Sunday, 27 October 2013


Our garden today has been absolutely full of very busy small birds - blue, great and coal tits, chaffinches, dunnocks, nuthatches.  They've been taking turns on the various feeders, but also prospecting along the greenhouse roof and through the various shrubs and bushes, searching out and grabbing whatever they can find.  The chicken wire walls and top to our fruit cage is no barrier to blue tits, and they were flitting in and out like anything, as our runner beans, still standing there, were obviously a very good source of small insects.  Of course, blue tits are no great problem for the fruit grower, and the mesh is fine enough to keep out the more problematic birds, I'm sure!

Since today was quite blustery with some very sharp showers, our comparatively sheltered garden was, I suppose, good and fairly easy hunting territory for birds eager to stock up against the coming winter.  We know of course, having watched the TV weather forecast, that there's a big storm on the way (though I'm hoping the worst of it will pass us by to the south);  I wonder, do the birds have some inner radar that warns them that they might not be doing much feeding for the next day or so . . . is that why they were so busy today?

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

And Again . . .

Yet another scam email purporting to come from NatWest . . . utterly pathetic, it didn't even TRY to be convincing - logo clearly snipped out of something and pasted, spelling and grammatical errors all over the place, and since when did anyone like NatWest call me a "valued customer"? I do find it all rather depressing.

Just a Thought . . .

All the time in our world, things are happening that never, ever happened before.  Be prepared to be surprised.

Friday, 18 October 2013


As I look at the ancient parish church,
its red stones glow in the rain, their corners and
edges blurred into soft-focus.
I pause to stand in the shelter of the lych, to note
how the music sounds of water around me have been enhanced
by worshipful voices raised in song,
“Cwm Rhondda” from within the stained glass
lit against the dark of this wet autumn afternoon.

I am only a bystander, someone passing through, and so
I remain safely outside, glad of the shelter
and glad to hear the hymn,
and perhaps also glad that prayers are being made -
but happy too not to have to be part of anything;
for the moment, I am only observing and recording
from a distance, not yet ready
to step into the baptismal shower.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Finding the Time is Hard

Finding the time is hard
at this season of the year.  The wind
clatters in a burst of spent leaves across the topstones
of the laneside wall, and icy drops spatter the screen;
the last stage of my journey, and already the light is failing.
I pass between the gateposts to park up, and watch
crows scattering like torn black rags
above the broken line of trees that tops the ridge.
Crows seem able to give themselves to be part of the storm,
while all I can do is turn my collar up, and keep my head down,
and lose my hold on time like the trees are losing hold of their leaves,
to be swept across the fields;  it will not be long
till nearly every curtain will be closed
before even I start my journey home.  It is as though
The dark were engaged in a two pronged attack, mounting
a pincer movement to squeeze the life out of the light.
The remains of the day have become skeletal and pale,
washed out like the trees through my rainy windscreen
now that the wipers have stopped.
I shall make my run for the door and my fireside chair,
to close the curtains, sit tight and
leave the world be, hibernate if I could; for anything more
finding the time is hard,
at this season of the year.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013


A mention of an interesting event that I observed last weekend.  On Saturday afternoon I was outside clearing out the greenhouse and doing a few other autumn garden jobs, when all of a sudden there was the noise of a great assembly of crows and jackdaws in the big oak tree to the north of our garden.  To me it seemed like a major argument, perhaps even a battle, with the birds wheeling about in numbers.  I am pretty sure I could hear magpies too, though I couldn't actually see them. I know crows and magpies will fight, and perhaps that's true for jackdaws as well;  anyway, I really can’t be sure what provoked this, but it certainly disturbed the peace.  

