"Ponderynge together yestardayes promise, and two-dayes doyng"
(Hall's Chronicle - 1548)

"Goronigl gwyr yr Ynys" (Lewis Glyn Cothi - 1450)

Monday, 23 March 2015

Hawks and Wildness

I’m currently reading the book H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. It is a powerful combination of autobiography, biography and nature writing being a narrative about the death of the author’s father, her decision to train a young goshawk and her references to a book she first read in childhood by T. H. White about his attempt to train a goshawk. It is an imaginative compilation of these overlapping themes and narratives, beautifully written and engaging to read. But it is an aside to these main narratives that I want to notice here. She is invited to review an art installation so leaves the hawk at home and goes to the art gallery. The main feature is a life-sized reproduction of a bird observation hide, the original of which is in California. Visitors enter the hide and can go to the viewing window to see a projected film as if they are looking across the valley in California where the hide is situated and watch the nearly extinct Californian condor flying across the view. Part of her response to this is as follows:
I think of what wild animals are in our imaginations. And how they are disappearing - not just from the wild, but from people’s everyday lives, replaced by images of themselves in print and on screen The rarer they get , the fewer meanings animals can have. Eventually rarity is all they are made of. The condor is an item of extinction. There’s little else to it now but being the last of its kind. And in this lies the diminution of the world. How can you love something, how can you fight to protect it, if all it means is loss? …… I know that some of my friends see my keeping a hawk as morally suspect, but I couldn’t love or understand hawks as I do if I’d only seen them on screens. I’ve made a hawk a part of a human life, and a human life part of a hawk’s, and it has made the hawk a million times more complicated and full of wonder to me. ….. She is real. She can resist the meanings humans give her. But the condor? The condor has no resistance to us at all. I stare at the attenuated, drifting image on the gallery screen. It is a shadow, a figure of loss and hope; it is hardly a bird at all
This seems to me to be making an important point about the way we respond to nature. It is interpreted to us in programmes on television showing creatures most viewers will never encounter, not just in faraway places but in our own lands. In many ways our lives are not their lives and it is inevitable that we objectify them. This in turn can lead to sentimentality and a concern for them based on a lack of understanding about what it is like to live as part of nature. To many in cities the whole of nature is a sort of art installation. And often those who do still live close to it are regarded as barbaric and intrusive, like vandals trying to sabotage the art. This is understandable and we are all prone to it wherever we live as urban values characterise the life styles of most modern humans, even those who do not live in towns or cities. So it might seem that we have no choice but to see nature as other. Perhaps this is true. Helen Macdonald’s relationship with her hawk might be little more than a gesture towards contact with wildness. But if so, as she observes, the world is diminished; and so are we.

Monday, 16 March 2015

The North Star

In places where it gets very cold they have stories about it like this one:
When a person walks a corridor forms in the mist. It has the shape of the person and remains afterwards as the person’s shape in the mist. We can tell from the shapes in the mist which of our friends have already gone to school as they set out through their own corridors. If there are no corridors it means that classes have been cancelled because the cold is so great. Sometimes a corridor is very crooked and then suddenly stops. This means that some drunk was walking and tripped and has frozen to death. Then the corridor looks like a dead-end street.
(adapted from a story told by a schoolgirl in Siberia to Ryszard Kapuściński)

Survival must be a constant concern to those who inhabit the coldest places, the need to keep warm a constant preoccupation. But there is a depth and emotional intensity to extreme cold that doesn’t correspond to extreme heat. At least that how it seems to me. Cold, though unpleasant, has its own life which exerts a strong attractive force like magnetism, as if the pull of the North always points our inner compass in that direction. Cold places are the home of spectacular natural displays like the Northern Lights. There is an atmosphere about the far North too, even in Summer, which embodies a quiet stillness of spirit, or so it has seemed to me when I have travelled there.

Perhaps it is the same in respect of the South for those living in the southern hemisphere? Certainly the Antarctic has its own intense images recorded by those who have spent time there. In the 1930’s Richard Byrd was alone at a meteorological station on the Antarctic ice shelf and spoke of the magnification of the atmosphere causing him to see cliffs several thousand feet tall. Other effects included the sky appearing to shatter like broken glass as ice crystals fell across the face of the sun ; “and at once in the golden downpour a slender column of platinum leaped up from the horizon, clean through the sun’s core; a second luminous shadow formed horizontally through the sun, making a perfect cross. Presently two miniature suns, green and yellow in colour, flipped simultaneously to the ends of each arm. These are parhelia, the most dramatic of all refraction phenomena ; nothing is lovelier.”

