Category Archives: birds

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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A summer storm

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It arrived unannounced at roughly eleven- thirty in the morning. Before then it had been a quiet silvery morning, still silver sea, and pale grey sky. The wind built up, the clouds lowered, and rain flew in the wind. By evening it was a fully fledged storm and too good to miss, and I decided this was the day I tackled the hundred and fifty- seven steps up and down to the harbour, a trial of strength I’d avoided for too long since I twisted my ankle.

They led down through a ravine of tangled woods, and at the bottom as I stepped onto the wet sand there was a Buddha-like figure, a girl in a  faded pink jerkin sitting in the lotus position, meditating on the rocks. With this blessing at my back I carried on round the edge of the water, past a few old fishing cottages, now expensive sea-side dwellings.

Being a holiday, most of them had their families snugly tucked inside against the weather. Where they had their lights on in the grey day, I peered inside, approving when I saw walls of book- shelves, and enjoying a family gathered round a table eating their supper. A teenager was sitting on the branch of a pohutakawa leaning over the water, and when I waved, he waved back, his long arm a great wide semi-circle of  greeting.

The path wound round the edge of the harbour, sometimes deep in trees and woodland, and sometimes looking straight over the water with fishing boats at anchor swinging around in the wind and the waves. Promising myself to complete the circuit the next day I retraced my footsteps, and returned to the foot of the staircase leading up to the road.

A young man was now kneeling in front of the meditating girl, and as I approached she gazed at him with a look of such tender love that I flicked my eyes away and hurried up the steps so as not to disturb them.  Not that I could, even in bright red jacket and black trousers I was un-observed.

The hundred and fifty seven steps were not as bad as I feared, and I strode back along the road bent into the gale. Back to my end of the peninsula, where the shelter of the harbour no longer protected us, the great pohutakawa trees ringing the cemetery and leading out onto a little rocky peninsula bucked and swayed in the tempest. It wasn’t even high tide, but huge green waves were surging onto the rocks and white spray flying through the air.

As I looked down onto the rocks, and leant against a tree trunk to avoid being blown off myself, watching the hungry waves hurling themselves against the rocks, and the boiling white water swirling around them, it truly felt like ‘the cruel sea’.

The sound of the water and the trees was deafening, and mesmerising. There was nothing else outside this circle of wind and waves and sound and solitude. Impossible not to be totally present to the wild beauty and magnificence.

Finally the wind became so furious that I felt I had to make a dash between lulls. But there were no lulls, so I made a dash anyway, and  wandered back through the cemetery – which is still full of the stuff of life – one grave –stone facing out to sea inscribed:  “ He loved life and his fellowmen”,  another, saying: ”Sleep on grumpy” and another, telling passersby that this man had left Scotland for this new world, in 1865. His gravestone was at one end of a miniature cricket bowling pitch, with three stumps set in concrete the other end.

Reluctant to leave the aliveness of the storm I stood on the edge of the cliff, and wondered where had all the birds gone – no gulls or pigeons, tuis or doves. Somewhere dozens and dozens of birds were silently riding out the storm in places that no human could see.

We don’t have to worry about ‘those in peril on the sea’ these days. Fishing boats stay at anchor when they get the weather forecast and the big ships can ride out the storms. This storm, unlike so many others around the world, caused no harm or hardship. So savouring the elements is a guilt-free pleasure, and those like me, far from city pavements, are so privileged that we can. But maybe more importantly, this pleasure has a spiritual dimension,  since it’s also an acknowledgement of our beautiful and irreplaceable planet.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

I’ve had so many people dropping in for various reasons, that rather than make a cake I’ve been making a succession of scones- fresh out of the oven, melting in the mouth, served with unsalted butter, strawberry jam and cream, they always disappear quicker than the proverbial hot cakes. They’re so simple to make, and I never add sugar, currants, cheese, or chopped anything. They are perfect just as they are.

Put six spoonfuls of self raising flour in a bowl with an ounce to an ounce and a half of softened butter. Rub it in, break an egg into a well in the centre and add half a cup of milk. Just mix it altogether with a knife, adding more milk if needed. It should all come together into a soft dough. I simply press it down on the pastry board, at least an inch thick, and cut it into squares. Half an hour in the fridge, covered is good for them. Bake on a floured or greased tray in a medium to hot oven for ten minutes or until raised and slightly brown. The trick is to serve them at once !

 

Food for thought

Blessed is the influence of one true, loving human soul on another.

