Monthly Archives: July 2014

Si vis pacem pare hortum


shoots aiming for the sky from a fallen willow.

Higher and further into Wales: from Laugharne to the Brecon Beacons, to stop and stare and absorb the tranquillity at a friend’s place: marjoram with meadowsweet; the herb colonising the paths above the damp land, where meadowsweet shelters the pheasant family from kite and buzzard if not weasel or cat.

Tranquillity has been carefully nurtured: planting a tree here, a day lily there, giving the Mermaid rose room to spread herself into the trees around.

Robert Frost wrote of good fences, and wondered

“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it

Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

                                                          What I was walling in or walling out,

                                                          And to whom I was like to give offence.

Here, sometimes, there are Hereford cows, though this day the fence and hedge were holding back a mixed flock of sheep – the valley sheep are fatter, and would be fatter still were they able to chew the cud on spinach, beans and garden flowers. Not maintaining this fence would cause offence and distress. Distress and offence had already been caused in February.

Our friend’s Eastern boundary once had a hedge and ditch on the other side of the line. A good hedge provides a home for insects, birds and small mammals; its roots protect the soil on either side from being washed away. The old hedge had been grubbed up, the ditch levelled, in the name of efficiency, today’s acceptable euphemism for laziness and greed. Cropped to the edge with spring-sown maize, year upon year, when the late winter storms came nothing could hold the top layer of soil from being scoured, and a stream formed around the little willow, undermining it. This tree was part of the informal hedging our friend had planted below the field edge, six feet on her side of the fence.

Now the willow lay across the bench that commands a view across lawns, trees, bushes and beds, bulbs in season, and always the birds. This tree had grown from an osier thrust into the ground and now had half a dozen stems, twelve feet tall and more. Only one was near vertical, the one that before the landslide had leant towards the field. I set myself to rescue the bench by cutting back each leaning trunk to a vigorous vertical shoot while leaving that one upright trunk to point the way.

There were plenty of shoots to choose from, some of them six feet high already. Unchecked, the weight of this vegetation would have brought the willow right down onto the bench and maybe have broken it.

I would have enjoyed having Dermot with me, with his love of trees and quirky insights, but had to commune with myself and Whoever might be listening. And I had to listen to the tree: where do you want to grow? How can I get you back to a pleasing shape? And my apologies for tearing a strip off your bark, misjudging that first cut across the front of the stem.

Squirrels had barked the tree before me: did they use it as a painkiller? A few days later, Dermot didn’t think so; he says they’ll go for any bark, just to be destructive. Dermot doesn’t like squirrels.

Job done as the ladies returned from the village; logs, pea-sticks and rubbish sorted. ‘Wait’, our friend said, as the barrow was laden with bonfire fodder. She took a handful of vigorous twigs and thrust them into the soil nearby. ‘You never know!’

I wonder: the next time we come, perhaps they will be six feet and we will know they have taken.


Tranquillity is not the state that springs to mind when Dylan Thomas is mentioned. He seems to have been fleeing tranquillity even while desperate to find it, like another addictive poet, Francis Thompson, pursued by The Hound of Heaven:

I dimly guess what Time in mists confounds;

Yet ever and anon a trumpet sounds

From the hid battlements of Eternity;

Those shaken mists a space unsettle, then

Round the half-glimpsed turrets slowly wash again.           

But not ere him who summoneth           

I first have seen, enwound

With glooming robes purpureal, cypress-crowned;

His name I know and what his trumpet saith…

For his part, Dylan admits the fear that Thompson describes; he acknowledges the fear-bred anger, and flees in an ark of roaring poetry, commandeering for his heart the boat that Noah entrusted to the waters when the flood washed against his home. Fear and anger ­­– such emotions show that a man is alive, that the spring or fountainhead of being bubbles up inside him.

Hark: I trumpet the place,

From fish to jumping hill! Look:

I build my bellowing ark

To the best of my love

As the flood begins,

Out of the fountainhead

Of fear, rage red, manalive …


Dylan may mock his little town in the very naming of it, but he loves it, seizing the angelic trumpet to celebrate it. And he sees God not through the fog, but in ‘the close and holy darkness’ about the town; a loving presence ‘All through the Night’.