We always have crows and jackdaws around our gardens, but I normally only see them in groups of three or four at most.  There will have been forty or fifty birds at least involved in this affair, and the commotion went on for at least a quarter of an hour.  During this time the squabble, if that's what it was, gradually moved south through the wood from the major oak until the birds were mostly in or wheeling above the trees (ash, elm and sycamore) that our own garden backs on to.  And then after a while they dispersed, leaving just a few jackdaws to shout at each other now and again.  I’d love to know what was really going on here, what started it, and how typical it is - after all, these are intelligent and quite highly organised birds.  Was it perhaps about carving out winter territories, or were these young birds just rousting about? I'm sure someone will know, or at least have a theory.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

A Last Bite of Harvest

Well into October, and the Harvest Festival season almost over, nonetheless Ann and I still had two to attend today, one Anglican and one Presbyterian.  The first we attended only the service (Ann played the organ), but had to cry off the lunch, while the other we managed both the service and a very well-laden tea table afterwards.  Both were nicely taken;  the Anglican service could I thought have been better attended, but then again, some who might have been in church were busy instead producing the lunch, I suppose.  I liked the service, simple, clear and with a good cross section of hymns that directed us toward a wider perspective than just the local farms and fields.

The Presbyterian service, in a chapel whose normal Sunday attendance is very few, was I think better attended than had been expected, but a Montgomeryshire tea table is more than capable of coping with a few extra mouths (never knowingly under-catered), and there were plenty of sandwiches and cakes still left when people started packing up for home.  It wasn't a short address, but they like a bit of content in chapel, and there was also a singing-band with guitars, which was nice.  What I liked was the enthusiasm of the preacher, and I felt that his choice of text (from I Corinthians 3) was refreshingly different for a Harvest sermon.

Anyway, that's it for another year, I suppose!  We're already practising music for Christmas, of course, let alone All Saints, Remembrance and Advent.  But I do enjoy Harvest, not least because it's a season in its own right - it doesn't happen everywhere on the same day, so the successive services and socials in different churches mean you can get to see, as you travel about the place, quite a few different interpretations of the theme.

Friday, 11 October 2013


The ivy snakes across the weathered bricks.
As I stand here I can almost think I see it move, trace
the twisting of the stem, the probing of velcro roots.
October has weathered the peacock sky to a flat grey,
and from it the spitting wind cuts through to my heart.

I am here to tend the garden, my task
to rip out a summer’s growth of buttercups and nettles,
to open up spaces and take down old stems,
get things tidy for the winter.
But I shall not touch the ivy, let it grow on.

Let it grow on, hiding the wounds, concealing the evidence.
Even in this chill breeze, its late flowers, frothing green,
are humming with flies and small bees, there to grab what they can
before it is all too late.
For me it has been too late for quite a while now.

The tumbling days of October
are just time at last catching up with me,
preparing itself to make winter real around me
as it is already real within; yet the polished green of the growing ivy
hints at a different outcome from the one expected.

Thursday, 10 October 2013


On my way to Ludlow this morning I was stuck for many miles behind a large lorry, which eventually turned off (hooray!). Not casting any aspersions, as it was being well-driven, and I'm sure it couldn't have safely travelled those narrow and difficult roads any faster. Nonetheless, as I followed on behind I couldn't help a somewhat wry smile at the legend "Speed - the Future of Distribution" on the rear of the lorry.

The reason I was travelling to Ludlow was to attend what turned out to be an enjoyable and stimulating day on the poetry of R.S. Thomas, whose verse I have long admired. He often seems to speak directly to my soul, and I would love to be able to write like him. The day focused on the theme of self-identity, and on some of the significant relationships in the poet's life. R.S. Thomas' poetry has always seemed to me to be sometimes quite painfully honest, but his poems may also demonstrate something of the limits of his own self-awareness - that is, he is very honest about what he is aware of in himself, and in his analysis of relationships, but maybe there were sides to the man, aspects of his character, that others could see and applaud but which remain unrevealed in his writings.

