…who can tell him what is to come?
None of us could have foretold accurately the severity of the winter which is now ebbing away. Similarly I could not have prevented the earthquakes which rock the Southern Hemisphere as I write. The power that drives the natural forces in our fragile world is, thankfully, beyond our knowledge. Respect is an old-fashioned word but it is key to our existence here on Earth. I have, on my desk in front of me, an excellent volume describing walks in the most northerly counties of Mainland Britain. There is a thread running through the book which makes sense to all walkers. It can be summarized in one word. Respect. Respect for the weather; respect for the terrain; respect for the people who may live on or work the land and respect for the flora and the fauna. If you are able to connect with the history of a place then a different kind of respect comes into play. Your walk becomes a silent worship. You don’t have to be religious; you don’t need to be a regular attender at church, mosque or synagogue. Your soul will be one with the very country you are walking because you don’t believe it was put there for your selfish pleasure. Many myths abound regarding strange formations in the landscape but, regardless of their accuracy, you are not the first person to recognise this special place. Jules Verne, in his “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”, written in 1864, tells an amazing tale and is able to draw on his own knowledge of matters geological.
Up here in the North, whether you climb Ben Loyal which rises to the south of Tongue, or conical Morven, you cannot help but feel the power of the elements still in the very rock beneath your feet. Whether you walk the beach in Sinclair Bay or you stand close by a cliff edge in a winter storm, you are part of the Sphere – our ever-rolling Earth.
Winter has laid bare Earth’s secrets and more will be discovered as we access places left untrod in the cruel months. There will be evidence of the harshness of the weather and we will weep. This is Nature’s way, however, of keeping a balance and it is man who is capable of uptipping the balance. Robert Burns had a dismal view of the devil’s role in the thaw:
“When thowes dissolves the snawy hoord,
An’ float the jinglin icy boord,
Then, Water-kelpies haunt the foord,
By your direction,
An’ nighted Trav’llers are allur’d
To their destruction.”
(FROM “ADDRESS TO THE DE’IL”)
So February is not a good time to go out at night then. It is a funny thing because, on a number of occasions, I have set off for an afternoon walk at this time of year, and taken a torch with me because I couldn’t see why I should have minded getting back after dark. However, as soon as the sky begins to darken, the hairs begin to prickle on the back of my neck and I start to walk faster and don’t slow down until I am near to habitation. Why is that? Foul February?
February certainly brings uncertainties. On the eighteenth of this month was the storm moon which heralds potentially bad weather. And it was. We watched the harbour wall battered by south-easterlies and great walls of spray around the lifeboat shed. Yet on the same day we admired the snowdrops and noticed that the celandines are thick underfoot, but they have not yet opened their buds. Wordsworth wrote a sweet poem about the celandine which for him was
“Telling tales about the sun,
When we’ve little warmth or none.”
February has her advantages. What better time to see clearly the tracks which animals make? When they walk across soft mud or snow they are quite easy to track. Soft mud around streams and ponds are great places to spot footprints, and rocks, logs and the bottom of tree trunks are all good places to spot animal droppings. No, that isn’t animals dropping. Your dog will let you know if another animal has left a message on a lamp post.
“Ah, sweet mystery of life!”
In medieval Britain, February was known as “The Hunger Gap” because much of the stored food had gone and it would be some time before the fresh food would be ready to harvest. We have no conception of that of course.
But February is a time of hope,
“Hope, like a gleaming taper’s light,
Adorns and cheers our way;
And still, as darker grows the night,
Emits a brighter ray”.
Winter will leave us soon and is struggling to keep its hold on the earth. Listen to “The Bard” by Sibelius. It is a tone poem and is his opus 64. It was written in 1913 and it is the harp which gives the piece its breath. This seems to me to be the dying breath of Winter. I read in “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” by His Holiness John Paul II that “death…becomes subject to the power of life.” Pope John Paul points out that, through Christ, death ceases to be an ultimate evil. Winter dies and becomes Spring which dies and becomes Summer which dies and becomes Autumn which dies and becomes Winter which… We have watched the ivy berries ripen between November and January; we have welcomed robins, blue tits and friends to the bird table in the terrible cold; we picked holly for Christmas and now we are enjoying the snowdrops,
“Thou first-born of the year’s delight”.
Our lives are equally continuous, indirect and with undying effect. Circular. We go through our seasons, but do not reach an end: it is Winter which readies Earth for the jewels of Spring and similarly our own seasons prepare those, whose lives we touch, for what is to come.
Summertime is a good time to walk along the sands but wintertime delivers a freshness to the beach which is a cleansing, a thrill of cutting cold never forgotten for its forthrightness. The birds along the shore don’t seem to mind as we turn over the stones and search the kelp.
Spring is the best of times for wild flowers along the river bank but the river in winter opens its heart so wide that you become a part of “Tales of the Riverbank”. The hunting there is good for the day-flying short-eared owl while the wigeon share one’s belonging. Mallard, teal and wigeon often make their nests on the moorland but they move to coasts and lowland lakes in winter. It was not far from where the River Wick goes out into the North Sea that we spotted them last weekend. They wisely huddled in groups while we strode out bravely in a strong cold wind.
In autumn the trees release their leaves in warm colours along the way but, in winter, the accumulations of leaves in corners give shelter to tiny things and later decompose to become a crucial part of the coming rebirth. The Circle of Life. Kathleen Ferrier died in 1953, the year of my birth. I love her. Never, never, never could I hope to make a sound like Kathleen did. I have recordings of her voice and they are wonderful. A favourite is “Che Puro Ciel” from “Orfeo” by Gluck. A heavenly voice from Blackburn, Lancashire, an accomplished pianist, a gift to us. Sadly she died of cancer at the age of forty one. Many do. But they are not lost. They have touched our lives as the clusters of autumn leaves feed the soil for the shoots of gentle Spring and the blooms of beautiful Summer. The intricate food webs which link all living things are in our circle. This means we need to take the utmost care not to upset the balance. The destruction of one link can mean disaster for many creatures. I quote again William Wordsworth:
“Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things
We murder to dissect.
Enough of Science and of Art
Close up these barren leaves,
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.”
Receive with respect all that is gifted to us, whatever we believe gave it to us, wherever we think it may have come from; watch it and enjoy it. Every little thing is magic of the highest station. Amazing grace.