Thursday, 23 January 2014

Man versus Squirrel (3)

Amusing today to watch a squirrel that is clearly not as agile as some, scrambling about on our feeders and looking most uncomfortable.  Mind you, they're nothing if not persistent, these squirrels: uncomfortable he may have been, and on one occasion he slipped off altogether quite spectacularly, but in the end he got his breakfast, and I hadn't the heart to rush out there shouting and throwing sticks.

For a while this morning the squirrel baffle actually did what it was supposed to.  Yesterday I moved a planter that the squirrels had used as a launch pad for their leaps onto the feeding station.  So this morning the squirrel made several attempts to climb the pole from the bottom, each time stymied by the baffle and having to return to ground level.  He then climbed a nearby bush, and tried to get to the end of an overhanging branch that pointed out in the general direction of the feeders.  Squirrels are quite light, and this one was smaller than some, but even so the branch was never going to be strong enough!

So the squirrel then tried a flying leap up from the lawn.  He cleared the baffle, grabbed the pole, couldn't keep his grip, and we were treated to the sight of the spectacular fall mentioned above.  He just tried again, and this time managed (just) to hold on.  He climbed to the top of the feeding pole, balanced there looking a bit vulnerable as it swayed in the wind, then out of the feeders hanging there selected the only one with a squirrel-proof guard around it.  He scrambled down that, and hung on to the base, allowing a few seeds to trickle out, which he was able to consume.  Then he fell off again.

Undaunted, back up he went, and this time selected the other feeders.  This was highly entertaining viewing, but - as mentioned before - the presence of a squirrel on the feeding station keeps the birds away, for the most part, and so I continue to feel I ought to discourage them.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014


Lights drift upon the black water,
as, viscous as oil, the stream flows;
passing silently under the bridges,
soft and secret and splashless it goes.
A man walks the cobbled embankment
passing under occasional lamps,
the shadows rise up to walk with him,
brought to life in the chills and the damps.
But don’t ask him what he remembers,
don’t ask him where he is bound;
it’s all water flowed under the bridges,
with no story, no crying, no sound.

Then the stillness is suddenly fractured,
wings are whipping and whirling, gulls cry:
with a thump and a rumble of diesel,
yellow hazards against the night sky,
men are busily clearing the rubbish,
briskly emptying barrows and bins -
silver packaging sparkles, glows briefly,
must be gone as the new day begins.
So metal jaws seize it and swallow,
sad remains of a time that is gone;
the man stops and he watches a moment,
then he turns up his collar, walks on.

We dance a short while and we sparkle,
and it seems our lives matter and glow,
but watch the lights fade in the water,
see them drift down and die in its flow.
So I’ll walk on, duck under the arches,
pretty soon I’ll be lost from your view;
leaving something perhaps of an echo
of the man whom you thought that you knew.
A new day is dawning without me,
where faith fights new battles with doubt,
where water flows smooth in the sunlight,
with the lights on the cobbles switched out.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Man versus Squirrel (2)

The neighbours probably think I'm mad, and will start to look away nervously, I fancy, when they meet me in the street.  Clapping hands and throwing sticks seem no longer to have any impact on our squirrels, so I have taken to creeping up on them (I can usually make it to within about two or three feet), and then shouting or growling very loudly.  It certainly alarms them and they beat a hasty retreat, but I expect it's alarming my neighbours too.

The squirrels have decided to broaden their diet.  They were happily eating sunflower seeds and leaving the other things I put out, but since I moved the nyger seed to hang from a post by the back hedge - a safer and easier spot for the squirrels - at least one squirrel has happily switched to that.  I only hung it there because this was the one feeder the squirrels always ignored!

I have moved all my feeders round, and it's been interesting to see the impact of this.  The nut feeder is now on the side of the feeding station closest to the house, rather than the side closest to the wood.  So far as I'm aware, the great spotted woodpecker has not visited since I moved it . . . I wonder whether it will start back once it's used to the changed positions?  We had enormous numbers of finches today, with the great oak to the back of next door full of them, all very noisy.  They are mostly chaffinches and goldfinches, plus a few siskins and the odd greenfinch.  We get bullfinches, too, but they go their own way and don't flock with the others.  Twice recently we've been blessed with redpolls, but only Ann has seen them, they're never there when I'm looking out!

