Ah, hush! Tread softly through the rime, For there will be a blackbird singing, or a thrush. Like coloured beads the elm-buds flush: All the trees dream of leaves and flowers and light. And see! The northern bank is much more white Than frosty grass, for now is snowdrop time.
Mary Webb, Snowdrop Time
Mrs Turnstone and I had just left the train at Edinburgh Waverley Station and were making our way into Princes Street Gardens. It was one of those warm February days when Scotland feels almost temperate. We walked down beside the Scott Monument and stopped as one. We were not expecting scent in February! The bank to our left, west-facing, was in full sun, with thousands of snowdrops at head height, releasing sweetness whether anyone was there to appreciate it or not.
Later in the week we visited the Botanic Gardens, by no means bereft of snowdrops. There was one, a specimen, that had a greenhouse all to itself. It was raised up on the shelving the better for us to see its golden stripe on the inner petals, gold instead of the classic green. I don’t know if someone deliberately crossed two flowers in their collection, or else got down on the ground, close enough to discern this special snowdrop. Thanks be to them!
Mary Webb’s north bank would, of course, have faced south, so plenty of time in full sun to add scent to the glory of the flowers’ appearance. Snowdrops do belong together in hundreds and thousands but it is worth looking at a singleton to appreciate its graceful form. Look, and see, and wonder; laudato si’!
Rime is a ground frost; the snowdrops here were growing in Fletcher Moss Park, Manchester.
I had a few posts left to prepare for February’s blog but lacked inspiration. Mental fog had descended upon me! One afternoon Mrs Turnstone and I had been invited to a wassail party at the Glebe after which we walked home beside the River Stour. Robins, blackbirds, and even I think, a blackcap, were singing their dusk chorus. Mary Webb sprang to mind. Here we find her in melancholy mood.
The birds will sing
The birds will sing when I am gone To stranger-folk with stranger-ways. Without a break they’ll whistle on In close and flowery orchard deeps, Where once I loved them, nights and days, And never reck of one that weeps.
The bud that slept within the bark When I was there, will break her bars– A small green flame from out the dark– And round into a world, and spread Beneath the silver dews and stars, Nor miss my bent, attentive head.
A close and flowery apple in our two-treed orchard; a few weeks ago both leaf and flower buds were still dormant, along with most trees. Valentine’s day, the birds’ wedding day may not easily lift that Seasonal Affective Disorder, but the small green flame of a bursting bud breaks the bars in the writer’s heart, a heart attentive to the world of Spring.
This picture was not chosen for its top left-hand corner but it was good to see the hazel catkins shaking out their ‘lambs’ tails’, a sure sign that something is stirring, sap is rising, spring is coming. Below them, dark green behind the makeshift greenhouse is a bed of something in the cabbage family; the leaf broken over one plant’s head suggests a cauliflower. The pigeons are less likely to ravage the white curds if they do not see them from on high.
We liked the dancing scarecrow there at the back, and the green manure around the site. This is a fancy name for letting the ground green over in autumn, with the new plants being dug in to improve the soil when Spring arrives. But someone has moved on, there’s a bed dug and raked in the centre of the picture, possibly with onion or garlic sets coming through; there seems to be a hint of green at ground level.
The gardeners of Fordwich are co-operating with their creator, working with the seasons and the soil. next time we walk this way, who knows what we will see?
What will you be growing this year? A few pots of peas, or dwarf carrots, or runner beans or radishes, or cucumbers or even tomatoes will provide food and fun in a small space. And the seeds are in the shops now!
Let’s try to grow something beautiful and edible this year, maybe letting a supermarket pot of mint or basil get bigger on a window sill if you have no other space. When God saw the plants he had made, it was good. It would be good to join him in the story of creation this year.
The following passage chimed with me when remembering a prolonged bout of ill health, during which time I spent many hours sitting next to the Aga cooker, chatting to my grandmother. What was said is largely forgotten, but one morning I said, ‘I feel hungry!’ for the first time in months. ‘Feed that hunger!’ she said, which good advice set me on the road to recovery.
But here is Mary Lamb writing to Dorothy Wordsworth in 1810 remembering their recent time together.
I hope we had many pleasant fireside hours together, but I almost fear the stupid dispirited state I was in made me seem a very flat companion; but I know I listened with great pleasure to many interesting conversations.”
From The Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb, 1796-1820, edited by E. V. Lucas.
Sometimes the ‘wallflower’ is quite happy just to be there with family and friends. In that kitchen of my parents’, there was always room for one more on the bench, however silent or vociferous they might be. Budge up!
Here is Mary as Queen and Mother, as seen in Valencia Cathedral in Spain. Look closely and you will find passport photos tucked into the folds of the figures, tokens of prayers to Mary; people come here to pray for children, with concern for the well-being of their families or asking Mary’s intercession that they might conceive a child.
Today is the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, the day when Bernadette saw her first apparition of Mary. Anyone who saw her kneeling on the riverbank in mid-February in a mountain village could have been forgiven for thinking she was crazy. I daresay there are those who would say the same of those who push their child into Mary’s attention.
But Lourdes and Valencia are places of blessing, undeniably so, even if you dismiss those blessings as the result of psychosomatic forces.
What is Mary’s role in all this? Her life on this earth was complete some 2,000 years ago. To start discerning an answer, we are sending you to Eric Clayton of the North American Jesuits, who received and shared a few insights with the help of his young daughter.
