A White Page: January - April 2006
Gillian Clarke's Journal
by Gillian Clarke
Snow in April. Blossom on the blackthorn - first petals on leafless hedges. A fizz of curdled frogspawn in the pond; lambs; wool caught on old brambles. Over it all a veil of April snow that fell last night, the fields luminous under a three-quarter moon when we checked the sheep. This morning’s sun soon melted most of it, leaving intimacies of snow like fallen cloths on the north side of hedge banks. Out of the sun it was cold enough for the remnants to lie crystallising all day. When they too melt, the grass will be glad of it after three dry, frosty months. A downpour last week could not be absorbed by the frozen ground, and all turned to mud for a few days where the sheep wait at the gate each evening calling for their bucket of molasses and cereal.
As I anticipated last November, when the weather-people first forecast a once-in-twenty-years hard winter, we in the west of Wales have had little snow, just months of dry, icy weather, days of blinding sunlight, nights of a million stars, and every morning the white breath of frost on the earth. A beautiful season. Frosts are usually rare here as it is so close to the sea, but all winter anti-cyclones were stalled over the North Sea and the Atlantic bided its time, holding its breath. Not a puff of precipitation could it manage. Snow fell on the north and east of Britain while we lay months under iron frost, snowfall held back by the gates of the mountains. Only twice did it snow enough to make travelling difficult. Once was in early February, on the westward journey home from Cardiff, the day after seeing The Marriage of Figaro at the Wales Millennium Centre. An indifferent production, but a treat anyway. We stayed overnight, and woke to a rare fall of snow over the city, Queen Street purified, Civic buildings less white than their surrounding lawns. After lunch and a city prowl we delivered our old car and collected our new (to us) car from the Saab garage. Homebound in falling snow all was well along the M4, the dual carriageway, the country roads, until we reached the last mile. The new car crawled, slewing slightly, up the last steep hill with its ghostly name, Rhiw Amwisg - hill of the shroud, or cloak - and we only made it because of a cunning Swedish device on the car which we had not expected we would need so soon. The car ‘knows’ when it must adjust to the depth of snow, or to any snow at all. The device kicked in and the car carried us safely up the hill and home on the final stretch.
From solstice to solstice. The darkness of January makes more precious those ice-brilliant few hours when the low sun travels only just above the hedge. This year almost every day was clear. In the evenings, before checking sheep, we would leave the lights on in the glass room, so that as we turned for home we could walk across the dark fields towards a glowing house. Then, each day, the slow count, in seconds, minutes, measuring the light. Light evenings seem normal, short days like sickness. In the darkest days you can’t believe in spring.
In March, close to the date of the spring solstice, very high tides were reported in the river Severn, that river of superlatives. Britain’s longest river, it rises on Pumlimon, the highest of the mountains above Aberystwyth, close to the sources of the Wye and the Teifi. The Severn, a mere puddle in soggy ground to begin with, flows east on a great meandering journey through the mountains of mid-Wales, then south along the border gaining strength from every stream, gathering waterfalls into itself as it goes, until it reaches the estuary and empties itself into the Bristol Channel. There, beyond the outpouring mouth of the Severn, is the second highest rise and fall of the tide in the world. Between low and high tide can be 14.5 metres. Not far off fifty feet! Awesome. Childhood memory brings me the sea at Penarth lapping the promenade in the morning, and by tea-time the sea so far out I couldn’t tell where the muddy, stony shore ended and the turbulence of the Channel began.
This incoming tide, at its peak, rolls into the mouth of the Severn against the outpour of river water, reaches the narrowing throat of the river and piles up into a mighty wave that rolls up stream for twenty five miles. The Severn Bore. This year a 1.5 metre Bore was reported - not the highest of Severn bores, which can reach two metres but a record was broken by a surfer who rode the Bore seven miles inland. To watch such a heave of water travelling so fast! To ride it! What a water-beast! What a muscular old mud-dragon of grey and brown water! The physics of tide and moon, of the turning planet, the geography of mountain and river plain, the particular geology, the give and take of it, that shaped the Severn, that gave it the deepest of horseshoe bends and the right funnel shape for the tides to back up, have made a wonder. Even thinking about it is thrilling. I wrote ‘The Flood Diary’, from Making the Beds for the Dead, in the winter floods of 2003.
The Flood Diary
The weather girl reciting river names:
Severn, Wye, Humber, Aire and Ouse.
Atlantic lows lap at our living rooms,
the familiar map stormed by electric blues.
Out there where it’s real the land is sodden,
the reservoir rocks at the lip of the dam.
Beasts stand as if stillness might rescue them,
islands of rooted cattle, ewes with their lambs.
We saw it coming - months of rain, and every
river taking to the road, the Severn
swollen on its way to Shrewsbury,
a ribbon of mountain water turned
to a six-lane torrent falling a thousand feet
with boulders, mud and branches in its throat.
