Saturday, 28 May 2011

The edge of our island

A few years back there was a short-lived flurry of media interest in a normally unremarkable farmhouse near the village of Coton in Derbyshire. Based upon calculations by the trusty Ordnance Survey, Church Flatts Farm was officially declared the place in Great Britain farthest from the sea, a mere 70 miles away. To be precise, the location is in a field a short walk to the south of the farm.

Needless to say the announcement provoked some controversy. The location was disputed. The 'centre' of Britain, it was argued, is not necessarily the same thing as the remotest point from the coast. After all, Britain is not circular. The distance was disputed too. The river Trent is tidal and on a high tide brackish water may encroach upstream to within 45 miles of Church Flatts. Never mind the statistics, it was all a bit of fun. The BBC turned up and some chap built a sand castle topped with a Union flag to mark the spot. Well done Brits!

There are two points to my writing about this. The first is that 70 miles really isn't all that far. None of us lives truly landlocked in Britain. The second is that, camera crew aside, hardly a soul ever visits the place. Save for a toy flag on a heap of sand it is unmarked, unnoticed, unromantic. It occupies no place in our imagination. Compare that with the cardinal points of our coastline. We teem in hundreds to Land's End and John O'Groats and are charged for the privilege of standing at the ends of our little piece of earth. Sadly these days the names have more romance than the locations themselves but we are not deterred. Some of us venture farther still: the Scilly Isles, Ardnamurchan, Muckle Flugga, St Kilda; the names ring with an exotic maritime poetry.

Perhaps it is a small island mentality but the siren song of the coast seems irresistible. We are drawn to the fringes of our land as we are to the seaward railings on the deck of a ship. We look outwards to the horizon. There are immediately obvious attractions in a coastline. It is exciting and varied, we have a great deal of it for such a small nation (just how much is the subject of a celebrated mathematical paradox, of which more another time) and there is always plenty going on. Large tracts of the British coast are accessible and it is full of recreational possibilities. We run and hike, fly kites and skim stones; we build castles, walk dogs, watch birds and poke around in its pools; we paint the coast, write about it, collect little pieces of it to fetch home. And like everything else we have tried to impose our human will over it. We have created safe moorings for our boats and built defences against flood and erosion. Where the land isn't quite enough we have defied the sea by extending it, building jetties and piers and filling them with all our human trappings.

We go to the coast when we are happy, in love, when we have things to talk through or are in need of inspiration, when we are pensive, reflective, desolate even. Whatever our mood or our motives, the coast and the sea seem to offer us something beyond the merely diverting or aesthetic. The lure of the sea has been much written and sung about.  It tugs at something elemental and primeval within us. For all the riches and beauty of the interior of our country it is not enough, the horizons beckon. The lore of our islands abounds with tales of drowned villages, ghost mariners, half-human sea people. We cock our heads to the waves and we hear voices in the tricks of the wind and the mewing gulls. Perhaps they are the voices of our ancestors, summoning us home.

I am fortunate to see the coast almost every day. I travel along a stretch of it on my journey to work and I sit at a desk not 70 yards from the sea, never mind 70 miles. Some days the sea is angry and grey, on others glassy calm. The opposite shore may glint back in the sun or be softened by mist. Some days it vanishes altogether. It is never the same view twice. I hope the owners of Church Flatts Farm are happy where they live. Derbyshire is a beautiful part of the country. I wonder whether they have the same sense of living on a small island with a long edge. I wonder whether the sea calls them in the way it does me and whether they answer.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

A thought for the trees

An unusually deep depression has swept across the northern British Isles today, unusual for this time of year at least. The time-lapse satellite images are beautiful to watch, an elegant spiral unwinding on a west to east trajectory, like the captivating pictures of distant galaxies or those mysterious traces left by sub-atomic particles spinning off from collisions in a nuclear accelerator.  The whorls of clouds look peaceful and just like the shots of galaxies and smashed atoms they give no sense of the mayhem being wreaked within. No wonder the spiral has been such a potent symbol throughout human history.

Winds have gusted at close to 100 miles per hour in exposed parts of Scotland, bringing a predictably dismal story of commuter chaos and disrupted power supplies. My own evening journey was several hours longer than usual and only made possible at all by the generosity of friends providing a relay of lifts. We arrived home tired and hungry but it was a temporary inconvenience which by tomorrow will be told of as an adventure.

It is the trees I feel saddest about. The streets and gardens are littered with shredded leaves and dismembered limbs. There are fractures and raw wounds everywhere. Many tired old specimens have been uprooted completely. Storms in winter, though often fiercer, tend to cause less damage. The trees are bare and the sap has retreated. A brittle branch may be sacrificed, snapped off to save the whole, but the body survives and repairs. By May even the late trees are in full leaf, weighed down with primavera foliage. Winds like today's may be too much for them to withstand.

