Tuesday, 22 April 2008

If I were a hawfinch, where would I be?

Sunday was a momentous day for me. I finally screwed up my courage, unlocked my bicycle from the bike stand in George Square, near my office, and rode it up and down the hills of the city to my home near the sea. I have a bus phobia, as in, I fear being flattened by a doubledecker bus while careening along on my bicycle. Thus I'm so not into the riding on the main roads.

I read this lines and find this simply ridiculous. I was a motorbike riding fiend in Cambodia, and I can't ride a bicycle in Edinburgh. WHY? WHY? In my defense, my phobia is rooted in an actual near death-by-bus experience from when I was 10 and had insisted on my ability to ride a bicycle to school in Oxford... And they just swoop by you, missing you by inches, and... Agh. Can't do it.

Okay, so I got halfway home, buffeted by wind and breathless, and then the domes of the glasshouses of the Botanic Gardens rose up out of the city. I dismounted the bicycle, which had a Very flat tire by now, locked it up, rooted around in my bag for my binoculars--which British birders call Bins. Have you got your bins? Lovely.... And went in search of a hawfinch.

There's one in the photo below, from a few posts back. But I have yet to see one in the winged flesh. They are hard to see. They hang out quietly way up in the canopy of trees, munching on fruits like cherry which they crack with their fierce beaks. And I had heard, somewhere, that the Botanics in April were the best place in Edinburgh to see a hawfinch. Ergo the bins in the handbag.

Well. Well, the Botanics are strangely full of trees. All kinds. All heights. And shrubs, in fact. Flowers and bushes and even thickets. I got in amongst the wandering crowds--loads of children in prams, loads... And while everyone else eyed the lovely shrubbery, I wandered around like a lost child trying to see some birds.

There was, however, not a bird to be seen except for the occasional gull and crow. There was the sound of birds. I was surrounded by birdsong, more calls and whistles and shrieks and rattles than you can imagine. But not even a glimpse of the singers. After about thirty minutes I realized what an extraordinary thing it is to be simply focused on sound. The paper like curls of a tree's bark filled the world when I wandered one way, the rustle of bamboo when I wandered another. And the birds, louder and louder. I wandered in a daze, looking up into the canopy, aloft on a sea of sound, lost in the tops of the trees shaking against the dome of the atmosphere.

Finally, I wandered out into something more like a traditional English park. And then, in that odd way birds have of upsetting one's expectations entirely, there were birds everywhere. Blue tits, great tits, chaffinches, magpies, sparrows, dunnocks. All ordinary common birds to a birder, singing their hearts out, pulling me into another world entirely. And then, when I had given up on seeing new birds entirely and was just happily engaged in sorting out which bird makes which kind of noise--a small brown bird fluttered by, and landed on the trunk of a nearby tree. I looked idly in its direction and realized that I had never before seen such a bird.

This is, by the way, one of the reasons I bird. How often does one spot a new mammal? But in the avian world, entirely new creatures are there for the seeing, day after day, region after region....

It was a lovely bird. It sat, perfectly still, as people strolled within arm's length of it. It was shaped like a teardrop, with a forked brown tail. Its belly and chin were white, its beak was hooked, its feet were pink and had a long long hindclaw. Its back was brown, but it redefined brown. Through my binoculars its feathers were an intricate mosaic of brown and black triangles and chevrons. Its eyes were bright black peppercorns. And finally, it moved. It tilted its head from side to side, then hopped, laterally, to another portion of trunk, and began to creep upwards, gently probing the edges of the bark for insects.

It was, in fact, a treecreeper. A beautiful brown bird that creeps up trees. It was perfect.

I did not see what I set out to see. But something found me. Praise be.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Mine own romantic town

They're not my words. They belong to Sir Walter Scott, and they are about the castle in Edinburgh. Yesterday was Historic Scotland's public day, which means that the castle was free to the public. So I went, for the first time, up into the place I have gazed upon so fondly and so long.

It was fabulous. But I prefer Sir Scott's words to my own, and so here is his stanza:

Such dusky grandeur clothed the height
Where the huge castle holds its state
And all the steep slope down
Whose ridgy back heaves to the sky
Piled deep and massy, close and high
Mine own romantic town.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

an odd dreaming of birds and snakes

I’ve started dreaming about birds. They are always
different in my dreams than they are in life— larger, stranger.
One night it was a scarlet avocet,
black as night, with crimson Chinese characters
inked upon its back. One night it was hawfinches,
larger than hawks, their beaks thick as rods of steel
and their heads dimpled like the top of an apple.
Sometimes they are indistinguishable but large as elephants,
in pine forests that tower against the sky.

Maybe these landscapes are so large because
my life feels small just now, constrained,
my life lived within offices and in chairs in front
of monitors, with only my mind active, and yet
even that chained to the form of academic writing.
Natalie Goldberg once urged writers to think of
structure as a necessary skeleton, or like the skin
of a snake, that could be stuffed full with whatever
you liked, but had to be recognizable as a snake.
I haven’t done very well accepting that I need to
build a snake right now and have been wrestling
around with the form, frustrated. Perhaps it is a
useful metaphor to embrace. Perhaps I need to see
this week as making its spine, one weird vertebrae
at a time, laying them into their lovely interlocking
pattern. Maybe the birds are my desire to escape,
but it is a blessing to be on this journey towards
a PhD at all. Perhaps I had best be on my guard,
to guard this feeble little serpent of a project from
the fey eye of the eagle circling in the currents far

A Late Reflection on the Death of Jesus

This reflection by Marty Wroe was good to sit with and meditate with on Good Friday, and I wanted to share it, even now, Easter long past.

After Jesus drank the wine, he said,
Everything is done! He bowed his head
and died.
John 19.30

That’s all, folks!
Show’s over.

Let’s go home, nothing left to see,
Jesus has left the building.

Has left us all.
Has gone.

Who’d have thought it would come to this?

History colliding with mystery.
In the beginning was the Word and the Word
is now sentenced.
Full stop.
Close quotes.
New paragraph.

Whatever ‘everything’ is…
‘Everything’ is now complete.

Things seen, things unseen.
And things in between.

Everything that was started has finished.
Every beginning has found its loose end,
all thoughts been taken to their logical conclusion.
And any others.
At this moment, on this day,
we have seen it all.
A God bows his head respectfully
and dies.

Everything dies.
Life dies.
Death dies.

Everything is done.
Except love.

Only love is not done.
Only love will not die.
Everything is finished except love.

Love bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.

At some point everything will be done.
Except love.

Love is never done.

Thursday, 3 April 2008


Here is a picture of a place that will probably closely resemble the village where I'm bound come July and then in January 2009 for a year--though I'm hoping for a little more vegetation, perhaps foolishly... Here are the website photos of my church--Saint James--and our Easter prettiness. I made those butterflies; the children made them more beautiful. I am an Origami Queen.
And here is my friend Ruth's photo of our fair city in the snow--it's Dickensian, and also o so atmospheric.
I leave now in three months and my heart and mind tracks between these alternating landscapes--landmined village, wintery city, church community... Juxtapositions, it is.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

bird joke, aka Lisa tries to display her jolly side

Which bird is always out of breath?

A puffin’