Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Swept Off His Feet

I had a really enjoyable session today with fellow poets Llewelyn Rogers and Paul Jenkins. Each of us reads a poem, then the other two of us spend some time in discussion (with the author silent), and finally the author gets a chance to respond. It's been, so far, a very useful exercise, but I think that as we get more used to one another's styles and themes we shall be able to get a bit more deeply into the process and will find it to be an even more helpful and productive time together. This is one of the poems I read today :-

One moment it seemed he was safe and secure:
he had every part of his life mapped out, and organised, and sorted.
Then the next, he was swept off his feet.

And he had never seen it coming;
he had noted perhaps a few clouds against the horizon,
but far off, and nothing to worry about, nothing
that might change his plans.  Until, all of a sudden
he was swept off his feet.

And not simply knocked over;  that should have been
quite easy to deal with.  People fall all the time, after all,
the pavements being not what they were, but
they can generally pick themselves up,
or someone else will do it for them.  The fact is,
when he was swept off his feet
they never found him, that’s all.  He was
never seen again.

All they did find was
his umbrella, unopened, leaning against
his briefcase, likewise:  with all his carefully drafted plans
still secure within their folders.  A wet footprint nearby
might have matched the shoes he was probably wearing.

Those had been good, solid shoes, too -
you could see that from the tread -
the sort that cling securely to terra firma, boring
but reliable footwear.  Yet somehow, on that day,
those good shoes had let him down badly.
He was swept off his feet, despite having taken
(one might consider) every sensible precaution.

A search was made, of course;  after all, one cannot have
people being swept away without good reason.  But all the reports agreed
he had not been seen;
except that a clerk at the railway station
did recall having sold to a man without umbrella or briefcase
a single ticket to -
but no, he couldn’t remember; and anyway,
that man was smiling and bright-eyed,
and looking much more found than lost.               

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Everything That Matters

A Sunday talk for Holy Week . . .

Everything that matters in the Christian story happens this week; though we must wait until next Sunday for the event that makes sense of it all. Today is Palm Sunday, and I remember how as a child in church we’d all be given twigs of pussy willow to wave; we called them palm branches even though they were willow. These days people get crosses made of real palm leaves. But I still think of the palm branches of my childhood whenever I see the pussy willows in bloom.

Like the people who greeted Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem, we waved branches cut from our own local trees. Theirs had been real palms, and the road Jesus rode along was strewn with their branches. And if ours were willows instead, perhaps it was more authentic in a way to be using branches from our own trees rather than importing palm branches from somewhere else. Of course, it was also cheaper.

Today we remember Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, something that drove the crowds wild. These weren’t citizens of Jerusalem welcoming their king; to be honest, Jerusalem folk would have seen it all before, things like this happened often at the time of the Passover. Though they might have felt concerned, as they thought about how the Romans might react to yet another so-called Messiah come to stir up trouble. Otherwise, though, it was probably all a bit of a bore.

The people doing the cheering were those who’d been travelling with him, pilgrims making the journey everyone who could would want to be making at this time of the year, to celebrate Passover at the Temple. This man they’d seen and listened to and been impressed and amazed by up in Galilee was now doing something that was a very deliberate statement of intent. For this is how the prophet had said the new king would enter Jerusalem, meekly riding on a donkey. So they cheered and chanted, and shouted Hosanna, hosanna to the Son of David.

And that word hosanna is more than a simple hooray. It’s formed from the Hebrew words yasha, meaning deliver or save, and anna, meaning to plead or beg or beseech. It might sound like a shout of praise, but it’s also a prayer saying “Please save us, please deliver us”. And of course, as they shouted Hosanna they also addressed Jesus as “Son of David”, recognising him as their new king, come to save them.

They’d mostly have been thinking about being saved from the Romans and from the sons of Herod, from the pagan emperor and from client kings not of the house of David. I wonder how the disciples felt? They weren’t in the loop, it would seem; Jesus seems to have planned this event with others, making the disciples as much part of the audience for his entry into Jerusalem as were the rest of the crowd.

They must have been really worried about going there. Here was where the enemies of Jesus were strongest, and Jesus had made no bones about telling them his life would be in danger. In fact he’d told them he was going to die there, not that they’d understood or accepted everything he’d said. Palm Sunday for them must have been a mixture of fear and excitement. It was very dangerous to go to Jerusalem, but Lord’s Messiah was bound to go there; now Jesus had declared his hand - and like the cheering crowds they must have expected that great things would now happen.

