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 land. There was a deep cave below eroded far into the cliff and when there was a good wind and a high tide the waves would roll in and boom beneath my feet. That morning there was a gale blowing and the cliff top was like the skin of a drum, tremors rising with each landing wave while the wind tore into me. It was the closest encounter I could get with that white capped ocean which I would not witness again for a whole year. A week after returning home I woke in the middle of the night when a book fell from the shelf above my bed. The floor and walls were shaking noiselessly, the first of a series of minor earthquakes which occurred due to collapsing mine shafts a mile below ground where the two local collieries connected. Ever since I’ve woken up several times a year, wherever I’ve lived, to the feeling that the world is shivering around me. Once I’ve shaken the sleep away the feeling subsides, as if my bones return to forgetting that they are submerged in turbulent water. But a dark mood remains, like the swells that keep rolling, long after the storm has blown out.
Calm – sea like a mirror.
Light air – ripples with appearance of scales are formed, without foam crests.
Light breeze – small wavelets still short but more pronounced; crests have a glassy appearance but do not break.
Gentle breeze – large wavelets; crests begin to break; foam of glassy appearance; perhaps scattered white horses.
Moderate breeze – small waves becoming longer; fairly frequent white horses.
Fresh breeze – moderate waves taking a more pronounced long form; many white horses are formed; chance of some spray.
Strong breeze – large waves begin to form; the white foam crests are more extensive everywhere; probably some spray.
Moderate gale – sea heaps up and white foam from breaking waves begins to be blown in streaks along the direction of the wind; spindrift begins to be seen.
Fresh gale – moderately high waves of greater length; edges of crests break into spindrift; foam is blown in well-marked streaks along the direction of the wind.
Strong gale – high waves; dense streaks of foam along the direction of the wind; sea begins to roll; spray affects visibility.
Whole gale – very high waves with long overhanging crests; resulting foam in great patches is blown in dense white streaks along the direction of the wind; on the whole the surface of the sea takes on a white appearance; rolling of the sea becomes heavy; visibility affected.
Storm – exceptionally high waves; small- and medium-sized ships might be for a long time lost to view behind the waves; sea is covered with long white patches of foam; everywhere the edges of the wave crests are blown into foam; visibility affected.
Hurricane – the air is filled with foam and spray; sea is completely white with driving spray; visibility very seriously affected. The Beaufort Scale
The tide was slack, the wind starting to blow, the sun an hour from going down. The two men dragged the boat across the gravel beach and jumped inside as it floated. A bull seal watched them row out and it dived under the hull as they crossed the bay, heading into open water. As they left the shelter of the cliffs they felt the swell. A mile across the sound to the mainland and home. They rowed hard but as they hit the race they could feel the tide already moving fast. Wind frayed the swells, the boat taking on water as each wave hit. One of them took both oars, the other started to bail. For an hour they made no progress as the sun sank. No moon, the stars overlaid by rain clouds. Another hour and they could tell by the distant lights on the shore that they had moved north. The rain started coming down. The shore lights went out, the faint shape of the mainland faded into the night.
I don’t know how they arrive. I wake up and there’s something boiling in me, my heart beating fast, my thoughts racing. I go to the bathroom and in the mirror is the face I recognise and don’t, teeth gritted, the muscles in the cheeks tensed, eyes glaring but nothing being seen. It happened this morning. The only thing I can do is get in the car, drive to a high place, get out and walk. All week storms have been crossing the west of the country. They reach the Black Mountains, swirl and blow out. This morning the hill was wild. Even the thorn trees were bending. Ravens were using the updrafts to float high and tumble down. The golden plovers were rushing the ground in tight echelons which flashed silver as they turned like a shoal of fish. Plovers are shaped by the wind the way fish are shaped by ocean currents. And we are shaped by the tides inside us. It took a couple of hours of walking and being battered by the gale before the thing thrashing inside me started to calm. Then I headed home.
On 1st January 1995 on the Draupner oil platform off the coast of Norway, in storm conditions a rogue wave was accurately recorded for the first time in history. It measured 84 feet, twice the height of the surrounding waves. Rogue waves had been observed many times before from the decks of ships, but they had only been recorded anecdotally. The fact that they occur sporadically means that they are very difficult to measure. Gales occur simultaneously in different regions of the ocean. When they blow out the swells travel for hundreds of miles, intersecting and running into later storms or hittingopposing currents. This interference can shorten their frequency to such a degree that waves sometimes merge and grow to huge proportions. They are so big that they can travel at an angle to the prevailing sea. They are thought to be the cause of incidents where ships have vanished without trace, hitting from the side and causing the ship to capsize in a split second.
Thoughts come in waves we can ride for a time. They roll over us, break and smooth out before being sucked back into the ocean they came out of. We swim in our thoughts. Bad moods are bad thoughts conjoined. A hole opens up and in they rush, barreling over us, sending us down into deep, cold water. I get a couple every week and they used to consume me completely until I discovered that moods don’t like you to be on the move. Walking eases them. Riding something, like a board or a horse, makes them vanish completely.
This morning I walked while trying to count the thoughts that were rushing into my head, their subject matter, repetitions andvariations. I lost count before I’d gone a mile. Thoughts like voices in a room full of drinkers, jostling for attention, mostly uninteresting, accompanied by the ear-worm of a song I can’t stand . After a week of commuting in the dark followed by a Saturday of freezing rain and fifty mile an hour winds that kept even me inside, my head was as noisy as a colony of seabirds. Bonxies were attacking. As usual I was telling myself that this noise would not be here if I’d only learned to meditate. As usual, I replied that the worst people I’ve ever metmeditate strictly. So I kept walking and the combining waves of thoughts kept rolling over me. Until mile six when a kite crossed the ridge just above me, soaring on the last ofthe dying storm winds, primaries splayed, the bird utterly still and moving fast, its blue eyes fixed on all the microscopic details of the seeping ground. I stopped and I watched as it drifted out across the valley. The noise inside stopped. I continued to walk and it started up again, but now the voices were whispers and I could hear the wind.
They kept rowing into the wind, water spraying over the bow, the boat tilting almost vertically as they rode each wave head on. They took turns to bail as their muscles tired, their hands blistered and bloody from their efforts at the oars. The storm showed no signs of abating. Then a glimmer of moon overhead before cloud once more slid and locked in front of it, but they had seen the sea stackand now they changed direction and rowed hard towards it, going with the wind for a while until they felt the tilt of the waves lessen slightly, and then again. Now they rowed as close to the stack as they could, and felt the wind subside enough for them to hold the boat in place. All night they held there, taking turns at rowing and bailing, until the tide went slack and the gale started to blow out. At the stain of daylight, when the horizon appeared for the first time in twelve hours, the wind changed direction and calmed to abreeze. As the shadow of the cliffs appeared miles off, they turned the boat and rowed for home.
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 starlings appear and disappear. I flush a snipe and a dozen golden plovers, their calls like lights in the fog. Strange that the birds are so active today, perhaps they thought they had the place to themselves.
It is over to the west, sheltered in a fold in the hill. To get to it you have to walk over a thousand unmarked graves.
I’m walking above a trench that follows the contour of the hill for half a mile. On the county archaeological survey map this trench is identified as a quarry, but the local graziers say that it has never yielded any stone. It is long and deep enough to conceal a thousand men. The trench directly overlooks Painscastle a mile away on the valley floor, a Norman stronghold which was the scene of the most bloody battle in Welsh history. In the late 1198 the Welsh prince Gwenwynwyn captured the castle. The castle was then retaken by an army assembled by the Justiciar of England. All Welsh lives were lost. 3000 foot soldiers discarded their weapons and tried to flee the mounted English army. All were hunted down and killed. The place of the slaughter was presumed to have been the fields directly adjacent to the castle but a recent survey, including metal detection and Lidar scanning, found no evidence. Up here, a mile above the castle, is where local folk history says that the slaughter took place. An old grazier once walked me along the boundary of the mass grave that he says lies beneath this ground. No farmer has ever ploughed it. Until recently this place was littered with gravestones, some bearing 1000 year old inscriptions. The Welsh name for the adjacent farm is translated as The Place of the Dead.
My memory failed the morning I raced a battered Dawes bike down a steep lane. As the lane neared a T-Junction with a busy main road I started to pull on my brakes, but they didn’t respond. There were cars moving fast in both directions. I was heading straight for them. I veered to the side of the lane and hit a thick concrete sign post, went over the handlebars and hit my head on the sharp edge of the post. By the time I regained consciousness my eyes were shut from the swelling. Weeks of lying in a dark room followed while my skull knitted itself back together. I don’t remember a thing of my life before that event and I’ve retained very little since. Now I lose things easily, particularly words. I grope around for the names of my heroes, for the titles of my favourite books and films. I’ve only ever been able to memorise one poem. But I do remember places. The memory of a place resides outside the skull, somewhere close to the soles of your feet.
Place cells are found in the hippocampus. These neurones fire in patterns known as place fields which respond to locations and enable humans and animals to navigate and to remember places. On entering a location a unique pattern will fire within the cells creating a non-topographical map which then fires again when that place is remembered. These patterns are always hexagonal. This is one of the oldest evolutionary functions of the brain. The ability to navigate is the first thing that disappears with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, years before other cognitive functions are compromised.
It was recently discovered that place cells also have a crucial function in the recall of episodic memories. The process operates in the same way as place fields, utilising hexagonal grids. Our memories are literally bonded to a place and stored as navigable maps inside us.
But memory does not always reside in the container of the brain. Mimosa Pudica is a plant native to Central and South America. It is known as the sensitive plant due to the strange way its leaves fold and droop when disturbed. The evolutionary ecologist Monica Gagliana created a a now well known experiment with these plants. She created an apparatus to repeatedly drop a Mimosa Pudica at fixed intervals. At first the leaves folded as expected, but after a few repetitions the leaves stopped reacting. The plant learned that being dropped was not a threat. A month later the plant was dropped again. The leaves still did not fold. The plant had memorised the event.
Over the unmarked graves, past dykes, burial cairns, round barrows.
Follow the lines of broken walls, each stone baring the memory of the hand that fetched and laid it.
Beneath the circling buzzards whose eyes hold the real maps of this land, at a scale of 1:1.
The chapel comes into view. It is one of the many chapels in this area that seem abandoned, the community it served almost gone. In the surrounding fields the platforms of ancient and now vanished houses can be seen. Only a single half-ruined farmhouse stands nearby, its roof protected from the weather by a taped-together collection of black bin sacks, torn and flapping in the wind. There is no lane to the chapel. You pass through a broken gate closed with a length of string, across two steeply sloping fields towards a beech wood which enfolds the churchyard as if in protection, the great silver and gold shapes of the trees towering over the twisted, infirm yews that lean against the walls of the chapel.
Today is the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War. All across the country people are gathering. But not here. This community began to unravel in those terrible years, but it is now too far gone even for memories. The gravestones lean at acute angles bearing lichen and moss-coated inscriptions. They are like neurones that have ceased firing. Once they told stories of this place, now the best they can do is recall the disembodied names: Griffiths, Nicholls, Price. On the bank that borders the wood are little stones that mark the burials of children, rough, unshaped stoned fetched from the hill by families too poor to pay for a carved headstone.
There are cultures who believe that memories reside, along with dreams, in our surroundings. As we pass through they ripple like notes on a piano, they light up like a silver screen. Our memories play us. But they require a relay down the generations. They fall silent easily.
The chapel is cool, damp as river stones. At the end of each pew is a pole topped with a burned down candle, wax pooled like time stood still. Plaster crumbles from the walls, the windows are opaque with dust. I walk to the alter, a simple unadorned bench protected by a wooden rail. I take the tiny enamel poppy from my pocket and place it on the bench. I try to think of something to say but no words come. For a minute I stand, head bowed. As I leave the old door howls. Outside the beech trees are raining gold in a spear of sunlight. Dark rectangles stretch from the headstones like blankets. I cross the fields, tie the gate shut and head back up the hill, its memories sinking like leaf fall.
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.