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Campfires and dangerous dens: simple pleasures for boys

October 28, 2014

When the boys were small, they were pleasingly uninterested in computer games. Even when their uncle gave them on old Playstation and some games which his son had outgrown, the boys left it all languishing in a shoebox after a couple of goes. I foolishly allowed myself a moment of smugness.

I can’t remember when the change came, but it was probably about two seconds after they went to play at a schoolfriend’s house and spent the entire afternoon with him glued to a screen, blasting monsters. A year ago we sat down for a family conference to reach a consensus on permissible screen time. The agreement worked well at first, but it’s amazing how minutes shrink in piano practice or French revision, yet stretch to extraordinarily languid lengths when taken up with zombie-killing on Minecraft. Thank goodness we have dogs to walk, or I sometimes wonder whether the children would ever get outside at all.

The trick is, of course, to order encourage them outside in the first place. As often as not, once out in the fresh air they decide to stay there after walking the dogs, to ride their bikes/ play on the swings/ kick a ball about. Some recent gifts have been invaluable in helping this attitude. My younger son was given an exciting-looking box by his Godfather last Christmas, which  proved to his delight to be a ‘Dangerous Den Kit’. It contains all sorts of things to give over-imaginative mothers the vapours: some lengths of rope, a heavy mallet, a saw, fire-lighting instructions and so on. Over a busy summer, however, the planned dangerous den never quite materialised.

An event at the start of September made all the difference. We hosted a historical re-enactment weekend inspired by the connection between a past laird and the American West (a long story worthy of its own post, so I won’t go into it here). Some of the re-enactors, members of the association of American Mountain Men, made a camp in our woods: an admirably simple set-up, with shelters made from canvas stretched over bent boughs and a campfire set in an earthen hollow, the fire started with flint and tinder. They are men with a deep knowledge and respect for the woods and the wild, whose survival skills fascinated the boys (and the adults too). At the end of the weekend, they asked if we would like the fire pit and shelter frames left up for the boys, and we jumped at the chance. A camp in the woods, made by real, live, buckskin-clad Mountain Men from the Rockies – how cool is that?

 

The Mountain Men were endlessly patient with the boys.

The Mountain Men were endlessly patient with the boys – and had seriously cool kit.

 

At odd moments throughout the autumn weekends, then, the boys have slipped off into the woods to tinker with their camp. The shelters have been re-covered with canvas and bracken, and have been reclaimed for the home country with a British flag on each. I have left the boys to it, determinedly not thinking about the fact that my babies were out there with a saw, a mallet, an excess of energy and a limited amount of common sense. Then a package arrived from the States: a flint and fire steel for each of the boys, a thoughtful present from one of the Mountain Men. Fire was all that had been lacking. Again, I decided not to interfere. Cue a blissful day playing in the woods, inspired by dreams of being a Mountain Boy.

 

A bracken-thatched shelter makes good camouflage

Having fun spying on parents from a bracken-thatched shelter

 

No harm befell the boys in their ‘Dangerous Den’, just a lot of fun. Towards the end of the afternoon, however, it became clear that we still have a looong way to go in the outdoor survival skills department. We had not made any tinder and, without it, the boys were unable to get a spark smouldering from their flints. A certain amount of adult intervention was required to revive the flagging spirit of the camp. Daddy set off with a box of matches (don’t tell the Mountain Men) and a packet of marshmallows, while I busied myself myself gathering some other essential provisions in the woods kitchen.

 

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By the time I reached the camp a while later, it was a place of pure happiness. The boys and Daddy were half way through the packet of marshmallows, toasting them over a good hot campfire. From my basket I produced some windfall apples, a flask of hot chocolate and a sticky chocolate cake, which proved to be, well, the icing on the cake as far as morale was concerned. It was all we needed for a camp to become a feast.

 

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The afternoon was mild and still, despite being mid-October. We sat around the campfire, toasting the last of the marshmallows over the embers and warming our hands on tin mugs of cinnamon-dusted hot chocolate. Above us, the sky in the clearing darkened as dusk fell. A skein of geese flew high overhead; from the bracken, cock pheasants crowed their evening announcements. A little breeze got up, blowing the woodsmoke about and sending sparks flying in the cooling air. We licked the last of the cake crumbs from our fingers before packing up and smooring the fire, covering it over with earth. Romantic though the idea of sleeping under the stars seemed, there was school to think about in the morning and warm dry beds on offer back in the house.

 

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You just can’t beat food eaten outside, round a campfire, shared with people you love. It didn’t matter that we have not yet mastered the art of flint-and-tinder firelighting. As we set off towards the lights of home, my younger son could not stop beaming.

‘Can I tell you something?,’ he asked, pulling at my smoke-scented sleeve.

‘What is it, sweetie?’

