Category Archives: birds

Little happinesses and big happiness

 

Image result for rowland hilder paintings

 

I love Autumn… I loved it in England, those early morning mists burnt off by the morning sun… the scents of bonfires and blackberries, picking hazel-nuts from the hedgerows, finding silky, shining conkers and kicking up the rustling leaves, crackling them under my shoes… freshly ploughed fields, and that sense of gentle melancholy, a poetic nostalgia for the last pale days of sunshine before winter crept in…

Later in Hongkong, the end of summer came quite suddenly overnight, when the light changed, and for a month or six weeks a light pervaded the harsh hectic city, and turned the island into a place of surpassing beauty.  I waited for those weeks every year. The gleaming days and shining waters of the harbour seemed rapturous for no particular reason, and those who noticed this magical transformation said the light was like the light of the Greek isles.

And now in the antipodes, autumn is the best season of the year – soft, golden days and crisp, starry nights.
We live in a covenanted podocarp forest of evergreen trees which stretches across high peaks and shadowed gorges. Some days we wake to find the sun shining on our mountain, and then see the gold light move down the slopes until the whole forest shines. Other mornings mist shrouds the peaks, and hovers in the valleys… last night the high wind blasted the last leaves of autumn from the trees along the roads, leaving just the fretted gold leaves of the gingko trees.

So today it feels as though autumn has passed, and winter is setting in. With deep pleasure, I get out the warm winter clothes, and start to think about winter food, hot and comforting, snug evenings with the curtains pulled, and warm sheets on the bed. These are ‘small happinesses’, a phrase my daughter introduced me to a few months ago.

This morning when I put the kettle on for my early morning cup of tea, the sun was on the mountain, a small happiness. Taking the tray back to bed, I checked my e-mails, gloating over the beauty of the latest photos sent from France by my daughter… yesterday Chartres, today Monet’s garden at Givernay, tomorrow Mont St Michel… Then I found a poem by Mark Nepo, sent by a dear friend, with phrases that gave me more small happinesses…

Each person is born with an unencumbered spot…

… an umbilical spot of grace… the last lines were: the incorruptible spot of grace resting at our core.

Holding these words in my mind, my love and I went shopping to a small town an hour and a quarter away. Every mile we travelled past weathered crags, misty mountains and green fields was beautiful. Finally, we reached the narrow coast road, where pohutakawa trees arched overhead, their roots clinging to the side of the cliff.

The wide silver stretch of still water, shimmering with light, lay alongside, and I watched birds dive for food in a small feeding frenzy, marvelled at the shag colony, where up in the pohutakawa trees, the big white breasted birds sat erect on their great nests concocted from twigs, while a gull flew overhead at 35 miles an hour. We passed the curving sandy bay black with hosts of black oyster catchers standing patiently on the shores of the estuary, white breasts and sharp, orange beaks facing the high tide, waiting for the water to recede and their food to return.

We did our shopping – small, kind, cheery encounters that are the building blocks of the goodness of life. A visit to the re-cycle centre yielded a satisfying bargain and a small happiness … two pretty pressed glass Victorian dishes for a dollar each, and then the building re-cycling yard had more treasures, including the perfect windows for our building project.

Feeling contented we relaxed in our favourite café, with hot chocolate and a blueberry muffin. We sat in the courtyard under the pollarded plane trees and watched a small flock of sparrows fall on each table as it emptied, diving into cake crumbs and pulling at a rasher of left-over bacon. A speckle- breasted thrush sat in an olive tree growing in a large pot, and pecked at the clusters of pale green olives. The sage green leaves were silhouetted against a rosy brick wall and the sinuous curves of branches and leaves looked like William Morris’s famous willow pattern.

I must keep a diary again, I exclaimed, I want to remember these moments of beauty. But writing this blog is the closest I get to it at the moment. This day was like all our days living in this remote place where we are the guardians of the forest, where species of plants and creatures that are almost extinct elsewhere, still live their tranquil lives hidden deep beneath the green canopy. I once said to my love that I knew people who were living quiet, mystical lives of love and beauty, and we agreed that we would make it happen for us.

