Rooftops

Rooftops

Rooftops

The sky is deep blue, the stonework of houses in the village faded into blocks of shadow. I don’t know why people leave their lights off at this time of day, at this time of year, but there isn’t a glowing window in the whole street. We’re all listening to and watching the aerial performance of swifts. This is the crescendo and the final act. In the coming days the stage will begin to empty and then will remain empty for ten long months. The adults and young are gathered together and using the houses to raise the stakes on their stunts, swooping low, almost skimming my hair and hurtling fast towards the walls before tilting a wingtip, flicking onto their sides and catching the little thermals that rise from the roofs which have been baking in the sun all day. Perhaps the older birds are gaping with exhaustion after these two months of furious breeding and foraging for their young. Perhaps the young, just getting to know the abilities of their long, sickle wings, but not quite strong enough yet, are sore and aching, wide-mouthed with fear as they learn to plummet dive like their parents. If that is the case, they show no sign of it. The village is a fairground with the fastest and loudest rides, and I’m watching from the quietest spot, among the tilting graves of the churchyard, beneath a glowing half-moon.

I burst into tears when I spot my first swift of the year. This is sometimes a dangerous response to a joyful occasion because for several years my first sighting has been on the motorway in rush hour traffic. They often appear low in front of me, skimming above the cars as the road crosses a bridge over the river Wye. I see that first little group of black anchor shapes, my eyes mist up and I simultaneously start laughing. It’s the acid test of the miraculous, this joint response.

I’ve always wanted to see a bee hummingbird, those tiny hovering jewels, almost impossible to imagine, but real, like tornadoes, or the three hearts, nine brains and blue blood of a giant pacific octopus. The bee hummingbird can comfortably perch on the tip of a child’s little finger. It can lay eggs in a thimble. It can drink nectar from the tiniest flowers, hovering above them while its topaz wings beat invisibly and silently. The word miracle comes from old French, borrowed from Latin, borrowed from Greek and Sankskrit. Miracle, miraculum, mirari, mirus, smeiros, smerah – which meant to smile or laugh. The word it replaced in old English was wundorweorc. Possibly I never will see a bee hummingbird, but common swifts are from the same family and they’re equally miraculous wonderworks.

The light is changing above them, all the earth’s colours turning ochre. In a few minutes the helter-skelter acrobatics will wind down and the swifts will start to climb high into the sky, two or three kilometres up. This is theoretically when they shut down half of their brains at a time, each half alternating between sleep and wakefulness during their descent, which, even at those heights does not take more than a few minutes. Their frog mouths shut, their huge eyes close one at a time, their wings lock in position for the spiralling down-slide. When a swift leaves its nest it will be on the wing for up to ten months, a period when it will only sleep for a few minutes a day, the rest of its time is spent in a fury of activity as it follows clouds of insects south across Europe and then into Africa to find the rains.

Across the street from the churchyard is the old three story house where Francis Kilvert lived while he was curate here in Clyro and where he wrote his popular diaries, volumes filled with closely observed descriptions of rural life. In the whole manuscript, over one hundred thousand words, he doesn’t mention swifts once, and only refers to swallows twice, on both occasions referring to them as a summer nuisance. In his time farms required a lot of human labour. There were many rough built houses and huts, with thatched roofs and draughty gable ends able to host nesting swifts. And there were insects in vast numbers:

“Sunday, 8 August. As I went to Church in the sultry summer afternoon the hum and murmur of the multitudinous insects sounded like the music of innumerable bells.”

This place was far more inhabited back then than it is now. Was the gentle curate less curious than he’s taken to be? How did he not find room in his diaries for swifts? He must have sat here, where I’m sitting now, with the low branches of an ancient Yew tree swaying a little in the breeze while hundreds, or even thousands of swifts plummet-dived and screeched over the rooftops. Since his day the grinding drums of industrial farming have squeezed the life from this place, so that now what I’m witnessing is a shred, a tatter of what he saw. Only the moon remains as it was then, and the inner urgency of wild things.

