Lately I’ve started to pity swifts.
They arrive around Mayday every year, appearing over the river in helter-skelter couples. They then form larger groups and spread out over the valley, chasing invisible entities which must be far more important to them than prey. They are possessed with such terrible urgency. I am confident the nightmares I never remember contain scenes of my hands and arms turning into feathered blades while my feet wither to paralysed claws. Then I’m dropped from a cloud. The thought of life as a gaining and shedding of altitude in a bid for constant velocity fills me with anxiety. I’m possibly associating the lifelong physical rush of swifts with the rush of thought, which as I age, seems to speed up and become more incessant, the 2am merry-go-round of recalled and anticipated events. Perhaps a swift’s consciousness inhabits a still point in a cloudless sky but it doesn’t seem likely. Its mind must teem with objects far off – then close up – then gone, telescoped perspective and blurs, high-pitched whistles and rapid drumbeats. Exactly like my 2am thoughts.
Recently I fell asleep on a mountainside. When I woke there was a butterfly perched in the palm of my hand. I was lying in a patch of shade beneath a stunted oak tree which had rooted into the crevices of a rock. Perhaps the butterfly identified my arms and hands as part of the tree. I hope so. Sleeping out of doors is a different experience to sleeping in a bedroom. Indoors dreams create their environment, they have a mostly empty space to fill. On a mountainside dreams are porous, they absorb their surroundings. When I woke it took me time to work out I was awake, and to realise I’d been asleep. During this transition I didn’t feel separate from what I was witnessing. For a few seconds there was no sense of me. There was an oak tree, there was sky, deep grass, blue rock. There were butterflies landing. Bliss is one of the words I’m submitting for removal from the language, but I’ll quickly use it to describe that experience on the mountain.
Joseph Campbell, who coined the term “follow your bliss”, said that his own most intense experience of bliss was when he was running. Campbell was a high-level athlete before he became an academic. I was also an athlete and I agree with him that when you are pushing your body to its limits all else disappears. Except, I would say, for your sense of purpose, to get to the finishing line first. I remember being neck-and-neck with another athlete on the home straight during a 400 metre race. My attention was consumed by the figure running next to me, by the drive to edge in front of him and keep accelerating. It was not a disappearance into the thing itself, it was a sacrifice to a goal. The person became the purpose. The sense of self was magnified.
The swift is an athlete. It screams across the sky followed by a long, relentless “I!”
The oak tree on the mountainside, after its 50 years of silent reaching, becomes swamped by the community of symbiotic and parasitic life that surround it and that it is host to, the 500 or more species that depend on it for survival. On the ground next to me, while I lay beneath that oak, were many fallen twigs. I examined one, thumb-length example and it was completely smothered with lichen, five species in all. Only at the broken ends was the heartwood visible. The oak almost literally disappears beneath its dependent life forms. It merges. As it ages and nears death it relents, in the original sense of the word which means to soften and dissolve.
Both the artist and the athlete have intense experiences of flow states. But they are different states. The artist is an oak, the athlete is a swift. The artist pursues her art by tuning into the ground of being, letting other hands guide hers, letting other voices speak. She becomes a vehicle for the community of soul life in the way that an oak tree becomes a vehicle for the community of the forest and the mountain. Unlike the athlete, whose form steadily merges with a physical ideal, the perfectly muscled sprinter or swimmer, the artist’s role is to grow wild and hoary.
Eventually you must topple so that a rich community of life can grow from your remains.