Bullfinch Diaries by Dr Stephan Harding

by | Mar 31, 2023

In this blog post Dr Stephan Harding reflects creatively on the vicissitudes of life and our place in the world following a chance encounter with a bullfinch.

It’s mid-March, and the snow falls thick and fast, most unusually for early spring in the south west of England.  And I’ve just been on a walk in it, huge flakes falling out of the sky, the whole lot of them like a vast swarm of locusts, zigzagging hither and thither in their descent. The whiteness forgives everything, covering all kinds of sins: machinery, cars, street lights, fence posts, wires, dusting them all with a gentle blessing of frozen white powder, a kiss from heaven.

And yet, everything I am about to share with you started with a bullfinch. He had flown into our kitchen window and lay on the ground, stunned. I picked him up and held him in my hand. He lay there, almost weightless, eyes closed, barely alive.  I put him in shoe box with some soft hay and watched over him, prayed for him.  He was beautiful. It was an honour to be so close to such a being.  His beak was thick and black – shiny too.  That, together with his jet back cap, brought me the cape buffalo of Africa, and well as the black hooves of the eland.  His chest, pale orange red, brought me the trogons of Costa Rica.  I buried him in my wild garden, now a true piece of bush country, untouched for 27 years.

Since then I have felt blessed by bullfinches.  Whenever they appear in the branches of my elder tree, or elsewhere in my jungle, I am blessed, feeling myself to be who I truly am – a human here on Earth at a time of huge ecological crisis, but also in some way timeless, a child of dream living in time, a being of time living in dream.

These notions of dream and time have taken hold of me in the last four months – they are a clue to something of great importance.  I got them from Lorca, from a short poem of his to which he gave no title, but which somehow acquired the name: La Leyenda del Tiempo: ‘ The Legend of Time’. Here it is in English:


Like a sailing boat

dreams drift over time.

in the heart of the dream

We cannot open seeds.

Ay! How the dawn sings, how she sings!

What icebergs of blue she raises!

Time drifts over dream,

sunk, as deep as hair.

Yesterday and tomorrow they consume

the dark flowers of mourning.

Ay! how the night sings, how she sings!

The fullness of anemones she raises!

On the one and same column,

dream and time embrace,

the howl of the child crosses

the old man’s broken tongue

Ay! how dawn sings, how she sings!

The fullness of anemones she raises!

And if the dream conjures walls

in the great plain of time,

time makes the dream believe

that in that moment it is born.

Ay! how night sings, how she sings!

What icebergs of blue she raises!

These images immediately captivated me, drawing me into their living depths. They have taken up residence in my soul where they keep doing their inner work. Day and night the words come in snatches, sometimes I sing the whole song with my guitar. The images come from the depths of the unconscious – these are not Lorca’s words – he was merely their scribe, as I am now, writing these reflections, called to do so by a strange insistence from beyond myself, from a deep realm of freedom and integration.

The poem brings us profound images about how those great opposites, time (tiempo) and dream (sueno), relate to each other.  Time represents time and space – our normal everyday reality of cause and effect. Dream represents the eternal, acausal realm of meaning and synchronicity beyond time and space which realises its meaning within time and space.

In the first verse, dream floats over time like a sailing ship, and we learn that that we can’t open seeds in dream’s heart – that no seeds can flourish there – that sequences and chains of cause and effect unfolding in time such as those needed for a seed to grow into a plant cannot exist in the heart of dream, which is timeless, eternal and acausal. Dream is beyond the everyday world of time and space, and yet it floats above it like a sailing boat. There is a watery connection between time on the sea bed – the everyday world – and dream on the surface, which casts its sailing-boat shadow on the sea floor as it floats away above.

The tables are turned in the next verse.  Here we see things from time’s point of view. Whereas in the first image, dream floats far above time, in this new image time sinks into dream as deep as the roots of time’s hair. In this condition, time and dream eat the dark flowers of mourning. But why might they be mourning?  Is it because they need something healing and profound from each other but are not sufficiently well related to achieving a true and lasting union of opposites.