Uncontrollable laughter and crying has always felt the same to me, the chest convulsions, the in and out of body location of them both as if something like a cloud descended, not on you, but into you, the feeling for the period after it has overtaken you that you might not be the composer of your own life, or even the musician, but just the plucked, strummed or blown instrument. I’m picked up, shaken, put down. The experience is involuntary. Those same hands have just reached into a swift’s nest where a swiftlet is involuntarily doing press-ups with its newly fledged wings. The hand has lifted it quickly, pulled the little ball of almost weightless flesh and feathers out into the twilight and thrown it hard into the sky. Already it is screaming and merging its voice with the flock. Already it is flicking and twist-diving over the church tower, hurtling out and rounding the Scots pine and over the old forge roof, then up and over the oaks and the rooks’ nests. Within a few seconds it has completed its first circuit of the village and is out over the sheep fields, over the main road, the mill stream and pond. Then back again and round again, and again. It has no idea where it’s going and is not looking for anything to follow. It’s not fearful or excited, though its mouth is gaping. Like all of us it will always be hungry. It climbs a chimney of air then rolls and plummets back as the rectangles of the houses, the dark clouds of the trees, the little pebbles of the gravestones grow and grow. Its huge eyes take in the face of a human creature staring up at it, and then the creature is gone behind the walls and fences, the hedges, the ancient castle mound.  For the past weeks it has been gaping into the dark of the nest, now it is seeing the dying fire of daylight for the first of many times as the sky swings and revolves. Perhaps time existed for the bird while it grew into its form, while it fed continuously, the days and nights long with waiting. But now time has stopped and there is only air and speed, the changing light, the broken chequerboard of the landscape which will soon change as it heads south, turning dark blue as it crosses the sea, and brown, red and gold over the mountains and desert. It will see streams, rivers, hills and dunes undulating in a fierce light, deep shadows, lands that have not been cut into pieces but flow as a whole. Each night as it heads south it will see the sky more clearly, speckled with light, spattered with light, running with a river of light. Eventually it will find the rains and follow them for months or even years, until the urge comes to head north again. For now it is taking in the cool currents of the sky, the half moon, the taste of flying insects. It will spend the next day or two configuring its senses, feeling the path of the sun, the draw of warmth and the push of cold.

In the churchyard the yew trees have turned black. A first bat is buffeting and rebounding around the church, its little leather wings audible in the almost silence. The swifts are climbing now, in spirals as wide as the village, shrinking to tiny slits in the deep sky. One, two, three, four cross the face of the moon and now I can’t see them.

I don’t know why I feel so sad. I don’t know why I’m laughing.

 

This essay is part of a new long-form project with the working title Gatherings at Twilight. Twilight literally means “two lights”. The project explores the two lights of dusk and dawn, and the many shadowed places that surround us, physically and metaphorically. 

Dark Water

Tonight the river is high. I don’t know what atmospheric conditions out in the Atlantic are driving this endless rain. Like all weather these days it doesn’t seem right. My headlights project two beams across the water, which boils and writhes downstream. Nothing...

Old Growth

Dusk approaches. The hill is windless and quiet. Moorhens carefully crosshatch the surface of the pool wrinkling the inverted images of  squall-clouds that have been gathering for an hour. A faint curtain of rain closes across the mountains twenty miles away. I am...

The Blossom Front Line

How beautiful they areThe people brushing past meAs I stroll through GionTo the temple of KiyomizuOn this cherry blossom moonlit nightYosano Akiko There is a stretch of road over the border, not far from here, which rolls and curves between acres of orchards. In late...

A River of Sound

Close to its surface a shallow river talks loudly. It's as if the water is passing through many throats, being gulped, gargled and spluttered as it moves over pebbles and rocks, willow roots, rafts of dead vegetation piled against the bank. I propped the recorder on a...

Up Close and Far Off

I don't remember the name of the town where the railway started, or the destination at the end of the line, only that the train sometimes arrived, but most of the time didn't. I think I waited a week. There were a handful of half-ruined colonial buildings on a single...

