Autumn at Home I: ‘Still by the water’

'It’s you, blackbird, I love.  

I park, pause, take heed. 
Breathe. Just breathe and sit' 

Seamus Heaney, from 'The Blackbird of Glanmore' 

After the short drive from home I park my car and step out into the early afternoon. The air feels incredibly mild for October, and the damp morning mist has lifted, opening the way for the sun to appear. It is that kind of Autumn sunlight with the capacity to catch you off guard, illuminating the world quite unexpectedly as it breaks through the clouds. Today it is a welcome gift, for I have been hoping to make this visit for some time.

The allure of the sky is potent; I look up. At intervals there are patches of blue, but I know that the grass is green and damp and shining. The clouds still linger. There are great swathes of rushes swaying in unison in the shallows. The ground is soft: a mixture of clay and mud mingled with river silt, so there is a boardwalk. This afternoon, the marshland is cradling miniature pools of dark, freshly fallen rain.

First, there is silence. It feels necessary. I relax, and begin to walk, appreciating the warmth and the sunshine. But then, there is birdsong: bright notes that seem to sparkle in the light. There are different songs, but they blend together into one floating canticle. Remember the words of Christ?:

‘Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?’

I need this reminder. There are many different songs, each with their own value, but they are not all the same. We each have our own song to sing. Sometimes I can be distracted by the songs that other people are singing. I want to sing their songs too. But this week, a friend encouraged me just to keep on singing my own song. This is good advice. We can all add to the beauty, but in different ways. Each one of us is unique.

In his book Stepping Stones (a favourite of mine), Dennis O’Driscoll asked the poet Seamus Heaney about this special place that I am visiting today. Heaney found resonances between the lake at the start of Dante’s Purgatorio and this ‘Strand’ shoreline at Lough Beg. He recalled helping his father with the cattle that he kept grazing here. He and his father made their way across the vast watery meadow together on a ‘practical errand’, but experiencing the place was, in Heaney’s words, ‘like a bath for the soul’.

Church Island and the Strand at Lough Beg

There are glimpses of pewter and silver in the distance, but to reach the edge of the water I must make my way through a small grove of trees. The copper and gold strewn along the earth remind me it is Autumn. From the shoreline, the view of Church Island, a place of pilgrimage since the days of St. Patrick, is otherworldly. The water birds come and go in grace, migrating with the seasons. There is a timeless beauty here; the promise of restoration. I receive it with gratitude, drinking in the stillness. I will remember that, on the ordinary roads that lead home, in the words of song writer Sara Groves, beauty matters.

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