‘This has definitely been my absolute best afternoon ever in the whole of my life – so far!’

And not a computer game in sight.

 

You might like On the Oregon Trail in Scotland, and more outdoor play for boys in The afterlife of an oak. and Last weekend of the holidays (with more cake).

 

 

Mouth-watering: leaves from the burnt sugar tree

October 7, 2014

Just a brief post today, to show you some exquisite leaves which I gathered on a walk yesterday. We have a few trees of Japanese origin here in the castle grounds. One of these varieties is the Katsura or Cercidiphyllum japonicum. Since I never remember either its Japanese name or its Latin binomial, however, I simply call it the pudding tree; as at this time of year it smells deliciously of burnt sugar. This is a tree to make your mouth water.

Not only does it smell wonderful in the autumn, it looks delicious too. The heart-shaped leaves turn all shades of juicy pink, yellow, orange and red before they fall. At the moment, our two Katsuras have the full spectrum of their shades on display. One has a bright rainbow of colour; the other has a sweet selection of delicate pinks. (A tree covered in pink hearts: perhaps I should call it the Valentines’ tree?)

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A rainbow from one Katsura specimen (above), and a Valentine’s offering from the other (below).

On the tree itself, I think I preferred the delicacy of the pinks, glowing prettily in the mild sunshine. Having brought a selection home, however, I find it is the rainbow which really catches the attention. I can’t think of any other tree here which displays such a wide spectrum of autumn colour.

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If you were wondering, by the way, the page on which I photographed the leaves is taken from one of two books on Japan which were acquired by my husband’s great-grandmother over a hundred years ago. They are each a mixture of travel journal, visitors’ guide and artist’s sketchbook, reflecting the fascination of the West at that time for the barely-known culture and horticulture of the land of the rising sun. Now, of course, they are fascinating and beautiful period pieces in their own right – if a little the worse for wear.

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You might enjoy Abroad thoughts from home.

The last of summer

September 25, 2014

It has slowly dawned on me over the past decade at Castle Beastie that September is one of my favourite times of year. For so long, I associated the month only with the end of the holidays, the start of the new school year – and a consequent sinking feeling. It was October which, after university, made me nostalgic: horse chestnut trees blazing with autumn colour over a punt-strewn backwater; the smell of damp leaves in a cobbled college lane.

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September’s subtle beauty I have overlooked for too long. Morning mists clear to reveal a mild blue sky; mellow sunlight gilds the grass and kindles the first gleams of topaz and amber on the limes and the beech trees. Birdsong fills the woods again, a brief echo of the music of the spring chorus. Animals which hibernate in the winter are busy fattening up before the cold sets in, so it is one of the best times of year to see red squirrels digging under the avenue of ancient yews, and hedgehogs about their business on the lawns.

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The ospreys flew south some time ago now, and a week ago the swallows and house martins followed suit. Buzzards still patrol the skies, though, their high mewing call haunting the tree tops. A raven cronks from a tall fir tree; a gathering of jackdaws squabble comfortably together in the limes. Outside the kitchen window, there is a fence post which is a favourite perch for a robin: he and I observe each other as I’m washing the dishes in the morning. His red breast feathers are growing a little brighter week by week.

What’s so lovely about this season, I think, is the mellowness. The children are back at school, the last of the holiday clothes have been washed and put away, and our events season is drawing to a close. Humans may have a feeling of new beginnings engendered by the start of the school year but, in the cycle of the natural world, there is a sense that the turning wheel is slowing down a little. Daytime temperatures continue to be warm: indeed, this year’s September has been unusually warm, with temperatures in the high teens Centigrade/ high sixties Fahrenheit on and off all month. Although the leaves are beginning to be tinged with gold and to colour the ground, overhead the trees are still thickly green. This is the moment in the year when we can almost fool ourselves that summer will drift on indefinitely.

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The equinox is past, however. In the evenings, mist creeps up from the river as the daylight fails soon after 7pm. By morning the mist is sometimes thick fog, and there is condensation on the windows despite their being ajar. Today’s golden sunshine, birdsong and mild blue sky are amongst the last of summer’s gifts – which is precisely why they are so precious.

You  might enjoy late summer in the garden, or some observations on the end of the school holidays – with hedgehog! – in I am enlightened, you are laid back…

Don’t mention the ‘R’ word

September 17, 2014

The coincidence of receiving two nudges in two days about my long absence from the blogosphere has persuaded me back to Dancing Beastie. Hello again!