There’s a mystery at the heart of this and other events of Holy Week. Who did set it up? The disciples were expected, and the donkey had been made ready for them. Who by? In Jerusalem a room had been booked for what we call the Last Supper, and a secret sign arranged, so that safety was assured. Who did it, and who was the man carrying a pot of water - normally a woman’s job - that the disciples followed to find the room?

Perhaps Jesus had arranged all this with Mary and Martha, his friends in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem. They were on the scene, and they’d surely have had all the right contacts. Not that it matters; the mystery isn’t so much who set things up so much as why the disciples weren’t involved. There’s a simple answer to that, of course. Jesus knew that one of the Twelve would betray him, so security would have been compromised if the disciples had been allowed to know too much too soon. Yet Jesus did need that betrayal to happen, when the time was right. The events of this week aren’t God’s plans for salvation being thwarted and defeated, though it must have seemed like that to the disciples as their Lord was arrested and taken from them, and as they themselves turned tail and ran for their lives. Far from it - the events of this week are God’s plans for salvation being accomplished and completed in the most decisive week in the whole of human history.

“He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant . . . and became obedient unto death, even the death of a cross” - so wrote St Paul, probably echoing or using the words of an early Christian hymn. Here is the heart of our faith. This week God shows us he loves us, loves us despite our sin, despite our wilfulness, despite our past mistakes; and loves us too much to leave how we are. People shouted hosanna expecting a new king in Jerusalem, and the end to Roman domination. That didn’t happen, and by the end of the week the shouts of the pilgrims had been forgotten; by then it was probably as well not to be speaking with a Galilean accent. By then the louder shouts from the Jerusalem rent-a-mob had prevailed, stirred up to yell “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

And for all that had been said to them, we find the disciples as much in the dark about what’s really happening as everyone else. For them this week of highs and lows would end with the lowest low ever: fear, confusion, defeat, dejection.

It’s good to feel a bit of that ourselves. The cross, we’re told, convicts us of sin. We have helped hammer in the nails, and it’s our sins this man is bearing: the bad stuff we’ve done, and more to the point, the good stuff we’ve passed up on, the times when self interest, short-termism, even just not being very organised, have meant we weren’t there when needed, we didn’t do what could have been done. Evil, we’re reminded, comes into the world not so much when bad people do bad things, as when good people do nothing and let them.

And yet at the very heart of these events Jesus explicitly includes us and shares himself with us. The clouds are at their darkest when he shares a supper with his friends, and by extension with all of us too. He breaks bread, he passes round a cup of wine, using words which must have sounded strange and even shocking when they were first said: “This is my body; this is my blood.” And he says, “Do this to remember me.” The sense of this word is stronger than just calling to mind old memories, it’s about active presence - it’s almost “Do this, and I will be with you.”

I remember being very moved by the way the Last Supper was staged in a performance I went to see of the musical Godspell. Controversially, Godspell ends with the crucifixion, and with the body of Jesus being taken down and taken away. The story doesn’t include the resurrection, or at least it’s implied at best, it’s not enacted. But I don’t mind; Godspell is still a wonderful story of love and bravery and sacrifice, it’s still an inspirational story. And maybe it’s the story as far as we need to hear it this week, for then, like the first disciples, we can experience the wonder and the pain of this holiest of all weeks as it unfolds, without needing to know yet how the story really ends, how next week begins.

Jesus makes it our story as well as his. He connects us in to the sacrifice that is made once and for all, made at that one and only time in history by the one man qualified to make the offering, and consisting of that one man as the only true and unblemished sacrifice, to which we are connected by bread and wine and by love.

The disciples, this bunch of frightened and confused people ended this week in hiding, hardly daring to speak for fear of betraying their identity, waiting for the chance to sneak back home and pick up the cast-off bits of their former lives. Of course they’d have remembered him whatever happened next. They’d have remembered his bravery and their own cowardice; the words with which he taught them, the hopes those words inspired, even now their hopes had been so cruelly dashed.
Yes, they’d still have remembered him, for as long as they could. But there’d have been nothing more than a good story, and fading memories of an heroic defeat.