Heartwood

The statistics: it has taken 12 hours to smooth the surface, 4 shifts of 3 hours, first with 60, then 80, then 120 grit paper. Dust gathering on me, my hands following the rings as they appeared from beneath the deep scores made by the chainsaw. I could have done all...

Offshore

On the last day of a family holiday I sneaked out of the caravan just after dawn and walked to my favourite spot on the cliff to say goodbye to the sea. The place was near an old stone hut where fisherman used to keep watch for the pilchard shoals coming close to...

Unremembered

The cloud is down. My navigation is reliant on the recall of shapes close up: twisted trees, broken walls, mawn pools, the bends and intersections in tracks. In the past week fieldfares have returned, I can hear them now, ransacking the rowans. A small flock of...

A Desertion

I remember that the sand whispered and sound carried for miles. And dunes the colour of tanned skin - their perfect, female contours. I remember how the desert engulfed the town, dust blowing down narrow streets, gathering and drifting in doorways. There were blue men...

The Nocturnal Bottleneck Theory

The most useful thing I learned in an 18 year education was that a white sheet of paper is never white. I learned this by spending five full days staring at an unmarked A1 sheet pinned to a wall, trying at first to draw, and then to paint it. The exercise was set by...

Dark Water

Dark Water

Dark Water

Tonight the river is high. I don’t know what atmospheric conditions out in the Atlantic are driving this endless rain. Like all weather these days it doesn’t seem right. My headlights project two beams across the water, which boils and writhes downstream. Nothing could swim against that. The swans are out in the fields, roosting miserably. As I drove here I glimpsed the pale fishhooks of their necks stark against the darkness. I park up, pull the key from the ignition, slam the door, and everything goes black. I can’t make out the path along the river bank for several minutes. When it appears it’s a vague line overlaying the blackness. My dog sprints ahead, her senses everywhere at once. I can hear her breathing, her footsteps on the dead leaves. I follow her slowly, trying not to trip, trying not to use the torch as my slow senses tune in. It is a few days before the winter solstice. We’re waiting for the return of the sun. Fairy lights blink in windows and doorways. Some of the houses in my village are lit up like casinos, a newish phenomenon around here. The occupants are advertising something – the bliss of an illuminated, oil-powered lifestyle. The lights remind me of aerial views of oil terminals and fracking fields, peppered with flares. Beyond the garden walls and hedges wild creatures turn away, knowing that too much light leads to blindness.

We’re given to attributing ourselves with a natural superiority over other species that allow us to do anything we like. But most of the time our superior skills and faculties are easily disproven. We are certainly not the only toolmakers, reasoners, or language users. I’ve heard it said, usually among writers, that what distinguishes humans from other species is our ability to tell stories. But this also isn’t true. The alarm call of any garden bird tells a story to other members of its community. What does distinguish humans from the rest of animal kind is our ability to make pictures. Human beings are image makers. In modern times this ability has increased exponentially and the result is that we now live inside our eyes. We channel our attention towards surfaces and contours, most often of the human face and body, represented on a flat plane – a painting, a page, a screen. These days we see more man-made images in a second than most humans in our species’ history saw in a lifetime. A film of average duration will expose us to almost 130,000 images. Over 100 million images are shared on Instagram every day. We are in desperate need of darkness. Darkness releases us from this obsession with the visual. It allows us to switch off our eyes, to disappear for a time into sounds, scents and tastes, to forget about surfaces and plunge into the depths.