This led us to touch on the limitations of our own self-awareness. What are the things in life that lead us to become more aware of who or what we are? Clearly, the making and unmaking of relationships, with other people and perhaps also with new places; the points of achievement, the moments of tragedy, the times when we fail. Perhaps also the rare and special moments when we find ourselves freed from the fierce tyranny of time, perhaps by something as simple as a sudden burst of sunshine through the clouds, and the way it lights on a field the other side of the valley . . . the moments that do occur when we become aware that we are surrounded by eternity, even as we travel through this world of time and seasons.

Are self-awareness and God-awareness inescapably interlinked for the person of faith? Maybe that's true beyond faith as well, I ponder, having listened to a piece on the importance of religious faith and its insights to many atheists, on Radio 4 as I travelled in. All I can note is that it is often experiences of this sort that prompt me to write verse, even if I don't always quite know what I am writing. And that I find I am bound to agree with R.S. Thomas' own statement to the effect that poets need to write without being confined by orthodoxy or afraid of heresy, if what they write is to be the imaginative truth.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013


I was watching the second of the BBC nature programmes tonight looking at the seasons of natural history in the UK (Spring, therefore), and an awful lot of things seemed to be getting eaten by other things.  My wife, wandering in, said "Urgh, can't watch that!" and exited, probably not hearing me respond with something along the lines of "But that's life, that's how the world works."  And it is.  Nature overproduces, some things get eaten, most of the time a balance is preserved - and just because we grow most of the things specially that we eat (and kill them 'humanely') doesn't mean we're not just playing the same game.  If you don't eat, you don't live, but if you do eat, something else has to be the thing that is eaten. Still, to tell the truth, I wasn't watching that element of the proceedings all that easily and happily, either.

Anyway, a lot of the things getting eaten in the film turned out to be mayflies, and it does seem quite strange to me that something should spend two or three years growing as a nymph down there among the weeds and pebbles of a river, just to have, literally, a day in the sun as an adult, by the end of which all of that day's flies are dead. Sad, too, to think that some of the mayfly larvae will have spent all that time growing and maturing, only to be snapped up by a passing trout the minute they spread their wings. These adults have no other function than to fly, mate, and lay the eggs that will produce the next generation - that will, in their turn, become adults that will have no other function than . . . and so on and so forth.

There is immense overproduction. If all the brood of mayflies survived, I suppose they would swamp the world. But of course, as they emerge, everything else is having a field day, and they get eaten by fish, frogs and toads, by wagtails and other insect-eating birds, even by ducks. I bet all these species can't believe their luck on a day when the mayflies are emerging. It is also, ephemerally, quite beautiful - so many wings beating and catching the sun as these creatures rise up from the water, fall back down, and rise again.

All life is ephemeral, though most is not as ephemeral as the life of the adult mayfly (members of the order Ephemeroptera), and, although sometimes the dark at the end of the Long Day feels a little daunting and scary, on the whole I have no problem with that. But my faith is much more severely threatened, I find, by the prodigality and wastefulness of nature . . . an ever-present theme throughout tonight's account of Spring, but particularly brought into sharp focus when I watched those mayflies.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013


One of the poems I was revising today :-

When it is time to go
I shall hope to be remembered with smiles,
though I’d like to think there might be a few tears besides,
and, surely, a tale or two to tell
accompanied by the raising of glasses and laughter,
and maybe the odd eyebrow too.

When it is time to go
I'll hope to leave knowing
this has been a job well done, and a journey boldly made.
Maybe there might be a touch of frustration too: after all,
it would have been good to have had a little more to try at,
and to have found a mile or two further to walk; but let’s hope, anyway,
that there won’t be too much to regret.

Oh, I won’t have got everything right, I know, and I’ll never hide from my faults.
The plaudits I’ll be happy to share, while the mistakes have been all my own;
and yes, I do feel an ache in my heart for every hurt I've caused.
But when it is time to go
I hope that even those hurts might be looked on kindly,
and that I might find a welcome wherever it is I'm going,
with a slice of forgiveness and forbearance, and a bowl or two of love.

For know this of me, friends, and believe it, when it is time to go:
Always I put my heart into all I sought to do,
always I tried hard at love.  And always I hoped that
by the end of it all
I might have sparked more smiles than tears.