Such images live in the imagination even for those who have not travelled to these places. Far or near the North Star calls to mariners across the seas of inner space and the cold contains the spirit of those who sail there. Icebound the frozen seas creak and the vastness of the silent and enduring night can move us even as we sit by our winter fires or look out at the slowly emerging Spring.

Friday, 6 March 2015

La Serenissima

As the year grows the quality of the afternoons begins to change. During January and February I spent the late afternoons listening to string quartets, particularly Benjamin Britten’s 3rd Quartet with its long, slow passacaglia movement which I usually timed to be listening to as the light was fading. But now, at that time of afternoon, it’s still light and I might still be out walking or working to get the garden ready for another season . But that ‘string quartet time’ seems to have embedded itself as an essential part of the day. So I listen in the evening or perhaps on a rainy afternoon. But it’s not the same. Somehow it fitted the rhythm of days in those first two months of the year when the light was thin and faded early. Can art be relegated to times of day and times of year in this way? It hardly seems as if this can seriously be considered, and yet my experience of both the afternoons and the music has altered.

The passacaglia has hypnotic repeated phrase which captures the slowness of winter afternoons, the pace of the passing days. Britten wrote it right at the end of his life and it has a resonance of this about it. I considered finding a you-tube clip to embed in this post, but the only one available is an interpretation of the music that is very different to the one I have. The players slide the notes into each other giving it a ‘romantic’ feel, while my recording (from The Britten Quartet) keeps each note distinct and conveys a much more austere feel which I think is needed for this music. Perhaps this is subjective, just as my own use of the music to fit in with winter afternoons. The slower pace of a life of semi-retirement and lack of pressure makes those afternoons something to savour, a pleasure to be appreciated though not without their own melancholy texture. Perhaps I should put that CD away for a while and rediscover it at another time of year. But the afternoons are changing. Or rather the evenings seem distinct from them rather than overlapping liminally with the daylight hours.

Spring will banish melancholy and other music will choose itself. Even so, just now the Sun is gleaming through the bare outline of the trees on the ridge and I think I might listen to that recording at least one more time.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Culture and Nature

Walt Whitman, walking across an ‘empty’ landscape and seascape in New Jersey in 1870 commented on the disjunction between Culture and Nature with these words:

The attractions, fascinations there are in sea and shore! How one dwells on their simplicity, even vacuity! What is it in us, arous’d by those indirections and directions? That spread of waves and gray-white beach, salt, monotonous, senseless - such an entire absence of art, books, talk, elegance - so indescribably comforting, even this winter day - grim, yet so delicate-looking, so spiritual - striking emotional, impalpable depths, subtler than all the poems, paintings, music I have ever read, seen, heard. (Yet let me be fair, perhaps it is because I have read those poems and heard that music.)

The afterthought is significant. Often we seek a cultureless experience from the natural world, an ‘escape’ from the urbanised world we all inhabit even those of us who live in rural areas. So how much are we conditioned to see nature through the lens of the literature we read, the films we watch and the art we view? How much through the expectations which might be created by indirect consumption of cultural products: prevalent attitudes, views and shared prejudices about what the ‘natural world’ actually is?

Mountains stretch as if to infinity, stand against the sky as immutable objects with a continuity that seems unchallengeable. Text books of Geology tell us that this is not so. They were once sea bed, thrown up in violent changes in the shape of the landscape. There are fossils to prove it. That may seem inconceivable as we stand overawed by its splendour, or even simply contained by its familiarity. So what do we ‘know’? If the story we have to tell ourselves is one we have learnt, but not one which we feel as we take in the landscape around us, of what value is it to us spiritually? (Its material value is of course unchallenged - this is no argument for Creationism).

Stories are as important as facts. They have their own truth, their own use-value; they tell us who we are and they construct the world we inhabit. Knowing that we are homo-sapiens on an Earth with a particular place in the Solar System and the wider Universe valuably shapes our awareness of our world in a way that places us in the eternity of Space. Some would say that this too is a ‘story’ as much as the creation myths of religions. Whether or not either one is ‘true’ is not the point here. For we live on Earth and need to have a sense of its significance as well as its factual existence. What is the truth-value of significance?

Centring around different senses of the idea of value emphasises what we bring to experience of what seems, or what we would like to seem, like a direct perception of nature constructed if at all only by own inner response to it. But what we recognise is what we have already learnt - only we see it again as if for the first time because sharpened for us out of the fuzziness of familiarity.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Out and About on Bride's Day

Snowdrops under the hedge

So bright for Bride, if cold
So fair for Ffraid the sky’s blue
The track up through the trees still sunk
In mire, sheep grazing bedraggled grass,
But on the ridge the view opens to the far hills
Glinting white with frost in spite of the Sun.

