Sunday Supplement – 3

Last year I wrote a post about how the Christmas season made sense to me when I thought of it as the old festival of Yule and all that entails. About nature, renewal and hope. Of course, I also wrote about my own hopes for the coming year, and the less said about that, the better! But I also wrote a post a couple of weeks ago – Winter 4 – the last in a series, discussing how I thought the Solstice might have been marked in prehistoric times. Although here in the UK we are now in yet another Lockdown, the solstice is tomorrow – marking the turning of the year – and I cannot help but see that as a reason for hope; the days begin to lengthen, the darkness slowly retreats, and whether you view that as merely symbolic, or connect that with longer, warmer, days and the pleasure they bring, as well as conditions less covid-friendly, yes, it is a reason for hope.

I finished reading H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. I’ve been very poor at writing reviews this last year, and I must make a start again. This would be a great one to begin with; so much to write about it, and a definite five star recommendation. Superb.

I then read The Girl Who Forgets How To Walk, a poetry collection by Kate Davis, published by Penned in the Margins.

As the site describes it: ‘In this remarkable first collection, tarns, limekilns and abandoned pits become portals into a dark, interior world. A woman levitates above a building site; earth slips and fault-lines open up beneath the town; the sea hides ‘a gob of virus’. The moving title sequence tells the story of a young girl with polio who struggles to find her feet — and her voice — in an unforgiving landscape where ‘the ground cannot be trusted’.’ Again, thoroughly recommended and enjoyable. I finished it last night and am wavering between a couple of books, deciding what to read next. But, at the same time, I am working my way through a couple of excellent magazines:

An Antidote To Indifference is the perfect title for a magazine that showcases the best of the writing published on the Caught by the River website. It describes itself as: ‘an arts/nature/culture clash… It began as an idea, a vision and a daydream shared between friends one languid bankside spring afternoon. Conceived as an online meeting place for pursuits of a distinctly non-digital variety — walking, fishing, looking, thinking, birdsong and beer, adventure and poetry; life’s small pleasures, in all their many flavours — it was, and still is, about stepping out of daily routines to re-engage with nature. Finding new rhythms. Being.’ The website is updated daily and the magazine is published, on average, twice a year. I bought a couple of back issues as a bit of an experiment and, again, I highly recommend them to anyone who enjoys nature in any form.

My writing has taken a bit of a hit, though, this past week. I’ve felt utterly uninspired and fed up with the novel I’ve been editing, so I’ve tossed them aside for the moment and have been doing a little work on a short story – a folk horror / ghost story – and a little artwork. Amongst my daubings was this derivative painting which I intended to do for practice, but then thought would make a good birthday card for Sabina’s birthday last week. So that’s how it ended up.

Sunday Supplement – 2

Brains are funny things. At least, mine certainly is. Asked to provide a short bio for someone (Laura, the editor of Braided Way, who has asked to reblog my post Winter – 3), I seem to freeze up in terror. It feels a little like trying to promote my books or my paintings – this ‘blowing my own trumpet’ doesn’t come easily to me. I feel reticent and more than a little embarrassed. I just find it hard to write about myself, unless disguising myself as a character in a story. In the end, I forced myself to make a list of bullet points of things I thought should go in, and then sort of joined up the dots. It still makes me feel awkward, though. Am I the only one who feels like this? Some people certainly seem particularly good at it, whereas I always feel anything like that I have to write like this seems trite and inadequate, yet also pompous.

My talented friend Mark Prestage who made the superb prints for my poem Viking, which we published as a zine (I still prefer the word pamphlet), also produces prints to grace the covers of cds for the band Yellow6. The latest one, Days is pictured below.

Yellow6 is described as ‘…the solo project of British guitarist Jon Attwood. Yellow6 has at times been described as post-rock, minimalist, electronica, ambient… the reality is that Yellow6 has some similarity with each of those genres but is not so easily definable, using aspects of drone, repetition, melody, harmony, noise and silence to create absorbing soundscapes to drift off into.’ Mark also took the photos gracing the insert of the CD, such as this one:

I got a copy of it last week and have been listening to it constantly.