We came to Laugharne last week, saw how cramped the Boathouse had been for the poet’s family, how far from tranquil it must have been on a wet winter’s afternoon with the children running bored around his feet. We looked into Dylan’s little writing shed along the path and out through the windows about his writing desk. Here, on a golden summer’s day, it is easy to believe that Wales, including Laugharne-Llaregub, is a tranquil ‘God-built garden’. It smelt of marjoram, mint and salty mud.

There was an old television programme showing in the upper room, which dismissed the notion that Dylan’s poetry was religious, but claimed he celebrated life. He did that; indeed he did, but Milk Wood and the Prologue to his collected poems are the religious works of a reluctant saint, trying against himself to be, or not to be, a sinner. Ask St Augustine; ask Kathleen Raine; ask Rowan Williams.


Laugharne – Llaregub

A Day Off is a Gift

Yesterday I walked to the railway station with Sharon from the refreshment room, who was looking forward to spending the afternoon with her daughter. The little one had the day off school due to a public sector workers’ strike. On the platform it was clear that other families were setting out to spend time together, maybe in London, maybe by the sea. Of course government ministers have been vocal in condemning the strike and the alleged damage it caused the economy. I don’t think those children who were given a few hours of their parents’ time worried about any of that.

This reminds me of an inspection report from about 90 years ago, when an elementary school near here was visited; Since few of the boys or girls followed a skilled trade after they leave school, most of the former, it appears, finding work as errand boys, there is no call for advanced training in any special direction. A solid grounding in the rudiments is what the class of children need who come to this school.

And a solid grounding in rather more complicated work-related skills is what today’s children are expected to receive. It seems to me that one lesson has not been assimilated by the politicians. School should be for more than producing workers: education does not equal training, but forming the whole person. Tick all the boxes, you don’t have an education.

An unexpected day basking in parental love will have been a precious gift for Sharon’s daughter and many another child. (And their parents, too!)

A visit from a queen

Washing up the breakfast dishes is a job that allows for companionship; or contemplation if no-one else is around. This morning I had for contemplation a queen, a welcome if fleeting visitor. She did not quite understand glass, as she walked across the kitchen window pane but also tried to fly through it. Slim waist, long shapely legs, adorned in black and bling – no Queen of Sheba, no Danny la Rue or Lady Gaga was ever arrayed like her. Once the window was opened for her she found her way to the edge, flexed those springy legs and took off for the bay tree and the great outdoors. I’m sure Disney’s artists could have made a memorable character from her, but they could never recapture the essence of a creature far more beautiful than she needs to be. Forget Disney; my snapshot does her poor justice!

Look at the Young Birds of the Air

Sometimes you actually do contrive to go around with your eyes open. This last Sunday morning was one of those times. On our way up Abbot’s Hill to church there were blackbird and robin babies around. The young blackbirds from our ivy were being shown where to find water in next-door’s blocked roof gutter; the robin hopped across our path by the college. Joy enough there, but there was a wren too.
Walking home, aside from ubiquitous rabbits, and the ducks and moorhens on the college pond, so beloved of Sunday afternoon walks when the children were little, the first sighting was of two green woodpeckers, parent and child perhaps, probing the ground softened after the storms overnight, at least until we came around the corner. The bird that flew up into a pond-side tree, however, was much less familiar: a young cuckoo, finally chased away to fend for itself by its exhausted foster-parents. Was it the child of the one who sang for us all day in May?
A hundred yards further, and the cries of crows above us drew Mrs Turnstone’s eye, then my own. There were three rooks, making a great deal of fuss, mobbing a buzzard who was certainly low to the ground and perhaps a little off his usual beat, or maybe it was another juvenile bird trying to make his way in the world. The crows won the day, at least in their own eyes; the big hawk soared away up the valley and the rooks returned to their own business, perhaps to contend with the woodpeckers who were already undulating their way back to the rough turf near the monument. The buzzard was soon out of sight above the wood; no doubt to find some unsuspecting victim before the day darkened. Was he bothered? Not much I suspect, but the rooks were happy to see the back of him.