Sitting on the sofa, sipping my afternoon cup of tea, I craned to watch a sooty blackbird. It was pecking with its orange beak at the apple nailed to the fence outside the window. Beyond the fence is a wild gully, where I’ve encouraged blue and white agapanthus and arum lilies, pink impatiens and orange nasturtiums to spread. I planted flax for the tuis to feed on their flowers, and encouraged thickets of swan plants or milkweed as they’re also known, to feed the monarch butterflies.
Dominating the gully is an oak tree, grown from an acorn by my grandsons and I. It’s flourished and become a large tree in the years we’ve been here, and I love it for all that it symbolizes about those happy years of my grand-children’s childhood.
As I watched the blackbird, two smoky black tuis arrived, the iridescent sheen of their dark turquoise tail feathers gleaming in the clear winter sun. They hovered to swoop on another apple further up the fence, the little curl of white feathers on the front of their neck quivering – the early settlers here called them the parson birds because of the likeness to the white neck frill and black clothes of a missionary.
Then I noticed movement the other side of the gully. It was a cock pheasant, flaunting his long, gorgeous tail and his bright blue and red and russet colouring stalking through the long grass. I was ridiculously thrilled… I haven’t seen him for several years… is it the same cock pheasant I’ve gloated over before, or one of his descendants? How long do they live?
Lonely Roman soldiers shivering in the icy Northern wastes, guarding Hadrian’s Wall back in around 200 AD brought pheasants from Georgia, near- Asia, to England as pets. They came from a place called Phasis, hence their name pheasants. When the Romans left after four centuries, pheasants were well established all over the British Isles and shooting them became a favourite pastime of the rich and heartless. They have spread all over the world in the centuries since the Romans. But here at least in this hidden gully, this one is safe from being hunted and shot.
And as I watched, a little flock of half a dozen tiny, green silver-eyes descended on the apple halves. They’re smaller than a baby sparrow, with soft grey breasts, and rosy pink markings either side. Their velvety green feathered wings make them look like little balls of soft green moss, and they have bright eyes ringed in white.
The ancestors of these tiny birds which flit rather than fly, did actually fly the thousand miles across the Tasman Sea from Australia to get to this Land of the Long White Cloud, back in 1856… why, I wonder, did a whole species set off across a huge waste of ocean, clinging exhaustedly to the masts of any ships they encountered, and finally making it ashore to these islands.
After the attentions of all these sharp little beaks, the two apple halves are simply a rosy translucent bowl, the core a skeleton in the middle. I watched the scene without feeling any guilt at spending so much time just gazing out of the window. Savouring the beauty and the wonder of the world seems more important these days than any apparently more productive activity.
Whenever I gaze fondly at my oak tree, I think of savage and sensitive Xerxes, King of Kings, back in the fourth century BC, halting his great armies as they rolled across the empty Asiatic plains, so that he could revel in the sight of a single sycamore tree. He stayed there for several days in a state of ecstasy, while his puzzled warriors camped around the dusty desert, and he even commanded a goldsmith to strike a gold medallion to commemorate the moment and the tree.(goldsmiths were obviously essential to the well being of conquering heroes in ancient times!)
John Constable, the English landscape painter was another who loved trees. His friend and biographer described him admiring: ‘a fine tree with an ecstasy of delight like that with which he would catch up a beautiful child in his arms’. He particularly loved elms, the great trees which were such a distinctive feature of the English countryside for millenniums, and which all died of Dutch elm disease back in the seventies after a shipment of rock elm logs brought the elm bark beetle from the US.
In times past, elms were planted as sentinels to mark the old ways, the drovers ‘ roads, so that they could be followed in mist… the elms were way-finders, map-markers, so majestically tall that they towered above the bands of English mist… Elms are still trying to survive in hedgerows, but as soon as they grow beyond twelve feet, they become infected… perhaps in times to come they will recover and enhance the landscape again with their once well-loved silhouettes.
Here in New Zealand we are trying to discover why the great kauri trees – some a thousand years old or more – are mysteriously dying. At least with the elms they knew why… in New Zealand we are still puzzling over the slow death of the fabled kauris, whose trunks can grow to a diameter of forty feet or more.
