Beach-combing. Turnstones are adept at it, turning stones and scraps of weed and plastic to find food. Mary Webb, here writing in romantic mode, never came across the detectorists, sweeping the sands for coins fallen from tourists’ pockets, though my daughter, digging in the sand rather than flipping pebbles, once found enough to buy all the family an ice-cream! A red letter day. So what did Mary Webb find? A casket of the sea; a shell.
What has the sea swept up? A Viking oar, long mouldered in the peace Of grey oblivion? Some dim-burning bowl Of unmixed gold, from far-off island feasts? Ropes of old pearls? Masses of ambergris? Something of elfdom from the ghastly isles Where white-hot rocks pierce through the flying spindrift? Or a pale sea-queen, close wound in a net of spells?
Nothing of these. Nothing of antique splendours That have a weariness about their names: But–fresh and new, in frail transparency, Pink as a baby’s nail, silky and veined As a flower petal–this casket of the sea, One shell.
I think this shell came from Portobello beach in Scotland, just a short ride from Edinburgh. That’s one story a shell could tell: what’s your name and where do you come from, but Mary Webb turns hers over in her palm and gives us a little hymn of praise. Laudato si’.
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.
We don’t have a library photo of an albatross but this gull from Folkestone is a commanding presence, by Leigh Mulley. Today is traditionally the birds’ wedding day so a good one for this story.
Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner kept one wedding guest in three with his cautionary tale of the consequences of his crime in killing the Albatross. Two centuries later, as well as sympathising with the guest, we can take the last two verses as a prayer for creation – and for us to realise and fulfil our duty towards it.
O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been Alone on a wide wide sea: So lonely ’twas, that God himself Scarce seemed there to be.
O sweeter than the marriage-feast, ‘Tis sweeter far to me, To walk together to the kirk With a goodly company!–
To walk together to the kirk, And all together pray, While each to his great Father bends, Old men, and babes, and loving friends And youths and maidens gay!
Farewell, farewell! but this I tell To thee, thou Wedding-Guest! He prayeth well, who loveth well Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best All things both great and small; For the dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all.
Grandson Abel was very pleased when starlings nested under his roof. Of course they did not stay long in town but took off to the countryside for the summer once the chicks were fledged. Mary Webb enjoyed them too, in Shropshire, with their howls and hoots and shrieks and whistlings.
Their enemy in this part of Canterbury is not the owl but the sparrowhawk: one caught a starling right beside me in the back garden a few years ago, and last month I surprised one with a kill just 100 metres away. I also helped the young hawk by frightening off the thieving magpie!
It’s good to witness a previously persecuted bird establishing itself in our city, though the neighbour who generously feeds the little birds might not be too happy about the little piles of feathers that appear near here house from time to time. Enjoy Mary Webb’s poem, and Laudato Si’!
Starlings by Mary Webb
When the blue summer night Is short and safe and light, How should the starlings any more remember The fearful, trembling times of dark December? They mimic in their glee, With impudent jocosity, The terrible ululation of the owls That prey On just such folk as they. ‘Tu-whoo!’ And rusty-feathered fledglings, pressed Close in the nest Amid the chimney-stacks, are good all day If their indulgent father will but play At owls, With predatory howls And hoots and shrieks and whistlings wild and dread. Says one small bird, With lids drawn up, cosily tucked in bed, ‘Such things were never heard By me or you. They are not true.’
This is from earlier in the Compleat Angler. Piscator lands a trout, his protege, here still called ‘Viator’ or Traveller, is treated to more of his master’s observations and praise of creation.
Piscator: here is a Trout now, and a good one too, if I can but hold him; and two or three turns more will tire him: Now you see he lies still, and the sleight is to land him: Reach me that Landing net: So (Sir) now he is mine own, what say you? is not this worth all my labour?
Viator. On my word Master, this is a gallant Trout; what shall we do with him?
“But turn out of the way a little, good Scholar, towards yonder high hedge: We’ll sit whilst this shower falls so gently upon the teeming earth, and gives a sweeter smell to the lovely flowers that adorn the verdant Meadows.
Look, under that broad Beech tree I sat down when I was last this way a fishing, and the birds in the adjoining Grove seemed to have a friendly contention with an Echo, whose dead voice seemed to live in a hollow cave, near to the brow of that Primrose hill; there I sat viewing the Silver streams glide silently towards their centre, the tempestuous Sea, yet sometimes opposed by rugged roots, and pibble stones, which broke their waves, and turned them into some: and sometimes viewing the harmless Lambs, some leaping securely in the cool shade, whilst others sported themselves in the cheerful Sun; and others were craving comfort from the swollen Udders of their bleating Dams.
As I thus sat, these and other sighs had so fully possessed my soul, that I thought as the Poet has happily expressed it: I was for that time lifted above earth; And possessed joys not promised in my birth.