George Eliot  1819 – 1880  Great English novelist

(New Zealand readers might be interested to hear me being interviewed on Kim Hill’s programme on Saturday morning, choosing favourite records and talking in between)

http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/saturday)

 

 

 

 

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The birds in our hands

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Every morning the pink breasted doves are waiting for me and their breakfast at the top of the steps, cooing like pigeons, and many mornings their cooing makes me think of Cher Ami.

Cher Ami, a black checker cock, was one of six hundred homing pigeons British bird fanciers had given to the American Army when they arrived to fight in the last six months of World War One. Trained pigeons were an indispensable part of warfare then. Cher Ami won fame when he became the last of the pigeons left with a doomed battalion fighting in the Argonne forest. Their commander, a hero named Whittlesey, had warned that the plan was a disaster before they began, but no-one was game to take on General Pershing and argue it with him. So as Whittlesey had feared, the battalion was surrounded by the Germans. When he sent a pigeon bringing their position to HQ,  US artillery came to their rescue and began pounding the Germans surrounding the trapped men. Disaster – they were actually shelling the trapped men.

Whittlesey had one pigeon, Cher Ami, left out of the eight he’d started with, so he sent a message: “Our own artillery is dropping barrages directly on us. For heaven’s sake stop it”. After a few false starts, Cher Ami took off, and the Germans tried to shoot him down. He circled overhead before setting off through a storm of German shrapnel. Once he staggered and fluttered helplessly before gathering himself together and continuing his flight. One leg was shot off, but he continued on. Somehow he got back to HQ, dropping like a stone onto his left breast. He staggered on one bloody leg to the trainer who caught him. The capsule bearing the precious message hung by the ligaments of the wounded leg, and he had been shot through the breast bone as well.

Thanks to him, the artillery barrage was lifted and lives saved, though the heroes in the pocket still had several more dreadful days trapped, until un-aided by their own side, a handful of survivors made it safely out. Heroic Cher Ami lived for another year, was stuffed and now resides at the Smithsonian museum.

Human beings (not homo sapiens) have used pigeons for their purposes for some thousands of years. By crossing breeds, they’ve evolved fast pigeons who can do roughly 60 miles per hour, fast ones up to 110 miles per hour. Paul Reuter of the famous news agency used them, a pigeon took the news of Waterloo from Brussels to Britain, and even in the eighties, pigeons were being used to carry blood samples to and fro from two Southern English hospitals. Here in New Zealand an enterprising Kiwi founded a pigeon- post from Great Barrier Island to Auckland back in 1897.

Though people assume it’s just instinct that gets them back home, during World War One, while the French were pushing back the Germans from the Marne, they took the pigeon lofts forward with them, yet when the birds returned from Paris they always managed to find their lofts, even though they had been moved… intelligent too…

Pigeons are not the only birds men have used for their purposes. Here in NZ  the Maoris used to catch the male birds and trim the brush-like growth at the end of their tongues so they could train them to speak. They taught tuis chants as long as fifty words, keeping them imprisoned in the dark in a tiny cage till they were trained. Each poor prisoner, when able to do all the Maori cries and chants, was then imprisoned for the rest of his life in a cage, shaped rather like a Maori eel-pot, fifteen inches wide at the bottom, and thirteen inches high. The bird-cage was often hung at the entrance to a marae. This reminds me of the old Chinese men in long grey or brown robes, in Hongkong, who would solemnly take their caged birds for a walk in the parks, still in their cages.

Parrots too have always had a raw deal locked up in cages with their wings clipped. In Japan recently one escaped and a few days later ended up at the local police station. With a captive audience the intelligent bird told them his name and address and telephone number. His relieved owner then came to fetch him.

When Time magazine ran an article discussing the intelligence of animals and other creatures, they ended by quoting the example of a pet parrot being taken to the vet and having to stay behind for treatment. The bird understood he was being left, and began begging his owners not to leave him, promising to be a good boy. This is the exact pattern of small children left in hospital, and attributing the horror of it to what seems like punishment for their own misdeeds. The parrot had responded with the same emotional pattern as a human toddler, but the researchers described him as ‘mimicking human behaviour’.  This did not prove that birds and animals had feelings, the article ended.

I gave away a book on birds in disgust a few weeks ago. It was a detailed account of how they hear see, fly, etc etc. The book opened with a vignette of a white goose waiting by the side of an icy road beside its dead mate, somewhere in the frozen north. Three weeks later it was still there, still waiting, still grieving for its lost mate. The book closed by returning to this grief-stricken creature, and said, just like that  Time article, that neither this behaviour, nor that of the birds they had observed mating for life, returning year after year to each other, flying around each other, greeting and calling ecstatically when they’d been parted, proved that birds had emotions like us. So how do these heartless researchers explain what birds are doing when fluttering around the body of their mate killed on the road, hiding from cats in the garden, protecting their young, showing fear?

