A Gift of Plums and Other Things

Way and weighing

Stile and saying

On a single walk are found.

Go bear without halt

Question and default

On your single pathway bound.        Martin Heidegger

Since moving here some three years ago, I have come to know the local countryside well and there is a particular walk that is especially important to me. There are detours I take sometimes, but the basic pattern is the same and the small tracks and fields are very familiar to me now.

As I look back through my notes, I notice how the walk has been such a steady and true companion over the years, how it has at times comforted me through great difficulty, given me space to think, to reflect, to take on things and let go of things, how it has lifted me up in moments of grace, gifted me real insights and despite its familiarity, frequently surprised me. It was Rilke who advised that we should each have a favourite tree to company us through dark times and this walk has been that tree like companion for me over the years.

A few days ago whilst wandering the familiar pathway I discovered a lone cherry plum tree hidden away in a hedgerow mainly of hazel and field maple. The wild plum tree had naturalised in the hedge from a pip that had fallen there somehow many years previously. The fruits of the wild cherry plum are smaller than commercial varieties, larger than the blackthorn sloes that were ripening nearby but with a similar velvety blue, black colouring-though they can appear sometimes as yellow. The discovery of the tree, laden as it was with its cargo of ripe fruit was both a surprise and gift-the fruit is delicious and it was all the better for being wild.

Picking the fruit reminded me of another discovery-this time of a quite unusual Mirabelle plum tree- which we came across beside an old and little used track several weeks previously at the edge of the Wiltshire downs. We had hoped to break our walk with lunch at a pub only to find that the pub had closed down-something that seems to have been the fate of several pubs in the local area in recent times as habits and ideas of community have shifted and changed. The Mirabelle had shed the majority of its fruit all over the track-a galaxy of small, bright yellow suns that were the best plums I have ever eaten and were our free and unexpected lunch. The Mirabelle is rare in England; I had never come across one before that day. A few are grown commercially in Essex and Suffolk  but their true home in Europe is France, the Mirabelle de Lorraine accounts for most of the commercial Mirabelle plums in the world and they are harvested primarily for jam and Eau-de-Vie.

We discovered the Mirabelle as we were making our way back towards the village of Codford St Peter which had been our start point for the day. The Parish Church is the home of a remarkable Saxon stone which we had gone to visit. The carved stone was discovered in the chancel of the church in 1864 and now resides in the sanctuary there. It is thought to date back at least to the 9th century and quite possibly much earlier. The carving is in Bath stone, the piece is slender and around 2 or 3 feet in height and shows what appears to be a dancing man looking up at the sky. In his left hand he is holding a rattle and in his right, a branch of alder. The images on the edges of the stone are less easy to distinguish but there is a small Saxon cross, a pair of eels, an otter and a pair of fish to the east whilst willows, honeysuckle buds and comfrey leaves decorate the western face.

It is a wonderful, almost mythic stone and it evokes a relationship with the surrounding landscape that is of such intimacy and vigour that it made me think more about the ideas of gift, celebration, feast, season and blessing. There are no comparable stones in England to offer us guidance about the meaning of the work. It does seem surely that he is performing some kind of dance; we might imagine a ritual or ceremony closely linked to fertility and harvest. Dance, song and celebration were key means by which the year and its tasks were marked in ancient times. William Anderson in his book, The Green Man writes;

‘Actions ritually performed become memorable, the ritual sets a pattern in the memory for the timing and due sequence of tasks and actions….they impressed essential knowledge of the phases of the moon, of gauging when to plough, when to sow, when to cut the hay, when to scythe the corn and how long to let it stand in stooks and when to kill the cattle before the winter set in’

The dancer dances the relationship between earth, land and people. It is part propitiation, part celebration and part practical action, feeding the communal memory, marking the key points of the yearly cycle. There is a sense of celebration in the dance, in the uplifted face. Perhaps we can recall the May Day celebrations-the exuberance of Beltaine as it was once known; the May Queen and the May Lord dancing about the hawthorn amidst uproarious dancing or the wassail, common still in Somerset.

Wassail, being a derivation of the Saxon word Haile, meaning health-may have been a celebration that our dancer would have been familiar with. Wassailing the apple orchard was an act of thanks, of blessing and reinvigoration, thanking the earth for the cider to come, thanking the tree in expectation of a healthy harvest. Three gunshots over the apple tree served to wake the orchard to the labour of another year. It was of course a time of feast and celebration too;

Wassail and wassail all over the town

The cup it is white and the ale it is brown

The cup it is made of the good ashen tree

And so is the malt of the best barley

 

Our Saxon holds a drum, lending the scene an almost shamanic quality and the alder is not in hand by chance. Alongside the willow, the alder is the tree of the waterways and rivers both of which like blood, give life to the land, so we might imagine an honouring here of the River Wylye itself that runs its course  close to the village. Indeed the willow and alder were considered King and Queen of the waterways; the alder was held in considerable esteem by ancient peoples because it appears to bleed when cut, its sap quickly turning red when exposed to the air. This quality meant the alder was considered sacred, a tree that represented both the generosity of the gods and the health of the land.

