Thursday, December 20, 2012

Stories for the solstice

Words can be like wild birds: they need to fly, to be released onto whatever currents may carry them away.  I like to imagine words scattered into the winter air and abandoned to chance, landing where they will.

So here, released into the darkening sky so that they might briefly find a place to roost, is a collection of my essays and prose from 2012; articles published elsewhere than on this blog.  This LINK (Click here) should allow you to view or to download an e-book of selected articles, to give you something to read on dark winter nights.  If you do access it, I'd appreciate a comment to let me know.  If for some reason you can't, then let me know so that I might send you a copy by email.

With  best wishes to you all for 2013.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Coming down

From the crest of the hill, I can see the floor of the valley laid below, hedged and parcelled, neat as a quilter's dream. A cold spell has settled on the area, and the fields and hedges are tipped with frost, white in the low sun, as though lightly dusted with sugar. Wooded hills are islanded by the mist, remote and aloof. I am standing above a hillside which has been in sun for the morning. The frost has thawed to a damp coating of the lank grass, robbed of its crystal sheen, as though a spell has been broken. There is no wind, no sound.
Below me, the smoke from winter fires spools aimlessly into the still air. Above the height of the tree tops, it disperses sideways, unable to rise through the dense air, stalled by the high pressure which stills all movement. On windless days such as this, it is almost possible to see the cold air thickening in the valley, sinking into the darkening spaces behind hedges and copses, crystallising to frost where no sun spills.
Down there, my path leads; a gentle descent through gorse-tangled hillsides, crossing stone walls and stiles, towards the sound of the hushing stream at the bottom of the valley. I am coming to the end of a blissful walk across hilltops empty of people, into sunshine only faintly warm in the low light of winter, and what remains is downwards.
I pause on the lip of the hilltop, reluctant to take the path down. It saddens me, this descent into the clamouring world, leaving behind the thinner air of altitude, the clarity of view across pale hills and ridges to where the sea is draped in a bank of mist. At times like this, I feel that the valley below has nothing to offer; no quality that can be finer than this remote hilltop with its iced pools amongst the sedge, its thick pelt of woodrush and moss. I feel an ache of sadness for the place left behind, the silent space which will be left by my passing, the way that the hills exist outside of my presence.
As I turn downwards from the ridge, I notice the narrow trod of a path which curves gently between knolls and crags, luring the eye over the lip of this hill and on to the next, and the next; undulating waves of grassy fells. It tugs at me as I descend, this path, like a thought I hoped to speak but then forgot. I imagine walking its weaving route, on and on over the receding ridges of grassy hills, drawn onwards by the sensual curve of the land until evening gathers in the valley below, and only the tips of the hills are touched with the last, fierce orange light of the setting sun.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Birds on a wire

 I see them across the field, lit by the low sun of evening. The purple sheen of their feathers is slick in the slanting light, like oil. The breeze and flicker of their movement is stilled, save for the ruffle of their feathers in the breath of wind.
Twenty-one crows, pinned on a fence in the chill of winter. Their sightless eyes reflect the pale cerulean sky, the flare of the setting sun. They seem bigger in death than in life, their bodies sagging with a weight which is not theirs in flight, a burden of gravity which they overcome each day, each moment, each gusty swoop on a westerly wind, every exalting climb from the winter branches of a bare tree. None of these movements will now be theirs, no portents of storms or weather-vane sympathy with the roiling wind. They are carrion, the cruel irony of their own name, a curse on their lives.
Beyond the senseless cruelty of their death, I cannot fathom the purpose in exposing their bodies in this way. I suppose there is some ignorant superstition which suggests it will deter further crows. And from what? From taking the eggs of pheasants, from preferring the lives of birds we have imported for the sport of their death, to the lives of those who are so part of this landscape. Their crime, it seems to me, is the crime of all the corvids: their intelligence, their craft and guile, the way their liquid plumage seems so black against the sky, the colour of evil, the colour of our fears and darkest dreams. They fill a need we have for monsters and culprits, chosen because they are the wrong colour.
 It sickens me, this slaughter; it reeks of arrogance and disconnection, the darker side of country traditions and values. Everywhere I go, I see the meaningless disrespect for the land, even from those who claim to be its custodians: the blooms of green algae in rivers and lakes, the black plastic fluttering on windy fences, the peregrines poisoned and deer shot and moles pinned on fences as brazenly as these crows; tokens of our power, our hatred, our own pitiful inadequacy in the face of such beauty, such willfulness. I am tainted with the stench of death, I am complicit, I am ashamed.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


I am walking the long twilight, staying out as the air thickens to night and the sky turns a deep indigo. At this time of year, the evening seems to last for an age, as though the day is reluctant to give way to night, clinging to the last of its short hours. On the western horizon, clouds billow like sheets in the wind, the signs of another rain front building overnight, an end to this brief glimmer of winter sunshine.
I have come to love this hour, the sense of the day receding and shadows merging into the fading light. It is a time for mystery and chance, a time in which the world around us is poised at the margins of change; when birds and animals shift uneasily into their night-time patterns, when the land is empty of people and the sky seems to hold its breath, briefly, as the first stars emerge. Tonight, a shallow cusp of moon, the colour of butter, snags in the branches of the trees. Lights are coming on in the villages below and the colour drains from the land as all merges to blue and grey.
Amongst the stand of spruce trees at the base of the hill, the darkness pools in the way that mist settles at the onset of evening. Woodpigeons clatter from the trees, dark against the darkening sky. Two woodcock are flushed from the thickets of bramble and skitter low to the ground, flexing from side to side, urgent, furtive.
As I cross the rising field back towards the village, the tall bare ash trees which line the old hedgerows are stark against the evening. They seem rare and precious now, threatened by the fungus which encroaches from the east. The ash tree is Yggdrasil, the world tree of Norse mythology, the place around which the gods gathered each day to hold their council. In the gathering dusk, the boulders around the base of this huge field ash look like the shapes of huddled people, or perhaps the gods casting their spells on the tree, blessing it with the chance of life.
Walking back to the lights of the village, the chill breeze touches my face like an annunciation. I remember that the word vesper refers both to evening and to a prayer, as though both are sacred in their own way, both mark a transition, a liminal place between this world and the next. Under the streetlights of the village, the transition to night seems complete, the light slipped completely from the sky.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


