Seasons, miracles, and other stuff

 

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Seasons pass, and we notice the changes they bring. Or, we don’t. A season can sneak up – as we are worrying, or working, or wishing to be somewhere else. In an instant, snowflakes fall on to your nose, with an icy: “Boo!” And you look up and wonder how something so immense could sneak up on anyone. The night sky is suddenly covered with white stars falling and falling, as if – everywhere and forever.

Or, you are walking – some other day in a park, and Autumn sneaks up and twirls around – transforming much that was green into gold, yellow, and red; and into blends of glowing that take your breath away. And you wonder why you never heard the dramatic but inadequate music that usually goes along with Hollywood miracles.

One bright summer, when I was about 7 years old, I ran away with three friends. We walked over a mile across the Tay Road Bridge and headed into the hills of Fife – climbing over wire fences and roaming over foreign fields. It was another country to us. I was disappointed that we did not seem to be in a different time zone. I’d thought that time changed as soon as you went far enough across the horizon – seen from the grey streets of Dundee. How could time not change that summer?

We gave up running away, after a few hours rambling, when we got too hungry. We were also scared, after a bull chased us across a field.

Over time, many everyday memories and miracles fade away; or their seasons merge into jumbled reflections of sun and snow and rain. Yet, each time the miracle of a new season comes along, it is vivid and pulls us back into life – if we are able to notice it.

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When I was in Skelleftea in Sweden this year, the snow had not yet arrived, and vast green forests were tinged with yellows and gold. Driving past them, mile after mile, me and Isobel stared – like children seeing the world for the first time. I knew I really had gone far beyond the horizon this time.

In a huge charity shop, full of grandfather clocks and warm coats, I bought a 70 year old book full of photographs and illustrations about the history of printing. It’s in Swedish, a language I cannot read. I bought it anyway – because I hope to learn; and because the words remind me of walking through a green and gold forest, with my son and grandson, in the perfect silence of a memory being born.

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A few weeks later, back in Dundee, I was walking alone through Dudhope Park, noticing Autumn which was busy – creating miracle-leaves on the trees and dropping them into thick piles on the grass. I was seeing them so clearly because I was taking photographs; and perhaps it was also because I was trying not to think about a war. Not my own memories; but the nightmares of long-dead soldiers, many who would have walked in the same parks and streets I have and through the same seasons.

 

Joseph Lee was a poet, journalist and artist -from Dundee- who fought in the first world war, when 4000 Dundee men died. Joseph survived. I have old, brown copies of his books of poetry, including a signed 1916 first edition of his Ballads of Battle. He wrote as powerfully as the better-known poets who wrote about that war: Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, and Wilfred Owen – who was only 25 years old when he was shot and killed in France, on the 4th November 1918: one hundred years ago.

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I’d been trying not to think about that war because the vast slaughter has always disturbed me at a level I’ve never understood. Newspapers are full of stories about it because it is 100 years since the war ended. Since my schooldays, I’d seen the old photographs – black and white or faded sepia – with the trenches, mud, blasted trees, and corpses. Mostly, it looked as if seasons did not exist: just one long season in hell. When I read that the battle of the Somme began in Summer and ended in the Winter of 1916, I couldn’t register the seasons as different: they were just different words for slaughter.

Joe Lee’s book Ballads of Battle came out a few months before the battle of the Somme. I know he was there, because he sketched a tank. I’ve no way of knowing when he signed the book but it may have been when it first came out, in April 1916. The fact that he was there and saw and survived the slaughter but many of his friends did not is poignant in itself, but a hundred times more so because he wrote about his fellow soldiers with so much love and humour, and at points referred to the Germans as ‘brothers’.

When I read those war poems, I could not stop reading at first, but I did – a few pages before the end. I don’t know why I stopped. Then, reading them again today, I got to the end and turned back to the contents pages – to remind myself of the titles of the poems. I noticed one unfamiliar title: Requiem, on page 101. I looked again at the end of the book: a poem called ‘One hundred years ago today’ ended on page 99. I turned over the page, and there was a sketch of a grave. No page number; no page 101; no ‘Requiem’.

Then, I noticed that the ‘last’ page was thicker than the rest. It was an uncut page. For over 100 years, no one had seen what was inside. Carefully, I cut it open- and there was the missing page and ‘Requiem’.

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REQUIEM, from BALLADS OF BATTLE (1916), by Lance-Corporal  Joseph Lee

 

It should be Winter now, but it’s not yet arrived: it’s lurking somewhere in the air, ready to sneak up on us. Temperatures will plummet; snow might fall; and if you are unlucky enough to be homeless – it’s a very dangerous time. When I was wandering through Balgay Park in Dundee with Isobel, I was thinking about these things. In my job, I work trying to help people who are homeless and others who live with that threat over them all the time – victims of a welfare system stuck in one type of season for the last decade: the coldest kind of winter.

Walking past a graveyard, we noticed some flowers on a few trees and a monument set amongst the trees. We wandered over to see what it was. A metal plaque was attached to a large rough stone. On it were the words:

Gone but not Forgotten

This commemorative stone is dedicated to the memory

of around 10,000 people who were buried in the

Common Ground of this cemetery in unmarked graves

between 1870 and 2004

10,000 people. An infinite number of stories to be told…

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Seasons pass, and we notice the changes they bring. Or, we don’t. If we look around us, the natural miracles of seasons changing the world are always there. But I know it’s difficult sometimes to notice – golden leaves, sunlight, snow, or even the white fireworks of raindrops exploding off of cars and pavements, in a downpour. When the world hits us hard, then often all we can see – is not having enough money to get through the week; or, the unfairness of illness and loss. Words may not change much in our lives, but if they help us to notice the world and say what we see and think and feel, then we may not get stuck in one sad season – it passes, and we move on to the next, and the next. Our children and grandchildren are born, and in time – they take on remembering from where we left off. And before we know how it happened, it’s Spring again.

Harvey Duke

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