Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The Lizard and the Fly

Adrift from the normal flow of things
he is watching the progress of a lizard
across the window pane.  Someone is speaking
as others listen, but he can find no way
to become part of their conversation.  Time
is running at a different pace in his mind,
in his heart,
and the essential geography is all askew.

The lizard (“Is it a gecko?” some part of him wonders)
is on the outside of the glass,
and on the inside there is a fly.
The lizard is stalking the fly, but cannot catch it,
cannot touch it, cannot understand why;  while the fly on its part
seems oblivious to the lizard.

The fly continues to buzz against the pane,
the lizard continues not to catch it.
People continue to speak.  And so the morning progresses,
this meeting at which he has to be present, even though
he cannot truly attend.  Only a fraction of his self
is even attending to the comic drama of gecko and fly,
which at least has the virtue of novelty.
“What is wrong with me?” he wonders.

What is wrong with me
is that I am still on the wrong side of the glass;
nothing I see is able to catch me, for I am not really here.
I left too much behind;
the beating heart of me is elsewhere, on some other continent.
I remain out of reach
and out of touch.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Nature Notes

Hornets - my monthly 'Nature Notes' column . . .

Visiting a National Trust garden in Norfolk a few years ago, we were fascinated to see quite a few hornets quartering the flower beds. Hornets are our largest social insect, forming colonial nests like their smaller close relatives, the wasps. Hornets have yellow and brown striped abdomens, not yellow and black like a wasp, and in the UK they are found mostly in South-East England. I remember coming across a nest in Kew Gardens, which had been identified by the staff and labelled, also fenced off, but with a suitable vantage point for visitors to watch from. Hornets pack a fairly serious sting, but are in fact much less likely to sting than the smaller wasps - they are pretty even tempered insects.

Anyone seeing a hornet in these parts probably hasn’t. There are, however, a number of other candidates that can be mistaken for them. The first of course is a queen wasp. There are several species of social wasp in the UK and they do vary in size. In Spring only the queens will be seen; they have survived the winter and are now preparing to start a new colony, feeding up and searching out a suitable site. They are of course much larger than the worker wasps, and can easily be mistaken for hornets - except that their abdomens will be striped in yellow and black.

The giant wood wasp can also be mistaken for a hornet (though only by people who have never seen hornets). It is a seriously big wasp, with a narrow yellow and black abdomen. It looks quite menacing, with what might appear to be a long sting protruding from the abdomen. These creatures are also called horntails. In fact the ‘sting’ is an ovipositor, a tube for placing the egg carefully into the wood of a usually diseased tree. The larva burrows into the wood and will live for perhaps two years in the larval state. The adult wasp is in fact quite harmless, having no sting at all.

Two other creatures may be mistaken for hornets, neither of which belongs to the wasp family at all. I remember seeing one on a visit to Lincoln, sunning itself on a stone in the cathedral yard. It was a hornet clearwing moth.  This large moth quite brilliantly imitates a hornet: it has clear wings, hence the name (they are in fact brown bordered), and a bulky abdomen striped in just the same way. They are not particularly common in the UK, but can be found. Other clearwing moths, such as the more common currant clearwing, imitate smaller wasps; the hornet clearwing, however, actually manages to move like a hornet, too. This important protective adaptation sadly doesn’t work with human beings, who routinely kill this harmless insect.  Hornet clearwings fly in high summer - July and August.

Finally, the broad-bodied chaser, a species of dragonfly, can also be mistaken for a hornet, as both male and female can have abdomens in quite a bright yellow when they are newly emerged (the male develops a blue body, and the female darkens). Their wings are obviously dragonfly-type, as is their flight, and though some people persist in believing that dragonflies can sting, they don’t.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Funeral Poem

I wrote a new poem based on the line 'miss me, but let me go', for a family and situation where the words of the existing poem seemed inappropriate :-

When the long day closes at journey’s end
and the sun sets red in the sea,
let there be no prayers of grief or gloom
as you come to think of me.
Though we cannot see beyond that veil
where the lamps burn faint and low,
you must leave me to travel on alone:
miss me, but let me go.

Ahead lies a road through the sunset sky:
it’s a way we all must take,
when the day is done and the shadows fall
and our last farewells we make.
When your world grows cold and the skies are dark,
and the gathering clouds hang low,
remember the sunshine we knew before:
miss me, but let me go.

Sunday, 4 May 2014


Is it my imagination, or are there more blackbirds about this year? Driving along a lane not too far from here the other day, I seemed to encounter blackbirds at very regular intervals all the way along, so clearly those hedgerows (good thick ones, granted) held quite a density of population.