Occasionally a note of discord strikes when a person who has other agendas intrudes into our peace, but since I take Don Miguel Ruiz’s Third Agreement seriously, and try never to take anything personally, our peace of mind is rarely perturbed. I also remember a meme which says: ‘negativity can only affect you if you’re on the same frequency – vibrate higher.’ So we try.

We forget to play music because the silence is so full of sound, the wind in the trees, the birdsong, the stream rushing down below. Living in this place, it’s easy to believe in that “incorruptible spot of grace” resting at our core. It’s easy to believe too, that the mystery of love and truth and beauty do still exist, in spite of what often seems like suffering and chaos in the outer world, but which, hidden from our limited understanding, may have a larger purpose. We only have to believe in love and truth and beauty, to see them – in people, in nature, in the universe, and in the deep silent mystery of the life unfolding around us.

So the roots of the trees in this forest grow deep in the earth, sustained by creatures of the dark, the snails, slugs, earthworms, flatworms and nematodes that degrade organic matter. The rain and the sun sustain them. Tiny frogs and rare lizards hide deep in their secret habitats, bees push into the flowers of the manukau trees, butterflies hover above the flowers, birds sing, the kingfisher plunges down into the grass for a morsel, morepork owls hoot across our valley in the moonlight, and nature continues to sustain them all, and the planet, and us too… what a big happiness!!!

PS   The picture is by Rowland Hilder who specialised in  painting nostalgic autumn and winter scenes.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

I needed a pudding for a gluten- intolerant friend, so fell back on our tried and true chocolate mousse… just eggs, butter and good dark chocolate… though I can never resist tweaking the simple recipe.

So after separating the eggs, melt a knob of butter in a saucepan, and I add a table spoon of brandy or strong black coffee or even sherry, and break the chocolate in. For every egg, use six squares of plain chocolate, and a little bit more butter.

Stirring the mix until the chocolate melts, take it off the heat before it goes grainy. Whip the whites of eggs until peaks form, and at this stage I often add one or two tablespoons of icing sugar and whip again until stiff. Stir the yolks into the chocolate mixture, and then gently fold this into the egg whites. Pour the mix into small individual bowls, chill in the fridge for at least six hours, and serve with cream.

I gave this to my children often when we were vegetarian, as it was an easy way to make sure they had enough protein.

 

Food for thought

“The best and most beautiful things in this world cannot be seen or even heard, but must be felt with the heart.”

Helen Keller, who overcame the handicaps of being deaf, blind and dumb to gain a degree and live a life of service to others.

 

 

 

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Kintsugi, art and life

I wrote a column about my collection of cracked and chipped blue and white china thirty years ago. Some people received the idea of a collection of cracked china with derision and laughter… something cracked or chipped had lost its value, usefulness and good looks was the unspoken message, or I must be too poor to have such a pointless collection instead of perfect objects.

Undeterred, in the years since, I’ve saved shattered fragments of blue and white china when I’ve dropped or broken something, intending to stick them all together in a splendid mould and make a bird bath. I still have all the bits … but though the spirit has been willing, the body has been weak, alas.

So when a few weeks ago a possum knocked a precious piece of pottery off the bird table I was heart-broken. It was a large platter given to me by its maker, a potter of some renown, whose pieces now on sale in the national museum cost more than I could ever have dreamed.

But my platter came into my hands over thirty years ago when I used to take my daughter for piano lessons with a beautiful woman who played the cello in the city orchestra and taught the piano. While my daughter tackled the music of civilisation’s finest composers, I whiled away the time chatting to her teacher’s husband, the potter, admiring his work which was all around and even then, out of my reach to afford.

They lived in an enchanting house he had built himself, and where in the romantic rambling garden black and white speckly bantam hens roamed, kicking up the flower beds with their stubby tufted legs and fearsome claws. One day the potter gave me one of his platters and a few months later by chance, another came into my hands.

I’ve always treasured them, and since I love using beautiful things for mundane purposes have always used them as bird baths. Now in our forest, I use them as bird tables for bird seed, balanced on pedestals made from other treasured ceramics. A possum must have clambered up and knocked the platter off. It had broken into three pieces. I found it when I awoke and got up to fill it with bird seed and scatter seed on the ground for our visiting quails.

