Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Dreams of arriving, dreams of leaving

I wake in the early morning and hear them, their faint chatter like farmyard dogs, somewhere at the edge of my sleep, somewhere across the sedge-filled fields. It is in the hours of semi-light that they are on the move, crepuscular and marginal, filling the edges of our hearing like a conversation we once had and almost forgot. Their filigree skeins cross the lightening sky; the loose line of barnacle geese, the neat V of Canada geese, the multiple strings of pink-feet.

Geese arrive in the dark months of autumn; from Greenland, from Iceland, from Svalbard. They bring the scent of ice and snow on their wings, a sense of otherness, their tales of the north told in muted honks. Their journey across the northern Atlantic seems heroic: over a thousand miles in three days without landfall, no features but the cold ocean.
They gather on fields of sedge and winter wheat, feeding hungrily after their long journeys, or on the low rush-filled marshes by the side of the lake, staring glassy-eyed towards the north as though dreaming of their summer grounds. Throughout the winter skein after skein drops onto these crowded wetlands, until the numbers dizzy the mind: ten thousand, twenty thousand, until the sky is scarred with their arriving.
As spring thaws the sodden ground, at the point when we are accustomed to the presence of these huge, exotic birds, the North-bound compass of their brains will start to flicker, as though scenting the melting of snows thousands of miles away, and they will leave. They will rise in clusters and loose lines, honking from the sedge, their improbable wings unfolding on the solidity of the air. Slipping into a formation remembered rather than understood, they will beat across the surface of the lake, unhurried in their memory of leaving.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Fisher King

On the crisp early mornings of November, my son and I walk across frosted fields to the brow of the hill, the sun behind our backs throwing blurred shadows across the whitened grass. We are talking today of Arthurian legends, and the story of the The Fisher King; the keeper of the grail who, confined to his castle by his injuries, must wait for the Knights of the Round Table to arrive. Meanwhile, all he is capable of doing is fishing in the river which flows by the castle. My son is animated, alive; I envy the way his agile mind leaps from one topic to another, the way that his body can jump from stone to stone whilst I follow leadenly behind.

I have been kept from my desk by a bad back; a benevolent injury in which I cannot lie down or sit, but which can be eased by walking. So I have taken to walking the lanes around the village once or twice a day like a restless soul, destined to beat the boundaries of the parish until I collapse. Call me Ishmael.
In doing so, I can observe the progress of autumn like a wave covering the land; the hawthorn berries burnished like worn saddle-leather, the dusting of blue over the ripening sloes, the last of the crab apples, mustard-coloured jewels half-buried in the mud. From a hedgerow, a sparrowhawk rises from its kill, buoyed on a cushion of air. We watch it jink across the field in its jaunty, irregular flight, keeping low to the hedges. I recall John Baker's description in The Peregrine of tracking hawks across the bare autumn fields of East Anglia, his recognition of his own mortality in the face of these expert killers. 'I think he regards me now as part hawk, part man;' he wrote towards the end of the winter, '...never wholly to be trusted; a crippled hawk, perhaps, unable to fly or kill cleanly, uncertain and sour of temper.' Baker himself was beginning to suffer from the rheumatoid arthritis which would blight his life, and his pursuit of death became an act of atonement for the ill we have inflicted on the land, the 'filthy, insidious pollen of farm chemicals' as he called it.

The Fisher King, my son reminds me, lives at the edge of a wasteland, a barren landscape which is an external reflection of the king's injured soul. Only the bravest and truest of knights can heal his wounds, and in doing so heal the fractured land. I think of this as I hear the rumble of the quarry on the hill, smell the sulphurous taint of splintered limestone on the wind.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


November, and the fires are lit. It is the dark time of the year, the time when the moon illuminates the skeletons of trees with a fierce light, high in the sky like a midsummer sun. Strange how the moon, our dark twin, mirrors precisely the movement of the sun: it rises where the sun rises, its arc replicates exactly the transit of the sun, but at the opposite end of the year, high in winter, low in summer. They are precisely the same size when we look at them in the sky. It is a time for drawing indoors, to concentrate on the pools of light which we create to protect us from the wild animals in the woods. It was, to our ancestors, the time of Samhain.

