Sunday, 8 May 2011

Moments of light and being

'When one says 'ten o'clock' or 'three o'clock', this is not the grey shrunken time of towns; it is the memory of a certain fulmination or declension of light that was unique to that time and that place on that day, a memory as vivid to the hunter as burning magnesium.'
J.A.Baker The Peregrine

The phrase 'moments of being' was, I believe, first coined by Virginia Woolf in an autobiographical essay A Sketch of the Past written in the 1930s but not discovered or published until long after her death. She describes brief states of heightened awareness of reality, of being alive, in contrast to the humdrum fug of unreality in which most of her life was played out. The stimulus for such a state could be trauma or surprise, something out of the ordinary that jolts us 'awake'.

Unreality is a common enough experience for many of us and dangerously so when a manifestation of depressive mental illness. In her almost unbearably personal poem Lady Lazarus (also published posthumously) Sylvia Plath wrote 'I do it so it feels real' to account for cyclical attempts at dying. Near-death experiences, it seems to me, were the stimulus for the moments of being that she craved but found so elusive.

I have been party to countless conversations during my life where someone has talked of a 'moment of being', likely often without knowledge of its derivation. Very frequently its use has been to describe something in the natural world; a thing of beauty or terror, a rare sighting, something that will dwell long in the memory. I have used it in this way myself, never truly sure whether it is quite what Virginia Woolf meant. But then why not? Encounters with nature beyond the ordinary are exciting. They make us feel alive, even if we aren't sure what we have seen. The unexpected flash of a kingfisher or splash of an otter, the explosion of a sparrowhawk into a peaceful garden, have the power to animate even the most nonchalant among us.

In response to my last post Greg shared a personal story of his own close encounter with a swift. It is a lovely miniature, with a happy outcome, and although no doubt a brief episode it has remained with him years later. Looking back, it is revealing to me how many of my own such moments involve birds.

Some are quite literally moments (an Orkney hen harrier lifting silently from the heather beneath my feet and ghosting away across the moor). They may last longer, long enough for me to be aware of the 'reality-shift' even as it is happening (dusk in a Polish forest after thundery rain, an hour spent listening to the fluty song of a pair of golden oriole). When time allows they may be further extended (a whole day perched on a Cornish cliff watching the comings and goings, the ritual greetings of a kittiwake colony).

For me, time does odd things during moments like these, slowing and spacing out. Visible for no more than a minute, there was time to count every ring in the hen harrier's tail feathers, to note the way her feet trailed as she flew and her lazy, soundless wingbeats . At the same time my mind speeds up, my senses sharpen and everything else becomes unimportant. There are passages in J.A.Baker's unnerving book The Peregrine where the sense of the author as a man blurs into the animus of the falcons he stalks. As the book progresses, Baker's employment of personal pronouns diminishes. The birds are everything.

I cannot put a precise date to any of these events, it is not important. They are all more than a decade ago but they, and many many similar occasions both before and since, are scorched into my memory without a single detail lost. They are testimony to the healing, restorative power of nature to remind us that we are real; moments of being, moments - to borrow J.A.Baker's striking imagery - of the fulmination and declension of light, when we are unquestionably alive.


  1. Thanks for the link.

    Yes, my experience is certainly that it is at times when we stand aside from our narrowly human concerns and confront some aspect of Nature which is 'other' that the 'otherness' dissolves and we can become, however momentarily, part of something greater than us. Meetings - up close - with wild animals in particular sharpens the more general sense of being to one of specific relationship. And that can elicit a powerful response.

  2. In 'Poetry in the Making' Ted Hughes encourages his young readers (and would-be writers) to 'turn themselves into' the animal they wish to capture in a poem. Only then, he argues, will the words be liberated from self-consciousness and flow naturally. His own animal poems are electric with the frisson of his encounters, real moments of being. 'Poetry in the Making' is an early book, written for children, but given Hughes' developing interests in shamanism and shape-shifting it is tempting to see this as more than just a call to unlock the imagination.

  3. The precise time, the light of the afternoon, the sound or silence of the moment most remembered is not that of an urban experience. (Except for the vixen watching me with very little interest but with attentive eyes as I cycled through the housing estate in the darkness.) The moments most remembered are when I am away from the crowds. When I can hear my own heart beat as I watch the world around me. And it is very exhilarating. The time slows down, the reality shifts, just like you say, and suddenly everything is clearer, sharper. My senses are in-tune with nature and I can hear and see beyond my usual ability. My olfactory sense sharpens and I can almost taste the air. Everything is distinct and agreeable: the rustling of insects in the whispering grass, the life rushing through the tree just under the bark, hearing the birdsong before seeing the owner of the trill.. Thinking of the moments you describe makes the urban existence bearable. Let’s stop and linger awhile and the senses will adjust and recognise that this moment is not an illusion. It is there but will not be rushed.