Going back to bed with my early morning tea I brooded over this unexpected event, and idly let my mind roam over the five hundred-year-old Japanese art of kintsugi, when cracks or breaks in a piece of pottery or porcelain are pieced together again with glue and gold… the name means golden repairs. They become so beautiful that some pieces have been broken deliberately in order to restore them with veins of gold.

Mentioning this to my love, he immediately Googled, and over the weeks he mastered the technique, and the platter was returned to me on Christmas Day with beautiful veins of gold now holding the broken pieces together… the platter is even more beautiful than before… which is the idea … this exquisite art form has developed to become part of the Japanese philosophy of life… where respecting the past with ‘awe and reverence’ adds to the beauty of the object. It is not seen as flawed or broken, but as re-stored… not to wholeness, but to a beauty reflecting life, its impermanence and poignancy.

Since discovering the concept of kintsugi I’ve thought how though it is an old instinct brought to perfection by Japanese craftsmen, it’s also been used by so many others for so many centuries … I thought of the ancient ruined monasteries scattered around England, dissolved by Henry VIII in the 1530’s in order to enrich himself and turfing out the monks, leaving them homeless and destitute.

Local people were the ones who ruined those abandoned monasteries, dismantling exquisite abbeys, priories and friaries, and using the stones to build or enrich their own homes. Even in this day and age, I have stopped the car in a muddy lane in Cumberland to exclaim over a carved Gothic window blocked up to make part of the wall in a rough stone barn – relic of a local monastery.

I used to walk in a Devon village where the red post box was set into the thick wall of a house rising straight out of the street, which would once have been a cart-track, and next to it in the wall was a small beautifully carved blocked up window from another medieval building. These small architectural gems ennobled the old stone walls they were set in – another Japanese concept – ‘wabi sabi ‘– finding beauty in old or broken things

Shakespeare found beauty in old things, and using the principles of kintsugi, rewrote the ancient legends he had learned in his classical education at Stratford Grammar School, re-creating and transforming the stories of Anthony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar or Troilus and Cressida – to name a few – into enduring works of art.

Not sublime works of art, but definitely kintsugi, are the pre-loved clothes – as they’re sometimes called – which a friend finds. By changing the buttons, adding a trimming, altering the neckline, edging hemlines or cuffs with contrasting fabric she turns each found item into an enviable work of art as well as a desirable item of clothing.

And there’s something touching and very sweet about the darns or patches in a piece of old linen, or a carefully repaired scrap of precious old lace. I love the chips and worn places on old painted furniture and the scratches on the polished wood of an antique table, or the kicked legs of a well-used chair.

These are the scars of a life well lived, and to iron them out, re-paint, sand them away and restore them to what is so often wrongly called ‘their former glory,’ chills my heart.  I know this means their honourable scars have been destroyed, and their character obliterated. In trying to make things look as good as new we are not honouring their past… the spirit of kintsugi.

When we were told on our personal growth courses to turn sour milk into yogurt, this was the same thing, re-creating and restoring the broken, cracked or scratched parts of our lives, and using them to teach us strength, compassion, insight. Acknowledging the hard places and tough times we had come through, and the buried pain, we were able then to see how they had shaped us.

We learned to face these times with ‘awe and reverence’, and with gratitude too, since without these scars, we would not be the people we had become. Our lives regained both magic and poignancy as we learned to see the mysterious patterns of events which we had endured and previously dismissed or de-valued.

Patterns of pain, loss, anger or despair, once recognised, became our golden repairs, our kintsugi, which enriched us and gave us a sense of the beauty of our lives. The cracks of character and kindness round our mouths, the lines of laughter softening our eyes, the deep furrows of thought and intellect above our brows became testimony to strength of character, to acceptance of the challenges faced, and rejection of bitterness or resistance.

Maybe this is why I find the faces of celebrities who have had a face lift or a botox injection rather sad… they are not honouring the medals earned by a well-lived life.