The Samhain festival was one of the liminal points of the year; a time when the membrane between the spirit world and our world is stretched thin, porous. It is like the time when, falling into sleep, the mind is open to chance, to the arrival of the unbidden, to the benedictions of angels soft as a moth's-wing touch; a time when death and life seem poised in a beautiful yet precarious balance.
On this night, the westerly window in the house was left open during the night, a beeswax candle placed on the sill. It was a night when the spirits of our loved and lost might return. Ghosts, we may call them, although the word comes from the same root as guest, one who enters the house to rest. Sometimes they are known as revenants: those who come back to us. It is from the west that they come, arriving with the weather, emerging after the setting sun. The west has always been the direction of wildness, of change, the direction in which the most distant horizon lay; the direction to which we look when we want to understand what might arrive.
As I grow older, I seem to understand less. Only I know that it is important to open the westerly window on winter nights, to invite in the unknown, to be open to the spirits of the people or things we have lost.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A telegram, or a picture postcard

Here is the end of the world: a small hut, hunkered on a concrete base at the foot of the dunes. Marram grass ratches against the door. The slit windows moan the insistence of a south-westerly wind. Beyond, a pebble-scattered beach and the inscrutable sea.

We came to Walney in search of birds; the residue of blow-ins and migrants which follows autumn's storms. Instead, we found lichened pebbles nestled in the grass like birds' eggs, crusted with the orange scales of Xanthoria lichens; the shattered carcass of an old pier, its splintered limbs as bleached as the sky; dry sand blowing across the surface of the beach, the ground in motion like an insect swarm. We found the whale-backed land adrift from the coast, rimmed by mud, sand and sea, scoured by wind and the low, grey clouds.

It is an island where history sits uneasily amongst the grass and mud, a landscape which has been a perpetual observer to the comings and goings of the Furness peninsula. Until 1908 it was a true island, a barrier to the ocean, creating the deep water channel on which Barrow's prosperity is founded. Now the island seems more like an afterthought; an apostrophe-shaped addition to the land proper.
From the rusted gun emplacements sequestered in the dunes, looking across the channel beyond the red bulk of Piel Castle, shipyards and submarine sheds crowd the horizon. On Shore Street, the removable bollards and traffic islands are silted with leaves and the coastal sinter of grit and sand. On submarine-launching days, the road can be stripped clean, opened out to allow the huge black bulk on its vast low-loader to pass between submarine hall and launching dock. Today, its impermanence seems pathetic, lost.
Out in the ocean, whale-black submarines which once descended the slipway into Walney Channel now glide silently through the water in the North Atlantic, the Persian Gulf, the Arctic Ocean. They are the restless souls of the world's seas, lurking near to global conflict like the ghosts at the feast. Their sinister shapes once slid through this narrow channel between Walney and Piel. Here is the end of the world.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The world in a grain of sand

It starts in a low-ceilinged workman's cottage in a Cumbrian village; a truckle bed by the door, the air pungent with the stench of tallow candles. Or before that, it starts when George Fox comes to preach on Pardshaw Crags, his nasal Leicestershire accent dragged away by the westerly winds, his apothecary's stare over slim spectacles offering a judgement on them all, a judgement more kindly, more theirs than any offered by the purple-cassocked parsons in their oak-lined vicarages. John's parents heard Fox preach and were convinced; they knew that the old religions had had their day.

As Friends, they could move in a different social orbit; not one normally open to a linen weaver and his wife. They could pass the time of day with the likes of Elihu Robinson, a great flaneur of the village with his buckled shoes and silver-topped cane. Here was a man who was a seeker in more than one sense of the word; open to new ideas, open to the new science. He was one of a group of local amateur astronomers who had observed the transit of Venus in 1761; he was willing to debate the way in which the world was made, to question its natural laws.
And he saw something special in young John, too; a boy with an agile brain, a natural thirst for knowledge. It was Robinson who took him to the Quaker school in Pardshaw, who prompted his learning with questions and experiences, who stirred the idea that the weather was something that could be studied and understood, not something we endured in our gruff Cumbrian way. Before his mid-teens, John had opened his own impromptu school in the family home, was teaching the boys and girls of the village to read and write, propped on his knee.
John Dalton was another who saw the world in different ways; he questioned the way in which things were. He is best known for his postulation of the existence of atoms; a piece of wild supposing that could not be proved for over a hundred years. From John Dalton's colour-blind grapplings to explain why water vapour and gas could co-exist, we have Roentgen and Mendeleev, from them, we have Albert Einstein, and from Einstein, Niels Bohr and the structure of the atom. From Bohr, the causal chaos of history brings us, via Rutherford and Thomson, to Robert Oppenheimer, to the Manhattan project and New Mexico desert, from the unleashing of the power we would never learn to control.
And thus, eventually, to the 1.3 tonnes of Plutonium stored in open ponds at the Sellafield site, twenty miles upwind from the low-ceilinged cottage in Eaglesfield. I watch the long queues of traffic streaming towards Sellafield each morning, and I am haunted by Robert Oppenheimer's comments on the first nuclear test carried out in New Mexico in 1945:
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another”

Monday, October 10, 2011

Water, water everywhere

In the spring of 1798, the young Samuel Taylor Coleridge was walking in the Quantock Hills with his friends William and Dorothy Wordsworth. We can imagine their long hair flowing over their shoulders, their frock coats tugged open by the breeze.
As they walked, they talked; of books they had read of adventures on the southern seas, of a tale of a ship followed by a mysterious black albatross, of tutelary spirits and our relationship with the animal world. A poem began to take shape, its rhythm measured by the tempo of walking feet: di-dum, di-dum, di-dum-dum-dum/di-dum, di-dum, di-dum. By the end of the walk, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was born.
It is a strange poem, almost mythological in its imagery. It was not received well critically on first publication, yet seems to speak to us now across the centuries; of our estrangement from the natural world, of the mysteries of the seas and an imperitive sense of atonement. It prefigured the sins we were yet to commit.

