Sunday, 10 January 2021

January 2021 - Snow, Details & Horses


Detailed tiny snow coverings on the bare dried stalks of last year’s plants. 


The downward swoop of larch tree branches, each branch with its white layer of snowdust, every surface faithfully covered, the snow following each sweep and curve of branch.


These are days for details, not for horizon scanning or at least not in the sense of where you might go for you know you are not going any further than where your feet will take you. So to look to horizons is to see their details too, of what they hold. Today they held for a short while, 2 tiny planes and their vapour trails and because of the slope of a nearby hill, as the 2 planes curved through the sky into the distance, they then dived down to meet the horizon. 


One or two white birds, seagulls, caught the sunlight and turned silver, little sparks that crossed the sky. Which was all blue, so deep blue, a vast and empty blue above the almost unmarked white below.

What showed through the white were small patches of dark green gorse where the snow had not been able to lie, though the tops of the gorse patches were snow covered.


And then down in the valley, the ribbon of black stream water.


Parts of the stones that made up the wall around the field where the horses were, and the coats the horses were wearing (even the horses themselves were white).


But otherwise, only blue of sky and white of snow-covered hills.

Even the shadows are blue, though not as deeply coloured as the sky.


I can see traces in the snow where other creatures have been, no human footsteps, but the trails criss- crossing, circling, of rabbits or hares, and several hare paths leading downhill to the stream.


A hare highway, several tracks but no sign of anything living apart from those silver flashing drops of light in the sky. And once only, the sound of a crow carrying a long way, sounding so loud in the snow blanketed stillness, and I look up and there is a black wing crossing the blue sky.

Looking back, into the sun, the fields and the whole landscape is polished, shiny as meringue. As if the snow had been whipped and then smoothed over the land. The silence of a pristine, unmarked path.


The hare-tracked path is surely just as silent but the traces of the hares’ journeys feel almost like sound, almost as if you can hear the tracks they made, can listen to the past, their frosted breathing, their searching, their intent, an almost-sound on the empty track.

Turning back I face the sun.


It is warm on my face. The sun feels warm. That warmth is enough for me to imagine how it will gradually rise higher in the sky, how it will, eventually, take longer and longer to reach the horizon point where it will sink below it, how the arc it makes across the sky will extend, how its presence will grace us, longer and longer. I know it will never, not here, rise so high in the sky that shadows will shrink to near nothing at all, but they will be shorter than they are now and it will feel warmer. Already in January in the snow, the sun is warm on my face.

Thursday, 31 December 2020

December 2020 in pictures


There were lots of rainy days early in December but there were also lots of rainbows. This one is near the Chain Bridge over the river Tweed, Melrose, Scottish Borders.


Saint Bernard's Well, Stockbridge, Edinburgh. Above the well is a statue of Hygeia, one of the daughters of Asclepios.


First snow. The park is empty. 

 In front of the church in St Boswells, Scottish Borders


The same day I walked along the river path but there had been heavy rain and the river was huge. It overflowed onto the path, about a foot deep here, so, not wearing wellies, I had to turn back.


'To the Lighthouse', Edinburgh


On Christmas Day, the Wine, Spirit & Tea Dealers, Leith, Edinburgh, looks open.


 Second snow. Birds in late afternoon sky.


 Lone tree on the quarry walk.


Moon in Cancer: last full Moon of 2020 rising, just after sunset.


 The following morning, the full Moon sets at sunrise


I wish you all the very best for 2021!





Friday, 18 December 2020

The Great Conjunction


I’ve written a series of poems lately which refer to ‘The Guest House’ a poem by Jalaluddin Rumi where he uses the image as a metaphor for our psyche. I like to play with the image, sometimes literal, sometimes metaphorical, maybe both.

This is the last one, I think, but I want to post it now, as it’s topical. The conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, which takes place every 20 years, occurs this year, 2020, on the winter solstice December twenty-first.