These were my thoughts as I sipped my tea, and watched the beauty of the birds clustered around the red-skinned apples on the fence. And then I remembered an unforgettable vignette in Robert Byron’s book ‘The Road to Oxiana’. He wrote:
‘There was no furniture in the room. In the middle of the floor stood a tall brass lamp, casting a cold white blaze over the red carpets and bare white walls. It stood between two pewter bowls, one filled with branches of pink fruit blossom, the other with a posy of big yellow jonquils wrapped round a bunch of violets.’ By the jonquils sat the Governor… by the blossom sat his young son, whose oval face, black eyes and curving lashes were the ideal beauty of the Persian miniaturist. They had nothing to occupy them, neither book nor pen, nor food. Father and son were lost in the sight and smell of spring.’
Beauty on beauty on beauty, the scene, the meaning and the telling. It reminded me that no time is ever wasted when we are enjoying beauty. Caroline Graveson, a Quaker, wrote: ‘there is a daily round for beauty, as for goodness, a world of flowers and books and cinemas and clothes and manners as well as mountains and masterpieces’.
Yes, beauty is as necessary to the well-being of the spirit as bread is to the body.
Yet beauty doesn’t make us good or better people … even Hitler and Goering collected glorious art … it’s just that beauty is necessary to us all, and beauty just is. A world without beauty would be dead, so nourishing it and revelling in it is life… so – yes to beauty and to life.
Food for threadbare gourmets
I’m continuing my love affair with the crock pot, and made a very satisfying French onion soup the other day. Just tip plenty of finely chopped onions – a pound to two pounds – into the pot with two tablespoons of unsalted butter and two of olive oil, lots of freshly ground black pepper, and salt.
Leave it in the crock pot on low for twelve hours, or over-night which is what I did.
By then the onions will have caramelised into a thick jammy mixture, so I then added 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, lots of stock – depending how much you want to make, and a nice slurp of brandy… about three tablespoons.
Leave it on low for six hours to eight hours or more… the flavour intensifies the longer you leave it.
Then if you wish, you can do the toasted slice of sour dough thing with cheese on top and grilled, to place in the bowls of piping hot soup… I just served it with hot rolls and grated cheese on top.
Food for thought
A loving person lives in a loving world. A hostile person lives in a hostile world. Everyone you meet is your mirror. Ken Keyes
30 responses to “Saying yes to beauty”
Very nice, as always. Interesting about pheasants!
Thank you Bruce – Are you back home?
Taking time to be absorbed by your surroundings is one of the healthiest exercises of the day. I’m charmed by the story of your oak tree and the cherished memories it provides daily, Valerie. What a lovely place you have created. It’s also disturbing when these great trees become diseased and slowly die. We have experienced this with the balsam fir in the states.
Hello Lynne, so good to hear from you .. you have a problem too?
Do you know why the trees are dying? Some how if one knows the reason it doesn’t seem as disturbing as when it’s mysterious and puzzling…
The aphids destroyed the balsam firs in North Carolina. Lady bugs were brought in to eat the aphids and now the absurd number of lady bugs has created another problem. Sometimes it is better to leave mother nature alone.🐞
I am very much a tree person and plant them wherever I live. I am amazed at homes that are barren of trees with a big house popping out of the ground and little green fluffs that act as landscaping surrounding it. I was raised with lush shade trees that made summer sun bearable. Love the Keyes quote!
I know how you feel about trees – I too plant them wherever I go… whole thickets of them !
I have a row of liquid ambers ( like maples) outside on the road-side, for shade in summer and colour in autumn and in ten years with lots of feeding and watering, they are almost full grown..
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Your period of observation was certainly richly rewarded.
How strange and alarming that now, after 1000 years, those trees are dying. Somehow I feel that an instinctive human guilt-complex about being the cause is probably warranted. We mess with far too many things far too much.
Oh, is it PHEASANTS the Brits were keen on shooting? That’s really bad. I thought it was just peasants.
Wish I had my very own Constable. Even the Impressionists don’t quite compare, much as I love many of those works.