I finished reading My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk – which I’m so glad I returned to, with a thoroughly satisfying conclusion – and then went for something completely different. I’m now reading H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. I bought this about a year ago, and hadn’t got around to reading it, partly wondering whether it had been over-hyped. After all, surely a whole book talking about someone training a goshawk would be somewhat boring, right?

Wrong. Totally wrong. In the words of the cliche, I could not put it down. The goshawk is a real character, who looms out of the book larger than life (see the cover!) dominating Helen’s life in the same way she dominates the picture.

n.b. Reminder to self. ‘Arty’ photographs are all very well, but several of them all together can look pretty naff…

And how is my writing going? I’m so glad you asked. Plugging away at A Good Place, still. And it probably will not surprise anybody one jot to hear I’ve decided to weave a couple of extra strands into the plot, which will naturally involve quite a bit of extra writing.

You might be forgiven for thinking I never want to finish the dratted thing…

Finally, I put up the last part of ‘Winter’ last week, and for my next post I think I should put up something a little, well, warmer and more cheerful! So probably a re-post of one of my Indian posts, one from a few years back that my follower may not have already seen. And perhaps I’ll tweak it a little.

Probably.

Winter – 4

Mid-winter is the nadir of the year, and although winter does not ease its grip on the land for several months yet, at least the long, slow, lengthening of the days begins.

I have no idea how arbitrary the date of 25th December is for our celebration of Christmas day (Orthodox Christians celebrate it on January 7th, due to the difference between the Julian (old) calendar and the Gregorian (new)), but it seems to equate well to the winter solstice on 21st December, in that by the 25th it would be apparent to observers that the days were just beginning to lengthen. Is that when our ancestors celebrated? Did they all collectively hold their breath until the priests could confirm the days were getting longer again? Or did they just work on the basis of ‘it’s the Solstice today. Let’s go for it!’? I’m inclined to think it would be more the latter, with the priests declaring ‘It’s today! Time for excessive eating, drinking and unbridled sex!’

Or perhaps a bit of chanting and a sacrifice or two. Who knows?

Would our Neolithic ancestors have kept a calendar in the sense of checking off every day the way we do? I suspect not. Tools such as aligned stones would have done the job for them, confirming it was now the shortest day or the longest one. I don’t suppose there would have been any need for more refined measurements – it would be obvious to them when fruit or nuts or grain were available to be gathered. Obvious when they would need to slaughter livestock. And for that reason, I think points in time such as the solstices would be marked purely by ritual and / or celebration.

We don’t really know how they marked it, of course. We know a lot about how the Victorian writers supposed it was marked – the sacrifices, the wild dances, the bacchanalia, (and it is curious how many of their illustrations seemed to include young maidens dancing wildly in flimsy shifts) – and there is more than enough written about variations on this theme by those who see themselves today as druids, as followers of the old religion. What this old religion is, though, is a somewhat hazy and fluid animal, dragging in everything and anything from ley lines and animist gods through to Morris dancing, via witchcraft, mind-enhancing drugs, depending on who you speak to. Again, we don’t know.

In many ways, it drops comfortably into the melange of New Age beliefs, essentially being whatever the believer wants it to be…although that is something most of us could also plead guilty to, no matter what religion, if any, we follow.

It may well have been marked differently in different parts of the country (I’m really just thinking of Britain, at the moment) – different rituals in the much milder climate of the south west than in the far harsher one of the north, for example. And over the millennia they probably will have changed, being influenced by both outside factors (contact with others who did things differently, perhaps the slow change of climate) and inner ones (changing ideas about gods, relationships to ancestors, size of population).

But when Christianity came along, it substituted its own story of hope and celebration for what was there before, which is why we have it then rather than around March, which is when the internal evidence of that particular Bible story would place it. As the followers of every new religion always do, they found it impossible to prevent an old festival taking place, so instead they usurped it for their own ends.

Sunday Supplement – 1

This arrived at the beginning of the week: the new CD from Belbury Poly on Ghost Box Records. I listened to the podcast of Uncanny Landscapes #5 interviewing Jim Jupp (The Belbury Poly) back in September, and had been meaning to buy this since then. Inspired by British myth and legend, The Gone Away is essentially ambient electronic music. One review has it: …this haunting, immersive album that it feels like a nod to Ghost Box’s roots: where Jupp, working alone this time, is a channel for ancient, rustic strangeness, passed through the filter of some long-forgotten children’s TV series. I think it’s brilliant, and I’ve been listening to it for much of the week.