Stephan Harding

Dr Stephan Harding


Stephan is a Deep Ecology Research Fellow and has been teaching on the MSC Holistic Science programme since its inception in 1998.

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In the next image, we find time and dream embracing on top of a column. I picture a tall Greek or Roman pillar standing on its own somewhere in the Mediterranean with these two beings, Gods, energies, attitudes, archetypes, modes of consciousness call them what you will: dream and time – locked in an intimate embrace.   The image reveals dream as a child and time as an old man with a broken tongue – perhaps with the uptight, restricted world view of a rather bitter old Senex who cannot flow into old age to communicate his rich, ripe wisdom to the world.

Something must have gone wrong with time for it to have turned it into a bitter old man with a broken tongue. One thinks of the scientific revolution, for it was then that time stopped being a flowing sacred fabric of knowing and intelligence in which our awareness plays a vital role.  Instead, by a profound conscious effort, we turned time into something wholly unnatural – into a mechanical contrivance with demarcated pit stops – those seconds, minutes and hours of the clock face. The old man’s broken tongue, could it represent Descartes’s splitting of reality into res cogitans and res extensa – the uniquely ensouled rational human on one side of an unbridgeable divide with dead external matter on the other? This split does indeed give us a ‘broken tongue’ – in effect, two incommensurable languages, one for science, which takes care of the dead world of nature, and one for our thoughts and feelings, which is the domain of the humanities and of a shallow psychology merely of the ego. The wailing of dream-that-is-child crossing over the old man’s broken tongue is a dreadful image. What to make of it?

I don’t know, so I go to my bookshelf and ask Rumi for help.  That great sage – he might know something.  Fanciful thought, I tell myself, as I sit down and open the book at random at is his poem Cry Out in Your Weariness where he speaks of the relationship between a mother and her whimpering child thus:

“….A nursing mother, all she does, is wait to hear her child.

Just a little beginning whimper, and she’s there.”

So perhaps Rumi’s message is that the dream-that-is-child is wailing because the old man’s broken tongue causes him to suffer the pain of loss and separation from the whole. Perhaps dream’s wailing has the potential to heal the old man’s broken tongue by calling up a mother-like tenderness out of the old man’s unconscious depths.  Does logic need to feel tenderness for meaning, connection and synchronicity – a tenderness which we humans perhaps experienced in the dream-like innocence of our original participation long ago when we lived wild and free in the bush country of our origins?   This tenderness demanded by the child’s wailing – could it make old man time aware of his maternal feelings, of his soul, his anima? She would melt his old man’s heart, heal his tongue and release his true language of wholeness to fructify all around with his wisdom.

Ecologist Stephan Harding on the Dartington estate

Stephan in the woods on the Dartington estate. Photo by Sam Chevallier

In the last verse, dream conjures walls in the great wide plains of time. The word ‘conjures’ is important here, for it suggest that these walls are not solid, not fixed, not permanent.  Perhaps dream is trying to show time that all appearances come from the eternal, acausal realm of meaning and therefore lack any ultimate identity and solidity. In response, time tries to trick dream into believing that dream is born once and for all into time and space, becoming fixed and limited in the very moment it creates those walls.  Are they are goading each other?  Or are they beginning to work towards a resolution?  Are they beginning to be aware of that such a thing is possible?

In this last verse the image of time clarifies – it transforms into a field, an extension, a great plain within which events happen causally, in time, in space.  Time has evolved into something like that great pliable sheet which Einstein had shown is bent by matter into eddies, dimples, hills and mountains of space-time. This is an important step towards healing the split between dream and time, for after Einstein dream can now appear in various nooks and crannies of time as it eddies through the fabric of reality, which, being relativistic, is now much more to dream’s liking.

