Ravens: friend or foe?

There’s a mewing overhead and then a great cacophony of cawing as the rooks get wind of a buzzard gliding through the tree tops.

They make an almighty noise, these birds, especially as the sun begins its ascent over the village football field and then again at night when the sun goes down.

But nothing can compare to the sound of a solitary raven sitting in the trees up near Lewesdon Hill, Dorset’s highest point. It’s a horrid, eerie cackling. It’s an old crone bemoaning her lot and complaining about life in general.

The raven is protected by law, so the farmer can’t shoot it when it attacks new-born lambs, which, according to the farmer’s wife,  happens every Spring.

Ravens are the stuff from which folklore is made. We consider them to be bad omens (think of the poem by Edgar Allan Poe and the malevolent presence of the raven in Paul Gauguin’s Nevermore). In European mythology, both witches and the Devil were said to be able to take the shape of a raven.

Conversely, the ancient Greeks saw ravens as symbols of good luck, the gods’ messengers in the mortal world.

There are always two sides to every story.

The Raven

By Edgar Allan Poe 

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is and nothing more.”

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
Darkness there and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
’Tis the wind and nothing more!”

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”

But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said “Nevermore.”

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of ‘Never—nevermore’.”

But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!

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Behold the ancient yew tree – long may it reign over our village

‘I’m rather worried about the yew tree in the churchyard,’ the old woman said as she walked past my house.

I had never seen her before. But she was speaking to me as if she had known me for ever.

‘It’s over two thousand years old,’ she said. ‘I’ve written about it lots of times.’

Dismissing a natural desire to quiz her on her writing credentials, I asked what was wrong with the tree. After all, this was the important thing here. The yew tree is one of the most sacred in the tree pantheon. And our tree, if it is indeed as ancient as the woman says it is, would have been old enough to remember the Roman invasion of Britain.

It may well have been providing shelter to illicit love affairs between Vespasian’s men from the fort at nearby Waddon Hill and women from the native Durotriges tribe of ancient Celts who were holed up at Pilsdon Pen. Oh, the stories it could tell.

‘Wrong with it?’ the woman said, looking at me as if I should know. ‘It’s dying. I think someone has poisoned it.’

Panic fluttered across my sternum like a butterfly in a jam jar; a tight feeling akin to stress. The yew tree? Dying? Could it be so?

I scooted around to the churchyard to take a look. Efforts had been made to destroy the ivy creeping up the tree’s multiple trunks and a branch or two looked a bit yellow. But I don’t think it’s dying. At least I hope not.

This yew would have seen so many things during its lifetime. I’d like to ask it if Dr Thomas Fuller really did have his 17th century congregation queuing up outside Broadwindsor Church to hear his sermons. What a wit. What a man.

‘Charity begins at home…but it shouldn’t end there’ (or words to that effect) is one of his sayings I like the best.

Did the yew tree look on from a distance as Charles II hid in the ‘best room’ of the Castle Inn on his flight from the Battle of Worcester? Was it intimately acquainted with the fairies said to frequent Lewesdon Hill?

If only trees could talk.

According to treesforlife.org.uk:

The yew tree is another of our native trees which was held sacred by the Druids in pre-Christian times. They no doubt observed the tree’s qualities of longevity and regeneration (drooping branches of old yew trees can root and form new trunks where they touch the ground), and the yew came to symbolise death and resurrection in Celtic culture. They will also have been familiar with the toxicity of the tree’s needles in particular, which can prove fatal, and which may have further contributed to its connections with death. Shakespeare too was familiar with these qualities when he had Macbeth concoct a poisonous brew which included ‘slips of yew, silvered in the moon’s eclipse’.

The themes of death and resurrection continued into the Christian era, with the custom of yew shoots being buried with the deceased, and boughs of yew being used as ‘Palms’ in church at Easter. Yew trees have in fact established a popular association with old churches in Britain, to the extent that very old specimens of yew trees are now relatively rare outside of church grounds. According to Richard Mabey in his Flora Britannica ‘… no other type of ancient tree occurs so frequently inside church grounds …’ and he goes on to say that he does not know of any similarly exclusive relationship between places of worship and a single tree species existing anywhere else in the Western world. In some cases yew trees have been traditionally planted beside churches. In other cases it seems that very old yew trees may have already been growing on a site before the earliest church building was erected there.

I do hope the old woman is wrong. I have never seen her since, and wonder who this kindred spirit is, as I usually know most of the people passing by. I have passed on the information to the Vicar in case the yew needs checking out. In the meantime, let’s say a prayer to the gods – old and new – for the good health of our ancient yew.

