Florence

 

 

This is the moment she lets down her hair, newly washed at the Belfast sink, and offers it to a beneficent sun. The coiled braids, set free, ripple in a fanciful breeze and glisten with silver.

She is standing on a grassy incline, next to the hawthorn hedge, where no one will see her in this state of disarray. No one except the small girl who is bemused by the transfiguration. An elfin shadow falls aslant behind her.

For Florence, it echoes of another little presence, far away and gone. She knows about grief. After going into service, she gave birth to a son fathered by her master. The child was torn from her life, as though he had never lived, and the long conspiracy of silence only stresses her the more. He would be a young man by now, perhaps with a wife and family of his own. Sometimes, she is sure of it: her psyche is populated with shadows that live and move and have their being within the wings of everyday reality.

Young men did not come courting after that, but how could they when they lay lifeless in some corner of a foreign field? She bears her shame with meek fortitude, holding her head high among those who do not see her.

 

 

“Least said, soonest mended,” is what she tells her sister, Bella, who bicycles over the hills in her hat and coat on visits. Bella is inclined to pretend Daisy isn’t there. The sisters whisper overhead, while Bella glances down her nose and chides Florence for being put upon.

Daisy catches a phrase or two, though she is more interested in the magpie browsing the apple tree. “Lonely child, lonely woman,” says Bella.

“She mixes well enough. I don’t mind,” Florence tells her. And adds, somewhat cryptically, “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.”

Florence keeps house for her engineer brother, a saturnine fellow who likes a lot of mustard on his food and finds children tiresome.

'Your wife, your dog, and your walnut tree, the more you beat them, the better they be,' he jokes.

"Give over," Florence scolds.

It is whispered that he has taken up with a woman two villages away and plans to marry. Daisy is fascinated when Florence gets on her knees with Lol’s boiler suit spread over a wavy brick floor, lathering the tough denim with Sunlight soap and scraping the slurry off with a blunt knife before it goes into the copper to be boiled in suds created with soap and a cheese-grater. Men have fought for their country in trench, jungle and desert. They are the breadwinners, the prime holders of mortgage agreements, the payers of rent. Way must be made for them and their interests served.



 

She is a country woman to the core and delights in her garden, the digging and planting and picking, the rogation days and harvest home. The child capers back and forth with a toy watering-can imprinted with mermaids, dipping it into the rainwater butt and dragging it to the thirsty plants. Daisy loves her floral ‘choir’ that stands tall at the edge of the potato crop. The ink-blue of delphinium spires, the chuckling sunflowers, the hollyhocks and ox-eye daisies, the canterbury bells, and snapdragons whose jaws are gently prized by furry bees prospecting for gold. Her favourites of all are the marigolds. Her wheaten locks, parted and tied in bunches, bob up and down behind her ear lobes as she darts to and fro.

Startled, her little forefinger guards her mouth and she is motionless, sure that she can hear singing from some far distance place.

Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly, lavender’s green...

Florence is seized by a moment of undiluted joy.

“See the piggies?” suggests Daisy, off on another tack.

“I’m all behind like the cow’s tail today,” says Florence. “There’s Lol’s shirts to iron and...”

Daisy is crestfallen, because Lol’s shirts are definitely not top of her agenda.

“Well, you’d best go and put your bonnet on, then, while I take my pinny off and make myself fit.”

Daisy squeals with delight and does her happy dance.

In the afternoon, they call at Farmer Knight’s where Daisy clambers on to the pigpen gate for a lofty view of a litter of inquisitive snouts. Fortified by flapjacks and squash, the pair stroll home through field, wood and churchyard, sucking barley sugars, the luminous air filled with the hum of summer, while silken butterflies alight on flowers and dragonflies hint rainbows.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is a beloved ritual through the seasons, the naming of flowers. Snowdrops, aconites, anemones, Star of Bethlehem and wood sorrel. Violets, bluebells, lady’s smocks and dog roses. Speedwell, ragged robins and Queen Anne’s lace. Cornflowers, campion and tansy. Autumn crocus, Jack-in-the-Pulpit… Daisy can reel off this litany to her heart’s content.

A mosaic of tiny yellow petals, tinted with crimson, half-hidden in the grass, catches her eye. Delightedly, she pounces on it, losing hold of Florence’s hand. “Egg and bacon!”

“That’s right,” says Florence. “But you couldn’t eat that for your tea, now could you?”

She thinks of the apple cake resting on the pantry shelf and a gratifying brew of pekoe tips to round off the adventure with her small charge.

“What’s that?” asks Daisy, pointing. “Baby pansy?”

“Why, that’s heartsease,” says Florence.

But Daisy has no time for sighs. She is telling the time with a dandelion clock. The flossy seeds float upwards and away, to take root in some other pasture.

Florence will hug this day of mystical balm to herself for ever. And she will never know the treasure she has bequeathed.

The lady is aptly named.

 

 

These images reveal the glorious exuberance of nature in a churchyard during lockdown.

 

 

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Fishing in the Sky

As part of my stay-at-home regimen, I have been rereading Walden. I have consulted it often, but not read it through for many years. When I first read it, I was as enthralled as any child of the Sixties could be, and thought it the American finest prose of the Nineteenth century. I was curious what my reaction would be now so many years later, and having been thoroughly influenced by Thoreau’s mentor Emerson.

