2 weeks of wonderful freezing cold, but largely dry weather ended and the last 10 days have seen mild temperatures, wind, and winter rains return. Along with the added disappointment of a cancelled family visit, due to begin on Boxing Day, but aborted after winter coughs and sore throats struck half of the group just 4 days earlier.
After listening to this year’s broadcast Festival of Christmas carols from King’s College, I’m coming to the conclusion that listening to this annual event probably gives a good insight into the general respiratory health of the nation at this moment in time – we’ve never heard so much coughing and throat clearing from the audience of a recorded live concert.
No matter, Boxing Day itself was a rare interlude in the constant wet, so we headed out for a bracing walk around the tracks of Sifigwm forest, just up the hill from us. With wonderful views before a shower blew in, of the interlinked hills and valleys that converge to give our nearest village, Rhydcymerau, its name (the ford at the confluence of the valleys). As well as views to the distant fans and Brecon Beacons. I can also reflect on my good fortune not to end up in A&E, or worse, after a sole mountain biker sped up from behind us. With no warning, shouted alert, or slowing down, I only just avoided walking into him. With Beanies pulled down on a track where we normally only meet a couple of other walkers, Fiona had picked up on his presence before me. Her shouted warning had me reflexly stepping to my left, and nearly into his path. Needless to say, he powered away, on the wide forestry track without pausing. Was he even aware of our presence before the near collision? We often remark that bike rides are wonderful for speedy vigorous exercise, but riding on tracks like this, one tends to focus closely on just the 5 or 6 metres of gravel ahead. Walking allows for conversation and a better take on one’s surroundings.
The afternoon called for some more restorative pot-hole filling after all the recent rain. Though we had at least enjoyed fixing, between showers, the second of 2 installations, which the brilliant Mark Mennell, from Etch and Cut had managed to work up, and courier out, against any expectations, to arrive just in time for Christmas. (This shows a typical UPS style of home delivery – left out in the wet on the roadside, half a mile from home, with no text alert of its arrival)
Mark has been so helpful in bringing my idea of introducing a few more features incorporating words, or ideas, into the garden. This time the plan was to produce my 2 bookend poems as physical forms. But not just as simple straight text on a sheet of some material. How to do this? As is often the case, our creative process begins with a drawn-out, intermittent discussion with Fiona and me kicking around concepts and where exactly we wanted to place them, and finally, once we thought we’d worked it all out, we approached Mark for his input.
In the case of “Ripples”, although the idea of placing the text, floating in water, now seems obvious, it actually arrived quite late in our option considerations. Mark was not only key in advising on material selection, but also in working up the artwork computer file into a format that his laser would recognise. After sourcing and installing a suitable metal bowl in anticipation, which by a pure fluke exactly fitted onto the last remaining section of recycled telegraph pole from one of BT’s recent replacement visits, I eagerly opened the package to see what I thought.
When one tackles this sort of project, you really have no idea what it’ll look like in situ, and whether it’ll be viewed as a horrible mistake! Even though Mark’s communications include regular updates, proofs, and even images of the final cut material before shipping. Mark’s decision to make the rings of diminishing sizes, with reducing font sizes was a key aesthetic step, I think, in the final visual appeal. He also had to make a speedy amendment, very effectively, when the chosen material once he’d cut it only floated for a couple of seconds! His solution of a second hidden layer of a more buoyant material was executed with speed and finesse – you’d never know unless you lifted a ring out.
The unexpected bonus of the piece is that the rings move relative to each other, and also rotate if there’s any wind, so the feature is never static, and if one touches a ring, the design responds very quickly, with the gaps between rings opening and closing at different points. Not at all what I’d originally planned, but far better visually.
Placed as it is, right at the start of the path around the garden, it represents my very personal reflections on an event from nearly 30 years ago. And how we’re all inevitably shaped by external circumstances, whether at the time we perceive them as good, or bad. As the only person who was directly involved in the robbery which it describes, who’ll ever see this work, it obviously has a more direct meaning for me.
