Friday, 31 October 2008

The Colour of Autumn

When at last we get a really cold snap of weather the trees get the message and turn their brilliant autumn colours. In England we don’t get those wonderful vibrant reds of the American New England natives but the many different greens of our native trees do take on orange, ochre and lime, yellows, rusts and browns, which give a beautiful, toning tapestry look to the landscape.

In gardens, sumach trees show us just how wonderful those foreign reds can be, and the odd red leaf oak looks stunning; the leaves of our garden cherries only a soft and pale imitation. The first foreigner to turn in my garden is the Amalanchier, which goes from green to mass of pinky red. The beautifully textured leaves of the Cornus kousa Chinensis turn a deep rich claret, those of the Malus a bright, light yellow.

Two of our best native trees for autumn colour are the hornbeam and beech which turn a rich copper, the hornbeam holding onto to its curling, brown paper rustling leaves throughout the winter. The leaves of our large weeping copper beach turn, surprisingly, from copper to almost green before - with the hardest frost – they turn steadily darkest orange to pale tangerine.

The grass beneath gradually becomes a rust-coloured carpet that parts satisfyingly as we walk through it. When the leaves have all fallen we will rake them up and use them as a mulch, piling them in situ in corners of the garden where no wind will send them skittering away. There they will stay until next spring, a thick warm blanket, protecting the bulbs, suppressing the weeds.

The oak tree is the last to turn, the leaves holding stubbornly on until its every neighbour is nearly denuded. Then, by Christmas, the wind will have taken these and sent them all over the garden to settle themselves like blankets under hedges and gates. Or we will find them, damp or dry, piled in between pots and plants.

Then, before we have had time to track them down and consign them to the compost bin, sneaky snow or ice will cover them, making a treacherous surface for the unwary who venture out without wellies.

Some people say that this is their favourite time of year, the air crisp, the colours so beautiful. But for me, Spring must be the best time with its promise of things to come. Although I must admit that the landscape now is mellow - the hedges trimmed, fields ploughed, verges cut - everything ready for a winter rest.

Out walking with Freddie today – himself the foxy colour of fallen leaves – this world seems still and quiet. A rabbit – wary and waiting – goes almost unnoticed against the bare brown earth until, suddenly, snow white tail up, it makes a dash for the hedge and home. Freddie sees it too late. A motionless pheasant - the iridescent emerald and pillar box red of its head surprisingly camouflaged in the landscape – thinks we are getting too near and suddenly scurries across the field to the safety of the wood edge.

The light is beginning to fade: tonight is All Hallows Eve when in days gone by bonfires were lit to the dying sun. Superstitions and ghosts, apples and nuts, games and wine were intertwined, all part of this night. It marks the end of the colourful season of autumn: winter’s ahead.


Sunday, 19 October 2008

Shakespeare's Sonnets & Simon Callow

Simon Callow was performing Shakespeare’s sonnets at the Tonbridge Arts festival. Simon Callow, on locally, how could we pass this up. “Shakespeare’s sonnets contain some of the most famous lines in the English language and yet nothing is known of the story behind them” reads the blurb.

In presenting this one man show, Master/Mistress of my Passion, Callow tries to show the audience that in fact Shakespeare’s sonnets tell a tale – they are a narrative that charts Bill’s infatuation with the ideal of beauty.

Apparently, Shakespeare met and admired Mary Sidney, the Earl of Pembroke’s mother and whilst at her pad saw a painting of her son, William Herbert, and was mesmerised. This boy came to personify the ideal of beauty to Shakespeare although he had yet to meet him. And this is where the sonnets start.

These are poems that praise the beauty and disposition of his young idol and are passionate poems of unrequited love:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

Shakespeare, the poet, is not the same as Shakespeare, the playwright. In the latter he is the writer of brilliant and entertaining plays that explore character. In the former, he is a philosopher investigating the question of Time and its effect. “Time triumphs over flesh, and Love over all”

Callow was quick to point out that Shakspeare’s crush was not a homeoerotic one but solely a passion for beauty. Eventually he met the beautiful young man who was not very impressed with Bill’s ardour and admiration. Young Herbert did not reciprocate the passion Shakespeare felt and Bill was miffed.

