27 February 2020
Three days off the beginning of meteorological spring. Damp snow – the first of the winter – is pouring from the sky, adding more wetness to the spongy saturated ground. Much more rain is forecast.
At this point it would be ungracious and ungrateful not to point out that I am writing from the flood-free “heights” of East Anglia. Nightly our TV screens show towns and cities in the west and north of the country with flood water rising to the upper storeys of houses and shops. We see it so often, our hearts go out to those affected, we say “I can’t imagine how awful it must be,” and then – for those of us in dry dwellings – it becomes normalised, submerged beneath panicky reports of killer viruses coming ever closer, killer riots in Delhi, killer bombings in Idlib.
Nature has decided that spring is already here. The mean temperature in the UK this winter has been 5.2°C, around 1.5° warmer than average. One by one the primroses have appeared on the steep banks like stars in the summer dusk. The grass is growing, daffodils are blooming, I have even seen a cowslip. The birds are singing and the ducks are pairing off. These are sights to lift the spirits, but it is hard to maintain a rejoicing heart in perpetual deluge.
More so when the deluges have been borne in on storm-force winds. Storm Ciara first, then Dennis battered the British Isles, with gales every day in between, and then some. So many trees came down, and walking became perilous with flying branches and brambles whipping into my face. I was thankful that the house suffered no real damage, and that the chicken run and shed stayed upright, and the birds themselves unharmed and still laying, but…my poor greenhouse! It had stood, exposed to the predominant winds, for 15 years, with only the occasional pane broken. Ciara swooped in, shattered glass, and sent the whole structure into the neighbouring ditch. Do I give up and just buy my vegetables? It would be much cheaper in the long run.
Morning after morning staccato salvoes of rain hammer against the panes of my bedroom window, engendering a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness: another long drenching walk with a dog who is undaunted by wind and weather. The wind does not howl or moan or whistle, or any of the words we associate with its power. Sometimes it sounds like heavy machinery, or an aircraft coming in to land, or an express steam train, the gusts whomping and shaking the house.
Often on walks I observe the miracle of small birds flying in this chaotic turbulence. A skylark weighs just 33-45g, a nothing in the power of the storm. And yet the male lark rises vertically from the open fields, and hovers seemingly effortlessly, singing, singing, singing.
Another is the beautiful kestrel, the windhover, and we see them regularly over road verges, ditches and field margins. They can, apparently, spot a beetle at 50m. They need several voles or other small mammals a day to survive, and so there they are riding the storm, absolutely still before they plummet down to get their prey. A kestrel flies into, and at the same speed as, the oncoming wind. It extends its wing tips and fans its tail feathers, and in high wind may not even flap the wings at all – just kiting and gliding.
The construction of the Grand Design in the field next door continues, despite the weather. The demolition of the old house is complete, and heavy machinery moved in to start digging the footings.
They dug deep down into yellow Suffolk clay, and the trenches promptly filled with water. But work goes on with an army of builders, and much noise of diggers and banging and shouting and the beep-beep-beep of reversing vehicles. The lane is full of parked vans and cars, and huge lorries ply to and fro bringing loads of hard core. Mud is everywhere.
I last wrote on 31 January, and despite all efforts and demonstrations and fervent prayer, we have left the European Union. For the moment, during the transition period, nothing concrete has changed – a phoney war – except there is the taste of defeat. On the day itself and for several after there was the affront of the triumphalism of the Brexiteers – the jubilant bunting which appeared locally, the flying of the Union Flag (to my glee, often hung upside down in ignorance).
And so, as February closes, Lent begins. To Mass last night, with its repeated insistent intimation of mortality “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” the funereal black smudge of ash marking us so we cannot forget that with every passing Ash Wednesday that fate comes nearer. Turn, repent, turn again, before it is too late.
Is not Protestantism so much the poorer without this? The repeated rite, the ritual of imposition, the intoning of the sonorous Miserere:
Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness.
In your compassion blot out my offence,
O wash me more and more from my guilt
And cleanse me from my sin.
My offences truly I know them;
My sin is always before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned:
What is evil in your sight I have done.
Those who read the Daily Office will know the psalm by heart, for every Friday morning comes the same reminder. Maybe Protestants with their “personal relationship with their Saviour” are in no need of such admonitions, for that relationship, they say, is sufficient to get them to heaven. I am happy for them.
Like the effects of Brexit, only time will tell, and no-one can know. Justification by faith or works is beyond the scope of this blog.