The most precious example of kintsugi in this place where we live is a diver’s rusty old tank, found while we scoured a demolition yard for re-cycled goodies. It was brought joyfully home, carefully cut in two, sanded, gently polished and re-painted, so it is a dull antique grey, with a few antique coins stuck to the circumference.

It’s mounted at the bottom of our drive with a striker made from an old fishing weight attached to a handle of weathered wood sitting by it. When visitors arrive, they ring the bell to tell us they’re here. Every day at dawn, and in the gloaming we ring our bell in gratitude. It reminds us that life is precious. And so we honour life.

Food for threadbare gourmets

We always used to have goose at Christmas when I was a child, but on the one occasion we had turkey I remember my father saying he wasn’t going to eat cold turkey or turkey sandwiches for the next week. So he devised a rechauffe of turkey eaten on rice.

Faced with lots of left-over turkey this year, I decided to follow his example. I had saved all the turkey juices, so after frying mushrooms and chopped bacon in butter, I stirred in a table spoon of flour to thicken the mixture and added the turkey juices. When this had thickened, I added chopped turkey and a little cream, salt and pepper, nutmeg to taste, and a small chicken bouillon cube.

Served on boiled rice, with peas, chopped parsley and butter stirred through, it was much better than cold turkey sandwiches!

Food for Thought

The self-actualising person is not a normal person with something added, but a normal person with nothing taken away.         Abraham Maslow

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Our beautiful world

The wind is blowing in the trees. It sounds like the sea. The sun is on the mountain. And outside the house, a pair of nesting quails are foraging among the bird seed that has spilled from the bird table.

When I step outside, I hear the sound of many wings… I have disturbed the green finches feeding, and their flight is like the sound of many muffled hands clapping.

This place is my new home, forty acres of forest, where our little wood cabin looks down a valley and up to a forest covered mountain. Where we hear the sound of our two streams meeting down below long before they join others to make the river. It flows beside the long winding road of blind u-shaped bends and gravel and often mud, which is the only way to reach us. When intrepid travellers finally reach the top of the forested mountain range, on this road famous for its degree of difficulty, and which only the brave or the ignorant attempt, they come to our big iron gates, and the elusive gate code, only available to those who are welcome.

We live several miles further on inside the gate, down a well-tended paved road, over-hung at this moment by the manukau trees frosted with scented white blossom  providing food for bees who make the healing manukau honey. We pass the steep hidden drives of the other occupants of this magic place, a forest which is covenanted and preserved for whatever the future holds for the planet.

There are about twenty-five of us, like-minded people who, on settling here, have agreed not to have  dogs or cats or introduce plants or trees which are not native to this place. So because this podocarp forest is covenanted, and these agreements are in place, the silence is never disturbed by the sound of a barking dog, and the only man-made sound is the distant hum of a car snaking slowly along the road.

And yet it is never silent. Tuis flute their glorious song during the day, the shining cuckoo sings its melody, while green finches cheep, and sometimes flights of red, blue, green and yellow rosellas come chattering by. A kingfisher, making his sharp repetitive call, sits on a dead branch a few yards away from the cabin, and dives into the long grass to snatch up in his sharp beak a grasshopper or other insect which his beady eyes have detected.

At night, a morepork – the New Zealand owl, so named because his call sounds like those words – perches on the same branch and hoots softly across the valley from where answering calls return. When birds are silent in the heat of the day, the all- pervasive buzzing of bees and flies and other insects fill the space, and then there is the glory of cricket and cicada each in their appointed time sending out their nostalgic rasping, warning us that summer does not last forever.

I listen to try to hear the moment when cricket takes over from cicada, but am never mindful enough. We have now watched the sun move across the horizon opposite for one whole year, and know that when it reaches the point of the ridge on midsummer’s day, it will begin once again to move inexorably back to the dip in the ridge halfway across the other side, towards the shortest darkest day. And we have watched the moon now for a whole year, as it rises in the sky to the side of the cabin, and then shines over the mountain and the trees, shedding gold light and mystery over the silent forest.

