Last night, I woke from an elaborate dream and, as I was settling down to sleep again, I heard a bird singing. It was a melodious song with plenty of sweet high notes. And just now, as I am writing to you and looking out my window in Northwest Lancashire, dozens of swallows are careering across the sky, landing on the distinctly British crown-topped terracotta chimney pots and fishbone-shaped TV aerials. The swallows are just arriving here in England all the way from South Africa. I know my night bird wasn’t a swallow because he didn’t have any sprockety ratchety sounds in his song as swallows do. I think my night bird was a blackbird because I’ve gone and listened to bird songs on the internet and my night bird sounded very blackbirdy. We do have a lady blackbird making a nest in the ivy that tops the small stretch of stone wall which encloses our little back courtyard. We’ve caught her looking for worms and bugs in our derelict window box, tossing clumps of dirt this way and that, taking advantage of our reluctance to plant anything before the risk of frost has passed.
Ms. Blackbird looks very businesslike as she eats the berries remaining on our ivy and then drops out of sight into the leafy tangle. And she roots through our window box soil with a determined air as if she’s merely doing her grocery shopping and how could we possible object. And we don’t object because we take too much pleasure from seeing her going about her business unaware that we aren’t really going about our business in the usual way. For we are locked down and only able to go outside for walks – delicious walks to be sure, but we are feeling that human urge to wander further afield and congregate. But we are patient and cautious.
Ms. Blackbird has built her nest in what appears to be turning into ivy clad terraced housing (condos we would say in the USA) with Mr. and Mrs. Sparrow who don’t mind living cheek by jowl with neighbors. They were here in the same patch of our ivy last year and being faithful to their nesting sites, they’ve come back for another season. Apparently, sparrows will pluck feathers from live pigeons for their nests! Though it sounds rather impertinent, I’d still like to see that somehow. I did once see a magpie sitting contentedly on the back of a sheep by the Lancaster canal behind our house. But, he wasn’t looking for nesting materials like the sparrow and the pigeon, he was just have a little snack of ticks and maggots from the sheep’s fleece. And very happy to oblige seemed the sheep.
The sheep who were trucked up to higher ground during our very wet winter are mostly back in the lower fields now which has caused great excitement on our walks along the River Keer where there are gamboling lambs to see and fleeces growing fluffier! My English niece Katrina asked me recently if there was anything I couldn’t do because I had just been showing her a music video I’d made and some patchwork and knitting – all manner of things really – and I said skiing. I have indeed never skied because my parents, very correctly, realized that where limbs and coordination are concerned I am a danger to myself. But another thing that I can’t yet do is spin wool on a wheel. You may remember my excitement when I bought a Texel fleece from a neighborhood farmer last summer and I hoped I’d have fleece turned into yarn turned into a sweater by now. But, I can’t seem to get the knack of wheel spinning despite the books I’ve read and videos I’ve watched. Luckily, I have a local friend who I met on instagram over this past year who spins marvelously and who will teach me to spin when we can see each other indoors in a few months.
In the meantime, I dye the wool of sheep from local farms, and one of my big excitements this coming year is to forage for all of the spring and summer dye plants I didn’t know about last year. I only started collecting dye plants in earnest in late July of last year, so there are all of these colors and plants to discover.
A year ago, I didn’t know the blackbird’s song or the ratchety twitter of the swallow or the breathy cheep cheep of the swallow. I didn’t know that young nettles make green or that mature nettles can make cloth. I also didn’t know that given the time and unexpected chance to stay home, I would write and record dozens of songs. I would learn to knit (again) and get beyond scarf-making. I would learn to cable, increase, decrease, and cast on securely. I would learn to crochet. Hawthorn, buddleja, yarrow, meadowsweet, and dozens of other plants would suddenly become very important to me. I would see them as purple, yellow, green, grey, and orange. And now, when I’m walking along the shore road or the canal, I see Lords & Ladies and say, “Ah-ha, I know you are poisonous to eat, but if I boiled you up for dye what color would you make?”
These are small things from one room in one house in a small town in a small country. But they have sustained me and sparked my thinking. I will go downstairs and make a cup of tea after I send this along to you. And I will be looking for evidence Ms Blackbird’s digging in the window box and, tonight, when I wake from a long strange dream I will listen to see if she’s awake too and singing.
Please be safe and well. I look forward to meeting again.