You come here again, knowing there is something about the place which touches your soul. In absent moments, when you surrender to the feeling of the land, you know that there is some quiet mystery here, some sense of peace which you choose not to explain. There seems, at first, nothing special about this place; a dead-end valley hemmed by low hills, empty mostly, save for a few dog-walkers on weekends. You wonder why this place holds such resonance, the way that the hiss of the stream echoes around the valley, as though the hills themselves were composed of sound.
Above the waterfall, the valley opens to a broad basin of sedge and moss, rimmed by blocks of forest which, today, are still in the absence of breeze. The larches are shedding their needles, a thistledown covering of gold to the forest track. You have passed through this hidden valley so many times that it becomes like a touchstone, a talisman to remind you that the land is kind. Most times, you are on your way to somewhere else, returning from a walk on the hills, following the track down the valley as the light fades. Today you have come here for the valley itself, to test the peace which you believe exists here outside of all human bidding.
You see deer here sometimes, vivid in the afternoon sun, grazing in the pools of space between the trees. Flushing them with the noise of your passing, they slip through the young conifers at the edge of your vision, the way that a dream recedes in the waking light. They seem to own this place, so that your presence here is a gift, a conferring of privilege which you must guard with care. You imagine that the passing birds fly slower here, then smile at the foolishness of the thought.
You feel drawn to this place because of the way the rivers dance through the folds of land, meandering in a rhythm which only they understand. There is a sense of accommodation here, an adaptation to the shape of the gravel bluffs which fringe the river, a harmony which seems effortless to your modern, cluttered mind. In flood, after heavy rains, the shingle bars of the streams shift and flex, adapting themselves to the muscled water. Sometimes, when you come here, the boulders in the river have moved, the stepping stones at the crossing place askew.
Standing at the confluence of the two mountain streams, there are no stories, no answers. You stand in the gravel shallows and look from one stream to the other, pouring their waters into the broad channel as they have always done when you have come here. And somehow this makes you think of the way that two lives merge to become one, flowing together yet distinct until, spilled into a pool of riffles and stones, it is impossible to tell them apart. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A sacred space

So little happens there now: a service one Sunday a month, a few weddings and fewer funerals. Hidden by a cluster of mature ash trees, the chapel is almost unseen from the road, barely rising above the curve of the land. A single wicket gate leads only to the muddy margins of the field, the sign partly covered by lank grasses, the stone steps slicked with moss.
I climb the brow of the field as evening gathers. The rains have cleared, and the sky is stacked with tall clouds of gold and indigo, ranged like tall ships under sail. From the ash trees, rooks plume noisily into the thickening dusk As they cluster low over the trees, I am reminded that an old collective noun for the birds is a 'parliament', based on the archaic belief that rooks gathered to judge the souls of the recent dead.
Inside, the last of the day's light filters through the few small leaded windows. The single stained glass window, the eastern one, depicts a dove of peace and fronds of flowers. The chapel is dedicated to St. Michael, the archangel, the one who accompanies the souls of the dead to heaven, who stands, like the rooks, in judgement over them. The angels, I think, are our emissaries between this world and beyond, and there is some sense of liminality in this small sacred ground, perched on its shoulder of hillside, poised between the wet earth and the towering clouds. I ponder on the choice of site here for a chapel; the position which is elevated and yet inconspicuous, the distance from the old road, the fields to cross and gates to open to get here. It seems, perhaps, that the site chose the chapel, that there is and always has been something special about this place, some indefinable quality that we feel in our souls when we arrive at such unremarkable yet special places.
I find myself thinking of R.S. Thomas, and of his poem Llananno about a similar tiny chapel in mid-Wales. There are no poems in it / for me, he writes, hinting at the frail disappointments of a man struggling with the contradictions of his faith, the limitations of his body in older age:
...I keep my eyes
open and am not dazzled,
so delicately does the light enter
my soul from the serene presence
that waits for me till I come next.”
In the valley below me, the fields are silvered with ponds; floods left by the heavy rains of late October. The sky is darkening to evening. Despite the wind, the rooks, the lowing of cows from the farm behind me, I am filled with a sense of peace, with the ineffable sense of vastness which comes with being out of doors on an autumn evening. As I walk back down the sodden field towards the gate, the rooks spill back into the ash trees, quietening to stillness. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The weight of clouds

I could watch the moving sky for hours. From the front step of my house, I see mountains stacked with cloud; hills turning gold with the fading of the summer's grasses, lit occasionally by shafts of light falling through the cloud layer. After weeks of endless rain, we are left with the enduring beauty of the clouds.

I watch clouds as though they are a story unfolding in front of me; the roiling, unpredictable patterns as they roll inland from the coast, the higher-and-higher improbability of the huge thunderheads as they rear over the distant hills. I picture the invisible currents of air which sweep them up over the mountains, gathering in size as the water within condenses into droplets of vapour. It is pure physics, this point at which the moisture content of the air becomes too much for the declining temperature gradient of the rising hills, and the water shifts from vapour to liquid. And yet, it is poetry, the slow, gentle turning of clouds as they spill over a ridge, the churning base and pluming tops of the cumulonimbus as they roll over an open landscape. No equation, no formula can predict this chance beauty.
So unique is each cloud that I hesitate to use the strict nomenclature developed by the meteorologist Luke Howard in the early 19th century. I see storm clouds swelling from the south-west and it does not matter if they are Nimbostratus praecipitatio or Nimbostratus virga; it is irrelevant to assign the strict partitioning of a Georgian naturalist's obsession to capture the world, to pin it, to command it. It is enough, for me, to watch them change shape from my front garden, defying categories, spontaneously taking form.

I recall the water cycle pictured on a poster from the wall of my geography classroom at school: the rhythmic simplicity of clouds depositing rain on patient, simple rivers, transporting it to the sea to be evaporated into clouds again. I realise now, watching clouds darkening the hills of Cumbria, that the water disperses into a myriad of other routes: into groundwater, into the tomatoes plumpening in my greenhouse, into our bodies. And I fancy that, seventy per cent water as we are, we are part of the water cycle as much as the lakes and rivers; we are rainbows and snow, clouds and oceans. I read this week that a single cumulus cloud is typically a cubic kilometre in size. The mass of the water within is around four thousand tonnes; that's enough water to sustain the bodies of four million people. It's as much rain as can fall on Cumbria in a single day.
From my porch, the clouds have taken on a new colour, bruised like raw flesh. As evening approaches, they roll back, to reveal a frontal line of cloud edged with a translucent white so bright it is colourless, like the lip of mother-of-pearl seen within a shell. The sky is darkening to a deep indigo. A single star appears between the last threads of clouds; a point of light in an ocean of grey.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Moments of grace

The day feels like a reprieve. After a month's rainfall in less than a week, we finally experience some sun. The days have a lingering darkness that seems almost November, the sky heavy with leaden clouds, but today the sky has rolled back into a huge vault of improbable blue, and everything seems touched by light.

