Saturday, 26 April 2014

Tree Creeper

Two interesting visitors to our garden this afternoon. The first is a bird I've been looking out for all through the past winter, but without success - common enough, but hard to spot: the tree creeper. We had one the winter before (in harder weather, admittedly) that hawked about on our brick walls for what it could find. Today's bird was doing what tree creepers always do - creeping in a mouse-like way up the trunk of a tree, in this case the elm just to the back of us, which is well laden with flowers, I notice. It will often creep in a circular motion up the trunk, and will then fly back down to start again. Unlike the nuthatch, it can't creep down the tree, only up.

The second visitor, arguably less welcome, was a magnificent male sparrow hawk, a pocket version of the female, and very handsome in slate grey. He perched on top of the feeding station, which I suppose gave him a good field of view; at any rate, the speed at which he dashed off would suggest he'd seen something to fly at. We've lots of pigeons around at the moment, so they might be good food for a sparrow hawk, though perhaps too large a prospect for the smaller male.

Thursday, 24 April 2014


Our garden seems full of robins at the moment, and they are fascinating to watch. Our feeding station falls within the territory held by one pair, but is clearly close enough to an adjacent territory for it to be worthwhile trespassing into.  Since all robins look alike to us - though I suppose they themselves must be able to tell the difference, I wonder how? - I can only tell them apart by their behaviour.

The resident pair basically behave as though they owned the place, which, from their perspective, they do. Robins are not as adept at using seed feeders and the like as are the tits, siskins and goldfinches that are our commonest garden birds, but they do all right, and are prepared to dominate where they get the chance, taking up a threatening pose on the top of the pole and at times driving other birds away. This strategy does not work with the nuthatch, it may be noted.

The resident pair are quite often both there together, and they are very busy and active, which leads me to speculate that they may have chicks in the nest. I don't know where their nest is, but probably in the woodland behind our garden, I should think. I know that friends have robin nests with chicks in their gardens currently. One of the pair may stand guard while the other feeds.

The interlopers usually fly in quickly with the aim of grabbing what they can as quickly as possible. Usually it's just the one bird, sometimes the pair together. If the residents are about a fight ensues, which doesn't last for long - the gatecrashers quickly leave. This morning, one of the resident pair managed to dislodge a large chunk of fat from our fatball feeder. It fell to the ground, where the other of the pair pecked at it. Then one of the interlopers arrived, tried to stake a claim to the morsel, and was driven away by the resident birds. Sadly for them, while they were doing that a passing female blackbird seized her chance, and the morsel, making off with it!

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Easter Poem

Each Easter morn’s a new blest tide of love,
A world set free from sin and pain of death,
Silver the dew, clear blue the sky above,
The myriad scents of spring fill every breath:
End of each sorrow, cure for every pain,
Risen and free, my Saviour lives again.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

An Easter Talk

As I sat down on Good Friday evening to work on my text for today, I took a moment to scan my emails and was distressed to read that an old friend and colleague had passed away on Palm Sunday. It’s nearly four years since I last saw him (in the airport lounge in Dar es Salaam, as it happens), and I recall that he’d been ill then, but his illness was under control. I hadn’t heard that it had returned with a new vigour, so the news of his death came as a shock. But he was a man of firm faith, who will have passed from this life with the cross very much before his eyes, so today especially I can be sure that he has gained his share in the Resurrection of our Lord.

I had in fact just arrived home from visiting another recently bereaved family, and helping them to plan the funeral service which will happen in the week after Easter Week. They were not churchgoers, but neither were they without faith and hope. They shared with me their uncertainty about what happens after death, but also their faith that we are more than flesh and blood, and that what makes each of us who we are is not switched off or ended when our bodies die.

Let me turn from those two occasions of bereavement to the one that begins our story today, as the women journey to the garden tomb in which their friend and teacher Jesus has been laid. What beliefs did they take with them? What did they have still to hope for? They were keeping to the custom of the day, which was to visit the tomb for three days after a loved one had died. It was generally believed that the spirit of someone who had died remained close to the body for three days, but then would depart. But where did the spirit depart to? - this was less clear - perhaps into a sort of shadow world, but anyway out of our reach and reckoning.