Life moved on from this for me an awfully long time ago – probably 18 months after the event, the fall-out from the trauma had dissipated. What’s left though, are thoughts about whether one has any real control over the decisions one might make when such a significant pebble is dropped into one’s own life pool. I’m a firm believer that one does have such control, or free will, in life’s multiple choices. The decision to acquire Gelli Uchaf was directly triggered by that robbery, and hence both the house restoration and subsequent garden creation is all directly linked to those two balaclava-clad yobs who burst in and whacked me on the arm the night before bonfire night, in November 1992.
Bookend poem number 2, “Immaterial Rhapsody”, went through the same process of considering where, and what physical form should be chosen to create the project, whilst sticking to the same physical material to make good use of the large sheet size needed to create “Ripples”, and avoid waste. Once a leaf design had been settled upon, (and a single word change made in the poem, to suit!), Fiona collected a selection of fallen leaves from the garden, scanned them into the computer, and then painstakingly selected a few scanned leaves, shifting them around on a photoshop programme to create an appealing, suitable form, and then imported the words from the poem. Unfortunately, Mark’s laser wouldn’t accept the file format we’d used, so Fiona sent words and image separately, and once again Mark worked them up into a suitable design file. The very clever bit, I thought, was advising a novel (to me) form of small plastic ball and cup fixing, to enable us to site it on the intended door, but a centimetre or so off the surface. And even to provide a cardboard template so that the cups could be fixed in exactly the right place, and pressure applied to pop the balls in their sockets accurately – a critical stage, when there were so many fix points to what ended up being quite a fragile structure.
Whilst all this was going on, I’d been wondering about writing another poem, which for various reasons hasn’t happened for over a year. I’d thought about one inspired by seeing so many Geminid meteors in mid-December. But in the end, the real impetus came from me sitting down at dusk, with my camera and tripod on the big stone seat beneath the old oak behind the barn. I was on my own, Fiona having left for Shropshire for a big birthday celebration on the 20th, the clouds had largely shifted, and the skies cleared from the West. Just after 4.30 p.m., the last blackbird stopped pinking, and I had only 5 minutes to wait before a woodcock flew just above the yew windows to the West, and on over the croquet lawn, then in a swiftly curving flight, due North, parallel to the barn before disappearing into the gloom.
Within 20 minutes, 4 more had followed this exact same path, passing really quite close to me, sitting there on the huge cold stone slab. Why? When they had a whole 80 metres of lower hedge boundary they could have flown over, higher up the hill?
(I haven’t written about this “Muse-Stone” before. It’s clearly very ancient and I’m sure has a great story to tell, if only it could. When and how did it arrive here? Was it ever used for something other than a huge gate post? How many generations have seen and touched it, in this place? It had languished hidden beneath grass in a corner of our upper hay meadow until it came to light when we had a big tidy-up of junk iron dumped by previous owners in this part of the field, many years ago. When we had a friend prepare the site for the PV panels, we asked if he could move it to the area beneath the oak with his JCB, thinking it could be re-purposed as a seat.. We reckoned we’d be able to lift it off the ground ourselves, onto a stone and mortar plinth we had yet to construct. The plinth was built, the mortar set, and the day came for the planned big lift. A bed of fresh mortar was laid on top of the plinth, with some short sections of alkathene pipe on top, and all we had to do was lift the giant slab up and slide it on! It took us all day, but an inch at a time, using just a car jack, a digging bar, and a selection of chunky logs, we eventually got to the point where we could slide it off the blocks of wood and onto the pipe pieces. Amazingly it all went to plan and we could even pull out the bits of pipe which you can see lying on the ground. But we were a bit younger and fitter then.)The impact of the woodcock and Geminid sightings at last coalesced, got me thinking, and as is my want, waking early on Christmas Eve with ideas rushing around in my head at 4.30 a.m., I crept downstairs, grabbed a pen and paper and scrawled a few lines, sitting in the chilly sitting room. The end result after a lot of fiddling is below:
A word, a thought. A thought, a word.