The first chapter, Economy, I have to admit, was disappointing. The tone seemed to me preachy and self-satisfied, like someone shouting on a street corner, with only occasional bouts of elegance and depth. Also the math seems suspect , but since that’s not my strongpoint either I’ll pass over it.

The second chapter, Where I Lived an What I lived For, is all the Thoreau I remember. Let me share one passage:

 

Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails. Let us rise early and fast, or break fast, gently and without perturbation; let company come and let company go, let the bells ring and the children cry,—determined to make a day of it. Why should we knock under and go with the stream? Let us not be upset and overwhelmed in that terrible rapid and whirlpool called a dinner, situated in the meridian shallows. Weather this danger and you are safe, for the rest of the way is down hill. With unrelaxed nerves, with morning vigor, sail by it, looking another way, tied to the mast like Ulysses. If the engine whistles, let it whistle till it is hoarse for its pains. If the bell rings, why should we run? We will consider what kind of music they are like. Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake; and then begin, having a point d’appui, below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or a state, or set a lamp-post safely, or perhaps a gauge, not a Nilometer, but a Realometer, that future ages might know how deep a freshet of shams and appearances had gathered from time to time. If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things. I do not wish to be any more busy with my hands than is necessary. My head is hands and feet. I feel all my best faculties concentrated in it. My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore-paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills. I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining-rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.

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The Butterfly and the Bee

As we all know, I have a low threshold of fascination. Today for example as I have been working on a book, I have also been keeping an eye on my petunias. I have never had petunias before, so perhaps that accounts for some of the fascination.  But really what garnered my attention for the last few hours is two visitors: a butterfly and an bee.

Initially actually I was watching a pail of water. It’s very hot today and I had set out what I hoped would be a makeshift birdbath. As I watched the pail, the water looked still and undisturbed. But the bright sun threw a reflection of the water onto the roof of my porch. In the reflection I could see the water moving, from the wind or maybe convection currents as the water heated in the brutal daylight. The reflection also showed the rippling waves as my gift evaporated. I felt like I  had my own little Plato’s cave, except the reflection was truer than the actual. Though I suspect that was true of Plato's as well. 

But then the butterfly appeared, a large one, likely a swallowtail  (my older brother would know), black wings with blue and gold spots. She (I think) kept flying around the weeds in my little garden. I have weeds in my garden, a lot of them this year. I leave them there because I don’t hurt anything if I don’t have to and they seem to feel the same. Anyway, the butterfly kept landing on one after another of the weeds, continually disappointed I assume, and completely ignorant of the cornucopia of petunias in the hanging basket not five feet overhead. Every once in a while she would float up and I would think—there, now she’s finally got it! But, so far at least, she has not made the leap. Perhaps it was an aesthetic choice and green is her preference. But the purple and pink treasure remained unclaimed. By the butterfly anyway.

The bee came later. A tiny one—though as scarce as bees have become around here I was glad to see any—found the petunias. But instead of gorging on the large full flowers, he instead insisted on trying to make his way into the nearly closed nearly dead blossoms, skipping entirely the glorious siblings. I watched him disappear into the narrow passage, and could see the from the turbulence outside the tunnel how difficult his passage was. I don’t if he made all the way it in, nor what he found when he got there. Maybe he just wanted a challenge. Or maybe the ripened juice is sweeter. Perhaps the bee knew his business better than I.

There are many morals that could be drawn here. But I will leave it to you, and the butterfly, and the bee. My wish is simply this: May you be  fascinated by flowers.

(Image by Paul Brennan from Pixabay )

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Tree Song

I don’t know why the caged bird sings. But I think I may have finally figured out why the others do.

I take walks every day down a wooded path behind my home. Sometimes so many birds are singing it sounds like a choir. Other times there are only one or two at each turn of the path. Occasionally the songs sound like a dialogue, sometimes a Bach canon. But most often the sounds are clearly ecstatic, a brimming forth of some secret joy.

I believe I have discovered the source of that joy. Each bird is singing about how beautiful its tree is. How delicately shaped each leaf as it twists in the breeze. How the broad canvas of the whole creates ever evolving shadows on the ground. How the Fibonacci architecture of the branches leads right up to the sky.

Birds never sing about what time they have to get to the bird feeder, or whether they need a bath, or the bird next door, or even that tree they saw two weeks ago. They only sing of the beauty in front of them.

Each bird sings in its own language. Birds are very smart; each knows all the languages of all the birds. But when they sing of trees they sing in their own tongue, the one they hold in their heart.

And when they fly to the next tree, birds sing about how beautiful that tree is. And I agree with them.

I have never seen a tree that was not beautiful, from smallest sapling to startling senior. And unique – no tree the same as any other– even the aspen trees (which reproduce by what is called root sprouting and are in a sense one tree) are genetically identical but never quite the same in appearance. I wonder sometimes if  the beauty of trees has something to do with their uniqueness—and if we were more aware of it in humankind, we might see more beauty in each other.

Do the trees listen to the birds? I think so. Do they appreciate the praise? I’m not so sure. The lives of trees seem unconcerned with birds, or squirrels, or humans. They have their own purposes in their long lives.

What beauty do trees sing about?

I doubt we will ever know.

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