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Waving not drowning


I’m slowly sinking beneath the tide – not drowning but waving – to bowdlerise Stevie Smith’s poem.
And not a watery tide either. My whole garden seems to be subsiding beneath a sea of flaming leaves. Years ago I planted a row of liquid ambers, and sought out the brightest, most vivid species of autumn leaves, and it has proved true to its promise.

The colours, orange and purple, deep red and gold never fail to thrill me.
But now with the end of the golden weather, and autumn sliding into winter, these trees are revealing the bone structure hidden all summer under their luxuriant foliage.

Today, with pouring rain and cold blasts of wind I look out of the window at these grey skeletons and savour the fag end of autumn and the idea of winter settling in – and I love it… the fire’s lit, a pile of logs sitting smugly on the hearth, soup on the menu for lunch, and the pleasure of wearing a bright red wool jumper.

In my other life, the other side of the world, May and June in the northern hemisphere meant the opposite. I loved them then for may blossom and blackbird song, honey- suckle beginning to bloom in the hedgerows along with pale pink dog roses, and the pale translucent green leaves of beech trees with the sun shining through them… and a full moon shining over a loved wych elm on the sky-line. As the days grew warmer, the cooing of wood pigeons in the woods and the murmuring of innumerable bees in lime trees announced those hazy lazy days of summer.

In this country these months mean returning to those well loved clothes which never wear out, the wools and coats of winter, with the rich colouring and textures that summer clothes rarely possess… the sybaritic pleasure of a piping hot electric blanket on a cold wet night, and the glowing starlit sky of a frosty one.

So now I love these months for different things. I savour the bare hard look of ploughed fields, and stripped trees for silver trunks and shades of bark never noticed when the leaves were green. Mole said it best in ‘The Wind in the Willows’: “It was a cold still afternoon with a hard steely sky overhead…

“The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him and he thought he had never seen so far and intimately into the insides of things …Copses , dells, quarries and all hidden places which had been mysterious mines for exploration in leafy summer, now exposed themselves… He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple…”

And in his diary for December 12, 1874, The Rev Frances Kilvert described: “… a beauty in the trees peculiar to winter, when their fair delicate slender tracery unveiled by leaves and showing clearly against the skies rises bending with a lofty arc or weeps gracefully drooping.

“The crossing and interlacing of the limbs, the smaller boughs and tender twigs make an exquisitely fine network which has something of the severe beauty of sculpture while the tree in summer in its full pride and splendour and colour of foliage represents the loveliness of painting.

“The deciduous trees which seem to me most graceful and elegant in winter are the birches, limes, beeches”.

The rhythm of the seasons is felt less in the gentle micro- climate where I live, than in the colder regions of the country, but I still revel in them. When I lived in the tropics for years, I ached for the regular changing of the seasons, for cold and bleak or warm and balmy. The lack of variety of perpetual warmth, perpetual sun, perpetual foliage, flowers and fruit, unchanging as the months went by, were in the end, utterly boring to a westerner born and bred to the rhythm of the seasons.

Subtle Screwtape, the senior Devil, writing to his nephew Wormwood puts it better in CS Lewis’s ‘The Screwtape Letters’: “He (God )has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence. He has contrived to gratify both tastes together in the very world He has made, by that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm.

“He gives them the seasons, each season different yet every year the same, so that spring is felt as a novelty yet always as an immemorial theme… men will be transported by the mixed novelty and familiarity of snowdrops this January, sunrise this morning, plum pudding this Christmas…”

Yes. The devil is right, it’s the constantly changing seasons, the beauty we cannot grasp and keep, and at the same time the pleasure of doing what we did last year and the year before which gives life a richness and satisfaction. Children feel it as keenly as adults – who is as insistent as a child that we do the same as we did last year, especially at Christmas?

What the elderly devil Screwtape didn’t mention to his nephew Wormwood, who he was teaching to capture souls, was an even more regular pattern of rhythm – the poetry of the waxing and waning of the moon, and also the moods and feelings which are so often influenced by those rhythms. So often in the swings between euphoria and despair it’s easy to lose the way, and forget that these highs and lows are also part of the rhythm of life and of the human soul.

Yet ataraxia, which is an arcane word for: “ a state of freedom from emotional disturbance and anxiety “, coming from a Greek word meaning impassive, really sounds rather boring I commented to my dearest friend as we laughed over this definition. Who would want to be in a permanent state of valium-like tranquillity and never experience all the excitement of living, never to enjoy anticipation, exhilaration, or spontaneous joy. Without the rhythm of our emotional ups and downs, the waxing and waning of feelings and fun, life would lose its zest.

That isn’t to say I actually enjoy the downers… and usually I realise I’m using the left side of my brain when I’m depressed so I can do something to rise again. The left brain is the one that presses logical solutions and sensible brakes on hope and enthusiasm and joy. The voice that says you may not be able to do this – it’s too difficult – you’re not up to it…

Maybe that’s where Screwtape and his ilk gain their footholds on the human soul. The antidote to all this is the shift across to the right brain, the seat of intuition and inner knowing and the accepting and optimistic view of oneself and the world. And so back up into the rhythm of light and dark, warmth and cold, summer and winter, and savouring the joy of them all. The sun and the moon, the movement of the stars, the tides and the winds, the leaves budding and opening and falling, all swing us along through the seasons, and somehow, for me, as each season comes round again, it seems as safe an anchorage as home itself.

Food for threadbare gourmets

When I want a quick sustaining lunch, this is one of my favourites. I grate a medium sized potato, mix it with an egg, season generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and tip the whole lot into a frying pan with hot olive oil. I turn it like a pancake when the under- side is done. While it’s cooking I grill a couple of rashers of free range bacon, and… quick, tasty and satisfying.

Food for thought

Even as our few remaining wilderness areas are threatened, each day more of us venture into these beautiful landscapes to experience the energy for ourselves. And, immersed in the natural rhythms of the earth and the wind and the sky, our minds relax and we view our lives with quiet perspective. We can see our paths and can recognise the synchronicity that has guided our footsteps.
James Redfield from The Tenth Insight


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