So for as long as they could, these women who had served and supported Jesus were doing what they could for him, and keeping close to him. The day after his death had been the Sabbath, and to have gone then to the grave would have been to break the Jewish law. So they came as early as possible on the Sunday morning. Whatever their beliefs, and whatever they were managing to hope, these women were weighed down with a crushing load of grief. This man had changed their lives, had changed especially the life of Mary Magdalene; but now he was no more, leaving only memories and regrets.

The early morning is always a strange and mysterious time, shrouded in mist, and with our eyes still filled with sleep. The Easter stories as we have them are also mysterious and strange;  it can be hard to harmonise the different gospel accounts. John mentions only Mary Magdalene’s journey to the tomb, while Matthew tells us she was accompanied by ‘the other Mary’. Luke tells us this other Mary was Mary the mother of James, and in his version of the story the two are accompanied by several other women, including Joanna. Mark in contrast says that the two Marys were accompanied by Salome, and, strangely, that they said nothing to anybody about what they had heard and seen.

Of course, none of this is mutually exclusive. John, for example, particularly wants to tell us the story of Mary Magdalene, so doesn’t feel the need to mention anyone else. Let’s concentrate for a moment on John’s account; there’s mystery enough just in that story, without needing to look at the other Gospels. Mary found an empty tomb;  and when Peter and John came running they saw the same - and inside the grave they found the grave clothes just lying there.  But none of them found what they were expecting, nor did they immediately believe and understand what they saw.

That sense of mystery continues. Jesus is encountered but not recognised - by Mary in the garden, by disciples on the road to Emmaus, by his closest friends in the room in which they hid, and then on the lake side. It took time to for them to overcome their grief and fear, and to realise that the cross had not been tragedy but triumph. But this truth persists throughout all these Easter stories: that what happened in that garden that day was real, and that as they began to understand, a band of defeated and fearful people were transformed, to become the apostles of a new movement that would in time sweep across the whole world.

If we ask what precisely happened on Easter Day, then maybe we can’t easily find an answer: the stories retain an air of mystery. Why did these people who had known him well not recognize Jesus? But for me it isn't about what precisely happened, as regards the order of events; the real Easter question is about what it means, for me, for you, for the world, to say “Christ is risen, he is risen indeed, alleluia!” And I find the risen Christ proved and authenticated not in an analysis of events or an archaeological survey, but in this simple fact - that what happened changed people’s lives so much that today, two thousand years after a man died a shameful death on a cross, people all over the world are still saying “Christ is risen, he is risen indeed, alleluia!”

Years ago, David Jenkins when he was bishop of Durham made the headlines with the phrase from his Easter address about 'a conjuring trick with bones'.  I expect you’ll still recall that remark and the fuss it caused, but of course it was actually taken out of context and misused in the newspaper headlines.  What David Jenkins actually said is that Easter is not just ‘a conjuring trick with bones’, and that if it was it wouldn’t be worth very much.

For Christ is risen, as St Paul tells us, not as a one-off, but as the first fruits. And, what’s even more important, the message of Easter Day isn’t just about our heavenly future, but also about our earthly here and now.  Towards the end of his time with them, Jesus told his disciples that they were now his friends.  They were no longer to think of themselves as servants or slaves, there to do what their master tells them without needing to know why.  They were his friends, and indeed on Easter Day Jesus calls them his brothers. Friendship is about sharing things, working together, being committed to one another.  Brothers share a parentage and a heritage. Jesus offers us this relationship with him - and on Easter Day that relationship is confirmed. Friendship with Jesus is friendship for ever, unbroken by death.  Jesus offers us a love stronger than the tomb.  That's the good news that claims us, and holds us, and sends us.

That’s what changed the hearts and minds of that defeated and hopeless little group of people, so that they became the genesis of a new movement that in turn would change the world. No longer would Mary and Peter and John and all the rest of them be hiding in the shadows, or timidly visiting a tomb to mourn a dead and tragic hero; they have no need to visit the tomb any more, for they know he is not there - today they are set free to go travelling through life in companionship with the eternally living Lord of the dance.  David Hope the former Archbishop of York once told his people that their Church needed to become less an institution and more a band of pilgrims on the way.  The mysterious events of that first Easter Day began just such a movement - so much so that the first Christians in Jerusalem were simply known as the 'followers of the way'. Another former Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright has said that people who believe in Jesus and in the resurrection must work 'to make that past event, and that future hope, real and effective in the present'.