We borrowed a van, and took the risk,
drove ninety miles through wind and rain north-east
to a timber yard in the hills for an oak truss,
by-passed the flooded Dyfi by forest track
and mountain pass. Strapped in, transaction over,
homebound in arrowing rain, we came upon
an old man knee-deep in a broken river
his car stalled in the current, its door held open
for the river to step in. We left it locked,
drove him to a neighbouring farm, shocked
but safe, and fled before the flood engulfed us too.
thought all the perilous way of its lights warning
till the battery ran out, or the river bore it away,
my hand on your thigh in silence, the barometer falling.
In a house in a southern English town
beside a modest river
used to collecting the slow
chalk Downland waters,
a grand piano paddles,
wades, treads water,
is lifted, riding the flood
in the room’s harbour,
becomes an ark of rosewood
engulfed in filth, in the backwash
rainbows of petrol, diesel, drains,
its music under its wing.
A wave lifts the lid
on a gleam of ivory,
Its golden name wavers
underwater and is gone,
an eel of light before
centuries of music drown
and the lights goes out.
All winter, travelling by train,
the sodden length and breadth,
I ride above floodfields.
They built the lines high,
bridging hills and hollows
with embankments and viaducts.
Station after station
platforms flash with puddles.
A city gleams across the broken waters.
A cathedral grows reflective.
Horizons drown the sun,
its colours bleeding.
In the hotel, windows weep
and television brims.
We watch the news.
A city hold its breath
above the meniscus of a river
swollen with Pennine headwaters
and rising. They’ll watch all night.
When the rains stop
and rivers empty into the sea,
there will be cities whose foothold
is dislodged a little,
fields that remember
becoming the sky,
the skull of a sheep filling
with tormentil and harebells,
and somewhere, among birdsong,
woodnotes and the strings of the wind,
the carcass and white teeth
of a piano.
(from Making the Beds for the Dead (Carcanet)
Winter tames the sheep. They smell a freshly opened bale of hay, hear the rattle of a bucket, and come running. They follow us, butting our legs and shoving with their woolly bodies, putting their noses into our hands, sniffing our pockets for gifts. They can read signals, just as Siani, the Welsh border collie, can read signs from our clothes. Which jacket? Which boots? The garments we put on tell her if something exciting is about to happen, and the best outings are those that allow her to help with the sheep. Sheep are her obsession. Not any sheep, but her own sheep. The sheep that graze all day in full view on the other side of our neighbour’s hedge, yards from our garden, are of no interest. They are not ‘her’ sheep. Now she lies all day long with her nose to the gate of the field, watching her ewes and their lambs. The lambs have no fear, and come to the gate to touch noses with her. She finds their impertinent intimacy disconcerting. She does not move, or make a sound. She seems to hold her breath until, suddenly, they turn and gallop off, a rampage of lambs, like children ringing the doorbell and running away. Perhaps the scent of her on the land keeps the fox at bay. We have never lost a lamb to the fox.
Before Christmas we lost a yearling ram. He may have got under a gate. By the time we found him he had been alone for weeks. He was thin and weak, wandering at the far end of the wood where no sheep ought to have been. We brought him home, fed him, gave him shelter for a few days, and he improved. We let him into the field closest to the house. We watched him grazing there, and thought all was well. But sheep are strange animals. They can’t thrive on their own. They are flock creatures and seem to lose the will to live when away from their kind. One day we could not see him grazing in the field. He had found a corner to die in. The wool torn from his fleece by the crows still lies scattered on the grass, taken, now, by nesting birds. Nothing goes to waste in nature. This winter our Christmas cards used his story, and a photograph of our midsummer hay field. The poem expected him to live. The words celebrate his response to us, the gradual improvement in his strength, and the good sight of him pulling clean hay from the manger. By Christmas he had changed his mind and lost his will, and one night he lay down in the field to die. Such failures always hurt. As children we learn the pain of the loss of animals, guinea pigs, hamsters, birds saved from the jaws of a cat. But it still hurts.
A Field of Hay
Remember midsummer? Cae Delyn,
- the harp-field - strung across the hill,
hay-scents rising from the raked rows
in the silence between machines.
Midwinter now, and all growth frozen,
we find a hope-less nine-month ram
all skin and bone, too sick to run,
left behind when the flock was moved.
Bring him in. Break open a bale. Set free
the locked-in camomiles of hay, and waken
in the creature’s skull a memory
of grass, of flock and field, of being alive.