It is getting late. Cloud gathers rapidly and the peak of Kilimanjaro, which has been a shining beacon since dawn, has disappeared. We’ve been following a herd of a hundred or more elephants for the past few hours. They’ve gone into thick cover and they’re hard to see, so we head back to the camp a mile away. Darkness descends like a dropped stone and tonight there are no stars. We hear hyenas for the first time, their mad cackles and growls. We glimpse their lantern eyes in the torch beam. They’re too close for comfort. A few weeks back I almost walked into a grazing hippo while going for a midnight pee and the thought of being out there tonight with hyenas about keeps me awake all night. A couple of hours after dusk I hear something brought down, the pounding of feet, a screech, the rip of skin. But for the rest of the night there is almost total silence. I wait until the sun is up before I open the tent zip. Outside, only a few inches from the guy ropes is the huge lily pad footprint of an elephant. It is one of thousands. The whole herd has passed utterly silently and invisibly through our camp in the night. The dark can even make elephants vanish.

Sometimes on a night walk you pass other walkers. You can feel the presence of people in the dark before you hear or see them. It feels like something is pushing against you, and then, as they get closer, through you. As they pass a wake is left, it takes a little more effort to balance. This sensing comes from the same part of you that feels certain places wordlessly speak. I stop for a moment where the river folds back on itself forming a grassy peninsula of a few acres edged by a stony beach. Tonight the beach is underwater, along with the boulders that form a natural weir. This is where the river speaks loudest, its voice a never repeating sequence of glottal plosives. I can just see the moving water now, a line in front of me where the darkness no longer hangs, but slides. I don’t think I’d notice anyone if they passed me tonight, the presence of the river is almost overwhelming. My dog swims at every opportunity, but tonight she’s staying back from the water’s edge. I trust her decisions. I’m not going closer. A river in flood has the same magnetic draw and repulsion as a cliff edge. You feel the line between life and death, like a strand of razor wire.

Recently the street light in front of our bedroom has been switching itself off intermittently. The faint glowing bars at the top and sides of the curtains, that give off just enough light to silhouette Julia’s face, go black and her profile disappears. I tune in to the slow, lulling rhythm of her breathing, which used to be a way to ease myself into sleep. But in the past year she’s had a cancer diagnosis and recent complications including multiple lung clots. Listening to her breathing now is no longer a relaxing experience. I lie awake waiting for signs of illness, the faint rattles and gasps that could signify some new complication. When her breaths come too slow or too fast I listen harder, and if I can’t hear her breathing I go into a flat panic.

Julia says she can picture things clearly in her mind’s eye, whole vistas filled with detail come easily to her. When I was growing up my best friend was able to draw anything, people and animals, street scenes, monsters. He seemed to be able to do this without the need for practice. Once, after heavy snow, he created a perfect image of a polar bear 30 feet across with the heel of his boot. He told me he could just see these images in front of him and all he had to do was trace the lines and fill in the blocks of tone. I could also draw pretty well, but only from an external source. When I close my eyes there’s nothing there but darkness. I’m able to describe scenes, but what I’m doing is hearing and repeating the words that describe the scene, not visualising the scene itself. My head is full of pages, usually torn from other people’s books. I think in scripts, the promissory notes of the imagination. Worse still, it’s not the words I’m obsessed with these days, but the spaces between them, which are occasionally twilit, and mostly dark. Those spaces are where the feelings are.

In this place of steep-sided hills and mountains, where for several months of the year many north facing farms never see the sun, darkness is a constant. The Welsh word Ddu means black or dark. In the Brecon Beacons there are two separate areas called Mynydd Ddu (Black Mountain), the eastern range and the smaller western range. A search for the word Ddu in a database of Welsh place names brings almost 3000 entries. There are dark fields, dark cliffs and rocks, dark lakes and streams. Many of the hills around here contain glacial lakes stranded beneath horseshoe formations – deep waters, bottomless in old stories. The most famous of these is Lyn y Fan Fach. It’s the place associated with the story of the Lady of the Lake, one of Wales’s best known legends. This is where the young shepherd saw the fairy woman walk out of the water and where she offered to become his wife if he promised never to strike her three times. And this is where, after years of happy marriage, thriving health and prosperity, she returned to the lake after he struck her for the third time, taking with her their cows and sheep, ducks and geese. They walked into the dark water in procession and were taken back to the land of the fairies, leaving the husband and sons distraught and impoverished. It’s a story about the circularity of existence, of humans and animals, and of places. Life comes out of the dark of winter. It grows and flourishes as the sun warms. Then, after three seasons, it returns to the dark.  Our ancestors believed that the soul came out of, and returned to, water. The Old Saxon word seola is derived from the proto-germanic saiwaz. Saiwa meant sea or lake. We arrive from the dark water of the womb, and at the end of life our cells liquify. We return to water, not to ashes and dust.

