Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Vespers


I am walking the long twilight, staying out as the air thickens to night and the sky turns a deep indigo. At this time of year, the evening seems to last for an age, as though the day is reluctant to give way to night, clinging to the last of its short hours. On the western horizon, clouds billow like sheets in the wind, the signs of another rain front building overnight, an end to this brief glimmer of winter sunshine.
I have come to love this hour, the sense of the day receding and shadows merging into the fading light. It is a time for mystery and chance, a time in which the world around us is poised at the margins of change; when birds and animals shift uneasily into their night-time patterns, when the land is empty of people and the sky seems to hold its breath, briefly, as the first stars emerge. Tonight, a shallow cusp of moon, the colour of butter, snags in the branches of the trees. Lights are coming on in the villages below and the colour drains from the land as all merges to blue and grey.
Amongst the stand of spruce trees at the base of the hill, the darkness pools in the way that mist settles at the onset of evening. Woodpigeons clatter from the trees, dark against the darkening sky. Two woodcock are flushed from the thickets of bramble and skitter low to the ground, flexing from side to side, urgent, furtive.
As I cross the rising field back towards the village, the tall bare ash trees which line the old hedgerows are stark against the evening. They seem rare and precious now, threatened by the fungus which encroaches from the east. The ash tree is Yggdrasil, the world tree of Norse mythology, the place around which the gods gathered each day to hold their council. In the gathering dusk, the boulders around the base of this huge field ash look like the shapes of huddled people, or perhaps the gods casting their spells on the tree, blessing it with the chance of life.
Walking back to the lights of the village, the chill breeze touches my face like an annunciation. I remember that the word vesper refers both to evening and to a prayer, as though both are sacred in their own way, both mark a transition, a liminal place between this world and the next. Under the streetlights of the village, the transition to night seems complete, the light slipped completely from the sky.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Confluence

You come here again, knowing there is something about the place which touches your soul. In absent moments, when you surrender to the feeling of the land, you know that there is some quiet mystery here, some sense of peace which you choose not to explain. There seems, at first, nothing special about this place; a dead-end valley hemmed by low hills, empty mostly, save for a few dog-walkers on weekends. You wonder why this place holds such resonance, the way that the hiss of the stream echoes around the valley, as though the hills themselves were composed of sound.
Above the waterfall, the valley opens to a broad basin of sedge and moss, rimmed by blocks of forest which, today, are still in the absence of breeze. The larches are shedding their needles, a thistledown covering of gold to the forest track. You have passed through this hidden valley so many times that it becomes like a touchstone, a talisman to remind you that the land is kind. Most times, you are on your way to somewhere else, returning from a walk on the hills, following the track down the valley as the light fades. Today you have come here for the valley itself, to test the peace which you believe exists here outside of all human bidding.
You see deer here sometimes, vivid in the afternoon sun, grazing in the pools of space between the trees. Flushing them with the noise of your passing, they slip through the young conifers at the edge of your vision, the way that a dream recedes in the waking light. They seem to own this place, so that your presence here is a gift, a conferring of privilege which you must guard with care. You imagine that the passing birds fly slower here, then smile at the foolishness of the thought.
You feel drawn to this place because of the way the rivers dance through the folds of land, meandering in a rhythm which only they understand. There is a sense of accommodation here, an adaptation to the shape of the gravel bluffs which fringe the river, a harmony which seems effortless to your modern, cluttered mind. In flood, after heavy rains, the shingle bars of the streams shift and flex, adapting themselves to the muscled water. Sometimes, when you come here, the boulders in the river have moved, the stepping stones at the crossing place askew.
Standing at the confluence of the two mountain streams, there are no stories, no answers. You stand in the gravel shallows and look from one stream to the other, pouring their waters into the broad channel as they have always done when you have come here. And somehow this makes you think of the way that two lives merge to become one, flowing together yet distinct until, spilled into a pool of riffles and stones, it is impossible to tell them apart. 
 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A sacred space


So little happens there now: a service one Sunday a month, a few weddings and fewer funerals. Hidden by a cluster of mature ash trees, the chapel is almost unseen from the road, barely rising above the curve of the land. A single wicket gate leads only to the muddy margins of the field, the sign partly covered by lank grasses, the stone steps slicked with moss.
I climb the brow of the field as evening gathers. The rains have cleared, and the sky is stacked with tall clouds of gold and indigo, ranged like tall ships under sail. From the ash trees, rooks plume noisily into the thickening dusk As they cluster low over the trees, I am reminded that an old collective noun for the birds is a 'parliament', based on the archaic belief that rooks gathered to judge the souls of the recent dead.
Inside, the last of the day's light filters through the few small leaded windows. The single stained glass window, the eastern one, depicts a dove of peace and fronds of flowers. The chapel is dedicated to St. Michael, the archangel, the one who accompanies the souls of the dead to heaven, who stands, like the rooks, in judgement over them. The angels, I think, are our emissaries between this world and beyond, and there is some sense of liminality in this small sacred ground, perched on its shoulder of hillside, poised between the wet earth and the towering clouds. I ponder on the choice of site here for a chapel; the position which is elevated and yet inconspicuous, the distance from the old road, the fields to cross and gates to open to get here. It seems, perhaps, that the site chose the chapel, that there is and always has been something special about this place, some indefinable quality that we feel in our souls when we arrive at such unremarkable yet special places.
I find myself thinking of R.S. Thomas, and of his poem Llananno about a similar tiny chapel in mid-Wales. There are no poems in it / for me, he writes, hinting at the frail disappointments of a man struggling with the contradictions of his faith, the limitations of his body in older age:
...I keep my eyes
open and am not dazzled,
so delicately does the light enter
my soul from the serene presence
that waits for me till I come next.”
In the valley below me, the fields are silvered with ponds; floods left by the heavy rains of late October. The sky is darkening to evening. Despite the wind, the rooks, the lowing of cows from the farm behind me, I am filled with a sense of peace, with the ineffable sense of vastness which comes with being out of doors on an autumn evening. As I walk back down the sodden field towards the gate, the rooks spill back into the ash trees, quietening to stillness.