I like to imagine that we see gathered here in the multitude of symbols surrounding the man a cosmology of reciprocity. Reciprocity is about balance and the harmony of relationships, about reflexive action and correspondence. Harmony is assured through acts of renewal that recognise the principle of fair exchange. The dance is an act then, not merely born out of an age of ignorance and superstition, but rather a physics of renewal and sustainability in time and space, and it is an act of humility. The seasons and cycles are set more or less in their mighty ways  but there is always surprise in store in weather, in the favour of the spirits and the gods and the balance must be kept where it can through respectful and sometimes raucous intervention. We cannot expect fair weather and a good harvest without first preparing the way for it through the rituals we make and keep. A society without rituals is poorer for the loss. The act of the dance is so important here that craftsmen memorialised it in stone; an act of commemoration that bridges centuries of time and aeons of thought.

It is simply too easy to write off the dancer as a superstitious image borne out of pre-scientific magical thinking. There can be no feast without gods so there is a cultic element to the stone that speaks of an animate world, an enchanted place. Feasting and festival are divine acts always; they have a transcendent quality that speaks to us of the possibility of transformation. In a world marked out mostly for acts of survival the dancer points beyond the mundane world to something else. Such actions, imbued with meaning-the work of affective presence, are the hallmark of a society and a culture that is still in touch with the hidden, the very essence of reality.

The community must have been very familiar with the vagaries and uncertainties of rural life. Hunger would have been familiar, alongside sickness and death.  Hard work marked the days in the labours of ploughing, sowing, reaping and storing and the management of livestock. The community would have been skilled in managing every aspect of the farming year that was in their power to control. What we imagine here is a wider interpretation of what power is, where its sources are, what we see is the non-ordinary expression of a radical acceptance of the conditions of living, of the harmony and unity apparent in the world between man and a land still only partially tamed.

In the dancer we see how the community recognised the hidden or unseen aspect of the work, the spirit of the land and the relationship between land and community that must be kept healthy through acts of renewal, through voice and dance. In this way the absolute servitude of labour-work characterised by its usefulness for something else- is offset by the dancing which is an action that is simply meaningful in itself. As such it is a contemplative action as well as sacred, holy and divine- allowing the dancer and the community to be in relationship with the core of all things, ‘the hidden, ultimate reason of the living universe’.

We are always called to contend with the tension between what we know, what we can account for, what we can achieve with our own hands and our own knowledge, and the eternally mysterious aspect of life. Our Saxon points to a different kind of relationship to these tensions than is familiar to us today, and we might too easily dismiss it as foolish. Nonetheless, any time spent immersed in the countryside will make us think again about the mystery in which we find ourselves. We encounter the small mysteries as surprise in a hedgerow- and receive the gift of plums for which we give thanks-it is a simple enough kind of gift or grace. We meet mystery in the glimpse of a fox or a deer whose eyes startle us still in the deeper recesses of our ancient brains, or the sudden  eruption of birds that were stone still as we approached but lost their nerve at the last moment. In wild places we feel the way a stream moves in eternity;

We never have pure space in front of us,

Not for a single day, such as flowers open

Endlessly into…

 

So lamented Rilke; in the natural world we are still called to reconcile our different ways of knowing the world and we feel the distance that intellect alone cannot bridge. It is in the dancing that we come closer to the flowers’ experience,  through the rituals we create that embed us in the land, bless its many forms, mark time and space with movement and voices;

Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter

Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes

Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth

 

The favour granted by the spirit of the land for a good harvest is a thing bestowed, not calculated. The good will of the spirits cannot be guaranteed but it can be propitiated and blessed. We forget in times of abundance the very tight margins that allow our lives to be led in comfort.

I want to imagine our dancing Saxon as a man fully alive, inhabiting the world between the poles of feast and famine, life and death, the explicit and the hidden. dancing in ecstasy, beside himself even-as one touched by the gift of enthusiasm-the being filled by the gods, marking the season, sealing the memory of the community, propitiating and celebrating the New Year and the possibility of fertility, bridging the land, the community, the mystery in word and movement and a carefree abandon.

We cannot say when or in which moments the world will offer itself up to us more fully. The gift is always, must always, be a surprise, be it a harvest of plums, a field of mushrooms, the flash of a fox or a landscape that quivers out of the mundane for a moment into some extraordinariness that leaves us awed. We can walk out, we can pray for insight, we can and should give thanks for the wonder of the natural world but we should remember with good faith and humility that no matter how smart we are the gift is always withheld until it is given.

Still, I think we can walk with the possibility of such gifts in the way we live out our days in nature and know that our lives, that our souls will be the better for being touched by the small moments of sweetness that the natural world can give us. That we take ourselves out into the world in good faith, matters, since it makes the wonderful and the marvellous possible. That we carry with us on the single pathway bound a questioning and enquiring mind, matters too. That we mark seasons, transitions, the vegetative year with song, ale and dance matters, that we carry the drum and the alder, the world of otter, eel, fish and honeysuckle-carry them inside us, matters, not as mere sentiment, but as a holy task.

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