Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Taking Stock - Reflections at the Winter's End

I moved to the Calder Valley in the winter of 2012, and on my first birdwatching wander I was delighted to notice a green woodpecker.  Dazzlingly, it seemed to bounce on the icy air halfway up a hillside on the edge of the Copley woods, wending its emerald way in and out of the ragged hedgerow, skimming the stream trickling bumpily over miscellanies of stones.  I followed the bird's course with my binoculars, as it dodged and meandered through dark overhanging branches, torpedoing over rocks and floating into misty invisibility.  I had been in the valley only a matter of days, and this January morning was my first opportunity to go walking and birdwatching in the local countryside. I had never seen a green woodpecker before. To do so now seemed a good omen.

In the time I have lived in the area, woodpeckers - green and otherwise - have been a not infrequent sight.  Their green speckled coats, wild eyes, patient habits, long thick beaks and the bright, red stripe that daubs their heads like a jester's hat, all combine to reveal a collage of contradictions - a bird which seems at once stately and frenetic, both stylish, and irascible.  These unique birds have certainly, as I shall demonstrate, played their part in my poetry over these last five years.  But before I focus on the green woodpecker and its relations, I want to turn to a few other examples of local, and not so local wildlife, that have featured in my rambles and scribblings over the last few weeks.

This is the evening of my final day of a month away from my usual day job(s) in libraries.  Having accumulated a month's leave, such an absence presented its self as a necessity were I to avoid losing the entitlement before the end of the financial year, and so came upon me more by luck than judgement.  This unexpected stretch has given me time to develop various professional and personal projects, to reconnect with the world outside my window, and reflect on things that matter.  I have also found myself missing the libraries I work at. Between Wednesdays and Saturdays I might usually be found skulking among the shelves of certain of these places, singing songs with three year olds and secluding myself within the hidden haven of a local history room, and to have withdrawn completely would be senseless - so it was rather fitting that part of my time away has been spent either reading, or working in libraries closer to home, devising and delivering the next stage of a collaborative project called Exploring the Brontes.

My collaborators on this three-person show are Berni Byrne and Caroline Lamb (above R and L respectively.)  Its format consists of a presentation by myself, including quotes and poems by and about the Brontes, and interspersed with beautiful musical offerings by Berni on the Irish harp. Berni has won the All Britain Harp title in all ages, and to hear her play the majestic instrument pictured above is a truly wonderful privilege.  Our second half features Caroline Lamb, of Dangerous to Know theatre company, who performs her monologue The Cold Plunge, a Bronte-inspired play told from the viewpoint of their friend and correspondent Mary Taylor.  In 2015, Caroline's play The Dissolution of Percy, which details the tumultuous life of Branwell Bronte, debuted in Salford, and she has been a key part of my work towards the completion of a film about Branwell, which I have been making with Alan Wrigley and which features elsewhere on this site.  Caroline has been both a valued co-researcher as well as interviewee, and her monologue is a further demonstration of her knowledge of the Brontes and their work. 
Exploring the Brontes first surfaced at last October's Morley Arts Festival, and we were very happy to bring it to Todmorden Library this February, with further instalments planned this spring and summer, before appearing for the opening of the new Halifax Library in September. 

Each performance of Exploring the Brontes covers different territory, and February's included a good deal of information about the family's connections to that town, including the former church at Cross Stones, whose incumbents included the Reverend John Fennel, friend of Patrick Bronte. Fennel may have been preceded at Cross Stones by the notoriously "fire-and-brimstone" preacher William Grimshaw (who also preceded Patrick Bronte at Haworth) but his own tenure at the church was no doubt a good deal cheerier:  Fennel had lost a previous job as a schoolmaster for spending too much time organising picnics for his niece Maria and her fiancée - Patrick Bronte.   Cross Stones was to become a familiar place to all the Brontes, the siblings holidaying there as children, and to various other figures who would play a part in the life of Branwell Bronte, such as the curate Sutcliffe Sowden, and local geologist John Nowell, friend of Reverend Fennel who discovered a rare species of moss, Zygodon gracilis, while in the Yorkshire Dales.
The Brontes had been known to take walks as far as Todmorden when conditions permitted, and wandering across the craggy, knolly hills and winding paths of Todmorden, heading out into the foreboding fogs and steep reaches of Stoodley Pike and Blackstone Edge, the desolation of Todmorden Moor or the heather-rich hills of Cragg Vale and its deciduous slopes of warm, fresh greenery, it is easy to imagine the young Brontes embracing the seemingly infinite landscapes and their strange, raw romance.

Later in February I was to host a celebration of the music and poetry of Leonard Cohen, at Mythomroyd's Blue Teapot - as described on this page http://simonzonenblickcaterpillarpoet.blogspot.co.uk/p/poet-residency-blue-teapot-vegearian.html
which brought together the poetic talents of Jessica Lawrence, Atar Hadari, Turner Cockcroft and of course the great Leonard Cohen, with the musical offerings of our friend Razz.

My winter wanderings, though, have taken me beyond the Calder Valley and encompassed a variety of environments and sights.