Tomorrow, as train timetables get back to normal and television channels are restored, we should pay our respects to the lost trees. We can all bend only so far.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

In memoriam

I visited a very magical garden today. Terraced into the hillside of a burn in the Scottish Southern Uplands, it is the vision of a Nepalese family and specialises in Himalayan flowering plants. It was raining and unseasonably cool for late May. Wind chimes tolled and prayer flags flapped to and fro in the stiff wind. Every now and again a thinning of the cloud let through more light. The papery petals of blue poppies were suddenly backlit with translucent radiance. It was beautiful; a place where I imagined nothing bad could ever happen.

And then something bad did happen, something quite dreadful. I received a text message. The partner of a dear friend had died suddenly during the night before of a heart attack. He was still a young man, whom I knew well and liked very much. He and my friend had been married a little over four years. Their wedding had been a very special day of celebration. It would be hard to picture two people happier together.

I sat for some moments among the raindrops and the blue flowers utterly abandoned by words. Hours later I am still struck dumb by this inexplicable, random act of violence that has torn into the life of my friend and his family. I can barely begin to imagine their grief. In the absence of words I offer pictures; blue poppies in a magical garden, bowed by the blows of summer rain, then lit up as the cloud breaks. I offer them to the memory of Jim and with my strongest love and hope for Ian.

'Though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.'

Friday, 13 May 2011

Under a green rainbow

My garden is never going to win any prizes. On the face of it, the location is unpromising. It is walled on three sides by high tenements, open only to the north. Late in the afternoon, on fine days in high summer, one corner is briefly blessed by a tantalising splash of sunlight. Otherwise it is cool and damp. If it were in Florence or Seville it would be much sought out as a shady solace, but it is not in Tuscany or Andalusia... it is in Scotland.

A veneer of soil, not more than inch or so, conceals a builder's yard of broken stone, slate and earthenware. Short of catacombs or the mosaics of a roman villa there isn't much I haven't found with minimal digging. The tenements provide a regular supply of discarded artefacts too. It seems that quaint old Edinburgh traditions survive, except these days beer cans and pizza boxes have replaced pails of natural fertiliser. I have no wish to be at war with my neighbours, whoever they may be, so I stoically bag up their offerings shaking a silent fist at high windows.

Finding things to grow in this sizeable space has involved some triumph and much despair. Most flowering plants simply don't, or if they do they grow leggy with disappointing blooms. Some of them try hard but each year they dwindle until a last straw cold snap sees them off once and for all. Green things do best; ferns and mosses, hostas and creeping shrubs; and the cool colours that look best in the evenings, whites and ivories especially. Friends have been generous with old house bricks for structure, and with cuttings of things that thrive in the permanent penumbra. Slowly, slowly it is taking shape.

Without doubt my garden is at its best from April to June when the new growth accelerates and the force that Dylan Thomas called 'the green fuse' is uncoiling fronds of ferns, rupturing bulbs and buds, sending up emerald spears. Only a few weeks ago the cold was biting hard enough to crack concrete and the crisp leaf litter was dressed in frost. Now as I sit on the doorstep at dusk, soothed by the evening inventions of a thrush, I am in the arc of a green rainbow. There are more shades of green than I could begin to name, greens blending to greys and blues as the daylight fails. Anything other than green in its myriad hues would be out of place. In the middle of a city it is an utterly peaceful place to be and, with all its shortcomings, a reminder to me to find contentment in what I have.

Recently there has been much talk in the media of happiness. The Government, we are told, is to commission research into what makes us happy. In order, my first three reactions to this news were: This needs to be researched? What on earth will the Government do with the findings? And thirdly... Oh please don’t let the Government anywhere near my happiness! But just now I was thinking. If the happiness researchers alight at my door with their clipboards and multiple choice questionnaires I will invite them to come sit with me awhile, under the canopy of my green rainbow.

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.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Footless or fancy free?

Each year I hear them a while before I see them. At first the hearing is subliminal. Their signature screeching insinuates itself as I am occupied with something else; a conversation perhaps, or a book. But the moment I become conscious of their presence I look up. And there they are, Africa-black boomerangs in silhouette, flicking and diving against an ultramarine sky. The swifts have returned. Earth's orbit has cranked full circle and the final piece of summer's jigsaw is in place. The swifts are back, screaming through eaves and gnat-crammed alleys. I am a year older and all is right with the world.

The last to arrive, the first to leave, we can almost set our watches by them. May Day or the day after, never much later than that, whatever the weather and whichever way the prevailing winds are blowing. We have to make the most of them for they are gone again by mid August. I was once astonished to see a lone straggler in the Edinburgh skies on the first of September.

There are some extraordinary fancies told about swifts, the most celebrated being that they have no feet (their taxonomic name Apus apus lending tautological credence to the myth) and that, if grounded, they are doomed. For a bird so intimately associated with human habitation it is remarkable how little we still understand them. They are aerial aliens in our earthbound towns. There is something delightfully otherworldly about them with 'Their mole-dark labouring, Their lunatic limber scramming frenzy And their whirling blades' as Ted Hughes memorably depicted them.

