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Saying it with flowers

April 5, 2015

At last, the first cherry blossom in the garden, to wish you and yours a very happy Easter!

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From the jaws of the lion

March 30, 2015

March this year came in like a lion, with snow and gale-force winds.

‘Oh well,’ we thought, ‘that means we can look forward to a balmy end of the month. “In like a lion, out like a lamb,” as the saying goes.’

Since then, the weather has been predictably unpredictable, although we have had rather more snow than is typical for March here: a fairly regular fall every week or so, though melting almost as fast as it arrives. Between hail, floods and high winds the occasional day of gentle sunshine and burgeoning buds has reassured us that Spring is on track – and then more snow sweeps in.

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Yesterday evening, my husband brought the boys and my mother to listen to a concert I was singing in with our local choral society. It was a gloriously indulgent programme of Mozart, culminating in his great Requiem Mass.

I have always enjoyed the opportunity to sing a requiem set by a great composer. In origin a mass for the newly departed, the requiem’s weighty subject matter seems to inspire musicians to some of their most heartfelt and thrilling work. As a performance piece, the requiem is probably best known for the Dies Irae sequence, the words of which are from a thirteenth century poem about the terrors of the Last Judgement. They did not mince their words about damnation in the Middle Ages.

Dies irae, dies illa/ solvet saeclum in favilla...’ ‘The day of wrath, that day/ [when] the world will dissolve in ashes…’

In essence the poem says that, when the great Judge comes on that terrible day to judge the living and the dead, knowing all our faults, how shall a wretch like me avoid being cast into hell? It’s a tremendous piece of writing, both a vivid cry of terror and an urgent plea to the only possible intercessor, Rex tremendae maiestatis/Jesu pie, Jesus Christ both kingly and kind.

Ne me perdas illa die,’ begs the poet, ‘Do not forsake me on that day./ Faint and weary you have sought me,/ redeemed me through your suffering on the cross;/ may such labour not be in vain.’ It is a good piece to sing in Holy Week, as the Christian year approaches the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

As the poem continues, the author manages in the midst of his terror to move from pleading only for his own soul, to pleading for the souls of all the faithful departed.

Libera eas de ore leonis,/ ne absorbeat eas tartarus,/ ne cadant in obscurum’ ‘Deliver them from the jaws of the lion,/ lest hell swallow them up,/ lest they fall into darkness.’

Just writing about this poem makes me shiver. When you add to these words the music of Verdi (volcanic, terrifying) or Mozart (driven, terrified), the effect is literally (for me at least) hair-raising.

It is no longer used much in religious services, however. The Catholic Church removed the Dies Irae from funerary masses as part of the great reforms of the 1960s, feeling that its medieval emphasis on judgement and damnation was discouraging. Certainly, I imagine that most of us saying goodbye to loved ones in a Christian context would rather contemplate the infinite mercy of the resurrected Christ than the possibility of ‘poenis inferni/ et…profundo lacu‘, ‘the pains of hell and the bottomless pit’. Nevertheless, it remains a deservedly popular piece in the classical choral repertoire.

After the concert on Sunday night, I caught up with my family in the auditorium.

‘What did you think, boys?’ I asked them. ‘Which parts did you like best?’

They thought for a second or two.

‘I liked the loud bits,’ grinned the younger one. ‘Especially the bit about being eaten by a lion!’

As he dropped off to sleep at bedtime, he was still humming ‘de ore leonis‘ under his breath.

It was a late night for the boys. When we awoke this morning, the wind was howling around the castle; a flurry of snow hurtled past the window as I opened the shutters. This year, contrary to the old saying, March seems to have come in like a lion and to be going out like…well…a lion. But we remain confident of the redemption of Easter, and Spring.

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You might enjoy Children and the twist in the tale, or Ashes and snow .

A solar eclipse in the garden

March 20, 2015

So, how was it for you? The eclipse, I mean. Social media is awash today with images of the solar eclipse, which was visible this morning from northern latitudes. In our own area of Scotland it peaked at 95% totality (if that’s how you say it). It was not to get completely dark, in other words, but it promised to be a good show. My husband and I decided to watch it from the garden, which faces south.

The morning dawned bright and clear. Hurray, we thought: despite forecasts of cloud cover, we will be able to see the eclipse after all. It was to begin at around 8.30 a.m. At around 8.29, the first clouds began to drift across the sky. Curses! Plenty of blue up there, however: there was still hope. After breakfast, I found a shoe box and made it into a rudimentary pinhole camera. At around ten past nine, we put on coats and went out to the garden.

From every tree, birdsong rang across the lawns. You would never guess that our last snowman melted only a few days ago: in the garden, spring has begun. Crocuses and snowdrops embroider a patch of grass. The flowering currant, one of the most fragrant of spring shrubs, is in leaf against the south wall of the castle, and the first little lenten lilies or wild daffodils are blooming under an ancient yew tree. We seated ourselves on a bench and enjoyed the mild, still air.

