When bees dance

In drowses of movement, in winged occlusions, bees dance;
their wings sound furies, their humming never single but
joined in buzzed harmonies; tiny fidgeting fledgling beings
trimmed in flower dust and seed: carriers of living things;
carriers on the wind, nectar-drunk and plenty-eyed,
busy about the honey-glide. Wish I had enough eye to see
and ear to hear the single paean each sends through hive:
shopping lists of which nectar’s choice and where
the yellow dust pollen waits in sufficiencies.
I wonder do they dance of my garden and of me,
of the honeysuckle and the bells of the penstemon,
these soft-furred, furious things? A heartbeat in one;
a squeeze against the breastbone drawing on in drones;
sometimes still in secret strokings of antennae –
a sociable etiquette, wiping pollen from oval eyes;
more often a ritual vibration gives tongue to the hive nation.
A colloquy on the wing – mapping terrain since first
spring – claiming each flower between. The dance begins
on the landing board in feints; a single split from the whole,
stirs itself up, sloughing subtlety – all uppity – no longer
moving in general mass, but individuated articulated
energy. Perhaps it is ordered, orderly frenzy, but to me
it seems bee anarchy: dense, tense clenches of sound;
all wound up, and I batten down my body hatches at the
approaching buzz-flights, tightly wound as a spring
myself; bearing the agglomerated sound as long as I can.
Later, I still hear still feel the ghosts of their wings;
and visions of bees dancing entrance my dreams.

© Bracken Hall Wildlife & Countryside Centre, Glen Road, Shipley

Meadow walking with Moths

Summer burst with its glory into my corner of Airedale in the week leading up to the solstice; the sun having discovered that it could be brilliant again and sending down its heat; the magpies almost dazzle-shy from the reflections off the water; and the sky a porcelain blue overhead. I spent the precious mornings once got out of bed in this hot heady week like a bluebottle at the window, my heart dashing itself between chores against the panes of glass to be outside and about my walk. Heat with the smother of a blanket enrobed me when first out of doors, and then it sat like a baked stone in the mouth. The infinite palette of green and the flowers with their newness still upon them were chromatically burned onto my retinas, so that there was the ghost-blindness of them when I closed my eyes to summer’s wild happenings in the tucked-up shade of those nights. Outside, down the hill, past the canal and the boat club, the desiccated riverbanks dusted me as I clambered over squeezes in the dry stone walls, my dress trapping warmth and insects under it like a collector’s net or a bell jar; specimens for later. The river was lazy and slow, haloed with murmurations of flies, caught in the spangled reflections off the ripples of the water. I trained my strides to their pace, my gaze resting in dream-visions of sun-caught fire on water. It’s all going on in there, I thought. The gill-filtering fish; the spawn in its molecular gluts; the tadpoliest prefaces to frogs; the reeds and weeds quiescent to the river’s course; the silted clouds starting up round newts. But on the surface, there was just the gentle hum of fly-swarms and my thick thirst.

Every summer in some sense recalls the first summers I experienced when a girl and in it I recognise again the features of my child – my tadpole – self. The grass tickles now as it used to tickle bare legs under blue and white school summer gingham as I looked forward to an impossibly long holiday, like a thief waiting to steal into the hot outdoors. Every seasoned tree I now see in its already-antique, spring-lost green is descendent of those in Richmond Park, holder of the trees I used to climb, the bark sharp to the skin and the nooks within its shape ready to be dens. The baked sizzle of asphalt now summons memories of the baking of the roof tiles under my childhood windowsill when they radiated heat into summer evenings for dangling little feet to warm themselves on. In that impossibly furnace-like week, before the solstice and Midsummer’s Day would come to jinx everything, my eyes – like the eyes of the child inside me – were on stilts to cram in everything they could see.