Once, while touring in Rioja country on one of the hottest days I can ever remember, I came across a solitary swift apparently crash landed in a tree. I had no camera with me and they have never been within range since. However I can testify to it being equipped with a full complement of feet, four toes apiece. But you don't have to believe me.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Nothing but flowers

'If this is paradise, I wish I had a lawnmower' David Byrne sung in 1988, a wry twist on Joni Mitchell's eco-anthem 'they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.' 

I grew up in the middle class suburban south east of England, hardly paradise, but it was a privileged place to live. I rarely go there these days but when I do I am reminded how leafy and green it is, in a regimented sort of way. For my childhood circle and me, the local parks and gardens gave us our formative experiences of Nature, carefully pollarded and pruned. For something a bit wilder we had the chalky North Downs a London Country bus ride away. David Byrne writes of America but his clever lyrics in Nothing But Flowers neatly encapsulate our closeted, sanitised dichotomy about all things living. We rather liked Nature, but we didn't understand much about it and we weren't sure it could be trusted. We had it tidily presented to us or else we viewed it from the safe distance of a book or television documentary.

Paradise is an epithet much favoured by tourism promoters. Our planet is remarkably well endowed with Paradise Hotels in Paradise Bays, and when we tire of them there are lively Paradise Clubs on Paradise Boulevards. Paradise, the lifestylists would have us believe, is leisurely and luxurious and, crucially, it is decidely not-here. That is, it's a place we escape to. Now don't get me wrong, I'm all for a bit of escape and I am as happy as the next person to put my feet up and take a dose of pampering, but it's a fair bet that any location requiring to be prefaced by 'Paradise' is probably about as far from my idea the Garden of Eden as it is possible to get.

Television advertising has its calendar and right now we are definitely into 'outdoor DIY season'. We are encouraged to proof our sheds and decking with something noxious, to green our lawns and, most pressing of all, to exterminate those bothersome weeds. The language of weedbusting is tough and masculine, the voice as gravelly as the path through which the dastardly invaders are poking. Never fear, there are products out there which will (in bold capitals) KILL THEM DEAD (as if there were some lesser, half-hearted grade of killing). Weeds are to be viewed like viruses. Our mission, nay our duty, is to eradicate them before they overrun the neighbourhood.

Looking back, I'm quite sure weeds were against the law in leafy Surrey in the 1970s. If not quite a criminal offence, then an unkempt garden was certainly sufficient grounds on which to base a character judgement. If a neighbour couldn't keep his privet hedge trimmed or his path free of dandelions who knew what moral lassitude festered behind his front door.

Dandelions, actually, are a good case in point. They are the weed par excellence, singled out for special vilification. They are persistent and prolific. In the competitive world of weed extermination if your product can't deal with the dandelion it's not worth the price. I grew up with an ambivalent attitude to the 'tooth of the lion' (the name is a corruption of the French dent de lion). I told the time by dandelion clocks and the sunny yellow flowers were forever associated with warm spring days. But somewhere, somehow, I had it instilled in me that dandelions were bad. If I touched them the milky sap would blacken my hands and then I would wet the mattress. In fact the culinary and medicinal uses of the dandelion have been exploited for milennia; the flowers make excellent wine and the tap root can be ground into a substitute for coffee with similar purgative and diuretic properties. But in the collective memory of the people responsible for my education these virtues were only partially remembered, corrupted. Not for nothing was the dandelion nicknamed 'piss-a-bed'. Best give them a wide berth and tell the time from a wristwatch.

In other contexts, of course, weeds become wild flowers and then they are to be loved. Coach tours are organised to woodlands carpeted in bluebells and which of us has not cooed from a passing car window at a meadow ablaze with summer poppies or cornflowers? Like the dandelion many of them grow vigorously. They do so precisely because they are meant to be here. This is their home; the soil, the climate, the ecosystem of which they are part suits them just fine and they thrive. And there's the rub, the minute they get inside the garden gate they run amok, outgrowing our tender and temperamental cultivars, our dainty but delicate foreigners.

The trouble with real paradise is that it's all rather unruly, not at all convenient or accessible and not always even very pleasing on the eye or nose. It's overgrown and muddy, full of things that scratch and sting, full of dying and decay. Some things in paradise even poison us, although not as many as Nature's detractors would have us believe. My paradise is riotously filled with dandelions that go unmolested; there are clovers and celandines in the lawn, thistles and ragwort in the paddock and marsh marigolds choking the stream. The lawnmower has happily rusted in the shed that I never proofed and the rain got in. The tour operators would have trouble selling my paradise, but then it's not for sale.

I'll leave the final word to David Byrne: 'This used to be a shopping mall, now it's all covered in flowers.' I wish.