I finished re-reading Beowulf, the version translated by Seamus Heaney who is a poet I much admire. Most people know the story, or at least know that Beowulf is a great warrior who fights and kills the monster Grendel in what we think of as Anglo-Saxon times, although the story is somewhat more complex than that. I have read a lot of Anglo-Saxon poetry over the years, and I’ve frequently been disappointed by it. There is very little of it surviving – if it was ever written down at all, it has been largely lost – and what there is dates from the end of that period, when the Saxons had been converted to Christianity. This means it is frequently a strange and jarring combination of bloodthirsty adventure and po-faced sermonising. Fortunately, Beowulf largely escapes the latter, and Seamus Heaney’s translation is both beautiful and dark.

And, by strange coincidence, on my previous post (Winter – 3) Greg posted a comment mentioning Beowulf, although he could not know I had finished reading it the previous day.

But now I’m reading My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk. This is the second time I’ve read it, and the first time I read it quickly and enjoyed it, but knew I needed to immerse myself in it more slowly. This time around, I began it in the spring and only got halfway through, for some reason really struggling with it. But I’ve picked it up again and now I’m finding it much easier going. Set in Istanbul in the sixteenth century, it is a murder mystery, love story and discussion on the power of art, with religion and intrigue chucked in for good measure.

It’s been a bit of a grey week, weather-wise, although we’ve had the odd spell of sunny weather. Yesterday we had a dodging-the-showers walk over the nearby common, and spent a while mulling over the age of this oak. I reckoned it might be three hundred to three hundred and fifty years old, while Sabina plumped for five hundred.

In the summer, I measured its girth at head height, and made it approximately six metres. The various ‘ready reckoners’ one comes across would suggest from this the age is around four hundred years, making allowances for factors such as the climate around here and its position in relation to the rest of the geography of the area, but this tree seems in unusually good condition for one that age. It’s possible, of course. Whatever age it is, though, it’s a mighty bugger.

My creative writing this week, what there was of it, was all revision of A Good Place. I’m getting there slowly, even if it does seem to be taking an age. How do some writers manage to dash off a couple of books a year, for heaven’s sake? Do they not have lives?

And my next post? My final post on winter. We’re approaching Christmas, are we not? So a little something seasonal. In a sort of Neolithic way…

Winter – 3

Winter would have brought a period of enforced leisure for our ancestors. Their days would have become shorter with the increasing hours of darkness, until in midwinter the daylight hours would make up only one third of the time.

All outdoor activities would effectively cease in the darkness, and even during the day the worsening weather would limit what could be achieved outdoors. But other than those tasks that could be carried out, what did they do in these times? how did they pass those long hours?

At times, no doubt, there would have been feasting and merry-making because they would have required some cheer and a sense of well-being to help them get through the winter. But they must also have been mindful of husbanding scarce food resources through those long barren months.

it may be that they played games. Although archaeology hasn’t furnished us with evidence of board games or dice or variations on these, it is still possible they would scratch, perhaps, some form of grid into the beaten soil of the floor and play games of skill or chance. It is not beyond possibility that some flat rocks with strange scorings and lines on them were used for that purpose.

With no TVs or books or computers, it might seem to us that time would have weighed heavily on their hands. But you are used to what you are used to, and they would have seen things differently. They may have looked forward to a period of relative inactivity; long hours of no talk, sitting or lying down, the mind slowing down until hours were passed in no thought. Did they then also pass unusually long hours in sleep? A kind of semi-hibernation as a way of conserving energy?

But long hours also, of talking. They must have talked: of daily life and plans and past disasters and glories, of gossip, and told stories both new and handed down from previous generations. These stories would have been incredibly powerful tools for the preservation of the tribe. With no written word, the spoken word becomes the only way knowledge is transmitted. And thus it has to be memorised, both for use and also to transmit in the future. As aids to memorising, powerful tools are repetition, rhyme and rhythm. We cannot know exactly how this was utilised, but it cannot have been long before poetry and song evolved.

