Birch and lime, birch and lime,
Sweep the leaves up one more time!
Birch and lime, birch and lime,
Sweep the leaves up one more time!
Life has been too busy to harvest these container grown spuds until today, in time for Hallowe’en supper, baked in the oven with either ratatouille or pumpkin soup. But the rather fussy grandson will have to be told they are ‘jacket potatoes’, not ‘baked’.
by Gerald Manley Hopkins
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
The mistletoe-laden trees above are in the meadows at Oxford, where Hopkins studied. His poem addresses the mysteries of life and death, both of which our hearts have heard of, our ghosts (our souls) have guessed at. We are born to die, and this world is very dear, too good we often feel, to leave. Let’s spare a sigh, but nonetheless be grateful for each day.
Today in Rome Pope Francis will declare John Henry Cardinal Newman a saint of the Catholic Church, an English saint who was not a martyr but a hard-working priest and theologian. He tended the sick during epidemics in Birmingham as well as founding schools and Oratories and defending the faith through fearless enquiry.
All that and he found time to write novels, including Loss and Gain, The Story of a Convert. In the early pages he has these two contrasting passages about a familiar country walk. Draw your own conclusions! And enjoy your next walk, even if it’s the walk to work or to the bus stop.
“When we ourselves were young, we once on a time walked on a hot summer-day from Oxford to Newington—a dull road, as any one who has gone it knows; yet it was new to us; and we protest to you, reader, believe it or not, laugh or not, as you will, to us it seemed on that occasion quite touchingly beautiful; and a soft melancholy came over us, of which the shadows fall even now, when we look back on that dusty, weary journey. And why? because every object which met us was unknown and full of mystery. A tree or two in the distance seemed the beginning of a great wood, or park, stretching endlessly; a hill implied a vale beyond, with that vale’s history; the bye-lanes, with their green hedges, wound and vanished, yet were not lost to the imagination. Such was our first journey; but when we had gone it several times, the mind refused to act, the scene ceased to enchant, stern reality alone remained; and we thought it one of the most tiresome, odious roads we ever had occasion to traverse.”
“”People call this country ugly, and perhaps it is; but whether I am used to it or no, I always am pleased with it. The lights are always new; and thus the landscape, if it deserves the name, is always presented in a new dress. I have known Shotover there take the most opposite hues, sometimes purple, sometimes a bright saffron or tawny orange.” Here he stopped.
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Thirty-odd years ago, the road was new, noisily slicing through orchards, swallowing some of the best growing land in Kent. Nevertheless, our children all loved the walk out of town, by lanes and footpath, through those orchards to the ford with its wooden bridge that memorably was once washed away.
We enjoyed hunting for blackberries, and knew where to find a couple of self-sown pear trees, one quite close to the busy road, and the odd crabapple tree.
Now, as in this photograph, the trees along the road have grown up. I was just cycling that way: the path joins the river path to make a head-clearing short circuit for cyclists or walkers. I was keeping an eye for windfalls (too early) and wild fruit. A few crabs in the bag, one pear tree had been flailed back, the other?
It used to be here, I thought, looking for pears at eye-level, used to orchard trees on dwarfing roots with their fruit readily harvestable. This tree was not modified in this way, and it was by its bark that I knew it. I was reminded of one we had at school, the size of a forest tree, its fruit inaccessible; it was a lovely tree with no branches below 2 metres. With no close neighbour it had developed into a green pyramid, but we ate very little of the fruit.
The tree I was looking at today had plenty of neighbours, some planted by the Highways Authority, but mostly self-sown willow and ash, all so close that their trunks were growing straight up to the light.
And the pears, with their lovely russet peel, were high up, out of reach. Oh well, we might be able to find one or two windfalls for the L’Arche cider project!
The river path and a crabapple tree.
Not a view of London any of us will have seen, though the crowded streets are still there. Saint Paul’s too, miraculously remains, but it has been overshadowed by the temples of Mammon. This picture and text are from ‘London Impressions’ by Alice Meynell, illustrated by William Hyde, pub; Archibald Constable, 1898, available, with images, on Project Gutenberg.
Now and then a firefly strays from the vineyard into the streets of an Italian city, and goes quenched in the light of the shops. The stray and waif from ‘the very country’ that comes to London is a silver-white seed with silken spokes or sails. There is no depth of the deep town that this visitant does not penetrate in August—going in, going far, going through, by virtue of its indescribable gentleness.
The firefly has only a wall to cross, but the shining seed comes a long way, a careless alien but a mighty traveller. Indestructibly fragile, the most delicate of all the visible signs of the breeze, it goes to town, makes light of the capital, sets at nought the thoroughfares and the omnibuses, especially flouts the Park, one may suppose, where it does not grow. It hovers and leaps at about the height of first-floor windows, by many a mile of dull drawing-rooms, a country creature quite unconverted to London and undismayed. This flâneur makes as little of our London as his ancestor made of Chaucer’s.
Sometimes it takes a flight on a stronger wind, and its whiteness shows dark with slight shadow against bright clouds, as the whiter snow-flake also looks dark from its shadow side. Then it comes down in a tumult of flight upon the city. It is a very strong little seed-pod, set with arms, legs, or sails—so ingeniously set that though all grow from the top of the pod their points together make a globe; on these it turns a ‘cart-wheel’ like a human boy—like many boys, in fact, it must overtake on its way through the less respectable of the suburbs—only better. Every limb, itself so fine, is feathered with little plumes that are as thin as autumn spider-webs. Nothing steps so delicately as that seed, or upon such extreme tiptoe. But it does not walk far; the air bears the charges of the wild journey.
Thistle-seeds—if thistle-seeds they be—make few and brief halts, then roll their wheel on the stones for a while, and then the wheel is a-wing again. You encounter them in the country, setting out for town on a south wind, and in London there is not a street they do not recklessly stray along. For they use our arbitrary streets; it does not seem that they make a bee-line over the top of the houses, and cross London thus. They use the streets which they treat so lightly. They conform, for the time, to human courses, and stroll down Bond Street and turn up Piccadilly, and go to the Bank on a long west wind—their strolling being done at a certain height, in moderate mid-air.
They generally travel wildly alone, but now and then you shall see two of them, as you see butterflies go in couples, flitting at leisure at Charing Cross. The extreme ends of their tender plumes have touched and have lightly caught each other. But singly they go by all day, with long rises and long descents as the breeze may sigh, or more quickly on a high level way of theirs. Nothing wilder comes to town—not even the scent of hay on morning winds at market-time in June; for the hay is for cab-horses, and it is at home in the clattering mews, and has a London habit of its own.
White meteor, lost star, bright as a cloud, the seed has many images of its radiant flight. But there is only one thing really like it—the point of light caught by a diamond, with the regular surrounding rays.
Alice Meynell and her husband Wilfrid were the first to publish Francis Thompson’s poetry, and did much to rescue him from his addiction to opium, welcoming him to share their family life. They would surely have said ‘Laudato Si! – Praise him’ – with Pope Francis, as this observation demonstrates. And the seed could have come from a goatsbeard head, like this one from near Elmstead in Kent. Goatsbeard is a very large dandelion.
Looking across the Thames from Greenwich, the towers of London’s financial district impose and impress – until you look at that sky!