Friday, January 27, 2012


I am with my sons in a birch wood, damp with the days of rain, every boggy hollow filled with chill water. We are finding colour and movement in the stillness of winter; the fragile gills of fungi, the vivid green of the mosses, the tracks of deer in the peaty earth. I lean back against a tree and watch, happy to let them poke around amongst the trees, delighting again in their ease in the outdoors. I am thinking again of my father, as though he was suddenly there, pulling a blackened stump from the earth and turning it in his hands.
In my memories, it is autumn. I am walking with him across fields of ploughed stubble, our boots heavy with clayed soil. Or it is early in the winter, ploughed ribs emerging from the first of the season's snows. We are walking towards a disused railway siding, a pile of sleepers which are waiting to be cut into firewood. He is carrying a long saw, a two-handled cross-cut, the one which now hangs in my own garage, rusted and unused. I can still feel the chafe on my palms of its oiled and stained wooden handles, how big they seemed in my child's hands. He has a measured stride across rough ground, so that my shorter legs must skitter to keep up with him, my breath pluming in the cold air.
As we walk, he talks. He had a way of telling stories in a way which made them seem so unlike stories; they were laid into the space between us as something to consider, a small part of a larger puzzle that was his life before I knew him. He would tell me of dusty airfields in the north of Pakistan, of shuttered Spanish villages in the afternoon before a bullfight, of this railway line by which we kneel, before the closure of so many branch lines and sidings.

These stories are steeped in my consciousness; they became part of who I am, as much as his coarse black hair or his stooped posture have become part of who I am. I absorbed them unthinkingly, in the same way that I learned from him so many ways of doing things; of how to shake seeds into a furrow from that neat crease in the palm of your hand, of the importance of a well-oiled bicycle, or the poetry of place names or the way to peel apples. I realise now how much of what we learn is through observation and imitation; I barely remember my father teaching me anything; rather, I learnt from him a way of being in the world that came from humility and contentment, that was informed by wonder and hope.
One of my earliest memories is of learning to ride a bicycle on the concrete path that ran along the edge of the vegetable garden; of the sense of his presence behind me as he held the back of the saddle while I teetered again along the path, and of the sense of fear and excitement as I realised that he was standing far behind me, that he had stopped holding onto me several paces before. It is a feeling that haunts us all the way into our adult lives; the sense that we are pedalling alone, that he is no longer holding the saddle, but instead standing beside the path with a smile.

The day he died, I was on the other side of the country, coming down from the hills into a broad estuary crossed by a low wooden footbridge, the mud flats lit by the soft, diffuse sun of a summer morning. It was not until the afternoon that I heard the news, but I was compelled to count back through the hours, to identify precisely where I was at the time of his death, as though the location mattered, as though the crossing of a bridge was freighted with significance. Later, after I could excuse myself from any practicalities, sitting on the shingle bank overlooking a smooth beach pleated by a receding tide, I felt that I could finally weep for him, remembering the beaches we had walked upon together; the games of catch, the sand-filled sandwiches, the shards of pottery and brick and shell he would tease from the tideline and turn in his thin fingers. 
That was twenty-two years ago. It is only now that I begin to understand the importance of the things we do not say to our children; the way we adjust ourselves to the world around us, the acts of benediction we bring to the experience of being outdoors, the sense of reverence we offer to them, again and again, in every birch wood, on every beach. It is the inheritance I have from my father, the one I carry like a fragile shell, knowing that I must pass it also to my children, unmarked, unbroken, precious.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The moon and the hawthorn

Outside the hotel room in the city where I now sit, soft rain is falling in the sulphur glow of streetlights. Buses stutter through the dark of evening; the city is alive with movement.
I remember walking across the fields around my home on a day last week. It was an evening of chill brilliance, when the colour had bled from the sky, like the chromatography experiments I recalled from my schooldays; the blot of black ink in the centre of the disc of filter paper, its texture coarse and grainy like the skin of my thumbs. The ink diffused slowly to brown and orange and the red of dried blood, as though some strange alchemy could turn the workaday ink which stained our fingers into a rich and exotic mineral. That was how the sky looked on my evening walk; rich and exotic, flushed with colours I could not name.
And on this evening of many-coloured skies, I saw the moon snagged in the branches of a hawthorn tree, and thought of the inadequacy of language to express moments of pure, etched brilliance such as these.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Tales from distant lands