I walk up the lane to the brow of the hill; the old hollow way is pooled in sunlight, like honey seeping between the branches of the overhanging trees. As I clear the stile and step into the open field at the top of the hill, sunlight spills across the long, lank grass, wayward and fragile, the last of the day's warmth on my face. Two magpies shudder into flight, drifting downwind towards the hawthorn hedge. One for sorrow, two for mirth. I count magpies subconsciously, storing their portents in the back of my mind like a talisman against the uncertainty of the day. Three for a marriage, four for a birth.
This walk has become my barometer for the shifting weather and the moods of the changing days. Walking across the open field of limp, sodden grass, the wind in the trees sounds like the roaring of the sea heard beyond a line of dunes; an insistent hush, a feeling of sound rather than the sound itself; a echo of the passing wind. Swallows flog heavily into the gusts, like a rower pulling against a flooding tide.

I have come to recognise each lichened rock, each gnarled tree stump as I pass. The cattle trough at the corner of the field is steeped in thick peaty water. The field ashes catch the last of the afternoon's sun; as the shadows rise higher and higher in their boughs, only the tip of the tree is illuminated, like a halo of gold. At the far edge of the field, crouched amongst hawthorns, an old pollarded ash flickers in the wind, its leaves rippling like shoals of fish
Somewhere above me, in the tropopause, over layers of air thick with moisture and the tiny ice crystals of cirrus clouds, the polar jetstream is weaving its erratic, unpredictable course across the top of our weather patterns. Low pressure systems are tossed from side to side, like pebbles in the bed of a meandering river. I learned today that these air currents are around ten kilometres above us – that's as far away from me as the nearby coast, visible from the brow of the hill where I have walked today; a distance I can ride on my bike in half an hour. We like to believe that they obey the rules of physics, these shifting atmospheric patterns, but after this year of wet and wind, they seem more alive, more unbidden, more fluid. Like the patterns of flow in a river, they are too complex for us to understand; there are too many variables, too many unknowns. Today, the jetstream has shifted to the south, a whip-like flick of the thundering air, and we are bathed in autumn sun. I turn my face to the warmth, bask in its transience.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Leaving before dawn

When I was twelve or thirteen years old, I started a paper round. I covered the dull modern estates at the edge of the village; trimmed lawns and tarmac driveways, thrusting copies of the Daily Express and the Daily Mail into letter boxes stiff with nylon-brushed draught excluders. I remember that I had one copy of The Guardian to deliver; it belonged to my history teacher. It was probably the only copy in the whole district.
My father, inured to years of shift work, would wake me with a cup of tea before seven. In winter, I could finish the whole round before it was light, my fingers stained grey with the metallic taint of newsprint. At weekends, my mother would cook me eggs and mushrooms when I returned, ravenously hungry, cold, and carrying that strange sense that I had already been out in the world; I became a sort of envoy from a place of dawn light and chill air, a place where things happened outside of our human span, in a world unbeholden to our wakefulness.
What that paper round taught me, apart from the reading habits of the rural middle classes, was the pleasure of leaving before dawn, of being abroad in the world as the day begins; that sense of privilege and promise which comes in the space between first light and the full glare of the sun. It is a time when the world seems to hold its breath; when the wind eases and the rushing mill of human life is briefly suspended. When birds, pinned against the hurling sky, appear with the import of emissaries from another world.
It is a feeling, a passion, I have carried through my adult life; the thrill of leaving campsites and hotels in the early morning, of bus rides and train journeys through towns empty of cars and people, of the inevitable beauty of the wakening world. Just for a while, it feels that life can begin afresh, without its petty concerns and worries, without the taint of our mistakes and failings.
This morning, I breakfasted before six with a view across pine forests and the scrubby wasteland that attends airports the world over. The sky was easing into light; a muted charcoal blue that comes with the slow dawns in northern latitudes in September. I took a shuttle bus to the airport as the sun splintered through low clouds, shimmering off the wet roads and small lakes amongst the trees. Back at home, the family would still be sleeping, the house still and dark behind curtains grey with the first light of morning. My younger son would be whiffling in his sleep in those restless hours before waking. I thought of the family routines and rituals: the fruit chopped on a wooden board, the bread rising in a cracked earthenware bowl, the front door opened to smell the woodsmoke-and-leaf-mould scent of the autumn air. One thousand miles away, I am leaving before dawn, my heart's compass turned to home, the morning sun over my shoulder.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Islands in the stream

It is the light, at first, which startles. Sharpened by the hours spent in airports and hotels, it echoes off every surface; off the tarmac and white-painted buildings, off the baked earth and dried fields, off the pewter-coloured sea. It is both diffuse and intense, as though everywhere at once, ever-present, exposing.
The wind is everywhere, too; like many Atlantic islands, the wind is a restless presence, chasing along the narrow lanes of peeling stucco and flowered balconies, dragging clouds across the tops of the green mountains. The oldest buildings in the town seem inured to it; low, squat, chunky, they are built with their backs to the wind and the sea, that ancient indicator of places which existence depends on the sea, and depends upon them denying that fact. From the sea comes prosperity and death, threat and plenty; it is an uneasy relationship to be had with the ocean, as capricious and unpredicatable as the sea itself: beautiful and powerful, calm or violent.
This is a place that exists only because of the development of sea-going vessels, and more specifically, the development of carvel planking which, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, enabled the construction of strong, watertight and seaworthy boats to push the boundaries of Europe's known world that bit further. These islands, these green pebbles in the vastness of the Atlantic, are here as a stepping stone to the so-called New World: a safe harbour on the way to South or Central America, taking settlers and slaves, bringing plants and gold and whales. They are founded on the chance shiftings of the wind and tides, on the vagaries of navigation, on hope and faith. And blood.

There is a feeling of fading old-world colonialism about the old town of Ponta Delgada; plaster walls stained to the colour of tea, rusting balconies and road signs cast in neatly painted blue and white tiles. Most of the old buildings are white stucco, edged with a coarse, dark volcanic rock, rough to the touch, pebbled with shards of volcanic debris and pocked with the tiny pumice-like holes. All stone walls, all mullions and quoins, are built from the same rough stone, the only rock available on the islands. It is a gentle reminder of the relative impermanence of these islands, upstart youths in the age of the ocean, freshly minted from young volcanic rocks spilled from the mid-Atlantic Ridge. They are here, they are hospitable, by dint of geography and geology: the building of new islands in mid-ocean rifts, the warming, damp influence of the gulf stream. It is odd to think that the ocean current which swirls around these islands like a benign stream is the same one which keeps the west coast of the British Isles so mild in winter. It is, or has been, a dependable force in nature. Now, I am not so sure. I think of slabs of ice calving from glaciers two thousand miles away, melting into this stream, shifting its patterns and flow, thickening the mild, life-teeming waters of the gulf stream. We are too young, these islands are too young, to know what this might mean.

