Heatwave: June-July 2006
Gillian Clarke’s Journal
by Gillian Clarke
It must be the midsummer heatwave, the hottest, driest summer in Britain for a generation, but I find myself reflecting on joy, and its opposite, the stone in the heart. Not ecstasy and agony. Ordinary joy, and everyday emptiness. The season brings other contrasts to attention too: stillness and movement, sound and silence, company and solitude.
Joy. One of those moments when you stand still, stunned by the beauty of it all, as if something had been started from its lair right there in your ribcage. You’re in love with the planet and with life itself. It is the life-urge. It’s what may save the planet, stop the wars, cage the killers, overwhelm ideologues and fanatics if there’s enough of it. A flash of joy keeps hope burning, makes being alive worthwhile. It’s ordinary, human, private, intimate. Joy is more than wellbeing - what a lovely composite word that is! It is a physical thrill within the echo-chambers of the heart, the ventricles of blood. It feels entirely sensuous. The ‘heavy heart’ of a dark mood, of worry, or grief, seems to come from the mind, but we feel that too in our bodies, as a physical burden.
Out of stillness and silence comes a roar of sound. The hot blue sky is ripped by a low flying military jet on an exercise. The shock feels not unlike a thrill of joy, an electric ripple of blood from the body’s core that leaves the fingertips tingling, but this time it is unpleasant. It leaves behind disturbance, not wellbeing. It’s about knowing what a war-plane is, and what it represents. Its cargo of violence dumped in the mind. An ex-RAF man once told me that our house, a small white landmark on the hill, is one of the RAF’s ‘targets’ on mock bombing exercises. I can’t clean my mind of that. Haifa, I think. Beirut. Gaza. Iraq. Afghanistan. Lebanon. Names resonant with parables.
We human beings love the light. It’s the long light evenings as much as their warmth that make a good summer so lovely, so easy. It’s like a summer in childhood, like the illustrations in A.A.Milne, Peter Rabbit discovering the soporific effect of stolen lettuce, images from Swallows and Amazons. And the smells of summer. I believe Ceredigion is unique in Britain for its hedges of wild laburnum, tresi aur, golden chain, probably grown accidentally from fencing stakes peddled by a travelling salesman before the first world war, chancers sprouting in a long ago summer, what seemed dead being alive after all. Fields, lanes, main roads, farm-yards, and our garden - once a stackyard - are surrounded in June by laburnum in full flower, this year more opulently gold than we ever remember. We are encircled by it. Does walking slowly under its waterfalling yellow, inhaling the scent, count as the deadly sin of sloth? Surely it’s right to squander a little time on transient, seasonal things. There are times when missing a chance is a sin against life.
By the first week in July it’s all over. Fallen flowers cover the drive, the paths, the car parked under the trees. Our car pulls a crowd in the car park in Carmarthen, its roof and bonnet gold-leafed with petals which even the twenty-three mile drive to town has not unstitched. The path and driveway too are inlaid gold. Such mosaics I have not seen since a visit to Registan, the palace of Tamburlaine the Great in Samarkand.
July, and we are left with thousands of seed-pods dangling from the trees and the ground covered with shrivelled brown petals. The seeds are poisonous. It’s as if a light has gone out. After midsummer the light slips through our fingers, a few minutes a day.
July, and birds suddenly fall silent. It happens overnight. Though expected, for a day or two it turns the mood. On the thirtieth of June the blackbird sings all day, a soloist in a beech tree with a chorus of hidden willow warblers, wrens, tits, finches and a descant of unidentified others. In the evening the song-thrush sings in the ash tree, as always. From the first day of July, birdsong is switched off. No call but an occasional distant wood-pigeon, sometimes the shrill sob of a stray pheasant, and more often the scream of wheeling swallows. For a few days I am lost as if unprepared for this annual shift in things. The silence of the birds, the shrivelling of laburnum blossom, those fallen minutes of light. Something is over. For a few days I feel unsettled, deprived of the pleasures of colour and sound and scent. Then I notice other colours green, of course, and the faraway blond of hay-fields after baling, the old-Persian-carpet red of the acer right next to the buttery yellow of hypericum; other sounds - the fields purr with tractors, the high whine and rattle of silage machines. A working countryside comes to life. There are other scents: wild roses in the lane, and the rising heat wakes the honeysuckle so that every time I pass through the garden to the field I inhale it like an addict, and the bitter, delicious after-smell of azalea which persists long after the flowers have gone.