When it rains we gaze across the misty view which echoes a Chinese painting, and the beauty catches our breath. A myriad of different species of trees inhabit this unspoiled place, the different greens and shapes sprawling like a huge tapestry over the hills. When I gaze at them in the sunshine they  shine, almost as though they were lit up with the lights that stopped Xerxes, King of Kings in his tracks, when his great army rolled across the dusty plains of Asia. Transfixed by a mystical, shining sycamore tree he remained there for two days to the puzzlement of his soldiers.

And here, as the sun moves across the sky, shadows deepen the colours of towering trees, and reveal deep folds of green hills and gorges, and one mountain crowding another. Hidden deep beneath the canopy are rare and cherished species of trees and ferns and also exquisitely camouflaged frogs and lizards, moths and insects, one lizard so rare that only twelve others have been sighted in the rest of the world.

We had the privilege of seeing such a lizard when a neighbour found her with her tail gone and a blood-shot eye. She was rushed to the zoo several hours drive away, and there nurtured back to health. When healed a few weeks later, she was returned to her home grounds, and a group of residents gathered to inspect the precious creature – about four inches long – to witness her return to the wild. This shared concern makes a warm community hard to find anywhere else, particularly when that concern is cemented with good wine and cheese to fortify us before returning to our own native habitats!

We achieved brief fame on the estate when we discovered an Archey’s frog, another endangered species, down our drive. These finds are logged and we have to provide the time of day, the weather, the habitat and many other tiny details to enlarge the knowledge of environmentalists. Since then others have been found, and we realise that this place has become a haven for endangered species.

Are we an endangered species? Sometimes it feels like it. Knowing as we do that the world is changing, that climate change is a fact, whatever climate-deniers, big business and flat-earthers think, that ice caps are melting, our oceans depleted and polluted, that bees are dying from strange viruses and pesticides, and trying to get our heads around the fact that people are still killing the great animals which ensure our survival on the planet – the future of mankind seems as misty as our cloud covered hills.

There is something deeply awe-full and dread-full about the words ‘the Sixth Great Extinction’ which we are now living through according to scientists. So grasping at small straws of comfort can help us to come to terms with this extraordinary time in the history of the world. Living here in this precious piece of preserved forest and rare species has made us much more aware of other safe places and of so many other people dedicated to nurturing the planet.

So wonderful Bill Gates and the other billionaire philanthropists who are devoting huge sums of their money to work on long term alternative green energy sources make me feel hopeful. And I read today that Catholic priests have been instructed by the Vatican to preach about the environment, climate change and preserving the world. It’s what used to be called ‘spreading the word’.

It’s about each of us doing what we can, where we are. I have a friend who never goes anywhere without a plastic bag folded in her pocket. Whether on a walk on the beach with her, or on an overseas trip, staying in a rubbish strewn camp ground, she fills her bag. Single handed she can’t clear all the rubbish, but she does her bit.

Yes, on our own we cannot save our world, but like my friend we can all find ways, however small, of mitigating the damage. I know everyone who reads this blog is already committed to preserving life on earth, so I’m merely sharing one aspect of my new life, which is all about the environment. Tell you more next time!!!!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Having broken my leg badly six months ago and due to side effects still having difficulty walking, I’m actually listening to my doctor for once. She gave me a leaflet full of calcium – rich recipes, and one of them has transformed my idea of breakfast. It’s delicious as well as nutritious.

Leave quarter of a cup of oats soaking in quarter of a cup of hot water overnight if possible, but for at least four hours. Peel and grate an apple and mix into the oats with a tablespoon of lemon juice. Stir in two tablespoons of cream, quarter of a cup of natural sweetened yogurt and a tablespoon of honey – I use the healing manukau honey.

Fruit if desired… it’s a filling and satisfying breakfast, especially when topped off with a freshly brewed cup of lapsang souchong, the favourite drop of the cup that cheers but doth not in-ebriate !

And a PS… many months ago my computer collapsed, taking blog, addresses, etc, etc. Before I had a chance to rehabilitate myself and come to terms with a new computer and the dreaded Windows 10, disaster struck, and I disappeared into hospital for two and a half months. Still rusty trying to climb back on the computer deck, and still clambering  clumsily around trying to master the new technology . So please excuse any infelicities you detect!