It can be no coincidence, but in all the early societies we know of who had no written records, those of which we know about through records left by others – such as the Romans writing of the Britons – it is clear that poetry and song were important, and the bard a highly valued member of that society. Indeed, the writings left by Romans, who tended to denigrate anyone not Roman as barbarian and primitive, violent, and uncultured, still make it clear these ‘barbarian’ tribes valued poetry and song highly. Partly, this must have been for educational purposes, but they seem also to have been valued for themselves, for their beauty. It is taking things too far to suggest this proves the same would have applied in Neolithic times, but it is certainly possible. At some point, there would have been music. I imagine this developed out of ritual, perhaps through repetitive chanting and the beat of drums…

And so, I can imagine this at first being perhaps the preserve of the shaman, until becoming a specialised ‘post’ – that of the bard – and acquiring the value of entertainment, as well as instruction.

Winter – 2

Nature dies down in winter. Certainly, at those latitudes where the days become much shorter and the temperatures plummet. Both wind and rain seem to become more frequent. Snow. It is a period of rest and renewal after autumn has put on a final glorious display of colour. Animals adapt to this in one of three ways: some will eat and eat of the autumn bounty of, especially, fruit, putting on large fat reserves and surviving the winter in a state of hibernation, their heart-rates dropping to a scarcely believable one or two beats a minute, their bodies slowly using these fat reserves for the little energy required to maintain a flickering life through those months. Some migrate, seeking a warmer climate until spring returns. These animals are, due to the obvious logistics required to travel hundreds of miles to reach those more hospitable climes, the larger animals and many of the birds. Travel over those kinds of distances would be out of the question for the smaller ones. Others stay put and, in the case of the plant eaters, scratch out a meagre living on whatever leaves and grasses survive through the winter. The carnivores, of course, stay and try to catch them.

Our Neolithic ancestors’ life cycles would be attuned to this pattern too. Autumn must have been lived fast and furiously. In the same way our medieval ancestors worked long hours to bring in the harvests, Neolithic man and woman must have used all the dwindling daylight to bring in as much food and fuel and dry bedding as possible before the winter period. Then by the end of autumn gathering would have largely ceased and they would have moved into a winter rhythm of life.

But how did they get through winter? What of the food they had gathered? Presumably, they had no way of storing fruit – could any of it be dried? Was it fermented for drink? Or was it all eaten as soon as it was gathered, as though they were all so many dormice seeking to build up their reserves? And could this, in fact, have been a part of their strategy to get through those months? To eat and eat until the perishable foods were all gone, and then to stop all but the most essential activities. To expend as little energy as possible and stay as warm as they could. Spending as much time as possible asleep.

And yet, they would still need to eat, and so with dwindling food reserves they would slaughter any beasts kept for that purpose, possibly smoking the meat to enable it to keep for as long as possible. Hunting would continue and might, in some ways, become a little easier. With less vegetation around, there would be less cover for their prey, and in snow there would be clear tracks to follow. But presumably this prey would still need to be pursued, and this would use precious energy, unless they relied more upon pits and snares.

Winter – 1

The long-range weather forecast is predicting generally mild, wet weather in the run-up to Christmas. So still no sign of ‘winter’ yet.

Although there is a lot to be said for mild weather, we need the cold of winter to help to break up the soil for the following year and kill off many pests. But our climate is changing.

There are some swallows still around, apparently. Presumably because there are still plenty of insects for them to eat. They should have left ages ago. What does this mean for them in the coming months? If the weather remains mild and the insects persist, will they be able to survive the winter here? And will they still be able to successfully migrate if the expected colder weather kills off these insects, or will they have left it too late? I suspect it will not end well for them.

There have always been a few of these days at the turn of the seasons, although probably nowhere near as many as now, and I wonder how our ancestors would deal with these days; the days I am sometimes tempted to call the Nothing Days. Those days which are grey and cold, but not severely so. The leaves are continuing to fall but seem in no hurry to complete the job. Nothing seems to be contributing to the change of the seasons. If any plants or animals are responding to anything, it can only be to the shortening of the daylight hours. There are still plenty of nuts and berries for the wildlife to forage – the birds are largely ignoring our bird feeders at the moment – although little for the human forager; the blackberries have finished, the chestnuts and hazelnuts all gone.