Alpine Incident

A poem written sometime last year, that I came across as I revised other pieces of writing today :-

Discovering a man just hanging on by his finger tips
to the stark and sheer rock face
(they had heard on the wind his cries for help),
the leadership team took a moment in committee
to discuss the correct procedure
and to establish protocol,

then, as agreed and directed, they stamped on his hands.

And, as he fell, they made sure to call down,
advising him to take good care.
They hoped that he would be all right, they said,
and that he would be able to adjust
to the new situation in which he now found himself -
flinging down after him a bar or two
of their Kendal mint cake.

And so they continued on their upward journey,
secure in the knowledge that the right thing had been done,  that they had
acted properly and within the guidelines,
been seen to be beyond reproach.

After all, he had been already
on his way down.


Yesterday I spent some time putting up a new feeding station for our garden birds.  The ones we had were I think too close to the trees that our garden backs onto, and therefore birds using them were potentially at risk from predators, cats mostly, that can use the cover to sneak up on them.  The feeders themselves were also quite vulnerable to thieving squirrels . . . I don't really mind feeding the odd squirrel, but they are greedy little beggars:  they consume far more than I can afford, and hang around for ages keeping the birds away.

So a swish new feeding station (complete with squirrel-proof baffle) has now been placed on an area of flagstones which I can easily keep clean (that's the theory, anyway), and stocked with sunflower kernels, peanuts, fat balls and nyger seed.  And almost straight away, our garden is full of birds;  it's quite remarkable.  So far, I have to say, they've not spent much time on the feeders.  They are still too new, I suspect.  The birds know what they are, and that there's good food there, but they don't yet know how safe it will be to use them.  So birds are flying by, across the garden from right to left, then back from left to right.  Numbers of them have perched in our little row of blossom trees, pretending to prospect the branches for insects. Occasionally one of them will fly across very close to the new feeders, perhaps veering away at the last minute, and perhaps then perching where the old feeders used to be and looking wistfully (or so I expect) across at the new ones.

In other words, birds are just like us. We too hang around waiting for someone else to take a lead, hoping that someone else will take the risk of trying it first, whatever "it" may be. I don't want it to be me that looks the fool, I don't want it to be me that gets caught. Mind you, once someone does take the lead, the rest of us soon enough follow - and I'm sure it will be just like that in our garden too. I'm not one of life's trailblazers, much as I might like to be; but I do thank God very sincerely that such people exist, for so much in human progress has depended on the one person who dared to take the risk, while ninety-nine others were just hanging around and dithering.

Monday, 7 October 2013


An unusual event today:  I decided to put away the sunshade we'd been using over our table on the veranda. Though it was a lovely day today and we all sat out for a while, the sunshade weather is past and over for this year! So I took it apart and opened up the shade so that I could fold it round more neatly, only to find a little furry ball inside.  Closer inspection revealed it to be a bat, too large I think for a pipistrelle, but I'm not well up on other species.  After a while, the bat decided it was perhaps time to move on;  it crawled up the fabric to a point at which it could take off, extended its wings, paused for a moment, and then flew across our garden and along the woodland edge, eventually disappearing into the trees.  I was sorry to have disturbed it;  maybe it would have been happy in our shed, but I don't know.  Was it intending to spend the winter in our sunshade, or had it just been hiding up there till evening?  Well, I hope it found somewhere comfortable and safe in the wood!

Saturday, 5 October 2013


It was suggested to me this morning that Welshpool is, perhaps, the coffee capital of mid-Wales, if not the entire UK.  Our small town seems to have at least one coffee morning each day of the week, and sometimes as many as three, and a hardy band of supporters will trek from one to the next.  Needless to say, I was helping to run a coffee morning at the time of this conversation;  there is a coffee morning every Saturday morning at Church House, with a different charity running it each week (today it was the turn of Welshpool Rotary Club), and a very faithful band of folk who come and support it.  We took just over £100 this morning, I think, which we shall be quite happy with.

