February 2013


In ancient times we think that people believed their metal tools were alive, and had souls. I am currently reminding my students of this while we learn about smelting copper and smelting iron. We take all these metals for granted and I want to give them a hint of the magic of it all, the wonderful leap in our technology. We, thousands of years ago, even went as far as burying metallic tools and weapons as if they were people. We now know that these things aren’t alive, or are they…..

Tonight I arrived home a little later and wanted to get some wood cut before darkness arrived. I have come to the conclusion that working with a chainsaw in the dark is a little dangerous. I got all the wood out, the chainsaw out, the safety helmet out, and the cutting horse all set up. The saw was revved up and I started cutting while the little man pottered about on his tricycle shouting “NOISE! NOISE!”. I didn’t get far with the cutting before I realised that the chain was blunt and needed sharpening. I have a special tool for this somewhere…..

I looked in the toolboxes, and on the workbench, and around the workbench and in the wood shed, and on the potting table. Then I looked in the toolboxes, and on the workbench, and around the workbench and in the wood shed, and on the potting table again. The light was fading. I started getting desperate. Inside the house I looked in the kitchen, in the living room, and around the computer desk. Nothing. At this stage it was nearly dark, so I angrily gave in. All the wood cutting equipment was put back in a very grumpy manner.

Finished with the wood, and finished with any thought of doing any kind of work for the night, I went to close up the garage. Just as I was about to walk out the door my eye caught a glimpse of the tool. I reached over and pulled a fallen piece of cardboard away. I stared at the tool. We stood in silence for a few minutes just staring at each other, and under my breath I vowed that someday I will bury the dark soul of that tool so deep in the earth that it will never hear the noise of a chainsaw ever again.

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7:45 am found me sitting in my car, in an alley, eating muesli out of a tupperware box. I like to get into the city early as it means I spend less time sitting going nowhere on the car park they call the M2 motorway. Today was my annual visit to University. They wheel me out and dust me off every year to deliver a workshop on the use of ICT in science teaching. This year I felt the same as last year, I felt like a bit of a fraud. After delivering the same material year after year it feels lacking in innovation. Then I convince myself that the purpose is not to be innovative, it is to be practical, instructive, and if I can manage it, a little bit inspirational. I convince myself, then I power up my laptop and remind myself that my powerpoint has one hundred and fourteen slides. I have to make sure they don’t see that at the start, that could crush them on a Monday morning. A cruel twist is that one of the first slides is all about the misuse of powerpoint. Leaving the car and the alley way, I head to Botanic Avenue to fuel up with strong black coffee.

The day went well, I no longer feel like a fraud. I met a group of enthusiastic and inquisitive teachers, and I feel encouraged by all their questions.

After the day is over I rush home to try and chase the light, try and turn over some soil. I am just in time to catch some bees returning home with tiny amounts of snowdrop pollen. This is the first I have seen them out and about since the autumn of last year. It is an unexpected sight as some minuscule patches of un-thawed ice are still lying in the northerly shadows of the garden.

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The bee’s industriousness inspires me to throw myself into the garden. The biggest vegetable patch is dug over. The little man turns up and helps with the digging. He meticulously turns over a small corner. After a while his mind turns to poking various parts of the soil with sticks. I feel like he is assessing my work. The greenhouse is stripped out and washed, and my mind turns to planting. I have plans to begin the tomato seeds and broad beans in the greenhouse. The lovely Sharon tells me that it is far too early this far north. Having taught horticulture I really should listen to her, but I can feel the pull of spring and am mesmerised by its promises.

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Before it is too late I plant cloves of garlic. They say that garlic must be planted before the last frost. I have read that it needs to feel the icy grip of the waning winter before it launches itself from the earth. I suspect that there are only a few more frosts left, so we might be just in time.

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the sun sets in the west

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the moon rises in the east

The sun sets, and I turn the soil, the moon rises, and I turn the soil. Gardening into the darkness has a strange romance about it. The light changes dramatically. Even the smell in the air changes. Cool earthy soil turns into icy wood smoke as fires are lit and the still air sinks around the cottage. Along with a cold face and hands, there are other disadvantages to gardening in the dark as the temperature drops. The ritualistic chore of cleaning the tools takes on a new dimension. The habit is lost tonight and they are left in an abandoned mess, all clotted with frozen earth.

Closing the gates

Orion is slipping sideways, chasing Jupiter.
This mighty hunter will catch it in a hundred days or more.
Catch and release; the noble dance.

The Full moon plods on, ignoring the hunt.
They march to sidereal time, a near eternal heaven.
A clockwork cast, oblivious to their audience.

Fields glow silver under the Celtic ice moon.
Hidden in the shadows hungry foxes slink.
Ravenous badgers shuffle, following cold scented air.

I am stunned into silence under this frigid sight.
It freezes my thoughts as it warms my soul,
On this, the edge of winter.

One hour of sleep was all I had. I went to bed at twelve and woke up at one. The lovely Sharon was ill, feverish and needed fluids, needed pain relief, she needed warmth, and she needed to be held. This only lasted for a short while until the little man needed, began to stir. He too was feeling unwell and needed me beside him to assure him that all was well and he could sleep. He eventually fell into a deep enough sleep for me to slip away as the little lady began to wake up and demand her feed.

