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