Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Not transferable . . .

Much as I'd like to, I can’t possibly offer you the essence of Westonbirt's Arboretum in a letter.

Oh yes, I can show you photos of the magnificent trees . . . the woodland glades. . . . the azaleas . . . the bluebells . . . but the true essence is not visual, nor, sad to say, can it be interpreted in words.

All I can tell you is where to look for it . . . in the birdsong . . . the scented air . . . the peace . . . the harmony . . . the timelessness . . .
In all those elusive, evocative, yet indescribable factors, dwells the essence of the Arboretum.

Such things can't be captured, far less transposed back to London. They are, individually and collectively, a part of life that is essential, but transient.
Who knows, perhaps it is that very transience that makes them so precious?
We fool ourselves that we can capture life on a CD, on a DVD, that we can package and lay claim to all the natural world has to offer.
What rubbish! There’s no way of bottling pure magic . . . and, thank heaven, there never will be!

I spent over four hours in the Arboretum. Sitting . . . gazing . . . strolling . . . and constantly marvelling. If I spoke to Rupert at all, it was in whispers. Anything louder would have disturbed . . . disturbed what? I can't name it any more than you can. But who could deny that something was there. Let's call it a presence. A presence that is found in a place where nature presides and man can add nothing of value, and only cause disruption.

Wait a moment, as I write that last sentence I realise that there is something that man can bring to the scene. Something that is our unique gift. True, the natural world doesn't need it, but we are immeasurably enriched by the giving.
Yes . . . you know what I'm going to say.
We can bring gratitude . . . wonder . . . and praise.

All of which, I promise you, Rupert and I gave by the bucketful!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A duck's diet?

Nothing important, just a story to make you smile when you've a spare moment.

Remember the pond . . . and the fish . . . and the heron who came to feed on them . . . and all the dramas and excitement? Well, there's been a new twist to this aquatic saga.

Rupert and I were sitting peaceably by the pond yesterday morning when, with a dramatic flurry of wings, a pair of mallards descended from a clear, blue sky and skidded to a halt amongst the duckweed!

Never before have we had mallards on the pond, but this pair were clearly seeking out a convivial new home.

Rupert licked his lips nervously. When little more than a kitten, he suffered the indignity of being chased by two peacocks in Holland Park. Ever since, not surprisingly, he has been highly respectful of all creatures with beaks. Cautiously . . . very cautiously . . . he advanced to the edge of the pond . . . but the ducks were unimpressed. Clearly pleased with this new venue, they carried out a careful investigation of the pond's amenities, then scrambled out and sat on the rim to preen.

This morning they were still here, and it seemed only right to tell my good friend Sacha.
Sacha, who is six, is very much my second-in-command when it comes to feeding the fish.
I told him about the ducks, and we stood by the pond, watching the antics of the colourful new arrivals.
"I hope they won't eat the fish," I said a little anxiously.
"Oh no," Sacha was keen to reassure me, "they won't do that. Ducks don't eat fish."
"What do they eat?" I asked him.
There was a long pause, and Sacha's reply, when it came, was delivered in a tone of calm and unquestionable authority.
"Ducks eat duck-food," he declared.

So now you know . . . there's no possible arguing with that!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Orbs - An empty room

Have you a spare moment to reflect on orbs? There's no hurry, but this is a story I would really appreciate sharing with you.

Remember my friend Christine, the friend who died suddenly on Easter Sunday? I don't think I've mentioned her much before, but Christine was an outstanding person . . . compassionate, generous, talented . In addition, she was someone very special to me. In the course of a lifetime you don't form many friendships like that. Not only were we very close, but we shared the same values. Our friends were all-important to us. Her beloved dogs meant to her what Rupert means to me. We giggled at the same stupid jokes, shared the same sense of the ridiculous. But, most of all, we travelled on similar spiritual journeys . . . we recognised the same God.

Christine was fascinated by the orbs that, over this past year, have begun to appear in my photographs. I would phone her and tell her about them. Later, I'd send her copies so that she could enjoy them for herself. One of her favourites was the photo of the orbs amid the snowflakes, and, being a musician, she was delighted when orbs started to appear in photos taken at The Barbican and The Albert Hall.

A few days before her funeral a thought struck me, and it struck me forcibly. In our mutual quest for orbs, surely Christine would have wanted me to photograph her coffin?
I was certain she would support the idea, but it posed problems. Flash photography isn't something that can be done unobtrusively. I needed help. Accordingly, I phoned the person who was organising the funeral. It seemed wisest not to reveal the reasons for this unexpected request, so I told her that this was what Christine wanted, and offered no further explanation.

It turned out that the coffin wouldn't be waiting in the chapel before the service. It was going to be carried in after we'd gathered, and carried out again before we left. There would be no opportunities for photography, however discreet. But the kindly funeral organiser was anxious to be helpful. Very generously, she invited me to lunch, saying that we could pay a visit to the undertaker in advance of the funeral, and I could spend some time on my own in the chapel with the coffin.

Driving down the motorway, I found myself smiling. All the ramifications of my unexpected request, together with the secrecy, would have appealed to Christine's sense of humour.

The small chapel at the undertaker's was tastefully decorated. The closed coffin was on its own in front of an altar. I was left in peace to do whatever it was that I needed to do.