I think the punters get a good deal at our coffee mornings - for £1 entrance, plus a quid or two on raffle tickets, they get the chance to catch up on the latest news and gossip, fuelled by pretty much all the coffee they can drink and a plate of cheap biccies thrown in. Having said that, please don't imagine that this means commercial coffee outlets don't get a look-in.  There are plenty of them too. At least three new tea shops or coffee bars have opened in the town this year, and they (together with the many we already have) all look attractive and inviting.  I wonder whether the economy of Welshpool can support so many caffs?  I sort of hope so - after all, it's nice to have a good choice of places where you can sit about and have a good chinwag over a latte or two, and if there are decent sticky cakes on offer too, so much the better.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Harvest Thoughts

The first Friday in October is clearly big in the Harvest Festival world, and a large proportion of our local churches and chapels seem each to have their harvest services and suppers tonight.  I suspect that not quite so many people attend Harvest Festival as used to, but it is even so one of the success stories of the church year, and I hope all of these local Harvests will have had a good attendance.

The present situation of political deadlock in the USA, and the deaths of many economic migrants off the coast of Italy - two of today's headline news stories - are both a reminder that Harvest these days is more global then ever, even if at the level of the local church and chapel we may pretend to old-fashioned self-sufficiency with our local apples and potatoes and sheaves of corn and all those traditional harvest hymns. In reality the economies of the world mesh together to such an extent that today, three days or so into the American shut-down and with the dollar at its lowest for many a year, worried noises from all across the world are beginning to be heard in the news media.  We live in a world where jobs are being exported, or outsourced to low-wage economies, while increasing numbers of people are travelling in the opposite direction, some at immense risk, hoping that our streets may be paved with gold.  Our economies are increasingly dependant on the cheap labour both of workforces in Chinese economic zones or Bangladeshi sweatshops, and also (however hard a line may we talk up on immigration) of those who come voyaging to our shores hoping for a better life and a share of our wealth, whether they arrive legally or illegally.

Hmm - thinking about it, maybe that's why the old traditional Harvest Festival still attracts - it takes us away from the messy mixed up realities of today and allows us to bury ourselves in a sepia tinted simpler past that even then probably never really quite existed.

Thursday, 3 October 2013


I was out a little earlier than usual this morning, as I wanted to spend an hour or so at one of our local nature reserves, Llyn Coed y Dinas.  I had the hide to myself on arrival, and in my hour there was plenty to see - snipe, gadwall, lapwings;  a little grebe and a common sandpiper - and all the regulars, ducks, geese, swans, coots, cormorants, that frequent this bustling reserve, formed by flooding pits that were the result of nearby road-building a few years ago.

What I was really there for was the chance to see a great white heron (or egret;  I prefer heron) that has been at the reserve for a few weeks now;  in fact at one time there were two.  I'd seen quite a few of these birds while on holiday, and I have seen them before in the UK, but for Welshpool this was a rarity, and worth the effort.  It took a while to emerge from behind the bushes at the far end of the lake (until then I'd had very brief and tantalising glimpses of something white moving behind the leaves - I knew what it was but couldn't really say I'd seen it, as such).  Once out in the open, though, I had some very good views.

It was left to itself while at the far end of the lake, but once it decided to fly up to "my end" so to speak - where the hide is, in other words - it didn't have such an easy time.  There were four or five greay herons also on the reserve, and they were obviously rattled by this interloper.  Again and again it was driven off, and forced back into the air.  The grey herons, or one or two among them at least, were prepared to chase the great white half the length of the lake.

