July - "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven," (Ecclesiastes Chapter 3)
I feel like their fairy godmother when I water the growing things in the garden. When the sun has lowered, and the day's jobs are done, I actually enjoy giving everything a thorough soaking. Then, after a few sleeps, I reap the fruits of my labours when I make the same walk around the garden and see the strong, healthy plants growing together to create our magic realm. I haven't needed to put on my tulle this year though! The rain has been wonderful for the crops but some plants in the garden seem to have had a bit too much of it. Broad-headed flowering plants are lolling in a mournful pose. Tall plants are leaning - some have even made it to the earth where they seem to be considering whether or not they should gather up energy for another flowering later in the season.
|Yellow vetch at Newtonhill Croft|
On a dog-walk we spotted bell heather in flower. We also noticed many deep purple orchids bowing out. They've been our companions on our regular dog walk for some weeks now. One later tall mauve still blooms with boldness. The white clover is browning in places - always sorry to see that. Pinks and reds have come out - big and showy like large helpings of fairy candy floss. The fragrance is sublime. The sorry old cotton grass is, as ever, over too soon.
Our first trip to Dunnet Head this year, on July 11th, was a reminder of the exhilarating beauty of the coastal scenery in Caithness. While we watched the waves crashing against the rocks, we saw the local residents prepare food for the consumers. We couldn't actually see the consumers - they were safely tucked away on rocky ledges and in sandy holes, but we had a good view of the puffins, fulmars, kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, black-backed gulls and great skuas as they sought food for the nursery. I watched a skua flying towards a distant cliff, dropping back, moving in and so on until its intimidation was turned back on itself. They are such bullies - oh yes - you get them in Nature too! Always glad to see a bully get its comeuppance!
|Dunnet 11th July|
We call Caithness home. If we make it to the end of the year (who knows!) this house will be the one I have lived in the longest. Like everyone, we have roots elsewhere - but we all have many roots - all part of the same root system. It is the wildness of the cliffs which brings home to me that sense of being a part of all things and yet so small. My tiny root system is reaching out to another and together they wander off, like the veins on the back of my hands, to join yet another. We find ourselves interlinked and all part of that wonderful tree they call humanity.
I did the DNA test. It really doesn't do any answering of questions at all. It simply raises more. I should say it doesn't matter - but it does! There are more unanswered questions for me now than there ever were. I love the confidence of some of the people who post up their family trees - but I don't have that level of certainty. I thought I knew - but I don't. Some of the data on our tree is accurate but much is up for negotiation. In that way, the dead live on! Still challenging! On my father's mother's side, one of my great great grandmothers is a real puzzle with, possibly, a sad but exotic past. On my mother's father's side, I have a family, in Yorkshire, going back to the sixteenth century, with the name of a tiny village in the Scottish Highlands. I haven't found them in either Yorkshire or Scotland before the sixteenth century.
Keith is able to trace his family, on his mother's side, back as far as William the Conqueror. The children tell him that means he is, therefore, traceable back to Odin. He certainly made a good one-eyed Odin when we dressed up as superheroes a few years ago.
|One-eyed Odin - he donated the other to gain wisdom. Hmph! Not sure about that!|
Why does it matter that we know about our family histories?
It isn't because one wants a claim to fame or fortune. It isn't because one wants to be able to impress at family gatherings. Believe me, it doesn't impress - I've seen those glazed eyes and suppressed yawns as I've tried to share my latest genealogical discovery.
To me, at any rate, it matters because my ancestors, in a slow drip-by-developmental-drip way, became me - and my children - and my granddaughter. We carry their genes - and we also carry their spirituality. I'm not interested in seances or little ceremonies meant to conjure up the dead. What interests me is that everyone is a product of the past, and especially of the past of their forebears.
Our ancestors weren't simple people. Their lives may have seemed simple when we look at the pace of life today, but they were complicated by so many things we don't now need to consider - and things we've almost forgotten about. But those things are still in us - deep-down. And don't imagine for a minute that our ancestors stayed in the same place. I've made many mistakes - some I have still to correct - on our family tree, just because I EXPECTED people to live in the same villages all their lives through. Even before the game-changing railways in the nineteenth century, families moved, carrying their belongings on their backs and in carts, between villages. A number of my family went over to America, some to Australia. My third great grandfather's sister, Esther, with her husband and young son, joined the McArthur Pioneer and Handcart Company and settled in Utah. Their first child, Christopher, who was born in Yorkshire and travelled with them to Utah, was murdered in Chihuahua, Mexico in 1895, at the age of forty three. We have other stories to tell - but we are just an ordinary family.