Almost 90% of all the water on earth exists in the total darkness of the aphotic zones. These areas are the least explored places on earth, thinly populated, as far as we know, with strange fish that can conjure their own luminescence, or navigate via electrolocation. The cave dwelling knife-fish Eigenmannia vicentespelaea produces a waveform field generated by a special electric organ. The dipole field created is shaped like a spider with circular conjoining cephalothorax and abdomen, and radiating legs. The uniform pattern changes as it comes into contact with objects having greater or lesser resistance than water. Over fifteen thousand electroreceptor cells along the length of the fish’s body then pick up these deviations, enabling the fish to navigate perfectly. Additionally it is able to adjust the frequency of its projected field if it comes into contact with another fish’s field. This is called the jamming avoidance response. Electrolocation provides these creatures with a more accurate sense than sight, they have no use for eyes. Humans have the opposite ability, we populate the darkness with what reaches out of us. The salty waters of our hearts churn like the deep convection of the Atlantic ocean causing this atrocious weather.

Two pinpoints of light hover on the mountain road then disappear and reappear, glinting between trees. The storm track that we were caught in for weeks has shifted south. There is cloud cover, no stars and the quarter moon isn’t up yet. It is not quite black, but dark enough. The water has subsided. My bare feet crunch on the beach pebbles. At the bend in the river I hear my dog go into the water, the soft plash of her entry and the half coughs of her breathing as she swims out. I’ve swum here many times but never at night. The last time I went night swimming was to clean off the dust of a week spent wild camping beneath Kilimanjaro. The air and water were body temperature, the equatorial ocean utterly still. I swam down to the reef and could see nothing at all. As I held my breath, not knowing which way was up or down, I thought that perhaps this is what death feels like. But now I believe that death has nothing to do with darkness. Perhaps it is an infinite transparency.

I step into the river.   

Halfway

The lake is clouded, an almost luminous turquoise. The bottom feels slick, like soaked wood in winter. For weeks the daytime temperature has been over twenty-five degrees yet the water is freezing, fed from the glacier above. I wade up to my waist, then dive. The...

Offshore

On the last day of a family holiday I sneaked out of the caravan just after dawn and walked to my favourite spot on the cliff to say goodbye to the sea. The place was near an old stone hut where fisherman used to keep watch for the pilchard shoals coming close to...

Up Close and Far Off

I don't remember the name of the town where the railway started, or the destination at the end of the line, only that the train sometimes arrived, but most of the time didn't. I think I waited a week. There were a handful of half-ruined colonial buildings on a single...

Hidden Words

I’ve been scribbling words onto stones for a few years. The hills around here are littered with small, disused quarries, shallow pits containing loose stones of different shapes and sizes. Choosing the right one is difficult as the local mudstone is coarse and it’s...

A Desertion

I remember that the sand whispered and sound carried for miles. And dunes the colour of tanned skin - their perfect, female contours. I remember how the desert engulfed the town, dust blowing down narrow streets, gathering and drifting in doorways. There were blue men...

Ryokan and the Rooks

I have a small but growing collection of bird skulls, mostly found on walks in the woods or on cliff-top paths. My favourite is from a manx shearwater. I found it on a clifftop path on Skomer Island, which is home to a hundred thousand of these seabirds in the summer....

The Oak and the Swift

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....

