this flower:

from Wikipedia

which I think is called Mule Ear, but I could be wrong. The only thing is - those produce seeds the same way dandelions do - sort of umbrellas, with the seed dangling from a long handle, and the wishing stars were clearly fluff all the way around. By the sheerest accident, I discovered their host plant while I was strolling along the shoreline last week:

From I have a really good picture of the
thistle I saw, but I cannot get it to transfer from my phone to
my computer. Alack. We must content ourselves with a stock
photo from a dictionary instead. Such is life.

Yep, they are thistledown! I had no idea. I was ridiculously excited. It's the little things, you know.

I am not going to offer any apologies for the dreadful neglect of this blog I have been exhibiting of late, but I will proffer up two explanations. The first is simply that there has been a good deal of Life betwixt the last post and this one - very good Life at times, and very trying Life at others. It is not always easy to sit down and write when one is busy Living. The second is that I have been giving serious consideration to the sort of blog I actually want this to be. Right now, I feel as though is is something of a rummage room, full of odds and ends, some of which are quite splendid, but don't really go well with anything else in the same place.

I am still not entirely sure what I am wanting it to look like from here on out, but I do want it to have a regular schedule of posts: a poetry post (either my own, or one I've read that impressed me); a book review post; and arty post, etc. I like the tone if the writing well enough, but I would like to tighten it up a bit and treat it a little more seriously than I have been - not dabbling with it, but really writing on it. Until I have settled on a new model, posting will probably continue to be a bit spotty for a while.
In the meantime, however, it seemed like it was more than time to put something up here. So I present the following:

April/May: I went off to Ireland on a 3 week vacation. That is the longest vacation I have ever taken, and the first proper holiday I have had in a number of years. I was worried about it before hand, but there was no need to be. It was grand. I've always been in love with Ireland, but this trip reminded me of why. There is something in the wild changeableness of the weather, the smell of salt, and of peat - oh, how I love the smell of peat! Something in the the slower pace of life, the genuine interest the Irish seem to take in each other, the sense of being connected to the land, and of history lurking just around the corner of every place you stand. It suited me, and there was an odd sense of homecoming in it. I had great joy in my time there, and a hard time coming home afterwards. Highlights include:

 - Standing in O'Connell Street, in front of the GPO with thousands of Irishmen and women, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rebellion. I missed a lot of the official commemorations, which took place during Easter Week, but was there for the actual calendar date that the uprising started. There was music and speeches and poetry, and very few things get the heart going like standing in the middle of a crowd like that, with 4 old fellas from the North Counties, singing rebel songs with all one's might and mien.

 - Attending a High Mass at this Church.

 - Watching a common street worker, waist deep in a trench, chipping away at a bit of stone to add to the dry-stone wall he was making. Indeed, the Irish skill with stone, whether the ancient Monoliths of Newgrange and Howth, or the beehive chapels along the Dingle Coast or the sort of every-day craftsmanship highlighted here, impressed me hugely.

 - Attending an Irish Language Course in Gleann Chulm Cille.

 The course was intense, but fantastic, and I am absolutely mad about Irish again. But the Gleann.... oh, the Gleann! In reality, it is probably too remote and tree-less a place for me to live out my life there, but I wanted to, very much. It is a spare, and incredibly beautiful place, right on the broken edge of the world,

in which peat is still cut by hand from mountain bogs, there are no stores, but a basic grocery, sheep and cattle raising, and narrow, narrow roads. The sea pounds against the far end of the Gleann, and the smell of peat is everywhere.

And the fish! I had one of the simplest and best meals of my life and a tiny restaurant there - nothing more than cold, smoked fishes, and salad, and potatoes, and the brilliant brown bread that I took a passionate liking too and have been attempting to duplicate ever since I got home - but each bite was a revelation and I ate it all with a sense of wonder.