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Gradually, we began to notice that it was getting darker. It was like the dark that comes on a bright day when a thick cloud drifts over the sun – except that the clouds over the sun were wispy and translucent. The sun was throwing shadows, yet the gloom increased. Weird.

The cloud cover began to thicken: oh no, perhaps we weren’t going to be able to see anything of the eclipse after all. A chilly breath of a breeze sprang up.

‘I see it!’ exclaimed my husband.

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A tear in the clouds revealed, momentarily, the sun with a distinct dark bite taken out of it. For the next quarter of an hour we sat, fascinated, as the light died in the sky to a strange, wan twilight and the birds’ chorus diminished. Although the thickening clouds meant that my pinhole camera was of little use, they did mean that we felt we could risk the odd peek heavenwards, where the sun gleamed like a crescent moon through a turbulent sky.

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Given that we now understand the science behind the appearance of an eclipse, I was surprised at how unsettling it felt. There is something undeniably eerie about the light dying when it should be strengthening; about an evening chill seizing a bright morning. I can understand now why so many cultures have worshipped the sun, and have treated solar eclipses with superstitious dread. We joke now about how long we could survive a zombie apocalypse – but how long could we survive without the sun?

After several minutes, it suddenly became clear that the maximum totality had passed. The sun was too bright to glance towards even through clouds. Earth’s solar charger was not dying on us after all: we were safe!

The thin chorus of birdsong strengthened along with the returning light. As we walked back to the house at a quarter to ten – the daylight grey but brightening, the birds carolling, the dew still chill on the grass – my husband put his finger on how the moment felt.

‘It feels as if it’s about 6.30 in the morning,’ he said. ‘It feels like another dawn.’

Two dawns in one morning: what a memorable way to mark the equinox. From here on, across the northern hemisphere, the light is growing stronger, and we have spring sunshine and sunny days to look forward to. Even as a confirmed lover of autumn, I’d say that is pretty good for us all, wouldn’t you?

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You might enjoy Spring is springing! (this year’s spring seems to be pretty much keeping pace with that of 2011) or Starry-eyed over Magnolia stellata .

Winter, taking flight

February 24, 2015

The weather this month is giving us the mixed messages typical of early Spring; or, as it is better named in these parts, the ‘dreich end’ of Winter.

Our little early cherry blossom and the first crocuses are blooming already,

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but the days of bright sun melting frosted fields, and the growing confidence of birdsong in the woods, can turn in a moment to biting gales and snow showers.

A Turner-esque sky heralds an approaching shower of snow.

A Turner-esque sky heralds an approaching shower of snow.

Ruffled by the continual freeze, thaw and re-freeze of the water, the pair of mute swans who usually nest on the lochan by the castle have not yet settled down there. Most days there is one swan; some days the mate returns; one mild morning I heard the unmistakeable beating of great wings and saw that a third had arrived. This caused much puffing up of feathers from the established pair, who patrolled the water like galleons in full sail while the new arrival stood uncertainly on the bank. As it turned out, after the display they all settled down beside each other on the grass for a while. Was he, as seems likely, their offspring who was raised here last year with two siblings? If so, he was just paying a flying visit to mum and dad: next morning he was nowhere to be seen.

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The parent swans thinking about leaving too.

Yesterday the cob and pen also left, if only until the next thaw. We humans enjoyed a very snowy day at the weekend, when our boys were at last able to build snowmen and have snowball fights for almost the first time this winter, and the castle looked dour but picturesque in the snowfall.

Snow picks out the angles of the castle's 15th Century towers and turrets.

Snow picks out the angles of the castle’s 15th Century towers and turrets.

For the swans, however, a layer of snow over the newly re-frozen lochan was enough to drive them away to search for open water somewhere else. Funnily enough, as I was thinking of them one evening, I noticed a cloud formation in the sunset which looked, to my eyes, uncannily like a great bird taking flight. I hope that the swans will return to our water soon, as Spring grows more certain.

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You might enjoy A snowy spring or A glory of swans.

Listen to your heart

February 14, 2015

O.K., it’s time I confessed. I have a slight obsession going on. Well, two, actually: deer, and drawing or papery creativity in general. Both interests were kick-started last midsummer, when I took a wonderful online paper art course with artist Rachel Hazell. At around the same time, I began to have some memorable encounters with deer.

