The Spirit of Trees

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She wanders, weaving slowly through the trees. Her feet kicking up the decaying leaf litter on the forest floor. Pausing at the base of an oak, wide as half a dozen people around, she wraps her arms around its trunk and lays her cheek against the rough bark.

As if listening to the ocean in a conch shell, she hears the life of the tree deep inside. A quiet smooth rushing and the soft trickle of sap.

The sunlight dances on her skin as she sinks down to sit on the arched roots where the tree clings to the ground. Her cheek brushes moss, a cushion, a contrast to the parched cracked texture of the bark.

Its wrinkled skin, impermeable, etched with the lines of life, of wisdom, holds her close in spirit. And right then she knows, after so long searching among people, here is where she belongs. The forest is her tribe, the oak her elder. She need search no more.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children ~ Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar ChildrenI’d seen this book floating about the Internet for a while, and when I spotted it in a charity bookshop I knew it was coming home with me. Though I must confess, it was the intriguing cover and title that initially piqued my interest.

It is the story of Jacob, a teenager who discovers, under his grandfather’s bed, a secret box of bizarre photographs of unusual or ‘peculiar’ children. When his grandfather dies in a particularly gruesome way, Jacob sets off on an adventure to a remote Welsh island to find out if there is any truth to the photographs and his grandfather’s strange stories. Jacob discovers that there is an unseen world, out of sight of ordinary people, and this discovery will change his life forever.

Ever since I was young, I’ve been attracted to the ‘Alice in Wonderland’  kind of story, where a secret magical reality is uncovered; a world within a world that points to the fact that reality is not always as it seems.

In the back pages of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, there is a series of questions in conversation with the author Ransom Riggs, with some interesting insight:

One of the themes of Miss Peregrine, and I think of any novel that involves the discovery of a secret world, is awakening—the protagonist’s awakening to an awesome and wonderful and, in some ways, terrible reality he scarcely could’ve imagined before, but that was right under his nose all along. At the end of Miss Peregrine, Jacob writes that his life was never ordinary, but he ‘had simply failed to notice how extraordinary it was.’

By far the most interesting thing about this book is the collection of black and white photographs. These are all original ‘found’ images, used to inspire and illustrate the story. The images are strange, often creepy, with unusual compositions, shadows and reflections. They arouse curiosity and I’m afraid, for me, the story just didn’t live up to the expectations inspired by the photographs. It was a good idea, but I was left feeling disappointed.

After a long slow build up and brief climax, the story dwindled to an unsatisfying conclusion. Not that every story must wrap up each loose end, but the open ending here leads onto the next book in the series and I wasn’t seized to rush out and buy the next installment. Although, perhaps you do get to know the characters in more depth in those subsequent stories.

I would be interested to see some more collections of the strange photographs and think they would make an excellent book by themselves.

Emily would like to see the film adapted from this book which comes out later in the year, so we’re looking forward to that. With Tim Burton directing, I am hoping he can make more out of what really had the potential to be a great young adult fantasy story.

Tales from the Garden

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It is that time of year again, when every plant in the garden doubles in size if I so much as turn my back – that goes for the weeds as well. I have just spent the last few hours uprooting ground elder and the dried dead remains of spring’s forget-me-nots, and pulling great handfuls of herb robert and cleavers that were intertwining with and choking the shrubs. There are still plenty left for making herbal teas… it’s been a while since I dried some herbs so I look forward to getting on with that soon.

The wee fella in the nest at the top was rescued from the darned cat who’d deposited it on the lawn. She sat there proudly as if we would come and congratulate her fine hunting skills! Instead, she was promptly scooped up and locked in the house while we searched in vain for the little bird’s nest. The blue tit chick was yet too young to fly, so we made a nest in a bowl and wedged it high up in the hedge in the hope its parents would come and feed it. Sadly he didn’t make it to the next morning.

The fruit and veg are coming along nicely. We’ve had a couple of handfuls of strawberries and there are hundreds of blackcurrants ripening on the bushes. The fruiting cherry is a disappointment this year, only a few small fruits forming when last year we had so many. I think I may have to transplant it out into the garden rather than leave it in the pot it’s been in the past few years. It no longer seems happy where it is, perhaps the roots are restricted.

We’ve been eating salad leaves and leeks. My favourite way to eat leeks is to slice them and boil them in the same pan as potatoes, then mash them altogether with butter – delicious!  The kale, beetroot and chard are suffering from the onslaught of slugs, but putting on a brave face.

The flowers are always a joy to see at this time of year. The iris, celandines, foxgloves, fragrant sweet peas and roses are all in bloom. It’s nice to be able to go out and pick a jam jar full of sweet peas to brighten the kitchen table every few days.