The focus shifts. Stillness is replaced by movement, idle pleasures by activity. The air spins with swallows. Gethin comes to shear the sheep. To avoid bringing our flock - three rams, twelve ewes and their sixteen lambs - up through the hay to the barn to shear them, we decide to power the electric shears with a generator and to set up half a mile away by the stream at the foot of the Fron where the flock is grazing, where Fron Blaen Cwrt, the Blaen Cwrt slope, named after the smallholding it’s always been part of, meets Fron Felen, the yellow slope, named after the gorse that flowers in a dazzling display of gold in early summer. Gorse always offers a flower or two, even in mid-winter, because, as the saying goes,
‘when gorse is out of blossom kissing’s out of fashion.’
David loads hurdles and the generator into the pick-up and drives round along the lanes. Later, I cross the fields with the dog to help herd the sheep into the pen that David has built from hurdles. To reach the shearing place Siani and I walk carefully at the edge of the hay in Cae Blaen Cwrt, along the ‘ride’ of hornbeams and down through Cae Bach, all shimmering with seeding long grasses and flowers. All the way I wear a ‘skirt’ of butterflies. Siani swims the fields in a cloud of her own, snapping at the air as she dog-paddles the deep grass. Never, never so many butterflies in the fields, most in powdery browns, amber, red-gold, speckled, edged and dotted, and all on the move: Meadow Browns, Gatekeepers, Small Heaths, Ringlets, High Brown Fritillaries. And, by the gate that sings in the wind, a five bar burnet moth, red, black and cream like the linings of opera cloaks. Is this caused by the hot, dry summer? Or can we attribute the great number of the insects to the fact that our grasses are grown without chemicals or fertiliser, and without harvesting the grass too early for silage, or repeated harvesting, which give the grasses no chance to flower? My butterfly book, published in 1982, describes the High Brown Fritillary as common and widespread in England and Wales. According to the Guardian, July the twenty second, 2006, the High Brown Fritillary, along with up to sixteen other species of butterfly, is in serious decline and already extinct in seven counties of south-east England, due to urban sprawl and intensive farming.
Gethin arrives. He lays down the shearing platform where each sheep will dance on clickety heels until he turns her over, sits her on her rear end, holds and calms her before beginning to work quickly and deftly, sliding the buzzing electric clippers between her skin and her fleece with never a nip or a graze. In minutes she is naked, and cool, and calling for her lambs. Her fleece lies, pure white side up and looking much too big for her, ready to be rolled and stored in the woolsack.
A night-shower scarcely lays the dust. Dawn, and the heat rises again. Summer persists. Sound. The song of the cement-mixer, the gravely growl of the digger loading stones for the new terrace, the approaching rumble of the Muck-Truck wheeling each load over the grass. These are good sounds. They do not spoil my concentration as I write in my circle of solitude at the garden table. I write while Phil the builder and Gareth his assistant move in a steady work rhythm through the day, enjoying the summer scents and the red kites soaring overhead as much as I do. The birds are our companions in the landscape, as are our neighbours tedding hay in the fields. A light aircraft dawdles, playing in the sky, to and fro with no destination in mind like a child on a bike in the street. A slow light plane in a blue sky is one of summer’s sounds. It turns silver in the sun as the kites turn copper.
Turn. There is alchemy in the word as well as choreography.
Evening. Eight swallows they are multiplying - and three kites in the air. The big field next door has been cut, and there’s sure to be carnage for hungry kites in the mown hay. How do they know? They must have mobile phones. The young swallows are more daring this year. They sometimes wheel through the house. They arrow in through the porch where they perch a moment on the wall light, screaming for a parent bird to feed them, then through the kitchen, the garden room and out of the wide open French windows. Then again, and again, like kids on skate boards. When this skate-boarding phase is over they return to their hunting-grounds over the field. I count at least twelve birds in the air, the latest, newly fledged brood being fed on the wing by their parents and older siblings.
A family of long-tailed tits whispers in the willows when we go for a walk to see the sunset. ‘I love them. They are so discreet’, David says. And so they are, murmuring novenas in their leafy cloisters and clerestories.