Slowly Shakespeare’s passion waned although one is hard pushed to tell from the contents of the sonnets. At the time, he had a mistress and some of the sonnets are addressed to her. Like many poems of the day the content was often very bawdy and, if we could have followed them a little more slowly, we might have been a little more shocked. Finally, Simon says, Bill and Will became good friends. Although, to me, Bill still seemed a little struck.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Simon’s reading of the sonnets were interspersed with madrigals sung by Quintus. These obviously suited the period but also gave the audience a break from the intensity of Callow’s rendition. With two bass, two sopranos, one counter tenor, one tenor and one contra-tenor it was quite a large group who sang the fugues quite beautifully without musical accompaniment. A lute player also performed at intervals although we found this rather tedious.

To really understand and appreciate the sonnets it needs a great deal of scholarship, attention and experience. To hear Shakespeare’s sonnets rendered so theatrically – in true Shakespearian actor style – meant that they were a little difficult to absorb. To have followed the written word would have helped or, if we had known what homework to do, we could have read them beforehand and got our ear in. It meant that much of it went over our heads.

In fact, our group of ten found the entire programme a little long. I suspect that many of us were remembering Callow’s excellent show on the life of Dickens. It had been on in the West End and the costume and content was really quite splendid. This show, it was felt, was but a pale imitation.

But Simon Callow did get me thinking: here was a reason to read the sonnets again armed with a little more knowledge about their background. And to have a man of Callow’s fame and ability, here, in the sticks, spouting Shakespeare: we would have been Philistines not to go.


Sunday, 12 October 2008

Put your faith in trees, not paper

In an uncertain world there are some things that are givens and the best of these have had as little to do with man’s tinkering as possible. One of them is the oak tree - a symbol of merry olde England if ever there was one. In a world that's in a constant state of flux at the moment it’s reassuring to learn that a natural feature can still be relied on to enhance our environment.

Oaks were native to Britain in the prehistoric era before they were finished off by the ice-age and driven southwards to warmer climes. Then, gradually, they made their way up from the Med into northern Europe again.

The tree was sacred to the Anglo-Saxons and Druids and by the middle ages the native oak, Quercus robur, grew extensively in woodlands throughout the south east and central areas of England. For centuries it's been used for timber framed houses and barns, cathedrals and churches: the wood warmed houses, the tannins preserved leather, ships were built of oak timbers.

But although we can now manufacture materials as durable as oak and more stable it is good to know that the oak tree still has a vitally important role to play. As far as biodiversity is concerned, the native oak tree supports more wildlife than almost any other tree. Over 400 species of insects and fungi can exist on one specimen which in turn attracts a wide variety of feeding birds and many small mammals.

The Turkey Oak, Quercus cerris, a native of southern Europe and further east, was re-introduced to northern Europe in the eighteenth century. It reached Britain in 1735 at the time of Trafalgar in an attempt to boost oak supplies for ship’s timbers. It is possibly the fastest growing of all oaks in this country and is easily identified by the winter buds and the acorn cups being hairy.

As our climate changes we have come to realise that the return of this oak may help our birdlife survive warmer temperatures. The Turkey oak’s particular claim to be truly beneficial is because gall-wasps like to lay their eggs on it. A gall forms round the eggs to protect them and birds (those such as tits which are now laying earlier in the year due to a warmer climate) rely on them to feed their young.

The oak has always featured in literature and here is a rhyme by Geoffrey Grigson that demonstrates just what a large part it played, from cradle to grave, in the lives of men throughout history.

Wae's me, wae's me!
The acorn is not yet
Fallen from the tree,
That's to grow the wood,
That's to make the cradle.
That's to rock the bairn,
That's to grow to a man
That's to lay me.

And it is still playing an important role in all our lives: it’s a small ecosystem all on its own and something we can continue to put our faith in. No matter what state your finances you can now gather an acorn, plant it deep in the earth and watch something worthwhile grow.