NOVEMBER - "There are always flowers for those who want to see them." Henri Matisse
We are forecast snow. It doesn't mean that we will have snow. The forecasters can't seem to decide which part of Scotland we're in. I think you may have to travel this far to understand our position - and now is not a great time to do that. Just to clarify things - Inverness, our city, is 106 miles south from here by road. Normally, at this time of year, we have a shopping trip planned. The objective is to take the train, shop until we drop - stopping for lunch only - and get the last train back, being picked up at the station with our Christmas shopping completed. Never works! Well, it all works except for the last bit. The Christmas shopping is most definitely never completed. We enjoy the day far too much to complete anything. But this year there will be no Christmas shopping trip. The idea of going into a city, albeit a small city, does not appeal right now. I've no intention of collecting a virus on my rather self-indulgent annual Christmas shopping trip - and, far less, taking it home to Wick. I love Inverness and I can't wait to go there again but I'm aware of the dangers. If I lived there, I would have been a part of the Covid19 Avoidance Process from the start. One hundred and six miles north of Inverness and we are now getting cases in our town. This month there was no public bonfire for Guy Fawkes' Night and no gathering at the War Memorial on Remembrance Sunday. There will be no gathering for the switch-on of the Christmas lights at the end of this month. We have been oh-so-careful since March - but here we are with cases amongst us even so. There is no point in apportioning blame. No one can be blamed for this pandemic - but bad management will always exacerbate the situation. We have solid leadership from Holyrood but the UK Government has sent out mixed signals and, up here, in the not-yet-frozen-north, we are having to handle the fallout from Boris and his butterfly bombs. "Let's make the rules up as we go along - we're good in our ivory towers!" We've no idea where those bombs will land!
In five years time we may have a different team in Number 10 and, also in five years time, the four hundredth anniversary of Guy Fawkes' arrest, beneath the Houses of Parliament, will raise its ugly head. There are few more macabre anniversaries and I, for one, find that the religious division, potentially created by the remembrance of the Gunpowder Plot, leaves a nasty taste. We've come further than that! Surely!
The remembrance of the war dead, on Armistice Day, also opens itself up to rekindling past animosity. But I don't want to forget those who took up arms to defend us, many of whom gave their lives so that we may still enjoy relative freedom. The key word is defend. I fit in with the pacifist's view that war is never the answer to a disagreement between nations. Most of those men and women who died in wartime situations did so because they were defending their fellow countrymen, women and children against a perceived enemy - a threat to their sense of what is the right way to be. The question is, " Why did they have enemies?" If the elected powers-that-be spent time and energy working that out, we need never see war again! The squabbles start with the superiors and are played out by the manipulation of their subordinates. If we are asked why we think the Great War ever started, we tend to mumble something about the Archduke Ferdinand being shot in the Balkans. Most of us quote Hitler's invasion of Poland when asked why we think there was ever another World War. But what was it that gave a human being the sense that it was right to shoot another person? How did Hitler get the notion that Poland was his for the taking? To say that none of this matters now is out of order. I see the details of the wars of the past as essential in maintaining peace today. I'll always mark Remembrance Day - not in spite of, but because of my pacifist views.
My soldier-great-grandfather, Reuben, promoted and decorated in the Boer War and a bit of a local hero, had a younger brother who had no taste for soldiering. Edwin travelled the length and breadth of England preaching and especially condemning the excesses of alcohol consumption. He was born in Belton in Axholme, Lincolnshire and died at the beginning of the Great War, in August,1914, at the age of forty eight. He died in the Great Northern Central Hospital, Islington, London and there is much that is unclear about his death and burial. I've looked into his story but, frankly, it is, while a challenging mystery, very uncomfortable. (That isn't to say that "uncomfortable" means "Stop!")