You might have noticed, just possibly, that Scotland is about to vote on whether we want to become an independent country. We go to the polls tomorrow. The tension in the country has reached bursting point. Media coverage attained saturation levels some time ago. Westminster is in a panic, having belatedly realised that the three-hundred year old Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland might be about to be torn up. There is doom-mongering from one side, bluster and outright aggression from the other. Many of us – including, I know, some of those who are campaigning for independence – are heartily sickened by the whole affair, by what it is doing to our country, pitching erstwhile good neighbours against each other and putting us all in a state of anxiety and uncertainty about our future.

So I am not the only Scot who is feeling a little prickly today.

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As I would rather think about anything than the political situation, I will be happy to bring you a little light relief from it all this autumn in the form of further writings about the goings-on here at the castle and in the countryside around us. For the next few days, though, I’ll be trying to keep a low profile. All the best.

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A poem for Ordinary Time

August 1, 2014

Sometimes you need someone else to remind you of the beauty and wonder of the world. Even at this balmy time of year, attention can grow tired. I find this especially true in matters of the spirit.

One Sunday a couple of weeks ago, sitting in morning mass at church, I was dully contemplating the long slog from Pentecost (in May) to Advent (December). This period is what is known in the Catholic and Anglican traditions as Ordinary Time, when there is – or rather, it can feel like there is – nothing special going on. Easter is done and dusted, Advent and Christmas are months and months away. It often feels to me a bit like trudging back to the office or the housework the day after a marvellous party.

Far from being the end of the excitement, Pentecost is, of course, only the beginning. This feast, celebrating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples, signifies the moment when the disciples of Christ changed from being followers to leaders. Fired with the Holy Spirit, they began to spread the good news and thus to start building the foundations of the Church as we know it today. The book of the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible is full of a sense of the exciting dynamism of this time.

Somehow, however, I so often seem to feel that Pentecost is an ending. It’s the last half-hearted hurrah after the spiritual high of Easter. After that, as the weather warms up and holidays come and go and school terms end and begin again, it’s just a case of dragging the children and oneself along to church, week after week, through all the disruptions and spiritual torpor of the season.

I’ve only ever been to Rome once, and it was for a single day. I was making my roundabout way home after a summer job in Italy, and had one day to spare between trains. My Scottish-Polish boyfriend had lugged his kilt across Europe specifically to wear it while paying his respects to the Pope, then a fellow Pole. Without a map, we found our way on foot across the hot and busy city to St. Peter’s…and discovered that the Pope was out. It was mid-August, the eve of the Feast of the Assumption, and he was sensibly on holiday at his cooler summer residence in the hills.

That is what Ordinary Time often feels like to me. It is as if the Holy Spirit is on his summer vacation: still in charge, but not making any personal appearances on the balcony to hand out blessings.

 

St. Peter's Square, August 1990: nobody's home

St. Peter’s Square, August 1990: seems like nobody’s home

 

Thinking about this feeling, a far wiser writer than me has pointed out that ‘to the new-born baby or the dying man there is no such thing as ordinary time: everything is shot through with wonder.’ I know this, and I too am constantly surprised by the wonder of the world – so why can’t I carry that feeling into my worship? Sitting in church a couple of weeks ago, I thought I must make more of an effort. Dutifully, I started trying to pray. But the old phrases that rose to my mind felt formulaic and stale.

‘This is getting us nowhere,’ I realised, ‘neither the Holy Spirit nor me.’

And I began to wonder: when I ponder what especially prompts praise and thanks at this time of year, what is it I really think of? Outside the stuffy church building, it was another glorious summer day. Beech and oak trees threw green shadows across the sunny windows; in quiet moments I could hear the chaffinches and bluetits chirping in the branches just beyond the door. And it came to me: summer woods, tall feathery grasses, calves growing strong in the meadow; hot sunny days, blue sea lochs, pebbly beaches. This is where I find love and wonder and praise. This is where I find prayer. Suddenly the Holy Spirit didn’t seem so far away after all.

 

Beaching the boat on a tiny island in the Linn of Lorne, Argyll, July 2014

Beaching the boat on a tiny island in the Linn of Lorne, Argyll, July 2014

 

Speaking of wiser writers, I have only recently begun to discover the work of Mary Oliver. (Isn’t it thrilling when you find a writer who can articulate your own heart? I feel so lucky to be embarking on a voyage through her poetry.) In many of her poems she writes about attentiveness, the importance of noticing the small details of the world. She writes movingly, too, about the soul’s instinctive awareness of grace. These two themes come together in her much-loved poem, ‘The Summer Day’. Reading it, I found that my own thoughts had echoed her words, as this little extract shows.

 

‘…I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?’

 

You can read the full poem here, reproduced with permission.

 

Bee alighting on a wildflower on the riverbank, July 2014

Bee alighting on a wildflower on the riverbank, July 2014

 

You might enjoy Spring song and Summer’s noisiest trees.

A posy full of sunshine

July 17, 2014

Hello!

