Another poem by Mary Webb; this one sprung to mind one January afternoon, as I walked home from the Goods Shed Farmers’ Market, passing this well-laden hawthorn tree. A few more cold days, and the blackbirds – see below – will have stripped it.
A Hawthorn Berry
How sweet a thought,
How strange a deed,
To house such glory in a seed--
A berry, shining rufously,
Like scarlet coral in the sea!
A berry, rounder than a ring,
So round, it harbours everything;
So red, that all the blood of men
Could never paint it so again.
And, as I hold it in my hand
A fragrance steals across the land:
Rich, on the wintry heaven, I see
A white, immortal hawthorn-tree.
Let’s stay with Mary Webb today. Here is the blackbird; he is too preoccupied to sing, with that annoying human standing right next to his lunch. Mrs Blackbird was hidden behind the ivy in the first picture.
Mary Webb once more takes us from the things we hardly see for familiarity to the immortal, eternal. Infinity in a grain – a seed – of hawthorn. A hawthorn seed planted in her time would be ablaze with haws now, if not stripped by the birds, and then creamy white in May, the original Mayflower. This very bush is special to me. Walking by one day after an operation, I realised my sense of smell had returned, an unexpected gift from surgery elsewhere in my head. I try to remember in passing, and be consciously grateful.
And for raiment why are you solicitous? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they labour not, neither do they spin. But I say to you, that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these. And if the grass of the field, which is to day, and to morrow is cast into the oven, God doth so clothe: how much more you, O ye of little faith?
Matthew 6: 28-30.
The photo is from January last year, but could have been taken today, had the skies not been so grey. I always enjoy our early violets that bloom before their season. They put me in mind of this Gospel passage. I don’t think this was just a throwaway line of Jesus; he wants us to give our attention to the flowers and how they grow and are provided with sunshine, soil and water. That includes solid science.
These violets did not appear by magic, nor do they survive by magic. The bed they grow in was created at the edge of a footpath maybe 20 years ago, with shrubs lining a brick wall and violets providing ground cover beneath, shadowing out any weed seeds that might try and grow there. It’s almost a self-sustaining habitat now, requiring annual pruning of the bushes, and an occasional thinning of the violets.
I once declined to look after the garden of a lady who wanted me to uproot the violets carpeting her rose bed. The combination struck me as one of the most attractive prospects of her plot and she wanted to be rid of it! Removing the violets would have been against nature. Other plants would have come along to fill the space, requiring repeat weedings in turn. Working with nature allows our violets to do what they do best, bringing a smile to the faces of passing humans.
Pat, a girl I once worked with, had no money on her mother’s birthday, but had never noticed the bank of violets by their front fence. We gathered a fine posy to mark the day. Consider the flowers! They can speak of our love for each other as well as God’s love for us. Let’s work with him to restore beauty to our world.
Gilbert White, Anglican curate of Selborne, Hampshire, and pioneer naturalist, is writing to his friend, Thomas Pennant, reflecting on his studies and writing. Enjoy the XVIII Century prose, but reflect: what observations should I be sharing that might induce any of my readers to pay a more ready attention to the wonders of the Creation, too frequently overlooked as common occurrences?Dip your (metaphorical) pen!
If the writer should at all appear to have induced any of his readers to pay a more ready attention to the wonders of the Creation, too frequently overlooked as common occurrences; or if he should by any means, through his researches, have lent an helping hand towards the enlargement of the boundaries of historical and topographical knowledge; or if he should have thrown some small light upon ancient customs and manners, and especially on those that were monastic, his purpose will be fully answered. But if he should not have been successful in any of these his intentions, yet there remains this consolation behind—that these his pursuits, by keeping the body and mind employed, have, under Providence, contributed to much health and cheerfulness of spirits, even to old age:—and, what still adds to his happiness, have led him to the knowledge of a circle of gentlemen whose intelligent communications, as they have afforded him much pleasing information, so, could he flatter himself with a continuation of them, would they ever be deemed a matter of singular satisfaction and improvement.
Gil. White. Selborne, January 1st, 1788.
THE NATURAL HISTORY OF SELBORNE: LETTERS to THOMAS PENNANT, ESQ.
from “The Natural History of Selborne” by Gilbert White)
Yesterday was about hearing, today we are seeing hopefully. Or should I say seeing, hopefully. I’m not talking about taking note of the raindrops and kittens that we see, but about the sense of sight.
I’ve been blessed lately with two cataract operations, and sight is suddenly not to be taken for granted. Suddenly, all is Technicolor, or as my friend Winfried would have argued, Agfacolor. He favoured the German films and prints; we disagreed about the red end of the spectrum.
Seeing hopefully: this new lease of life for my eyes inspires hope. Not quite Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord, but a promise that if human co-operation with creation through science can enlighten my little world, there may be better things to come.
Winfried told me that the German for a cataract in the eye translates as grey star; not a star you would want to follow.
So, I told Fr Tom Herbst (TJH in Agnellus’ Mirror) as well, soon after the first op when one eye was still under the grey star. ‘I imagine’, he said, ‘you can well relate to the ecstasy felt by the blind folks healed by Jesus!!!’
I didn’t need him to point that out, but I was glad he did. I offered this progress report: ‘Till the second eye is done it’s a mixture of ecstasy and ‘I see trees walking’. (Mark 8:24) I hope by next week the eyes will be co-ordinating freely and I’ll recognise more people!’
Tom replied, ‘Good luck with the op. As marvellous as it might be to see trees walking (other than Ents, of course, which are not technically trees), it seems recognition might be the better choice!’
Pray that we may recognise the star we are called to follow this Advent and Christmas. It may all be a little different this year!
