Autumn is here, but there is an uncertainty to it. The winter geese arrived some weeks ago. The rowan berries, early and abundant as they were, have almost gone. The Virginia vine is yet to turn the crimson red that heralds the equinox and the shifting of the families of sparrows who slumber amongst it gnarled branches in the summer months. From my bedroom window, I watch fat rabbits midnight feasting on the narrow strip of greenery that separates the village from the harbour grounds. My shadow disturbs them, they look up to the window but appear content that I am no threat or danger and return to their feasting. A neighbourhood cat, green eyes reflecting back the low orange light from the harbour, observes them from a boundary wall. Watching, waiting, watching, waiting.
The winter geese keep time for us, rising early from their nests in search of food and returning with the dusk. We slip easily into their rhythms. The man rises with them and heads to the forests and the hills returning home to settle for the evening as the geese announce that they too are making their way home. We lock the doors as they call their last post signalling that the final inspection is done and all are safe and secure for the night.
When the vine does turn to crimson we will know that the long dark days are finally upon us. The man will rise later and there will be days when the forests and the mountains are beyond his reach. The winter geese will not stray far from their nesting grounds, conserving their energy and the muscle and fat they have built and stored over the days of long light in preparation for what is to come. For when the ground stands hard as iron and water like a stone the rabbits will no longer feast at midnight and every shadow will be a symbol of what may come to pass.
And, when the wind blows, the neighbourhood cat will pounce. He the hunter of the night and we, who would feast by moonlight, his prey.
Up in the Highlands last weekend our first stop was Invercauld. The big house, which has recently changed hands, has some quite fantastic beasts in its grounds – a Henry Moore style [perhaps even by the man himself] sits on grassland to the side of the house and a life size horse made of copper or a similar metal catches and bounces the rays of the sun on those rare days it shines and the land is transformed.
But, rather than the big house, it was the old bridge of Invercauld that was the reason for our stop. Built in 1752 to carry ‘Wade’s’ military road over the river Dee, the bridge has stood the test of time, withstanding many floods and storms over the centuries. Even the recent Storm Frank which, in washing away great swathes of land and roads brought the nearby settlement of Ballater to its knees, failed to cause any significant or lasting damage to this old woman of the hills. Like a rainbow following a downpour she arches high over the Dee keeping those crossing safe from stormy waters below and at ground level, in calmer times, giving shade and shelter to the lone angler or the family of walkers alike.
Forward to Braemar and lunch at the newly refurbished Fife Arms Hotel. The Flying Stag Bar, and indeed the whole ground floor of the hotel, is a veritable cornucopia of taxidermy and art works, all of which people are welcome to view. No purchase necessary but those of faint heart and stomach might wish to partake of a small beverage to ‘calm the nerves’ after viewing a life sized stag with swan’s wings or the giant metallic spider complete with eggs. Whatever a person’s view of the refurbishment it has certainly injected life back into the village and as importantly created jobs, something that the local people I spoke to welcomed.
Appetites sated and wallets a deal lighter, we headed home over Glenshee. As we rounded a bend a few miles from Kirriemuir we came across a hedgehog wandering back and forth across the road. Also stopping to assist was a car coming the other way and three cars behind us. Much conversation ensued. ‘Do you think it is injured’, ‘No, it looks OK’, ‘Oh, it’s a wee hedgehog’, ‘What should we do?’ Should we call the SSPCA’, Do you have a signal’, and so on and so on and so on. I wondered if a committee would be formed and votes taken on a strategy or action plan. Meanwhile, the rain had started and the hedgehog continued to wander back and forth. As the discussions continued I picked up the hedgehog and placed it in the hedgerow where it settled. Committees and such like are all fine and well but sometimes all that’s needed is just another old woman of the hills keeping those crossing safe in stormy times.
Neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire (Voltaire, 1756)
Empires give legitimacy to the actions of the autocrat; silence dissent; encourage, and indeed create, internecine warfare and turn visions and visionaries into grotesque caricatures of their former selves.
Voltaire’s quote vis the Holy Roman Empire is as apposite today as it was in its time. There is nothing ‘Holy’ [or good] in actions that seek to denigrate or destroy the visions or character of others nor is it ‘Roman’ when the culture of the autocrat is diametrically opposed to the principles of the popular assemblies where visionaries were welcome and dissent was encouraged.
And empire? The longevity of an empire is reliant on uniting with those around them, creating systems that are inclusive of all members of a community or state; with no conditions attached. As history shows us and as Voltaire notes, the absence of this is the death knell of an empire, or indeed any autocratic structure or state.
Big or small, all empires fall.
I spotted this new arrival a few days ago. A busy wee thing zipping in and out of the eaves and gutterings, gathering bits and pieces for nest building.
I wondered how the flock of speugies that live in the ivy beneath my bedroom window, and keep me amused with their constant chatter and squabbling, would take to this new arrival, particularly when it came to sharing the morning spread of peanuts and seeds.
On the first morning they kept their distance – watching warily from the depths of the copper beech hedge. They didn’t have long to wait though as the new arrival didn’t hang around long – just enough time to have a quick feed before getting back to building and strengthening its nest. As soon as it had left they descended on the table chittering and chattering – business as usual.
The next morning one or two of the speugies joined the new arrival at one of the feeders. Still a bit wary of this new visitor that looked so different to them, the rest of the flock remained in the hedge. Unawares, or too busy building new foundations for its future home, the new arrival ate what it needed and flew off to its tasks for the day.
On the third morning the new visitor was the first to arrive. Taking its time and sampling all the food on offer it was soon joined by the chittery chattery of the others. Along with the speugies it visited the table throughout the day. This morning they were all back again – getting down to the important task of feeding their bellies in preparation for the arrival of their new chicks.
