(Balsam- Populus balsamifera)
Love the phrase: ‘Who going through the Valley of Baka maketh
it a well,’ from Psalm 84. It relates to King David fighting the
Philistines in the Rephaim Valley.
I also liked the translation: ‘Valley of Breakthrough.’
There is more detail in 1 Chronicles, chapter 14, where
a previous victory is described. David employs a different
military strategy on the second occasion.
Here’s the poem:
Blessed is the man whose lamentation
is overcome by digging for a well-
even in desert peregrination.
Israel, Judah became one nation
and the Philistines could no longer quell
David’s army. Divine exhortation
inspired a strategic operation
and grasshoppers routed the infidel:
lamentation turned to jubilation.
Baal-Perazim introduced elation,
but now rearguard action relied on smell
from balsam trees and the sussuration
of their leaves. The wind, on this occasion,
convinced those warrior giants by some spell,
or by an auditory sensation
that reinforcements, an augmentation
of David’s troops would bring a living hell.
Blessed is that man, whose lamentation
converts to joy, mid-peregrination.
Actaeon, Aelfryth, Aethelred the Unready, Aethelwold, Aethylflaed, Artemis, Bathsheba, Cranbourne Chase, Dead Man's Plack, Harewood Forest, hubris, King David, King Edgar, Longparish, Narcissus, Nathan the prophet, nemesis, penitentiary, targe, The Goddess of Light, The Wild Hunt, Uriah, Wherwell, wolfhound
(Monument to Aethelwold at Longparish, Hants, UK)
I never saw myself as a ewe lamb-
a description more apt to Aethelflaed,
or ‘White Duck‘ as she was precisely known.
Not for me metaphor’s limitations.
I was once bound to the king’s betrayer.
A lie had thrown his Master off the scent.
It was reported that I was quite drab.
But the concupiscent wolfhound tracked me down.
Royal eyes didn’t have wool pulled over them.
I’d braided my hair by the burnished gleam
of my husband’s targe. I blinked at the king
and felt Edgar undress me with his gaze;
appraise me as a type of Bathsheba.
And when the king rode down from Cranbourne Chase,
Aethelwold met him in Harewood Forest,
to be stalked as ruthlessly as any prey,
his screams masked by the baying of the pack.
I’d willed that he should turn into a stag.
And maybe now he rides with The Wild Hunt.
It’s said their hooves don’t even touch the ground.
Aethelwold was the phantom in our bed.
I bore Prince Aethelred then Edgar strayed.
He nevermore trusted his advisors,
nor pious priests who would pointedly preach
about Uriah, Nathan and David.
Prophets really know how to rub it in.
Sometimes I watch a deer drink from a pond.
I hear its groan and see it torn by hounds.
Is it the hubristic Actaeon and
am I Artemis? Or, like Narcissus,
who loved his own reflection, will I look
into this stream and see my nemesis?
I cannot be The Goddess of Light for
she would not beat her son with a candle.
But I’ve produced a right royal milksop
who flinches before a taper and whines
for the company of his step-brother.
If I felt constrained at Wherwell years ago,
when I was wedded to my first husband,
I can tell you it was nothing like this:
an Abbess in a penitentiary.
I wish that I could morph into a hind
and flit through the forest with Aethelwold,
as fleet of foot as Artemis herself,
but leaving no trace to those who follow.
If only I’d seen the wood for the trees.
Argos Catalogue, Bethlehem well, boa constrictor, Consuelo, Hot Cross Buns, King David, Little Prince, Living Water, Midnight Mass, nard, Oliver Sacks, Parable of Vineyard, Prodigal Son, rag doll, Saint-Exupery, Samaritan woman, Wells for Africa
No, on a strict diet until Lent is over, Brassie said firmly, rejecting the proffered
Mocha. I’ll just have a Suttonford Spring Water. I’m parched actually. All
that weeding at the weekend. I was pruning some jagged rose bushes.
You sound like the aviator in The Little Prince, I commented. Do you
remember when he said: This sweetness was born of the walk under the
stars, the song of the pulley, the effort of my arms. It was good for the
heart, like a present?
Not specially, Brassie said. What was that about a pulley?
Well, he had been asked to draw water from a well in the Sahara Desert
for the Little Prince, just as the Samarian woman was asked to give
Jesus something to quench His thirst.
Oh, yeah. And then He said he could give her water…
..and she’d never thirst again, I supplied.