Guest House and Sky

Lines of cloud in the north west.
So straight, the Cloud Maker must have used a ruler
laid across the sky.
Some are pink & others, deep blue-grey.
Lines you could write a script on.
As if the sky becomes the Word
or the deep breath taken
before the Word appears.

Other lines are short and razor sharp,
steps going up, or rungs
in some celestial ladder.

In the near dark – near-black lines
against the greenish backlit blue
of the horizon sky.

The first star dangles from a straight black line –
it must be Jupiter – light at the end
of the cloud path?

The horizontal cloud lines are crossed
by vertical black silhouettes of trees.

The one bright star might be joined by others
to form a row of noughts (or crosses).
Jupiter will sail past the old king (Saturn)
as he always does, each 20 years,
he always wins the game.
For his eye is on the future,
and what lies outside the frame.

Never has the future felt so present
as we approach the meeting-point
of old and new.
This year’s been marked by illness, limitations
separations and disquiet.
Now that time is slowing down
we look back on those unforeseen arrivals,
dressed as the Grim Reaper,
and assorted Judges, Emperors or Clowns.

The Guest House has a bunch of roses
on the table.
And Jupiter’s already breezed in –
warms his feet before the fire.
I believe his confidence, anticipate
his travel invitation.
I dust off my passport and my travel bags,
hitch my hopes to his polished chariot,
drawn by midnight horses, stabled just outside.

The clouds have disappeared into
the dark of night –
all you can see now is this
shining star.

Image credit: M McBroom (taken some time ago, our very own star)

Friday, 11 December 2020

Winter and monochrome


Pedestrian chain bridge, Melrose

By the river Tweed, in the Scottish Borders. Over the chain bridge from Melrose, to walk on the other side of the river.
“On either side the river lie/Long fields of barley and of rye”.* Except the fields have long been harvested.

The trees have changed since my last walk, they are almost all completely bare. In the time it takes to get there, clouds have appeared, though sometimes the sun comes out. The river is still high and in places the edges of green banks can be seen underwater, a memory of what was once dry land. So there is little colour but when the sun comes out, all is transformed.


Colours are subtle, so much so that I turn some of the images into black and white.


At one point I hear some geese flying in their scrawling formation across the white clouds and patches of blue sky. They slip behind a bare tree.



Part of the path leads through a beech tree wood and the leaves crunch underfoot. Then the path regains the river.


Towards the end the river bank rises up steeply and the path veers away and joins a back road. Which leads to a stone bridge. 


Cross the bridge and follow a road that leads to the train station car park. But there are few cars and only two people, who have just got off a train.

The clouds have disappeared again, and here is this train station car park, so deserted, surrounded by trees and beyond them, fields and hills in the background. It is like a part of civilisation that is not so much abandoned as poignant, in its symbolism of modernity (trains & car parking area) yet so silent, so depleted of the people that give purpose to transport links, to going joyfully from one place to another. And all the while, the wintry sunshine, the vivid blue of sky, the whole area bordered by huge beech and pine trees, watching.

It’s the train line terminus, but occasional buses come past here, to take you in one direction or the other. One soon appears out of nowhere, the road hidden by woodland until this bus circles the roundabout, glinting in the sunlight. There is no other traffic. It’s a little like the Cat Bus in My Neighbour Totoro. Except that it isn’t night time and it isn’t raining. But there is that quality of complete surprise that out of this ancient and timeless landscape, something as modern and as helpful as a bus should materialize. 

Out of the backdrop of hillslopes and yellow fields, “that clothe the wold and meet the sky”* out of such a rural idyll, like an anachronism, leaping out from some future time, the bus appears. Stops at the bus stop and I get on.

* The Lady of Shalott, Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Friday, 13 November 2020

Translation: ‘Obstacles on the journey’ beyond Isfahan


Maidan, Isfahan, the Imam Mosque: photo credit Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Swiss National Archives

In this earlier post, I translated Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s description of Mount Demavend, from Das glückliche Tal (pp 62-64), a personal and visionary account of her experiences in Persia.

