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.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Wanderer: A Triptych

There are paintings which smoulder in the mind, like the image of the light from the window which is etched on my retina when I wake in the night. These are pictures that speak to some part of our minds at a level of which we are unaware; they appeal for reasons that we cannot define, in the way that a certain smell can evoke a distant time or a particular place, without us knowing what the smell is, or how we remember it.
I cannot even remember when I first saw Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer above the sea of fog. It is a painting which has always been in my consciousness, like a memory from childhood only half-remembered. It was used as a book jacket illustration on a Penguin edition of Nietzsche's Ecce Homo when I was a teenager; a perfect metaphor for existential longing, for the strange adolescent combination of aloofness and uncertainty.
This is a painting about yearning, a painting which captures the sense of aloneness in the big hills. It was painted by Friedrich in 1818, the year he married. He was forty-four years old at the time, and I wonder if the painting was an expression of youthful vigour, the young man on the mountain's edge with the world laid out before him, like a successful future he might yet realise.


Brussels in the autumn can be capricious; days of fine rain which seems to be in constant motion but never falling to the ground, alternate with days of balmy warmth, the sun beating off the grey limestone flags. On the Mont des Arts, the last of the summer's tourists wander aimlessly, stilled by the view between buildings across the old city below, the spires and rooftops of the Grand Place.
Inside the Musee des Beaux Arts, the sounds of the street are muffled by the thick walls; the thrum of tyres on the cobblestones, the clank and rumble of the number 90 tram. I can often loiter in the bookshop here for half an hour between meetings, a staging post between the urbane European Quarter and the jostle of the lower town.
I was browsing through a book of New European Photography when an image flipped by on the pages and lodged in the mind. One of a series by the Finnish photographer Elina Brotherus; pictures of herself in front of a vast landscape; a modern interpretation of Friedrich's Wanderer. The pictures seemed amusing, referential, but also with a spare, elegiac quality, a mystery in which we wait for the person to turn and face us. And yet they never do.


The wind on Rannerdale Knotts yesterday was gusty and chill as we climbed from the lakeshore. In the distance, the honking of geese on the far shore was dragged by us on the wind. I struggled with the cloak and stick in my rucksack, trying to avoid spilling the contents of the sack down the steep grass slope below me. My younger son was animated and eager, delighted to be complicit in this madcap scheme. He had spent the climb looking out for rocky knolls with a clear view to the distant hills, and had now found the perfect place. Across the valley, the threads of snow on the higher Buttermere fells gave the scene a desolate, arctic quality; a sense that spring would be long to arrive in this valley, pooled in darkness for much of the winter.
The photograph was a piece of fun, an exercise in recreating a favourite painting in our own local hills. But it made me think of Friedrich and his image which defined, in part, a whole period of romanticism. I watched my son leaning into the wind, at home on these rocks, and envied him his youth and vitality, his willingness to embrace the world at full speed, uncompromising, impatient. I wondered if Friedrich's Wanderer is not a young cavalry officer at all; if, in fact, Der Wanderer ├╝ber dem Nebelmeer is Friedrich himself, gazing with longing over the landscape of his past, the uncertainties and disappointments, the enthusiasm and the energy, as though they lay in the valley covered by a benign fog, no longer attainable, but still within the gaze of our yearning.


Sunday, March 4, 2012

Landscape as story

In the middle of the day, the glare of the sun is enough to warm the face, the air on these March days having the clarity of fresh-blown glass. It feels as though spring is jostling with winter, in the same way that the first daffodils push through the clumps of snowdrops, the colour of the new season eclipsing that of the old.

I am walking with my son, learning from him the way this landscape shifts and adapts to the change of seasons, his mind alert to the quickness of spring, whilst mine is still mired in the mulch of winter. The curlews are back, we notice; inland from their coastal wintering, pausing in the soft rich earth of these lowlands on their way to summer breeding grounds on the hills. Their trill alerts something in my mind, some sense of how the longer days of spring feel, a strange combination of senses with the sun on my face, the cool scent of the clear air in my nose, the sound of the curlews drifting to land in sedge-filled fields. I watch one come to earth, easing itself onto the ground like an elderly gentleman descending from a railway carriage. It picks across the sedge with school-masterly patience, probing for invertebrates in the mud.
We walk along lanes which, in a week or two, will be butter-rich with celandines. We note features which are only apparent at this slower pace: a pair of slate gate stoups half-buried in the hedgerow, powdered with lichen; the stanchions of an old footbridge at the point where the stream narrows; badger prints in the moist earth. We are teasing stories from the land, trying to understand the ways in which streams emerge from the ground under bluffs of grey rock, the way that this limestone terrain is riddled with the stories of springs and watercourses, the ways in which lanes and footpaths, hedgerows and boundaries have grown almost organically, self-willed over generations. My son's commitment to routine, to simply getting out there in all weather, allows him to notice pattern and change in the shifting behaviour of birds; when the first summer migrants arrive, why the wood was a roosting place last year, but not this. He is learning to read the stories which landscape has to tell.
As we walk the twisting path through the birch wood on our way home, I watch this lean almost-adult who is my son slip through the ferns with a studied ease, a soft awareness which he has learnt from the land, as though this is his natural habitat. I think of Charles Lyell and Roderick Murchison, developing grand theories in geology from a patient observation of their local strata; of Joseph Banks, taking the skills of observation with him on the Endeavour that he had learnt on his Lincolnshire estate; of Gilbert White, devoted to his Hampshire parish as though it was the whole world. And I realise that a true understanding of the natural world comes only through this opening-out to the possibilities of the land, this willingness to be surprised by the stories it has to tell. It is an approach which my structured scientific mind has had to un-learn; the greatest gift my son has given me, his benediction on my cluttered adult life.