Blackbirds have been very busily present in our garden, with some good arguments between competing males, and some fine singing too - this is about the only song to make it past the sound barrier of our double glazing as the dawn chorus begins!

Yesterday a male blackbird was feeding his more or less full-grown young bird below our feeders. The spotty breasted youngster was the size of his or her dad, and very noisy in demanding attention, but still with a very distinctly orange gape. This is obviously a successful early first brood, and a sign that this has been a remarkable spring, with some fine weather and early growth following our drippingly went but nonetheless very mild winter.

We had a song thrush singing in the trees behind us late yesterday afternoon, too. While this was not such a rich and velvety voice as the blackbirds, the song contained some remarkable flourishes and was full of invention, with each distinctive phrase repeated: quite delightful.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Sunday Talk

. . . for tomorrow :-

I had a very strange conversation the other day, with a friend and colleague. It concerned a lady we both know. Ann and I have known and exchanged Christmas and Easter cards with this lady for years. And as it happens she lives along the same lane as the friend to whom I was talking. What was strange was that neither of us could remember her name. Between us we could have told you all sorts of things about her, except that neither of us could remember her name. It did pop into my head later, so thankfully I don’t seem to be completely senile; but how strange - someone we knew so well, knew so much about, and neither of us could manage to prompt the other into remembering her name.

Now to be fair I always have had a bit of trouble remembering names. And one of the things that stops me from remembering names is that another name sort of pops into my head and gets in the way. In this case it was Doreen. The name Doreen had turned up from somewhere, and though I knew it wasn’t the name I wanted (indeed, it bore no relationship to the name I wanted), somehow I couldn’t make it go away, and while it was stuck there the right name just couldn’t get a look in.

Well, that’s my problem; generally, the issue for me is that I can usually remember faces quite well, but I’m not very good at remembering names. But there are times when it’s the face we don’t notice or recognise, and there are a number of reasons why that might be so. We may see someone out of context, for one, or they may be dressed in a way we don’t expect. I find people often don’t recognise me, for example, when I’m wearing a hat. Last Thursday I was in Ludlow, and I happened to see someone I knew walking straight towards me down the street. I said hello, but they walked straight past me. I don’t think it was a deliberate snub. They hadn’t expected to see me in Ludlow, so they didn’t.

Jesus isn’t recognised in the passage I’ve just read, from St Luke’s Gospel. This a set reading for today in the Common Lectionary used by churches around the world, and it’s part of Luke’s account of Easter Day itself, so as news it’s a fortnight old now. In fact this is the first place in his account where Luke documents the risen Christ appearing to anyone. In Matthew and John Jesus appears to the women, or at least to Mary of Magdala; but in Luke, though the women are given a message to take to the disciples, they encounter only the angels at the tomb, and not Jesus himself. And the story they brought to the apostles was anyway dismissed as nonsense.

So maybe it’s not too surprising that two disciples making their way home like so many of the other Passover pilgrims, should fail to recognise Jesus even though he’s walking alongside them. There’s no way they could have expected to see him; so, in essence, they didn’t. In any case, in their state of depression and confusion, they probably didn’t even look at the other guy, not straight away, anyway.

“We had been hoping that he was to be the liberator of Israel” the two disciples told the stranger, having told him the story of all that had been happening, even including the strange report brought to the disciples by the women who had been to the tomb. They knew the tomb was empty, but they couldn’t think of any good reason why it should be. And to me there’s a world of sadness in that stark and simple phrase, “We had been hoping . . .”

An empty tomb. What difference would that make? God’s messiah had been taken, scourged, crucified, pieced, bloodied, broken, killed. When what should have happened was the revolution they and so many others had been praying for: the end of oppression, the restoration of the throne of David, the purification of the temple and the removal of infidels. It had all gone so badly wrong, and nothing could set it right.

So why on earth should they recognise that messiah now, that hoped for king? His story had ended, and their hopes were dashed. “How dull you are!” says Jesus in response, “How slow to believe . . .” And he patiently begins to explain the truth to them: that these things that have happened were never God’s plan going wrong, God’s best efforts being thwarted, but God’s master plan being worked through as was always intended, his plan to bring salvation not just for one people, but through that people for all the world.

By this time their hearts were burning within them, though it seems still not sufficiently for them to identify the person who was speaking to them. They reach their village, and he makes to travel on; they say “Don’t go on, stay here, it’s almost dark.” And their hospitality leads to recognition.