Back to the squirrels.  Tomorrow I'll buy a squirrel feeder, and stock it with maize, and see how they go for that.  I'm not unhappy about feeding them, it's just that the birds keep away when the squirrels are about. Mind you, the other day a blue tit flew rapidly across to the feeding station, having - I think - completely failed to notice the squirrel that was hanging there grabbing the sunflower seed, and the squirrel was sufficiently surprised by this direct approach to make a dash for the trees.  So direct action by the birds could probably see the squirrels off, but the thought of that raises disturbing images worthy of Hitchcock.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Man versus Squirrel

I really don't mind feeding the local squirrels as well as the birds that visit our garden, but I do resent it when they monopolise the feeding station, as the presence of even one squirrel on the feeders will prevent any birds from visiting (though squirrels feeding on the bits dropped underneath the feeders do not deter the birds at all).  So I have put in a number of the supposedly squirrel-proof solutions to the problem.  The sight yesterday of a squirrel standing on the squirrel baffle (which supposedly prevents the animal from climbing up the pole from which the feeders hang) in order to reach inside the squirrel-proof cage around the feeder, made me a bit cross.  I chucked a piece of kindling wood at said squirrel, as there was a pile of it by our back door. To my surprise, it hit him, though not hard, as it was some distance away. He looked round at me, seemed to shrug his shoulders in a disdainful fashion, and carried on eating. Defeat duly admitted by disconsolate human.

Mind you, things are hotting up in the squirrel world just now, prompted no doubt by the comparatively mild winter we've had so far. Later in the day any number of squirrels - well, seven or eight, anyway - seemed to be engaged in something of a running battle through the treetops behind our house. Much shouting and screaming, and amazing agility as the creatures hurtled through the trees. It's my own fault, I suppose - they are now so well fed, and they have so much energy to work off. Certainly, it was amazing to watch them!

In fact, feats of agility of this sort are a feature of the mating season, which for grey squirrels is now in full swing. Squirrels produce two broods in a year, and the first of these is in the early spring, so mating - and no doubt fighting over possible mates - happens right now, whenever the weather is mild enough to encourage it. It's been mild nearly all winter so far, though the storms and rain over recent weeks won't have encouraged the squirrels. This week, though, things are much calmer meteorologically, and therefore, it would seem, considerably less calm in the treetops!

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Advent Confession

Verses recently written, but in my thoughts set some twenty years ago, and (of course) at the beginning of Advent.

I have always wanted it all to be true,
and have always been afraid it might not be.
So here I am, on the last Saturday in November,
standing under a sad sky, halfway down the field,
looking up at the half tumbled dry stone wall,
the mess of posts and fence wire,
the busy lane and then the church beyond,
darkly brooding as ever, atop its little hill.
I am on my way home from a good brisk walk with the dog,
but now I shall have to get on with things.
Too far to see, but the church notice board bears my name,
and perhaps I ought to feel a little more sure 
about what it is I am selling.

Anyway, here I stand, quite newly arrived here,
and with the new liturgical year about to begin,
the Advent candle ring dressed and in place,
the altar and pulpit draped with purple cloth.
It has been a long journey to get to this place,
a long time spent wrestling with fears and uncertainties.
I seem to have so many questions that lack an easy answer,
that keep me awake on nights, interrupt my prayerful thoughts -
and yet I find also there is always the sense of God,
not present exactly, not in clear focus,
I cannot claim any blinding light or sounding voice, descending dove . . .
just the sense, and it is still there today -
of someone who does not let go of me, who is constantly catching my sleeve,
who despite it all goes on tugging me into saying yes.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014


