Thursday, 9 August 2018

Willow Warbler


Sand martins hawking over the canal, swallows flying low over the sun-scorched fields. More of each than I’ve seen all summer.

The canal is half-empty, its underside exposed. A lone grey wagtail explores a patch of mud, female mallards sun themselves on a bank of shingle.

Pain makes me walk more slowly. Walking slowly makes me more attentive. I hear, for the first time on these towpath walks, the soft hhooeett hhooeett of a willow warbler. A plaintive, conspiratorial psst psst! I turn towards the sound and see, well-hidden in a hawthorn bush, a small green bird. Sunlit leaves. Sunlit bird. 

Like the swallows and the sand martins, the willow warbler is a migrant from Africa. It won’t be here for long. I feel privileged to have seen it.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

The 589 bus route

Living in the bottom of a narrow valley I sometimes feel a need to expand my horizons, and so today I took a bus up to Burnley. I did so just for the pleasure of the ride, for the 589 bus route is one of the most beautiful in England. I've driven it too, but if it's views you're after, you can see higher and further from a bus. 

Cliviger Gorge, a sinister-looking glacial outcrop of millstone grit, is Todmorden's back wall. Even in high summer the blackness of the boulders is threatening, and I can well believe the old folk tale of a ghostly huntsman sending his hounds on ahead of him at Halloween;  when I come through in October, I will listen out for his horn. 

The gorge opens out through a series of narrow wooded cloughs into broad sweeps of moorland, with Pendle Hill away in the distance. This is livestock country - Todmorden Market sells lamb and beef from the farms around here - and the fields on the lower slopes are full of flocks of sheep and herds of cattle, the sheep recently sheared, the calves still young enough to graze close to their mothers. Higher up, and in the hanging valleys, heather is coming into bloom, but it's struggling against the drought, and is pale and straggly. 

The valley has many listed buildings and monuments, from old boundary stones, to lovely old inns and farmhouses, and even an ice-house - perhaps they had hot summers back in the 19th century too. I can remember as a child being taken to the Ram Inn for 'high tea', a feast of local ham and chicken and home grown tomatoes, followed by a pot of good strong tea and a slice of date and walnut loaf. Now it's scones and Prosecco, and somehow, that doesn't feel like progress! 

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Bees and butterflies

Bee on cosmos
For over a week I've been laid up with arthritis. I can't walk, work or sleep. It not only hurts, it shrinks my world, confines me to my own back yard. 

The butterflies and the bees are a consolation. I wasn't quick enough to catch the peacock butterfly on the buddleia, but I did get a shot of a bee on the cosmos. If this picture had a soundtrack, you would hear the bee purring contentedly. 

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Of quills and pens

As I sit on the bench next to a little hump-backed bridge over the canal, something catches my eye. A goose feather flutters in the breeze. A long tapering wing feather, needing only a nick from a pen-knife to make it into a quill. 

It's goose grey, that colour which is neither grey nor brown, but both. It is darker on the leading edge. I bring it home. I rarely bring finds home, but this feels so apt, so writerly, I must have it. 

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Poet's note: Fire on Blackstone Edge

The traffic on the road outside my house is at a standstill and in both directions. Something is wrong, but I don't know what. 

All around me the hills are parched and brown, a dry, scorched ochre. Drought coloured. Tinder coloured. As I cross the field that leads to the towpath I can see smoke. The moors below Blackstone Edge are on fire and Halifax Road has been closed, hence the traffic.  A helicopter whirrs slowly and loudly towards the source of the smoke. Crows and jackdaws fly up in small, explosive groups, lucky to be flying free of danger. 

The air is humid. I can feel my hair frizz. Drought and humidity, not a comfortable combination. On the canal, all is calm, the fire hidden from view by the slope of the hill. A large flock of Canada Geese paddle slowly by. Swallows swoop low over the water.  The heatwave has produced a surfeit of flies; There are so many buzzing around in my living room that I have bought some carniverous plants, a venus flytrap and a pitcher plant, but I don't think they will rid me of the flies, for the plants are very small and the flies are very large. A swallow would have been a better bet.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Friday, 6 July 2018

The butterflies are back

The butterflies are back. A handful of tortoiseshells, a host of small meadow browns, all feeding on elder blossom, bramble flowers and honeysuckle.