Unremembered

The cloud is down. My navigation is reliant on the recall of shapes close up: twisted trees, broken walls, mawn pools, the bends and intersections in tracks. In the past week fieldfares have returned, I can hear them now, ransacking the rowans. A small flock of...
Interlude Three

Interlude Three

Interlude Three

I’ve spent two days staring at a hospital cubicle curtain. It was beautiful. Its folds held a graded sequence of intense blues, midnight in the deepest recesses, a pale sky at the edges. I got lost in those colours, drifted away for hours while Julia slept or sat up for another round of tests. Those blues are the ones Vermeer painted in his masterpiece, Woman Holding a Letter. They’re in the folds of her dress, the chairs, and the deep shadows. Blue is the colour of stillness and slow breathing. 

 

There are two major buildings in Hereford. One is the hospital, a machine manned by people meant to behave like machines, their purpose to pull us back from the edge. But the staff are all lacking in machine abilities. All day they laugh and snap at each other. Sometimes they sit next to one of their patients, a person they’ve only known for a few hours, and tears come into their eyes. 

 

The other building is the cathedral. Every inch of it was made by hand, the huge stone arches and buttresses, the carved and painted ceilings, the stained glass – all reds and blues. A cathedral’s purpose is to push us over the edge, to what is beyond the sensory, beyond life. We’ve almost forgotten how to do that, but not quite. I lit a candle on a table that looked like an altar, made a wish that sounded like a prayer. 

 

Now we’re home again and I’ve left the boys to keep an eye on their sleeping mother while I go for a quick walk on the hill. There’s a buzzard calling, rooks spiralling over the village. As I circle the pool more birds begin to rise from the hawthorn trees. They all have pale underwings. More rise, then more, out of the trees and bushes, out of the sedge. A couple of ravens are trying to mob them, to push them away from their territory. The ravens have already given up. The flock gathers and swirls, lands, launches again. Thousands of fieldfares. A swarm. I’ve never seen so many. They’ll pick the trees bare in a few days. 

 

Life is the colour of sky, the colour of blood, and hawthorn berries. 

Dark Water

Tonight the river is high. I don’t know what atmospheric conditions out in the Atlantic are driving this endless rain. Like all weather these days it doesn’t seem right. My headlights project two beams across the water, which boils and writhes downstream. Nothing...

Old Growth

Dusk approaches. The hill is windless and quiet. Moorhens carefully crosshatch the surface of the pool wrinkling the inverted images of  squall-clouds that have been gathering for an hour. A faint curtain of rain closes across the mountains twenty miles away. I am...

The Blossom Front Line

How beautiful they areThe people brushing past meAs I stroll through GionTo the temple of KiyomizuOn this cherry blossom moonlit nightYosano Akiko There is a stretch of road over the border, not far from here, which rolls and curves between acres of orchards. In late...

A River of Sound

Close to its surface a shallow river talks loudly. It's as if the water is passing through many throats, being gulped, gargled and spluttered as it moves over pebbles and rocks, willow roots, rafts of dead vegetation piled against the bank. I propped the recorder on a...

Up Close and Far Off

I don't remember the name of the town where the railway started, or the destination at the end of the line, only that the train sometimes arrived, but most of the time didn't. I think I waited a week. There were a handful of half-ruined colonial buildings on a single...

Heartwood

The statistics: it has taken 12 hours to smooth the surface, 4 shifts of 3 hours, first with 60, then 80, then 120 grit paper. Dust gathering on me, my hands following the rings as they appeared from beneath the deep scores made by the chainsaw. I could have done all...

Offshore

On the last day of a family holiday I sneaked out of the caravan just after dawn and walked to my favourite spot on the cliff to say goodbye to the sea. The place was near an old stone hut where fisherman used to keep watch for the pilchard shoals coming close to...

Unremembered

The cloud is down. My navigation is reliant on the recall of shapes close up: twisted trees, broken walls, mawn pools, the bends and intersections in tracks. In the past week fieldfares have returned, I can hear them now, ransacking the rowans. A small flock of...

A Desertion

I remember that the sand whispered and sound carried for miles. And dunes the colour of tanned skin - their perfect, female contours. I remember how the desert engulfed the town, dust blowing down narrow streets, gathering and drifting in doorways. There were blue men...