Perhaps that's why the other great white heron decided to move on.  This one certainly seemed to have more "stickability" - but it was interesting to see an example of something a little different getting a reaction, and a hostile one at that, within the natural world.  To be fair, the grey herons do get quite fractious and territorial even among themselves, as they carve out their own hunting patches around the lake (I was fascinated, by the way, to get a good sight through my scope of a grey heron just in front of the hide catching and eating a fish.  The fish was caught and swallowed almost in one movement).  But I couldn't help but be reminded of the way in which in human societies the different person or the minority community so easily becomes seen as a threat and identified as a target, when often in reality there would be room for all to live in peace - it just requires a bit of give and take.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

An Autumn Walk

(The first draft of a new poem)

Late afternoon into early evening;  the sound of bells from some way behind me
seems set to follow me all through my walk.  Leaves are turning by now,
red and gold showing amongst the green, while
from somewhere the slow smell pervades of a stinkhorn fungus.
This morning has been wet, that mizzling wet that soaks everything through,
so that now the bracken and the rangy nettles are strewn with pearls.
There is a feeble sort of sun that seems itself to be made mostly of water.
A robin is singing, another responds, and still the sound of the bells
is there, chasing me from a steepled tower half a mile away and more.

Years ago, too many to think about, I used to walk this path;
nothing much has changed, or so it seems - certainly
the bells sound just the same, just
a new generation learning the methods, plain bob minor,
grandsire triples, all of that.  The names mean little to me,
but the sound tugs at my heart, where somehow I am still that boy,
kicking at the leaves and hoping for fallen conkers.

And now I have reached the high bridge over the canal, where close by
busy squirrels are laying quarrelsome claim to the last few hazel nuts.
Here is where I shall pause, and reflect on which
of three or four possible ways back I might take:
perhaps the high path through the wood, and then the towpath.
That’s the way I would always use back then, but there is a steep descent
and my knees are not quite what they were. 
A nearby sycamore has already lost nearly all its leaves -
yellow and brown, they crowd against my feet
as I look down to check my boot-treads and laces.

Ways back I might take;  how about
a way back into boyhood, into the innocence of those far off days,
with my aims and hopes and dreams as yet unblunted by time,
and everything still to happen?
The only way I can take is via those bells
and the memories they stir, and even they are partial now and fading.
“Forty years on, when afar and asunder . . .”
There is only the onward journey, from autumn towards winter,
framed in the frosting air and falling leaves, but with, still,
the hope of a spring to follow.

Central Park, from the 'Top of the Rock'

(See the two postings below)

Some Harvest Thoughts

Just to keep my hand in, a Harvest address, based on Psalm 104 and Luke 12.13-34 :-

This is a favourite time of the year for me, and this year we’ve had the sort of summer that produces a good harvest, so there is much to give thanks for.  We live in a beautiful place here, and indeed we live in a world that is full of marvellous things.  I’ve chosen as a first reading one of my favourite psalms, a hymn of praise that speaks very vividly of the variety of forms of life with which we share our planet, and the way in which the Lord provides and cares for all of them.  I’m a keen naturalist, plant collector and bird watcher, and within the natural world I find our creator God glorified and glorified again.  Christians, and indeed members of the other great faiths of our world, more and more today are coming to understand that we are given the responsibility of stewards within this world of living wonder and variety.  Just as God placed Adam and Eve in a garden to tend it, so we too have the task under God of looking after all that he has made.

So for me that’s a significant dimension of my thinking at harvest festival. We use the earth to provide for ourselves as gardeners and farmers, and also as miners, manufacturers, fishermen and hunters.  But we’re also stewards of creation - so who are we as stewards protecting the earth from? Just ourselves, I suppose - after all, we’re the ones (at our greedy worst) who are the damagers and the exploiters and the despoilers of creation.

And it may even be that the Bible gives us encouragement to do this, to see the earth entirely in terms of resource for us to use.  For right at the beginning of our Bibles, in the first chapter of Genesis, God tells his people that they must “fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion” - dominion over everything: fish in the sea, birds of the air and all the rest of it.