This passage immediately follows (pp 64-67). Annemarie is travelling with her colleague Friedrich Krefter, an architect working at Persepolis, (whom she calls Berger) from Isfahan to Tehran. This is at the end of her first visit to Persia in the spring of 1934. She describes their experience of trying to cross a river in the flash floods of spring, on their night journey from Isfahan. After a long struggle to get the car out of the water, she has her first sight of Mount Demavend, visible from a distance of eighty kilometers away. 

Mount Demavend: photo credit Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Swiss National Archives

 A little more than a year later, in the summer of 1935, she would spend time in close proximity to Mount Demavend, in the Lahr valley (known as the Happy Valley/Das glückliche Tal) but of that, she had no idea, in that early morning in 1934, on the way from Isfahan to Tehran. 

 My translated excerpt from Das glückliche Tal 

Khaju Bridge, Isfahan: photo credit Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Swiss National Archives


We left Isfahan in the evening, my colleague Berger and myself. Alongside a camel caravan, our vehicle passed through the colourful city gate and beyond it we overtook one camel after another – the whole length of the road awash with the ringing of the camel bells. One driver called out a warning to us. He was sitting on his camel’s hump muffled up in a felt overcoat which was pulled up over his head.
What is he shouting?
Slow, slow down, there’s deep water ahead...
That’s when Berger hit the brakes. The road broke apart, the earth split, and a black current surged through the yawning crevice. In the middle of the water lay a truck like a felled creature on its knees. We connected a torch to the battery, scanned the further bank. Up to our haunches in water, we searched for a ford. Nothing but shifting sand underfoot! And the strong current almost pulled me away with it! I groped my way forwards, behind me I heard the engine turn over, the headlights swept over the river, Berger steered the car up the slope, the wheels splashed, water was washing over them, but the car was moving! I shouted: Keep going right – then the engine died. The wheels had twisted left, and dug themselves into the sand. I went back. We can get it free, shouted Berger, as long as the engine doesn’t get wet!

Battling with obstacles, struggling against the current, against a river with no bridges, against the sand, against the cold, against the darkness. Shouting to each other to make ourselves understood over the roaring of the river. Working together to dislodge the car, to reach the bank. We opened the bonnet and wrapped my scarf round the engine. We managed to wedge the car jack between stones. We pushed our goatshair blankets under one wheel and got the motor to start up. It spluttered, it turned over – the car made a leap forwards then sank again. We groped for the blankets, pulled them out of the water, one of them ripped. Standing on the running-board, we paused to catch our breath, lit cigarettes. Then, once again … we laid stones on the bed of the ford, our arms freezing in the icy water. It was midnight, one o’clock, two o’clock. Finally there’s the embankment, steep, slippery. Impossible? Berger was already sitting at the steering wheel, the engine caught, the car lurched forward, the front wheels slid over the rim of the bank, the axle hit it. I was still standing in the water, holding my breath: We made it!
Why do I remember this so clearly and even now I’m holding my breath? And forget the faces of people I have loved –  forget their names even?
The car was back up on dry land, the engine still juddering from the effort. Berger gave me whisky to drink, placed a dry blanket round my shoulders. The first glimmers of dawn were brushing the dark plain. This plain spread out in front of us was a desert: arid, empty, stony, just a sprinkling of earth for the winds to play with – stray tufts of lifeless yellow grass.  What a spectacle! - The eyes strained to make out the horizon. - Patience, it will soon be day. Rays of golden light will flood the desert. Patience . . . And there, on the outermost edge of the plain, was the Demavend. A diminutive triangle in the blue night sky, pure white, shining – and I saw it for the first time! Berger, as excited as I was, held up his Leika. ‘It is eighty kilometers away! We must wait for the sun!’ he called out to me. We waited. We photographed the Demavend, eighty kilometers distant from us. And the sun warmed us and dried our clothes. 

Annemarie Schwarzenbach

Khaju bridge Isfahan, today: photo credit Wikimedia commons



Thursday, 5 November 2020

Autumn Walks


Walk by the river Tweed in the Scottish Borders. Sunlight and the trees all these colours, a display, a parade, as if to say, this is who we really are, drink deep, for what you see now will soon be gone. A feeling opens in me, a realisation, that this day is offered to me as a gift. It opens like a fan. Here it is, it’s yours – no, it is you.