Then down the lane under the wiry stems
Of leafless bramble I see a token of the day:
Snowdrops in the tangle of the hedge quietly claiming
From the last of Winter the first of Spring.
From here the lane tilts down across the hill
To where the river makes a last race to the sea.

Under the bridge I catch a glimpse of a bird
And on the other side see it riding the current
Out of the arch - a goosander gliding over the ripples
Turning against the flow for a while then speeding
Away with the rushing water around the bend
Of the river as I turn the other way heading upstream.

Over the fields along the bank of the river
Running now below deep in a gorge, visible
Through the bare trees. I cross the stream
From the wood of springs and climb to Lôn Glanffraid,
‘Ffraid’s Lane’ - where Bride had a chapel once they say,
before the church was built for Michael further away.

But today is her day.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Cantre'r Gwaelod

Out today on the nature reserve at Ynys Hir. 'Ynys' means island in Welsh and the various bits of higher land along this area of salt marsh and peat bog called 'Ynys -' would once have stood above the waters of an area re-claimed from the water spirits who, nevertheless, hold on to a liminal existence here along with the earth spirits who have only half possessed it. The way to the reserve is through a woodland of gnarled sessile oak (sometimes called Welsh oak) which now is bare of leaves that lie as a soggy carpet on the ground. This looks level, but from here the path runs down to the marshy area along the edge of the Dyfi salt marsh and the estuary. 

 It is here that, according to one version of the story, the rush cradle containing the wonder child Gwion, who was re-named Taliesin, was found by Elphin. A village nearby is named 'Tre Taliesin' and the remains of a Bronze Age burial chamber up on the higher ground overlooking the estuary is called Bedd Taliesin (Taliesin's Grave). Look at these legends too closely and their fabric begins to unweave. But they provide a cultural ethos to the experience of standing out on the marsh, the bog or the liminal green world between earth and water, the ynysoedd of this contested land where now, on a bright, sharp, cold winter day a dozen species of geese, waders and other water birds can be seen at a glance from the reserve hides. Little Egrets pad across the wet ground. A Hen Harrier hovers over them and moves on. A Red Kite sails across the distant perspective of mountains on the other side of the estuary. 

There is a story that Arthur leaped across these wide waters on his horse Llamrei, and the mark of the horse's hoof can still be seen in the rock over there.

But myth dissolves into reality down here on the low ground where only the spit built to drain fields on the sea side of the bog keeps back the waters that have drowned the land before. Cantre'r Gwaelod, the land which was, is attested by the remains of a semi-fossilised forest on the beach at low tide. Geology rather than mythology speaks of lost realms and legendary places. The map-makers mark Caer Wyddno out in the sea at the end of the Sarn, a rocky morraine that runs out for over a mile into Cardigan Bay. 

 If Rhiannon's Birds sing anywhere, then they sing here half way between Harddlech and Gwales, half way between the water world and dry land. Suspended between loss and homecoming I find my way to somewhere I always want to be but can never, quite, fully attain.

(Re-posted from one of my other blogs which is no longer current)

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Our Place in the Landscape

The lines of mist that still streak the valley after dawn hang above the frosted leaves lying beneath the trees. As each day's light shrinks towards the Winter Solstice, the dawn comes late and the light levels dim long before the afternoon is over.

Last night it was brighter after sunset than the hours before as the Full Moon rose and lit the air with a clarity that was sharper than the diffused sunlight of the day as the air cleared and cloud cover dispersed on the winds so it was still for a while.

So there was a frost this early morning, but not for long. Some cloud cover returned though there was also plenty of pale-blue sky and clear sunlight. Now it is afternoon and the rain has returned. In such ways the weather shifts the feel of days and nights, shifts the look of the land from day to day or even within the passing of the current few hours of sunlight.

What of our weather clocks, the ways we internalise the passing seasons, the transformations from Spring to Summer, from Autumn to Winter, and within those seasons from one day to another, from one feature of the weather to another. If the nature of what we see changes with the clarity of the light, the falling of rain or snow, the thickening or dispersal of cloud, the pressure of the air; does our knowledge of how or why this happens remove us from it as much as the heated rooms and protective rooves under which we take shelter?

Do we still have a place in the landscape that we look out upon as an objective space, or do we no longer belong there? The question seems to need asking, but also to need refusing. Our place cannot be denied but at the same time our separation is also undeniable. With such contradictions we live and work and play in a world of our own creation, but equally in one that creates us as inexorably as it creates the shifting of the winds, the tides, the weather.

So the lifting of the mist in the valley this morning still feels like a subjective fact of which I am a part, rather than something merely watched and noted.