Yesterday, the day before I arrived in the Açores, a hurricane tore across the islands, swift and destructive. Flights were cancelled, the weather forecast threatened torrential rain and catastrophic winds. Today, the wind has eased to a stiff breeze, the ocean is mostly grey, with only a thin spittle of white edging the waves, a memory of stronger winds out to sea. It seems to me another sign of the strange and unsettling summer we have experienced, another warning that the swirling mill of the world's oceans are shifting pace, trying to find new ways to adapt to the changes we bring, strange visitors in a new land, with our beads and baubles, our sailing boats and weapons, our greed for gold.


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Summer's slow decline

I sit in my garden with a cup of tea in the early morning, watching the clouds draw patterns across the sky, hinting of storms to come later in the day. I recognise that familiar easing from grace which comes with the end of summer; that smell in the morning air of dew and decay, of damp stone and flowers faded past their bloom. Even in mid-August, there are trees which carry a promise of autumn in their leaves, the tones of yellow and ochre which are only just hidden beneath summer's brief green; messengers of the coming change in the seasons. The birch tree is already shedding its tiny, delicate leaves. The broader, curved leaves on the cherry are mottled with the first scars of autumn, like a bruise showing beneath the skin.
In the morning sky, a single swallow turns and turns against the gathering clouds, testing his wings for the ache of leaving. The restlessness which precedes migration is everywhere; for days now, the swifts have been gathering in the high evening sky, following the last of the afternoon's insects up towards the clouds, feeding for a journey which their bodies know they must take.
As I step across the dampened grass, I look for signs of decay; not as a morbid pursuit, but as a reminder that all is in order, that the world turns as it should, and that summer is beginning its proper decline. There is no sense of sadness here: autumn for me is a time of plenty, of ripening apples and the kiss of chill air when I leave the house in the morning; a time to slow down from summer's frenzied out-there-ness, and to move inwards, to fires lit and rooms lighted in the evening cool.

As I walk in the garden, a single birch leaf falls onto my hair, as soft as the footfall of an insect. It seems like an annunciation; a promise that autumn will be kind, a final gift from the tree which gives me so much pleasure through the summertime, the way it bends and flexes through summer's storms, its promise of perpetual willowy youth. It seems so premature, to be giving in to autumn so soon, when the air is still warm and the evenings still hold a touch of sun.
The herbs beneath the kitchen window have run to flower; the flavour sapped from their leaves, their stems long and rangy. Bees are making the most of the warm air, making perhaps their last journey to the blooms. I watch their grazing with a tinge of sadness; a man in his garden, poised on the edge of middle age, following bees and looking forward to a time of plenty.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

In the space between showers

I wake again to rain falling on the apple trees. It is a sound that has filled my sleeping hours this strange summer; a whisper of jetstream winds, of misplaced fronts and the unseen swirling of weather systems over the dark Atlantic; a murmur of weather gone awry, of air masses which eddy in the upper atmosphere like the dark waters at the edge of flooded rivers, laden with silt and menace.
In the space between showers, I walk in the garden, noticing the beads of rain fresh on every leaf and flower. Each globe of wet shines at the edge with the promise of sunshine just over the horizon. Each plant has its own strategies for storing and conserving water; fluted petals to draw the raindrops down into the flower, rilled tips to the leaf to guide each perfect droplet onto the roots below. The ripening apples shed tiny droplets, as fresh-washed as those on a morning market stall.

There is a delicious thrift at work here; a prizing of the importance of water as a resource, not the familiar despair at the abundance of rain under which our summer fails. The relationship between the plant and the rain is simple and symbiotic, a grace in nature which we have long since lost, as alien as the dew ponds found in field corners in limestone areas; ancient strategies for holding water in those seasons when its scarcity could threaten food supplies.
In the slowly lightening morning sky, a blush of blue opens between the bruised clouds. Each day holds a promise of sun, a promise of rain, each a form of benevolence, a gift from the skies. I have long since abandoned weather forecasts, preferring to learn of the world through my bedroom curtains; the patter on the apple trees, the glow of brief sun.
The space between showers is a lacuna of peace; a gap in the restless mill of the world like those moments of pause in a day, between the laundry and the shopping, between lists and deadlines. It is a moment to be, rather than to do. It is like the brief moments in which I find time to write; fleeting and impermanent, barely long enough to grasp the thought before it is dragged away by more pressing things; the interlude of blue sky before the next shower of rain, a lucid moment of thought rising to the surface before it disappears once again in the muddying eddying of the day.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A journey to the heart

My last journey is always by bicycle. Whenever I return from travel, I step off the bus, unlock my bicycle where I left it, sometimes days before, and ride the few miles home; a slow transition from one state to another. The trip is usually in the dark, but at this time of year the skies hold a memory of daylight which persists almost to midight, an inky hue in the north-west that seems like an absence of colour, a draining-away of light. In the half-darkness, I hear the curlews trilling their welcome in the fields of bog-rush: treeee-treee-tree-tre-tre-tre. I breathe in the smell of mown hay and wet tarmac, of soil and the scent of hawthorn blossom; great lungfuls of the stuff, chasing the taint of trains and cities from my lungs, giddy on the sweetness of memory, the moth's-wing kiss of damp summer rain brushing my face.
Above my head, bats stitch the darkening sky, their chaotic and purposeful flight sensed rather than seen; a series of dark dots left on the retina by their passing, a darkness in the space they have just been. The last of the evening's swifts are shrieking their ascent into another ether, a higher existence of which we can only dream, circling higher and higher in the summer sky until they are tiny black specks against the charcoal clouds, no bigger than the mosquitoes on which they feed restlessly, banished to constant motion through the brief night.

As I ride home, I am thinking again of pebble labyrinths; beautiful and intricate patterns of rounded boulders half-buried in turf, hefted into shapes that hold purpose and meaning. They are scattered across the northern lands, symbols of a culture which has always lived in an uneasy balance with the sea. Even the newer labyrinths found inland, away from the sea, somehow owe their existence to a knowledge of the dark ocean which shifts restlessly at the edge of the hills, lapping at the fringes of the forest. They are like Odysseus' oar, abandoned inland in a place that knew little of the sea, remnants of a maritime life, a life of travel and deprivation, of adventure and uncertainty, an existence of which our modern shore-tethered lives know so little.
It is said that, amongst fishing communities in the west of Scotland or Norway, or the East of Sweden, the pebble labyrinth was a talisman for a successful voyage, a pact made with the unpredictable forces of the sea. The youngest member of the crew would walk to the centre of the labyrinth whilst the rest of the sailors hung impatiently over their oars, the boat chafing against the worn timbers of the quay. From the centre, this young boy would run as fast as possible out the waiting ship and push off onto the slick, waiting water, leaving the malevolent sea sprites stranded and confused at the centre of the labyrinth, unable to disrupt the coming passage.