We’re no different to these birds, really. Once we overcome our fear of change or difference we understand that we can achieve much more together than we can alone.
Being the Easter holidays, I had the two oldest grandchildren staying over this week. The bold Nancy looks forward to their visits, what’s not to like about extra leftovers, the odd bit of cake on the fly and attention all day long? For the Gracie it can be a bit overwhelming, she didn’t have the best of starts in life so she likes routine and to while away the hours dreaming of long runs on the beach and a never empty food bowl. Nonetheless she goes with the flow when the house is full of noise and action – peace and quiet is her order of the day but with children around the only time quiet descends is when they are sleeping – and that’s as it should be.
I like to keep the wee people busy when they come to stay – and teach a new skill or two if the opportunity arises. This visit and in keeping with the arrival of spring – or Easter as this time of year is more commonly celebrated here – building obelisks was the task at hand.
The willow I’d foraged was not yet dry so we set about the bamboo in the garden. Long, straight rods for the structures and shorter, thinner rods for the weaving. Mighty oak logs for the foundations that would hold the structures firm until they had dried and so could support themselves. As we cut, trimmed and laid out our bounty, much debate ensued around why different lengths and thicknesses were needed and how the structure would only come together and remain strong for many years if all the different sizes available at the time of building played their part and enough space was left for the sun to shine through and other rods and adornments to be woven in as the seasons or the days of celebration changed. A consensus was reached and so we got down to the task in hand. Three days in the making, the obelisks were declared so good that they would look good in any shop window or gallery of art. Memories are surely made of this.
According to some scholars the ancients associated obelisks with the sun gods – topped with gold or other bright metals they caught and radiated the morning light. The ancients believed that paying homage to their gods would ensure that the sun would rise each morning and the light would be returned daily to the world hence they built their obelisks to capture it and share it with the world. We live in different times. I, at least, don’t pay [much] homage to the gods these days but I still see the importance of building obelisks, particularly the ones that have space for the light to get in.
The recently published House of Commons Committee Report: Tackling inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities has me thinking about dignity and respect this morning. The Deacon Blue song – A Ship Called Dignity – comes to mind.
The song is basically about a street sweeper who dreams of the day he will have earned enough to purchase his ‘dignity ship’, the trips he will take in it; how it will change his life and how others view him. A parallel can usefully be drawn here with the Gypsy/Roma/Traveller communities.
We live in a society built on hierarchies of social and cultural capital. A society where membership and positioning is, oft-times, dependent on perception and the deliberate reification [in terms of certain sections of the mainstream media, at least] of the ‘other’.
What price dignity and respect for the Gypsy/Roma/Traveller communities, then? When will their ‘ship come in’?
As Donnelly (2003) rightly states: ‘Human rights are general rights, rights that arise from no special undertaking beyond membership of the human race. To have human rights one does not have to be anything other than a human being. Neither must one do anything other than be born a human being.’ Or in other words; there is no glass ceiling that deflects those who do not ‘fit’ the cultural norms of mainstream society: there are no conditions attached.
Perhaps, then, the Gypsy/Roma/Traveller ‘ship’ has been berthed, safe harbour, – weathering the storms of prejudice and discrimination – since the time the community first visited these shores. Berthed, safe harbour, patiently waiting for a crew of young sailors to steer it towards the islands of dignity and respect. With the increasing number of young Gypsy/Roma/Traveller activists finding their voice, perhaps that time is now.
On dry days myself and the duggie dugs can be found wandering the shoreline at Ferryden and, if the bold Nancy decides that after her daily zoom a longer wander is in order, some days we take the longer route to Scurdie Ness and Elephant Rock.
Sea birds line the route we take – from the ever patient heron who can sit for hour upon hour waiting for the right meal to surface from the depths, to the screaming gull who these days is as happy feasting on a summer treat snatched from a child’s hand as it is fishing the seas – holding a mirror up to the impact our fast food culture is having on the planet.
If the beaches are empty I’ll let the duggie dugs off lead. The sand is where the Gracie gets her courage back. A descendent of the desert dog, Gracie’s webbed feet and giant pads enable her to glide across the sand picking up speed as she goes ‘til she becomes the wind. There is no point in calling her to heel when she is in pursuit of some imagined desert hare or gazelle so myself and the bold Nancy sit, heron like, until she returns.
Some days, if we are still enough, we find ourselves sharing the rocks with a lone cormorant. Observing her as she returns catchless to dry her wings before her next dive into the depths, I’m minded of our dear leader. Here she stands, wings outstretched, scanning the shores of mainland Europe in the hope that she will be thrown a catch good enough to satisfy the appetite of friend and foe alike. None so far has sufficed, indeed these days she is looking more and more like one of those ‘tame’ cormorants used by some far eastern fisherfolk for catching fish. A snare is tied around the bird’s throat to stop it swallowing the bigger fish it catches, so to save itself from death the bird must return to shore regurgitating what could not be swallowed to the awaiting fishermen.
Searching for some weekend viewing, we stumbled upon Netflix’s Russian Doll. At less than thirty minutes long, each episode gives just enough to puzzle its meaning and wonder what the next one will bring. It’s a roller coaster of a watch but even so we are rationing consumption to Saturday evenings. Last night we reached episode five. Not wishing to spoil your viewing we won’t give the plot away but suffice to say, as metaphor goes, we were reminded of the groundhog days we find ourselves living in. As with the UK’s current ‘Dear Leader’ and Brexit, the lead character is situated within a continuous loop of death and rebirth – always returning to her original starting point in her search for answers and solutions. Perhaps therein lies the problem or indeed the solution for Theresa May and her Cabinet?
We’ve another three weeks before Russian Doll reveals its ending. For Brexit it’s looking like we will have a much longer wait – so it goes.