Food for Thought

I don’t know who wrote this, but I like it:

dawdling,
not doubting,
intrepid all the way,
walk toward clarity
with keen eye,
With sharpened sword
clear cut the path
to the lucent surprise
of enlightenment.
At every crossroad
be prepared to bump into wonder

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Living takes up all my time

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As I drove home this morning I wondered how often I had driven along that same country road with all its winds and curves and hills and one way bridges… ruminating about this, I went back randomly to my diary six years ago to see what has changed… this is what I found:

“ I had the house to myself today – the solitude I’ve always wanted. In his early diaries, Thomas Merton moaned on about not having solitude and silence. I know how he feels, but how could these things be missing in a Trappist monastery? And it’s a lot easier to be alone in a crowd surely, than one in a one-on-one relationship! Silence is easier than solitude. I never have the radio on, rarely the TV, and sometimes go for weeks without playing any music.

‘The days have seemed calm and beautiful. Ken Wilber’s understanding of how to ground the insights of the spiritual life, reminded me of Brother Laurence’s practise of the Presence of God.
It was reported of him that, ‘in the greatest hurry of business in the kitchen he still preserved his recollections and heavenly-mindedness. He was never hasty nor loitering, but did each thing in its season, with an even uninterrupted composure and tranquillity of spirit…’  mindfulness then…

‘I had made a cake from a recipe on the last page of Nigella Lawson’s book ‘Feasts’. This was a funeral cake, but the beautiful loaf in its tin with a long sprig of rosemary for remembrance on top inspired me. It was absolutely delicious, and has entered my repertoire with a fanfare. So yesterday, I got up in good time to make another rosemary cake for morning tea with Kate and Jocelyn. This time I used twice the amount of cooked apple and lemon, more sugar and added vanilla.

‘It was a triumph. The big, tender, golden loaf with a sugary top, infused with the taste of lemon and rosemary, and with the rosemary sprig down the centre, was a culinary poem just to look at. It had a pure, classic feeling, qualities which can be applied to things other than music or sculpture! We all felt it was a work of art, which didn’t stop us devouring it in large moist chunks, and Jocelyn took the recipe.

‘ Both girls very pure, so we had apple tea instead of coffee, (I didn’t realise it was solid sugar) and we talked for hours, until nearly one o’ clock. Jocelyn brought a jar of her fig and ginger jam, Kate, a fragrant bouquet of herbs and pink and violet flowers. I had laid a table with a linen cloth with a heavy crochet lace border, and with the curving regency-style silver tea-pot, the bone china rosebud sprigged cups and saucers edged with gold, silver king’s pattern cake-knives, white lace and linen napkins, it looked like one of those romantic magazine photographs. I left it, cake, crumbs, rosemary sprigs and all, untouched all day long to savour.

Today, I fell off the wagon. Went shopping and doing errands in town, and I never seemed to get into my stride. Going into the spare bedroom to work out where I would start doing paint touch-ups, I found a book left there by the last occupant, Alexander McCall Smith’s, ‘The Sunday Philosophy Club’, which I read till I had finished. Charming, erudite and civilised – art, music, ethics – all merging seamlessly. But apart from meditating, I hadn’t been present all day, just for the sake of blobbing out with a book, going absent without leave as it were. So no mindfulness then…

Thank heavens for Rumi, who I turned to this morning and his wonderful:
Come, come, come, whoever you are! Wanderer,
Worshipper, lover of learning
This is not a caravan of despair.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve
Broken your vow a thousand times
Still and yet again
Come!’

Driving home through the bay, I saw a mother duck shepherding her family of tiny brown fluffy babies along the footpath, while she calmly brought up the rear. There must have been at least a dozen, and one hadn’t managed to make it up onto the low step-up of the pavement, and was now trying to keep up, anxiously scurrying along in the gutter!

