I woke this morning to the cooing of doves and the sound of tuis warbling their bell-like song. There must be a storm somewhere out in the ocean, because the foaming white waves are pounding on the rocks with a dull roar, and all is well in this tiny corner of the world.
One night in the big smoke, light nights, no darkness, no stars, no silence, the sound of traffic and bustle filling every crevice of the day is enough to send me helter-skelter back here. To peace, birds, and the silence that is never silence, but which is filled with the sounds of the earth – the wind in the trees, the buzzing of bees, the clicking of cicadas, birds chirping, and the contented murmurs of the neighbour’s chickens who have escaped to the grassy cemetery across the road.
For the whole of my first year at secondary school, my class had to keep what was called a nature diary. No matter what experiments we had done in science classes with Bunsen burners, tripods and test tubes, we still had to write up our nature diaries every week for homework.
The girls who lived on farms and in the country had it made. They prattled away about lambing and crops and used to get top marks every week of the year for their diaries.
I used to catch a bus home from the little town through five miles of country and then walk up the road to home, where my parents were indifferent gardeners and too busy with their challenges and life in a smart cavalry regiment to have time for discussing the wonders of nature with their eldest child.
So I used to dread Tuesday evenings, the night before we handed in our diaries for marking. My ingenuity was stretched to its limits. I discussed the lichen on the trees, and how it changed colour in the rain. I snatched up unusual cloud formations, sunsets and rainbows, worked over old ground like spring and catkins, seized on the odd bird’s egg or fallen nest, poked open pods in the hope of a nature story and searched the hedgerows for different flowers, insects and chrysalises.
It was of course, marvellous training for a noticing eye, and to my surprise I quite missed it when I stopped doing our diaries the following year…no more stamens to marvel over, no more shiny conkers to draw or patterns of snail and butterfly.
That training though, has never really faded away, and a life-time later I still savour the same marvels of seasons and growing things. What they mean to the spirit has only slowly seeped into my consciousness.
The first time I had an inkling of it was when I read the story of Odette Churchill, the Resistance heroine. Though I read her story at the age of twelve, I have never forgotten the moment when the guard opened the door of her underground prison cell to stick her daily meal inside the door. As he did so the skeleton of a leaf blew in.
Odette seized it and hid it till the guard had gone. Then she gazed at it, savoured it, penetrated its existence, the miracle of the lacework of the veins and the glory of its being. It existed outside the world of horror, torture and degradation which had laid hold upon her. She said it was a turning point in her struggle to retain sanity, self respect and a belief in the real world of love, truth and beauty.
Years ago I visited a man who was in the prison wing of a mental home. From childhood he had been marked down by misfortune, and most of his life had been spent behind bars. He had no education, no training, and no hope of ever building a life outside prison walls. He had long ago stopped believing in love as an abandoned child, and we found no way of reaching his bruised hurt self beyond the wall of toughness, bravado and real mental disturbance.
The conditions in which he and the other prisoners lived were unspeakable. Even a sane man would have gone mad in that setting, and one with no stability would find it hard to resist despair (mercifully this institution has since been closed down).
But this tough, violent man told us that his one hobby and relaxation was to keep a biscuit back from his tea and crumble it up outside the bars of his window. Through the bars he watched the birds snatch up the crumbs. He said there was one little sparrow that had got to know him, and was tame enough to come near the window. A man who was unable to love any person, even himself, could not help loving a sparrow.
It’s now common knowledge that people who keep pets and love them are healthier than those who don’t. Lonely people who love a pet have lower blood pressure, and the giving and taking of love from their pet keeps them happy and relaxed and gives them a purpose for living.
Other find their deepest satisfaction and greatest relaxation in their garden, planting flowers, trees, vegetables, savouring the feel of earth, and unconsciously finding serenity by their contact with flowers and all growing things.
It almost seems as though man can remain human only if he does retain contact with the natural world, the world of tiny creatures, flowers, trees, earth, sky, sunsets and moons.
Yet though we need them for our very existence, we tend both to take them for granted, to neglect them, even to destroy them. We have had warnings of an environmental crisis since the eighties. Perhaps now more than ever, we need to remember more often that: ‘the earth brought forth grass, the herb yielding seed and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind’ before the earth was filled with every form of life except man, and that we came last.
Even now, as I look out of the window at a plump blackbird drinking from the bird bath in the shade of the plum tree, I know that I need him for my sanity and sense of well-being. I need the plum tree too, for shade, its fruit, the scent of its blossom and the bliss of its very existence. But both could live without me.
So when we feel the joy which the sight of a hedgehog in the city, or in the country gives us, or a tree with budding leaves in spring, we should remember that we actually need them, and we should cherish them for what they are – our lifeline not just to existence, but to serenity and well-being, to sanity, to joy.
Food for threadbare gourmets
I love recipes that make life easy, so this one for scones which didn’t entail any rubbing of fat into flour was meat and drink to me. Combine four cups of self raising flour with a good handful of chopped dates. Pour in one and a half cups of lemonade and one cup of cream and lightly and quickly mix everything together.
Gently form into a shape two inches thick, and cut into small squares. Bake at 180 degrees for fifteen to twenty minutes. Eat hot with lots of butter and good strawberry jam!
Food for thought
Our oceans are endangered too. Eight million tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year. This equals five plastic bags for every foot of coastline around the globe. And in the next decade the amount of plastic is expected to increase by tenfold unless we find a better way to dispose of it. The threat to our already endangered oceans is catastrophic.
And every plastic water bottle that ends up in the ocean? It’ll stay there for 450 years. So what are we all going to do to save our world from the plastic plague? These facts came from http://earthstonestation.com/2015/04/23/earth-day-project/