I love the sense of reverence in this image; this genuflection to the unknown forces of the natural world. It is a reminder that everything is not known, that we cannot control the outcome of a sea passage, cannot summon the forces of the wild world to act in our favour. Instead, we must show the necessary regard through ritual and observance, through a slow and gentle sense of mutual respect. In this way, my bike ride is my talisman against the dislocation of travel, a time to haul breath into my lungs and feel movement in my limbs at a pace which feels in tune with my body; a journey back to the heart of the labyrinth.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The promise of rain

Rain blurs the lens of my camera as I crouch in the rocky bed of the stream. To face the spring, I must turn into the persistent rain which is driving across the low fields. It is running down my hair and face, dampening the collar of my sweater. My sons are kicking through the water and shouting into the wind, delighted to be outside, exhilarated by the weather.
It has rained for forty-eight hours, a rhythmic deluge which comes and goes, pulsing like waves on an infinite sea. The ground is sodden, heavy with the burden of water. Upwellings bubble from the fields and paths; spontaneous risings of water, as though the earth can take no more and is expelling the excess rain. We are walking across the fields around the village simply to feel the rain, to see the tracks and paths which have become streams, to see the normally mute springs roaring with it, an endless white noise of running water; a reminder of how much we need this rain.

I live in a land of limestone, where streams disappear and re-appear, an intricate geography of sinkholes and springs, rumours of underground rivers like the promise of secrets withheld beneath the earth. Water echoes beneath rocks like dark wine poured from a flask in a dimly-lit room. A stream rising from the spring around which the village has grown disappears under tarmac and grass; its hollow thrumming is heard like a bird in the night beneath slabs of limestone. The village in which I live, and the ones to south and west, are spring-line settlements, located at the base of the thick strata of limestone, where the risings of underground streams provided a reliable, perennial water supply. There is a world beneath our feet, a system of dark waterways switching and dodging between the fractured joint systems of the limestone, seeping along bedding planes of rock, emerging from under strata as though flushed clean of their subterranean existence, carrying only a hint of darkness at their first exposure to the light. New-born water, filtered and fresh, earthy and mysterious.

Rivers are like stories, bringing tales from the highlands, rumours of other lands told in hissing tones, the susurrus of heresay and whispered spells. At times of heavy rain like these, rivers bring tales of destruction and chaos, fallen trees carried on bank-full brown water, boulders moved in the night by the power of the flood waters. I remember from my youth the sound of alpine rivers in flood, the dull chunk of boulders being shifted on the bed of the river during the afternoon, as the meltwater from glaciers rose in the mid-day heat. After rain like we have had this weekend, the roads are littered with pebbles, twigs and grit, scatterings of debris marking the run-off from fields and overflowing becks, the random graffiti of weather which is out of control, unbidden.
In Cumbria, our relationship with water is held in a delicate, uneasy balance, a fear of floods which might rise again in any season, a dependence on the lakes and rivers which create this green landscape. There is a tale to be told of the importance of rivers in our oral culture, the hold they have over our lives. It will be hymned in the many names we have in our native languages for watercourses: burn, stream, brook, river, water, beck, ghyll, afon, allt. In a land of wet, rivers become the defining feature of our geography, determining the position of towns and villages, of crossing points and transport systems. I recall the drainage patterns I learnt in my school geography lessons: dendritic, radial, linear; streams meeting other streams to become rivers, tendrils of water on a featureless landscape. These fragile lines seemed somehow like a map of the human body, like the nervous system which, at that age, I understood intellectually but not emotionally, the fine lines of feeling which give me the taste of water on my tongue, the soft kiss of rain on my face.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

And in coming to earth

And in coming to earth, I felt the miles shed from me like the skin of an ancient beast; the patina of travel, the foul air of hotel rooms and railway stations soughed from my lungs like the last breath of winter. In my absence, spring had happened; the creamy pom-poms of flowers covering the rowan trees, the hedgerows alive with cornflowers and iris; blue and yellow, a teasing reminder that I was at home in Cumbria, no longer in Sweden.
After travel, I feel that my soul is strung out along railway tracks and airline flight paths, that there is a period of time following a journey in which the spirit takes some time to catch up with the body, that I am not wholly in place. I stare at the flourishing garden with a detached sense of unreality; the distant hills seem like a fabled place, an ancestral memory from a children's story of how the world was, before we remade it in our own image. I have a sense of a gathering-together of the scattered parts of myself, like the re-grouping of an expedition party after an arduous passage. I need to reconnect, to feel earth in my fingers once more.
In the early evening, I walk in the local nature reserve with my son, silently naming the flowers to myself like an incantation, trying to recognise the songs of the birds. The woodland floor is thick with ferns and honeysuckle, the air smells of the rich green, as though it has weight, texture, colour. I marvel at the fractal perfection of each fern frond, notice how a new plant from this spring sags under its own weight above the mosses. It bears a single yellow leaf; one of last year's from the birch trees above, carried skywards by the growth of the fern, its last trip towards the light.

On another fern, an early evening moth rests in the paling light, iridescent in its perfection. Moths are everywhere in the mealy scent of the woods, powdered for the night, lured by the promise of the honeysuckle and thistles, their names like a vespers prayer for the souls of the dead: Powdered Quaker, Dingy Footman, Clouded Drab.
Amongst this abundance of life, spiders and woodlice shrink into the dried humus of rotting logs, fungus thrive on the rich peaty earth. We stop to watch a woodpecker collecting food for its young; the chicks chirrup from a hole in a rotten tree, a constant thrum of thin, reedy noise, a craving for food and attention. All round us, the trees are crusted with dry lichen, each crisp yellow scale a marriage of opposites: the symbiosis between a fungus and a bacterium, the light-loving and the light-avoiding. They are a perfect metaphor for the shadows and light which shift across this woodland floor. 
  At this time of year, it seems that all is growth, all is decay. The insects and plants spin through life cycles too fast for us to follow, too impermanent for our human span, too close a reminder of the transience of spring, a warning of our own proximity to decay and decline.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A speck of darkness, a world of light