Cara (the cat) is still asleep on the unmade bed, a flat, black semi-circle. She slept all night stretched up against me, seeming to be purring every time I awoke. Maybe she was making amends for a dreadful incident last night in the cemetery. As I strolled towards the look-out where I habitually inspect the flat rock far below with waves splashing over it at high tide, a cock pheasant ran across and into the undergrowth on the edge of the cliff.

Cara was a long way behind, and hadn’t seen it, so I thought all was well. But when she reached me, she stood and sensed the area. She could have been a pointer, the way she sussed out the presence of the bird. Ignoring my peremptory calls, she purposefully plunged down the cliff. I attempted to grab her, but it was too dangerous. Occasionally, as I peered into the undergrowth, I would catch sight of her blackness skulking through the bushes. I went home with my arms full of pohutukawa twigs as usual, to use as firewood, and then came back in the hope of tracking her.

She turned out to be sitting behind a grave-stone, and when she attempted to escape me again I grabbed her by a foreleg, and carried her firmly home, where I made sure she stayed. I hope it’s not the breeding season. ‘

Reading this, I realised that much has changed in six years … though I still fall off the wagon regularly, but the beloved cat has gone to a soft cushion in the sky, I am now alone, and have also given up eating sugar… so fewer delicious cakes. But the rhythm of the seasons continues, the full moon still shines across the water as I stand at the cliff’s edge, the mother ducks are still moving majestically across the road shepherding their broods… some friends have moved on, new friends have changed my life in many ways, and life is often a baffling adventure.

But whatever hidden meaning there may be in it, I remember Montaigne’s words: “Alas, I have done nothing this day !”
“What? Have you not lived? It is not only the fundamental but the noblest of your occupations”. So be it. I live.

 

Food for Threadbare gourmets
Here’s that delicious cake by Nigella Lawson with my wild additions. (I belong to that abandoned school of thought that feels if one thing is delicious, twice as much must be twice as delicious ! I also subscribe to the Hebrew saying that we will be held accountable for all the permitted pleasures we failed to enjoy).

So, first you cook until soft a sliced eating apple with a teaspoon of caster sugar, zest and juice of half a lemon, a teaspoon of butter and a small sprig of fresh rosemary. Fish out the rosemary, leave the apple to cool, and then mash or blitz to a pulp. Line a one pound loaf tin with greased baking paper.

To the pulped apple add 225 grams melted butter, 150 grams of sugar, 3 large eggs and 300 grams of flour. I use self raising, and also double the apple mixture and add a scant teaspoon of vanilla. Mix it quickly to a smooth batter, and pour into the tin. Dredge the top generously with caster sugar, and then lay a long sprig of fresh rosemary down the middle of the cake top. The oil from the herb scents the cake deliciously as it cooks – oven 170C or 325 F, for approximately fifty minutes. Let it cool etc. before cutting and devouring with abandon!

 

Food for thought
The unexamined life is not worth living.     Socrates died 399 BC

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Saying yes to beauty

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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

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Our life-lines

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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/

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Souvenirs of life

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These stones and feathers and shells can tell the story of my life in the last few decades… shells collected with the children on a Northland beach, a black and white feather lying outside the door when I opened it on our first day in a new house –  greeting from a tui… the brown and cream morepork feather found on a long walk around the harbour with the thoughts and dreams of that afternoon threaded through its fronds.

An ancient stone from a river bed in the Blue Mountains of Australia was picked up after a day spent abseiling in abject terror, another from a cold pebbled beach in Devon, the chill of the Atlantic  breakers still embedded in it after all these years, while the polished brown stone came from an underground cave in the central North Island where glow-worms illuminated the roof, and a river flowed through.  These things are the stuff of my life… as they are of every life in which they are valued.

As I looked at them I thought of how other collections can also tell the story of a life. When I renewed my passport recently I found all my old ones, going back to when I was twelve and going to France on my own to learn French. In that passport photo two frightened brown eyes gazed out at the world. I had been so appalled at this picture that I promptly destroyed the evidence.

