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.