The birth of a lamb is another wonder. To see a lamb born, sneeze, shake itself free and try to stand, to hear its cry, and the low growls in the throat of the ewe as she finds a new voice, a new language for this new thing, and the new, overwhelming passion she feels for the lamb she carried and did not know she knew till now. That is indeed a wonder. They are born in the field, in all weathers, often twins, though never identical, Beulah Speckle-faced sheep, each one distinguished by the particular black and white markings on its face. They rarely need help in giving birth. We notice a ewe standing alone, in a corner, against a hedge, maybe. She does not come for her share of the bucket. We keep an eye on her. Maybe we notice her scraping the ground with a hoof, as if making a bed, turning as a cat does to shape it. She may lie down and lift her head straight up into the air as if straining. The lamb is born ‘in a syrupy flood’, and the ewe, in what looks like a state of ecstasy, drinks the slippery strings of amniotic fluid from the ground, from the steaming coat of the lamb, sniffing and licking, every sip, every breath of it crucial. It is hers, her own, her possession, and her bond with her lamb depends on it. With a single heave, she gives birth to a second lamb, drinks it too, licks with a flickering tongue, takes in its smell, counts her two lambs and nudges each under her body for their first feed from her teats, not yet milk, but colostrum, and the vital protection against infection that will keep them alive.
A woman asked me: Do sheep feel pain when they give birth? What is pain for? It’s clear to me that such pain has a purpose. It is a signal. Why else would a cat make a nest in an airing cupboard, a mare take to the field’s corner and wait, if she can, till there’s no one around, a ewe leave the flock and seek a safe place to lie down alone? Why else would a girl leave a party, phone her midwife, go home? At such a time we need to become our bodies, to become rivers, to be driven by powerful currents of sensation, to be all instinct, to be animal. It is all for the sake of the future.
All winter the birds have gathered on the bird feeders, getting through sacks of seed and peanuts. They have been my company and my distraction as I wrote at the big table in the glass room. Bluetits, coal tits, great tits, chaffinches, green finches, goldfinches, robins, sparrows, tree-creepers, nuthatches, spotted woodpeckers, even starlings, who ought to be on the ground, not stealing from the feeders. And on the ground, more sparrows, blackbirds, thrushes, wrens. All day long the blackbirds pick among the mulch of wood chippings we spread over the beds in December. Crows perch in the middle distance on invisible wires. Gulls flock over the fields when ploughing goes on. Buzzards, and a pair of kites, watch out for carrion. Some nights the tawny owl calls, some nights the barn owl. As spring begins we hear a thrush singing in the evenings until we planted hedges, copses, avenues of trees and shrubs, there were no thrushes here. Last night we heard, and saw, the first curlew for years.
All winter we’ve been able to gather something from the garden to eat. Potatoes, an occasional fist of leaves from the amazing cavollo nero - an everlasting forest of spinach-like Italian cabbage planted in the polytunnel - and a sack of beetroot we kept in the porch. You can taste the earth in beetroot. Under the sweetness, the flavour of oranges, celery, olive oil, whatever you put in the salad, is the shadow-taste of stone. It always seems like a miracle, that taste. It’s the stone that made the soil we live on. You can taste stone, and the minerals that made it, in the water that rises from the deep aquifer under the garden, the water we wash in, drink, water that infiltrates our blood and our bones. Jancis Robinson, wine expert, talks of the taste of wet stones in Chablis, and flint in Pouilly-Fume and Sancerre. We are made of stone. And star-dust.
Star-dust. Maybe that’s why every pavement, path, pedestrian precinct, station platform, walkway, bridge, arcade, everywhere we walk in every town and every city in Britain, probably in the whole world, is starry with constellations of human spittle and gum. Gum-stars beneath our feet, and not a star visible in the night sky overhead, not Orion, not the Square of Pegasus, not the Pleiades, not the lovely planets, so commonly seen in the dark of the countryside: Jupiter, Venus, Mars, Saturn. Every one of them lost to us in the glowing haze of street lights. When Comet Hale-Bopp was at its clearest in our night skies, my son phoned from Southampton for instructions on where to look for it. Standing in the garden with my mobile phone, I guided him from the constellation he knew best Orion and star by star led him to where the comet was. But he couldn’t see it. It was lost in the orange haze of light pollution over the city. Yet that night, here, far from street lights, my husband took the best photograph he has ever taken, Hale Bopp over our house, its tail a whoosh of stilled flight against a sky of lapis lazuli blue.
Underfoot, pavement stars, the spittle-ghosts of planets, comets, spat out as the sea spits out shells. Above us, stars so many light years away that their fires have long burnt out. It’s making me dizzy.
As March turned to April, Dylan brought the children for a few days. In New Quay they watched the dolphins wheeling through the waters within the arm of of the harbour. There are 127 in the Cardigan Bay bottle-nose dolphin family. How do they know, the expert counters of dolphins? As they are one of only two resident groups off the British coast, we’re lucky to have them. The children came back full of excitement. Once years ago, at a difficult work time, we were invited to dine with friends in Aberystwyth. We were too early, so we strolled on the beach for half an hour. A red sun was setting into the sea, and in the path it made between itself and where we stood on the shore, a pod of dolphins began to leap, over and over, high, right out of the water, in a spotlit performance so glorious that all our anxiety was lost in the glory. As Annie Dillard said in A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek‘: ‘all a poet can do is be there’.