Wellbeing. An artist friend whose name is Sandra once said to me, ‘ You know how lovely it is when you’re sitting by a window in a big chair and it’s raining, and you have a book, and you think, ‘How lucky I am! How lucky!’ That’s a ‘found’ poem. Those with a talent for joy will know exactly what Sandra meant. It’s a statement about being alive, having choice and chance and the gift of pleasure. Here the solitary but not lonely individual relishes the simple fact of being alive, the pleasures of body and mind. Sight, sound and touch are explicit in that scene, and implicit are taste and smell, since the rain, the window, the chair imply a familiar room, its privacy, possession and pleasures, perhaps a fresh brew of coffee, the smell of rain, a street outside, and a city. Sandra lives in London, so I know the last two details to be true. I lived many years in the city. Now that I live in the country, when rain falls, or snow, or it’s 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade of a chestnut tree, my view looks over a garden and fields to distant hills. Today our nearest hay field stirs with flowering grasses, and on distant slopes machines too far to hear are working in the sun. It’s the sort of day when the single Welsh word glas, which means both blue and green, is the apt word for the gradations of colour in hill country. The many tones of green of the close fields shift through blues and violets as the land rolls into the distance. Glas. That’s it exactly.
I consider the significance of Sandra’s and my framed views of outside worlds glimpsed from an interior or enclosure, from the stillness of a room, a garden. What’s out there gives meaning to the safe place set and settled in its geography, its place on the planet. The beloved planet. I think of crushed houses, of smashed nests, of children’s skulls as strong and as delicate as egg-shell. Far away from the safe place, too far for glas to colour it right, other worlds racket in through the media’s microphones. The four walls of a room blown out, the fallen house, the broken city, the lost crushed in the dust or on their way to elsewhere. On the beloved planet cities are blown apart, bridges down, roads returned to dust. ‘Chaos is come again’, and humans have brought us to this.
A big chair, a window, a book. Experience is mediated, modified and deepened by literature. Colm Toibin’s fine novel, ‘The Master’, is based on the life of the novelist Henry James. Toibin is wonderful on the pleasures of interiors, and of solitude. He tells how James wandered the cities of Europe, settling for periods in Rome, Florence, Venice, Paris, London, evading intimacy all his life. He tells how James turned away always at the last moment from emotional commitment to the pleasures of solitude. Toibin conjures the lovely interiors of apartments, villas, houses, in New England and in Europe, and in James’s beloved Lamb House in Rye where even the walled garden is like a room. Toibin gives us their lamplight, their rugs, books and paintings, the amplitude of their light and shade, their pleasing proportions. Sandra would recognise these enticements, and so do I. There’s a side to all writers that loves nothing better than a book, a big chair, a window. Henry James knew, and surely Toibin knows too, the pleasures of solitude and a life of literature. He seems to relish even his own melancholy. We watch James’s lost loves and passed-up chances, and see the pain of those from whom he turned away, as if reflected in the old mirrors of beautiful rented apartments. They continue to haunt the reader, and James, as the concluding paragraph of the novel demonstrates. James is home again from travelling:
Lamb House was his again. He moved around it relishing the silence and the emptiness. He welcomed the Scot [his secretary] who was waiting for him to begin a day’s work, but he needed more time alone first. He walked up and down the stairs, going into the rooms as though they too, in how they yielded to him, belonged to an unrecoverable past, and would join the room with the tasselled table cloths and the screens and the shadowed corners, and all the other rooms from whose windows he had observed the world, so that they could be remembered and captured and held.
Dust. Sand. I know dust can be made of anything, and that house dust is mainly composed of our own skin. I know that any stone can become sand. But what is sandstone?