There’d have been no Church, for the founding of the Church needed this week to be about victory and not defeat, it needed the hosannas of the people to have been decisively answered. And that did happen, it’s just that they hadn’t seen it yet. Everything important in the Christian story happens this week, except for what happens next Sunday. Only then do the events of this week make sense, not as a defeat, however heroic, but as the great and decisive victory, the last battle won, and love and light triumphant forever over darkness and death. Hosanna, this week’s prayer, is answered by the great shout of Alleluia, next Sunday’s song, meaning “Praise the Lord of life”. Look around the world today: everywhere people are praying hosanna prayers, everywhere people are longing to be saved. And our holy task is to be light and life and alleluia for the desperate and the suffering of the world, even if in doing this we take our share in the cross.

And doing that needs I think each year a visit to this week as it is, experiencing something of the time when it looked as though the darkness had taken control and sin held the upper hand. The world still looks a lot like that today, as we watch the news bulletins. But the story doesn’t end at the cross; we see Jesus surrender to the darkness, and we mourn, because we have helped make that darkness. But then we see that only through that act of surrender could the darkness have been transformed, beaten back, and turned into light. So this week let’s follow Jesus on the road to the cross, the Via Dolorosa, sharing that pain, breathing in the sense of unfolding tragedy, that nest week our alleluias may be all the more joyful, and an empowering, encouraging and enabling force in our lives and the life and witness of our Church.

Friday, 27 March 2015

The Cheek of It All

The cheek of it all, I thought, as I watched our resident sparrow hawk perch on top of our feeding station as though staking his claim to it. The garden, of course, was otherwise completely empty. He stayed there for about a minute, then flipped across to perch alongside the other two feeders that hang in our blossom trees. He was of course in a place where he had no chance of catching anything, so, though this might be fanciful, his tactic seemed to me to be purely intimidatory, entirely a matter of saying to the regular users of those feeders, "This is all my patch, really. Don't ever feel safe here, I can take you any time I want."  In fact, the majority of attempted sparrow hawk strikes are unsuccessful - but it's also true that all of our small birds live pretty much their entire lives in a state of intense trepidation; they need to, the world about them is a deadly place.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015


A poem I've been working on :-

I felt sad for a moment or two
today.  And the weight of it was pulling me down,
closing me off from the blue skies,
with my dark and desperate imaginings beginning to
feed off each other.  When it gets like that
I feel myself trapped in the vortex,
pulled down into a black hole, I am lost
to the light.  But today the fall was for
only a moment, until
somebody smiled who didn’t need to, and
their hand was placed upon my shoulder just for an instant
and at just the right time;
and so a small but necessary
miracle was enabled.  Like the man
on the Jericho road, I felt myself
taken to a safe place,
helped back onto my feet, amazed and delighted
to find the sun still shining.  My thank you goes
to someone I do not know, and
will likely as not never see again. Probably
you do not even know what it was you did,
but that is in the nature of
good Samaritans.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Back Garden Life

High drama yesterday morning in our back garden, as the sparrowhawk managed a successful surprise attack on our feeding station. I say successful, in that normally the early warning system works well, and the garden is completely empty of visible birds long before the hawk arrives. Not yesterday, though - the hawk appeared out of nowhere and at tremendous speed, scattering small birds in all directions. I don't know whether his success was complete, and he actually caught one. He may well have done, but it was all too quick to be sure. Certainly he (it was the smaller slate grey male sparrowhawk) lodged himself for a while in the bushes to the rear of our garden at the end of his raid. He was on the ground and moving, but I couldn't see whether he had a victim there or not.

It is perhaps unworthy of me to have hoped that if he did get something, then it was one of the abundant chaffinches and not our bullfinches, which are a single pair. Since they are around this morning, he didn't, anyway!  Watching them yesterday before the sparrowhawk strike, I was touched again by the way the male stands guard as the female feeds. Actually, he did at one point decide to move in alongside her and take some breakfast himself; she was having none of it, and saw him off angrily; "Not while I'm eating!" I sensed her saying. He returned to his branch and chased away a couple of blue tits. As soon as she left the feeder he moved in and ate as much as he could as quickly as possible - she had flown off and he needed to follow. Bullfinches mate for life (as I think I've noted before), but it isn't all marital harmony!

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Sunday Talk

Some words I've prepared for tomorrow, Lent 5 :-

“If anyone wishes to serve me, he must follow me; where I am, there shall my servant be.”