With that in mind, here's a thought that occurs to me as I read the stories the various evangelists give us of the resurrection:  in those stories, where is it that people meet with Jesus?  They meet him in a garden, they meet him as they walk the dry and dusty road home and recognise him as he breaks bread in their home, they meet him while they are out fishing on the lake, and recognise him as he makes breakfast on the lake shore.  The stories don’t show people meeting Jesus in temples, churches, synagogues or shrines, but in the varied settings of real life 'out in the world'.

In John Masefield's play 'The Trial of Jesus', the centurion who stood at the foot of the cross is asked what he saw, and what he believes.  "He was all alone," says the centurion, "and he defied all the Jews and all the Romans, and when we had done with him, he was a poor broken down thing, dead on the cross."  "Do you think he is dead?" asks the lady, Procula, who is questioning him.  "No, lady, I don't," the centurion replies.  "Then where is he?"  "Let loose in all the world, lady, where neither Roman nor Jew can stop his truth."

For me, what lies behind the mystery of Easter's empty tomb and mist-shrouded garden is this: that we have a friend and brother who has died but is no longer dead. He is not sealed inside stone, nor is he bound into the pages of scripture or limited by the habits of tradition; he cannot be safely and stuffily enclosed within stained glass and carved stone. On Easter Day he is let loose in all the world, so that wherever his friends meet, there he will be among us, and wherever his friends travel, there he will be ahead of us;  and whenever his friends dare to love and to give and to forgive, and wherever his friends are daring to confront the wrong things in our world, there he will be, standing alongside us.

This was the Easter news that changed a band of downhearted, grieving fishermen into apostles.  Jesus Christ is risen today to change and transform us too - for the promise of Easter morning is that this man is our friend and brother, and he has made us here and now citizens of heaven, for whom not only this day but every new day will be the fresh and mysterious dawn of divine and triumphant love let loose in all the world; God’s saving love in which I, and you, amazingly, are given a share.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Garden Bird Update

Spring is well under way, and the sunny weather only serves to enhance its beauty. All our trees are leafing well, and the cherries are in blossom, as is our Japanese quince. The winter's siskins are still around in numbers, and squabbling goldfinches monopolise the front garden feeders much of the time. There are now two pairs of bullfinches in residence, and the rather grating cry (I won't call it a song) of greenfinches is loud in our woods, though the dominant sound most of the time is the chiffchaff.

I have seen swallows, but not here as yet, and of course it will be a while till the swifts appear. A group of town pigeons has found our garden, and they turn up most days. They have a habit of sitting on the feeding station and looking down disconsolately at the feeders themselves, which they can't access.  But down below, they are frenetically active, picking up the dropped and discarded seed. Wood pigeons waddle in too, and there are two or three pairs of collared doves about.

Blue tits and great tits are now more or less absent from the feeders, apart from occasional visits; instead, they are prospecting actively among the new leaves for insect life. Finches have the feeders to themselves, unless there are squirrels about, or the nuthatch is performing his 'quick in and out' operation. Blackbirds are singing in the high trees, and song thrushes have reappeared after a bit of a winter break. We seem to have two pairs of robins, with occasional spats, and from time to time a wren busies through the place.

So there's always plenty to see, and to hear. Buzzards and, occasionally, ravens soar above the wood, and the sparrow hawk has our feeding station on his radar now. We saw jays from time to time through the winter, but I haven't seen or heard one for a little while now.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Low Ebb

I'm not quite sure why, but I'm feeling at a bit of a low ebb today. Everything I've done has worked out at least reasonably well, I've heard a curlew and watched ravens, the sun has shone fairly steadily and the breeze has been light. I did finish last night still a bit short of sleep, but there must be more than that to leave me feeling this down.

