I’m just back in from a lovely walk. It’s still early but winter is now closing in on us here. There is just the hint of a waxing half-moon behind low, scudding clouds-the whole sky has been bruised by a day of heavy rain and gales, the leaves are stripped from the trees and fill the tracks and gullies with their beautiful yellow-brown patterns-decay never looks better than it does in the mess of fallen leaves . Out across the woodland as the light fails you can hear the strange urgent, rusty calls of the pheasants as they settle up in the trees for the night. It’s a lovely time, the half-light of dusk. There is a quietening after the urgent matters of the day that I feel in myself and that I sense reflected in the land around me.
This is a time of year that brings me closer than any other to the strange patterning of life and death that is woven into the landscape here so clearly. It feels wholly appropriate since it seems that this pattern is what I am being called to name at the moment in my writing.
Out on the land the apples have all fallen and the trees will become dormant for several months, their buds tight packed against the cold, the essence of waiting and patience. Much of the apple crop has become compost but we have enough cider, cider vinegar, and apple juice to mark the year as a good one.
The vegetable garden has changed so much. The dried beans are in jars and the rest is already earth. We have good stores of vegetables and as I look out in the dim light I can see the winter greens sitting solidly in neat rows beside the wheat and winter oats ready for whatever the weather can throw at them.
Elsewhere, the bees are running out of days and daylight to get in provision for the winter. They are working hard now, compromising a lot on their usual love for warmth and sun to get the stores filled. They can travel up to 2 kilometres to find the yellow pollen that is stacked up on their hind quarters. Though lazy and languid in the summer, they are more irritable now and need to be met with respect, care and attention. Theirs is a selfless society I suppose; many will die soon, preserving the queen and a central colony that will live out the winter on the honey they have made in readiness for the coming of spring and a new cycle of life.
Ritual and Pheasants
Each season here is marked by its own rituals that connect people with the natural world around us-the traffic between domesticity and wilderness. This is pheasant country. As game birds, it’s a tough time for them. Pheasant shooting begins here on November 1st and already I can tell that the numbers of birds has dwindled significantly in the two shoots we have already had nearby. In this part of the country, pheasant shooting is without doubt a ritual of the season but also an important part of the local economy. People travel hundreds of miles to shoot pheasants.
It’s not something I’ve ever done and I can’t say it sits easy with me as I favour neither guns nor killing beyond necessity. I see the pheasants up close in the garden and they are large, very beautiful birds. Nonetheless, things are never that simple. The local shoot supports, among other things, the survival of the dwindling art of game keeping, now quite a rare occupation in this part of England and going the way of most traditional skills like hedge laying, charcoal burning and basket weaving that have been central to life here for hundreds of years.
Our local gamekeeper is a young man following in a family tradition. We spoke recently, after I had been admiring some of the birds gathered near an ash tree on the walk I take most days. He told me that he works fifty weeks a year, for a meagre income. His margins are tight. His biggest trouble is with the buzzards-there are many here, beautiful to watch when they circle in groups high up on summers days- but, being predators, they love to eat the young birds. It’s a tough life he assured me though with the grace of freedom and an intimacy with the landscape that, if not romantic, is something he loves. He told me that gamekeepers have the highest suicide rate in the UK. Perhaps it’s the pressure, the poor income or the loneliness of the work.
I see him often in the fields and he works hard. Like so much of my experience the pheasant shoot throws up near impossible tensions. I have wondered how to disentangle my love of life, the quiet of the land, and the beauty I see in the pheasants, from the dwindling of ritual, the idea of ‘sport’, the volleys of gunfire, the gamekeepers future and the future of game keeping. These are such complex tensions; at best I try to hold them openly and honestly.
I went to a Quaker meeting last Sunday. There were perhaps a dozen or so people there. There is no service as such in the Quaker tradition. Silence is the foundation of the hour of worship but any person may stand up and speak if they feel called to ministry. I went because I needed some silence.
Recently, I heard Quaker meeting described rather beautifully as ‘the peaceable inquiry after truth.’ Truth can mean a lot of things of course and I like this path because it doesn’t lay claims on what the truth might be-hence its welcome of inquiry. The only guidance offered comes in a thin book of ‘advices and queries’; a series of short passages that offer guidance and consolation but not more than that. They sit rather like meditations, encouraging consideration and reflection. The advices finish with a short passage written by George Fox in 1656
Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.
What I hear Fox saying is twofold; first that it is my life rather than my words, beliefs or assumed authority that can most usefully speak to the world. I am wary of words like ‘preach’ but I think Fox is naming something quite specific here that is not about dogma and ritualism but something far deeper. Second Fox suggests that each of us bears within us something infinitely precious that can be met, spoken to, honoured and experienced. It’s an invitation, as I read it, to celebrate the ‘other ‘-it is an invitation to hospitality.
Jung described the religious attitude as ‘the careful consideration of superior powers’. I think that’s what is going on here-the art of consideration as it speaks to our work in the world.
I often sit with my eyes closed for the hour of silence that we hold together and enjoy the feeling both of solitude and shared community. I remember on Sunday however, sitting with eyes open watching the sycamore tree outside blow in the wind, listening to the bird call in the trees that surround the old red brick building, listening to the steady deep sound of the clock marking each passing second.