So where does that leave us?  Well, there is surely a huge difference between using the earth’s resources and using up the earth’s resources.  We’re given dominion over all other forms of life, but the model for that dominion is provided by our Lord himself, and we see that his dominion is a dominion of love and care. In Jesus, who says to his friends  “I am among you as one who serves” he shows us the way of sacrifice and service. For the disciples of Jesus the measure of greatness is never how high and grand a throne we sit on, but how ready we are to serve one another.

I’ve been privileged over the years to travel quite widely in the world, to places where people seem to have very little, and to places where arguably people have far too much; to  places where development is urgently needed, and to places that suffer from over-development;  and certainly to some places where the harvest is poor and sparse.

So I’ve been made very aware of the challenge of sharing, of making space for one another within our human economy. I’ve been in Palestine, seeing how political tensions intervene, so that some of the harvest can’t be gathered because of the borders that can no longer be crossed.  In Tanzania I’ve seen lakeside communities where potentially there could be a rich fishery, only the resources to develop it aren’t there, so instead people just scrape a living, with goats and bony cattle on the shore and dug out canoes on the lake.  In Peru I’ve been in shanty towns where people have migrated to the city hoping for streets paved with gold, and finding instead mostly dust. Many have been driven from their family lands by poverty and by terror gangs.  I visited smallholdings established by the Rural Landless movement in Brazil, to hear stories of violence and murder done by agents of the big landowners against those who were trying to settle the land in a peaceful way.

And in all of these places I found church communities working hard and courageously to make things better for people in need, and taking seriously that call of our Lord to serve.  They were empowering people who had been helpless, and speaking out for people whose voices had till then gone unheard.  All these communities would I’m sure take to heart the verse from my second reading, in which Jesus says, “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

I don’t know who it was who said “tread as lightly as we can upon this world, for it’s the only one we have,” but those are wise words. Someone else has said: “Live simply, that others may simply live.”  In his story, Jesus quite brutally exposes the shallow desires of the man who hoarded all his crops in his brand new storehouses and barns.  “What good is all the wealth to you?” the man is told - it’ll all be left behind when you go.

My wife and I have not long got back from New York, where perhaps more than anywhere else on this planet you are brought face to face with human power and conspicuous consumption, in the immense buildings that rise up so high.  We ascended one of them - not the Empire State but the Rockefeller Tower, not quite so tall but 67 floors up as we looked out over the city.

As we surveyed the city skyline, wealth and power was laid out in front of us, expressed many times over in steel and glass and stone.  But looking north from the Top of the Rock, as the viewing floors of the Rockefeller Tower are known, you see not only skyscrapers but also the vast expanse of green at the heart of Manhattan that is Central Park.  We fell a bit in love with New York, for all its demonstration of the power of mammon, but we fell very much in love with Central Park, and for me that green oasis was a timely reminder of the truth that “Man cannot live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

In Central Park birds flit through the trees, squirrels forage about on the grass, turtles sun themselves on rocks around the lake, and people eat ice creams and go jogging, sometimes both at the same time.  And here space is made and kept for the natural world and for the wild things, as well as for the refreshment and re-formation that we humans need if we’re to be healthy and strong in body and in spirit. And this should surely be true of the way in which we use the earth wherever we are within it.  Sometimes that means creating nature reserves and game parks and the like, not just as a resource for us or for the tourist trade, but also because the creatures with which we share this planet deserve their own space in which to survive and thrive.

But we also need simply to recognise that as human beings we’re a part of, rather than apart from, the natural order of our planet.  And as such we are diminished ourselves if we abuse or destroy the beauty of the wild places, whether that’s the hedgerows and woodlands that make our own countryside so lovely, or the rain forests and savannahs and wetlands and coral reefs of other lands.

What makes Psalm 104 so inspirational to me is the way in which it tells me that our lives are linked in to the lives of other living things, of wild donkeys and rock badgers and storks, and shows me how God provides for us all. The other day I was listening on the radio to Bishop James Jones, the former Bishop of Liverpool; one thing he said that I felt struck home was this: for Christians, to abuse God’s creation should be understood not only as something foolish and wrong, but also as an act of blasphemy. When we do as we like with the planet we deny God’s sovereignty, we say to him “You don’t really matter, we can do as we please.”