So what to do about it? Pray? Not a simple answer; God isn't (I should think) going to turn up with a magic wand and magic it all away. I might perhaps pray about some of the continuing causes of stress in my life - a letter that months after being sent remains unanswered, for example. But it isn't enough just to pray - in this as in any sphere, prayer and action belong together. It's never an option to pray that the status quo may be preserved (though it occurs to me that many of the faithful of the C of E have probably been doing that all their lives) - but if we're going to pray for change, we need to be ready to accept the change that is God's answer - given that it may not be the variety of change we have requested or demanded!

But yes, I need to be praying, and acting on my prayers, and open to what God may require of me, just as much as to what God might choose to give me. Somewhere along the way, though, if I could just manage to feel a little brighter, Lord, I'd be grateful!

Thursday, 10 April 2014

The Dawn Chorus

My monthly 'Nature Notes' column for the month to come . . .

The other morning I woke quite early, and decided just to open my window and let the dawn chorus wash over me. It was absolutely lovely - but why does it happen?

As I wrote last month, birds sing and for many different reasons, but the spring songs of songbirds or passerines, some 50% of the world’s nine thousand odd species of bird, are principally tied in to the important business of finding a mate and establishing and defending a territory.

But why sing in the early morning? Some people think that in the cool freshness of early morning sound carries further (it’s also true that this early in the day there are fewer other sounds), so to sing then is more effective - the sound goes further. You could put this another way round, of course: since birdsong is competitive, each (generally male) bird will be inspired to sing when hearing the songs of others.

A loud and lusty song advertises the presence of a healthy and active potential mate, and perhaps the fact that singing is the first thing a cock bird will do at - or even a bit before - daybreak may be linked to, firstly, a need just to say, very clearly, “I’m still here!” - I’ve survived the night; secondly, the fact that females are often at their most fertile in the early part of the day; and thirdly that to be able to sing well even before the first meal of the day is one way of making it clear that here is a male in the peak of condition.  A decent burst of singing is a more effective way of competing than, for example, physical scraps - though it seems to me that male blackbirds, to name but one species, are more than ready to do both!

It’s at just this time of the year that birds have the time to engage in competitive singing; the dawn chorus tends to tail off later in the breeding season when there are demanding young chicks to be fed. Then singing more of less stops completely by early July, when the breeding season is over and the moult begins. But at its peak this month the chorus can begin as early as 4 am, building up gradually and then continuing at full blast until perhaps about seven, when things get a bit quieter, and when other noises start to intrude. It may very simply be, of course, that since birds can’t easily feed in the half light of early morning they might just as well sing to pass the time! Then, when the proverbial early bird leaves off singing to get his worm, that starts a process of quietening things down.

Anyway, there is still a bit of mystery about this thing called the dawn chorus. It happens, but no-one quite knows why. It may be that all the possible reasons set out above have some grain of the truth in them. Maybe the most important thing is that at this quiet time birds are encouraged to sing by the singing of others (a bit like one dog barking in a yard setting off all the others in the street!). But it’s a glorious and special sound, whatever the reason - get up early one day this month, and listen!

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Getting on with People

Responsibilities and pressures are compressing my personal world just now, and over the next few weeks I shall be letting go of a few more activities and therefore also the human interchange that is involved. As fewer opportunities occur to spend time working with others, those that remain and continue become more precious and important.

I am not a natural politician, and I find that the politics of human organisations (small 'p', usually) difficult, annoying and at times openly painful. It's hurtful when I see people speaking ill of those who, to their face, they greet warmly - but then I think: don't I sometimes do the same? Not with malicious intent, at least, I hope - but it's hard to leave your troubles at home. My best intention always, on the occasions when someone has crossed me or done or said something to hurt me, is to set that on one side and move on, but in practice it doesn't always work out like that. Sometimes there's too much pain and you just have to yell "Ow!". Sometimes hearing that the person has done the same thing to someone else is what opens the floodgates. Well, that's sort of OK if there's a real intention to do something about it in a constructive way - but does it really help anyone, other than in a very transient fashion, to stir the pot just for the sake of it?

I remember reading some fascinating stuff about toxic environments (in the work place, in this case), what causes them, and what can be done - particularly as regards the perpetrators, I suppose. Jealousies and rivalries, friendships that aim to be exclusive, the teacher's pet syndrome, the inability to leave outside those problems that have nothing to do with this group - all of these can produce an environment in which a group of people is failing to achieve what they are aiming to achieve because the perspective and priorities have shifted from the ones properly set.