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.”

John Keats, like all youg poets of his generation, came to the Lake District to pay homage. In the summer of 1818, he and his friend, Charles Brown, began a walking tour from Kendal. He wanted to see landscape; the magnificent, the sublime. And he wanted to call on William Wordsworth, by now the grand old man of letters.
The scenery left him awestruck. Never had he seen such waterfalls, such grand hills diappearing into the dizzying damp mist: “ but the waterfall itself, which I came suddenly upon, gave me a pleasant twinge. First we stood a little below the head about halfway down the first fall, buried deep in trees, and saw it streaming down two more descents to the depth of near fifty feet. Then we went on a jut of rock nearly level with the second fall-head, where the first fall was above us, and the third below our feet still. At the same time we saw that the water was divided by a sort of cataract island on whose other side burst out a glorious stream — then the thunder and the freshness” he wrote of Stock Ghyll Force in a letter to his brother. He went on to view the fall at Rydal, where a small cabin had already been built to frame the view, as though landscape was already a captured thing, pinned on the drawing-room walls of famous poets.
Within three years, Keats was dead. Charles Brown was with him in Italy as he faded into illness, racked by the bloody pains of tuberculosis. The bright star extinguished by one of the most virulent diseases of the day, the one for which fresh mountain air was prescribed as a cure. Ever the poet, he composed his own epitaph during those final days. He wanted no name, no dates, only the words: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water"

'The other was a softer voice, 
As soft as honey-dew: 
Quoth he, "The man hath penance done,  
And penance more will do."'
One hundred years after Keats' birth, after the publication of the Ancient Mariner, in October 1894, the Aldermen and engineers of the Manchester Water Corporation gathered for a municipal ceremony at Heaton park reservoir, in Prestwich. They were celebrating the arrival of the first water by aqueduct from the Lake District, its inexorable gravity-fed trickle, descending at twenty inches per mile, the hundred miles from Thirlmere to Manchester. No doubt Alderman Sir John James Harwood was there, his round belly and heavy gold chain lost to memory, his name preserved in the slate plaque on the dam at Thirlmere, its crisp Trajan capitals lending respectibility and purpose to his contribution. Water had become the lubricant for the industrial revolution; for mills and factories, for the rapidly increasing population, as a weapon in the battle for urban sanitation.
The damming of Thirlmere in 1890 had been strongly resisted by the people of the valley. It was seen as an act of urban enslavement of the countryside, driven by the desire for profit rather than respect for the land. The two former lakes which had occupied the valley, Leathe Water and Wythburn Water, had become ghosts; relics to a preindustrial age like the village of Mardale, sunk beneath Haweswater fifty years later. The reach of capitalism knew no boundaries. The Peak District, the Lake District; these were merely suppliers for the voracious monster of the city, the mythical beast that must consume all before it merely to live.

But tell me, tell me! speak again,
Thy soft response renewing—
What makes that ship drive on so fast?
What is the OCEAN doing?” 

In November 2009, the heaviest rains ever recorded in Cumbria caused widespread flooding in the western part of the Lake District. The catchment of the Derwent river was most heavily affected, fed by a large, upland area of hills from Skiddaw to Helvellyn and Scafell. Thirlmere, already brim-full from a damp autumn, and kept at high levels for the needs of Manchester, could absorb no more; millions of cubic metres of water overflowed from the dam's spillway on the night of the 19th November. Downstream, Wordsworth's childhood home in Cockermouth was wrecked; over two metres of filthy water charging through the walled garden like a bulldozer.
The flooding was more terrifying, nore extreme than anyone could remember. One-in-a-thousand-years, we were told, but these measures become meaningless. In a distorted parody of the water cycle, the reservoir which had been built to drive the needs of industrialisation and urbanisation, to power the incessant rise of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, was now awash with unnatural volumes of water.