Another Psalm begins with these words: “The fool says in his heart ‘There is no God’".  God gives us the freedom to act as though he were not there, but we're fools if we take that route.  Jesus made it very clear that the rich man with his storehouses and barns was going nowhere.  Why have faith in stuff that will rust and rot and moulder away?  Instead, lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven.

So for me, harvest thanksgiving must always be a time of commitment and recommitment, when we think of blessings received and also of our call to be blessing for others.  Anything less isn’t a real thanksgiving - thanksgiving for harvest isn’t expressed in what we do this evening, in our hymns and our prayers and our gifts on this one day, but in the generous and faithful living of our whole life and in the way we use all that God gives us.

That’s why at their Harvest Thanksgiving, the people of Israel brought the first fruits of harvest to lay before the Lord.  It was their sign and acknowledgement that the whole of the crop was rightfully his, that the whole harvest should and would be used in ways that were faithful and just.  May that be true for us too, and, indeed, may we ourselves be a good harvest to the Lord - through lives that will bear fruit, through lives that will reflect the love and care and compassion that the God we praise has for all he has made, and for all that by its being brings glory to his name.


Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Birding in the Park

So here we are, back in business, after our trip to New York, of which more later.  Here, first of all, is the latest of my 'Nature Notes' columns, which derives from that visit :-

Parks are often good places to watch birds;  they are leafy oases in urban areas, and often there’s a good range of plant species and therefore food supplies, kind human beings who deliberately or accidentally feed the birds, and who of course also persuade the birds to be a little less timid than they might be in other places.

But Central Park, New York is an urban park on a different scale.  It’s vast!  And although it’s very full of people (in the early morning it’s like a sort of M25 for joggers), it’s also full of interesting habitats and varied wildlife.  Some of New York’s birds are very familiar, partly because we introduced them - Central Park has more than its share of house sparrows and starlings - while other birds like ravens and herring gulls just happen to be American as well as British.

But of course when you’re a new British arrival armed with field glasses everything is interesting!  A local birdwatcher identified a Wilson’s Warbler for us - a migrant species not all that common in New York, being a western American species; but we were just as interested in birds like Grackles, Robins (the American Robin is actually much more closely related to our Blackbird) and Blue Jays, which he probably never even noticed any more, since they’re so common.  There were a number of quite interesting warblers, and they seemed to be what the local birders were concentrating on most.

I’m sure that most of the birds we saw were common enough - Mockingbirds, Black-and-White Warblers, House Wrens, Mourning Doves, Chickadees - but they were all pretty special to us.  We saw other creatures too - some splendid butterflies, including that master migrant of the butterfly world, the Monarch, dragonflies, grasshoppers;  both grey and black squirrels, terrapins (there are several large pools) and, a couple of times, rats (well, they are everywhere, aren’t they?).

Two rather good sightings I had in the park were of a Red-Tailed Hawk (actually a close relative of our Buzzard and therefore a pretty big bird), which sailed across a clearing in front of me to escape a mobbing party of Blue Jays, to perch hardly more than twelve feet away from where I was standing;  and a splendid woodpecker which again crossed close in front of me to land on the trunk of a nearby mature tree.  I’m pretty sure this was a bird called the Northern Flicker.  I watched several flycatchers without being sure of the species, but I must mention the lovely bright red Cardinal that Ann and I both saw . . . “a common back-yard species” my book says - well, I wish we had them here.

Elsewhere we saw egrets, cormorants, a variety of hawks, vultures, various small sparrows and finches;  but two other delightful sightings to mention before closing were three Mockingbirds playing on the illuminated letters above the main doors of our hotel in Alexandria, Virginia;  and, best of all, the pair of Bald Eagles we glimpsed from our coach between Baltimore and Washington.  “Not many people see them,” commented Larry, our guide, who knew about them, when we told him later - and we felt pretty good.