Was ever  a gal as elegant as the honeysuckle? Who else could wear reds and pinks and yellows and not clash? And her perfume! A fragrance from my childhood, a waft of Somerset here in this Pennine valley.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Poet's notes: heatwave

In this heat the canal is the place to be. In it, beside it, or on it. Even the geese, which usually gather in the rough pastures on the eastern bank are floating on the water in a loose, silent gaggle. A fish flips lazily up and sinks back down again. A moorhen stands in the shallows, grooming her charcoal grey plumage with an orange-red bill. Mallards bicker in the shadows.

House martins swoop low, hunting down insects and occasionally skimming the surface of the water to take a drink, their tiny beaks agape. All except the martins look tired and scruffy. the martins must be used to temperatures up in the high twenties, but for the rest of us, it's getting too much.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Poem: The Arsonists

At 4 am the eastern sky changes from dark blue to pale gold. The wind, which has been blowing all night, is pushing the poplars from side to side. Twelve miles to the south and again ten miles to the west, the moors are on fire. For a week now hundreds of men and women have been beating down the flames, grappling hoses up steep slopes, and digging fire breaks, but the wind fans the flames and joins fire to fire. Deep below the surface the peat is burning darkly. It will be weeks before the burning is quenched.

Fires are common on the moors, the loss of wildlife and livestock an annual wounding. Almost always the cause is arson.

The arsonists
As soon as the bell pits have dried out,
the arsonists move in.

The flames burn upwards at first,
then sideways, then every which way,
pushed about by the wind.

Larks can fly free,
but the beetles are torched,
and so are the tiny gem-like snails,
the skippers, who yesterday danced 
their mating dance, the quick, bronze lizards,
and this year’s lambs, still
too young to know where not to run.

Sometimes, like a curtain flapping in the breeze,
the smoke clears.
The moor is scorched and flattened.
The farmer closes his eyes.
He doesn’t want to look.
He’s exhausted. He’s enraged, but also defeated.
The fire will get everything.

And the arsonists?
They stand in the shadow of an old stone barn,
watching the fire turn predator,
listening for the sirens
screaming up from the road below.

Soon, where the moor was,
is a black emptiness.

Maybe this is what the arsonists want,
a darkness where nothing moves.
Maybe despair is their best excuse.

C Sheila Wild

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Haiku: heron

It's almost ten o’clock, but still full daylight, when I walk home from the station. High above me swifts are wheeling and screaming. Not a crowd, but an ample covey.

As I unlock my front door a heron cronks its way over to Gorsey Hill Wood. The sun is easing down behind the hill and its afterglow gentles the heron’s underbelly to a pale gold.

You are old, Old Man
of the Woods, your take-off tired,
trailing legs stick-thin


C Sheila Wild



Wednesday, 27 June 2018

No butterflies

The weather is unusually hot, over 30 degrees Celsius, and has been for a couple of days, with more to come. The jackdaws are feeling it, wobbling unsteadily on the rim of the bird bath and drinking deep. One stands on the ground for several minutes, its beak agape.  It looks dazzled and perplexed.

I take advantage of the heat to repaint the wooden tubs in my back yard. The paint dries immediately, takes another coat in twenty minutes.

Despite the cosmos and the buddleia, the wallflowers and fuchsias, there are no butterflies. Last year I saw dozens – peacocks, red admirals, tortoiseshells – but this year, not so much as a cabbage white. I hope the hard winter hasn't done for them.

Pens, policy and poetry

I’m finding this hard. I can do brief, but I can’t do conversational.

I’m a policy analyst, one who probes and, eventually, reaches a conclusion. In complete contrast, I’m also  a poet, one who attends to the moment.

I aspire to an intimacy of language, but when I write prose, even as I’m doing now, the analytical urge is strong.

I’ve changed pens from a V5 TecPoint to a Parker Jotter, from black ink to blue. The Jotter writes faster, is less forensic. Blue is less self-assured, more exploratory. 

But I have to own, my writing skills are not as reliable as I’d thought.