From the Epistle to William Simpson by Robert Burns
Ev'n winter bleak has charms to me,
When winds rave thro' the naked tree;
Or frosts on hills of Ochiltree
Are hoary gray;
Or blinding drifts wild-furious flee,
Dark'ning the day!
O Nature! a' thy shews an' forms
To feeling, pensive hearts hae charms!
Whether the summer kindly warms,
Wi' life an' light;
Or winter howls, in gusty storms,
The lang, dark night!
The Muse, nae poet ever fand her,
Till by himsel he learn'd to wander,
Adown some trottin burn's meander,
An' no think lang:
O, sweet to stray, an' pensive ponder
A heart-felt sang.
Three wintry verses from Robert Burns. Silence and solitude seem to be his prerequisites for hearing the heart-felt song forming in his mind. The Scots dialect is not too difficult here, but just a couple of translations from our third verse.
Burn: brook; it crops up in English place-names, Saltburn, Blackburn, etc..
Mrs Turnstone, whose birthday this is, loves the fact that on 13 January the sun is visible in Greenland for the first time since the winter’s darkness took over. Let’s pray that we might be ready to observe the light we are given and to rejoice this day and every day.
A spotless Rose is blowing Sprung from a tender root, Of ancient seers’ foreshowing, Of Jesse promised fruit; Its fairest bud unfolds to light Amid the cold, cold winter And in the dark midnight.
The Rose which I am singing, Whereof Isaiah said, Is from its sweet root springing In Mary, purest Maid; For through our God’s great love and might The blessed babe she bare us In a cold, cold winter’s night.
Another Christmas poem, this time from Germany. The poem takes us back to King David’s father, Jesse, thirty-times great-grandfather to Jesus. The Jesse tree picks out some of the ancestors for art works in stained glass, sculpture or painting, including Ruth, the foreigner from Moab, who was to become the grandmother of Jesse (Matthew 1:5). So much for any idea of pure Israelite blood in David’s line! In fact, the book of Ruth celebrates this foreign woman’s loyalty and goodness down through the ages and generations.
Mary, even more so than Ruth, stands as a Good Woman. ‘Spotless Rose’, like many of the titles given to Mary, may not appeal to your imagination. This lovely Scottish rose, sprung in a canal-side hedge, did not set me thinking about Mary. But when I wanted a photograph for the Spotless Rose, I knew where to find it. And maybe the next time I look at rose, a bell might ring in my mind.
Traditional German carol, translated by Catherine Winkworth.
At New Year 1873, William Allingham, the Irish Poet, was in London and called on his Scottish friend Thomas Carlyle, as he told his diary.
London, January 1, 1873. — Carlyle’s at 3. He gives me a book. We walk out.
This morning he said, ‘ after midnight, as Mary and I were sitting together, we heard a chorus of male voices outside the window singing Auld Lang Syne. We peeped out, and saw five or six figures on the other side of the street. I was really touched. I put up the window and said ” Good-night ! ” one of them eagerly replied ” Good-night ! ” and then they all vanished silently away.’
Then with a laugh he added, ‘ Truly the songs of Judah in a Babylonish land ‘ ! and afterwards quoted Burns’s burlesque lines : — We hung our fiddles up to dreep*. He spoke of ‘Hogmanay ‘ in the streets of Edinburgh, hot punch and kissing.
*Nae mair by Babel's streams we'll weep,
To think upon our Zion;
And hang our fiddles up to dreep,
Like baby-clouts a-drying:
Come, screw the pegs wi' tuneful cheep,
And o'er the thairms by trying;
Oh rare! To see our elbucks wheep,
And a' like lambs' tails flyin'
Fu' fast this day!
In Psalm 137 the poet sings of the people of Israel refusing to sing in exile, instead hanging their musical instruments on the willows beside the rivers of Babylon. This willow was just coming into leaf in Spring. Carlyle was not a conventional Christian believer, more of a life-long enquirer, but he enjoyed the tribute of being serenaded with song from the first-footers – who vanished silently away rather than expect their dram of whisky. Hogmanay seems to have been carnival time in Edinburgh 200 years ago, when Carlyle was a young man there.
Burns was not the man to indulge for long in melancholic reflection; rather he looked forward to the fiddlers’ elbows whipping the strings and getting people to dance. Perhaps the exiles’ songs of Judah contributed greatly to the fellowship, friendship and community of the Chosen People.
This dusty angel is in York Minster with his improbably long-chained censer. Strength to your arm, Angel!
The winter night knows many a star, But the Angels have found one brighter far Than any that ever has shone before; They float and fall through the silent snow Like birds of God, to settle below; To find our earth the Angels go.
A poor little planet, a poor little town, A poor little cradle, not lined with down, A particular absence of all renown; Angels must be peculiar things, Who float and fall with wheeling wings To seek in such for the King of kings.
If we were heaven-taught we should know That what we think high God might yet think low, And straight to Bethlehem singing go; For this earth of ours is still the Star Whither the Angels flew from far, Where the Christ-child and His Mother are.
More bright than the star that Wisdom led, To Angels’ eyes shone the cattle-shed, Where the little Christ once laid His head; And ‘twixt the tapers, just the same As when to Bethlehem once they came, To Angels’ eyes must the altar flame.