I am so sorry. I’ve been neglecting you, haven’t I? Hope you are having a good summer so far.

We’ve been pretty busy, from the run-up to end of terms (including our younger son reaching the milestone of leaving our local primary school, as he goes to join his brother at prep school in September) to the usual happy chaos of the summer holidays.

In addition, the wonderful course I took in June-July on book art/ creative writing kept my focus and inspiration away from blogging for its duration. It was so full of ideas: I am still working my way through them and it will continue to feed my imagination for months to come. However, it did mean that poor old Dancing Beastie fell by the wayside for a while.

Then there’s illness. I’m happy to say that my M.E. is still relatively mild, and indeed I feel better than I did a couple of months ago. It does continue to sap my energy, however, both physical and mental.

So there you go, three, count ‘em, three excuses for a dearth of blogging. Enough! I’ll re-start small, with just a picture of flowers.

My younger son planted a small patch of his own in the garden in the spring. Returning from a few days away, we have found everything burgeoning after a hot week followed by heavy rain. The red currants and raspberries are ripe, the parsley is running to seed, tiny marigold plants have each become a shouty fistful of bright blooms and modestly sized clumps of nasturtiums are now a tangled mass of colour. Since everything in son’s patch is grown primarily to be eaten, he started gathering the biggest and most leathery of the nasturtium leaves, on the basis that we should eat those first before we start on the more tender ones.

‘You know what,’ I told him, ‘we have a whole garden to eat. Let’s just pick some of the nasturtiums to enjoy looking at.’

‘Oh. O.K., and then can we eat them?’

‘Weeell….how would it be if you let me pick a tiny bunch just to look at, and you pick as many as you want to put in a salad?’

Here is an essential difference between gardeners. Is it a male/ female thing, or just the pragmatist versus the aesthete? Whatever, he agreed; and so we had a very tasty salad for lunch, and I have a sun-bright posy of marigolds and nasturtiums to share with you. Consider it an apology for being such an erratic blogger this year, and a promise of more sunny days to come.

 

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You might enjoy The very hungry caterpillar: a tragedy in three acts.

After the bluebells: the woods at midsummer

June 18, 2014

I’m not sure where the past month has gone. Oh dear, why does midsummer always take me by surprise? One moment I am bumbling along thinking, ‘Ooh, the year is starting to get rolling now, isn’t it, we’re into May already, I suppose that’s Spring well under way.’ The next moment, ‘Aaghh! The year is HALF WAY THROUGH!’ Anyway, here we are, only a few days from being able to observe sagely that the nights are drawing in again. I suppose it’s time I got going on my 2014 to-do list.

Out in the woods, meanwhile (the weather is far too nice this week to be wasted on ticking off to-do lists) I noticed with a start today that the season has changed while I wasn’t looking. Those heavenly bluebells have all gone now, leaving a forest of seed heads instead.

 

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What looks like long grass under the trees is actually bluebell stems.

 

The edges of the woods have become a thicket of nettles and sticky goose-grass, almost smothering the many other plants growing vigourously there.

 

foxgloves in flower against a backdrop of brambles, dock leaves and goose grass.

foxgloves in flower against a backdrop of brambles, dock leaves and goose grass.

 

The meadow between the wood and the river ripples in the warm breeze, lush with long grasses.

 

Midsummer lushness

Midsummer green

 

And in the hollow horse chestnut – still the first tree in the wood to come into leaf every spring, despite its scooped out interior – a pair of crows have raised three young. I’ve often thought that this hollow would make a wonderful home for some creature or other; but I only realised it was in use at last when, as I was walking past it not so long ago, the tree croaked at me.

 

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A very des. res., wouldn’t you agree?

 

Peering cautiously inside, wary of being pecked on the nose, I spied three yellow mouths wide open in the gloom, squawking for food. A week later, the young were fledged and ready to go. The last one flew the nest a couple of days ago, to join the noisy mob who hang out in the big lime tree at the edge of the cow pasture. I wonder if the same family will return to the hollow horse chestnut next year.

 

Three squabbling teenagers about to fly the nest

Three squabbling teenagers about to fly the nest. I expect their parents just don’t understand them.

 

Before I go, I should explain that I do have an excuse for having ‘lost’ a month, and for my woefully sparse blog posts this year. After a rather trying few months, I have recently been diagnosed with M.E. It seems that this can be triggered by head trauma, which my doctor is sure is the case for me. Anyway, what it means is that, for the present, my walks are rather fewer and shorter than of old, and my head is and has been rather fuzzy and lacking in inspiration and concentration for writing (or indeed for much else). However, I am in pretty good heart and am hopeful that it won’t get much worse before it gets better. Now, where’s that to-do list…

 

From the days when I had a pre-schooler at home, you might enjoy Midsummer’s treasures.

 

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