Driving home, hard day, horizon ahead smudged and tearful,
all light and life leached out of it,
everywhere so dreary and it’s hardly four o’clock;
yet somewhere within the jumble in my head
a moment from a magical past drifts into focus,
a bright and shining star, that once I watched in wonder,
the kind my childhood self imagined
kings bearing gifts might follow.
And I can’t help but scan tonight’s grey and liquid sky
just in case I might glimpse it again.
For maybe then I’d find
those old stories I heard are true after all,
and know, even on a dismal night like this
that I really am heading for home.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Some words at the Epiphany

. . . prepared for a service I shall attend tomorrow:

Epiphany is a word that means discovery, revelation, the penny dropping, the eureka moment:  to have an epiphany is to realise the truth of something in a way you haven't before, to discover something new about yourself or about the world.  Today, January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrates Jesus shown to the world, as he is shown to the wise men from the east who came looking for him;  and the Epiphany season that begins today goes on to tell of many more revealing moments - at his baptism, his first miracle, and more besides.

The man Jesus was born a Jew, and raised in the Jewish faith.  He called fellow Jews to be his disciples, and he taught in Jewish synagogues and the Jewish temple.  He had some critical words for some of his fellow Jews, like the Pharisees, but he was never critical of the Jewish faith itself.  The prophecy which suggested that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem told of the man God would send to 'rule over my people Israel'.  And the wise men from the east, with their star charts and their observations of the night sky had come to find the one born to be King of the Jews.

So that is where Jesus belongs, culturally, historically, geographically, linguistically.  In Palestine, and in the Jewish nation, and in the Jewish faith. So we might ask - how come he didn't stay there?  As we begin to consider that question, one fact to note from the outset is that these men from the east weren't Jews but Gentiles;  and the story of their visit is told to symbolise this vital piece of good news: that here in Bethlehem God has done something new to change the destiny not just of the Jewish nation but of the world.  And the gifts offered by the travellers are symbols of this new act of God:  gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Sacred gifts of mystic meaning, as one Epiphany hymn puts it. Gold is obvious enough - the child is a king, and gold is a king's coinage.  The child the wise men came to see will take authority and exercise power; he will rule over his people - though his route to kingship and the throne he claims are very different from the story of King Herod. But still, Herod would have seen the point of gold, and frankincense too he’d have understood, for there's always something priestly about becoming a king. Monarchs are anointed as they are crowned, as a sign their kingship is held in sacred trust from God.  The role of a priest is to stand between the people and God, God and the people, and one word that describes this is pontifex, meaning bridge builder.  Jesus is pontifex maximus, our great high priest, and he will rebuild the bridge we've broken.

But for me a chill falls across the proceedings when the third gift of myrrh is offered. Myrrh makes for a costly and special gift, but there’s no escaping the fact that it's also the stuff of death. For me the words quoted by Paul in Philippians chapter 2 stand at the heart of my understanding of discipleship and service: 'He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.' This was what it would mean for Jesus to be king and priest: not the acquisition of status and power, but the letting go of these things. In the Letter to the Hebrews we read that Jesus is both the perfect priest, and also the perfect sacrifice. He offers himself for the sins of the people, to die so that they - that we - might live.

So gold, frankincense and myrrh are gifts with power and symbolic resonance, but it's the myrrh that most deeply expresses the crossing of human boundaries and the breaking of human barriers. For myrrh stands for the self-giving love that can break into our hearts, and for the God who in his gift to us places no limits on his love, loving as a Father loves even the most wayward of his children.  The wise men bow before God’s only Son, who will reveal himself as the living expression of that boundless love.

So how come he didn't stay in his Jewish setting?  However precious the birth we've just celebrated, it was his death that led those who saw him and heard him and followed him, and were changed by him, to conclude that what this man had done was for the whole world, and to acclaim him the King of Love, whose kingdom has no human boundaries. The Church founded in his name has the holy task of enabling that love to take root and grow and flower in all cultures and climes.  This child the wise men hailed with gold, frankincense and myrrh can never be the a possession of any one race or culture.  He's a Jew but he's not contained within what is Jewish;  he sometimes feels very western and European, but he's not ours either to keep for ourselves. When the Gospel is made an instrument of imperialism or colonialism that gospel has lost its truth. Jesus is ours as a gift, and his Gospel must shared as a gift, humbly and lovingly - a gift to set all people free.