Scientists seem terrified to admit that other species have emotions like us. They call it anthropomorphism and think those of us who practise it are mistaken and merely sentimental. And though St Francis was allowed to acknowledge the feelings of all creatures, the rest of us are still supposed to accept Descartes’s malign thinking that since animals and other creatures don’t have feelings and don’t feel pain, they can be used for any purposes (there are still scientists who argue for this).

Descartes’s theories have influenced our society since the so-called Age of Enlightenment.  But if only we really had been enlightened! If we were, would we all be anthropomorphists? I suppose it depends on whether we come from our head or our heart.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Reverting to an ancient English tradition, we had roast lamb for Sunday lunch! I never do it with mint sauce, since originally the idea of the vinegar and mint was to disguise the taint of meat that wasn’t fresh, but I do like the mint, so I chop it up and stir it into the gravy. (When my seven year old son first encountered mint sauce at a friend’s house, he told me the meat was covered in: “yucky black tea-leaves!”). When putting the lamb in the oven, I rub the skin with salt to make it crisp.

I also make an onion sauce, which I suppose is some sort of throwback to the capers in white sauce that used to be served with mutton- a meat no-one seems to encounter in the west these days. I boil a large chopped onion, and drain the onion water, using it to make a white sauce which is then enriched with milk or cream and a good tasting of nutmeg. Then stir in the chopped onion – delicious with the lamb.

 

Food for thought

Accuracy is not a virtue; it is a duty.

AE Housman, 20th century English poet and brilliant classicist, best known for his poems in ‘A Shropshire Lad’.

 

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Summer song

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Walking around the cemetery on New Year’s Eve the sky was still and clear, no silver, almost transparent moon yet, rising above the sea looking like a silver sliver of dried honesty in the pale night sky. Instead there were gulls circling silently and intently overhead, weaving endlessly in and out, never touching or interrupting the arc of another bird.

After a while I chose one single gull, and watched its movements, following its wide circles and trajectories and swoops until finally it headed out to sea in the direction of Little Barrier Island, which hovers, misty indigo, on the horizon.

It felt like a holy silence, the tracery of the gulls’ flight woven like a network of silver filaments overhead, the cemetery a cathedral, silent, sacred and undisturbed. The Universe may have been un-aware that it was New Year’s Eve around Planet Earth, but surely that thought -form which meant we were all conscious of this moment in time, must have created that charged and sacred energy which I was feeling then.

Today it has rained. Things can start growing again, and I can stop watering – for a few days anyway. The countryside has the richness of high summer. The trees are billowing with green foliage, the fields have been cut for hay, and the grass in the meadows is so high that when the calves lie down, their heads just peep out of the tops of grass heads, plantains, buttercups and clover. I thought I saw a flight of big brown butterflies the other day, and it was the tips of their velvet ears reaching out of the pasture. The thrush in the garden sings continuously between pecking at the apple nailed to the top of the fence.

Tonight I was strolling round the cemetery, and the harbour below was the deep dark green of an Arthurian mere. It was as still as a mere too, and the boats at anchor were reflected with perfect clarity. Turning to face out to sea, the ocean was quite colourless with a deep band of blue on the horizon.

I’m constantly re-filling the dogs’ water bowl by the pavement. I hear them slurping away, as people walk past to the beach, thirsty Labradors and dobermans, bitzers and bichon frises, poodles and pointers… even a bulldog.

Earlier today, reading James Lees-Milne’s diaries, listening to the summer rain, I discovered his description of an English summer night in 1946: “the smell of new-mown hay and hedgerows, of eglantine and elder… how I love these long gentle Shakespearean summer evenings…”  Me too. The scent of the queen of the night comes drifting in from the open window at night here. It’s sweet and lovely… but I miss that indefineable atmosphere of those English summer nights.

Those nights throb with nostalgia and a richness. Somehow, it’s as though the layers and layers of lives lived in those parts, the echoes of history stretching back beyond memory and beyond record, the people in the millenniums before Christ, who trod out the ancient paths that still thread across hills and ridges and valleys and fords, can all still be sensed. The voices are silent, but their presence still lingers, as one century after another passes across the meadows and the woods.

The oak and the ash, the hazel and the hawthorn, the holly and the honeysuckle have been growing there since the last ice-age twelve thousand years ago. The smells, the sweet blossom, the new mown hay, the whiff of manure, the fresh rain, the damp leaves, have smelt the same in every age and every summer since. Standing in a quiet English lane on a soft summer night, you can feel those long centuries, and it is very touching.  I haven’t experienced a summer evening for a long time. I’ve always been back in autumn or in winter. But I must savour a June night once more!