From this morning’s reading from St John’s Gospel, here’s one of the hard sayings of Jesus. It may not have seemed so hard just then, when I read that single sentence. I don’t know what your image is of “where Jesus is”, but the picture that always springs up in my mind is one from my Sunday school bible, of Jesus sitting on a peaceful hillside, with a blue sky and the tints of heather all around, surrounded by sheep peacefully grazing. And that all seems very nice.

But Jesus has just said, “He who loves himself (or, he who loves his own life) is lost” – another hard saying, and pretty blunt if I may say so; and he goes on to talk about his death. So when you place those words – “where I am, there shall my servant be” into context, they are indeed hard words. Many of those who followed Jesus, including Philip and Andrew who were with him when he spoke those words – many of them would lose their lives as martyrs. The peaceful village churches and chapels we know and love were all founded in blood; as Tertullian wrote in the early years of Christian history, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

Jesus himself said, of course, at the beginning of the Gospel reading I used this morning, that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains that and no more; but if it dies, it bears a rich harvest.” Today the traditional season known to the Church as Passiontide begins. Two weeks before Easter Day. With the shops just now full of eggs and Easter bunnies, it’s hard to forget about Easter; but for these two weeks I always try to do my best to forget Easter, so that, like the first disciples I can experience something of the mystery, the pain, the tragedy of these days.

As we read the Gospels, we find that Jesus talked quite a lot to his disciples about the fact that he would die, and die in a tragic way, at the hands of others. Most of the time they didn’t understand, not then, or else they deliberately stopped their ears and refused to listen. “No Lord, this shall never happen to you!” as Peter said, that time. For all his teaching, it will still have seemed to the disciples of Jesus as though everything had gone wrong, as though all their hopes and expectations had been dashed; indeed, it will have seemed to them that the forces of darkness had won, and they’ll have been confused and very afraid. The time came when they all fled and abandoned him. I want to feel something of that confusion and fear myself, each year at this time.

They’ll have felt guilt, as well, by the time these events were over. Think of Peter collapsing in tears as he hears the cock crow, knowing he’d done just what he said he’d never do, denied he’d ever known his Lord. But it wasn’t just Peter; they’d all promised they’d never abandon him, that they’d always stand by him. How must they have felt, knowing they’d all run away? I want to feel something of that, too, at this dark time in the Christian year. My hands helped hammer in those nails; I can’t escape that, I am to blame.

Yet many of those failed and guilty followers of Jesus would go on to share in his sacrifice, dying as martyrs themselves. John, the writer of this Gospel, was unusual in having lived to a great age and died peacefully. They dared to die because they’d realised the truth that their Lord’s passion and death wasn’t everything going wrong but everything going right. The seed not remaining a single grain but yielding a harvest only death could bring. A little earlier, John chapter 10 verse 10, Jesus had said, “I have come that they may have life, and may have it in all its fullness.” This is how it happens.

Darkness and light are great themes in Christian scripture, great themes indeed in all faiths. The Gospel accounts of the crucifixion speak of the sun’s light failing, and darkness falling over the face of the land, lasting from midday until about three in the afternoon. Well, we’ve just experienced an eclipse of the sun, and we’d all been well prepared for it, knowing just what time it would happen, what glasses to wear if we wanted to look at the sun, or we could even just watch on TV with informed commentary from the likes of Professor Brian Cox. But maybe in all of that we might still have managed to catch just a flavour of what our ancestors must have felt when something like that happened, the fear, the shock, the sense of impending doom. What had happened to the light? Would it ever return?

Whether there was an eclipse of the sun on the first Good Friday or whether what we have is a literary device on the part of the Gospel writers I shall leave for better brains than mine; but clearly what those accounts want to express is the sense that the whole creation was knocked off balance by what happened there that day. As I go through this year’s Passiontide I want to feel something of that, too. And yet this is what Jesus was bound to do; this is where Jesus was bound to go. This is the love of God revealed in all its glory; this is God’s loving plan for his world accomplished.

Where I am, there shall my servant be, says Jesus. I am come, he says, that they may have life, and may have it in all abundance; but this will be, or may be anyway, a hard road to travel. The news of bomb attacks on Christians at worship in Lahore in Pakistan last Sunday reminds us how hard that road still is, for many of our sisters and brothers who are Christian. There are still many Christian martyrs.