That was beautiful, Brassie agreed. I remember reading
Saint-Exupery to the twins when they were little. I like the point
about the effort one puts into the gift. It refreshes parts that
other drinks don’t reach.
I think that refers to beer, I countered.
So much for self-denial. She bit into a Hot Cross bun.
It’s good when you eat food appropriate to the season, I stated.
I hate to see Hot Cross buns on shelves at the wrong time of year.
St Exupery even covered the importance of ritual..
Oh, like the regulation of the lectionary? Brassie mused aloud.
Mm, she agreed, nodding with her mouth full. I think Exupery
said something about half the pleasure of gifts is that they should be
given in a meaningful context.
Yes, he wrote that Christmas presents, for example, received after
Midnight Mass, in the bosom of a loving, smiling family were so much
Not like throwing an Argos catalogue at your carping kids out of
guilt, Brassie expanded.
I seem to recall that he gave an example of a merchant who could sell you a
thirst-quenching pill which would save you fifty three minutes a week. The
Little Prince said that he would rather spend those minutes in drinking cool,
All this brings to mind a story that we had at Sunday School when we were
little, Brassie enthused. It was about King David craving a drink of water
from a particular well in Bethlehem. Some of his brave, or reckless
henchmen risked their lives and stormed through the enemy to bring him
I remember that! I interrupted. Didn’t he pour it out on the ground as an
Yeah. He felt it was too valuable to pour down his throat, given what
they’d risked. He returned the element to its source.
But Jesus allowed the woman to pour out the expensive nard perfume all over
His feet, remarked Brassie. He accepted the gift. It seemed excessive, a
waste to some, but he was okay with it.
That’s because He knew His own worth, I commented. Also, the grudging
disciple was more intent on syphoning its value off for the purse he carried,
allegedly on all the disciples’ behalf.
Brassie mulled this over. I might have been annoyed if someone had
poured out my gift after I’d put all that effort into getting it in the first place.
Hmm. But The Little Prince said that it all depends on how you look at
things. Grown-ups couldn’t see that Saint-Exupery’s childish drawing of the
side elevation of a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant was not a brimmed
There’s a book about a man who mistook his wife for a hat, she interjected.
Brassie wanders off the point sometimes.
Oh, have you got it? I asked. I would like to borrow it from you. I seem to
recognise the phenomenon. But, no, I drew her back on track. Some people
don’t understand why the workers in the parable who joined the day’s labour
in the vineyard after the work had been largely done in the heat of the sun,
should receive the same wage as those who turned up late.
Yes, that’s never made sense to me, she said emphatically.
Well, no one is worthy. It’s like the Elder Brother syndrome. He felt
overlooked when the Prodigal returned and received a warm welcome.
The Father rightly reminded him that he had had the benefit of his
company, riches and household, all the time the younger brother had
been sharing pig swill.
Someone said that gifts that cost you nothing are not worth giving.
Correct, I replied. That’s why I give all those unwanted Christmas prezzies
to Help the Ancient. But I also have to give meaningfully too and that is more
of a challenge.
You gave me a nice present for my birthday, soothed Brassie. Wasn’t it a
Wells for Africa donation certificate?
It might have been, I answered. I can’t remember.
You didn’t waste your money, she carried on.
No. Exupery said that the time children waste on loving their rag doll is never
– well, wasted. One of the characters says the responsibility the children took
showed that they were lucky.
I hope you don’t see me as some kind of rag doll. I know I didn’t change out of my
gardening trousers today.. Oh, I remember now, Brassie became agitated.
There was something about looking after your rose and watering it and not minding
if you only had one to look after, even if it had thorns.
I think Exupery’s wife, Consuelo, was rather thorny, I explained. I don’t think
she offered him much consolation, in spite of her name. And yet he said thorns
weren’t grown for spite. He suggested that roses were vulnerable, but beautiful.
His rose was so vulnerable that a sheep could have eaten it. Flowers need to believe
that they can protect themselves with their terrible weapons, but we shouldn’t listen
to them, he said. We should just admire them.
Was that his sexist view of women, then? Brassie asked.
I think it was more subtle, I pondered. He said people should think of the
affection behind the strategems and the inconsistencies of our loved ones.
In other words, forgive them..?
..as we ourselves are forgiven!
We flowers are complex creatures, as he said.
Thank goodness someone wastes time on us!
Would you like another bottle of water? I asked.
No, thanks. I feel quite refreshed by our talk. I’ll look out
that book for you tonight.
Oliver Sacks, I remember now. Thanks, Brassie.