On Saturday the sixth of June 1761, the gentleman farmer and amateur meteorologist Isaac Fletcher gathered with two of his friends at his comfortable house at Mosser. A small hamlet which straggles along the lower slopes of the fells, it has wide views across a sedge-filled valley towards Pardshaw, with its recently built Quaker Meeting House, below the rock on which George Fox had preached several times. Fletcher was part of the coterie of enquiring Quaker minds in this western enclave of noncomformity, as was another of the three gathered early on that June morning: Elihu Robinson from Eaglesfield, only twenty-six years old, but already noted for his quick mind, his interest in the world. It was shortly after dawn, and the day promised to be clear. “The sun then appeared large with a thin black cloud over it, which soon went off as the sun rose higher in the horizon.” wrote Fletcher in his diary “The image of the sun & the planet Venus as a black spot appeared very plain upon a white cloth put up for that purpose. The path of the planet over the sun's disk was easy to delineate and very curious to behold, tho' clouds sometimes interfered.”
It was the first time that the transit of Venus had been studied with such scientific precision. With the ability to accurately predict this rarest of astronomical phenomena, scientists across the world were rigging their white cloths and paper screens, hoping to record in detail the time of the planet's passing across the surface of the sun. With the application of some basic trigonometry, they would be able to estimate the distance from the earth to the sun, as though our place in the heavens could be measured.

The Royal Society in London had prepared for years. They had dispatched expeditions to South-east Asia and the south Atlantic, the furthest reaches of the world which would be friendly towards British explorers. To St Helena went Nevil Maskelyne, later to become Astronomer Royal. To Sumatra, they sent the surveyor Charles Mason, with his assistant Jeremiah Dixon. The two made it as far as South Africa in time, and observed the transit from the Cape of Good Hope. Two years later, the pair went together to America, to map the frontiers of the newly-developing states, demarking a line which still bears their name.
Transits occur eight years apart; like London buses, you wait 105 years then two come at once. By 1769, the Royal Society were determined to gather accurate data. They dispatched a young up-and-coming naval Captain, James Cook, to the south Pacific in HMS Endeavour, taking with him a naturalist, Joseph Banks. The expedition was away for three years, establishing an astronomical base on Tahiti, Point Venus, before moving south, encountering lands never before visited by Europeans, a Terra Australis of strange fauna and unfamiliar people. It was a voyage that would make Banks' name as a naturalist; he was fêted on his return, became the brilliant star of the London Salons.
In 1772, the year after Cook and Banks returned, Nevil Maskelyne proposed to the Royal Society that the unspent funds from the Transit of Venus expeditions could be used for new work to determine the density of the earth. The site they selected, a perfect-shaped mountain in central Scotland, gave the name to the Schiehallion Experiment; but it also resulted in Maskelyne's assistant, Charles Hutton, devising the technique of contour lines as a new means of mapping slopes. The Transit of Venus became a catalyst for exploration and discovery, a rare event from which the ripples of science could spread in the enlightenment, a dark speck on the surface of our sunny ignorance.

Venus has always been the morning and evening star; the brightest light in the heavens. It is named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty, as though we could never imagine so perfect an earthly thing. The Ancient Greeks believed it to be two separate stars which would appear at either morning or night: Phosphorus and Hesperus, the Light Bringer and the son of the Dawn Goddess, Lucifer and Vesper. From a distance, it appears beautiful, silvery-blue, freshly polished. For centuries we could imagine it to be an idyll, a romantic remove. Since the first landings in the sixties, we now know its atmosphere is almost pure carbon dioxide, tainted with traces of sulphuric acid, its surface scarred with the weals of volcanoes, an imagined hell, a warning of how things may yet become; a warning of how knowledge becomes a thing we can never un-know, a return from an ideal, the fading of distant beauty.

Tomorrow, Venus passes once again across the face of the sun, a path as perfect and predictable as a ball thrown into the air, curving through the sky on an arc governed by gravity and time. Once again, the telescopes of the world will be following its course, this time excited by the information it might reveal about exoplanets, or those that might exist beyond our own solar system. This centennial event has become a repository for our hopes and dreams of a world beyond our own, a tiny point of focus for the sharpest scientific minds of our age, a single point of darkness crossing the landscape of a bright, flaring world.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

At the edge of dark woods

A cuckoo is calling in the far wood. The morning birds are finding their voice; trill notes against a sky of perfect cerulean blue. The clarity of the air is so pure, this far north, that a pair of magpies seem like etchings of themselves, a vivid impression where the bird may once have been.
Around the veranda where I sit, azaleas and juniper merge into bilberries beneath the tall pines. The bilberries are bigger here than at home, their leaves soft large green ovals, the size of old pennies. A single rowan tree in flower seems garlanded for the day: creamy rosettes of blossom seeming so innocent, so naïve against the sombre viridian of the pines.
The view northwards through the bay is striped with the soft creases of wind, as though freshly raked for the morning, like the gravel in a zen garden. A single Swedish flag drifts heavy on its pole, testing the morning breeze.

After breakfast, we walk in the forest, noting the flowers which are coming into bloom in the dappled understory; wild strawberries and wood anemones, bog myrtle and a flower I cannot recognise, the Skogstjärnor or 'wood star'; Trientalis europaea. There is something contextually unsettling amongst these trees: the rich understory of native woodland beneath trees which we regard so often as non-native cash crops: spruce and pines. It feels like home, yet is not; is familiar and somehow strange.
We are discussing the subtle differentiation between 'woods' and 'forest' in English. I tell my Swedish friends that 'forest' has a different sense, somehow more scary, more unbidden than the tamer concept of 'woods'. In Swedish, there is no difference; only degrees of wildness, layers and layers of pine and spruce receding into the penetrating sun, the dry crispness of mosses beneath the feet, the scatters of cones like leavings from mischievous wood spirits.

For a short period in my life, I came to Sweden often, flying in at night into snow-bound airports, taking late express buses through the monochrome forests. On one such trip I walked to the edge of Katrineholm to get some fresh air after a day spent in a stifling conference hall. It was late November, a time when darkness settles around the margins of the town by three in the afternoon. I turned off the the road on which I was walking, onto a track which led through houses to where trees pressed hard against the limits of the town. A soft snow had begun to fall, soundlessly sifting on the pavements into a greyish sinter, like the settling of a fine ash at the end of the world. The sky was a sulphurous grey, the colour of a stain.
I imagined how it would be to follow the track further into the trees, to keep walking beyond the houses, into the darkening evening forest with the snow settling on my jacket, my hair, filling my footsteps behind me. It was a moment of fear and allure, of fascination for the sentient forest, a moment in which I could almost feel the trees breathing, their shelter welcoming yet dark, warmer than the falling snow, bigger than the small parcel of open land to which this town seemed only temporarily anchored. It is a fear that perhaps we all face down at times; the lure of the forest, the promise of the untamed wildness which hovers at the margins of our lives. 