Some of those who witnessed the devastation caused by those bombs in Lahore reacted with violence themselves. Two people suspected of supporting the attacks were set upon and beaten to death. I’m bound to condemn that, but I’m also bound to wonder what I’d have done had I been there, had it been me seeing a holy place desecrated and loved ones killed. And I’m bound to admit too, and confess – none of us has clean hands.

Only Jesus dies deserving none of it. Only this one death can remove the stain of my own sin and failure and fear. But he still calls on me to follow, and to be where he is, and to go where he will go. Whatever the cost; however foolish that way may seem, as the world measures things. And all our living must be sacrificial, forgetful of self, challenged and directed by the impulse of love – the same whether my particular road is hard and difficult to travel, or else easy and full of sunshine. My challenge, and yours too, is to be a blessing to others, and to do my best to reflect the love and light of Christ into a world that is often hateful and often dark.

Methodists attend a very inspiring service at the beginning of each new year, where they use prayerful words originally penned by John Wesley to remind them of God’s call and challenge to them, and of their part in the covenant Christ has made with us on the cross: here are some of those words –

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,
exalted for you or brought low for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
 to your pleasure and disposal.

The young people picked up in Turkey a week ago and returned to the UK had no doubt had thoughts of martyrdom in mind as they tried to cross the border into Syria and join the extremist caliphate known as Isis. Every religion has its martyrs and just now martyrdom is a theme actively promoted by certain Muslim preachers, perhaps still in mosques at Friday prayers, but more probably through social media. It’s poisonous stuff, and those who peddle it deserve I think greater condemnation and punishment than those impressionable and idealistic young people who are persuaded by it to do such dreadful things.

We follow the man who gave his life as a sacrifice for others, and who seeks to write his word of love on every heart. To me it’s very sad to see the word “martyr” used of those who have taken human life in the course of losing theirs. There is nothing noble about that sort of death; but the saddest thing of all is that such people believe they are serving God, have been duped into believing they are serving God, when they in fact are serving a distorted travesty of a god made in the image of the hate-filled minds of false teachers.

“Where I am, there shall my servant be.” That’s what Jesus says. Those words bring us year by year, and I hope day by day to the cross, the cross where each one of us can say and must say - this man died for me, and died because of me: to wonder at the love displayed there, to grieve our own sin that has helped put him there, to long for a world where darkness is banished forever, and to dedicate ourselves to that wonderful love, freely and wholeheartedly yielding all things to his pleasure and disposal who has given so greatly, and suffered so deeply, for us.

Friday, 20 March 2015


So the sun shone after all, and we were able to get our binoculars working as image projectors and see it eaten away by the moon's shadow.

Of course, it never really got dark, but for a few minutes the light intensity had faded away quite substantially, leaving a strange and slightly creepy feeling, and making most of our local birds shut up for a bit. Had it been cloudy I suppose it would have got darker still.

Our garden today, and the trees behind, have been full of chaffinches. The pleasant spring weather has set insects on the wing, and the birds were clearly having quite a feast. At ground level, so were the robins, as I had weeded and forked through our beds. It doesn't take them long to spot their chance!

Thursday, 19 March 2015


Spent the morning today picking litter around where we live. It's something I committed to do as a volunteer some time ago; I haven't done as much as I should of late, and it's time to make a fresh start. I enjoyed my litter-picking walk in the sun today, but it's bittersweet, since I don't like what I find, even if I do get a good feeling having done the job, and cleaned things up a bit.

It's disappointing to see so much litter thrown down. Welshpool is by no means short of litter bins, and they're emptied regularly. Wherever you are in town, more or less, you'll not be more than a couple of minutes' walk from a bin. Smokers are a particular annoyance. I don't like smoking anyway, and I don't like to see cigarette butts all over the place. But I get even crosser at the throwing down (or out of car windows) of cigarette packets, disposable lighters, cigarette papers, matchboxes. Presumably the smoker has been carrying that cigarette packet about all day, so what's the problem with continuing to carry it far enough to put it in a bin. Most of the ones I picked up today were within five metres or so of a bin.

There is, of course, too much packaging anyway, and too much of that is manufactured in a such a way that recycling is impossible or too expensive a process. Much of the litter that is just thrown away will go to landfill even if it is collected up, as sorting it into recyclable types is probably not an option. That's sad; but at least if it is collected up it's less of an eyesore and less potentially dangerous to wildlife.

