Tag 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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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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Ant or grasshopper?

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The weather forecasters are calling it an Indian summer. This appals me – sitting here looking out of the French windows, watching butterflies flitting over the hydrangeas, I thought we were still gently making our way through an antipodean summer. Has the time flown so fast that we are in that gap between high summer and early autumn? The din of the cicadas should have warned me, as should the scattered pink blossoms on the plum tree. This bewildered specimen flowers every autumn – fruitlessly – before doing its spring burst of glory.

Driving along the roads to town, the verges are blooming with the autumn flowering of scarlet mombretia which have spread through the long golden grass. White oxe-eye daisies grow in clumps among the mombretias, and there are still some red- hot pokers and a few roses flowering as I drive past unkempt hedge-rows bright with a heavy harvest of red hawthorn berries.

 If it was the northern hemisphere I would repeat to myself the old country lore that we must be going to have a hard winter, and nature is providing for the hungry birds. But we never have hard winters where I live, so I just savour the bounty with no fear for the future. Instead we long for rain.

Every year now we have a drought, and it becomes a struggle to keep the garden alive;  I use up our precious water to save the white Japanese anenomes for their burst of autumn flowering, and to stop the roses wilting. The purple salvia looks after itself. Glorious scented Jean Ducher, and bright mutabilis keep the cycle of roses going all the year round. And littered around the garden are the shallow plant holders filled with water for thirsty hedgehogs to drink, and where I also see wasps sipping and even a pair of snails making their way together down to the water in a deep bowl.

When I looked out of the bedroom window this morning at silent dawn, the sea looked like wet aluminium, the curve of bay on the distant horizon was steel grey, and the clouds overhead, silver- grey. But by the time I drove into town for shopping, the sun had come out.  The fields are so dry they are burned to a pale gold, and the pennyroyal is now flowering, making a carpet of purple.

That rich purple carpet always reminds me of when I was in France, staying in an ivy- turreted, moated chateau in deepest Vienne as a twelve year old… my best friend there, Josephine, invited me to go mushrooming with her and her maid, so equipped with baskets we set off to find “champignons”, chattering in fractured French and broken English.

Two little girls dressed in flowery cotton summer dresses made their way through long wet grass and dewy paths lined on either side with blackberry bushes heavy with fat juicy fruit as big as grapes.

 We walked through early morning mist, and it suddenly cleared. There in the bright sun-shine in front of us, stretched a shimmering field of tiny pale purple-blue flowers, with hundreds of miniature, deep blue butterflies hovering and fluttering above them. That world was alive with birds and butterflies.

Farmers here are feeding out to the cows already, and I fear for the thirsty birds and hedgehogs. As I drove past the agistement fields outside the village, I saw all eight mares spread out round the field in a circle, with their heads thrust deep into bright red plastic buckets; and by the side of each one, their long-legged foal stood patiently,  waiting for mother to finish.

At lunch with friends was a person I’d never met, who used to be a dressage and eventing rider. She told a fascinating story of when she was part of the NZ team at the Olympics when Mark Todd won his first gold medal. The New Zealand team were in third place when their last rider came on. This person did the round without a fault, but so slowly that the team lost forty points and slipped right down the order. Mark Todd, beside himself, strode up to the rider, and exploded; “Why did you do it?”

“I was saving the horse,” was the reply, to which Todd cried despairingly: “What for?” I have used this thought constantly since, so every time I go to save something, I ask myself, what for, and mentally come back to the present, and seize the day!

On my own the other day, I decided to lay my lunch on a tray and take it out to the veranda where I look down to the sea through the gnarled branches of spreading pohutakawa trees. It’s shaded from the mid-day sun by dappled light filtered through leaves of the white wisteria. Suddenly I thought – why not use my precious antique green French plates – and green wine glasses – and the best silver – what am I saving them for? This is not seizing the day, I chided myself.

This thought has spread into other parts of my consciousness… I’m raiding my store-cupboard – if not now – when ? Why not eat these goodies now?  Time to start emptying the deep freeze – what am I saving all this food for? Those pretty shoes – why not wear them today, even if I’m not going anywhere?

Maybe I’m becoming a grasshopper – singing the summer through, taking no heed for the morrow – and the prudent ant in me is having a hard job trying to make itself heard. But being a grasshopper seems to mean feeling much satisfaction, joy and being right here in the present. If not now – when? Saving it  – what for?  Two phrases which are life-changing, ring with truth, and which mean that other cliché – seize the day. So I’ve come to terms with the Indian summer, and revel in these days of softer sun and autumn flowers and golden trees.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

It’s the time of year for the apple harvest. One of my favourite ways to use them for pudding when we have friends is to allow one apple per person. Take out the cores, and fill the hollow with brown sugar and sultanas, or as I usually do, with left-over Christmas mincemeat.

Put them either in an enamel dish or other oven-proof dish, but I love the homely look of an old-fashioned enamel dish for this. Pour cream and whisky over them to come up to about half an inch in the dish. Cover and bake until soft. They’re delicious served on their own or with a crisp biscuit, or for something filling, with a creamy rice pudding.

 Food for thought

“If we do not contest the violation of the fundamental right of free people to be left unmolested in their thoughts, associations, and communications–to be free from suspicion without cause–we will have lost the foundation of our thinking society. The defence of this fundamental freedom is the challenge of our generation,”

Edward Snowden NSA whistleblower and hero.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Filed under birds, environment, spiritual, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, village life

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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Filed under animals/pets, army, birds, cookery/recipes, food, great days, history, military history, philosophy, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, world war one