It’s as he breaks the bread that they recognise their Lord, and at that moment he disappears from their sight. Luke surely wants his readers to reflect that whenever we break the bread of holy communion we are brought somehow specially close to our Lord, and he to us, and we can recognise his presence among us. Anyway, the two disciples race back from Emmaus to Jerusalem - to find when they arrive there that Jesus has also appeared to Simon Peter - a meeting we have no details of, we’re just told that it happened.

I sometimes wonder whether the most important part of this story is contained in the fact that these men turned straight round and went back to Jerusalem. They couldn’t keep the good news to themselves. As the Presbyterian scholar William Barclay has written, the Christian message is never fully ours until we have shared it with someone else. The German theologian Emil Brunner wrote that the Church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning. We learn straight away from this story that what we’re to do with the good news of the risen Christ is to share it.

But I do want to return for a moment to the theme with which I began, this business of not remembering names and not recognising faces. You’ll have seen how this is a repeating pattern within the Easter stories, increasing the general sense we have of mystery and strangeness. As we’ve seen, there could be a simple human explanation - that very often we simply don’t see what we don’t expect to see; and commentators have often gone on to suggest other possible reasons why Jesus isn’t recognised: for example, when you’re walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus at the end of the day you’re walking due west, and you’ll have the setting sun in your eyes; or maybe Mary of Magdala in the garden was so blinded by her tears it isn’t too surprising that she might have thought she was talking to the gardener.

But I’d like to suggest that there’s a deeper meaning too, and it’s to do with the meat of today’s story, and the fact that Jesus explained to the two disciples just what had really been happening, and how all of it had been foretold, and was in accordance with God’s plans. At it’s simplest, it is this: Jesus did not come back to life on Easter Day. Easter isn’t God repairing the damage done on Good Friday, putting the show back on the road, and the resurrection is neither a resuscitation nor a dazzling magic trick.

On Easter morning, with the tomb empty, Jesus has gone forward into new life. He is the same person, and he will show his disciples the wounds in hands and feet and side to prove it. It isn’t as though those things never happened, it isn’t as though he never died. But even so, this is something new, not simply a return to the old. The grave clothes are left lying in the tomb, to be needed no more. So there is now something different, perhaps a new light, a new sense of glory. It isn’t entirely a surprise that even those who know Jesus well don’t recognise him straight away.

Jesus has gone forward into new life, into a new life that we can never attain, it is beyond us. Except that he makes us worthy of it, he invites us in, we are the beneficiaries of his grace. He is, as St Paul reminded the Christians in Corinth, the first fruits, opening a way that we are able to follow. So it is indeed in the breaking of bread that he is fully recognised by the two disciples, that the scales fall from their eyes. For the breaking of the bread symbolises the wonderful truth that we have a share in all of this, and we can dare to call ourselves an Easter people.

Finally, just an extra detail that struck me on reading through this passage again. Another mystery: that while Jesus spends seven miles worth of journey in the company of the two disciples, talking to them and responding to their questions, somehow, back in Jerusalem, he also appears to Peter. How this happened must remain a mystery, but it reminds me of this great truth: that wherever we may travel as Christians we shall never be travelling away from our Lord. This is the good news that has encouraged and empowered the Church in mission throughout the centuries. Indeed, there are many stories of Christian missionaries discovering on their arrival at some place they’d imagined to be desolate and godless, that Christ was already at work in that place and among those people. Their task in mission was not so much to bring Jesus in from somewhere else but to find him and recognise him and proclaim him. At Easter, the risen Christ is let loose in all the world, where no-one can stop his truth. For us as Easter people, we can believe with confidence that we live always and everywhere in a Christ-filled world.

Lord, give us such knowledge of your presence with us, that we may be strengthened and sustained by your risen life, and, infused by joy, may serve you continually in righteousness and truth. Amen.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Sedge Warblers

I love it when our local sedge and reed warblers are back from foreign parts. They are delightful little birds, always very active, and fun to listen to as well. Theirs are not the most musical of songs, but "sedgies" especially produce such an amazing concatenation of sounds that it's hard to remain straight-faced while listening.

There were two or three sedge warblers in the hawthorn hedge along the canal towpath this morning, and I was able to stand very close to them and to get the full blast, so to speak. Unlike reed warblers which really are reed specialists as regards nest sites, sedge warblers, while staying close to water, are happy in a wide range of shrubby and scrubby habitats. These birds were rootling through the hawthorn (which is just beginning to flower), keeping on the far side of the hedge from me, but nonetheless reasonably visible, as there's still a bit of leafing up to do yet.

They were just one of the sights and sounds of a spring walk that was full of variety and loveliness, some of which perhaps I'll write up later on.