Feeling homesick for the English country-side, I got “Far from the Madding Crowd” and “Tess of the D’Urbervilles off the top shelf of the book-case, and had an orgy of Hardy. Tess first, and the sweetness of Talbothays farm, then Bathsheba and her story… I read it differently this time, not so much for the drama of the story, but for the feeling of the country.

So I really took in for the first time, the delicious characters of the farm-folk, and the details of farming life, from the signs of an approaching storm, to the rituals processing through the year of lambing and dipping, and fattening and shearing, to the yearly sheep fair, the shearing supper and the harvest supper.

It was a way of life which had existed for over a thousand years when Laurie Lee in the enchanting ‘Cider with Rosie’, told the story of his childhood, and an archaic way of life  which then vanished forever, with the combine harvester, chemical farming, agri-business and of course the destruction of communities  by the carnage of the First World War.

I’m always struck in Hardy’s books, and in Jane Austen’s letters, by the isolation and “localness” of country life back then. So many people hardly ever left their village, unless they were gentry, and the next village was a foreign country. So when people fell in love in these tiny societies, and lost the object of their affections, through death, departure or rejection, there was often no-one else to love. People literally did grieve and die in different ways, from broken hearts.

Hardy’s description of the hopeless love by the dairy-maids at Talbothays farm for the un-attainable gentleman, Angel Clare, had the unmistakeable ring of truth.  I remembered from closed societies I lived in when I was young, whether in an English village, or a tiny colonial community far away from any other European habitation, how intense relationships were when there were no others. No-one could console themselves before the population explosion, and peripatetic habits of the twentieth century, that there were plenty of other pebbles on the beach. There weren’t.

Yet now, though I live in a tiny village with only four hundred souls, we are no longer prisoners of geography. Not only do people take off to holiday in Alaska and Italy, and their families return from Vancouver and Hanoi, but we all have the world of the internet at our fingertips, to use that well-worn, but accurate cliché in this instance.

It’s eighty- six years since Thomas Hardy died, and in those years our worlds and our lives and maybe our minds have expanded beyond imagining. The world is our village, and the internet is our community. There are pebbles past counting and wherever we direct our vision, we can find the glory of summer somewhere around the globe at the push of our buttons.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Apart from being full of healthy fats, potassium and Vitamin E, avocados are delicious.  I sometimes use them as a dressing over a salad. To one avocado you need  ground coriander – I use a quarter of a teasp, but less is more… the juice of a lime or a lemon, quarter of a teasp of ground cumin, a tblsp of apple cider vinegar, salt, and about half a cup of water. Whizz these ingredients until smooth and creamy, and use straight away.

 

Food for thought

To write or even speak English is not a science but an art. Whoever writes English is involved in a struggle that never lets up even for a sentence. He is struggling against vagueness, against obscurity, against the lure of the decorative adjective, against the encroachment of Latin and Greek, and, above all, against the worn-out phrases and dead metaphors with which the language is cluttered up.

George Orwell, English writer 1903 -1950.  Wikipedia records that : ‘His work is marked by lucid prose, awareness of social injustice, opposition to totalitarianism, and commitment to democratic socialism.’ Animal Farm and 1984 have continuing relevance.

 

 

 

 

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Days of wine and roses

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It’s been the one of those glorious days when ‘cherubim and seraphim are casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.’  Silence… a small white yacht gliding over the still shining water, scarcely leaving a wake, using the engine because there’s no wind for the sails… the islands we never normally see, floating on the horizon, palest purple against a lavender blue sky… an enchanted stillness, the only sound the cooing of the doves in the trees.

When I awoke this morning the sky was just turning pink, so early though it was, I jumped out of bed, dressed, and headed out to watch the rising sun across the sea. The dawn chorus was just beginning, so I turned around and walked by houses with curtains drawn and solitary gardens, thrush and blackbird seeming to pass me on from one song to the next.

Theirs was the longest and sweetest serenade, while the soft incessant cheeping of the sparrows filled the spaces, and the slow crescendo of the doves cooing began. As I retraced my footsteps back along a grassy track, I saw with pleasure that mine were the only footprints in the dewy grass. I never met another soul as I meandered around the sleeping village.

Back home I crossed into the cemetery and disturbed a couple of speckled hens who scurried  fussily back into their own garden next door, clucking agitatedly. I walked across to the end of the peninsula to get my daily fix looking out to sea through the grey gnarled branches of the ancient pohutakawas.

