Birds of Firle: ‘Singing for Souls Passing’ – a poem by Alberthe Papma

Birds of Firle – a small, single edition book of bird images inviting thoughts on grief and hope as the things with feathers – was sent to Alberthe Papmus in the Netherlands just before the Coronavirus pandemic changed our world. As the weeks passed after she placed it in the post back to me, we both believed it lost as postal and delivery services tried to cope with emergency deliveries of food and medical equipment. But it did return, and contained this moving response: a poem whose lines – including ‘once upon a time there would be singing for souls passing’ – feel increasingly poignant as more and more people pass now without their loved ones near them.

by Alberthe Papmus

once upon a time we were sung into this world
welcomed – celebrated – named
voices cradling – enfolding – with love and encouragement and hope
once upon a time birds taught us to sing life and loss – and how –
sing meaning to the world – and our place in it
taught us to sing sense
once upon a time there would be singing for souls passing
voices cradling – enfolding – with love and encouragement and hope
songs of grief and gratitude – for lives lived – for love received and given
when loss would hit us – grip us – rip us – throats choked – songs caged – voices broken
birds would be with us singing – taking our beloved on soft wings whispering
this world to another
a soul carried in murmuration – swirling – twirling – swooping – free
others softly gliding into the night on the wings of owls
a lark rising to the skies – an eagle soaring
when grief hits me – grips me – rips me – chokes me
birds gently – patiently – persistently – teach me to remember – and how –
gratitude for lives lived – for love received and given
today – on the cusp of morning a blackbird sings dawn into being
tender tunes of hope – guiding my lost soul home

Alberthe Papma is on Twitter @ZinInGroen

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Birds of Firle: Thoughts of Felix by Sophie Pierce

“As I wandered, I thought of Felix. He is rarely out of my thoughts, my 20-year-old son who died in 2017…Maybe the Victorians were onto something with their elaborate mourning rituals. Today I felt I was performing one, doing something with my grief. A quiet focus on small, natural things.”

I set off for Cornwall on a most inhospitable day, the latest in an endless stream of them. I could barely see as I drove down the dual carriageway to Plymouth, sheets of rain lashing the windscreen. Birds of Firle was in the inner pocket of my rucksack, placed in a plastic sleeve as I was worried it might get ruined in the rain. I’d taken a quick look at it before I left, flicking through the black images of the birds which appeared to me like Victorian silhouettes. They gave me echoes of mourning, something which the Victorians did in an elaborate fashion.

Down in Portwrinkle, the rain eased but the wind was still very strong, making my eyes water. I walked down into the harbour, which was dry as the tide was going out, and full of sand.  I stood inside it, looking at the walls around me. The harbour was full of great lumpen piles of seaweed and other debris dumped there by the sea. Bedraggled seagull feathers stuck out of the piles. There were old pieces of rope, mermaids’ purses large and small, driftwood and small bits of plastic.

I walked out of the harbour mouth and onto the long curve of grey beach. I was on the hunt for treasure, a feather perhaps, or something else. But it wasn’t about the finding, or even the seeking, it was the about the act of looking, of observing.  Instead of briskly walking as I usually do, I slowed down and started to examine the small things around me. There were ribbons of bright pink seaweed and tiny cowrie shells resting on top of the shingle. In the rockpools, crimson anemones flowered underwater with very slight movement. A patch of snakelocks anemones glowed green, giving me a thrill of excitement.

As I wandered, I thought of Felix. He is rarely out of my thoughts, my 20-year-old son who died in 2017. I thought back to Birds of Firle. A book born out of grief. A small focus on the birds as a way of putting the grief somewhere. I sat down on a rock and looked at the book, slowly this time. The birds seemed so fleeting, so slight, and yet somehow they symbolised something, or maybe nothing at all? Maybe they are the embodiment of a feeling, any feeling you want, whether it be grief, joy or hope.

I picked up a small, smooth mermaid’s purse. It was an odd, pale brown colour, ridged like my fingernails, with tiny curling tentacles off each of its four corners, like the tendrils on a sweet pea. A place where new life started. I kept it in my hand and walked further along the shore, and then up to the tide line. I found an unusual piece of bright, coral pink seaweed, its firm branches dotted with tiny pink buds. New life forming.

There was a big rectangular flat rock sticking up from the middle of the reef at the front of the beach. It looked like a large grave stone, tilting at a dangerous angle. I went up to it and leaned into it and closed my eyes, thinking of Felix. I rested against its cold, barnacled hardness and listened as the oyster catchers trilled in the wind and the waves pounded the rocks. My memorial stone.