When Great Trees Fall
Maya Angelou

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines,
gnaws on kind words
unsaid,
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
nurture,
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance,
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold
caves.

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly.  Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed.  They existed.
We can be.  Be and be
better.  For they existed.

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Photography Nathalie Roberts @natamagat 

Destruction in the countryside

They come at the dead of night, creeping in on big fat tyres via a feeder lane, far from sleeping ears.

They rip down the fence, ignore polite signage and then open up the throttle. They’re going for it. The more the mud the merrier.

Oh what larks, churning up the wide banks of an ancient trackway. What fun they have, roaring up and down in the middle of nowhere for an hour or so and then heading back to Salway Ash and other places not far from here. Their vehicles give them away, parked brazenly at the side of the roads in front of their houses, the earth from Common Water Lane dripping from their wheel arches.

This is part of the pre-Roman Wessex Ridgeway, a route used for centuries by a variety of users. It’s still a highway: unclassified but still a highway. It’s used by farmers going to and from their fields. It’s a favourite of walkers and riders and, increasingly, the 4×4 brigade who get a thrill out of destroying would-be plants and flowers, that are now terrified to emerge.

You can listen to the Ridgeway’s stories here.

But not for this part of the route campions, ox-eye daisies and dead nettles in the months to come. Spring will find it hard to get a foothold in these deep fissures.

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Horses and hounds gather for the annual hunt meet in the village square

Men in waxed, green jackets and women with tweed hats drift into the village square, like tumbleweed extras in an episode of Downton Abbey.

There is a trestle table adorned with a festive cloth in the archway of the old pub. A battalion of women come in and out, bearing trays of sausage rolls and sandwiches and passing round the port and whisky mac.

There is a clattering noise from down the road as the first horses begin to arrive. They are dressed for the occasion, just like their riders.

Tiny children on tiny ponies arrive in threes. Girls are kitted out in new jodhpurs and boots. The manes and tails of their steeds are tightly plaited and coiled up like springs. A man with a sullen face, who at one time might have been quite dashing, smooths down the raven-coloured locks that sprout out from under his riding hat. He should have gone to the barber’s.

On the concrete apron in front of the old pub, a well-behaved pack of foxhounds stand to attention, ready for the off, just waiting for the flick of a whip to signal the start of their countryside adventure.

Cars struggle to get past but it’s village life, isn’t it, so they’ll just darn well have to wait. A Yodel delivery driver goes up, goes down, and then abandons his quest and drops two parcels off in the community shop instead.

And then the rain comes down and turns to sleet. It almost feels and looks like it’s going to snow.

The ground is sodden, fields turned to quagmires, so today the hunt will be following a trail laid mainly on roads and tracks.

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An ancient Mummers’ play marks the start of a Dorset year

And so the new year begins.

The earth is saturated with rain water. Dogs come in, muddy from the fields. An aeroplane shoots across the sky, unseen behind the clouds, its distant rumble giving away its presence as it takes travellers to faraway lands.

In the woods, the rooks are cawing. In the distance, the church clock strikes nine. A robin sings a beautiful song and is joined for the chorus by a croaky cockerel who’s the king of the hen coop, at least for the moment.

On the coast, the weather is wild and windy. Waves crash on the Chesil Beach shingle and sea-borne foam is blown on the wind above the Cobb at Lyme Regis.

In the village there are hangovers the size of bread ovens. Partying went on in the pub until well after three in the morning, with regulars sitting on the floor, rowing to the Gap Band and then up on their feet for the Cha Cha Slide.

On New Year’s Day, the Babylon Mummers re-enact a shortened version of their ancient play of life, death and rebirth, good versus evil, with the hero of the hour being St George. They huddle in the doorway of the village hall until it’s their turn to join the rowdy throng, coming out into the rain to dance, fight with wooden swords and pass round the hat.

Their black faces hark back to the days when mummers went around to the big country houses performing their play to make extra money for Christmas. They went in disguise, wearing masks, elaborate headgear or black faces, because they didn’t want to be recognised and seen to be begging.

The Mummers’ Plays of old could be quite lucrative for the participants. It’s said that three nights of mumming often raised as much as a whole month’s wages for the agricultural labourers who mostly made up the groups.

Today they probably get just about enough for a pint of beer each, if that. Crowd numbers are down because of the weather and because they’re tucked away up by the village hall. They need to get back into the village square again, the energising square, and passing cars will just have to put their brakes on.

The Mummers take a bow and then head on to nearby Waytown and the Hare and Hounds Inn, performing inside should the heavens open again.

And then all is quiet on New Year’s Day.

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