Terrestrial litter can be dangerous to wild creatures, as they try to access what's left in a drinks can, or get snared in the plastic that holds a four- or six-pack of cans together, or just eat stuff that looks as though it might be food but isn't. Litter floating in our oceans is an even bigger problem, not least because it is less visible. Most of us landlubbers have no idea really just how much plastic is floating about our seas. It's a lot, and it's killing beautiful creatures and wrecking habitats.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Spring Approaching

Some signs of spring today :-

1) We have siskins in our garden! I wrote a piece about the fact that we hadn't had them as winter visitors (unlike last year), but I'd forgotten the fact that we had nesting siskins somewhere close by last summer. Today a pair appeared which I hope will settle in and produce young siskins to fill our garden with acrobatic delights like they did last year.

2) The bullfinches are doing what comes very naturally to bullfinches - attacking the buds of our early flowering cherry, which are just about ready to open. We don't mind; they won't take them all (we hope).

3) We called in at Llyn Coed y Dinas nature reserve this afternoon, and found the black-headed gulls gearing up for the new nesting season: very noisy and great fun. Also seen: three or four pairs of teal, mallard and tufted duck of course, a few snipe on the banks, two pairs of shovelers, and maybe around thirteen widgeon. Two oystercatchers seemed to be prospecting nesting sites. A male reed bunting showed just in front of the hide. A male goosander swept in but decided not to land and headed off to the river instead.

4) Elsewhere on the reserve we saw two chiffchaffs, my first of the season. I love when the chiffchaffs are back!

5) Song thrush and blackbird singing very lustily when we got back home.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

A Further Thought on Celandines

I've spent half a day gardening today, and it's been lovely, with bird song all around and some real warmth in the sun, so long as I kept out of the wind.  Celandines are beginning to open out in earnest and, as always, it's a delight to see them. Except when they're taking over a bed I'm trying to weed: then they are tiresome and a nuisance. They take a lot of weeding out, and even then you never quite get all the bulbils, so they're always going to come back!

All of this leaves me with a thought. As with the celandines, so with us - we can be both a delight and a nuisance, it all depends whether we're in the right place at the right time. I think most of the time I do my best to be a help rather than a hindrance, but perhaps at times I need to be more attentive, more aware; and there are also times when you just have to accept that you can't please all the punters all the time!

Monday, 16 March 2015

Catching Up

I haven't posted for a few days, so I'm a bit behind with reports from the garden. I'm a bit behind in the garden, too; it's time I got out there and started getting ready for the new season. Lots to be cleared, pruned, manured, weeded, planted. Wednesday, I think . . .

Meanwhile, the birds are still feeding well. We're clearly on the boundary between two robin territories - or perhaps in one, but close enough to the other for some sneaky raids and forays. There've been a few good fights and chases. Probably there are very few birds quite as combative as robins; I read somewhere that as many as ten percent of deaths take place because of territorial disputes.

The wren has reappeared a few times, always behind the rockery where there is plenty of low growing foliage. I wonder if they might nest in the shrubby area just behind our garden at the top of the wood. It would be ideal, and it would be great later on to see, as we saw in one previous garden, a whole nestful of little wrens trying out their wings.

Today the great spotted woodpecker was drumming from the tall oak behind us. I can see, I think, the branches he uses, which are more or less stripped bare; but I can't quite see the bird itself. The female visits the feeders every day, but we've hardly seen the male there.

The other day a sparrow hawk spent quite a long time perched in the elm tree behind us. This was a male I suppose, being very grey in colour, but quite large for a male, with strong markings across the chest. It had a distinctive white mark on the back of the head; interestingly, I've had a report of another sparrow hawk with a similar mark, seen in Montgomery. I can't imagine it's the same bird, I'm sure they don't range quite that far - but maybe they do, who knows?

The blackcap is still about, but not as much of a bully as he was a while back. This morning I heard a chaffinch sing for the first time this year, another sign that spring is gathering pace.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Alpine Incident

(A poem based on bitter experience . . .)

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.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015


A favourite sight and sound is a busy rookery in Spring.  I was at Manafon Parish Church today, and there's quite a substantial rookery just behind the churchyard. I didn't count the number of nests, but there must have been thirty or more, wonderfully untiday assemblages of sticks, you wonder how they manage to stay up there. Of course, they don't, not always - a storm can bring them down, or nests can be made unstable through neighbouring birds filching material from them. Just because birds choose to live together in colonies doesn't mean they're not also competitive and at times hostile towards one another. Bit like us, really.

