still summer morning
two sycamores’ raw embrace
holding on, always
still summer morning
two sycamores’ raw embrace
holding on, always
‘A strong emotion is like a storm. If you look at a tree in a storm, the top of the tree seems fragile, like it might break at any moment. You are afraid the storm might uproot the tree. But if you turn your attention to the trunk of the tree, you realise that its roots are deeply anchored in the ground, and you see that the tree will be able to hold. You too are a tree. During a storm of emotion, you should not stay at the level of the head or the heart, which are like the top of the tree. You have to leave the heart, the eye of the storm, and come back to the trunk of the tree…’
(Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist Master)
THE TREE stood on its own in a shallow dip, holding on, quietly. We passed it twice as we tramped the well-trodden path from the Brontes’ family home in Haworth, towards the ruined farmhouse of Top Withens – supposed inspiration for Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. The day was unusually still and bright – for this early in April; for this high up on the Yorkshire Moors.
“I wonder if Emily knew that tree?” said my companion. “I am sure she must have – it looks more than 150 years old.”
It was a strange and thrilling thing: to be here, looking at this shabby, crumpled tree, covered in lichen, bent over at the hip, as if crippled with arthritis, but still standing, weathering all its storms – and to stare into the face of history.
I have written about the Brontes before, here. The world is still obsessed with them: their gothic excesses, their prodigious, precocious talents. And Emily, wild child of the moors -dead at just 30 years old, in 1848 – was the most extravagant and untrammelled of them all.
The Japanese seem particularly enamoured: old wooden way posts to the Bronte Waterfalls and Top Withens are marked both in English and Japanese. It seems incongruous – too exotic by far – for such a quintessential Yorkshire scene: bleak and bare, even in the happy sunshine of our April visit.
The heather was still dry and dead – the path still waterlogged from winter storms and rain. There were certainly plenty of walkers about. Much happy chatter – dogs running, children shouting. But beneath it all: a well of silence. A quiet expanse of emptiness. And the blunt and beautiful Yorkshire moorland caught me, as it always does, and made me stop in my tracks, hold my breath.
In the middle of it all – unassuming, hanging back from the crowd, just as Emily herself did, according to sister Charlotte – was this solitary tree. A little anchor between past and present. Between the living and the dead.
I think Emily DID know and love this tree, as she loved everything that moved and grew on the moorlands where she lived and roamed. I am sure it gave her solace, in the middle of her wild wanderings – her desperate escapes from the difficult and suffocating life she lived, as an unmarried woman, in a Victorian time, in a buttoned-up country Parsonage. And if she didn’t, it doesn’t matter. Because I love this tree now. For the moment of sweet anchor it offered: on an ordinary day, in a perfectly ordinary life.
Hole in the stone wall
Window on another world
THE CLUMPS of snowdrops in the garden and in the park. Stems of daffodils, standing to attention on the high banks, yellow crocus in fat bud, lining the avenues. Even the squat and star-shaped leaves of bluebells, already lying in wait for their moment, later in May, in the little local wood. Everything tells the same story – down to the sour clods of mud, stuck hard on the bottom of boots, and the feathered fringes of my Thursday dog’s fur. Spring is on its way. And even the thinnest ray of sunshine, filtering through our grey northern clouds, brings a little skip to the heart, a lightness to the step.
We follow the seasons particularly closely, in a creative arts project I help to run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, for people with dementia and those who care for them. Bringing in the fruits of autumn – pumpkins, squash – and the signals of winter – bare branches, images of snow – helps stabilise us all, within the rhythms of the natural world. It is a concrete reminder, to minds that may be confused, and hearts that are sometimes sore with loneliness and worry, that we can always rely on one fact: the world that disappears, like Persephone, deep into the underground at the end of every year, will always return, come the spring.
Snowdrops are the first harbingers. Then, hot on their heels, come the gaudy yellows of narcissus, the soft mauves, whites and blues of the woodland flowers, and then the heavenly mass of forest bluebells. Everybody loves spring flowers.
And though there is talk in our sessions, sometimes, of a dark and wintry mood – of sadness at things lost: a once-nimble mind, a youthful body, friends and family that may be dead or far away – there is always a ready access to joy. People with dementia are often more direct, less inhibited, in their emotional expression: as if the pipeline to their mind, which has grown furred and blocked, has been re-directed, opened wider, straight into their hearts.
Singing, writing song lyrics and poetry, and dancing to the powerful rhythms of spring, brings genuine delight to this group – and to those of us who lead it. Always, people’s humour is diverting. Always, their creativity surprises and delights. Always, their own words and ideas are faithfully recorded and celebrated. In the last two weeks, new beginnings have been the dominant theme. Spring is calling everyone to attention.
Snowdrops have brought forth a tune of survival…”Snowdrops, snowdrops, snowdrops…Soft white petals, musty and sweet…smells like winter…pushing through the earth… Heralding the spring!” Parallels between the natural world – and the human need and determination to survive, to thrive, whatever the odds – are never far away. “The light makes the shoots come through/Coming out from the dark earth/Flowers dancing, swaying, springing back/They won’t break/I won’t let them…” The whole of life is starting to pulsate. “One bird feeding… a whole flock comes gliding… dancing through the sky.” “Lovely to feel the sun on your face…What a relief!… Spring has sprung.”
My colleague, singer songwriter Fran Woodcock, co-presents the dementia-friendly Our Time workshops and provides all the glorious music that accompanies our exploration of images, words and movement. Visit her website here.
Nicky Taylor, Community Development Manager at West Yorkshire Playhouse, has pioneered all the dementia-friendly work in the theatre. Her latest triumph is a ground-breaking festival of theatre for people with dementia. Read about it here
late winter haiku
clamped against the cold
bird in the bare black branches
Deep winter stillness
Two limbless trees embracing
Sighing for the spring