I’m afraid with all the rain we’ve had lately, the garden is a bit neglected. I’m regretting leaving it so long. The brambles grow over the fence from my neighbour’s garden and it’s such a tricky job cutting them all back, my arms are scratched to pieces. It’s good work though. The plants are no longer being strangled by the weeds. My body’s aching, but it’s a worthy kind of ache. I’ll sleep well tonight:)

30 Days Wild: Ant Colony

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I lifted my garden parasol the other day to find this intricate ant kingdom beneath it. It’s quite a work of art with its labyrinthine passageways don’t you think?

I did feel guilty for upsetting the hundreds of ants who went a little crazy on finding themselves exposed to the daylight. However, they have since taken up residence on the lawn and seem to have settled into making their new home.

These were black ants or Lasius Niger. If you look closely you can see the larvae. It won’t be long before some of them grow wings and take flight to make new nests elsewhere.

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The Bookseller of Kabul

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Afghanistan would probably not be high on my list of places to visit should I get the chance, but it was a fascinating visit via this non-fiction book by Asne Seierstad.

The author is a Norwegian journalist who has reported on war zones such as Syria , Iraq and Chechnya. This book is an account of her stay with a large Afghan family after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

I did find the journalistic writing a bit jarring after a while – I found myself wanting a more personal point of view – but it was worth reading for the detail into lives that are very different, unimaginably different, to my own.

The book brought up a lot of conflicting feelings – sympathy for the bookseller and members of his family for the suffering they had to endure under the Taliban regime, but also frustration and fierce anger over the treatment and lives of the women.

I felt especially for poor Leila, a nineteen year old girl and lowest in the pecking order of the house. She does all the cooking, cleaning, and caring for the extended family, working from dawn to midnight every day and never has time alone.

“Leila never walks alone. It is not good for a young girl to walk about without company. Who knows where she might be going? Maybe to meet a man, maybe to commit a sin. Leila does not even walk alone to the greengrocer a few minutes away from the apartment. She usually takes a neighbour’s boy along with her, or asks him to run errands for her. Alone is an unknown idea for Leila. She has never, ever, anywhere, at any time, been alone. She has never been alone in the apartment, never gone anywhere alone, and never remained anywhere alone, never slept alone. Every night she sleeps on the mat beside her mother. She quite simply does not know what it is to be alone, nor does she miss it. The only thing she wishes for is a bit more peace and not so much to do.”

Leila is treated worse than a servant and dreams of a different life where she might have gone to university or been a teacher.

The Afghani people as portrayed here, are stuck in a kind of no man’s land – half wanting to be pulled into the modern world, but also resisting that and clinging to the staunch traditions of Islam with which they’ve been brought up.

It was the dusty, overcrowded, claustrophobic atmosphere of the house where they all lived that lingers with me the most. The women of this family may have willingly, gladly even, thrown off the Burka, but there is still so much of the oppressive system deeply ingrained into their behaviour that it is clear it will take generations to shrug that off.

Reading this gave me greater understanding into how ordinary people with essentially good hearts get trapped into oppressive cycles; an interesting, but definitely not easy read.

Vincients Wood

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We recently took a wander through a small ancient wood in the nearby town of Chippenham. It is our nearest wildlife trust site, and I was amazed to have never been there before as it was only about a mile from where I grew up.

Hidden and completely enclosed by dual carriageway and housing estates, it is surprising this little gem of woodland survives at all.

The trees, oak, ash and maple form a canopy, muffling some of the outside sounds. A robin hopped from tree stump to hawthorn as we wandered down the overgrown paths.

Despite the noise of the nearby road, it is still a pleasant place to spend a couple of hours. The air was cool and clean and otherworldly, the wood anemones were in flower and the ground was wet through with the smell of damp wood and crumbling leaves.

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30 Days Wild

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The Wildlife Trust are running the 30 Days of Wild Challenge again this year. Through the month of June we are encouraged to do something wild every day. This is a great way to draw our attention to reconnecting with wild nature and feel happier, healthier and enlivened as a result.

We are, in essence, wild creatures, and we ignore this part of ourselves at our peril. Just taking a little time out of each day to sit, walk, observe, touch, taste this amazing wild world of ours is just the antidote for the stresses of modern living.

Some ideas listed on the website to commit random acts of wildness:

  • Feel the wild landscapes through the soles of your feet – sand, grass, pebbles, water
  • Wear daisies & dandelions to jazz up any outfit – in your hair or round your wrist
  • Switch off all gadgets for a day: no phones, tablets or computers. Tune in to nature
  • Taste sweet wild elderflowers in cordial, soda water or sparkling wine
  • Encourage wild at work with bird feeders, a herb box or outdoor meetings

Many of us already have a close relationship with the natural world, I know there’s rarely a day I don’t go for a walk or spend a few minutes in the garden, but this is a wonderful way to make a more focused effort and join in with a community of nature lovers.

I hope to post some of my experiences on this blog over the next month, if you’d like to join in just tag your posts #30DaysWild and enjoy making room for nature a regular part of your life.