For a while I read as I fed. Then the moon caught me in its spell. I watched the moonset slowly between burps. Her un-lady-like noises didn’t detract from the moon’s beauty. This little belching baby has her own beauty and her own spell over me, more powerful than a million moons.

Back to the lovely Sharon, then back up to the little man. Eventually he fell to sleep again and I lay on the floor beside him regretting bringing up my dressing gown and a single thin blanket. I clung to him for warmth just as the lovely Sharon clung to me only a few hours ago. Eventually he drifted off again and I lay on. I could have gone back to bed, but I stayed. By this stage it was only a short while until the little lady would be hungry again. I knew the lovely sharon didn’t need me, as her codeine and paracetamol had kicked in. I just lay there anyway and felt my bones all incorrectly aligned on little man’s bedroom floor. I lay there and let the cold seep into me as the sensation in my left side seeped out.  In a state of half sleepiness I lay there until the cockerel woke up and began to shout at the dawn. There is a thick wall between the chickens and my bed. Between them and the little man it’s only a window and a few feet of cold pre-dawn air. The little lady began to add her own unique crowing soon after. Time for a feed, time to ‘wake’.

Sometimes we throw a handful or two of grit in to the chickens. This morning I asked the lovely Sharon to call into the farm supplies to pick up bag if she got a chance. I arrived home to find her all pleased with herself after getting me seventy five kilograms of grit. That’s more than her own weight in limestone. I was genuinely lost for words. I think I might have just nodded and said, “right……right then…….ok.”

I’m not sure if they are remarkably intelligent or remarkably dim witted. My curiosity first got roused a few days ago when I opened their run to give them freedom.  This is a frequent event for the chickens, a little free range potter around the garden every few days.  Usually I open the door and they dash past me and straight to the back garden.  They make a beeline for the base of the old plum tree to devour any fallen seeds from the bird feeders.  A few days ago they broke pattern.  Specifically three of them broke pattern and habit, and choose to stay in the run looking carefree.  Three days later it happened again, with the same three looking down at their feet and looking nonchalant.  Then I wondered… do they know something the others don’t? Is there a fox about?

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The foxes are something we never ever see here.  We hear them attempt break ins in the small hours.  We hear them barking in the parts of the morning that are too early to really be morning.  Their barks are a strange kind of ghostly howl, unearthly; but we never see them.  Instinct has trained them to keep well away from humans here, specifically the shotguns.  Today I heard a discussion about the fox attack on a baby.  It seems most likely that this may be a mistake of human behaviour and not fox behaviour.  I’m not talking about anything the family may have done, I am talking about the habit that has been growing.  A habit of feeding the foxes and even letting them into our own homes like their domesticated cousins.  These foxes have no more fear of us or our houses.

I never bumped into any foxes tonight.  I stumbled around in the darkness in my squelching wellies with my head torch shedding small light on a narrow patch of the garden.  I was adding wood ash to the fruit bushes and trees.  All winter we have been hoarding all our wood ash and we are clueless about its use.  I know only three things for certain.  One is that it must not be added while there is too much rain.  The second thing I know is that if I leave it too long then my father in law will tell me that I left it too late.  The third thing I am certain of, is now that I have added it, my father in law will tell me I added it too soon.

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Tonight I noticed the ground was a little drier.  I then noticed that the weather forecast said very little about any pending big atlantic low looming on the horizon.  I stole a half hour away from the little man and the little lady after their bedtime, and I went night gardening…

Today I fed my daughter for the first time.  It seems so short a time, but the practical nature of the world is tugging at us, and we are moving her on to the bottle.  If truth be told I am pleased, as it means I can be a bigger part of her world now.

Yesterday I visited St George’s market and loaded myself up with fruits, vegetables, fish and coffee.  I also noticed that the book man had a refresh of stock.  I was running behind time and couldn’t give the new arrivals the time they deserved.  I would have left the stall feeling a little deflated if I had not spotted Jizzen. This little collection was published over a decade ago and I have so far been unable to get my hands on a copy.  As soon as I spotted it there was no question.  Today and yesterday I have been devouring it and I have to say that, so far, it is my favourite of Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections. Jizzen means childbed, and the collection includes poems about her carrying, giving birth to, and caring for her newborn daughter.

This is how I found myself, doing a series of unmanly things.  I found myself in a cafe with my daughter in my arms.  I found myself without the lovely Sharon or the little man who had both went for a walk in the park.  I found myself feeding the little lady and sipping coffee.  I found myself mesmerised by her for long periods of time.  Then, here’s where I made my biggest mistake, I found myself reading poetry about children and life.  Powerful poetry.  Overwhelming. I found myself trying to stop myself from crying.

After a while the coffee was gone, the milk was gone, and I became convinced that the last of the little lady’s burps were gone.  The shoppers had all topped themselves up with tea and scones before they all began to drift off home.  By this stage I had regained my composure and spotted the last people begin to leave the cafe.  This is where we have to rely on the kindness of strangers and the cuteness of little babies.  I had nothing but myself, my daughter, a poetry book, and an empty bottle of milk.  I asked a lady if she could hold the little lady for a minute while I put on my cardigan and coat. As I left her standing with my magnetic daughter the cafe staff sensed a kind of ice was broken and moved in to gaze at her and enquire how new she was to this world.  They had been watching me, and as I cradled my baby back into my chest one of them said that it was not often that they see a man do such things.