Yes, I know about that instinctive human guilt-complex – we have it coming…
I think Magna Carta put a stop to peasant shooting, and since then the English have practised on the French with the long bow and the musket, until the Germans distracted them and they had to pull out their Tommy guns…
I love Constable too… they had an exhibition of his paintings and sketches in Wellington a few years ago, and I traveled down from Auckland to see them… worth every penny of the long journey…
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You so fortunate finny thing with scales, you!
wonderful – I LOVE that you just sat and watched the birds, I do that too with my animals and it is NEVER a waste of time!
Celi darling, lovely to hear from you…of course you do that with your animals and we all gloat over them every day when you have shared the gorgeousness of them all with us…
Do hope your cough is better.. ginger wine with hot water, honey and fresh orange is wonderful for a cough, but I suppose you can’t get Stones Ginger Wine in the wilds of the wild west !!!
I love the outdoors, but you know that already! As for your soup recipe…yummy! I’m going to fix it here, even if it’s not cold!
The main thing is, Linda, that its EASY !!!
Hope you enjoy it XXXX
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Yes, yes, YES!
Good, good, GOOD !!!!
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I hardly know where to start. Everything in this post spoke to me. I have said many times to people ‘I sometimes feel a slave to my eyes’ because I need for my surroundings to be beautiful–not fancy, not expensive, just to have their own beauty. I love birds, am endlessly fascinated by them, have rescued a few that have flown into our windows, such dear little things. And even though I’ve been harassed by a few during mating season, all is forgiven. I love my crock pot, too! Made the most delicious beef brisket and vegetable soup in mine this week–roasting the bones and making my own broth over night, then the next day, removing the bones and adding the veggies and chunks of brisket as well as some herbs, a small amount of brown rice and quinoa. My husband was over the moon. And finally, you sent my heart to its ‘knowing place’ with that quote from Ken Keyes. You know something is true when you have observed it, and then you see it in writing from another place entirely. Thank you Valerie.
Oh Ardys, what a wonderful meaty ( brisket) comment, thank you so much… I know what you mean about needing beauty.. I’ve sometimes said that if I was in a prison cell I’d start re-arranging it ! and the birds, of course….
Must try your delicious sounding recipe.. cauliflower soup here on our cold winter’s day today….
I love what you say about the Ken Keyes quote, and your beautiful words, your heart’s’ knowing place’…
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I say yes to your beautiful, soulful writing! 🙂
Lorna, that is a lovey thing to say… thank you so much…
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I speak only the truth! 🙂
Beautiful post Valerie, just beautiful. One of your best, and that means wonderful indeed.
Jadi, that is much an amazing comment – thank you so much, your opinion is a very valuable one !
A feast of things to watch and wonder about Valerie. I live close to the end of Hadrian’s Wall but had never heard the story of how pheasants came to England. And I’ve just recently fallen in love with one of NZ’s endangered birds, the kakapo after reading about its perilous state.
Andrea, lovely to hear from you…. Ive been remiss and have some other lovely comments from you to reply to… getting run over by life at the moment…
I rather envy you living near Hadrian’s Wall, I love that part of the north country.. I once stayed in a beautiful hotel at a tiny village called Wall (over Fifty years ago !)
The kakapo… ah .. how interesting… I am about to move ( when I can sort out my complicated life) to a covenanted piece of forest, where with others who live on their own twenty acre blocks of forest, we will be conserving and cherishing the birds and wild -life there…
I read and see through your eyes, thoughtfully see beauty and am reminded to set myself a goal to see beauty every single day no matter how difficult. It is difficult sometimes, to pause, draw breath and simply look around at what the world has to offer. Yet when we do it is always the simple things that are the most awe inspiring.
Your recipe for soup, I am in awe and my mouth is watering.
Yes, You’re right, Val, Beauty can be so simple, and it’s always there even if we can only see a sunset in a city…
Ah well, soup.. if not nectar of the gods, at least it’s comfort for the soul in the middle of our freezing winter – coldest since records began, while you lot in the northern hemisphere are sweltering !
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I like soup even in the hottest part of the summer. Am I strange?
If you are, you are in good company !!