Then came the rain, lording it over the last week or so, making the world soggy, the paths bogged, and the river almost solid with flood. I experienced walking only wetly and uncomfortably. Now it is the last day of June: plenty into summer, post-solstice, and more than midway through the year. All harum-scarum today, the year seems busy fashioning a gilded shell for itself to climb back into in autumn; its thought turned inward and busy and private. It is a day that casts its gaze forward to a cold winter to retire into. Or so it feels now with bulging rain clouds ominous above, cousins only once removed from the deluges that have been falling ceaselessly this week in days-long tyrannies of showers. The Aire is in spate, the weir at home overflown with it – nigh to bursting its banks with it; and the red clay chokes it, muddles the fish in it, so the fishermen by the way have an easier catch of it. The churning red makes some of the mallards fastidious of dipping a web-toe in its fast flow. This watery world is strong-currented, swollen, with whirlpools eddying near the banks ready to catch at the shanks of the unwary walker. The minnows’ spring shoaling to glean the warmth from the shallow water’s surface seems many weathers ago now. I would not have been a fish these last few days in the spated river, blind to the world and the fisherman’s hook, of a sudden tossed and tumbled in amongst the rocks, fast-driven and knocked about pell-mell. Only the week before under the blaze-balled sun the river was a sluggish, lucid drawl, its pace philanthropic to the fish in its run.

I have misgivings, caused by these sudden summer rain deposits, about the solidity of the path under me today as I begin my walk: my purpose to discover what lies beyond the patch of woodland at the base of the Chevin. The ground up top on this ancient ridge is millstone grit, so called because it was formerly a preferred substance for quarrying millstones; but today the foot of it is mud-locked. Avoiding the worst of it with walking on the grass either side of the track, still my feet suck into clay leaving deep foot wells behind me; something of myself on the way. In spite of this I make steady uphill progress under a thicket of branches, between tall stems of sorrel, grasses crowned with their heavy heads of seed, and nettles grown up tall as weeds. There is white clover at my feet along stretches of the path, but not further into the verges – the grasses won’t make room for it there – and, smiling, I am made like Olwen of the Mabinogion who sows flowers into legend with her steps. The way opens up from close quarters between trees into a meadow on the cusp of gold from green. Sending my eyes out across it, I see there is no evidence here now of winter dearth; any scars there were have been completely covered over with straight grassy glyphs searching upward for the sun behind its shroud.

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The air over the meadow is close. At first all I see in the shifting sea before me is the grass and the aged green, but gradually the eye trains itself to look more closely at spots of colour shifting among the screen of stems that are wattled and webbed together. Are those flutters? A distinctive clap of papery wings dragging a body up in the air with it, clumsy, colourful, its course unplotted and full of darting diversions. More of them, riding the undergrowth, give purpose to my steps as I pick one to follow. I send my feet after it, like untidy ploughs imperfectly bending the stalks of rough meadow-grass, and they start up clouds of ringlet and small skipper butterflies as I pass, their dusky soot and sunset wings flapping the air jubilantly. It’s a tussocky wilderness in here: a micro world of seed, spider and chrysalis husks on knapweed stalks; everything busy from first peep of dawn until the late long-day dusk. The narrow-bordered five-spot burnet moths have hatched here perhaps in the last week or so and are now busy drinking nectar, mating, and stretching their black and red wings, it seems, with relief after a week of rain-soaking. A couple, holding themselves delicately and tenuously among grasses, are wedded together in the quiet cool underworld of the meadow, perhaps to be meddled with by cobwebs and spiders as others have been. These meadow spiders have their nurseries under dew-crystalled canopies of cobwebs slung between the grasses. They loom them over their eggs with morsels in wait for their hatching. I tread carefully round them, spider-fearful and not wishing to crush their gauzy confections that are dew-lapped in the grass.

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Butterflies and moths do not like to be abroad when it rains: they hide themselves in the low-leaved nooks of their host plants or cling to the undersides of trees and hang there in stillness, letting a sort of catatonic calm settle over them. They do not sleep, but they enter a state approximating it. There are so many here today that I cannot see how they could all hide themselves from the wet. But, wonderful though it may seem, they have; and as soon as a dry dawn arrives they emerge again with a fevered industry, ready to mate and gather energy and begin the cycle again. They fly like thimble-sized hummingbirds for two months only, furiously working and laying their eggs under leaves. And then, weary at last and having ensured their progeny, they die.

Today, here among them, following them in circles, my joy sits on the wings of this day-loving moth.

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Looking for stag beetles I found instead…

Shipley glen is shrouded in mist as I make my start, for last night’s rains are already burning off under a sun beating to get through the lingering cloud. It could go either way, I think, but cavalierly shuck the idea of a rain coat like a too-cautious skin. Anyway, I’m aiming for cover: for nature’s putting-away and hiding place, the woods. The leaves will umbrella me if needed. I am all eyes down, for I have about me an express purpose today: today I will search out the liquorice-lacquered stag beetle – Scarabaeoidea – and like a child I of course hope to find the male of the species with its cumbersome and fearsome looking antlers. Pincers I’d always thought them; nippers; doers of harm and my soft brain had counselled caution. Not to go near, not to like, not to find it beautiful to carry your weapon of defence so outward and obvious. All its perfections on its head. Once, I had seen one outside my first remembered home traffic with a spider. And lose. It was dragged down a sewer cover in the end to an undisclosed but entirely known fate. I must have been little for all my memory is very close to the ground of that little battle.