I stand on the front step of my house on a windless morning and the air contains a rumour of spring, like a whisper of revolution muttered in the morning song of birds. It is in our senses, hinted at in smell and sound and the feel of sun on skin. I accept that there will be many days yet of wind and rain and the darkness that seems to linger too long. What I smell this morning is a suggestion that spring may be possible; that the seasons will change as they always must.
On the land, however, all is wet. I walk across fields empty of sheep in these dark days of winter; fields broken by the traces of old hedgerows which poke from the earth like ribs seen beneath the skin. I pass through a gate into the lane and listen to the suck of my wellingtons drawing out of the wet mud, an expressive slutch sound which is felt as much as heard. Everywhere is mud; the winter of incessant rain has turned every gateway and footpath into a wet pool of dun-coloured soup which is neither solid nor liquid, but exists in some inbetween state

I have been fascinated recently by the legend of the Golem, the half-human creation from Jewish mythology, forged from inanimate matter, shaped from the mud of the river banks. The Golem will serve humans as their protector, but only within limits. In most versions of the tale, the Golem turns against his creators, killing innocently and spreading fear amongst the people. It is, of course, one of the many sources of the Frankenstein story, but it also feeds a much darker sense within humans who lived with a close connection to the land; a sense that we can shape the wild world to our will, but with that will comes a huge responsibility, a burden that is like the huge, terrifying fear we feel at becoming a parent, a sense that we strive to do enough, perhaps to fail.
As I walk across these winter fields, the sky to the west changing with the shifting bands of weather, I picture weather systems massing over the north Atlantic, like the contour patterns of distant, un-named hills. I think of the unpredictable ways in which the weather can turn against us, the ice and snow of recent winters, the wind and rain of this one. I sense the Golem of our modern living rising from the soft, wet mud, a reminder that the ways in which we shape the world are not without limits, a muddy hand on our shoulders, gentle at first.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Winter Count

It is the first day of the year, and the endless rain has rolled back into a gusty day revealing flashes of sunlight and cloud. I woke in the pre-dawn darkness to a thunderstorm outside my window, hail hammering on the roof, the sky vivid with the yellow-blue glare of lightning, as though the passing of the old year was marked with a fanfare, a raging against the light of the new day.
We walked this morning in familiar oakwoods, flushed green with the iridescence of mosses; the mustard-colour of sphagnum, the conifer-green of star moss, fern mosses the soft colour of summer pasture. Flakes of lichen lay abandoned amongst the moss carpet, their earthy mealiness so strange upon the sodden earth. Lichens have the colour of stone in a summer drought, they alone are immune to the endless damp, aloof amongst the perpetual rain.

Above us, two ravens detached themselves from the dripping crags and gusted sideways on the breeze, lazily surveying the valley, the scree, the fuzz of oakwood soft on the hillside below them. A scatter of fieldfares flashed white against the dense green of the conifers; their bouncing flight makes me think of children released from school, impatient with energy, unbidden.
I found myself thinking of Barry Lopez's haunting story Winter Count 1973: a story of the traditions of the native americans, and their effect upon an ageing man who, in his own life, seems to have moved from being an academic studying the native tribes, to someone who feels deeply and personally their connection with the land. Central to the story is the concept of the 'winter count'; a way of marking time and the passage of history: “Among several tribes on the northern plains,” we are told in the epigraph, “the passage of time from one summer to the next was marked by noting a single memorable event. The sequence of such memories … was called a winter count.” This was a way of recording oral history for a people whose days were marked by the changing of the weather, the seasons, the movements of wild animals and birds. It relied on observation, on collective memory, on a sense of the tribe as one's people; those to whom we were in some way beholden by dint of obligation, by kinship and a common humanity. It is a valediction for all that we have lost, in the face of an uncertain and venal world.
It is also a reminder that history is a process of telling stories “Everything is held together with stories” the protagonist in the story thinks, “That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.” Our New Year walk is now a family tradition; one of those fixed points of the year which is no less enjoyable for its familiarity. It is a time to open our eyes, to see the wild world in its numinous and chaotic beauty, to note those details which mark the progress of our lives like the passage of winter thunderstorms.