The Nocturnal Bottleneck Theory

The most useful thing I learned in an 18 year education was that a white sheet of paper is never white. I learned this by spending five full days staring at an unmarked A1 sheet pinned to a wall, trying at first to draw, and then to paint it. The exercise was set by...

Interlude Two

Interlude Two

Interlude Two

For two full days rain has hammered on the roof. The lane turned into a brown torrent, cascading into the village, carrying fallen leaves. This morning the fields are polished with flood water. The river is still rising. Roads and bridges are closed, farms cut off, animals stranded or drowned. I’ve never seen so much rain. It’s another escalation, the kind we’re getting used to, the high watermark getting higher.

 

It’s the morning after the clocks went back, the first day of the long dark, five months of night driving on mud-caked roads. I drink coffee, ignore the morning news, lace my boots and begin the thousand foot climb to find a flower. Already people are shaking off the storm, getting back to normal. After two days of de-growth the power’s back on, the shops are opening in an hour. I’m avoiding all of it. 

 

Coils of rusted barbed wire, broken fences, abandoned machinery and old cars.  The first frost of autumn in the shadows under the hedges. In the steeper fields there are runnels and areas of grass combed in the same direction by the floodwater rushing downhill overnight. I climb through a field of cows still feeding their young. Keep climbing, under the giant ash trees, over the streams that never see sunlight, up and up and up.

 

Take the detour few walkers find, across the wooden bridge, then the goat track through deep bracken to the clearing that hangs over the valley.  And there they are, pushing through the grass, bent by the storm. Fragile and strong as ever. Each holds shining beads of rain, melting thistles of frost.

 

 

 

 

Dark Water

Tonight the river is high. I don’t know what atmospheric conditions out in the Atlantic are driving this endless rain. Like all weather these days it doesn’t seem right. My headlights project two beams across the water, which boils and writhes downstream. Nothing...

Old Growth

Dusk approaches. The hill is windless and quiet. Moorhens carefully crosshatch the surface of the pool wrinkling the inverted images of  squall-clouds that have been gathering for an hour. A faint curtain of rain closes across the mountains twenty miles away. I am...

The Blossom Front Line

How beautiful they areThe people brushing past meAs I stroll through GionTo the temple of KiyomizuOn this cherry blossom moonlit nightYosano Akiko There is a stretch of road over the border, not far from here, which rolls and curves between acres of orchards. In late...

A River of Sound

Close to its surface a shallow river talks loudly. It's as if the water is passing through many throats, being gulped, gargled and spluttered as it moves over pebbles and rocks, willow roots, rafts of dead vegetation piled against the bank. I propped the recorder on a...

Up Close and Far Off

I don't remember the name of the town where the railway started, or the destination at the end of the line, only that the train sometimes arrived, but most of the time didn't. I think I waited a week. There were a handful of half-ruined colonial buildings on a single...

Heartwood

The statistics: it has taken 12 hours to smooth the surface, 4 shifts of 3 hours, first with 60, then 80, then 120 grit paper. Dust gathering on me, my hands following the rings as they appeared from beneath the deep scores made by the chainsaw. I could have done all...

Offshore

On the last day of a family holiday I sneaked out of the caravan just after dawn and walked to my favourite spot on the cliff to say goodbye to the sea. The place was near an old stone hut where fisherman used to keep watch for the pilchard shoals coming close to...

Unremembered

The cloud is down. My navigation is reliant on the recall of shapes close up: twisted trees, broken walls, mawn pools, the bends and intersections in tracks. In the past week fieldfares have returned, I can hear them now, ransacking the rowans. A small flock of...

A Desertion

I remember that the sand whispered and sound carried for miles. And dunes the colour of tanned skin - their perfect, female contours. I remember how the desert engulfed the town, dust blowing down narrow streets, gathering and drifting in doorways. There were blue men...

The Nocturnal Bottleneck Theory

The most useful thing I learned in an 18 year education was that a white sheet of paper is never white. I learned this by spending five full days staring at an unmarked A1 sheet pinned to a wall, trying at first to draw, and then to paint it. The exercise was set by...