In The Kitchen

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A couple of weeks ago I enrolled on an online course called Whole Food Kitchen. It is run by Heather of the beautiful blog that I have followed for many years called beautythatmoves. The course is an in-depth journey to transforming your kitchen and eating habits towards a largely whole food diet.

In our home, we probably eat about 60/40 home cooked food and easy packaged food from the supermarket. I would like to increase the amount of whole food we eat, and Heather’s course is inspiring me to do just that. I like the way she gently encourages small changes and a slow thoughtful approach.

While I can cook fairly well when I put my mind to it, I am often tempted to slip back to old habits and just throw something easy in the oven or buy packaged cereal and baked goods rather than make them myself. It is the process of immersing myself in Heather’s kitchen, her ideas and recipes and those of other course members that inspires me to do better in my own life. Cooking can be a grind and a chore or it can be a meditative soulful experience, it is this latter attitude that I hope to cultivate more in my own kitchen.

Above are a few pictures from my kitchen taken over the last few months before the course started. There is blueberry clafloutisvegetable paella, roasted plum cherry tomatoes, sauerkraut, and thick tomato soup. The lovely chelsea buns were made by Emily in her school cookery class. They were delicious, and I’m trying to talk her into making them again:)

Poems to Learn by Heart by Ana Sampson

Poems to Learn by Heart, Ana Sampson book

“Reading poetry – letting phrases wash over you and seizing on the passages that best describe a certain feeling – is a wonderful way to spend time. Committing those same poems to memory, so you have within yourself a storehouse of the most beautiful and, I would argue, useful words in the language, is hugely rewarding and a skill worth cultivating.”

~  Ana Sampson

I picked this book up in the library partly because of the exquisite cover and partly because of the title. Do you know any poems by heart?

About ten years ago I started keeping a little notebook in my bag in which I wrote some of my favourite shortish poems. Whenever I was waiting for the bus or in a queue somewhere or otherwise twiddling my thumbs, I would take out my notebook and learn a line or two.

I recommend starting with a poem that you love, here are some examples that I began with:

I’m nobody! Who are you? – Emily Dickinson

A Birthday – Christina Rossetti

Jabberwocky – Lewis Carroll

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening – Robert Frost

Success is Counted Sweetest – Emily Dickinson

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud – William Wordsworth

Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day (Sonnet 18) – William Shakespeare

In the introduction of the book, Ana describes the process of memorisation:

“Once you’ve chosen a poem, write it out on a piece of paper to get a feel for the lines. Read it aloud several times, and you may find it helpful to walk in time with the poem’s rhythm and recite the words in time with your footsteps. Take it line by line: recite the first line until it is perfect (choosing a very famous poem will help here, as you will likely already know the opening) then add the second, and so on. Do not learn a new line until you can recite the previous lines perfectly. You might find it helpful to recite the poem daily, and attaching visual cues (or other prompts) to each line of the poem will enable you to walk through the lines without forgetting what comes next. Before long, the poem is yours: caught fast in memory and ready to be recalled when wanted and needed.”

‘Tis likely a very old-fashioned thing to do, and I’m glad I wasn’t made to learn poetry by heart in school as older generations had to. It probably would have put me off for life. But I’m often surprised by how much the lines of the poem become embedded in your mind and bubble to the surface at unexpected times. Little things – daffodils in springtime, an apple tree heavy with fruit, a summer’s day… and a line or two of the poem will wander unbidden into my conscious mind.

If you are interested in learning poems by heart, then I would recommend this book. It is brimming with ideas and inspiration.

In the Garden

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Last week, a few warm days meant I was able to spend several hours in the garden. Spring has definitely, thankfully, arrived here in south-west England. As is usual with every season, by the time I have had enough of it, the new season is already on its way. No more frosts to speak of, and, though downpours are expected, the hail storm that we had a couple of days ago was a surprise. The last picture above is my newly planted sweet peas and the white flecks are balls of ice!

Even though this is usually one of the scarcer months of the year for harvesting, we are lucky to still be enjoying a bit of homegrown: leeks in various stages of development, winter salad leaves, chives, rosemary, mint and thyme are all welcome additions in the kitchen. Now I just need to decide what else I want to plant for this year… not too much, I have to keep it manageable for little old me to take care of on my own.

This month is the time when everything in the garden tends to shoot up a metre every time I go inside. If I don’t get rid of the weeds now, it will Day of the Triffids before I know it! It felt so good to work on the garden for longer than a few odd minutes. Leaves are bright and lush and plants are budding. A few specks of colour hide here and there: the primroses, spotted lungwort and a ladybird stopped by for a rest. There’s already been plenty of gardening and games of badminton, wafts of line-dried laundry, too much balancing precariously on ladders for shuttlecocks that the wind has blown over the hedge, and, of course, many cups of tea while sitting watching the squirrels and the birds prepare for the new season. Spring is here!