The cawing of the rooks was a permanent background noise throughout my time at Manafon. I didn't have much opportunity just to stand and observe the rookery, but for the short time that I did, I found it hugely entertaining. The birds seem to bounce about the trees, and from time to time most of the colony take to the air together, with a consonant increase in noise levels. Rooks are both the farmer's friend and his enemy, I suppose: they can be destructive of crops, but they are also important predators of many pest species.  There's no doubt, though, that the countryside would be a whole lot poorer without its established rookeries.

Monday, 9 March 2015


There's a place on the way into Shrewsbury from here, just a stretch of verge by the side of road down towards The Mount, where there is always a brilliant show of early celandines. So I remembered to keep a look out when driving past today, and, yes, there they were in all their glory. While it can be a garden pest to a degree, anywhere else the celandine is a real delight: it is an early buttercup with no petals, but with golden sepals doing the job instead. Sometimes there can be a double helping or more of sepals. I love the leaves, too, heart-shaped and often subtly patterned. Celandines open with the sun, so always look their best when the weather is bright. They have quite a long flowering season, from February through to May (though I've seen a few out here and there before Christmas when it's been mild), but are finished by the time the summer flowers really get under way. Celandines also propagate themselves vegetatively, via little bulbils which, as I know from experience, easily come away and hide themselves in the garden when you're trying to weed!

These were photographed by me a year ago on Pontesford Hill.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Farewell Thoughts

A verse I was working on yesterday . . .

All things pass;
the seasons come and go,
and the years turn, and turn again.
The colours of sunrise fade into the day,
and the brightest sunset must darken into night.
We must take the weather as it is,
but even then the rain stops falling after a while.

All things pass.
What about our own thoughts and dreams,
our visions, our illusions:
will these pass too?

What lies ahead we cannot tell.
We must take the weather as it is,
as it comes, make the most of each new day,
each new friendship, each adventure.
We live in a world of possibilities.

And after that? Who can tell
what changes yet there might be,
and what new dawns.
It is enough for the moment
to take things as they come -
to make some good memories,
and to leave them with good friends.

(Loosely based on the thoughts of Lao-Tzu [6th century BC])

Thought for the Day

Put simply, our task is to see people as God sees them, and to act accordingly.

(Rowan Williams)

Saturday, 7 March 2015


We still have lots of blackbirds in our garden, and very argumentative they are too. They soon learn to head for the ground under the feeders if, for example, the nuthatch or the woodpecker pay a visit (and when the local squirrels gatecrash), because they know then that there'll be plenty of food falling to the ground that they can grab. At least one blackbird has learned to perch on the feeder containing fatty chunks. He's a bit ungainly there, but manages to get his lunch.

Today one of the blackbirds has been singing, the first I've heard this year. He didn't sing for very long, nor indeed all that well, but he had a go. Robins of course are singing continually, and a mistle thrush has been singing from the top of a tall cypress over the road - in typical mistle thrush fashion, continuing to sing even when its blustery and spitting rain. It hasn't been doing that today, of course: sunny and mild if with a stiffish breeze at times; celandines are beginning to be a bit more serious about flowering, and we have a fine show of crocus, with grape hyacinths just beginning. We have a line of four flowering trees in our back garden, all fifteen years or so old, planted here to mark the millennium. I don't know what they all are, though one is a species of hawthorn with the most awful scent, and another is the rowan variety with the lovely pale pink berries. Anyway, the first in the row is the earliest of all our trees to leaf, and it's just starting now, nice to see.

We have lots of long tailed tits at present, and it's lovely to watch their acrobatics as they visit the feeders. However, we also have one solo bird that visits, and often stays for long periods. If a party passes through he stays aloof. He sat for a while in one of our cherries this afternoon, feathers fluffed up like a little ball, but otherwise just enjoying the sun, I suppose. There was a chaffinch there doing the same. At other times he seems lively enough, visiting the feeders and hunting up and down the cypress hedge between us and next door, so I don't think he's poorly. Just a little strange, that's all; Ann suspects he might not realise that he's a long-tailed tit and therefore supposed to be sociable - a comment which raises the issue of just how self-aware and species-aware any of our garden visitors really are.