It was strange. I didn't feel Christine's presence with me there in the chapel. It was calm and peaceful, but I was on my own. Taking out the camera, I took six photographs, meditated for a few moments, then rejoined the others who were waiting outside in the spring sunshine

The service was beautiful and moving. A fitting tribute. I left soon afterwards and headed back to London. On reaching home, the first thing I did was to connect the camera to this computer and wait impatiently as it downloaded. At last . . . there they were, the six photographs taken in the chapel . . . I looked . . . I searched. But I searched in vain. There was not a single orb to be seen. Not even a shadow that could be mistaken for an orb.
Yes, you can imagine how I felt! I was bitterly disappointed. Somehow I felt cheated. Why on earth had I been so sure that Christine wanted me to photograph her coffin?

It was then, and only then, that the truth hit me.
Of course! How could I have been so stupid? Extremely stupid and extremely blind.
This very absence of orbs, this emptiness, was, I now realised, the precise reason why I'd needed to take the photos. It was the story of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday . . . Christine, the essential spirit of Christine, had gone. The total absence of orbs proved it.
Not only that, this very absence of orbs was notable in itself. Coming, as it did, so soon after the plethora of orbs in church on Easter Sunday. Here, in a chapel that seemed, on the face of it, to be an ideal setting in every way, there was not an orb to be seen.
Not only had this experiment proved that my camera wasn't faulty, that the so-called orbs weren't caused by specks of dust which would occur at any time, anywhere, it had also proved conclusively that Christine's spirit had left her body and moved on to a different realm.

I deleted the photos, they no longer exist. But their message remains and will always remain.
A treasured final gift from a much-loved friend.

Thank you, Christine . . .

. . .and thank you, too, thank you for sharing the story.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Window-sill gardening

Have you a moment to look at a photo? As a photo, it's nothing. But it has a story to tell . . . a story about the joy of gardening.

First, let's look at the photo . . .

. . . as I said, it's far from memorable To you I'm sure it conveys nothing more than a few straggling seedlings in a pot on a window-sill. Nothing in the least remarkable.

But let me tell you their story. A week ago I took a handful of seeds - small, dark brown grains that looked incapable of life - and sowed them in this pot. I sprinkled compost on top, and kept them watered. Now, a matter of days later, I'm absolutely thrilled to see seven young shoots pushing through the surface - and there should be several more to follow.

Hardly earth-shattering, I agree. But what to you might appear as weeds, and nothing to make a fuss about, I see as a positive blaze of potential Morning Glory.

Not only do I see potential Morning Glory, but (so long as no fat pigeons come and sit on them!) my imagination is going overboard in picturing just what these plants will do and where they'll go.

A gardener loves to plan, and the soil of the imagination is very fertile. Remember last year's Sweet Peas? My imagination assures me that they'll have nothing on this year's Morning Glory! On the window-sill, to the left of the seedlings, is first a Lavender, and then a healthy Clementine, grown from a pip. To the right, is a small Olive tree. As the young seedlings grow into sturdy plants, they will reach out to the left and wind their delicate tendrils around the Lavender and the Clementine, at the same time festooning themselves over the supportive branches of the Olive. They will go on to entwine the drainpipe and, finally, frame my living-room window with trumpets of blue and white magnificence.

Don't worry, you'll be kept updated on their exuberant progress. The Chelsea Flower Show . . . ? Forget it! Come and have tea in my living-room!

True, the reality will never live up to my expectations. A gardener's imagination always outstrips the reality of her garden . But there's always next year . . . and the year after . . . and the year after that. And this, above all else . . . the planning, the sowing, the expectation . . . is the joy of window-sill gardening!
Put that tea appointment in your diary!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Lost for Words

I’m lost for words!
Well . . . nearly lost for words!
The trouble is that I'm going to need words if ever I'm to explain this sense of incoherence.

If you hadn't suggested . . . if Shelagh hadn't thought . . . if I hadn't got a bit carried away . . .

What on earth am I babbling about? Well, yesterday evening I had a phone call from Shelagh - remember my friend in Cumbria, the friend with the wonderful medieval castles web-site? Ten days ago she used her expertise to arrange for the 'Letters' to be analysed on a daily basis. Google generously provides this free service, and now Shelagh has kindly made it available to me. Who it was that had been visiting the site prior to that we'll never know. But, from now on, each visitor will be analysed so closely as to be virtually named.

Yesterday evening, under Shelagh's guidance, I explored this fascinating facility. I was left totally bemused. I'm still feeling bemused this morning.

Not only are you told who has been visiting the site, you also know which precise 'Letter' they've been reading. Who on earth in the Philippines, I ask myself, would want to read about London orbs . . . ?! Who are these people in San Francisco . . . and Berkeley, Michigan . . .? Which Media Company, on Rhode Island has a member of staff with a sudden, inexplicable urge to read about my encounter with Rowan Williams?

Such scraps of information are highly intoxicating. The imagination gets over-excited and races off like a dog with a bone. Perhaps life in that Rhode Island company was very quiet on account of the recession . . . ? Perhaps a bored advertising executive, with time on his hands, was playing on his computer, instead of writing copy . . . ? Perhaps he chanced to come across my 'Letters' . . . ? Who knows. It's absolutely fascinating and quite mind-boggling!

What is also fascinating is the fact that, despite having been careful to tell no-one in this area about the site, the greatest number of hits have come from London. Who in London, I wonder . . . ? How did they hear about it . . . ? And who are these people in Nottingham who are reading my ramblings? I don't know anyone in Nottingham . . . ? Or, come to that, who are the visitors from Windsor . . . or Nuneaton . . .?

As I said at the beginning . . . If, all those months ago, you hadn't suggested putting these letters online . . . if kind Shelagh hadn't been so helpful . . . how much puzzlement and confusion could have been averted in the Philippines!

See what you started!