November itself is a mystery. Before our third child, a perfect rosebud of a baby, was born in November, I thought it was a dreary month. After her birth, every November became a cause for celebration and, as her birthday is in the middle of the month, we allowed ourselves to begin Christmas the day after. Christmas music - tapes to start with - was played from then through to Epiphany. Letters were written to Santa Claus. Christmas food was made and kept. And last, but by no means least, the Christmas Crib was put together ready for the start of Advent. Until our eldest daughter bought our cherished ceramic crib in a wooden stable, our cribs were created differently each year - sometimes from toilet roll middles and ping-pong balls with scraps of fabric which were left over from the year's sewing projects. Sometimes they were made from Sticklebricks, sometimes from Duplo, sometimes from Lego. Did we have a Playmobil Crib one year? I think we did - but I can't picture that so well.
Since I started to write this November blog, we have had our sprinkling of snow and we have Covid19 across our small town - north bank and south bank. In spite of our distant location, we couldn't have hoped to avoid it.
Here's the thing - isn't every daybreak magical - a wonderful gift - a blessing? Doesn't matter what your religion, your politics, your race, your colour - the birth of each new day is yours. The dawn belongs to you. Cherish it as the newborn that it is, watch it grow, grow along with it, repair the breakages and put it to bed in peace at its end. We may feel that we are in the shadows right now but, somehow, the sun will still rise. I'm going to risk repeating myself from earlier scribbles and quote Martin Luther yet again:
"Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree."
Scratched record? Who? Me?
In spite of the events which are missing from the November 2020 calendar, little has changed in the natural world - except perhaps that there have been more onlookers this year. We may not have been able to witness the public bonfires on November 5th nor were we able to pay our respects at the War Memorial on Remembrance Sunday. We will not be taking part in the switch-on of Wick's Christmas Lights but we have all opened our eyes and ears to the glory that is Spring, Summer, Autumn.
A golden glow still lights up the windows at the back of the house while the trees in the square at the front, except for the young replacements, are completely denuded. The youngsters maintain a veil of leaves. The golden glow, with splodges of red, comes from the shrubs rather than the trees in the garden. The yew tree is still rich and green. The rowans have lost their leaves and their berries. The hawthorn, the lilacs, the apples and the tiny pear, along with the birch, are all bare. The portuguese laurel is deliciously thick, shiny and a delightful hiding place for Bob Robin. The oak is digging its heels in - getting deeper into its brazenness day by day. The wych elm is a skeleton from which dangle coconuts, fat balls and other bird offerings which won't fit on the feeding station. The holly has grown out of its treeness and creeps along the ground giving shelter to all the small things which hide from the bully boys. I shouldn't forget the two giant sycamores which peer over the wall into our neighbour's manicured garden. I'll bet they hate us and our leaves - stopping their light in summer and littering their plot in autumn!
We've had some high winds this season. At the beginning of the month, we had some tidying up to do. I put a fallen sunflower in a vase with some fallen bamboo. They gave a hint of the summer-past to the sitting room. Since then another smaller sunflower opened up in the garden. It's still there - even after the snow and hail this morning. Summer is lingering on our regular dog walk with a number of buttercups continuing to flower, like little specks of gold at the bottom of a sunlit stream. My gold-panning days were not fruitful. I've had more luck with buttercups in November! We went to Kildonan in 2015 and found some lovely garnets but no gold. This morning I spotted a pink campion peeping through the morning light at Newtonhill. Just one. Cyclamen, nasturtiums, fuchsia, corn marigolds and a tiny night scented stock are still raising a smile and the lavender remains bushy, with its heavenly scent in evidence as I brush past it to move another pot.
I don't know how much longer these plants can thrive, as last night, and this morning, the temperatures have been all over the place. Yesterday, at breakfast, the clever little machine read 11 degrees, mid-morning it read 14, after the evening meal the machine read 6 degrees and then, by bedtime it was up again to 10 degrees. When I came downstairs this morning, it was showing 2 degrees. How about that for a roller-coaster of temperatures? During that time we had very strong gusts of wind - very little damage though - not like the winds at the end of October when we had panels blown out of the greenhouse, tiles missing from the roof and damage done to the bonnet of the car when a tile bounced off it and onto the road outside the house. When the builder arrived to repair the roof, he came with the hired cherry-picker and made his way along our side of the square, repairing roofs as he went. Why is it that someone else's misfortune makes us feel better about our own!
