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.   

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 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....

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...

The Roundabout

It’s an ancient-looking structure cresting a high hill. The stone was formed in the Silurian period, 400 million years ago. It was gathered from the surrounding hilltop quarries and assembled into a head-height circular wall for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. The...

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...

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...

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...
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...

The Lookout

The Lookout

The Lookout

I don’t know how stone bends. Rock is fluid, the stone cycle much like the water cycle. Magma cools into igneous rock. It erodes into fine particles which compress to become sedimentary, then it is folded deep underground, heats and transforms into metamorphic rock, then heats again and returns to magma. This is fact. But for me to know something I need to be able to feel and not just comprehend. Being human I’m around for just a geological twitch in time, I find it difficult to feel what things were like for my ancestors a century ago, though I know the facts. Looking up at this arc of stone, which has taken millions of years to take shape, my mind goes blank. My comprehension serves no purpose.

We’re riding a high spring tide, paddling north around the headland, passing Trwyn yr Olchfa, Pwll Melyn, Pwll Edrych, Careg Lydan, Ogof Groyn, and onto Careg Adeyrn, old names for the distinct features of this stretch of the Pembrokeshire coast. Out in the Irish Sea squalls are sliding across the horizon, pressed against the white sky like dirty thumbprints. The sun is blinking above and the sea glows. Submerged boulders reflect the light and cast weaving shadows. Moments ago we were doing our best opera impressions inside a gold-seamed cave which disappeared into its own darkness. Now we’re trying to judge if the space below this rock arch is wide enough to get our kayaks through. It isn’t. So we’re staring at it instead, my 13-year-old boy and me. “Dinosaurs up there.” he says, sensing the vast timespan folded into this place and the lingering rawness of it. The rock is clearly stratified, layered with many tones and hues, a buckled rainbow. The lines of the arch rise out of the sea, climb in a great curve and touch the topsoil, then dive back down, as if following the leap of a dolphin. In its centre the rock has collapsed forming a narrow passage which the swell bowls through.  Above the formation is the green monoscape of Wales, ironed-out, adapted, simplified for purpose. But down here things are as they should be. It’s rare I get to see such sights. When I do, I remember that awe is good medicine.

A week ago I was looking down at this spot from the clifftop, as a group of seals lay half asleep in the sun. I watched a buzzard swing by below me. Two peregrines, falcon and tiercel, appeared from over the cliff edge and cannoned vertically at the bigger, less agile bird. They twisted and dived as they harassed the poor thing until it escaped beyond Camaes Head. After that they took it in turns to climb and stoop, screaming at each other as their trajectories crossed. This is their hunting ground, Careg Aderyn, the rock of birds. Behind a high fence of barbed wire stood the skeleton of an old coastguard lookout, its windows long blown out by winter storms. These days there are few lookouts left, only 9 in the whole of Wales. The sea around Camaes Head is not particularly treacherous and the commercial shipping which used to head up the Teifi estuary to Cardigan port was long gone even a century ago, so I’m not sure why there would have been a need for the remote lookout a two mile, ridiculously steep walk up the cliff path from the estuary mouth. But I do know that I’d have applied for the job as lookout, though I doubt I’d have been good at it. There are too many interesting things going on out on the cliffs and sea to be bothered about passing boats. When you’re looking for something specific, even interesting things like shipwrecks and drownings, you stop seeing what’s there. Don’t take notes, just stare.

I don’t know if animals are capable of viewing their environment aesthetically. The oystercatchers that have been shrieking their alarm calls and skittering from outcrop to outcrop as we paddled here seem focused wholly on us, which is dangerous because the peregrines are still up there. The seals which slide up to the surface from time-to-time are also watching us, and politely waiting until we depart their water gardens. Have any of them ever stared at this rock arch and felt their heart slow? Perhaps what makes humans unique is not our tools or languages, but our ability to be captivated.

Captivated. Enthralled. The words for this phenomena have their roots in bondage. Gentler alternatives like bewitch, or entrance, still define a loss of self, a state of being in the control of outside forces. In words like awestruck or astonish (from old French estoner – to stun, and Latin tonare – to thunder) the sense verges on terror. Perhaps I’m too numbed by explanations to feel terror at this thin fringe of wilderness on the circumference of our tamed island, but I do feel captivated. All captives long for open spaces and I come from a long line of them, generations of working class people forced to live in physical and emotional spaces too small for purpose.