I suspect our ancestors would have moved into their own winter routines anyway, and got on with the jobs in hand, largely mending and making. With the onset of rains and wind and snow, rooves and walls would be repaired and strengthened, leaks caulked, trenches dug out to drain water away from dwellings. Tools and weapons would be fashioned and repaired. Measures taken for comfort and warmth – perhaps grasses and rushes and bracken collected and heaped up inside, likewise firewood, and fodder for animals.

Although I’m only guessing, but a fire in the middle of a hut filled with heaps of dried grasses might have required a Neolithic risk assessment following a visit by a fire and safety officer.

R. I. P. Winter

It’s beginning to feel both as though autumn has been with us forever, and that it is especially reluctant to leave us, this year.

This year has been a mast year; the trees and bushes have been laden with prodigious quantities of nuts and berries. The hawthorns, especially, seem to be weighed down with berries, and we have gathered large quantities of nuts from the hazel in our garden. There are so many acorns beneath the oaks nearby that there is a thick, continuous, crunchy, carpet of them underfoot. Traditionally, this has been said to indicate a harsh winter ahead, although how the trees and bushes are meant to work this out when we have no idea what the weather will be then, heaven only knows.

What it really indicates, of course, is that the climatic conditions have been such throughout the year that these trees and bushes have successfully produced their large crops. Nothing to do with what will come along later.

On the other hand, the leaves have held onto their greens for longer than usual and only turned late, and still seem most reluctant to fall. It has taken the determined efforts of a few strong winds just to remove about half of them. Certainly, around my part of Britain, anyway.

It is not cold. There are no signs of a proper winter chill approaching, with the long-range weather forecast contenting itself with predictions of the occasional cold spell in the next month, which takes us through to mid-December. In the garden the grass and many of our other plants are still engaged in that crazy autumn growth spurt.

Of course, it was never unusual for November to be wet and mild, and we may yet have a biting cold winter, although I wouldn’t bet on it. It is a long, long time since we have had a winter like that in these parts. In my lifetime, only the winters of 1963 and 1978/79 really stand out as being extremely harsh, although a few others have had shorter periods of cold and snow. The expectation for winter around here now is that it will just be chilly and wet. I think only once in the last six or seven years have we had more than just the odd flurry of snow; that was from the so-called ‘Beast from the East’ a couple of years ago, and even that only lasted a few days.

We seem to have lost winter somewhere along the way, which sounds very careless of us.

In fact, that is quite a good way of describing it.

You don’t need me to tell you we have been careless in the way we have interacted with nature, the result being our world is heating up dangerously. And in our part of the world, this has led to hotter, drier, summers and milder, wetter, winters. There has been a notable increase in destructive flooding events. Downpours are frequently very heavy and long-lasting. Rather than being spread out through the month, we may get an entire month’s worth of rain in less than a day. Summers, conversely, have become very dry.

This is absolutely nothing to the extreme climate conditions suffered by millions of others in other parts of the world, but it helps to bring it home to us that the Climate Emergency is real, and it is happening. With everything else happening in the world at the moment, this seems to have been conveniently ignored by the mainstream media for the last six months.

R. I. P. Winter.

Green Christmas

Yesterday was beautiful.

I went out for a walk in the morning as the overnight mist was lifting, and the air was cool but not cold, under a sunny, clear sky filled with birdsong. I felt a powerful sense of renewal in the world.

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There is little new growth yet, but the trees were covered in buds. Although we are not long past the shortest day of the year, the ridiculously mild temperature and the sun which felt warm on my face, reminded me that there is one more minute of daylight today than there was yesterday, and tomorrow there will be one more than that. And it will not be long before each day gains an extra two minutes, then three, then four…

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The air smelt clearer and cleaner than it had for months, and I felt like beginning a long journey. I yearned to be walking on the Downs, or heading through fields and woods with my destination nothing more elaborate than a bed in a basic bunkhouse or hostel, and somewhere to get a meal, preferably in a tiny village surrounded by hills and streams and woods. This is a feeling I get every Spring, that it is a time to explore more of the world.