Later, I sat on the veranda feasting my eyes on the glittering water, with breakfast of toast and a boiled egg from the errant chickens. When I had visited their owner Kate the day before, she had given me a handful of newly laid eggs, and the one I ate now was so beautiful I could hardly bear to break the shell. It came from her oldest hen, she said, a black Arakan, a breed which presumably comes from Arakan in Burma, and this little black hen lays eggs of the same pale blue as the sky today.

During the morning I went to the next village to buy a birthday card for a man. No flowers then, and since most men’s cards are covered with the inevitable cars or golf clubs, I did some lateral thinking and came away with a card with a message: “ If you resolve to give up drinking, smoking and loving, you don’t actually live longer: it just seems longer.” My son-in-law will be delighted with this encouragement to enjoy these permitted pleasures.

Stopping off at the garden cafe down a long avenue of poplars, the vivacious young Indonesian proprietor greeted me as usual with: ‘Ah Miss Valerie, are you ready for your coffee today?” Since she always jumps the queue for me, and makes piping hot coffee I can forgive her the spinsterly ‘Miss’. I sat in an ivy- covered alcove framed with late wisteria blossom and white jasmine, their scents wafting over the smell of coffee.

Before getting home, I called in on Friend, to collect various things from yesterday’s rollicking party for 45 oldies who came from far and wide. Others were there too to collect their vases, or napkins or fish slices. “The sun’s over the yard arm”, announced the man of the house, which though it was only lunch-time, gave us the excuse to finish off the champagne from the previous day.

Then, we had sat on the terrace in the sun, looking out over the turquoise sea, the lawn fringed with white iceberg roses in full bloom, and red roses lining the long white table cloths.

We’d enjoyed a four course lunch, starting with a terrine followed by freshly baked ham, salmon and asparagus, the cheese course – big rounds of fresh Brie, fresh strawberries and blueberry tarts – each course accompanied by different wines and champagne –French of course! And finally the birthday cake, a pyramid of moist chocolate brownies and truffles. In other words a feast! And all made by friends.

At the end of the afternoon someone brought out a guitar. We sang ‘Blowing in the wind,’ ‘Michael row the boat,’ ‘Kumbiya, ‘He‘s got the whole world in his hands’… all the old favourites. I sang my heart out, and had to restrain myself from dancing.

But as a somewhat acid -tongued acquaintance observed to me, all the men were glued to their seats – and they all look alike, she said. “They all have white hair, and are wearing the same sort of blue and white checked shirts, most of them have walking sticks and a lot of them have paunches!” The women on the other hand, were younger, sprightlier, beautifully dressed and immaculately groomed.

That evening several of the guests came to dinner, though we couldn’t eat much. We sat on the veranda in the dusk, by the loquat tree covered in golden fruit, with a fat green and white wood pigeon rustling around swallowing them whole. We had wine and laughter and fun, discussed everything irreverently, and enjoyed the party all over again.

Days of wine and roses and golden laughter  …when I returned flushed with champagne from Friend today, I found another generous neighbour had called while I was out, and left a bag full of freshly picked broad beans hanging on the door handle.

They were so delicious that for supper, I simply ate a dish of the tender little green jewels glistening with hot butter, though the old chap had steak with his. And I’ve just returned from the field above the harbour where the two little white goats live. They feasted on the broad bean pods, and seemed to feel the way I do about them.

‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may’, wrote the poet, ‘Old time is still a-flying’, and I’m dedicated to this advice…. my rosebuds may be different to other people’s ideas of rosebuds, but I’m picking them as fast as I may.

So I sit here on the veranda writing, watching the evening sky turn pink and lilac and pale turquoise over the still, silver water, the scent of sweet peas, a gift from a friend’s garden drifting through the house, and savour my blessings. I began with the words of a hymn, so I’ll end with some. These shining days are filled with rosebuds – moments of pleasure and goodness – friends and fun and flowers, chickens and birdsong and beans, ‘all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small’.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

The strawberry season means Eton Mess for me! The first time I tasted it was just outside Eton, at a place called Datchett, at a rather grand dinner to entertain some visiting Argentinian polo players who’d been playing on Smith’s Lawn at Windsor. My best friend and I knew we were only there simply because they needed some girls to balance out the chaps. But we gave the food a lot of attention too.

The version I ate then was a variation, because the crushed strawberries and broken meringue were pressed into a big dish of ice-cream, and then re-frozen. Whipped cream was piled on  when it was served, on a huge carving dish. I like doing it this way too, using freshly made local artisan ice-cream. Really, the amounts are up to you… you can’t go wrong. As an added touch I sometimes whizz up a punnet of the fresh strawberries with some sugar, and hand that round in a sauce bowl, to drench the already sumptuous mixture in it! Food for the gods….