No remarker of hawthorn blossom today I – and just as well for it’s nearly all over now; no noticer of the almost-adult goslings on their glides. The canal a brown be-petaled stillness beside me. Too open to the sky and moving feet, bike tyre and push-chair wheel here. But still I am studious at the sides of the path looking for its jet-black armour. It’s a kind of discipline, to hold the image in the mind’s eye – a glint of black making ponderous passage through last year’s leaves – and hope that by omnipotence of thought you’ll somehow conjure it to shuffling life. Any black thing is a tantalising promise for just a second until the eye discovers it as something else. More often than not the intrusions are dog litter, careless cast-offs by the way. There’s a claustrophobia in looking down into undergrowth so long and I want to turn up the face, stretch the back, and see the birds who are trilling their songs, but as I said this is a discipline and just my luck if I looked up and lost the sight of this click-carapaced wanderer. It’s a slow kind of walking that’s required in swervy zigs and zags. Were I a snail, I’d have limed the path in silver traces back and forth by now. But I don’t really expect him to show himself here: I’m waiting on Hirst Wood for my prize viewing.

There’s a close relief as I get under the canopy of the first few trees and breathe deep the mulchy, pulpy air. It’s thick and heavy under here: humid invisible presences like walls you walk through under the densest of the trees. The wood trying to air itself after the rain. And I should have thought about the mud as my impractical shoes sink and grapple. I tussle with a problem here which I had not thought to have – there is leaf mould in every direction of course so where best to look for the bashful beetles? There’s a loggery up ahead. That might yield something. But I look into all nature’s hidey-holes along the way, just in case, for these are the refuges I know will keep them: close, pent, safe for a secret mating. Into bored out tree trunks – made shells of their former selves by wood worm; under logs wet with last night’s rain. And all the while a chorus of loud dripping going on about me as the leaves shed the last drops of wet in heavy globes. At the stands of nettles and brambles I am defeated – beware all ye who enter here. A spiteful thought: that will of course be where they are hiding.

At the loggery I turn up the usual suspects under the smallest logs: woodlice almost made primordial in their see-through armour that the dark has not trained to colour; some worms wriggle about; and no doubt smaller things than I can see. I stand up and still disappointment takes me for a moment – and then in the periphery of my eye, a rustle of leaves. I look down in almost-welling hope and there’s a flash of grey-brown soft down. No stag beetle but something else. Tiny, delicate, pointy-nosed little fidgeter dives out from under the log to pull at leaves. Like a mouse, but not. The name won’t come, but I’m struck by an almost-recognition on the tip of the memory – something moley, casting me back to a Wind in the Willows or Farthing Wood childhood parody. That sooty brown coat, that whiskered sharp nose, the hiding eyes. Two of them now! I am so still beside the fallen tree limbs and other ‘whack’ that they’re safe enough to venture a sniff from out beneath the log and tease leaves back under with them. One look is to imagine one in my palm: its lightness, its smooth fur, the tiny bones, absorbing all the world – food, mate, danger – through its uplifted tapering snout.

It was, I later learned, a common shrew: sorex araneus. A whole realm of signification haunts this innocent snuffler. Wayward women we are told need taming: wives who berate, scold and prate at husbands worn down into the ground by it. How did you, little burrower, get weighed down by all this angst? Is it the pointy nose that struck a chord? Looking as though it would be in at everyone’s business: poking, prodding; nagging, attacking. But all I see is a dainty little rummager. Furtive flashes from the safety of the logs into the cool leaf mould show you to be indifferent to human mythologies. I stand and observe you in petrified stillness for a while lest I disturb. Then – nothing. You’ve hunkered down in your lair, I assume, but I still linger as if my reverent quiet will bring you out again. But no, no more. Don’t be greedy.

‘Beshrew me’ uttered in the antique sense was to call a curse down on oneself. But I felt the opposite on this day where I went out to see stag beetles and instead caught darting glimpses of shrews. Like so many of life’s adventures, misbegun; but in the slick-treed wood, errant hope got this exchange.