While they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. Acts 1:7.
Charles Wesley wrote many hymns, and this one fits the end of Eastertide, the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus. I like the image of us soaring where Christ has led: on high and beyond. Let us soar now by enjoying as much as we can of what life offers, as Jackdaws, Starlings, Swifts and Seagulls so often seem to celebrate the gift of flight together. Together may we soar when we are called to go above the cloud and the sunset.
Christ has burst the gates of hell!
Love's redeeming work is done; fought the fight, the battle won: lo, our Sun's eclipse is o'er, lo, he sets in blood no more.
Vain the stone, the watch, the seal; Christ has burst the gates of hell; death in vain forbids his rise; Christ has opened paradise.
Lives again our glorious King; where, O death, is now thy sting? dying once, he all doth save; where thy victory, O grave?
Soar we now where Christ has led, following our exalted Head; made like him, like him we rise; ours the cross, the grave, the skies.
Hail the Lord of earth and heaven!
Praise to thee by both be given:
thee we greet triumphant now;
hail, the Resurrection Thou!
We don’t tend to recycle old posts but this one, from January six years ago, follows well yesterday’s reflection by Emily Dickinson on the forgotten grave. Mary Webb looked forward to her own grave as a haven from the sufferings of this life, especially from the unkindness of other people. Her face was disfigured by Graves’ Disease which can now be successfully treated and she was sensitive about this.
We began the post with another woman’s death and burial.
We buried our friend Mrs O a few days ago. She had a good send-off, the church comfortably full. I was comforted an hour earlier, to see a rainbow, arched over her house as the rain drifted away into the North Sea. A promise that she will not perish! And the thrush and blackbird were singing.
But here is Mary Webb, feeling downhearted as she writes. May she rest in peace and rise in glory!
‘Safe’ by Mary Webb.
Under a blossoming tree Let me lie down, With one blackbird to sing to me In the evenings brown. Safe from the world’s long importunity – The endless talk, the critical, sly stare, The trifling social days – and unaware Of all the bitter thoughts they have of me, Low in the grass, deep in the daisies, I shall sleep sound, safe from their blames and praises.
Last summer I spotted Helen, a colleague from L’Arche, standing near our gate, staring into the sky. She was watching for swifts, those well-named insect-eating migrants who scream around our homes when the weather brings the flies near enough to the ground. At other times they may be far away or high above the earth, gathering food for their nestlings, but generally in groups. I was able to tell Helen that I generally saw about eight birds flying together. Did I know where they were nesting? I had not observed this, but our neighbourhood has many late 19th Century houses with gaps under the roof sufficient for swifts to enter and breed. However it’s not easy to identify the spot where they get in, so a census is difficult to take. But there are roughly half as many swifts as there were 20 years ago.
Another time we met outside Saint Dunstan’s church, where there are swift nesting boxes on the outside wall of the church hall. In the few minutes we stood there, we observed no birds going in or out. Past experience suggests that a new-smelling box will not be used in its first year, so no need to despair there.
Other local birds are really ‘over and gone’, and not just for one winter; especially the house martin, another migrant fly-eater. To think: they nested in this street when we moved here, but one house had table tennis balls hung from the eaves to deter martins from building their mud-brick houses and, yes, dropping their excrement on the path below, but even so.
The RSPB tell how to make a swift box here. We are sharing this now to allow readers in Europe time to make and install boxes before the swifts return.
How at Once by Edward Thomas
How at once should I know,
When stretched in the harvest blue
I saw the swift's black bow,
That I would not have that view
Until next May
Again it is due?
The same year after year—
But with the swift alone.
With other things I but fear
That they will be over and done
And I only see
Them to know them gone.
(from "Poems" by Edward Thomas)
A jolly, hopeful poem from Christina Rossetti. Laudato Si’.
Every valley drinks,
Every dell and hollow:
Where the kind rain sinks and sinks,
Green of Spring will follow.
Yet a lapse of weeks
Buds will burst their edges,
Strip their wool-coats, glue-coats, streaks,
In the woods and hedges;
Weave a bower of love
For birds to meet each other,
Weave a canopy above
Nest and egg and mother.
But for fattening rain
We should have no flowers,
Never a bud or leaf again
But for soaking showers;
Never a mated bird
In the rocking tree-tops,
Never indeed a flock or herd
To graze upon the lea-crops.
Lambs so woolly white,
Sheep the sun-bright leas on,
They could have no grass to bite
But for rain in season.
We should find no moss
In the shadiest places,
Find no waving meadow-grass
Pied with broad-eyed daisies;
But miles of barren sand,
With never a son or daughter,
Not a lily on the land,
Or lily on the water.
(from "Poems" by Christina Georgina Rossetti)