Thursday, May 17, 2012

The improbability of spring

I step into my garden, and wait for spring to begin. The morning air holds a chill, like a memory of winter. One morning in early May there was a thin sift of snow on the top of the fells, an icing-sugar reminder that the truly warm days of spring are not with us yet. The swallows arrived as expected in early April, their thin screech splitting the air with a sound heard so long ago it is almost forgotten. Now they sit on the wires, fat and well-fed, their long journey only a memory; an ache in their wings, a scent of orange blossom still in the air. They have a grace which I lack after travel; I imagine they do not feel the same sense of disconnection, their souls are not strung out along railway tracks and airline flight paths the way that ours can be at a journey's end. I tire of travel, and the arrival of the swallows is a reminder of its deprivations and burdens, the inevitable toll that must be followed by a period of rest, a time to feel the necessary sense of arrival.
But for now, I am home, noticing the shift in the hedgerows, the blousy harbingers of cowslip and marsh marigold, the buttery sheen of early spring's flowers. I recalled that, when I wrote the first post for this blog a year ago, the boughs of the hawthorn were heavy with blossom like whipped cream; this year, they remain only green, the very first of the flowers still curled into the tiny pin-head buds that are neither green nor yellow, but carry the promise of both.
Spring's activities continue whatever the vagaries of he weather: the cricket season has started, and we spend evenings shivering at the boundary rope watching matches end in the gathering dusk, picking out the white figures against the darkening green, hearing the thock of bat against ball as alien as the sound of the swallow.
I wonder if the seasons have always been awry like this; whether there were always such huge shifts from one year to the next, such incandescent warm spells in March followed by snow in May. Perhaps our memories smooth over the differences, in the way that our eyes smooth over the crags and scars of the distant hills, picturing them as a pure curve of land, failing to perceive the bumps and wrinkles, the imperfections that distance heals.
On the path at my feet is a filigree leaf, a remnant of last autumn; a memory of another winter weathered and endured, a reminder of the fragility of our seasons. In the morning skies above, a single swift stitches the spring air, a shriek of joy splitting the dawn.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The lives of animals

From the track along the brow, I can see across a shallow valley of sedge-filled fields, wet from the rains of winter, the soft earth pocked by the feet of sheep and the incessant pecking of rooks. To the north, a small nature reserve, a low downy copse of alder and birch ringed by bog, folds itself to the curves of the land. Southwards from here, a small stream, a trench of murky water, flows from beneath the village and crosses the broad valley. It is a passing route for deer; I see them running close to the hedges, the slip and curve of their dun-coloured hides indistinguishable from the olive smurr of sedge which lines the valley bottom.
On a rainy afternoon, towards evening, I saw a young female grazing in the field which slopes upwards from the beck, its head bent over the scuffed remains of autumn's grasses, the curled leaves of docks. The slope of the land allowed me to approach unseen, to peer over the brow only a dozen yards from her. She paused, raised her head, and looked at me. I hung my arms by my side, stilled my movement in the damp evening rain, my breath unrolling in the breeze. For a while she watched, assessing me, and then turned back to her grazing. I stepped closer forwards, lifting my feet deliberately through the damp grass. She looked again, then turned towards the hedge. After some time, her grazing finished, she turned and loped slowly across the field. Around twenty yards away she stopped and looked again. This time I felt the intensity of the gaze, the calm unblinking certainty of her moist eyes, as though there was some message to impart, some warning that I have failed to register. She turned her head to the rise in the land ahead of her, and trotted away from me.

For years I have watched deer amongst these marginal lands. I begin to learn the places where they can be seen at certain times of the day. I find their bedding scrapes - circles of compressed grass in the damp morning earth – and I linger with a sense of envy of their fluidity, their freedom, their poise and balance. I try to imagine how their lives are; the places they frequent for food, for water, for play. I picture their world as it must seem to them, the mental geographies they carry with them; see a network of hedges and fields, a series of green corridors along which it is safe to move, broken by the threads upon which our own limited lives depend: roads, villages, fences.
In the early morning, it can be possible to see them more closely, bewildered in the dawn light, restless yet immobile. Sometimes, on foggy mornings, I have surprised them amongst the hawthorn trees and, for a few seconds, we have watched each other in mutual incomprehension. Their eyes are like polished pebbles, the colour of wet slate.
One March evening, I walked with my son to the top of the brow where the wind comes from the south-west. The trees droned with the ache of it, a constant hush of motion and sound. Two deer were scuttling in the lane, perhaps sheltering from the wind. They bolted towards the gate and then, finding it closed, vaulted the thorn hedge, five feet high and three feet wide. We watched them cross the field, bounding and leaping as they ran. They paused to drink from a rain-filled pond in the corner, then cleared the farthest fence in a single, fluid bound, like a bolt of cloth shaken in the wind. A moment later, a third deer broke from the dense hedgerow of thorns and crab apples and crossed the same field. This one was heavier and ran with a more purposeful, flatter gait. It too cleared the fence and was gone. Hoof prints pitted the damp earth at the edge of the field.

It is in the mornings when I earn that sense of privilege of seeing deer at their early grazing; there is an unspoken alliance amongst animals who pass in the flush of first light that owes something to the complicity between the hunter and the hunted, that is not so much trust as a mutual wariness. I find myself thinking of them when I leave the village early, bent over the handlebars of my bike, dreaming them like a talisman against the chaff of modern living.
And then, last week, on the long slope downhill by the village church, I saw something flapping in the road a hundred yards or so ahead of me; a bag, perhaps, or the wrappings of a silage bale. A car which had passed me moments before had turned and was returning up the hill. The flapping took shape: long thin legs, the rise and fall of a chest, a deer which had vaulted the high hedge directly in front of a passing car; a young male, his antlers only two short prongs, their dull shine like polished ash.
The driver of the car was shocked; the speed with which an animal can appear in the road, the powerlessness to stop or swerve. We took a pair of flailing hoofs each, and dragged the animal from the tarmac onto the soft verge. His eyes were closed, his breathing fast and rasping. I watched the warmth of his laboured breath as it plumed in the chill morning air, the heaving of his body , like the shuddering of someone in tears. I wanted to put my hands on his heaving chest, to offer some form of apology for the senseless hurt we inflict on animals, for the warning that I saw in the eyes of that deer only a few weeks earlier.