There is a feeling that something is being worked out as the images develop through the course of the poem – there is sense of a possible resolution out beyond the poem’s final horizon.  Dream and time begin by mourning their lack of relationship in the first image. In the second image, dream communicates on a very instinctive level by crying out in distress, disturbed by old man time’s schizophrenia.  Perhaps time hears, perhaps not.  In the third image they achieve a certain degree of consciousness, since they now seem to be trying to impress or trick each other. To do that, they need to be aware, awake.

In this last verse there is potential for a fruitful symbiosis between dream and time, but this is not going to happen in this poem, which is now well and truly over.  There are no more images, and yet those given in the poem work away in me.  I sense that I must work with these images to find the poem’s  final resolution within myself until the consciousness is born of the place where dream – the realm of meaning and synchronicity – finds itself embodied in time and space in the everyday world.  A place where time and space understand that dream contributes as much as they do to unfolding events in the world of solid entities. Perhaps the purpose of the relationship between dream and time is for time is to lend things of dream a fleeting, temporary solidity so that they can be worked on within time to give substance and meaning to the world of matter, feeding these meanings back into dream so that both reach a richer fullness.

At the end of each verse either dawn or night appears. Both sing deep, wonderful two line songs which make powerful events happen out in nature – the raising up high of great blue icebergs – perhaps melted by a warmth of this heart-warming singing – and vast, thicknesses of flowering anemones. In these two-liners we are in the world of actual nature, of real icebergs, plants, animals, rocks, mountains and volcanoes, and the entire cricket-humming intensity of life itself. Day and night alternate and each sings its particular music of the spheres.  These verses weave in and out of the main progression of images like ivy and rose curling over a garden trellis. The theme of four is here:  four main verses and four supporting verses.  This four-foldness gives one a very strong sense of the self which has created these images from within its centre, passing them through many layers of psyche before they reach me, giving me a taste of something utterly desirable – a wide open state of mind.

The poem’s images begin to live with a greater intensity in me now, for where else could they live but in an entity of flesh and blood?  I enter into a deep friendship with them.  I commit to help them find fulfilment by allowing them to continue developing in me as an alchemical vessel in which they can carry on with their unfinished work.

I go into my wild garden pondering what these eight intertwining images might mean.  I sit by my elder tree – the one whom I planted here twenty seven years ago – then a stump rescued from a managed hedgerow – now a wildly magnificent, spreading tree.  What are dream and time in relation to my elder tree, I wonder?  Time is the tree’s physical and biological presence – its unfolding from seed, its atoms and molecules, all the myriad interlinked chains of causes and effects that produced it. Its location in space, its connection with other plants via the mycorrhizal fungi in its roots deep in the soil, its signalling molecules and its symbiosis with insects and the wind for pollination and communication.

Suddenly, with a flurry of wingbeats, a wood pigeon lands high up in my elder’s branches. Its deep bass cooing transforms the elder into a tree of dream, yet it still belongs to time and space, to matter in motion, to biology. The elder tree is now no longer merely in time. Its symbolic meaning has appeared, revealing an eternal world of dream where the elder has become the Tree of Life, granting me the blessings of a deeper, wider consciousness, giving me a taste of a timeless presence shining through the physicality of the tree. I notice with quiet delight how everything around me now emanates that elusive yet delicious aroma of meaning.

Two pairs of bullfinches land in the branches above me, showing me feathered scapes of pale brown, orange-red, white and deep black.  I am overwhelmed by beauty. The four birds propel me into a syzygy between dream and time, reconciling into something transcendent to both which I feel in my ancient animal body, now energised, alive and awake as I settle into a sense of deep participation with the living honey of matter as it moves and changes in time and space.  The work of the poem is complete. For a while at least, dream and time transform into a vibrant experience of a unified world – of the Unus Mundus – working out its strangely magnificent purposes within both psyche and matter, within dream and time, within sueno y tiempo, within the intricate ecology of my wild garden, within the wider world Gaia, our living planet.

– Dr Stephan Harding, 19 March 2018, Coach House Jungle Garden, The Old Postern.