Mother and young roe deer

Mother and young roe deer

We see roe deer almost every day here, as they share the same woods as us. Last  year, however, I had several meetings which struck me as unusual. The first was coming face to face with a mother doe suckling her fawn on the driveway..and then realising that there was another tiny spotted fawn curled motionless in the long grass right beside me. (I saw the family several times over the next few months.) In the woods, I kept coming across deer which, instead of running away, walked towards me; wary but interested and unafraid. One day a doe – presumably with a fawn hidden in the undergrowth – chased my dog and started kicking and butting her. I raced to the rescue, and had the extraordinary experience of standing within touching distance of the wild deer, giving her a stern lecture about the natural pecking order while my spaniel quivered in my arms and the deer stared at me from her dark, liquid eyes as if she could see into my soul, and I yearned to communicate properly with her, to touch her with my heart rather than merely my outstretched fingertips…

The same doe (I think) and one of her young in October 2014.

The same doe (I think) and one of her young in October 2014.

That got me thinking. All such encounters can be explained in prosaic terms as normal animal behaviour; but I felt there was something more going on. It felt as if the universe, or however you like to put it, was trying to tell me something, and the hints were getting increasingly blunt, moving from the attack on my dog to culminating, in September, with my getting bitten by a stag. (He was a semi-tame red deer in a farm park, and did it by mistake as I was feeding him, but still…) So I began to pay attention, and to research what various cultures and traditions have to say about deer and their spiritual significance. The synergies between, for example, what Native American Shamanic tradition has to say about deer and what was going on in my life were extraordinary. All this time I continued to be followed by deer in the woods, until I learned to recognise particular families and felt almost that they were old friends.

Oh, hello again: roe doe and young buck, November '14.

Oh, hello again: roe doe and young buck, November ’14.

We ended my ‘year of the deer’, as I came to think of it, with a visit to the herd of red deer at Highland Safaris in north Perthshire. With a kilted ranger supervising, we hand-fed the stags and hinds. It was the perfect culmination of my close encounters with deer: a royal stag* dipping his soft muzzle into my palm, his eyes on mine, while his huge antlers seemed to curve protectively around my head.

Feeding the red deer stag

Feeding the red deer stag

(*A Scottish stag is termed ‘royal’ when he has twelve or more tines on his antlers.)

Given that I have also been experimenting with book art and paper craft ever since my art course in June, it was inevitable that deer and stags should start to appear in my art work. Having written about them, pondered their meaning and felt their presence, my first attempt to actually paint a stag turned into a sort of collage, as I felt that I needed to add feathers and ferns and other natural elements from the woods to my watercolour.

'Moon Stag'

‘Moon Stag’

I then turned my hand to a ‘proper’ collage, i.e. composed almost entirely of printed papers rather than my own painting.

Beginning: a sheet of vintage architectural drawings, suggesting order and civilisation

Beginning: a sheet of vintage architectural drawings, suggesting order and civilisation

This one kept me happily away from household chores last week! I was inspired by the realisation – reached partly thanks to the deer and partly through further, wider readings, including the seminal Women Who Run With The Wolves by Camilla Pinkola Estés – that intuition and creativity are essential to life.

Over that went layers of washi tape, stampings, cut paper etc. to suggest other aspects of life (flora, the written word, music, fauna)

Over that went layers of washi tape, stampings, cut paper etc. to suggest other aspects of life (flora, the written word, music, fauna)

As a recovering perfectionist (!) I’ve always felt apologetic about my need to create. My artwork is amateur and is just for me; I don’t make a living out of it, so how can I justify this puny little hobby?

The central image, the stag, is torn from a paper napkin and stuck down with difficulty (!) and PVA glue.

The central image, the stag, is torn from a paper napkin and stuck down with difficulty (!) and PVA glue.

At long last I am coming to realise that I don’t need to justify my creativity. It is what it is. It may not make my family’s fortune, but it is an essential part of me, and I have been desiccated by the attempt to shove it under the carpet.

I stamped and cut out some words, aged them with inks and watercolour and stuck them over the stag - or, as he would have been called in past times, the 'hart'.

I stamped and cut out some words, aged them with inks and watercolour and stuck them over the stag – or, as he would have been called in past times, the ‘hart’.

And so this is where I have got to so far, with my recent twin obsessions of deer and the need to create. My message to myself – and to you this Valentine’s Day – is ‘Listen to your heart’. And whatever paths through the woods it takes you on, may it lead you to happiness.

Already hanging by my desk, so that I don't forget.

Already hanging by my desk, so that I don’t forget.

You might enjoy The calligraphy of hares and ‘they say that life’s the thing…but I prefer books’.

Oh, what a beautiful day…

January 26, 2015

I read this morning that the third Monday of the year is ‘officially’ the most depressing day of the year. That means today. So if you, like me, have found it hard to get motivated today, you have an ‘official’ excuse.

