13/1/2018 By the front pond is a giant crack willow. The tree is magnificent; and its magnificence is greatest in winter. The twigs turn bright orange and its luminous canopy is the highlight of my garden on a sunny winter’s day. I watch it with curiosity every spring, thinking, surely its twigs can’t actually change colour; it must be an illusion created by the branches becoming gradually invisible beneath the growing leaves. But I swear that as soon as the buds start to break, the twigs lose their glow.
Friends and tree surgeons have all expressed their concerns about this tree and have urged me to either have it cut down completely, or pollarded. One large branch has already snapped off, a few years ago in a gale, and every time a new storm arrives I go outside the next morning to check it is still in one piece. Pollarding is a more acceptable option to me (in any case, cutting it down ‘completely’ would only turn it into a labour-intensive coppice), but despite the perennial anxiety it causes me, I cannot yet bring myself to lay a hand on its splendour.
30/12/2017 The replacement of the blackbird’s song with the robin’s is the first sign for me that summer is coming to an end and autumn is approaching. The blackbird’s song seems made of water; the robin’s, of ice. There is usually a pause between the two songs: the blackbird stops singing in July, and the robin begins towards the end of August. In fact, I have recently learned, robins sings all year round except for a few weeks in summer, during moulting.
My little friend hasn’t yet returned to claim his (or possibly her) winter territory in the courtyard. Sadly, it is quite possible he is no longer alive, as apparently robins rarely live for more than a year or two. Last year he kept me company most of the winter, appearing whenever I scattered seed for the chickens, and hopping to within a foot of me, so that I thought he might eat out of my hand. When I went to sweep out the goat shed, he would sit on a beam above my head, singing quietly.
‘Ought not winter, in allegorical designs, the rather to be represented with such things that might suggest hope than such as convey a cold and grim despair? The withered leaf, the snowflake, the hedging bill that cuts and destroys, why these? Why not rather the dear larks for one? […] Put the lark then for winter, a sign of hope, a certainty of summer. Put, too, the sheathed bud […] Put, too, the sharp needles of the green corn […] Nothing despairs but man.’
Richard Jeffries, ‘Out of Doors in February’, in The Open Air (1885).
30/12/2017 When autumn approaches, I find myself thinking frequently about the season, and often in the context of oncoming winter. Sometimes these thoughts get as far as turning into writing. And yet I rarely write about winter itself. By the time winter arrives, my struggle with the changing seasons seems to have come to an end, and along with it, my imagination. Last year I bought Autumn: an anthology for the changing seasons, and started it before autumn had even got underway, in an effort to embrace the coming season. I did the same with the winter anthology; and yet, less than a quarter of the way through the book, I stopped reading it and didn’t pick it up again before spring arrived. Though I may yet do so for different reasons, I felt no urge to buy the spring or summer anthologies: my emotional and imaginative engagement with those seasons hardly needs encouragement.
My church trips seem to bring luck. On several occasions I have found, heard or seen new things before leaving home, or on the journey. Today it was newts: I caught sight of one in the front pond as I was opening the driveway gate, the first since I had found two in the flowerbed wall more than eighteen months ago. A Sainsbury’s delivery driver had spotted another one crossing the same driveway after dark last autumn. He thought it was a lizard, but I knew it was a newt.
This excitement of course delayed my departure: I had to make sure I wasn’t mistaken, and watch for a while to see if there was more than one, and whether I could tell which kind of newts they were. After half an hour or so, I had spotted four newts in one little sunny patch near the edge of the pond. At least one of them was a great crested newt. I am hopeful this small sample area indicates a healthy breeding population.
30/5/2017 Spring started early this year, and then thought better of it. The first ducklings in the garden hatched in the first week of April, the day after I spotted the first swallows of the season, at least two weeks earlier than usual. Bluebells in south Suffolk were already putting on an impressive show by Good Friday, with a cuckoo joining in the celebrations; and the cow parsley was in flower well before the end of April. But the weather reverted back to winter around Easter and everything was put on hold. Even the ducklings disappeared after a week and I’ve seen no more since.
Strangely, I didn’t mind in the slightest. I am always wishing that spring would hang on just a little bit longer… and this year my wish came true. If the price to pay is cold weather, I think I’m happy with the trade-off. Though perhaps my guests weren’t. By the time the hawthorn blossom appeared in the hedge, bang on time on the 1st of May, there were still daffodils out by the front pond.
7/4/2017 I put off going to my parents’ grave. I still rebel against the reminder that they are in the ground while spring is in the trees. And although I feel I should look after the flowers and shrubs on their tiny patch of ground with as much diligence and attentiveness as the larger version not two miles away, it is too painful and I cannot. A green slate headstone and small patch of ground honouring their deaths; a green slate worktop and large patch of ground honouring their lives.
16/11/2016 After last year’s wondering about whether autumn was hopeful, this year I decided to anticipate my reluctance at the change of seasons and try to embrace the autumn spirit in advance of its arrival. Towards the end of August I bought a newly published book, Autumn: An anthology for the changing seasons (edited by Melissa Harrison). Even admitting to myself before the end of summer that it would arrive was a big step forward for me, but I had been encouraged by a little surprise not long before: I had caught in myself a moment of rising excitement when I noticed just a hint of autumn on its way – I don’t remember whether it was a sight, smell, sound or feeling, but the reaction was instinctive and unexpected.
26/8/2016 It has been a busy few months since welcoming my first ‘guinea pig’ guests at the end of April. A fair amount of frantic DIY and administration went into getting the finishing touches in place before and during the trial period (I hope no one looked too closely at the blackout lining!), which is now over, and ‘official’ bookings are starting off well. It has been a delight and not at all nerve-racking, thanks to all the willing guinea pigs who helped me get into practice before there was too much at stake!
20/7/2016 Thirty degrees, tropical downpour. Thunder and lightning with a 45-degree battering by ice bullets.
Taking shelter behind a bush not tree in case of lightning. The storm passes; swimming in steaming bath water surrounded by disappearing white peas. The geese stare. Slate grey horizon one side, blue sunshine the other. A swallow chasing a sparrowhawk chasing a barn owl.
Walking home – roe deer on the path ahead – are they magical spirits? A pheasant sitting on the ‘Free range eggs’ sign as though he is part of the advertisement. Attempt at a dance for joy, goat style. (More practice and legs needed.)
9/7/2016 The other evening while driving to a concert I was playing in, the gleeful thought appeared in my head, as it does on a regular basis still: ‘… and I get to live here ALL the time!’.
The memories from my childhood and later times spent in Suffolk are tinged with the wrench of having to go back to London after a few days or weeks. My father’s moods – steadily increasing depression at the prospect of having to leave his beloved house and garden as the end of the holiday approached – are also engraved on my memory. There were things that, as a child, I looked forward to in going back to the city – principally going back to school, which I enjoyed up to the age of 14, and seeing friends there – but these gradually became fewer as I got older.
Particularly in later years I felt the crucial necessity of catching at least a little part of each season in Suffolk, especially May and June, which have always been my favourite months. I had a keen sense of what I was missing out on when I wasn’t here. But it surprises me, having lived here full time now for nearly five years, that I am still struck by this ecstatic thought, if it could be called a thought. It is more like a revelation that strikes me at random moments.