 

Food for Thought

He had picked it up, he said, on a beach; it was a piece of sea-washed wood in the shape of a human head. It was made of hard wood, shaped by the waters of the sea, cleansed by many seasons. He had brought it home and put it on the mantelpiece; he looked at it from time to time and admired what he had done.

One day he put some flowers round it and then it happened every day; he felt uncomfortable if there were not fresh flowers every day and gradually that piece of shaped wood became very important to his life. He would allow no one to touch it except himself; they might desecrate it; he washed his hands before he touched it. It had become holy, sacred, and he alone was the high priest of it; he represented it; it told him of things he could never know by himself. His life was filled with it and he was, he said, unspeakably happy.

From Krishnamurti’s Journal

 

 

 

 

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Paradise is not lost

100_0559 In this country the sun is reputed to shine twice as often as it does in England, and it shines with especial clarity on Coromandel, so called when a ship of that name anchored where the township is now. The Coromandel peninsula is a rugged line of purple ranges and deep ravines where clear bright streams and rivers rush over rocks to the sea. Once the peaks of Coromandel were clothed in primeval kauri forests, and once too, those peaks hid seams of ancient gold. But now these two sources of gold have long been mined, the hills are covered in secondary growth, and the mine shafts are empty.

It’s always been a place of passion and politics, where potters and painters, poets  and philosophers have fought to defend their way of life in these empty, unpolluted and un-peopled places. Ringing this neck of land, pohutakawa trees flaunt their red flowers along the rocky coast-line, and distant blue horizons beckon to unexplored peaks and impenetrable bush.

Our house on the side of a narrow valley leading down to the water’s edge, looked up to the steep foot hills of the Coromandel ranges behind us. And we faced the Firth of Thames, where the light on the water had a mystic quality in the winter sunshine; where the line of Miranda beach on the opposite shore could just be glimpsed; and where flights of godwits gathering for their heroic autumn journey to Siberia, could be imagined.

Further down the coast was the place where Captain Cook first came ashore in this country.  Young Nick, the cabin boy who sighted land, gave his name to Young Nick’s Head, and where Captain Cook observed the transit of Mercury, he called the bay where they anchored, Mercury Bay.

When the Endeavour came sailing into Mercury Bay it was watched by a nine year old boy. Eighty-three years later the magnificent old man told his story. As he watched the great canoe with huge white sails skimming towards them, he was amazed when the ship’s crew then rowed ashore in the time-honoured fashion with their backs in the direction in which they were going.

“Yes, it is so,” said the old people watching with him, “these people are goblins, their eyes are in the back of their heads.” Eventually Horeta Te Taniwha, as he was called, gathered the courage to climb on board the ship with the older people.

“I and my two companions did not walk about on board the ship – we were afraid lest we be bewitched by the goblins; and we sat still and looked at everything at the home of these goblins… the chief goblin… came up on deck again to where I and my boy-companions were, and patted our head with his hand, and he put out his hand towards me and spoke to us at the same time, holding the nail out to us.

“My companions were afraid and sat in silence; but I laughed, and he gave the nail to me. I took it in my hand and said “Ka-pai” (very good), and he repeated my words, and again patted our heads with his hand, and went away.

“My companions said: “This is the leader of the ship, which is proved by his kindness to us; and also he is very fond of children. A noble man – one of noble birth – cannot be lost in a crowd”

“I took my nail and kept it with great care, and carried it wherever I went, and made it fit to the point of my spear, and also used it to makes holes in the side-boards of the canoe, to bind them onto the canoe. I kept this nail until one day I was in a canoe and she capsized in the sea and my god (the nail) was lost to me…”

The descriptions of the pristine land that Cook discovered in 1769, sound as fragrant and unspoiled as the descriptions of Roanoke in 1584. I ache to have seen Auckland harbour as it was then–the first accounts tell of the silence and the sunshine, the flaming pohutakawa trees bending over the still, clear water as the first white men glided spell-bound up the harbour in their sailing ships – it was a magical, mysterious country which seemed like the most exquisite place on earth to those early explorers. On the other side of the coast, where the other great harbour of Manukau lies, they found forests teeming with strange birds, great trees of more than ten metres in girth towering to the skies, cloudy waterfalls, black sand beaches  and steep jagged cliffs facing the turbulent Tasman..

 Songbirds fluted in the dense forests. Sir Joseph Banks, the great naturalist on board the Endeavour with Cook, wrote at Queen Charlotte Sound: “ the ship lay at a distance of somewhat less than a quarter of a mile from the shore, and in the morning we were awakened by the singing of the birds: the number was incredible. And they seemed to strain their throats in emulation of each other. This wild melody was infinitely superior to any that we had ever heard of the same kind: it seemed to be like small bells most exquisitely tuned.”