Which left the rest – a twenty one year old about to go on holiday to Spain, well- groomed hair, immaculate lipstick, and veiled blank eyes… the next, an exhausted mother of two toddlers about to go to Hong Kong, badly cut hair, eyes sad and resigned. And then, a picture of a thirty five year old woman, lots of dark hair piled up confidently, smiling eyes, relaxed smile. Life to be lived now, not endured. In the decades since, the hair has got shorter and then faded, and the last photo was so awful I hoped to be un-recognisable, but the story of a life is told in those passport photos.

Another can tell the story of their life in their jewellery, the coral necklace given at a christening, the charm bracelet for a little girl, pearls for a twenty-first, the engagement ring and the gold band…  a gift to mark the first child,  a clumsy pottery brooch made  at school and proudly presented to a beloved mother… the ring inherited from a grandmother, the eternity ring at a silver wedding…  such precious collections can mark out the steps of a life quite as well as a photograph album.

I wonder if there is even a market these days for photograph albums now all our photos are taken on phones and I-pads. I was never much  of a photographer, so that the photos of my honeymoon were on the same roll of film as the pictures of my first baby. But I did have a memory.

I remember one summer’s afternoon when the children were three and four as they tumbled around on the grass, one wearing a sun-suit in glorious colours of pink and orange and red, the other in matching shirt and orange shorts. As I looked at them, revelling in their laughter, their shining hair, and sparkling eyes, pearly teeth and glowing sun-tanned faces, I thought to myself, I’m going to remember this moment forever.

It was a turning point, because I found I did never forget that moment. So now, I know I can fasten those moments I want to remember with that little intention, and our minds are so obedient that they obey the instructions, and can call up the images whenever they are wanted. On the other hand, I wonder if the ease of communication, the instant photos, the selfies sent from Rome or Khatmandu which reach every member of the family all over the world the same day, make it easy to forget. We don’t have to remember, because it’s all there, on Facebook or in the picture file on the computer.

But for how long? Until the internet crashes? Or some other disaster hits the net? The computer is stolen? Few people will be able to pick up old albums in the future and leaf through them re-living their own lives, or discover the lives of their ancestors. And how will biographers fare in the future? In the past we’ve had portraits and miniatures in pre-photography days; then the wonderful stilted posed photos of the early days of photography, with the expert’s head hidden under a black cloth over a tripod while he captured forever the people and that moment in their time.

Then came the brownie box camera and all the other simple do- it- yourself cameras, and families recorded their events and special moments themselves. Biographies of the famous from the twenties until the sixties are full of revealing snaps, but what will there be for future  writers and historians wanting to illustrate their books about the powerful and famous? Not much, I suspect.

In the past, many anonymous photos turned out to be records of history – impromptu black and white snaps of Battle of Britain pilots ‘scrambling’, shots of families crouched in air –raid shelters from London to Leningrad, soldiers in Africa or Italy taking grainy pictures of each other to send back home… joyful hugs and kisses of victory – all these spontaneous pictures of humanity enduring both the ordeals and the pleasures of the twentieth century, captured in black and white film, are the stuff of history.

But I wonder what history is being preserved today in our somewhat ephemeral records? Will collections of jewellery or stones, in the end be the things to jog people’s memories in the future? Maybe the photos in passports and on driving licenses will the best concrete records we will have… time to get a decent picture taken for these official documents perhaps !

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Summer salads don’t always mean lettuce for me… One of my favourites is grated cauliflower, mixed with chopped hard- boiled egg, some chopped Medjuel dates, toasted slivered almonds, and lots of chopped parsley. Then stir in enough good mayonnaise to the consistency you like. Chopped apple or banana is a variation, but actually anything can be added, and it still tastes good. But it can’t sit around, or it turns watery. I eat it on its own, but it’s also good with cold chicken.

Food for thought

And a poet said, Speak to us of Beauty. And he answered: Where shall you seek beauty, and how shall you find her unless she herself  be your way and your guide?  Beauty is not a need but an ecstasy. It is… a heart inflamed and a soul enchanted … a garden forever in bloom and a flock of angels in flight.

‘The Prophet’ by Kahlil Gibran, Lebanese poet, 1883 -1931. ‘The Prophet’ has never been out of print since it was published in 1923.

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