My mum’s family were labourers, pottery workers and miners. Mum grew up in a two-up, two-down terrace house in the centre of Stoke-on-Trent, close to the chimneys and bottle kilns. The city was dominated by Shelton Bar, a huge steelworks founded in the 1820’s, covering an area of more than 400 acres with its own ore and coal pits sunk on site. At the time of my mum’s birth the works produced 2 million tons of coal, 215,000 tons of pig iron and 200,000 tons of steel every year. As a child she would have heard the distant crashing of the furnaces and watched the fiery pools of light they produced glow against the clouds at night. Her father worked in the pit and when she was very small a part of the coal face collapsed on him and broke his hip. Septicaemia followed and he came close to losing his legs. He spent two years in hospital and 6 years out of work.  My nan had 3 small kids to look after at the time and spent all day caring for them while in the evenings she was a cleaner to make ends meet. When my grandfather was fully recovered he was given a job above ground, driving a dumper truck at one of the collieries at the edge of the city. Bordering the yard where he worked was an area of old woodland. On occasional mornings he’d cross paths with foxes, discovering dens where cubs peered out at him. He watched rooks and robins nesting. The hammering of metalworks was replaced by the knocking of green woodpeckers; billowing smoke and the reflections of furnace fires became a shifting canopy of leaves. Every day he went home and told my mum about what he’d seen in the wood and she’d listen captivated. This story has always felt like part of my foundations and I’ve spent a good part of my life searching for those hidden, wilder places on the edges of things where space seems to open up, vastly.

I don’t know how many generations of my family endured the underground life of pits and factories. I’ve traced us through the records, read of the workhouse births and early deaths. I haven’t found it yet, but back there somewhere is a place outside the city, or before the city, a place of clean rivers and woodsmoke. Backwards from there is nothing but open skies. It’s like looking at rock strata, at a thin dark line arching over me, containing 3 centuries of coal dust, clay, and iron ore.

My ancestors are looking through me at the places they never saw. One of the things they’ve seen is another expanse of water and another boy paddling near to the land’s edge. He is dressed in ragged shorts, and he’s using his hands and feet to propel himself. He is straddling a log just buoyant enough to stay afloat, paddling in an arc, playing out a long handmade fishing net. At the arc’s meridian another log slowly appears, only a few feet from the boy. The log is much longer than the one he is riding, and much wider. Then it bends, a tapering, scaled and plated tail swinging, creating an S-shaped wake. The crocodile dives below the boy. I shout but the boy ignores me. He’s seen it too, but he’s used to its presence. The creature is hunting the Nile perch in his net, it is not interested in him. His father and uncle are standing on the shore, ready to pull in the net when the boy passes the end of the line to them. All three of them work without hurry. When the net is pulled in there are no fish. The crocodile breaches the surface again, cruises for a while in a straight line out into the lake, then disappears. I don’t know how long this fishing method has been practised on Lake Turkana, but it was probably around before industrialised iron and coal works. The tribesman have inhabited the area for centuries. They are mainly pastoralists, but for generations the lake has provided them with fish as an alternative food source.

Just north of the fishing spot is another Turkana boy. He is of similar size and long-limbed build, but his skull is unusually small. He floats on his back on a bed of cast metal. He appeared at the lakeside only a few years after the birth of his distant relative, who quietly gathers the net to pay it out again. But this boy was born 1.6 million years ago. His memorial stands in the place where he was discovered, while his remains, an unusually complete skeleton only lacking hands and feet, are now housed in a glass case 500 miles south in the Nairobi National Museum. Turkana Boy, or fossil KNM-WT 15000 is the best example in the current record of an early bipedal hominid. Though his brain capacity was only half the size of ours it was double that of contemporary apes. If he had reached maturity he would have been 6 feet tall.  Opinion is that this species of hominid, Homo ergaster, emigrated out of Africa, but the journey it took is contested. Some experts believe that the species spread to Asia, then returned to Africa, and later entered Europe. On the eastern shore the Koobi Fora site, excavated by the Leakey family over a period of years, gave up the bones of other hominids including H. habilis, H. rudolfensis and four australopith species. Ten thousand year old remains of Homo sapiens have also been discovered near the lake shore. Our ancestors and near ancestors lie layered in this one place, their bones sometimes only metres apart, though their separation in time immense.  Evolutionary paths are often described as tree shaped but I like to think that they take the form of coastlines with peninsulas, bays and inlets, outcrops connected by fragile arches that sometimes collapse into the sea and appear through the mists as islands. Their complexity grows with every discovery. The shoreline continually changes.

My grandfather died and was buried in the same month as the paleoanthropologist Kamoya Kimeu uncovered Turkana Boy from the arid ground beside the lake. Now, in my mind, their bones are mingled. The time gap between their lives is a space I cannot feel my way into, I can only comprehend the numbers. They are both there at once. Our histories belong to places, not time, and places fade away. I don’t remember now the colours of Lake Turkana or the shapes of the stunted trees, or of the surrounding hills. I only recall the boy paddling out with his net, and the awe I felt when that 30 foot crocodile rose from the water tectonically, like something that had been waiting for a million years. I no longer remember my grandfather’s face, or the tone of his voice, just the stories my mother told me.

Only the towers and walls of this island are shaped the way they’re meant to be. Out on the water, paddling around the cliffs, I get a feel for the place as it was and might be again, when we’re gone, which could be soon. Its wordless stories are wrapped tight inside layers of stone. My remembered history is so thin it will never register in bedrock. Our whole industrial past is present in a few inches of topsoil which will compress eventually into a line so thin it will almost be invisible. The whole of hominid history will be less than a finger’s width. These cliffs are hundreds of feet high, high enough for peregrines to stoop and arrow down, their descent lasting what seem to me like minutes. But time is nothing more than a story we tell. It will remain for a little while, then slowly disappear.

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