Civilisation has made life easier and more comfortable at one level, dentists, drains, and all the rest, and destroyed the planet in the process. And we all know it and yearn for the original untouched Garden of Eden. To have been alive then, and to have savoured this untouched land… it makes me feel homesick just to think of it. So-called civilisation of course, has changed so much of this. From 1840 onwards, the settlers did their best to destroy the forests, using the giant kauris for ships masts, and building wooden homes, wood being the quickest material to use to build a home in a new country. On the newly barren hills they planted grass for the millions of sheep which have brought prosperity to this country, and now erosion means that in some places, the rivers are no longer clear, but sluggish muddy currents.

They took the gold, and now they want the oil. Yet so many of us still want keep this country as unpolluted and unspoiled as possible; so we try to save the native birds, we enclose huge national parks,  we preserve the swathes of native bush and forest still here, and we oppose the multi-national oil companies. And nothing can change or spoil the silent, snow-capped mountains and wild waterfalls, the great lakes and endless miles of solitary beaches in an empty land the size of England, which is home to only four million people.

I now live an hour’s drive north of Auckland, looking out on green fields one side, and blue sea the other; and I walk the long deserted stretches of yellow sands, and can only hear larks singing high above the dunes, and the waves breaking on the shore. In a crowded world, where solitude and silence are hard to find, this place still seems like paradise – last, loneliest, loveliest – as Rudyard Kipling once described Auckland.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

I love vegetable dishes. This fennel dish I can eat as a meal, and my husband can have it with his steak, though it also goes well with lamb and pork. Allow a fennel bulb for each person, though if I’m having it as a meal, I usually have two. Cut the fennel in half from root to stalk and blanch in boiling salted water and drain well. Cut the fennel again, into quarters, and lay them in a well- buttered baking dish… it doesn’t matter if they break up. Scatter pieces of fried and chopped bacon over the fennel along with a finely chopped garlic clove. Whisk a teasp of flour into 250 ml of cream and pour over the fennel. Bake for about 25 minutes in an oven set at 190 degrees. Check it’s soft with a sharp knife. Eaten with a crusty roll or wholemeal bread, it’s very satisfying.

Food for thought

It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.

CS Lewis, 1898 – 1963 English novelist, poet, medievalist and literary critic. Best known for his books ‘The Screwtape Letters’ and ‘Chronicles of Narnia’.

 

 

 

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Birds of a feather

100_0479My heart was in my mouth. I was sitting at the traffic junction in our small town where six roads meet and compete for the lights.  Would the traffic stop? A duck was slowly waddling across the road with a clutch of tiny ducklings in tow. They made it to the pavement which would lead them along to the river in the middle of town, with just one hiccup over two slow ducklings who stopped to drink from a puddle, and which an impatient woman nearly cleaned up as she got tired of waiting.

This is the duck season. We become very conscious of them as they shepherd their progeny across busy roads, oblivious of the killing machines skidding to a halt yards from them.

A friend told me how in the middle of the busy village street, he stopped to let a mother pass while her babies all scuttled to safety on the pavement, but she wouldn’t move from the middle of the road. As he wondered how long she was going to obstinately stand there, suddenly two recalcitrant toddlers made a dash from the other side to catch up with their mother and siblings. Ducks can count!

The same thrush (I think) who made life difficult for us last year, by nesting in the honeysuckle by the side door of the garage has returned, and I in-advertently uncovered this year’s nest as I began to trim the overhanging ivy on the arch into the garden from the garage. I saw with horror a beautiful blue egg in the exquisitely woven little nest, and hastily covered it with strands of the trimmed ivy.

I blocked the arch with a rake and a hoe and a plank of wood across the top of the steps to stop anyone using it, so now everyone has to go the long way round from the garage. (see pic above!) I tiptoed up the next day, to check if the bird had returned, and as I stood peering intently into the tangle of ivy leaves, I suddenly realised that a beady yellow- rimmed eye was staring at me. I backed away very slowly, apologising softly for my intrusion.

A grey heron unexpectedly circled in front of my car as I drove between spring- green trees and hawthorn hedges encrusted with white blossom this morning; and I noticed that the striking paradise ducks with black, white and sherry coloured plumage who mate for life, seem to have disappeared from their usual haunts – to tend their nests too, I presume.

Driving home in the dusk a few nights ago, I saw what I thought were burrs on the road in front of me, but they were moving. As I swerved, I realised that the tiny balls of black fluff rolling to the side of the road were probably paradise duck babies. They all start off as balls of fluff, and then the brown mallards develop tiny yellow legs and webbed feet that scurry frantically across the road, beautiful little creatures with not an ugly duckling among them.