I’ve come indoors to escape the dust that flies from the blade of the stone saw. The men are cutting sandstone slabs to size. I keep an eye on the activity through glass walls, aware that glass too is made of sand, silica, lead, or some such recipe, and ponder on the wondrous alchemy that turns the opacity of rock, metal and other stuff into transparency. Earth, dust, sand and sandstone are all being worked here, and they are all one, the stuff of the earth itself. Their colours are in harmony. The bone-dry, stony, red-ochre earth has been ironed flat with the wonderfully named whacker-plate. It dashes away like a smoothing iron, removing the creases from our bit of Ceredigion, a giant stamping foot crushing stones and earth to dust. Buckets of water, shovels of sand, cement and lime are turned into a grey, doughy mortar and barrowed to the terrace. Mortar is dolloped onto the smoothed earth and sandstone slabs, four different sizes, laid down in a careful and pleasing pattern. The men eye the spirit level, tap the corners of stones with a hammer, add a little mortar here, trowel away a little there. The stone-saw whines as it cuts the slabs to size for the edge. Stone dust veils the sunlight. The earth-dust is ochre. The sand from the quarry a mile away is grey-gold. Stones picked from the land left over from old walls and buildings long fallen down are re-cycled to build the low terrace walls. They are grey with a touch of rust, as are the fresh stones brought from the quarry when our own stone runs out, though the new are sharper edged, and will need time to mellow and match the re-cycled stones. Grey sandstone tinged with red-ochre. I turn to my trusty Guide to Minerals, Rocks and Fossils, a favourite reference book.
Sandstone. Texture: medium-grained, grains all about the same size, subangular to rounded. Structure: bedding apparent, ripple marks common. Concretions and fossils may be found. Mineralology: Quartz is the main component, often with feldspar, mica or other minerals. The grains may be cemented by silica, calcite or iron oxides.
Sedimentary rock, laid down and rippled by the seas millions of years ago, now quarried and cut and laid down for us to walk on.
When the men have gone we walk on the lovely space of the terrace, the new-ancient sandstone slabs underfoot. Sunlight and cats love it. The cats choose sun-warmed stones, or the shade of an acer in a pot. The dog extends herself with a little groan of pleasure. The old longhouse with its newish glass room stands its ground as if it had always expected to be rescued from the sea of grass. It settles, weighted on the earth, as easy on the sandstone terrace as a palazzo or a church on its piazza.
I look down. Ripples formed by seas that flowed here, in this very place, millions of years ago in the long, slow making of the planet. The sight and the texture of the ripples in the warm stones under my bare feet make me dizzy, and the thought of the ripples make me dizzy.
Wake in a blaze of moonlight.
Sit up too quickly. Dizzy. Don’t
be surprised to find yourself in the Silurian,
your house in deep water.
On the map of the past
this place was far out at sea,
old Ceredigion not born
from the Iapetus Ocean.
Land out of its depth, finding fall
from Aberystwyth grits and mudstones,
storm-driven sands out of waters
too old and too deep for life.
So your bed’s on the tilt and spinning,
walls cart-wheeling on their four corners,
then the oak chest slides, sucked down
the turbidity currents of sleep.
Your body knows this.
Walk the cliffs. Look down
to a tumble of choughs, and farther, below,
a sea-locked cove of yellow sand you yearn for.
Feel vertigo’s pendulum pull at your heart,
and underground, underfoot,
the powerful surge of the Iapetus Ocean
dragging its tether.
(from Making the Beds for the Dead)
Thunderstorms. Distant drums and the rooms electric. Counting tigers to estimate how far away the storm is - too far for a drench of rain. We don’t get many thunderstorms. The mighty throat of the river Severn seems to suck electricity from the Western approaches of the Atlantic and the Celtic sea, and funnel most thunderstorms up-river along the border of Wales and England into the heartland. Most such storms miss us by miles in Ceredigion, and bypass Cardiff too, resulting, they say, in a malady known as the Cardiff headache. I remember the Cardiff headache, but I also remember once watching from the bay window of our upstairs flat in a suburb high on a hill looking over the city, and seeing strings of lightning hang like Christmas glitter from the sky over the docks and the Bristol Channel. A marvel, a terror, a glory. Like the storms in Limousin, where lightning over the distant mountains of the Dordogne seem too far away to be frightening, but wonderful enough to sit watching late in the balmy night garden.
Storm over Limousin
Suddenly dark. Nothing breathes. Listen!
After stillness, wind, like a whisper
of rosaries in Romanesque churches
when you step sun-blind out of heat
into a cold interior.
A growl of warning. Hiss of rain.
Lightning shakes out its serpents.
Neidr. Couleuvre. Electricity
in the stones, in the mountains.
In the heart, an unease as old as Eden.
All evening over the woodshed roof, someone
heaves weighty matter across the floor of heaven,
over the peach tree, the ripening vines,
over cattle hunkered in buttercups,
over a million hectares of fertility.
Then a shimmering away to the south
and it’s over. Earth is diamond and rainbow.