Everything seems to be fresh. I need to do something new, something positive. To plant some trees, perhaps (always a good idea).

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I thought of Christmas. This year, we had a string of lights in one room, with handfuls of greenery as the only other decorations. This, for me, is a way to make sense of the season. It has nothing to do with religion, unless it be the ancient religions that worshipped the sun and the moon and celebrated the turn of the year at the Winter Solstice when the seasons begin their long, slow journey back towards the promise of Spring and the harvests of Autumn. A simple wisdom, in tune with the natural world.

I do not, I cannot – I will not – associate it with any other form of mythical gods. For me, it is all about the natural cycle of the seasons, simple and uncomplicated.

And I particularly like the period when Christmas is definitely over, and we’re only just getting into the new year. Everything seems to have this feeling of renewal, which was the whole point of the Yule festival. A time to look forward and plan for the coming year. This will be where the tradition of New Year Resolutions comes from, no doubt.

This year, I shall resolve to try and simplify my life further, and to live more in tune with the natural world.

Myth, Science and Religion

Religion begins as science, as an attempt to make sense of the world. The birth of religion marked the dawn of humans as rational, analytical beings. This was humans moving beyond the worries of simply surviving from day to day, and reaching that point in evolution where they looked with wonder upon the world around them and asked: How did this come into existence? What is it that controls the weather and other variables? By observing the natural world around them, the cycles of day and night, the seasons, the migrations of the animals, they would have concluded that these patterns suggested a grand design and order.

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An assumption would probably be made that all this was controlled by benevolent beings, but beings who might need propitiating occasionally to keep them sweet; the odd ritual here, perhaps a sacrifice of some sort there.

And if that was so, perhaps they could be propitiated in a somewhat greater way, to grant other boons?

It would not be long before someone claimed a channel to the gods to relay their desires and instructions, and so the priestly class would be born. Self-interest? Quite likely. After all, we see that in most religions today, so why not?

Religions then, over the years, spawned new religions, the spark being reinterpretation rather than inspiration.

We think we see echoes of old religions in myths. Myths are the fragments of history we know, combined with assumptions about how our ancestors acted and thought, frequently combined with scarce written evidence, which may or may not be biased or wholly inaccurate. When our written sources include stories of monsters and miracles, we should probably be advised to treat them cautiously.

Myth-makers frequently come with an agenda, although depending upon your point of view that is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are looking for a scientific analysis of the lives of our ancestors, it’s probably best to give myth a wide berth. Or at least to be very, very, careful what you take from it. But in a way, it does provide an alternative world view that many find preferable to both the stark realities of day to day life, as well as the cold dead hand of religion. After all, if you’re using your imagination, it’s easy to plan your myth-world much the way you’d like it.

And perhaps myth does offer us a way of getting inside the heads of those people, at least superficially.

One assumption we can make is that there would be similarities in the thought processes of those people, with the thought processes of us today. It is perfectly reasonable to assume they would react in similar ways to us, to pain and fear, to pleasure, warmth and cold. Our reaction to the unknown tends to be to populate it with characters or situations based on our experiences, and they probably did the same.

Stonehenge is aligned with the solar calendar. This we know. It’s science. And we know a considerable amount about the geography of the area around Stonehenge at the time it was built, through archaeology and science.

What we don’t know is how it was used. Just because it was aligned with the rising sun at summer solstice and the setting sun at winter solstice, does not mean we know what took place at those times. We assume our ancestors worshipped or venerated the sun there, especially at the time of the solstices, but we do not know that. Were there sacrifices? Did they hold special ceremonies connected with fertility or birth or death? Was it perhaps just like a club where they turned up now and again and got drunk and held orgies? It could be, since there is no hard evidence for anything.

Believers in ley lines also claim it is at the centre of an intricate system of lines connecting natural (‘holy’) locations with important (‘holy’) sites such as churches, wells and crossroads. Pseudoscience? Coincidence?

Our assumptions, though, lead us to think that because of the immense effort required to build the structure, it must have been an incredibly important site, and we are surely justified in concluding important ceremonies were enacted there.

Whatever they were.