Time drops away. It is a subtle feeling that holds the day, usually it does, the changing light meshing with your ideas of what you’ll do with this day, what you and time and light will wyrk (in that old sense of craftsmanship) together. It vanishes. The colours of the trees turn luminous and there is the faint sound of the river. There’s no schedule to this day. Such freedom. I don’t have to think – I only have an hour or two. I don’t have to think – I may have to turn back if this walk is too far. So each step is in the present moment. A gift spilling out across the fields, the river, the trees splashing the banks with colour. This is the travelling feeling. 


I pass a holly tree, with bright red berries. The path, in places, is thickly carpeted with yellow leaves, so bright I have to blink.


A heron flies up from the river bank, close to me. Parts of the path are muddy and dried grasses hang from low branches showing where the water had risen to and then retreated, leaving its residue of grey grass and bleached twigs behind. The river is still high and wide, flowing with that certainty that only rain-swollen rivers know. I note its purpose, this mighty being close to me, showing its reflection only, sun-dazzled surface, with the light-coloured leaf cargo sailing downstream. I only see light, while the underwater is obscured, murky, secretive.


The bridge is pink stone lit with sunshine. The beech trees lean over the river. I wonder why they grow at such an angle, why their branches stretch out across the water as if it was their destination. The light falls between the tree trunks, bars of shade striping the ground.


I sit on a fallen pine trunk lying near the river bank. Drink coffee I brought with me in a flask. 


No wind. As if the season holds its breath and pauses. This is one of the thresholds of the year, marking transition. It is these still points that make you realise that all is in movement, all the time, and this movement is life itself. The sun, the river, the fallen pine log that I’m sitting on with a natural declivity that holds my coffee cup, the coffee itself, all these are miracles. The movement joins with the unmoving. 




Walk among the hills, also Scottish Borders. At first the road goes steeply uphill but once you’ve gained that rise, it levels out for a while and there is this sense of having reached somewhere else entirely. You are high up now, out of the valley with all its connotations of a populated place, the whole human world of mingling and exchange, of motion and communication, of traffic and commerce. Valley world falls away, is out of sight and hearing.


Among the hills, it is completely still, no wind at all, and so silent, I walk quietly not to disturb it. Just a few crows calling. The hills catch the sun’s warmth as if you have crept a little closer to it. The quiet and the stillness remind me of walking in Greece last year, from Triklino to Pelekas. Not as hot of course, but that same stillness and quiet. 

The road goes a little further uphill, with a bank of pine and beech trees on the left.



A track leads off the road, swinging right, skirting a small farm, dips down a little, crosses the old railway track, then goes uphill again with beech trees on the left, to a hilltop, cutting through a pine and spruce plantation. Just before the thicket of trees, a solitary bull sits on the horizon. I’m about to take a photograph of him perched on the top of the world, when he senses my presence and gets up, looks at me.


 The cutting through the trees is a kind of last resting place for various farm machines.


On the other side, a view down into a different valley. There is still this magical sense of stillness, of being on the top of the world, looking down on human life, a wider view of everything, and the calm and detachment that comes from that.


This is the first time I’ve walked here in the morning (and there is always something special about morning light) and I’ve not been here since high summer, when the trees wore thick green coats of leaves. Now, there are only a few rusty leaves remaining on the branches. 

It’s downhill now, with beech and pine trees on the right. These beech trees look as if they have been caught in movement, swirling dervish trees. I wonder if to trees, our lives seem as brief as those of gnats and mayflies seem to us. In their slow and graceful dance, do they see us as moving at high speed, so fast we can take off from the ground and fly through the air? 


Past the farm near the main road, cross over that and continue on a track right down to the valley. I pass a human being and we exchange greetings. Lovely morning, isn’t it?


A pedestrian bridge over the small river, uphill again to the back road, which was once the main road, for stagecoaches, and home.