The Scribe in Me.

The Scribe in Me.

24th June - A Blackbird flies into my life.

This morning my beautiful daughter and I had breakfast on the patio in glorious sunshine. We had no sooner tucked in when a blackbird hopping hither and yon, called in great distress. Initially we watched, wondering what it was that upset this beautiful creature. Then we began to investigate, breakfast forgotten.

It's iridescent plumage had sheens of other colours and I in my ignorance couldn't tell if it were male or female. The next thing you know the cat slinks from beneath the car. Both of us, in unison, exclaimed that she was the most likely culprit. And so began our search for an injured bird, or stray feathers at least, all the while admonishing the cat for not going against its nature. There was no corroborating evidence though, nothing. We continued with our breakfast mystified. 

The blackbird continued chirruping and hopping over and back. It was for all of its off kilterness fascinating to observe, but, we felt helpless too, useless. It was only when we brought the breakfast tray back inside that we discovered the answer, for there sitting on the bookshelf beneath the stairs was the comrade blackbird.

It stared at us beady eyed, head tucked into itself, tired and clearly terrified. We were both startled, and decided we had to overcome our own fears and help this creature back to its mate, who was still calling outside, still pacing to and fro.

There were two of us, six doors and a flight of stairs to negotiate and the last thing we wanted to do was upset it anymore. So we closed all doors except the one to the outside. I stood on the stairs with a bath towel over my head, doing my best to prevent it flying upstairs. My daughter, the heroine, bless her, got a soft pillow case, wrapped the bird gently in it and proceeded to release it to the wild. Then we both hugged each other as we watched them reunite through the bay window. Such an honour. 

So why were we so terrified of this little winged creature? There is a terror in the responsibility, in matching your human might with the bird's apparent frailness. What if you made matters worse? There was too that thing about birds in a house being portents of doom and neither of us wanted to be trifling with that.

Blackbirds are usually considered a good omen. They are also associated with travel to the Otherworld and it being so close to midsummer, one has to wonder. There are mysteries in there and sometimes mystery ought to remain just that. 

Druid legends tell of  Rhiannon's three blackbirds which sit and sing in the world tree of other worlds. Their singing puts the listener into a trance which enables them to travel to the otherworld where they impart mystic secrets. Time to pay particular attention to my dreams and my meditations.

When blackbird flies into your life 'tis time to sit up and take notice. The magic and mystery of the underworld surfaces in your life. Essentially it is time to acknowledge your power and use it to its fullest.

In Gaelic they are called Lon Dubh. The beautiful song of the blackbird makes it a symbol of temptations, especially sexual ones. There is the story of St Benedict who was tempted by the devil in the form of a blackbird, to lust, a state he was only cured from by hurling himself into a thorney bush, naked. Now if you believe that you’ll believe anything. I have no such plans, I plan on celebrating my sensuality thank you very much.

There is also the story of St Kevin of Glendalough, who was praying hands outstretched upwards when a blackbird laid her eggs in his palm. The saint remained still until the eggs hatched and the brood flew the nest. Now there is a good man. Then again there is the nettles story, but I digress.

The blackbird is thought to be one of the three oldest animals in the world along with the trout and the stag. They represent the air, water and earth. I hope they nest in my grove, but I totem them there anyway.

In Ireland, blackbirds warn of rain when their cries are particularily shrill. 

P.S. 28/06 - I never remember my dreams and when I do it is because I am supposed to. This is why I call them Celtic Visions. My first house was a cottage in rural Ireland and I lived alone there. There was a sweet old man who took on the role of my guardian and every week he walked from the bottom of the hill to my house with the aid of his walking stick to check in on me. He has long since passed and may he rest in peace. He woke me in a dream this morning, calling me to get up. Strange. I see it as a good portent though. Messages from the other world, and so it begins.

17th May - House Martins colonise my eaves.

This morning I pegged white cotton sheets to the clothesline in balmy 15 degrees and watched them unfurl in the gentle breeze. The freshly mown grass at my feet verdant and green. All the while the House Martins flit industrously about me, alighting at the eaves in their flurry of nest building.  Little wonders of nature that have migrated from Morocco brought back by their homing instincts, to nest and to brood in the place that they were born. It is the simple things in life that give the most pleasure. What a privilege.

House Martins build a closed cup nest from mud pellets under the eaves of buildings, usually in colonies and usually on the north face. So far there are 19 nests with one or two of them semi-detatched.  I'd like to think that my eves are like Ashford Castle to the Martins, but, in reality I know that my eaves are probably a bit like the Best Exoctic Marigold Hotel. Certainly there isn't opulent luxury though they do hold a certain charm. My eaves are clean and sturdy, rustic and scenic and most of the time they are peaceful and calm, and well tucked up away nice and dry from the cats paws.

