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The fascinating flying foxglove

July 15, 2015

The wild foxgloves are flowering in the woods, their mauve spires vivid against the background greens.

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As I child, I was fascinated by foxgloves. Their evocative name and the warnings of their being deadly poisonous gave them an eerie, faerie allure. I’ve never managed to imagine foxes wearing these flowerets  on their clawed little paws, but I was often tempted to slip them over my own fingers.

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Only my mother’s warning of their poison stopped me – that, and the ever-present possibility of sticking one’s finger into an indignant bee by mistake.

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Spot the bee’s behind!

The bees seem to be unaffected by the digitalis toxins, and are as busy in these strange, spotted hoods as they are in the clover on the grass this month. It’s always a pleasure to see them at work.

Keeping out of their way, I turn for home, noticing as I go how the spires of the plant echo the boughs of the ancient beech behind them. I could look and look, but duty calls.

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Note: Foxgloves are also known in some places as witches’ gloves. They are traditionally associated with witchcraft, as witches allegedly used the toxin from the plant to enable them to fly. As digitalis poisoning can induce vivid hallucinations, there may well be some basis to this tale. Nowadays, carefully controlled digitalis extract is used in pharmaceutical medicine to benefit heart patients. No flying required.

You might also enjoy Ariel’s Song.

Summer solstice

June 22, 2015

As you might have gathered if you have been kind enough to drop in here over the past month, I seem to be having various ish-yoos with blogging this year. It’s not that I don’t want to write: many posts are begun in my head. For some reason, however, they are not reaching the finished and published stage. I am trying to work out the reasons for this, and what to do about it. It is, I think, a mixture of health problems, an ambivalence of attitude, and other distractions. I’m sure many – most? – other bloggers encounter the same sort of thing from time to time.

I have not forgotten the pleasure afforded by regular blogging, especially through the interaction with fellow-bloggers and readers. If I can sort myself out, I hope to rejoin the conversation!

Meanwhile, the natural world affords as much wonder as ever to me here in Scotland. The first half of the year having been mostly pretty cold and wet, our growing season is late. June’s roses are as yet only in bud, while May’s bluebells still scent the woods at midsummer. An osprey, a summer visitor to the river, mews high over my head in the early mornings when I take the dogs out. Red squirrels scrabble up the tree-trunks of oak and yew, chittering crossly at us as we pass underneath. On these cool evenings of early summer, the eye is dazzled by sun breaking through clouds onto the lochan beyond the trees. Let’s hope this gleam of solstice sunshine is a forerunner for more to come – and I will do my best to share a bit more with you, too.

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You  might enjoy Suddenly, midsummer.

A tonic for city living

May 15, 2015

The beginning of May in our part of Scotland sees the last of the daffodils…

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and the first of the bluebells.

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Now, in the middle of the month, there are enough of the wild bluebells flowering in the woods that they are just beginning to show against the juicy green of their leaves.

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While I can’t imagine that we will be lucky enough to have another really extraordinary bluebell year like last year, the bluebell season is always delicious. The air in the woods is already sweet and fresh with their powdery scent. Ahhh, imagine if we could bottle it, and when you uncorked the bottle out wafted not only the scent, but the sound of the birdsong filling the woods, and the rustle of the breeze in the new, bright leaves!

Our favourite bluebell wood in full bloom, exactly a year ago.

Our favourite bluebell wood in full bloom, exactly a year ago.

You might enjoy An escape into the bluebell woods.

The return of green

May 5, 2015

I have always thought that T. S. Eliot was mistaken: April is not the cruellest month. I’ve always seen it as exciting, a happy month, although that may have a lot to do with the fact that my birthday falls in the middle.

So yes, there is birthday cake

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and also Easter;

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spring flowers

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and cherry blossom.

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Best of all, all things considered, is the return of green to our world.

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After such a snowy March, spring was very slow to get going: the daffodils flowered more than a week later than last year. More snow and hail came in mid-April, but was followed by several days of extraordinarily warm sunshine. (70 degrees F/ 21 Celsius: summer temperatures for Scotland!) We watched leaves uncurl overnight and grass grow almost before our eyes. By the end of the month, Spring had caught up with itself and we were at pretty much exactly the same stage as last year. A day or two of hail and snow on the hills last week didn’t do much to dampen our spirits. ‘Well, it is April,’ we reminded each other. In April, anything goes as far as weather is concerned.

I wonder if perhaps May is in fact the cruellest month. (I’m talking of course only of the weather, and only of the weather in my corner of the world: a parochial take on Eliot’s phrase.)

In May, we expect summer to get started. We expect greenness, flowers and sunshine. What I forget every year is that May – like April only without the well-it’s-still-early-in-the-year excuse – is often also cold. Not freezing; I mean it rarely snows below the hilltops this month, but we still get frosts to nip those tender young shoots in the garden. And I’ve just learned that last Sunday’s cold, wet and windy weather meant that a full half of the lambs born that day on our hill farm did not survive. That is cruel.

At home, meanwhile, we have shelter (unlike the poor lambs) but my husband turns down/ off the central heating, and we often don’t get around to lighting a wood stove in the long light evenings, forgetting that they turn chilly after nightfall. So I sit and shiver in my spring-weight jumper, thinking how much more cosy one feels in autumn and winter.

But there. Who could feel nostalgic for any other season when you step outside every morning into a world of fresh green and birdsong?

In the last few days of April, the beech leaves began to unfold like tiny soft fans from their pink husks

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and the larches pushed out sprays of brilliant emerald.

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As the first bluebells, violets and forget-me-nots dust the woodland floor with shades of blue, in the pastures the new grass is so green, so extremely, hyperbolically green that it seems it needs a new name: after the drabness of late winter, mere green does not describe this intensity of colour.

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And of course, it is the wet days which make this green possible; and when the clouds clear and the sun breaks through there is proper luxurious warmth in it at last, and I remember again how delicious, how kind, is this merry green month of May.

You might enjoy Blessed Beltane.

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 .

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