Interlude One

Interlude One

Interlude One

Walking the track again, into the first high wind of autumn, after a week of continuing horror stories about the ever-more disturbed earth and the ongoing satire of inactivity that is modern politics. It’s times like this when whole sections of the path disappear behind the curtain of cluttered thoughts spinning in me like fierce static. Three words have been circling me like a buzzard all the way up here – “Just move on.”
 
 
The farmers have cut and baled bracken for winter bedding. The ground is bare. I’ve been reading about beech woods, how the trees feed each other, how even the stumps of long fallen trees can still be green below the bark, still alive because other trees are nourishing them through their roots. I’ve never seen a mature beech wood. This hill should be on the southern border of a temperate rainforest stretching from Assynt. I don’t know why the absence of something that hasn’t existed for millennia makes me mourn, makes me angry.
 
 
I see an old farmer riding his quadbike just beyond the pool, and there is an orange shape nodding behind him. The shape becomes a bobble hat worn by a little girl who is giggling and shreaking with excitement as her grandfather climbs the slope at less than half speed. Beyond them a field far below in the valley suddenly flares green under a shaft of sunlight. There is no more beautiful place on earth than this. A place like this can stretch like a root though the generations, keeping us nourished, even though there is little to nourish it.
 
 
I stop beside the pool and watch wind shape water. A patch of reeds quivers, slate grey reflections flooded out by the white of the low sun.
 
 
Just watch. You don’t need anything more.

 

 

Dark Water

Tonight the river is high. I don’t know what atmospheric conditions out in the Atlantic are driving this endless rain. Like all weather these days it doesn’t seem right. My headlights project two beams across the water, which boils and writhes downstream. Nothing...

Old Growth

Dusk approaches. The hill is windless and quiet. Moorhens carefully crosshatch the surface of the pool wrinkling the inverted images of  squall-clouds that have been gathering for an hour. A faint curtain of rain closes across the mountains twenty miles away. I am...

The Blossom Front Line

How beautiful they areThe people brushing past meAs I stroll through GionTo the temple of KiyomizuOn this cherry blossom moonlit nightYosano Akiko There is a stretch of road over the border, not far from here, which rolls and curves between acres of orchards. In late...

A River of Sound

Close to its surface a shallow river talks loudly. It's as if the water is passing through many throats, being gulped, gargled and spluttered as it moves over pebbles and rocks, willow roots, rafts of dead vegetation piled against the bank. I propped the recorder on a...

Up Close and Far Off

I don't remember the name of the town where the railway started, or the destination at the end of the line, only that the train sometimes arrived, but most of the time didn't. I think I waited a week. There were a handful of half-ruined colonial buildings on a single...

Heartwood

The statistics: it has taken 12 hours to smooth the surface, 4 shifts of 3 hours, first with 60, then 80, then 120 grit paper. Dust gathering on me, my hands following the rings as they appeared from beneath the deep scores made by the chainsaw. I could have done all...

Offshore

On the last day of a family holiday I sneaked out of the caravan just after dawn and walked to my favourite spot on the cliff to say goodbye to the sea. The place was near an old stone hut where fisherman used to keep watch for the pilchard shoals coming close to...

Unremembered

The cloud is down. My navigation is reliant on the recall of shapes close up: twisted trees, broken walls, mawn pools, the bends and intersections in tracks. In the past week fieldfares have returned, I can hear them now, ransacking the rowans. A small flock of...

A Desertion

I remember that the sand whispered and sound carried for miles. And dunes the colour of tanned skin - their perfect, female contours. I remember how the desert engulfed the town, dust blowing down narrow streets, gathering and drifting in doorways. There were blue men...

The Nocturnal Bottleneck Theory

The most useful thing I learned in an 18 year education was that a white sheet of paper is never white. I learned this by spending five full days staring at an unmarked A1 sheet pinned to a wall, trying at first to draw, and then to paint it. The exercise was set by...