And wherever the Church may be, it should always bear the symbols of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Gold because we too are kings - Jesus shares with us his royal state and authority, and the secret of his throne, when he tells us: 'Let the one who would be greatest among you become the servant of all.' And wherever the Church is a servant Church it claims its share in the kingship of Christ.

Frankincense because we're all priests:  for all who serve and follow Christ share a holy call to speak of God to the world, and to speak for the world to God.  We are to pray without ceasing, and to witness with constant zeal.  To listen to God, and pass on what we hear;  to listen to the world, and to make our neighbour's need our constant prayer.  And wherever the Church is doing this, in any language or culture, it's sharing and communicating the priesthood of Christ.

But myrrh too must be our sign, for we're called to die daily to sin, and to take up our cross as we follow our Lord.  Our baptism joins us to the death of Christ and joins us also to his risen life and to the new wine of his Holy Spirit.  Discipleship requires of us a dying, a laying down of the old things, so there can then be the rebirth that is Christ alive within us, as we promise and pray 'Lord, you only will I serve;  you are Lord of all my life.'  We may never manage to achieve what we intend or resolve, but we must always aim to offer all we can.  As Christina Rossetti wrote, 'What I can I give him - give my heart'.  Wherever the Church is really striving to be Christ-filled and Christ-centred, setting aside any desire for worldly status or security, then the death of Christ is being proclaimed, until he comes again.

And sisters and brothers, the amazing and wonderful thing is that our Church that is so often so broken, so unsatisfactory and even so sinful nonetheless is doing all these things in so many places: African places and Asian places and South American places, and even European places too.  The wise men were right - the birth of this child was something very special, that could not go unmarked;  they trekked across the desert to lay their royal gifts before the one whose love can transform every human heart, for in Bethlehem they found God's free and loving gift to the world he can never cease to love. May your heart and mine receive that love tonight, and may our lives proclaim it in the world.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Unhappy Bird

We have had more birds than ever on our feeders today, with blue, great, coal and long-tailed tits, great spotted woodpecker, chaffinch, siskin, greenfinch, bullfinch and goldfinch, nuthatch, wood pigeon, robin, dunnock, blackbird, house sparrow all visiting.  The activity around the feeding station was most entertaining, but bringing so many birds together at one place can present its own problems, one of which (as I've mentioned before) is the ease with which disease and parasites can be passed on.  It's important that we do our best to keep the feeding station reasonably clean and healthy.

One female chaffinch in particular has been rather unhappy.  Its feet are very deformed, and its ability to perch must be greatly diminished.  It seems to be able to hop around all right, but its deformity must make it more vulnerable to predation, I should think. It seems likely that this particular chaffinch is suffering from chaffinch viral papilloma, which is not uncommon, sadly. While it is not in itself life threatening, anything that encumbers a bird's ability to move about the place, and of course to perch somewhere hidden and out of reach, has got to put it at risk.

This disease is specific to chaffinches (and bramblings, I believe), so the other birds that visit our feeders are not at risk of contracting it. However, the existence of a very visible disease of this sort only points up the probability that other diseased birds without such obvious symptoms may be visiting feeders.

Thursday, 2 January 2014


After the mystery of the female siskin found dead outside our back door a week or two back, today for the first time a siskin was seen visiting our feeding station (along with about twenty goldfinches). This was a male, with the black crown to his head delightfully prominent.  He was part of a real flurry of busy birds, with, besides the goldfinches, well into double figures of both chaffinches and blue tits, plus great, coal and long-tailed tits. Today has been a moderately calm interlude between stormy bursts of weather, and I wonder how aware the birds are of this, and their need to grab what they can while the weather holds!