I should say at this point that most of the people with whom I work are very good at keeping things on track, and also at listening sympathetically and offering a friendly response when - for any person in the group - things seem to be getting tough and difficult. In one group to which I belong in particular, this has produced an environment so positive and supportive and mutually affirming that if I could bottle it and sell it I probably would! I do aim always to get on with people, and I hope I do manage to show people I work with how much I value them. Maybe singing in choirs helps - for a choir to work, we have to be there to help one another. Except where specially invited, there is no place for the soloist.

Which reminds me, to conclude, of someone I know who is a very good tenor soloist, with the ability (something I envy, really) to absolutely dominate where this is required. Such a good voice. But when he is singing a choral piece as part of the whole, that voice is unheard; it is reined back, doing the job now required of it, of being part of something, not forcing its way through or over the rest. Control! That is what we need if we are to get on with people, and if we are to get on as people working together.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Bird Update

A very rainy start to today, but I suspect that was not the only reason why there were so few birds in our back garden. Spring is seriously under way, and the trees are leafing up in a more together and concerted fashion than I remember for quite a few years. The first of our blossom trees is now in bloom, and the birds are beginning to get serious about breeding.  So no bands of finches, and even the squirrels seem a bit half hearted about raiding our feeders.

But wait - suddenly there are loads of goldfinches, plus a few siskins and a greenfinch or two in our front garden! So they are still around. Goldfinches are very argumentative, entertaining spats occurring all the time. Suddenly they all scatter, and a couple of house sparrows wonder across from the bob that gathers on the other side of the road. Through all of this, chiffchaffs and great tits are trading insults somewhere in the tall trees.

Sunday, 6 April 2014


A bittersweet day today. Some news - I won't go into any details - that both saddened and reassured me, all at once. I heard about a good decision made by someone I think well of, that I can only applaud, but that also emphasises the extent to which our life paths have diverged. All of life is about departures and bereavements, as well as the magic of new births and fresh discoveries, and whenever we strike out for what is new, we also have to let go of things that, however precious they once were, will now only hold us back and tie us down.

On my way home I saw my first swallow of the new season - just a brief glimpse, but a definite "tick", as the birders say. Immediately, my heart was lifted and gladdened. Life continues, spring looks toward summer, and I am reminded once again just how much there is in my life that is good and enriched with blessing. I have all I need, which is not to say that life is easy and without struggle; no struggle, no achievement, there isn't a road anywhere that is all downhill. The only thing I would say is that I sense that more is being called from me, although at present there are no obvious openings of doors. We shall see, patience being a virtue that I will, at any rate, exercise through these fourteen days of Passiontide.

However, I have a letter written already and dated Easter Day, which I'd very much like not to send, but may find I have to . . .

Saturday, 5 April 2014


Some good honest Welsh rain this morning. Like it's supposed to be. Everywhere a flat grey, not a breath of wind, and a light but penetrating drizzle that eventually gave way to something rather heavier. For a while, where I was, water was gushing out of downspouts and cascading over paths. I was reminded of many a Welsh holiday as a child. It always seemed to be doing that then.

As it happens, I had work to do, and the rain didn't suit me at all. I had to get down and lay cables, get equipment working, make sure everything was safe, and all with God's good rain making its way down the back of my neck. But I couldn't bring myself to hate it. Water is life-giving, and neither you nor I my friend would last very long without it. And spring rain especially feels appropriate and right - as the song goes

Those April showers, or so they say
bring on the flowers that bloom in May . . .

I won't continue, as it gets a bit twee after that. Suffice to say that I got my work done, dried out swiftly enough, allowed the rain to be an excuse to take time off when I got home and just sit doing the crossword, and now as I write this, we have a grey but pleasantly dry evening, full of the song of blackbirds and thrushes. Earlier on, we had at least twenty goldfinches in the garden, and were also visited by some lesser redpolls, which I thought would have moved on from here by now.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Wenlock Edge

The series of long ridges that one encounters travelling across South Shropshire from the Welsh border are fascinating to me - the Long Mountain, the Stiperstones, the Long Mynd and then Wenlock Edge. Each has its own special character, but for me the fossiliferous limestone of Wenlock Edge has the trump card. I remember coming out here from school long ago, searching for trilobites and lamp shells. I'm not sure what I actually found, apart from a big chunk of coral that I still have somewhere.