Maybe the Victorians were onto something with their elaborate mourning rituals.  Today I felt I was performing one, doing something with my grief. A quiet focus on small, natural things.

Birds of Firle is a single edition book by Tanya Shadrick being posted sequentially to 100 collaborators around the world, inviting responses to the idea of Grief and Hope as the things with feathers. Each recipient spends a few days with the book, before returning it with a hand-written letter and other small artefacts.

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Mourning Ritual on a Cornish Beach - Credit Sophie Pierce

Sophie Pierce is a journalist working in both broadcast & print – and the author of two wild swimming books – who lives on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon.

Her son Felix died at the age of 20, suddenly and unexpectedly. His death was recorded as SUDEP – Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy. SUDEP claims 21 lives a week, mostly in young adults and it is not known why it happens. You can learn more about SUDEP and raise funds by going to SUDEP Action – a small charity that does vital work in campaigning and funding research.

Wild Woman Swimming Profits to St Luke’s Hospice

For ‘warm, funny and fearless’ Lynne Roper of Mary Tavy, a paramedic who was passionate about outdoor swimming, ‘passing it down the line’ didn’t need to end at her death. “People can swim and take me with them,” she said.

Lynne did not mean this literally. Living with a brain tumour, she knew her condition was terminal, but she was determined to see the adventures she recorded about her sixty-plus wild swims published to inspire others to swim wild, ‘read water’ and take educated risks as she did.

St Luke’s cared for Lynne at Turnchapel before sadly, she passed away in 2016, and it was while she was in our care she met writer Tanya Shadrick, who she entrusted with her diaries for posthumous publication.

Thanks to Tanya’s tireless editing, the diaries became the book Lynne had envisioned, ‘Wild Woman Swimming – a Journal of Westcountry Waters’. Not only was it published in 2018 – following consultation with Lynne’s parents, Mike and Jenny Roper – in 2019 the book went on to be longlisted for the prestigious Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing.

In keeping with Lynne’s wishes, profits from the sale of the book are benefiting St Luke’s, and recently Mike and Jenny, together with Lynne’s brother Dave and her friend Sophie Pierce – who wrote the introduction to the book – visited Turnchapel to present Community Fundraiser Pete Ward with a cheque for £1,000.

Mike and Jenny said: “We will be forever grateful to St Luke’s and all the doctors and nurses for the tremendous, loving care our daughter received in the last six weeks of her life.”

Peter said: “St Luke’s was privileged to care for Lynne in the last weeks of her life, and we are so grateful to her parents for this generous donation that will make a difference to more families who need our help during a very challenging time.”

Wild Woman Swimming – a book for ‘outdoor swimmers, nature lovers and all who prize the wild and free’ – is published by The Selkie Press.

Text from St Luke’s Hospice Plymouth reproduced with permission.

Wild Woman Swimming longlisted in The Wainwright Prize 2019

The prestigious Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize – which celebrates the best books about nature, the outdoors and UK travel – has included the posthumously-published Wild Woman Swimming: A Journal of West Country by Lynne Roper (the only book from editor Tanya Shadrick’s Selkie Press) in its 2019 longlist.

Celebrating its sixth year, The Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize is awarded annually to the book which most successfully reflects the ethos of renowned nature writer Alfred Wainwright’s work, to inspire readers to explore the outdoors and to nurture a respect for the natural world.

You can find out more about the longlisted authors and books, and read chapter extracts, on The Wainwright Prize website.

The longlisting has attracted a new and growing readership for the book, as well as strong interest in the book’s moving backstory: its publication keeping a promise made by Tanya Shadrick to fellow West Country woman Lynne, at a single meeting at the author’s hospice in the month before she died.

You can enjoy regular short extracts from Wild Woman Swimming by following @WildWomanSwims on Twitter.

Wild Woman Wainwright

‘Joy and friendship, grief and cold seas’: Outdoor Swimming Society on Wild Woman Swimming

‘The diaries are a snapshot, a moment in a life, filled with joy and friendship, grief and cold seas. If we could all find something we are happy doing, as Lynne so clearly was in her pursuit of wild swimming, then I suspect we would all feel more content with our lot. I read this book with a smile on my face all the way through, my mind filled with the colours of Dartmoor and its rivers and seas, the laughter and shrieking of friends as they plunge into cold water together echoing in my mind. Read this book and then plan a trip with your friends to these places: I know I want to swim where Lynne swam, and see the places she wrote about so beautifully. Join me?’

Read the whole of this beautiful review by Lexi Earl over at The Outdoor Swimming Society