I am close friends with trees - and I love that we have a square full of the majestic beauties at the front - and a good selection of them in our back garden too. The people who live on the square think of it as their front garden and one of the delights of living here is watching the children play on the grass and around the trees. I was sorry to see that, looking from the back of the house, over towards the sea, a large tree had been cut down. We can only see the sea, in the distance, from one small window, but, to me, it is quite wonderful to see it at all. So the sad tale of the disappearing tree was made more bearable by the realisation that now we have a clearer view of the North Sea. This came to us one morning recently when we looked out and noticed huge waves rearing up like silver slinkies and rolling onto the shore. Even so, I still hope that the tree remover has planted a young one to replace the old guy.
I don't walk along the river very often these days and I wonder why not. It really is a rich ribbon of nature - with its otters, deer, buzzards, wildfowl and even the occasional seal coming in as far as the bridge. There's an excellent community of small birds living around the banks and herons come and do their serious-old-man-fishing impressions as they wait for a movement in the water. In spring and summer the wildflowers are a joy too. At the beginning of this month, my friend and I took a short walk there and I remembered how rich it was in wildlife. We stopped to take a little resin from a tree at the top of the low cliff just up from the riverside. The scent was divine. I've heard that tree resin can be used as a salve but I don't have the knowledge to be able to make the mixture safely and there is the risk of allergy so I'll just enjoy the clean, fresh fragrance for now. While we were there, someone's dog ran into the water and you wouldn't believe the mayhem - all the waterbirds we had seen flew up noisily and they were accompanied by all those we had not seen - so that we felt we were insignificant players in these tales of the riverbank.
The skies over our town and the fields around us are full of swans and geese. Mostly geese, but there are some gregarious swans out there too. They seem to be grouping together more this year. Do they know something we don't? It doesn't stop with the big guns either. There are numerous gangs of the ground troops - such as the sparrows and starlings. The starlings always like to go around in large groups though. The sight of a murmuration of starlings against a rosy sunset is one of the most striking tableaux anywhere. The sinuous movement of the flock as it snakes towards its roosting place is breathtakingly beautiful. We get some unusual visitors up here in the far north and last weekend (14th) two Siberian Chiffchaffs were entertaining birders and twitchers in our autumnal Caithness. I don't get the tick-list thingy - although I'm always very excited when I recognise a bird for the first time. But the image of shape -shifting crowds of starlings in the evening light wins me over. It is a similar thing when I stand, with head back, watching the geese moving from one feeding ground to another. The formation changes constantly and I try to do the maths and anticipate which bird will go into the lead next. Never get it right of course! There's something magical, rather than mathematical, about it all! Whooper swans make me laugh. Their call is an audio version of Ken Dodd's tickling stick. So awkward and yet uplifting in its bewildering assault on the senses! They certainly won't make the first wind band but I'm not sure they can do any better than that. Grazing alongside, this week, were greylag geese and pink-footed geese, camouflaged against the stubbly, scrubby fields much more efficiently than the swans. I'm on the lookout for the Greenland white fronted geese. They should be here by now. It's all-change for the birds - might they have been delayed?
The countryside is resting - and waiting. Here we are, with hope for an end to Covid19, waiting. And there is the world around us, needing respect, care and understanding - waiting. There is so much at stake. Can we slow down the depreciation of our planet? Will the eyes that have been opened, in this strangest of years, to our fragile natural environment, continue to enjoy it and to work for its benefit?
It's all-change for everyone and it will be interesting to see how this pans out when Covid19 fades into memory. Will we, as a society, be kinder? Will we be more tolerant, more grateful, more respectful of the needs of others? Will we be more in-tune with our environment? So much can change for the better. Will it? We may be seeing a glimmer of hope with the new vaccine. There's a way to go yet but I reckon something genuinely phenomenal may come out of this.
Today, I found a cream lupin in full flower, with its head held high, by the small sleeping lilac. A hopeful column of peace.