What follows is a compilation of fragments written or thought about as we wend our way through early spring. Too short and disjointed as individual posts, the final compilation proved too unwieldy. In the spirit of compromise – one post in three parts.
The photos are from an evening walk mid-May when everywhere glowed pink as the light faded. Pink – the colour of compassion and understanding.
It came as no surprise to learn that in the UK, May 2020 has been the sunniest and driest for over a century. May is one of my most favourite months. I began, mid-month, waxing lyrical to myself on the glories of the wildflowers and the Cornish spring – for surely this has been the earliest spring and the most marvellous year for the flowers? Then I noticed drafts of posts from past years, some published, some not, but all centred around the wonderful month of May and how this year or that year has brought forth one of the finest Mays I’ve seen. It gave me pause for thought. Is there really a need for yet another paean to this most beautiful moment in our calendar?
But there is a difference this year. The end of May marked the end of the second full month of lockdown. It’s bittersweet that this has been the most glorious spring. I’m very mindful of how fortunate I am to be able to immerse myself in it from the safety of my immediate neighbourhood. I’m equally mindful of its unique status: this has been a spring like no other but not because the sun has been shining. This is a time that demands to be recorded for darker reasons.
In late March and into April when first I ventured away from the house and into the lanes, feeling almost obligated to make use of my daily exercise quota given my privileged position, it seemed like there were no people left in the world.
This sounds fanciful and overly dramatic but – isolated as we are at the best of times – seeing the empty towns and cities on our tv screen was jarring and surreal.
I found the silence disturbing.
There was still birdsong; the wind still whispered in the trees. Cows called and an occasional tractor motored in a field. But knowledge of the profound changes elsewhere had seeped rapidly into my bloodstream. I wandered the lanes against a backdrop of nature’s rhythmic melody, acutely conscious that there were at the same time no outdoor places anywhere in the country which were bustling with human life. It was an eerie and unsettling experience.
But I walked. Tentatively. And as the days passed I began – tentatively – to read again too, and one of the first things I finished was a rendition in poetry by Matthew Francis of The Mabigoni – the first four branches of the Welsh Mabinogion. Matthew Francis was new to me: a Welsh alchemist able to paint pictures with words which had me enthralled even in the turmoil of a pandemic.
There was a standout section which made my heart race, not because it’s the best imagery or the best constructed stanza in the poem but because it reminded me powerfully of the universality of human experience. This is surely the role of the poet: to speak directly to the heart of the individual? The Mabigoni are mythic tales. Centuries old, from a country rich in oral tradition, steeped in magic; they require suspension of disbelief. Epochs apart from a world in the grips of a pandemic. And yet…
In the third branch of the Mabigoni (at least as Francis has re-imagined it) the entire land vanishes – a fog descends and when it clears, all the people of the land and all traces of their presence have been magicked away. Just the four people in the tale are left. And when I read that section my heart constricted and then pounded with the jolt of recognition.
…there is only you, as you have always known, and when a thinness insinuates, when space and colour leak back, the brightness is a sham.
… All that we laid on the land – the long grasses we sowed for the goodness in the seeds, the animals that chewed the countryside into tameness, the dwellings of wood and stone – the fog has lifted.*
… Only these four are left, and their four horses. They ride back through unhedged acres in an unfamiliar dusk without smoke or lights. The hall’s still there, a hulk, black on grey, bigger than they remembered. How did they live here in this quarry of footsteps, this towering night?
This is how I felt when lockdown hit. How do I live here when the world is so much changed? How can I look upon things that are unchanged when everything has changed?
Those words – Francis’ words – the retelling of a tale centuries old, echoed my experience of walking in a world where once people were free to wander as they wished but now were spirited away behind closed doors. I’ve quoted them here without the correct formatting for which I hope Mr Francis will forgive me. They embody for me that visceral sense of loss and bewilderment. Where have all the people gone? I am left with the compassionate silence of the flowers, luminous as twilight falls.
…it is the poet’s job to communicate ‘the mysterious’, by means of the feelings and emotions his or her words arouse in the reader.
(Robin Waterfield in his introduction to my copy of The Prophet by Kahil Gibran