Humankind looks to the future, and rightly so, but we don't get to the future without the past. Sometimes it is good to close doors and start afresh - but so much of what has gone before us has made us who we are. A thankful appreciation of lives already lived sets us up for the uncharted waters we have to cross to get to those days which are still to be. Anxiety about the future is something profoundly human. The mouse I sent scurrying from the wood pile yesterday does not care that the world should improve for its offspring. The squabbling families of starlings at the feeding station by the kitchen window are not worried about a better world. Neither is the startled and startling deer disturbed by Orlando on our walk. These all need to survive. They need to repopulate their small world with healthy youngsters. They understand nothing of climate change, Brexit, Covid19, or economics.
But we have plans for our futures - and, by default, theirs. We have power over other life forms and we use it. Sometimes it sickens me how we use our power.
Some use their developed brains to make money. Some try to improve the lot of others. They are not always in the spotlight - you won't necessarily see them as they contribute their positivity. Some see their own children as potentially the best bet for this needy world and naturally invest love in them. Some hope and pray and encourage.
Our future seems uncertain. These are particularly challenging times.
|Little pink mitts for fox cubs|
We're watching episodes of Doctor Who at present. (We take turns to choose a series for everyone to watch in the evenings. No one goes out at nights just now so we're getting down them quite quickly. Not on a Friday - that's Film Night. Not on a Tuesday - that's Games Night.) Some of the views, as per Doctor Who, of a possible future for our planet are, to say the least, a little unsettling. Recent developments have proved equally unsettling!
We can't really know if this alien or that alien exists or will exist but we DO know a good deal about our predecessors. We're certain they existed and we know that they live on through ourselves. In our family, there are characteristics which can be traced through generations.
I was lucky to have been born in 1953, into post-war Britain - at a time when there was an almost tangible sigh of relief in our village. People planted their red, white and blue flower beds for Summer. We still scraped butter off the bread and applied it to the next slice. We listened to Cliff Michelmore and Jean Metcalfe playing the nation's favourite tunes on the radio each Sunday lunchtime - something which developed from the wartime, "Forces Favourites".
As I grew up, the relief turned to something else - a sense of entitlement maybe - and, before we knew where we were, we'd started to pull down great swathes of towns with little or no regard for the history therein, and to put up ribbons of new-build in the countryside, brutally eradicating flora and fauna to clear the way.To help rebuild Britain, we'd been shipping in people from the Caribbean since the late 1940s - and it soon became apparent that we treated them as second class citizens. We had unlearned the lessons of the past.
We were reinventing ourselves. The lives lost and those scarred by our empire building and by two world scale wars in the twentieth century, became insignificant as we lurched towards the Technological Revolution. We were forgetting.
|The white rose posing|
My life out of doors, and indoors observing out of doors, is ballast for me in these stormy waters. This year, when so many things have brought fear and sadness into our lives, the gardens are more beautiful than ever and the countryside is full of life - flora and fauna benefitting from being left to their own devices. But there is a craziness here and now in our "advanced"society, so I am inclined to revisit genealogy when I can't make sense of the news and the biased commentary. The past is a great place to be! And it's full of wonderful lessons on how to get along. I love its rich tapestry. Here's a little woven thing for July -
The first potatoes were shipped into Britain from Columbia in July 1586. Also in July, 1586, my tenth great grandfather, Edward Altass, was growing up in Leeds, Yorkshire. Edward was my mother's ancestor. My father was a potato merchant. Just watch me weave July together!
In July 1969, with my parents, my brother and my grandparents, I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. My grandfather was completely blown away by it all. In fact, to be honest, I think I enjoyed his reaction more than anything. (He was equally adorable when they raised the Mary Rose in 1982 - the year before he died.)
Another July - 1985 - and the Live Aid Concert, organised by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, raised money for those affected by famine in Ethiopia. Our daughter was just ten days old and adored by her brother and two sisters. As I watched those Ethiopian babies dying, I ached with a sense of uselessness and wanted every child in the world to be as our little one. The next month she was dangerously ill in hospital. Our wonderful NHS - they're still wonderful and so is she!
Eight years later and our poorly July baby had two younger sisters - a three year old and a new baby - born on 2nd July when the puffins (Tammie Norrie in Orkney) were getting ready to leave the islands for a winter out at sea. Last Saturday, July 11th, I watched as our Caithness puffins darted across my camera viewfinder, flapping their little orange legs this way and that.
When I step back and consider all the contributory patterns in my little July tapestry, I am aware that any time and any place can be a part of any person's story. Those veins on the back of my hands are in common with yours - wherever and whoever you are.
In July 1938, the London and North Eastern Railway locomotive, the Mallard, broke the world speed record for a steam engine -126 mph - I wonder what our ancestors made of that in an uncertain world! Then and now, we're all linked by our root systems. I'm a potato. What about you? We're all part of a superb holy soup. Thankfully!
|Spot the dog daisy amongst the dog roses!|
Find my latest book "Child of the Earth" here: