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 with pale eyes. They rode camels and carried swords and rifles. When they passed, they did not acknowledge us at all. There were tall palm trees, vegetables growing in beds surrounded by irrigation ditches. And in the ditches there were shoals of tiny, silver fish. I was following the 1947 journey of one of my heroes, Paul Bowles. I’ve always carried a book with me as a kind of totem. These days its Tranströmer’s Half-Finished Heaven, but back then it was Bowles’s Sheltering Sky. What drew me to it was the way the characters seemed to carry spaces inside them as vast as the landscape they were lost inside. It was how I felt about myself in my twenties. Bowles was a prolific letter writer. While holed up in a room during a 3 day sandstorm with only his parrot for company he wrote of the Sahara: “It is a great stretch of earth where climate reigns supreme and every gesture one makes is in conscious defence from, or propitiation to the climatic conditions . . . Man is hated in the Sahara. One feels it in the sky, in the stones, in the air.” I didn’t write any letters home and I took no photographs. All that remains of my Sahara journey is an old French Michelin map and a line, as thin as my footsteps, that I drew in biro, linking the names Taghit, Timimoun, Adrar, El Golea.
Another thing I remember, waking one morning to see a track crossing the sand in front of my tent, tiny indentations, footprints of some four, six or eight-legged thing which had skittered across the dunes in the night. As I traced the line up to the dune’s crest a breeze started up. Within seconds the footprints had disappeared. Is this a definition of how to live well on this earth, that it should be able to erase our tracks with one breath?
During R.S. Thomas’s long life he struggled with his relationship to God, enduring long, doubt-filled periods spiked with surges of belief. Passionate about non-human life, he reached the opinion that the evidence for the presence of God was to be found in the still-warm form of a hare, a hollow in the turf which still resonates with the creature’s presence after it has gone. I have never encountered one. I see hares regularly on the hill but they are always halfway to the vanishing point before I spot them. I can never work out where they sprang up from, perhaps a doorway out of another world. I appreciate Thomas’s elegant image. Since the enlightenment we’ve been peering ever closer at nature, revealing and decoding its secrets, harnessing its power to our own ends. Along the way we got to know the work of our gods too well and fell out of love. Reverence requires vast empty spaces.
A few years before my journey into the desert I was stranded on an island, that is what family holidays felt like to me. To survive I had brought an A2 pad of paper and some pencils. During the afternoon hours I walked to a shaded ravine where I sat and drew the strange, spiny plants that grew from the rocks. At first it was an effort to capture the complex interlacing shapes of leaves and seed heads, an exercise to learn the patience I’d never had. But I grew frustrated with the process quickly and started to draw thick dark lines roughly in the direction of the plant’s growth, only to then attack the marks with a rubber, almost, but never completely, erasing them. After an hour of this process the accidental result was something resembling a tree in fog, an apparition floating in white space. It’s the only drawing I’ve ever done that I’m proud of. Fujiko Nakaya makes sculpture with fog. The fog drifts, thickens and thins, people gain and lose their orientation, an intense experience which leaves some in tears, others shaking with fear. Nakaya believes that the fog makes things more visible: the environment, the cyclical processes of nature, life and death. To give depth to a thing, you sometimes have to erase it. Another artist Peter Von Tiessenhausen was asked to donate work to an exhibition at a gallery in Sarnia. He agreed to contribute a large cast iron bust as long as it was buried beneath the street in front of the gallery building. The bust still resides there, subterranean and invisible, filling the surrounding area with mystery. What could be more dreary than a bust pristinely displayed on a pedestal in a white room? And what could be more powerful for the imagination than the same bust entombed in the earth a metre below your feet?
My favourite time of year is in the late autumn when cloud descends low over the valley. You can climb a hill and walk above the mist, a river-sea of whiteness stretching between high ridges. These treeless hills are almost empty, almost all of the time, but the patchwork in the valley is a constant reference to their taming. When the mist is down the mystery is restored. Wales is a country over-populated with absences. In the uplands, miles of stripped heaths dominate, pocked with the remains of people who have gone before us. These lands sing of their longing through the voices of buzzards. But nobody’s listening. Down in the valley windows glow with flickering lights.
We live in the age of the microcosm. Having lost our sense of mystery we spend our days digging into ever smaller spaces. Our attention narrows as words start to fall from our language. Though we’re endlessly creative we’ve yet to harness that creativity to tame our destructive capacities. Therefore the lands around us desertify. The Sahara has spread by 1.5 million square miles in the past century and a further 650,000 square miles of productive land has been lost in Africa in the past 50 years. Soil depletion in places like Wales is accelerating. Some studies have estimated that we only have 60 harvests left. Emptiness is on the move. In these days of climate change and biodiversity loss it is moving faster. I don’t know what’s coming, but the stories of Paul Bowles are starting to look prophetic, with their lost, self-obsessed characters roaming landscapes where even the stones hate us.
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 one of the most miserable teachers I ever had, a failed painter who wanted to be home on the north coast of Cornwall and not in the center of probably the ugliest and most landlocked city in Britain. For the whole five days he gave no instruction. He walked up to me from time to time, shook his head, laughed and moved on. I think he did ask at one point if it hurt me to use my brain. Nevertheless, the exercise was a revelation, the visual version of meditating on a Koan. If you look hard enough, you start to see things which can never be unseen. A white sheet of paper is a kind of mirror, it takes on the colours of everything that surrounds it.
It took me a very long time to be able to sleep in darkness. I would never permit my parents to close my bedroom door, the light on the landing had to be on and the door fully open all night. Some nights they would close it when I was asleep but I was so tuned into the click of the latch that it instantly woke me up and I got up to open the door again. Later I rigged up a contraption with wires so I could turn the handle and open the door without getting out of bed. Darkness is like a white sheet of paper, it takes on the shapes of everything that surrounds it. I went to a sink school. I was deeply introverted and isolated. My father was difficult, a compulsive gambler and a depressive. Sometimes when I sat on my bed the floor would drop away, hundreds of feet down. I didn’t talk to anyone so the anxiety attacked after dark, taking on shapes and voices.
I’m now lucky enough to live in a place where I can experience natural sound some of the time, the acoustics of weather and animals removed from the constant hum of engines and electronic noise that accompanies our lives in most places. The hour after dark is the best time to experience it. Hilltops and green mountains are the best places, where everything above is sky and the ground below is soft turf. Sometimes I’ll try to approach a herd of wild horses, their grazing shapes indistinct, only just visible as humps above the high bracken. I’ll walk very slowly, trying not to make a noise. Horses have 350-degree vision and can see very well at night, but they don’t expect to encounter humans out walking after dark so they are not as alert as in the daytime. But sooner or later they sense me, their heads shoot up and I hear their breathing deepen. They spook and burst into a gallop. I can feel the drumming of their hooves as if it were my heartbeat. A horse’s eye contains a darkness I’ve never witnessed in any other creature. The slot of its pupil floats on fathoms of black water containing a history more tragic than any other species except our own. A horse’s eye expresses mourning deeper than a wolf’s howl.
Years ago in a place where the sun plunged rather than set, day turning into night as if a bulb has blown. The smell of half-rotten mangoes and bananas. I’m sitting on a pile of maize sacks with a group of people crammed into an open-backed truck. No-one is speaking. We stop at a place unmarked on the map, a village without electricity, high mud walls, a single dirt road. I jump out and walk a hundred meters, through drifting wood smoke. I turn round and my fellow passengers have disappeared, the truck headed back in the other direction. That post dark silence coming out of the forest like a fog. I stumble on the ruts in the road. I can just make out the tops of the trees against the deep night. I’m completely lost, without food or water, unable to speak the local language. There is no shop, bar or hotel. I walk back to where the truck stopped, feeling my way, hearing the click of bicycle wheels up ahead. Then a hand grabs mine and pulls me into an alleyway. A gate opens and there is the square of a window, flickering with candlelight. An old woman, less than five feet tall is smiling up at me, pointing me to a doorway. She props the bike against a wall and beckons me forward. Inside are a dozen people, children of all ages, a couple of women in their twenties. They sit me down, pour tea from a kettle fetched from an open fire in the yard. The children, giggling wildly, stalk up to me and touch my hair, scream, run and hide behind their grandmother. She tells them off. She fills a bowl with water and heats it on the fire so I can wash. All evening we try to communicate, miming, pointing. We manage to repeat each other’s names. She is called Atiena. Years later I look the name up. It means Guardian of the Night. Eventually, she leads me to a large room which is filled with beds with barely any space between them. She leaves me a jug of water and a candle. I lie listening to mice skittering across the floor and eventually I fall asleep. I wake early, the sun bright through the rag curtained window. When I open the door onto the yard all of the family, including the old woman, are asleep, lying on the ground. They have let me, a total stranger from a place halfway across the planet, sleep in their only bedroom. This was the Eastern Congo. A few months later I would fly home to England while a war broke out in those hills, more vicious than any in African history, where women and children would be the main victims. I will never know what happened to Atiena in that heart of darkness.
The nocturnal bottleneck theory suggests that most mammals in their early evolution had good colour vision and high acuity of sight. These traits were lost as they went through the Mesozoic where they were forced to avoid the predation of day-active dinosaurs and therefore, as a survival strategy, became nocturnal. This adaptation remains in the eye structures of most mammals to this day. The only species that don’t show this trait are humans, monkeys and apes. The hour after dark is when the page goes blank for us. It’s when we’re at our most vulnerable. It’s when the senses we mostly ignore in the day become more acute. Cold air brushing the skin, the scent of fallen apples, the distant sound of a woman’s voice as she calls through an open window. It is not necessarily the time when stories are composed, but it is the time they arrive in us.
Cloud is crossing the sky, the moon and stars slide into their drawers. The blue glow that illuminated the lanes between the bracken has disappeared and I still have a mile or more to go. My landmark now is the sulphur glow above Hereford and the little clusters of light from the villages below in the valley. I can hear my dog panting as she chases rabbits. Occasionally, if I don’t look for her, I see her in the tail of my eye. Colours and shapes appear. Two snipe are calling, one north and close by, one south and distant. Between the alternating, high pitched notes there are voices.
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 people around here like to celebrate their queens. When Elizabeth reached the same milestone a few years back, they created a lane of fire going from the bottom to the top of the hill. It burned long into the night, watched only by roosting ravens and mad-eyed hares.
Inside the circle is a little copse of trees that shouldn’t be there, pines mainly, twisted and blown over, growing at strange angles. The wall protects them a little from the winter gales but, once they reach a certain height, they get blown over and have to regrow tilted, like old men adapting to a crooked life. Normally I don’t like places like this. They’re frankensteinian habitats badly stitched into the landscape. But this place has been a shelter and a playground for my children since they were tiny. The trees were staircases and climbing frames, the understorey a soft bed they could stay warm in when the snow was coming down. It’s the place where the ravens keep watch over the valley. And the place where the wind talks clearest. I come here most days.
It’s the 22nd September and they’re already back. Sometimes the year’s circle winds tighter. The golden plovers usually arrive in late October. They have a favourite spot on the hillside, just below the Roundabout, a shallow indentation sheltered from the westerlies and exposed to the scant warmth of the low sun. Mostly they stand still and invisible, blending into the bronze of the shaved bracken stalks. But when you approach they start to nervously skitter, pinballing from one patch of cover to another, trying not to give too much ground before there is a single peep and the flock rises in a whirr. They rise and rise, then circle the hill, plunging big dipper style, sometimes only a few metres above my head, before finally, after many revolutions, they come back to land where they started. I don’t like to see them leave in the spring. For the few weeks after they go it feels like the clock hands are moving backwards, that winter has returned.
At this time of year the farmers cut the bracken down and roll it into large drum bales. They stand for a few days or weeks like monoliths on the hill before they are stacked and loaded onto trailers, then taken to barns where they will be used for animal bedding. Baling bracken is a beautiful process. When first cut it lies on the ground in rows which are never straight like the plough lines in a field, but instead are like a contour map of the land, a series of undulating waves. The waves turn from green to gold in a few short days and then the bracken is picked up and rolled tight to create the bales. If you look closely at the circular faces of the drums you see a pattern like that made when a magnet is placed near to iron filings, straight lines forced into circles, a diagram of the farming year with its births and deaths, seeding, reaping and replanting. Farmers understand circularity more than the rest of us. They are keepers of the old routes through life.
Lately my father has been turning up in the strangest places. In March I sat beside him and watched him quietly pass away, his face gradually disappearing into the structure of underlying bone. A few minutes after his death I didn’t recognise him at all. But in the months since, I’ve seen him staring from my son’s ice blue eyes. Most of all he’s been walking beside me when I pass darkened shop windows, his face in the tail of my eye, just behind the glass. Vision is circular. We’ve been looking out of the same eyes for two hundred thousand years at the great circles of our horizons, at the turning earth. We’ve deeply understood the cyclical nature of everything. Life continues. Lives do not.
I’ve been lost plenty of times in these hills. Sometimes the mist comes down so thick that all you can see is the turf at your feet. I zig-zag and go backwards, retracing my steps. I stand still and wait for something I recognise to shift into view, a familiar thorn tree or mawn pool. If you were to trace my path from overhead, it would look like a random scribble. I’ve never gone round in circles when lost up here, but it’s something I’d love to experience, a proof perhaps that human beings are not meant to go in straight lines. In an old copy of National Geographic I came across a story of Idaho cowboys who, when they got lost in winter snowstorms, simply let go of the reins and lay across their pony’s necks. For the warmth but also for guidance. The ponies always found the way back home. Horses think in circles. When the rider lost the trail, the cow pony found the way back because it had not travelled from one point to another. It had stretched the radius of its circle and then returned to its centre, magnetically. It’s the way animals navigate. Perhaps, in the past, we did too. Perhaps we still do.
Around here there are many roads going nowhere, narrow lanes ramparted with high hedges and guarded by sentinel oaks. They lead through gated farmyards and up onto high commons where they come to abrupt ends or turn into grassy tracks. Others lead to tumbledown houses, some still containing the possessions of the departed: old tables and chairs, dusty pots on shelves, rotted carpets and cracked linoleum, mouldering books, curtains blowing next to shattered windows. Birds, bats and rodents own these places now. There is an old woman who lives on the same hillside as me in a static caravan parked in the shadow of her house which, every time I pass, has crumbled a little further. It would have been a beautiful place, a big farmhouse made from stone quarried from the hill. Its sagging roof is clad with hand-split mudstone tiles. She sold most of her land years ago, but still has a few acres surrounding her house, land containing one completely collapsed barn and a few small fields of brambles and sedge. I don’t know why these places are left this way. Old farmhouses in remote locations fetch a lot at auction, even in ruins. These houses are where the circle broke, where the generations ran out. For now the places want to hold onto their memories a little longer, before they crumble away.
The old farmers on this hill have lived circular lives, growing up and growing old on the same piece of ground. Their responsibility to their land is to leave it exactly as they found it. Surrounding them all their lives are the many beings travelling along their own arcs. The bracken on the hilltop, puncturing the ground and uncurling from tight spirals each spring. The harebells and foxgloves with their short, spectacular flowering and rapid fading back to the earth. The golden plovers, curlews, wheatears and swifts travelling endlessly in loops inscribed from here to the sea and farther out, to distant continents. Even the crumbling walls which trace their own cycle from sediment to rock and back to sediment over a million years.
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. They are a favourite prey of gulls, and the island is littered with their bodies. The remains of a recently predated manx shearwater look like the smoke-blackened wings of an angel. The head, torso and legs are consumed, leaving only a section of spinal column still attached to the two coracoids, scapulas and untouched wings. A skull is a rarer find and mine is precious to me, a miraculous craftwork, delicate as a sculpture made from slivers of ice. When I hold it, it feels like it will melt in my hands.
I also own a few rook skulls. I don’t know at what interval in time the common ancestor of the manx shearwater and the rook existed, or the great distances that both species had to travel to arrive at their contemporary forms, but when comparing their skulls it doesn’t seem like the journey was so great. Though the rook skull is much larger, the profiles and proportions are similar, the main difference being the way the beaks are shaped towards their tips, the rook’s making a gentle downward curve and the manx shearwater’s a talon-like hook.
You can understand the miracle of flight better by holding a bird’s skull than its wings. The skull seems almost impossibly light, as if wings aren’t required to get such a weightless thing airborne. A breath of wind will surely be enough. For a bird, the wiring for consciousness is contained in the most delicate shell. If the bone was twice as thick would the bird be able to fly?
The manx shearwater is an exotic, an almost never-seen being inhabiting the edges of our landscape for a short time before travelling to the other side of the world. The rook, on the other hand, is a commoner, an always-there, particularly in my life. My bedroom window overlooks a stand of oaks hosting a rookery, which at this time of year is occupied by a couple of hundred birds. My workplace, in the centre of a town, is fifty metres from three plane trees which are now the home of an increasing population of the corvids.
While I’m writing this I’m glancing out of the window every few minutes, keeping an eye on them. One or two take off and fly a loop around the trees. I’m hoping that they’ll all spray up into the air together so I can watch the flock tumble and dive. But they know I’m watching, so it’s unlikely.
One of the root meanings of the word common is to move together. Nothing could describe rooks better. They are the ultimate commoners. Which isn’t to say that they are lowly. For me, they are great acrobats and artists. The way a flock spirals and dives, the small sub-groups creating their own shapes within the whole movement, the individual clowning and dare-devilry, effortlessness and sense of joy. The fact that they fly to go nowhere at all. The naked-nosed crow, as it is known in China and Japan, is utterly extraordinary, despite its monotone, tatter-cloaked form.
The monk ryokan wore a tattered black robe for most of his adult life. He left the monastery after his training and became a hermit. He lived in a single room hut with almost no possessions and survived by begging, the lowliest of individuals. He was also a great poet and calligraphist in a culture where calligraphy was seen as the highest of all art forms. For much of his life he could not afford brush and paper. He practised and achieved mastery by drawing in the air with a finger. When great men came to request a poem for their homes, he mostly refused (or simply wrote 1, 2, 3, 4) and sent them on their way. But when a little girl once approached him on the street with a sheet of paper, he took it and asked what she wanted to use it for. She told him she was going to make a kite. He wrote, sky above, great wind, in calligraphy that amazes modern scholars with its skill and effortless expression. He loved the company of children and there are accounts of him playing hide and seek in the fields, the old monk hiding for a whole day buried in a hay stack. He was a fool and a master, the lowliest and the loftiest. When I read his work I think of rooks.
Showing its back and showing its front a falling maple leaf
Ryokan rejected the path of the monk because traditional buddhist detachment was too attached for him. He did not want to partake in monasterial life, carrying out daily duties and rituals. He decided he could serve life better by not serving it at all. Samuel Beckett made a similar decision early in his career when he turned down a future as an academic and teacher, saying that he had absolutely nothing to teach. Ryokan’s doubt even extended to his poems, perhaps to poetry itself.
Who says my poems are poems? My poems are not poems. When you know that my poems are not poems, then we can speak of poetry!
I’ve spent a few evenings lately glancing through samples of the literature of self-improvement. There are books about billionaires and super-athletes, about how to build great businesses by creating successful habits, by sustaining self-belief and optimism. They urge us to hack time. Do – that is the secret of success. Be useful. I doubt if any of these thinkers think that a day spent hiding in a hay stack is a good use of time. They certainly would never encourage us to be a beggar. Or a rook.
Autumn is here. Through the open window I can see a leaf just detached from its branch. It hasn’t fallen. Instead it has caught on the strand of a cobweb. Now it twists and spins continually in a breeze so light I cannot feel it at all. It reminds me of a great poem, like W.S. Merwin’s Rainlight, made from a few simple images and breath. The most beautiful things are the ones that are almost impossibly present, or the things that are almost not there.
I have no idea about the usefulness of rooks, or the reason for their wild flocking above the trees. Biologists would probably conclude that their purpose is to keep insect numbers down. They would maintain that birds fly together to cement a social bond, or that their survival depends on their acting as a single entity, a super-organism creating a difficult target for predators. It makes sense, but I doubt Ryokan would have agreed. Rooks flock because they flock, would have been his answer.
He would have known that the purpose of rooks is to teach the rest of us creatures detachment, from our duties, our ambitions, our selves. It’s the only way for us to grow wings.
Tomorrow I will fly away to who knows where, as someone has made me a (naked-nosed) crow
Translations of Ryokan’s poems come from the wonderful book – Sky Above, Great Wind. The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan, by Kazuaki Tanahashi.
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 rare to find something with a flat face large enough to hold a poem. Welsh slate would be the best material but this is not a slate area and I don’t want to leave stones in places where they don’t feel at home. Stream bottoms are possibly the best sources, the water having smoothed the surfaces. There is a bend in the River Wye a mile or so from my house where the river deposits perfectly flat, smooth stones about the size of a DL envelope after every winter spate. I use these most.
The best time for me to walk on my favourite hill is when the clouds are down and shifting. The land I think I know becomes an unfamiliar place. Contours blend, disappear or appear in sections like pencil lines partly erased. Familiar colours fade back to faint washes. The myriad details I spend a lot of my time not noticing are gone and this wakes me up, makes me feel disorientated, which means I feel alive. It is like having a symphony playing in the background only for the brass, wood and strings to blend into a single continuous note, made by a cello bow drawn slowly over low C. Familiar trees drift into sight, just suggestions, and then step back behind a curtain. Sound flattens. The calls of birds become the bones of calls.
The late writing of Samuel Beckett has always been the work I’ve most admired. What draws me to his writing is the way Beckett allows words and images to fail, how he shows the reader that there is often more meaning to mine from the spaces and silences between words than the words themselves. Less. Less seen. Less seeing. Less seen and seeing when with words than when not (from Worstward Ho).
Whenever I visit an old chapel or church I tend to ignore the architecture and stained glass. Bricks and windows bore me. Instead I head for the gravestones, looking for the oldest, the most worn, the stones where the inscriptions are very nearly gone. These last traces fascinate me. They are at the point of erasure, the last few words denoting a life, marks made by the hand of a long-dead mason.
I think these three preferences have led me to writing on stones.
The stone I’m most proud of was placed in a wound in a storm shattered thorn tree which has regrown in three sections, a flattened trident with the twisted trunk now almost horizontal, suspended only a few feet from the ground. I think this particular stone has never been read. At least, not by a human.
This slowed copper river
put your ear to its door
hear the lighting’s thorns
skied and earthed
an antennae tuned
to the curlew’s call
After one winter it transformed to a faintly visible:
This low river
Now the stone contains only fragments of letters, a few downstrokes, half circles, detached serifs. Since I placed it there it has taken on other functions. It has been a cache of fallen hawthorn berries, a perch for rooks, a place for blackbirds to crack snail shells. A few vertical scratches have appeared, they look like claw-marks. Two species of shield lichen have begun to colonise the surface, The words have disappeared, as I hoped they would. Other stones I’ve placed nearby have not been so successful. They’ve been found and taken away, I don’t know by whom or where they’ve gone. I hope they are still out in the open and dissolving a little with each passing squall.
Words are as impermanent as human life. They emerge, shape-shift, ghost away, to be replaced by their descendants. A healthy language should feel like a 500 year old oak. Its trunk should be thick, its bark gnarled. It should have many dead and dying branches, and many new and healthy ones.
Most people on earth will only hear one language through their whole lives, but if they’re blessed with a long life, that language will have changed by the end. Other people will hear many languages on a daily basis. Within a 10 mile radius of Times Square, New York, 800 languages are spoken, just over 10 percent of all languages currently existing on earth. But many languages, like species, are endangered. It is estimated that a third are spoken by less than 1000 people and that one language passes away with its last speaker every 2 weeks. By the end of the century, as with animal species, half will be gone.
Imagine being the last speaker of a language. Most likely you’d be a city dweller, surrounded by people speaking a tongue not your own. As your people faded away so did your words, your way of thinking, the shapes of your ancestral place. Because words, like stones are dug from a place. A city is no place for a language to die, when its last words are spoken they should at least sink back into the earth they came out of.
I want to know what it feels like to use words that no-one else will hear, words which will sink silently into the ground. Which is why I like to find good hiding places for my stones. It’s an act of solidarity.
Today I watched four ravens using the steep slope the shattered tree grows on to ride the wind, letting the updrafts carry them high into the air before they plunged back, flipping upside down and calling out with their rusted hinge cries. Ravens have a huge range of vocalisations, I swear there are words there. Below the slope are faint traces of a medieval settlement that local people call Pentre Jack. It’s hard to make anything out until deep winter, when the bracken is gone and the light slants low. Then traces of field walls, platforms and animal enclosures appear. There is a quarry above the settlement. I don’t know if this is where the ancients dug stone to make their walls, but it’s possible. I take stones from it from time to time.
Ten centuries ago the Normans brought people to this area from all over Europe in an attempt to dilute the local bloodlines and pacify the area. The people of Pentre Jack may have spoken old Welsh, or they could have spoken something else, but that language is long gone, like the people, their animals, buildings and crops. What’s left, here and there, is the upstroke of a field wall, the half circle of an animal pen, and a silence which can absorb a raven’s call.
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 shock of the cold penetrates from skin to bone. I stroke out into the middle then dive again, deep enough for the pressure to hurt my ears. Down here the sediment is so dense that I cannot see my hands. It is the kind of all-enveloping cold and blindness experienced in a snowstorm. I’m disorientated, suspended for a few seconds, not quite sure of the way back to the surface.
I’m swimming in the sky, at an elevation of 6000ft, higher than the highest point in Britain. A few hours ago I was sliding down the surface of the glacier 6000ft further up, beneath the summit of La Meije, one of the great peaks of the Alps and the last to be conquered. It was my first time on a ski slope and the sensation was similar to the frictionless glide I feel now swimming underwater.
There were few creatures up on the glacier. As we crossed ravines in the cable car I caught sight of a pair of alpine choughs. Later in the morning a golden eagle circled one of the five summits on the mountain while a bumblebee hovered low over the snow. Most of the airborne creatures I saw were humans, suspended in space, attached to skis or parasails. We come to the mountains to be birds for a time. My friend Simone, who has been on skis for most of his life, can race from the top of the glacier to the village miles below in a few minutes, a hawk-like swoop.
All summer I have been walking on a hill 1000 miles from here, a place teeming with skylarks. I watch them rise almost vertically, their wings working fast and bee-like. For a long while they hover high overhead, specks against white cloud. Then they fold and dive, allowing gravity to seize them and pull them back to earth. In the last few seconds they unfold their wings and trace a shallow arc to a perfect landing. It is a manoeuvre that reminds me of the way Simone turns to make a parallel stop, his skis carving a perfect sweeping serif in the snow. Why do skylarks make those dives? They are not chasing prey. Perhaps it’s a breeding strategy, a daredevil stunt to impress a mate. Perhaps it is intrinsic, for the sake of the dive, a learned-in-the-bone act of creaturely joy.
Halfway down the dive is when we are living to the full. Suspended between two points, letting go of one trapeze and reaching for the other. For the skier it’s halfway down the slope. For the artist it’s the point when the image has lost its initial shape and a finished form has not quite come into view. Halfway is the point when we think we might run out of oxygen.
Half a lifetime ago I remember coming to the side of a lake the colour of this one, stained with a tropical algae, surrounded by boulders and cropped turf. It was a hot day like this, the water cool and inviting. Near the water’s edge was a thorn tree with a wide, tangled crown and beneath it, in dense shade, a lone lioness. My heart rate doubled. My guide was unconcerned. He pointed to the lioness’s distended stomach and the big cat’s dog-like panting. It had recently been on a hunt and had eaten so much meat that it wouldn’t be able to move for a long time. As I took this in the fear left me. The lion was diminished. It lay there half invisible as other animals came to the water showing no fear, knowing that, unable to hunt, the lion was not really a lion. A few hours before it would have been entirely different, a ravenous thing, pushing itself to the limit of its abilities, caught halfway between bloodlust and the threat of death from the giraffe the pride eventually killed. A long time ago we humans hunted similarly to this, bringing down dangerous prey, forced to push ourselves fully to the limits of our cunning and strength.
We are millennia beyond our hunting ancestors and down the long slide of time since we’ve found new ways to be fully ourselves. We climb and we dive. We’ve discovered ways to fly with and without wings, ways to achieve a disappearing act through the practise of an art, methods to create the in-betweenness. The constants in these activities are threat of failure and fear of the unknown which have to be held and then released like precious birds. We accelerate somehow, and the world becomes a blur that we are only partly aware of. Time stretches into non-linear shapes and we’re weightless, diving down into the ice blue.
I’m at the halfway point, not able to swim any deeper, half out of breath. The initial shock of the cold has faded, replaced by an electric current which is trickling from my fingers and toes towards my solar plexus. When I rise and breathe again, I’ll be filled with a charge which will carry me, away from the water, down the mountain.