However, I do wonder who these officials are who dictate our feelings to us. Rather than allow them to decide the mood of the day, I thought I’d rage a bit against the dying of the light, and think of some of the good things about January. And anyway, as I mentioned in my previous post, the light is in fact increasing now, isn’t it? It is nearly Imbolc, after all, the first stirring of Spring. ‘As the light lengthens, the cold strengthens’, an old Scots saying goes; but there is plenty to enjoy at this time of year, even if more winter weather is on the horizon.

I love days when a morning’s snow stops falling, the sky lightens and every branch and twig in the woods is sketched in white.

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As snow turned to heavy rain a fortnight ago, the fields became waterlogged before freezing again. Frozen overspill from the lochan has made lacy patterns amongst the reeds,

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and the resulting large puddle of ice on the field makes a perfect, safe place for skating and general larking about: even the dogs enjoy slithering on the edge of it…

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…although the local residents are not impressed by their noisy visitors, and the swan shepherds the mallard ducks further away like an anxious schoolteacher.

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In the woods, meanwhile, where the last lot of snow has melted, the slanting light creates an enchanted forest:

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and the blue sky above the trees is a baroque fantasy of cherubic, puffy cloudlets.

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While ice has lain in places for weeks and more snow is forecast, the first snowdrops attest to the increasing energy in the earth. Their early appearance must be thanks to 2014’s exceptionally mild autumn. What a hopeful sight they are!

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Crocuses and daffodils are showing strong green shoots too,

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and the bulbs on the kitchen window sill are in bloom already. I planted them in an old vegetable tureen, surrounding them with fir cones and covering the soil with moss from a tree trunk. Flowering weeks before the outdoor ones will, they add their own cheery sunshine to the room.

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I hope these sights have helped to cheer your day a little. And I’ll leave you with one final thought. If those officials are right about the third Monday in January…then that means that every day of the year will be better than today. Which, however your day has been, is an encouraging thought.

You might enjoy the pleasures of a frosty morning, or the contrasting fun to be had in thaw.

Storms and teacups

January 10, 2015

A belated Happy New Year to you! The first week back in reality after Christmas is always a pretty bleary one, isn’t it? Our alarm clock drags us from sleep in the black dark of morning, at least an hour before our holiday wake-up time. It is pretty hard to motivate oneself out of bed in early January. I well remember sitting at my desk in my city job days, nursing a cup of coffee and pleading with the phone, ‘don’t ring, don’t ring,’ as the working day began. Now my day at home begins with nursing a cup of tea in the kitchen, thinking ‘just one more cup, just one more…’.

However, the daylight is definitely growing, if only the teeniest bit. Have you noticed? On bright days I remember how much I love winter, with its clear sunlight and white frosts. Out of the rat race now, I have time to notice the feathery hoar frost on dead grasses,

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and to enjoy the way the long shadows stripe the fields.

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I love the stillness you can get in winter. With nature in its dormant phase, one’s own energies naturally turn inwards too. It is a time for reflection, introspection, planning and dreaming.

Having said that, the past twenty-four hours have been anything but still! Winter storms sweeping in from the Atlantic are chasing each other across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Last night we barely slept. Our bedroom is west-facing and high up on the top floor of the castle, below which the ground drops away to the fields. In a westerly gale like last night’s, we feel like gulls on a cliff-face above a roaring sea.  (A westerly is the one we most dread in this house: it finds its way through every chink in the ageing window frames, chilling the whole castle with draughts.) Even huddled under the covers, I felt too shivery for sleep to come. As the storm built to its peak in the wee hours of the morning, the power went off and the blackness was noisy with the banging of doors, rattling of slates and the roar of the wind. We finally dropped off some time after five, when the the wind died down to a muted bellow.

Breakfasting by candlelight this morning, things didn’t seem so bad, of course. We were able to weave our way between fallen branches to the village for a scheduled meeting, and then spent an hour in a cafe for warmth, coffee and internet access. With thousands of people across the Highlands having lost their power supplies, we were resigned to a long wait for reconnection. Who would be an electricity engineer in such conditions: the wind still high, thousands of trees across power lines and more gales with blizzards forecast tomorrow? Bless them, though, they had us back on power by late morning and we were able to get on with the day, stopping every few yards on the way home to drag branches from the drive. Sudden gusts have snapped a number of full-grown trees in two, but there are no significant losses and really there has not been much damage here.

It is further north and west that is bearing the brunt of the storms, with winds of well over 100 miles per hour recorded in the Outer Hebrides last night and Storm force winds forecast tonight and tomorrow as well. We have been thinking of Sian, who blogs about her life in Orkney over at Life on a small island: looking at the weather reports for Stromness recently, I know I am too much of a southern softie to stick life in the Northern Isles! Slow and cold from lack of sleep this afternoon, I put the kettle on and curled up for some introspection again by the fire, with a cup of tea, and just one more…

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You might like to compare this with the violent winter storms of three years ago in ‘Many of those trees were my friends’.

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