We were sitting together in the aftermath of the Paris bombings. I remember listening to the slow, solid ticking of the clock, wondering what event might cause the clock itself to stop. How painful, how terrible, must it be to stop time, to have time itself, or the tree itself or perhaps the birds stop their movement or their song and acknowledge what had passed.
The first person to stand up to speak was a woman. She shared with us, through tears, a few words from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Events in Paris have shaken us all to the roots here and the scenes of death and devastation were the cause of my friend’s tears, and indeed of her ministry-perhaps we might say prayer. I had been sitting; thinking a lot about love and suffering and it was very moving to be reminded of this powerful and perhaps definitive passage on the subject of this most important of principles. I sat digesting the words, feeling them shape the vessel of love itself and another reflection from Jung came to mind;
You cannot change what you cannot accept.
I wonder in some ways if that is what Paul was getting at. Acceptance not as resignation; well that’s just how it is, but a radical acceptance that says yes-this too. For such an acceptance we must turn to love as the only power sufficient to it. Love and justice are conjoined forces, not opposites and are only separated at great price to everyone. As Martin Luther King said;
‘Power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
In the face of such immense and terrible power, in the face of violence, force or the outraged cry for justice that exploded on the streets of Paris, my friends voice offered a gentle and powerful corrective, she sought in her own way to right the wrong done-everything returning again and again to harmony, justice balanced by a love that ‘rejoices’. Harmony maybe sounds weak in the face of this trouble but it’s not. In the Greek myths Harmonia was the child of Mars and Ares-the fruit of war and love.
It was both a strange and somehow comforting feeling, sitting with Paul’s words, listening to the clock marking out each moment faithfully and unfalteringly-maybe like love itself-giving me the feeling of a river flowing onwards of which this whole thing must be a part though I cannot understand it. ‘Panta Rei,’ said Heraclitus, describing his philosophy in two words; everything flows.
I have been thinking about someone whose friend died recently. When we talked about it the first words that came to me of course were ’I’m sorry’. That’s the first thing a lot of people say I suppose and I have wondered about it and frankly disliked it as a response- thinking it vacuous and timid, the kind of thing you say when you accidently tread on someone’s toes in a supermarket queue but too weak for death. It was what I thought until now. Today I have gained a new appreciation for the rightness of the word itself. ‘Sorry’ is in fact a very precise and particular word. I’m sorry, or I am in sorrow, comes from the Middle English word sorg; it means to grieve, or to suffer keenly. It turns out to be just the right kind of word for death.
To sorrow is really a verb, something active, something we do-it speaks to companionship-to be in grief with you who have not died but suffer in the face of death. Sorrow is mindful of the dead not as ‘lost’ but as fully present-to sorrow is to enter that landscape of keen loss that cannot make sense of a friend’s death or the family he has left behind but is simply with the immensity of it all. To sorrow is to meet the grief as a real task of a life-it says life is so much bigger than we are and this is an honest response to what cannot be measured.
It was Wendell Berry who asked us to consider what it means to live and die fully within the limits of human grief and joy. I think to be in sorrow together is part of our native response to that concern since it acknowledges so fully the very edges of the limits of our experience bound as they are by our grieving’s and our joys. This is our common land, our common acerage, our common heritage. I think the act of sorrowing can companion the dead too- I’d like to think so. In this way our grief and despair becomes part of the fabric of the canoe that bears the dead one onwards-homewards perhaps-the Odyssey continuing out of our sight but not out of mind.
It’s dark here now. I have heard that the first snow is on its way after weeks of mild days and rain. Winter is all about the play of darkness and light. We are a month away from the winter solstice here, the shortest day, the death of the old year and the birth of the new. On that day the light is diminished to its weakest point, the candle flickers, the weight and balance of the world is held for a time, it seems, precariously. The festival of winter solstice is still powerfully written into the land here. I live about half an hour from Stonehenge, perhaps the most well -known of the megalithic stone circles oriented towards sunrise on the shortest day. I’m not sure if there is a more powerful symbol of the eternal dance of life and death than is felt at midwinter. It is symbol made literal, felt and experienced and sensed. No beginning and no ending. I love this poem by George Mackay Brown, celebrating the winter solstice at Maeshowe, the ancient Viking Cairn oriented precisely to midwinters day on the Scottish Island of Orkney where he lived;
Circle of light and darkness, be our sign
We move in the shadows.
Brodgar has burned on the moor a dance of sun
Ring of quern and plough, contain
Our tumults of blood.
The stars’ chaos is caught in a strict rein.
Wheel of life and death, remove
The sweet warm breath.
Ingibiorg flowers in stone, all beauty and love.
Round of sun and snow and seed,
Out of those skulls
Breaks the first green shoot, the full ear, then the bread.
In the pilgrimage towards the solstice itself we must endure darker, shorter days. Endurance is part of the dark trial as, I think, is faith. There is a farmer’s faith that I know well, borne out of years of seasonal work. What appears dead is always intimately connected with what is alive; the apple tree sits, silently holding its vigil for spring. The blossoms will wait, I know, for the right moment-an uncorrupted and universal wisdom that speaks of some intelligence beyond my comprehension. The prunings and dead wood from the years growth will make kindling for a living fire. The blossom waits and its patience and faith will be rewarded we trust, by the warmth of days to come. I am always moved by the ways in which the trees here offer real guidance for my own life. Maybe that is what this season is about, what love is about-being patient and kind. There is I think a real grace in darkness.