Monday, 22 February 2016

Of high tides and floods

Written on 11th February 2016:

Yesterday was a spring tide, and the Thames in Twickenham flooded the local park and submerged the wheels of  bicycles and cars parked along the riverside. These exceptionally high tides might not be good news for inattentive motorists, but they bring out a spirit of freedom and joy among people. We talk to each other and stop to gaze at the ducks, geese and swans swimming around park benches and parked cars. Children and dogs frolic in the water, indifferent to the cold. People take out mobile phones and begin clicking away, while more serious photographers arrive with cameras slung round their necks to capture the changing landscape, the human interactions with birds and dogs, and the play of light on water. Yesterday, high tide came as the sun was setting, turning the water to pink and gold as it rippled with the movements of a soft breeze. All this made me reflect on the intimate intensity of our relationship with weather.

This has been a week of pastel skies, glorious dawns and gentle sunlight, heralding the arrival of spring. The houseboat has swayed gently on the rising tide, its whispers and shivers becoming a rocking lullaby as I sleep. But last weekend, London was lashed by storms, and the boat heaved and shuddered, straining against its moorings and pounding back against the dock with an alarming thump. My husband fretted in case the wooden extension he built on the deck didn't withstand the gales. Would the roof blow off? Would the walls collapse? I pretended an insouciance I didn't feel, because after all, this boat was my idea and I mustn't admit defeat. I did however sneak out many times to check that the water wasn't lashing up over the hull.

Elsewhere in Britain, people have been flooded out of their homes by a succession of severe storms. Some have been killed by crashing cars and falling trees. The spring time tides which can bring such delight are the close relations of these deadly floods, just as the winter snowfalls which bring out apple-cheeked children on sleds and turn us all into children at heart can become blizzards that turn familiar landscapes into frozen wildernesses.

We should heed the warnings of the weather. Nature is an awesome mystery not to be domesticated, with a spirit that is free from human control. We must learn to respect these rhythms - nature's cycles and tides, seasons and moods. We must learn to dance to nature's tune, for nature will never fall into step with the marching drumbeat of human time, measured in the tethering of the minutes and hours and days to profitability and progress.

Nature loops and swirls and dances around us and within us to the music of life itself. We can choose to join the dance, but the dance will go on without us. The insects and birds, the fish and the animals, the tides and the winds and the rain, the trees and the flowers and the butterflies, all will continue, for they are the dance and the dance is in them. The dance of life will go on, but whether we are part of it depends on how we choose to live, and time is running out for us to make that choice. Spring tides or deadly floods? Snowmen and toboggans, or blizzards and gales? Warm summer days, or scorching droughts? The choice is ours. The simple pleasures we take in nature's tender gifts should not blind us to the whirlwind we might reap if we forget our place in the harmony of creation. We must learn to dance all over again, and that is an arduous discipline as well as a joyous freedom.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Morning Mist

These watery mornings can sit heavily on the soul. The boat heaves on sullen tides. An incessant drizzle blurs the landscape. The news seems unremittingly bleak - violence and vulnerability, despair and disintegration.

Then I walk out onto the dock, and I see a boat ploughing against the tide, with a gull frolicking about its bow. Suddenly, my heart becomes that gull, and all the timebound distractions and worries hang suspended in some eternal now.

Maybe heaven is this - not a future reality to be anticipated beyond this mortal world, but the sudden surprise of eternity breaking through through the cracks in time, sneaking up and catching us unawares, reminding us that we are specks of dust in the dance of creation, and yet we are beautiful as we catch the light and play in the mist and turn and swirl in the breath of God.

Sunday, 4 May 2014


The tide is high and the river shimmers under a skein of light, inverting the world. There is a ripe tang in the air, as if the water shares in the erotic fecundity of the season. The song birds sing their praises to the morning on the bank opposite, and the little mother duck broods on her nest while her mate keeps watch in the river beside her. The goose nest is empty save for one abandoned egg, the parents out there somewhere with their newborn chicks. I await their arrival and wonder how many will survive. Canadian geese are a prolific pest, threatening the survival of more fragile and endangered species. Nevertheless, it is hard to be Malthusian when one has followed the hatching and birthing of a clutch of goslings, seen the brave struggle to defend the nest, and marvelled at the winsome loveliness of the tiny yellow fluff balls as they follow their mother in single file through the water.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

London Safari

This morning's visitors:

A red-breasted pochard is playing at being a cuckoo. There has been a pair of them swimming around the boat for a few days. A mallard duck is nesting on the deck,  and when she left the nest this morning the pochard laid an egg in it. The two females are now fighting to see who gets to sit on the eggs. The mallard has so far succeeded in chasing the pochard away several times, but she holds her ground determinedly as the mallard attacks her and doesn't give up easily.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Birds, battles and births

The goose came in March, and built a nest under the bench on the deck of my houseboat. She plucked lavender and heather from the flower pots, and the softest down from her breast. This is what it really means to feather one's nest. She laid seven eggs in all, but six remain. One was attacked - I think by a magpie - when she was away from the nest, and she quickly disposed of the broken shell.

I was afraid that she would chase me away every time I went outside - the bench is my favourite place to sit and reflect, and geese are ferociously protective of their nests - but she has been a gracious guest. I sit on a chair a few feet away, and I watch as she fluffs out her feathers and settles down to brood. Sometimes she feeds from my hand. I feel a sense of kinship with her, and find myself meditating on my own experience of mothering. When I feel stressed and alone, I envy those chicks coming to be in that scented nest beneath her breast. As she sits, her mate patrols the surrounding river to protect her. But the broody sentimentality of this maternal kinship is only part of the story.

Every day, a pair of swans repeatedly chases the goose off her nest, and a violent battle ensues. The swans are larger and more powerful, and sometimes they drive the geese far up the river, to return to the nest only when the swans have gone. But the geese fight back bravely, and the swans do not always win.

This morning the swans came, as they always do, and chased the mother away. I went to check the eggs in her absence, and saw that a miracle was beginning. The eggs were hatching. Perhaps this is why that father goose was so ferocious today, so determined not to give up. 

As this mighty and terrifying battle raged, a shell cracked and shivered, and a fragile cheeping emerged from within, barely audible over the pouring rain. Life is beginning again ...

... and then the mother came back and I left her alone with her hatching chicks.