we two, briefly
in the dark early hours;
through the window glimpsed – Orion
we two, briefly
in the dark early hours;
through the window glimpsed – Orion
Nothing enhances a river like a weeping willow tree planted on its banks, overhanging the water. The tree itself is watery, the wavy branches with their long leaf-sprays flowing up and over in imitation of a fountain.
The first willow tree I ever knew, though, was not by a river. My next-door neighbours when I was a child had one in their back garden.
Willows drink a lot of water from the ground around their roots, and it showed. The earth beneath the tree, within the area enclosed by the drooping branches, had no chance of growing any grass, partly, I suppose, because it got very little light but also because the willow was so thirsty for moisture that there was none to spare for any other green growth.
On the rare occasions when I played next door (the little girl of the family was younger than me – closer to my sister’s age), I enjoyed sheltering inside the waving curtain of branches, being encircled by that delicate fretwork of leaves. It felt secret and secure without being scarily closed in.
I loved to look at the tree from across the fence, too. But I was destined not to look at it for long. Late one Saturday morning I woke to the awareness that far more light than usual was coming through my thin bedroom curtains. Looking outside to work out what was happening, I was shocked to see that the weeping willow had gone. Only a stump remained. The neighbours’ lawn recovered from the loss, but I’m not sure I ever did.
We had a tree in our garden as well – an apple. After I’d left home, it too was cut down, and I never really knew why. Though not as spectacular in form as the willow, it was more useful, providing a ready-made cricket stump in summer, windfall apples to eat in the autumn and a natural climbing frame for cats all year round. And in spring time, it excelled itself in beauty with masses of pink blossom.
Perhaps as a result of those experiences, I don’t trust in the permanence of trees. The enormous yew that stands right outside my bedroom window now – as tall, as wide and probably as old as the house – I worry that it doesn’t look as healthy as it did 15 years ago. The magnolia in the garden across the road, with a wind-chime hidden in its foliage – it could fall victim to the owners’ sudden whim for a rose-bed, for all I know. The line of sycamores in the car park opposite – might they one day be sacrificed for a few more parking spaces?
There’s no room in my own tiny courtyard garden for a willow, an apple, a yew or a magnolia, but I have managed to squeeze in a small Japanese maple, in a corner bed that was once a pond. In its first few years of life, the maple’s leaves shrivelled up every summer, and one whole side of it eventually died completely. But new growth sprouted from the bottom, and now I can usually rely on it to stay alive all year round and to turn from purple to scarlet in the autumn.
The maple is my responsibility, and I shall never willingly chop it down. And in my memory of the place where I grew up, the apple and the willow are both still standing.
with the current –
five brown ducks in a row
like little feathered coracles
Some books, I find, have an ‘atmosphere’ that lingers in the mind for several days after I finish reading them, like a cloud of smoke or a heavy scent on the air. When I finish a book like that, I don’t want to start reading anything else until the cloud or the perfume has dissipated and the air is clear again.
Often, when this happens, it’s because the sense of ‘place’ in the novel is very strong. Great Expectations is one such book, with all its dark locations – the foggy River Thames, the dank walls of Newgate Prison, the mustiness of Satis House. Watership Down is another, with a starkly different atmosphere – the rabbit’s-eye view of grass, sparkling rivers and the dappled shadows cast by the leaves of trees high above. I could think, too, of Hardy’s The Return of the Native, in which Egdon Heath has its own personality, and Forster’s A Passage to India, with the sinister Marabar Caves at its centre. In novels like these, the places have a definite shaping influence on the characters’ emotions, motives and actions.
One book I read recently, East of Eden by John Steinbeck, had the same lingering effect on my mind, but this time it was not because of the physical setting. The story takes place mainly in the Salinas Valley of California, but there’s a sense in which it could be anywhere, because this is a story of the psychological places – the interior landscapes – where any of us could find ourselves.
East of Eden is based consciously on the Old Testament story of Cain and Abel. These two brothers, sons of Adam and Eve, both bring sacrifices to God. Abel’s is accepted by God but Cain’s is inexplicably rejected. God warns Cain to combat the jealous rage that threatens to overwhelm him, but Cain is unable or unwilling to do so and murders his brother. He’s then exiled to ‘the land of Nod, east of [the garden of] Eden’ – in other words, even further from paradise than his parents have wandered.