Years ago as we walked down the lane by our house, being towed by two shaggy afghan hounds and a cavalier King Charles spaniel, I was consoling the children about the village fete, and their spurned handicraft entries.  “The thing is,” said my ten year old daughter, “other mothers think their ugly ducklings will grow into swans, but you think we’re swans already!”

Not surprising when I thought about it… swans had been part of my life as a child. We lived close to a lake called the Backwater. It had once been a tidal inlet, until the local authorities had built a bridge which blocked the flow from Weymouth Harbour. Until then the tide had washed up and down this long channel, where there’s evidence that the Romans once had a small port at the end of the inlet where we lived. There’s a legend that later, when the Vikings made their first raid on England at Portland just round the corner, they also pushed their way up the Backwater in AD 787.  Later the Saxons settled around here among local British tribes who‘d been inhabiting the area since Mesolithic times – 12,500 BC. (Genetic experiments have shown that a significant segment of the modern population here are descended from those original Mesolithic inhabitants.)

 When I knew the Backwater, neither  Stone Age coracle nor Viking long-boat could have rowed up the now tide-less water, for thick beds of reeds had spread to give safe cover for the big, white mute swans to build their nests and hide their cygnets. I used to walk my dolls pram down to the edge of the lake and throw them bits of bread. On the grass the other side of the road edging the water, the Americans had had all their tanks and armoured vehicles lined up row on row before they left for D-day, thus reversing the ancient pattern of invasion, and taking fire and sword back to the mainland.

There are so many legends and folk tales about swans, the commonest being that their nearly ten foot wide wing span can break a man’s arm. This is one of the long-running jokes in Sue Townsend’s gloriously funny book, ‘Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction.’ Adrian buys a trendy flat in a disused warehouse alongside the river, and discovers too late that a posse of swans consider this place to be their territory. Everyone who visits the hapless Adrian ends up warning him, “A swan can break a man’s arm, you know”.

They mate for life too, and I love the names of the different species: as well as the mute swans, there are trumpeter swans, whooper swans, tundra swans, and the Bewick, a sub-tribe of the tundra clan. The biggest populations of wild swans live in Russia, and it’s believed that the only reason swans didn’t become extinct in England un medieval times – since they were good eating – was that though everyone cut a notch in the feet of their own swans, birds without the notch were considered to be the sovereign’s property and protected by a royal swan herdsman. This preserved the native species. And as for cygnets, who can forget the all male corps de ballet who performed at Covent Garden, and then made their breath-taking and tantalisingly  brief appearance in the film ‘Billy Eliot?’

We only have the non-native black swan here, immigrants from Australia who now populate various lakes around the North Island in great numbers. I remember my disbelief when I saw the one black swan on the lake at Kew Gardens as a little girl. I love them now. The evil black swan queen in Swan Lake gives black swans an undeserved bad name – they are elegant, peace-loving family-oriented birds, loyal to each other, male and female raising their families of cygnets together year after year. 

It seems appropriate that all our swans here are black, when I consider that New Zealand’s  national colour is black… the All-Blacks play rugby, the NZ cricket team wears black, as does our Olympic team, the America’s Cup yachtsmen  and all other sports teams. And statuesque Maori women look magnificent in their black mourning with wreaths of green leaves around their heads, as they perform the ancient karakia or grieving  chants with their graceful waving arm movements. Black is indeed Beautiful in this country !

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

A green-thumbed – or is it green fingered –  neighbour generously left a bag of goodies outside the door the other day. Among them were delicious, tender young leeks and green cauliflower. They deserved a dish of their own so I used a recipe I’d just found. Steam enough cauliflower to fill a cup when mashed. Cut the leeks into rounds, and sauté in butter until tender. (I always put a little oil in too, so the butter doesn’t burn) Mix the cauliflower and tender leeks with an egg, a good quarter of a cup of flour, two tablesp of parsley and one of chopped dill, a good grinding of black pepper and half a teasp of salt. Form the mixture into patties and fry on both sides. I sprinkled them with plenty of Parmesan, but I would think crumbled goats cheese would be good too. Next time I try them I shall use coriander, and mix in some crumbled goats cheese.

 

Food for thought

From Midrashim: Proverbs 6.6

Go to the ant, you sluggard,

and watch it lug an object

forward single file

with no short breaks for

coffee, gossip, a croissant,

And no stopping to apostrophize

blossom, by-passed because

pollen is not its job,

no pause for trampled companions:

consider her ways – and be content.

David Curzon, born 1951 – poet, essayist, translator and United Nations official retiring in 2001.

 

 

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