I'm not a great fossil hunter, but I also love Wenlock Edge for its flowers, which include orchids, pinks and the yellow-wort, a relative of the pinks which has always been a favourite of mine. Today I was close to the Edge (!), walking with a friend and his lovely dog along muddy field headlands and close to a delightful stream. It's still much too early for most of the flowers, but celandines, violets, wood anemones, ground ivy and dog's mercury were all there in abundance. A buzzard mewed constantly; we found the remains of a probable sparrow hawk kill; and a heron lurched away as we approached the wooded edge of the stream. I love the way they creak into the air like some elderly and not very airworthy plane, an old Dakota perhaps.

Today has been a soft day, to use an expression I've heard - up until the heavy rain that showed up at about tea time, anyway. It has been still and grey, and the great bulk of Wenlock Edge ahead of us as we walked was shrouded in mist. It wasn't cold, but it was pretty clammy. That didn't silence the birds, and we were serenaded by chiffchaffs and great tits as we walked. We weren't out long, but it was a pleasant interlude in a busy and jumbled day.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The Lark Ascending, Kingcups and Frogspawn

Standing outside Shrewsbury Town Football Ground this afternoon, I was delighted to hear above the traffic sounds of that side of town the crystal sounds of a lark, invisible high above me but very audible. This used to be a much commoner sound than it is now. Much of our farmland is no longer suitable for skylarks, so you need a good spread of permanent pasture, or an area of heathland or moorland, to stand much chance of hearing them.

Fortunately, there are quite a few places round here that seem to fit the bill. And in particular I remember a wonderful sunny day a few springs ago on the Stiperstones, when skylark song seemed to completely surround me, with many birds singing away all at once. I felt sad to think, though, that in childhood days I could have heard something similar on farmland near my home - not any more.

Later on in the day, Ann and I walked a length of the Montgomery Canal to a point where we would expect to see kingcups in flower - one of the largest and showiest of the buttercup family in our countryside, and a marsh and poolside specialist, of course, the marsh marigold. And gold it certainly is, you could never describe this flower as merely yellow. The marshy bit of woodland where we expect to see them had been badly hit by the storm winds of the past winter, with some of the trees mangled and split apart - but the kingcups were well out, shining like golden beacons across the dark water.

Walking back along a newly laid path, I was pleased to see that the distinctive pale violets that are a feature of this section of the canal had survived the earthmoving process that had been taking place. In the water, frogs were actively mating, which will provide a useful food supply for the local fish, but also, one hopes, enough surviving tadpoles to give a new generation of adult frogs. The only fish we saw today was a dead pike, floating belly up a little way out into the canal; normally we see quite a few, but the water today was very dark and turgid.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Dawn Songs and Poetic Thoughts

I woke early this morning and decided just to open my window and listen. The good thing about having woodland just behind us is that I don't need to travel anywhere in order to listen to the dawn chorus - and it was beautiful. Of course, it's as yet incomplete, as most of our summer visitors haven't yet arrived, but I was able to pick out several of the singers, which included a song thrush, not a bird I've actually seen in the garden for quite some time, but obviously they're not too far away!

For me music is essential to life, and I sometimes wonder how, or if, I might cope with deafness, should it happen to me. Perhaps I should take refuge in poetry, and find a music there that I could still hear. I enjoy reading the poems of others, and I feel compelled to write my own. This afternoon I gave a reading of some of my poems, something I hadn't done for a little while, and I was reminded how much I enjoy sharing my verses with others, but also how scary it can be to do that, for each poem is in some way an expose of myself, of my soul.

Sadly, I have struggled to write of late. One or two poems have made it onto these pages, but to me they don't seem the equals of those I've published over recent years. I have tried to work out why this may be, but as yet I have no answer. Perhaps my life just now is too settled a place, though somehow I doubt that's it. If there was a magic wand to wave, I'd wave it; instead, I'll just keep slogging away, and hope for a flash of inspirational light or for the songs of angels, or dawn birds perhaps, to revive a flame within me.