I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach”

It is autumn in Cumbria. It rains again, heavy downpours which sough from the gutters and leave trails of pebbles across the road like the traces of a former civilisation. Like the Ancient Mariner, I feel compelled to accost the guest at the wedding feast, grasping them with an urgency to tell the same message over and over again. It may spoil the party, but, like the Ancient Mariner, I know that once we have shot the albatross, an awful toil of penance will follow.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Nilch'i: Holy Wind

Nilch'i refers to the air and the atmosphere, both still and in motion. It is associated with breath, speech, thought, and the power of motion. In addition, it is the means of communication among all elements of the living world. In Navajo emergence and creation accounts, Nilch'i appears as the source of life.”
Lynch, P.A., Native American Mythology A to Z
After the rain, the wind. From the west, the spent ends of an Atlantic hurricane bring us gusts of spiralling leaves; the trees are stripped in a premature spring, the lanes scattered with boughs and leaves. Still in full leaf, the big trees are like ocean clippers in full sail; they offer a huge broadside to the gusts, they roar and scream in protest. I turn my face into it, take great lungfuls of the dense, solid stuff, and try to feel the untouchable substance of the wind; it is strong and yet is does not exist. It is nothing, moving. Trying to write about the wind is like trying to feel it; it slips through your fingers, it is unmemorable apart from those very moments when you are faced with its oppressive power.
In the early morning, a sparrowhawk ghosted down into our garden, exhausted and wind-blown. It paused for several minutes on the grass, alert and yet immobile; its face a startled mask of intensity. A kick, and it was gone. 
As I travel out of the village, I notice other birds stay low or careen dizzily across the land; goldfinches explode from the hedgerow and slip sideways away from the chaotic gusts which play in their ruffled feathers. Jackdaws spiral around their ash trees, cawing in bewilderment.
Many years ago, I crewed a small boat across the Irish Sea. My memory of that night crossing is of the wind; the roaring and shrieking in the shrouds, the way we reefed the sails to a shred of cloth tugged from the mast, the storm jib flogging in complaint. When we reached the coast of Ireland, the wind had dropped, but we felt and heard its insistent howl for hours later.
That same sound accompanies me tonight as I walk up the lane in the last of the evening's gathering gloom; the roaring in the trees fills my ears and my mind with its persistent hushing. On the brow of the hill, wind-pruned hawthorns hunker into the wind, flexing their gnarled trunks against another meaningless gust, their limbs inured to the pull of winter's gales. Grey-blue clouds billow across the darkening landscape. A scatter of crab apples amongst the fallen leaves seem like a gift of autumn, an offering from the wind gods.

By tomorrow, the gales will have passed, in that mysterious way in which our own personal storms pass through our lives; unbidden, traumatic, cathartic. We are left reeling and unsteady, our limbs remembering the pull of the wind, our lungs gasping in the pungent density of still air.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Not with a bang, but a whimper

Once again, I found myself in the open spaces of Flevoland (see Landscape and Memory (2), 15 June), adjusting to the flat expanses of the polders, the overwhelming sky. I visited Schokland, a thin sliver of land which was, before the draining of the polder, an island in the Zuider Zee. It is now a low ridge, rising only a few metres above the surrounding fields; a ghost of an island, its landlocked shores bereft of the rhythm of tides. The margins of the former island are marked by a line of trees, creating a strong visual impression of the four kilometre-by-half kilometre strip which would have been home to over 200 people.

The island was abandoned in the late 18th century, after extensive lobbying of the national government by the island's school teacher for an acceptable resettlement package for the islanders. Rising sea levels after the 'little ice age' of the 16th century had made the island untenable; each year, the low ridge of dune would be drenched by winter storms, the small wooden houses flooded and damaged. I imagine the islanders closing their doors with dread during every night of wind and rain; the dawning inevitability of floods that accompanied the frequent storms. To leave their wooden huts, their churches, the bones of their ancestors, would have been a conclusion they had ignored for as long as possible. We cannot accept that the land can turn against us so.
These thoughts were in my mind as I passed through the main street of my home town this morning. After a night of high winds and heavy rain, the river was swollen with water, brown and dense, roiling with intent. At the edge of the town, a heron coasted into a sodden field and regarded the passing traffic with its I-told-you-so eyes. The primaries of its ragged wings were clotted with rain. So quickly, the year turns to autumn, the land is swollen with rain.
Two years ago, we experienced the one-in-a-thousand-year flood. Every winter we dread it happening again. Even now, in September, the rivers look like November. Each freak event is dimissed as such; we fail to see the pattern which is emerging from the chaos of our changing weather.
Whilst in Flevoland, I started to notice a series of blue-and-white marker posts topped with a template of a ship, rising from fields and hedgerows. They mark the sites of shipwrecks; over a thousand of them were found when the polder was drained, the stained timbers of luggers and coasters embedded in the desiccating mud. Living as I do at the foot of the fells, it is a warning, this proximity to water; how near we are to the rising seas, how easily the shipwrecks of our past come back to haunt us, emerging slowly like ragged skeletons from the patient mud.