Known as the "Guest(s) of summer" they are amazing to watch. They scoop down to the banks of the stream at the bottom of the field. They gather scoops of mud in their wings, only to flutter and prattle their way back to the nest, building it in a neat seamless weave..."his pendant bed and procreant cradle." The nests are works of art if ever I saw one. Sometimes they have a showdown with the House Sparrow who tries to commandeer their abodes, to no avail I might add, theese birds are fiesty, they guard their patch.

"This guest of summer,

The temple-haunting martlet, does approve         

By his loved mansionry that the heaven's breath

Smells wooingly here.

No jutty, frieze,

Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird

Hath made his pendant bed and procreant cradle;

Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed. (1)

 

All birds their nests and eggs are protected by the Wildlife & Countryside Act of 1981. This makes it an offence, to deliberately take, damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird while it is in use or being built. It is also illegal to take or destroy the egg of any wild bird. This species is on the decline and  Martin colonies have declined by as much as 65%.

House Martins have black/blue backs, white underside and a distinctive white rump and a much shorter tail. The shape of the birds’ wings allow them to glide, swoop and dive, making sharp turns while flying at high speeds as they chase after insects over lakes, rivers and fields, which is great for us as they help to keep the gnat population down.

The House Martin is a lucky bird its said that any house it builds its nest on is forever blessed with happiness. I am lucky they have chosen my eaves and they are as welcome as the flowers in May, sure they are no trouble at all.

(1)The air is delicate." (Macbeth, Act I, scene VI).

8th May - Cuckoo Call

"The Cuckoo comes in April. He sings his song in May. By June he changes his tune and then he flies away." 

That is a quote direct from the Folklore Collection available from duchas.ie. Yesterday, two lovely things happened simultaneously: first; a friend sent a recording of the Cuckoo taken in situ about 10km away from where I live, and second; a friend suggested I check out the duchas.ie website. Both happenings are the inspirations, the "imbas" for this creation. 

There are 1,736 references to the Cuckoo and stories surrounding this elusive and mischevious bird in the Folklore Collection alone. So, it is safe to assume this bird commands a high status in Irish myth. Sadly, we do not hear the Cuckoo so much nowadays. As a child I recall it being a common, taken for granted thing.

We knew by instinct to turn to the right when first hearing the Cuckoo call as it was luckier to hear it with your right ear. If you were really poxy at the time and you had some money in your pocket it was even better still, as hearing the Cuckoo foretold prosperity. If you asked it a secret question like "How soon until I am married?" the number of Cuckoo replies would be the amount of years until that event would take place. I can vouch for this being true, both my cousin and I  can actually.  The Cuckoo song also heralds a spell of bad weather known as the "Scaraveens"

"Scaraveen" is one of those Irish words that was part of my Nire Valley lexicon. There were many Hiberno-English-isms like that, words like "sceartán" (tick) or "míoltóg" (midge) are still in everyday use. These are words which one may not immediately understand without their translation into English. The tone of voice with which the word was said gave as much away as the word itself. "Scaraveen" derives from the Irish phrase "garbh shíon na gCuach" – "the rough weather of the Cuckoo". This gradually became "garbh shion", then "Garaveen" and, finally, "Scaraveen".

The Cuckoo spends a few months in Ireland every year. It places her eggs in other birds nests; in fact she wreaks much havoc because lays as many as four eggs at a time in up to 20 nests and in the process evicts the original eggs out of those nests. That is a lot of eggs and a lot od displaced chicks. Cuckoos are the serial killers of the bird world. I recall seeing them as grey black birds, smaller than pigeons and hawk like, being agile in flight and nearly always in the company of other birds.

What is it about this creature that gets to us? Why do we like them so much? On the face of it, their natures are not very endearing, they are interlopers, and savage when they visit us, murdering up to 20 chicks per nest in the process. They then leave their eggs to be hatched and fed by other birds and in their final act of betrayal they leave their own offspring to find their own way back to warmer climes in the autumn. It is real survival of the fittest stuff. You're on your own Jack. 

The cuckoos are generally a shy and retiring family, more often heard than seen. Their birdsong is simply the repetative cuckoo sound,  technically, there is nothing so special about it at all. Yet, it epitomises nostalgia, a bygone era, it is a familiar sound from childhood, a summer sound. This bird is celebrated as a symbolic marker for nature. It is recognised by it's distinguishable twofold cry which echoes across hills and valleys, yet we rarely see one. There is mystery in that. It is as if the Cuckoo does us a favour, like we are the chosen one to hear it. And we are, that is the thing. We are indeed blessed.

The Ancient Druids had a sect that studied the behaviour of birds and believed it were possible to divine prophecy based on their insights. Diodorus Siculus, an ancient Roman writer, told of Druids who predicted the future from the flight of birds.

"An Irish version of the Historia Brittonum, by the Welsh historian Nennius, includes an ancient poem which refers to six Druids who lived at Breagh-magh and who practiced 'the watching of birds'." 

Part of this tradition of 'the watching of birds' survives in Irish piseogs. One such piseog states that you should listen to sharp-tongued people and the Cuckoo. Another;

"Má labhríonn an chuach ar chrann gan duiliúr díol do bhó agus ceannaigh arbhar.-

If the cuckoo calls from a tree without leaves, sell your cow and buy corn."