- Bike riding about Inish Mor, the largest of the Aran Islands, It was a beautiful, soft day, sunny and pleasant. The Island is not big, there are parts of it in which you can stand and see the whole thing, with the sea crashing in on it from every side. The wildflowers bloomed everywhere and the earth itself seem formed of music.

- Russell's Bed and Breakfast in Dingle. The Dingle Pennisula in general is wonderful. It has much of the wild beauty that so drew me in Gleann Chulomchille, but softened just enough.

I could spend months in the Gleann. I could live on Dingle. But Russells B&B was a highlight, not only of the Peninsula, but of the whole trip. It is exactly what one is expecting from a B&B - wonderfully comfortable rooms, full of intimate little touches that make you feel as though you are guest rather than a tenant. For breakfast, you can get smoked fish - which I did, and it rivaled the Gleann meal in its ability to amaze - or the catch of the day - which I also did. That memorable fish was swimming in Dingle Bay at dawn, and by breakfast time, was gently cooked in butter and sitting on my plate, tasting of nothing else on earth. The meals were further enlavished with heaps of that brown bread, and a most gorgeous homemade apple blackbearry jam that tasted of spring.

June/July: I discovered Memrise, thanks to a good friend. I was still on fire with Irish, and looking desperately for a way to keep a hand in on it. Memrise is an excellent way of learning languages. You choose a goal for yourself. I opted for a very low one, so that I'd be more likely to keep at it, and you get little mini-lessons, and reviews. It is fun. It is addicting. It makes one enthusiastic and inclined to run about telling all ones friends and relations about it, so that they sign up, and get addicted and start learning languages too. Of course, I am opting for Irish, Old English and Morse Code. The sister with whom I share my habitation, is learning Italian. Other sisters are opting for German. We cannot, in point of fact, speak to each other in our elementary new languages, but that doesn't keep us from being enthusiastic about it anyway.

I have also been going out for explores in the wild spots at the edge or our little town, preferably near sunset, when the air is cooler and there is a sweetness to it which is sadly lacking during the heat of summer days. And the world goes all dove-blue and old-gold, and the tree stand out like wrought-iron against the gloaming.

Mostly, I go out to the Marsh, which, in spite of its name, is  not very marshy. It is a margin place, where the river pours out into the lake. There are sandy stretches of beach, and scrappy shore-plants growing tenaciously along the spongy bits. There is meadow, and marsh, and river and pools, and finally there is the lake and in amoungst all this mad mix of habitats there are willows and wildflowers, waterfowl and Osprey, Hawks and songbirds. The air is full of the sound of running water and splashing waves, of bird calls, and the sighing of wind through the willows and the grasses. It is a beautiful and timeless place, in which it is easy to stop moving, to sit still, to step outside of the World, and for a quiet space, to lay down one's burdens - big or small - and truly rest. I generally go with a friend from work, a birder, who takes lovely and oddly personal pictures of it all. Thanks to his influence,  I can now name birds I have neither known nor named before and I can identify a small number of them by their songs. I come home from such peregrinations with pockets full of smooth lake stones, and feathers, and pine cones, fleetingly blue crawdad's claws, and paper-thin water-snail shells, ineffably delicate. And I come home home feeling that I am me again, that God is good, and that no matter what happens, I want to live in such a way that my life is a thank you for the sheer staggering beauty He saw fit to lavish on the world.

I have begun to practice watercolouring again. I am in no way an artist, but I take great pleasure in doodling. My little watercolours are very small, sketched very quickly from life, and feature more plants than anything else,

though occasionally, some-
thing with breath and pulse and means of movement. It is both soothing and exciting to take a little art kit along with me, and paint things. There is a great deal of joy in it, even if the result is just simple little thumbnails.

And with that, my tea is calling, and while one can be sustained by beauty alone for a considerable amount of time, the stomach, not to mention the personality, tends to rebel if forced into subjugation for too long. A tip of the hat to all of you, and I hope to return sooner next time.