When I told Calder Valley poet Bob Horne about my plans for a restorative four week break, he told me he expected I would be spending as much of it as possible out of doors.  Bob and I have often shared sightings of birds and other wildlife - indeed one of the standout poems in his Caterpillar Poetry collection Knowing My Place is the startling White Tailed Eagle, which records a view of this "eagle of the sunlit eye" glimpsed above Cape Wrath:

Like a sheet of white shadow
close enough to disconcert
it climbs from the cottongrass

and over the last few weeks, the last of the winter frosts slowly subsiding into the flowers of early spring, I have been thrilled to lay eyes on a dizzying diversity of bird life, both in the countryside and in the middle of busy towns. 

and writing about it has helped to contextualise my thoughts and feelings on the plight of the natural world, and the brilliant beauty which so often lays in unexpected corners.

This brings me back to the starting point of these reflections, and my unexpected sighting of a green woodpecker, that cold winter morning in 2012. 

I knew you writes Hampshire poet Denise Bennett in her 2005 poem Green Woodpecker, by your / green carpenter's apron,/ your red-crested head - / and watching you chisel bark / with all the care of a craftsman

The "chiselling" sound the poet so deftly conjures up was familiar to me in the woodlands outside my old home in north Leeds, where I would watch the erratic progress of one particular woodpecker - Dendrocopos minor (the lesser-spotted woodpecker) - as it hammered away for all it was worth against the increasingly hollow sounding oaks!  I have continued to see - an indeed to hear! - woodpeckers (mostly Dendrocopos major, the great spotted woodpecker) here in the Calder Valley, but nowhere else have I encountered the green woodpeckers, Picus virdis, which, the higher up one goes into the moorland or farmlands outside Sowerby Bridge, seem to increase in size and number. 
Like thick sparks, I scribbled in my notebook earlier this month, they explode from the bush in a fountain of curved green, arched arrows.

Bewick names P. virdis as the largest of Britain's woodpeckers, stating that as adults, they are thirteen inches in length. He explains that the smooth-feathered bird, documented by Linnaeus in 1758, is seen more frequently on the ground than the other kinds, particularly where there are ant-hills. It inserts its long tongue into the holes through which the ants issue, and draws out these insects in abundance. Sometimes, with its feet and bill, it makes a breach in the nest, and devours them at its ease, together with their eggs. The young ones climb up and down the trees before they are able to fly; they roost very early, and repose in their holes till day.

The green woodpecker has achieved further fame due to its appearance on international postage stamps, and as the insignia of the traditional English brand Woodpecker cider, and has been known as Rain Bird and Weathercock, since their presence has been thought to imply oncoming rain. Another name is Laughing Betsey, owing to its laugh-like call, which has also given rise to titles such as uffle, hefful, hickle, icwell, eccle and - a personifying development - Jack Eikle. Yuckel is a further variation, as is Yappingale, and perhaps even more imitatively, Yaffingale - which may be familiar as the source of the name Yaffles. Stiff, stern but loveable, Professor Yaffles, with his spectacles perched atop his beak, is the wise old bookend in Bagpuss, the children’s television series in which assorted puppets and ornaments - not least the eponymous cloth cat himself - interacted among the shelves of a cluttered toyshop.  Perhaps I had these jumbled toys in mind last week when I penned my rather jovial poem Green Woodpeckers, in which I describe the birds flying from a hedgerow in a crackling cascade of jagged jack-o-lanterns, and end with the following rather far-fetched simile:

...drill-beaked baize blades,
parroty splash of sharp
fluorescent arcs, erupting
like a bag of flying tricks.

I'm not sure exactly how I would define "a bag of flying tricks", but I think anyone who has seen green woodpeckers can probably recognise that sense of their fast, chaotic ballets and their swift dispatches into thin air. 

It has always seemed strange to me that I had not committed my thoughts on that first green woodpecker to poetry.  Yet anyone who writes must surely know that so often, the inspiration behind a poem may require many months or even years before it is distilled into coherent thought, and only when the Muse, and a heavy dose of self-discipline, happen to strike in unison do the strands of thought that feed this inspiration coalesce into something recognisably poetic.  Over the last few weeks, though, I have found myself thinking back over the last five years and longer that I have been in the valley, comparing then with now, weighing up the past, taking stock of the present and planning for the future - and during much of this time the poetry I've been writing has been largely drawn from the past.  So it was that, without even thinking about it beforehand, I was writing about the birds described above, and shortly afterwards the solitary green woodpecker whose bumpy, swerving journey up the hillside so entranced me on that vein-chillingly frigid Sunday morning - my red-hatted host, introducing me to the valley's bird life in its own inimical, jouncy, jolting, jolly way.  And so, I end my four week spell of reflection, exploration and rediscovery by remembering a beginning.


Up the muddy hill, flitting
among bordering blackthorn,
hazel, skittering
inch by drizzly inch
along a stone-choked stream,
an aerial climb,
you skim the rim of farmland
like an acid-dappled laser-beam,
lime light-sabre scintillating
in a neon gleam of feathered fire,
blood-coloured beak
creeping over hedgy wetness
in a thin mirage
diving through the morning mist.

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