The passing of deer always leaves a sadness, like a love remembered and lost. They are pure movement, when all around us in autumn is wilted and dying. I ache for the ease with which they travel across the land, the sense of grace they bring to our landscape. I imagine the mysteries of their lives, and feel a sense of completeness, as though complicit in their wildness. I see the fear in their eyes, and can only imagine the atonement we must give, the concessions we have yet to make.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Lessons in biology

I am lying on my back in a spring woodland, the sun full through the branches of trees which, this far north, are still bare of leaves. Each day I notice some new growth on empty branches; the soft green clusters on the hawthorn, the frilled rosettes on the rowans. Even the oaks are starting to assume their mustard-green fur of new leaves, a sign that spring comes faster than we ever remember.
The floor of this wood is soft with wet sphagnum and thick growth of woodrush; it has remained ungrazed by sheep for years, and the spaces between the trees bear some reminder of how rich and hospitable old woods should be; how welcoming they are, to us as another of the wood-dwelling species, how they retain this feeling that seems like home but is also unknown. Perhaps it is an ancestral memory of home, a genetic sense of shelter and warmth, of the abundance of fuel and food. As we step carelessly along one of the lesser-used paths, a deer rises from the slopes below us, crosses the track and skitters up the steep hillside above us, all grace and fluidity. We pause to watch it climb, the way it rests for a moment, ears and nose sensing the air, alert to threat or chance.

I have been lying on my belly, studying the folded leaf sets of the new wood sorrel; they way they droop like the hats of some archaic monastic order. I peer at new fern fronds as they unravel like the impatient hands of children, each one the promise of a new plant, a mystery of biological form in the way that the complete frond seems compressed into that tight coil, in the same way that each new shell in the sea seems to contain the structure, the implicit memory, of the complete mature form. It reminds me of that mystifying but memorable phrase from my university palaeontology classes; that 'ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny'; how the growth of each individual rehearses the development of the species, as though we are each destined to learn the same painful truths, to repeat the failures and mistakes of our species before we can progress.
Spring is a reminder of the cyclicity of the world, the way in which the patterns may be familiar, but not identical, that we may walk in the same woods, but they are subtly different each year; that our children can follow paths we may have known ourselves in the past, but they can run them unfettered, freer, wiser than we may ever be.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A ghost of aviation

Flying from Birmingham to Belfast on an afternoon of weak spring sunshine, filtered through light clouds as though the day is seen through misted windows. Seated by the window, the sun from the south-west bounced off roofs and windows below me, each reflection flaring briefly into life and dying again as the plane moved past, so that the view through the clouds to the ground beyond became a symphony of flares of light, like glow-worms on a summer evening. Sunlight flared on the bends of a river; a burst of gold pulsing through the deep meanders. As the clouds below me thickened, I recognised only dimly some familiar landscape features: the Dee estuary, its sandbars like the sloughed skin of some vast and mythical beast; the Irish Sea, furrowed like beaten zinc.

That same morning, I had read in the newspaper of a renewed attempt to explain the disappearance of Amelia Earhart in 1937, rumours of aeroplane wreckage in the shallow seas of a Pacific atoll, discarded remnants of western artifacts on an uninhabited island. From my air-conditioned seat with its view through a small and smeared window, I thought of the ambivalence of air travel, its contradictions and allure. It is an activity that, only eighty years ago was imbued with the explorer spirit associated with deserts and arctic wildernesses, and now is an experience of inconvenience and discomfort, of boredom and sterility. I remembered, years ago, seeing the memorial to Alcock and Brown's first transatlantic crossing, a squat cairn on the lip of a bog-filled basin on the west coast of Ireland, and the sense of crossing that vastness of the ocean stretching to the west seemed improbable, heroic.

And I found myself thinking of Amelia, Joni Mitchell's haunting song in which the loneliness and risk of solo air travel becomes a metaphor for a doomed love affair. The music inhabits a landscape where to move, to keep travelling, is the antidote to sorrow and self-doubt. It is a hymn to longing, to the desires of distance, the allure of the open skies, from an age when the oppressive heat of the mounting carbon in the air had not troubled our romantic souls. The elegy of lost love is also an elegy for the days when flight was a privilege, a rare experience, an invitation to move with the gods for one brief moment of our earth-bound lives. It is only in my generation that we can glance across the tops of cloud-seas lit by the fierce glare of full sun, and be unmoved.

Friday, March 16, 2012

And this earth in my fingers, soft as memory

I am curled into the bole of a birch tree, listening to the rain. Overhead, the wind soars in the tree tops like a rumour of the sea, heard in the distance beyond the curve of the land. A clatter of wood pigeons spills from one of the trees, grey silhouettes against a greyer sky. I flushed two deer as I walked through the wood, their white tails bobbing through the trees, and I am now alert to every snap and rustle in the undergrowth. It is dry here, beneath the overhanging limb of this tree, and the dense moss is soft beneath my elbow. Time stills as the evening gathers.
I leave the wood and walk back across a field of bog and sedge, the small young shoots of irises and horsetails emerging from the rank-smelling water. Snipe burst from the sedge in twos and threes. I watch them as they scatter across the bog, twisting from wing to wing in flight, teetering out of balance like a child learning to ride a bicycle. The sky is thickening to dusk, and a plume of jackdaws rises from the trees, heading for their evening roost. For a moment, I am completely here, completely happy, shin-deep in boggy water with a smurr of rain coating the side of my face.
A mile from my home, this tiny nature reserve, this eighteen acres of damp, peaty land, is my barometer for the changing seasons. The relationships we develop with local nature sites are complex, fluid. There are places that become somehow special to us, not necessarily because they are unique or exceptional, but perhaps because we know them so well, in all moods and weathers, in morning and evening light, in winter gales and summer rain. These places are our touchstones, our reminder that all is well in the natural world. They may be small, they may be unimportant as sites of national interest, but they are the green lungs of our modern lives. These are the untamed margins of the land, the periphery of our vision, the places we carry with us in our minds.
I think of the writer and mountaineer W.H. Murray, who wrote most of Mountaineering in Scotland whilst in a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy, drafted on sheets of rough toilet paper. I imagine him stretched on his hard mattress at night, tracing in his mind the ridges and corries of his native mountains, like a man in exile remembering the body of his lover, the curve of the bones beneath the skin. Memory of the land is like a remembered passion, a memory in the body rather than the mind; the feel and the texture of our local wild places, some sense of their smells and sounds. When I am in some foreign city, stifling in an airless hotel room, I remember the soft peaty earth of my local moss, the driving rain on my face. I carry it with me like a pebble to turn in my hands, my fingers remembering the touch of damp earth like an annunciation.