And look! Here, on the road, a signature,
medieval initial, a snake crushed, belly up,
like a memory of lightning.
On New Year’s Day 1970, when this house was still in a ruinous state and fit only for summer camping, our late farmer neighbour, Hywel, telephoned us in Cardiff. In Ceredigion there had been a fall of snow in the night, and a violent thunderstorm. A pony in a field had been struck. A huge thunderclap broke over the farm roof and a fireball came down the chimney into Hywel’s bedroom, leaving a scorched trail on the wallpaper. In the morning Hywel was out in his pick-up to check his sheep. The lane between his farm and our house was white with unmarked snow, until he reached our gate. There, in the middle of the road, were signs of disturbance as if, and I quote him, ‘a pig had been rooting in the snow on the road.’ Then the ‘beast’ passed under the gate, across the drive and up the bank and burned a gouge out of the trunk of the ash tree. Later, we hoped to find a meteorite in the grass. Nothing. Just a scar healing on the trunk of the tree.
The first day of August. The heatwave is over. A lovely, long, stone-washing shower of rain on the terrace. Dust flows from the stones onto the grass. Leaves sip drops from the sky. I’m enjoying The Secret Life of Trees by Colin Tudge. I consult it to find out how much a tree drinks in a day, but he gives no easy answers. Californian redwoods get most of their water from mists from the Pacific. I suppose our trees share breath with the Atlantic when they can. Chestnut trees in London are in trouble. One of our beech trees is shedding leaves.
Our biggest hayfield, Cae Delyn, (the harp field), slopes to the south. It lies in the heat of the sun all day long. Last year it yielded a hundred and fifty bales of sweet hay. This year the grass has not grown enough to bother mowing. It is a beautiful field, full of wild flowers and butterflies, but it lacks shade, and it’s thirsty. How lovely it was the other day to rejoice at a fall of rain! We can’t live without it. Perhaps the following - selected from a longer sequence written during the long, cold, dry months of winter and spring - counts as rain-spell.
A Recipe for Water
Fifty feet down
water flows in the dark.
Rains that have spent history
seeping page by page
through the strata,
run black in the aquifers
to rise bringing their gift,
the formula like a spell,
a gulp of cold that flares
at the touch of light.
Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Sodium,
Chloride, Sulphate, Nitrate, Iron.
Sip this, the poetry of stone,
a mineral Latin in our blood, our bone.
The first word for water.
Wysg. Usk. Esk. Wye.
First clicks, clucks, monosyllables,
sibilant spillings in imitation
of the sound of all that shining.
Or the sound of thirst,
the suck and lap as a small pool ripples
in the cup of two hands,
an ecstasy of spill on skin, hair, mouth,
drops beading the dust.
The second word for water.
Dwfr. Dwr. Dyfroedd. Dover.
Imagine the moment a man,
a woman singing in a dark age,
gazed from those chalk heights
at the huge and broken seas
and sang this word, song and word
on the tongue, in the throat,
finding a name for an element.
Everywhere on earth, the first human word
no more than the single drop of rain
a blackbird needs to begin a dawn song.
that drop was the first word in the world,
head back, eyes closed,
mouth open to drink the rain
wysg, uisc, dwr, hudra, aqua, agua, eau, wasser
Imagine writing in the falling rain,
rain writing in whispers
on the roof’s lectern,
rain spelling out each syllable
like a child learning to read.
But day after day
no huff of rain
on the roof,
just the frost’s dry breath on grass.
The trees stop drinking,
their secret roots a delta under the earth,
their branches against the winter sky
wait for spring to make a move.
Rain must relearn how to sound.
March rain must learn to be wild,
to fill the mouth of the west wind
with salt skinned off the sea.
So long the Atlantic has waited,
dragging its anchor.
These dry days and nights
I feel its weight like gravity.
(from A Recipe for Water, commissioned for BBC Woman’s Hour, 2006)
No rain since the shower. Poetry makes nothing happen.
The third brood of four young swallows has flown. One watches from a ledge in the barn while the plumber attends to the new water tank. David and the plumber lift a board from the platform on which the big tank rests. Under it, two toads. We are never alone. A poet-friend and I once found a toad when a huge pile of stones was moved.
I said: ‘What has the toad been eating down there all that time?’
He said: ‘What has it been thinking about?’