Here the cuckoo gives a warning of the season to come. If the tree on which it is perched, is barren, one would be wise to sell the clan's riches, (which ancient Irish measured in cows) and buy corn. 

And another warning, (from Mawie Draoi) it is very unlucky to hunt, maim or kill a Cuckoo or to break it's eggs. It is considered the ultimate act of treachery and no good would come to you if you do. 

19th April - Chaffinches in my garden.

This morning I watched two Chaffinches forage for seeds in my garden. I was fascinated by their presence there. Both were colourful and I think male, though I am no expert. It was a fascinating thing for me to watch, the symmetry and industriousness of them both, foraging away without a care in the world, and all in my garden.

I have the privilege of noticing these things as I have time to stare out of the window these days, normally I am dashing out the door. And me being me, I can't help believing that everything is for a reason. Research tells me that Irish chaffinches are sedentary, with most breeding pairs returning to the same nest site year after year. So this lot have set up home in my garden. I have a Chaffinch village.

The Latin name of this bird, 'coelebs' is derived from the Latin for 'bachelor' and these two are finely decked out. Chaffinches first breed when they are one year old and are mainly monogamous.  One of their greatest gifts to us is their song. To me and my Druid way of thinking they are the 'teachtaire' – messengers. Irish draoi (druids) were said to be able to prophesise the future from the movement of birds. I have no idea what these two batchelors are telling me, but something. 

The collective noun for Goldfinches: a Charm. How apt – the birds are vivacious, colourful and noisy, from the Latin 'Camina' meaning 'song.' When two smartly dressed batchelors come singing into your garden you have to take notice don't you?

Legends abound about the colour of Chaffinches plumaging coming from the time one perched upon the cross to Calvary, where a Goldfinch plucked a thorn from the crown around his Christ's head and some of his blood splashed onto the bird as it drew the thorn out. (A similar story is told about the Robin). Chaucer’s Cook is thus described: '…gaillard he was as a goldfynch in the shawe…' – as merry as a goldfinch in the woods. You know when there are Christ legends and they make it into the Canterbury Tales that they are indeed special.

The one that fascinates me most though is the legend that surrounds Valentine’s Day. If the first bird a girl sees on that day is a Bluetit, she will live in poverty; a Blackbird foretells marrying a clergyman; a Robin tells of a sailor; and if she sees a Woodpecker she will be left an old maid. If the first bird she sees is a Goldfinch, however, she is promised a wealthy marriage… Hmm, curious.

In Ireland we believe that Chaffinches haunt the realms of The Other Crowd, and they will always be seen around the raths (Fairy Forts), ancient mounds and in thorn trees. Given that I live betwixt some Sidhe mounds that would make a lot of sense. As children we knew that if they perched on our windowsills it was a sign of treachery and singing was a sign of rain. For now they are doing what Chaffinches do and they are so welcome in my garden.

 

6th April - Ravens in my garden

There are two glossy black Ravens in my front garden. I'm fascinated. They are picking tufts of recently mown grass into their beaks, and it surprises me how much they can gather altogether. They must be nesting near. I wonder if they are a couple, or teo sisters, or mothers.

Their glossy plumage is entirely black. Both have long wings, a long, diamond-shaped tail and a pronounced head and their wings look serrated in flight. I think they are nesting in a nearby oak and this excites me no end.

To Druids, the Ravens are the messenger of the Gods and  often represent Goddessess. They are associated with battle and prophecy. I can't help feeling that they are trying to tell me something. And because today is my daughter's birthday, it has got to do with her.

In Norse mythology two Ravens, Hugin and Munin (thought and memory), are associated with the god Odin. The birds were sent out into the world at dawn to gather information at Odin’s behest, and would return at dusk to perch on his shoulders and whisper their news into the god’s ears.

In Irish mythology Ravens are associated with warfare and the battleground in the figures of Badb and Morrígan. The goddess Morrígan alighted on the hero Cú Chulainn's shoulder in the form of a Raven after his death. 

These are carrion birds and thus have associations with the transition from life to death. from this world to the other world. Badb is a war goddess who takes the form of a crow, and is thus sometimes known as Badb Catha ("battle crow"). With her sisters, Macha and the Morrigan or Anand, Badb is part of a trio of war goddesses known as the three Morrígna. Two of them are in my garden and because I know they are forraging for soft things to line their nests with I know it is not an ill portent. I intrepret it as a warning though, I am about to face some challenge. I am aware too that she also predicts victory and a time of peace.

'Peace up to heaven. Heaven down to earth. Earth beneath heaven, Strength in each, A cup very full, Full of honey; Mead in abundance. Summer in winter...'

Badb  is also the sister of Ériu, Banba and Fódla, the three matron goddesses of Ireland, who give their names to the land. So I am very honoured indeed that she visits my gaff. whatever faces me will become apparent and I will bear it too.