First dreamed, then mulled, expressed.
Eyes wide open, sometimes shut.
Arms and fingers, feet held still,
No matter if the empty
Air envelops, warm or chill.
The milk flower swathes, pale primrose waves,
Plump bumbles warmed on mossy bed,
Ink bee-filled Granny’s bonnets shed.
Swarm’s roar-thrill awe, pale fili-green hair,
Blue Hairstreak glimpse, high overhead,
A raven’s cronk, a buzzard’s mew.
Pale turtlehead autumnal cue,
Swine shuttlecocks’ coiled lair,
Fair Maple fall fires flare.
Black Earthtongue ghouls soon speak.
Hushed woodcocks’ low-light rush,
The Geminids sparked flush.
At dawn, by noon, then dusk,
Time speeds a year so rare.
Linger, deeply breathe this scene,
Stay, pause, listen, stare.
Feel this rock, this ancient storied-stone,
Sit, and slowly lay time down.
Absorb, reflect, repay.
A thought, a word. Your word, your thought.
A special muse stone memory.
The plan now is to team this poem up in a (potentially) interactive physical form with 5 other objects. Firstly, the wonderful and complete-surprise wooden box made for us by Matthew from Welsh bog oak and English walnut which we’d supplied him with – the story of which I wrote about here, in May 2013. We just need to re-finish it with multiple coats of a more waterproof, tung oil finish. It’s been sitting inside on a small cupboard with seeds in all this time, and now it seems its time has come to shine, with a much more exciting and appropriate use for such a wonderful piece of craftsmanship. Add in a simple pen, a small sand glass timer of the type used in days gone by to help navigation at sea, and finally a simple, and as yet empty notebook, which by good fortune fits in the box and arrived as a delightful unexpected Christmas present a week ago. It has what seems to be a wonderfully appropriate cover for what we have in mind, and in some way I’ll also incorporate another surprise item which Mark had included as a bonus gift, taped onto the 2 poem projects. A laser cut bee!
Sometimes, ideas seem to have a force of their own.
I’m intrigued to see whether any garden visitors will actually explore and open the box if it’s left with no further annotation on the ancient muse-stone seat. We spent a bit of time thinking about how long the timer should run for. In the end, it’s a 3-minute one. 3 minutes of sitting still, and quiet outside, might be quite challenge for many people these days, so perhaps nothing will ever get written in the book. Just listen to John Cage’s provocative “music” composition “4.33”, to see how long it takes for four and a half minutes of nothingness, or silence – if it really is silence, to pass.
Or even better, have a look at the YouTube below contrasting both John Cage’s “nothingness” in music, and in the context of words, thoughts and language, Samuel Beckett’s literary work (of “Waiting for Godot” fame, which I’d heard of, but never seen). As a poorly read science graduate, I knew nothing of both men’s work, but this discussion, “Why Nothing Matters | The Art of JOHN CAGE and SAMUEL BECKETT”, has been put together by my hugely talented nephew, Ben, currently in his second year at Oxford. His “Reframed” channel is becoming a mine of fascinating observation and critique of very diverse subject matter. I only watched this video, by chance (?) a couple of days ago after looking at his recent piece on “The Snowman”, and it seems so relevant to this blog post, that I’m really glad Ben has agreed to me including it here. I’m sure you’ll learn something new, if you watch it!
Often sitting quietly, and still in a garden is really worthwhile – a point we both reflected on, during our last visit to Hidcote Manor gardens this autumn, where there is a silent space garden, tucked off to one side, precisely for this purpose. Come to think of it, we might indeed add Gelli Uchaf to the Silent Space scheme, if they’ll include us! I’ve just looked them up and noticed there currently aren’t many Silent Spaces in our area.