Like many of the ancient origin stories in Genesis, this one is short, mysterious and rather unsatisfying to those of us who are used to the extended narrative arc of the Western novel. But Steinbeck fleshes out the common human emotions at its heart and creates from it the kind of narrative that we are familiar with. Few authors draw a clearer picture of the internal struggle between good and evil impulses at the core of a person’s identity.
The homage to Cain and Abel could be seen as a bit clumsy, a bit contrived: all the major characters who show Cain’s murderous instincts – Charles, Cathy, Caleb – have names beginning with ‘C’, while their more passive victims have names with the initial ‘A’. (There is a twist in this pattern, though, as one ‘C’ is given hope of being led out of his destructive path by the strong love of another ‘A’.)
But the characters representing the extremes of evil and goodness, and the individual whose mind is the most compelling battlefield between the two sides, do make a vivid impression. There’s the horrific Cathy, possibly the most evil fictional creation this side of Lord Voldemort; Caleb, who, of all the players in the story, fights the hardest against his shadow side; and Lee, the Chinese servant who, like God, urges Cal to overcome his jealous rage and grief. Lee knows and understands far more about everyone else’s motives than he ever tells or explains, because he listens closely, not just to the words spoken but to the spirit behind the words.
So in this novel, the physical location is of secondary importance. There’s no need for a great river, prison walls, grassy hills, caves or heathland to create a lingering atmosphere. ‘East of Eden’ is the metaphorical but very real place where we all live and make our moral choices every day.
crows rush screaming northward;
moon waits in silence for the clouds
photo: pcdazero pixabay.com
All through the winter, our local rookery has consisted of just one nest, like a single house with curtains up at the window in an otherwise derelict street. I was afraid the site had been abandoned. But this week I spotted a rook flying overhead with twigs and fluff in its beak, and 48 hours later the nest-count had reached 15.
I love to see the birds setting to work at the beginning of spring, but, just to be awkward, it always makes me think of a sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins, about disappointed hopes. It’s the beginning of the last stanza that sticks in my mind – a frustrated lament:
… birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
It must be a terrible thing to come towards the end of life (Hopkins died a few months after writing this, aged 44) and feel that nothing you’ve done is of any use or value. While uncomplicated creatures like birds just follow their instincts and get on with the yearly round of building, breeding, raising young and then… whatever birds do for the rest of the year… I guess most human beings have times when nothing seems to go right, plans fall apart, and inspiring projects fail or never really get off the ground.
It’s especially galling if, like Hopkins, you have a faith that (perhaps naively) seems to suggest God ought to be helping you along, not thwarting your efforts.
I like Hopkins’ choice of words in these lines. The simple alliteration of ‘birds build’ is beautifully memorable, and ‘one work that wakes’ is an even more musical phrase. The idea that our work should ‘wake’ links, I suppose, with the image of nature coming back to life after the long sleep of the winter months. It reminds me, too, of D.H. Lawrence’s praise of ‘things men have made with wakened hands’ – work that is not aimless, not sleepwalking, but conscious and focused and with a living warmth.
‘Time’s eunuch’ is an odd way to describe oneself but, again, there’s an obvious connection with ‘not breed’. The years of disappointment have sapped the poet’s vitality and creativity – or so he feels. As a celibate priest, perhaps Hopkins needed to feel that his work had to produce a legacy for him, a sort of offspring, but it was not doing so. Certainly, very few of his poems were published in his lifetime.
The happy irony is, of course, that despite his despair and sense of failure, Hopkins did ‘breed work that wakes’. Some of us are still reading his poetry and feeling the emotion of it today, more than 100 years later. And perhaps that has something to do with the very last line of the poem, which is a hopeful prayer:
Mine, O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain.
Without the winter and spring rains, the trees in which the birds build would sicken and die – and human creativity, too, needs to be watered in some way. Sometimes, thankfully, it can spring to life even when the nesting-site seems to have been deserted.
white moon –
inconstancy yet rides
beside us, all one hundred miles