Sunday, January 12, 2014

A year of words, a cloud of electrons

It feels strange to be here, in the half-light of a northern winter, bent over the glow of the screen again.  I draw words from the heavy soil, listen to the roar of the wind in the trees, stand on the step at the front of the house and watch the moon rise over the clouds which are tipped with white, like the edge of an Edwardian napkin.

I want again, as I did last year, to release some of these words into the void of the night, into the dark space of the world-wide web (how long since I have heard it called that?), hoping that somewhere they will stick, that they may find a temporary home.


I have collected together a variety of essays and prose pieces which have been published in other places in the last twelve months (plus the odd unpublished one), and present them here as an e-book.  The link beneath the photo below (or simply by clicking here) will take you to a pdf version of the book, stored on Google Docs.  Please feel free to download it, to pass it on, to print it, or simply to look at the photos.


With thanks to all of you who have commented, tweeted, or otherwise supported my faltering efforts to write in 2013.




Sunday, January 5, 2014

Fractal geometry and the river of life


From my ledge of moss, I gaze at the hillside across the valley. The grey of the scree is broken by remnants of grass and heather; patches of green in an ocean of stone. All lines tend towards the stream which flows from a couple of springs emerging from the scree; the starting point of mountain becks which gather and build westwards; springs turning to streams turning to rivers turning, finally, to the sea.
I have been indoors for too long, kept from the hills by the endless legions of low pressure systems which barrel in from the Irish Sea, one after another, like racehorses loosed from a starting gate. The wind has been almost constant; an aching drone in the fabric of the house, a hushing in the trees above the garden; it is a restless other, a presence in the dark of the night, a reminder of the force and omnipotence of the weather. From the hillside where I now sit, I can see the gathering dark of storm clouds signalling the arrival of the next weather front. I turn my eyes back to the hillside.
I am thinking of fractals; that geometric phenomenon where each whole is made up from ever-diminishing smaller versions of the same shape. As I look at the flank of Skiddaw, grey beneath a greyer sky, I lose the scale of the mountain, so that I could be looking at forests in a stone desert, or green patches on a hillside, or tiny lichenous growths on the side of small fragment of stone. A few days prior to my tea break on Skiddaw, walking across the fields at the edge of my village, I had flushed a hundred or more starlings from the skeleton of an ash tree, watched them billowing into flight, hurled sideways by the buffeting of the wind. I was struck again by the way in which birds behave in a flock; that ability to turn together as though connected by invisible threads. It is as if the birds know their position in the flock, as though they are each a single feather in a complete, beautiful sweep of wing. In the past few days, I have noticed again and again the enigmatic ability of nature to replicate itself at all scales: the way in which the individual trees in a wood lean together like the limbs of a single tree; the pillowed perfection of storm clouds as they build above the house, huge plumes made of smaller plumes; the mazed lines of map lichen on a slate boulder, looking like a landscape viewed from far in the air.


The final months of 2013 were a trial for me. I had worked too hard and too long, and fell into an extended period of low-level illness, burnt out and exhausted, incapable of seeing anything beyond the end of my bed or my desk, unable to write, spent of words. My mind retreated into a form of hibernation, dulled by the futility of communication, smothered by the incessant clamour of the trivial. This walk on the local hills, this gazing at a hillside of scree, seems part of a wider process of rehabilitation; learning to see once again, learning to taste the texture of words in my mouth once more. I yearned for periods in which I did not look at a book or a screen, but could gaze to the far horizon, as though 'longing' became a metaphysical desire for distance, for wide views of far hills, paling in the grey of evening.
Learning to write again has involved learning to see. In the depths of my tiredness, I could barely endure the effort needed to gaze into the distance, as though the perfection of the world outside was more than the soul could bear. In climbing this mountain today, I realise that it is not only my leg muscles which have grown tired through disuse. The muscles of my eyes need training, too; they need to scan slowly and carefully across these open hillsides, to pick out the details of rocks and mosses, to dwell absently on the changing colours of a winter hillside. A fractal set has been described as 'the same from near as from far'; a reminder of the changes in scale we need to make our lives whole and complete.


I descended from the hilltops by a narrow stream gorge; a deep moss-filled ravine thick with the viridian lushness of woodrush, largely untrodden by people. The stream rises from a bog pool on the moorland I have just crossed; a black sedge-lined pond from which a thin runnel of peaty water tips over the edge of the moor and gathers pace as a mountain stream. It gives me a strange satisfaction, this knowledge that I have followed the stream from its source, watched it build in volume and pace, heard the hiss of running water turn to a rush, to a roar, to a deep echoing hush. Rivers often appear in stories as a metaphor for the turns and pace-changes of an eventful life, and I believe in a moment of fancy that my purpose is no more than to follow this stream downhill, noting the falls and meanders, until, climbing the heathery sides of the gorge, I can gratefully send it on its way, downstream, beyond.