I didn’t catch them all, but the linked programme above, broadcast on December 22nd, provided me at least, with the final necessary prod to kick the news habit which has been waxing and waning with me recently. I have to say the point made in this episode about how much time a typical adult (which I don’t think I am, since we don’t have TV and I don’t have a smartphone), spends on average per day/week/year following news items that are largely irrelevant to their personal situation, seemed realistic and shocking. Since there are only 24 hours in each day. Whether for this reason or not, I can report that having kicked the habit, in time for the New Year, I’m already appreciating a beneficial feeling of increased calm. Long may it continue. Though this type of self-discipline is vastly trickier than the much easier complete abstinence, which in the case of opting to live without a TV came, rather as the other ripple/pebble incident described previously, as a result of a burglary in 1987, when our small TV was stolen.
I should record that on Christmas Day 2022, we only had 6 cultivars of snowdrop actually open, so it seems our season is off to a very slow start. I’m no longer going to be recording opening times for individual cultivars on the separate snowdrop webpages. However, a quick around the garden walk, even in the rain, is still a wonderful boost, to see these candles of brightness under gloomy skies beginning to emerge with all their promises of hope for the year ahead.
I shall finish with not one, but 3 pieces of music, to herald the fresh start of a new year.
The first, probably familiar, was brought to mind by King Charles’ recent first Christmas Day address, which we felt was pitch-perfect for these turbulent times, ending thus:
‘While Christmas is, of course, a Christian celebration, the power of light overcoming darkness is celebrated across the boundaries of faith and belief. So, whatever faith you have, or whether you have none, it is in this life-giving light, and with the true humility that lies in our service to others, that I believe we can find hope for the future. Let us therefore celebrate it together, and cherish it always. With all my heart, I wish each of you a Christmas of peace, happiness and everlasting light.’
The music below, Handel’s “Eternal Source of Light Divine” is sung by Welsh soprano Elin Manahan Thomas, on a recording which we own, wonderfully duets her crystal clear voice with a solo trumpet, playing the same theme. It was composed in 1713 to a libretto by Ambrose Philips to celebrate both the birthday of Queen Anne, and the completion of the Treaty of Utrecht, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession. It featured more recently in 2018, and indeed with Elin as the soloist, as the the bridal entry music for Meghan Markel, who with the Duke of Sussex, Prince Harry, have created their own turbulent waves at the close of 2022.
The second piece is a recording of “The Nutcracker” made in 2018 by BelAir of the Ballet Company of the National Opera of Ukraine’s performance, which arrived in my Christmas stocking. For anyone who thinks “The Nutcracker” is well, just the same old, same old, we now realise that there’s a phenomenal variation from one production to another. Stage sets, storylines, costumes, dance moves, even the music, and its order varies. This version has wonderful music, a brilliantly enthusiastic conductor who looks exhausted by the end, and some of the best traditional solo dances we’ve seen. Even if the mice aren’t as scary as in some productions, Herr Drosselmeyer has a limited role, and the snow sledge looks a bit battered on close inspection. However, it was especially poignant watching the opening scenes from outside the Kyiv opera house before the performance begins, and then seeing a few views of the very enthusiastic audience with many young children, possibly enjoying their first, and maybe for a long time, last trip to see a ballet?
Finally, thanks to a link from The Cross Eyed Pianist’s blog, here’s a performance of a moving piano piece “Les Rochers d’Outche-Coche” composed in 1908 by the Ukrainian Sergei Bortkiewicz (1877-1952). I’d never heard of either the composer, or this piece before, and Bortkiewicz apparently wrote it after he was inspired by the mountain scenery in Crimea and it’s played dramatically here by Margaret Fingerhut. Margaret was born in London of Ukrainian and Polish ancestry and has already raised thousands of pounds for Ukrainian refugees. The video below was made with the help of a young Ukrainian film maker, Viktoriia Levchenko, and I’m including a link to Margaret’s Just Giving page, should you feel moved to contribute something to this worthy cause, which will help to bring real hope to some at the start of 2023.