Literally ‘by the way’ these impressive soft bracket fungi caught my eye. Without a Polish Babcia to advise me, I thought I’d best leave them for whichever creature has been eating the one at the right. After all, the birds eat yew berries that are poison to us.
All things flow from God; all things return to him, and they can do so because he leaves room for us, gives us free will.
They that quarrel at the manner of God’s revealing Himself are troubled because He is invisible. Yet is it expedient that He should be so: for whatsoever is visible is a body; whatsoever is a body excludeth other things out of the place where itself is. If God therefore being infinite were visible He would make it impossible for anything to have a being. Besides, bulk as such in itself is dead. Whatsoever is visible is so in like manner.
That which inspireth bulk with motion, life, and sense is invisible; and in itself distinct from the bulk which it inspireth. Were God therefore pure bulk, He could neither move, nor will, nor desire anything; but being invisible; He leaveth room for and effecteth all things. He filleth nothing with a bodily presence, but includeth all. He is pure Life, Knowledge, and Desire, from which all things flow: pure Wisdom, Goodness, and Love to which all things return.
I shall delight to hear the ocean roar, or see the stars twinkle, in the company of men to whom Nature does not spread her volumes or utter her voice in vain. Samuel Johnson, in Boswell.
Dr Samuel Johnson had finally seen his Dictionary through the presses, and was about to go back to Lichfield to see his elderly mother. He would then have time for a holiday: this is part of his reply to an invitation to visit friends in Lincolnshire. At the time of posting we did not know if our August holiday would happen, but we can always reach the coast in a few minutes from home.Enjoy August, home or away, and thank God for friends and family.
(from “Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765” by James Boswell, George Birkbeck Norman Hill)
White depended upon correspondence with other gentlemen researchers to further his researches – and theirs. He contributed to the identification of the harvest mouse as a separate species. ‘Nondescript’ here means not having its description recorded in a scientific publication. Two inches is about 5 cm.
I have procured some of the mice mentioned in my former letters, a young one and a female with young, both of which I have preserved in brandy. From the colour, shape, size, and manner of nesting, I make no doubt but that the species is nondescript. They are much smaller, and more slender, than the mus domesticus medius of Ray, and have more of the squirrel or dormouse colour; their belly is white, a straight line along their sides divides the shades of their back and belly. They never enter into houses; are carried into ricks and barns with the sheaves, abound in harvest; and build their nests amidst the straws of the corn above the ground, and sometimes in thistles. They breed as many as eight at a litter, in a little round nest composed of the blades of grass or wheat.
One of these nests I procured this autumn, most artificially platted, and composed of the blades of wheat, perfectly round, and about the size of a cricket ball, with the aperture so ingeniously closed, that there was no discovering to what part it belonged. It was so compact and well filled, that it would roll across the table without being discomposed, though it contained eight little mice that were naked and blind. As this nest was perfectly full, how could the dam come at her litter respectively, so as to administer a teat to each? Perhaps she opens different places for that purpose, adjusting them again when the business is over; but she could not possibly be contained herself in the ball with her young, which moreover would be daily increasing in bulk. This wonderful procreant cradle, an elegant instance of the efforts of instinct, was found in a wheat-field suspended in the head of a thistle.
As to the small mice, I have farther to remark, that though they hang their nests for breeding up amidst the straws of the standing corn, above the ground, yet I find that, in the winter, they burrow deep in the earth, and make warm beds of grass: but their grand rendezvous seems to be in corn-ricks, into which they are carried at harvest. A neighbour housed an oat-rick lately, under the thatch of which were assembled nearly a hundred, most of which were taken, and some I saw. I measured them, and found that, from nose to tail, they were just two inches and a quarter, and their tails just two inches long. Two of them, in a scale, weighed down just one copper halfpenny, which is about the third of an ounce avoirdupois: so that I suppose they are the smallest quadrupeds in this island. A full-grown Mus medius domesticus weighs, I find, one ounce lumping weight, which is more than six times as much as the mouse above; and measures from nose to rump four inches and a quarter, and the same in its tail.
Zwergmaus (Micromys minutus), fotografiert 9/2005 von Hendrik Osadnik
Johnson’s friend, the surgeon Dr Staunton, was about to leave for the West Indies when he received this advice in a letter from Johnson. America here includes the Islands; New England was still a collection of British colonies. I hope you have the chance to enjoy examining something on holiday, a natural or even man-made curiosity.
In America there is little to be observed except natural curiosities. The new world must have many vegetables and animals with which philosophers are but little acquainted. I hope you will furnish yourself with some books of natural history, and some glasses and other instruments of observation. Trust as little as you can to report; examine all you can by your own senses. I do not doubt but you will be able to add much to knowledge, and, perhaps, to medicine. Wild nations trust to simples; and, perhaps, the Peruvian bark is not the only specifick which those extensive regions may afford us.
Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765 by James Boswell.
Cortex peruvianus study by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, 1706; better known today as quinine. A simple is a plant-based medicine; a specific is a medicine for a particular disease; in this case malaria.
JOHNSON. ‘There is nothing, Sir, too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.’
from “Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765” by James Boswell.
Samuel Johnson lived before the Voyage of the Beagle changed science for ever, but the generation of biologists before Darwin – like the Hampshire curate Gilbert White – were systematically looking at little things with the humility Johnson is advocating. Selborne parish was White’s study, the chalk hills, the plants and animals that inhabited them.
Our experience, walking on Kentish chalk during lockdown, is that once our eyes are open – to a damsel fly or to orchids for example – we see many more of them. This is a fly orchid, well named. But what else should my eyes be open to, walking city pavements?
Let’s pray for all those working at a really little, microscopic level, to bring us treatments and vaccines for diseases such as malaria and the new covid-19. Nothing is too little!